By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
Just as we see every season, there are position battles that captivate fans throughout the summer workouts and training camp. This year will be no exception. While players like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Ryan Shazier, and Cam Heyward (just to name a few) are at no risk of losing their jobs, other players will be battling it out for the next couple of months. What will be the most heated position battles this summer?
Contenders: Landry Jones & Joshua Dobbs
It’s not very often that you see a backup position battle receive as much attention as this one will receive this summer. This is not because Joshua Dobbs is expected to be the savior of the franchise at this point in his career, but more so because fans are openly disgusted with having Landry Jones backing up Ben Roethlisberger. This battle will put two completely different players against each other. Jones has experience in the Steelers system but has likely reached his ceiling and doesn’t offer much long-term promise as a potential future starter. Dobbs is obviously a rookie that is intelligent, mobile, and has more experience than most rookies in reading defenses, but is young and needs plenty of refinement to his game, specifically with his accuracy. This will be a competition that gets serious examination as it is more of a question of “when” and not “if” Roethlisberger will go down with an injury. And the Steelers need a player that will not cause the offense to stall out when that happens. The Steelers know what they have with Jones. What they need to figure out is what they have with Dobbs. If Dobbs proves to be a quick learner, he will get the nod.
Prediction: Josh Dobbs
Every Receiver Spot Not Held By Antonio Brown
Contenders: Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, Demarcus Ayers, & Cobi Hamilton
There is no question who the Steelers’ top receiver is: Antonio Brown. Beyond Brown, things are not as solidified. At this point, it appears that Martavis Bryant will take back his #2 spot that he held before missing the 2016 season with a suspension. Bryant gained noticeable size to his frame, looking much more muscular than he did before. By not losing any of his elite speed, Bryant could be an even more dangerous threat than he was in 2014 and 2015.
Last season, former undrafted free agent Eli Rogers joined the spotlight after the shortcomings of Sammie Coates manifested (more on him in a second). Rogers is a small, shifty slot receiver that demonstrated a great work ethic and tremendous hands. Coates had the opportunity to grab the starting job alongside Brown, but injuries and inconsistencies derailed his opportunities and by the playoffs, Coates was not receiving any snaps on offense. Coates elected to not have surgery to repair his hand, instead resting and rehabbing it to prepare for the season.
The Steelers also added a big, physical receiver in the second round this year in the form of JuJu Smith-Schuster. A surprise pick to many fans, Smith-Schuster reminds many people of a blend of Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin due to his strong blocking (Ward) and his strong hands and physical demeanor when the ball is in the air (Boldin). Smith-Schuster does not have the elite deep speed that many Steelers receivers have, but he has the ability to run all routes and could be a perfect oversized slot receiver.
Beyond these receivers (not including Coates), Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, Demarcus Ayers, and Cobi Hamilton will all be fighting to snatch up the last spots on the roster, which will likely be one or two spots. With Brown, Bryant, Rogers, and Smith-Schuster all locks to make the final roster, this battle has the making of a fierce battle leading up to the final waves of roster cuts. Darrius Heyward-Bey is beginning to get up there in age, but his ability as a special teams standout and leader in the locker room are both highly valued by the Steelers. Ayers got his shot late in the season last year and ran with the opportunity, showing the sure hands that he had at Houston in college. Ayers will try to take control of the return duties on special teams, which could be his way onto the final roster. Hamilton wasn’t a standout last year but always seemed to be the receiver to pick up crucial first downs late in games. Hunter has bounced around the league in his few years in the league and will be an interesting player to watch due to his size and speed combination.
Prediction: Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, & Demarcus Ayers (return man)
Outside Linebacker Depth
Contenders: Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo, & Keion Adams
It seems like the Steelers are always selecting linebackers in the early rounds of the past few drafts, having selected Jarvis Jones (2013), Bud Dupree (2014), and T.J. Watt (2017) in the 1st round. Now that Jarvis Jones has left for Pittsburgh West (Arizona Cardinals), the Steelers have three players that are expected to be in the primary rotation: Dupree, Watt, and James Harrison. The Steelers have typically kept five pass rushers in recent seasons, meaning that these three players will be battling for likely two spots.
A big part of being a depth linebacker on the Steelers is having the ability to contribute on special teams. Anthony Chickillo seems to have the inside track to securing one of these two spots, as by the middle of the 2016 season, he jumped Arthur Moats on the depth chart and led the team in special teams snaps. Chickillo has steadily improved since being drafted in 2015 and should be safe. That leaves Arthur Moats and rookie Keion Adams to battle it out for the last spot. Interestingly enough, Adams drew comparisons to Moats during the pre-draft process, but Adams has been drawing inspiration from Harrison as a late-round/undrafted free agent to have success in the league. Adams draft stock was not that great, largely due to his lack of elite size and strength for the position. Where Adams does flourish, however, is with his superior athleticism and bend as a pass rusher. As a younger option, Adams will need to make an impact on special teams, something that Moats hasn’t done. Moats has been a great player on and off of the field for the Steelers, but his time with the Steelers could be coming to an end.
Prediction: Anthony Chickillo & Keion Adams
Backup Tight End
Contenders: Xavier Grimble, David Johnson, Scott Orndoff, & Phazahn Odom
With the release of Ladarius Green, Jesse James will be the Steelers unquestioned starter in 2017 after showing nice progression during the 2016 season as both a receiver and a blocker. While James isn’t the elite field stretching receiving threat that the Steelers were hoping for in Green, he provides reliability as a check-down target for Ben Roethlisberger.
Also returning this year are David Johnson and Xavier Grimble, with Johnson serving as a critical piece of the Steelers run game, often freeing up room for Le’Veon Bell. Grimble, on the other hand, served as a more athletic receiving threat down the middle of the field and showed some development when given opportunities last year.
However, it is the Steelers’ 2017 undrafted free agent tight ends that will likely get the most attention, namely Phazahn Odom. At 6’8″, 251 lbs., Odom looks like a power forward with surprising athleticism. Like you would expect from a raw 6’8″ rookie, he has a long way to go in terms of blocking. However, he has flashed as a competitive pass catcher, doing a great job of fighting for 50/50 passes. Scott Orndoff, on the other hand, is more of a complete package at tight end. With good NFL size (6’5″, 253 lbs.), Orndoff has great upside as a blocker and will only get better in this area, while also showing solid receiving ability down the field. None of these players are locks to make the final roster, but Grimble and Johnson are virtually locks at this point. The Steelers will likely keep an extra tight end, as Johnson doesn’t provide much in the pass game. Odom and Orndoff will both have a chance to make the final roster, with Orndoff being a solid all-around tight end and Odom having exciting big-play ability. Whoever doesn’t make the final roster will likely be destined for the practice squad. So essentially, pick your poison.
Prediction: Xavier Grimble, David Johnson, & Scott Orndoff
Cornerback Depth/Slot Starter
Contenders: William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cameron Sutton, & Brian Allen
The Steelers have been in the process of shoring up their secondary for a few years now. With the selection of Artie Burns in the 1st round last year and the pickup of Ross Cockrell in 2015, the Steelers outside starters are locked in (for now, at least). The starter in the slot and the depth behind them have yet to be determined. As it currently stands, William Gay is the starter in the slot, but at 32 years old, Gay is beginning to show signs of slowing down and rumors have began circulating that he could be moved to safety by the beginning of the season.
The Steelers brought in Coty Sensabaugh to provide depth for the Steelers, having experience on both the outside and the inside and will be a quality asset for the team moving forward. Senquez Golson, on the other hand, has a lot to prove, as he has missed the past two seasons with injury. At this point, Golson has been running with the second team as the nickel corner and it appears that the injury woes are finally behind him. Still, Golson has an uphill climb to make the roster. There is a solid chance that he does, but if the rest of the Steelers’ corners impress and show promise, they could become impatient with the third-year player.
Rounding out the Steelers’ corners are rookies Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen. Sutton was considered by many draft pundits to be a very surefire and safe pick by the Steelers. As one of the top man-corners in this draft, Sutton possesses excellent ball skills and aggression on both the inside and outside, versatility that the Steelers love. Furthermore, he brings a lot on specials teams, standing out as a returner for Tennessee. While Sutton is a bit smaller for a corner (5’11”), Allen is a towering 6’3″, 215 lbs. that converted to cornerback last season and is quite inexperienced. His ball skills are no joke, though. He will have plenty of growing to do but he could turn out to be the Steelers’ steal of this draft if he can develop into a contributor earlier on in his career. Only time will tell.
Prediction: William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh, Cameron Sutton, & Brian Allen,