Pittsburgh Steelers: Top Position Battles to Watch in Training Camp

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IJuly 15, 2014

Pittsburgh Steelers: Top Position Battles to Watch in Training Camp

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    Every season, when training camp opens, there are players who are incumbents working to keep their jobs and backups who are working to take them. The Pittsburgh Steelers training camp promises several position battles. This is a team that is committed to getting back to running the football and becoming younger and more athletic on both sides of the football.

    Not all of these battles are for starting spots, but that in no way diminishes their importance or how intense they will be. All of these players have the potential to play key roles in the success or failure of this franchise in 2014.

    So, with that, let’s look at five of the big position battles to watch during training camp.

Markus Wheaton vs. Lance Moore vs. Martavis Bryant

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    Training camp promises an exciting battle for one starting spot at wide receiver. Antonio Brown has one spot locked down. Whichever wide receiver lines up across from him is going to see some soft coverage and plenty of targets from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

    It is assumed that second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton has the inside track for the spot, but after a disappointing rookie campaign, nothing will be handed to him. Expect veteran Lance Moore and rookie Martavis Bryant to push him hard.

    Moore in particular has a real shot to end up snatching the starting spot. Roethlisberger didn’t hide his preference for veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery last season, relegating young speedster Emmanuel Sanders to a third wide receiver role for much of 2013.

    The sleeper of the group might be rookie Martavis Bryant. Bryant has all the speed and athleticism of any of these wide receivers but in a 6’4” frame. Bryant is not only a frightening deep threat, but can be that red-zone target Roethlisberger can throw the fade to near the end zone.

    Look for all three of these players to push hard for reps. Who’s going to win out? Don’t be shocked if Wheaton wins the job, but Moore becomes a more enticing target in the clutch.

Cam Thomas vs. Steve McLendon

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    There are some real questions about the Steelers defensive line. The only spot that is assured at this point is defensive end Cameron Heyward. His play in 2013 was a tremendous bright spot for this franchise and gives hope for the future.

    However, it could take the entirety of training camp and the preseason to sort out who the other two starting defensive linemen will be. Steve McLendon is the incumbent at nose tackle but really struggled on the inside in 2013. His future could be at defensive end. Meanwhile, Cam Thomas could be the guy on the interior with his added girth and power.

    It is nice that both are seemingly interchangeable parts, but that can be counterproductive as well. It would be ideal if one or the other would assert himself at nose tackle. Rookies Stepon Tuitt and Josh Mauro look like a perfect candidates to play defensive end opposite Heyward. Getting them up to speed means that it can be Thomas or McLendon (or maybe a combination) holding down the vital nose tackle position.

    Ultimately, it looks like Thomas is going to be the guy. His strength is superior to that of McLendon. This team struggled greatly in 2013 because it couldn’t stay in base defense. The hope is that the winner of this battle will play well enough to change that.

William Gay vs. Cortez Allen

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    The position with the most uncertainty as training camp approaches is cornerback. Incumbent Ike Taylor is entering what is likely his final season as a member of the Steelers but is still the best cornerback on the roster. Let that sink in for a minute.

    The starting spot opposite Taylor is wide open. Both William Gay and Cortez Allen had starts in 2013 (11 and seven), and both are very different styles of players. Gay is smaller at 5’10” and 190 pounds, far more physical and aggressive. Allen is long at 6’1”, fast and smooth.

    However, both are inconsistent in coverage, and neither brings enough to the table in terms of creating turnovers. Gay is approaching 30 years old, while Allen is nearly five years younger. Allen is one a season away from angling for a new contract, which should motivate him to play better.

    Nevertheless, it is going to be the experience and physical play off Gay that will win out. Allen has had ample opportunity to earn a starting spot, but it sure looks like he is going to come up short again in 2014.

Shamarko Thomas vs. Mike Mitchell

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    Until safety Troy Polamalu decides to ride off into the sunset, there will be only one safety spot up for grabs. But which safety will take up residence at the spot Ryan Clark played for eight seasons?

    It is going to come down to Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas. And both have things about their games to warrant consideration. And regardless of which player wins the starting spot, look for both players to contribute in 2014.

    The case for Thomas centers on experience. Injuries in 2013 forced Thomas into service, with mixed results. He spent a great deal of time as the dime cornerback and looked more than a little out of position. Nevertheless, Thomas has a year in the defense, and that bodes well for his future.

    Mitchell is the newcomer. From a pure safety standpoint, Mitchell has a much more complete game. His height trumps Thomas 6’0” to 5’9”, and his speed is at least equal to that of Thomas. Mitchell started 13 games in 2013 for the Carolina Panthers and ended up with 72 tackles and four interceptions. Turnovers are what this defense has been lacking, so having Mitchell on the field is enticing.

    Nevertheless, I do not expect Thomas to go down without a fight. The odds of him winning the starting spot are long, but don’t count him out. He is aggressive and, with his starting experience, should have the confidence of the coaching staff. Look for this one to come right down to the wire, with Mitchell winning the job late.

Marcus Gilbert vs. Mike Adams

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    Just the fact that Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams are in competition means things are far from ideal for the Steelers offensive line. Things aren’t too dire, but still, everyone should hope that one of these guys steps up and assumes a more dominant role at right tackle.

    Adams got 10 starts in 2013 at either left tackle or “tight end” but really struggled in pass protection. The good news for him is that Pittsburgh appears to be building a team that wants to run the ball more. This is much more in Adams’ wheelhouse in terms of blocking skills.

    Gilbert was the only Steelers offensive lineman to start all 16 games in 2013. At 66” and 330 pounds, Gilbert is nearly a physical clone of the 6’7”, 323-pound Adams and has one more year of experience in the league. These factors will certainly help Gilbert, but Adams might be playing for a spot on the roster.

    Like it or not, Kelvin Beachum is very much entrenched as the starting left tackle, leaving Gilbert and Adams to duke it out for the other.

    With Pittsburgh favoring reserve offensive linemen who can play multiple positions, it is hard to justify keeping both players. For Adams and Gilbert, it could be starter or bust for them this season. Gilbert is the guy here, and Adams is going to need to hope he still has a spot on the team at the start of the season.


    All player data courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.