The Pittsburgh Steelers open training camp at Saint Vincent College in less than two weeks, and there will be plenty to watch for once it begins.
Several players who expect to have increased roles this season have been putting in a lot of work during the offseason, and so far it has paid off. There have also been some unexpected names that have caught the coaches’ attention during OTAs and minicamp.
While these players still have a lot to prove, they have built momentum heading into training camp. Then there are others who have fallen behind and will have to play catch up.
Here is a look at the Steelers’ stock market heading into camp.
The Steelers always seem to draft one player in the second or third round that has the fans asking “who” or “why”? This year that honor went to Sean Spence, an inside linebacker out of the University of Miami.
At only 5’11” 231 pounds, Spence was viewed as undersized by some. Due to his lack of size, he could have problems matching up with the larger tight ends in the league and taking on linemen.
But Spence impressed the coaching staff during offseason workouts and may do the unthinkable—have a chance to start.
However, Spence still has a lot to prove to linebacker coach Keith Butler.
As reported by Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, Butler went from the stance that Spence would not start to “we’ll see.”
“He may not start, but he’s probably going to get some playing time, like Lawrence [Timmons] did and like LaMarr [Woodley] did,” Butler said.
Spence may find a way on the field on passing downs over Larry Foote given his athleticism. He may be the second most athletic linebacker behind Timmons, and this will be an asset to the Steelers as he develops.
But it takes more than just athletic ability—players must master the mental aspect of the game as well.
That should be no problem for Spence as he has a high football IQ and that is what will help win him a role on defense as a rookie. Dick LeBeau’s scheme is complex, and if Spence can grasp it early on, he has the physical skills necessary to make an impact.
Larry Foote is slated to start next to Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker. Now with Sean Spence coming on fast, Stevenson Sylvester appears to be the odd man out.
As a rookie, Sylvester flashed a lot of potential during the preseason and then had a stellar year playing special teams. He looked as though he could be the next impact linebacker and the eventual replacement for James Farrior.
However, Sylvester did not show enough growth last year and still needs to demonstrate a better understanding of the defense.
In his lone opportunity to start last season against the New England Patriots, Sylvester was held off the stat sheet and was generally invisible.
Sylvester had an opportunity to make an impact and earn a starting job—or at the very least share time with Farrior—but he didn't.
Instead, Sylvester remained on special teams and now has to battle an impressive rookie for playing time.
It took two years, but Jonathan Dwyer finally realized what it takes to succeed in the NFL. This should be great news for the Steelers after watching two relatively underwhelming seasons from the backup running back.
Dwyer fell in the draft to the sixth round due to conditioning issues and then failed the opening day conditioning test after coming into camp overweight at 240 pounds.
Expect a different Dwyer this year—he will be expected to take on a increased role with the offense with Rashard Mendenhall recovering from a torn ACL. Dwyer has an opportunity to make an impact and he is ready to show what he is capable of (via the Tribune-Review):
I am just realizing how much it takes to get where you are in this league and how hard you have to work and push yourself. This is my year to prove something to myself, the league, to the organization, that I am worth more than what I was.
The Steelers need Dwyer to be better than he has been. In two seasons, he has rarely seen the field and only has 25 carries. He will be expected to be the top backup to Isaac Redman at least until Mendenhall is ready to contribute.
So far so good for Dwyer; he currently is training in Florida at Pete Bommarito Performance Systems (Tribune-Review).
Only July 6th, Len Pasquarelli of the Sports Xchange reported that there has been “no progress” in the Mike Wallace contract talks.
With no major developments in talks, it remains a mystery whether or not Wallace will report to camp.
While Wallace is an experienced receiver, it is imperative that he arrives at camp on time as the Steelers implement Todd Haley’s offensive scheme.
It will be important for Wallace to get on the same page with Ben Roethlisberger and he cannot do that sitting at home waiting for the contract situation to be resolved.
In fact, the contract cannot be resolved unless Wallace shows up at camp. The Steelers will not negotiate with Wallace if he holds out.
But there is still time for a deal to be made and team president Art Rooney II and general manager Kevin Colbert have both stated that Wallace is a priority (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
When the Steelers make a player a priority, a deal usually gets done. Training camp opens on July 25th, so there is still plenty of time for a long-term deal to be worked out and for Wallace’s stock to be on the rise.
When defensive line coach John Mitchell talks, you should listen. That is why there should be no worries with Steve McLendon potentially starting at nose tackle this season.
Everybody wants to discard McLendon, let me tell you this, hold your opinion until the season is over, said Mitchell (via Steelers.com). I'm just saying keep your opinion until after the season, you make the decision.
McLendon saw significant action last season as the backup nose tackle, playing in 14 games and starting one. He asserted himself well, but with Casey Hampton recovering from a torn ACL, McClendon will need to be even better.
No one will mistake McLendon for Hampton.
Hampton is a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle at 6’1” and at least 325 pounds. He would use this size to occupy multiple blockers and free up space for the linebackers.
McLendon is not a big run stuffer like Hampton, but instead he is quicker and very strong. Given the direction of offenses in the NFL, this style may actually benefit the Steelers’ defense.
As he enters his third year, McLendon tells Steelers.com that he is ready to step up his game.
I want to be great. I have taken my work ethic to the next level. I am pushing myself every day. If the stars are where I want to reach, I need to reach past them. The expectations are really, really high. That should be of everybody in the Steelers organization. The expectation is to win the Super Bowl and be great.
McLendon has put in the work, now it is time to see if it translates onto the field. All signs indicate that we all will be impressed.
Players such as Jonathan Dwyer and Steve McLendon are getting an opportunity this season not only because they are working hard this offseason, but because injuries have left open a couple of holes on the depth chart.
Rashard Mendenhall and Casey Hampton are two significant losses for the Steelers and both may have to start the season on the PUP list, meaning they will miss at least the first six weeks of the season.
On July 13th, Mendenhall updated fans via Twitter that his knee “has healed wonderfully.”
Despite the good news, a running back returning to action nine months after an ACL injury is not realistic and even if he can play this year, do not expect him to be at 100 percent.
ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley reports that Hampton anticipates on playing in the season opener, but the Steelers will need to further evaluate the situation.
Hampton’s position does not demand the same movements that a running back does and he has experience coming back from a torn ACL before, so there’s a greater chance that Hampton can come back before Mendenhall.
However, it would be very surprising if either player can do any sort of significant practice during training camp and I fully expect both to begin the year on the PUP list.
That means the stock is down for both Mendenhall and Hampton for training camp, but the Steelers will get a boost when both are ready to return at some point during the season.