The Futures

SCI.net publisher Jim Wexell breaks down the group of 19 players signed to Steelers futures contracts.

Greg Warren re-signed Wednesday, so cross long-snapper off the needs list.

I'll get deep into the draft soon enough, but give me a minute today to get my Steelers house in order, since I pretty much ignored the street free agents who've been signed to futures contracts this calendar year:

* Tim Benford, WR -- Was signed to the Steelers' practice squad Dec. 30 and two days later was placed on the Practice Squad/Injured list. In college, Benford led Tennessee Tech in receptions all four seasons and was named the Offensive Player of the Year in the Ohio Valley Conference in 2011. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys after the 2012 draft and lasted three preseasons. He caught 19 passes for 225 yards in his preseason career, and spent the 2012 and 2013 seasons on the Cowboys' practice squad before missing this past season. He's 5-11 1/4 and listed at 198 pounds. Has talent and experience; lacks top-end speed.

* Rob Blanchflower, TE -- Last season's seventh-round draft pick spent the season on the practice squad but will line up as the No. 2 tight end this spring if Matt Spaeth and Michael Palmer leave in free agency. How's that for a potential draft need? Blanchflower definitely showed improvement throughout the course of the year after getting over a hernia that hampered his senior season at UMass.

* Brelan Chancellor, WR -- Only 5-8 1/2, 188 at his Pro Day before last year's draft, this return specialist from North Texas is an interesting talent. “I’d be shocked if Brelan Chancellor is not on an active roster after the final cuts are made that first day of the 2014 NFL season,” North Texas coach Dan McCarney told Rick Gosselin in this story last February. “There’s a fire burning inside of him all the time." McCarney earlier had told the school paper that “He is a great football player. Not just a good one, but a great one.” Chancellor was a first-team All-Conference USA punt returner and kick returner and second-team WR for the Mean (Joe) Green, but went undrafted and was part of the first round of cuts by the San Diego Chargers. In three preseason games he caught three passes for 31 yards and returned one punt for zero yards, so he didn't get much of a chance but he's quick (6.84 3-cone) and explosive (41-inch vertical, 10-1 broad) and clearly his college coach can't say enough good things about him.

* Matt Conrath, DE -- A highly productive four-year starter at Virginia, the 6-7 1/2, 306-pounder was signed after the 2012 draft by the St. Louis Rams and spent the next three years with the team. He played in nine games the first two seasons but spent most of last season on the practice squad. Conrath lost his job as a backup DT upon the drafting of Aaron Donald last April. Conrath had seven tackles and a sack of Drew Brees in his nine pro games. At Virginia, Conrath played 3-4 DE under Al Groh his first two seasons and moved to 4-3 DE as a junior and 4-3 DT as a senior. Conrath had 182 tackles with 10.5 sacks, 29.5 tackles-for-loss, 10 pass deflections and five blocked kicks at UVA. Has a chance to stick as experienced and versatile depth for the DL.

* Jordan Dangerfield, S -- Played well early last training camp before fading, Dangerfield was released in the first round of cuts and was signed to the practice squad for four weeks in November.

* Alden Darby, S -- A safety/nickel tweener, Darby intercepted 10 passes while at Arizona State and was considered such a hard worker that he became the first Sun Devil to wear the No. 42 Pat Tillman Practice Jersey, as assigned by coach Todd Graham. The 5-10 1/8, 194-pound ASU captain survived a rough childhood in Long Beach, Ca., to become a fan favorite in Tempe. He was also the primary gunner at ASU but went undrafted because he lacked speed as a CB and size as a safety. Darby was signed by the Chargers after the draft and received rave reviews during the spring. In four preseason games he made five tackles and intercepted Logan Thomas late in the fourth game to clinch a 12-9 Chargers win. But Darby was released on Aug. 30 and wasn't retained on the San Diego practice squad.

* Michael Egnew, TE -- If the Steelers don't re-sign Spaeth or Palmer, Egnew will compete with Blanchflower to become Heath Miller's backup. A former All-America at Missouri, Egnew is a 6-5 1/8, 255-pound finesse tight end who was a third-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2012. But he only caught seven passes in two seasons and was released last Aug. 22. He was claimed by the Detroit Lions and waived a week later. Egnew was on the Jacksonville practice squad until Sept. 24. At Missouri, Egnew was Blaine Gabbert's No. 1 receiver in 2010 and caught 90 passes for 762 yards and five touchdowns. His production dipped as a senior, but Egnew was a team captain who ran a 4.61 40 at the combine.

* Kevin Fogg, CB -- The nation's leader in kickoff return average (33.5) in 2011, Fogg may have impressed the Steelers that season with two interceptions and a kickoff return for a touchdown against nearby Robert Morris University. After missing most of 2012 with an injury, Fogg was an All-Big South cornerback as a senior in 2013 at Liberty University with four interceptions and one returned for a touchdown. Measuring 5-9 1/2, 182 at his pro day last March, Fogg ran a 4.49 40 with 17 reps and a 10-4 broad jump. He was brought to camp with the Miami Dolphins but was cut after making three tackles, a pass defensed, a special teams tackle and one KR for 16 yards in the preseason. Fogg was signed to the Steelers' practice squad on Dec. 9.

* C.J. Goodwin, WR -- A bit player at California (Pa.) University and signed by the Steelers last spring at the urging of Mel Blount, Goodwin was kept on the practice squad and made acrobatic catches throughout the season. His development was obvious as Goodwin was kept over Justin Brown, who was a starter at one point last season. Brown recently signed with the Buffalo Bills.

* Ethan Hemer, DE -- An undrafted defensive tackle out of Wisconsin, Hemer spent last spring and summer with the Steelers and was signed to their practice squad on Oct. 15. He was released for nine days due to injuries at safety, but re-signed on. Nov. 14 to replace Josh Mauro when Mauro signed with the Arizona Cardinals.

* Howard Jones, OLB -- HoJo flashed his speed as a pass-rusher last training camp and spent the season on the Steelers' practice squad. He needed to add some weight to his 6-4, 238-pound frame, so his next showing will be a bit newsworthy either way.

* Joe Kruger, DE -- Signed to the Steelers' practice squad last Nov. 24, Kruger is the younger brother of Browns DE Paul Kruger. At the 2013 combine, Joe Kruger measured 6-6 1/4, 269 with long 34 3/8-inch arms. He ran the 40 in 4.83 and had a vertical jump of 34 inches. He left the University of Utah a year early after registering nine sacks as a two-year starter at defensive end in the Utes' 4-3 scheme. He worked as an end in the Steelers' 3-4 last season. Kruger was a seventh-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 and spent the season on IR. He was released last August, signed by the San Diego Chargers and released a few days later, and then signed to the Green Bay Packers' practice squad on Oct. 7. He was released by the Packers on Nov. 3.

* Shawn Lemon, OLB -- The Steelers' pass-rushing find out of the CFL, Lemon had seven sacks as a 4-3 end his senior season at Akron, and last season, as both a stand-up and hand-in-the-dirt edge rusher Lemon had 13 sacks and eight forced fumbles to help Calgary win the Grey Cup. Here's my background story on Lemon.

* Richie Leone, P -- Could be one of the better bets to win a roster spot this season out of this group. Veteran incumbent Brad Wing was 29th in the league in gross average (43.7) and 20th in net (38.8) last season. Leone has a strong leg and good placement skills and was the University of Houston's kickoff specialist as well. The three-time Ray Guy Award semifinalist averaged 43.2 gross and 41.4 net per punt as a senior and signed with the Baltimore Ravens after the draft. Last preseason Leone punted only twice for the Ravens and averaged 41.0 gross and 39.0 net but was cut before the season.

* Isaiah Lewis, S -- One of his former coaches at Michigan State called him "a natural born killer on the football field" but the physical, aggressive, smart and sure-handed strong safety went undrafted because of a lack of size (5-9 7/8, 211) and average speed (4.61 40). A three-year starter, Lewis made 227 tackles and intercepted eight passes at MSU. In the Big 10 Championship game, Lewis made 13 tackles to help MSU beat Ohio State. He was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals after the draft but was surprised to be included among the first round of cuts. "From my perspective, I was having a good camp," Lewis told Michigan Live the next day. "The coaches said I was doing well, and I had picked up the defense fast. I felt I was doing my job on special teams, too. So, it surprised me."

* Roosevelt Nix, LB -- My all-time Steelers team includes two linebackers, Jack Lambert and James Harrison, who played collegiately at Kent State. And neither of those all-time greats can match Nix as a four-time All-MAC first-team player. But where to play someone who measured 5-11 1/4, 248 last March? Nix played nose tackle at Kent, where he made 65 tackles-for-loss and had 12 forced fumbles. The two-time captain went undrafted and signed with the Atlanta Falcons as a fullback. But they cut him Aug. 3 and Nix sat out the season before signing with the Steelers, who list him as a linebacker. Nix is the son of former Bengals and Vikings defensive end Roosevelt Nix, a 6-6, 292-pounder who spent three seasons in the league.

* Mitchell Van Dyk, OT -- A 6-7, 313-pound tackle with pop in his hands and finish to his run-blocking was cut by the St. Louis Rams right before the 2014 season after they drafted him in the seventh round last May. Van Dyk was a three-year starting right tackle at Portland State. The word is he has potential in a zone-blocking scheme but has trouble with speed rushers. The Steelers have the need and the coach to develop Van Dyk.

* Alejandro Villanueva OT -- If Mike Munchak doesn't have any luck with Van Dyk, maybe he will with Villanueva, a 6-9, 300-pound Army Ranger who's been moved from WR to DL to OT since starting off at West Point. Tunch Ilkin has been working with Villanueva and likes his athletic ability and willingness to learn. With Villanueva and Van Dyk, the Steelers could have the largest pair of tackles on any practice squad this season.

* L'Damian Washington, WR -- Speaking of large, Washington is a big target at 6-3 7/8, 200 with 4.44 speed, so he's a tick taller, 11 pounds lighter, and .02 faster than Martavis Bryant. But Washington's not near the pass-catcher Bryant is. A team captain at Missouri with a reputation for working hard, Washington caught 75 passes his last two seasons in college but he went undrafted. He was cut in August by both the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, spent a week on the New York Giants' practice squad, a month on the Cleveland Browns' practice squad, and 10 days on the Miami Dolphins' practice squad before signing with the Steelers last month.


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