For a team that was a game away from the Super Bowl in 2016, you’d think the Steelers would have a pretty good idea of what their roster will look like in 2017, even before the players arrive at St. Vincent College for training camp. Most of last season’s roster will return, and a few new faces — mostly those selected high in the NFL Draft last April.
But, every year, a player or two surprises everyone and survives the final cut. This season, there are a few hopefuls who have the tools to supplant experienced players.
Scott Orndoff, Tight End - Replaces Xavier Grimble, Tight End
Orndoff is an interesting guy. His 4.84-second 40-yard dash was 12th of the 14 tight ends who ran. He tied for last in bench press, with 17 reps (there were nine wide receivers who managed at least that many). He was dead last in vertical jumping. In short, he was at or near the bottom in every single discipline. Every. Single. One.
But, when you watch him play, he’s bigger, faster and stronger than all the Combine tests showed. There’s the numbers test, and then there’s the eye test. While Orndoff pretty much failed every last measurable test, he somehow manages to jump off the screen at you, and for the right reasons.
In college, he excelled at exactly the sort of things the Steelers need from their tight ends: he gets open down the seams, and he blocks well. And that’s exactly why he could knock Grimble off the roster. For all the pre-season hype about Grimble’s athleticism in 2016, it didn’t amount to much, even when he had a golden opportunity to pounce with presumed starter Ladarius Green missing most of the season. In the end, it amounted to 11 catches on 21 targets, for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
Orndoff isn’t as athletic as Grimble, but he’s (mostly) dependable, and a far better blocker. I say mostly, because his drop rate in 2016 at the University of Pittsburgh was 10.4 percent. But, considering Grimble caught barely more than 50 percent of his targets, it really doesn’t look like a change is going to hurt much.
Keion Adams, Outside Linebacker - Replaces Anthony Chickilo, Outside Linebacker
Seventh-round picks aren’t supposed to get much hype. They aren’t really supposed to. In fact, oftentimes they receive less fanfare than a surprisingly productive undrafted free agent. But Adams, who wasn’t even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, has a combination of game tape and pro-day results that prove he isn’t your average seventh-round pick.
For instance, his 27 bench-press reps at his pro day would have tied for the best at the Combine among all linebackers, inside and outside. His 37-inch vertical jump would have been good for fourth, and his 124-inch broad jump would have tied for sixth. He’s not the fastest guy in the world, by any stretch of the imagination. But, James Harrison’s Super Bowl XLIII interception return aside, it’s not often that a pass-rushing outside linebacker’s 40-yard dash time really means much come game time.
Adams has a well-developed set of pass rush moves, with room for further improvement, and excels at the one thing a pass-rushing linebacker needs to do in order to consistently get to the quarterback: his bend around the edge is tremendous.
Chickillo is smart, a strong tackler, and pretty doggone good in coverage. He’s just not much of a finisher in the pass-rush aspect of the game. Adams is, and that’s why he has a shot to take Chickillo’s spot.
Jacob Hagen, Safety - Replaces Jordan Dangerfield, Safety
In the 2016 pre-season, Hagen caught my eye for one big reason: if he was on the field, he was around the ball. Whether it was a pass or a run, he was on the screen when the whistle blew. It’s a great thing to see a young guy hustle to the play, snap after snap.
But beyond that, Hagen brings other things to the table. Ignore, for now, that he sometimes looked like a deer in oncoming headlights. That’s not unexpected from a small-school guy who was the NFL equivalent of a walk-on. If you go back to his college tape, he was the one thing the Steelers absolutely do not have elsewhere on their roster: a ball-hawking centerfield-style safety. His long, lanky-yet-muscular frame resembles that of a taller Brian Dawkins, or maybe Minnesota’s Harrison Smith. He moves fluidly, and knows how to put himself into position to make plays. He’s also a willing tackler, and has a knack for separating the ball carrier from the ball.
Dangerfield, unfortunately, is in a tough spot. The Steelers’ safeties are all pretty much interchangeable — which means the lowest guy on the totem pole is fairly expendable. Dangerfield is a poor man’s Robert Golden — who is, in turn, a poor man’s Sean Davis or Mike Mitchell.
But Hagen is different. He’s not going to see the field much in the Steelers’ base defense, or even their standard nickel, but he gives them an intriguing option as a single-high safety at times, or as a deep dime defender. Now entering his second training camp with the Steelers, Hagen has a chance to show he still has what made him stand out at Liberty University.
Sometimes, different is a great thing. Hagen is different from the rest of the safeties in a good way, while Dangerfield is more of the same. “Same” is not going to help Dangerfield’s case.