Kovacevic: Two rookies? Yeah, why not?

| Wednesday, June 13, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Truth be told, by the Steelers' first snap of the 2012 opener in Denver, there will be two rookies on the offensive line. Bet your Tunch & Wolf dual bobblehead on it.

David DeCastro will be at right guard.

Mike Adams will be at left tackle.

Too many signs point too strongly to Mike Tomlin starting both of his top draft picks right away to believe otherwise.

But bet on this, too: All concerned will be delighted to put on the predictable show of competition in the interim. Or, as Tomlin would describe it, “We wanted to put them in some uncomfortable situations and see how they respond.”

You could see it Tuesday morning with the coaches' initial formations for the first day of minicamp on the sweltering South Side. Left to right, the line was Marcus Gilbert, Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Trai Essex. All vets.

The kids just watched, and not by accident.

“Everyone's got to earn it,” Essex said.

You could see it with Adams' first play. He planted his hand in the grass, raised his chin and met eyes with old Ohio State bud Cam Heyward. “Good to see a familiar face,” Adams recalled thinking. It wasn't good for long. Heyward blew right by him, followed by line coach Sean Kugler blowing up that Adams then failed to finish the play.

“Think I messed that up,” Adams would lament later.

You could see it with DeCastro and Adams seated at their adjacent locker stalls afterward, well away from the linemen's long-established cove in the far corner. Both held court with reporters, but both looked eager — no, desperate — for the sessions to end. Nothing brings barbs from the older guys quite like rookies surrounded by media.

Which probably explains this exchange …

Me: David, do you feel you're prepared for this challenge?

DeCastro: “Yeah.”

Me: Would you consider it a great leap to go right from college to starting in the NFL?

DeCastro: “Yeah.”

Good thing that voice recorder was at full charge.

I kid, but the next thing I see wrong with this whole scenario will be the first.

Sure, Tomlin and Kevin Colbert got a gift when DeCastro stunningly plunged to No. 24 in the first round, but they still made the right call in securing two studs to protect Ben Roethlisberger. Not many investments matter if the franchise QB is lost.

I also like that management is open –—most likely leaning — toward bucking their own history with rookies.

Why not let the talent play?

This is nuts, but the Steelers of the Super Bowl era have had as many rookie offensive linemen start a season-opener as they've had head coaches: Chuck Noll had Tom Ricketts in 1989, Bill Cowher had Marvel Smith in 2000, and Tomlin, of course, fell for Pouncey at first sight two years ago.

Never in the franchise's 80-year history has more than one rookie opened the season starting on the offensive line.

But times change, and it's incumbent on even the staid Steelers to change with them.

According to a January study by the SB Nation web network, the NFL had 45 offensive linemen drafted in the top two rounds from 2008-11. Of those 45 picks, 33 started the majority of their teams' games as rookies. Another eight had major injuries, leaving just four players as exceptions.

That's a 90 percent starting rate from the rounds that produced DeCastro and Adams.

So why not these two?

Because they missed offseason workouts to comply with NFL rules for college seniors?

Tyron Smith, Dallas' first-round left tackle in 2011, missed OTAs and minicamp and had to learn a new playbook, but he still started every game as a rookie and wound up grading as one of the NFL's five best tackles.

DeCastro is in that class. He's a baby Alan Faneca — even wearing the same No. 66 — in that he's bullishly strong and athletic enough to pull. He's also blessed with Stanford smarts. Monosyllabic answers aside, he just completed a degree in management, science and engineering that included a thesis on something called linear optimization.

Here's guessing that was more challenging than those cyber-playbooks Todd Haley had been sending DeCastro and Adams.

Adams is different. And, to his credit, he seems to grasp that.

He's a 6-foot-7, 323-pound tower of a man, probably visible across the Mon when he comes out of his stance. His talent is first-round caliber, too. But doubts will — and should — linger about his inexplicably ill-advised positive marijuana test on the eve of the NFL combine in February. Only his pursuit of a meeting with Tomlin and Colbert put him back on the Steelers' draft board.

I asked Adams if he felt he had something to prove, and he came back loud and clear: “Yes, sir, I do. I think some people question me as a person and as a football player. But as long as I do what I'm told, I'll be all right.''

Both of them will be.


Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at dkovacevic@tribweb.com.

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