Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Preview: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Need evidence for the value of training camp? Just look at the development of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Last year, Brown arrived at camp with the need to improve his grasp of the offensive scheme and develop as a route-runner.
Early on, he struggled and appeared as though he would remain at the bottom of the depth chart. However, after a series of injuries, Brown had the opportunity to get reps with the starters and took full advantage of it.
With the extra reps in practice, Brown showed vast improvement and began to demonstrate that he could become a major part of the offense. That is exactly what he did.
Brown would eventually earn a significant role with the offense and gain 1,108 receiving yards on 69 receptions. He became the first player in NFL history to achieve over 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season.
If not for the opportunity presented to Brown last year in camp, he may still be buried deep on the depth chart awaiting a chance to prove himself. But he did get a chance and made the most of it. That is all any player can ask for—a chance.
Things will be more difficult for the young receivers on the roster this year as the depth charts are just about set at wide receiver and tight end. That does not mean a young player cannot stand out.
Though the reps may be limited, a young player will still have a chance to catch the coaches’ eyes and could eventually turn into the next Antonio Brown.
Here is a preview of the wide receivers and tight ends that will be on the roster come training camp.
Wide Receivers: Analysis
Just because the Steelers hired a new offensive coordinator does not mean they will change the focus from a pass-oriented offense to a ground-and-pound attack.
Do the Steelers want to become a better running team? Absolutely. But, with Roethlisberger at quarterback, the offense will continue to throw the ball all over the field.
The offense is built around the passing attack, and it starts with Roethlisberger. He is supplemented by a speedy group of wide receivers.
Brown and Mike Wallace will lead the receiving corps this season and should form one of the best duos in the league. Each player has the ability to make a big play each time they touch the football.
Now, Emmanuel Sanders will look to join these two outstanding receivers with a breakout season of his own.
Coming out of college, Sanders was a more polished receiver than Brown. His strengths were his hands and excellent route-running ability. It appeared as though he would be able to make an immediate impact for the Steelers' offense.
However, a series of injuries held Sanders back, and Brown took full advantage, passing him on the depth chart.
Now that he is healthy, Sanders will have an opportunity to put his skills to use and become an integral part of the offense as the slot receiver.
While the development of Sanders should be the top wide receiver story of training camp, there happens to be an issue with the contract of Pittsburgh's top receiver.
The contract status of Wallace will be the talk of camp, especially if he does not report. If this is the case, it will be a dark cloud over Saint Vincent College.
But there is some hope that he could report for the opening of camp on July 25. Teammate Ike Taylor is confident that Wallace will show up and will get a long-term contract extension.
As Taylor told Albert Buford of The Times-Picayune:
He's going to be there (training camp). They'll get it done. When you talk about that kind of money, it's not an overnight type of deal. By the end of the day, I think for sure he's going to get that thing done. Both sides are working together, so that's a good thing.
However, according to a July 6 report by Len Pasquarelli of The Sports Xchange, there has been “very little negotiation” between Wallace and the Steelers.
This story will overshadow all else in Steelers' camp until it is resolved. Stay tuned.
Wide Receivers: The Players
One of the top deep threats in the league should be good for another season over 1,000 yards, and have a high yards-per-reception average. He does need to continue to develop his all-around game and improve fighting for the ball.
However, will he show up for training camp?
No player developed better last season. He could easily be the leading receiver for the Steelers this year, and he comes through in the clutch. To move into elite status, he will need to improve his touchdown production.
A talented receiver who has yet to showcase what he can offer due to injuries. As long as he remains healthy, a 50-60 reception season is possible.
With Hines Ward retired, he is the veteran of the group. Cotchery is the most physical receiver of the group and will see plenty of action. He can still start if needed, but will be fourth on the depth chart.
Seventh-round draft choice with good size and speed. He is a physical receiver, but needs to develop consistency. Clemons is the favorite to earn the fifth spot.
A good athlete and has NFL experience with the Detroit Lions. Despite experience, has not been productive with only nine career receptions. He is capable of playing receiver and contributing in the return game.
Is undersized, but does not lack talent. Is limited to playing the slot and will need to develop as a route-runner to stick on offense. To earn a roster spot, he will have to make impact in the return game.
A small-school product out of Bridgewater, Beiler has excellent speed and was very productive at the college level. He led Division III in all-purpose yards and receiving yards per game. The underdog role will make him a fan favorite, and he is a good candidate for the practice squad.
Undersized at just 169 pounds, Gilreath does not play a physical game. While he has good speed, Gilreath is limited as a receiver and will have to compete as a returner. He is a long shot to make the roster.
He has good size at 6’3” and is Southern University’s all-time leading receiver with 201 receptions. Despite the production at the collegiate level, he has limited upside and is a long shot to make the roster.
Has good size at 6’0” and 204 pounds. He is a willing blocker, but lacks the speed and ability to get separation from cornerbacks. He is a long shot to make the roster.
Wide Receivers: 3 Key Questions
1. Will Mike Wallace arrive for the start of training camp?
Wallace will have to show up at some point. The sooner he gets to camp, the better.
First, the Steelers will not negotiate a new contract with Wallace if he holds out. More importantly he needs to be there to learn the new offense. He can study the playbook all he wants, but it is imperative that he and Roethlisberger can work together to develop timing on routes.
2. Can Sanders take the leap that Brown did?
The time is now for Sanders. The Steelers need a slot receiver, and Sanders is the perfect fit for the position. If he remains healthy, Sanders has the talent that is needed to excel from the slot. He has excellent hands and is not afraid to work the middle of the field.
Sanders will have the opportunity to make a major impact for the offense—he needs to take advantage of it.
3. Is there another Antonio Brown on the roster?
There are few players who I have ever seen work as hard as Brown at training camp. He soaked everything in and took the instruction from Ward and the coaches seriously. It paid off, as he had an outstanding second season.
Brown’s work ethic is tremendous, which means that the sky is the limit. Will there be another young receiver that can replicate this work ethic and earn the fifth spot on the depth chart?
The spot is there for the taking. The Steelers do not have much invested beyond the top four receivers. Hard work will pay off, and there will be plenty of competition for this final roster spot.
Tight Ends: Analysis
Since setting a team record for receptions by a tight end with 76 receptions in 2009, Heath Miller’s production has declined.
In 2010, Miller had 42 receptions in 14 games and followed it up with 51 receptions last year. A more troubling statistic is that, after catching six touchdowns in 2009, he has combined for only four the past two seasons.
For a team that has had problems scoring in the red zone, Miller should be a part of that solution. In fact, he will be a bigger part of the offense this season, according to head coach Mike Tomlin (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):
[Offensive coordinator Todd] Haley is excited about what Heath Miller is capable of. He's been very clear about that, his excitement to work with Miller. I would imagine that the tight end is going to be a part of our plan.
Miller is joined by Weslye Saunders and Leonard Pope, a free-agent signing from the Kansas City Chiefs.
An upgraded offensive line should allow Haley to use the tight ends more in the passing offense, particularly in the red zone where they would provide Roethlisberger with a couple of big targets. This is important given the lack of height at the receiver position.
Tight Ends: The Players
As steady as it gets. He is one of the best all-around tight ends in the league and has not been utilized enough in the passing attack. Expect that should change under Haley, particularly in the red zone.
Could be a threat near the end zone as the Steelers' tallest player at 6'8". However, height may be overstated as he only has nine touchdown receptions in six seasons, including five in 2007. He knows Haley’s offense after playing for him in Kansas City.
Potentially a true No. 2 tight end this year. Saunders has the skills to eventually be able to develop into a starter and be a threat in the passing game. Has a four-game suspension to start the season.
Will focus on the fullback role, but figures to still play the H-back position.
Performed pretty well in the preseason last year and landed on the practice squad. He has a lot of talent ahead of him to overcome and will have a difficult time making the roster.
A late choice in the draft, Paulson will need some seasoning before he becomes a roster player. He could find a spot on the practice squad.
Tight Ends: 3 Key Questions
1. How integrated will the tight ends be in the passing game?
Under Bruce Arians, the Steelers offense often used a two-tight end sets. Will Haley use the same type of formations? If he does, will the tight ends be used primarily as blockers or as receivers?
A lot of that will depend on the development of the tackles, specifically Mike Adams. If Adams can develop into a capable starter, pairing him with Marcus Gilbert will provide the Steelers with two bookend tackles, thus freeing up the tight ends to become more involved in the passing game.
2. Does Miller become a primary red zone target?
Two touchdowns in each of the past two seasons are not nearly enough for a tight end as talented as Miller. With the Steelers’ receivers lacking size and a physical style of play, Miller will become a valuable weapon as the field shortens.
He has a large frame which will provide Roethlisberger with a big target. When the Steelers run red zone drills, there will be an indication as to how the tight ends will be used.
3. Can Weslye Saunders develop into a potential top tight end?
Saunders was a rookie free agent to watch out for last season, and he demonstrated why. He earned a spot on the final roster and played in all 16 games, including six starts.
Saunders has the size and speed to become a legitimate option as a pass catching tight end, and just needs to continue on his developmental path. That will only come with experience. Being higher on the depth chart this year will give him more reps with the offense.
It will be interesting to see how the coaches integrate Saunders in the offense. He should certainly do better than the four receptions and one touchdown that he finished with last season. With the proper development, Saunders will form a formidable two-tight end set with Miller.
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