With NFL training camps now upon us, we will begin to see people rising and falling along the depth charts of each team. Some will make regular-season rosters and others will not, but one thing is certain for anyone who hasn’t already locked down a starting position: they’re going to have to prove they belong. For the Steelers, these are the offensive players with the most to prove in 2016.
Quarterback: Landry Jones
Actually, we’re all a lot better off if Jones is not given the chance to prove his value. If he’s on the field, starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is not. Taking a potential Hall-of-Fame quarterback off the field for any reason is never a good recipe for success.
But, Jones will have his chance during the pre-season games. He was up and down in his fill-in play last season, but he definitely showed improvement from his pre-season performances in seasons past. But the team does have second-year quarterback Dustin Vaughn on the pre-season roster, and he resembles Roethlisberger in a few ways, mainly in stature. Vaughn will have his own chance to “prove it” this year, and another pre-season of up-and-down-at-best from Jones might end up being enough to push him out the door if Vaughn shows up big and backup Bruce Gradkowski stays healthy.
Runningback: Fitzgerald Toussaint, Roosevelt Nix
I recently raved about Toussaint’s potential in his second year with the team, but that’s exactly what it is: potential. It’s looking likely that starting running back Le’Veon Bell will be suspended for the first four games of the season, meaning Toussaint could easily find himself as the primary backup during the month of September. How he does could be huge, because the guy in front of him on the depth chart, DeAngelo Williams, is well beyond the typical age of NFL runners -- and in the last year of his contract. A solid performance by Toussaint could be enough for the front office to move on from Williams, assuming he even chooses to play again in 2017.
Nix is here more as a call to prove his first year as a fullback was no fluke. The former defensive end made a largely seamless transition to lead blocker, and did so well that the team chose not to pursue former fullback Will Johnson in free agency. Nix will be looked on to back up, and improve on, his stellar 2015 performance.
Wide Receiver: Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton
If the first practice of training camp is any indication, Coates is well on his way to “proving it”. Twitter virtually exploded Saturday with reporters and spectators alike voicing amazement at the catches he was making. He seems to have taken the role of replacing suspended Martavis Bryant seriously. If he follows up his day-one performance with consistency, he could even knock Darrius Heyward-Bey to the bottom of the depth chart.
Wheaton is here, for more than any other reason, to show he’s worth another contract. The former third-round pick had himself a fine 2015 season playing somewhere between number two and number three on the depth chart, and has a chance along with Coates to marginalize the highly talented, but troubled, Bryant. Wheaton will likely see one of three possible outcomes this year: he falls off, and gets a low-ball contract; he levels off and gets a mid-range contract, or he explodes and prices himself out of a team that is looking to give all-universe receiver Antonio Brown a huge, and much deserved, extension.
Tight End: Jesse James
This could have easily been free-agent acquisition Ladarius Green, especially considering he is starting the season on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform list, but with four seasons under his belt already, we at least have a good idea of what he brings to the table. James, though, didn’t see a ton of snaps in 2015 thanks to the presence of ever-dependable Heath Miller. However, Miller’s February retirement opened both a huge door and a gaping hole for the Steelers. James is largely cut from the same cloth: big and strong, a jack of all trades. Miller never consistently lit up stat sheets, but made the catch when the ball came his way and he blocked with the best in the league. James will likely fill that same role, but has plenty of room to grow in both areas of his game. Fortunately, he has the physical tools to do it; he just needs to put his boots on the ground and get after it.
Offensive Tackle: Alejandro VIllanueva, Jerald Hawkins
Villanueva has taken a strange road to becoming a (presumed) starting left tackle in the NFL, one that wound through the tight-end position, then defensive end — and the road started in Afghanistan, of all places. “Big Al”, a former Army Ranger, packed on nearly 80 pounds to his long, lean frame during a season on the Steelers’ practice squad before being forced into action by a season-ending injury to former starting tackle Kelvin Beachum, Jr. Despite a few early hiccups, Villanueva picked up the nuances of the position quickly. He does, however, still have plenty of room for improvement.
Hawkins is a capable, but unproven, rookie, one of just two offensive players drafted by the Steelers in 2016. The former LSU Tiger will likely be the primary backup at right tackle, behind Marcus Gilbert, as free-agent pickup Ryan Harris will most likely either backup Villanueva or take the starting job from him. One thing Hawkins will not do, though, is knock Gilbert down the depth chart, as Gilbert spent 2015 putting on a virtual clinic at right tackle.
Guard: B.J. Finney, Chris Hubbard
Finney was looking for all the world like he would make the final roster out of training camp last season, but then he suffered a significant injury in the final “meaningful” play of the pre-season -- for as meaningful as garbage time in the last pre-season game can be. The injury resulted in Finney being cut, but he was later re-signed to the practice squad once the injury had healed, and was then signed to a futures contract after the season ended. The team clearly believes they have something in the making, and he will be given the chance to make good on that.
Hubbard has been a borderline player for the Steelers the last two seasons, seeing time in eight games but only in relief of the starters due to injury or fatigue. The level of play hasn’t fallen off a cliff with him on the field, but he hasn’t lit the world on fire. That’s not the expectation for anyone who isn’t expected to be more than a career backup but that mentality doesn’t work in Head Coach Mike Tomlin’s Next-Man-Up approach. Without a decent bump in his play, Hubbard’s replacement will be on the roster a year from now.
Center: Maurkice Pouncey
It may seem a little strange putting an All-Pro on the Prove-It list, but the simple fact is that Pouncey has suffered at least three significant injuries in his professional career — and the one he is coming back from is probably the most significant. As a rookie, he suffered a major high-ankle sprain that kept him out of Super Bowl XLV, and in 2013 he tore knee ligaments after being inadvertently hit from behind by teammate David DeCastro. And, last pre-season, he fractured his fibula and missed the entire season after complications and infection caused his recovery to suffer. That leaves him with a lot of unknowns: is he completely healed? Can he return to form? Can he manage to go the entire season without being significantly injured?
The bottom line is that Pouncey has played just 17 games in the last three seasons. He’s earning a lot of money for someone who hasn’t spent much time on the field. His roster spot is likely secure for at least 2016 and 2017, thanks to the massive amount of dead money he would leave behind if he was to be cut following another injury-plagued or otherwise-less-than-stellar season. But the team could very well begin looking for his eventual replacement should he not return to his previous level.