Every season, every team uses training camp and preseason games to build out their depth chart. Most positions on most teams are pretty set in stone, either with established veterans or highly-touted rookies. But, there are pitched battles for specific roles and spots on the roster in every training camp. Last year, the biggest battle took place at right tackle between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner. Banner won the job out of camp, but Okorafor started nearly every game after Banner went down in Week 1.
The year before, the battle for the backup quarterback job between Mason Rudolph, Josh Dobbs, and Devlin Hodges provided important competition that helped prepare Rudolph and Hodges for their surprisingly important role in the 2019 season. These instances exhibit why looking at specific training camp battles can provide essential insights for the upcoming season. Therefore, I’ll be previewing the battles in training camp that I believe will have the most significant impact on the Steelers’ 2021 season. I’ll highlight the position or role and the players in contention for it, break down their case and chance of making the roster, and predict who wins and who doesn’t make the roster.
Backup Quarterback: Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, Joshua Dobbs
Unfortunately, the battle for the backup quarterback job is very relevant for the Pittsburgh Steelers once again. With Ben Roethlisberger possibly (hopefully) entering his final season at age 39, Pittsburgh must be prepared if Ben misses time again due to injury. Ben has only played all 16 games four times in his 17-year career, so having a quality backup is necessary. This job is pretty much Mason Rudolph’s to lose. He’s entering a contract year and has not lived up to the front office’s or fan’s expectations. However, Rudolph played a quality game in last season’s regular-season finale in Cleveland. So maybe he can build on that strong finish. Next is Dwayne Haskins, the former Washington first-round pick. Haskins impressed coaches and teammates alike in mini-camp and could be in a position to supplant Rudolph as Ben’s backup and the quarterback of the future. Lastly, Joshua Dobbs is trying to hold onto his QB3 position after returning to Pittsburgh in 2020. Dobbs serves a valuable role on this team as a pseudo-coach and offensive assistant, but his time in Pittsburgh (and the NFL) might be coming to a close.
Prediction: The Steelers like to keep three quarterbacks, but four seems unlikely. Rudolph is a lock to make the roster based on his experience, and Haskins’ potential is enough to earn him a spot. Dobbs looks to be the odd man out unless Pittsburgh can finesse him onto the IR or something. It’s more likely that Dobbs moves on to starting his career as an aerospace engineer.
Running Back #2: Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland Jr., Jaylen Samuels, Kalen Ballage
Going into the draft, the Steelers arguably had the worst running back room in the NFL. Thankfully, they used their first-round pick on Najee Harris, who should win the starting job on talent alone. Harris has the size and strength to be effective as a goal-line runner, along with the receiving and pass blocking skills to play on third down. Therefore, there will be no need for situational specialists this year. However, someone will need to spell Harris when he gets tired, which could happen given that he could be looking at a Le’Veon Bell-style workload. Benny Snell started in place of James Conner when he went out with injuries. But “Snell Yeah” quickly turned into “Snell Ya Later,” as he quickly showed that he lacked the requisite speed and athleticism to be a lead running back in the NFL.
Anthony McFarland Jr. was the Steelers’ latest late-round running back experiment, and while he seemingly struggled to acclimate to the speed of the NFL, he now has a whole offseason under his belt. Additionally, McFarland Jr. is reunited with his college coach Matt Canada. Next is Swiss Army Knife Jaylen Samuels, a versatile tool that ultimately remains stuck in neutral. Samuels is entering a contract year, but I don’t expect him to earn many offensive snaps. Finally, the Steelers brought in Adam Gase-favorite Kalen Ballage. Ballage is built very similarly to Harris and is also a versatile offensive weapon. The problem is that Ballage is just not very good. There’s a chance he could take Samuels’ spot, which is why this battle is interesting.
Prediction: I’m not sure if this is a hot take, but here goes: Anthony McFarland Jr. is going to win this job easily. His familiarity and smooth scheme fit with Matt Canada’s new offense will significantly help his case. Additionally, McFarland Jr. provides the perfect complement to Harris, as the lightning to Harris’ thunder. Granted, the offensive line didn’t do Snell many favors last year, but he simply does not have the juice to meaningfully contribute in this league. I also think Ballage has a decent shot at unseating Samuels as RB4.
Starting Offensive Tackles: Chukwuma Okorafor, Zach Banner, Dan Moore Jr., Joe Haeg, Rashaad Coward
This is undoubtedly the most critical battle at camp. Unlike most of these other battles, the two contenders most likely to win were on the roster last year. Zach Banner won the starting right tackle job out of the preseason last year but tore his ACL in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season. Chukwuma Okorafor took over for him and performed decently well. This year, Okorafor kicks over to the left to take over for the (thankfully) departed Alejandro Villanueva, while Banner will most likely take up the post he won last year on the right side. Objectively, based on their past careers, this duo is among the lesser offensive tackle duos in the NFL. The Steelers are relying heavily on the new scheme and new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to help rejuvenate a line that looked very uninspired last year. For competition, the Steelers spent a fourth-round pick on Texas A&M tackle Dan Moore Jr. and brought in versatile veterans Joe Haeg and Rashaad Coward.
Prediction: Despite this being an important training camp battle, it’s also probably the one most likely to go chalk. Assuming both Chuks and Banner stay healthy, I’d be astonished to see one of the other tackles starting going into Week 1. Moore most likely needs some time to adjust to the pro game, while Haeg and Coward should not start unless there is an emergency.
Starting Center: Kendrick Green, BJ Finney, JC Hassenauer
Arguably the second most crucial battle, Pittsburgh must finally replace Maurkice Pouncey after a storied career. Kendrick Green is a third-round pick that is definitely the future at the position but could also be the present. BJ Finney is back after a one-year rumspringa making his way around the league and has experience starting at center for Pittsburgh. Finally, JC Hassenauer is back after starting four games due to COVID and injuries, but he does not appear to be NFL-material. Finney brings experience and versatility but is unfamiliar and possibly ill-suited for the new offense. Green is precisely that, in terms of his experience, but the Steelers spent a top-100 pick on him for a reason, and Kevin Colbert has a pretty solid track record with offensive linemen.
Prediction: This one is pretty hard to call at this point. If Randy Fitchner were still here, I’d pick Finney. But he might need to start at guard, and I think Green will win the job in the new system. He’s going to have to earn the job, but I’m sure he’ll be given every opportunity to do so. Green has superior movement skills, which is crucial in Matt Canada’s outside zone-based system. He might take some lumps early on, especially in pass protection. But he’ll be flanked by a good young guard in Kevin Dotson and an experienced recent addition in Trai Turner. By mid-season, he should be up to speed.
Outside Linebacker #3: Cassius Marsh, Quincy Roche, *Player to be Named Later*
The first two players are pretty firmly entrenched as the backups to TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith, respectively. But one of them will be the third outside linebacker that comes in on passing downs and spells either Highsmith or Watt when they need rest. Alex Highsmith played that role beautifully last year before being thrust into the starting lineup after Bud Dupree tore his ACL. Marsh got some playing time late in the year but was largely unimpressive. He could improve in his second year in Pittsburgh with an entire offseason.
Quincy Roche is an exciting prospect that fell to the sixth-round and is a lot like Highsmith: a relatively smaller defensive end turned outside linebacker that is technically sound. Ultimately, it would shock me if the Steelers don’t bring in another veteran to compete for this slot. During his press time at mini-camp, Keith Butler implied that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be looking to bring another body in for depth and competition.
Prediction: Depending on who they bring in, I think the extra player will most likely win this job. Otherwise, I believe Marsh wins this job out of camp, but Roche will take it by mid-season. Marsh has the experience, and the coaching staff seemingly likes him. But Roche’s upside will eventually be too tantalizing to be kept on the bench. He’s not ready to be a starter, but he’s got the juice and skills to contribute in a meaningful way as a rookie.
Slot Defensive Back: Cameron Sutton, James Pierre, Antoine Brooks, Arthur Maulet, Shakur Brown, Lamont Wade
Sadly, the Mike Hilton era has come to a close. Hilton was among the league’s best slot-only corners, bring a unique aggressiveness and toughness to the position (albeit, perhaps at the expense of some coverage skills). The slot corner position will undoubtedly look a lot different for Pittsburgh in 2021. No other corner on the roster possesses Hilton’s blitzing prowess, so whoever replaces him will most likely play a much more normal role as the slot corner. Cameron Sutton has lots of experience playing in the slot in relief of Hilton and in Dime packages. Still, he is slotted to replace Steven Nelson at the outside corner position across from Joe Haden.
This leaves former UDFA James Pierre, who played surprisingly well down the stretch, beating out former third-round pick Justin Layne. Pierre will also be competing for outside corner reps, so maybe he’ll kick Sutton inside sometimes. Next up is the previously mentioned Antoine Brooks. Brooks is decently similar to Hilton as a primarily run support-focused player. He brings better size to the position, but his coverage abilities remain in question. Arthur Maulet was brought in to compete at safety, but he also profiles similarly to Hilton and could kick down to the slot. The last two players, Shakur Brown and Lamont Wade are two similarly diminutive slot-specific players that also began their careers as UDFAs. Brown has better coverage instincts, while Wade is a significantly better athlete.
Prediction: This is pretty tough to project because there are many permutations of inside and outside cornerbacks. Based on what the coaches and beat reporters are saying, I think Brooks might win this job going into Week 1. If the Steelers want their slot defender to do the same things that Mike Hilton did, they need someone willing to stick their nose in the D-gap in run support. Brooks can do that on early downs if the Steelers want to stay in nickel. It remains to be seen how he’ll hold up in coverage against NFL slot receivers; if he struggles there, expect some kind of rotation with James Pierre and Cam Sutton on late and long downs. Also, one of Shakur Brown or Lamont Wade will make this roster or be on the practice squad for the vast majority of the season and contribute in 2022.
Punter: Jordan Berry, Pressley Harvin III
We close out with everyone’s favorite position: punter. Jordan Berry, Danny Smith’s long-lost Australian lovechild, is back again. Berry is probably a league-average punter, but he’s a very inconsistent player, and his highs are not even that high, especially relative to his abysmal lows. This is why the Steelers used their last draft pick on Pressley Harvin III, the thick king himself. Beyond being a visual hilarity, Harvin is an excellent punter. The reigning Ray Guy award winner, he avered 48 yards per punt this season, downing 22 punts inside the 20 with only three touchbacks. Harvin also has some experience running trick plays at Georgia Tech, so keep an eye out for those.
Prediction: Typically, seventh-round picks rarely make the active roster and even more rarely win the starting jobs. Obviously, the punter position is slightly different, but I truly believe Harvin will win this job in camp. Berry has been a liability at times, so if Harvin can just be consistently decent, he could very well win this job.