Bruce Gradkowski, Mike Mitchell, Daniel McCullers. Besides being Steelers, they have one major thing in common: they have all been injured for most or all of training camp.
Actually, they have two things in common: all are returning to practice.
Gradkowski was activated from the Physically Unable to Perform list on Sunday, and Mitchell was back on the field. McCullers returned for limited workouts, as well.
Two of the three are backups, but all three of them provide value to the team that is immeasurable.
In the case of McCullers, it's because the other backup options at nose tackle range from uncomfortable to downright frightening. That's not to imply that rookie Mike Thornton hasn't been impressive in some ways; he has, and it's doubly impressive because he's smaller than most of the team's defensive ends. And Cam Thomas, last year's defensive whipping boy, has actually been a darned sight better through two pre-season games than his highest moment in 2014. But McCullers has shown to be something special in the making, and his return means that his transition from raw-but-powerful rookie to second-year veteran can be properly evaluated.
Mitchell's return is less about the backups at free safety and more about building cohesion with presumed starting strong safety Shamarko Thomas. While Mitchell earned some of the jeers he received in 2014, whether because of a groin injury or simple mistakes, much of it could easily be attributed to playing a significantly modified safety concept that allowed now-retired Troy Polamalu to basically make things up as he went along. It took former Steeler Ryan Clark more than a year to finally figure out Polamalu's freelancing tendencies, but when he did the pair became one of the best tandems in the NFL. Mitchell has shown to have a tremendous football IQ and, if he can stay healthy, should show marked improvement playing a much more typical role.
Gradkowski's return may bring the greatest collective sigh of relief from the Steelers' faithful fans, despite the fact that no one wants to actually see him on the field in 2015.
Sure, he could handle the role. He's smart, athletic and capable of filling in for a series, a half, or a few games, if need be. But if he is on the field, that means Ben Roethlisberger isn't. And that's bad.
But it's good, too, because that's an ever-present possibility, despite markedly improved play from the offensive line in 2014 and a playbook specifically designed to allow Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball quickly. It's good, because the remaining options are less than enticing, and it's good, because Gradkowski is the only other quarterback on the roster who has taken a regular-season NFL snap.
It's good, because Landry Jones.
Oh, sure, he looks tremendous compared to the 2013 and 2014 versions. He is reading defenses pre-snap, he's progressing through his reads, and he's had a few absolutely picture-perfect throws. But he's still wildly inconsistent and unable to score on even third-string defenses with anything resembling regularity. Gradkowski's list of pre-Steelers teams reads like a who's-who of NFL dysfunction: Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Oakland, Cleveland and Cincinnati. I'll give the Bengals a pass, as they were already stabilizing in 2011-2012 when Gradkowski was on their roster. But the point is that he's used to adversity. The idea of Jones starting for an extended period, meanwhile, is adversity.
It's always good to get injured players back, but with just one week of training camp and three pre-season games remaining, these three are returning at a critical time, for themselves and for the team -- and for the collective anxiety of the fanbase, too.