Stock up, The backfield
This entry should be prefaced by mentioning that whoever secures Pittsburgh’s No. 2 running back spot will be lucky to see 5-10 carries per game, as Le’Veon Bell is a legitimate workhorse.
With that said, the Steelers have some very intriguing depth options. The presumptive favorite to secure the backup spot is James Connor, a former Pitt star who the Steelers drafted in the third round. Connor is more of a north-south bruiser than Bell although, much like Bell, he’s a very good receiver. The last running back Pittsburgh selected in the third round was Dri Archer, so at least Connor isn’t stuck following a particularly compelling act.
Things get interesting after Connor, however. Common sense and precedent suggest that Mike Tomlin is only going to keep three running backs on the 53-man roster, and with Bell and Connor (presumably) having roster spots locked down, Knile Davis, Fitzgerald Toussaint and a handful of dudes you’ve never heard of will be battling for the No. 3 role. Davis and Toussaint will probably be the front-runners because a) they have NFL experience and b) they both have the ability to return kicks. But my early dark horse is former Hopewell (Pa.) great Rushel Shell. Shell isn’t fast enough to become a major return threat, but he has the physical gifts to be an NFL running back.
Overall, Pittsburgh’s running back committee is far from being the best in the NFL, but it’s a lot better than it was three weeks ago.
Stock down, Those in charge of making roster cuts
This applies to the guys who ultimately determine which of Pittsburgh’s 11 receivers make the 53-man roster. The Steelers had a relatively decent receiver corps even before they used a second-round draft choice to select JuJu Smith-Schuster from USC. This isn’t to say that drafting Smith-Schuster was the wrong call. It wasn’t. In fact, it’s probable, if not likely, that Smith-Schuster was the highest-rated player on Pittsburgh’s board at the time they were on the clock. And with Kevin Colbert’s sterling history of transforming receivers into superstars, drafting Smith-Schuster was a wise investment.
Drafting Smith-Schuster, as during the past two years in Pittsburgh, was a decision made based on Martavis Bryant.
Now, it isn’t necessarily fair to claim Smith-Schuster was drafted to replace Martavis Bryant. The extent of commonality between Bryant and Smith-Schuster comes down to them both being tall and both playing receiver. Certainly, both can be effective no. 2 receivers, but both bring vastly different skill sets to the table: Smith-Schuster is a slighter version of a modern tight end, while Bryant is a king-sized version of the traditional burner (absolutely no pun intended).
To me, the issue then becomes this: We know Antonio Brown is No. 1, that isn’t going to change. But there’s a very big difference between the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. Bryant and Smith-Schuster both project as No. 2 receivers, though either one could maybe become a No. 3 receiver. That creates an issue, too, as Eli Rogers (who, it should be mentioned, is a no. 3 receiver) had a pretty solid season last year.
An even more troublesome issue is that Pittsburgh only has so many roster spots. They kept five receivers on the 53-man roster last season, but I suppose keeping six wouldn’t be totally out of the question. For the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s five.
Okay, so with Brown, Smith-Schuster (by virtue of being a second-round pick), Bryant (by virtue of being a borderline superstar when healthy/not suspended) and Rogers (by virtue of playing well last season) locked into roster spots, who becomes the No. 5? Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey both play special teams and would be strong candidates to fill this role. Since Coates is younger and because I’m trying to prove a point, let’s go with him.
Remember, before Coates had himself a case of the JPP-hands, he was leading the NFL in yards per catch and generally performing just as well as Pittsburgh could’ve hoped for their No. 2. If Coates comes back in training camp and lights it up, he’s going to make it awfully difficult for the coaching staff to construct the roster. Basically, the Steelers would be set at No. 1 and No. 3, and they’d have some flexibility at 2, 4 and 5, although it is tough to imagine Bryant being thrilled about accepting a No. 5 role and the special teams responsibilities that go along with it. If Coates absolutely brings it this offseason, he shouldn’t be thrilled about being stuck with a lesser role, either.
Pittsburgh’s receiving corps is a mess, but in a good way. Good for their Super Bowl aspirations, probably, but maybe not so good for the people that have to build the roster.
Stock down, Ben’s retirement plans
Ben’s cupboard has never been more well-stocked. The front office went out and bought him a shiny new receiver to play with, as well as some new running backs and a young backup quarterback to mentor in his free time, if he’s into that kind of thing. Additionally, tight end Ladarius Green is reportedly practicing, and getting Bryant back (at some point) will further bolster the passing attack. With all of these weapons and one of the league’s three or five best offensive lines, Ben and the offense shouldn’t be an issue. At best, they should be able to score more than one touchdown in any two-game stretch.
Stock up, the secondary
The Steelers currently have 11 cornerbacks on the active roster. Fewer than half of these players will ultimately make the final 53.
So let’s break it down: Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell are locks. So, too, is Cameron Sutton, as third-round picks generally are given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to monitoring their development. It can probably be assumed that Coty Sensabaugh’s job is relatively safe, as the Steelers will want to see if they can get some sort of return on their investment.
If the above scenario holds true, it presents a very interesting case for the fifth spot on the 53-man roster.
William Gay is a very strong cut candidate, given his age and lack of production last season. Senquez Golson, a second-round pick in 2015, has yet to play a single snap after suffering back-to-back season-ending injuries in the 2015 and 2016 preseasons. Brian Allen, the probable favorite among a slew of no-names, is hardly assumed a roster spot, given his status as a fifth-round draft pick.
It’s way too early to accurately appraise the outcome of this impending cornerback battle. We will get a clearer picture after training camp. For now, at least the secondary looks a little bit better on paper than it did last season, if only marginally.
Stock up, Bud Dupree
Bud Dupree is apparently taking this whole leadership thing very seriously. Allow me to present Exhibit 1:
Teammates taking shots at another one that ain't G!— Big Bud (@Bud_Dupree) April 29, 2017
Now, I realize that many people are kind of over the whole “Martavis Bryant tweet controversy,” but I think it’s hilarious and I’m thus going to keep talking about it.
At this point, nobody knows if Bryant and Coates had some kind of weird inside joke that Mike Tomlin also was somehow part of or something. What we do know, however, is that at least one member of the Steelers seems kind of annoyed that his teammates are beefing on social media. Maybe Bud is part of the joke, too.