For the rest of the preseason, we’ll give a recap, position-by-position, player-by-player of what I saw during the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and preseason games. Moving on with the running backs.
Benny Snell: A good first impression from the rookie. Snell’s battles against Devin Bush were daily camp highlights and Snell often came away the victor, even in coverage drills where you’d expect him to struggle. His pass protection is abnormally good, even if it’s far from perfect, and he flashed natural hands out of the backfield in practice and in game.
While he showed better burst in practice than the first two weeks at Heinz Field, he’s run tough and moved the sticks, as Dave Bryan documented a few days ago. My biggest question was Snell’s ability to handle being the backup and having to cut his teeth on special teams, but he’s embraced those areas too and done well covering kicks and punts. Appreciate his mentality.
His spot and role on the team hasn’t changed, he’ll open as the #3, but I like what he’s done.
Camp Grade: B+
James Conner: An awfully quiet camp for Conner though that’s no fault of his own. The team simply held him out of most contact sessions and for the entire camp – he missed just one day – he had just 23 carries. Not even two per practice. But at this point, they’re a lot more comfortable in what they have him with him. He isn’t the rookie like he was in 2017 nor the “next man up” last year. He’s checked all those boxes, answered all those questions.
Conner saw his first action against the Kansas City Chiefs, running hard and doing a good job picking up blitzers in pass pro. It’s a forgettable summer just because there isn’t much to remember but that’s all done by design.
Camp Grade: B
Roosevelt Nix: Just one carry and two receptions for Nix and there wasn’t much of a reason to pay attention to him. One of those receptions was a nice 20 yard catch where he made two defenders miss. Vince Williams did blow him up on one rep in backs vs ‘backers during Friday Night Lights. But he’s firmly your starter at fullback, there isn’t even another true FB in camp, and a core special teamer.
Camp Grade: B
Jaylen Samuels: He was lined up all over the field at St. Vincent and will clearly be involved in the offense this year, though his work may be a bit hit-or-miss. But the camp wasn’t a particularly impressive one. His average was poor, just 2.4 YPC (lowest of any of the RBs) and though he caught 14 passes, they were largely underneath plays. He averaged 4.6 yards per grab.
He did, to his credit, look a lot faster and more spry in regular season action, showing the speed to hit the 2nd level or win the edge. And he’s still a big guy too, the roughly 210 pounds or whatever he’s at is still not easy to bring down, so I think he’s found a good blend of speed and power.
Camp Grade: B-
Malik Williams: Williams might have had some sleeper potential if Edmunds didn’t have the value he possesses and I think he ends up on someone’s practice squad during the year. Another big back, he has impressive athleticism, even flashing a hurdle early in camp over CB Herb Waters, and has the lateral agility to get in and out of holes.
The issue with him is that he’s a one-note player. A good runner but not much else. As a blocker, receiver, special teamer? He’s not doing much for you. Hope he gets some burn in the preseason finale. He ran hard in limited action against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Camp Grade: C+
Trey Edmunds: Edmunds’ value is much less as a running back than it is as a special teamer. Which is good because he’s not very impressive carrying the ball. He’s a big guy, downhill style, but that’s about it and isn’t much different than pretty much every other back on the team. But he does well with the details. His pass protection is solid and he can cover kicks and punts effectively. He’s even been the backup PP on the punt team, an important role that shows trust from Danny Smith.
Dave made a good case for Edmunds being kept as the #4 and functioning as a special teamer. That path will still be tough to carve out, this team doesn’t have a recent history of carrying four RBs and Snell has done well on special teams. But at worse, he’ll land on the practice squad and can be called up at a moment’s notice.
Camp Grade: C
Travon McMillian: An UDFA out of Colorado, he was entirely forgettable. Got lit up in backs on backers, offered next to nothing out of the backfield, and plodded along as a runner. He averaged just 3.3 YPC, partially inflated by one 20 yard run in a non-tackling session (meaning he averaged 2.9 YPC on all his other attempts). He worked over Williams in the opener but backed him up against the Chiefs. Williams has shown more explosiveness so I hope and expect McMillian to be the last man off the bench the remainder of the preseason. An easy, outright cut.
Camp Grade: D