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The Steelers ABCs: The Integration of a team

In this edition of ABCs, we play a round of “What They Are; What They Could Be”

NFL: NFL Draft Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Integration

It’s too early to say if I love Terrell Edmunds or if I’m merely infatuated with the concept of Terrell Edmunds—or, more specifically-- what Terrell Edmunds could be. What Terrell Edmunds is presently is a prodigiously gifted athletic wunderkind who also happens to play safety; what Terrell Edmunds could be is a jack-of-all-trades defensive hybrid who singlehandedly fixes the Pittsburgh Steelers’ chronically-bad secondary while correspondingly filling the gaping void left by Ryan Shazier in their scant linebacker ranks.

That’s a lofty demand to place on the shoulders of any player, let alone a rookie whose status as a legitimate first-round prospect is debatable and more probably outright contentious (Lance Zierlein, for whatever his opinion is worth, pegged Edmunds as a third- or fourth-round prospect and someone who “could become” an NFL starter. In other words, Edmunds isn’t entering Pittsburgh with the same level of decorum as, say, Troy Polamalu. Such trivial constraints will do little to placate my enthusiasm. The prospect of Edmunds becoming a Day-1 impact player—the kind of dude whose jersey you‘d buy—is very exciting! He’ll be afforded the opportunity to do so, presumably. By virtue of a defensive exodus maybe five or so years ago, the Steelers have long abandoned the whole defensive rookies need to play sparingly or not at all strategy in favor of throwing these poor lads right into the hellfire. Edmunds, much like Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, and T.J. Watt, should be featured prominently in his inaugural season. In fact, Pittsburgh’s defensive brain-trust ought to be in the lab as we speak formulating all kinds of innovative and radical sub-packages to accentuate Edmunds’ talents, whatever those particular talents may be.

Of course, I‘m blithely and irresponsibly spitballing. OTAs just wrapped, and we won’t have a super firm idea of what Edmunds is and is not capable of until training camp at the earliest. In the meantime, it’s fun to speculate.

The integration of Pittsburgh‘s other, similarly distinguished newcomers should be less unpredictable, but intriguing nonetheless. We can reasonably assume that Morgan Burnett, for example, probably won’t make a ton of splash plays (he has nine career interceptions, 10 career fumble recoveries, and 7.5 career sacks, so he’s good for maybe three a season) but will provide a steady, veteran presence in a defensive backfield that could desperately use this quality. Just like we did with Edmunds, let’s identify what some of the various newcomers to the Steelers currently are and make some incredibly premature and potentially libelous predictions about that they could be:

Jon Bostic

What he is: A middle linebacker, more or less a Vince Williams clone, whose career to this point has been marred by injuries.

What he could be: The best middle linebacker on the team. “Tackles” can be a kinda murky, not-telling-the-entire-story statistic, but Bostic registered 97 of them in 14 games with the Colts last season, which speaks to a) his ability to be in the general vicinity of the football and b) his ability to actually make stops. There’s a million variables to consider here, sure. Can Bostic cover tight ends and running backs? Can he remain healthy for an entire season? Is he more instinctual or more reactionary, etc. But Bostic‘s signing is the kind of under-the-radar move that might really enhance Pittsburgh’s overall defensive capabilities.

Mason Rudolph

What he is: Rookie quarterback, providing first-round fanfare and a third-round price tag.

What he could be: Pittsburgh’s primary backup. (We’re thinking short-term on this, so we’ll keep the heir-apparent talk on ice for the moment.) Assuming the No. 2 role will require Rudolph to outperform both Landry Jones and Joshua Dobbs during the next two months, this shouldn’t be too hard, since it will involve simply outperforming both Landry Jones and Joshua Dobbs over the next two months. Ben Roethlisberger is currently in the midst of an unparalleled stretch of good health, but it probably behooves the Steelers to groom a semi-capable backup in the event that a hangnail or ruptured buttcheek causes Roethlisberger to miss two or three games. Jones presently fills that role, but Rudolph’s superior arm talent and athleticism makes him an undeniably more-enticing option, and his current lack of familiarity with the system (or whatever) shouldn’t prompt the Steelers to summarily bury him in the depth chart.

Jaylen Samuels

What he is: A versatile halfback. Somewhere between Le’Veon Bell and Will Johnson on that particular continuum.

What he could be: A bulkier, less speedy version of what Dri Archer should’ve been. There’s a lot to like about Samuels’ game, because he is, to borrow one of Jon Gruden’s goofy idioms, a Football Player. The issue is that, while Samuels is good at catching the football and carrying the football and blocking other players and knowing how to do various stuff on the field, he isn’t overwhelmingly awesome at any one of these things, which is precisely why he wasn‘t picked until the fifth round of the draft. And in light of his status as a fifth-rounder, he‘s a long-shot to even make the roster.

But. But! Samuels could make the roster! The Steelers will probably keep three running backs (maybe four, but probably three), with the no. 3 (or no. 4) back serving primarily as a special-teamer. Samuels’ versatility makes him a prime special teams candidate, and the Steelers will sure take all the special teams help they can get.

Nat Berhe

What he is: Special teams ace, depth safety.

What he could be: A really, really good special teams ace. I don’t know if there’s any empirical evidence to support this or if its purely perceptual, but Pittsburgh’s special teams units are stunningly mediocre and oftentimes very bad. By signing Berhe, the Steelers have taken a step to address this issue.

Quadree Henderson

What he is: A former Pitt standout whose one-dimensional skillset places his professional ceiling about waist-high.

What he could be: Dante Hall! A concept that I‘m completely incapable of wrapping my head around is that Antonio Brown has been Pittsburgh’s primary punt returner for essentially the duration of his career. The Steelers have recognized the absurdity of this trend, and they’ve tried to amend it by using Jacoby Jones (no, you did not dream this; Jacoby Jones did once play for the Steelers), Eli Rogers, Markus Wheaton, Demarcus Ayers, and God knows who else I’m forgetting as punt returners, but to no avail. Henderson, as it stands, is not a threat to actually make the roster as a wide receiver, but he—one of the most prolific return specialists in NCAA history—is very much in line to carve out a niche as a kick and punt returner.

James Washington

What he is: A productive, decorated receiver who provides credentials similar to those of JuJu Smith-Schuster.

What he could be: A less-dynamic, but infinitely more productive version of Martavis Bryant. This feels like it should be a layup, given Washington’s pedigree and the Steelers near-unparalleled run of success in developing receivers. At the moment, Washington (whose ceiling would seem to be higher than that of the erstwhile Eli Rogers) projects as the primary slot receiver, where his downfield shiftiness and ability to make difficult catches in traffic should enable him to contribute mightily in his rookie season.

How the Steelers go about integrating the aforementioned players—and the extent to which they plan on utilizing them—will become clearer once training camp kicks off, but thinking about the best-case scenarios is a fun way to pass time during the interim.