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Steelers Not Counting Out Rookie Contribution Early in Season

Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner isn't optimistic about his rookies playing early in the season, but he isn't excluding the possibility.

PITTSBURGH -- Randy Fichtner has a unique challenge this summer trying to prepare his rookies for Week 1 action without any preseason games.

Chase Claypool, Anthony McFarland, and Kevin Dotson all have the potential to become part of the Steelers' offensive gameplan this season. Still, through July 29, they've only seen the grass at Heinz Field once, and have six weeks to get ready for the NFL's regular season. 

"What generally takes a young guy out of play early is between the ears, quite honestly," Fichtner told media on Wednesday. "It is never really the talent. It is not the physicality, it's not that. They all belong. It is how comfortable and how quickly they can understand how to do what you ask them to do."

That task will come this week as the Steelers begin preparing for training camp and the ramp-up period before players begin wearing pads. The NFL won't allow the Steelers to practice with contact until Aug. 18. For the rookies, they'll only get 14 full-fledged practices before entering their first professional season.  

"I think one of the things you want to do would be quickly as possible find out what they do well and what they understand and then utilize that as much and as often as you can," Fichtner said. "Obviously, any young guy, the more you can do comes into play. These are two guys who have shown the ability to help football teams on special teams. If that is the case, you are going to have these guys whether they are ready offensively or not, the first game of the year possibility available to you. And now you can use them and the things that they do best in maybe somewhat of a limited role. But I don't want to put that ceiling on any one of them because, quite frankly, in just the couple days we have worked with them, there are some signs of maturity and that is what is exciting."

One rookie who has impressed Fichtner to this point is Steelers second-round pick, Chase Claypool. The wide receiver and offensive coordinator have yet to work on the field together, but their conversations during the virtual offseason have Fichtner believing there's a possibility he contributes early in the year. 

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"I got a chance to actually speak having seen [Claypool], met him, coached him and have him in a couple walk throughs and then watch him from afar from a conditioning standpoint and have our conditioning coaches talk about that," Fichtner said. "I think he is strong, mature, physical. I think you hit it on the head. The physicality is going to show early. I think it is going to lead to a lot of opportunities to help our football team early in a situation like this.

"Personally, I wouldn't want many just young wide receivers and running backs, skill position players, quarterbacks in this unique situation. No minicamp in the spring, no rookie minicamp in the spring, no OTAs. We can count the 900 reps or so that we lost. The idea that we are going to lose some reps and some scrimmages. I am excited because I know he is physical, I know he can run, I know he can learn up to this point. That is what is exciting about him. I just see a bright-eyed—I see a guy that is committed to doing all the right things and it couldn't come at a better time for us. "

Despite the limited time to adjust to the NFL level, Fichtner isn't counting his players out. Claypool has a group of young veterans around him to learn from. His offensive coordinator is using players from the Steelers' past to see the positive of what might come with a player who's already developed before he enters the league. 

"To be fair, I would hate to put them in that situation," Fichtner said on his expectations for rookies heading into Week 1. "I don't want to put a ceiling on them. [Claypool] too big, strong and sharp. You never know. The development of all young guys takes some time. I saw JuJu [Smith-Schuster] when he first got here. I've seen Mike Wallace when he first got here, [Antonio Brown] when he first got here, all those guys, and they all kind of learn and mature at the right time."

Fichtner said that Claypool and the rest of the rookies would get their opportunity when they're ready, but he's not counting out anyone being ready to contribute when the Steelers take the field on Sept. 14. 

"When it happens, it happens for the good," Fichtner said. "It happened with Diontae [Johnson] last year. I would have loved to not have played Diontae as early as we even played him last year because he's growing and developing. A great example. He missed rookie minicamp with a hamstring, and he missed most of the OTAs. There's a good case point right there. Yes, he was here in the physical meetings, Yes, he got to watch them. These guys don't even get to do that this spring. When you're really talking about where they can help you, I'm rooting that they can help us immediately right out of it all, but I'll be honest, I'm not counting on it. I don't think it cool to do that. I do know at some point through this journey, probably early given the fact that in when I've seen a couple of things, that look in his eye, he looks intelligent, gives me reason to think it might happen earlier than later."

Noah Strackbein is a Publisher with AllSteelers. Follow Noah on Twitter @NoahStrack, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.