On paper, it would seem as though the Pittsburgh Steelers would have several heated training camp battles for starting positions. However, that is not the reality.
There are starters already in place for every departed free agent.
On offense, Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster and Emmanuel Sanders will take over for Max Starks, Willie Colon and Mike Wallace. Steve McLendon and Cortez Allen will enter the starting lineup in place of Casey Hampton and Keenan Lewis.
James Harrison’s right outside linebacker spot is the only one up for grabs, and Jason Worilds is a heavy favorite for that job.
But that does not mean there are no positions where there will be competition.
The Steelers will be looking for a starting running back and punter as well as depth at a number of other positions.
Note: All stats via ESPN.com.
1. Running Back
Candidates: Jonathan Dwyer, Le’Veon Bell
The Steelers need a boost to their running game after they finished 26th in the league with only 96.1 yards per game. It was particularly problematic in the red zone; they only got eight touchdowns on the ground.
Unhappy with their running backs last season, the Steelers spent their second-round draft pick on Le’Veon Bell, a 6’1”, 230-pound running back from Michigan State. He will compete with Jonathan Dwyer for the starting spot.
Dwyer had the first significant action of his career last season when he led the team in rushing with just six starts and 13 games played.
He is a very talented running back who has decent speed and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Though his size—229 pounds—would indicate that he is a power runner, Dwyer actually has quick feet and is quite nimble.
Despite his talent, Dwyer has been held back in part due to his physical conditioning.
In his 21 games in the NFL, Dwyer has never had more than 19 carries in a game. But nothing will stand out more than him tapping himself out of the game.
Dwyer tweeted that he didn’t tap himself out but was just following the coaches' instructions. He plans to be in top condition this year.
Outside of his conditioning, Dwyer was more impressive than his numbers showed last year. He had to run behind an offensive line that ranked 30th in run-blocking by Pro Football Focus and was the only back on the team to average at least four yards per carry.
Bell will provide a strong push and may even be the favorite to win the starting job.
He is very cut for a big back, and this translates to his power. Even though he does not have elite speed (4.60 40-yard dash time), Bell has enough speed to get to the outside and quick feet to make cuts. This should blend in well with the outside zone-blocking scheme that the Steelers will implement in addition to their power-blocking scheme.
Unlike Dwyer, conditioning has not been a problem for Bell. He was a workhorse last season with 382 carries for 1,793 yards. It is worth noting that he did not run behind a strong offensive line and had to create his own yardage at times.
Playing in a pro-style system will help Bell’s transition to the NFL, as will his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He had 78 receptions in his career for 531 yards.
As with most rookie backs, Bell will have to continue to improve his abilities as a pass-blocker and learn to run lower. He stands tall at 6’1”, and his upright running style will provide defenders with a large target to hit.
Dwyer should not be counted out in this race, but if Bell lives up to expectations, he should be the opening-week starter.
2. Right Outside Linebacker
Candidates: Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones
For a team that has struggled getting to the quarterback the last two seasons—37 sacks in 2012 and 35 sacks in 2011—releasing the best pass-rusher leaves a big void in the defense.
Even though his body began to break down due to various injuries, James Harrison still was a threat to get to the quarterback on any given play. Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones are not quite to that point—yet.
The time is now for the 6’2” and 262-pound pass-rusher who has had three years to learn behind Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
He got a taste of right outside linebacker last season when he saw his first significant action of his career in place of the injured Harrison. He played in all 16 games—starting three of them—and had 27 tackles and five sacks.
According to Football Outsiders, Worilds played 422 defensive snaps in 2012 and sacked the quarterback on 1.18 percent of them. By comparison, Harrison sacked the quarterback on 0.74 percent of his defensive snaps and Woodley on 0.64 percent of his.
However, Worilds is not a dynamic pass-rusher and was able to come in free on some of his sacks. He does not have exceptional speed, power or moves that allow him to get pressure on the quarterback on a consistent basis.
But rushing the passer isn’t the only thing that outside linebackers must do.
Worilds must improve dropping back into coverage and against the run. There would be times last season when opponents would run right at Worilds’ side of the defense. He also does not have the ability to make stops on the backside pursuit. Harrison did some of his best work in this area.
Though it is his time to shine, the Steelers may not be entirely sold on Worilds after trying to bring back Harrison and drafting Jones in the first round.
Jones was an unbelievable playmaker at Georgia, where he led the nation with 14.5 sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss and seven forced fumbles last season.
Without elite speed and strength, Jones depended on a quick first step while rushing the quarterback from the outside linebacker position in Georgia’s 3-4 defense.
At 6’2” and 245 pounds, he needs to get bigger and stronger, since he will have to engage against NFL left tackles. He doesn’t have the power to move them, which will be a concern when defending the run.
Another important area that Jones must improve is dropping into coverage. This is something that he was not asked to do much of at Georgia.
That won’t be the case in Pittsburgh.
Jones can rush the passer all that he wants, but if he can’t drop into coverage and defend against the run, he will be nothing more than a situational pass-rusher this season. Expect this to be the case early in the year. Worilds’ experience will pay off as he should win the starting job.
Candidates: Drew Butler, Brian Moorman
By no means is punter the most important position on the football field, but it is one that can’t be discounted either.
Drew Butler is coming off a rookie season in which he ranked near the bottom of the league in average yards per punt and net average.
Power is not an issue for Butler; consistency is.
He is more than capable of sailing punts down the field, but he needs to get that effort on every punt as well as improve on his ability to keep in ball inside of the 20-yard line.
Another issue with Butler are his rather short hang times. Though opponents only returned 30 of 77 punts, they made the most of these opportunities, averaging 10.2 yards per return.
Rather than bringing in a rookie punter, the Steelers are providing Butler with some real competition with Brian Moorman.
The 37-year-old punter is nearing the end of his career, but he is still capable of competing for a starting job.
Even though Moorman averaged a yard more per punt last season, opponents returned them for 13.4 yards per attempt, which was tied for second-worst in the league. He will have to significantly outperform the younger Butler to win the job.
The final decision will be an important one for the Steelers. Punters can dictate field position and be the difference in the final outcome.
Backup Tackle: Besides Kelvin Beachum, the Steelers lack depth at tackle. Guy Whimper has played in 67 games, including 22 starts, in seven seasons. He is not known for his pass protection. Joe Long is an athletic tackle and the younger brother of Jake Long. The 6’4” and 300 pound Mike Golic Jr. has NFL bloodlines and the ability to play tackle or guard.
Backup Wide Receiver: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Markus Wheaton are all locks to make the roster. Plaxico Burress adds size to an otherwise small receiving corps but doesn’t play special teams. David Gilreath, Reggie Dunn and Justin Brown can contribute as returners. J.D. Woods is a potential sleeper.
The Steelers begged for a young receiver to step up last year, and they will likely do so again this year.
Backup Running Back: It is not known whom the Steelers will use as their running back on passing downs, but it could come down to LaRod Stephens-Howling or Baron Batch. Both are capable blockers and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Stephens-Howling has more experience and can contribute as a kick returner.
Backup Nose Tackle: Steve McLendon is going to be a big part of the defense, but he will need someone to give him a breather. Al Woods could shift over from defensive end and play nose tackle. If it isn’t him, the 348-pound Alameda Ta’amu has the size and power to play the position.
Backup Outside Linebacker: Besides Woodley, Worilds and Jones, the Steelers need another outside linebacker to add depth. Chris Carter has the most experience, yet he did not make an impact in three starts last year. Adrian Robinson flashed potential as a pass-rusher in the preseason last year, and Stevenson Sylvester is a newcomer to the position.
They may keep as many as five outside linebackers if one can also play on the inside or star on special teams.
Backup Cornerback: The Steelers are set with their top four cornerbacks and have plenty of potential to develop behind them. Josh Victorian has starting experience from last season, while DeMarcus Van Dyke is one of their more athletically gifted players. Terry Hawthorne is a rookie with upside, but he will have to make his mark on special teams.
Punt and Kick Returners: The final roster spot may come down to a player that can contribute in the return game. LaRod Stephens-Howling, Reggie Dunn and David Gilreath will be three primary competitors for the kick-return job, while Justin Brown will be a name to watch for punt-return duties.