Each year, at the end of July, about 90 players — some already locked into roster spots, others hopeful, and still others carrying the elephant-in-the-room weight of being mere camp bodies to fill out the roster. Sometimes, a camp body will arise from the depths to snag a last-minute roster spot, and sometimes someone who seemed destined to make the team will fall flat on his face in August.
Regardless of the circumstances, one of the best parts of training camp is the chance to watch those camp battles as they play out.
Here are five to watch on defense for the Steelers during their 2017 training camp.
Outside Linebacker - James Harrison vs. T.J. Watt
Both of these guys are making the team, of course. You don’t cut the team’s 800-pound gorilla, and you don’t cut the most recent first-round pick. Not that it would be in question, anyway. Watt has done a phenomenal job of picking up the outside linebacker position after starting there for a single season at Wisconsin. The expectation should be that Watt will rotate with Harrison for the first four to six weeks and then, if he has performed well, he should take over the starting spot.
The only thing that really is going to alter that is Watt’s grasp of the playbook and the overall defensive system. If he is struggling to adapt, Harrison will start deeper into the season. If Watt is picking it up quickly, though — and all indications are that he is — then he could start sooner. The ceiling, of course, is starting in week one. But that’s probably not happening.
Still, it will be fun to watch.
Slot Cornerback - Cameron Sutton vs. William Gay vs. Senquez Golson vs. Coty Sensabaugh
A famous Tomlinism is “two dogs, one bone.” In this case, it’s likely “four dogs, three bones.” The reality is that one of these guys will be on the outside looking in, because they are relatively similar in size. They all have pros and cons.
For Sutton, he’s a third-round pick. Typically, they get a full season to prove themselves, and indications out of OTAs and minicamp are that he has looked good so far.
Gay has experience on his side, and age counting against him. If the Steelers want to continue to keep the defense young, Gay is in a tough spot. But he’s still playing pretty well.
Golson has missed his first two seasons, and has the most strikes against him because of it, but he is a former second-round pick. The team kept linebacker Sean Spence after he missed his first two years, so there is precedent on Golson’s side. If he performs like a second-round pick in training camp, it will be hard to justify letting him go.
Sensabaugh also has precedent on his side, because the Steelers rarely let veteran free agent acquisitions go without giving them at least one full season in the system. And Sensabaugh is a largely underrated slot corner. But he has an injury history, too, which could come into play.
Steven Johnson vs. L.J. Fort vs Tyler Matakevich
These three duked it out for roster spots last year, as well. Fort and Johnson have experience on their side — both are five-year veterans — but both are probably at their ceilings. Matakevich, the 2015 NCAA tackles leader as a senior — has a single year of experience, and looked at least as good as Fort and Johnson. At this point, it looks like two of the three could make the team, and I’m projecting Fort as the odd man out. But don’t rule out a camp darkhorse: rookie Matt Galambos, who has a non-stop motor. Most likely, he ends up on the practice squad, but there is at least a very slim chance that he is at least in the running for one of the spots that I currently predict will go to Johnson and Matakevich.
Safety - Robert Golden vs. Jordan Dangerfield
Both of these players made the roster in 2016, but I imagine that had more to do with lack of anyone else rising up than it did, specifically, the performance of Jordan Dangerfield.
That’s not to say he didn’t deserve a chance. The problem, really, is that Dangerfield is a slightly lesser version of Golden — who is, himself, a less-capable version of starting strong safety Sean Davis. And, really, Davis isn’t all that different from starting free safety Mike Mitchell. There is little need for four players who are so similar, as Golden or Dangerfield could easily fill in for either of the starters. My gut feeling is that Dangerfield is on the way out, to be replaced by a rangier player who can play a centerfield-type free safety. The only way Dangerfield stays, in my opinion, is if he has improved to a significant enough level that he makes Golden expendable, instead. Since Golden was the initial starter in 2016, and did it well, I don’t see that happening.
Keion Adams vs Arthur Moats vs Anthony Chickillo
Let me start by saying I am a firm believer in Adams. Had he played for a bigger school, he likely would have gone a bit higher in the draft. That’s not to say the Western Michigan Broncos were a bunch of scrubs — they were a Top 25 team, after all. But Adams was plagued in the draft by a combination of less-than-stellar competition in the MAC, and a historically deep EDGE class. In his favor are top-notch quickness, very good awareness and bend around the edge that would border on the absurd if we weren’t all so used to what James Harrison has done for most of his career. Adams may be the second-best on the team at bending the edge right now.
Chickillo isn’t going to wow anyone with amazing plays, but he has a constant motor and a good sense for the ball. But Moats is a somewhat proven veteran, and Adams is more athletic than Chickillo. So, it will be a steep, uphill climb for Chickillo to hang on to his roster spot. My early guess here is Chickillo is on the outside looking in, unless he has really stepped up his game in the off-season.