COMMENTARY | Over the past two offseasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have parted ways with some of the most familiar faces in franchise history. The influx of youth that followed was one of the major reasons the team mustered an 8-8 record in 2012.
But now the Steelers need their young players to start making impacts. That is, if they want to win. If not, it could get ugly in the Steel City rather quickly.
Let's take a look at four guys who could be primed for breakout seasons with the Steelers in 2013:
Emmanuel Sanders, WR
The Steelers lost one of their biggest offensive weapons in wide receiver Mike Wallace to free agency and have now lost veteran big-man Plaxico Burress for the season.
That makes a young and inexperienced receiving corps even younger and more inexperienced.
But it also opens the door for some other guys to make an impact on the team in 2013. The guy the Steelers are counting on this season is fourth-year wideout Emmanuel Sanders.
Sanders has improved in each of his first three seasons and tallied over 600 yards last season. Maybe more impressively was the 14-yards-per-catch average Sanders racked up in 2012.
Pittsburgh thought enough of the former SMU Mustang to match an offer from the New England Patriots this offseason to keep him around. Sanders is still in a contract year and with Antonio Brown likely to draw most of the attention, it could open up some room to work.
Sanders has an ideal fit for Todd Haley's quick-hit offense and gets open well across the middle of the field. He has to get better at catching and holding on to the ball, but his comfort level with Ben Roethlisberger has to make him one of the most trusted targets on the team.
Look for Sanders to do some work in 2013, especially at the beginning of the year with Heath Miller out and Brown drawing coverages.
Cortez Allen, CB
In 2012, we saw a breakout season from another first-year starter at cornerback in Pittsburgh. But like Wallace, the Steelers saw Keenan Lewis fly the coop for "greener" pastures in New Orleans.
But, at the end of last season, Steelers fans did see the emergence of the guy who will be filling those shoes.
Cornerback Cortez Allen ended the 2012 season with a bang and hopes to begin 2013 carrying that momentum over. The 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound corner intercepted two passes in 2012 and forced three fumbles. Those five forced TO's accounted for a quarter of the team's 20 total last season.
Allen's got the size and skill set to be a great corner in this league. Pittsburgh has done a nice job of bringing the former fourth-rounder along slowly and letting him learn the system before throwing him to the wolves.
This offseason, however, Allen has struggled through injuries and to stay on the field.
Expect Allen to be ready to go by the start of the year and expect a very good season from the third-year player. He probably has the best hands in the secondary behind Polamalu and Pittsburgh needs to create more turnovers.
David DeCastro, OG
It seems like a short year ago when the Pittsburgh Steelers made David DeCastro their first-round pick in 2012. But expectations for the highly-touted guard were cut short when he tore knee ligaments in a preseason game against Buffalo.
DeCastro managed to sneak four games and three starts into his rookie season, but the Steelers and fans had hoped for more.
Now, DeCastro is healthy and ready to roll for Pittsburgh at right guard. When he left Stanford, many considered him the best guard prospect since the great Steve Hutchinson. The Steelers will need him to play like that.
It's very tough for a guard to actually have a "breakout" season, but turning himself into a Pro-Bowler would be a step in the right direction. He could be the best offensive lineman the Steelers have seen since Alan Faneca. That's not bad company.
Al Woods, DE
I could have easily went with Steve McLendon at nose tackle here, but Woods is more of an unknown around the league. And that might be changing after 2013.
Woods has looked terrific in camp and the preseason. He's worked outside at end and inside at the nose, making him one of the more versatile players on the front line. That alone should up his playing time.
But with Ziggy Hood in a contract year and on thin ice and Cameron Heyward showing little yet again, Woods could emerge as not just the Steelers' top rotational guy, but eventually a starter.
I'm high on Woods this year, and Hood has done little to impress me since joining the team as a first-rounder. If Hood wants to get that big contract he's got to step up. If he doesn't, Woods is right on his heels.
BONUS: Shamarko Thomas, S
Last season, as Troy Polamalu went down with injury, the Steelers' safety corps floundered. Rotating in the likes of Will Allen, Ryan Mundy and Robert Golden, Pittsburgh couldn't find the right match to pair with Ryan Clark in the secondary.
Because of that, Pittsburgh spent a fourth-round pick on Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas.
Thomas has been making waves in camp with his big hits and his raw ability. He's looked good in games so far and might be the answer to the Steelers' injury woes.
To be fair, Golden actually played pretty well last season. But Thomas gives the Steelers a real option behind either Clark or Polamalu, both of whom have struggled with injuries in their career.
If one of those two guys goes down this season, Pittsburgh should be in capable hands.
Dan Snyder , a 2012 graduate of Temple University, has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers for the past few years. His work has been published on mainstream sports media sites such as the Bleacher Report. Follow Dan on Twitter @dsnyder34.
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