The NFL Draft was forever ago. Free Agency is now relegated to the annals of history. As the Steelers begin their 2022 training camp, it is time to take stock of what has changed on the team since the last waves of free agency to today.
Stock Down: Running the wheels off Najee Harris
At the last second to make it pre-training camp news the Steelers added veteran running back Jeremy McNichols. McNichols isn’t a big name and he doesn’t have great stats, but he’s a good pass blocker and receiver and not a shabby runner either. The Steelers acquired a third down/receiving back to compliment Najee Harris, and that is a great thing.
But it isn’t just the addition of McNichols. Pat Meyer, the new offensive line coach, has gone to multiple teams that ran one back a ton and every time he goes to a team that team has success reducing the carries from their main back and spreading those carries around. Najee Harris has even stated the team wants to rely on him less. Now this is still before training camp, and I’m certainly not holding my breath to see Tomlin actually follow through with a season’s worth of game plans that rely on multiple backs, but the Steelers are investing in reducing Harris’s wear and tear and saying the right things. That’s at least a step in the right direction.
Stock Up: Camp competitions
Outside of running back and outside linebacker, the team has a ton of competition for play time on this team. The defensive line has a ton of players that will be vying not just for starts, but for serious play time. You can make a very solid depth chart at defensive line and then suddenly remember you left out their third-round pick DeMarvin Leal. I know, because I’ve done it several times.
Wide Receiver has a ton of competition as well. The Steelers only return their top two wide outs from last season, but with two free agent additions and two draft picks, let alone players like Anthony Miller who has a great history with Mitchell Trubisky, there’s plenty of competition for the pecking order at that position.
Cornerback might have the most competition as really no spots look secure coming in, and the depth positions will have some really serious competition this year.
Add in the quarterback situation and this is going to be a camp with so much on the line at so many positions. Should be a great camp.
Stock Down: Everything we know about the Steelers offense
Let’s be honest, for the past 15 years the Steelers offense has run through Ben Roethlisberger more than anything or anyone else. So while we can look at stats and long-term trends in the Steelers offense, we can’t assume any of those are still valid. Ben Roethlisberger was the dominant force on the Steelers offense, and he’s gone. The offense will look different in design, focus, what the strengths and weaknesses are, even what plays are staple plays will change.
The Steelers aren’t even trying to run the offense the same as they did for Ben Roethlisberger, but are going in a very different direction, one we saw hints of in 2021. Is this a team that will struggle to put away bad teams? Is this a team that will lose on the West Coast? Is a deep threat receiver going to be really important to the offense? Will the offense still try to get the ball out quickly? We don’t have answers to any of those questions now, we used to because Ben Roethlisberger had a long record of strengths and weaknesses we have learned over his career. For the first time in what feels like forever, we will see a Steeler team without his mark on it.
Stock Up: Kenny Pickett’s future
The Steelers are staying the course so far this offseason, and seem committed to starting Mitchell Trubisky and letting Kenny Pickett ease into his NFL career. Pickett and Trubisky seem to be getting along fine, and there isn’t pressure for Pickett to be ready to start week one. That’s a good thing. Letting a rookie quarterback gain experience from the sideline isn’t a bad strategy at all. The learning curve is steep and every practice, every game from the sideline, every game review in the film room is going to help him prepare for the day he takes over the offense.
Ideally Trubisky is good enough to play the entire season, and Kenny Pickett doesn’t have to come in before he’s ready at all. But even if he has to start as a rookie, the later that date is the better the team will be for it. But the best thing is Pickett is under very little pressure in camp, he doesn’t have to be perfect, he can learn and grow and make mistakes without it being a huge deal. That’s the best situation to learn in, and the Steelers have created that environment for their first-round draft pick. Kenny Pickett could very well win the starting job, but it won’t be because the Steelers pushed him into it, it will be because he is ready to take that spot, whenever it happens.
Stock Down: Hot takes and manufactured drama
How great it is to get to training camp, where we can see the team, get comments from players and coaches and have real football-related things to talk about. I’m not naive enough to think the “Kenny Pickett must start or the team is doomed” or “player X is the best/worst thing ever because they took a selfie” nonsense will end because they show up for training camp, but at least there will be other things to talk about.
So enjoy the players arriving, player and coach interviews, and watching football in shorts. It may not be real football, but it sure beats stadium names, potential third uniforms and Ben Roethlisberger saying things we already knew but still somehow get upset about being the only things to talk about.
Stock Up: Life, the Universe and Everything
Okay, maybe the Steelers returning to Saint Vincent College isn’t a big deal in the scope of the world and human history, but it feels enormous. It feels like Steeler football is coming back. The last training camp at Latrobe saw Ben Roethlisberger still throwing the football well, it wasn’t until Week 2 of that season that he left a game and was never the same player again. Think about that, the last time the Steelers were at Latrobe, Ben Roethlisberger hadn’t left the field for his arm injury yet and Minkah Fitzpatrick wasn’t a Steeler. The last time the Steelers were in Latrobe Devlin Hodges was a training camp darling.
I can’t wait to get out to Latrobe, it’s much more than just watching football practice, it’s a return to a big part of the life of Steeler Nation. I hope to see you out there.