Early Steelers Buzz From Rookie Camp

Here's the early buzz on the Pittsburgh Steelers rookies from SCI publisher Jim Wexell.

PITTSBURGH -- I may not have invented the term "priming the pump," but I was the first reporter this weekend to be told "Don't get out in front of your skis."

That went with some eye-rolling from a couple of guys at the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie minicamp after I had wandered down to the offensive line pit to get a look at Ethan Cooper, the undrafted rookie free agent from IUP.

That Cooper is a "priority" free agent -- or, along with linebacker Keith Kelsey, the highest paid of the undrafteds -- kind of elevated his status here among the 51 rookies and first-year players.

First up are the practice-squad veterans who've yet to have been activated.

Next are the draft picks, in order, from T.J. Watt to Keion Adams.

They're followed by the rookies signed immediately after the draft.

Then there are the locals being given a look.

The rest receive virtually little interest from a media that at one point Saturday found it more enjoyable to watch a passing freight train.

But there was work to be done with the "royalty" on the field, so I wondered aloud whether Cooper might have the potential to one day play all five positions on the offensive line. 

It's kind of an important point, since any offensive lineman hoping to grab that one available roster spot -- if even that -- must be versatile.

"Don't get out in front of your skis, Jim," I was told. "Let's see if he can play one position first."

Now, this came from a guy who graduated from IUP, a guy clearly hoping to see the best from young Cooper. But it was a good point, and a point I mean to pass along to Steelers fans hungry for any kind of information at this point in the year. 

And as another source told me, "This is going to be a hard roster to make. There are some under-the-radar guys who've been with the team and are about to emerge, so --"

 I cut him off and finished his sentence: "So don't get out in front of your skis. I get it."

This is merely the season of hope, so please take my optimism over the rookies with a grain of salt.

* Like Adams, the seventh-round pick who looks a bit small in that No. 99. Great number for an edge rusher, but also a number that still, in my mind, belongs to Brett Keisel, the tall, bearded pillar of two championship teams.

OK, so, yes, Adams looks a bit rumpled in that jersey, but one of the guys who watched Adams closely this weekend likes his compactness of movement. Adams, apparently, does everything quickly and efficiently, and so there's buzz about the OLB/DE from Western Michigan.

* Speaking of those "under-the-radar" players returning for a second season, one is defensive lineman Johnny Maxey. Signed as a free agent after last year's draft out of Division II Mars Hill University, the 6-5, 283-pound Maxey was highlighted here last year, per an inside tip, as an undrafted player to watch. But not everyone in the organization was as keen. Some considered him to be nothing more than camp fodder. Yet, Maxey made the practice squad and worked hard under line coach John Mitchell.

Maxey was promoted to the active roster on Christmas Eve and stayed there through the playoff run. He played in two games -- Christmas Day and New Years Day -- and made a tackle. He also played in the first playoff game but was inactive for the final two. And now, there's buzz about him becoming a legitimate contributor.

* Perhaps Maxey is one of the reasons the Steelers didn't draft a defensive lineman, but there's also buzz about one of the undrafted rookie linemen, Francis Kallon, out of Georgia Tech. 

More than just a beautiful body, Kallon (number 62 in the above video) is a 6-5, 295-pounder with athletic ability. He was born and raised in London, England, moved to Lawrenceville, Ga., as a junior in high school, committed to Tech before his senior season, and was primarily a reserve, but always a reserve with potential. The Steelers are hoping Mitchell can tap into that potential.

* Mike Tomlin pointed with pride -- "Tribe pride" as he called it -- to No. 18, a receiver, Kevin Hart, a Pittsburgh kid who returned home after attending William & Mary, Tomlin's alma mater. "Tribe pride" indeed.

* Tomlin wasn't the only coach/scout/personnel man pulling for a rookie from his school. It's part of what makes rookie camp interesting for these guys (and maybe part of what causes reporters to prefer the slow-moving freight trains) but it's a place for an invitation, a local honor, even a selling point for local colleges. Of the 51 rookies this weekend, 18 had local ties. Pitt led the way with six. Of course, running back James Conner was a draft pick and tight end Scott Orndoff was a free agent signed immediately after the draft. Also here from Pitt were safeties Reggie Mitchell and Terrish Webb, kicker Chris Blewitt and linebacker Matt Galambos.

* Duquesne was represented by QB Dillon Buechel and RB Wayne Capers (son of the former Steelers WR). 

* California (Pa.) sent safety Aaron Terry and tight end Paul Butler.

* Look for Galambos to make the 90-man roster and continue working with the team through the spring. I wouldn't be surprised if he's the only one of those invited for a tryout this weekend to make that jump.

* Remember, Terence Garvin was a rookie invited to tryout in 2013. He made the jump to OTAs and training camp, made the practice squad, was promoted to the active roster, played, broke the jaw of the Bengals punter, stayed two more years, went on to the Redskins in free agency and is currently with the Seahawks. 

* You can get there from here.

* Galambos is 6-1, 239 and ran a 4.94 40 at his pro day. Not big. Not fast. But he looks like he can play.

* The same goes for Kelsey, the aforementioned priority free agent. He's similar to Galambos in size (6-0 1/4, 233) and speed (4.92) and is considered a gamer by the Steelers. Kelsey made all the calls for Louisville and led the team in tackles the last two seasons. 

* Cooper comes with similar expectations of making at least the practice squad. He plays nasty and torques people. I'll have a feature on him in a few days.

* We really didn't get much time to interview these guys, so please excuse any lapse in fresh copy before the first OTA workout May 23.

* I worry but we always seem to find topics to pass the time.

* Another invitee who stood out this weekend, but only because I'm not blind, was 6-8 tight end Phazahn Odom out of Fordham. He's what Wyatt Earp's girlfriend might call "a tall drink of water." He's thin. And showed good hands. Did I say thin? He certainly doesn't look as heavy as the listed 251. I'm guessing he could develop into a roster prospect with a few years work (and weight) on the practice squad, but I'm not sure this team has room and time for that kind of long-term proposal. 

* That's what was meant when I was told this will be a difficult roster to make. A guy like Xavier Grimble is a tall, athletic tight end who's been groomed on the practice squad and last year learned how to prepare for action and play in this league on a weekly basis. He's only going to build off that. Players like Grimble, and Maxey, and Brian Mihalik, and Matt Feiler, and Jacob Hagen are going to be very hard to beat for those final roster and practice-squad spots. 

* A rookie such as Orndoff, who doesn't show the playmaking potential that a 6-8 Odom might, is much closer to helping the team as a blocker right now.

* Hey, this Steelers roster might be more packed than at any point since 2008. Of course, I wouldn't dare get out in front of my skis right now, but I'm certainly not going to get caught watching the paint dry on one of those slow-moving trains, because this could get fun.

(From Day One of Rookie Minicamp: Cornerbacks Steal Spotlight, And Ball.)

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