7 Steelers Players Bound to Break Out in 2014

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IFebruary 10, 2014

7 Steelers Players Bound to Break Out in 2014

0 of 7

    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Every season, there are players who finally get it together. The light goes on, and they take their game to the next level. They typically hint at it the season before, but sometimes guys just come out of nowhere like a speeding truck.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers ended the 2013 season in a flourish. For all the criticisms of this team and its age, it has a talented young core. It's just a matter of getting those young players to the next level, paired with the veterans already in place.

    All of the players on this list have the opportunity to work their way into full-time starting jobs. And some of them have the opportunity to ascend to a level that is commensurate with the top players at their respective positions in the league. This is exciting stuff, people.

    If these men could play all season the way they flashed last year, this team will be tough to beat.

    Let's take a look at seven Steelers who are poised to break out in a huge way in 2014.

    All stats courtesy of NFL.com.

Marcus Gilbert, Offensive Tackle

1 of 7

    Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

    Offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert was drafted in 2011 to start at tackle and entered the 2013 season doing exactly that. Even with some minor injuries over the course of the season, he never missed a start. He did miss some time during the course of games, but overall his performance was quite successful.

    Gilbert's game really began to come together in the second half of season. His ability to protect the quarterback improved. He is a massive tackle at 6'6" and 325 pounds. At times, he appeared heavy-footed, and that turned into penalties and missed assignments.

    However, late in the year, he showed to be the most consistent lineman on the roster, especially in the run game. More and more, offensive coordinator Todd Haley called runs to Gilbert's side of the line, and it paid off. He was able to finish his blocks better and showed much more consistent effort.

    Looking ahead to 2014

    Gilbert is in a perfect position to break out. Not only did he finish the season by showing improved technique and effort, but his level of conditioning was better. However, beyond that, new offensive line coach Mike Munchak is about to add a level of talent at the coaching position that this team has lacked since Russ Grimm. Munchak's influence should be a real positive for Gilbert.

    Gilbert is only 25 years old and is entering the final year of his rookie contract. These are huge pluses for him in the coming season. He understands that his play this season will have serious implications on his next contract. Like it or not, money is a motivator, and players will perform in pursuit of that big contract.

Markus Wheaton, Wide Receiver

2 of 7

    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    In some instances, having a breakout season means being opportunistic. NFL rosters are riddled with talented players who find themselves buried on the depth charts. Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton found himself in this position in 2013.

    He was drafted in the third round of the 2013 draft because he fits the mold of what the Steelers love to do on offense. His game is all about speed. The former Oregon State star showed in his rookie year he can get behind NFL secondaries. The problem was that his opportunities were very limited.

    Being fourth on the wide receiver depth chart and the team's sixth option as a pass-catcher meant Wheaton didn't have a chance. Nonetheless, things are about to change for the young player. The question is: Will he take advantage?

    Looking ahead to 2014

    There should be ample opportunities for Wheaton to succeed in 2014. Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are both free agents. If the coaches believe that Wheaton stands ready to take that next step, they could opt to let Sanders and Cotchery walk.

    In a sort of dual WR2 role, Sanders and Cotchery combined for 188 targets in 2013. With Wheaton's speed, even getting half of those would give him plenty of chances to prove himself.

    There is no doubt that he has has talent. The key to his 2014 breakout is getting a chance to showcase it in game situations.

    All it will take is for him to haul in a pass or two to get the confidence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Once he does, the sky is the limit for this young man.

Le'Veon Bell, Running Back

3 of 7

    Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

    There were flashes all season. Week after week, running back Le'Veon Bell got a little better, stronger and smarter. By the end of the season, he had put together an impressive 13-game resume. His 1,259 yards of offense works out to almost 97 yards per game. Those kinds of numbers put him in a talented group of players.

    As the season progressed, he improved his patience and vision. By the end of the season, Bell developed a cutback move that allowed him to compensate for the pursuit of the defense and didn't force him to try to take every run to the outside. This resulted in  nice gains between the tackles.

    Looking ahead to 2014

    Once you figure in improvements to the offensive line as well as growth by Bell, it is clear that he is the verge of breaking out. With a better O-line, Bell's yards per carry will get a bump, and that means averaging more than 100 yards of offense per game should be no problem at all.

    No one should be shocked if Bell tops 1,300 yards rushing and catches more than 60 passes in 2014. He really is that sort of special player. For as great as Roethlisberger has been throwing the ball, this team is better when it has a reliable rushing attack.

    Bell is going to provide that.

Cameron Heyward, Defensive End

4 of 7

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    In terms of growth and in the spirit of bold predictions, 2014 could be massive for defensive end Cameron Heyward. He finished the 2013 season with 59 tackles and five sacks. This made him one of the best players on the Steelers defense in 2013.

    And when you look closely at the numbers, you realize that he did the bulk of his damage in the second half of the season. He has only scratched the surface of what he is capable of.

    As a 3-4 defensive end, his role on defense is mixed. On some teams, the 5-technique is nothing more than someone to eat up blocks and let the linebackers behind him make plays. However, Heyward proved himself to be much more than that. He showed J.J. Watt flashes—from sacks to passes batted down.

    Looking ahead to 2014

    The sky is the limit for Heyward in 2014. There's nothing to say he can't finish the season with more than 80 total tackles and double-digit sacks. His combination of size and explosion shined in 2013, and if he can build on that in 2014, the Steelers defense will be so much more dangerous.

    It isn't often that a 3-4 defensive lineman who's last name isn't Watt is discussed among the best defensive ends in the league. However, Heyward's talent, paired up with a scheme that is going to put him in position to make plays, could change all that.

Jason Worilds, Linebacker

5 of 7

    Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

    Much like Heyward, Worilds flashed serious breakout potential in 2013. Coming into the season, he only had 10 career starts. In 2013, in place of an injured LaMarr Woodley, he put up eight sacks in 11 starts.

    Worilds displayed a natural affinity for getting after the quarterback from the left outside linebacker spot. This is emphasized more with the fact that he got seven of his eight sacks in his final eight starts.

    2013 marked the season that he finally grew into his body and talent. He displayed excellent burst off the snap and was able on more than one occasion to overpower the right tackle to get after the quarterback.

    The rub is that he is a free agent this offseason. If the Steelers believe he is also poised for a breakout season, they will have to pay him like it. There are worse scenarios than having Worilds and Jarvis Jones starting at outside linebacker in 2014 and terrorizing quarterbacks.

    Looking ahead to 2014

    The Steelers have to make a decision about Worilds. If they believe he is a breakout candidate for 2014, can they let him walk? This franchise has a long, rich history of pass-rushing outside linebackers.

    There's no reason that he can't be the first Steelers linebacker to crack double-digit sacks since Woodley did it in 2010. In fact, if Jones can develop quickly, Worilds on the left side could put up huge numbers.

Shamarko Thomas, Safety

6 of 7

    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Looking back at 2013, it was clear that the coaches wanted to find a way to get safety Shamarko Thomas onto the field but just weren't sure how to do it. As a rookie, he displayed the speed and physicality that warranted the Steelers trading away a 2014 third-round pick to obtain him.

    Unfortunately, much of the film from 2013 centers on Thomas in man coverage as a nickel cornerback. His most memorable plays were getting beat in man coverage by much bigger wide receivers and tight ends.

    In a more comfortable role as a pure strong safety, he can excel. His ability to diagnose and get to the play is exceptional, and he finishes like a hammer. He simply needs more of those opportunities to break out.

    Looking ahead to 2014

    Thomas projects as a starting safety, assuming safety Ryan Clark isn't re-signed. In this scheme, that means he would play a lot of single high, while Troy Polamalu hovers around the line of scrimmage. While this isn't ideal for Thomas, he should still be able to work those deep zones and his speed to bring the pain to opposing players.

    Steelers safeties are known for racking up tackles as the last line of defense. Thomas was only able to muster 29 stops as a reserve, but he will change that in 2014. As a full-time starter, expect him to approach 90 total tackles and likely force a few turnovers as well.

Jarvis Jones, Linebacker

7 of 7

    Don Wright/Associated Press

    There are varying opinions about linebacker Jarvis Jones' rookie season. He got eight starts but was only able to register a single sack for the year. Some might contend that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense is complex and takes time to adjust to.

    The reality is that Jones was undersized as a strong-side linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and this was a horrible fit for what he does well. Play after play, he got swallowed up by massive NFL left tackles. You can bet LeBeau and the rest of the staff saw this and will work hard to correct it.

    Jones should come into camp bigger and stronger, which will help tremendously. He should also come in with a better understanding of leverage and how to turn the corner in a traditional pass-rush situation. Most of his best plays came off broken plays and through improvisation. The Steelers should give him those opportunities as well.

    Looking ahead to 2014

    There is no reason to believe that Jones won't have a huge bounce-back season. In fact, if he comes in rebuilt and in a better fit within the scheme, he could be a breakout star in the league. If the Steelers open things up for him, double-digit sacks and multiple forced turnovers should be no problem at all.

    Jones is a special talent. In order for him to become a breakout star, he needs to refine some of the little things about his game, and the Steelers need to understand it is OK to cut him loose like they do with Polamalu.

    Just let Jones be disruptive.