Projecting Pittsburgh's Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IMay 20, 2014

Projecting Pittsburgh's Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason

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    The 2014 training camp promises to be an exciting one for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have had some significant roster turnover, and with a strong offseason, there will be some battles for roster positions.

    Pittsburgh is working hard to get back to relevance in an AFC North that is getting better all the time. It is vital the coaches make the right call on whom to put out on the field this year. This isn't about seniority or tenure. It is about putting the best players on the field to help the Steelers win.

    There are multiple spots on this team where it could come down to the final week of preseason before we know who exactly has the advantage. Let's take a closer look at the five big offseason position battles that could determine Pittsburgh's fate.

Who Starts at Wide Receiver?

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    The short answer to this question is Antonio Brown. There's little doubt who this team's top pass-catcher is. Brown is among the elite at the position in the NFL and is the player who really makes this offense hum.

    Nevertheless, there will be plenty of opportunities for the player or players who line up opposite him. In 2013, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery caught 113 balls for 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns in those No. 2 and No. 3 roles. The reality is they interchanged week to week as to which player quarterback Ben Roethlisberger targeted more. 

    Obviously, 2014 could see more of the same. But it would be better if one of the wide receivers on the roster could emerge and give this offense much greater consistency.

    The candidates:

    • Markus Wheaton
    • Lance Moore
    • Martavis Bryant

    The starting spot opposite Brown is really up for grabs between three players. Wheaton is a second-year player who could never get any traction in 2013. However, his profile of speed and quickness falls right in line with what the Steelers like to do.

    The same can be said for the veteran Moore. How quickly he gets up to speed will dictate just how good his shot is to get onto the field in a prominent role. Moore has the best resume of the three candidates but has never lived up to it on the field.

    Finally, we have the rookie Bryant. Pittsburgh drafted him in part because of his size. Bryant casts a long shadow at 6'4" and would give Roethlisberger a combination of speed and size he hasn't had since Plaxico Burress was in his prime. 

    Who wins? My money is on Moore. He is very much the wily veteran Cotchery was last year who just keep eking out the younger player with more athleticism. If he does, Wheaton and Bryant will have an excellent battle between them to see how gets the remaining reps.

The Battle for Backup Running Back

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    There's little doubt the Steelers rushing game is going to be led by Le'Veon Bell. Bell flashed some impressive skills in 2013, and hopes are high for 2014. However, Pittsburgh must be careful not to work Bell into the ground. He took a beating at Michigan State, and even as a rookie, he saw a ton of carries.

    Behind Bell is veteran LeGarrette Blount and rookie Dri Archer. While both are excellent talents, they couldn't be much more different. Blount is a battering ram of a back with a low center of gravity and excellent strength. Archer is a serious speedster with impressive quickness and agility. 

    Either back would be great to come in and trail Bell. However, their different skills would impact the offense in different ways. It could come down more to situational football in the beginning while one gets more comfortable with his role.

    Who wins? It's more likely that Blount is the primary backup, but not because he's more talented than Archer. Archer could be one the most dynamic offensive weapons in the league sooner rather than later. No, it's more about managing his touches and letting Blount take the brunt of the hits.

Who Starts at Left Guard?

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    Every chain is only as strong as it's weakest link. When we talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line, guard Ramon Foster is that link. Foster started 15 games at left guard in 2013, but did so out of necessity as much as anything else. Most of the starting spots on this line are solid, but even the young players on this team should be able to push Foster for a starting spot.

    Pittsburgh drafted a fascinating offensive line prospect in 2014: Vanderbilt's Wesley Johnson. Johnson has an impressive body of work as a starting tackle for Vanderbilt. He saw the best defensive linemen in the country season after season and didn't draw his first holding penalty until midway through his senior year.

    Johnson has experience at all five offensive line spots but has the body type and style of play to be a great guard. It might not be this season, but Johnson will start for this team one day.

    Who wins? In the short run, it is most likely Foster. However, if he struggles, moves could be made—even something such as offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum moving inside and a player such as Johnson playing his more natural position of tackle.

Cam Thomas vs. Steve McLendon vs. Daniel McCullers to Start at Nose Tackle

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    A key aspect to this team's success in 2014 is going to be finding a starting nose tackle who can dominate the middle of the field. Last season, Steve McLendon was the starting nose but never established himself as an anchor in the middle of the field. The Steelers staff must give a long look at replacing him in the starting lineup.

    The more obvious choice is Cam Thomas. Thomas is bigger and built lower to the ground. He is able to hold the middle of the line better than McLendon and, even if he is somewhat inconsistent, can stay on the field with a more well-rounded game.

    However, the wild card of this bunch is rookie Daniel McCullers. If size is an issue, the 6'7", 352-pound mountain of a man dwarfs everyone else on the roster. When his game is on, he is an ideal fit for the middle of the defense. For McCullers to win this job, he has to show more consistent effort and a better work ethic than what he showed in college.

    Who wins? By the start of the season, this job is going to belong to Thomas. McLendon could slide outside to end and rotate into the middle, but Thomas is the most ready to help this team win.

William Gay vs. Cortez Allen for Starting Cornerback

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    Perhaps the most heated and important position battles this offseason will be for the starting cornerback spots. If we assume that Ike Taylor gets one spot for his farewell tour, who starts across from him?

    Best-case scenario is that Cortez Allen steps up and becomes the cornerback he has flashed in spots the past two seasons. Allen has the requisite length and speed that the Steelers coaching staff covets. And when he is on, he is a turnover-creating machine. That is the guy this defense needs.

    Nevertheless, if he falls short, veteran William Gay is more than willing to step in and start. Gay is a bit undersized at 5'10", 190 pounds but very physical and works hard. What Gay doesn't bring to the table are turnovers.

    Who wins? This is Allen's spot to lose, and he's not going to let it slip away. He gives this defense a presence that Gay cannot. Both will see plenty of the field, but Allen has the physical gifts to cover the opposing team's top wide receiver, which Gay cannot do.