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Report Card Grades for Steelers Positional Units so Far This Preseason

Nick DeWittAnalyst IJune 14, 2016

Report Card Grades for Steelers Positional Units so Far This Preseason

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers are gearing up for what should be an entertaining preseason match with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Before the team takes the field in Pittsburgh on Sunday, however, it’s time for a first look at how each position grades out in camp and through one game.

    There are some good and bad grades, and several that are being affected by injury concerns or player effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Here’s a look at where we’re at so far.

Quarterbacks

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    The performance so far in one game has been ho-hum, but that’s nothing unusual for a preseason offensive showing. Teams are very reticent to show off their big packages and the surprise plays. Instead, they go with vanilla plays that show little more than base formations and basic offensive strategy.

    Ben Roethlisberger looks healthy so far, something that seems to contradict reports coming out of camp that he was banged up. The passes are crisp, and he seems to have a good grasp of Todd Haley’s system. The timing routes are a bit of a counterpoint to what Big Ben does well (making plays however possible), but it seems he and Haley have found a happy and healthy middle.

    The backup situation looks to be Byron Leftwich’s to lose. He looked decent in his first game action, but his slow windup motion and lack of mobility will continue to be drawbacks as the young offensive line goes through growing pains.

    Jerrod Johnson has tantalizing arm strength and mobility, but his accuracy was unimpressive against the Eagles, and I’m not sure all of it was from a lack of blocking. He did make some nice plays, however, so he may stick around for a little longer.

    POSITION GRADE: B-

Running Backs

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    Your guess is as good as mine on Isaac Redman’s groin injury. It’s been the punchline for some jokes this week as well as the cause for some concern. As with the earlier reports regarding Ben Roethlisberger, I’ll take these with a grain of salt until he looks bad on the field.

    Redman looked very good against the Eagles and seems to be rounding into a very effective starter in the backfield. Only real action in the regular season will tell if he can stand up to a pounding for a full season and also be effective for a full game week after week.

    Behind him, we have seen some of the best performances of camp. Chris Rainey is the talk of the team with his blinding speed and skill set. Baron Batch proved against the Eagles that he can do more than just be a third-down back with some good running between the tackles. Jonathan Dwyer has been a bit lost, but when he’s been on the field, he’s been steady and productive.

    This position, despite the injury concerns, appears to be among the deepest and most talented on the team.

    POSITION GRADE: A-

Wide Receivers

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    The biggest sideshow of camp so far has been the Mike Wallace situation. Who knows if he will actually show up for the first week of the regular season. One thing we’ve found out so far is that the team actually doesn’t need their erstwhile receiver to be successful.

    Antonio Brown, a fan told me, was doomed to regress because Wallace wouldn’t be there to take away the double teams. OK, that’s a fair worry. The problem is that Brown looked very good against the Eagles, and I don’t think he’ll struggle to make plays with or without Wallace. There’s just no evidence for it yet.

    Emmanuel Sanders looks like a capable starter if Wallace is out and an excellent slot receiver if he’s in the fold. He looks completely healthy, and in a camp where player after player has had a problem with being healthy, Sanders’ name has been absent. That’s great news.

    The Steelers drafted Sanders with the idea he could become a starter. Now, he might fulfill that potential.

    Jerricho Cotchery has been quietly impressive so far. He’s a good possession guy and will get most of his looks close to the goal line. He’ll replace the role Hines Ward played on the field for the Steelers by being the receiver best-suited to go into the middle of the field.

    The young receivers, particularly Tyler Beiler, have been impressive too. It will be an interesting battle to see who nabs the final roster spot or two at receiver. Toney Clemons has had flashes of brilliance, but he is still learning and recovering from some big drops.

    POSITION GRADE: A

Tight Ends

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    I’m not sure whether or not to call David Johnson a tight end, but he would’ve gotten some work at the position this year, and his loss is a big blow for the offense.

    Justin Peele, brought in to replace him, could be an interesting piece if he makes the team.

    This position has been pretty quiet so far, although the work of David Paulson makes me wonder if this is going to end up being one of the tougher positions to deal with when the final cuts come in. He’s looked pretty good so far.

    Weslye Saunders and Leonard Pope have gotten some nice work in too on the practice field and in the game, so we’ll see if they can keep building on that.

    POSITION GRADE: B+

Offensive Tackle

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    This is going to be one of the most-watched positions during camp and the preseason. The Steelers are likely going with two very young players at the tackle spots in Marcus Gilbert (right) and Mike Adams (left). The big story here is going to be if Adams can handle the job.

    Unfortunately, Adams might be on the shelf for a couple of weeks thanks to a knee injury. He did return to practice quickly, but there are no guarantees he'll be back in a game this weekend. That will give veteran Trai Essex some time to prove he can also be an answer. Max Starks is recovering and should be on the field early in the season.

    When Adams played, he looked like a rookie and had some trouble with the pass-rush, but that’s to be expected in his first NFL action. The key now will be if he can recover quickly and get back on the field to get some extra reps before the season.

    At this point, however, we have more questions than answers at the tackle spot.

    POSITION GRADE: C+

Offensive Guard

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    The big story was supposed to be David DeCastro’s dominant rookie work and how he was going to take the right guard position by storm. It hasn’t exactly unfolded that way, as DeCastro had some struggles early, but he’s quietly put himself back on track and now looks like he’s going to be the guy that’s starting in Denver next month.

    Willie Colon has been banged up so far, but his early work at guard suggests this might be a wonderful move for both him and the team. I’d expect him healthy before long, and we should then really get to see what he can do in a game. My guess is that he’ll solidify that interior spot.

    The backups are almost all veterans. Rookie Kelvin Beachum is the big exception, and he’s been a huge disappointment and could be among the first cuts made if he can’t prove to be more physical this weekend against the Colts. He just looks overwhelmed.

    There’s still work to do, but this is a good start. The injuries will hold the grade back a bit for now, however.

    POSITION GRADE: C+

Center

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    There’s not much to be said here competition-wise. One of the backups at the other positions (Doug Legursky or Trai Essex) is most likely to back up starter Maurkice Pouncey, who’s looked good so far this preseason and seems to be back from his ankle woes in 2011.

    Undrafted center Ryan Lee hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t blown anyone away, and the center job for a backup is likely to end up with someone who has experience in the NFL and not a rookie, particularly given that the starter hasn’t played every game in a season yet in his career.

    POSITION GRADE: A-

Defensive Ends

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    There’s not a whole lot to complain about. The starters (Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood) have been very effective and played solidly thus far, and the backups (Cameron Heyward and particularly Al Woods) have been great too.

    This is one of the most stable positions on the team, and there’s a ton of young depth to pick from if the team keeps more than three ends. Woods has the most upside so far and punctuated a good camp performance with a huge play in the game against the Eagles.

    Overall, I’d say everyone has been pretty good, and Woods has the potential to be a surprise addition to this team once everything is said and done. He just has to keep up the storm.

    POSITION GRADE: A

Defensive Tackles

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    Even without Casey Hampton, this has been a good spot so far. Young Steve McLendon isn’t just vying to be the guy to replace Hampton until he’s healthy, he’s trying his best to wrestle the job away from him permanently and then keep it for the years ahead.

    McLendon’s work has been one of the best stories this year, and he had a nice first game action in Philadelphia. If that can continue, he has a chance to be the team’s future at nose tackle, and he could revolutionize how the position is viewed in the 3-4 by being a speedier guy with better potential for splash plays.

    The jury is still out on rookie Alameda Ta’amu, but he’s improving slowly but surely. He suffered some technique and effort issues early on but looked decent against the Eagles. He will have to keep working, but I think he’s safely showed he has the talent to be of value to this team.

    Hampton is still shelved, but hopefully, he can contribute this year in some capacity. He may not be needed as regularly as in the past if McLendon’s coming-out party isn’t a flash in the pan. I don’t think it is either.

    POSITION GRADE: A-

Outside Linebackers

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    The knee scope for James Harrison is a bit of a blow after a year that saw the Steelers have to use several different outside linebackers.

    LaMarr Woodley has been healthy and looks like he’s back from hamstring troubles late last year. Harrison has been on the camp PUP list so far and now will likely miss the rest of the preseason.

    Jason Worilds, the top backup, has also been on the sidelines throughout camp. The Steelers will sorely need him if Harrison is to miss any regular season time. We haven’t heard much about him, but hopefully, he is on the mend as well.

    Chris Carter proved as a rookie he was capable of stepping in and being effective, and he looks good so far this preseason. He’s still somewhat raw, but he makes solid choices and doesn’t make huge mistakes. The team may need him to take a bigger step forward, so hopefully, he’s ready for that.

    POSITION GRADE: C+

Inside Linebackers

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    Lawrence Timmons seems poised for a breakout season. Last year, I thought the same thing, but he got derailed by needing to slide out to James Harrison’s spot and then back in to his old spot. The lack of an effective compliment to him both while James Farrior was slowing with age and LaMarr Woodley was hurt also hurt him.

    Opposite him now will be the guy he replaced in Larry Foote, who’s taken the position by storm this preseason and looks like a player who might be re-energized after being a backup since returning to the Steel City.

    Behind them, rookie Sean Spence has shown promise, while third-year player Stevenson Sylvester has regressed some more. Sylvester is putting himself on the roster bubble by being inconsistent and mistake-prone. Luckily, the team doesn’t seem adversely effected by it.

    POSITION GRADE: B

Cornerbacks

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    The big roster competition this year is for the starting corner job opposite Ike Taylor. Taylor has been effective so far this year in camp and game action. That’s no surprise.

    Opposite him, a wonderful competition has blossomed between two players.

    Keenan Lewis has impressed me since OTAs with his work ethic and his commitment to walking the talk. He is motivated, and he is making strides in consistency and making good plays. Part of the reason he’s been so good lately, however, has been that Cortez Allen is pushing him from behind.

    While I was not particularly impressed by Allen in the first preseason game (nor was I greatly impressed with Lewis, who I felt was only slightly better), he has been good in camp and has pushed Lewis. He’s also completely obliterated Curtis Brown, who’s taken a step back at the same time. Allen won’t win the starting job in my opinion, but he’s going to be a terror in the nickel.

    Behind the two top guys, Curtis Brown is working to recover from a terrible showing against the Eagles. He looked out of sync and made two huge mistakes that gave the Eagles 14 points.

    Rookie Terrence Frederick hasn’t been bad, but Terry Carter, an undrafted player, is also making some noise in camp. The battle for the final corner spots is likely up to those two right now.

    POSITION GRADE: B+

Safeties

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    The big story here is that the starters are healthy. Troy Polamalu worries me with his style of play, and you never want to hear that your most impactful defender is hurt. He’s had some issues in the past and copped to lying about concussions during his career.

    While I appreciate his selflessness, I think he needs to be more careful about his body if he’s going to play many more years.

    Clark has been his usual self, and we haven’t really heard much from the safeties. The most impressive work that stands out from the team’s first game was the special teams work by rookie Robert Golden. That was nice to see for a young player, and Golden may be in play for a final spot if he keeps pushing.

    POSITION GRADE: B+

Kickers

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    I came into the preseason skeptical of Shaun Suisham’s leg strength. Then I saw him kick in Philadelphia, and I’m suddenly very intrigued. The Steelers kicker made some booming kicks on kickoffs and booted some great field goals too.

    I’m not sure what’s changed, but this is the Suisham we need in Pittsburgh. He was strong, he was accurate and he was everything the Steelers want in a kicker right now. If that’s a true change, maybe the Steelers are set at kicker for at least this season.

    Daniel Hrapmann wasn’t bad in relief either, but he’s got too big of an uphill battle to be considered a contender for the job. Suisham might be getting pushed by him, however. That’s excellent.

    POSITION GRADE: A+

Punters

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    This was to be a battle between veteran Jeremy Kapinos and rookie Drew Butler. Unfortunately for the veteran, injuries at this position are not going to play well with the bosses. The Steelers haven’t had a consistently healthy punter in some time. Kapinos entered camp and promptly got hurt.

    In even worse news for him, the rookie has been excellent. In his first game action, Butler showed off his impressive strength by booming a couple of great punts and showing good and smart placement abilities. At this point, he’s the winner.

    POSITION GRADE: A

Return Specialists

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    The question coming in was whether or not the team would put Chris Rainey out there for returns. That was a silly question give Rainey’s speed and ability, but it was answered when he had some electrifying moments against the Eagles.

    The big question now is whether or not the work of Marquis Maze, an undrafted rookie from Alabama, has put him into a roster spot. He hasn’t been huge on offense yet, but the Steelers may keep him around to compliment Rainey in the return game. He had some nice moments against the Eagles too.

    This looks to be a set position no matter who ends up back for kicks and punts this year. At this point, I’d split the duties between Maze and Rainey until one shows they are significantly better over time.

    POSITION GRADE: A

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