Early Predictions for the Steelers' 2014 Training Camp Battles
With OTAs in full swing, and the countdown to training camp drawing to a close, the Pittsburgh Steelers have some decisions to make. Pittsburgh went into this offseason with a clear vision:
Get younger, faster and more athletic on both sides of the football.
Based on that criterion, things have been a rousing success. The Steelers have added some impressive athletes that should really improve this team on both sides of the football. And they do all this because they understand that this team is in a “win now” state of mind.
Nevertheless, just how many of these new faces can really challenge for a starting spot in 2014? There was a time when the answer could be none. However, those days are long gone, so let’s take a look at the five position battles to watch during training camp.
Starting Wide Receiver
The spot opposite Antonio Brown is up for grabs, and trust me when I say it’s a piece of prime NFL real estate. In 2013, the starting spot opposite Brown was manned by a platoon of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, and they were able to put up very good numbers. The two combined for 113 receptions, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Going into camp this year, there are essentially three guys working for that spot. Markus Wheaton has a year in the system, even though 2013 was essentially a redshirt year. His game mirrors Brown in many ways.
The veteran entry into the competition is Lance Moore. Moore comes over from the New Orleans Saints, but has never been able to live up to his talent on the field. Moore only topped 1,000 yards once in his career (2012), and has topped 10 receiving touchdowns one year as well (2008). Nevertheless, Moore has a veteran savvy about his game that could appeal to a veteran quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger.
The final contestant in this competition is the rookie. Martavis Bryant comes to Pittsburgh with a package of skills that neither Wheaton nor Moore possess. His size is elite (6’4”, 211 pounds), and his speed is on par with any other receiver on the roster.
However, starting Bryant means dealing with his growing pains on the field. Bryant is raw in both his routes and his hands. With the depth this team has, it might be best to let him learn in a more limited role.
Who wins? This is Wheaton’s job to lose. Much like Sanders last year, he is going to be given every opportunity to start opposite Brown. However, much like last year, if Wheaton struggles with consistency, a veteran like Moore is going to be right there to fill in those targets, like Cotchery did in 2013.
Starting Defensive End
Pittsburgh went to great lengths to improve its defensive line this offseason. It was a calculated risk to let Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and Brett Keisel all leave, but it was with a plan and a purpose. Adding Stephon Tuitt and Cam Thomas give the Steelers some real options to start opposite Cameron Heyward. Add in Nicholas Williams and Brian Arnfelt and the duties along the defensive front appear to be in good hands.
But, who gets the starting spot? It really comes down to Thomas and Tuitt right now. Thomas was brought in for his experience and Tuitt was a second-round pick in 2014. The thing is, Thomas is 330 pounds, which is really massive for a 3-4 defensive end. I understand he’s going to almost be pressed into duty until Tuitt gets up to speed, but his best spot might be nose tackle.
Who wins? Initially, Thomas is going to have the job. However, it won’t be long until the Steelers realize that having Tuitt on the field is a good thing, and getting defensive tackle Steve McLendon off the field is a good thing as well.
Starting Outside Linebacker
This one might seem silly to include, but it really isn’t. As much as everyone wants to assume that Jarvis Jones is going to start at right outside linebacker, nothing is a given. The Steelers have a couple of interesting outside linebackers who could supplant him.
Chris Carter is a three-year veteran in the Steelers defense and does have four career starts. Another option is four-year veteran Arthur Moats. Moats started 11 games in 2013 at outside linebacker and has the physical type to be successful in a 3-4 defense.
If Jones slips up, or doesn’t show the kind of growth this coaching staff is looking for, we could see a rotation of players until one emerges.
Who wins? The leader going into camp is going to be Jones. However, zero sacks in eight starts (his one sack came in a game where he was a reserve) doesn’t bode well for a long leash. Jones will be the starter, but, if he cannot show improved production, could be replaced in a hurry.
This battle might be the most interesting of any on the roster. There are literally no incumbent starters with a hold on a starting spot for 2014. Some may point to Ike Taylor, but, by the end of the season, Taylor was the 104th ranked cornerback out of 109 according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In fact, veteran William Gay might be the best all-around cornerback on the roster. At this point, he has an inside track on one of the starting spots. His ability to cover as well as stuff the run makes him a great asset to a young team in flux.
But, who starts across from him? It could be Taylor. However, Taylor might be better served in the slot in a nickel cornerback role. That leaves Cortez Allen and rookie Shaquille Richardson as the other options. And they are quite similar. Both are long and fast corners with enticing physical tools. Both are also inconsistent in their coverage. Allen’s experience gives him a clear edge here.
Who wins? It’s going to be Allen lining up with Gay as starters. Taylor will play the nickel during his farewell tour, and Richardson can cut his teeth as the dime corner if he can beat out safety Shamarko Thomas.
This one might seem silly, but think about this. In 2013, per the NFL site, the Steelers were ranked 31st in the league in punting average. You all realize there are only 32 teams, right? People like to poke fun at special teams, but this has to improve.
Right now, the Steelers have two punters on the roster. Brad Wing is in his second year, but sadly has never punted in an NFL game. At LSU, Wing had a big leg and a big mouth, if memory serves.
The other option is Adam Podlesh. Podlesh is entering his eighth season with a blistering 42.2-yard average. Nothing to write home about, and it's actually worse than the team average from a season ago (43.0 yards). This is a lot like picking the prettiest ugly girl at the dance.
Who wins? I’m calling for Wing to come up big. His leg is huge compared to Podlesh, and this is what the Steelers need.