The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their 2016 preseason Friday night at Heinz Field against the Detroit Lions and while a lot of eyes will be fixed on several true rookies who figure to see a ton of playing time in the contest, a slew of non-rookies will warrant close watching as well.
While the list of five offensive and five defensive non-rookie players that I have listed below can easily be expanded, these are the ones that I’m most excited to see play Friday night against the Lions.
WR Eli Rogers – The Louisville product certainly has turned quite a few heads so far during training camp after spending his entire rookie season on the team’s Reserve/Injured list with a foot injury. Now fully healthy, Rogers has seen quite a bit of practice time with the first and second team offenses during training camp in the slot and that’s where he figures to play the most against the Lions. Rogers is regarded as a good route runner and smart player to boot. He figures to get a lot of burn early and often Friday night and thus should be targeted a few times in the game. Additionally, Rogers figures to get a few opportunities Friday night as a punt returner which will certainly be exciting to watch.
TE Xavier Grimble – After spending all of the 2015 season on the Steelers practice squad, Grimble now has a great shot at making the final 53-man roster in 2016 and especially when you consider that the future of tight end Ladarius Green is currently in question due to him reportedly having recurring headaches. How Grimble is able to function as a blocker will and should be highly scrutinized during the preseason in addition to his ability to line up detached from the offensive line as a pass catching option. If that’s not enough, it will be interesting to watch how the USC product is used on special teams during the preseason and whether or not he can make a play or two in that phase of the game.
C/G B.J. Finney – Finney, a Steelers priority undrafted free agent from last season, appears to battling semi-experienced offensive lineman Chris Hubbard for a roster spot this year. The Kansas State product should get quite a bit playing time Friday night at both center and guard. Being as Hubbard can play all five spots on the offensive line in addition to occasionally being used as a second tight end, Finney certainly has his work cut out for him during the team’s four preseason games.
QB Dustin Vaughan – One would think that Vaughan will get a long look Friday night against the Lions as he attempts to show he’s worthy to be the team’s No. 3 quarterback in 2016. While he has a strong arm, his accuracy and decision making needs improvement based on the playing time he’s received over the course of the last two preseasons. Vaughan will unfortunately have to work behind questionable offensive line talent Friday night so that will certainly be a challenge for him to overcome.
T Brian Mihalik – While the defensive lineman-turned-offensive tackle will be hard-pressed to make the Steelers 53-man roster this year, a solid showing during the preseason should ultimately result in him landing a spot on the team’s 10-man practice squad. The Steelers already took Alejandro Villanueva down the same path that Mihalik is currently traveling and that seems to have paid off. With it looking like rookie draft pick Jerald Hawkins might not play Friday night, Mihalik figures to see quite a bit of playing time against the Lions and likely on the right side. His size and athleticism will certainly be fun to watch.
OLB Anthony Chickillo – I’m not sure the hype currently surrounding Chickillo can get any greater. Because of that, a solid showing is expected out of the Miami product Friday night. With it currently looking like outside linebackers Bud Dupree, Jarvis Jones and James Harrison might not see much, if any, action Friday night against the Lions, Chickillo could see extensive playing time in the game with several snaps coming against first-team offensive linemen. We expect to see a quick get-off in addition to a consistent and variable pass rush from Chickillo in this game in addition to seeing how he’s able to set the edge against the run.
NT Daniel McCullers – With Steve McLendon now out of the picture, McCullers figures to be given every opportunity this preseason to show that he can be counted on to man the middle of the Steelers base 3-4 defense. It will be interesting to see if the Tennessee product can do more than just drive centers backwards off the snap on passing plays. Leverage against the run and ability to move laterally are two things that McCullers must show that he’s improved at this year. Additionally, it would be nice to see how he holds up from a conditioning standpoint Friday night should the Steelers defense experience any long drives against them.
DE L.T. Walton – Walton, one of the Steelers late-round draft picks last year, didn’t receive a lot of playing time during his rookie season. When he did play last year, it wasn’t pretty. The Steelers need the Central Michigan product to take a big second step during this year’s preseason games. Walton hasn’t made a lot waves so far during training camp so it will be interesting to see how he performs in the stadium as he figures to get quite a bit of playing time.
CB Montell Garner – The South Alabama product is currently battling for a roster spot now that fellow cornerback Senquez Golson has been lost for an extended amount of time due to a Lisfranc injury. He should see quite a bit of playing time as a slot defender against the Lions being as he’s been running with the second-team defense at that position ever since Golson went down injured. In addition to his expected work on defense, Garner should see some work on special teams Friday night and it will help his cause if he’s able to impress coordinator Danny Smith over the course of the preseason.
ILB L.J. Fort – Fort certainly isn’t a stranger to preseason games. He also isn’t a stranger to entering a preseason outside of the proverbial bubble. The Steelers drafted an inside linebacker in Tyler Matakevich this year and the Temple product figures to push Fort and veteran Steven Johnson for their roster spots during the preseason. Like all backend linebackers currently on the Steelers roster, Fort will have to prove that he can be a key cog on special teams starting Friday night against the Lions. The Northern Iowa product figures to get quite a bit of playing time on defense in this game as well.