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Training Camp Recap: Skill Position Evaluation

With tomorrow’s first preseason game looming, I wanted to break down my thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ skill positions from what we’ve seen throughout the first 11 days of camp. Still a long ways to go, of course, and tomorrow’s game will change a lot of perspective, but I wanted to put a bow on things so far.

We’ll roll through the rest of the offense and the entire defense before kickoff tomorrow.

Quarterbacks

Ben Roethlisberger: As if there was anything you really needed to learn about #7 in camp. Despite being held out/excused from three practices, he’s been as sharp as ever. Statistically the best QB in camp, that’s pretty intuitive anyway, and after a rocky first day with Antonio Brown, the two have been on the same wavelength since.

He looks like he’s wearing armor out there with all the wraps, braces, and sleeves he sports, but hey, whatever works.

Landry Jones: The clear #2 quarterback of camp, Jones looks totally comfortable out there. That should be expected for a guy who now has a lineup of regular season appearances. A year ago, we were complaining about how long he held the ball until. It’s a non-issue this year and he shows a quick release, a testament to his mental game and knowing where he needs to go with the football.

He’ll still force some passes he shouldn’t but his interception numbers are down and overall, his decision-making has been fine.

Dustin Vaughan: Like I’ve said before, if you stripped away the names, numbers, and stories, you’d assume Vaughan is the clubhouse leader for the #3 job. He is the most unknown of the group and that lends itself to getting more reps and putting him in different situations but those chances are earned, not given.

Vaughan has a plus arm which not only helps with the deep ball but velocity on underneath throws in tight windows. A bullet on an out route to Xavier Grimble sticks in my mind as sort of a “woah” moment.

He’s not forcing throws, hitting his checkdown, and shows some mobility. Predictably, he is a little slow through his reads and looks a little flustered coming off his first receiver in his progression. The internal clock needs sped up too and I’m sure that’s part of the reason why he’s been sacked so much in previous stints in the league.

But on the whole, he’s more impressive than the usual unknown QB brought into camp and is making a compelling case to make this 53.

Bruce Gradkowski: A Vaughan roster spot would, of course, come at the expense of fan-favorite Gradkowski. He’s been…fine, I guess? There’s not much mustard on his throws which is going to limit his ability to drive the football on anything remotely intermediate and definitely anything deep.

Gradkowski takes care of the football well enough, though his one interception in camp was pretty silly.  With Jones locked in as the #2, Gradkowski loses his value as the steady, veteran presence that’s kept him around, and really, brought him to Pittsburgh in the first place.

We still have four preseason games to roll through and the story is bound to change but today, I put him on the outside looking in. When you have less attempts than anyone else does completions, you’re being phased out of the offense.

Running Backs

Le’Veon Bell: Suspension ordeal aside, I needed all I needed to see from Bell in the first two days. He looked like his old self and one run he had, waiting for the hole before planting and exploding upfield in a very vintage moment, assured anyone watching that this cat was fine.

I still don’t think he’s been tackled once in camp so that’s the last hurdle, a mental one, for him to clear. I hope he gets a chance in the preseason.

DeAngelo Williams: Williams is in the same vein as Bell, minus the knee injury, suspension, and rap collaborations. The biggest story surrounding him this year is Cam Heyward’s daily rendition of Happy Birthday to him.

Williams looks no different than he did last year. Which is to say, a very good thing.

Fitzgerald Toussaint: Onto players who have actually been tackled in training camp, not glorified ghost men. Toussaint has had a nice camp. His pass protection, both in recognition and the actual act of picking it up, has been very impressive. Shamarko Thomas and Sean Davis have both been brushed away by the squatty-ish back. Toussaint has run hard, embarrassing Donald Washington during Friday Night Lights, while showing some quicks and explosion I hadn’t seen before.

He is squarely locked in as the #3 RB and backup if Bell’s suspension sticks.

Daryl Richardson: Now we’re wading into the players fighting for their roster lives. Richardson has been running as the #4 running back in pecking order though that doesn’t mean much in camp, when backups can shuffle around like a real life game of Chutes and Ladders.

Richardson was a super-athlete out of college and he still has that burst that got him selected. It’s the best acceleration of anyone he’s competing with and honestly, probably the second best of the entire group behind Bell (looking at the trait solely in a vacuum).

He has the quicks to cut laterally and find the lane and the speed to turn decent gains into big ones, ripping off two huge runs on back-to-back plays earlier in camp.

His ball skills aren’t immaculate but he’s a quality athlete who can create space, has a decent pair of mitts, and does a nice job finding the football vertically, at least, based on the few observations I’ve made. Overall, his pass protection is still an unknown to me and something I’ll keep an eye on during preseason. Unfortunately, with so few blitzes, especially from the Detroit Lions’ 4-3 front this week, Richardson will probably be check/releasing quite a bit. Bummer.

Cameron Stingily: It’s really a coin toss as to who is ahead here, him or Brandon Brown-Dukes. BBD has far and away more carries but Stingily has still gotten plenty of work in, too. The first thing to notice about Stingily is the dropped weight (20 pounds, 5% body fat), has led to an increase of much-needed explosiveness. If you haven’t watched him yet, you’ll see a much different version of last year’s back, who plodded along until defenders bothered to bring him down.

He’s still a big dude and is a force when he gets downhill. He doesn’t dance, I like his vision, and in limited quantities, have seen him cut laterally and get downfield without much wasted motion. That’s key for him. Build up that speed.

Elsewhere, he’s very much a lump of clay. Far from molded. He’s an improved pass catcher but still 7th grade school dance awkward, struggling to catch the football cleanly and burst upfield in one motion. Too many drops, too. His protection has been hit-or-miss, he’ll too often lean into the block, though Mike Tomlin did praise him for his effort, which I have no doubts about. Stingily seems as hard working as anyone, usually one of the first guys down, to soak in every rep he can. If he gets cut (it is doubtful he makes the 53, practice squad is still possible), it won’t be for a lack of effort.

Brandon Brown-Dukes: If he sticks on the roster, he might as well change his name to Hyphen, because that’s Tomlin’s name for him. Tomlin is right, not that he needs my validation, that the moment hasn’t been too big for a kid coming out of Division II.

BBD is slippery, his 5’8 frame hiding behind the offensive line, with an above average burst and someone who can create when the play breaks down, juking and jiving around until he finds a crease. Of the “Fighting Three,” Richardson, Stingily, and himself, Brown-Dukes has shown the ability to get beyond what is blocked more than the others. To turn a loss into a positive play. That’s really important, to me at least.

He’s not a great receiver but serviceable enough. He may be tough in pass protection but his size presents an issue and he lacks the sand in his pants to take on a charging safety, let alone a Vince Williams type with a “Here’s Johnny!” appearance up the A gap. It probably elicits the same amount of fear.

I also wouldn’t call him a particularly tough runner. He typically goes down on first contact, someone who is better off running away than daring to run through. Even an arm tackle is usually enough to send him into the Earth.

Christian Powell: He is Cinderella, left at home to clean up while his sisters go have fun at the ball. Only, I’m not expecting a horse and carriage to show up at his doorstep anytime soon. For him, it’s great to be back in Pittsburgh after getting cut following rookie minicamp (I believe it’s been implied an injury led to his release). But he is squarely an outsider, the last in the pecking order, who is there to pick up whatever table scraps the coaches decide to give him. He’s Oliver Twist, pleading for porridge.

His frame offers modest intrigue, 5’11 230, and obviously, the Steelers saw something to decide to sign him after May’s draft. But his camp production, the little play he’s had, has been uninspiring. As a receiver, he is poor, and struggles to catch the ball cleanly. Currently, he’s on the path to being cut at the 75 man deadline.

Fullback

Roosevelt Nix: Nix is the only true fullback in camp. Once a longshot and now a lock, he’s someone you barely even pay attention to. He has been sprinkled in as a runner, 10 carries so far, already surpassing the nine he had in camp last season. He’s not much of a runner but I guess he’s there in an, In Case Of Emergency game-day situation.

Tight Ends

Ladarius Green: If camp was a class, he’d get a big fat incomplete. He’ll jog around in the first half hour of practice, run some routes, and then shut it down for the day. So yeah…get well soon, Ladarius. Like really soon. That’d be a welcomed sight.

After writing this, the news came out about Green’s headache issues and possible retirement. So I’m going to go cry for a bit.

Jesse James: His start to camp was quiet, the biggest story his weight loss, but he’s come on a bit the last three or four practices, especially as a receiver and threat down the seam for Roethlisberger. His route running looks impressive. He won’t win because of his athleticism, it’s just average, but he does an impressive job at the top of his route of creating separation. He works back to the football with a sense of purpose and makes himself an open target to his quarterback, able to find grass and consistently squaring his shoulders, allowing him to box out defenders behind his 6’7 frame.

Stellar is too strong of a word to describe his camp so far, and I haven’t seen anything that screams he can be a #1 tight end (Roethlisberger’s recent comments seem to reinforce that notion too) but it’s been a good two weeks for The Outlaw.

David Johnson: He may be the forgotten man to many but he’s still a quality blocker and someone who could make himself very useful for Pittsburgh. Sure, he is just a tick above Matt Spaeth in terms of a receiver but his ability to lock on and drive in the run game is an asset and he has the versatility to line up all over the formation, something Spaeth didn’t have.

His lack of height and length hurts him as a true Y for what the Steelers like to do but no matter how Grimble shows, Johnson should still be regarded as the better overall blocker.

Xavier Grimble: He’s certainly been primped and primed as a training camp sleeper. He hasn’t disappointed but hasn’t been outstanding either. Sure, he’s a fine athlete and a vertical threat coupled with size and a muscular body, so seeing him make some plays down the seam is not shocking.

I like his ability to adjust to poorly thrown balls, his catch radius rivals a 747. His blocking has improved and I see some nasty in his game, a desire to throw his weight around in the trenches. Games will give a better clue but in all, not a bad start in that regard.

But he’s been flighty. Too many easy drops. Consistency hasn’t been there and he’s put together a string of church-mouse quiet practices. Like I said, yeah he’s made some plays but I’d expect that from any player 6’5 260 who can run a little bit.

Paul Lang: There’s James and Grimble and then there’s…the rest. Lang has seen modest improvement since his first day in camp and to his credit, he’s managed to stick around. His hands are decent, his blocking ok, and the latter is how he profiled out of college.

But he’s incredibly slow and has trouble getting separation. Not a receiving threat in any sense. His chances of making the 53 are nill and the practice squad doesn’t seem too likely either.

Michael Cooper: At 6’5 259, he has the size to play in the NFL. He’s only been with the team for a couple days, making an evaluation tough, but like any player, he’s gotten himself lower on the sleds, generating more power. My look at him as a receiver is pretty limited but like Lang, he has an Everest like climb to stick around.

Wide Receivers

Antonio Brown: AB is AB. His camp has been spectacular and he’s been uncoverable by everyone from Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, and William Gay. Statistically, he’s been near-perfect and his work ethic is still strong, trotting over to the JUGS machine at the end of every practice for an extra 100 reps.

He is not very punctual though, which certainly isn’t the end of the world, but counteracts the strong work ethic he genuinely has. On most camp days, he’s the last guy out. But if that’s the worst you can say about a guy, things are going pretty ok.

Markus Wheaton: He’s barely been around to evaluate, limited by what we think is a quad injury. For the last week, he hasn’t been in team drills and on most days, he’s been held out completely. Like Brown, it’s not like we were unsure of the type of player he was and his absence opens up a ton of reps for someone like Eli Rogers, who really needs them. So there’s a silver lining to it all.

Sammie Coates: Somehow, Coates has managed to meet, maybe even exceed, the high expectations placed on him before camp. The biggest complaint on him coming out of college, his hands, haven’t been a problem, though that was generally attributed to a focus issue more than anything else.

He continues to show a knack for making big plays and difficult catches, adjusts to the football well, is physical fighting for the football, and looks to be quick to the tuck, jetting downfield immediately after making the grab. It’s all the things we’ve written and talked about on a near day-to-day basis.

The only thing I haven’t seen out of him is work in the slot. By my count, one rep so far in camp.

Eli Rogers: He’s been the talk of camp just as much as Coates, another guy who has seemed to transcend the weight of expectations on him. He’s still never played in an NFL game, Friday will be his first walk on the tightrope, but as Matthew Marczi recently wrote, he’s done literally everything possible to make a positive impression over the first 11 practices.

He’s an absurdly good route runner, selling his routes with everything he’s got and being able to break without losing an ounce of speed. His hands are impressive for a smaller guy and even the one drop I have him down for in team drills came on a pass he had to adjust to.

No one in camp has had the answer for him and even the Lions struggled, Rogers beating up on Quandre Diggs on the first day of the joint practice. Yesterday, he began the team drill with two long receptions.

It’s difficult to gauge return work in camp but he’s been the first man through each drill and drawn praise from Tomlin. He tracks the ball well, gets under and square, and quick with his initial move upfield. He should do well in that role in stadiums.

If something happened to Markus Wheaton, Rogers is the next man up.

Darrius Heyward-Bey: With all the attention put on Coates and Rogers, there hasn’t been much fanfare for Heyward-Bey. But his camp has been rock solid and his hands better than maybe they’ve ever been. He’s fighting hard for the football and it rarely ends up on the ground, credited with just one drop in my breakdown so far.

He’s mostly lined up on the outside but we know he can play all over the field, the “Joker” as Richard Mann coined him.

His role will diminish with Coates’ emergence but when/if they need him, you know he’ll be ready. I expect him to be a positive contributor on the Steelers’ coverage unit, too.

Issac Blakeney: Now we move to players whose 53 man roster spot is unlikely. Blakeney offers a unique frame, nearly 6’5 and about 220, that no one else on this roster possesses. He uses it to his advantage and it’s a struggle for defensive backs to try and run through him or fly in from behind. His hands have been above average and he’s able to work them away from his frame, making clean grabs and widening his catch radius.

Blakeney has also shown the ability to make difficult grabs, highlighted by an awesome one-handed snag yesterday against the Lions. For his size, he’s an easy-mover that doesn’t have an extreme amount of stiffness. Speed wise, Blakeney is a build-up kind of guy but once he gets moving, he can run a little bit.

He is strictly an outside guy, that shouldn’t be a surprise, and he has only played the position for a couple seasons. He’s dropped the occasional pass and I want to see him keeping working hard back to the football instead of sitting down and waiting for the ball to come in. But overall, he’s been a pleasant surprise.

Demarcus Ayers: Ayers has had a fine camp but he’s been overshadowed by a guy of his same size in Rogers. Ayers isn’t a 4.4 flat type of runner but shows impressive acceleration and is a smooth route runner. His hands have been reliable and he’s able to contort and adjust to passes thrown well out of his frame.

I’m also excited to see him as a return man.

But because he’s limited to just the slot and has been running behind Rogers (and Wheaton/Rogers when both were healthy), his chances have not been near as plentiful. It took him five days to make his first grab in team drills. It’s difficult to imagine Rogers not making this roster and I don’t know where tha leaves Ayers. Probably not on the 53.

Levi Norwood: I wouldn’t call it a bad camp for Norwood. It’s certainly been high-volume as he’s soaked in a bunch of targets, the 5th most in camp by my last count. It’s a little Derek Moye-esque though with his catch percentage in the 50s, though I recognize that isn’t always his fault and he never gets to catch passes from Roethlisberger.

He can play outside or in the slot, has decent wheels, and pretty good hand while sporting a return background. But there’s no defining trait with him and he’s overshadowed in each characteristic by everyone else.

On other rosters, he could make a home on the practice squad. In Pittsburgh? With how loaded they are, he better hope the team decides to keep two. And even then, he is far from guaranteed. Outside looking in, to me.

Marcus Tucker: Tucker has a terrific story that we and other outlets have covered before. He’s an easy guy to root for. I like him as a route runner, out of his breaks quickly and never drifting upfield.

I don’t mean to castigate a rookie living the dream but he’s had some issues. Catching the ball cleanly has been a concern Too many drops for how little reps he gets and he’s currently tied with Wheaton for the most in team drills (this doesn’t even count on air or one-on-ones).

I’m surprised the team hasn’t asked him to move inside at all, opting to let Norwood pick up those reps. It leaves you with a 5’10, 192 pound receiver on the outside who doesn’t have a ton of straight line speed. Far from an ideal situation and he’ll have to fight to make it past the first wave of roster cuts. They all need to impress but Tucker especially is a guy who has to ball out these first two weeks.

Cobi Hamilton: Signed on late to replace the injured Canaan Severin, there’s a limited amount of information on him. He’s got decent speed, has been in the league, and he made a nice catch yesterday versus the Lions. You could also see him mixed in the kick return game late. But it’s a struggle to envision him sticking to this roster.

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