On The Brink

No one watched more spring football than SCI.net's Jim Wexell. Here's his Steelers breakdown one week before the start of training camp:

Mike Tomlin is adamant that no one -- fans, media, players (especially players) -- should pay attention to the reps anyone receives at whatever position during spring practice.

The coaches have varying reasons for handing out reps, and Tomlin reminds players that in the spring none of that affects what we'll see in training camp.

That said, I'm breaking down the team's depth chart as I see it after watching the Steelers work every day this past spring. Here's how they're set heading into the start of training camp on Sunday:

QUARTERBACK - After Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski, it's still Landry Jones alternating poor decisions, poor passes and beautiful spirals as the third-teamer. This is his third year and coaching patience is wearing thin. Tajh Boyd didn't take advantage of Jones' inconsistent play, and two undrafted rookie QB/WR "slashes," Tyler Murphy and Devin Gardner, played QB as poorly as should've been expected and brought up this question: Is Tomlin trying to find a "slash" to run his two-point plays? If so, yikes.

RUNNING BACK -- Le'Veon Bell will miss at the most three games with suspension but DeAngelo Williams showed he still has his burst of speed. However, the question about Williams is whether he can stay healthy. That will be the big question through camp and those first few games. Behind him is Dri Archer, who ran fancy once again this spring without pads. He was also the kickoff returner. But the second-year flash has to show more physicality and courage with the pads on. Josh Harris could find a spot on the practice squad again. He's in great shape, works hard and plays special teams. He could even beat out Archer if Archer doesn't improve. Actually, both could be ripe for a cutting if either of the undrafted rookies, Ross Scheuerman or Cameron Stingily, has a great preseason. Scheuerman is the better receiver and all-around player while Stingily is a tough, 235-pounder who can pound the interior.

WIDE RECEIVER -- The first five are pretty much set in stone: Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey. I guess DH-B could lose a spot, but for a second rookie? I can't see C.J. Goodwin having THAT good of a preseason. But perhaps a rookie running back could force a cut here since Archer also spends significant time with WRs in practice and meetings. Eli Rogers, the 180-pounder from Louisville who put up big numbers for Teddy Bridgewater, will flash on occasion and can return kicks.

TIGHT END -- Heath Miller is still a threat and Matt Spaeth said the knee injury that caused him to miss most of the spring won't be a problem at training camp. That leaves one spot, since fullback Will Johnson is considered half a tight end. That one spot will likely go to fifth-round rookie Jesse James, unless Rob Blanchflower or undrafted rookie Cameron Clear shocks the world this preaseason. Otherwise those two will battle for a spot on the practice squad.

OFFENSIVE LINE -- Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Cody Wallace and Mike Adams are locks, in my humble opinion. That leaves one or two spots for Chris Hubbard, Alejandro Villanueva and undrafted rookie C/Gs B.J. Finney and Miles Dieffenbach. I'm leaving Reese Dismukes out of the race until the undrafted rookie center shows he can play guard. Dismukes and undrafted rookie T/G Kevin Whimpey should initially be viewed as candidates for the practice squad. Mitchell Van Dyk, who spent last training camp as a rookie seventh-rounder with Rams, has an outside chance at tackle.

DEFENSIVE LINE -- Clifton Geathers lost 50 pounds and was moved up to second team DE in the spring. When asked about it, Geathers said, "Only I can (expletive) this up." He said it twice, as if a coach had said those words first. So my feeling is the Steelers want the 6-7 1/2, 299-pound Geathers to win a backup job behind Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. The other second-team end all spring was sixth-round rookie L.T. Walton, and the backup NT to Steve McLendon was Daniel McCullers. My guess is the staff was trying to motivate Cam Thomas for training camp. Coming off an awful first season with the Steelers after signing as a free agent, Thomas can play all three positions on the line, but so far hasn't played any of them well. But there are a couple others to consider: Ethan Hemer spent half of last season on the practice squad and 6-7 1/2 Matt Conrath played in nine games his first two seasons with the Rams and spent last season on their practice squad.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER -- ILB Jordan Zumwalt made a great point when asked if he was trying to improve his OLB skills to add to his reportoire. "We have so many outside backers right now that I don't even think that's a consideration," Zumwalt said. "We're stacked." While the Steelers are still trying to find one great pass-rusher to follow in James Harrison's footsteps, there's no doubting they have depth at the position. Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats will enter training camp as the starters and Harrison and first-round pick Bud Dupree are likely rushers in the team's sub-packages. Behind them are Howard Jones, who spent last season on the practice squad; rookie sixth-rounder Anthony Chickillo; Shawn Lemon, who had 13 sacks and eight forced fumbles in the CFL last year; and Shayon Green, whom the Steelers signed at Miami's pro day after he had sat out a year, a la Johnson at WVU a few years back.

INSIDE LINEBACKER -- Lawrence Timmons might be "The First Son," as Heyward joked during an interview, but just because Tomlin drafted Timmons upon his arrival as coach didn't mean he would stop there. The Steelers drafted four inside backers in the three years previous to last draft and they're all still with the team. Behind "Law Dawg" Timmons and Ryan Shazier are Sean Spence and Vince Williams, leaving Zumwalt to battle third-year man Terence Garvin on the third team.

CORNERBACK -- William Gay, Cortez Allen and Antwon Blake are the three experienced corners, with B.W. Webb an experienced fourth. Webb is by no means a roster lock but he does have more experience than Kevin Fogg, who impressed teammates and coaches with a strong spring. Fogg has been through a camp with the Dolphins and that may have been the reason he looked better than rookie draft picks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant this past spring. So the depth at this position isn't bad. It's the top that worries me.

SAFETY -- This is a big camp for Mike Mitchell, as he attempts to delete last year's injury-plagued disaster from everyone's memory banks. Shamarko Thomas will open as Troy Polamalu's replacement at strong safety, with Will Allen likely backing up both positions, and Ross "Rusty" Ventrone and Robert Golden close to being roster locks due to their skills on special teams. That leaves little room for Alden Darby, an interesting prospect who played in four preseason games last year as a rookie with the Chargers. Seventh-round draft pick Gerod Holliman flashed those great hands in the spring, but, because he received so few reps, my guess is he's locked into a spot on the practice squad as a "redshirt."

SPECIALIST -- Since the offense has the potential to become the greatest in team history, reliable PK Shaun Suisham could lead the NFL in scoring this season. He has a veteran long-snapper in Greg Warren, he of two Super Bowl rings, but could lose his holder, punter Brad Wing, if rookie punter Jordan Berry continues to bomb kicks the way he did this spring. Berry, though, has been knocked for all-around football skills, which makes little difference to me since Gradkowski could easily handle the holds and since not throwing fake punts is preferred over the way Wing threw his one pass for an interception last season.


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