The Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their 2019 offseason practices last week with their annual three-day mandatory minicamp and now the team is off until training camp gets underway in Latrobe in late July. While it’s hard to glean a lot of valuable information from the team’s annual four week’s worth of offseason practices, there were quite a few things we’ve learned since the draft took place just the same.
Below are my top seven key things I believe Steelers fans learned over the course of the team’s offaseason practices. Feel free to add to my list in the comments.
7 – Another tight end could still be added – Near the end of May, the Steelers put in a waiver claim on tight end Jordan Leggett following him being let go by the New York Jets. While the Steelers weren’t successful with that claim, it was a clear sign that despite adding former Michigan tight end Zach Gentry via the draft, the organization is still open to adding more competition at the bottom of that position’s depth chart this summer. Currently, the Steelers have tight ends Vance McDonald, Xavier Grimble, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Trevor Wood and Gentry with only the first two having NFL experience. In short, don’t be surprised if another experienced tight end is added to the Steelers roster before the start of training camp, or not long after it gets underway.
6 – Haden summer extension likely to happen – Steelers cornerback Joe Haden is now in the final year of his current contract with the team and while the team has yet to begin negotiations with him on an extension, the former first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns sure made it sound like he expects talks to start after the team reports to Latrobe for the start of training camp. Haden made it clear that he wants to finish his NFL career with the Steelers and it’s hard to imagine that the organization doesn’t want the same. In short, all signs point toward Haden signing a two or three-year extension prior to the start of the 2019 regular season.
5 – New double D Xs are real and impressive – The Steelers added two new wide receivers this offseason in veteran Donte Moncrief via free agency and rookie Diontae Johnson via the draft and on the surface, both had solid showings during the team’s offseason practices. Moncrief achieved his goal of staying on the practice field in his attempt to build a quick rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and while there might be some level of hyperbole involved, he’s seemingly gotten rave reviews from teammates. As for Johnson, the Steelers first of two third-round draft picks this year, the Toledo product seemingly had a very impressive start of OTA and minicamp practices that included him getting some limited work in with the first-team offense and thus Roethlisberger, who said he was “impressed” by the rookie during one press conference and that he “caught everything” thrown his way. Johnson also received great praise from the team’s most experienced cornerback, Haden, as he said the rookie is a “good one” after first complimenting his route running abilities. The steelers offense will could certainly use some early-season contributions out of both Moncrief and Johnson if all possible, it appears both new wide receivers are on track to provide just that.
4 – Decreased workload for Conner likely – While Steelers running back James Conner is sure to be the team’s primary backfield contributor in 2019, it became clear over the course of the offseason practices that the coaches will look to get him off the field more than they did during the first 12 games of the 2018 season. With fellow running back Jaylen Samuels now having some real-game experience as he enters his second season and the team drafting former Kentucky running back Benny Snell Jr. in the fourth-round this year, Conner will be hard-pressed to hit 270 total touches in 2019 and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s yet to be known as to what the Steelers backfield share percentages will look like in 2019, but it’s now much easier to imagine both Samuels and Snell getting a decent amount of snaps and touches, and especially as the season progresses, thanks to what we heard during the offseason sessions.
3 – Bush fast-tracking – In the grand scheme of things it’s not overly surprising, but if we learned anything during the Steelers offseason practices it’s that rookie inside linebacker Devin Bush, the team’s first-round selection this year after a 10-spot trade-up, is being fast-tracked for a potential large role in the defense starting Week 1 against the New England Patriots. Throughout the offseason practices, Bush reportedly worked extensively with the first-team defense along with fellow inside linebackers Vince Williams and newcomer Mark Barron. Bush will now be expected to retain all that he learned during the offseason practices and play even faster in pads during training camp. If the Michigan product can have a healthy and prosperous first trip to Latrobe, there’s no reason to think he might not ultimately start in Week 1.
2 – No injuries – To hear head coach Mike Tomlin talk last Thursday at the conclusion of the team’s mandatory minicamp, no players suffered serious injuries during the entire set of offseason practices. That is a huge accomplishment. After not practicing early on in OTAs because of undisclosed minor injuries, two defensive starters, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and safety Sean Davis, were both able to practice in some capacity by the time minicamp ended. On the surface, it appears as though tackle Jerald Hawkins might be the only Steelers player with a chance to start off training camp on the team’s Active/PUP list. Obviously that isn’t set in stone, however, but this offeason might have been one of the best the Steelers have ever had since Tomlin arrived in 2007 when it comes to keeping players healthy throughout the spring and early summer.
1 – Drama decrease – Sure, there were a few Twitter-related issues early on during this year’s offseason practices, but overall, that’s it in regard to drama the Steelers have had to face the last few months. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster held quite a few press conferences the last few weeks to discuss the noisy exits of wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell from the Steelers this offseason and both Pittsburgh players seemingly said all the right things. Throw in on top of that how veterans Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey and Cameron Heyward publicly handled the aforementioned offseason Twitter faux pas and the other minor disturbances, and one has to feel comfortable right now where the 2019 Steelers are from a culture standpoint. Roethlisberger probably put it best when he talked briefly about the state of the Steelers at the conclusion of his annual football camp over the weekend.
“You know, it’s been a little crazy the last few years, maybe more so than usual that we’re used to dealing with. So, to kind of get back to quote-unquote normalcy is kind of nice,” Roethlisberger said.