Pittsburgh Steelers: Grading Every Position Unit at the Start of Camp
And, of course, some groups like the offensive line and linebackers in Pittsburgh are loaded with potential. That being said, grades for such units have to be given with what they have accomplished in mind ahead of what they can accomplish.
No, grades don’t mean much now, but it’s still a fun exercise to pass the time until kickoff. Consider this more a preseason assessment to see where the class stands heading into 2014.
It’s no secret that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the Steelers earn a high grade based on the presence of Ben Roethlisberger alone.
In fact, in two years at his current pace, Roethlisberger’s career stats (34,105 YDS, 219 TD, 122 INT) will virtually mirror Joe Montana’s (40,551 YDS, 273 TD, 139 INT).
Behind Roethlisberger, things get a bit dicier.
Bruce Gradkowski has proven to be a solid backup during his time in the NFL, but he hasn’t started a game in three seasons. If the Steelers are forced to rely on him for any significant stretch it could crush their playoff hopes.
If Pittsburgh opts to keep a third quarterback, it will likely be Landry Jones. The 2013 fourth-rounder didn’t even dress for a game in his rookie season, so it’s unlikely he’ll see the field this year unless by necessity.
The Steelers' running back situation has seen tremendous improvement over the past year.
Sophomore back Le'Veon Bell looks poised to build on a rookie season that started cold and ended much, much hotter. Behind an improving offensive line, Bell topped 4.0 yards per carry in four of his final games. He’s got the instinctive and physical talent to leave a lasting impression in Pittsburgh.
Behind Bell last season was a pair of middling backups in Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones. Neither player hit the 200-yard mark through the duration of last season. That duo is gone, and in its place is a back with much higher upside: LeGarrette Blount.
The bruising back possesses more potential, as evidenced by his 189-yard, two-touchdown output against Buffalo in Week 17 for the New England Patriots. The quarter-ton of fun that is Bell and Blount will combine to strike fear in even the nastiest of defenses.
When they’ve got them on their last legs, in will come the spark plug to put things out of reach: Dri Archer.
Archer, this year’s third-rounder, doesn’t have the size (5'8", 173 lbs) nor the durability to be a featured back, but his 4.26 speed in the 40-yard dash at the combine, per NFL.com, makes him a threat any time he touches the ball. And that will prove even truer after Bell and Blount have tired out opposing defenses.
As with the quarterback position, the Steelers earn a solid grade by virtue of their best receiver: Antonio Brown.
Brown had a masterful ’13 season with 1,499 yards and eight scores. Having just turned 26, the sky is the limit for this young star.
Behind Brown, however, is a fair amount of uncertainty. Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, the team’s second and third receivers, departed in the offseason. Lance Moore was brought in to replace Cotchery and has the pedigree and savvy, veteran smarts to suggest he can post yardage totals on par with Cotchery (602 yards in ’13).
The biggest question for the Steelers receiving corps is: Who will replace Sanders’ production out wide?
2013 third-rounder Markus Wheaton has a similar skill set to Sanders and should get the first crack at it, but lingering injury issues could prove detrimental.
If Wheaton falters, fourth-round rookie Martavis Bryant should be waiting in the wings. Bryant has the necessary size (6’4”, 211 lbs) and speed (4.42 40-yard dash, per NFL.com) to make an impact, but rawness and mental lapses could prevent a breakout in year one.
Using multiple tight ends has become a prominent trait for NFL offenses, but the Steelers have largely stuck by old reliable, Heath Miller.
Coming off a catastrophic knee injury, Miller never seemed to truly round into form in ’13. That being said, his 593-yard effort was on par with most of his previous efforts. It’s just that it didn’t match up to his stellar 2012 season (816 yards, eight touchdowns).
Another year removed from a torn ACL, spending time as Roethlisberger’s most trusted red-zone target should see Miller come close to replicating those totals.
Behind Miller is Matt Spaeth. Spaeth dealt with injuries through much of ’13, only playing in the team’s last four games. Spaeth’s value is strictly as a blocking tight end, and it’s a role he excels in.
The second-best receiving option after Miller is David Paulson. Paulson is not much of a blocker, but he does have value as a vertical threat. That much was evidenced with two 30-plus-yard grabs on just six receptions last season.
It seems that the Steelers have fielded a struggling offensive line for the majority of Roethlisberger’s career. A glance at last season’s box scores would hardly suggest a resurgence is forthcoming. After all, Roethlisberger wound up sacked 42 times last season.
That being said, 2013 was essentially a tale of two halves. In the second half of last season, Pittsburgh allowed just seven sacks and soundly improved its running game. That partially explains why new offensive line coach Mike Munchak is so high on the group, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, heading into the '14 season.
The line should be instantly improved with the return of All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey, who had a torn ACL and MCL last year. Finally getting him next to David DeCastro, who looks to be on the cusp of some postseason accolades as well, should bode well for the interior of the line.
Lining up opposite that duo is Ramon Foster. Foster may not have entered the league with the high expectations of the aforementioned duo, but his tenacity has helped the undrafted product develop into a fixture up front.
Next to Foster is Kelvin Beachum. The 6'3", 303-pound Beachum may not have the look of a prototypical left tackle, but that hasn’t stopped him from beating out two high-round picks who do. That speaks to Beachum’s work ethic, but it also speaks to the lackluster play of the two tackles vying to start opposite him.
Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams were second-round picks in consecutive years, but only one will earn the open spot at right tackle. As the line’s only 16-game starter last season, Gilbert has to be considered the odds-on favorite. Early slip-ups, though, could see him out of the lineup in a hurry.
This group has the pedigree and potential to be the best offensive line Pittsburgh has fielded in some time. Recent history, however, suggests that fans rein in expectations until they see that translate to the field for a full season.
Long a strength of the team, the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line is in a time of transition. This offseason alone the Steelers said goodbye to Al Woods, Ziggy Hood and (perhaps) Brett Keisel, all men who started games in the ’13 season.
2011 first-rounder Cameron Heyward was inserted into the starting lineup for a struggling Hood last season and never looked back. His breakout season was on par with some of the best posted by Keisel and Aaron Smith, and has seen him take over as the defensive front’s head honcho.
Steve McLendon is slated to start next to Heyward at nose tackle and will be expected to grow in his second year as a starter. McLendon wasn’t the biggest or the only fault with Pittsburgh’s run defense, but his inability to command two blockers definitely showed at points last season.
The most interesting spot along the defensive line will be at the 5-technique opposite Heyward. Free-agent signee Cam Thomas and second-round rookie Stephon Tuitt are both in the mix to start at the spot.
Thomas underwhelmed as a nose tackle in San Diego, so it’s unknown how a position switch will affect his career trajectory. As of now, Thomas has to be seen as a stopgap until Tuitt’s ready for a bigger role. If Tuitt can prove worthy of that spot in a hurry, he could drive this grade up past average.
The Steelers will be without some familiar faces in their front seven, but in turn they will trot out one of the more potential-laden units on the team.
After LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote departed this offseason, Lawrence Timmons has become the stalwart of the linebacker group. The 28-year-old has generally been good for 100-plus tackles and a few splash plays each season.
Flanking Timmons should be Pittsburgh’s latest first-round pick, Ryan Shazier. Shazier was among the most athletically gifted players in this year’s class, and thus far that athleticism is said to be translating well to the practice field, per ESPN's Scott Brown.
We’ll see if that optimism remains as training camp gets underway.
The Steelers will rely heavily on Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds to provide a pass rush from the outside linebacker spot. The jury’s still out on Jones after a disappointing rookie season, but this excellent piece from Steelers Depot’s Alex Kozora breaks down the concerns with both his technique and skill set. Jones will have his work cut out for him if he’s to meet expectations.
The verdict on Worilds is unclear as well, but for entirely different reasons. Worilds broke out in his fourth season to the tune of eight sacks after being forced into the lineup out of necessity. Now playing on a one-year transition tag, Worilds should come into ’14 with a lot to prove.
One thing this year’s group boasts is quality depth. Vince Williams was pressed into duty during his rookie season and, though he struggled at times, gained valuable experience. Arthur Moats will serve as a versatile backup across the board after four seasons in Buffalo and could press for a starting role if any of the aforementioned starters struggle.
The secondary was thought to be among Pittsburgh’s biggest priorities throughout the offseason, but the team made just one notable addition.
That came in the form of Mike Mitchell. Mitchell is like a number of current Steelers in that he failed to meet early expectations but came on in a big way. In the ’13 season with the Panthers, Mitchell notched 3.5 sacks and four interceptions.
Mitchell will now get the opportunity to play alongside one of the best safeties ever: Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu turned in his second 16-game effort in the past three years and resembled the turnover-forcing machine fans had grown accustomed to. Polamalu may never regain Defensive Player of the Year form, but he looks to have a solid season or two left and, of course, some valuable wisdom to pass on to the players around him.
Cornerback was seen as a major weak link after the ’13 season, but the Steelers apparently don’t see things that way. If they do, it’s tough to believe they’d trot out the same top three from a season ago.
Ike Taylor, long the team’s top cover corner, declined significantly in ’13 and had to take a pay cut to remain under contract. Whether or not he’ll still be tracking opponents' top receivers is unclear, but it’s tough to expect much in the way of results if he does.
Opposite Taylor should be Cortez Allen. Allen ended the ’12 season on a tear and entered ’13 with big expectations, but injury issues made for a largely underwhelming encore. The potential is still there, but his chances to prove it in Pittsburgh may be limited to this season, being that it's a contract year.
William Gay, surprisingly enough, is the steadiest returning corner from last season. Long the goat for defensive lapses, Gay proved reliable both in coverage and in tackling opposing ball-carriers playing the slot last season.
Shaun Suisham is not Sebastian Janikowski, and his career-best 52-yard field goal serves as a testament to that.
That being said, Suisham is automatic within 50 yards. In fact, aside from a lackluster ’11 season, Suisham has missed just six of 78 attempts since joining the Steelers.
While Suisham’s been reliable, it’s tough to say the same of the Steelers' punting.
Adam Podlesh has to be considered the favorite to earn the job based on experience alone. Podlesh’s 37.9-yard net punting average is a disappointment when compared with his contemporaries, but the fact that he dropped 27 punts inside the 20-yard line has to be taken into consideration.
Little needs to be said of 32-year-old Greg Warren at long snapper. Warren’s a been steady presence on three Super Bowl teams and is rarely mentioned, the true sign of a quality long snapper.