Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie Training Camp Progress Reports
Once one of the most patient teams when it comes to the development of rookies, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a shift in philosophy. Similar to the physical attributes of many in this year’s draft class, the approach to player development has been fast.
Per Steelers.com's Mike Prisuta, Ryan Shazier has taken snaps with the first-team defense since the first day of training camp, while several others have received a limited number of reps with the starting units. It is clear that the Steelers want to get their young talent on the field as soon as possible.
Not even two weeks into camp, the early returns on the 2014 rookie class appear to be very good. Strong performances in practice indicate that there will be several first-year contributors once the regular season begins.
But as exciting as training camp reports can be, everyone must remember that this is still only practice and that the players must prove themselves in game action. This will be the true test of their abilities.
However, that does not mean that we can discount what occurs in practice. Coaches have been keeping a close eye on the rookies and have been challenging them in different ways. They will use what they learn from camp to not only develop the depth chart for the preseason games, but to help make decisions for the final roster.
There is much more to be learned about this year’s rookie class, but let’s take a look at the progress that each rookie has made throughout the first week-and-a-half of training camp.
Undrafted Free Agents
Chris Elkins, OL
The Steelers may be set with their starting five on the offensive line, but they continually look to improve their depth. Though it will be a challenge for him to make the final roster, rookie Chris Elkins has turned some heads in blocking drills early in training camp:
Undrafted rookie C-G Chris Elkins stopping all comers in one-on-ones, even Cam Heyward...twice. Brick outhouse.
— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) July 28, 2014
Elkins can play multiple spots on the interior and has been the best of the young linemen on the roster. If the Steelers keep nine linemen, his opportunity will dramatically increase. However, if they only keep eight, he will have to outplay Mike Adams, Guy Whimper or Cody Wallace.
Josh Mauro, DE
Bryan Fischer of NFL.com called Josh Mauro one of his top 10 available free-agent signings of 2014. After just over a week into training camp, Mauro has lived up to his potential. Though he has room to bulk up so he can hold blocks on the defensive line, he has not lacked strength in drills.
Rookie DL Josh Mauro looking real strong and fast during pass blocking drills.
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) July 31, 2014
Mauro has flashed his potential in live drills as well. On one play, he shed his block and came from the backside to tackle a running back for a loss. His performance combined with his college pedigree make him a sleeper to make the roster.
Only Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are locks as true defensive ends. Brian Arnfelt seems to have a grasp on another spot, but there could be room for Mauro, especially if he can shine on special teams.
Howard Jones, OLB
Howard Jones is a lanky outside linebacker prospect who had a very productive college career at Shepherd University. Despite all of his raw physical tools, could he play at the NFL level? So far, the answer is yes.
For the most part, Howard has looked good against the third-team offense, but he has been impressive in drills against some of the biggest names on the team. Scott Brown of ESPN.com reported that Jones “has stood out during back-on-backers drills” as he beat Heath Miller and had a strong performance against Mike Adams during a pass-rush drill.
Now that he has looked the part in practice, the next step for Jones is to show he can get to the quarterback during the game and play on special teams. Even though that likely won’t be enough to get him on the final roster, it would certainly earn him a spot on the practice squad.
Round 7, Pick 230: Rob Blanchflower, TE
Rob Blanchflower was drafted as a potential third-string tight end this year. He was a decent receiver in college and had the ability to block, a skill the Steelers require of in tight ends. As long as he could perform well in the latter area, he would have a realistic chance at beating out Michael Palmer and David Paulson.
Unfortunately, Blanchflower has not had many opportunities to show the coaches what he is capable of doing. He has spent much of training camp on the sidelines with an injury, and his hopes are slowly fading.
In his limited amount of practice, Blanchflower has done nothing to stand out from the rest and has struggled in the most-important area of his game—blocking.
Rob Blanchflower struggled during backs/tight ends on backers drills.— Scott Brown (@ScottBrown_ESPN) July 28, 2014
Overall, injuries have slowed Blanchflower’s progress, and as a result, he remains deep on the depth chart. There will be plenty of chances for him to turn it around, but his early showing has him on the outside looking in.
Round 6, Pick 215: Daniel McCullers, NT
By now you have heard all about Daniel McCullers' size—6’7” and 352 pounds—but until you witnessed it, it is hard to comprehend. He is a truly massive human being that makes guys like Stephon Tuitt and Steve McLendon look small.
McCullers' combination of size and power make him very difficult to block when he is able to get a good jump at the snap. However, his size can be a hindrance as well. He is not stout like a traditional 3-4 nose tackle, which makes it easy for linemen to gain leverage on him.
Another problem for McCullers is his level of endurance. After long periods on the field, McCullers has been bent over with his hands on his knees. He is a two-speed player—slow and stop—so you can imagine which speed he is closer to when he is tired.
With that said, he has shown flashes during training camp.
Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted that McCullers “was active all day” during one practice. This included a tackle against the fastest player on the team—Dri Archer.
Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette added that McCullers demonstrated his strength against David DeCastro during a blocking drill. It is one thing to knock back an undrafted rookie free agent, but it’s another when he physical dominates a player like DeCastro.
McCullers is limited in what he can bring to the field right now, but there are signs that he could contribute as a short-yardage specialist. However, he must become more consistent and continue to work on his conditioning. Until he does, McCullers will remain behind Hebron Fangupo and off the final roster.
Round 6, Pick 192: Jordan Zumwalt
Jordan Zumwalt cannot catch a break when it comes to getting on the practice field. He already missed most of the OTA practices due to his college schedule at UCLA. Luckily, he played under former Steelers assistant coach Lou Spanos, who runs a defensive system very similar to that of the Steelers, per Scott Brown of ESPN.com.
Things did not get better for training camp as Zumwalt spent most of his time on the sidelines as a spectator with a groin injury before finally suiting up on August 4.
Rookie LB Jordan Zumwalt is back in uniform. pic.twitter.com/IvKsOvuRpx
— Mike Prisuta (@DVEMike) August 4, 2014
Zumwalt has a lot of catching up to do, as several linebackers have been impressive during camp, including Jones, Vince Williams, Arthur Moats, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin, per Brown. All of these guys have been on the field making plays as Zumwalt sat and waited to return to health.
Despite being behind the rest of the linebackers, Zumwalt does have position versatility, as he can play on the inside or outside. He also expects to make an impact on special teams, which could carry him a long way to making the team.
As of now, there is little to say in terms of Zumwalt’s progress. Until he gets a few practices under his belt, he is just another linebacker on the roster biding his time until the final cuts are made.
Round 5, Pick 173: Wesley Johnson, OL
Wesley Johnson was the first offensive lineman drafted under new offensive line coach Mike Munchak. He won’t make the team on that fact alone, but it doesn’t hurt to have one of the top offensive line coaches in the league select you in the draft.
Johnson was selected, in part, due to his versatility. He played center, guard and tackle during his college career at Vanderbilt and has practiced at all three positions during training camp. As good as this sounds on paper, he has struggled and may have been better off focusing on just one position.
Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette believes that Johnson needs a year to add strength because he has been at a physical disadvantage in pass-rush drills. He added that the only way that Johnson makes the team is if he “shows big improvement.”
This has been particularly evident at the left tackle position. Johnson has struggled in pass protection from the position and was easily beaten twice by Chris Carter during the first week of practice.
The lack of progress by Johnson will be a disappointment for some—especially those who thought he could compete for a starting job as a rookie. There is still time for him to improve and find a spot on the team, but right now, he looks like a player destined for the practice squad.
Round 5, Pick 157: Shaquille Richardson, CB
As the only cornerback drafted by the Steelers, Shaquille Richardson has some pressure on his shoulders to perform in training camp. Outside of Cortez Allen, there are no young cornerbacks on the roster with starting potential for the near future.
Richardson has had a relatively quiet training camp with his most significant moment coming at the expense of the health of a teammate:
Heyward Bey shaken up in a drill against DBS. Shaquille Richardson landed on him after he dropped the ball.— Ray Fittipaldo (@rayfitt1) July 31, 2014
That is not to say that Richardson doesn’t have a chance to make the roster. He made several nice plays on the ball and has at least one interception during camp. However, he needs to be more physical at the line and prove that he can consistently defend against receivers who aren’t at the bottom of the depth chart.
With Antwon Blake having a stellar camp and Brice McCain having prior NFL experience, Richardson has a lot of talent to overcome. From what has been observed so far, his odds of making the roster are not very high right now.
Round 4, Pick 118: Martavis Bryant, WR
Martavis Bryant has been one of the most exciting, yet frustrating, players in training camp. One moment he will make a spectacular reception and the next, he will drop a ball that hits him right in the hands. Consistency has been a major issue for the rookie wide receiver.
Besides his hands, Bryant will have to develop his ability as a route-runner. He is limited right now, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem during his rookie year. The coaches can use him as they did with Mike Wallace as a rookie.
Bryant has little trouble getting by defensive backs on deep routes, and he has been downright deadly in the red zone, where he caught nearly every pass that went his way.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the coaches will put Bryant on the field with Ben Roethlisberger so the two can develop chemistry. It sounds as though the coaching staff is preparing him to get on the field, at least in a situational role.
“I think that’s what he’s determining with his efforts,” Mike Tomlin told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Obviously, he made a few plays today, but he’s a big guy so we expect him to consistently make big-guy plays. I’m interested in him developing a complete game.”
Round 3, Pick 97: Dri Archer, RB/WR
If you haven’t heard by now, Dri Archer is as fast as advertised. He definitely has practice speed, but now we all need to see if he has game speed.
Early indications are that he will.
During a passing drill, Lawrence Timmons was assigned the task to cover Archer. Keep in mind that Timmons is one of the most athletic linebackers in the league. The competition wasn’t even close. Archer made him look silly on two completions and had no problems accelerating away from the star linebacker.
Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review took note of Archer’s burst and versatility on the first day of practice. He has had several long runs during team drills and has even acted as a decoy to free up other players.
Even with his flashes of excitement, Archer still needs to develop—particularly at receiver.
During wide receiver drills, Archer spends extra time with wide receivers coach Richard Mann and gets specific instruction on what he needs to do. Given the time that he spends in the slot, any extra coaching will be beneficial.
Another area that Archer must work on is his hands. He has dropped several easy passes that has Roethlisberger barking at him to “catch the ball.” It is as simple as it sounds—he must catch the easy passes.
Despite his problems, Archer is showing glimpses of why the Steelers took him in the third round and he will definitely get plenty of touches on offense and special teams once the season begins.
Round 2, Pick 46: Stephon Tuitt, DE
Many assumed that once training camp began, the Steelers would immediately bring back Brett Keisel. Given all of the young talent that they have at defensive end, it is easy to see why they haven’t.
Stephon Tuitt is the star of the group, and it will be nearly impossible for the coaching staff to keep him off the field during the regular season. He displays good power, which has allowed him to make plays in the backfield when defending the run and when rushing the quarterback.
Of course, Tuitt will have to learn how to play defensive end as instructed by defensive line coach John Mitchell, but so far so good for the rookie.
“He’s doing well,” Tomlin told Scott Brown of ESPN.com. “He’s highly conditioned, he’s chasing the ball. He’s developing the skill associated with the position. He’s got a ways to go, they all do. But I like his attitude and approach to it.”
Tomlin is not the only person that Tuitt has impressed. DeCastro has experienced firsthand what Tuitt can bring to the team, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com: “He is real rangy, long athletic body. He is going to be a good player.”
Unlike Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, the Steelers are not taking a slow approach with Tuitt. He has played primarily with the second-team defense, but he has also received snaps with the starters. Although he may not earn a starting job, Tuitt will be a significant piece in the rotation at defensive end.
Round 1, Pick 15: Ryan Shazier, ILB
Like Archer, Ryan Shazier’s athleticism has been as advertised. He clearly has a step on the other linebackers on the team and this will be a much-needed boost for the defense.
Shazier only has a few months of experience in the NFL, but he already carries himself like a veteran. He is very vocal on the field and expects to make every play that he is in a position to make. While some players are fine with “good enough,” Shazier expects excellence from himself.
Though he is known for his athleticism, Shazier first made a name for himself in training camp with an impressive performance during the backs-on-backers drill. Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that he beat LeGarrette Blount in two out of three rounds.
The physical nature of his game was one concern coming into the NFL, particularly when it comes to shedding blocks. Now that the coaching staff has had an opportunity to watch Shazier in pads, they feel confident with his abilities.
“I think he can shed blocks at this level,” Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler told Scott Brown of ESPN.com. “What he’s got to do is pick his battles. If there’s a big guy he’s going to hit, get off him fast. Don’t stay on him because the guy’s going to win.”
There is no reason to stay engaged with offensive players. Shazier’s best asset is his speed, and he must use it. There have been several close calls on interceptions while using his speed in coverage, and he has been lighting quick when blitzing from the inside as well as the outside.
Shazier continues to show why the Steelers selected him so high in the draft, and he will be a foundation for the next generation of the defense. That will all begin in the opening week of the regular season when he is the first rookie defender to start since Dick LeBeau’s return to Pittsburgh.
“He's going to start. Yeah, he's going to start,” LeBeau told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Whether that was the situation or not (Shazier being a first rounder), he was going to start in the NFL. … We'll try not to overload him, but he's going to start, no question about it.”
At the rate Shazier is progressing, not only will he start on the defense, but he will be a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.