Well, hello there. We’re now (checks calendar) about a week into training camp, which means it’s time for a piping-hot stock report. Please take your seats.
Stock up: Justin Hunter
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Justin Hunter, 27, is among the early camp standouts—JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh’s second-best receiver, has been dealing with some sort of lower-body injury, which has given Hunter, owner of a 40-inch vertical leap and 4.4 speed, the opportunity to seize some first-team reps. Assuming Ed Bouchette’s reporting is accurate—it probably is, because it almost always is—Hunter is handling his business just fine.
This is great! The only proven commodities in Pittsburgh’s receiving corps as of this writing are Smith-Schuster—who, by his own admission, prefers operating from the slot—and Antonio Brown. Moreover, Martavis Bryant’s departure to Oakland on draft night left the Steelers with a gaping aperture at the No. 2 receiver slot, which they sought to alleviate almost immediately by drafting James Washington. However, it seems like Hunter, a more fitting Martavis Bryant proxy than Washington, has a realistic shot to win the job.
Stock down: Good health
The Steelers dodged an early bullet when it was revealed that Ramon Foster’s knee injury—one that required him to be carted off the practice field, which is the universal symbol for Oh God, his season’s done—was actually a hyperextension. He’ll be back in three to six weeks. However, it’s easy to envision a scenario in which Foster, aged 32 and rounder than a feudal lord, is hampered by the lingering effects of this injury. At this point in his career, Foster is probably the most “replaceable” member of Pittsburgh’s stellar line, but he’s still arguably one of the top-25 interior offensive linemen in the NFL. If he’s impacted by that bad knee later on this season, the deleterious effects on the offense would be palpable — Ben will get sacked more, Le’Veon Bell (or whoever) will have fewer running lanes to attack, and the Steelers will probably end up committing more penalties than they normally would.
On the opposite side of the ball, Morgan Burnett — whose greatest attribute for the time being is that he’s not Mike Mitchell — currently is plagued by a bum hamstring. He isn’t sweating it at the moment, but you, the discerning Steelers fan, should be very concerned. Not only do hamstrings often take a long, long time to heal, but athletes who suffer them tend to be prone to re-injury. I don’t wanna waste too much time speculating on this because, as it stands currently, we don’t have any details about the severity of the injury. But I’d definitely keep an eye on Burnett moving forward, even if he makes a full return to practice.
UPDATE August 3: Antonio Brown is injured too OH GOD THE SEASON’S OVER PACK IT IN.
Stock up: BLISTERING HOT TAKES
Reader, I’d like you to take a gander at the comments on this article published last week by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Now, I don’t want to imply that a handful of folks who are Mad On The Internet are emblematic of the fan base at large, but it’s kinda discouraging to see self-proclaimed Steelers fans throwing insane amounts of shade at Antonio Brown — certainly the greatest wide receiver in franchise history — because he showed up to training camp in a goddang helicopter. He’s egotistical. He’s an attention whore. You won’t see anyone on the Patriots doing that.
Listen. I totally understand that a lot of sports fans — especially NFL fans — expect players to focus solely on their vocation, going about their business wordlessly, handing the ball back to the official instead of celebrating, and never participating in socially or politically contentious demonstrations or discourse. But c’mon — that helicopter celebration ruled!
Stock up: Ben Roethlisberger
This time a year ago, Roethlisberger was red, bloated, and openly flirting with retirement. This year, Ben expressed his desire to play another three or four seasons with the Steelers. He’s also less fat. Somewhat ironically, the Steelers have decided that this, Roethlisberger’s 15th season in the NFL and the first in which he’s weighed less than 250 pounds, is the time to incorporate the quarterback sneak into the playbook. Perhaps the plainly-telegraphed running back toss plays and bubble screens on 4th-and-short that were so common under Todd Haley’s stewardship are now things of the past.
Joking aside (not really, though), Roethlisberger played some of the best football of his career during the second half of the 2017 season, and the fact that he’s made a concentrated effort to get healthy illuminates his desire to remain a top-tier professional quarterback in 2018 and beyond.
Stock down: (The perception of) Le’Veon Bell
Mike Tomlin, who isn’t shy, told CBS he’d like to see camp holdout Le’Veon Bell show up “sooner” and “in even better condition” than he did last season.
So, I realize the “even better” confirms that Tomlin is at least acknowledging Bell was in great shape last year and, in many ways, it’s refreshing to see an NFL coach articulating his actual thoughts instead of adhering to boilerplate coachspeak. But, my goodness, is a backhanded compliment really the best way to go about this? Did Le’Veon Bell’s holdout in 2017 affect his play early last season? Probably it did — kind of — but I’ll note that the Steelers won both of the games in which Bell “played poorly” and any perceived effects of his holdout were put to rest by the 1,946 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns he amassed by season’s end.
Look, the public’s perception of Le’Veon Bell has already reached its nadir. There’s nothing to be gained by calling his conditioning into question. He’ll be fine.
Stock up: The other running backs
One upside to Bell’s holdout — aside from, you know, keeping his body fresh and ready for another 1,000-snap campaign — is that James Conner and Jaylen Samuels benefit from the extra practice. Conner, who joined Roethlisberger in an offseason pudge-purge, has impressed darn near everyone who’s laid eyes on the practice field, and Samuels, a multipurpose offensive weapon, has been getting reps at slot receiver (his pass-blocking needs work, apparently).
These developments are encouraging, but they aren’t likely to make a lick of difference by the time the regular season rolls around because Bell will probably play virtually every offensive snap. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see the Steelers might possibly have a contingency plan in place for when Bell signs elsewhere during the next offseason.