Seven Steelers storylines as OTAs begin
For the next four weeks, the Steelers will come the closest to playing actual football since their AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots four months ago.
Starting Tuesday, the Steelers will begin phase three of the NFL's offseason program, which is more commonly known as organized team activities — or OTAs — followed by a three-day minicamp in mid-June.
During the 10 OTA sessions, players aren't permitted to wear shoulder pads, and no contact is permitted but 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills can be conducted.
Although participation is voluntary, most veterans will be in attendance, and coach Mike Tomlin said he expects “full participation” from the Steelers' draft class and undrafted free agents.
Here are seven storylines to watch when players convene this week at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex:
1. The return of Martavis Bryant: The twice-suspended wide receiver was reinstated on a conditional basis April 25 after sitting out the 2016 season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. The conditional status was based on Bryant needing to secure a drug treatment facility and counselor in Pittsburgh, and indications are he has complied with the conditions. He cannot take part in OTAs until he does. Social media videos of Bryant boast a stronger physique and improved 40-yard dash time. It's time for Bryant to transfer his talents back onto the field, and this is the first step for him to work his way back into the offense with Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger.
2. Ben is back for Year 14: Roethlisberger hasn't faced reporters since telling 93.7 FM in late January that he would consider retirement. The franchise quarterback announced his return last month and now will face questions about how close he actually came to hanging up his cleats.
3. Alejandro Villanueva's contract situation: The Steelers' starting left tackle is the only exclusive-rights free agent who has not signed his contract as the two sides try to work out a long-term deal. In order to participate in OTAs, Villanueva must sign a waiver or sign his exclusive-rights contract. Villanueva is the only starter on the offensive line working without a long-term contract.
4. What becomes of the tight end?: The Steelers didn't pick a tight end in the draft, and free-agent bust Ladarius Green was released last week after failing his physical. This leaves the Steelers with the same group they took into New England in January: Jesse James, Xavier Grimble and David Johnson. Undrafted free agents Scott Orndoff and Phazahn Odom will get a chance to impress coaches after performing in rookie minicamp.
5. Is Vince Williams ready for full-time duty?: Williams will replace departed inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers believe in Williams enough that they didn't draft anyone at the position. The recipient of a three-year contract in August, Williams will be tasked with being a three-down player. That's a big leap from last season when he played just 19 defensive snaps over the final nine weeks of the regular season and none in three playoff games.
6. The Ross Cockrell challenge: Despite starting every game last season at cornerback, Cockrell received only an original-round tender as an unrestricted free agent. The Steelers also signed free agent Coty Sensabaugh and drafted Tennessee's Cameron Sutton in the third round. The position is Cockrell's to lose, but as the Steelers transition to more press coverage, he'll need to hold off challengers perhaps more adept at playing that style.
7. Injuries, injuries, injuries: Bell is more than two months removed from core muscle surgery, and his participation in OTAs could be limited. Cornerback Senquez Golson, after missing his first two seasons with injuries, will begin perhaps his final quest to make the roster as a slot corner. Defensive end and captain Cameron Heyward will practice with teammates for the first time since his torn pectoral muscle that forced him to injured reserve for the second half of the season. And wide receiver Sammie Coates will try to show that the finger injuries that bothered him after Week 5 last season are behind him.
Note: Fourth-round draft pick, quarterback Joshua Dobbs, signed his four-year rookie contract. He is the sixth member of the draft class to sign, leaving only first-rounder T.J. Watt and third-rounder Sutton as unsigned players.