Pittsburgh Steelers Players Climbing the Depth Chart This Offseason
As with every offseason, numerous NFL hopefuls are on the cusp of tremendous joy or horrendous heartache.
While organized team activities (OTAs) aren’t the be-all, end-all in such matters, they’re a good indicator of where things stand. They may not mean much to established players, but to those lacking experience, they’re absolutely crucial.
Thus, it stands to reason that a list such as this will focus more on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ younger players such as Justin Brown and Ryan Shazier. Can Brown advance from the practice squad to the field of 53? Will Shazier be able to beat out incumbent starter Vince Williams.
Read on to find out where these men (and several others) stand at press time.
Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant are all virtually assured of roster spots in 2014. With Dri Archer expected to see time out wide as well, that means there’s only room for one more true receiver.
The battle for that fifth and final spot is expected to be a three-horse race between Derek Moye, Justin Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey. As of this writing, Brown may be the favorite.
According to ESPN’s Scott Brown, Markus Wheaton has been limited to an extent through OTAs. Also according to Brown, Justin’s benefited from that via plenty of reps and a few impressive plays with the first-team offense.
Brown spent last season on the practice squad. And yet he’s garnered those first-team reps over two players in Moye and Heyward-Bey who were on active rosters last season. It’s still early, but one has to think Brown’s shown significant improvement to have gained an early edge on his teammates.
Sean Spence’s inclusion on this list isn’t based on any momentous occurrence on the practice field but rather the fact that he’s been able to remain on the field at all.
Most Steelers fans are familiar with the story of Spence at this point. Spence was drafted in the third round in 2012 out of the University of Miami. Spence was undersized and coming off a lackluster combine, but on tape, the Steelers saw an athletically gifted and instinctual player.
Unfortunately, Spence has yet to see a regular-season snap. In the final preseason game of his rookie year, Spence’s cleat stuck in the turf and he suffered a torn ACL, LCL and a dislocated kneecap (warning: graphic footage linked). Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler said it would be “miraculous” if Spence plays football again, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette (h/t NBC Sports’ Michael David Smith).
According to Steelers.com’s Bob Labriola and Mike Prisuta (via Steelers Depot’s Matthew Marczi), Spence hasn’t suffered any further setbacks through OTAs. If, and it’s a big if, he can fully regain his health, the battle to start next to Lawrence Timmons may not run solely through Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams.
Antwon Blake isn’t a name many Steelers fans will be very familiar with, but perhaps they should be.
Blake was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars early in the 2013 season and quickly scooped up by the Steelers thereafter. According to Steelers Depot’s Dave Bryan, Blake saw just five defensive snaps last season. Still, he managed to make his mark through impressive play on special teams.
Many were taken aback when the Steelers neglected to address the cornerback position on Days 1 and 2 of the 2014 NFL draft, but Blake may have played a role in that decision.
“Antwon Blake is one, very fast, quick aggressive corner that I liked coming out last year,” Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We were fortunate to grab him in free agency, and he's turned out to be very productive for us, especially on special teams.”
If Blake can beat Brice McCain for the fourth cornerback spot, then he could be on to bigger and better things with veteran Ike Taylor’s career nearing a close.
Obviously, expectations for Steelers top pick Ryan Shazier are high to begin with. But the fact that’s he fulfilling them this early would seem to point to a bright career for the Ohio State product.
Shazier was lining up with the first team in OTAs, according to CBS Sports' John Beech. That’s a surprising development for a team that generally expects every starter to earn his spot.
However, the Steelers are also generally a team that boasts a top-flight defense. That wasn’t the case last year, and like it or not, Vince Williams played a role in that regression.
Williams deserves credit for stepping into a tough role early into his first pro season when Larry Foote suffered a season-ending biceps injury. That being said, his limited athleticism forced Troy Polamalu into an unfamiliar spot, effectively weakening the defense at all levels.
With Shazier, athleticism is far from a concern. He proved that much with an impressive leaping interception during Wednesday’s OTAs, per ESPN’s Scott Brown.