Training camp is right around the corner and like we have for the past few years, plan on being there for every single practice. Matthew Marczi has dutifully given us a low-down on most of the position groups already but with me going to St. Vincent in two weeks, I wanted to outline what I’m looking for from each player. We’ll start with the four quarterbacks on the roster.
Le’Veon Bell: I’m working under the assumption he won’t be there for camp but we’ll get our answer in a few days. If he isn’t there, I hope he – and the team, even if that’s unfair to them – have a better plan for him to get off to a better start than last season. Now Bell can be honest with himself about the consequences of missing that valuable time and though there’s no magical “fix” that will eliminate rust, there’s hopefully a better approach.
James Conner: I recently wrote about his pass protection and how it probably isn’t as bad as some think. It’s an incomplete, neutral, barely having asked do it his rookie year. So it’s an area I want to see from him this time around, again, if we assume Bell isn’t there, Conner will be asked to do that in-game quite a bit.
He needs to be available, missing chunks of time last preseason. That’s the best way to a clear evaluation – hard to figure out if you only have two weeks. I definitely liked his vision and burst through the hole as a rookie and if he’s in better shape and dropped a couple pounds, those two strengths should be even better. That conditioning is critical too, knowing he’ll have an increased workload and the rigors of camp he hasn’t fully dealt with because of the injuries he suffered last season.
Conner ended his time in Latrobe with only 32 carries, tied for the fewest of any running back. I’d love to see him double that number. More reps, more film to review mistakes, more time to correct them, and the better off he’ll be.
Jaylen Samuels: He’s a tricky one. For starters, let’s just see where he lines up. Maybe I’ll try to specifically chart that in my notes. We know he’s considered a running back in that room, but I assume the team is going to see what he can do in the slot as a receiver too.
As Dave and I have talked about, we know his pass protection is really raw, something he hasn’t had to do since basically his sophomore season at NC State. I like his size, I like his willingness in the tape I saw from that year, but the NFL is a whole new level. Similar to Conner, operating with a clean slate.
Samuels showed a little bit better bust around the edge than I expected in college but with the speed of the NFL ramping up, we’ll see if that stays true.
I’m really interested to see how he works in more confined space. NC State’s offense got him the ball on the move, out in the open, with another bonafide threat at RB (Nyheim Hines) on the field most of the time. He won’t always have that luxury in the NFL, needing to do the dirty work between the guards, especially since he’s a bigger back. Does he try to do too much? Think he can make plays that aren’t really there? Hope not.
Stevan Ridley: We know Ridley can run the ball. He showed enough late last year to give me that confidence and as a vet who will be playing against a lot of youth, he should look even better. His path is going to be tough and making the 53 man roster could have to come by default; an injury or Samuels falling flat on his face.
Ridley has to show everything else about his game that he didn’t have the time to prove in 2017. His hands out of the backfield, his protection, what he can offer this team on special teams. It’s uncommon for the #3 RB to not have any sort of role on the third unit; Fitzgerald Toussaint has run down kicks and punts, Terrell Watson got KR work last season. Where does Ridley fit? I wouldn’t mind seeing him return some kicks and I had to guess, I think he’ll get a crack at it.
Fitzgerald Toussaint: Toussaint is…Toussaint. He’s below average in most areas, except maybe pass blocking, I guess, but that’s only going to get him so far. But the Steelers know him, trust him, and he can wear plenty of hats, important in the preseason when other players may be more limited because they’re still trying to get the basics down. There’s really nothing he can do to help himself; he’s unequivocally on the outside looking in and those ahead of him have to mess up something fierce to get Toussaint onto the 53. I think he’s out of practice squad eligibility after like, 12 years.
He can also embrace the mentor role of the locker room if it’s sans Bell. Lot of young blood there and Toussaint is going to be the player guys go to for questions, advice, or someone to empathize with a good day of practice. There’s value in that, even if it’s not obvious or helpful to his own chances.
Jarvion Franklin: The Steelers love their practice squad picks to look like mini offensive linemen and at 239 pounds, Franklin could be next in line. Franklin had success at Western Michigan, rushing for nearly 5000 yards in his career and was involved well-enough in their passing game (61 career receptions).
Like any rookie back, the devil is in the details. Clean QB/RB exchanges, securing the football all the time, making decisive reads, being able to play to your actual speed. Sometimes that means a boring two yard gain. It’s an uphill battle for most backs, running behind a brand-new offensive line that is working together for the first time, so when Franklin gets a crease, he’s gotta be able to take advantage of it. Conditioning is also a major factor.
James Summers: Summers is the guy Steelers fans aren’t going to have a clue about. A second-year player from East Carolina, he had mild success with Arizona in the 2017 preseason (30 carries, 1 TD) so this isn’t his first rodeo. That’s a good start, at least.
Summers is another big back but he’ll have to show he’s more than just a plodder, something that has gotten those guys in trouble before (anyone remember Cameron Stingily?).
Though far from a focal point of what he has to prove, I’m curious to see if Randy Fichtner gets creative with him. Summers has a QB background from his time at a JUCO, throwing for nearly 3000 yards in two years. Maybe they try a HB pass with him in a preseason game.
Roosevelt Nix: We’ll tack him onto this list. Not much need to be shown from him and I’d be cautious about reading into any snap count during the preseason, even if he is on the field more often.
I’m more curious who the backup FB will be. There’s no true #2 on the roster. Will it be a TE like Ryan Malleck? Will someone from the defensive side of the ball make a last-second switch. ILB Matt Galambos would make sense as one candidate. Inside linebacker is crowded-ish (you can create three units without him) and he played RB in high school so the fit wouldn’t be totally out of the blue.