The Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 training camp will get underway in just a few more days and with that annual event forthcoming, now is a great time to look ahead at several storylines that bear watching over the course of the next several weeks.
I have identified for you below 11 key storylines that I believe will be worth following closely the remainder of the summer and especially during the time the team spends at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. Feel free to add your own storylines in the comment section below this post.
Safety dance and who will be free first and will it last? – The Steelers jettisoned a few safeties during the offseason as Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden and J.J. Wilcox were all sent packing. Arriving this offseason are veteran safeties Morgan Burnett and Nat Berhe along with rookie draft picks Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen. While many seem to think it will be Sean Davis, the team’s former second-round draft pick, who will be the one who ultimately takes over Mitchell’s free safety spot in 2018, the team gave the appearance during the offseason that nothing has been set in stone just yet when it comes to who will predominantly play the free and strong spots. The Steelers would obviously like their safeties to be position flexible in the long run, but with that said, we’ve still seen the free and strong positions get gravitated to heavily throughout seasons passed.
Dirty Red starter watch – With inside linebacker Ryan Shazier sidelined for the entire 2018 season with his spinal injury, it appears as though his backup last year, Tyler Matakevich, is being given every opportunity to be the team’s starter this year alongside Vince Williams, even though veteran inside linebacker Jon Bostic, a starter last year for the Indianapolis Colts, was signed during the early portion of free agency. Throughout the team’s offseason practices, most reports suggested that Matakevich received a large portion of the first-team reps. Will that continue into the start of training camp and will Bostic ultimately be able to overtake the former seventh-round draft pick? This battle will certainly be worth pay close attention to starting on day-one.
Tucker hype train – The hype about wide receiver Marcus Tucker has been strong this offseason and it will be interesting to see if the team’s former undrafted free agent out of Northern Michigan can now live up to expectations during training camp and the preseason. Tucker has spent the last two seasons on the Steelers practice squad and this one can speculate the 2018 summer as being a now or never point for him. Should he ultimately fail to land a spot on the 53-man roster come early September, his career in Pittsburgh might ultimately be over if the team decides there’s another wide receiver worth developing on the practice squad.
Young backs running wild – Thanks to starting running back Le’Veon Bell expected to miss a second-consecutive training camp and preseason, young running backs James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Jarvion Franklin and James Summers should all get plenty of practice and exhibition game reps in his absence. Conner is coming off a rookie season that was abruptly ended by an MCL injury while Samuels is coming off a college career that included him running and catching the football after lining up at several different spots on the field. Samuels needs to show he can pass protect and play special teams during the coming weeks while Conner needs to show he’s made strides since last season in addition to keeping himself healthy and on the field. As for the other young backs on the roster, they’ll need to scrape whatever reps they can from veterans Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint and hope they can show enough to warrant a practice squad spot.
New Washington incline – The Steelers drafted wide receiver James Washington in the second-round this year and that move came right after they traded away wide receiver Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders. With Bryant now gone, the expectations for Washington to replace him immediately as the team’s deep threat are real. Washington proved to be a very reliable and productive wide receiver at Oklahoma State and that includes him combative catching some in addition to showing a great grasp of the entire route tree. The most peculiar thing about Washington as he exits college is the fact that he predominantly played on the right side his entire four seasons at Oklahoma State. The Steelers like their wide receivers to be as position flexible as possible, so it will be interesting to see how much Washington has put on his plate during training camp and the preseason when it comes to him lining up at other spots other than the Z position.
Flopping for good? – One of the main Steelers stories throughout the offseason has been starting outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree switching sides. Will this be a permanent move? Will both players still see some playing time on opposite sides. More importantly, will a switching of sides wind up producing even more quarterback pressures, hits and sacks? The Steelers picked up Dupree’s fifth-year option this past offseason and so any kind of move that could potentially improve his quarterback rush production must be monitored closely. Remember, Dupree missed quite a bit of training camp and preseason action the last two years so him merely stating healthy throughout the remainder of the summer will be a huge step forward.
Wizard extension – Once training camp gets underway, one can easily speculate that contract extension negotiations with kicker Chris Bowell will heat up. In fact, it will be quite surprising if the former undrafted free agent out of Rice doesn’t ultimately sign a new deal prior to the start of the regular season. Really, the only likely mystery when it comes to Boswell and a new deal is related to whether or not he’ll be one of the leagues top two highest paid kickers come Week 1. Currently, Boswell is set to earn $2.914 million in 2018 after signing the second-round restricted tender he was given earlier in the offseason.
Priority undrafted watch – Every year the Steelers enter training camp with a few undrafted free agents who are expected to show well. This year’s batch of higher-priority undrafted free agents include the likes of defensive tackle Greg Gilmore, outside linebacker Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, center/guard Patrick Morris and inside linebacker Matthew Thomas. Of those four players, Thomas might ultimately be the one with the highest expectations entering training camp as it’s very easy to carve out a potential spot on the initial 53-man roster for him. The other three players, Gilmore, Adeniyi and Morris, should be expected to, at worst, land on the team’s practice squad this season.
Keying in on Keion – After having his 2017 rookie season wiped out by a shoulder injury that ultimately required surgery, outside linebacker Keion Adams, the team’s seventh-round draft pick last year, is now expected to hit the ground running right away this year at Latrobe. The Steelers outside linebacker depth chart could really use an up-and coming promising young talent in it and it will be interesting to see if Adams can be that and more. In addition to showing he can play on defense during training camp and the preseason, Adams needs to show he can be a core special teams player as well.
Swinging Chuks and a possible ninth – Now that former draft pick Jerald Hawkins has been lost for the season due to injury, speculation is that rookie tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, drafted this year in the third-round, will be expected to be the team’s swing tackle in 2018 and thus be the primary backup to starters Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. Okorafor’s training camp reps and preseason play should be watched very closely because of this. Additionally, it will be interesting to see if due to Okorafor being a rookie if the team ultimately decides to keep a ninth offensive lineman this year and one that could potentially play left tackle in a pinch. Early candidates for such a ninth spot seem to be Jake Rodgers, who was on and off the practice squad last season, and Bryce Harris, a late offseason addition this year who has a lot of regular season game experience under his belt already in addition to making four career starts.
Rudy, Rudy, Rudy – The Steelers spent a third-round draft pick this year on quarterback Mason Rudolph out of Oklahoma State and many want you to already believe he’ll be able to push veteran backup Landry Jones for the No. 2 spot behind starter Ben Roethlisberger while at Saint Vincent College. Rudolph exits college with some intriguing traits and that includes being able to run a hurry-up offense filled with with run/pass option plays effectively. Even so, the young quarterback needs to show he can play at a slower pace now and under center some. On top of that, he’ll be looking to prove in the coming weeks that his lack of elite arm strength and pass velocity won’t be an issue for him at the NFL level. The Steelers already know who Jones is, so Rudolph figures to get extensive playing time during the preseason along with the team’s other young quarterback, Joshua Dobbs. A solid training camp and exhibition showing by Rudolph will certainly put some pressure on Jones and give the organization some sort of hope that he can at least serve as Roethlisberger’s backup for as long as they need him to do so.