Pittsburgh Steelers Who Have Been Put on Notice This Offseason
It’s a virtual certainty that no team in the NFL will return the same starting lineup as it had a season ago. Free agency and the NFL draft have rendered that almost impossible.
However, the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t figure to have a litany of position battles in camp this year. Guys such as Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Cameron Heyward, Lawrence Timmons, Jason Worilds and Troy Polamalu are all secure in their spots.
Underperformers in 2013 such as Ike Taylor and Jarvis Jones also figure to remain starters due to a lack of options behind them.
Because of this, the most intriguing positions on the team are the ones currently filled by younger players. In fact, three of the four players who follow this slide are members of last year’s rookie class. Interestingly enough, their status depends largely on the incoming rookies.
Like Le’Veon Bell, Vince Williams was pressed into duty early in his rookie season. However, unlike Bell, Williams garnered that playing time by way of necessity.
After veteran Larry Foote went down with a torn biceps in Week 1, the Steelers filtered through a number of options before settling on Williams through the second half of the season. Williams performed admirably given the circumstances, but his limited athleticism forced the team to play Troy Polamalu closer to the line of scrimmage more often than ever, effectively weakening two positions.
The Steelers clearly saw that as a driving factor in their defensive decline in ’13, surprising many with the selection of Ryan Shazier in Round 1. While not the thumper Williams is, Shazier is an athletic specimen. He ran a sub-4.40 40-yard dash and also impressed in the three-cone drill, vertical jump and broad jump, per CBSSports.com.
Shazier may need some time to get acclimated to the Steelers defense, but even still, his raw talent should see him in the lineup as soon as Week 1.
Free-agent acquisition Cam Thomas is no stranger to having a job in limbo. He opened last season as the San Diego Chargers’ starting nose tackle but ended up out of the starting lineup in the season’s final quarter, a stretch that saw the team win four in a row en route to an improbable playoff berth.
Thomas’ removal from the starting lineup wasn’t the catalyst that turned things around, but it’s still telling that the team was willing to remove a 10-game starter from the lineup during its stretch run.
Thomas is currently penciled in to start opposite Cameron Heyward at the 5-technique, but ESPN’s Scott Brown says the Steelers see him as a swing man who can see time across the defensive line. However, it’s fair to wonder how the 330-pounder will transition to a position usually reserved for slighter men (Heyward and Brett Keisel are listed under 290 pounds).
Those same concerns don’t exist with second-round pick Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt fits the mold of a 5-tech to a tee and was considered a first-round prospect by many, but an underwhelming ’13 season dropped him to Day 2. That’s all the better for the Steelers and Kevin Colbert, who, according to Brown, see Tuitt playing significantly in ’14.
Now, Le’Veon Bell’s status as the Steelers’ top rusher isn’t in much doubt. After all, the team’s 2013 Rookie of the Year piled up 1,259 yards from scrimmage in 13 games, a rookie record for a team that’s had its fair share of good ones.
That being said, Bell’s stranglehold on touches at the running back spot is very much in question. Bell saw at least 20 touches in 11 of the 13 games he played, but that was while being backed up by Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones.
This offseason, the Steelers went out and added a few high-profile running backs through both free agency and the draft.
The free-agent addition came in the form of LeGarrette Blount, a bruising back who’s managed at least 772 rushing yards in three of his four professional seasons. That kind of production doesn’t suggest Blount would be interested in joining the team unless guaranteed a share of the workload.
Seemingly still not content, the Steelers added the electric Dri Archer in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft. Archer’s no threat to earn the starting job right away, but his playmaking ability suggests the team will draw up at least a few plays for him.
Markus Wheaton is currently slotted to fill Emmanuel Sanders’ vacated spot opposite Antonio Brown. Wheaton may well have redshirted his rookie year after managing just six catches.
Obviously, the Steelers have high hopes for their latest third-round receiver to fill in where Sanders and Mike Wallace left off. But until they see what he can do with extending playing time, it’s no certainty that he will.
And that, in part, is why the Steelers took Martavis Bryant out of Clemson in the fourth round. Of course, Bryant’s own immense physical gifts factored into the equation, but if Wheaton falters, the team has got another option to split out wide.
Wheaton may now be the odds-on favorite to start in Week 1, but he first must prove himself. And that will be no easy feat if Bryant can hone his craft and nip at Wheaton’s heels through camp.
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