It won’t be long now before the Pittsburgh Steelers begin rolling into Latrobe, PA to make Saint Vincent College their home away from home for several weeks as the summer winds down. That is when we know that training camp has begun, and with it the first breaths of the 2018 NFL season.
Everything that we have experienced up until now, from the re-signings, releases, and restructures to the draft and all the way through OTAs and minicamp, has been but a preview, the setup, for what is to come next.
And so we too continue to preview what comes next in a series in which we will highlight several of the battles for roster spots and roles that we expect to see during our time observing in training camp and throughout the preseason.
Position: Wide Receiver
Up for Grabs: No. 3 Starter
In the Mix: James Washington, Eli Rogers, Justin Hunter, Marcus Tucker
We are all taking it as a given that James Washington is going to be the Steelers’ number three receiver this season. And if we’re being honest, there figures to be an awfully good chance of that happening. But Washington is a rookie who has never put the pads on with veterans before.
We have just gotten to training camp as I write this. One practice has occurred while we discuss the number three wide receiver role up to this point. So we don’t have a whole lot of facts. We know that Washington has looked good in shorts. So has Justin Hunter for six years now, a former second-round pick who has failed to live up to his draft stock.
This is what training camp is about. We come into it with hypotheses, and the practice field is the laboratory in which we test those hypotheses in order to get our results. We think Washington is capable of taking on that number three role full-time this season. Training camp is where he proves he’s worth giving him that opportunity.
Because there are alternatives if he’s not ready. Hunter is actually one of them, at least apparently. Even yesterday he got work with the first-team offense alongside Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. He got a ton of work with the starters during the spring as well, though both of the aforementioned were absent for the majority of those practices.
Also receiving first-team slot work at the start of camp was Marcus Tucker who, in spite of his shorter stature, has primarily been an outside receiver. If he can play inside and out, and contribute on special teams, he has a chance to make the team. That foot in the door could lead to a larger role.
Then there’s Eli Rogers, who is back after spending the past several months as a free agent. Though re-signed, he is currently on the Physically Unable to Perform List. We don’t know when he might come off, but the Steelers wouldn’t have signed him if they didn’t expect him to be able to play.
When he is healthy, where will he step in? He was a contributor even with everybody healthy at the end of last season, catching five passes in the postseason loss.
Perhaps the bigger question is if the Steelers will even have one player in this position for this season, or if they will leave it open to playing the hot hand, or divided into specialist roles. Whether or not it will be manned by just one player depends upon somebody taking hold of the job and making it his own, as Smith-Schuster did a year ago.