Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp: Five Things to Watch
The Pittsburgh Steelers training camp begins on July 27th, with the first practice scheduled for the 28th. Now is the time of year when your fantasy football draft research should be ramping up, as every team’s camps start up over the next week or so. Not until training camp can we finally get a sense of how 53-man rosters and depth charts may turn out. Let’s take a look at five things to watch during Pittsburgh Steelers training camp that will help with your upcoming drafts.
When Bell’s Away, The Rookie Shall Play
Le’Veon Bell turning down a reported $12 million per year deal creates an interesting situation to watch during Steelers training camp. Bell does not have to attend and cannot be fined, considering he has not signed his exclusive franchise tag tender. Most believe the back will miss at least part of training camp, if not all, and he has yet to report as of the publishing of this article.
Significant concern from the Steelers has not been expressed, as Bell is expected to remain in football shape on his own and enter Week 1 ready to go. Coach Tomlin indicated that Bell missing “the team-building process” represents a “consequence for not being here,” but added, “Rest assured he’ll be ready to play football. When he gets here, he gets here.” Others, including Antonio Brown, have been more vocal about their desire for Bell to participate in as much camp as possible. Could not participating affect his chemistry or perhaps increase chances of injury due to not re-acclimating during camp? Possibly. Most likely, all Bell’s absence will do is give us, and the Steelers, a better look at rookie James Conner.
Steelers drafted Conner in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft and most are favoring him for the backup role to Bell. This Pitt Panther’s story tugs on the heartstrings and Steelers fans want to root for a guy who beat cancer and a knee injury to return to football. He posted 1,092 yards and 16 TDs on 216 carries (5.1 Y/A) during his senior year, while also snagging 21 receptions for 302 yards and four TDs (career highs). Though a strong showing, many note reduced “burst” and versatility compared with his 2014 ACC Player of the Year performance.
Fantasy owners should take a hard look at Conner’s work with the first team at training camp to gauge his potential moving forward. Though he is most likely to be used as an early down back, Conner can be a weapon through the air and his ability to break tackles is impressive.
The Steelers lack a true third down back behind Bell, as they’ve used Fitzgerald Toussaint sparingly both in the running and receiving game and Knile Davis is no competition. So, seeing how they use Conner and if he could be an all-purpose back will be the main takeaway from training camp. The more reps he gets with the first team, the better determination drafters can make. Unless camp goes very badly, Conner most likely will take over the RB2 spot. He’s currently a 14th round pick, so he won’t cost you much.
Fans and skeptics alike await camp to take a hard look at the return of Martavis Bryant after missing the entire 2016 season. If you want more detail on Bryant’s skills, read my part of this TFA Throwdown article. Mainly, we need to watch Bryant’s adjustment back into the offense after such a long absence and continued inability to practice with the team. Currently, Bryant can participate in off-the-field activities with the team, but not practices, as he is still only conditionally reinstated by the NFL. It is unclear what else Martavis must do to finalize his reinstatement, but we are hopeful that we will get to see Bryant back on the field soon.
News out of OTAs was positive and Bryant emphasized that he knows the chemistry will have to redevelop over time. If he can return soon, first team reps at training camp are the perfect testing ground. Is he making big plays downfield? Running the correct routes? Developing chemistry with the other receivers? Does Ben trust him? These are the things fantasy owners should focus on during training camp to determine if he is worth his fourth round ADP and isn’t another Josh Gordon (sigh).
The Battle for the Slot
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eli Rogers represent the two most likely candidates for the slot receiver position, headed into Steelers training camp. Yes, Sammie Coates still exists, but he will be battling for a roster spot with Justin Hunter, added in free agency this offseason. After a disappointing 2016 season when the Steelers expected him to step up in the absence of Bryant, Coates also opens camp on the active/PUP list (knee) and will miss two to four weeks of practice. This comes at the worst time for him, but Hunter isn’t an impressive talent so the door may still be open if Coates gets himself healthy.
The WR3 slot looks to be Eli Rogers’s to lose to start the season. The Steelers snagged an imposing, talented receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster but also like to bring along their WR rookies gradually. Rogers caught a respectable 48 passes for 594 yards and three TDs over 13 games in 2016. He turned it on the last three games and was the No. 18 overall fantasy WR during that time span. The Steelers trust him and like him in a supporting role now that Bryant is back (hopefully for good). He will most likely see the majority of the snaps in three-receiver sets to begin the year, though success from JuJu could enable him to cut into Rogers’ snaps over time.
The Steelers obtained JuJu in the second round of the draft this year and his size (6’1″, 215 lbs) and athleticism should serve them well. News out of OTAs indicated Smith-Schuster received mostly second team reps, but was used in the red zone with the first team offense. He also saw a good amount of work in the slot. Take a look at JuJu’s skills, burst, and ability to beat defenders in the open field:
Fantasy owners should use training camp to see how Rogers and JuJu line up, as well as how often they run three and four wide receiver sets. With the plethora of offensive weapons, both Rogers and Smith-Schuster are low-cost fantasy fliers but any suspension or injury would elevate their fantasy value exponentially.
Jesse James: Target Thief
Big Ben uses and trusts his tight ends (hello, Heath Miller), but couldn’t get into a groove with injury-ridden Ladarius Green or rookie Jesse James in 2016. With the release of Green, an opportunity for Jesse James is afoot.
News out of OTAs indicated that Ben and James worked a considerable amount on their red zone chemistry. James received a healthy 16% of red zone target share (second to only Antonio Brown) in 2016, but this may decrease a bit with the return of Bryant. Still, Ben clearly loves targeting his TEs consistently where it counts.
James ended the year strong with 10 catches for 131 yards in the postseason. Look to see if the trend of Ben targeting James in the red zone continues at training camp, or if he fades to the background. If the Steelers begin to run more four-receiver sets in 2017, his snap percentage may decrease. Also, fantasy owners shouldn’t count out TE2 Xavier Grimble, who had 11 receptions for 118 yards and two TDs last season (10.7 Y/R). If Xavier shows strong in training camp/preseason and James falters, we could see Grimble gain more snaps.
Watt You Lookin’ At?
Steelers selected Wisconsin OLB T.J. Watt in the first round of the NFL draft this year and many are eager to see how he will contribute alongside James Harrison and Bud Dupree. Previously a tight end, Watt converted to linebacker and earned second-team All-American his junior year. Hype continued to grow after he crushed at the combine, scoring in the 94th percentile for athleticism and leading all linebackers in the vertical jump, broad jump, short shuttle, three cone and hand size.
Watch how this 6’5″, 252-pound athlete performs at training camp, and how he improves the Steelers pass-rush. As a player that may need some mentoring at the position, the Steelers possess the veteran talent that will help him progress to the next level. News out of OTAs indicated that Watt ran with the first team, so look to see if this continues at training camp. They may use Watt to keep Harrison fresh and injury free during the season. Also, pay attention to how he gels with his new team and copes with NFL-level expectations.
Honorable Mention: QB Development
The Steelers re-signed QB2 Landry Jones to a two-year deal this offseason and emphasized that he is one of the top backups in the league. In honesty, he’s an average backup that is capable of making decent starts should Ben suffer injuries again in 2017 but is in no way a starter or adequate successor. With Big Ben retirement rumors aflutter, Pittsburgh drafted Josh Dobbs, quarterback for the Tennessee Volunteers, in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Dobbs has some serious development ahead of him, but training camp will give us our first look at this rookie and his potential.
Be sure to check out my other training camp preview for the Saints, as well as the training camp previews for all other NFL teams at TFA (click icon for team at the top of home page)!