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Pittsburgh Steelers open preseason tonight against Detroit Lions

Untangling the position battles with players most fans have never seen before

Word of warning for Pittsburgh Steelers fans preparing to watch tonight's 7 o'clock preseason opener against the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field:

Unless you're a deep-down-the-depth-chart kind of a fan, don't get too excited.

Ruled out already have been Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Maurkice Pouncey, Markus Wheaton, Travis Feeney, Artie Burns, Senquez Golson, Roy Philon and Jerald Hawkins.

Burns, of course, is the first-round pick, and I expect second-round pick Sean Davis to see minimal time, at best, because of a minor knee injury he's been icing of late in the middle of practices.

That means the Steelers will be without their offensive star power, and most likely four of their top five draft picks. And I also see several other starters sitting this one out, too.

If you're still with me in this column, let's grind on, because many of you watch preseason games for the individual talent at troubled positions anyway, and that's what I'll talk about first, the troubled positions:

TIGHT END -- I've been beating the drum that this position is in chaos because Ladarius Green hasn't been close to returning. Now, according to his agent, he's suffering headaches, possibly as a result of multiple concussions suffered last year. So let's just assume that Green will remain on the PUP list for considerably more time, and it's up to Jesse James (81), Xavier Grimble (85) and David Johnson (46) to make something out of the position this season. There are a couple of other extreme longshots, but in my opinion the key guy to watch tonight is Grimble. He's athletic but inconsistent, and the worry is that he and James won't offer much as blockers. That's what I'll be watching tonight.

SECONDARY -- If Sean Davis (28) plays, he's a treat. The hope is he's as good in coverage when the games begin as he has been in practice, because there's no doubting his striking ability. He's a safety/slot corner if healthy. If he's not healthy, the key player to watch is Montell Garner (40), who's been alternating with Davis in the slot with the first-team nickel since Golson has been out. Garner was cut late last camp as a rookie with the Rams. Also, a long shot I'll watch closely tonight is 6-2, 200-pound cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz (44). Out of West Chester State, he's been in a couple of camps and "Hodge" is an intriguing developmental prospect.

Can last year's fourth-round pick Doran Grant (24) make a showing at cornerback? How about the Roy Hobbs story, 30-year-old Donald Washington (30)? He's been out of the NFL for five years. At safety, Jordan Dangerfield (37) blows stuff up and Pitt's Ray Vinopal (39) is physical, quick and smart.

Regardless, one of these longshots has to turn into a serviceable player because not only is the starting talent in question, the depth is razor thin.

QUARTERBACK -- Dustin Vaughan (13) is the guy you've never seen. He's not as bad, in my opinion, as camp reporters have indicated. You can see for yourself tonight. I'm rooting for Bruce Gradkowski (5) to get back into a groove after taking last season off. He needs the reps.

RUNNING BACK -- The goal-line runners last Sunday will likely be the bell cows tonight: Fitzgerald Toussaint (33), Daryl Richardson (38) and Cameron Stingily (30). But I like the tough-little-quick guy from Mercyhurst, Brandon Brown-Dukes (24). We'll probably see lots of fullback Rosie Nix (45), too.

WIDE RECEIVER -- Sammie Coates (14) is your star power tonight and Eli Rogers (17) just needs to show a little bit as a punt returner to hold off rookie Demarcus Ayers (82) because Rogers has shown plenty in practice as a viable slot receiver. A roster lock in my opinion, Rogers looks like he'll force Ayers to the practice squad. The intriguing longshot is 6-foot-6 Issac Blakeney (16) out of Duke.

OFFENSIVE LINE -- With rookie Hawkins out, perhaps 6-9 D-line conversion project Brian Mihalik (69) can impress as a second-team tackle. Chris Hubbard (74) and B.J. Finney (67) are in a hot roster battle at G/C.

DEFENSIVE LINE -- Javon Hargrave (79), the "Grave Digger," is the man to watch tonight. He'll be on the nose in the 3-4 and at tackle in the 4-3 nickel. Also look for big improvement this preseason from 2015 draft pick L.T. Walton (96). Undrafted rookies Devaunte Sigler (61) and Johnny Maxey (62) are probably the top candidates for the practice squad.

LINEBACKERS -- Mike Tomlin didn't rule out pass-rushers Bud Dupree or Jarvis Jones but both of those first-rounders have been sidelined of late. Nice guys, but it might help the club a bit if they get on the field at some point. I don't expect Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons or James Harrison to play, either, so the linebacker to watch is second-year pass-rusher Anthony Chickillo (56), one of the most publicized players at training camp. Inside linebackers L.J. Fort (54) and "Dirty Red," Temple rookie Tyler Matakevich (46), have also had strong camps.


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