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.
Today, we’re looking at the wide receivers.
Antonio Brown – Not much to learn, not much to say. Stay healthy, make some crazy catches, flash those pearly whites for the fans. So much of what Brown does for the younger receivers is by action, not words, so it’s not like I’m asking or looking for him to do anything differently. Leader by action.
Markus Wheaton – So much of my hope for him will matter in the regular season. As I wrote in yesterday’s mailbag, he needs to put together a complete season. Week One to Sixteen. I hope the team gets him more reps on the outside than he did last year (30.4% of the time, based on Matthew Marczi’s charting). He’ll get to continue to show his wheels and be the big-play difference maker he flashed a year ago, averaging more yards per catch than Martavis Bryant.
In most other respects, ability to find grass, contribute as a blocker, and be an asset beyond the plays structure, he’s done a fine job and made big strides last season.
Darrius Heyward-Bey – The unexamined life may not be worth living but there isn’t much else for us to check out for DHB. He’s still hella fast, a leader and mentor, and offers a ton on special teams. His leadership style seems to be a little more direct, communicating with the younger guys, so I want – and expect – that to continue now that camp has started. It’s easy for those young guys to go into a shell, the training wheels are off, and there will be bad days. It’s Hey-Bey’s role to help get them through it.
I’d love to see fewer drops in camp (5 drops on 58 targets last year) but hey, we’re not all miracle workers here.
Sammie Coates – Now, we come to a guy with a lot to prove. Expectations are Stairway To Heaven high and it’s time to prove it. Todd Haley’s offense demands comfort playing inside and out. I think Coates can handle being an outside receiver but inside may be a different story. Lot more variety, lot more to process, and miscommunication is even more critical. So I want to see him get a lot of reps inside and make some mistakes. Only way to learn.
He’s gotta catch the ball cleanly, away from his body, and show the ability to secure the ball and get upfield. Don’t want to run into the issue Wheaton had two years ago where he left a lot of meat on the bone. “Quick to the tuck” is a phrase I’m sure I’ll use often, positively or negatively, with Coates.
Just throwing it out there but maybe Coates gets some work on kick returns? I recall that he did last season. Keep an eye on it.
Demarcus Ayers – We know what’s at stake. Earn the gig as a returner or your roster spot is in some serious trouble. But as much as we talk about flashy returns, I care about securing the football more than anything else. We didn’t hate Jacoby Jones because he was a bad return man. It was because he couldn’t secure the football. And if you don’t catch it clean, even a bobble, you can forget about salvaging a return. Game moves too fast.
It also leads to guys pressing and doing too much to try and make up for any missteps. Muff a punt return? Don’t make a stupid decision the next chance. If you’re normally fair catch it, fair catch it. Or you’re risking compounding the problem. And that’s a quick way to earn your pink slip.
I bet they do something fun with Ayers. A jet sweep. A WR pass. A double reverse. He has the background for it, a quarterback in high school who tossed a couple touchdowns at Houston. At the least, it’ll be fun to watch. Remember, this is a team who threw a fade to Alejandro Villanueva in camp last year. And a fake field goal in a game. But let’s forget about that one.
Eli Rogers – Rogers isn’t that much different than Ayers though he lacks the gadget-ness. I am excited just to see this dude get hit. He was barely in pads last season before hurting his foot and obviously, never reached a game. As we’ve noted several times, the injury and subsequent surgery was a blessing in disguise. Rogers has noted a foot injury has bothered him since high school and finally fixing it should be a big burden off him.
He just needs reps. To get some targets. Sure, you can learn how a guy moves in drills but he caught six passes in camp last year. Such a small sample size. Kenzel Doe caught more passes than Rogers last year.
Shakim Phillips – Phillips is in a tough spot because it’s pretty clear the team is angling for a special teamer for that 5th wide receiver spot. And obviously, Phillips doesn’t have any return value. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have special teams value. He’ll have to show a great deal of ability covering kicks and punts. If he can do that and Rogers/Ayers flop, nowhere close to threatening AB for the punt return gig, he’ll have a chance of barging his way onto the roster.
Phillips is a talented guy. He’s got size, decent hands, and impressive body control. Made some difficult catches last year. He’s not unworthy of being on this roster. It’s just a tough mountain to climb. He needs to be near perfect from the onset.
Canaan Severin – One of the few notable UDFAs, Severin does offer plus size (6’2, 212). Like Phillips, Severin will have to take a similar path if he wants to make the roster. I suppose nothing is impossible but a practice squad spot is much more likely.
Like any rookie, he needs to show conditioning and consistency (they partly go hand in hand) to make him a trusted asset to the team. His best case is for Phillips to make the 53. Unless it’s just obvious that Severin has earned a spot, it’s hard to imagine the team keeping both these guys on the practice squad.
Issac Blakeney – Blakeney is interesting. He’s a tall guy with a track background. But he’s comparatively new to the position. So raw that Gordon Ramsey is yelling at a sous chef. There’s a lot of ground to be made up. He needs to really make some strides from Day One to Day 14 and of course, the four preseason games. It’s understood his technique, especially going full speed, may lag, but identifying progress – learning from those mistakes without having to be told twice – is absolutely critical.
The “top tier” of receivers get created pretty quickly and Blakeney needs to stand out in order to start catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger than Dustin Vaughan.
Marcus Tucker – Tucker has a feel good story but not much of that matters once players report. If you’re good, you stick. If not, turn in the playbook. Tucker has the benefit of having a return background though he’ll have to fight hard to get much play there.
He told me he’s played on the outside in the spring but thinks he could move inside during training camp. Hopefully he can get reps inside and out, increasing his value all around. That’s big for him because not everyone is going to get that chance, especially those three big guys listed above.
Levi Norwood – Am worried that a receiver is going to get cut early in camp. Maybe even before once the PUP guys get announced (and there are likely to be several). So let’s just see who even gets an opportunity to really show something. Norwood has some speed and has been mixed into the return group but he’s fighting hard for reps. He’s going to have to show better wheels than he timed (4.6) and make some splash plays to give the team an incentive to keep him around beyond that first wave.