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Thursday Training Camp Position Group: Focus On RB, TE, PR – Locks & Bubble Players

As the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2022 training camp nears the halfway point with the ninth practice taking place on Friday night, many players have a place on the 53 man roster locked up.  Others brought in as undrafted rookies or free agents with experience are competing to claim the few remaining spots.  Thursday at camp practice, my focus was on running backs, tight ends, and punt returners.

RUNNING BACKS

Najee Harris:  Obviously, the starter and the workhorse.  Currently taking it easy on the sidelines with a foot injury that was described as “not serious” by Coach Tomlin.

Benny Snell Jr.:  Very little question that Snell makes the roster.  He’s a capable rusher and a talent on special teams.  Plus, Tomlin loves him some Benny Snell Football.

Anthony McFarland Jr.:  Entering his third season, Ant Mac is looking to prove his value after his 2021 season was derailed by injury.  He certainly helped his cause today.  McFarland was one of the few players used in the jet sweep handoff drill, indicating that he would have that role in the regular season.  During the 1v1 drill, he had an effective double move on Myles Jack and pulled in a contested catch for a long completion.  He did it again on the other sideline against Devin Bush.  He’s finally healthy and showing that he can get separation with technique in addition to speed.  He capped off a successful day with a rushing attempt in 11v11 breaking through defenders and sprinting down the field with only the endzone in front of him.  McFarland’s stock is up.

Jaylen Warren and Master Teague:  Both running backs showed a competitive streak today, finishing even simple handoff drills with strong runs.  That’s the kind of effort that gets a coach’s attention.  Warren showed an ability to block in 11v11, giving Kenny Pickett time to complete his pass.  Both Warren and Teague also caught screen passes and Warren was able to turn upfield before he was tackled.  Both rookies show potential and it will interesting to see how they perform in the first preseason game in a little over a week.

Mateo Durant:  Another rookie trying to make a statement, Durant had a nice block in 7 shots.  Unfortunately, he finished practice on a cart that took him up to the dorms.  There was no clear injury and this may have just been a case of dehydration or cramping, as he was reportedly getting cooled down with ice on the sideline.  If he can return quickly, he may not lose too much ground in the running back competition.

TIGHT ENDS

Pat Freiermuth:  The undisputed starter, working his way back from a hamstring injury.  He was seen jogging and working with the other tight ends at the beginning of practice, so he should return soon.

Zach Gentry:  Entering his fourth season with the Steelers, Gentry seems to have the backup tight end role locked up.  He is a reliable pass-catcher and worked to improve his blocking.

Kevin Rader:  The third string tight end in 2021, Rader had a quiet day at practice, other than one very nice leaping catch in 1v1 drills.  He didn’t do anything wrong, but he didn’t make much of an impression.

Jace Sternberger:  During two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Sternberger didn’t see the field much.  He is clearly the player benefiting the most from Freiermuth’s time on the sideline and he has used his opportunities well.  A TD in 7 shots, a nice sideline catch in 1v1, and multiple completions in 11v11 suggest that he could displace Rader as the #3 tight end.

Connor Heyward:  Is he a tight end?  Or a running back?  He can clearly do both but the team seems to view him as a tight end based on position groups.  Heyward had a fantastic day, catching virtually everything that came his way.  He has strong hands and catches the ball away from his body before securing it.  He shows almost every day that he has excellent situational awareness.  It will be hard for the Steelers to leave him off the roster.

PUNT RETURNERS

Gunner Olszewski:  Based on today’s practice, this is certainly Gunner’s job to lose.  He shows a confidence and comfort level when fielding punts (the were all either thrown or from the JUGS machine, not kicked by the punters) with sure hands.  He also seems able to handle the multitasking challenge of watching the ball while watching the players racing down the field towards him.  He can cut with stop and go motion.  He also has the best hair on the team and the cockiness that all good kick returners all seem to possess.

Steven Sims:  The clear runner up in this race.  Sims doesn’t have the same natural instincts that Olszewski shows but consistently fields the ball well. He seems to need a moment to assess the field before beginning his return but did make some good cuts around the oncoming gunners.

Tyler Vaughns:  This is not the way that Vaughns will get a helmet on gameday. At times he catches the ball against his pads which is concerning for ball security.  He seems to be overthinking the catch which leads to a lack of awareness of the other players on the field and he would have been laid out a few times if this had been a tackling drill.  While calling for a fair catch wasn’t an option in this drill, it’s not clear if he would make good decisions there.

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