For the rest of the preseason, we’ll give a recap, position-by-position, player-by-player of what I saw during the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and preseason games. Moving onto the running backs.
James Conner: Certainly one of the stars of training camp. Conner showed up a slimmer version of his rookie self and became a much more versatile player. Notably as a receiver. He didn’t catch a ton of passes in camp, 11 in total, but several of them were higher degree of difficulty. Conner is someone you now can split out wide and move around the formation, though Le’Veon Bell is still significantly better than him.
Pass protection seemed to improve too though perhaps a little overstated; some of his wins in backs on ‘backers came against the likes of Matt Galambos and he gave up half a sack against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week One. Still, as a runner, he’s been excellent, showing better pad level and better burst. He’s a guy that you now want to get on the field and I think you’re going to see some 2 RB/Pony looks with him and Bell on the field in the regular season. Bell split out, Conner in the backfield, especially the first two weeks, as Bell works to get back into football shape.
Camp Grade: A-
Fitzgerald Toussaint: Toussaint is the most veteran player on the Steelers roster with Bell sitting out. So it’s no surprise he did well. Toussaint is always a stellar pass protector who shines in the backs on ‘backers drill. In-game, his play speed is a couple ticks above the rest, the group of rookies and inexperienced players soaking it all in. He’s had two solid preseason performances. Still going to be tough for him to make the roster but if the team decides to keep 4 backs with an eye on special teams, he’ll have a shot.
Camp Grade: B
Stevan Ridley: Ridley is in a similar boat, though there was more for us to learn about Ridley since this is his first training camp. He was the second-best runner in camp behind Conner, showing burst and some power, while rarely dancing and creating negative plays. Pass protection was pretty impressive though he wasn’t asked to do much out of the backfield. Not a guy they really cared to split out like they did with Conner, Toussaint, and Samuels. Disappointed the Steelers aren’t letting him get in on the KR battle. Think he could succeed there.
Camp Grade: B
Jaylen Samuels: While he won’t be moved around quite as much as he did at NC State, no H-Back, no TE, but plenty as a receiver and a runner. It’s hard to say which he’s better at. He’s never going to be a particularly accomplished receiver who will win on scheme and matchup but there’s still a concern over his pass protection.
To his credit, it took big steps from the start of camp and that first backs on ‘backers drill, but you’d expect that from a guy starting from scratch. Doesn’t mean he’s ready to do it in a regular season game. As I’ve said before, when he identifies the blitz, he does well in staying square and picking it up. But he’s still had some problems scanning and figuring out where it’s coming from on some of the more exotic stuff, especially when it’s DBs off the edge.
Samuels wasn’t super impressive as a runner, fair to say he’s average, but I thought he ran hard against the Green Bay Packers Thursday. Still feel like he’s going to make this team given all the work he’s gotten with the 1’s and the versatility he presents. With Bell and Conner locks, you don’t need a third true runner.
Camp Grade: B-
Jarvion Franklin: I don’t know how large expectations were but it was a quiet, disappointing camp from a UDFA who had at least some measure of hype surrounding him. In the past, we’ve seen plenty of reserve RBs get ton of carries (Daryl Richardson, Jordan Hall, Jawon Chisholm). But because there’s so much youth here, Conner and Samuels, to get long looks at, Franklin had only 35 carries across 15 practices. He ended up seeing work at fullback after TE Ryan Malleck went down and was waived/injured. Pass protection and catching the ball certainly isn’t his strong suit.
He’s just a big, straight-linish back who shows a little bit of burst to win the edge, but it comes in fits and spurts, so it’s hard to get too excited about him. Possibly he’ll stick around on the practice squad because they like their backs big, but they’ll have to carry only 3 on the 53 for that to even have a chance of happening.
Camp Grade: C-
James Summers: A very uneventful camp for Summers, who saw even less work than Franklin. He’s big, about the same size as Franklin, but a couple inches taller. There’s no standout, redeeming trait in his game, other than being a big back who naturally falls forward more often than not. I do give him, and the rest of the unit, credit for staying healthy throughout. Pretty rare for that to happen at this position.
Summers got beat up in pass pro, isn’t an asset out of the backfield, and even late in camp, was still making some very rookie mistakes (he’s a second year player) like taking the wrong path on a handoff that ruined one play. Next to no chance of him being kept. A little sad they didn’t ask him, a former QB, to throw a pass though. That would’ve been fun.
Camp Grade: D+