Setting Realistic Training Camp Expectations for Each Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie
He did just that with a nine-man draft class.
With so much talent available—and the need for rookies to contribute sooner—the expectations for first-year NFL players is higher than ever. Even for a team as patient as the Steelers, at least two rookies will compete for a starting job in training camp.
Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt will have every opportunity to start this year, while players such as Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant will look to earn spots as significant role players. It has even been suggested that Wesley Johnson could earn a starting role on the offensive line.
Many of these expectations are because of the pure excitement of adding young talent to the roster. Others are simply holding out hope that rookies can be the answer to filling holes on the roster. As a result, when a rookie doesn’t “star” right away, they are viewed as a bust—see Jarvis Jones from last season.
There is no arguing that the Steelers need significant contributions from their rookie class, but how realistic is that? Will these players live up to their potential in year one or do they need a year or two to develop?
From the undrafted free agents to the first-round selection, here is a breakdown of the realistic expectations for each rookie heading into training camp.
Undrafted Free Agents
Undrafted free agents are often afterthoughts when it comes time for training camp. Many are referred to as “camp bodies” and are there for no other reason than to fill out the roster until the start of the regular season.
In many cases, that is what happens.
Undrafted free agents have an uphill battle to make the team. But every so often, a hidden gem can be unearthed. Not only have the Steelers found solid starters and contributors such as Ramon Foster and Chris Hoke, but also several stars including James Harrison and Willie Parker
The latter is difficult to find, but there is some potential for one or two future roster players from this year’s class of undrafted free agents. Before taking a look at the more interesting undrafted free agents, let’s take a look at the names who will battle—at most—for a spot on the practice squad.
Whether it is depth at a position or limited upside, these players are unlikely to make the team come September:
- Deion Belue, CB
- Chris Elkins, OL
- Ethan Hemer, DE
- Brendon Kay, QB
- Emmanuel McCray, OL
- Roy Philon, DT
- Will Simmons, OG
- Eric Waters, TE
Of this group, Ethan Hemer, Brendon Kay and Eric Waters stand out.
Hemer is a 6’6” and 285-pound defensive end from Wisconsin has a terrific frame to play defensive in Pittsburgh’s system. Without much experienced depth on the roster, he would be a good developmental player to have in the system.
Kay will compete with Landry Jones for the third-string quarterback role. Jones struggled his rookie season and Kay has an outside chance of knocking him off the roster. Though it is unlikely because of the fourth-round draft pick that the Steelers invested in Jones, Kay could earn a spot on the practice squad if he shows a grasp of the offense and demonstrates good arm strength and accuracy.
As far as Waters goes, the Steelers do not have any outstanding talent at tight end besides Heath Miller. At 6’5” and 245 pounds, he is more of a receiving tight end. He had impressive workout numbers at his pro day with a 40-yard dash time of 4.58 seconds and a 39.5-inch vertical. Despite his impressive measurables, Waters only 14 receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns in four seasons at Missouri.
Undrafted Free Agents to Watch
Now we will focus on some of the intriguing names of the undrafted free-agent class. The first name on the list is C.J. Goodwin.
Goodwin is a 6’3” and 190-pound wide receiver who played at the California University of Pennsylvania last year. He mainly played special teams and had only 11 receptions for 131 yards. Typically, that doesn’t get you a look from the NFL, but a recommendation from Hall of Famer Mel Blount and a strong workout will, per Alex Nieves of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Said Blount:
When I called Kevin Colbert, I said, 'This kid, you need to take a look at him.' I've never called the Steelers and said, 'Here's somebody you all should take a look at,' because that's not what I do. But this kid, I'm willing to put my name and reputation out there because he's an athlete, he can play and he's a good kid. It's more than just your ability to play and your talent. It's also about your character.
Goodwin will not make it into the top five, six or even seven wide receivers by the end of camp, but with a strong showing, he will have a strong chance to stick on the practice squad. Receivers with his height and speed (4.41 in the 40-yard dash) are not easy to come by, so he would be worth developing.
Another physical specimen who will turn some heads is Howard Jones from Division II Shepherd. As another small-school product, Jones will have to rely on his tremendous athletic ability (4.54 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and lack of depth at outside linebacker to make a push for the 53-man roster.
Though he is unlikely to make the team, he has enough upside to make him a player to watch. According to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Jones had 34.5 sacks, 71 tackles for loss, eight forced fumbles and four blocked kicks in his career.
Making the jump from such a small school to the NFL will be a challenging one. One of Jones’ biggest obstacles will be mastering Dick LeBeau’s defense. Until he does so, he will have to use his natural talents to rush the quarterback and show that he can play on special teams.
The most likely undrafted free agent to make the team is Josh Mauro, a defensive end from Stanford.
ESPN.com’s Scott Brown identified Mauro as an undrafted free agent to watch because of the Steelers’ need for depth at defensive end. He was NFL.com's Gil Brandt's third-rated defensive end available after the draft and was identified as one of the top-10 undrafted free-agent signings by NFL.com’s Bryan Fischer:
George Uko out of USC might have been the higher profile Pac-12 undrafted free agent along the defensive line, but Mauro could be the one who has the better NFL career if things break his way. He's certainly got the size and motor to be an end in a 3-4 and could wind up taking over for Brett Keisel down the road if he sticks with the Steelers.
The 6’6” and 282-pound Mauro will look to follow in the footsteps of Orpheus Roye and Brett Keisel. Both were athletic defensive end prospects who made an impact on special teams early in their careers before developing into quality starters.
Round 7: Rob Blanchflower, TE, UMass
The Pittsburgh Steelers like tight ends who can block and catch, which is exactly what the 6’4”, 256-pound Rob Blanchflower brings to the table. He will compete with David Paulson and Michael Palmer for a roster spot.
Though he is a seventh-round rookie, Blanchflower could be better than both players.
Palmer has not stood out in any particular way, and while Paulson began to show that he could be a legitimate No. 2 receiving tight end during the 2013 training camp, he was unable to produce when it came time for the preseason games.
Blanchflower is a versatile tight end who can play next to the tackle or line up at H-back. NFL.com’s Nolan Nawrocki called him a “competitive run blocker” and a “functional pass protector.” Though he is in a superb athlete, he is more than adequate in the passing game as he was the all-time leader in receiving yards by a tight end for UMass.
Former UMass coach Charley Molnar told Matt Vautour of the Daily Hampshire Gazette that he believes that Blanchflower will be a great fit for the Steelers:
“I couldn’t be more excited for Rob and his family. Pittsburgh is the perfect spot for him to go because of their extensive use of multiple tight end sets,” Molnar said. “Blanch epitomizes what Steeler has traditionally been, namely a program built on tough, hard working team-first players.”
Blanchflower will be an easy guy to root for during training camp. He is not a lock for a roster, but he will have a very good chance to make the team as the third or fourth tight end where he will contribute on special teams and sparingly on offense.
Worst case is that he ends up on the practice squad.
Round 6: Daniel McCullers, NT, Tennessee
There will be no more physically imposing presence at training camp this year than Daniel McCullers.
The 6’7” and 352-pound nose tackle from the University of Tennessee will compete for a spot behind Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas on the depth chart. His primary opposition will come from Hebron Fangupo and Al Lapuaho.
On the surface, it appeared as though the Steelers got a steal when they selected McCullers in the sixth round—he was projected as a second- or third-round choice by NFL.com. However, he is still a work in progress and will need time to perfect his technique.
With his height, McCullers will—at times—get too high with his pads which causes him to lose his leverage against linemen. That will take away any advantage that he otherwise would have had with his size and power. He told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he must improve in this area before the season:
“That's something I have to work on every day,” McCullers said. “(Defensive line) Coach (John) Mitchell gets on me about it, but that's everywhere I go. When I do get low, I can be a good player. When I get high, I can get blocked.”
The Steelers hope to develop McCullers into a space-eater and run-stuffer for the center of their defensive line. He will need to excel in this area because he does not offer much as a pass-rusher.
McCullers can be anything from a short-yardage specialist as a rookie to a member of the practice squad. Because of his upside and his ability to slide to the outside and play defensive end, he is worth a roster spot but is unlikely to play much—if at all—as a rookie.
Round 6: Jordan Zumwalt, LB, UCL
The Steelers came into the draft thin at both inside and outside linebacker. Jordan Zumwalt has the ability to address both positions and has already practiced at each spot.
Zumwalt may be a better fit on the inside, but with Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams and Sean Spence already in place, he will have more opportunities on the outside. Here, he will compete with Arthur Moats and Chris Carter.
Over his career at UCLA, Zumwalt was known as a hard-working player who played with a competitive fire. He has an aggressive attitude and style of play, but lacks ideal athleticism that is needed from an every down player.
For Zumwalt, it will come down to a numbers game. If the Steelers keep at least nine linebackers, he will have a terrific opportunity to make the team. If not, it may be a year on the practice squad.
Besides his versatility, Zumwalt played under Lou Spanos at UCLA, who was a former defensive coach with the Steelers. As a result, he is at least familiar with some aspects of Pittsburgh’s defensive system. More importantly, he loves to play special teams, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"Learning all the different spots is difficult, but I'm grateful for it, 100 percent," Zumwalt said. "I really plan on being a big special teams guy here if coach gives me the opportunity. I'd love to be on every special teams if I got the chance."
Zumwalt is not a lock to make the team, but if he does, expect him to be an impact player on special teams.
Round 5: Wesley Johnson, OL, Vanderbilt
For a team that has had injury problems on its offensive line over the years, it is never a bad idea to select a versatile lineman at some point in the draft. Wesley Johnson is a perfect fit with the ability to play every position along the line. That is something that offensive line coach Mike Munchak appreciates.
“With us having so many injuries, here’s a guy that has an opportunity to fill in at those spots if we need him,” Munchak told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “You don’t want what happened last year where you have a guy like Beachum that plays left tackle and also has to be your backup center.”
At Vanderbilt, he started 39 games at left tackle, three at right tackle, two at left guard and seven at center. Johnson was extremely productive as well, with only two sacks allowed over the last two years and 172 blocks in his career that led to first downs or touchdowns. He was named 2013 First-Team All-SEC.
Part of that was because of his incredible consistency, elaborated on by Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Steelers 5th rd pick Wesley Johnson (OL) didn't draw first holding penalty of his career as a four-year starter until midway through sr year
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) May 10, 2014
Despite his accolades, Johnson may miss the cut if the Steelers only keep eight linemen. Mike Adams and Cody Wallace essentially are locks and there is a good chance that Guy Whimper will stay on because of his ability to play guard and tackle.
However, Johnson is a terrific fit in the zone-blocking scheme and his ability to play every position makes him a valuable commodity. Expect the Steelers to find a way to keep him on the roster where he can develop for a season and eventually compete for a starting spot at right tackle or left guard as early as next year.
Round 5: Shaquille Richardson, CB, Arizona
Virtually every NFL expert, analyst and fan were in agreement that the Steelers needed to add talent at cornerback this offseason. Pittsburgh’s front office and coaching staff disagreed.
Besides Brice McCain, the only significant addition to the cornerback depth chart was Shaquille Richardson, a 6’0” and 194-pound cornerback from Arizona. He came to Pittsburgh in the fifth round with a high recommendation from Carnell Lake, who recruited him while coaching at UCLA, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com:
"He came in and was the best cover guy we had," Lake said of Richardson during the recruiting process. "We offered him a scholarship the next day."
Though Richardson never developed into an elite cover man, he is smart and aggressive which will serve him well in Pittsburgh’s scheme. His measurable are exactly what the Steelers look for in their starting cornerbacks and that is what Kevin Colbert envisions him as, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com:
"Shaquille Richardson has the prototypical size you want in a starter-capable corner," Colbert said. "He's fast, he's athletic. He's got a chance."
Richardson is a borderline roster player who would likely be destined for the practice squad if not for the lack of depth at the position. He will have to beat out McCain or Antwon Blake to make the team.
Regardless of where Richardson ends up, he is purely a developmental player as a rookie.
Round 4: Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson
The expectations for Martavis Bryant were set from the moment that he was drafted.
"I'm not going to say that he is going to start, but potentially he could," said wide receivers coach Richard Mann told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
That is a nice thought, but there are six other NFL-caliber receivers ahead of him. At best, he will be fourth on the depth chart and see a limited number of snaps as a rookie in situational roles.
Todd Haley elaborated on Bryant in a recent interview with reporters, 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. Usually tall guys are long-striders who have to build to top speed. He has good ball skills, which is exciting to all of us because when you get a guy who is 6’4” and can judge the ball well it means he’s usually going to get it at the high point. That allows him to take best advantage of his size. Early on, he can be a factor in the red zone, and he’ll be another guy who gives us speed outside the numbers to stretch the defense.
Two items stand out from Haley’s quote.
The first is the subtle things that receivers must handle before they can get on the field. Some believe that it is as simple as stepping onto the field and running an assigned route. But it is not—as explained by Greg Bedard of MMQB.com. Receivers must beat the press, know the full route-tree, understand the play as a whole and not just their own responsibility.
The second was that Bryant could be a role player on deep passes and in the red zone. His combination of size and speed will be tough to defend. Haley can simplify Bryant’s role this year to that of a situational player where he can take advantage of his pure physical traits without making him think too much.
Bryant is a natural talent who is still raw at this point of his career. He has to improve his hands, route running and learn the nuances of the professional game. Do not look for him to be anything more than the fourth or fifth receiver this season and he will only get a limited number of snaps.
Round 3: Dri Archer, RB/WR, Kent State
It is a bit of a mystery how the Steelers will use Archer, but we do know that he will return kicks.
"In my mind, return guys are starters," Kevin Colbert told reporters following the draft via Scott Brown of ESPN.com. "His kick-return ability is unique. It really is special. Whatever he can add to us offensively, we see some value there."
Mike Tomlin added that Archer will “create some unique opportunities…from a package standpoint.” It will be up to the offensive coaching staff to determine what those packages will be. Will the Steelers use him like a Dexter McCluster, Jamaal Charles or Darren Sproles? If it were one of the latter two, they would have hit a homerun with this draft pick.
What we do know is that Archer is listed as a wide receiver and a running back. This versatility will make him a valuable option when the Steelers are running out of the no-huddle. Then the question becomes, whose touches does he get?
Will he take carries away from Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount? Does he take receptions away from Antonio Brown, Heath Miller or Markus Wheaton? All are better options at this point of their respective careers, yet outside of Brown, none has the ability that Archer does.
Soon these questions will be answered, but at this point, even Archer doesn’t know what to expect.
“I’m not sure,” Archer told August Fagerstrom of the Akron Beacon Journal. “It’s going to be a big role, but I’m just going to do whatever I’m asked to do. Play receiver, play running back, helping special teams. Whatever they want me to do, I’m going to do it.”
Archer may not be a starter, but he will get plenty of action in the return game and eventually settle into a specialty role with the offense. It may take some time for the Steelers to learn how to use him, but once they do, he has the potential to finish in the top five or six in offensive touches for the Steelers.
Round 2: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
Defensive line coach John Mitchell compared Stephon Tuitt to former Steeler great Aaron Smith. That would be a dream scenario for the Steelers, but for now getting him into the defensive line rotation would be an accomplishment.
Despite being a perfect fit for the defense, Tuitt has had some trouble getting adjusted, via Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“It’s rocky,” Tuitt said. “But I’ve been in this system now for a couple of weeks and I’m understanding the playbook and understanding my role and understanding the system.”
Defensive ends in Pittsburgh’s system can take upwards of two or three seasons to learn the system and the proper techniques necessary to succeed. Look back at Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward—neither started as a rookie. It will be a lot to ask from Tuitt to start in the first game of the year.
Once he does adjust to the pro game, there is a lot to like about Tuitt. He can hold the point of attack and help shut down the ground game. He is also capable of generating pressure from the defensive line, which would be a welcomed addition to the defense.
Rather than throw Tuitt into the starting lineup and let him learn on the job, the Steelers can sit him behind Cam Thomas and slowly work him into the rotation at defensive end. Before the end of the season, Tuitt can lock down the starting job, but the coaches will make him earn it with is play.
Round 1: Ryan Shazier, ILB, Ohio State
All too often, unrealistic expectations are placed on rookies, especially in Pittsburgh. After a few short months since the draft, that does not appear to be the case at all with Ryan Shazier. He looks every bit of the instant-impact player that the Steelers need.
Even before the Steelers drafted him, there was talk that he would be an immediate contributor wherever he landed (h/t Bryan Fischer of NFL.com).
"I'm going to say Ryan Shazier from Ohio State is a player that could have an immediate impact from this draft class," Daniel Jeremiah said on NFL.com's "Mock Draft Weekly". "If he were to land at a place like Denver, where he'll be playing against the pass, his ability to run, blitz, cover will have an immediate impact."
Shazier is an instinctive linebacker who can make plays when defending the run or the pass. He will need some protection from the defensive line, but he can fly when in open space, evident by his 4.35 40-yard dash at Ohio State’s pro day.
Unlike most rookies, he has been practicing with the first-team defense since the start of OTAs and does not plan to relinquish this spot anytime soon. At this rate, he will be Pittsburgh’s first rookie to start on defense since Kendrell Bell in 2001 and the first ever with Dick LeBeau as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator.
There are high hopes for Shazier and he has lived up to them so far. There is little reason to believe that he will not perform at a high level this season and be not only the Steelers’ top rookie, but one of the top defensive rookies in the entire NFL.
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