A revamped Pittsburgh Steelers defense, replenished with youth and speed, looks to turn things around from a less than stellar 2015. With training camp here, there are a handful of key battles to keep an eye on the defensive side of the ball.
Some of the biggest changes and additions from this offseason came at the cornerback position. One of the weakest points in the Steelers defense has new, young talent that could potentially be the future of the team. Seasoned veteran, William Gay, has the number one cornerback spot all but guaranteed. Entering his tenth season, Gay has seven more years under his belt than the next most experienced corner in contention.
The battle to keep an eye on will be for the number two, three, and four cornerback spots. In 2015, Ross Cockrell showed that he has earned his spot in the secondary rotation, totaling 34 tackles, 2 interceptions, with a forced fumble. After spending his rookie season on IR, Senquez Golson looks to show Steelers Nation why he deserved Pittsburgh's second round draft pick in 2015. Then you have 2016 first round pick draft pick, Artie Burns. Hopes and expectations are high for the rookie out of University of Miami. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin rarely strike out on first round picks, so there is no doubt that the sky is the limit for Burns, even in his first year. On top of those three, you can not yet count out Doran Grant, the Steelers fourth round draft pick in 2014. Though he has not earned much playing time, Grant is striving to not get lost at the bottom of the depth chart.
As the aftershocks of a retiring Troy Polamalu continue to tremble, the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to hunt for a long-term answer to replace him.
With the free safety position on the opposite side locked up by Mike Mitchell, it is all hands on deck in finding a contingent plan for strong safety. If there is one position on the defensive side of the ball that the Pittsburgh Steelers should be concerned with, it is this one.
Will Allen did an above average job holding down the position in 2015, but the Steelers decided to let the 34 year old veteran hit the free agent market this offseason.
That leaves Pittsburgh with three options: Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden, or Sean Davis.
Entering his fourth season, Thomas has had time to show the NFL what he is capable of, and to put it simply-- he hasn't shown much. Robert Golden has shown that he is phenomenal on special teams, as he has earned the honor of captaining the unit. Unfortunately, special teams performance does not always equate to performance in regular snaps. In limited playing time, Golden has been average at best. While he would be a decent placeholder, I would not consider him as "starting strong safety of the Super Bowl 51 champions" caliber. Sean Davis enters his rookie season with an opportunity to achieve massive playing time right from the start. Even if he does not gain starter status by week 1, it is very possible to see him starting by mid-season.
Another position, another rookie in contention for lots of playing time. Is it too early to call the 2016 draft class a success? Probably.
"Big" Daniel McCullers starts off the 2016 season as starting nose tackle, after taking a backseat to Steve McLendon in 2015. While neither were overly impressive, McCullers looks to breakout in his third season by utilizing his massive body. At 352 pounds, with a 6'7 frame, there are not many players in the NFL that want to take that head-on.
Third round pick from the 2016 NFL draft, Javon Hargrave, comes to Pittsburgh with some of the quickest feet seen at the nose tackle position. While his strength of opponent has yet to be truly tested, coming from South Carolina State, Hargrave dominated the FCS, which the Steelers hope can translate to the NFL with some experience.
Right Outside Linebacker
One of the most controversial first round picks in recent years, Jarvis Jones, may see some competition this season-- exactly what he needs in a contract year.
While there is no denying that Jones' production has not been ideal, the combination of him and James Harrison has sufficed. With Harrison's NFL playing clock ticking down to its final years, questions still loom if Jones is the long-term answer.
Que sixth round pick of the 2015 draft, Anthony Chickillo. While Chickillo saw limited playing time in his rookie season, he enters his sophomore season looking to make a bigger impact. Training camp will be the perfect opportunity to show that he can compete for playing time come regular season.
Left Outside Linebacker
After an above average rookie season that showed increased production each week, Bud Dupree has earned the starting spot for the left outside linebacker position.
Six year veteran, Arthur Moats, who has been a reliable asset to the Steelers defense, looks to make Bud Dupree's job security a little more vulnerable. Moats has shown he is capable of being a starter, with 4 sacks in both 2014 and 2015. Whichever player is on the field in the LOLB spot, Steelers Nation can feel comfortable in knowing that it is in good hands.
A player to keep an eye on is 2016 sixth round draft pick, Travis Freeney. A freak athlete with superior speed, Feeney has a small frame for linebacker standards, reminiscent of a Ryan Shazier or Deone Bucannon type of build. With the one-two punch nearly locked up at the LOLB position, it'll be interesting to see if the Pittsburgh Steelers slide Feeney over to the right side to give Jarvis Jones a run for his money.