Steelers OTAs: Five questions to ask at the start of Football in Shorts season

Joe Sargent

Football in Shorts has begun. The Steelers start the first of 10 practices over the next three weeks, no contact is permitted but coaches can be present. They have as much work as the players do.

How will the wide receiver position shake out in terms of the roster?

It's possible the Steelers keep six wide receivers, depending on how they'll ultimately view Dri Archer. It's tough to say they're going to cut their third round draft pick, regardless of his position, so when his number was changed from a running back's (34) to a wide receiver's (13), those gunning for the team's 5WR position - Justin Brown, Derrick Moye and Darrius Heyward-Bey - got nervous.

It should go without debate Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore and Martavis Bryant will earn roster spots. Archer as a receiver would get a spot, giving the Steelers the usual amount of five. If the Steelers want to keep another receiver, they'd have to make a cut elsewhere, likely on the offense.

OTAs won't answer that question, but the progress of Bryant and Archer, the team's fourth and third round picks, respectively, will likely determine whether a sixth receiver needs to be kept.

What will the Steelers do at running back?

Scraping off the Archer topic, with him as a receiver, the team has LeBackfield - Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount - fullback Will Johnson and no one else. Alvester Alexander, Tauren Poole, and Miguel Maysonet are on the roster, and it would appear then, considering a probability of the team keeping at least four running backs, someone from that group will emerge as the team's third tailback.

Can Stephon Tuitt earn a starting role at defensive end?

No rookies start in Dick LeBeau's defense. Until they do, that is. Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams broke the norm last year, at least somewhat out of necessity. It's not unreasonable to think Tuitt could do the same thing this year, but odds are on veteran Cam Thomas to have the starting job Week 1 vs. Cleveland.

That doesn't mean Tuitt can't beat him out over time, and that's clearly the Steelers' long-term plan. When in doubt, go with the veteran.

Any other rookies who might earn a starting role?

First round pick Ryan Shazier has to be considered the favorite to start alongside Lawrence Timmons, but it wouldn't be a shock to see Shazier replaced in the team's base defense for solid run-support ILB Vince Williams. Shazier will have to show he can play strong at 237 pounds, up 12 pounds from his college days, while remaining fast on the field. That and understanding the defense, a challenge for any rookie, are his two big tasks.

Don't be shocked to see tight end Rob Blanchflower make a serious run at a roster spot over the next 12 weeks. He has decent athleticism, and this is a team that would have given David Johnson a serious look at fullback in 2012 had he not blown out his ACL in the team's first preseason game. Blanchflower is a similar kind of player. Using the team's seldom-used fullback as its third tight end frees up a roster spot for that sixth wide receiver, should they want to go that route.

Nothing against Will Johnson but after reviewing his tape in 2013, he's definitely more receiver than he is blocker, and it's hard to justify using him once every other week as a receiver while he is consistently mediocre as a blocker. There's a slight opening here for the seventh-round rookie.

Will Ike Taylor still start at cornerback?

You pretty much have to consider all three cornerbacks starters now. The Steelers play in so many different variations of nickel defense, all three cornerbacks - Taylor, William Gay and Cortez Allen - will be on the field a ton. Ike can play outside, while Gay and Allen appear to play inside at a higher level than they do outside. That isn't a knock against them, playing inside is harder in many ways than playing outside. Look for Allen to win back his starting job this season, outside opposite Taylor, with Gay playing inside exclusively. That would be the highest-and-best use scenario for all of them.

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