On Saturday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will report to Latrobe for what will be the organization’s 50th training camp at Saint Vincent College. While it has been a relatively quiet offseason for the Steelers, there are still several main storylines to follow closely leading up to the start of the regular season.
Below are my choices of the top five storylines that should be watched closely over the course of the coming weeks. Feel free to chime in on mine in the comments in addition to adding your own.
Outcome of Bell‘s suspension appeal – As it stands right now, starting running back Le’Veon Bell still doesn’t know whether or not his standing three-game suspension will be lowered. As far as we can tell, his appeal hearing hasn’t even taken place yet with just days to go before the team reports to Latrobe for training camp. However, news surfaced Tuesday that commissioner Roger Goodell won’t be the one hearing Bell’s appeal and no timetable has been given as to when that process will even take place. Even though the league has recently lowered the suspensions of other players following their own appeals, there’s no guarantee that Bell will has his lowered by a game or two. We should know the outcome of this storyline within a few more weeks, but in the meantime, Bell should be preparing as he normally would during training camp as he also appears to be completely healed from the right knee injury that sidelined him last season in the playoffs.
Butler takes the reins – After serving several years as the Steelers linebackers coach, Keith Butler was finally promoted to defensive coordinator after the legendary Dick LeBeau and the team decided to part ways a few weeks after the 2014 season concluded. While Butler isn’t expected to make sweeping changes when it comes to scheme, he is expected to begin putting into effect a few of his own ideas right away. While his comments so far this offseason have been few and far between, Butler has hinted at the possibility of there being more one-gapping by the defensive front this upcoming season. Additionally, it has been speculated that the overall defensive nomenclature will be simplified some moving forward in attempt to speed up the learning curve of the younger players. Butler certainly has big shoes to fill, but thanks to him learning under LeBeau all of these years, the transition should go smoothly with the outcome hopefully being an improved defensive unit that can better compliment what figures to be a high-powered 2015 Steelers offense.
Progression of young defensive players – The Steelers moved on from longtime defensive veterans Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor this past offseason and when you couple that with Jason Worilds no longer being in Pittsburgh, several holes will need to be filled this season by younger players. While they’re not rookies, safety Shamarko Thomas, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and cornerback Cortez Allen will all be expected to improve a Steelers defense in 2015 that in addition to giving up way too many explosive plays last season, also failed miserable at registering sacks, consistent pressure and turnovers. How that young group of players ultimately performs in 2015 figures to be the deciding factor in whether or not the Steelers can legitimately compete for another Lombardi Trophy.
Beachum contract status – Last week, as expected, Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward signed a new long-term contract. While there’s no guarantee it will ultimately happen, starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum could be the next Steelers player extended during training camp as he’s now in the final year of his rookie contract. While Heyward’s new contract was easy to project thanks to the ones signed several weeks ago by fellow NFL defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Corey Liuget, the same can’t be said when it comes to slotting Beachum. Should the Steelers ultimately decide to not extend Beachum, they would more than likely have to place the transition tag on him come February or risk losing him in free agency.
Bryant expectations – Even though he’s only played in a total of 11 NFL games so far in his young career, Steelers second-year wide receiver Martavis Bryant is expected to become a premier threat in 2015 after catching just 26 regular-season passes for 549 yards and 8 touchdowns as a rookie. While Bryant has already shown some moments of greatness, his route running and understanding of the offense must improve drastically in his second season if he is indeed expecting to become one of the best deep-threat wide receivers in the league. Additionally, Bryant needs to become an even bigger red zone presence in 2015 in order to help the Steelers improve their scoring efficiency in that area of the field as the unit left far too many points on the grass last season. With the aforementioned Bell currently slated to miss the team’s first three games of the 2015 season due to his suspension, Bryant cant afford to get off to a slow start. The expectations are high for Bryant in 2015 and judging by his offseason training that included him bulking up and improving his hand fighting, he should hopefully be able to live up them.