LATROBE — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says his main goal at training camp is to “leave as a hardened unit.” A secondary goal is to put together the best 53-man roster.
At some positions, trimming the roster will be effortless.
But at others, tough decisions must be made.
So now that camp is one week old and the first preseason game is just six days away, here’s a position-by-position glance at the Steelers.
In camp (4): Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon and Mike Potts.
The skinny: The Steelers will no doubt keep three.
Roethlisberger, with his eight-year, $102 million contract, is firmly established as the starter. Batch is a solid No. 2 man for now. But this could be his last season with the Steelers because of the rookie Dixon.
The Steelers are intrigued Dixon’s athleticism, and he projects as the backup of the future. Potts, who played at Tomlin’s alma mater (William & Mary), is strictly a practice player.
In camp (7): Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Carey Davis, Gary Russell, Justin Vincent, Billy Latsko.
The skinny: On paper, there’s a ton of talent at the halfback position. Now, it’s just a matter of figuring out how the carries will be divided.
Coming off a broken leg, it’s doubtful that Parker will run 300-plus times as he did the past two seasons. His string of three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons may even be in jeopardy.
That’s because of Mendenhall, the No. 1 draft pick who’s looked terrific in camp. Mendenhall will get his share of carries.
It will be interesting to see how Moore fits. He excelled as a third-down back when he played with the Minnesota Vikings. He caught 116 passes for 1,093 yards the past four years. Just as a comparison, Parker had 75 catches for 620 yards over the same span.
Last year, the Steelers kept five running backs. They’ll likely keep five again this year. Vincent and Latsko have no chance.
In camp (11): Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed, Nate Washington, Eddie Drummond, Willie Reid, Dallas Baker, Jeremy Bloom, Micah Rucker, Gerran Walker and Marvin Allen.
The skinny: With Ward and Holmes set as the starters, Sweed and Washington will battle for the No. 3 job. Washington, now a fourth-year pro, has an edge in experience and speed. At 6-foot-4, Sweed, this year’s second-round pick, is the big receiver Roethlisberger has coveted since Plaxico Burress left town.
It didn’t bode well for Reid when the Steelers signed wide receiver/kick return specialist Drummond last week.
In camp (5): Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Jon Dekker, Cody Boyd and Dezmond Sherrod.
The skinny: It has been said by at least one Steelers insider that Boyd (6-8, 264) is the best blocking tight end on the roster. That bodes well for Boyd’s chances of replacing Jerame Tuman as the Steelers’ third TE.
Miller and Spaeth are perceived to be better pass catches than blockers.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is fond of three tight end sets, so it only makes sense that the Steelers will keep three again this year.
In camp (13): Marvel Smith, Willie Colon, Kendall Simmons, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Sean Mahan, Max Starks, Trai Essex, Darnell Stapleton, Tony Hills, Matt Lentz, Jeremy Parquet and Doug Legursky.
The skinny: Last year, the Steelers kept nine O-linemen. Unless they cut another veteran this year, they’ll probably keep 10.
Would the Steelers dare cut Mahan if he loses the starting job at center to Hartwig?
But they also probably won’t cut Starks, despite his $7 million contract, Essex or Stapleton because of the “position flexibility” as Tomlin calls it, or Hills because he’s a rookie fourth-round draft pick.
In camp (11): Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason, Ryan McBean, Scott Paxson, Kyle Clement, Martavius Price and Jordan Reffert.
The skinny: Left to right in the 3-4 base defense, Smith, Hampton and Keisel are set up front.
Eason, Hoke and Eason are the backups.
Last year when the Steelers drafted McBean, a defensive end, they knew he’d be a project. Now it looks like he may never play in the NFL.
In camp (13): Larry Foote, James Farrior, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Bruce Davis, Keyaron Fox, Mike Humpal, Andre Frazier, Arnold Harrison, Patrick Bailey, Anthony Trucks and Donovan Woods.
The skinny: Foote will keep his starting job at right inside linebacker for now, but Timmons, last year’s No. 1 pick, will play more and more as the season progresses, especially on obvious passing downs.
If the Steelers keep nine linebackers as they did last year, Fox, Frazier and Arnold Harrison will battle for the eighth and ninth spots.
Davis, this year’s third-round draft pick, won’t be cut. Even though he’s a sixth-rounder, Humpal has been impressive so far.
In camp (13): Troy Polamalu, Deshea Townsend, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Bryant McFadden, Anthony Smith, William Gay, Tyrone Carter, Grant Mason, Anthony Madison, Ryan Mundy, Travis Williams and Roy Lewis.
The skinny: Another position which is all but set. The top eight players are entrenched. Mason, Madison and Mundy will battle it out for the ninth and 10th spots if the Steelers keep 10 DBs like 2007.
In camp (4): Jeff Reed, Paul Ernster, Daniel Sepulveda and Greg Warren.
The skinny: This is a no-brainer.
Reed is one of the NFL’s most reliable place kickers. Warren is a solid the long-snapper. They have no competition in camp right now.
And someone has to punt, whether it’s Ernster, who was signed when Sepulveda re-tore a knee ligament last week, or someone else the Steelers may bring in between now and the start of the regular season.
Interestingly, the Steelers have yet to put Sepulveda on the season-ending injured reserve list. But maybe they will after his surgery on Wednesday.