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Inside With The Steelers This Spring

It's a holiday and SCI's Jim Wexell celebrates the Steelers with a potpourri of fun, spring-related, inside info.

 JuJu Smith-Schuster said Thursday, at the end of his first practice week with the Pittsburgh Steelers, that he's satisfied right now just to learn in this most stimulating of environments.

"Every one of them," the second-round draft pick said of the wide receivers, "has their own special quality. AB is AB. Martavis is tall, big, fast. Sammie's fast, too. You've got Eli Rogers and DHB with the speed and the routes, inside and out. Everyone has something they do great. That's what I like about it."

The wide receiver position stood out to Tom Bradley, too. The accomplished college defensive coach was there Thursday. "This team's going to score a lot of points this year," Bradley said while shaking his head in apparent awe.

And then there was Richard Mann, the accomplished wide receivers coach who's back for one final season as an assistant coach. 

Mann just turned 70, just had a knee replaced, and just escaped the retirement story he and I had worked on last training camp.

"I didn't feel the need to retire," Mann said with a big smile.

"And I didn't feel the need to run the story," I said with my own smile.

That was more about laziness over what had been a well-known story, but Mann decided to stick around for another year and he pointed to an empty ring finger as an explanation.

Yep, that would be reason enough.

Or, as Bradley and Smith-Schuster might say in sizing up the talent at wide receiver, five or six reasons.

@ I couldn't let Bradley off the hook without asking him about the Steelers' defense, and he acknowledged that it's all going to depend upon how well the secondary performs this season. 

Obvious, but it always helps when an expert acknowledges it.

I also asked him about Takk McKinley, his great pass-rusher at UCLA. 

Bradley's there after his stints at Penn State and WVU. He's coached some of the best yet still melted when I brought up Takk. Bradley loves him, as a player and person. Said he would've been a perfect fit with the Steelers. 

Of course, the Atlanta Falcons jumped up ahead of the DE-needy Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Steelers in the first round to draft McKinley 26th. I'm not so sure that even Bradley's strong recommendation would've persuaded the Steelers to draft an injured player. As I reported from the NFL Combine, the Steelers were intent on putting a healthy body behind the 39-year-old James Harrison.

While -- it was said to me -- Harrison has shown no signs of fall-off, 39 is 39.

@ The Steelers drafted pass-rusher T.J. Watt at pick 30. He's healthy but is being brought along slowly, as confirmed by Bud Dupree in my Friday story

While I've had my own curiosities and questions about the direction of a 3-4 defense that is so rarely a 3-4 anymore, Dupree summed it up perfectly when I asked him if Watt will begin moving around, schematically, as often as Dupree does.

"I'm going to be more of the move-around guy until he comes around," Dupree said, "and then we can both do it (drop off the ball) and (opponents) won't know if I'm back or he's back and what the play's going to be."

Having a player on each side with the ability to either rush the passer, play the run or drop into coverage leaves much more uncertainty in the collective offensive mind.

@ Just to touch briefly on the secondary, since Bradley mentioned it, many are asking me about Cameron Sutton

While the third-round pick was a standout at rookie minicamp, he's been kept under wraps by the coaching staff so far. As Senquez Golson pointed out Wednesday, the No. 2 group behind the starters is veteran-oriented. That leaves Sutton fighting for scraps right now. But he did make his presence known the other day with a terrific pass break-up of a deep ball intended for Sammie Coates

I know. I know. You want to get him on the field today, and every day for the next 10 years, but fans need to show as much patience with the coaching staff as the coaching staff is showing with the rookie.

@ AB gonna AB. Miffed by contact on an incomplete pass, but showing restraint (or common sense) in a padless spring practice, Antonio Brown turned to the official on the sideline who was working the practice, and asked, with a smile, if she was going to throw a flag on that. She just chuckled and smiled back. 

She might not have chuckled if this was training camp, because AB doesn't normally joke about that kind of stuff.

But it brings me to the more important issue here: I don't have a problem with the league using female officials, but I do agree it's a problem when the league rushes them onto the field just because they're female. Develop them and let them earn their spot, like everyone else.

James Conner was off to the side on the second day of rookie minicamp getting his hamstring stretched, and it's kept him off the field (although dressed) through the first week of OTAs. With Le'Veon Bell home recovering from groin surgery, this would be the perfect time for the rookie to get plenty of reps. 

But both are out and the running back group is being led by Fitzgerald Toussaint, as Knile DavisRushel Shell, Trey Williams and Terrell Watson fall in line during drills.

That's good for Davis, who's new and needs time to learn the offense. He's bigger than I expected for a guy with 4.37 Combine speed (2013). While he probably doesn't run quite that fast anymore, he's still faster than 99 percent of the 227-pounders in the world. But he does strike me as someone who can use the extra reps.

Shell, the undrafted rookie out of WVU, is a big back and appears to have some potential in that regard. But his true potential can't be ascertained until the pads come on at training camp. Same with the 240-pound newcomer, Watson, who broke Christian Okoye's collegiate records and has shown enough to stick with four practice squads in two seasons.

Williams is an interesting 5-7 1/2, 200-pounder. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry before leaving Texas A&M a year early in 2015. He signed as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Redskins, made their practice squad and was signed away later that year by the Cowboys. He was released for a quarterback and the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts all had him before he was cut last August and sat out the 2016 season. 

Williams is quick, running just a 4.49 40 at his NFL Combine but also a 6.84 3-cone. He's tough, too. Accidents happen, even in the spring without pads, and Williams took a blast on one play and bounced right back up and headed back to the huddle. 

He's short, but let's keep an eye on him.

@ As D-line coach John Mitchell walked off the field following one practice, he smiled and said hello. 

"It looks like you have a good group this year, Mitch," I said to him. 

And his smile disappeared. "We'll see," he said. "Long way to go."

Mitch must walk away wondering if any of us reporters has ever watched football in the spring, but, seriously, with Cameron Heyward returning to join Stephon Tuitt (out now after wrist/hand surgery), Javon Hargrave, a slimmed down Daniel McCullers, and L.T. Walton, there's quality. The veteran free-agent acquisition, Tyson Alualu, appears to be working through a minor injury and doesn't participate in much after the stretch, but quality work is expected from him as well. 

Further down the line, I keep looking at my roster sheet to see if No. 95 is the body-beautiful rookie from London, Frank Kallon. But, no, it's Johnny Maxey, and this guy actually looks taller than he did a year ago. That might just be a result of him being so fit this spring. I wrote about Maxey a few weeks ago, about the buzz surrounding him inside the building.

So anyway that's eight names right there and no one's hit anyone yet.

Mitch will be smiling soon enough. 

Well, maybe.

@ There was concern within the organization about how Cobi Hamilton would react to the drafting of Smith-Schuster and the return of Bryant. Guys in Hamilton's shoes have been known to go into the tank with disappointment after surfacing as an effective starter because of other injuries.

But that hasn't been the case with Hamilton, who not only made a diving, sprawling catch of the day Thursday on a deep ball, but enthusiastically fist-bumped Smith-Schuster as JuJu walked with me across the parking lot to finish up our interview.

Don't rule "Combat Catch" Cobi out just yet.


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