As the Steelers close out the first week of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), several players who are either trying a new position or learning a new scheme have stood out as being very impressive. Some players are returning from injuries with a chip on their shoulder. Overall, it was a great first week.
Here's a look at the 10 players whose stock improved during the past week.
One player has seemed to stand out consistently during the first week of work. Second-year runner Baron Batch has been opening eyes at the perfect time.
The Steelers' backfield is in flux right now as the team tries to figure out how everyone fits after the injury to Rashard Mendenhall. Isaac Redman figures to be the starter, but Batch is a versatile, athletic back who could very well find a prominent role on the roster.
Last year when he was drafted, I thought Batch might be the next Mewelde Moore or Willie Parker. He didn't get a chance because of a nasty injury early in camp. Now he's healthy and he looks great.
Moore is gone and the Steelers are looking for at least a couple of good backs behind Redman. Batch seems to be gaining some early separation from the pack.
Part of my early impression of Polamalu is that he showed up for OTAs this season. The team's defensive catalyst has never been big on this type of stuff.
He's an important part of the team, not just on the field but also in the locker room. With the retirement of James Farrior and Hines Ward, the team has lost two of its best locker room leaders.
Polamalu is one of the players who absolutely must step up. He's the signature player on defense. His presence at these activities will be a big boost for young players who I'm sure want to learn from him.
There's another benefit too. Polamalu has had some injury issues and I've wondered if some conditioning issues might be causing problems.
Now, he'll get some more early work with the team. That could end up making all the difference in the world.
The work of Lewis during OTAs has been very good so far, but I expect a lot from a guy who's been around as long as he has and who should know the defense front to back now.
The attitude has really bumped up his stock, though. Going into this past week, I had doubts about who would really emerge as the best corner behind Ike Taylor. Lewis has really been working hard to put those doubts to rest.
While we likely won't get a really good feel for the corner battle until we see it play out in preseason, Lewis has solidified his status as the early favorite.
He has said he wants to make the Pro Bowl. He has talked the talk and, to this point, walked the walk. That is more important right now than game tape. Lewis took a big step last year and now he has the chance to take a bigger one.
Pro Bowl? I'm not sure. But he's been a star this week.
Stevenson who? Larry Foote might be putting the brakes on all of that talk about the young Sylvester replacing James Farrior as the team's starting inside linebacker.
Foote is now the old man of the defense. He's been around for both of the team's Super Bowl victories in the 2000s. Not many guys can say that nowadays. He is also working hard to show he's not just the reserve he's been for two seasons back with the team.
Foote isn't flashy. He doesn't do anything in the fashion of James Harrison. Still, he is steady and doesn't make mistakes or miss badly very often. This week, he's shown he still has that ability that made him a starter for a long time before Lawrence Timmons supplanted him.
Dick LeBeau had Foote in with the starters during the OTA sessions, so he must believe in him too. Foote rewarded that trust by flashing not only some good work on the field, but also some great leadership skills off it. That will be a key trait as the team tries to find a replacement for its defensive caption (Farrior).
Anytime a player moves to a brand new position, it's reason to pay attention. When that player has played only a handful of snaps in the last two years, it becomes even more interesting.
So far, so good for Colon. He looked like a player who had already worked out most of the kinks. He's also learning a new offense, so in a way it might help because he doesn't have to think about anything but learning the new system and position together.
The move should help Colon, who always struggled with fast rushers. Now he'll have the responsibility for inside guys and a different angle when he takes outside guys. I think he'll be less mistake-prone and he looked pretty comfortable in practices.
Colon's success is a linchpin for the team this year, and so far he's proving that he's healthy and ready to roll.
We've seen what Sanders can bring as a receiver. There's nothing really new to report there, but I was curious when I found out Sanders was working as a punt returner during the OTA practices. That's an interesting tidbit of information because Antonio Brown will now be a full-time starter that should be mostly excused from returns and special teams.
The early returns from this week were good. Sanders showed he can return punts and seems to now be the guy who will get first crack at the job.
I would also not sleep on Chris Rainey (more on that in a minute), who can certainly fill the role from a speed perspective.
But I think Sanders' return ability will help solidify him as the team's third receiver, a job he is fighting for with Jerricho Cotchery. The key, as always, will be him staying healthy.
Isaac Redman comes into this season at a new position. He figures to be the team's primary running back this year after serving as a complementary piece his entire career.
The former undrafted player has really made an impression and he looks like he's picking up Todd Haley's offense quickly. He has shared some insight on the new system, which shows that he's done a lot of studying of the whole scheme and not just his particular spot.
Redman also looks and sounds like a guy who's ready to shoulder the full load. That may not be necessary thanks to the great work by other players in camp for the backfield jobs, but you can't sleep on a guy who wants to be leaned on.
Redman will have to show he's durable enough to carry the ball 20 or more times a game, but so far the main thing is that he knows what to do with the ball. He also is a pass-catching threat and has looked comfortable in that role.
When Rainey was drafted, I called him a potential home run threat. During the first week of OTAs, everyone got a look at why I said that.
Rainey is Speedy Gonzalez and the Road Runner rolled into one, their speed doubled and put in pads and a jersey. He has flashed that speed during the first week of work with the team and it could come into play a ton of ways.
Rainey figures to see time on returns as long as he can use that speed to gain an advantage (think Antonio Brown, but faster). He also could make some noise in the backfield, especially on third downs where he can be a receiver and runner. Todd Haley loves that in his offense.
I could also see Rainey splitting out at receiver. One thing is certain, he has the speed to be a difference-maker and he left no doubt about that this week.
This might be a bit of cheating since Mendenhall didn't practice or get much work in, but I was impressed by his attitude and the news about his recovery. It certainly makes me feel better about his chances of impacting this season and earning himself a payday afterward.
Mendenhall is, by all measures I know, ahead of his schedule for recovery. He is running and said he is feeling pretty good. He certainly is a long way off and probably won't get any snaps in the preseason, but he has a chance to get back on the field in time to be of use.
The chances of Mendenhall returning earlier have the potential to impact the season in a big way. Mendenhall is the team's best running back. He will be able to operate behind a better line and in an offense that is supposedly more friendly to runners.
If he can do that, he might push this team over the top. He also might earn a lot of extra money as his contract expires after this season.
With the news that Willie Colon would move to left guard, the tackle position for the Steelers was thrown into disarray. One player who figures to benefit from it is Essex, who is now working almost exclusively at left tackle as competition for rookie Mike Adams and veteran Jonathan Scott.
Essex looked good there in drills and practices and he's been a steady starter during his years with the Steelers. While it only figures to be a temporary fix, I wouldn't be sad seeing him out there in Week 1 against Denver if Adams isn't ready.
With Adams missing OTAs this week for school, it was important to get Essex some experience, and I think he showed he can handle the line's most important position. If nothing else, he can certainly play right tackle if needed.
Overall, Essex had a quietly impressive week of work.