Per NFL rules, the Pittsburgh Steelers recently released their first official depth chart ahead of their preseason opener against the Giants. This depth chart carried little in the way of surprises but is subject to change.
Among the team’s 22 starters, a few spots are more tentative than others. Most notably, those held by first- and second-year Steelers in Markus Wheaton, Cam Thomas and Jarvis Jones are in danger.
Who’s in line to challenge for those positions? Read on to find out.
Since 2009, the Pittsburgh Steelers have invested heavily at the 5-technique. Both Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward were first-round picks; however, neither factored into the equation much as a rookie.
In both cases, though, they were in contention with proven veterans. Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith sat atop the depth chart upon Hood’s drafting, and Keisel and Hood were the incumbents when Heyward entered the league. Last season, Heyward supplanted Hood and Keisel is currently a free agent.
That means the only man separating second-round rookie and prototypical 5-tech Stephon Tuitt from a starting role is four-year vet Cam Thomas. Thomas, a nose tackle in frame and athleticism, underwhelmed in San Diego and was pulled from the starting lineup at the end of last season. Whether a position change can alter his career trajectory remains to be seen.
With Steve McLendon absent, Thomas has been taking snaps at the nose recently. That’s opened the door for Tuitt, a stalwart on Notre Dame’s great 2012 defense, to get some first-team reps. If what long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is saying is any indication, per Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Alan Robinson, Tuitt is making the most of the opportunity.
“He's shown us a lot of athleticism for a big guy and he's in great shape. He can run all day,” LeBeau said. “He's pretty highly motivated.”
As many expected, the Steelers' first official depth chart listed Markus Wheaton as the starter opposite Antonio Brown.
It also featured a substantial jump for another second-year man in Justin Brown. Brown, who spent his rookie season on the practice squad, is currently listed ahead of Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey as the team’s fourth receiver.
Brown’s ascension shouldn’t surprise many as his stellar offseason performance has been highly publicized so far. As reported by ESPN’s Scott Brown, Justin has “has seemingly caught everything thrown his way at camp,” and some of that performance can be attributed to training with Pittsburgh’s star wideout Antonio Brown.
“I think he’s really motivated and hungry about getting an opportunity to play,” Antonio Brown said of Justin.
Brown is also impressing coaches by virtue of his toughness this offseason. Per ESPN’s Brown, Justin reportedly practiced through a broken nose sustained last Thursday and returned to practice just days after surgery to correct the break.
Once seen as a long shot to make the final roster, Brown is now in the running for a much bigger role. Should Wheaton falter, or Brown continue to excel, he may be the one lined up opposite his training partner come Week 1.
Jarvis Jones is listed as a starting outside linebacker opposite Jason Worilds. It should be noted, though, that Jones started from Weeks 2-6 last season before being yanked in favor of Worilds.
News out of camp so far has been scarce as it pertains to Jones. What has come has been mostly positive.
A piece from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac talked of Jones using a strong initial punch to get past left tackle Kelvin Beachum. The story also said Jones, though he weighs the same 245 pounds, believes he’s entering his second season both stronger and with a better understanding of the defense.
Of course, Jones’ rookie season began with similar optimism and resulted in just one sack and a player who was often a step slow.
If Jones disappoints early the Steelers may look to Arthur Moats to hold down the fort. Moats tallied five sacks in limited time through his first two NFL seasons but hasn’t managed one over the past two.
Some of that can be attributed to playing out of position. As reported by Steelers Depot’s Dave Bryan, Moats was a stud pass-rusher at James Madison, but playing as a 4-3 outside linebacker in Buffalo offered little opportunity to get after the passer.
Bryan reported former Steelers offensive tackle Tunch Ilkin saw Moats look much more at ease playing on the edge in a 3-4 defense. If Ilkin’s analysis holds true then Moats should, at the very least, garner some snaps at the expense of Jones.