Five games. 18 practices. That’s the allotted time the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers will have to prove themselves before playing in a meaningful game. The preseason is unique in the sense that it’s the only time when the scoreboard doesn’t matter. 0-5, 5-0, it really isn’t going to matter. It’s the time for self-evaluation, seeing how players progress. And that’s what we’ll do here. For each player on the 90 man roster, we’ll give a short overview of what we’re looking for from them entering camp. We’ll finish up skill positions with the wide receivers.
Antonio Brown: Little for me to add. Answer all the loaded questions about your contract in a politically correct way. Wear cool socks. Don’t get hurt. That’s all I have to offer.
Markus Wheaton: There’s plenty of intrigue for the rest of the group, including Wheaton. Likely playing out of the slot much more this season, and with more responsibilty, he needs to shine during his third season. Not as much statistically, the weapons around him are going to hinder his ceiling, but on tape.
After watching more 2014 film, Wheaton struggled with press coverage. Lots of wasted motion. In one instance, he even attempted to spin away from press. He’ll have to get more comfortable winning off the line and reading defenders mid-route, “finding grass” as some call it.
Martavis Bryant: I’ve written several times about what I want to see from him. We know his route tree was simplified last year. We know he needs to work on the route tree, being quicker at the top of his route. That’s all common with a tall receiver who was raw coming into the league.
What I want to see from him is the ability to make it through a 16 game season without hitting a “sophomore wall.” He’ll have to play heavy snaps over a 16 game season. At Clemson, only once did he participate in over 500 snaps, and even then barely played as a two-thirds clip. Wheaton played only 67% of the time last year and wound up with nearly 750 plays. That’s a big step up. I loved to see Bryant putting on 15 pounds during the offseason. He’s going to need to it survive the rigors of five preseason games, 18 training camp practices, a 16 game regular season with practices, and (hopefully) a playoff run. In games alone, that could push upwards of 1000 snaps.
Sammie Coates: You probably know where I’m going with this. Catch the ball cleanly, no double-catching or with your body, and consistently. Limiting mental mistakes will entrust you with coaches. They’re going to happen, of course, but screw up once, learn from it, and get better the next drill. Go hard in every drill, even when you screw up. Finish every play.
I expect him to see the majority of his reps on the outside but I want to see how he handles getting thrown into the slot. You know Richard Mann/Todd Haley love to move their guys around. No one is staying stagnant and predictable.
Darrius Heyward-Bey: The rare player close to the fringe of the roster yet doesn’t have much to prove. As long as he continues to show his speed that makes him such a threat on the coverage unit, repeatedly messing up opponents blocking schemes, he has a tremendous chance to stick on this roster.
C.J. Goodwin: Catch a pass. Seriously. That’s something Goodwin did only once across 15 practices and four preseason games in 2014. We know he has some serious athletic ability but it needs to translate into production.
Any perceived battle between DHB and Goodwin isn’t going to be decided on who is the better special teamer. Danny Smith isn’t walking away from camp thinking Goodwin is better. It’ll be a balance between what you lose by releasing DHB and what you can as a receiver with the second-year player. Tough evaluations, tougher for outsiders like us to know what a coach is thinking. But that’s how it’ll play out.
High point the football, make some plays downfield, and keep reminding coaches why they’ve brought you along this much.
Eli Rogers: In my post-draft scouting report, I wrote: “During camp, drills that typically have less contact, his ability to separate is going to earn him at least a footnote in one of my articles.”
It wasn’t one of mine but Rogers was someone players raved about out of minicamp. That makes sense. A small, quick-twitch receiver should dominate non-contact drills.
The true test comes when defenders can hit back. Can he work off press, compete for the ball in the air, get yards after the catch in-game? That’s going to tell us if he’s worthy of a practice squad spot.
Devin Gardner: There’s the obvious issues of making a position switch as a rookie. And it’s not like the success rate of quarterbacks turned receiver are exactly high. At receiver, we need to see better-than-time athleticism. There’s been a couple clips showing him high-pointing the football but I want to see open-field speed. Can he run away from defenders?
And of course, the nuances of the position. Separation, winning within the route, reading defenses, etc.
Tyler Murphy: Murphy is in a similar spot to Gardner, asked to juggle the task of playing quarterback and receiver as a rookie. But he is the better athlete and might have a slight advantage coming into camp. I bet he’ll get an opportunity on the return unit, too, and showing well there will only bolster his chances of making the practice squad.
I don’t really buy into the notion either will be used as anything more than a gadget QB in practice. Some Wildcat stuff. Even as the #4 QB held by Tajh Boyd, snaps are tough to come by. Last year’s #4 threw 53 passes over 13 padded practices. A #5 or #6 would only see a fraction of that and siphon reps away from someone else.
Shakim Phillips: Murphy’s teammate in 2014, Phillips is an afterthought for most fans. It doesn’t mean much on this level but he was a four-star prospect out of high school who transferred twice and was perennially stuck in run-first offenses.
If he is the #9 receiver, he’ll really need to maximize his reps. Individual drills are going to be gold for him. He’s going to have to succeed there, take to coaching immediately, to prove he’s worth bumping up in the order. Phillips won’t get into games until late when half the world has changed the channel and even then, he’s playing in a sloppy environment that doesn’t lend itself to receivers getting many catches. Look at the box scores from last year’s preseason. Rarely did a backup receiver grab more than two passes.