Pittsburgh Steelers training camp has opened, and so have begun the battles for positional players who aren’t locked in to being on the opening day roster. So much can be made out of the battles for starting positions and the Steelers do have several spots where guys are fighting to be No. 1.
However, the best battles in camp and during all of preseason are the guys who weren’t expected to make the team and guys who surprise. It always seems that some lesser-known player comes into camp, shocks and amazes the coaching staff and then during the preseason games, does the exact same and fans start to take notice. Eventually, this player may end up being a highly paid All Pro, dominating others at his position and one of the faces of the franchise.
The Steelers have always had a knack for finding these types of players in the lower rounds of the draft, and also in the undrafted free agent pool. This year, the Steelers have several needs in several positions, as is expected when you lose your No. 1 wide receiver or your No. 2 cornerback or your starting defensive tackle or starting left tackle.
Let’s take a look at each position and find the areas of need:
Ben Roethlisberger is the unquestioned starter here, however Ben has a knack for getting hurt, so the backup QB must be able to step in and give the team at least a chance to compete. The Steelers no longer have Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich as fall-back options; they have Brad Gradkowski and rookie Landry Jones. Both will probably make the team unless one of them is completely ineffective, but that is more likely to happen to Gradkowski at this point.
This is the first position where a real battle for not only the starting position but also the backups all have to be decided. Jonathan Dwyer seems to be the odd man out if he doesn’t step it up and prove he belongs on the 53-man roster. Rookie Le’Veon Bell and Isaac Redman will battle it out to become the starter, with second-round pick Bell the only guy pretty much guaranteed to make the roster. If Redman doesn’t play very well or gets injured, Dwyer will stick with the team. LaRod Stephens-Howling is the wild card; he could push Dwyer or Redman out the door or he could be cut all together.
The starting positions seem to be set at wide receiver with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders set as the starting duo. Plaxico Burress has been re-signed to be part of the squad as the big, tall target. Jerricho Cotchery returns to the team again and seems to fit very nicely into the No. 4/slot receiving position while rookie Markus Wheaton has a ton of potential to eventually move up the depth chart quickly and possibly starting by the end of the season. David Gilreath, Justin Brown and Derek Moye would really need to bring their ‘A’ games to make the team – or an unforeseen injury happening could give one of these guys a shot.
Unfortunately Heath Miller won’t be ready for the start of the season. Some conflicting reports say he’ll be back right after the Steelers bye week, or may not return at all. That leaves the Steelers with recently re-signed Matt Spaeth and David Paulson as the two who make the team from Day 1. It’s possible the Steelers could look from the outside if Spaeth and/or Paulson get hurt.
We have the starting group put together with Maurkice Pouncey (C), David DeCastro (RG), Marcus Gilbert (LT), Ramon Foster (LG) and Mike Adams (RT). The depth is lacking here a bit for the Steelers. To be solidified, they may need some help from an undrafted guy in Mike Golic, Jr. There is Kelvin Beachum, who stepped in admirably last season, Justin Cheadle, John Malecki and Guy Whimper. Who? Exactly.
The starters are pretty well set with Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel as the defensive ends, while new starter Steve McClendon takes over for Casey Hampton. The backups are OK at best but Cameron Heyward needs to finally step it up and prepare to take over for Keisel after this season.
There is a good battle here that will take place between former No. 2 pick Jason Worilds and this years No. 1 pick in Jarvis Jones. Expect this battle to go down to the wire; most people are hoping Jones is the starter from Day 1 but it would be nice to see Worilds finally step up. LaMarr Woodley starts on the left side and Chris Carter moves over to back him up. Woodley needs to find his dominant self again or the pass rush could be severely lacking.
There is a nice veteran presence on the inside with Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote there, but the backup position is lacking a bit with Stevenson Sylvester, Vince Williams, Marshall McFadden and Terence Garvin fighting for that role. The question is: if Timmons or Foote go down, do the Steelers have an impactful player who can take over?
Ike Taylor returns to the team as the No. 1 corner, but the other side is weakened with an unproven talent in Cortez Allen taking over the starting duty. The backup/nickel guy is William Gay with Curtis Brown and DeMarcus Van Dyke trying to make the team. I give the edge to Brown but someone hopefully will step up and surprise us.
Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are one of the hardest-hitting, biggest-play safety duos in the league. The problem is, they are getting older and having a difficult time staying healthy for an entire season. The big-name backup that we hope will take over for one of them soon is rookie Shamarko Thomas. The other backup battles will happen among Robert Golden, DaMon Cromarite-Smith, Ross Ventrone, Isaiah Green and Nigel Malone.
This is the area where a guy impresses on the team, but the coaches aren’t quite ready to give him a shot at regular playing time. The Steelers have Drew Butler returning punts, with Brian Moorman brought in to battle. Shaun Suisham is the kicker, Greg Warren is battling Lucas Ingram for long-snapper duties and the Steelers really could use someone to surprise and take over the kick return and/or punt return honors from Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
Let the battles begin!