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For the first time in several seasons, the Steelers are no longer one of the NFL’s oldest teams. They are younger, quicker and more athletic than any time during the Mike Tomlin era. After severing ties with aging warhorses Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior (as well as a few other players no longer in their plans), the Steelers believe their youth movement will keep them in championship contention. For that to happen, a new generation of Steelers stars must emerge. Here’s a look at five of them who should shine brightest:
Last year, Antonio Brown enjoyed his breakout season. This year, Sanders hopes he’ll break out.
A third-round pick in the 2010 draft — he was taken three rounds ahead of Brown — Sanders saw his progress hindered last year due to foot and knee injuries. But now that it appears his health problems are over, he’s primed to take advantage of his opportunities at wide receiver.
With Ward gone, Sanders will battle 30-year-old Jerricho Cotchery for a starting job in training camp. Even if he’s not a starter, Sanders, 25, will at least be the No. 3 receiver in the rotation.
Due to his injuries and Brown’s emergence last year, Sanders had a hard time getting on the field and only caught 22 passes (Mike Wallace and Brown led the team with 72 and 69, respectively). But Sanders is fast, smart and confident in his abilities. He knows how to get open, and he’ll get plenty of chances this year.
Rashard Mendenhall may have recently tweeted that “My knee has healed wonderfully,” but all indications are that Redman will be the starting running back on opening day. And if he fares well in that role, Mendenhall will have a hard time regaining his role as the starter.
Mendenhall hasn’t exactly endeared himself with fans and the media. He has rushed for more than 1,000 twice, but is often perceived as a soft runner who can’t pound away for tough yards inside, especially in short-yardage or goal-line situations.
Redman, who’s 6-foot and 230 pounds, has thrived in those situations the past two years. And he handled himself well last year when he started in the wild-card game in Denver (Mendenhall blew his knee out in the regular-season finale in Cleveland). In that playoff loss to the Broncos, Redman carried 17 times for 121 yards.
Redman, 27, is two years older than Mendenhall. But while Mendenhall has 813 carries as a pro, Redman only has 162. He’s fresh and ready to roll.
For the second time in three years, a rookie offensive lineman will start on opening day. In 2010, Maurkice Pouncey assumed the center position. On Sept. 9 when the Steelers open in Denver, DeCastro will start at right guard.
Pouncey, a first-round draft pick who’s already been named to two Pro Bowls, figures to be the Steelers’ star for years to come. Likewise for DeCastro, who projects as the second coming of Alan Faneca, the greatest guard in Steeler history.
When this year’s draft got underway, the Steelers never envisioned that DeCastro, an All-American out of Stanford, would still be on the board when it was their turn to pick at No. 24 overall. But when he was, general manager Kevin Colbert called the pick a “no-brainer.”
DeCastro, 22, is almost too good to be true. He’s a no-nonsense stud who’s 6-5 and 316. He rarely missed a block last year at Stanford. Even though he missed the Steelers’ 10 organized team activities in the spring as he finished his college studies, he did attend mini-camp in mid-June and was impressive in those non-contact workouts. The Steelers can’t wait to see him when the pads go on in training camp.
Lewis has always talked a great game. Now it’s time for him to back up his bravado. Now it’s time for him prove he has what it takes to be a starting cornerback in the NFL.
Twice during his first three years with the Steelers, Lewis predicted he would make it to the Pro Bowl. He first made that bold statement as a rookie when he hardly played. He did it again in May during OTAs.
In a recent radio interview, veteran cornerback Ike Taylor said he believes Lewis has what it takes to be great, and certainly Lewis will get his chance. He will go to camp as the starter at the cornerback spot held last year by William Gay, who signed with Arizona after the Steelers decided to let him go.
Lewis, 26, is a big, physical corner at 6-foot and 208 pounds. He’ll be challenged for a starting job by second-year pros Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen. But Lewis has the inside track.
At 32, Taylor remains the team’s top cover cornerback. But the Steelers are intrigued about the potential of their three younger corners.
Hood knows what it’s like to start in the NFL. He started 10 games in 2010 and 14 games last year, most at left defensive end after Aaron Smith suffered season-ending injuries. But no longer does Hood have to live under Smith’s shadow. With Smith gone, Hood enters training camp for the first time in his first four years as a pro knowing the position is his.
Hood has taken his new responsibilities seriously. His off-season workouts have been well-documented. He even posted some of his individual workouts on YouTube to prove how intense they’ve been. While he’s still 6-5 and 300 pounds, he lost close to 20 pounds of body fat while adding 20 pounds of muscle. He even posted before-and-after photos on the Internet that show his new and improved physique.
Hood, 25, also has a better grasp of the way the Steelers operate on defense. As a D-end in a base 3-4 defense, his primary role is to stuff the run and occupy blockers so that the linebackers can make plays. But Hood also has shown on occasion — he has 5.5 career sacks — he can get to the passer, too.