Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Players Who Will Surprise During Training Camp
The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their training camp on July 26, 2014, at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. For NFL fans, the start of training camps is the moment when the season becomes real and all the waiting and wondering about their team comes to an end.
Every training camp, there are those players who shine just a little brighter than the rest. Guys who can use the camp to find their way onto the final roster or even work their way into a starting spot. It’s a daunting challenge. With only 53 spots available, and at least 40 of them set, those final 13 or so will be hotly contested.
Who are the players who are going to surprise this training camp? Read on and find out.
All player stats courtesy of NFL.com.
LeGarrette Blount, RB
There seems to be a misconception about running back LeGarrette Blount and the type of running back he is. Most look at his 6’0”, 250-pound frame and assume he is going to be some sort of short-yardage or goal-line specialist.
However, that’s not Blount’s game at all. In 2013, Blount had five carries of 20 yards or more. That’s as many as Maurice Jones-Drew or Chris Johnson. It’s also more than the Steelers’ own Le’Veon Bell had.
No one should be shocked if Blount does enough during training camp to warrant something in the 125-150 carry range during the regular season. There’s no reason to overwork he or Bell when you have two backs with starting-caliber skills.
Training camp is going to be a great chance for Blount to show the coaches how much he can help this running game. This team has toiled with players like Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer as running back, so the increase in talent to Blount is significant.
Josh Mauro, DE
With all the changes along the Steelers’ defensive line, opportunities are there for players to stand out and earn a roster spot. One of those players is rookie defensive end Josh Mauro. Mauro came to the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, but is a perfect fit for what Pittsburgh does on defense.
One starting defensive end spot is set with Cameron Heyward, but the competition for the spot opposite him is wide open. In addition, in sub packages, the roles of the defensive ends change, and in many cases they are asked to slide inside as defensive tackles.
The things that Pittsburgh asks of their defensive linemen are nearly identical to what Mauro did while at Stanford. He’s strong at the point of attack, plays with good leverage, and can kick inside in the nickel and short yardage.
Before you think it's a long shot that Mauro manages to wow everyone, keep in mind that arguably the two best defensive ends this team has had in the past 15 years are Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel; fourth- and seventh-round picks respectively.
Howard Jones, LB
If there is a player who will become the immediate fan favorite at camp, linebacker Howard Jones is going to be it. Jones' speed and athleticism just pop off the screen. At 6’4” and 238 pounds, Jones is quickly growing into an NFL-caliber body.
His length and speed off the engage are going to hold everyone’s attention in Latrobe. This is a team that needs all the help it can get at outside linebacker, so all eyes will be on Jones. There was a time when Jones was a long shot to make the roster, but it is hard to imagine him not making the team at this point.
Jones also has a little history on his side.
Two of the most dominant outside linebackers in this team’s history were late-round picks or undrafted free agents. Of course, I’m talking about Greg Lloyd who was a sixth-round pick and James Harrison who was an undrafted free agent.
The main criticism of Jones is that he isn’t strong enough at the point of attack. However, his functional strength is similar to teammate Jarvis Jones, and the Shepherd product is taller and faster than the second-year linebacker.
Shamarko Thomas, S
This is a big year for second-year safety Shamarko Thomas. The gauntlet has been thrown for Thomas, and it is time for him to step up and take what is his. Everyone knew that the end of last season would be the final time anyone would see safety Ryan Clark in a Steelers uniform.
The question was about his replacement. When Thomas was drafted, it seemed to be as an eventual replacement for Troy Polamalu.
However, as the season progressed, Thomas found himself shouldering far more coverage responsibilities than anyone else. This gave people hope that he could play free safety in 2014. But, the Steelers are eyeing Mike Mitchell as the starting free safety this year, and Polamalu is still trotting out there making plays.
This is going to light a fire under Thomas. And that fire is going to really help him show out big during training camp. Granted, while he’s not going to beat out Polamalu for the starting strong safety spot, free safety should be his goal. With his aggressive, no-holds-barred style of play, look for him to really open eyes at training camp this year.
Markus Wheaton, WR
Even though second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton comes in as the leader to start opposite Antonio Brown, nothing is certain.
However, Wheaton is going to wow everyone at training camp this year.
Wheaton’s opportunities were limited in 2013. With Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders on the roster, it was a challenge for him just to even get on the field. After finishing with only six receptions, you can bet that Wheaton is itching to get back on the field and prove he deserved his draft slot in 2013.
One thing that is really going to show up for Wheaton in camp is how physical he is. All the talk is about his speed and quickness, but Wheaton is a much more complete receiver than that.
Many of his best catches at Oregon State were contested plays where he had to go up and fight for the ball. Look for Wheaton’s complete game to take center stage during training camp.