If you’ve never gone to Steelers training camp, I highly recommend that you do so, if for no other reason than to observe a general ethos that is overwhelmingly positive. It’s short-lived, yes, but in November, when half of the fan base is screaming that Mike Tomlin is “can’t win without Coach Cahhhher’s players,” it’ll be fun to think back to happy summer memories. Also, the Laurel Highlands are pretty. Neat stuff.
Anyway, I figured now would be a good time to leverage some of the positivity and try to set some baseline stock figures. Let’s goooo:
Stock up: Justin Scott Hunter, aka the GOAT
I don’t want to get carried away, but Justin Hunter is the greatest receiver in NFL history. Inexplicably already a journeyman at age 26, Hunter has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting players at camp. He’s kind of like the NFL version of Euron Greyjoy; late to the party, but definitely prepared to raise some hell.
Hunter stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 200 pounds. He also has a 40-inch vertical and 4.3 speed. For this reason, the Tennessee Titans selected him 34th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft (which, retrospectively, is the second-worst draft of my lifetime). To say that a hyper-athletic, 26-year-old former second-round pick is having a good training camp should not come as a major surprise. (For reference, here is a solid compilation that succinctly demonstrates “good” Justin Hunter).
Thanks to a fortuitous turn of events (fortuitous for Hunter, anyway) that includes minor injuries to Juju Smith-Schuster and Sammie Coates and the NFL dragging its feet on Martavis Bryant’s reinstatement, Hunter is making a run at a roster spot.
It should be noted that training camp is, pragmatically speaking, a simulated experience. What I mean by this is that catching a football at practice is considerably different than catching a football during an actual game. With that said, though, Hunter isn’t dropping the ball, having seemingly alleviated the single greatest impediment to his professional development.
If the Steelers didn’t currently have Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster, Coates and Bryant on their roster, Hunter would be an obvious choice to make the final 53. Pittsburgh, adhering to its strict proclivity for hoarding receivers, will be faced with a complicated scenario in a few weeks. Smith-Schuster was a second-round pick, Bryant has a legitimate superstar ceiling and Brown is Brown. None of them are in danger. Coates, meanwhile, has assumed a cult-like following among fans who fell in love with his vertical abilities in Weeks 1 through 5 last season. Plus, he was a third-round pick. “YOU DON’T CUT THIRD-ROUND PICKS,” Dri Archer screams to the heavens before being tackled by a feather fluttering about in the breeze.
The only statistical domain in which Coates outperforms Hunter is yards-per-catch, though Hunter is still a solid deep threat (he averaged just shy of 17 yards per catch for his career). Furthermore, and I don’t mean to make excuses, but the following list includes the names of the quarterbacks who have thrown passes to Justin Hunter thus far in his career: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, Zach Mettenberger, E.J. Manuel, Tyrod Taylor and a rookie Marcus Mariota. This, obviously, does not exemplify high-caliber quarterback play (it also doesn’t help that Tennessee and Buffalo have notoriously run-heavy offenses). Maybe playing in a wide-open offensive attack that is orchestrated by one of the best deep ball quarterbacks of all time will have a positive impact on Hunter’s abilities. Gee!
Stock down: Rookies
Smith-Schuster, Cameron Sutton and James Conner, Pittsburgh’s second-, third-, and third-round picks, respectively, have all missed camp time due to injuries. This is not optimal, as these guys were expected to have (or at least compete for) pretty substantial roles this season. They still may, but their learning curves just became considerably steeper.
Conner, for what it’s worth, looked great before his injury. On Sunday, he caught a touchdown during the “seven shots” drill that ranked somewhere between “AB vs. Baltimore in the Divisional Playoffs” and “Mike Wallace toe-drag to beat Green Bay on a walk-off touchdown” in terms of difficulty.
Stock up: Sophomores
A trial by fire last season turned out to confer some tangible benefits to the 2016 Draft class, as Javon Hargrave, Sean Davis and Artie Burns quickly distinguished themselves as reliable, long-term starters. All three have been among the best defensive players overall at training camp.
Davis has had a relatively quiet camp, which means that he isn’t injured or getting burned by any of the receivers. The same is true for Hargrave, who has quietly displayed his prodigious pass-rushing abilities against solid offensive line talent. Burns has generated more interest, although this is largely attributable to his rivalry with Antonio Brown. Make no mistake, Brown is routinely doing young Artie old country style, but Burns has made his fair share of plays. If your second-year cornerback is batting .300 one-on-one against the best receiver in the NFL, you can count that as a win.
Stock down: Martavis Bryant
He’s yet to be reinstated, which is cutting into some valuable practice time. Keep in mind, Bryant hasn’t caught a pass in a regulation game since 2015. His level of general “in-shapeness” is irrelevant at this point—to borrow what I’m sure is a tired cliche, there is a difference between “in shape” and “in [insert sport here] shape.”