As we approach Training Camp and the Preseason at an excrutiatingly slow pace, I thought I might take a look at the Positional battles that will be had on the practice field, and then on gameday come Preseason.
For a team that lost only 2 starters in the offseason, Larry Foote and Bryant McFadden, there are not many holes to break into for aspiring backups and rookies, especially on the Defensive side of the ball, yet there could be a couple openings on the Offensive, particularly at WR and OL.
So here is my analysis of the Top 3 Defensive and Offensive Position battles to look forward to.
Position: Wide Receiver
Role: Slot and Fourth Receiver
Battlers: Limas Sweed, Shaun McDonald, Mike Wallace
As it stands, the Slot Receiver spot on the depth chart has been vacated by the underestimated talent of Nate Washington. Limas Sweed seems a near lock to inherit the spot, however he still has to work for it. The signing of Shaun McDonald and the drafting of speedy Mike Wallace shows that the Coaching Staff arent just going to give it them.
Limas Sweed has the most upside of the group, with his size and his year more of experience in the Arians offense. He showed the ability to separate from the defender and get into space, if we can all forget the fact he dropped the ball in the AFCCG, and instead see that he got wide open deep against the vaunted Baltimore secondary, thats pretty impressive in its own right. I have had him pencilled in as my #3 receiver and dont see that changing.
Shaun McDonald was a surprising pickup, but a very very smart one. McDonald is only one year removed from an impressive season with Detroit where he grabbed 79 catches for 943 yards and 6 touchdowns. Often seen as a "poor mans Wes Welker" McDonald is at his best out of the slot and getting yards after the catch. Depending on how fast he grasps the Steelers playbook, he could be pushing Sweed for the #3 spot, and he is still only 27 years of age.
Mike Wallace was drafted in the 3 round of this years draft, with the 84th overall pick. Mike Wallace is pure speed, and was reportedly clocked by Mike Mayock with a 4.28 40 yard dash. If he is to break into game time above McDonald, hes going to have to work really hard, and at this point in time it seems he will initially be on the team as a returner and outside receiver to stretch the field. If he works hard though, he could supplant McDonald from the #4 role.
Position: Offensive Guard
Battlers: Darnell Stapleton, Kraig Urbik
Longtime Steeler and former first round pick Kendall Simmons managed to get himself seriously injured, leaving former Rutgers and undrafted lineman Darnell Stapleton thrown into the fire. Now he has the chance to make the spot his.
Stapleton, affectionately referred to as the Stapler here in Pittsburgh, appeared in 14 games last season with 12 starts, and for the most part wasnt too bad for a guy who was undrafted and never stood foot on an NFL field in a regular season game before. This offseason he has the chance to work on his strength and footwork in blocking and take the G position, as opposed to being given it.
As for Urbik, he was drafted in this years draft in the 3rd round with the 79th overall pick. Urbik was a solid guard for Wisconsin, and he has superior strength and size than Stapleton, but suffers from the same footwork problems. I like Stapleton, but Urbik has more upside and should give him a real run for his money for the guard spot opposite Kemoeatu.
Position: Offensive Tackle
Battlers: Willie Colon, Trai Essex, Tony Hills
Marvel Smiths back put him out of business early in the season, which shifted Max Starks to the LT spot and meant inserting Willie Colon to the RT. The result? One of the worst running attacks out of Pittsburgh in recent years, and outside pass rushers constantly getting the best of our Offensive Tackles. Starks will stay on the Left, which opens up a battle for the Right spot.
Give props to Willie Colon. Somehow he has managed to start 16 games each of the past two seasons, whilst being a slow, holding, false starting pain in the rear at the same time. I want it to work out, but watching him let pass rushers continually blow by him, I want any body but him right now. To his credit, he did enough in the Superbowl to help us win, as evidenced by the still frames post Blitzburgh did. Hes got to step up.
Trai Essex could be an interesting name to throw into the mix of the OL here. He has greater hieght, arm length and weight than Colon, and with little starting caliber competition for OT, he has a real shot at taking the starting spot from Colon. He once started 4 games as a rookie, and deserves to be given a real shot, especially considering how poor Colon was. He may be out of his depth, but can we at least find out?
A wildcard pick is Tony Hills, who has a lot of support, basically because he had an impressive college career marred by injury, hes huge, and the fact his name is not Willie Colon. He has been in development recently, and it seems a lot are excited about his prospect as a starting OT. Time will tell if he is ready to step up at the NFL level. At OT he will have to play outside pass rushers, and heres hoping he can prove to have good footwork and speed because hes going to need it
Position: Defensive End
Battlers: Nick Eason, Travis Kirschke, Evander Hood
There are no real big time positional battles happening on the defensive side of the ball, except for rotational positions.
Travis Kirschke filled in nicely last season as a backup and passing down DE in our 3-4 set as well as DT with Hoke in 3rd and long situations in the nickel and dime packages. Kirschke had 6 starts last season, and proved that he can fill in just fine for Brett Keisel. For a guy his age, he certainly has a pretty good motor. Unfortunately for him, its time to get younger, and he may be on the outside in this battle, with the younger Eason and Hood. He could be battling for his spot to stay on the team.
Nick Eason bounced from Denver to Cleveland early in his career, than landed in Pittsburgh. He was pretty good in limited playing time, grabbing 1.5 sacks, and wasnt a liability on the defensive line. He is still 28, has a strong motor, and his play showed he should at least be given the oppurtunity for more defensive snaps.
Evander Hood, the first Defensive Lineman drafted by the Steelers in the first round since Casey Hampton. He is likely to be slowly brought along, and i dont expect to see him on the field in anything other than long yardage passing downs, and then into more gametime late in the season, as well as garbage time to keep Smith and Keisel fresh.
Position: Middle Linebacker
Battlers: Keyaron Fox, 2nd year players*, Veteran*
The success of the reincartion of Blitzburgh was largely due to the fact that we had 5 starting (some could even say pro bowl) caliber Linebackers on the roster. With Foote departed to Detroit, we would like a 5th linebacker to step up to continue that success.
Keyaron Fox was a solid player for Kansas City, but never quite displayed the talent required to be a true starter. He was pretty good for us last season, and now has a chance for even more time, although I expect Lawrence Timmons to be a 3 down Linebacker. Fox has the inside running on being the first backup, but as always, the best player will play, and he will be kept on special teams if he doesnt show he can handle the workload.
*2nd year players. Bruce Davis has been widely regarded as a versatile Linebacker and a true talent, and seems to have the athleticism and size to play all 4 linebacker positions, and could well be the primary backup for us on opening day.
*Veteran. Specifically speaking, Napoleon Harris. He met with us, and although he wasnt presented with a contract offer, talks may not have totally ceased. Tomlin knows Harris from his time with Minnesota, and Harris was also a first round pick....by Oakland. But he could be a valuable pickup and solid contributor.
Role: Nickel/Dime/4th Corner
Battlers: Every Cornerback on the roster not named Taylor, Gay or Townsend
With no cornerback taken in the first round (which was what I was hoping for), the 3 main cornerback spots are held now between Ike Taylor, William Gay and Deshea Townsend. Behind those three we have - get this - SIX cornerbacks. That means 9 cornerbacks in total on the roster.
They are veterans Fernando Bryant, Keiwan Ratliff and Anthony Madison, 2nd year player Roy Lewis, and rookies Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett. The time is now for many of those listed. Madison is safe due to be a great Special Teamer. The most likely to be cut are Roy Lewis and Fernando Bryant. I cant really name one front runner, so every man needs to be on his game come training camp, as both Burnett and Lewis have immense untapped talent. I cant wait to see this pan out.
Thats my analysis and I cant wait to see how some of these situations and the depth chart unravel. The Steelers are in prime position to make a deep run in the playoffs once again, but these position battles could prove critical.
Position battles not only unearth hidden talents, but they also provide the hunger for competition. The Steelers have always been a great team for knowing who is a blue collar worker, and cutting those who aren't up to par. Competition brings out the best in players, and although they are competing against each other, it is all for the same common goal.