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 Right Tackle
Zach Banner vs. Chukwuma Okorafor
The biggest training camp battle this year, both Banner and Okorafor have a good chance at winning the starting right tackle spot. Whereas Banner was the team’s swing tackle in 2019, Okorafor was the one who was given the start when the RT spot opened up against the Rams last year. In their careers, Banner has impressed more in run-blocking, and Chuks more in pass-blocking, but Banner hasn’t had enough pass-blocking snaps to gauge his skill in that area. Both players have different skillsets but similar experience and talent, which should make the battle come down to the wire. BTSC writer K.T. Smith did a great breakdown on the two players here (Banner) and here (Okorafor), which goes much more in depth and is worth the read.
The verdict: I’m banking on Banner showing he can pass block and winning the starting right tackle job. Okorafor is still very much in the conversation, though, and it could very well be him starting Week 1. Regardless of the outcome, it will be a fun battle to watch play out.
Stefan Wisniewski vs. Kevin Dotson
The Steelers’ starting interior offensive line is composed of Matt Feiler, Maurkice Pouncey, and David DeCastro, which shouldn't change at all in 2020. Veteran Stefan Wisniewski is pegged in as Pouncey’s backup at center, but his versatility might have him as the backup guard as well. Mauling rookie guard Kevin Dotson is also in contention for the spot. He is a fan-favorite, but is still a little raw.
The verdict: Without a preseason to prove himself, Dotson finds himself below Wisniewski on the guard depth chart Week 1. The Steelers will have bigger plans for the rookie’s future, but he won't be thrust into a large role right away.
Devlin Hodges vs. Paxton Lynch
Behind Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph, the third string quarterback job has been thrust into the spotlight ever since Duck Hodges had to start for the Steelers in 2019. Hodges isn’t the most athletic, but had some success last year as a starter despite entering the league as a UDFA. Lynch, on the other hand, is a former first-round pick with a big arm, who has been a massive bust in the NFL.
The verdict: I’ve been a pretty big supporter of Hodges, and that isn’t going to change. He isn’t much more that a solid third-string quarterback, but should have enough talent and poise to defeat Lynch in training camp.
Fourth Running Back
Wendell Smallwood vs. Jaylen Samuels vs. Kerrith Whyte Jr. vs. Trey Edmunds
James Conner and Benny Snell are locks to make the roster. Fourth-round rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. is essentially a guarantee to make it as well. With such a deep running back room, there’s a good chance the Steelers will keep another back behind McFarland, and there are some intriguing options. Wendell Smallwood is a newly-signed veteran scat back, while Samuels is a versatile pass-catcher with a lot of promise despite a disappointing 2019. Kerrith Whyte Jr. is a speed back with some kick return ability, while Trey Edmunds is a bigger runner with special-teams experience.
The verdict: This camp battle is perhaps the hardest to predict, as all four running backs have a good shot at the one remaining spot. My best guess is that Samuels gets the spot due to his unique skillset and experience. Whyte is the better running back, but is awfully similar to McFarland in his play style. Both he and Edmunds would be great options for the practice squad. Smallwood would be an option for one of the veteran slots on the squad as well.
Starting Tight End
Vance McDonald vs. Eric Ebron
No one has really talked about the battle between McDonald and Ebron, as there isn’t much of one. McDonald is the better blocker, while Ebron is a dynamic receiver, meaning that they will probably be used in different roles. Still, there will be some type of hierarchy, and both tight ends will no doubt want the top spot on the depth chart.
The verdict: McDonald is named the starter due to his longer tenure in Pittsburgh. However, he and Ebron have similar snap counts in 2020.
Third Tight End
Zach Gentry vs. Dax Raymond
With McDonald and Ebron as the two starters, there’s a good chance that the Steelers will keep a third tight end to back them up in 2020. The battle for the spot is in between Zach Gentry and Dax Raymond. Gentry is a towering pass-catcher who played very little in 2019, but was solid in blocking and catching when he was the on the field. Raymond is a new free agent signing who doesn’t have the height of Gentry, but a similar all-around solid skillset.
The verdict: I’ve seen the idea of keeping only two tight ends on the roster, but in the end I think the Steelers will stick with tradition and keep three, especially due to Ebron and McDonald’s injury history. Gentry probably wins this spot as he’s been with the team longer and has a little bit more potential.
Fifth and Sixth Wide Receiver
Ryan Switzer vs. Amara Darboh vs. Saeed Blacknall vs. Deon Cain
The Steelers top four receivers are set in Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and Chase Claypool. The team usually keeps six, though, which means two spots could be open on the roster. Ryan Switzer is a veteran slot receiver with kick and punt return experience, while Darboh, Blacknall, and Cain, are all size/speed deep threats.
The verdict: Switzer makes the roster, as he’s a veteran and the only player with a slot skillset on the roster. His kick and punt return ability is a plus as well. Cain slides in as the sixth option, as he’s the best bet of three deep threats due to his athleticism and experience with the Steelers. I’ve been in favor of the team keeping only five wide receivers in order to keep another running back, but it’s still more likely the team will stick with six in today’s pass-happy NFL. In that scenario, Cain would probably be the fifth option, as Kerrith Whyte Jr. would be the extra running back, who could take care of kick returns instead of Switzer.
Besides right tackle, there aren't many high-profile camp battles on the offense this year. However, if we learned anything from the 2019 season, depth can still play a big part in any team’s success.
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.