Finally the light that is the NFL season is starting to actually come into view, even if it is a few weeks away still. Considering how far away it seemed before the draft, we’ll take what we can get right? With camp just around the corner it’s time to start really looking at the key battles that will face the Steelers and their roster full of young talent waiting to make a name for themselves. Sure, we could call this series “training camp roster battles” or training camp position battles”, “roster breakdown” or something else generic like that but we like to do things a little bit differently around here.
Training camp roster throwdown seemed appropriate because that’s really what it is, these guys are fighting for their NFL lives right now against pretty steep odds in some cases. It’s a full on battle, everyone giving everything they’ve got in the summer heat in Latrobe to try and land one of the coveted final spots available on Mike Tomlin’s team for 2012.
Starting out with the wide receivers, this position is one that just a couple of years was in turmoil; Santonio Holmes was traded, Hines Ward was getting older and other than a young kid named Mike Wallace, there wasn’t much to speak of in terms of big play ability. At the time Wallace was still an unknown but in these last 3 years he’s catapulted himself into stardom in the NFL, becoming one of the league’s premier deep threats. Heading into training camp this year, there is no Mike Wallace yet as he continues to hold out and try to force the hand of the Steelers front office into what some believe is a $100 million + contract. Nobody knows for sure what type of money Wallace is asking for but based on the article out of San Francisco a few months ago, those are the numbers he’s believed to be seeking.
According to Will Brinson of CBS Sports, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of negotiation going on between the two sides. In fact, Len Pasquarelli of the Sports XChangewrote Friday that there’s been “very little negotiation” between the two sides on a deal.
“With only about three weeks until the opening of camp, there has been no progress, and, in fact, very little negotiation, toward a resolution of wide receiver Mike Wallace’s contract situation in Pittsburgh,” Pasquarelli wrote on Friday.
This shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. The Steelers like Wallace a lot, but they also risked losing him given the restricted free agent tender they gave him this offseason. Pittsburgh’s already squeezed up against the salary cap as it is, and handing Wallace a pile of money well before he hits free agency isn’t the most prudent thing to do.
Plus, the Steelers and Wallace might not agree on what he’s worth. None of this matters all that much until training camp begins, though.
So for now, Wallace will sit and wait and the Steelers will move forward with or without him. He’ll sign eventually, it’s just a matter of who blinks first.Either way though his roster spot will be there when he’s ready to return.
Antonio Brown became the first player ever to have over 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season. In 2010 he was a bit of an unknown, playing mostly in the return game and sporadically on offense but even then you could signs that this kid was for real. His breakout year in 2011 took the NFL by storm, even making the pro bowl. He’s a fearless receiver, not afraid to go up and catch the ball in traffic or go across the middle. Now that teams know what he’s capable of it’s going to be interesting to see how he handles the additional attention that opposing secondaries will give him. Last year Wallace got most of the double teams but we should expect Brown to get his share now too, even if Wallace comes back and is effective. In fact I would argue that teams will focus more on Brown at some points simply because Wallace is going to be rusty if his holdout continues. Suffice it to say that AB’s roster spot is secure and he’ll start opposite Wallace.
Emmanuel Sanders‘ has shown flashes of being a Hines Ward type of player; tough across the middle, tough in the slot, able to make catches in traffic then make some defender’s miss, and he runs great routes. His main issue is staying healthy. The foot problems that plagued him since Super Bowl XLV lasted all through the 2011 campaign; mix in a knee injury that kept him out for 3 weeks and his effectiveness was limited last year. The former 3rd round pick out of SMU played in 11 games last season, finishing up with 22 catches for 288 yds. and 2 touchdowns. Even during his active games though, he was clearly not as explosive as he wanted to be. After early offseason surgery this year, he said he feels 100% healthy and is looking forward to getting 1,000 yds receiving this year. He’s certainly got the talent for it but it will be a tall order with so many prolific pass catchers on the field at the same time. If the Wallace holdout lingers on, he could see more playing time as the #2 guy for Ben Roethlisberger. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley will make sure he gets his opportunities, and Sanders’ only issue will be his health this season. No problems here either in terms of making the team as the 3rd receiver and also as the new primary return man for 2012.
Welcome back Kotter, er Jerricho Cotchery (if you don’t know what Welcome Back Kotter is then you missed out on a great old show). Anyways, bringing back Jerricho was a very big deal deal for the Steelers. With long time veteran presence and teacher Hines Ward now retired, there was very little experience among the receivers. Cotchery brings a stable presence to the locker room and the huddle, having been there and done that both in the regular season and the playoffs. Coaches can’t be everywhere at once and players need that older vet to not only learn from but to just listen too when things get frustrating.
Jerricho finished 2011 with 16 catches for 237 yds and 2 touchdowns, playing mainly in spot duty as the primary 3 younger players took the bulk of the snaps. His role on this team won’t be get 1,000 yds and 15 touchdowns this year but he’s certainly capable of doing that should injuries strike this unit and he gets pressed into more action. He understands his role and what’s expected of him. That’s a good thing to have with such a young offense now and a new scheme to learn. Cotchery easily makes the final roster.
Now things start to get a bit more open as the top 4 spots are spoken for, leaving only 1 or 2 at the most up for grabs. The rest of the names currently on the roster and looking to make a name for themselves include Toney Clemons, David Gilreath, Marquis Maze, Juamorris Stewart, Jimmy Young, Derrick Williams, and Tyler Beiler.
Maze, a rookie out of Alabama, made some noise during the OTA’s and mini camp. At 5’8″ 186 lbs, he’s definitely on the smaller side but he’s extremely quick and could make the team as a returner and special teams player depending on how well he does in camp and also how many players the team decides to keep at wide out.
The favorite that most feel is going to make final cut out of the remaining prospects is Toney Clemons. A western PA native, Clemons has raw talent but struggles with consistently catching the ball. He shows flashes of big plays and has deceptive speed as a deep threat. He’s also a very aggressive blocker, which the Steelers always like, but at times it’s gotten him into trouble by going over the top and drawing the flag. His main issue will be making sure he secures the ball with his hands, pulls it into his chest before trying to take off and make a play after the catch. If he can nail down the consistency, he’s got a good shot at making that 5th WR on the team.
Training camp will tell us a lot about these guys, as will preseason. Until then though it’s virtually impossible to make a definitive call after you get past Wallace, Brown, Sanders, and Cotchery. Like we said though, things can and many times do change once camp starts and the preseason games get under way. You’d like to see a couple of these young guys separate themselves when given the opportunity. Last year they kept six players here, Arnaz Battle was mainly a special teamer but he was released earlier this offseason
Six receivers: Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Toney Clemons, Marquis Maze.
Five receivers: and Maze is probably the odd man out and then would have a good chance at a practice squad spot.