Training camp is finally, mercifully, here. With its arrival come the inevitable dissections of everything Steelers fans and media will see on the fields of Saint Vincent College, from perfect routes, to Backs on ‘Backers, to every single rookie mistake.
It also brings an opportunity to take early stock of the upcoming season, and try to make some predictions. Because, why not?
Rookie of the Year
Defensive Lineman Javon Hargrave
It would be the chic pick to go with either first-round selection Artie Burns, or second-rounder Sean Davis, because the secondary is in such need of help. However, Hargrave may have the best chance at making a regular impact, as the team is now set to leverage the versatility of its defensive front seven thanks to the selection of Hargrave in the third round. They have two defensive ends — Cam Hewyard and Stephon Tuitt — who could easily make the Pro Bowl this year, and a true nose tackle in Dan McCullers, whose stature is reminiscent of the Biblical Philistine giant Goliath. But Hargrave gives them a legitimate fourth lineman, and his athleticism and motor are off the charts. There is now no defensive front this team can’t put on the field: a true 4-3, an "elephant" 4-3, any variety of nickel or dime look, or their traditional 3-4. Hargrave can play inside or outside. He’s simply too capable across the entire line to not find ways to get him on the field. Because of that, and because of how he simply dominated opponents in college, I see him as having the biggest impact of all the rookies.
Offensive Player of the Year
Wide Receiver Antonio Brown
This would be a much more interesting award to predict if we could exclude Brown. This almost feels like a cop-out — like a man buying his wife jewelry for her birthday. He knows she’ll appreciate it, but it’s not exactly original or thoughtful. But, such is life when your number-one receiver is an otherworldly talent. The only one who could have given him a real run for his money this season would have been running back Le’Veon Bell, but he’s likely to be suspended for the first four games of the season.
Not that it really would have mattered. In the end, Brown is just that freakishly good. There’s a chance Bell may not the best runner in the league; Brown, though, is the best receiver in the game, hands down. No one runs better routes, few are as dangerous in the open field, and no one else is open no matter how covered he may be. He’s just. That. Good.
Defensive Player of the Year
Inside Linebacker Ryan Shazier
I really, really want to pic defensive end Stephon Tuitt here, but I think Shazier is about to make the leap from mostly excellent to freakishly good. This defense has been rebuilt from a smothering group that bullies opponents to one that is simply faster and more athletic than the guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage — and that rebuild has taken place around Shazier over the last two years. In a sport where versatility is now the name of the game, a 240-pound guy with 4.35 speed, ideal length and a physique to make Mr. Universe jealous is exactly the weapon you want. He had some games in 2015 where he kind of just blended into the background, but he also had some games that made your eyes bulge. The longer the season went on, the more he seemed to "get it", and that’s got to be a frightening thought for anyone who watched him put up 11 tackles in week two, just the 10th regular-season game of his career.
Most Valuable Player
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
This is another one that kind of feels like a cop-out, but after the last few seasons, there is little doubt as to which player brings the most value to the team. Like many greats, his true value wasn’t felt until he wasn’t on the field. In his absence, the team miraculously went 2-2 despite the best efforts of backup Mike Vick and third-string arm Landry Jones.
Ben’s numbers were down a bit in 2015, even if adjusted for the games he missed, but the simple fact that the best receiver in the game today all but disappeared during those four weeks is clear evidence that Roethlisberger is the most valuable player on this team. In 2016, he has an excellent chance to be named the Most Valuable Player in the entire league.