Thursday, July 17, 2014

2014 Training Camp Primer

It seems like a long time since I've written about football. With a cursory glance through my blog archives since the 2013 season ended, I have published 20 World Cup articles, 18 Winter Olympics articles, 11 NCAA Tournament articles, 9 NFL Draft articles, 2 data analysis posts on the possible NFL Playoff Expansion, 1 post on NFL Free Agency, 1 post with the Steelers 2014 schedule and 1 post on WPIAL realignment. With that said, it's good to get back in the swing of the NFL Football season. Here we go.

The 2014 iteration of the Pittsburgh Steelers will hit Latrobe on July 25. The 90 men that will take the field at St Vincent College are almost entirely different from the team that lost Super Bowl XLV in Dallas in January 2011. From that team, only 7 offensive players (Roethlisberger, Brown, David Johnson, Miller, Spaeth, Foster and Pouncey), 7 defensive players (McLendon, Timmons, Worilds, Taylor, Gay, Polamalu and Will Allen) and Long Snapper Greg Warren enter this year's training camp. Pouncey, Worlids and Brown were rookies on that 2010 squad and now are established veterans and among the highest paid players on the team. After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, the Steelers roster rennovation is nearly complete. The team has shed their aging veterans and enters camp with just 12 of the 90 players on the roster over 30. By contrast, 31 players are under 24 years old.

Barring any injuries, most of the starting lineups on both sides of the ball are set. There may be a few camp battles that develop should rookies out-perform expectations, but for the most part the starting lineups are set. Conversely, with the exception of Quarterback, Running Back and Strong Safety, all of the backup positions are up for grabs. This should make for an exciting camp and for preseason games that are incredibly meaningful in the construction of the final 53-man roster.

The Steelers were aggressive in free agency and despite their limited cap space, they were able to add 8 veteran players to the team. In the draft, the Steelers focused on size and speed, adding dynamic players like LB Ryan Shazier (who ran a 40 equivalent to Terrelle Pryor) and RB Dri Archer (who ran the fastest 40 at the combine). With these young players comes a certain degree of uncertainty - will Shazier be more like Kendrell Bell or more like Lawrence Timmons? Will Archer be more like Chris Rainey or Dexter McCluster? Will fourth round pick Martavis Bryant be more like Plaxico Burress or Limas Sweed? Not all of these questions will be answered in the first training camp, or even in the first season. However, the Steelers front office has made their bed with these players (in selecting Shazier over Mosley and Dennard and Tuitt over Nix) and we will have front row seats to see if they made the right decisions.

As the roster stands right now, there are 27 players who should be considered "Locks" to make the 53-man roster.

Roster Locks (27)
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski
RB: Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer
WR: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore
TE: Heath Miller
OT: Kelvin Beachum, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams
OG: Ramon Foster, David DeCastro
C: Maurkice Pouncey

DE: Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt
NT: Steve McLendon
OLB: Jason Worlids, Jarvis Jones
ILB: Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier
CB: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen
SS: Troy Polamalu, Shamarko Thomas
FS: Mike Mitchell

Additionally, there are 13 players who should make the roster, barring any injury, terrible play or getting into some kind of trouble with the law.

Should Make the Team (13)
QB: Landry Jones
WR: Martavis Bryant
TE: Matt Spaeth
OT: Wesley Johnson
OG: Guy Whimper
C: Cody Wallace

DE: Cam Thomas
OLB: Arthur Moats
ILB: Vince Williams
CB: William Gay
FS: Will Allen

K: Shaun Suisham
LS: Greg Warren

The 27 locks and the 13 players that should make the squad account for 40 roster positions. Additionally, the Steelers will carry a punter which will likely be decided by a camp battle between Adam Podlesh and Brad Wing. This leaves 12 roster positions that are open to be claimed in training camp.

Roster Battles

Fullback/H-Back: Will Johnson, Rob Blanchflower

The Steelers have used Will Johnson both as a true blocking fullback and as a 3rd tight end. Seventh-round pick Rob Blanchflower is a beastly blocker who the Steelers may decide to keep as a 3rd tight end. Both of these players could make the roster and would add some serious beef to the short-yardage ground game.

Tight End: Rob Blanchflower, Michael Palmer, David Paulson

Blanchflower, the 7th round pick out of UMass can be an absolutely devastating blocker but doesn't bring much in the passing game. Palmer is a veteran who was on the team last year primarily as a special teams player. Paulson was the forgotten tight end of last season after some absolutely brutal performances early in the season. Paulson showed some flashes as a rookie but can not block to save his life which will likely spell the end of his tenure with the Steelers. If Blanchflower proves capable of handling the speed of the NFL game, this is likely his spot to lose. The 3rd tight end spot has typically been a contributor on special teams so it will be important to see if Blanchflower can equal Palmer's production on special teams.

Wide Receiver: Darrius Heyward-Bey, Derek Moye, Justin Brown

The Steelers have traditionally kept 5 Wide Receivers on their 53-man roster. The first four are relatively set with Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, free agent signing Lance Moore and 4th round pick Martavis Bryant. This is a position that is somewhat lacking in depth and the Steelers could explore signing a veteran receiver during camp to bolster the unit. Currently, the in-house options consist of veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey who went from being the first receiver taken in the 2009 draft by Oakland to being relegated to Special Teams duties for the Colts last year. Heyward-Bey has the size and speed to be a factor in the NFL but his hands have never been consistent. Derek Moye was on the team last year and was the tallest receiver of the group but only saw a handful of snaps per game and was only thrown 6 passes the whole season. Justin Brown spent last year on the practice squad after the Steelers used a 6th round pick on him in the 2013 draft. All three of these players have good size (DHB is 6'2", Brown is 6'3" and Moye is 6'5"), making this a wide open race that has the potential to be altered by an additional veteran signing during camp.

Offensive Line: Chris Hubbard, David Snow

This "roster battle" basically becomes a discussion if the Steelers decide to carry 9 or 10 offensive linemen on their roster. The first 9 are fairly set in stone, but if Hubbard or Snow impress in camp the Steelers could protect them from waivers by keeping them on the roster. Hubbard spent last year on the practice squad. David Snow was signed late last year for interior line depth after Pouncey and Velasco were injured. It is very possible that the Steelers keep only 9 offensive linemen on the roster and neither make the team.

Defensive End: Brian Arnfelt, Nick Williams

Ziggy Hood and Al Woods left in free agency. Brett Keisel's contract expired and the Steelers did not re-sign him. This created a void at the defensive end position, which was already strapped for depth. Cam Heyward, Cam Thomas and 2nd-round pick Stephon Tuitt will be the top three in the rotation, but the Steelers will keep a 4th player in the event of injury. The current favorite appears to be Brian Arnfelt who spent much of last season on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in December. Arnfelt was an undrafted free agent signing last year and will compete with 2013 7th round pick Nick Williams, who spent last season on the IR after suffering a knee injury in training camp. There wasn't any news about Williams out of OTAs this spring so his recovery timeline is unknown. If Williams isn't healthy, this will essentially be Arnfelt's job to lose unless the Steelers sign another veteran during camp to add depth. The depth here is razor-thin and signing Brett Keisel to a 1-year deal would seem to make all the sense in the world, if he's willing to play for the veteran minimum.

Nose Tackle: Daniel McCullers, Hebron Fangupo

The Steelers opted to keep Fangupo coming out of training camp last year instead of 2012 4th round pick Alameda Ta'amu. To no one's surprise, the Cardinals signed Ta'amu and he played 226 snaps. Fangupo only saw the field for 14 snaps last season as the Steelers used Al Woods as both a defensive end and nose tackle (similar to the role Cam Thomas will play this year). McCullers was the biggest player in the draft at 6'8" 350 lbs. The 6th round pick out of Tennessee will have to learn how to play low to match the pad level of offensive linemen. The Steelers will keep 2 nose tackles on the final roster and McCullers is a candidate for the practice squad if he fails to surpass Fangupo.

Linebacker: Chris Carter, Terrence Garvin, Jordan Zumwalt, Vic So'oto, Howard Jones, Sean Spence

I was going to break this down into Outside Linebackers and Inside Linebackers, but special teams play is far more important for reserve linebackers than where they line up on defense. Chris Carter enters his fourth year with the team as a reserve outside linebacker, but has yet to record a sack. He has been a contributor on special teams, but isn't exactly a trustworthy player to have as the top reserve outside linebacker. Terrence Garvin was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and had an impressive preseason playing both inside and outside linebacker. Garvin started the season on the practice squad but was elevated to the active roster and laid a jaw-breaking block on the Bengals punter to spring Antonio Brown for a punt return touchdown in December. Garvin is the top candidate to replace Carter as the top reserve outside linebacker and could win the spot with special teams play. Zumwalt was the Steelers 6th round pick and has a ferociousness that makes him an asset on special teams and could land him on the 53-man roster. He can play both inside and outside but a lack of practice reps due to UCLA's bizarre graduation rules could ultimately land him on the practice squad. So'oto has been a bit of a practice squad journeyman in the league and will have to play his way onto the team if he is to make the 53-man roster. Howard Jones is everyone's favorite dark horse to make the roster as an undrafted free agent out of Shepherd. Jones was a Division II all-star and is the early favorite for "Camp Phenom." Sean Spence is the most intriguing player of the group. A 3rd round pick in 2012, he suffered a devastating knee injury in the preseason that kept him out each of the last two seasons. All reports from OTAs say that he is back to being healthy and he could provide a tremendous upgrade at inside linebacker if he makes the team. Kion Wilson made the team last year and shared time as a starter with Vince Williams after Larry Foote was injured but was cut on the eve of training camp, which could be a sign that Sean Spence has returned to full health. At the end of the day, the Steelers will likely keep 9 or 10 linebackers and the players that stand out on special teams will be the ones that earn the last few spots on the roster.

Cornerback: Brice McCain, Sheldon Richardson, Antwon Blake, Isaiah Green

The Steelers signed Brice McCain as a free agent this offseason to add depth to the cornerback position. In 5 seasons with Houston, McCain had 124 tackles and 5 interceptions. McCain will likely battle Antwon Blake for the 5th cornerback position. Blake spent last season with the Steelers and played primarily on Special Teams where he was second on the team in tackles. Sheldon Richardson was the Steelers 5th round pick out of Arizona and has experience with secondary coach Carnell Lake. Richardson will likely make the team since the Steelers used a draft pick on him and is a practice squad candidate at worst. Isaiah Green seemed to always be the 53rd man on the Steelers roster last year and pinballed back and forth between the active roster and the practice squad. The Steelers will likely keep 5 cornerbacks, which means there are two jobs to be won between these four players.

Safety: Robert Golden, Ross Ventrone

The Steelers top four safety positions are set in stone. If the Steelers decide to keep a fifth, the battle will be between Golden and Ventrone. However, if either of these players falter on special teams, the Steelers could opt to keep a 6th cornerback rather than a 5th safety. Golden was an undrafted free agent who made the team out of camp in 2012. He is a player that seems to shine on the practice field but hasn't been able to translate that into games yet. The fact that the Steelers went out and signed Mike Mitchell is very much a referendum on Golden's abilities to be an every-down safety. Ventrone spent last season on the practice squad and could challenge Golden for the last position. Ultimately, as is the case with most of the battles for the last few roster positions, special teams play will decide who gets a job and who does not.

Punter: Adam Podlesh, Brad Wing

After last year's experiment of Zoltan Mesko and Mat McBriar failed miserably, the Steelers went out in free agency and signed the only punter who was worse than the Mesko/McBriar combo: Adam Podlesh. I wish I was joking about that, but look at the breakdown between the Steelers punters and Podlesh from 2013:

In addition to Podlesh, the Steelers also added former LSU punter Brad Wing who did not sign with an NFL team out of college. This has all the makings of being a wide open camp battle after Podlesh was dead last in the league in punting last season. 

Roster Projection

As things stand right now, entering camp, here is my projected 53-man roster for the Steelers:

QB (3): Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones
RB (3): Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer
FB (1): Will Johnson
WR (5): Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey
TE (3): Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Rob Blanchflower
OT (4): Kelvin Beachum, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, Wesley Johnson
OG (3): Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, Guy Whimper
C (2): Maurkice Pouncey, Cody Wallace

DE (4): Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Thomas, Brian Arnfelt
NT (2): Steve McLendon, Hebron Fangupo
OLB (5): Jason Worlids, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, Terrence Garvin, Jordan Zumwalt
ILB (5): Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams. Sean Spence, Howard Jones
CB (5): Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Sheldon Richardson, Brice McCain
SS (2): Troy Polamalu, Shamarko Thomas
FS (3): Mike Mitchell, Will Allen, Robert Golden

K (1): Shaun Suisham
P (1): Adam Podlesh
LS (1): Greg Warren

Just Missed:
Antwon Blake
Derek Moye
Justin Brown
Kion Wilson
Daniel McCullers
Chris Carter
Isaiah Green
Michael Palmer
Nick Williams
Chris Hubbard

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