With all of the lists bouncing around the internet regarding football throughout the dead period of the summer, I thought it would be a perfect time to introduce a new series to the Steelers Depot site, starting with a ranking of the 24 (including punter and kicker) projected starters for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2016 season.
Think of it as not only a ranking based on talent, but on value as well.
Today, we’ll start with No.’s 24 to 18. From there we’ll count down to No. 1 in increments of six. So, without further ado, here we go!
No. 24 — CB, Ross Cockrell
Make no mistake: I felt that Cockrell did an admirable job of stepping in as a starter for the Steelers defense last season despite not taking part in training camp with Pittsburgh, getting claimed off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills before then being thrown into the fire with the Steelers.
Although Cockrell is a projected starter as I write this, he’s nowhere near as talented as guys like Senquez Golson, Doran Grant or Artie Burns, so his run this year as a starter should be short lived. That being said, Cockrell is a valuable player to have around; one that is ready and willing to do whatever it takes for his team.
No. 23 — P, Jordan Berry
Again, another position that could certainly be upgraded, should Duke undrafted free agent Will Monday beat out Berry during training camp.
Berry was a major weakness during the 2015 season for the Steelers, often coming up short — literally — in big spots. Since Josh Miller’s era ended in the early 2000s punting has been an Achilles heel for Pittsburgh’s special teams unit. Berry was certainly no exception.
Berry ranked 29th in the NFL in net yards per punt, recording just 42.6 yards per punt. That has to be much better in 2016 if the Steelers want to become a complete team.
No. 22 — S, Robert Golden
I don’t doubt one bit that Golden can hold down the starting job at free safety until rookie Sean Davis is ready to grab the reigns. What I do have concerns with is Golden’s ability in coverage as a starting safety.
As a sub package player last season under Keith Butler, Golden displayed some sound qualities, which led to his quick re-signing in the off-season. He’s a solid player against the run and always finds himself around the ball, but it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to being a starter early on in the season when teams come right at him.
No. 21 — OT, Alejandro Villanueva
This ranking is not a knock on Villanueva at all, it’s simply acknowledging that he’s a developing player who just so happened to be thrust into a large role during the middle of the year when Kelvin Beachum went down with a torn ACL.
Now that Beachum is a Jacksonville Jaguar, Villanueva is the presumptive starter heading into the season with free agent signee Ryan Harris pushing him from behind.
Villanueva is a very good athlete at tackle who has gotten by with his athleticism and size after making the switch to tackle, but there are still growing pains with the young tackle.
He plays a demanding position protecting the face of the franchise. No pressure, right?
No. 20 — NT, Daniel McCullers
Assuming the role of Steve McLendon, McCullers has a long road ahead of him having played very few snaps the last two years in Pittsburgh.
McCullers certainly has the size and strength to play in the middle of the 3-4 defense, but he seems to have missed the boat of a massive nose tackle by about six or seven years.
With rookie Javon Hargrave pushing him from behind and likely set to take his starting job with a strong training camp, McCullers has to show that he has made major strides to hold down the job to start the year.
There’s no doubt he can occupy blockers in the middle and clog up running lanes in the middle of the defense, but the real issue lies in his ability to penetrate into the backfield and wreak havoc.
No. 19 — OLB, Jarvis Jones
Technically listed as the starter, Jones has been outplayed the last two years by the ageless James Harrison, who (by all snap counts) is essentially the quasi-starter.
Jones offers very little as a pass rusher at this point, but he’s improved against the run and appears very comfortable dropping into coverage. But that’s simply not what he was drafted for, which has led to his drop in play and the decline of his fifth-year option on his rookie deal.
A big year as a pass rusher would be huge for the defense, but don’t hold your breathe with Jones. He is what he is at this point, regardless of how much time and effort he puts in with Joey Porter.
No. 18 — K, Chris Boswell
Arguably the story of the last season for the Steelers, Boswell was signed following a tryout at Heinz Field after the Steelers went through an absolute circus at the kicker position following Shaun Suisham’s torn ACL suffered in the preseason.
Boswell simply came in and stole the show, winning a few games for the Steelers while solidifying the position throughout the season and into the playoffs, coming up clutch time and time again for the black and gold.
One could certainly make an argument for Boswell being higher up the list, but with the offense that Pittsburgh boasts, Boswell’s services won’t be needed very often if all goes well during 2016.