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.
Given that today marks the first of four preseason games for the Steelers, and that the primary determiner of many bottom-of-the-depth-chart roster battles hinge on special-teams performance, I thought it would be a great opportunity to address that aspect of the roster battles.
One need only look at the current roster for instances of players who primarily were able to make the 53-man roster because of what they displayed on special teams, at least initially. Two years ago, Roosevelt Nix was a redundant, spare fullback, but he shined covering kicks, and he is now a core special teams player and their lead fullback.
Anthony Chickillo and Tyler Matakevich are two more players who earned their spot on the 53-man roster with positive performances on special teams during the preseason in their rookie seasons, even though, if I recall correctly, neither did so in college.
Robert Golden was primarily a special-teams player for years. Darrius Heyward-Bey is clinging to a roster spot that way. Shamarko Thomas held on for that reason. Michael Palmer stuck around a couple years for special-teams purposes. These players matter, and they earn their spots in these games.
So where is special teams going to make a difference this year in determining roster battles? Likely, at five positions, those being the usual ones: running back, wide receiver, cornerback, inside linebacker, and outside linebacker.
Working our way back, the final spot is most likely down to Arthur Moats and rookie Keion Adams. Moats has to show he can still compete on special teams. Adams has to show that he can compete, period.
With Matakevich already installed, L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson, both of whom have significant experience on special teams, are probably battling it out for one spot.
There is a different of opinion as to whether or not Coty Sensabaugh is a roster lock. But whether or not he is, Brian Allen, Mike Hilton, and Senquez Golson are not. Only two of those four will make it, and they will probably be special-teamers.
At running back, the back end is full of players who can potentially contribute in the kick return game. All of Knile Davis, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Terrell Watson, Trey Williams, and Brandon Brown-Dukes have either been the primary return man or the up back. This will be a big factor in working out the last roster spot.
As for wide receiver, this might be a position in which the team has to consider how important special teams is versus potential offensive contributions. Heyward-Bey is by far the best special-teamer, and is important elsewhere, but he’s a limited offensive contributor. Sammie Coates can also contribute as a gunner and possibly kick returner, but will he show up on offense?
Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers also will factor in as returners. Even Cobi Hamilton has the slimmest of chances as a gunner. Justin Hunter in this regard is at a distinct disadvantage due to his history of being a non-contributor. But he’s made plays on offense.
There are decisions to be made, no doubt.