Breaking Down Pittsburgh Steelers' 5 Biggest Training Camp Projects
The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most stable organizations in all of professional sports. However, that was not the case this offseason as Kevin Colbert made significant changes to the roster.
The Steelers used the offseason to get younger and faster and that is exactly what they achieved. Of their projected 22 starters, only four are over the age of 28.
By the time the 2014 season kicks off, they will have at least one new starter on offense and at least three new starters on defense. Several others are expected to move into key roles as backups. That includes several young players who still have a lot to prove come training camp.
Succeeding at the college level or in a limited role is much different than developing into a starter at the NFL level. Pittsburgh’s coaching staff will have its work cut out as it develops these projects into full-time contributors.
With less than two weeks until the start of training camp, here is a preview of the five biggest projects on the Steelers’ roster.
Mike Adams, OT
The offensive line has long been a weakness for Pittsburgh’s offense. That was not the case over the second half of the season last year, when a combination of offensive scheme and improved play resulted in only 11 sacks allowed over the final eight games.
The arrow should continue to point up in 2014 as Mike Munchak takes over as offensive line coach. He will have plenty of talent to work with, but there may be no more important job than developing Mike Adams.
The 6’7”, 323-pound Adams was the Steelers’ second-round selection in the 2012 draft. As a rookie, he played in 10 games—including six starts—and flashed his potential as a devastating run-blocker at right tackle. For his efforts, he earned the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, which is given to the Steelers’ top rookie.
It has been downhill ever since for Adams. He finished his rookie year on injured reserve and struggled during his second. According to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Adams gave up four sacks in four starts.
With Kelvin Beachum seemingly entrenched at left tackle, Adams' best chance at getting on the field will be competing with Marcus Gilbert for the starting spot at right tackle. If that doesn’t happen, he will be a backup swing tackle.
In order to compete for a starting job, Adams is going to have to show a significant amount of improvement, particularly with his footwork. He can appear sluggish on the field and is unable to handle speed rushers. Luckily for Adams, he now has one of the best coaches to work under and he is looking forward to this opportunity, via Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com:
“Oh, man, he’s an awesome coach, a great teacher,” Adams said. “It’s always good to learn from someone who’s been there. Him as a Hall-of-Famer, it doesn’t really get much better than that.
“He’s reviewed everything from last year. He’s a coach, that’s what they do. So, yeah, we’ve talked a bit. The whole group, we’ve all talked to him, all met with him. It’s been a good change so far.”
It will be a challenge for Adams to regain a starting job this year, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make an impression for the future. Gilbert is in the final year of his contract and the Steelers will have to decide what to do with him moving beyond 2014. A strong showing by Adams can make this an easy decision for the Steelers.
Dri Archer, RB/WR
A collective groan came from Steelers’ fans across the nation when they Dri Archer’s name flashed across the screen as Pittsburgh’s selection in the third round.
The Steelers needed a cornerback, not a 5’8” and 173-pound role player without a true position. Never mind that he had the fastest 40-yard dash time at the combine (h/t Mike Huguenin of NFL.com), it had already been determined that this guy will be a bust.
It is hard to blame fans for thinking that Archer will develop—or not develop, rather—into another Chris Rainey. He is small and…well, that is where the comparisons end.
Unlike Rainey, Archer is a football player.
Paul Haynes, Archer’s coach at Kent State, believes that he can be a quality running back at the next level, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com:
"I think one of the biggest mistakes we made here is flexing him out," Haynes said. "We needed to keep him at running back just because we could have gotten him more touches. He has great vision, he has great feet, he has great burst—all the things a good running back needs to be."
With Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount ahead of him, it will be difficult to get Archer more than a few carries per game. That is why it wasn’t a surprise that Mike Tomlin told NFL Total Access (h/t Dan Hanzus of NFL.com) that Archer will play receiver as well.
But it won’t be as simple as throwing Archer onto the field and letting his speed do the work. He will have to understand the blocking schemes and develop patience when hitting holes to develop into an effective running back. He will need to understand the route tree and improve his hands to be an effective receiver.
When you add in his duties as a returner on special teams, Archer will have a loaded plate during his rookie season. Besides everything that he has to learn, the offensive coaching staff still has to figure out exactly how it will use him.
No matter what Tomlin and Todd Haley decide, Archer figures to be a dangerous weapon to have. His speed is nearly unmatched and he will be a threat every time he touches the ball in open space. However, we will not see any of his potential unless he is properly developed.
Markus Wheaton, WR
Markus Wheaton showed it all last training camp.
He had quickness off the line, terrific deep speed and soft hands. It would only be a matter of time before he made an impact—or so we thought.
Wheaton only had six receptions for 64 yards during his rookie season while playing in just 159 offensive snaps, per Football Outsiders. A broken finger that he suffered in London was a contributing factor to this.
That same broken pinky could continue to plague him after it did not heal properly. Though the surgery went fine, Wheaton told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he did not properly rehab it:
“The surgeon did a great job, but the rehab, it was on me,” Wheaton said. “I should have been pushing it a lot more than I was, I got pretty complacent in where I was with my rehab, and thinking, `It’s just my pinkie,’ and not giving it as much time as it needed.”
The result is a disfigured finger that may affect his ability to catch the ball moving forward. However, that will not stop him for making a push to be the No. 2 receiver alongside Antonio Brown. It is one of the reasons the Steelers selected him with their third-round draft pick last year.
Dan Hanzus of NFL.com believes that he can take the next step. He identified Wheaton as one of 25 players who will be “Making the Leap” in 2014.
“Asking for a Pro Bowl-level season is pushing it, but we expect Wheaton to earn Roethlisberger's trust as the season progresses and make the progression the team hoped for in 2013,” Hanzus wrote.
That is a fair assessment from Hanzus. Wheaton should not be expected to put up monster numbers in his first season, but it is fair to assume that he will hold off Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and others for a spot in the starting lineup.
So why is Wheaton considered to be a project?
He must prove himself. He must show that he understands the intricacies of being an NFL receiver. He must demonstrate a deep understanding of the offense—especially if the Steelers use the no-huddle scheme. Most importantly, he must be on the same page as Ben Roethlisberger.
Wheaton has the ability to be just as, if not more, productive than Emmanuel Sanders was last year. He now must show that he is up to the task.
Stephon Tuitt, DE
The Steelers have very high expectations for second-draft draft pick Stephon Tuitt, especially defensive line coach John Mitchell, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"We look for this guy to be here for a long time. He's a guy that can do a lot of things for us,” Mitchell said. “He can push the pocket. He can play the run. He can get off blocks and he can get to the ball. We got a good football player."
Mitchell added that if not for a series of injuries, "he probably would have been in the top 10 guys drafted. We feel like we got a steal in the second round with our pick."
If the front office and coaching staff truly believes that Tuitt has top-10 talent, then he should be on the field sooner rather than later. However, as is the case with most defensive ends selected by the Steelers, he will have to spend some time on the sidelines learning the position.
Need evidence of this? Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward combined for zero starts as rookies, per Pro Football Reference. Only Smith was able to secure a full-time starting job by his second season.
However, Tuitt came to the Steelers more equipped to play the 5-technique than any of them. At 6’5” and 303 pounds, he has the prototypical size to play end in Pittsburgh’s system. He is very strong and can be a force against the run, but he can also collapse the pocket to pressure the quarterback.
That does not mean that Tuitt will walk right into a starting job. He admitted to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he had a “rocky” start to practice. Also, Mitchell strips rookies down of everything that they know and builds them back up to play defensive end the “Steeler Way.”
No matter how talented a defensive end is, they will always be a project in the Steelers’ defensive system. It will only be a matter of time before Tuitt earns the job, but until then, Cam Thomas will keep the seat warm.
Jarvis Jones, OLB
There is a reason that no rookie defensive player has been a Week 1 starter for the Steelers since Kendrell Bell in 2001. The complex scheme is difficult for rookies to learn and it can be very overwhelming.
That was the case for Jarvis Jones last season. He started eight of the 14 games that he played in, yet he only managed one sack. That was a disappointment for a player who was supposed to help boost a weak pass rush.
Jones was unable to master the defense and was not strong enough to handle NFL tackles. Neither of those issues was a surprise, particularly the latter. It was known prior to the start of the year that Jones would need to add strength to develop into an effective pass-rusher.
After an entire offseason to increase his strength, he must develop his ability to get to the quarterback. He will not have to do it alone either. New defensive coach Joey Porter will certainly help Jones in that area.
General manager Kevin Colbert sees a similarity between Jones and Porter and believes that the two will work well together, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com:
“Joey can bring a certain element of pass-rush expertise,” Colbert said of Porter, who ranks fifth on the Steelers all-time sacks list with 60. “The exciting thing is he and Jarvis are very similar statures, so I think there will be some things he’ll be able to share with Jarvis that will help Jarvis be a better player.”
The Steelers can only hope that Jones can become as productive as Porter was. After just one year, there is already some doubt. Not only did Jones record only one sack, but he did not come close to making any splash plays. It wasn’t until the final week of the season that Jones looked to be an active presence on the defense.
Against the Cleveland Browns, Jones had nine tackles and one pass defensed. It was his most productive game of the year and provided a glimmer of hope for the 2014 season.
Porter believes that Jones can build upon his rookie season and develop into a quality player, via Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“(Jones) is anxious to respond,” Porter said. “He wasn't happy how it turned out, but he feels like he did the best he can. Now it's try to help him do even more.”
“I don't have to say, ‘Man, you have to do this.' He's a good student and wants to learn the game,” Porter said. “Like I tell him all the time, ‘You put in the work, and I'm going to be here for you. I played the position, (so) soak up all the knowledge I have like a sponge, and I'll keep giving it to you.' ”
As long as Jones is willing to learn, there are few players with as much passion for defensive football as Porter. Not only will he learn to be a better pass-rusher, but a better all-around defender entering his second season.