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.
Rounding out the skill positions with wide receiver.
Antonio Brown: Obviously, not much to see here. He’s AB, best in the world, and treats each day of camp like it’s the Super Bowl. One of the hardest workers on the field, he’ll wrap up each practice with 10-15 minutes on the JUGS machine, the first in line. Every. Single. Day. It’s a fun to watch a guy like that work.
Brown has been a leader in the sense of he’s the player the other guys emulate. He catches 50 passes after practice? You catch 50 on the JUGS. He runs sprints during special teams period (and he does)? You run sprints during special teams. But as he turns 30, I kinda hope he becomes a more vocal leader too. Someone guys come up to more often to learn from, there’s no one who knows the nuances of the game better than him, a guy not blessed with immense physical tools. I’m sure some of that happens and Brown has had good relationships with receivers in the past (Eli Rogers, Shakim Phillips come to mind), but if there’s one nit-picky thing I could point to, that’d be it.
Otherwise, stay golden, Pony Boy.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: It’ll just be nice to have JuJu available in camp. Remember, he missed big chunks of camp and the preseason last year and STILL had a bonkers rookie year. Smith-Schuster injured his leg on the first day of practice and suffered hamstring pulls and a concussion over the following month.
In a sense, this is almost his first training camp, and I’m excited to see his game keep growing. While Smith-Schuster is going to be the man in the slot, I want to see him create more space as the Z receiver because he’s probably going to play there too, especially early in the season (Z receiver in 2 WR sets, move to slot in 11 personnel). Show much snap out of his break, more nuance in his route running to get defenders to bite before making his cut. That’s the biggest thing I want to see out of him.
And ideally, someone gets him off kick returns. But that’s out of his control.
James Washington: Every report has him as a hard-working, detail-oriented guy and that’s where it’s gotta start for a rookie. There’s a lot riding on him to step up and capture a starting (read: #3) role for Week One. Him being a deep threat is critical but above all else, he has to show consistency, focus, and earn the trust of the coaching staff. Run the right route, be able to make sight adjustments, find soft spots versus zone coverage.
But yes, we need to see him make plays over the top. He can’t be a possession-only receiver, who probably turns out to be like Jordan Matthews. That’s not helping the Steelers offense – they crave that vertical threat to expand defenses and open everything else up. Create that chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and make some big-time plays. Will make me feel so much better about this offense.
Darrius Heyward-Bey: I’ve cautioned not to call DHB a lock the way you would the above three but he’s about as close to the definition of the word as you can be without going over that line. Can’t see a scenario where he fails to make the roster. Too versatile, too respected, too valuable. He can play all three receiver spots, useful in a pretty young room, and is still a tremendous asset on special teams. He’s the guy guys go to in the locker room to break down film, get advice, when they want to pick someone’s brain.
If he has to have an expanded role offensively, there’s a problem, but he’s a strong #5 receiver for any team. Not much we need to see from this vet, though it’d be nice to see him go through a camp without leading the team in drops. He has 12 of them over the past three camps, including five last year.
Marcus Tucker: From an unknown tryout player, Tucker has stuck around long enough to become a camp sleeper. And with good reason. He’s impressed in his time with the Steelers and this year, is expected to get more time in the slot, making him capable of playing every position.
There’s also special teams value. He can run down punts as a gunner and I anticipate him returning some kicks too. More hats you can wear, the better odds you have of making the roster. He’s not big or particularly fast but a good YAC player.
His roster odds might be a little weaker than some of the talk he’s getting but there’s a reasonable chance, bettered if Eli Rogers doesn’t return. Tucker still needs to have a strong preseason and show he can help the team in a ton of ways. He’s not going to make it by being able to do one thing the way say, Justin Hunter has.
Justin Hunter: Hunter is an athletic freak, there’s no debating that. But he’s been all-bark, no-bite throughout his career and the same story played out in 2017. He received rave reviews in camp, they were totally overblown by the way, and once the pads came on, he faded away.
Hunter made the team because a lack of depth and saw only sporadic playtime, catching one touchdown pass late in the season. A total non-factor on special teams makes him a tough sell as a back-end-of-the-roster receiver but the depth this year could be even worse than last and Hunter has played all three positions in his NFL carer (saw slot work in Buffalo before coming to Pittsburgh).
I feel like if Richard Mann couldn’t turn him around, Darryl Drake won’t be able to either. Hunter will haul in a couple jump balls in practice, probably flash once or twice in the preseason versus some wide-eyed rookie corner from Southwestern Arizona A&T, and if no one proves their worth on the 53, he’ll stick around for one more stint.
Just promise me you’ll yawn and turn the page when the “Is this Justin Hunter’s year?” article inevitably is written in a month.
Justin Thomas: We’re now into the “other” group of receivers, the players we don’t know much about. Thomas was a super late add to the preseason roster in 2017 and yo-yo’d with OT Jake Rodgers on and off the practice squad over the course of the year, depending on who was needed for that week.
Thomas played quarterback in Paul Johnson’s triple option offense and like most of those guys, needed to make a position switch. Undersized but blessed with straight line speed (4.35 40), he’ll get some kick return work and we’ll see where he lines up at WR. The slot makes sense but Tucker played outside until this year so I’m not going to make any assumptions just yet. They’ve liked him enough to keep him around.
Trey Griffey: Mostly known for being the son of Ken Griffey Jr, Trey has a unique background. He made big plays at Arizona even if his workouts didn’t really match (4.59, 32.5 vert at 209 pounds). What is most interesting about him is is special teams value. Griffey ran down kicks and punts in college, making the transition to the NFL, where anyone who isn’t a lock has to bring that to the table, a whole lot easier. He’s done it, bought into the system, doesn’t have to “fall” from being the guy to being the one who does the grunt work. Despite missing parts of 2015 with an injury, he racked up nine special teams tackles.
I like his size, someone who can break through double-vices as a gunner on the punt team and whose body can absorb the blows on kick return duty.
With limited athleticism, can he create space at this level? He was a good YAC guy in college and will definitely need to show that in camp. And absoluely ball out on special teams.
Tevin Jones: Jones is cut from a similar cloth as Griffey, which tells me the team is looking for the eventual replacement to DHB. Decent size, better athleticism, and a special teams background. So I have pretty much the same report/expectation as I do with Griffey, though I think Jones has been more explosive and a bigger threat downfield whereas Griffey may be of the catch-and-run variety. Practice squad potential for both.
Damoun Patterson: Patterson is a smaller, skinnier frame but again, you can say a lot of the same things about him as you could Jones and Griffey. Patterson got signed onto the roster as a tryout player out of Youngstown State where he made some splash plays in a run-first offense.
Despite being a clear-cut starter, Patterson got work as a gunner on special teams and has run down kicks before, too. That speaks to his conditoning, positive attitude, and a better transition to the NFL. I’m worried about him getting beat up at the line of scrimmage because he isn’t a big or strong dude but he’s beginning the same path Tucker took three years ago. And we know where he’s at now. Not going to count Patterson out.
Quadree Henderson: Difficult to peg him in any one position because he’s a gadget/return guy, even if listed as a wideout. His path is obvious: special teams, special teams, special teams.
Henderson’s best value comes as a returner, both kicks and punts. The tough part about that is how few opportunities you get in that capacity. Training camp doesn’t offer much: technique work, which is critical, but no one makes the team because they get square under punts. It all comes in game, long returns and touchdowns, the way Stefan Logan came out of nowhere nearly a decade ago (we’re all very old, by the way).
During games, there’s only a handful of kick and punt return chances. And the team is going to divvy those up to a host of guys, though I’m hoping Henderson gets extra attention over others. He’s going to get some work as a receiver, maybe run an end around or a jet sweep, but that’s not where he’s aiming to impress. It all comes as a returner.
One saving grace are the NFL rule changes. Kickoffs are more like punts and for a smaller guy like Henderson, who the team may have shied away from due to his lack of size, it’ll help his odds of the team considering him there.