We like to talk about competition for starting spots with training camp right around the corner, but the reality is that the majority of the impact from camp battles will be felt in the depth of the roster come September. Most starters are locks to make the team, but discovering the quality of depth that will exist behind those starters is one of the main roles of camp.
Establishing competitive depth is something the Pittsburgh Steelers focused on this offseason, more through the draft than in free agency. As a result, most of the positions on the team are well-fortified heading into camp, but a few areas remain a concern.
I wrote about the lack of depth at offensive tackle a few weeks ago, but with only the struggling Mike Adams behind Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert, that spot remains a concern. No other offensive tackle on the Pittsburgh roster has faced live NFL action before, as Alejandro Villanueva, Mitchell Van Dyk, and Kevin Whimpey look more like long-term projects than guys ready to compete for a 53-man roster spot. Pittsburgh does not want to be saddled with Adams in their starting lineup for any extended period of time, so keeping Beachum and Gilbert healthy will be absolutely paramount to the offense’s success.
On the other side of the trenches the concern is almost as strong. Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Steve McLendon anchor what should be a much-improved defensive line, but behind that trio there is little else to work with. Daniel McCullers will be expected to make strides this offseason, which will hopefully allow him to rotate with McLendon and stay fresh. The woeful Cam Thomas and the unproven L.T. Walton and Clifton Geathers wait in the wings, and camp should go a long way toward determining how impactful those three can be this season. Many are rooting for Thomas to be an early roster cut, but unless Geathers and Walton prove that they are ready, the Steelers may be forced to keep the former North Carolina defensive linemen due to a lack of options.
Quarterback depth remains an issue, but that is the case for almost all 32 NFL teams. There simply aren’t many quality backups in the league, and while Bruce Gradkowski is definitely serviceable, every Steelers fan shudders to think of what would happen if Landry Jones were forced into live action. Perhaps Tajh Boyd can unseat the third-year quarterback this summer, or at least give the Steelers a valid alternative if they wish to part ways with the struggling Oklahoma product.
Punter has to be another major concern for the Steelers, as Brad Wing was among the very worst at his position in 2014. Only three punters averaged a worse mark than Wing’s 43.7 yards per punt, and just three starters had less punts land inside the opposing team’s 20 throughout all of last season. Jordan Berry will attempt to push Wing for the starting spot this offseason, but the Eastern Kentucky punter’s numbers weren’t very impressive in college, as he averaged just 43.4 yards per punt his senior year. It is tough to measure punters by statistics however, so this will be an underrated battle to watch heading into camp (this is admittedly less of a depth issue and more of a starting spot battle, but where else was I going to fit in a blurb about an epic punters duel?)
Defensive back and linebacker might be unproven, but there is plenty of talent there to get the job done. The Steelers receiving and running back corps is one of the strongest in football, and the interior offensive line has exciting young players waiting to make an impact.
But depth remains a concern in some areas, primarily at offensive tackle and along the defensive line. Camp will certainly go a long way toward establishing if either unit is prepared for the rigors of a 16-game NFL season, in which at least a few unproven players will certainly be asked to step up into a key role at one time or another.