Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie Training Camp Progress Reports for Preseason Week 2
After two-and-a-half weeks of training camp, the Pittsburgh Steelers have to be thrilled with the progress of their rookies. Not only has the nine-man draft class met expectations, but several players have exceeded them.
This is good news for the Steelers as general manager Kevin Colbert told Bob Pompeani of KDKA 93.7 The Fan expects the rookies to play big roles this year:
We’re young, and that’s not an excuse, that’s the reality of it. The success of this team will be determined by how quickly those guys come through. There’s no other way around it. You can’t ask someone to slow down for you while these guys catch up. They gotta catch up, like coach says, on a moving train, and we’ll see how it goes.
Players such as Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt have had excellent camps. Not only do they look like they can contribute on defense, but they appear as though they can start. The offense will have an infusion of talent as well with Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant, two big-play threats who have bright futures.
Beyond the top draft choices, late-round and undrafted players have impressed as well. Daniel McCullers has been a force on the defensive line while Josh Mauro is on his way to passing two veterans to earn a spot on the final roster.
The Steelers are stocked with talented youth and this year’s rookie class is a major part of that. Here is a look at the latest progress of these first-year players.
Undrafted Free Agents
With little depth on the offensive line, the Steelers are in need of one of their linemen to impress.
Chris Elkins has caught the attention of many in training camp. He has impressed enough that Scott Brown of ESPN.com identified him as a “long shot” to watch for in the preseason opener against the New York Giants.
Despite impressing in pass-protection drills, Elkins remains a member of the third-team offensive line. It isn’t surprising for an undrafted free agent to be at the bottom of the depth chart at this point of the preseason.
However, Elkins will need to make a move very soon up the depth chart to have a chance to make the roster. He must prove that he can play against better competition or else he will be limited to a spot on the practice squad.
Willie Parker. James Harrison. Josh Mauro?
Mauro has a long way to go before he can be considered as the next great undrafted free agent signed by the Steelers, but it is hard to ignore the impressive start that he has had to training camp.
In only two weeks, Mauro worked his way up from the third-team defense and is now running with the backups. Based on when he entered the game against the Giants, he may have jumped Brian Arnfelt on the depth chart.
Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain praised Mauro for his performance against New York:
“Mauro performed well against the non-taxi squaders, having participated in much of the second half and [was] the edge-setter in the Steelers' base defense and goal line down the stretch.”
Given his effort in practice, Mauro’s performance in his NFL debut was not a surprise. He has been one of the hardest working players in training camp. Not only is he proving that he physically belongs, but he is picking up the mental aspects of the game as well.
Mauro still has work to do, but he is in a better position to make the team now than he was at the start of training camp.
A transition from Division II Shepherd University defensive lineman to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker is not an easy one to make. You would never know that if you have watched Howard Jones over the past two weeks.
Jones has a lot to learn about playing outside linebacker in the NFL, but the early returns have been good. He has demonstrated the ability to get to the quarterback during practice and was all over the football in the first preseason game.
The coaching staff is looking for defenders who can make plays, create turnovers. Jones recovered two fumbles and converted one into a touchdown. As a result, he was named the Steelers Digest Player of the Week (h/t Bob Labriola of Steelers.com).
Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that Jones’ performance was “a good first step,” and it was. However, one good game will not be enough to beat out veteran Chris Carter. He will have to continue to show up not only on defense, but on special teams.
As long as he continues playing at this level, Jones will make it a tough decision for the Steelers. They can find a spot for him on the final roster or risk losing him if they try to place him on the practice squad.
Round 7, Pick 230: Rob Blanchflower, TE
A high-ankle sprain slowed tight end Rob Blanchflower at the start of training camp, but he is back in action and will compete for a spot at the bottom of the depth chart.
Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth are locks to make the team, but none of the other backups—including Blanchflower—have stood out according to Bob Labriola of Steelers.com. Craig Wolfley added on Blanchflower, “He’s got a ways to go.”
The rookie has the look of an NFL tight end at 6’4” and 256 pounds. But he is not a dominant blocker and lacks the athleticism to be much of a threat in the receiving game. Though he has potential in both areas, Blanchflower will take time to develop but has not shown enough to warrant that time.
Michael Palmer remains the favorite to make the team as the third tight end. His special teams play will be what separates him from his competitors. That leaves Blanchflower challenging for a spot on the practice squad, which will be a push unless he shows more over the next couple of weeks.
Round 6, Pick 215: Daniel McCullers, NT
Daniel McCullers has had a quiet, but productive training camp, as he tries to carve out a role on the 2014 Steelers.
After one preseason game, McCullers remains behind backup Hebron Fangupo on the depth chart. That does not mean that he has failed to perform. He has looked dominant at times and could be even better once he refines his technique.
At 6’7” and 353 pounds, McCullers does not have the typical leverage of a 3-4 nose tackle. Instead, he has used his sheer size and raw power to push linemen back into the pocket. While he remains a work in progress, he has clearly displayed some of his potential.
McCullers had one tackle against the Giants and came away pleased with his first performance, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com:
“I have to just adjust to the speed,” said McCullers. “That is the biggest thing. It was a huge difference when I first got out there. That was the biggest thing for me, the speed. I think once I get it down pat the next couple of days I will be good. It hit me for a second, but I adjusted.”
Like all rookie defensive linemen selected—or signed—by the Steelers, McCullers must focus on his technique if he expects to be a long-term part of the team’s future. If his debut is a sign of things to come, he will earn a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Round 6, Pick 192: Jordan Zumwalt
Jordan Zumwalt did not have the advantage of availability that most of the other rookies had during training camp, as he spent most of his on the sidelines with an injury. Once he finally got back onto the field, it did not take long for him to make an impact.
Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Zumwalt had six tackles in 25 snaps played in the fourth quarter in the preseason opener against the New York Giants. However, none of these snaps came on special teams—the area in which he must shine to make the team.
Given that Zumwalt just returned from injury, it was a solid all-around performance. Now he must use the last few days of practice at Saint Vincent College to make an impression on special teams coordinator Danny Smith.
Zumwalt adds versatility to the defense, as he can play inside and outside linebacker, but earning a spot on the roster will probably depend on his ability to contribute on Smith's unit. Even if he can make an impact on special teams, he still has a lot of talent to beat out.
The Steelers are deep at linebacker, and Zumwalt may be destined for the practice squad.
Round 5, Pick 173: Wesley Johnson, OL
Pittsburgh’s coaches love versatility and few players are as versatile as offensive lineman Wesley Johnson. Over the course of training camp, he has lined up at center, guard and tackle, which would make him a valuable commodity if he makes the final roster.
Johnson has spent most of his time practicing at left tackle and he has had some problems, particularly in pass protection. Not only did he struggle during blocking drills, but he also allowed several linebackers, including Chris Carter, to get by him.
That has not stopped Johnson from earning praise from his position coach. Mike Munchak told Scott Brown of ESPN.com that he has done a good job managing his responsibilities:
“He can handle all of that without being panicky for a young kid,” Munchak said. “He can do a lot of things, so it’s just a matter of seeing how it translates into the preseason game.”
These were encouraging words from the offensive line coach, but by no means were they a ringing endorsement of Johnson. Having the ability to handle the pressure of playing multiple positions is one thing, but actually performing at those positions is another.
With Mike Adams having a disappointing training camp and the possibility of carrying nine linemen in the regular season, Johnson has an opportunity to seize a spot on the roster, but his play must improve.
Round 5, Pick 157: Shaquille Richardson, CB
Outside of Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay, there are no cornerbacks who are locks to make the final roster. That left the door wide open for Shaquille Richardson to come in and show that he can be the cornerback of the future.
Now that he is more than two weeks into training camp, Richardson has yet to establish himself as a viable option and remains behind veterans Antwon Blake and Brice McCain. That is what happens when you have a quiet camp.
Bob Labriola does not see Richardson “passing those veterans” and Craig Wolfley believes that he needs “to start standing out” but is competitive in drills. In fact, he may have had his most notable moment on Tuesday, when he had an altercation with Antonio Brown, according to Mark Kaboly and Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
WR Antonio Brown has had a short fuse during camp. He took exception to rookie cornerback Shaq Richardson crowding him after Brown caught a pass Tuesday. He missed with a looping right hand, but connected with a left jab to Richardson's helmet. Three plays later, he exchanged verbal jabs with safety Mike Mitchell, who tried to restrain him.
This is the type of aggressive play that the coaches have to like seeing from Richardson, but unless he can outshine the two veterans, he will be on the outside looking in once the season begins.
Round 4, Pick 118: Martavis Bryant, WR
There has been no player more frustrating to watch during training camp than rookie receiver Martavis Bryant.
As I wrote in my previous rookie progress report, “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.”
We were all witness to his uneven play on Saturday night against the New York Giants in the preseason opener: He was able to draw multiple flags against Giant defenders, but he dropped a pass, lacked fight in going after a deep ball and fumbled the ball away in a crucial moment of the game.
He made a couple plays today but we know he’s capable of that. I’m looking for him to grow in all areas and have the type of detail in his work where we can rely upon him. Like a lot of young guys he’s moving toward that. (He’s) not at a quick enough pace for us (and) not at a quick enough pace for him, so we’ll continue to work.
The sky is the limit for Bryant, but until he eliminates the mental errors, he will remain on the sidelines. As Tomlin said, he needs to get the details down before the Steelers can count on him.
Bryant will make the team and may even contribute before the year is over, but he is a work in progress and has a lot to learn before he earns the opportunity to take meaningful snaps with the offense.
Round 3, Pick 97: Dri Archer, RB/WR
It only took one play, but everyone finally had a chance to see why the Steelers made Dri Archer their third-round draft pick.
The 46-yard reception was a thing of beauty, and the scary thing is he never made it to full speed.
No wonder his teammates were excited to watch him play in his first preseason game. Ike Taylor told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he would be watching as soon as Archer stepped onto the field:
“I will take notice during the kickoff, and as soon as Dri is in the game, I am going to take notice,” Taylor said. “I am sure I am getting up to get a better look.”
Now that we have all seen him play, Heath Miller told Scott Brown of ESPN.com that other teams will “know who No. 13 is and where he’s lining up and play extra attention to him.”
Archer finished his first preseason game with two receptions for 50 yards, two carries for nine yards and two punt returns for four yards. It was just as expected, he can do a little bit of everything and can break a big play at any moment.
Though Archer may only be a role player at this point, he showed signs that he can be very good at that job. He will have his share of negative plays, but the potential for an explosive play makes him one of the most exciting players on the roster and one to watch as the regular season approaches.
Round 2, Pick 46: Stephon Tuitt, DE
Stephon Tuitt is doing everything in his power to not only earn snaps in the base defense. He's also making a push to earn a starting job. He may need to refine his technique, but from everything that he has shown, it will be hard to keep him off the field.
Tuitt started at left defensive end against the Giants and flashed some of his potential. He finished the game with one tackle and, according to Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, he “maintained his gap integrity.”
Last week, Dick LeBeau told Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com that he expects Tuitt to play “an awful lot of snaps” this year. As camp progresses, the number of snaps will only increase.
The regular season hasn’t started yet, and it looks like the Steelers got a steal with Tuitt. Not only is he playing to his potential, but he is exceeding it early on and could be a second rookie in the starting lineup for the opener.
Round 1, Pick 15: Ryan Shazier, ILB
Essentially every rookie in this report has shown some sort of growth throughout training camp and the preseason. Ryan Shazier has as well, but he is the only one to “regress” since last week.
That is what happens when you miss time with an injury. His knee injury kept him out of Pittsburgh’s first preseason game, but he was able to return to practice on Monday.
Ryan Shazier is in uniform and practicing. His knee is not wrapped.
— Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) August 11, 2014
Shazier was having a terrific training camp prior to the injury and looked the part of a top-15 selection. None of that changed as a result of the injury, but his progress was hindered.
"You take mental reps but it's hard for you to get better when you're not out there," Shazier told Scott Brown of ESPN.com.
As Shazier gets back onto the field, he will do everything in his power to lock down the starting job. Even though defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau anointed him as the starter, it was hard to ignore Sean Spence’s performance.
If Shazier is not up to the task, Spence will surely jump on his opportunity.