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Steelers Stock Report: Seeing who is trending up, and down, at the start of training camp

The 2019 season is officially underway, and it is time to take a look at the Steelers Stock Report.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

I was walking alone through the woods. I’d already covered about a mile when the trail led me to a small footbridge, which spanned a narrow stream. Blocking the entrance to the bridge was a wendigo, standing maybe, 10-, 11-feet tall, not including the sizable buck’s antlers that sat atop its head. Its face looked vaguely human, save for the wolf snout where the nose should’ve been. And it was wearing an Antonio Brown jersey.

The wendigo grinned, briefly exposing its fangs, which were caked with blood. “The Steelers will disappoint you this season,” it said.

“Stand aside, vile beast,” I responded. “You have no domain here. The Steelers have a solid offensive foundation, one that features a cast of promising ancillary pieces and a veteran quarterback, and plenty of defensive upside; they’ll be just fine.”

The beast let out a great chortle, shaking the ground upon which I stood. The forest floor bustled with activity as various critters scurried away to safety; a flock of birds flew hastily from a nearby tree. “Even if the Steelers could maintain their offensive acuity in the absence of a premier receiver—to say nothing of the loss of Le’Veon Bell, who impacted the Steelers offense in manifold ways—other teams have caught up and perhaps even surpassed them,” the wendigo said. “The Ravens, thanks to their ever-powerful defense and adoption of an offensive system that is somehow correspondingly innovative and antiquated, could repeat as division champs. The Browns—the wretched, cursed Browns—have as much talent on paper as any team in the AFC. The days of the Steelers being successful simply by virtue of being the Steelers are over.”

I seethed. “Enough! The schedule includes plenty of winnable games. If the Steelers can split with the Ravens and Browns, beat the teams they are supposed to beat, and win two or three of their five games against non-divisional playoff opponents from 2018, they should finish with 10 or 11 wins. That ought to be plenty to sneak into the postseason, if not win the division outright.”

The wendigo rolled its yellow eyes. “Yes, because ‘beating the teams they are supposed to beat’ has been such a prominent hallmark of this team under Mike Tomlin’s stewardship. But I’ll entertain your naivety, mortal. Let’s say the Steelers do make the playoffs—what happens then? Do you trust the current roster to keep pace with the Colts or Chargers? Does the defense possess the fortitude to slow down the Chiefs enough that hoping for a shootout is even remotely plausible? I think that it probably does not! And we’re all very cognizant of the Steelers’ postseason failures against the Patri—”

It was at this point that I became overwhelmed by the wendigo’s unceasing onslaught of sound and reasonable arguments . Foolishly, I rushed toward it. The wendigo smiled again and in one swift motion pivoted from the path of my charge—”James Conner can’t execute a cut-back this effective,” the wendigo quipped—and thrust his mighty claws through my back. Everything went dark.

I awoke in my bed, the sheets dampened with cold sweat. “Thank God,” I said to myself. “It was only a dream.” I gathered my senses and headed down the hall to the bathroom, where I found an Antonio Brown jersey sitting in the laundry hamper. It was stained with fresh blood.

Intrigue: Trending up

There are two prevailing viewpoints concerning the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers. The first corresponds to the belief that, by parting ways with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, two entities who are at worst responsible for poisoning the locker room with animus and torpedoing the team’s chemistry, thereby directly negatively impacting the success of the on-field product and who are at best maybe just kind of a lil bit selfish, the Steelers might actually be better off. To suggest that jettisoning two Hall of Fame talents for a haul of mid-round draft capital—i.e. no immediate difference-makers—and being well-positioned for greater success as a result is a staggeringly ridiculous proposition, but its one that any informed observer of the team could easily talk themselves into believing based on the myriad calamities that befell last season’s outfit. The 2018 season felt deeply cursed, almost as if the Steelers stumbled upon a malevolent spirit during a leisurely stroll through the woods, so ridding themselves of the talismans believed to be at least partially responsible for ushering in this era of discontent resembles something of a fresh start (or, more probably, as fresh of a start as a team helmed by a quarterback on the wrong side of 30 can hope for).

The second viewpoint is one rooted in defeatism: the Steelers are charting a course toward a second consecutive season marred by mediocrity. Pittsburgh is still blessed with a surplus of good players, but the exodus of Brown and Bell did render this team less talented—I am of the mind that this point is inarguable; regardless of how you feel personally about Brown and Bell, those dudes totally ruled, and their otherworldly abilities cannot be denied—and, as the wendigo pointed out, rival teams improved upon or maintained their present aptitudes. Like, the Pats and Chiefs are still just as good on paper as they were a year ago and the Browns—again, I cannot stress this enough, the Browns—have legitimate playoff aspirations. These are scary thoughts.

The Steelers’ Super Bowl window should theoretically remain open so long as Big Ben’s still on the team, but that’s contingent upon, you know, him actually playing well. Ben, for the most part, looked as sharp as ever last season, and assuming that any natural age-related regression is minimal, the offense should be fine this year. But! What if any regressed attributes are more pronounced? Recall Peyton Manning, who went from his Hall of Fame self to a Mark Sanchez proxy in the course of a single season. This isn’t to suggest that Ben’s downfall is imminent or that when it does inevitably occur it’ll be as precipitous as Manning’s, but it’s something to keep in mind. Moreover, to expect Ben to forge a connection with Juju Smith-Schuster that is even remotely akin to the extrasensory bond that he formed with Brown is unfair to both players, but what if they struggle to even get on the same page? What if there are lingering compatibility issues? Juju balled out last season and convincingly asserted himself as one of the league’s foremost young receivers, but what if—gulp—without Antonio Brown commanding significant resources from the opposing secondary, JuJu regresses? Let’s pivot to the other side of the ball. The defense seems better positioned than it did last season and there is a legitimate chance that this group could finally, mercifully coalesce into a formidable unit that can aptly complement the volcanic offense, but there is an equal chance that they could remain a liability.

To summarize: The Steelers might be good, but they might be average. They may even be bad! The offense might be good, too! But maybe it won’t. Juju could have fewer yards than he did last season! This is possible. You’re welcome for this hard-hitting analysis.

Since this is the first Stock Report of the season, let’s establish some baselines for each position group. Hopefully these are more informative.

Quarterbacks: Trending up

Josh Dobbs, thanks largely to an excellent preseason showing last season, should enter camp as the backup. But Mason Rudolph, a player the Steelers ostensibly viewed as a first-round talent back in 2018, will get plenty of chances to usurp Dobbs. If both perform well during the preseason, the Steelers could find themselves with two valuable trade chips.

Running backs: Trending up

I realize that we aren’t working with a considerable sample size, but I genuinely believe that James Conner is a top 10 running back in the NFL. What follows is a thoroughly subjective top-of-head rendering of what I guess I’ll call “superior” backs: Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Le’Veon Bell (I’m sorry), Melvin Gordon, Zeke Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Leonard Fournette. That’s...only nine? Joe Mixon, Derrick Henry, DeVonta Freeman, Telvin Coleman, and a handful of others are all real good, but I don’t necessarily think I’d rank them ahead of Conner. Putting him right at 10 is debatable, but fair.

Anyway, the backfield. Conner can operate effectively as a three-down workhorse (he made the Pro Bowl last season), but I think it behooves Mike Tomlin and company to work Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell into the rotation, not only to safeguard Conner’s health, but also because Samuels and Snell are very exciting and good.

Receiver and tight ends: Trending up

With Brown and tight end Jesse James plying their trades elsewhere, the Steelers should have somewhere in the ballpark of 200 targets up for grabs. That’s a fortuitous development if you’re James Washington, a second-year receiver trying to mute some of the erroneous but nonetheless perceptible whispers about your potential status as a draft bust, or if you’re Donte Moncrief, a still-only-25-year-old veteran receiver seeking to parlay a two-year stint in Pittsburgh into an eight-figure contract. But I think the player who stands to gain the most from the departures of Brown and James is tight end Vance McDonald, an absolute refrigerator of a man who caught 50 passes for 610 yards and 6 touchdowns last season. For context, that’s about on par with Heath Miller’s per-season career averages, and McDonald accomplished this as, at best, the tertiary receiving option in a passing attack that featured a second supremely capable tight end, a backfield that sees plenty of work in the passing game, and two receivers who amassed more than 1,200 receiving yards and 100 catches apiece. I understand that drawing conclusions about what could be based on what was is an entirely fruitless exercise, but for the sake of argument let’s give McDonald, I don’t know, 40 additional targets in 2019, which we’ll generously say translates to 20 additional receptions. Based on his 12.2 yards per reception rate in 2018—which is good for a tight end but not so good that it represents an unsustainable benchmark—the 2019 version of Vance McDonald would have caught 70 passes for 850 yards and 8 touchdowns, which would rank neck-and-neck with Miller’s 2012 campaign as the best statistical season for a tight end in franchise history.

Also, Juju rules hard.

Offensive line: Moving parallel

One roster move that flew surprisingly under-the-radar this offseason was the trade that sent right tackle Marcus Gilbert to Arizona. The Steelers saved about $5 million by trading Gilbert and netted a sixth-round pick, which isn’t a bad return on an obvious salary dump involving a player who has plainly become an expendable commodity. Matt Feiler filled in admirably for Gilbert in 2018, so he’ll be your starting right tackle. Guard David DeCastro, center Maurkice Pouncey, and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva all occupy space near the upper echelons of their respective positions league-wide, and Ramon Foster, the starting left guard, is an aging but still-reliable starter. The sixth-man in this outfit is B.J. Finney, who can play guard and center and who would be a significant upgrade to the interior lines of all but a handful of teams, which is precisely why the Steelers eagerly extended a $3 million restricted free agent tender to Finney during the spring. Collectively, the Steelers offensive line is as talented as any in the NFL.

Defensive line: Moving parallel

Ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and nose tackle Javon Hargrave comprise a top-tier defensive line, but there isn’t a ton of depth behind them. This group will be what it’s been.

Linebackers: Trending up

Our divine savior Devin Bush has entered our doomed mortal plane to remedy the ongoing disgrace that is the Steelers defense. I can picture, vividly, Bush feigning a blitz before clandestinely dipping into coverage to snag the game-sealing interception. I’m imaging him gallop stride-for-stride with a speedy receiver down the sideline and, at the last possible second, whipping his head around toward the ball, locating it, and swatting the would-be touchdown harmlessly to the turf. I can hear the “crunch” from a bone-liquifying tackle he delivers to an opposing running back after warging into the backfield like a Terminator. My mind is a vibrant mosaic of soon-to-be-legendary Devin Bush feats. No pressure or anything, Devin.

This is an exciting group. Vince Williams is a highly-effective if somewhat one-dimensional presence in the middle of the formation, and a Williams-Bush pairing is one I can get behind. The Steelers also signed safety-turned-linebacker Mark Barron to help execute Keith Butler’s byzantine schemes. Will Butler at some point deploy an inside linebacker to defend an All-Pro receiver in a critical late-season game? Almost certainly he will, but at least Barron and Bush should be better suited to handle this task than the erstwhile L.J. Fort, who makes Artie Burns look like Darelle Revis.

On the outside, T.J. Watt is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate (though his hamstring issue is worth keeping an eye on) and Bud Dupree has been reading and bookmarking your mean tweets. This, the final year of his rookie contract, will be his breakout campaign (maybe).

Secondary: Trending down

The secondary will trend downward until proven otherwise. Artie Burns is still on the team, man. Artie Burns could not cover a cough. By far the best player in the secondary is 30-year-old Joe Haden, which is as much of a compliment of Haden’s aptitude as it is an indictment of the Steelers’ inability to cultivate young talent in-house. None of Pittsburgh’s presumed starting cornerbacks—Haden, newcomer Steven Nelson, and slot corner Mike Hilton—were originally drafted by the team.

This is not to suggest that the secondary is devoid of potential. Safety Terrell Edmunds ranked second on the team in defensive snaps played last season, which, as recently as three or four seasons ago, was an impossible feat for a rookie defender. He did...fine? He was prone to the customary mental lapses and procedural errors that define most rookie seasons, but he kind of pulled it together toward the end of the season and was a convincing facsimile of the Ideal Modern Safety. I’d wager that he’ll continue to exhibit major improvements. Third-round pick Justin Layne could find his way into the cornerback rotation.

Special teams: Trending down

Danny Smith is still responsible for coaching this group and Jordan Berry is still the punter, so yeah. Gonna be a rough season. Here’s to hoping that the debilitating case of the yips that Chris Boswell contracted last season was acute.

2019 Predictions

I guess I’ll preface this section by acknowledging that, yeah, I understand that this is a Steelers blog so there is virtually no upside to not picking the Steelers to go 16-0 and win the Super Bowl. Alas, here’s an objective-ish overview of how I think things’ll play out, not how I want them to:

AFC North standings

Ravens 10-6

Browns 10-6

Steelers 9-7

Bengals 4-12

AFC playoff field

  1. Chiefs
  2. Pats
  3. Colts
  4. Ravens
  5. Chargers
  6. Browns

NFC playoff field

  1. Rams
  2. Saints
  3. Eagles
  4. Packers
  5. Bears
  6. Vikings

AFC Championship: Chiefs over Chargers

NFC Championship: Saints over Rams

Super Bowl: Chiefs over Saints

NFL MVP: Andrew Luck, Colts

Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, Rams (duh)

Offensive Rookie: Kyler Murray, Cardinals

Defensive Rookie: Devin Bush, Steelers

Steelers MVP: James Conner