clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Steelers Training Camp 2017: 5 offensive camp battles that will shape the 53-man roster

We break down some of the most important camp battles on the offensive side of the ball.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Can we take just a minute to reminisce about the five games in which Sammie Coates was the greatest wide receiver in NFL history? In that stretch, which spanned from Week 1 of the 2016 season to sometime in the third quarter of Pittsburgh’s fifth game, Coates caught 19 passes (including six of 40 or more yards) for 421 yards and two touchdowns. Extrapolate that stat line to an entire 16-game schedule (because why not), and Coates finishes the season with 60 catches for 1,347 yards and six touchdowns. Those are DeSean Jackson numbers.

Coates’ productive 2016 campaign came to a screeching halt after breaking his hand. He then had a procedure this offseason to alleviate a sports hernia. Now, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Coates will miss the beginning of training camp after undergoing a knee scope. Recovery times for knee scopes are usually pretty swift, but setbacks do occur, so pinpointing Coates’ return date is a futile endeavor.

The issue of how much time Coates misses is wholly irrelevant at this point. The Steelers have 11 receivers fighting for five or six roster spots—or, pragmatically speaking, eight receivers fighting for two or three spots. Coates is among the Steelers whose spot on the 53-man roster is far from assured, so the timing on his latest ailment is pretty lousy. He desperately needed training camp. All of it.

As per usual, formulating the receiver depth chart promises to be among the most compelling aspects of training camp. Antonio Brown is the unquestioned no. 1 receiver. Martavis Bryant will probably start, too, provided that he stays healthy throughout training camp. After that: chaos reigns.

Eli Rogers had an appreciable impact as the slot receiver last season. He is the frontrunner to maintain this role, presumably, though his incumbency will surely be challenged by an upstart youngster (Demarcus Ayers), a highly-touted rookie (Juju Smith-Schuster), a veteran newcomer seeking a career revival (Justin Hunter) and the man who will be the lone survivor of World War III (Darrius Heyward-Bey), among many others.

Grab a pen and fill out the depth chart yourself. Or comment below. At this point, your guess is as good as any.

My predictions: Brown, Bryant, Smith-Schuster, Rogers, Hunter, Heyward-Bey.

Offensive line

Pittsburgh’s offensive line solidified itself as one of the best starting fives in the NFL last season. Even if left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the de facto “weak” link of the line, decides to hold out, there is little reason to expect that anything other than the Villanueva-Foster-Pouncey-DeCastro-Gilbert group will start in Week 1.

Supporting the starting five is an excellent collection of role players that provide the Steelers with an enviable degree of depth. B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard will enter camp as the favorites to maintain their positions as the top backups along the interior line and at swing tackle, respectively, but expect former fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins to make a run at a backup.

My predictions: the starting five, plus Finney, Hubbard, Hawkins and Ethan Cooper, because I support my brothers who played their college ball within the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (D-II).

Backup quarterback

When I die, I want “Landry Jones isn’t really that bad” to be printed on my headstone. It is strikingly evident that Jones will never be anything more than a career backup. This is fine for Jones. There are decidedly crappier jobs. This is also fine for the Steelers, who have the flexibility to take fliers on younger quarterbacks, knowing full-well that Jones is not the quarterback-in-waiting. This creates intrigue in the present, as rookie Josh Dobbs has a legitimate chance to unseat Jones as the top backup.

It is important to consider, however, that few teams employ a no. 2 quarterback who actually possesses championship pedigree. So, while the backup quarterback battle between Jones and Dobbs will be fun to observe, it will have virtually no impact on Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl hopes (if Ben Roethlisberger were to suffer some sort of season-ending injury, Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl aspirations with Jones or Dobbs under center would be rendered nonexistent).

My prediction: Jones’ abilities as a quarterback are rooted in mediocrity. The Steelers could do worse. Plus, he knows the offense. I’m giving him a slight edge.

Tight end

I feel like no one is talking about this! After it was announced that Ladarius Green would not return in 2017, it seems like Jesse James was summarily confirmed as the lead dog.

To be clear: I have no issue whatsoever in luxuriating in James’ averageness for another season. James is an unassuming, albeit consistent presence who has become adept at blocking and finding pockets of empty space in the middle of the field. That’s about all you can ask from the fourth- or fifth-best pass catcher on the roster.

With that said, though, Xavier Grimble is one player who I would recommend watching closely over the next three weeks. He hasn’t had many opportunities to publicly showcase his athleticism, though his 11 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns in 2016 were solid numbers for a no. 3 tight end. The ability is there.

Despite the fact that the Steelers dropped Green prior to the 2017 draft, the team did not use any of its eight picks to select a tight end, which could be an indicator of their comfort level in James, Grimble or a James-Grimble gruesome twosome. Or they forgot to draft a tight end. Whichever theory is more palatable.

My prediction: James starts, but Grimble sees plenty of snaps. David Johnson grabs the no. 3 spot.

Running back

James Conner will play on the Pittsburgh Steelers forever. He is a local college star, a cancer survivor, and an all-round exemplary dude, but most importantly, he was a third-round draft pick. The Steelers set a pretty strong ride-and-die precedent for running backs selected in the third round by rolling with Dri Archer for two laughably unproductive seasons, so Conner could finish the 2017 season with 67 carries for -23 yards and 24 fumbles and still remain gainfully employed by this time next season.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.

Le’Veon Bell will, in all likelihood, miss most of, if not all of, training camp and the preseason since he has yet to sign his one-year franchise tender. While his camp absence isn’t going to fast-track anyone for a starting role, it will permit several of the ancillary running backs with the opportunity to take first-team reps.

Aside from Bell, the running back position is not a strong area of Pittsburgh’s roster. Not that it needs to be, as Bell is a three-down workhorse who will only leave the field when he’s good and ready (or gets injured, whatever). The coaching staff will declare otherwise, but it’s probably pretty safe to assume that Conner will be granted every available concession to seize lead backup (oxymoron?) duties.

My prediction: Conner is the top backup due to Knile Davis’ inability to do anything except run in a straight line. Davis grabs the no. 3 role, though, and serves as the team’s primary kick returner.