My favorite part of the preseason process every year is undoubtedly the inevitable two or three training camp surprises that seemingly come out of nowhere to transcend from camp body longshots to unexpected preseason sensations. My second favorite development is when those performances create unforeseen competition at areas of need for the Steelers. By now you would think that Steelers Nation would have learned to expect the unexpected, but it's always a good thing to be pleasantly surprised. Here are three plausible camp battle scenarios for consideration.
Mason Rudolph vs. Dwayne Haskins
This scenario is most likely more unpopular than unpredictable. All available evidence suggest that Haskins manning the QB3 position during the 2021 NFL season was the Steelers plan all along, although there are plenty of individuals in Steelers Nation who definitely don't want to hear that. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin knew exactly what they were getting when they signed Haskins to what amounts to a zero risk futures contract in the off season. Haskins is a first round talent who's lack of maturity and work ethic self sabotaged his career up to that point. It definitely didn't help his development to be selected by one of the worst managed franchise in the NFL over the past decade, starting with the ownership.
Haskins deserves his share of the blame for how the situation worked out in Washington, make no mistake about that. It sounds like the young man is fully aware of the part his actions played in the disappointing ending, and he was looking for a fresh start with a franchise renowned for their stability and consistency.
The last thing the Steelers wanted to do is bring in the talented but immature young man and throw him into an intense battle for the Steelers backup QB position. The immense pressure of expectations that would inevitably accompany such a position battle could be counterproductive to the Steelers long term plans for Haskins. The Steelers want to provide Haskins the opportunity to learn from a future HOF QB, and to mature within the low pressure environment their stable culture can provide. Whether we Steelers fans like it or not, barring some unforeseen trade opportunity too good for the Steelers to pass up at a area of need, Haskins is exactly where he needs to be according to the Steelers long term plans.
Derek Watt vs. Trey Edmunds
This could be titled the camp battle between two players with more accomplished brothers already on the roster. They both even have another more talented sibling playing on other NFL rosters. That little tidbit makes their training camp battle even more unique and intriguing. This was a situation that I definitely didn't see coming.
Derek Watt was signed as a free agent prior to last season to play fullback and continue his outstanding special teams play. Mission partially accomplished I guess. Derek Watt had to know this about the Steelers when he signed his contract on the dotted line; the Steelers have rarely utilized a fullback over the past decade. Guys like Rosie Nix, a converted defensive lineman no less, have strutted on the field in the rare occasions that the Steelers needed a lead blocker. You could count on one hand the number of carries or times targeted each season. Any fullback candidate made his living by his special teams performances and usage.
That partially explains Derek Watt's signing, but there were probably other extenuating circumstances to be considered. The possibility that signing Derek Watt would undoubtedly please his superstar brother, therefore increasing the probability of signing said brother to an extension, had to be taken into consideration. Derek Watt lived up to his special teams reputation, but offered next to nothing offensively.
Now Watt is facing some serious competition for a roster spot on the Steelers backfield depth chart. The player pressing for consideration is none other than Trey Edmunds, who has enjoyed a surprisingly effectively training camp and preseason, mainly as a H-Back. He has looked comfortable with multiple responsibilities and personnel packages, which is extremely important to maintain unpredictability. Whenever Derek Watt was used in the offense last year it was in a heavy package, which all but eliminated the element of surprise.
Questions remain unanswered. Can Derek Watt be as efficient in the H-Back role as Edmunds, who has made a big play or two in each preseason game? Edmunds also is a proficient special teams performer. It seems highly unlikely that the Steelers would risk upsetting T.J. Watt at this point, but would they consider keeping both? Intriguing indeed.
Shakur Brown vs. Mark Gilbert
This competition is between two undrafted free agent rookies in the Steelers secondary. Shakur Brown was on everybody's radar even prior to the conclusion of the 2021 NFL Draft, as he was considered a late round selection at the least. One pundit had he rated as early as a third round prospect. Once he went undrafted, multiple teams were interested in acquiring his services, so much so that the Steelers gave him a team record signing bonus to close the deal.
It has been suggested that the young man plays the game like an "angry hornet". I love that comparison, because I immediately think about the Austin Powers movie franchise and the deadly "ill tempered mutated sea bass with freaking laser beams strapped to their heads". While Brown might not be quite that dangerous, he is extremely physical and plays with a nasty streak. That temperament thus far has been more evident on special teams than his limited late game appearances on defense. He has definitely shown intriguing potential.
While Brown was a well known commodity, Mark Gilbert was anything but. Gilbert went undrafted, not for a lack of physical abilities, but due to questions about his durability and availability. Gilbert looked like a early round draft selection until he suffered a devastating hip injury during his time as a Duke Blue Devil. Now Gilbert represents great value as a UDFA. No risk, potentially huge reward. The Steelers have proven proficient in these instances on multiple occasions.
Gilbert has solid length and athleticism, and has shown better physicality than I was expecting. He has shown the ability to transition smoothly from man to zone concepts, an absolute requirement to operate within the Steelers schemes. Gilbert has competed admirably at camp and deserves roster consideration, especially in light of Antoine Brooks injury and subsequent release. Practice squad for the loser of this battle is likely.
These are all battles I wasn't expecting when training camp started, but are all too real now.