For one of my final training camp evaluations, I’ll give a breakdown of each player currently on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 90 man roster, just as I did at the mid-way point. A paragraph of my overall thoughts on each player based on what’s happened in training camp and the preseason.
Today, we’ll highlight the offense. Tomorrow we’ll tackle the defense.
Ben Roethlisberger: I said previously that this time of the year isn’t the time to evaluate Roethlisberger and it’s still true. Big Ben had a great camp. If you care about statistics, 37 touchdowns to only two interceptions on 218 attempts is a nice camp. Everyone recognizes how good #7 is but seeing him in practice with other quarterbacks is a gentle reminder of how much better he is…and how much this team would lose if he ever got hurt.
Bruce Gradkowski: Gradkowski missed most of training camp on the PUP with left shoulder fatigue and then only threw in team drills over the final three days. It wasn’t the most impressive showing, he threw three interceptions despite fewer than 40 attempts, but that’s natural rust that comes from a player who missed a chunk of time. Gradkowski is a high-energy, good-natured person that other players seem to gravitate towards. It’s not like I get to interact these players very often but even from the stands, you can tell he’s one of the favorites on the team.
Hopefully he can return before the end of the preseason. He needs the reps.
Landry Jones: Ten interceptions in camp was more than the rest of the quarterbacks combined. There have been bright spots. His internal clock is better, his clock management has improved in some areas, and he has consistently shown the ability to climb the pocket. He’s doing just enough for the team to like him. There’s still too many forced throws, in practice and in-game, that show he’s far too reckless with the football. His accuracy can severely drop off at a moment’s notice and there’s no reasonable belief that he could ever become even a #2 in this league. But he’ll be kept and there’s nothing any of us can do about that.
Le’Veon Bell: One of several players who doesn’t need to be talked up or talked about this time of year. There wasn’t much to learn in practice but his 19 yard run against the Jacksonville Jaguars, beating the safety with the angle through the hole, showed his second burst, a rare trait for a bigger back like him. Once he steps back on the field in Week 3, he’ll again be a dominant force.
DeAngelo Williams: He lost that burst that makes him an open threat field but his lateral quickness is still there, showing the ability to jump cut down a gap. Williams shows tremendous vision to pick and find the hole, a plus for a team that will run a lot of zone concepts. He’s a willing pass protector, too.
Josh Harris: Harris’ playing time has been limited by injuries throughout camp, a foot injury his most recent ailment. That’s disappointing for a player we all really wanted to find a lot about. There is talent there but if he continues to miss time, it’ll make the evaluation that much harder. It’s fair, maybe even likely, to think Harris will lose his roster spot on the 53 when Bell returns.
Dri Archer: Archer has looked like a threat on kick returns, the most valuable asset he can bring to the Steelers in 2015. He’s nearly broken two returns for huge gain, though he still has to show the ability to actually produce that splash play. How and when he’ll be mixed into the offense is anyone’s guess but for the first two weeks, he should see at least ten snaps per game.
Will Johnson: Johnson started camp with a bang, then went a little quiet, before ending with a decent volume of targets. He’ll always be a better receiver than what the numbers indicate because there are simply so many great weapons on this unit but he’ll be there when he’s needed. It’s worth noting he didn’t receive a single carry in the last two training camps. Don’t expect him to be used as a running back unless something absurd happens.
Roosevelt Nix: Nix has impressed many. Fans, the media, and probably the team. A converted defensive end turned fullback, Nix is a powerful player with a real pop on contact through the hole. He’s been a better-than-expected special teamer, recording three tackles in the last two games. He’s even received a couple of carries. But he’s a one-dimensional positional player, a marginal athlete with hands apt for a former defensive player. He struggles to get out and stick in space. He’ll make it through the first cuts, and there’s an outside shot for him to make the practice squad, but he’s still on the outside looking in.
Jawon Chisholm: More of the same from him. His initial burst is evident for a player well over the 200 pound mark and he’s a fluid receiver. Chisholm runs hard and gets yards after contact. His pass blocking is just ok, not surprising for a rookie, but from pretty much the second day of practice, we’ve pegged him as a strong lock for the practice squad. For the first two weeks, at least. Bell’s return could create a domino effect that bumps Chisholm off.
Braylon Heard: Heard has done his job…absorb carries. He’s yet to show any special traits as a running back but it’s a credit to him for coming in during the middle of camp, thrown to the fire on his first day, and responding as well as you could reasonably respect. But he seems almost certain to be on the first 15 cut list, unless Harris is still injured.
Antonio Brown: Brown had far and away the most catches and targets in camp, 49 and 71 respectively. The fact he had two drops speaks to how good his hands are. Perhaps the biggest “news” from Brown in camp was his frustration in one of the final practices, an overblown story that you shouldn’t be worried about. Brown is far less of a diva than most players at his position. If he gets a little upset about not getting the ball on Day 17 of training camp when everyone is on edge, we should considers ourselves lucky.
Markus Wheaton: Wheaton has emerged over the last two weeks, showing why he’s clearly going to be the #2 receiver in the Steelers offense, even if the amount of 11 personnel the team runs makes this a relative moot point. We still haven’t learned a lot about Wheaton’s ability to get YAC, and he’ll need to continue to do a better job of working off press and reading coverages, but Wheaton shows great body control and when the play breaks down, the ability to get himself open and get into Roethlisberger’s frame of view. He’s not going to produce the big plays Martavis Bryant will, but he’ll move the sticks on third down and might be considered Big Ben’s security blanket until Bell returns.
Martavis Bryant: Bryant had a spectacular play against the Jacksonville Jaguars, still showing his penchant for huge plays, and his catch radius allows him to go up and find the football. I want to see him be able to hold up to the rigors to a full season and be a little more well-rounded in his game. But the guy is a freak in the best way possible and he’ll routinely stretch the field for the Steelers in 2015.
Darrius Heyward-Bey: DHB’s drops were a staple of camp, leading the team with five with, and many more in individual drills. That speed is still there. He even got behind the athletic Cortez Allen in team drills once, but his hands are terrible and he can’t be trusted out on the field. But that speed still makes him an enormous special teams threat, evident once in practice when he batted away a bouncing ball at the one yard line. That makes him a roster lock and to be active on gamedays.
Sammie Coates: Coates had a disappointing start but slowly picked his game up as camp progressed. He hasn’t produced a ton of splash plays but is willing to go up and get the football at its highest point. The recent Green Bay Packers game highlighted his issue with drops, missing some easy ones that don’t say his hands are bad, just that he’s unfocused. Practices have shown the need for him to run through his route, slowing up too often in an effort to find the football. He’s a work in progress but that was expected from the moment he was drafted.
Tyler Murphy: Murphy is a virtual lack for the practice squad. After spending the first half at quarterback, Murphy has become a full-time receiver following Bruce Gradkowski’s return. Murphy, who had never played receiver just a year ago, looks natural. He’s a great athlete with good body control to find the ball in the air. The Packers game showed his YAC ability. Murphy has mostly played in the slot but also spent time on the outside, only adding to his versatility. A quarterback, wide receiver, and special teamer, those are the types of talents you want on your scout team.
C.J. Goodwin: I’ve always been a fan of Goodwin, and evidently so does the team considering he’s been kept around for so long, but his roster chances might be slipping. He’s dealing with an unknown injury that caused him to miss portions of this past week’s slate of practice and the Packers game. With Murphy sewing up a practice squad spot, there is only at most, one additional spot for a receiver on the ten man taxi. If he can’t get back out there soon, Goodwin could lose his spot.
Shakim Phillips: A talented, former four-star prospect, it’s been an inconsistent camp for the rookie out of Boston College. There have been some definite high-points; his one-handed catch against the Minnesota Vikings made Sportscenter, and he hauled in a pretty 20 yard fade against the Packers. In practices, Phillips shows impressive body control to go up and find the football while staying inbounds.
But he’s seemed to make mental mistakes, not knowing where to line up repeatedly in practices – Kenzel Doe once had to tell him where to go – while peppering in a couple of drops. That has to frustrate coaches. No denying the raw talent Phillips has, but do the coaches think it’s moldable? He and Goodwin will be fighting for that last practice squad position.
Kenzel Doe: Doe is one of the few 5’7, 175 players to even make it into a training camp so immediate kudos to him. But his size eliminates nearly any chance he has. And his grand total of one yard on four returns Sunday shut any crack in the door for him. I know he’s been the only other player aside from Archer to get punt return duty in-game, but I’d be surprised if he lasted past the initial 15 cuts.
Jarrod West: West showed up after the receiver corps grew thin. He’s got nice size and made one impressive catch in practice. But in a small sample size, his hands seem suspect and he didn’t get a chance to play in the Packers game. That gives him only the Buffalo Bills game before first cuts. His chances seem slim.
David Nelson: He might wind up to have the shortest career in Steelers history. He lasted about 20 minutes in practice, didn’t even get into a team drill, before injuring his left shoulder in a one-on-one route on the goal line. He hasn’t practiced since.
Heath Miller: Heath is Heath. What else do you need to know?
Matt Spaeth: Spaeth missed the last two days of practice while his wife was having a baby but he returned for the Packers game. He, like Miller, “is what he is” but what he offers suits the Steelers just fine. Lackluster receiver but dependable in-line blocker.
Jesse James: James was torn apart after the first game, suffering two costly drops. One in the end zone and another that resulted in the red zone. His stats indicate the red zone threat the team hoped for, catching eight touchdowns on 19 catches during practice. He responded reasonably well following the Hall of Fame game but hasn’t made a lot of waves either way. James will open the season as the #3, likely active on gameday helping out on special teams.
Cameron Clear: Clear is out with a knee injury but he’s still here, which says a lot about what the team thinks of him. Plenty of players near his level have been waived/injured. Clear has seemingly been the only player who hasn’t really moved up or down in camp, always a player we’ve pegged to make the practice squad. Unless he winds up on injured reserve, the practice squad is where he’ll call home in 2015.
Ray Hamilton: Hamilton might be the only tight end more unathletic than Spaeth. There honestly isn’t much to note about Hamilton’s time in camp. He’ll be one of the first 15 cut.
Kelvin Beachum: I’ll be the first to admit I don’t pay a ton of attention to the starting lineman. They’re established enough that they’ve been evaluated thoroughly in games. Beachum plays with tremendous leverage, hand use, and lateral agility. Franchise left tackle. Only question is he’ll get paid by the Steelers…or someone else.
Ramon Foster: Foster is vocal and a team leader, the star of the daily stretch line. It’s easy to say he isn’t athletic enough to play in a zone scheme but I can almost guarantee you Mike Munchak would honestly disagree with that evaluation. You don’t want to run outside zone with him on the front side consistently, no, but that isn’t a predominant play. On inside zone, which doesn’t require a special amount of athleticism anyway, Foster does just fine.
Maukrice Pouncey: Anything I was going to write about him is out the window. You know the deal, well, at least part of it. He’s missing at least the first quarter of the season, probably more. There is no official timetable and as you’re reading this, even the team probably doesn’t have a clear picture. Sending him to IR to return makes a lot of sense, though you hate to see that valuable one spot used up before we play a meaningful snap.
David DeCastro: Iron sharpens iron. That’s what DeCastro and Stephon Tuitt did every day in practice. Won some, lost some. Loved when people would overreact to when Tuitt won. It’s just two really talented players in a highly competitive situation, bringing the best out of each other. Hopefully DeCastro can shore up his issues in pass protection, and he’ll become the All-Pro player everyone knows he can be.
Marcus Gilbert: There were some ups-and-downs with Gilbert in camp, but overall, I’m still encouraged with him going into the season. I hate to revolve around a factor like health, a catch-all for what people fall back on when they don’t have anything else to talk about, but it’s a definite issue for Gilbert, who has to prove he can play all 16 games.
Alejandro Villanueva: Arguably the most popular player before training camp, Villanueva mostly held up to the hype. A hulking 6’9 340 pounds, he plays with a better base and more agility than 99% of players with that build. We have to go back and evaluate his performance at right tackle against Green bay but after a rough Day One in practice, Villanueva got better each day. Extremely positive sign. He’s going to make this roster.
Chris Hubbard: Saying Hubbard has struggled is being nice to him. I was down on him last year and he made the team so maybe I’ll be wrong again. But when I look at the tape, I don’t see one of the best 53 players. There is no individual attribute that separates him. Lacks strength to generate a push in the run game and lateral movement to seal the edge. He’s trying to add to his versatility by getting a heavy dose at center but if there’s an upgrade to be had on the waiver wire, and I imagine there is, the team might pull the trigger.
Cody Wallace: Meet your new starting center. I think we’re all in agreement Wallace is a better center than guard. Sees a little less one-on-one time, a good thing for an undersized player with average athleticism. He’s a hard worker with a true-offensive lineman mean streak. A player that can serve a team well enough over the short-term but the more snaps he logs, the more exposed he becomes. That’s my concern.
B.J. Finney: Finney hasn’t made the impression I hoped he would, but his play has improved as camp progressed. He’s a stiff player who struggles when asked to pull and trap, but he has above average strength as a run blocker and when he’s asked to anchor in pass protection, even when he gets uprighted and leveraged. Versatility, playing all three interior spots, gives him a shot to make the practice squad.
Mitchell Van Dyk: Van Dyk has great size and versatility, playing three spots – both tackle positions and right guard – in game action. He struggles with good pass rushers, an inability to mirror and can get beat. But he gets a nice push in the run game and plays with a pretty sound base. The Steelers are likely to keep a pair of lineman on the practice squad, giving Van Dyk a good chance to make it.
Kelvin Palmer: Palmer simply lacks the foot speed to defend the edge, and he doesn’t do anything special in the run game to give him much of an opportunity to make the team. He’ll probably make the first cuts, though the Pouncey injury could mess up my projection, but no farther than that.
Miles Dieffenbach: Dieffenbach was a relatively highly touted UDFA, earning a nice signing bonus from the Steelers following April’s draft. He boasted good size and that Penn State pedigree, but I’ve been disappointed with his play. He’s a waist-bender with average athleticism and struggles in pass protection. His lack of snaps in the Packers game was particularly discouraging. He might not even be angling for a practice squad spot anymore. He might be just trying to get through the first wave of cuts.
Reese Dismukes: Some people liked his chances coming out of Auburn but it never materialized on the field. Undersized and lacking athleticism, he got pounded by players like Daniel McCullers on a daily basis in training camp. Following Pouncey’s return in practice, Dismukes lost most of his playing time in team drills. Bad exchanges between him and his quarterback also plagued him. He was one of two lineman not to play in the Packers game, summing up his chances.
Kevin Whimpey: Whimpey is a poor athlete who spent a lot of time at left tackle, looking about as good as you’d expect. He’s shown some strength in one-on-one situations but has never generated much of a push in team drills. Perhaps he’s better suited at guard, as I always pegged him in my scouting report.
Collin Rahrig: Rahrig plays with decent technique and shows some burst when pulling but is always fighting his size and athletic limitations. He did jump in as the second-team left guard Sunday, giving the best hope for his chances to even make it past first cuts since camp began.
Garrett Hartley: Don’t make me attempt to evaluate a kicker. Hartley has had a good start. Too bad it means almost nothing as a precursor for how he’ll do in the regular season.
Greg Warren: Warren is Warren. He’ll be their trustworthy long snapper yet again.