By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
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Just like that, another Steelers training camp is in the books. After two weeks, many players have began to separate themselves as potential stars in the making, while others have largely struggled to make a positive impact. With the preseason moving right along, who are the Steelers’ winners and losers from training camp 2016?
–CB Senquez Golson is arguably the biggest loser of training camp this season. After missing his entire rookie season due to injury, Golson entered training camp as the team’s starting nickel corner. However, that dream came to an end after going down with a Lisfranc injury in his foot that will sideline him for three to four months, ending his season. It is currently unclear what Golson’s future has in store for him at this point, as he is building quite the injury history early on his career. Prayers out to Golson on a speedy recovery, but he is undoubtedly a “loser” in 2016.
–WR Sammie Coates had the best opportunity of any player on the roster this season due to the suspension of deep-threat receiver Martavis Bryant. Coates has the chance of being the #2 receiver opposite of Antonio Brown over Markus Wheaton. After putting on a strong training camp performance, Coates failed to continue that dominance during the Lions preseason game, fumbling the ball twice and dropping a couple fairly catchable passes. Luckily for Coates, Wheaton has missed some time due to injury but his job is far from secure. He is going to need a strong showing for the remainder of the preseason to have a shot at winning the job. Coates missed an opportunity to truly securea spot in live action against the Lions makes him a “loser” after training camp.
–CB Artie Burns is the Steelers’ prized possession of this offseason, becoming the Steelers first 1st-round cornerback taken in almost 20 years. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Burns has yet to really taste the field, missing almost two weeks of padded practices during camp and the game against the Lions. Burns has also admitted to being “kind of behind” in his learning curve, which is bad considering the fact that he is a raw prospect already. When Burns has been healthy, he faced up against Antonio Brown on most plays, routinely getting burned (no pun intended), which should surprise no one as Brown is the best receiver in the league. However, this has likely not helped his confidence at all. When you’re a 1st-round draft pick, you are expected to be on the field to perform. Burns’ inability to do that makes him a “loser”.
–LT Alejandro Villanueva came into the preseason as the incumbent starting left tackle on the offensive line and while little has changed that fact (due to the poor performance of Ryan Harris), Villanueva has done little to instill confidence into the Steelers and fans that have watched him play. Against the Lions, Villanueva was routinely beat inside and outside, especially with athletic pass-rush moves that he simply could not recover from. So far, his camp has been average at best, and unless he picks it up a bit against the Eagles and for the remainder of the preseason, Villanueva’s tenure as the starting left tackle could be short lived.
–WR Demarcus Ayers was one of the Steelers 7th-round draft picks in this year’s draft and most people wouldn’t expect a late-round pick to have any type of real impact. However, the Steelers considered Ayers to be the top punt returner in this year’s class. So far, Ayers has done little to show that he will be the team’s top returner this season, if ever. With the emergence of Eli Rogers (more on him later), Ayers has almost became an afterthought. He had a couple nice plays against the Lions and hasn’t had a bad camp as a receiver. His main purpose this season was for him to come in and supplant Brown as the team’s main punt returner. So far, that hasn’t happened and it doesn’t appear that it ever will.
–DT Daniel McCullers was tasked with the responsibility of holding off 3rd-round pick Javon Hargrave. Although McCullers is the “starting” defensive tackle right now for the Steelers, it appears that this “slimmer” McCullers is still the same player we saw previously. His inconsistency looms larger than his shadow does and he still seems to lack the footwork and athleticism you would like from a defensive lineman. Realistically, it is only a matter of time until Hargrave jumps past McCullers on the depth chart and becomes the Steelers starting interior defensive lineman.
–DT Javon Hargrave is having the best camp of any Steelers rookie this preseason. While he saw a limited number of snaps against the Lions last week, Hargrave has been one of the most disruptive defensive linemen on the Steelers roster (and that includes Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt). He demonstrates a tremendous first step and a lightning fast get-off that almost no offensive lineman has been able to stop in camp. While it is still early, Hargrave is drawing comparisons to Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins, two All-Pro defensive tackles that are arguably the best two players at the position in the NFL. The Steelers would love that kind of production from their 3rd-round pick and although it is quick to compare him to those caliber of players (Hargrave is still a raw player with a lot to learn), the upward trajectory is there for Hargrave to be a stud in this league.
Photo from Steelers.com
–RB Daryl Richardson is fighting for his job more than almost any other player on this list and so far, he has been winning that fight. With Le’Veon Bell’s impending suspension, the Steelers needed a running back to step up and compete as the #3 back to begin the season. Richardson has done that and more, proving to be potentially more than just a #3 running back. Standing a 5’11”, 196 lbs., Richardson is an extremely shifty back with surprising patience while waiting for a hole to develop. Against the Lions, he rushed for 44 yards on 11 carries. The impressive part of this game was the confidence in which he ran the ball. When he chose a hole to run through, he stuck to it and in an instant was up to the 2nd- and 3rd-level due to great speed and vision. The new camp battle forming won’t be which player will be the last one to make the roster, but instead is turning into which back will be DeAngelo Williams backup: Daryl Richardson or Fitzgerald Toussaint? Right now, the signs are pointing to Richardson.
–TE Jesse James is a winner for his performance but would be on this list anyway due to the absence of Ladarius Green. Regardless, James has put together a strong camp and looked sharp against the Lions last week. He appears to be leaps and bounds ahead of where he was last season, especially as a run blocker against the Lions where he consistently was seen pushing defenders down the field. He only had one reception against the Lions so it will be interesting to see how he develops, but as of now James slowly but surely appears to be beginning to ease some of the concerns that the team has at tight end.
–S Shamarko Thomas has done something this preseason that he had never done before as a Steelers: looked like an actual football player. In camp and against the Lions, Thomas has been an excellent run defender, trading off his pedigree as a reckless missile to become a much more controlled and alert tackler who has not missed many plays or tackles. In coverage, Thomas has looked equally as sharp in coverage, almost coming up with two interceptions against the Lions. It appears that things are starting to click with Thomas at this stage of the game, which is huge for him entering a contract year. If he can continue to develop as a player and continue to show the solid defensive awareness that he has had through camp, Thomas could turn into the surprise of the year for the Steelers.
–QB Landry Jones is another player who stands to benefit from the injury of another player. After Bruce Gradkowski went down with a torn hamstring against the Lions, Jones became the unquestioned #2 quarterback behind Ben Roethlisberger. Realistically, though, this was going to be the outcome anyway because Jones is finally starting to show confidence as a passer that we have not seen since he entered the league in 2013. He has shown an improved touch to his passes and is even beginning to show some strength behind his throws, something he has struggled with for his entire career dating back to college. Hopefully, Jones will never have to play this season, but if he does, there is a chance it won’t be as ugly as it was last season.
–WR Eli Rogers has been one of the offensive MVP’s throughout the first part of the preseason. All camp, Rogers has been a quick, shifty, electrifying slot receiver that has proven when he gets into open space, he can make anyone miss. With the struggles of Coates against the Lions and Wheaton catching the injury bug, Rogers has had the chance to shine as a receiver and only continued that trend against the Lions. If Rogers continues this type of play throughout the remainder of the preseason, he could end up being on the field as the Steelers slot receiver in 3- and 4-receiver sets. The odds were stacked against Rogers coming out of Louisville, not because of his skill, but because the Cardinals used him almost exclusively as a slot receiver, which is something you do not see very often in college. Rogers flourished in this role and caused the Steelers to sign him last year as an undrafted free agent. After being a camp favorite last year, Rogers went down with an injury and missed the remainder of the season. Although Rogers might be a winner, the Steelers are the real winner here for potentially uncovering another diamond in the rough.