With several backup positions up for grabs on the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, some of the key training-camp battles will significantly impact the team’s fortunes this season. The competition won’t be limited to reserve roles either, with serious question marks over who will man at least two starting positions on defense.
Questionable depth at linebacker and along the defensive line could open the door for some new faces to make the Steelers’ 53-man roster, and it’s expected that many of these camp battles will not reveal a winner until the final round of cuts is announced in September. Mike Tomlin spoke of his excitement about the level of competition he was looking forward to watching in Latrobe when speaking at his opening press conference on Wednesday. Here are five of the training-camp battles we’re excited to see develop in the coming weeks.
At safety - Everyone vs. Everyone
Significant turnover at safety this offseason has left both positions open to new starters in 2018. Newcomers Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds will be in a 3-way battle with Sean Davis to claim the top spots before the season begins. Conventional wisdom suggests Davis will fill the free safety role, while Burnett is named the starter at strong safety. But a new secondary coach and a whole host of new additions to the group means past performances will count for little and everyone effectively will be starting from scratch.
Nat Berhe and Marcus Allen should compete with returning veteran Jordan Dangerfield and 2017 training camp attendee Malik Golden for the remaining backup roles. Having lost Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden and J.J. Wilcox this offseason, the opening-day group will look very different from last year and there’s a good chance that Davis will be the only returning name to make the final 53-man roster this time around.
At inside linebacker - Tyler Matakevich vs. Jon Bostic
It was never going to be easy to replace Ryan Shazier, and the Steelers will be forced to pick from one of two names to do the job this year after they signed former Indianapolis Colts’ linebacker Jon Bostic to compete with Tyler Matakevich for the role. Early signs are that the returning veteran Matakevich is the favorite in the clubhouse to win the job, but that decision is far from set in stone.
Bostic is the more experienced of the two, having started 14 games for the Colts last season, while the next one that Matakevich starts will be his first. If not for an injury suffered in the same game that saw Shazier hurt, Matakevich would have started the rest of the year. Perhaps lacking some of Bostic’s athleticism, it won’t be a straightforward task convincing the team he’s a better option than Bostic to earn the starting role. His knowledge of the playbook and familiarity with the coaching staff, though, should give him a head start in this battle.
At cornerback - Artie Burns vs. Cam Sutton
If Artie Burns enters his third camp with the Steelers simply expecting to pick up where he left off in 2017 as a starting cornerback, he might be in for a surprise. After something of an up-and-down second season, Burns could find himself in a serious battle for his job if Cam Sutton has anything to say about it.
Having missed the first 11 games of his rookie year due to injury, little was expected from Sutton when he was activated from injured reserve later in the season. When he did finally make it onto the field, his performances were encouraging at times, and it would be fair to say that he improved from week to week. Assuming he can remain healthy throughout camp, it would not be a complete surprise if he ended up winning the starting job come opening day.
At defensive tackle - Daniel McCullers vs. Joshua Frazier
Maybe not the camp battle most fans are looking forward to seeing unfold, but one that could be significant should either one be able to fill the role the Steelers have been trying to cover for years. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a quality, true nose tackle since Casey Hampton played his last season with the Steelers in 2012 and there are many who miss that big-bodied type anchoring the defense.
Given the position is mostly a two-down role in the modern NFL, the winner is unlikely to see an overwhelming number of snaps, but a dominant presence in the center of the line could go a long way to solving some of the Steelers’ run-stopping problems that plagued them last year. Frazier’s familiarity with new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar should help him in his cause and McCullers’ lackluster track record to date suggest the team’s latest seventh-round draft choice could be the last big man standing when the dust settles in their training-camp battle.
At outside linebacker - Bud Dupree vs. Himself
Bud Dupree is in no real danger of losing his starting job in 2018, but if he really wants to help the Steelers this season, the 2015 first-round draft pick needs to elevate his game to heretofore unseen heights. Switching to the right-hand side of the defense feels like a desperate last gasp attempt to cure whatever ails him, but it remains to be seen how changing sides alone might correct his failings.
Dupree suggested he had hopes of becoming one of the league’s most talked about linebackers in the years to come a few weeks ago, but he said similar things in 2017 when he predicted he’d have a breakout season. Four years into his career, the Steelers need more than just talk from Dupree this season. A breakout year from the former University of Kentucky product could be a key factor in bringing a championship back to Pittsburgh.