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Predicting the outcomes of Steelers’ training camp battles: Defense and Special Teams

Looking at every possible training camp battle in 2020

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The most exciting parts of most NFL training camps are the battles that take place between players for roster spots. Whether it’s for a starting position or just a spot on the final roster, training camp battles are highly competitive and have a big effect on how the 53-man roster is formed.

Even though the Steelers have a lot of continuity this season, there are still spots open and jobs to be won at nearly every position. Let’s take a look at what battles will be going on this year, and try to predict what the outcomes will be:

Starting Slot Cornerback

Mike Hilton vs. Cameron Sutton

Perhaps the biggest battle that no one is talking about at Steelers’ training camp, it looks as if both Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton will be vying for the starting slot corner spot in 2020. Hilton is the incumbent starter, but Sutton’s role has increased each year in his career, and after a successful 2019 he looks to be ready for more on his plate. Sutton is better in coverage, but Hilton has more experience and is a valuable blitzer and tackler.

The verdict: Hilton wins the job, but the Steelers still find ways to use Sutton. Sutton’s versatility will allow the team to move him around at safety and on the outside, and he might substitute for Hilton on certain plays.

Sixth Cornerback

Alexander Myres vs. James Pierre vs. Trajan Bandy

Joe Haden, Steve Nelson, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, and Justin Layne are all locks to make the roster. However, the Steelers often keep six corners, which could possibly leave a spot open. Both Pierre and Bandy are promising undrafted free agents, while Myres was with the team last year as a UDFA. Pierre and Bandy have the best shot at the roster, but are polar opposites, with Pierre being a big but not very athletic, while Bandy is a feisty, undersized slot cornerback.

The verdict: None of the three make the final roster, as the Steelers elect to go with only five corners and use the extra roster spot on a safety. Bandy and Pierre both have a shot at the practice squad, however, and both have a chance at making it.

Starting Nose Tackle

Chris Wormley vs. Tyson Alualu vs. Daniel McCullers

Nose tackle is a dying position in the NFL, but the Steelers do occasionally still run a base 3-4 and will need someone in between Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Chris Wormley is the only Steeler listed at NT on the team’s roster right now, but is best suited at defensive end. Alualu has been excellent depth as a defensive end in Pittsburgh, but is expected to play some nose tackle this year, while McCullers has the size for the position but isn’t the same caliber of player as Alualu or Wormley.

The verdict: All three spend time at the position, with Alualu taking up the most snaps. Wormley is the best as a run stuffer, while McCullers will be used at the goal line.

Sixth Defensive Lineman

Daniel McCullers vs. Henry Mondeaux vs. Carlos Davis vs. Cavon Walker vs. Calvin Taylor Jr.

The Steelers like to keep six defensive lineman, and the spot behind roster locks Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormely, and Isaiah Buggs is up for grabs. Massive defensive tackle Daniel McCullers is the longest-tenured of those vying for the sixth spot, while Henry Mondeaux had a promising preseason in 2019 and hopes to make it beyond the practice squad in 2020. Carlos Davis is an athletic but incredibly raw rookie, while Cavon Walker was a productive lineman in the XFL. Calvin Taylor is a jumbo-sized defensive end who went undrafted this year.

The verdict: McCullers wins this job, as he’s the safest option without a preseason. Mondeaux and Davis make the practice squad, while Walker and Taylor have a chance but probably get cut.

Third Outside Linebacker

Alex Highsmith vs. Tuzar Skipper vs. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are the Steelers’ star pass-rushers. However, with Anthony Chickillo being released this offseason, the spot backing them up is up for grabs. Alex Highsmith is a third-round rookie with a lot of potential, who many are penciling in as Bud Dupree’s replacement in 2021. Both Adeniyi and Skipper are UDFA phenoms from Toledo, who found their way onto the roster through excellent preseason play a year apart.

The verdict: Highsmith takes this spot eventually, but Adenyi is the most experienced and wins the job for Week 1. Skipper still makes the team as depth, but probably spends most of his time as an inactive on game days.

Fourth Inside Linebacker

Robert Spillane vs. Leo Lewis vs. James Lockhart

Behind Devin Bush, Vince Williams, and Ulysees Gilbert III, there will be a fourth inside ‘backer whose primary job is special teams. Spillane spent some time in this role in 2019 with a lot of success, but Leo Lewis and James Lockhart are still in camp for a reason and have a shot at unseating him.

The verdict: Spillane wins this job, as he has both more experience and excelled on special teams last year. Lewis might find a spot on the practice squad.

Fourth and Fifth Safety

Marcus Allen vs. Antoine Brooks Jr. vs. Curtis Riley

If the Steelers keep only five corners, that opens up a spot for them to keep five safeties. Terrell Edmunds, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and special-teamer Jordan Dangerfield are all locks to make the final 53, but behind them the depth is up in the air. The hard-hitting Marcus Allen has spent a few years on the Steelers’ roster, but never been able to make a mark. Rookie Antoine Brooks Jr. is more of a linebacker hybrid, while Curtis Riley is freshly signed free safety with some experience starting. He can play cornerback as well, but has struggled mightily when it comes to tackling.

The verdict: Riley and Brooks make the cut. Besides Minkah Fitzpatrick, Riley is the only Steelers safety with a coverage-oriented skillset. Brooks has a good chance at beating out Marcus Allen in the box/strong safety role. Allen still could make the PS, but if he doesn’t make the final roster this year it could be the end of his stay in Pittsburgh.

Starting Punter

Corliss Waitman vs. Jordan Berry

Most Steelers fans want Berry’s stay to end in Pittsburgh, as he’s been solid at his best and had some truly terrible moments as the starting punter. Waitman was brought in as some UDFA competition, and while he’s had a nice college career, he didn’t actually play in 2019 due to NCAA eligibility issues.

The verdict: Waitman didn’t play in 2019, and won’t be able to play in the preseason in 2020. This is all bad for him, and Berry’s experience should easily win himself the job.

The Steelers defense was dominant in 2019 and looks to continue their success this season. There is still a chance for some changes, though, especially in the secondary. On special teams, there's a chance the Steelers’ punter won’t be Jordan Berry for the first time in five years.

What will the outcomes of these roster battles be? Let us know in the comments below, and make sure to stay tuned to BTSC for more training camp news and analysis.