As the calendar has finally hit the late-July date that signals the start of training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers, we turn our attentions for the next few weeks to just that, training camp, the necessary respite for all football fans who have been the past six weeks wondering what to do with themselves—as least as far as the game goes.
With the start of training camp also comes the start of meaningful competition, and I’m not just talking about players getting to put on pads and smash into each other. There are battles to be won. Position battles, roster battles. Battles for starting jobs.
Before we get too deep into the swing of training camp, here is a quick series that provides a preview of some of the most significant battles that will have to be determined over the course of training camp and the preseason, though the regular season can always decide to change the results.
There really is not much up for grabs when it comes to starting jobs, or so it would seem on the surface. The only starter who departed is Lawrence Timmons, but his replacement is already in-house in the form of Vince Williams, and he seems to have little true competition, so it wouldn’t make the ideal starting point for the series.
It’s really down to the two slot positions—wide receiver and cornerback—when it comes to determining whether or not the Steelers will be doing something different from last season. In the case of either, it could be a rookie who shakes things up.
I already talked about the slot cornerback position earlier today, however, so I’m going to start things off by previewing the slot receiver role, where incumbent second-year wide receiver Eli Rogers is coming off a solid debut, in spite of the competition he will face.
As we covered recently on The Terrible Podcast, this should be the most contentious and most fun to watch battle of training camp, and Rogers’ primary contestant figures to be rookie second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has been getting a lot of work in the slot despite not playing there a ton in college.
When it comes to Rogers, the area in which he most excels is purely in the finesse of his route running, which he is able to use to his advantage to create separation even if he is not the fastest or shiftiest on the field.
He has a hard time in some instances, however, of coming up consistently with the tough catches that define the slot receiver role. Make no mistake, he has made some tough catches. But there are several that he missed as well, some of which could even be blamed on his size.
Smith-Schuster’s greater catch radius is obviously going to be an asset for him in that regard, and in others as well. His potential as a blocking presence in the middle of the field is not to be ignored. His ability to win off the line of scrimmage is also a key asset for him, despite his lack of pure foot speed.
The rookie does lack Rogers’ polish and nuance in his route running, but it is an area of his game that is under development, and which can be minimized by boxing out defenders and using his size to make combat catches.
It can’t go without saying that likely both are going to receive playing time, and others as well. Sammie Coates could even see time in the slot just to get him on the field as a deep threat. But at the end of the day, it’s probably going to come down to Rogers versus Smith-Schuster