By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
With the first practice of full pads in the books, the Steelers key position battles will begin to really take shape. Which player will come out on top will likely not be determined until the end of the preseason. In this article, I will be taking a look at the position battles that will be worth keeping track of throughout the preseason.
OT: Alejandro Villanueva VS. Ryan Harris
After the departure of Kelvin Beachum, it appeared that Alejandro Villanueva would be the uncontested starter on the left side of the offensive line. Even after a solid season, the Steelers still did not hesitate in bringing in offensive lineman to sign and ultimately chose Ryan Harris. Last season, Harris was the starting left tackle for the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos and put in a solid performance. When comparing these two players, it is easy to see that Villanueva has the greater upside and has not really began to tap into his potential. With a full season to train under offensive line guru Mike Munchak, Villanueva has become noticeably leaner and has improved his conditioning. However, Harris is a veteran presence that has a winning pedigree but is far from a complete prospect due to lapses in pass protection. This position battle will likely come down to the wire, but all signs are pointing to Villanueva being Big Ben’s blindside protector once week 1 rolls along.
Predicted Winner: Alejandro Villanueva
WR: Markus Wheaton VS. Sammie Coates
There is no question who the #1 receiver on the Steelers roster is: Antonio Brown. Even the best receiver needs help to distract defenses from quadruple teaming him every single play. The Steelers had appeared to have found their long-term #2 with Martavis Bryant but after news broke of a season-long suspension, it is critical that someone steps up to give the Steelers another receiving threat. Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates are both uber-athletic threats that showed promise and development last season. After a somewhat slow start to his career, Markus Wheaton appeared to finally have found his groove last season by improving his chemistry with Roethlisberger. Coates, on the other hand, spent most of the season on the scout team until he was forced into action after Brown was injured during the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Against the Broncos the following week, Coates finally had the opportunity to show why he was a 3rd-round draft pick in 2015. He did not disappoint. Who will ultimately end up on top? Both players have had strong camps thus far and Coates appears to be the better deep threat, which is important due to the loss of Bryant. Wheaton proved to be a reliable target, especially out of the slot, which means that the potential for a number of 3 receiver sets won’t be out of the question regardless of who wins this battle.
Predicted Winner: Sammie Coates with Markus Wheaton serving as a 2b (much like when Martavis Bryant and Wheaton were a 2a and 2b pairing)
Backup QB: Bruce Gradkowski VS. Landry Jones VS. Dustin Vaughan
Another year, another season of Ben Roethlisberger controlling the Steelers offense. Even though he is the unquestioned starter, life has been tough when he is not on the field. While this position battle doesn’t have the glamour of a starting spot, it is vitally important due to Big Ben’s inability to remain healthy consistently. Last season, Bruce Gradkowski was injured for all 16 games, leaving Landry Jones as the primary backup after Michael Vick went down with an injury. Jones had moments of brilliance but also had moments where you were left scratching your head while listening to your uncle yelling at the TV about how he made harder throws in peewee football. Jones has yet to really instill any kind of confidence to anyone and this is likely his do-or-die preseason to finally make an impact. Surprisingly, Dustin Vaughan has been impressing players and coaches alike with great awareness and strong throws with decent accuracy. Additionally, he has quickly grasped the concept of the Steelers complex offense. If Vaughan can show to have some level of upside as a backup, it could be Jones’ last season with the Steelers. A healthy Gradkowski will likely run the show. Who thought the battle for the #3 quarterback would be such an exciting battle?
Predicted Winner: Bruce Gradkowski (#2), Dustin Vaughan (#3)
DT/NT: Daniel McCullers VS. Javon Hargrave
Daniel McCullers and Javon Hargrave are two completely different types of players. McCullers is a behemoth of a man who is the true definition of a nose tackle. At 6’7″, 352 lbs., McCullers has been one of the more inconsistent players on the Steelers roster over the past few years. Whenever he is able to keep his pad level low, he is a disruptive force that is nearly impossible to move. The issue with that is he seems to only do that whenever he chooses. McCullers has spent some time this offseason trying to cut weight to improve his conditioning and stamina in an attempt to see more time on the field. His primary competition will come in the form of 2016 3rd-round draft pick Javon Hargrave, who is a much stouter, athletic player at 6’2″, 305 lbs. So far during training camp, Hargrave has shown the powerful first step that made him such a tantalizing prospect this year. He has easily overpowered offensive linemen and has no problem getting around them due to his get-off. Hargrave is a very versatile lineman, with the potential to play inside or outside, which gives the Steelers many options for sub-packages and different fronts. The Steelers will give Hargrave every opportunity to see the field and if training camp has been any indication so far, his time might come sooner than some people expected.
Predicted Winner: Javon Hargrave
CB: Ross Cockrell VS. Senquez Golson VS. Artie Burns
After neglecting the secondary for so long, the Steelers have made efforts to help improve by selecting cornerbacks early in the past two drafts. They also made an under-the-radar signing in the form of Ross Cockrell. Last season, Ross Cockrell ended the season as the starter opposite of veteran William Gay and performed well as the #2. Senquez Golson spent his rookie season sidelined with a shoulder injury and did not have the chance to make any sort of impact. Because of this, 2016 will essentially be his redshirt rookie year. Artie Burns, on the other hand, was selected in the 1st-round of the 2016 draft to provide a long-term option on the outside. Burns is the rawest of the three players but has arguably the best upside of anyone in this group. So far through training camp, Cockrell has been the #2 cornerback with Golson playing primarily in the slot in the nickel package. Unless Burns proves to be ready when the games begin, Cockrell will remain the #2 corner with Golson playing in the nickel.
Predicted Winner: Ross Cockrell (#2), Senquez Golson (nickel packages)
S: Robert Golden VS. Sean Davis
Just like with cornerback, safety needed a huge upgrade and the Steelers did just that during the draft by selecting Sean Davis in the 2nd-round. Davis spent his career at Maryland playing both safety and cornerback, providing great versatility for the Steelers secondary. Additionally, he has great size (6’1″, 202 lbs.) and plays with tremendous physicality, especially against runners and tight ends. However, just like Artie Burns, Davis is a raw prospect who needs to develop further before he sees extensive time on the field. Competing with him is slowly improving safety Robert Golden, who has served as the team’s special teams captain and has provided quality depth at safety over his career after going undrafted. Last season, Golden played in dime packages, meaning he would come onto the field as a 3rd safety. With the departure of veteran Will Allen, Golden is in line right now to start the season as the team’s starting safety. While Davis has the higher ceiling, Golden is a more proven commodity right now and will likely get the first crack at the starting spot until Davis is ready to take over at some point during the season.
Predicted Winner: Robert Golden