DeCastro, Adams will have hands full
Doesn't matter where a player is drafted, how much money he earns, how many All-American teams he made or how many college games he dominated. There's nothing easy about being an NFL rookie offensive lineman.
“There's no comfort level, none at all,” said Alan Faneca, the most accomplished offensive guard to play for the Steelers and a player who well remembers what a challenge his rookie season was in 1998. “You've been thrown a playbook that's two or three times bigger than it was in college. You're going out on the field thinking, not playing.”
Even the best players struggle with terminology, the playbook's complexity, the significantly upgraded competition, Faneca said. The same lineman who spent a couple of seasons roughing up college undergraduates becomes overwhelmed going up against defensive linemen with 10 years of experience and a commensurately deep bag of tricks.
Faneca, a nine-time Pro Bowl lineman who retired last year, knows exactly what the Steelers' top two draft picks, David DeCastro and Mike Adams, will be going through when training camp starts Wednesday in Latrobe.
DeCastro, from Stanford, is being called the best guard to come into the league since … yes, Faneca. Adams, a mountainous pass blocker who often obliterated pass rushers at Ohio State, will get the chance to start at left tackle.
But there's a reason the Steelers brought back Max Starks, signing the offensive tackle to a one-year contract to compete with Adams. Game speed in the NFL is difficult for rookies, and the blocking assignments can vary greatly from week to week.
“What you get this Wednesday doesn't look at all what you got last Wednesday,” Faneca said.
The only rookie offensive linemen to start a Steelers opener during the Super Bowl era are Tom Ricketts (1989), Marvel Smith (2000) and Maurkice Pouncey (2010). Faneca and Kendall Simmons (2002) also started as rookies, but not in the opener.
“It's hard,” Faneca said. “It's just not the same as college football. My rookie season, I was playing next to Dermontti Dawson, one of the all-time greats, and I'm trying to live up to that playing. But it was a veteran crew, and they imparted knowledge that stuck. After a while, that made it easier.”
The Steelers' offensive line, a perceived weakness for years, is undergoing an overhaul that began in 2010 with the drafting of Pouncey, a center. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert came aboard last season, and DeCastro and Adams arrived this spring.
But DeCastro and Adams were limited to a three-day minicamp last month, and their first extensive exposure to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's system won't begin until next week. It seems likely DeCastro will start the Sept. 9 opener in Denver, but he still must beat out Ramon Foster and Trai Essex.
“It can be a struggle for a rookie,” said Jamie Dukes, an NFL Network analyst and a 10-season lineman in the league. “You don't know the personnel. You don't know (Bills defensive lineman) Mario Williams' moves. You're blocking several layers deep, and blitz pickup can be an issue.”
The advantage that DeCastro and Adams own over linemen who came into the league only a few seasons ago is that the proliferation of passing-heavy, spread-type offenses is speeding up the learning curve.
“How many rookie linemen start? Fifteen years ago, the answer was none,” said former Dallas Cowboys player personnel vice president Gil Brandt. “But the players we get today from colleges are so much better equipped to play in the NFL. Adams and DeCastro, they pass-blocked more in one year than the player we used to get did during an entire college career.”
In 2007, all four offensive linemen drafted in the first round — Joe Thomas, Levi Brown, Joe Staley and Ben Grubbs — became starters almost immediately.
Dukes said this familiarity with the passing game means “from an academic standpoint, it's not as big a challenge that wide receiver or quarterback is. You just have to get up to speed.”
For all the challenges of developing brand-new linemen, the Steelers appear to be embracing them more eagerly than the rival Baltimore Ravens. And that might be the biggest difference between franchises with so many similarities and identical 12-4 records last season.
Even if Starks starts, the average age of the Steelers' offensive line starters — with DeCastro in the lineup — would be 25½. All five projected Ravens starters are older than that, with an average age of nearly 32. And keeping linemen healthy as they age can be a challenge.
“But you've got to be up to the task,” Faneca said. “It's how hard you work, your willingness to go out there and watch the older guys who are trying to help you along and lead you in the right direction.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total M edia. He can be reached at arob firstname.lastname@example.org.