With the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp just about a month away from beginning, there are vacancies at some positions left open with the retirement of several key players.
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There are also some backup roles that will see some intense competition from those vying for those opportunities. Some of these position battles may have already been discussed on City of Champions Sports, but ahead are some of the key positions that should expect a fight to the finish leading up to opening day and who might become the starter or a key backup.
While Brad Wing did all the punting for Pittsburgh in 2014, he was far from being one of the best in the NFL. Mike Tomlin has made it a habit to avoid going into training camp relying on just one punter to do the job.
This year is no exception as Tomlin has turned again to Australia for talent. Just as Wing is from Melbourne, in comes Jordan Berry, a large sized punter from Essendon, Victoria in Australia. Berry has yet to play in the NFL but punted for Eastern Kentucky until he left the school in 2013. In college, Berry’s punting average in his senior campaign was a nice 43.4 gross per kick. The more impressive asset Berry has however is his hang time which is consistently over five seconds. There is a video on YouTube of Berry practicing his punts and showing his hang times that is a must see.
Wing has declared he will be better this season but first he must fight off the competition from one Jordan Berry. Wing’s gross yardage on punts in 2014 was 43.7 yards per punt. His net was just 38.8. Punting is extremely important in the NFL as it determines the starting position for opposing offenses following change of possessions and can put the defense in a better position to defend. Therefore, Mike Tomlin is going to want a punter that can be consistent and place Pittsburgh’s opponents in a bad spot on the field.
Expected outcome: This one is up for grabs. Wing has the professional experience but Jordan will provide stiff competition. The decision on who is punting the ball come the New England game will boil down to what happens in the pre-season games.
Ike Taylor has retired. Who takes his spot? While he was on the sidelines last year with an injury, Brice McCain and Cortez Allen filled the void. This year, McCain has moved to the Miami Dolphins and Cortez Allen will go into camp as the starter with William Gay on the other side. But Allen is not a shoe-in. He will be challenged by rookie Senquez Golson and veteran Antwon Blake. Blake received plenty of playing time in 2014 and at times was impressive. Doran Grant is another 2015 rookie who will be trying to make the team. That leaves Kevin Fogg, and B.W. Webb as the other competitors.
Expected Outcome: Gay and Allen will be the starters. How well they play and up to what production the rookies provide in the pre-season will determine whether Grant or Golson both make the team or if either has the skills to unseat either veteran. Blake will come in on packages as he did last season and the rooks will probably begin on special teams and in certain situations as well. The word on Golson however is that he may be good enough to become a starter. Certainly by season’s end we could see someone other than Gay or Allen in the defensive secondary as a starter.
We all know Ben Roethlisberger is a Steeler for life and that as long as he is healthy, he will be behind center for every snap of all 16 games this season and beyond until he retires or goes elsewhere. Bruce Gradkowski pretty much has the backup role locked up and has become the Charlie Batch of the second decade in the 2000s. But that very important third strong spot is completely wide open and the battle to remove Landry Jones from that role will be a good one.
Heading into camp for the first time as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers will be University of Clemson standout Tajh Boyd. Boyd was drafted by the New York Jets in 2014 but released before the season began. No other team was interested so he played in the Fall Experimental Football League as a member of both the Florida Blacktips and Boston Brawlers. This past February, the Detroit Lions gave him a workout but they passed on Boyd perhaps because of his size (6’1”, 225). Now with the Steelers, he will try to impress and make the team as a backup to the backup.
Joining Boyd at St. Vincent’s College in competing at quarterback will be two rookies, Devin Gardner from the University of Michigan and Tyler Murphy of Boston College who has impressive credentials. The interesting thing about Murphy is that while listed as a quarterback, he was primarily a wide receiver in college and high school. The hope could be that Murphy develops into another Antwaan Randle-El/Hines Ward prototype. As for Gardner, Pittsburgh’s first opponent this season, the New England Patriots first signed the ex-Wolverine to a contract after going undrafted in 2015 and then released him. Like Murphy, he is listed as a quarterback but could also be a “slash” type player as a receiver also.
Expected Outcome: While Landry Jones has the experience, both Murphy and Gardner are much more athletic. That might be attractive to Mike Tomlin and don’t be surprised if either is kept aboard as the #3 quarterback. Jones has his work cut out for him and will have to have a superb camp and pre-season to hold onto his job. In past years, his inconsistency was his downside.
Just as Ike Taylor did, Troy Polamalu made the decision to hang up the cleats rather than extend his career and play elsewhere. Polamalu leaves behind a legacy and void that will not be easy to fill. Mike Mitchell manned the free safety position last year, his first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was unimpressive and a disappointment to himself, the coaching staff, and more so Steelers Nation. This will be a make-or-break season for the ex-Carolina safety and he will be taking the field with a new face on a regular basis in 2015.
Who that will be is in the hands of Shamarko Thomas at the moment. Thomas is a hard hitting strong safety who has not yet reached the potential believed of him. Challenging Thomas will be rookie Gerod Holliman, long-time veteran Will Allen, Jordan Dangerfield, Robert Golden, Ross Ventrone, Isaiah Lewis, and Alden Darby. The biggest challenge could come from the rookie Holliman. Will Allen is a crafty veteran but probably doesn’t have enough to be an every day starter. Ventrone has excelled on special teams but lacks the tools to read defenses that way a strong safety needs to.
Expected Outcome: Thomas will have to vigorously fight off the challenge of Gerod Holliman. With just three collegiate seasons in the books at the University of Louisville, Holliman tied an NCAA record last season with an incredible 14 interceptions. That is the type of player the Steelers need. Holliman is six foot tall and comes in at 218 but those picks stand out like a sore thumb. Holliman took home the Jim Thorpe Award last year as the nation’s top defensive back, and was a consensus All-American. Two words for Shamarko Thomas: look out.
Finally, there are the wide receivers. The Pittsburgh Steelers can easily argue that they may have the best starting three receivers in the National Football League and perhaps the most dangerous set of receivers overall than any other team. Leading off with the #1 man, Antonio Brown who set records last season, the Black and Gold has the remarkable Martavis Bryant, last year’s star rookie who once cracked the starting lineup, had jaws dropping. Now with some playing time under his belt, his meter can only go up. Markus Wheaton joins the other two entering his third season as a pro and in 2014 reached the levels expected of him when he was drafted a year prior from Oregon State.
The decision for Mike Tomlin at wide receiver will be the dilemma he has faced in seasons before. How many receivers to keep on the regular season roster. Normally it is five or six. What that equates to is a fight for two or three more spots at receiver that should be the most entertaining of Latrobe’s training camp this year. Who gets the final two or three receiving spots? The candidates are rookie Sammie Coates, C.J. Goodwin, seven-year veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, rookie Eli Rogers, rookie Shakim Phillips, and last year’s major disappointment as a rookie, Dri Archer.
Dri Archer was drafted by Pittsburgh last season based primarily on his speed. But at only 5’8” and 173 pounds, Archer got swallowed up by opposing defenses and could never take advantage of his barn-burning speed. Even returning kicks went by the wayside because of a lack of production. Heyward-Bey has indicated he wants to be more of a leader this season. Based on his performance last year, this writer thought he would be handed a pink slip in the off-season. But the Steelers have brought him back for one more go around.
After putting up 2,071 receiving yards in four years as an Oakland Raider, Bey came to the ‘Burgh after one year in Indianapolis to only catch three passes for just 33 yards, targeted only five times while fumbling once. True, he was up against some stiff competition but as a #4 receiver, he was disappointing. Now he faces the challenges of younger, hungry receivers and he will have be at the top of his game to put on a jersey come opening day.
Sammie Coates might be the odds-on favorite to win the #4 role. A junior standout at Auburn University in 2014, last season the speedy receiver (has run a 4.43-40), hauled in 34 passes for 741 yards and scored four times. With just three seasons on the collegiate level, Coates finished as the 10th most productive receiver for receiving yards in Auburn history.
Seven times Coates surpassed the 100-yard mark for a single game in receiving yards. His most impressive performance probably came during the Iron Bowl against top flight Alabama. Establishing a new Auburn University record for yards receiving in a game, Coates turned in a 206-yard performance on just five receptions and scored twice.
The final combatants at receiver are one-year players and rookies. Another speedster is Shakim Phillips who has has turned in sub-4.4 times in the 40. He also has size at 6’3”. To the contrary, rookie Eli Rogers is just 70 inches tall and just 180 and is trying to make the team. Depending on what these two bring to the table could decide the fate of Heyward-Bey and Dri Archer.
Expected Outcome: We know that Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, and Martavis Bryant’s jobs are safe. 4-5-6 are to be determined this Summer. Because of the inexperience, Darrius Heyward-Bey is probably in. Sammie Coates should make the squad.
That leaves maybe one more player. Dri Archer is going to have to figure out how to avoid tackles and find holes much better than he did one season ago. He will try to fend off the challenges of Goodwin, Rogers, and Phillips. Much praise has been thrown on Goodwin who comes from local California-University (PA). The pick here is either Archer or Goodwin.