Ranking Pittsburgh Steelers' Top 5 Sleepers to Watch in Camp
Pedigree is not everything when it comes to success in the National Football League. Every year, players seem to come out of nowhere and develop into stars. The start of training camp will be a chance for the hidden gems on the Pittsburgh Steelers to step out and shine.
An unheralded player standing out is not something new for the Steelers. Out of their current starting lineup, five players were drafted in the fourth round or later and another three came to the team as undrafted free agents.
Does anyone care that Antonio Brown was a sixth-round draft pick? How about the left side of the offensive line consisting of former seventh-round selection Kelvin Beachum or undrafted Ramon Foster? Pittsburgh selected both starting cornerbacks in the fourth round.
Though the focus during training camp is placed on early draft choices and high-priced free agents, the bottom line is that NFL teams look for the best 53 players to fill out their rosters. Sometimes that means undrafted free agents or unheralded veterans can turn heads and make an impact.
There are several factors that I considered when I identified the sleepers. The first is their pro potential—do they have the necessary physical attributions to contribute in the NFL? The second is their past production, and the third is the current state of the Steelers roster.
Which players should you keep an eye on in training camp? Here are five sleepers who may not only challenge for a spot on the roster but could also contribute this season.
Al Lapuaho, NT
Many stories that come out of OTAs are exaggerated because of the lack of true football news. However, not every news item can be ignored, especially when it comes from a player such as Cameron Heyward, who told Scott Brown of ESPN.com that Al Lapuaho will be a player to watch in training camp:
“He’s got a good frame. He’s very intelligent and he works his tail off,” Heyward said, per Brown. “We’ve got a lot of guys I want to take a look at during camp. It’s hard to [gauge the defensive linemen] right now because you don’t know how they’re going to do with their pads on but we’re off to a good start.”
As Heyward said, they have not put pads on yet, but Lapuaho’s work ethic cannot be underestimated. That is a characteristic that coaches will notice when making their decisions and one that can put him ahead of Hebron Fangupo and Daniel McCullers.
Howard Jones, OLB
General manager Kevin Colbert used the offseason to upgrade the speed on athleticism on the roster. His moves were not exclusive to free agency and the draft, as he signed Howard Jones as an undrafted free agent.
Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote that Jones was a good option for the Steelers, as they are “attempting to get younger, faster and more athletic on defense.”
The 24-year old Jones was one of the fastest linebackers at the combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.60 seconds. According to the NFL.com, he rated as one of the top performers in the vertical jump, broad jump and three-cone drill as well. In addition to his athletic ability, Jones had a school-record 35 sacks.
The Steelers are in need of linebackers who can rush the quarterback and make plays behind the line of scrimmage—two of the things that Jones does best. As long as he can flash his explosiveness off the line and be a disruptive force, Jones can find a spot as a special teams player as he learns to play linebacker at the NFL level.
5. Tauren Poole, RB
The top of the running back depth chart is set with Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. However, the situation remains unsettled behind them.
Dri Archer is listed as a wide receiver and running back, meaning that the Steelers could consider keeping one more pure running back on the roster. Tauren Poole is a strong candidate for that spot.
Since signing with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Poole has yet to play a down. Typically, that does not bode well for an NFL future, but that may not be the case here.
At 5’10” and 205 pounds, he has the size to withstand a pounding, and he did flash potential in the pre-draft process. According to Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com, Poole was the top running back at the East-West Shrine Game. He had an impressive 4.54 40-yard dash at the combine as well.
Pro Football Weekly called Poole a “competitive runner” and a “character player with a professional work ethic and love for the game.” It is one of the reasons that he was a team captain for Tennessee. In four years there, he ran for 1,898 yards on 423 carries and had 16 touchdowns, according to Sports-Reference.com.
There is no guarantee that the Steelers will keep an extra running back, but if Poole has the talent to hang on as a viable backup, he will be a player to watch during camp.
4. Josh Mauro, DE
Of all of the undrafted free agents that the Steelers signed, none has the upside that Josh Mauro has. It is one of the reasons why Bryan Fischer of NFL.com identified him as the sixth-best undrafted free-agent signing.
The 6’6” and 282-pound defensive end from Stanford has the ideal frame to play defensive end in Pittsburgh’s system. He played in a pro-style defense in college and was very productive. Over his last two years, he had 70 tackles, 19.5 tackles for a loss and nine sacks.
Mauro will not be able to replicate that type of production immediately in the NFL. He will need a year in the Steelers’ conditioning program to bulk up, but the potential is there. Even though he is not an explosive athlete, Mauro is physical at the point of attack and has the ability to handle a double team.
Those are the types of tools that the Steelers look for in their late-round or undrafted defensive ends. In fact, he compares favorably to one former Steeler, according CBSSports.com’s Rob Rang:
“Compares to: Brett Keisel, Steelers -- Don't count on Mauro for blinding speed off the edge but his size, strength and toughness could make him a dependable five-technique defensive end, like the Steelers' Keisel.”
Like Keisel, Mauro will have a chance to stick on the roster by making an impact on special teams during his rookie season. As long as he can contribute in this area and flash in his defensive snaps during the preseason, Mauro will ensure himself a roster spot.
3. Wesley Johnson, OL
The Steelers' starting offensive line may be set, but there is still room for movement with the backups. Mike Adams and Cody Wallace are good bets to make the team, meaning that the final roster spot could come down to Guy Whimper and rookie Wesley Johnson.
New offensive line coach Mike Munchak did not have much say in the makeup of the offensive line, but he was a factor in drafting Johnson. As one of the most respected offensive line coaches in the league and fresh off a stint as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans, Munchak’s opinions will carry a lot of weight.
Munchak told Bob Labriola of Steelers.com that is a lot to like when it comes to Johnson.
The first thing you hear about him is that he’s very versatile, a guy who has made over 50 starts in the SEC at three positions. So he is a guy we feel who can really play center, guard or tackle depending on where we need him. He’s definitely battle-tested having played in the SEC, against guys like Jadeveon Clowney and other top-level competition week in and week out for a long time. That gives us the feeling that he will feel very comfortable coming into the NFL and fitting in here nicely with us. Especially with the offensive line, unfortunately, having so many injuries, here’s a guy who has an opportunity to fill in at those spots if we need him.
With a limited number of roster spots available on game day, versatility is a key. Not only does Johnson have experience playing all three positions on the line, but he has enough size (6’5” and 297 lbs) to continue to do so in the NFL.
Besides his size, Johnson is an athletic enough to play in the outside-zone blocking scheme. He was one of the best offensive line performers in the three-cone drill, per NFL.com. In addition to his athleticism, he is a leader and “has everything you want intangibly,” according to Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com.
Johnson is the first “Munchak guy” that the Steelers brought in for the line, and this could help carry him to a roster spot. His ability to play every position on the line makes him a valuable asset, and he could jump Whimper as the swing backup. After a year of seasoning, he will be in position to compete for a starting job.
2. Vic So'oto, OLB
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes there is too much stock put into OTA news. However, it is never a bad thing for players to draw attention to themselves for being a strong performer in practices.
Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review identified Vic So’oto as one of those players:
A couple guys to keep eye on heading into training camp for Steelers are WR Justin Brown and LB Vic So'oto. Both could sneak onto the 53-man— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) May 30, 2014
So’oto is a rare sleeper given his age and experience. He has been in the league since 2011 and will be 27 years old by the start of the season. He has also struggled to stay in one city, according to Kaboly:
“It's especially challenging when you have been signed or released 13 times in a span of 16 months. Just ask first-year Steelers outside linebacker Vic So'oto,” Kaboly wrote. “But one thing about playing for six teams in three years, it makes one resourceful, and So'oto has been just that in the category of getting noticed.”
"He's a beast, a young beast," nose tackle Howard Green said. "That's what I call him, 'Young Beast.' He's just a stud. He's strong and he's talented and he's coachable."
But a series of injuries derailed his career before it ever got started. According to KFFL, So’oto was placed on the injured reserve in 2012 and 2013.
Now that he is healthy, So’oto has an excellent opportunity to make the team. The Steelers are thin at outside linebacker, and only Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats are considered locks. He will be a part of a camp battle that features Chris Carter and rookies Jordan Zumwalt and Howard Jones.
When healthy, So’oto has flashed potential, which is one reason that he is still in the league. As long as he can stay on the field, he will make a strong push to make the team.
1. Brian Arnfelt, DE
There is an assumption in Pittsburgh that the starting right defensive end position will come down to Cam Thomas or Stephon Tuitt.
It is hard to argue against that notion. Thomas is the veteran with starting experience and Tuitt is the high-draft pick expected to be a long-term fixture on the defensive line. Scott Brown of ESPN.com even wrote that “Tuitt is the most promising of the youngsters the Steelers have at defensive end.”
Brian Arnfelt may have something to say about that.
Arnfelt had a terrific preseason and had eight tackles in four games, per Steelers.com. Though it was not enough to make the final roster, he did earn a spot on the practice squad.
He spent most of the 2013 season on the practice squad but was promoted from the practice squad for the final three games of the season. It was an encouraging way to end the year after he made such a great impression during the preseason.
At the end of the year, he knew that there would be room to improve and planned to use the offseason to master the playbook and improve on his weaknesses, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com:
At first when you are thrown in there and the playbook is huge, it’s overwhelming. You take it play by play and just get it in your mind and you do it before you go to bed, when you wake up, in between. This offseason is going to be huge, especially getting feedback from the coaches on what I need to improve on, what they see from me and to have a whole offseason to work on those areas.
Arnfelt made such progress in a short amount of time and will look to build upon that this year. Though he may not beat out Thomas or Tuitt for a starting job, he could certainly earn a role as a rotational player on the defensive line.