Breaking Down All the New Faces on the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers
For an organization as stable as the Pittsburgh Steelers, change is not always easy. But after back-to-back missed playoff appearances, change became necessary.
Following the 2012 season, general manager Kevin Colbert acknowledged in his end-of-season press conference that the Steelers got too comfortable with their winning ways, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"When you're 12-4 and a playoff team, sometimes you get mesmerized by your success and you get a little reluctant to change," Colbert said. "If we don't change a roster that produced 8-8, we'd be silly to expect a better result."
Well, he modified the roster, but it was still not enough. Colbert had to take drastic measures to upgrade the personnel, and that is the approach that he took this offseason. He parted ways with the dead weight on the roster and used free agency and the draft to replenish the roster with youth and speed.
When the dust finally settled, over 40 players currently on the 90-man roster were not on the team last year. It’s almost as though he took the approach of the man who helped put the Steelers on the map
When first hired by the Steelers, Hall of Fame head coach Chuck Noll had a message for his team, described in America’s Game: The Super Bowl Champions by Andy Russell (h/t Joshua Hayes of Bleacher Report):
Look, I’ve been watching the game films since I took the job. And I can tell you guys that the reason you’ve been losing is not because of your attitude, or your psyche, or any of that stuff. The problem is you’re just not good enough.
You know, you can’t run fast enough, you can’t jump high enough, you’re not quick enough. Your techniques are just abysmal. I’m probably going to have to get rid of most of you...and we’re going to move on.
Colbert’s moves may not have been that drastic, but the principles behind them are the same today as they were in 1969—the Steelers were not good enough and they need better players to compete.
Only time will tell if the Steelers will be in contention for the playoffs in 2014, but what we do know is that there’s a ton of new faces on the roster heading into training camp. While many of them will not make the team, nearly two dozen players will compete for a key role or could eventually develop into a starter in the future.
Here is a breakdown of the new faces who will be worth watching this summer.
LeGarrette Blount (No. 27)
After years of talk, the Steelers have finally gotten serious about upgrading the ground game. LeGarrette Blount will provide a huge boost to the rushing attack with his powerful running. He has averaged 145 carries for 678 yards and five touchdowns per season over his four years in the league. His career average of 4.68 yards per carry easily would have led the Steelers last season.
Blount’s role will likely limit him to no more than 10 carries per game. Not only will he spell Le’Veon Bell but he'll also step on the field in short-yardage situations. This will make him particularly important in the red zone. However, John Steigerwald believes that Blount is capable of much more.
For his career, when he gets 15 or more carries in a game (15 times) Blount has averaged 4.95 yards per carry. 8 times over 5YPC. 3x over 7— John Steigerwald (@Steigerworld) June 13, 2014
If Steelers are planning to give Blount 5 carries a game he is a wasted signing.— John Steigerwald (@Steigerworld) June 13, 2014
As much as Bell would like to see that many carries each week, he understands his role is to be the top backup to Bell, via Dale Grdnic of the Associated Press.
"I know they brought me in here to run the football, so I hope there are plenty of carries to go around," Blount said Wednesday. "I know that Le'Veon is going to get his fair share, so I hope there's enough for all of us."
Dri Archer, RB/WR (No. 13)
Besides adding size to their lineup, the Steelers added a ton of speed when they drafted Dri Archer in the third round of the 2014 draft. His time of 4.26 seconds in the 40-yard dash was the fastest at the combine, but his 5’8” and 173-pound frame will limit him in the NFL.
In addition to being a return man on special teams, Archer will line up as both a running back and receiver on the offensive side of the ball. From that point, the possibilities seem endless, according to head coach Mike Tomlin, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com:
This is a guy that is going to create some unique opportunities for us from a package standpoint in terms of him getting identified. Is he a running back? Is he a wideout? Regardless of position, I think he’s a playmaker. He's a guy that gets yards in chunks and rings up the scoreboard.
Archer may never be an every-down back or receiver, but he will provide the Steelers with a playmaker who can score each time the football is in his hands. Expect offensive coordinator Todd Haley to have some fun working on specialty packages designed specifically to get Archer in open space.
Rob Blanchflower (No. 87)
The top two tight end spots are set with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, but the Steelers will keep either three or four on their roster. That opens the door for Rob Blanchflower to compete with David Paulson and Michael Palmer for the No. 3 job or earn the spot as the fourth tight end on the roster.
Blanchflower proved to be a quality blocker and receiver in college, which is what made him an attractive option for the Steelers. He is a tough player as well, demonstrated by playing through injuries last season and still finishing second on the team with 27 receptions.
Besides his production, UMass head coach Charley Molnar told Mike Scandura of MassLive.com that Blanchflower is a “team guy.” That should go a long way with him making the Steelers out of training camp where he could see the field as a blocking tight end.
Martavis Bryant (No. 10)
Fourth-round draft choices do not always make an impact, but the Steelers may have found a future star in Martavis Bryant. Soon after he was drafted, wide receivers coach Richard Mann told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the rookie could “potentially start” this season.
The warm feelings did not last very long, as Tomlin has been hard on Bryant during spring practices, via Mark Kaboly:
Mike Tomlin to Martavis Bryant after letting bullet from Ben slip through hands on a slant in end zone: "I can get a 5-9 guy to do that."
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) June 10, 2014
Haley had much better things to say, via Bob Labriola of Steelers.com:
He’s as advertised – a legit 6-foot-4 and with legit 4.4 speed. That’s not a combination you see very often, a guy that big who can run that well. Another rookie, so we’re not anointing him.
He’s got a long way to go, because at the receiver position, there are a lot of subtle things that go on, but he’s big and fast and what sets him apart and should give him a chance to succeed is that he gets to top speed fast for a guy that big.
From the sound of things, Bryant is not going to start as a rookie, but he has long-term potential to develop into a very good receiver. Until then, he will learn from the sidelines and may see time in specialty packages that will utilize his size and speed to beat defenders.
Darrius Heyward-Bey (No. 85)
Darrius Heyward-Bey was signed this offseason to compete for a spot on the bottom of the depth chart. He brings a lot of speed to the lineup, but he has questionable hands, as highlighted by Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“Darrius Heyward-Bey drops a lot of footballs,” Kovacevic wrote in an OTA report.
Do not expect Heyward-Bey to be a lock for the roster. The Steelers will keep five or six receivers, meaning he will be in direct competition with Bryant, Justin Brown and Derek Moye for a spot on the team.
Lance Moore (No. 16)
The Steelers took a hit this offseason with the loss of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery to free agency. One of the men who will help take their place is Lance Moore.
Moore will provide a veteran presence to a lineup that features a number of young receivers ready to take on a larger role. In his eight seasons with the New Orleans Saints, Moore had 346 receptions for 4,281 yards and 38 touchdowns.
Expect Moore to settle in as the slot receiver, but he could start until Markus Wheaton—or another receiver—is ready. He has already made a positive impression on Haley, via Labriola of Steelers.com:
He’s a guy who has quickly grown on all of us. I have a good relationship with (Saints coach) Sean Payton, and so I got a lot of good scoop on him. He did a lot of great things for New Orleans, and did them in big games, which is always very interesting to me.
He’s a smart guy, with a lot of savvy at the position, and even though you might look at him and think ‘slot receiver,’ he has the ability to play inside or outside. As a real smart player, he’s going to understand multiple positions, which gives you a lot of flexibility on game days.
Moore may not have been a “big name” in free agency, but he is a very dependable option and will be a target whom Ben Roethlisberger can count on.
Wesley Johnson (No. 67)
There are many ways to make a name for yourself when you are a rookie in the NFL. For Wesley Johnson, a fight with “tough guy” Cam Heyward did the trick.
Second fight of OTA -- cam Heyward and Wesley Johnson
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) June 11, 2014
One sign of competitive #Steelers practice: Several players required to pull Cam Heyward off rookie OL Wesley Johnson. intense for June.
— Alan Robinson (@arobinson_Trib) June 11, 2014
A fight may not be what you want to see between teammates, but Johnson showed that he has a mean streak and won’t back down to anyone. That should not be a surprise as he held his own when blocking Jadeveon Clowney in college.
Johnson does have a lot of work to do with eight established linemen ahead of him on the depth chart. However, with the ability to play all three positions on the offensive line, according to coach Mike Munchak, per Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com, his versatility will go a long way in helping him make a push for a spot on the roster.
Josh Mauro (No. 71)
Josh Mauro is a 6’6” and 282-pound defensive end who was projected by NFLDraftScout.com (via CBSSports.com) to be drafted in the sixth round. He will come to the NFL with very good technique from the coaching he received at Stanford.
With Heyward as the only returning defensive end, the Steelers will be looking for one of the young players to stand out. Mauro has all of the physical tools that you could ask for, but he lacks ideal bulk. If he does not make the team, he will be an ideal candidate for the practice squad.
Stephon Tuitt (No. 91)
Heyward would know better than anyone that it is difficult to start as a rookie on Pittsburgh’s defense. He didn’t get that chance until his third year in the league, and he has his doubts that Stephon Tuitt will be starting on the opposite side of the defensive line.
Could LB Ryan Shazier and DE Stephon Tuitt start as rookies for the Steelers? DE Cam Heyward: "It's tough...Our playbook is very deep."— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) June 5, 2014
At 6’5” and 303 pounds, Tuitt has the perfect size to play defensive end in a 3-4 defense. He has the ability to be a dominant run-stopper, but he has potential as a pass-rusher as well. It will be a lot to ask of him to start as a rookie. Instead, expect Tuitt to contribute as a part of the rotation at defensive end.
Daniel McCullers (No. 74)
The 6’7” and 352-pound Daniel McCullers was the largest player in the draft. He would like to use that size in the middle of the defensive line to be the long-term answer at nose tackle. But first, he must prove he can be an anchor at the NFL level.
Upending Steve McLendon for the starting job will be a difficult task for McCullers. A more realistic expectation would be for him to earn the No. 2 role—if Cam Thomas starts at defensive end—and get time on short-yardage downs.
Cam Thomas (No. 96)
When Pittsburgh signed Thomas, Bob Labriola of Steelers.com reported that he would provide depth at both defensive end and nose tackle. He may end up serving as the starting defensive end opposite of Heyward.
The odds of the Steelers starting a rookie at defensive end—at least at the beginning of the season—are not very high. That makes Thomas a prime candidate to cement himself as a starter on the defensive line. With strong play, he will keep that role all season.
Arthur Moats (No. 55)
Arthur Moats was signed as a free agent to provide depth at inside and outside linebackers, but he has settled in at outside so far. That is not a bad thing because the Steelers have no proven depth at the position. He will have the opportunity to make an impression during training camp to earn snaps with the defense.
Even though Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones are the starters, neither is a dominant force—yet. That leaves the door open for Moats to be rotated into the lineup with the base defense or earn time on passing downs. He must show that he can rush the quarterback if he is going to going to take snaps away from the starters.
Ryan Shazier (No. 50)
The Steelers wanted to get faster on the defensive side of the football, and that is exactly what they did by drafting Ryan Shazier in the first round. That is why general manager Kevin Colbert could not pass up one of the fastest defenders in the draft, via Will Graves of the Associated Press:
"This guy can flat out run," Colbert said. "The thing that really attracts me to him from a defensive standpoint ... we need speed. You need speed at your linebackers, need speed in your secondary, you need speed everywhere."
Not only will Shazier’s speed aid him when dropping into coverage, but it will also help when rushing the quarterback. He brings a playmaking dynamic to the lineup that the Steelers were missing with Larry Foote and Vince Williams. ESPN.com’s Scott Brown took note of this already:
Ryan Shazier made an unreal interception today. A leaping grab in middle of field that was followed by fight between Heyward and Johnson.
— Scott Brown (@ScottBrown_ESPN) June 11, 2014
Shazier has been running with the first-team defense, and this should not change as the season approaches. Expect Shazier to be the Week 1 starter in the middle of Pittsburgh’s defense.
Jordan Zumwalt (No. 56)
Jordan Zumwalt can play inside or outside linebacker, but he is behind schedule on learning the defense. Due to his college-course schedule at UCLA, he was unable to attend OTAs. However, he will know what to expect when it comes to learning the defensive scheme.
Zumwalt played under Lou Spanos, former defensive coach for the Steelers, at UCLA. Spanos ran a defensive system that is similar to what Dick LeBeau runs in Pittsburgh.
That has provided Zumwalt with a solid foundation in Pittsburgh’s defensive system. As beneficial as this will be, the defense won’t be where Zumwalt will make his mark; it will be on special teams—and he cannot wait to get started, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com:
“I really plan on being a big special-teams guy here if coach [Mike Tomlin] gives me the opportunity,” Zumwalt said. “I’d love to be on every special teams here if I got the chance.”
That is exactly what Zumwalt—a sixth-round draft choice—will have to do to make the team. Making an impact on special teams isn’t unusual for rookie linebackers, either. He could use this opportunity to display his high motor and aggressive style of play. By doing so, he will get the coach's attention, and this should only provide him with more opportunities in the future.
Brice McCain (No. 25)
Brice McCain was once identified as a “Secret Superstar” by Pro Football Focus, but he finished as the worst-graded cornerback last season, per InsidePittsburghSports.com. He had 32 tackles and an interception with the Houston Texans last season.
McCain would not have the demands of being a starting cornerback with the Steelers as he was with the Texans. Instead, he would be fourth or fifth on the depth chart and would only see limited time on passing downs—if any. His primary role would be to provide depth for any injuries and to play on special teams.
Shaquille Richardson (No. 31)
Cornerback was one of the top needs this offseason, but the Steelers waited until the fifth round before they drafted one. Shaquille Richardson is not the answer the fans wanted; however, he does have some positive traits that could allow him to develop into a starter.
At 6’0” and 194 pounds, Richardson has good size, and his 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash is plenty fast. Beyond his physical attributes, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake knows him very well—he recruited him while he was a coach at UCLA.
Richardson is another developmental player who will need to shine on special teams to earn a roster spot.
Mike Mitchell (No. 23)
Mike Mitchell was the biggest addition to the Steelers roster this offseason. They signed him to take over for Ryan Clark at free safety, and he is already growing in that role.
Despite already playing five years in the NFL, Mitchell only has 23 starts and appears to be a player on the rise. Last season was his as a full-time starter, and he played very well. Starting in the Carolina Panthers’ secondary, Mitchell had 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks, eight passes defended and four interceptions.
Mitchell plays an aggressive brand of football and is a proven playmaker in the secondary—something the Steelers have lacked outside of Troy Polamalu. He wants to continue being an impact player in Pittsburgh’s defense, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
If you throw at me, I think I have a good chance of taking the ball away from you. I pride myself on just creating turnovers and making positive plays for my team. A positive play sometimes is tackling them 1-yard short on third down because now they got to punt.
Tackles for a loss, sacks, things of that nature — I just try to make the right football play at the time it needs to be made, and that’s what’s made me a pretty decent player.
With Mitchell joining Polamalu, the Steelers should have a much better secondary than they had last season. Mitchell can play deep and allow Polamalu to freelance, or he can step up near the line where he can drop into coverage or blitz. His versatility will help LeBeau call a more aggressive game and help improve a defense that has fallen back in the pack over the past two seasons.
Adam Podlesh (No. 4)
Adam Podlesh will try to nail down the punter job after the Steelers struggled in this area last season. He is entering his eighth year in the NFL and has averaged 42.2 yards per punt with a net average of 38.7 yards. In 2013, he tied for 28th in net average, three spots ahead of Mat McBriar.
Brad Wing (No. 9)
Brad Wing was a first-team All-American at LSU, where he averaged 44.6 yards per punt. He would leave after two years after he had some off-field issues. He says that those issues are in the past, and he's ready to move forward with his career.
The former undrafted free agent did not have a successful first stint in the NFL. He failed to make the Philadelphia Eagles out of training camp, and it was not hard to see why. During the 2013 preseason, he was one of the worst punters in the NFL with an average of 40.6 yards per punt and a net average of 36.5 yards.
Wing will have to show much more if he is going to be out the veteran.