The Steelers defense has struggled the last few seasons, but with the ascension of Keith Butler to the defensive coordinator position and a slew of young talent, there is reason to hope that 2015 will herald a dramatic turnaround.
Which are the most hotly contested positions on the defensive side of the ball?
Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Steve McLendon will almost surely be the front three starters. McLendon has struggled with injuries and has not been as dominant as Heyward and Tuitt, but he is still likely to lock down a starter role. Dan McCullers and Cam Thomas will also make the team. Up in the air are possible spots for L.T. Walton, Clifton Geathers, Joe Kruger, and Niko Davis.
At outside linebacker, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, James Harrison, and Arthur Moats will be on the roster. Jarvis Jones is facing a make or break year, and Harrison is winding down his career with the desire to contribute more than the 25 snaps-per-game Joey Porter has planned. I see Harrison and Moats starting with Dupree and Jones as backup.
Shawn Lemon is an interesting possibility as a backup OLB as well. Though it is his first season in the NFL, he has years of experience playing the Canadian Football League. Rookie Anthony Chickillo is taking his offseason seriously by training hard and getting down to a more effective weight and will be competing at OLB as well. He could have a spot on the roster as a backup.
At ILB, it is Ryan Shazier's year to shine with Lawrence Timmons. Vince Williams, and Sean Spence are also likely shoo-ins.
The Steelers secondary. Those three words can bring up feelings of anxiety and apprehension for many Steelers fans. Who will make the final cut at safety? It is all but certain that Shamarko Thomas, Mike Mitchell, and Will Allen will make the roster. Outside of those players, questions abound. Will both Ross Ventrone and Robert Golden make the cut? Can Gerod Holliman prove he can tackle as well as intercept and wow coaches enough to earn a spot on the final 53? This will be one of the more interesting battles to watch as the Steelers head off to Latrobe.
Like safety, Cornerback is also a position of uncertainty and transition for the Black and Gold. Beyond sure-bets William Gay and Cortez Allen, strong contenders include William Gay, Cortez Allen, Antwon Blake, Senquez Golson, Doran Grant, B.W. Webb, and Kevin Fogg. Young, unproven players will battle it out at training camp to earn a spot. Of all the positions, Cornerback could be the most wide open, and the position that needs the most improvement as the Steelers defense inaugurates a new era under coordinator Keith Butler.