Steelers rookies: 'They're going to be so lost'
If this were a normal NFL offseason, the Steelers would gather Friday for a three-day minicamp during which draftees and rookie free agents would practice and study alongside veterans.
The newcomers would leave Pittsburgh overwhelmed, as rookies do, following a crash course in Steelers football. But they would have a foundation from which the players and coaches could build.
Because of the labor impasse, rookies might not practice with their teams until training camp just weeks before the season opener, adding to the difficulty for those hoping to contribute or simply make a 53-man roster.
"The young guys, it's going to be a struggle for them and a struggle for me, too, trying to catch them up," Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said.
Teams soon could get a better idea how much practice there will be this offseason. An appeals court in St. Louis could rule as early as today to uphold or lift a stay of an injunction that briefly ended the lockout.
Until this week, coaches could direct their energy toward the draft. With an uncertain future, they could be idle when they normally would be busy teaching.
Teams typically are allowed one mandatory minicamp -- exceptions are granted for teams with a new head coach -- and 14 voluntary practices called organized team activities. The Steelers hold most of these practices in May and the first two weeks of June.
Hines Ward, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu don't need OTAs. Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert and Curtis Brown, the Steelers' top three picks in this year's draft, do.
"We give (rookies) a whole bunch of stuff early, then we kind of spread it out in OTAs, and then in training camp it's spread out a little bit more," Butler said. "But it's re-taught to them three times (before the first preseason game), and they have a lot better chance of grasping it if we can do it in that manner."
Agent Ken Staninger described the situation as possibly being "a lost draft, other than (for) the elite-elite."
"The quarterbacks and offensive linemen and wide receivers, these young guys, can you imagine• With no minicamps and no OTAs, if they show up Aug. 1 to training camp, they're going to be so lost," Staninger said.
The importance of teaching rookies earlier than later cannot be overstated, Dallas coach Jason Garrett said.
"The OTA period that you get with these (rookies) is critical, not so much for getting them prepared for the season but getting them prepared for training camp," Garrett said during the NFL owners meetings in March. "When we put our installation in minicamp and our OTAs, it's all geared toward when they come into training camp they are able to compete on a level where you can really see what kind of players they are."
Of the newest Steelers, only Heyward was drafted while the NFL was briefly back in business last week. Thus he was the only one of the seven draftees who received a playbook from the team.
Second-round pick Marcus Gilbert also may have an advantage over other rookies because of his friendship with Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. If offseason practices are lost to the labor strife, Gilbert can work out and study with Pouncey, with whom he played at Florida.
"I need to take advantage of it and get with the (veterans) and work with them in drills until this thing ends," Gilbert said.
It is impossible to predict when players will be allowed to work out and practice with their teams. That is why coach Mike Tomlin last week imparted a message to the team's draftees.
"They need to focus on the things they can control, and that's their level of conditioning and mental and physical readiness," Tomlin said. "If they come in in great condition, that's a great start, regardless of circumstance."
The Steelers have made 41 picks in the NFL Draft since 2007, the first year that director of football operations Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin began working together. Here is a breakdown of the conferences from which those players have been selected:
Conference — No. of players
Big Ten -- 9
Big 12 -- 8
SEC -- 5
ACC -- 4
Pac-10 -- 4
Big East -- 3
Conference USA -- 2
Mountain West -- 2
Western Athletic -- 1
Mid-American -- 1
Sun Belt -- 1
*Southern -- 1
*Composed of Division I-AA schools
Source: Tribune-Review research