By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to The Point of Pittsburgh
As training camp gets underway, the Steelers are primed for another playoff run in an attempt to bring home the team’s 7th Lombardi Trophy. After watching the core veterans of the past decade ride off into the sunset, the Steelers have infused the team with young talent that will help take the team into the next era of Steelers football. But which players have the potential to breakout and make a name for themselves this season? I will be taking a look at the players that I believe will breakout onto the scene in 2016 and become household names on the Steelers roster.
LT Alejandro Villanueva
After Kelvin Beachum went down with a torn ACL last season, former undrafted free agent Alejandro Villanueva filled in to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side. While many expected the situation to be a train wreck, Villanueva surprised many by performing admirably for most of the season. While Villanueva had some hiccups during the season, he instilled enough confidence with the team for them to feel comfortable enough to allow Beachum to walk during free agency. Villanueva is the starter currently, but that is not to say that his spot is a lock. The team brought in OT Ryan Harris to compete with Villanueva on the left side and this battle will likely go all the way through the preseason. Villanueva has taken the pressure seriously, though, by cutting weight in the offseason for a leaner offensive tackle build, all while working on his strength and technique. This time and effort should help Villanueva become a better football player and whenever you are the starting left tackle on a Super Bowl-caliber team, people will take notice. It will only be a matter of time until Villanueva becomes a well-known name around the league.
WR Sammie Coates
Earlier in the offseason, news broke that budding star receiver Martavis Bryant would serve a year-long suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Although the Steelers boast arguably the best and deepest receiving group in the NFL, it was uncertain who would step up and be the #2 receiver opposite of Antonio Brown. So far through the offseason (and training camp so far), both Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates have shown reasons why each deserves the spot. Last year during the playoffs, we all got a glimpse of the potential that Sammie Coates possesses. Needless to say, Coates has the potential to be the next in line of elite Steelers receivers. Coates stated earlier in the offseason that his conditioning was an issue last year and that he was extremely motivated and humbled by spending most of the year on the scout team. To prevent this from happening again, the former 3rd-round draft pick lost 5-6 pounds after last season and has been training to claim his spot as the #2 receiver. Through the first few days of training camp, it appears that Coates will be the receiver to watch and if his development continues, he will be more than a one-trick deep threat; he will be a huge, all-purpose receiver.
DE Stephon Tuitt
Over the past 2 seasons, Tuitt has developed into a solid defensive end and has lived up to his 2nd-round draft slot with 1st-round potential. In 2015, Tuitt exploded onto the scene with 54 tackles and 6.5 sacks. While Tuitt is beginning to gain exposure as a threat around the league, he hasn’t made the jump to top-tier player yet. With the addition of DT Javon Hargrave to the defensive line, Tuitt (and Cam Heyward) is likely in for a big season in 2016. Tuitt fell to the Steelers in the 2nd-round of the 2014 NFL Draft and has performed well ever since, showing the ability to get after the quarterback, stuff the run, and free up outside linebackers to rush the quarterback (although the pass-rusher sack numbers haven’t been very good). Now entering his 3rd season, Tuitt should continue to improve and become a potential Pro Bowl caliber player in 2016.
ILB Ryan Shazier
I know what you are thinking: Ryan Shazier has already broken out after his performance last season. The funny thing is that Shazier was a highly criticized pick by the Steelers in 2014, with some calling him a reach and a pick at position that the Steelers didn’t need (since the Steelers have needed a cornerback since seemingly the beginning of time). Fast-forward to the 2016 season and some analysts are considering Shazier to be in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year if he stays healthy. Shazier’s health has been the primary issue in his development over the past 2 years, as he has missed 11 of 32 regular season games. Many analysts also believe that if he can stay healthy, Shazier has the potential to be the best inside linebacker in the NFL. Shazier’s playing style is similar to that of Steelers great Troy Polamalu, which is scary when you consider Shazier’s size (6’1″, 230 lbs.). He has been an athletic and disruptive force for the Steelers’ defense over the past 2 seasons and if he can bring it all together this year, 2016 has the makings of a breakout season that will propel Shazier into the NFL’s elite.
OLB Bud Dupree
Just like with many of the Steelers 1st-round draft picks over the years, Bud Dupree fell to the Steelers unexpectedly after having a top-15 draft billing. After a hot start to his rookie year with 4 sacks in 8 games, Dupree cooled off substantially and hit a wall during the second half of his 1st season. After tipping the scales at 274 lbs. during the season last year, Dupree has lost 20 lbs. to help his long-term conditioning and burst off the line, which was already explosive to begin with. At 6’4″, 255 lbs. with 4.5s 40 speed and a 42-inch vertical, Dupree has all of the traits you look for in an elite pass-rusher. With the recent struggles of Steelers pass-rushers, someone has to step up and make a consistent impact. If Dupree even comes close to double digit sacks, the Steelers’ defense and pass-rush will be vastly improved, which will in turn help out other aspects of the defense (like the secondary). Dupree has been much more vocal during practices thus far and seems to be showing an improved confidence with the calls, meaning the game is slowing down for him. Look for Dupree to shine in year two and build off of a solid playoff performance.
CB Senquez Golson
After neglecting the secondary with high draft picks over the years, the Steelers pulled the trigger on a small but electric cornerback with big-play potential. Senquez Golson has all of the traits you look for in a cornerback in todays NFL except height (5’9″). After missing his entire rookie season due to a shoulder injury, Golson has impressed so far this offseason by showing versatility at both inside and outside cornerback. So far through the first few days of training camp, Golson has been getting reps as the nickel (#3) cornerback with the 1st team (William Gay and Ross Cockrell). This is exciting largely due to Golson’s natural instincts and incredible ball skills (he had 10 interceptions during his rookie season at Ole Miss). The biggest issue for Golson was the Steelers selection of long, athletic cornerback Artie Burns in the 1st-round of this year’s draft. As of now, Burns is buried on the depth chart but that will likely change once the preseason games being on August 12 against the Lions. Depending on how the season shakes out, Golson will probably get the early reps as a nickel corner and has the chance to show why the Steelers selected him in the 2nd round in 2015. Carnell Lake seems to be excited to see him on the field and so should Steeler Nation.