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Insiders Look at Steelers Rookies

Those who've coached and covered the Steelers rookies provide insight upon the start of this weekend's minicamp. Also, a nugget on Martavis Bryant.

Time's up on the "insiders" close to the Pittsburgh Steelers rookies.

I contacted as many as I could, and most got back to me. A few didn't, but with rookie minicamp beginning later this morning it's time to publish the responses.

Some replies came from coaches and some from reporters. Some provided sparse details and some provided tasty morsels and lots of them.

The good news is that the guys we didn't get much news on are the guys we already know plenty about. I didn't even try to get anything new on James Conner, since we in this town have covered him pretty extensively. The bad news is that I have to keep it short on some of these guys, otherwise I'll be writing through this morning's workout.

* T.J. Watt -- Benjamin Worgull, the publisher of Scout.com's Badger Nation, didn't add much to our extensive reporting on the first-round pick. Worgull pointed out that while Watt was a reserve in 2015, he was specifically a third-down specialist. He moved into the starting lineup last season as the boundary outside linebacker and pushed Vince Biegel to the field side, where Biegel had more coverage responsibilities.

"Those two developed a terrific combo and relationship with each other," Worgull wrote. "T.J. was incredibly gracious and nice to deal with in his time here."

* JuJu Smith-Schuster -- Ryan Abraham, the publisher of Scout.com's USC Football, has covered the Steelers' second-round draft pick since he was simply John Smith at Long Beach Poly High School.

"But everyone called him JuJu," Abraham wrote of a player who was primarily a defensive star as a safety.

After spiking rumors that he would de-commit and attend Oregon, Smith showed up to USC for his first summer of workouts as a wide receiver.

"Just about everyone covering him expected that not to last," Abraham wrote. "But he played wide receiver in fall camp and we all kept waiting for the switch to occur and it never did."

Abraham, a Beaver Falls native who remains an avid Steelers fan, pointed out USC's recent history of "receiver duos" that provided the thrust of the offense's production. Robert Woods and Marqise Lee were first, and then Lee and Nelson Agholor, and then ... 

"No one was really sure who Agholor's second-in-command would be once Lee left for the NFL," Abraham wrote. "Surprisingly, the 17-year-old Juju Smith took the reins and became USC's No. 2 receiver. 

"In an era when parents hold their kids back to let them grow an extra year and gain an advantage over their peers, Juju Smith was a major contributor for a top college program before his 18th birthday."

After Agholor left, Smith-Schuster became the star, but this Batman had no Robin.

"There wasn't anyone to take the pressure off of him," Abraham wrote. "He played through injuries and pain, knowing that if he wasn't out there the USC offense would sputter. Besides playing in a game five days after having a plate and screws surgically implanted into his hand, he was constantly banged up with various pulls and strains and he continued to not only play, but play at the highest level."

* Martavis Bryant -- In search for something new on the third and fourth-round picks out of Tennessee, I tuned into The Ron and Ramon Show starring brothers Ron Slay and Ramon Foster.

Ramon, of course, is the Steelers left guard and is out of Tennessee. But in their post-draft podcast, after 46 minutes of NBA Playoffs talk, Foster talked about a teammate, but not the rookies the Steelers had just drafted out of his alma mater. However, this wasn't bad.

"Martavis Bryant is back in the building," said Foster. "On behalf of him, I just want to say kudos to your situation and going through it. I had an opportunity to go on that ride a little bit. We communicated a little bit here and there. I'm the NFLPA rep for the Steelers so I knew a little bit about his situation, and just know that guy did everything he needed to do, and more, in getting back right with the NFL. Handclaps for him because that's a journey. Anybody who's ever dealt with that or been embarrassed nationally -- that's what it is because those things aren't supposed to get out -- but for him to do what he did to rectify that, and more, my hat's off to him. We welcome him back with open arms. We're happy to have him back, of course, because we know what he can do. I'm sure Ben will be -- um -- just like Randy Moss, man, just throw throw your hands up, Martavis. We're gonna surround our guy and make sure he's right and I know he's going to do the right thing, too, so welcome back. Glad to have you back. 

"And you as fans, support the guy. Try not to be the twitter troll. Support the kid. Surround him, because that's a lot. This guy could've lost everything he had and he's done everything right by himself and by us, as of late. Let's roll with that. 

"I had to get that off, because there are some cruel people out there who would love to see him fall. And in a situation like that you have to support a guy more than anything. It's only right."

* Cameron Sutton -- Foster never did comment on either Sutton or fourth-round pick Joshua Dobbs, and instead of going with this tremendous (albeit anonymous) message-board post from a Tennessee fan, I went with commentary from Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop during his appearance on The David Todd Show on ESPN 970.

“Part of the reason I came to Tennessee was I had recruited Cam hard out of high school,” said Shoop, a former Vanderbilt assistant. “I recruited a couple of these defensive players hard and I knew that they were coming into their senior year. When the opportunity presented itself to (coach at Tennessee), I jumped at it because I knew how good these kids were and how they had built this thing up.

“Unfortunately, Cam only really played a handful of games for us this year because he broke his ankle. To me, he’s a guy who in 2013 as freshman was thrown right into the mix and started right off the bat. And he wasn’t the most highly recruited guy. He was recruited for a lot of the same reasons he was drafted. Smart, unselfish, tough, versatile, all of those things and he found his way into the starting lineup.”

Shoop wasn't at Tennessee during Sutton's healthy freshman and sophomore seasons, and last season, Shoop's first, Sutton played hurt. But he loved the cornerback's character, intelligence and work ethic.

"In the spring I watched a guy who was like a five-year, 10-year veteran," Shoop said. "He took impeccable notes in the meetings. He sat in the front row. He asked intelligent questions. He led the way and set the pace for the young players and was having a great spring. He would be the first one out to practice. He had a stretching routine. He had a routine off the JUGS machine. He’d work on his footwork by himself."

Shoop said that after suffering an ankle injury in the third game, Sutton returned to play "at about 70 percent the last couple of games. ... I just feel horrible because I feel like he was not certainly at 100 percent but gave maximum effort and just him being out there provided leadership and guidance, and really helped some of our young players through some adversity."

Shoop's scouting report on Sutton:

"He’s got good quickness. He’s got good size. Not necessarily long but he does have good size and he’s got really strong upper-level ball skills. ... He’s got the football intelligence to play any of those (secondary) positions. He’s a good tackler -- not a great tackler -- but he gets you down and in today’s day and age that’s what corners need to do, get you down. He can play bump-and-run. He can play the off technique. He can re-route. He can blitz as a corner. He can blitz as a nickel and I went back after the draft and watched a little bit of Steelers film. He really fits, to me, what they look for and what they ask their corners to do."

Shoop also told a story about how Sutton impressed Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert at a film viewing in which Sutton provided the responsibilities and alignments of every defender on the first 15 plays of the tape of the opener, and did the same when the game was picked for him.

"I texted both Kevin and Mike right after they drafted him," Shoop said, "and said, 'Great pick' and they both said, 'Love this kid. He's going to be a great pro.' And so, he's special and the same as Josh, their character, their toughness, their football intelligence and their athletic ability are going to help them be pro football players for a long time."

* Brian Allen -- Sartaj Khan, who designs and runs workouts for NFL players in Houston, was an assistant at Utah, working specifically with wide receivers when the 6-3 Allen played the position. Allen moved to cornerback two years ago, and was dismayed about the move.

"He did have trouble catching the ball. I'm not going to lie," said Khan. "But that position switch was a blessing in disguise for him. He was down at first, but we explained to him, 'Hey, if you stick with this you have a brighter future as an NFL DB than as an NFL receiver,' because you don't find those corners that often but you will find more receivers his size. 

"He bought in and he learned the position and took some time but you really started seeing him develop last year. He turned the corner. He bought in and said 'Hey, I can make a living doing this.'"

Allen started nine of 13 games last season and intercepted all four passes during a mid-season three-game stretch. He broke up six others.

"Great kid," Khan started with his scouting report. "Super long, super athletic. He has a ton of talent. He's yet to reach his ceiling. I think his length provides so much, especially at corner. He's willing to learn. He's very accepting of teaching. Just a kid who doesn't really know his potential quite yet and I think he started to realize that last season at Utah and things were starting to click finally."

Utah has turned out quite a few defensive backs recently. I asked Khan how Allen compares. 

"He's very similar to Eric (Rowe)," Khan said of a 2015 second-round draft pick. "Eric's a little more versatile. He could play corner and safety. I think right now, Brian would be strictly a corner who could develop into one of those guys who could play wherever as needed. Eric's a little more physical but I think Brian's the more athletic of the two. When you see Eric get beat by a guy, and Brian get beat by a guy, you see Brian's make-up time a lot quicker, and that length is, I mean, that length is a great weapon and asset for him."

Allen's 34-inch arms were the second-longest of all defensive backs at the NFL Combine. 

Do they look that long?

"Without a doubt," Khan said. "You see him walking in the halls, and talking to him you see how long his arms are. Once he gets those pads on you really see it."

Khan said he expects Allen to make the team because of his ability on special teams and that he can develop into a very good defensive player.

"He'll need some teaching from some of the vets and the position coaches out there," Khan said, "but I think Pittsburgh is a great scheme fit for him. I think he'll be a good fit and be a great player if he sticks with it."

Of course, there are problems with tall cornerbacks when they attempt to cover smaller, quicker receivers. The Steelers sometimes smack their lips in anticipation of Antonio Brown going up against such players.

"That's where I think Brian will be just fine," Khan said. "He's played receiver. He understands routes and getting in and out of cuts. He understands route concepts from an offensive perspective. He understands when a receiver needs to break down, bring his hips down, certain things a guy will give you. He kind of knows that already. His issue is strictly technique. Talent-wise, he's got it all."

* Colin Holba -- Jody Demling is the publisher of Cardinal Authority and reports that the Steelers' sixth-round pick went to Louisville as a baseball manager before trying out for the football team -- and not making it.

But Holba went back "and this time they kept him," Demling wrote of the long-snapper. "He never had a bad snap; he played one game as a sophomore and started every game as a junior and senior."

As a baseball player at Eastern High School in Kentucky in Louisville, Holba led his team in ERA.

* Keith Kelsey -- Demling also provided some nuggets on one of the Steelers' two priority free agents. Kelsey (6-0 1/4, 233) played inside linebacker for four seasons, the final three as a starter. He led the team in tackles (107) as a junior and again as a senior (93).

"He made all of the calls for the defense," Demling wrote. "His dad played football at Florida and knew Charlie Strong really well. That's how he ended up at Louisville."

* Keion Adams -- The seventh-round pass-rusher out of Western Michigan is described as "a pretty straight-forward kind of guy," by Cory Olsen of The Grand Rapids Press and MichiganLive.com. "Fun-loving yet studious, he's a true competitor when he gets on the field."

Adams played defensive end in college "but also had responsibilities against the run, so I'm not sure he lived up to his potential in QB sacks," Olsen said. "I'm interested to see if he can be an asset at LB as a pass rusher."

Adams had 7.5 sacks and led the MAC with 18 tackles-for-loss last season, his first as the full-time starter.

* Francis Kallon -- A source from Georgia Tech who preferred not to be named reminded me that Kallon, born in London, didn't play any football until moving to Lawrenceville, Ga., for his junior season. He received a scholarship the spring of his senior season even though Tech hadn't watched the 6-5, 295-pounder play.

"He really didn't start to make a significant contribution until his senior year," the source wrote. "He played a lot as a junior but wasn't very effective, IMO. He is a very smart young man - very academic. Steelers fans need to be patient. He is a project but has a lot of upside."

* Ethan Cooper -- Matt Burgland works for the Indiana Gazette and occasionally covers the Steelers and is a well-regarded pro in our area. He had plenty of positive things to say about Cooper, a 6-2, 322-pound guard from IUP who was the team's other priority free agent.

"He's versatile. That's the thing that stood out most up here," said Burgland. "He started out as a left tackle and then moved to left guard and then finished his career at right tackle. He may even have been a backup center, so he can do pretty much everything. I think his natural position is guard but injuries caused him to be used at tackle. He's easily the most physical guard that IUP's had in quite a while. They've had some linemen wind up on rosters and practice squads in the NFL over the years but those were mostly tackles. He was as dominant at this level as one guy could be."

Burgland said that off the field, Cooper is "an incredibly nice and gracious guy. Very grounded. He's a very good interview," and that was music to my ears.

"He's impressive," Burgland continued. "He comes from a good background. His father kind of demanded certain things out of him and I think he was pretty strict with him growing up. I think it was always made clear he was going to go to college and make something of himself, so he was never in trouble here at IUP. I'm sure he had penalties in games but I don't remember. 

"He's so even-keeled. That's the thing about him. Mike Campolo, the offensive line coach, always said about him, 'You can't tell if Ethan's having a good day or a bad day.' He's just so even-keeled all the time. And during games he wasn't flying off the handle or anything like that. He plays kind of mean but he's not at all. He's a very, very nice guy."

Burgland was a bit surprised that Cooper signed with the Steelers because he hadn't mentioned meeting with that team during pre-draft interviews.

"He told me he had a few offers. I don't know if the Eagles were one of them but I know he met with them before the draft, so I was kind of surprised he picked the Steelers. He just said that was the best option, the best opportunity to make a roster."

Cooper, who grew up in Harrisburg as an Eagles fan, also had met with the Giants, who are coached by IUP graduate Ben McAdoo.

"So I was surprised when he wound up with the Steelers," Burgland said. "He had a lot of Division One interest but he had poor grades in high school because he didn't think grades would matter a whole lot. That's how he wound up down here. But I remember two games into his freshman year they were saying this kid's going to go somewhere, that he didn't really belong in Division Two."


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