Sunday, June 28, 2015

One month out, the Steelers' top 25

I'm bored. You're bored. We're all bored, waiting for training camp to start.

I'm not big on the NFL Network's top 100 list because, well, it's a flawed voting system. From what I can gather, not a lot of players vote for the list. And, in reality, the top 12 or so players should all be quarterbacks. After all, if you're putting together a team for the 2015 season, wouldn't you want a QB first?

I'm going to put together a list now of the Steelers' top 25 players, regardless of position heading into this season. Hint, yes Ben Roethlisberger is No. 1.

25. Cortez Allen, CB - A starting cornerback at No. 25? Well, this is where Allen played himself to in 2014. I think he'll bounce back this season and outperform this ranking. But I have to see it first.

24. Shamarko Thomas, S - This is a projection as much as anything. He has to outperform this ranking.

23. Will Johnson, FB - I have thought for the past couple of years that Johnson could be used more as a receiver. Maybe this year.

22. Jarvis Jones, OLB - Gotta stay healthy. But he's shown some flashes. This had better be the year he puts it all together.

21. Markus Wheaton, WR - Wheaton had his moments in 2014, but he was eventually overshadowed by rookie Martavis Bryant. That will only happen more moving forward.

20. Antwon Blake, CB - Yes, he's the third corner. And yes, he's ranked higher than Cortez Allen, the presumptive starter.

19. Arthur Moats, OLB - You see the issues the Steelers have defensively when their two presumptive starting outside linebackers are ranked 18th and 21st. They must climb this list.

18. Marcus Gilbert, OT - Gilbert is solid, if unspectacular. His ranking is a little lower than perhaps expected because he's had issues staying healthy a full season.

17. Stephon Tuitt, DE - Another player who could outperform this ranking. I liked what I saw down the stretch last season.

16. Ryan Shazier, LB - The Steelers selected him in the first round to be a star. He's shown flashes. But that's all to this point. They need him to break out in 2015.

15. Ramon Foster, OG - Like Gilbert, solid if unspectacular. Good leader.

14. Mike Mitchell, S - We'll give him a pass for his play in 2014 because of injuries and learning a new defense. He also had to play a lot of deep safety because Troy Polamalu could no longer run. He could be asked to attack the line of scrimmage more this season.

13. Steve McLendon, NT - Played a good portion of 2014 with a very injured shoulder. He's not Casey Hampton, but McLendon is a solid football player.

12. Heath Miller, TE - Not the downfield threat he once was, but still a good leader and solid performer. His blocking isn't what it once was.

11. William Gay, CB - Another solid leader, Gay will make some splash plays. Like every corner in the NFL, he'll struggle at times as well. But he's the best the Steelers have right now.

10. David DeCastro, G - He's been good thus far, but you expect greatness any day from a guard selected in the first round. Could this be the year?

9. Martavis Bryant. WR - Looks like he could be a beast this year. Could outperform this ranking. But the name of the game is scoring touchdowns while stopping the opponent from doing the same. He had eight scores in 10 games last season.

8. James Harrison, LB - Will less Harrison this year equal more production from the 37-year-old? Perhaps. But he was very productive in 2014.

7. Kelvin Beachum, LT - Might be the toughest guy on the team not named Ben Roethlisberger to replace if he were lost to an injury. Will give up some sacks, but he's very smart and often overlooked.

6. Maurkice Pouncey, C - The leader of an offensive line that's improved greatly over the past two seasons. And it still has room to grow.

5. Lawrence Timmons, LB - Finally, a Pro Bowl nod for Timmons last season. He probably should have been making his third or fourth such trip.

4. Cameron Heyward, DE - The new heart and soul of the Steelers defense. A new contract will be forthcoming in training camp.

3. Le'Veon Bell, RB - It's hard to put a guy who might be the best overall running back in the league third, but it's tough to put him ahead of the top two guys as well. He's a young Marshall Faulk.

2. Antonio Brown, WR - Might be the best player, pound for pound, in the NFL. He also might be the best wide receiver in the league.

1. Ben Roethlisberger, QB - The NFL leader in passing yards last season, Roethlisberger has a handle on Todd Haley's offense now and should be primed for another big season.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Where things stand

In the numerous radio interviews I've done over the past month while the Steelers were doing OTAs and mini-camp, I've been asked time and again what we've learned from the whole experience.

The reality is that we really haven't learned a lot other than who the Steelers figure will be in their starting lineup come September.

Yes, Martavis Bryant looks like a beast.

Of course the offense is expected to carry the team. It did so last year as well.

There's no doubt the defense, which will be considerably younger than the group that opened last season, will also be faster.

But there's plenty we still don't know, some of which we won't truly be able to get a handle on until sometime in mid-October.

Will a younger and faster defense equal a better defense?

How will Keith Butler's defense differ from the one run by Dick LeBeau?

Where will the sacks come from?

Can the offense become even more dynamic?

Training camp and the preseason will give us a slight glimpse at some of those questions. But they won't completely answer them.

Butler's play calling and style, in particular, will be a work in progress. The Steelers aren't going to tip their hand too much in the preseason. They would be silly to do so.

After all, why show New England or anyone else is on the schedule early any new wrinkles Butler has up his sleeve?

So we can all speculate about this package or that package, but the reality is that if the Steelers' coaching staff is smart - and I believe it is - this preseason will be more bland than a bowl of unsweetened oatmeal.

* The same thing can be said of offensive and defensive linemen. We can see who is in shape and who is not. But when it comes to actual play on the field, there's very little blocking and no tackling in the offseason workouts.

That won't kick off for real for another month.

* While the veterans might not like it, the fifth preseason game this year that the Steelers will play is invaluable to young players hoping to make this roster or one elsewhere.

An extra preseason game might be of no benefit to the starters, who don't figure to play more than an extra series or even quarter in August than they usually would.

Those other three quarters have to be played by someone.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mini-camp wraps up

The Steelers wrapped up mini-camp with a spirited session on Thursday.

The final session was highlighted by a two-minute situation with the offense scoring on the opening drive and the defense winning the second session.

There was a lot of good-natured jawing going back and forth from the starters on both units, who did not compete in the workout. This was one for the reserves as the coaches took one final look at some guys before sending them off for five weeks.

Per mini-camp rules, I can't give you a rundown on any plays in particular, but Landry Jones looked much more comfortable in the pocket on this day.

Tyler Murphy, meanwhile, had better sharpen up those receiving skills.

@ My biggest takeaways from this offseason of workouts are these:

* This offense is poised to be among the top two or three in the NFL this season, even if Le'Veon Bell has to sit out the first three games. It's that good with playmakers all over the field.

* Daniel McCullers and Clifton Geathers haven't put the pads on yet, but they give the team a great deal of hope for a true five-man rotation on the defensive line. Both are in excellent shape and block out the sun.

* Martavis Bryant should be among the breakout players in the NFL this season, if not the breakout player. He's in great shape and looks much more comfortable and polished.

* I'm still not sure who the backup left tackle is. But Alejandro Villanueva is now up to 340 pounds, which he carries very easily on his 6-9 frame.

Villanueva is still listed at 277 pounds, which goes to show that you can't believe everything on the roster listings.

I'm told he shows a lot of promise as a run blocker. The key will be whether he is too tall to play the position in the NFL.

I'm not writing off Mike Adams as the backup there, but he's only got a year remaining on his contract and the team has to look to the future.

* The coaching staff is very intrigued by massive tight end Cameron Clear, all 6-5, 277 pounds of him.

They obviously liked Jesse James better - enough so that they drafted him - but Clear has a shot as well.

Rob Blanchflower, meanwhile, has been nursing a hamstring injury that he had better hope heals before training camp begins.

* I've written it here before: Don't overlook C.J. Goodwin at wide receiver. Eli Rogers is pretty good, too. The Steelers are going to have some tough cuts at that position.

* I saw a lot more passes being caught by defenders this offseason. The team has put an emphasis on that. If Mike Mitchell can stay healthy - which he did not do last season - he could be primed for a very good year.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

OTA final thoughts

With Bruce Gradkowski sidelined with what we learned today is a shoulder injury, the Steelers were forced to use Landry Jones Tajh Boyd and Devin Gardner at QB - a lot.

The results have not been great, though the defense has been getting a lot of interception practice.

That's bad news for Jones - or maybe not.

With none of the young quarterbacks - and Gardner is still working at wide receiver as well - standing out, Jones, who has the most experience of that group, might have the inside track at making the roster once again.

Of course, the Steelers will have a full month at training camp and five preseason games for that to sort itself out.

@ Todd Haley said today that the team will treat Le'Veon Bell at training camp as if he's going to be available in the first three games. And who knows, he still might be since the NFL has not yet heard Bell's appeal.

But it is doubtful that he'll be available in at least the first two games.

That's probably the right tactic to take since the Steelers will need to get Bell his work so he can hit the ground running - no pun intended - when his suspension is completed.

@ The Steelers continue to work extremely hard on their red zone offense and for good reason.

The team was very good at quick-strike scores in 2014. But they were just 19th in scoring touchdowns inside the red zone.

And the defense can always get better in that area.

@ If you're planning on visiting training camp this year, the team is off Tuesday July 28, Aug. 4 and Aug. 18  and Monday, Aug. 10.

The team's night practice at Latrobe High School Stadium will be Friday, July 31.

Mike Tomlin has to be on Cloud 9 knowing that he's going to have the players sequestered for a month at Saint Vincent College. He lives for that kind of thing.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Week 2 of OTAs wraps up

The Steelers finished off the second week of their OTAs this week and it's been pretty uneventful, which is good.

For a look at what can go wrong in these things, look no farther than the Denver Broncos, who lost starting left tackle Ryan Clady during their OTAs.

The Steelers had perfect attendance at their OTAs until Wednesday and Thursday when both James Harrison and Ryan Shazier missed.

That leads me to believe that head coach Mike Tomlin drove the point home with this team that he wanted everyone to be there as much as possible.

In previous years, it was not unusual for five to 10 veteran players to miss these "voluntary" sessions.

Things come up that sometimes makes it hard for everyone to be there. But this team is making a point of being there.

@ It's interesting that the Steelers took the time this week to take a look at Devin Gardner and Tyler Murphy as quarterbacks as well as wide receivers.

Could Mike Tomlin be thinking about trying to steal a roster spot by having one of the two or both in the mix for the No. 3 QB position?

Possibly.

With teams more likely to try some two-point conversions this year, it might not hurt to have a dual-threat QB on the roster, as well.

But from what I've seen thus far, none of the QBs behind Ben Roethlisberger or Bruce Gradkowski, who isn't doing much in these workouts, is showing much of anything - including Landry Jones.

@ Looking for an early sleeper to make the roster? How about California University wide receiver C.J. Goodwin.

Goodwin spent last season on the practice squad, where he wowed teammates seemingly once a week with a leaping catch. The 6-3 receiver has a 40-plus-inch vertical.

He told me that season on the practice squad really helped his confidence and helped him polish his game.

Can he beat out Darrius Heyward-Bey for the fifth spot? That's unlikely, since DHB is a solid special teams guy, but injuries can change things quickly.

Regardless, Goodwin's route running looks to have improved mightily and caught up with his athleticism.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Thoughts on first week of OTAs

I had to laugh when a reporter asked James Harrison how he was adjusting to his new role as a mentor with the Steelers.

"It's really not any different than before," Harrison replied. "It's just that the team is more vocal about it now than before."

Harrison couldn't be more right.

To think that James Harrison just became a leader this year because the team started talking about it is silly. After all, he's a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

To think that other players haven't always at least watched how he goes about his business is short-sighted. After all, that's exactly why the Cincinnati Bengals signed him as a free agent in 2013 following his release by the Steelers.

The Bengals didn't necessarily have a spot to play Harrison because he didn't fit in their 4-3 defense. But they wanted to have him around in an attempt to change the culture there.

When you're a guy such as Harrison or Troy Polamalu, you don't necessarily lead vocally. You lead by example. Players watch your work ethic and how you go about your business. Do you take plays off or mess around in the weight room? Do you pay attention in meetings?

You're always under the microscope. You can't take a day off.

It's the same reason a guy such as Antonio Brown is looked as a leader on this team, even though he's not the most vocal player.

The young guys on the team can look at Brown's work ethic and see the right way to do things.

Harrison has always been that guy. And he's always been approachable for those who have questions. Now, he's just being a little more vocal.

@ It's just been a few practices, but I like what I see from undrafted rookie running back Cameron Stingley.

He's a thick 6-1, 230 and shows some burst. Mind you, there's no tackling right now. But Stingly's a guy to keep an eye on.

@ Both Daniel McCullers and Clifton Geathers look lean for guys who can block out the sun.

John Mitchell said at the draft that both were in great shape and he wasn't stretching the truth.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

OTA opens

The Steelers had perfect attendance at the opening of their final OTA session on Tuesday.

That's important because, well, these are the actual OTAs that matter.

While a big deal was made about Antonio Brown skipping the initial OTAs a while back - reportedly because he wanted a new contract - the final three weeks are the on-field team work, 9-on-7, 7-on-7 and 11-on-11.

There's really not a lot of position work for a guy like Brown to do at this point. He works out hard enough on his own. At this point, he's fine-tuning his game and the best way to do that is in team drills.

Ben Roethlisberger laughed off any questions about whether he thought Brown was going to show for OTAs and mini-camp.

"I called him as soon as I heard that," Roethlisberger said. "He said he didn't know where it was coming from."

It came from Brown's agent or someone close to him. But it was more laying the groundwork for a possible new deal in 2016 than it was this year.

@ Roethlisberger said he has no idea what PSI the Steelers set their footballs to and he doesn't care one way or the other. He has no preference as to how hard or soft the footballs are.

He also said that the Patriots getting caught manipulating footballs in last year's playoffs and spygate doesn't diminish anything they've done in his eyes.

"They've won a lot of games." he said.

@ Ryan Shazier said his workouts with many of the other young linebackers and James Harrison in Arizona were very beneficial, teaching him what it takes to workout in the offseason in the NFL.

@ With a tip of the cap to the NFL's new PAT rule and possibly more two-point conversions this year, the Steelers began by working on that aspect.

Roethlisberger feels the new PAT rule of kicking from the 15 will benefit dome teams since they have a lower potential to miss those kicks while outdoor teams will have a more difficult time with them late in the year.

Then again, if you've got home field advantage in the playoffs and you're playing a dome team, you could have an advantage.

@ Ike Taylor showed up at the first practice. He's not playing, but he was around and didn't have anything to do, so . . .