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Training Camp Expectations: Running Backs

In less than two weeks, we’ll be at training camp, watching the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 90 man roster roll through 14 practices and four games. There will be so much to learn, tons of things going on, so I want to lay out some of my expectations and hopes for each player before things start up and, frankly, all this speculation becomes irrelevant.

We’re keeping things going with the team’s running back group.

Le’Veon Bell – You already know this one. Get healthy and hopefully, ideally, give Steelers’ Nation a glimpse of that before the regular seasons kicks off. Of course, that decision will be controlled by the Steelers’ doctors and coaching staff but man, it would be nice to see #26 make one of his juke-you-out-of-your-jock cuts before the games start to matter.

That would be big for him mentally too, perhaps the biggest hurdle he has to overcome in his recovery. So here’s hoping.

If I had to guess, I think the he’ll begin the preseason and spend most of training camp on PUP, to ensure he doesn’t rush the process. Just throwing a date out there, if his recovery continues to go well, I could see him being removed on August 14th, the 12th open practice of camp. That puts him at 16 days on PUP and being removed after the team’s first preseason game.

He’ll have three final training camp practices and by then, the team is usually done with its full contact practices, going to a “thud tackle” (wrap up, don’t bring down) phase. Bell can practice for that week, still be held out of the second preseason game, get his work in on the South Side the next week, and then see a couple of series in the third preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. He, of course, would be held out of the final week. That’s a solid mesh of rest and work.

That was more of a tangent than I expected and it probably won’t come true, but hey, it sure sounds nice.

DeAngelo Williams – Man, I’m not sure I can think of anything I want or need to see out of Williams. He’s not the new old guy like last year. I really don’t even want him to get a ton of reps in camp. Save those legs. There are plenty of other backs who need to soak up those reps and that’s usually how it goes. Jawon Chisholm led the team in training camp carries last season.

I would expect a couple days off for Williams during camp.

Only thing I’d say. He can be a great example to all the young backs about the pride needed in pass protection. It gets preached by James Saxon, I’m sure, but seeing it on the field always helps open eyes.

Fitzgerald Toussaint – Obviously, last year ended on the sourest of notes. But this is the first time Toussaint has ever gone through camp with the Steelers so let’s start with a clean slate. I know Toussaint isn’t a speedster, he doesn’t swing heavily to either side of the speed/power pendulum, but I would like to see him break off some big runs in the preseason games. On 55 career carries, his long run is 15 yards. Yes, he’s faced some tough fronts so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t want to see three yards and a cloud of dust all August long.

Toussaint also needs to keep playing with his hair on fire on special teams. He is going to enter camp with a leg up. He’s been through the ringer, he knows what Danny Smith wants. The young guys, like Brandon Brown-Dukes, don’t fully grasp that, and even a veteran like Daryl Richardson has never played a special teams snap in the NFL. Expect Toussaint to get work running down kicks to the right of Chris Boswell. Probably at R2 or R3. We’ll see if he gets work elsewhere (upback on kicks, punt return unit seem the most logical).

Roosevelt Nix – Last year, he was the longest of longshots, and I was the first one to tell you that. I was also the first one to be wrong. In the span of just a season, Nix is comfortably a lock on this roster and there really isn’t anything else needed to be seen from him. Just stay healthy and crack a couple of skulls.

Daryl Richardson – After falling out of favor in St. Louis, Richardson is looking to stick in Pittsburgh. And there is good news. He’s already survived several roster moves. Christian Powell? You’ve already forgotten about him. Abou Torre? You probably never even saw his name in the first place. Both those guys have been swapped out during the offseason, leaving Richardson basically alone in getting through unscathed, football’s version of Survivor. 

Richardson’s elite athleticism got him drafted, a 4.46 40, 40.5 inch vert, and 11’3″ broad. So I better see that pop right away. If not, that’s trouble. You’d expect him to be able to create a bit, get away from defenders, make some plays on the perimeter. He can’t be someone who just buries his way up the middle for two yards. When he’s allowed to create and read, like on zone runs, I want him to be able to read hats properly, find his bubble, and explode through the line. No dancing.

And like I alluded to above, he’s gotta show something on special teams. Going from no special teams work to impressing Danny Smith is quite the wake-up call. Let’s see how he embraces that challenge.

Cameron Stingily – It’s the new look Stingily. He’s shed at least 20 pounds, being signed as a running back instead of a hybrid player this year. He’s no longer that boxy looking Subaru. He’s a Fiat and I want to see some get up and go from him (though that’s unlike a Fiat).

Initial burst and overall speed were his biggest issues last year, he just couldn’t get away from anyone, but again, knowing he’s slimmed down, I’m expecting a discernible difference. If he can’t do that, he has no chance of making this roster in any capacity. If he can, then he’s worth a closer look.

Brandon Brown-Dukes – I’m not sure what it is but this guy interests me. Saw him at Mercyhurst and he was a dynamic, big-play runner, even if it came against D-II competition. A couple clips I saw of him in spring work peaked my interest, too. He showed plus vision and the ability to find the bubble on zone runs, darting behind linemen and popping out the other side.

He is a smaller guy, not even 5’8, so I wonder if he has small hands. If he does, ball security will be important and the thud tackling series, where defenders wrap up and can try to pry the ball out, could show a lot. Don’t want to see him losing the football at the very end of runs. Or at all, of course.

Like I mentioned, this is a guy who could get a lot of reps with Bell and Williams likely not seeing a ton of action. So capitalize on those chances. The cutdown to 75 sneaks up quick.

Brandon Johnson – Another Brandon but a different body type than BBD. Much bigger, well over 220 pounds, who rocked his Pro Day. He got noticed by turning in a 4.43 40 and 39.5 inch vertical at Penn State’s Pro Day. His running back resume is almost nonexistent, just a handful of carries, but he was apparently an accomplished special teamer in Happy Valley. So I want to see that athleticism and aptitude on football’s third unit. His skillset might be the most intriguing but roster spots aren’t made on paper.

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