2017 Pittsburgh Steelers Breakout Candidates

One of the best factors to following the Pittsburgh Steelers is finding the gems who come out of nowhere to become major assets. Whether it’s Hines Ward, James Harrison, or Antonio Brown, the Steelers are quite possibly the best at finding these rare assets. Last year, Stephon Tuitt became a household name and a member of the All-Under 25 team. Ryan Shazier showed some defensive player of the year upside in his best season yet. So who are some candidates to break out and become major players for the Steelers moving forward?

2017 Pittsburgh Steelers Breakout Candidates

5. Demarcus Ayers

Ayers was a seventh-round pick who spent most of his 2016 season the practice squad. However, he enters 2017 in the thick of a wide receiver battle and has a chance to win a starting job. His easiest path to the roster is by returning punts. He has to beat out Antonio Brown to do it, but the Steelers should be looking to take that off of Brown’s plate soon.

He also can work himself into the offense as a fourth wide receiver as well. The Steelers have Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who can work underneath, and Martavis Bryant and Ayers who can take the top off. It is a tough mix of talent to defend. Ayers brings that deep threat ability more than Eli Rogers and there is definitely room for him to beat out Sammie Coates for the role. Ayers could become a known player as a punt returner, a splash player and a compliment to the offense in the way that Taylor Gabriel helped the Atlanta Falcons make a Super Bowl run.

4. Javon Hargrave

The Steelers third round pick in 2016 was the first of the draftees to start. From start to finish he was almost certainly the most consistent rookie as well. The Steelers defensive line is going to be a big strength and it could be the leap forward of Hargrave that makes it one of the best in the NFL.

Hargrave has everything it takes to be a stud NFL player. He fell in the draft because he went to a small school, but the former basketball player has that basketball footwork to go with NFL size, and it is an intriguing combination. Hargrave may have shined the brightest in the biggest spot, putting up a sack and five tackles against the Patriots in AFC Championship. Look for him to ride that momentum and give this defense a huge spark in the middle.

3. Alejandro Villanueva

Continuity when it comes to offensive line play is hugely important. That is why it was so surprising to see Villanueva thrive as soon as he did when converting from the defensive side of the ball. Villanueva now has 26 starts, and can use the continuity of making those consecutively to take a big step forward in 2017.

The entire Steelers offensive line has great continuity. Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster, and David DeCastro are all draft picks, Pouncey has been a starter since 2010, Gilbert since 2013, DeCastro since 2013 and Foster since 2011.

That continuity, along with his rare size and strength combined with Mike Munchak, an offensive line coach who progressed the unit forward every year since his arrival, and Villanueva has the recipe to be a star on the left side.

2. Sean Davis

Davis had an interesting rookie year. An injury to Senquez Golson forced Davis to take snaps in the slot. The team was not ready to start Artie Burns on the outside, so William Gay had to stay out there. In that short period of time, Davis got exposed and the first nine weeks of his season were certainly his worst. However, when the Steelers hit their stride late in the season and made that run into the AFC Championship, it had a lot to do with the increased play of Davis as a safety who was roaming around the field making plays. Davis has great instincts in the secondary and an ability to move laterally through traffic quickly.

He has the athleticism and now the fit in a position that is truly his. Davis can be a game changer in this defense and it could come as soon as next season.

1. Bud Dupree

It started late into last season, but it looks like Dupree is on the track to break out and be a strong pass rusher in this defense. Dupree spent his rookie year learning and slowly came to picking up four sacks down the stretch. Last season he missed the first half of his year with groin surgery. Still, he put up 4.5 sacks and when he jumped back into the starting lineup the Steelers rattled off eight straight wins on their way to an AFC Championship game.

Dupree will have a rotating duo of the all-time great James Harrison and the growing rookie T.J. Watt across from him. It is a great situation to be in and the expectation should be for him to lead the team in sacks, with ten being the over/under number. It is on Dupree to take that step forward, but everything is in place for him to make the most of 2017.

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