By Nick DeWitt
While many starting jobs are already decided, the Pittsburgh Steelers still have a ton of interesting and important position battles looming as camp nears this summer. These battles will dictate a lot about the team’s success or failure in 2012, and will be very telling as the cuts begin to come in.
Here’s a look at 10 position battles that you won’t want to miss this summer.
Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Jerrod Johnson, Troy Smith
This is going to come down to Batch and Leftwich unless one of the other two pulls a huge upset. Of those two, I’d take Johnson because I like the potential in his arm and in his skill set. Smith has proven in the NFL that he is not an accurate passer.
That takes him off my list right away.
If the battle plays out as I expect, the matter will be a question of age versus experience. Leftwich is much younger than Batch. Batch has more and better starting experience, particularly with Pittsburgh. Injuries are part of both resumes, but Batch has been more healthy recently.
I’ll take Batch. I like Leftwich, but the Steelers can’t be happy about his early-season exits. Batch is a steady guy who will be able to step in when needed without a major drop off. The reality is either guy will be just fine.
Backup Running Backs
Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, John Clay, Chris Rainey
Let’s assume that Isaac Redman is the starter and that Rashard Mendenhall will get carries once he’s healthy. That leaves, at most, three spots for other runners. I don’t see the team keeping six backs, although they may hold onto someone if Mendenhall is on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
There’s a great diversity of skill sets here. Rainey is a burner who can return kicks and punts and can be the home run threat. Dwyer is a bulldozer like Redman. Batch is a versatile back like Mewelde Moore. Clay is a big goal line guy that’s built more like an old school fullback.
Sorting through that, Batch and Rainey have skill sets that the Steelers don’t have with the top backs. Moore is gone. Dwyer, however, has been very good when healthy and allowed on the field. Clay was a nice goal line back for a team that struggled to punch it in.
I’ll take Batch, Rainey and Dwyer. I don’t think the Steelers will have the issues at the goal line with the new offensive line in place. Redman and Dwyer should be good down there. Batch effectively replaces Moore. The wild card is Rainey, but I like him to take over some of the return duties from starting receiver Antonio Brown.
Third Wide Receiver
Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery
I don’t see anyone like Toney Clemons or Wes Lyons sneaking into this competition, although the battle for the last receiver spots will be spirited as well (more on that later).
This is the slot position. Sanders and Cotchery are the principal players in this little drama because they have the most experience and upside. They each bring different things to the table. That’s what makes this battle one of the best of the summer.
Cotchery is the possession receiver. He’s the only one the team has now that Hines Ward has retired. That’s important because it means he can go over the middle to get the ball and that he can catch the ball in traffic, especially near the goal line when everything gets compressed.
Sanders has speed, but he also is a very intelligent player who knows and can play any of the various wide receiver positions in an offense with equal ability. He could be a very good outside receiver, but his tenacity and speed might be great in the slot too. The main question with him is injury.
This is a tough call. I’ll say that they end up splitting this role in various ways depending on the particular play Haley is running, but I’ll give the depth chart nod to Cotchery, who is more different than the starters.
Final Receiver Spots
Toney Clemons, Derrick Williams, Marquis Maze, Jimmy Young, Juamorris Stewart, David Gilreath, Connor Dixon, Tyler Beller
That’s a long list. Let’s start to narrow it down with some common sense. Gilreath, Young, Dixon, Stewart and Beller don’t seem like likely candidates for an NFL roster. There’s always a ton of receivers in camp for every team, but you’ll see many among the early cuts.
That leaves Clemons, Williams and Maze. Of the rest, maybe Young and Dixon will hang on the longest. Clemons was drafted, but that means little. Williams has a lot of good intangibles and leadership ability that could be valuable. He also brings a different dynamic in his skill set that could be valuable.
Clemons and Maze are both interesting because they were very good but unheralded in college. I like Maze a little more, but I don’t know if he has the skill set to make this team.
The question is how many receivers does Pittsburgh keep? They could take six total and keep two of these players. In that case, I’d vote for Clemons and Williams with Maze just missing out. If they keep one, my vote is for Williams.
Backup Tight End
David Johnson, Weslye Saunders, Leonard Pope, David Paulson, Wes Lyons, Jamie McCoy
You can probably drop the last two. I love Wes Lyons, but I view him more as a big receiver than a tight end. I wouldn’t be surprised if he butted into that final receiver competition once again. He did that last season and I thought he came close.
The talent in the first four is just too overpowering, however.
Johnson is valuable because he can play fullback and he has a Frank Wychek-esque skill set. Saunders flashed some great big play ability, particularly for his size, but he must sit out four games for a suspension. Pope was the team’s lone free-agent signing and he’s a good blocker. Paulson was a seventh-round pick, but he was a great athlete at Oregon.
This could go any number of ways, and this might be the battle that takes the longest to solve.
So we’re talking about three spots, maybe two. Johnson is almost a lock because of his ability to play fullback, but Pope could push him on that. Pope will likely make it because he’s familiar with Todd Haley’s system.
I like Saunders and Paulson, but I get the feeling the team would’ve cut Saunders by now if they didn’t want to deal with his baggage. I’ll take him with Paulson spending a year on the practice squad.
Backup Offensive Tackle
Jonathan Scott, Chris Scott, Trevis Turner, Mike Adams
I won’t put Trai Essex here because he’s also a guard and center, so I think he’s most valuable on the inside of the line. He could slot in here, so the team may keep one less of these guys if they think he can fill the role too.
Jonathan Scott has starting experience, but the tape isn’t pretty. The worst was his excuse me job on Dwight Freeney last season, when he basically backed away from engaging in a block with him. Chris Scott has little experience, but he has potential. Turner looks like a camp guy. Adams was the second-round surprise in this year’s draft.
Adams is almost a lock unless he comes to camp and does an impression of Jamain Stephens. That’s not likely.
Assuming two spots, I would take Adams and Chris Scott. Scott can play multiple spots—a valuable skill on this team. I think the Jonathan Scott show has run its course. Last year, the team had to sign a player to replace him in the lineup. Now they can just cut him loose.
If only one spot is available, take Adams.
Defensive Tackle Depth Chart and Rotation
Casey Hampton, Steve McLendon, Alameda Ta’amu, Mike Blanc, Kade Weston
Drop the last two. They don’t have the experience or skills to unseat the top three and there’s precious little room on this roster for projects. Either could be kept around on the practice squad, however.
This battle has a lot of moving parts and what ifs. Hampton’s health is a concern. Ta’amu was considered a steal, but now it’s time to live up to that billing for real. McLendon is the stalwart backup.
This is less a question of who makes the roster than how they are worked into the defensive scheme.
Hampton was not an every down player in 2011, and he might not be a two-down player for all of 2012. That means the backups will be important. I think Ta’amu will get some time. We saw Dick LeBeau willing to work in rookie Cameron Heyward at times last year. This is a similar situation.
McLendon isn’t going to start, but he may see some time, especially on third downs when the other team is going to be passing. I like him better in a role where he’s doing more rushing than blocking. The key will be how Ta’amu looks in this role.
Let’s say Hampton is ready. He’ll start and play on some if not most of the running downs. Ta’amu will probably relieve him late in games and on some shorter distances. McLendon will get some time on third down and in obvious passing situations.
Starting Inside Linebacker
Stevenson Sylvester, Larry Foote, Sean Spence
I’m limiting the battle to these three players simply because I don’t see a guy like Chris Carter finding his way into this conversation. That said, he might do that. Surprises happen each season.
This was a lot less confusing before the draft. At that point, there was no question that the team would draft Dont’a Hightower and have him battle with Sylvester. Foote would remain the backup.
Then they went and took David DeCastro in Round 1 and things got fuzzy.
Adding Sean Spence doesn’t help. The guy is a missile. I could see him being the same kind of problem for an offense that Troy Polamalu has always been. That’s scary for opponents (but it makes me and probably the rest of Steelers Nation very, very happy).
This is now an open competition, but I think Foote is more there for pushing the youngsters than as someone who could actually win.
This is tough. I think that Sylvester will win in the end, though. He’s done well in limited spots and he is a beastly hitter. I like Spence to have more of a special role this season, although he should be the first guy in when someone struggles. It’ll take him time to grasp everything as well, making Sylvester the more likely candidate.
Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown
This is going to be the battle that gets the most attention. It means the most to a defense that has always been maligned for its corner play. Many fans and analysts, including myself, didn’t want William Gay back.
Now, we have to live with that reality.
Lewis has the experience. Allen and Brown have the skill sets. The battle is anyone’s guess right now. Brown didn’t play a defensive snap last season. That doesn’t mean he’s out. He was a playmaker in college.
Lewis would be the natural heir, but he is so valuable at the nickel spot that the team might want to keep him there. If that happens, two second-year players will battle to be a starter. That’s a scary, but intriguing thought.
In the scenario where Lewis ascends the ladder, I’d say Brown becomes the nickel guy. If they keep Lewis in his spot, I would say that Brown wins the starting job. It’s hard to ignore his ability to make big plays, something the Steelers lack at cornerback.
Drew Butler, Jeremy Kapinos
This should be fun. Kicking and punting battles always fascinate me because they involve one of the most important yet least appreciated parts of the game. There aren’t a ton of different factors involved and there really isn’t a skill set difference most of the time. You either can do the job or can’t.
Let’s take a look here. Jeremy Kapinos has a big leg, lots of experience and probably deserves an ovation for being the Steelers relief punter for two years. He can spot kicks pretty well, too.
Drew Butler has a big leg, spots kicks perfectly and probably is a wee bit stronger than Kapinos, but not noticeably so if they kicked side by side. They can both get the ball far.
So who wins? Well, I like Butler’s ability to spot the ball in the corner. Kapinos does it, but I’m not sure he has the same ability as Butler seems to have. Young punters have become weapons lately (see the Colquitt brothers and Andy Lee for examples).
Butler should win this one.