The Pittsburgh Steelers will make their way down Route 30 on Friday as they enter their 48th training camp at Saint Vincent College. While much of the focus will be on the roster battles and new schemes, one of the more exciting parts of camp are the surprise players.
When it comes to evaluating talent throughout camp, surprises can come in a variety of forms. It can be an unheralded rookie that stands out or a disappointing veteran that finally finds their game.
Surprise players need to come out of nowhere and catch your attention. They need to go beyond your expectations. They need to raise your eyebrow—in a positive way.
But not everyone fits into this category as a “surprise” player.
For instance, we know what to expect from established players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. Other players like Steve McLendon or Cortez Allen won’t make the list either because they are expected to make big impacts this season.
Cameron Heyward can be included in that group as well. Even though he has yet to develop into a starter, he has shown improvement each year and should continue to do so. You’ll notice that many high-potential second-year and third-year players will be left out.
One interesting player that may surprise some is Ziggy Hood, but Hood performing in camp should shock no one. He has been a star in training camp practices before, but has failed to translate this to games.
Finally, rookies such as Jarvis Jones, Le’Veon Bell and Shamarko Thomas will not shock anyone if they develop into a situational pass-rusher, starting running back and role-playing defensive back, respectively.
One rookie that I left out was Markus Wheaton. He will be my starting point as I examine the players who will exceed expectations and surprise in training camp.
The Steelers rarely start rookies and Wheaton won’t be in contention to change that fact, but he will push for significant playing time early on.
Wheaton will compete with Jerricho Cotchery to determine who will be third on the depth chart behind Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. While the veteran Cotchery will be the favorite, Wheaton should give him some serious competition.
NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah compared Wheaton’s toughness to Hines Ward and had some high praise for Pittsburgh’s third-round draft pick, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“I think he's perfect there,” Jeremiah said. “You can't just label him as a possession guy. You can't just label him as just a vertical guy. He can't do all things at an elite level, but he's capable of doing everything. He's a huge chess piece (for Ben Roethlisberger) to have.”
Wheaton will be an asset to Todd Haley's short passing attack considering that he is a small but athletic receiver capable of running a variety of routes. But he is not limited to the short passes as he has the track speed to be a vertical threat for Roethlisberger.
While Wheaton doesn’t have the same elite speed that Mike Wallace had, he is a better route-runner and will be more physical when fighting for a ball.
But will that be enough to beat out Cotchery?
Cotchery is entering his third year with the Steelers and will add a veteran presence to the receiving corps. He also has pretty good size at 6’1”, but he has not been particularly productive as the fourth receiver.
He has combined for 33 receptions for 442 yards and two touchdowns while with the Steelers.
Wheaton will really have to flash talent to beat Cotchery out of training camp, but even if he doesn’t, I fully expect that he’ll show enough to the coaching staff to get them thinking.
Before the end of the year, Wheaton should be the third receiver and could even eclipse the 39 receptions that Wallace put up in his rookie season.
Mike Golic Jr.
Even though undrafted linemen typically fail to make an impact, the Steelers have roster spots open on the offensive line and I anticipate that one—or even two—rookies could make the squad.
Nik Embernate is my favorite undrafted free agent and I like his odds more than the others because of the lack of depth at guard. His physical style of play would also fit in well.
However, Mike Golic Jr. is another undrafted rookie that is capable of turning some heads.
The main reason that I like Golic is because of his name. He has NFL bloodlines and this can only help him as he tries to make Pittsburgh’s roster.
His dad, Mike, and uncle, Bob Golic, both played on the defensive line in the NFL. Golic developed as a football player under the guidance of these two and will be better prepared than most rookies entering training camp.
The odds may be stacked against Golic to make the roster, but the guidance from his dad will help him succeed. The fact that he played guard and center at Notre Dame won’t hurt either.
The Steelers won't put Golic at center but rather try him at guard and tackle. He will likely spend most of his time during camp at right tackle.
At 6’4” and 300 pounds, he is large enough to handle NFL defensive linemen, but he still has room to add strength.
Dan Pompei of National Football Post named him as one of the best undrafted free agents.
Late-round defensive ends have not been kind to the Steelers in recent years. Just check out the list of players: Eric Taylor, Shaun Nua, Orien Harris, Ryan McBean, Ra’Shon Harris and Doug Worthington.
After failing on so many projects, it is no surprise that the Steelers felt the need to spend first-round selections on Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward.
But now in the need of depth, the Steelers took another chance on a late-round sleeper and they may have something with their latest.
Nick Williams was a player that I didn’t think much of on draft day, but I have since changed my mind. He has terrific size at 6’4” and 309 pounds and moves very well. The knock on him right now is that he played low-level competition while at Samford and lacks experience.
In a way, that isn’t a bad thing. Defensive line coach John Mitchell strips defensive ends of everything they know and teaches them the “Steelers way.”
Given that Williams is such a project, the practice squad appears to be his best destination, but the Steelers may have some room on their roster if Al Woods backs up at nose tackle.
Besides this, Mitchell told the Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he really likes Williams’ potential and compares him favorably to Steve McLendon:
"I look at this guy, he knows he's not going to play. He's a guy that I like. I think with some coaching, being around other good football players, he's smart enough. I think this guy has tremendous upside. I'm excited about him."
Besides his upside, Williams may have enough pure athletic talent to make the roster as a rookie.
It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for the Steelers to keep Williams and play him on special teams or even have him inactive on game days. For instance, they kept Adrian Robinson last year and Brett Keisel made the roster as a seventh-round rookie.
Williams has a terrific set of physical skills and as long as he can flash them against NFL talent, it may be worth keeping him on the roster. Both starting defensive ends are free agents after the season and any depth along the defensive line will help.
While Williams is not the immediate answer and is at least two or three years away from fully developing, he will be the Steelers' best late-round defensive end prospect since Keisel.
Many have second-round draft pick Le’Veon Bell penciled in as the starting running back—myself included.
It isn’t that I dislike Jonathan Dwyer—in fact, I like him quite a bit—it is more of the fact that if a team spends a second-round selection on a running back, they should start him.
However, a tweet from Dwyer on Tuesday night beginning to lean the other way.
Much has been made about Dwyer’s physical conditioning and “tapping out” of games—he never had more than 19 carries last season—and this reflects directly on a player's effort and work ethic. On top of this, general manager Kevin Colbert expressed disappointment in the running backs’ performance last year.
It was not a good sign at all for Dwyer. On top of this, the Steelers spent their second-round draft choice on Bell.
Dwyer could have sat back and done nothing. He could have accepted the idea that the Steelers drafted Bell and that he would be the starter. Instead, he has put in the work and will enter training camp in the best shape of his life.
No one has ever doubted Dwyer’s talent, but now he may finally be living up to his full potential as a quality starting running back.
Former third-round selection Curtis Brown has been a disappointment so far in his career. He has been passed up on the depth chart by fellow third-year player Cortez Allen and could be in his last year with the Steelers.
When the Steelers drafted him, he projected to be a potential starter with good size and speed. However, he has struggled with the defensive aspect of the game and only has two passes defended in two years.
Despite his struggles on defense, Brown has made an impact on special teams. He led the team and finished third in the NFL with 18 special teams tackles last season.
But what indications has Brown given this offseason that he will turn it around this year?
Instead, I see a lot of similarities between Brown’s career path and Keenan Lewis’ career path.
Lewis was also a third-round pick and failed to make an impression early in his career. Finally in year three, things began to click and Lewis showed potential. Then in his fourth year, he developed into a pretty good starter.
Brown will enter camp behind Ike Taylor, Allen and William Gay, but he should sit comfortably in the fourth spot. But can he beat out Gay for third on the depth chart?
That will be a difficult task, but he doesn’t have to win a job to impress. He just has to go out and show that he is a competent NFL cornerback with potential to at least participate as a nickelback.
With his physical skills and experience, I think this is finally the year that Brown begins to put everything together and show he can contribute beyond special teams.