The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their 2019 preseason Friday night at Heinz Field against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and while quite a few starters will sit the contest out due to either injuries or a coaching decision, there will still be plenty of younger players worth paying close attention to throughout the game. Below are 10 offensive players that Steelers fans will likely want to watch closely Friday night against the Buccaneers along with reasons why.
The Quarterbacks – I’m going to package three players into one in one positional shot to start with as it’s important to do so. With starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sitting out Friday night, the team will get a long look at his two backups from last season Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph with the former starter and the latter reliving him. The two backups seemingly haven’t shown much growth from last season so far during training camp and Rudolph certainly hasn’t seem to have overtaken Dobbs like many of us expected him to be able to. Both Dobbs and Rudolph still have plenty of time to show some development in the team’s first four preseason games, however, and you can bet every decision and pass each player makes will be highly scrutinized. Time and game situations permitting Friday night, fourth-string quarterback Devlin Hodges will also get some work in the preseason opener. Hodges has turned a few heads so far during training camp in his limited opportunities which figure to also be few and far between during the preseason. Count this as watching three different players.
WR James Washington – After a very rough and disappointing first part of his rookie season, Washington, the team’s second round draft pick last year, finally showed some good progress in the team’s final few games of 2018. Washington worked even harder on his overall physical conditioning during the offseason and even lost about 15 pounds. The Steelers need Washington to take a big next step in his second season and especially if he’s going to be the top Z receiver in the offense with Antonio Brown no longer in Pittsburgh. Washington showed us a lot last year during the preseason but unfortunately that didn’t carry over immediately to the regular season. The Oklahoma State product figures to get a nice chunk of early playing time Friday night and it would be nice to see him grab a few receptions with one maybe coming via a deep throw.
T Chukwuma Okorafor – As things stand right now, Okorafor, one of the team’s two third-round draft picks last year, is slated to be the top swing tackle to start his second season. Friday night, Okorafor might get playing time at both tackle spots throughout the contest and he might even need to start at left tackle against the Buccaneers if fellow tackle Jerald Hawkins is forced to sit out the contest due to an injury. Okorafor made one start last season at right tackle and most of his other snaps came as an extra offensive lineman/tight end. He needs to get his 2019 preseason off to a great start Friday night and show that he’s ready to take that second-year jump.
RB Benny Snell Jr. – With starting running back James Conner expected to sit out Friday night, Snell, the team’s fourth-round draft pick this year out of Kentucky, figures to get a lot of playing time against the Buccaneers and might even play early in the first half. Snell is more of a Conner-type running back as he hits the hole fast and embraces contact beyond the first level. Snell didn’t break many long runs at Kentucky, but he sure had a nice share of yards after first contact. He also showed to be a willing and able pass protector during his college career so we might see him get a chance to display that skill set a few times Friday night along with his ability to catch the football out of the backfield, something he wasn’t asked to do a lot of at Kentucky. Friday night should be a great night to get a good look at what Benny Snell football is all about.
TE Zach Gentry – Gentry, the Steelers fifth-round draft pick this year out of Michigan, is looking to make the 53-man roster in his rookie season as a No. 3 tight end. The quarterback-turned-tight end needs to show that he can run block and contribute some on special teams starting Friday night to increase his chances of being kept at the start the regular season. As a pass catcher, Gentry showed he could get vertical during his college career so don’t be surprised if he provides an explosive play or two over the course of the next month. If Gentry can’t prove to be at least an average all-around tight end in the next four weeks the Steelers will likely need to look outside their own roster for one that fits the bill around the time the league-wide final cuts are made. It is unlikely that Gentry will become the second coming of former tight end Jesse James in one preseason, but that’s essentially what the team is hoping he can do.
G Fred Johnson – With most of the Steelers starting offensive line expected to sit out Friday night, we might just see Johnson, a rookie undrafted free agent, get the start at right guard. Johnson, who played both right guard and right tackle during his college career at Florida, is a big boy at 6’7″. He can also move well for a big interior offensive lineman and he’s reportedly making a strong run at this year’s 53-man roster. The Steelers have also let him work some at tackle so far during training camp. It would be nice to see the Steelers steal yet another potential quality offensive lineman via an undrafted free agent and Johnson might potentially fit that bill. He won’t be hard to miss Friday night and we’ll make sure to break down his play next week. Will he also get the chance to show he can play at tackle Friday night? Don’t be surprised if that happens. Johnson sort of reminds you of a more athletic rookie version of Ramon Foster and that’s not a bad thing.
WR Diontae Spencer – The bright stadium lights of Heinz Field shouldn’t bother the diminutive Spencer as he’s played the last several seasons in the CFL and was very productive as both a wide receiver and returnman to boot. Spencer figures to get several chances throughout the preseason to not only showcase his speed out of the slot in three or more receiver sets and outside in two receiver sets, but as a punt and kickoff returner as well. Spencer’s path to a spot on this year’s 53-man roster is a bumpy one and it likely includes him needing to win the returner job out-right. He’s one of the smallest players on the Steelers roster this offseason and one of the fastest as well. Spencer needs to deliver a few explosive plays during the preseason, and we’ll be looking to see if he can deliver a few Friday night against the Buccaneers.
WR Johnny Holton – After missing a lot of time at the start of training camp due to a hamstring injury, Holton has resumed practicing. He also has made a few nice deep catches this past week and that’s something he’s already done a little tiny bit of so far in the NFL in very limited playing time. Can Holton become the new version of former Steelers wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey? He’ll likely need to be an ever-better version of Heyward-Bey to make this year’s 53-man roster so in addition to watching him closely as a Z receiver on offense, pay even closer to his play during the preseason on special teams. He’s a 53-man longshot regardless but could be in the running for a practice squad spot just the same. Go, Johnny, go. Johnny be good.