Biggest Questions Facing Pittsburgh Steelers with Training Camp Underway
The Pittsburgh Steelers are only a handful of days into their 2017 training camp, which means any lingering questions about the roster and its readiness for the upcoming season are not much closer to being answered. In addition, new ones keep arising, thanks to unpredictable things such as injuries.
With that in mind, here are the Steelers' seven biggest questions that need answering as training camp unfolds in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
When Will Le'Veon Bell Show Up?
The Steelers gave running back Le'Veon Bell the $12.12 million franchise tag for the 2017 season rather than signing him to a long-term deal at the very start of the offseason. The goal was for both sides to come to an agreement on a contract before the July 17 deadline, but despite the Steelers' best efforts—a reported five-year deal with $42 million in its first three years—negotiations broke down and Bell has yet to show up for training camp.
According to the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Bell's holdout could last "several weeks," and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said that "there are consequences" for Bell's continued absence. Tomlin did add that those consequences are "untold as we sit here," per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo, and cannot include being fined until and unless Bell would sit out during the regular season.
Rookie back James Conner had been handling first-team running back duties during Bell's absence, but a shoulder injury now means that Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis—whose camp battle is for the team's No. 3 running back spot—will have ample opportunities to impress their coaches and earn themselves jobs in the fall.
Impact of Sammie Coates' Injury
Sammie Coates headed into the 2017 offseason as one of the Steelers' top options for their No. 3 wide receiver job. But a knee scope, his second of the year, will now have him out as many as two weeks if not longer. The injury opens the door for other wideouts who were potentially straddling the roster bubble to make an impression, perhaps enough so that the Steelers move on from Coates entirely when making their cuts at the end of the summer.
Coates, who also underwent groin surgery in the offseason and struggled while playing through broken fingers last season, was a Steelers third-round draft selection in 2015 and thus would be difficult to release. But if the saying that the "greatest ability is availability" is true and Coates' knee issues linger longer than expected, players like Cobi Hamilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter and Demarcus Ayers may prove themselves more valuable to the Steelers this year.
Pittsburgh's wide receiver corps was already a group to watch in training camp this year, with so many talented players vying for a finite number of roster spots. Any injuries suffered are thus even bigger setbacks for those receivers since they could wind up on another team. It will be interesting to see who shines in the days and perhaps weeks that Coates has to sit out.
Will Senquez Golson Ever Stay Healthy?
Steelers cornerback Senquez Golson was the team's second-round draft pick in 2015, but he hasn't played in a single preseason or regular-season game. A shoulder injury that later required surgery cost him all of his rookie year, while a Lisfranc injury to his toe kept him sidelined for all of 2016.
He was already entering 2017 behind the eightball, with the Steelers having stocked up on cornerbacks in his absence. According to defensive backs coach Carnell Lake (h/t Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Golson would have to impress not only on defense this summer but also as a special teams gunner to make the roster.
It was Golson's participation in the latter that has caused his most recent injury, a hamstring injury that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette reported required use of a cart to remove him from the field. There is no clear timetable for his return, nor any further information on the severity of the hamstring ailment, beyond a report from ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler that Golson spent Monday being evaluated at a Pittsburgh hospital.
What what is clear, though, is that the longer it takes for Golson to be a full participant in training camp, the fewer chances he'll see to redeem his career as both a cornerback and a special teamer. The last thing Golson needed to happen during his final shot with the Steelers was yet another injury.
When Will Martavis Bryant Be Fully Reinstated?
Though Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant was reinstated from his one-year suspension by the league in April, that was only on a conditional basis. That meant that he could spend time at the Steelers facility, sit in on meetings and do conditioning work. But until the league grants him full reinstatement, he cannot participate in any of the Steelers' on-field practices.
According to PennLive, Tomlin said on Monday that there has been "no development" on Bryant's status, and when the site reached out to the NFL for comment, the league only reiterated its statement from Bryant's April reinstatement:
"Bryant may join the Steelers at the training facility and participate in meetings, conditioning work and similar activities. Once arrangements have been confirmed regarding Bryant's clinical resources in Pittsburgh, he will be permitted to participate in all preseason activities, including practices and games. Prior to the start of the regular season, the NFL will review Bryant's progress. Based on his compliance and engagement with his program and resources, he will be permitted to participate in all regular season activities beginning in Week 1."
Bryant, though, believes that he will be cleared fully by the NFL before the start of the regular season, saying to the NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala on Monday that he's "close" to returning. Once he can get back on the field, it is presumed he will pick up as he left off in 2015 as Pittsburgh's No. 2 wideout alongside Antonio Brown and a major touchdown-scoring threat. When that will be, though, remains up to the league, which can take all the time it wants this summer to make an official ruling.
Who Is Serving as Kick and Punt Returners?
A season ago, a total of six players returned punts and kicks for the Steelers, with wideout Antonio Brown doing the most work at the former (with 15) and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint handling the majority of the latter (13 total). But with Toussaint doing most of his work right now as a running back—a result of Le'Veon Bell's holdout and James Conner's shoulder injury—and Brown sticking solely with the wideouts, the Steelers have experimented with a few other players fielding returns.
According to Steelers Depot's Alex Kozora, receivers Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers, Demarcus Ayers and Marcus Tucker, along with rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton, were among those handling return duties on the second day of training camp. On the third day, Rogers, Ayers, running back Trey Williams took on the return work.
Clearly, the Steelers are giving numerous players shots at handling both kick and punt returns in the early days of training camp. But Rogers and Ayers have thus far been the only constants.
Is This Ben Roethlisberger's Last Training Camp?
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is heading into his 14th season in the league and as Pittsburgh's starter. But at one point in the winter, it appeared that the 13th very well could have been his last. In speaking to Pittsburgh's 97.3 The Fan two days after the Steelers fell to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, Roethlisberger said he would "use the offseason to evaluate...if there's going to be a next season."
Roethlisberger has since decided to come back for at least one more year, but it's also clear that a life after football remains on his mind. Prior to the start of training camp on Friday, Roethlisberger spoke with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, citing concerns about his health and his desire to spend more time with his family as reasons why the 2017 season could be his last.
In the past 13 seasons, Roethlisberger has competed in all 16 regular-season games just three times, a result of the numerous injuries he has suffered—injuries that are mostly uncommonly suffered by those playing the quarterback position. But Roethlisberger is not a common quarterback; he puts his body in harm's way more than the majority of his peers and the accumulation of those hits are something he's not about to ignore.
For 2017, the Steelers won't have to worry about who will serve under center. But it's quite possible that Roethlisberger's career is rapidly approaching its end, meaning someone else may have to be in control of Pittsburgh's considerable offense in a year's time.
Eli Rogers vs. JuJu Smith-Schuster at Slot Receiver
Though Eli Rogers emerged as the Steelers' top receiving weapon in the slot a season ago, catching 48 passes for 594 yards and three scores in the regular season and another 13 passes for 112 yards in the playoffs, he's been challenged for his job this spring by 2017 second-round draft pick JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Both PennLive's Jacob Klinger and the NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala noted that Smith-Schuster spent appreciable time as the first-team slot receiver during both OTAs and minicamp, seemingly signaling a battle brewing between Smith-Schuster and Rogers for this all-important job in Pittsburgh's offense.
Now, though, it appears it is Rogers' job to lose. For one, Rogers drew praise from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when he spoke with former teammate and current NFL Network correspondent Ike Taylor, saying (via Steelers Depot). Roethlisberger said:
"I spent a lot of time in the offseason with him individually looking at film at how he can be better. I see so much growth in him and am excited about what he brings in the slot. Quickness, toughness, a guy that can get open against linebackers with his speed and quickness and can use his size. I know it sounds silly with a smaller guy, but just that he's got the strength to get open against smaller guys."
Another factor working in Rogers' favor is Smith-Schuster currently being sidelined with an ankle injury. He suffered the injury in the team's first day of training camp practice on Friday and was held out of participation on Saturday, Sunday and Monday as a result.
However, Steelers Depot's Dave Bryan reports that while Smith-Schuster worked out on the side on Monday, "he went through individual routes with the other wide receivers and was going near full speed." That means Smith-Schuster could be soon to return to the field and, with it, soon to resume his positional battle with Rogers.