With players set to report to training camp tonight, here is a bit of a primer on what to expect at each position during training camp. We'll have our full team preview later, so this one is just a rough outline. Projected starters are in gold.
Ben Roethlisberger is the #1 quarterback in the AFC North. Anyone who tells you its Carson Palmer is lying. Charlie Batch is the veteran backup that the Steelers love to have as the #2 on the roster. Dennis Dixon is the future at the #2 spot, after Batch decides to hang it up. Dennis the Menace showed some flashes of brilliance in the preseason last year, so he should be exciting to watch, not only in camp with his running abilities, but also in the boring-ass second half of preseason games. Mike Reilly was brought in as an undrafted free agent and he will compete for a practice squad position. He likely won't see a whole lot of time on the field.
Projected Roster-makers: Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon
The story here will be how well Rashard Mendenhall has recovered from his broken collarbone. Willie Parker is the obvious #1 coming into camp, and, if the Steelers are smart, will likely split the workload with Mendenhall (similar to the way McFadden and Gay split time at CB last year). Mewelde Moore is a capable 3rd down back, and the team is very high on Frank Summers (5th round pick out of UNLV) to take over the short-yardage role vacated by Gary Russell. Carey Davis seems to be a favorite of Bruce Arians' (he gets the ball every time he's on the field, and usually ends up 1 yard short of where he needs to be). If there is a "surprise" candidate in the backfield that might not make the team, it's Davis. But Davis has performed well on special teams in the past, so don't think he's by any means a lock for not making the team either. He is definitely a "bubble" player though. Justin Vincent saw some time with the team last preseason and spent the year on the practice squad. Isaac Redman (undrafted, Bowie St) and Stefan Logan (CFL standout) will both compete with Davis for a roster spot, but may inevitably land on the practice squad.
Projected Roster-makers: Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Frank Summers
The Steelers become the first team in NFL history to start two Super Bowl MVPs at wide receiver. That's as much as you need to know about Holmes and Ward. Behind them though, is where the battles will take place. Limas Sweed (2nd round pick in 2008), Mike Wallace (2009 3rd round pick), Shaun McDonald (acquired via free agency, last gig: Detroit), and Dallas Baker will compete for the #3 spot. This should be the biggest "position battle" of camp, and all 4 of these guys should be guys to keep an eye on. Sweed has good size and questionable hands. No doubt (as we saw last year) he can get open, but the jury is still out if he can hang on to the ball when he's open. He made some great catches in traffic last year. Wallace was called "visibly fast" by Coach, and should see time as a kick returner as well. McDonald had a decent year as the #2 for Detroit last year after the Roy Williams trade, and brings some veteran experience to the competition for #3. Sleepers here include Martin Nance, who was Big Ben's favorite target at Miami (Ohio) and the slightly experienced Brandon Williams. Steven Black and Tyler Grisham will likely be competing for the practice squad.
Projected Roster-makers: Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed, Shaun McDonald, Mike Wallace, Dallas Baker
Heath Miller just signed a 6-year contract extension, and if Arians had any imagination as an offensive coordinator, Heath would be the best tight end in the league. Matt Spaeth showed flashes of brilliance last season while Heath was injured, but then was largely forgotten about after Heath returned. Look for him to make a bigger impact this year, if he improves his blocking technique. He is a very capable receiver. Sean McHugh is still listed as a tight end, but has brought back the H-back role to the Steelers offense. He is basically a fullback that can also catch the ball, and the Steelers running game showed vast improvement last year after they started using McHugh as a blocking back. Dezmond Sherrod (had a few nice catches last preseason) and 7th round pick David Johnson will likely have to show something brilliant to make the team, and one or both will likely wind up on the practice squad.
Projected Roster-makers: Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Sean McHugh
The starting line from the Super Bowl is back, with Max Starks where he should be at left tackle, Chris "Best-Neckbeard-in-the-league" Kemoeatu at left guard, Justin Hartwig at center, Darnell Stapelton at right guard, and Willie Colon at right tackle. The player to watch here is 7th round pick A.Q. Shipley out of Penn State. Scouts were down on him for having short arms, but the dude is an absolute mauler, and we absolutely love the way he plays. Word has it he has also been practicing as a long-snapper in the offseason, so that could add to his value. #1 backup Trai Essex has shown that he can play anywhere on the line except center, and should be a capable stop-gap if someone goes down. Look for the Steelers to try and work Essex into the "jumbo" goal-line set as an extra blocker. Tony Hills was a touted draft pick out of Texas last year, and he will continue to progress as a tackle prospect this year. 3rd round pick Kraig Urbik is a mammoth of a man (6'5 323) and can play guard or tackle. He has a ton of potential and we're excited to see what he can bring. Jason Capizzi from IUP has been around for a few years and at 6'9 330 is not someone to be overlooked. Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster, and Jeremy Parquet will compete with Capizzi for the last roster spot and practice squad positions.
Projected Roster-makers: Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Darnell Stapleton, Willie Colon, Trai Essex, Kraig Urbik, Tony Hills, A.Q. Shipley
One of the biggest issues facing the Steelers after last season was the age of their defensive line. All 3 starters and all of their backups were over 30. So the Steelers set out to get younger, drafting Ziggy Hood in the first round from Missouri and Ra'Shon Harris from Oregon in the 6th round. Don't forget that Brett Keisel was a 7th round pick, so Harris has a shot to make the team. Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton should both be perennial pro-bowlers, but they don't get the recognition they deserve. Brett Keisel is capable and Travis Kirschke had a career year last year. Nick Eason and Chris Hoke are solid backups, and Ziggy Hood should add a spark to the bunch. Jordan Reffett, Steve McLendon, Harris, and Scott Paxon will likely be competing for a practice squad position, as the Steelers won't keep 8 D-linemen.
Projected Roster-makers: Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason, Chris Hoke
The Steelers have the best outside linebacker tandem in the league. Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley (who should have been a Pro-Bowler last year) are a force. This is the best linebacking pair we've had since Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene. James Farrior anchors the inside, with Lawrence Timmons projected to be an every-down linebacker because of his solid skills in pass coverage. The second-team defense will be full of intrigue with Steelers 2009 Rookie of the Year Patrick Bailey fighting for a position with Andre Frazier, Arnold Harrison, Donovan Woods, and Bruce Davis. Keyaron Fox was a standout on special teams last year and looks like he might have a future at an ILB position. Andrew Schantz and Tom Korte will compete for the practice squad.
Projected Roster-makers: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, Keyaron Fox, Patrick Bailey, Andre Frazier, Donovan Woods
Ike Taylor is the shut-down machine. William Gay steps into a starting role this year with Deshea Townsend filling in the nickel back. Behind that, the competition is hot. Veteran Keiwan Ratliff was brought in in the offseason to add some experience to the unit, and physical corner Keenan Lewis was a 3rd round pick. Undersized but speedy Joe Burnett has kick return skills, and Anthony Madison has been a special teams stalwart in his 3 seasons on the team. Roy Lewis also lacks size, but makes up for it in physicality, by packing a huge wallop, and having good ball skills.
Projected Roster-makers: Ike Taylor, William Gay, Deshea Townsend, Keiwan Ratliff, Anthony Madison, Keenan Lewis
Troy Polamalu is the best in the league. Period. Ryan Clark is capable at free safety, but has gotten burned a few times. Tyrone Carter is a heavy-hitter, but has also had some breakdowns. Look for Carter to make some steps forward this year, but remain the capable backup. The excitement here comes from Ryan Mundy from WVU who was having a great camp last year before getting injured. Mundy may push Carter to be the #1 backup. Derrick Richardson is an undrafted rookie and will need to show something to make the practice squad.
Projected Roster-makers: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Tyrone Carter, Ryan Mundy
Jeff Reed will kick the shit out of anything. Even paper towel dispensers. Daniel "Superman" Sepulveda is back from the kryptonie-induced knee surgery and should be a vast improvement over the punters we had last season. Greg Warren also returns from injury at long snapper, but he may see some competition from A.Q. Shipley, and might not be as close to a lock to make the team as some might think.
Projected Roster-makers: Jeff Reed, Daniel Sepulveda, Greg Warren
Biggest Camp Battles:
1. Limas Sweed vs. Shaun McDonald vs. Mike Wallace for the #3 WR spot
Sweed has the inside track here, but McDonald has good experience and Wallace has great speed. Should be interesting to watch. The Steelers may not award the job to anyone and run a rotation.
2. Ziggy Hood vs. Nick Eason vs. Travis Kirschke vs. Chris Hoke for the #1 DL backup
Hood was the first round pick with a great motor, and he will find his way into the D-line rotation, the question is: where? LeBeau has done a great job over the last few years of rotating the D-line to keep them fresh throughout the game, particularly over long drives. Hood will play, and it will be exciting to see where and how he does.
3. Frank Summers vs. Carey Davis
This will likely be a battle for a roster spot. Davis is a mediocre blocker at the fullback spot, but that job seems to have been filled by Sean McHugh. To make the team, Davis will have to either excel on special teams or in a short-yardage scenario, which happens to be exactly what Summers was drafted for. Hopefully Davis added some leg power this offseason, because he definitely lacked the strength to drive for those extra yards last year.
4. Bruce Arians vs. himself
Let's face it, the guy makes bad decisions. Lucky for him, we have Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes (who bailed us out of a lot of games last season). Arians lacks imagination, unless of course you mean throwing on 3rd and 1 in the AFC Championship game with a 5-point lead and 6 minutes to go in the game. Beyond that, he needs to be willing to run the ball, at least occasionally, on 3rd and 2. Arians biggest weakness is in "situational football" knowledge. He tries to get too cute around the goal line, which prompted Coach to tell him "Let's get it in this time" in the Super Bowl.
It should be an exciting camp, and we're going to try to make a trip out there at some point. We'll post some pictures if one or both of us makes it out. For those of you who have been dying this summer trying to find a sports fix after the Pens season ended (since the Pirates suck so bad), fear not! Your troubles are over. Training camp is here.