Which Steelers Rookie Will Start?

Le'Veon Bell (LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)

Any Steelers fan who has paid attention to the way Dick LeBeau grooms defenders understands that a modicum of patience goes a long way ...

... not only for the player and coach but for the fan himself.

Of course, the impatient Steelers fan is fed up with LeBeau's "process," and Joe Fan in particular doesn't want to see first-round pick Jarvis Jones waste his rookie season on the bench behind Jason Worilds.

Joe Fan, in this case, is a customer here at SteelCityInsider.net, and he pointed out recently on our message board that Cortez Allen should've been starting all of last season.

Joe reasons that while Allen was clearly on the coaching staff's favored list, the man he was supposedly competing against at training camp, Keenan Lewis, was entering the final year of a contract that had yet to see production through three seasons.

Joe therefore reasons that Allen would've had an extra year of starting experience had the Steelers just let Lewis finish his contract before his inevitable departure, just as Joe suspects Worilds will leave following this final year of his contract.

It all adds up, Joe Fan reasons, so why not just start Jones and let him take his lumps while accelerating his development?

Hey, that may happen if Jones shows the staff he's a consistent terror off the edge as a pass-rusher this preseason. But he would really have to TERRORIZE to compensate for his rookie shortcomings. While Jones showed off slippery edge skills this spring, and an impressive fluidity – and soft hands – while dropping into coverage, he's not going to consistently hold the point in the run game, nor will he have a firm grasp of the scheme, and thus his duties, and thus his responsibilities in an 11-for-1/1-for-11 team defense.

With what he showed in special teams this spring, there's a great chance Jones will be active on game days, and that's the first step. And since he can rush the passer, he'll get his opportunities on some third downs.

Because of those reasons, Jones should be first in line to step into either OLB spot if an injury occurs.

Allen was in a similar situation last season and he forced Lewis into playing hurt, playing his best, and securing a big-money contract from another team.

That was a big help to the defense, and now it's Allen's turn to start. But it won't be Jones's turn for a while. The circumstances just aren't right.

Not that Joe Fan should count every rookie out of starting consideration come September. Le'Veon Bell has a great shot at a starting job because he plays a position – running back – that's not so reliant on complete and consistent understanding of the scheme.

Oh, Bell must convince the staff he's a reliable pass-blocker, and to that end RB coach Kirby Wilson rode Bell hard last spring. But Bell can also show off enough running skills this preseason to vault past Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, who was dropped to third team the final week of spring practice.

When I asked Coach Mike Tomlin in the locker room that week about moving Redman to the first team, Tomlin laughed and said, "Who's first team isn't as important as who's third team. You don't want to be third team now."

Whether Tomlin was serious or merely trying to motivate the overweight Dwyer wasn't discernible. After all, Shamarko Thomas was still running third team and Tomlin loves the rookie safety.

In fact, Thomas has just as good a chance as Jones of grabbing one of those starting jobs this season. The Steelers have a history – Mike Wagner, Darren Perry, Carnell Lake for quick examples – of starting safeties in the very first games of their rookie seasons, and Thomas, like Jones, showed well enough in kick-coverage drills this spring to pretty much lock up a spot on the active game-day roster.

Yes, the Steelers still have one of the best starting safety tandems in the NFL, but no one's convinced of the durability of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.

So while Joe Fan will be gauging this rookie class on the performance of Jones, the first-round pick, I'll put the rookies' chances of starting in this order: 1. Bell, 2. Thomas, and 3. Jones, because with rookies it's more about circumstances than slight edges in talent. Unless one can TERRORIZE.

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