5 things to watch at Steelers rookie minicamp
Offseason training continues for the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend when the organization gets its first chance to evaluate its youngest and least experienced players.
The team’s annual three-day rookie minicamp begins Friday. Although players will not wear pads and no hitting is permitted, the Steelers will get their first chance to see their nine draft picks, 11 undrafted free agents and other invited participants work out on the fields at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Here are five areas that could command attention this weekend:
1. Defenders from 2019 draft class
The Steelers used five of their nine draft picks on players who could provide help on the defensive side of the ball, starting with No. 10 overall selection Devin Bush.
Although the Steelers added Mark Barron in free agency, Bush could push him or veteran Vince Williams for immediate playing time.
Bush’s speed was tantalizing to the Steelers, and he will get his first opportunity to show his skills in the rookie drills.
Justin Layne, the tall corner from Michigan State, isn’t being counted on to start as a rookie because the Steelers also signed a free agent at his position, Steven Nelson. Still, Layne will have a chance to force his way onto the field and push former first-rounder Artie Burns even further down the depth chart.
The Steelers added depth in the sixth round by selecting defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs and linebackers Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert.
2. Speaking of Smith …
Sutton Smith was one of college football’s dominant pass rushers while playing in relative obscurity at the Mid-American Conference’s Northern Illinois. At 6-foot, 233 pounds, he might be a bit undersized to play on the edge, which is why the Steelers also plan to try him at inside linebacker. That experiment could begin as soon as this weekend.
The Steelers also think Smith has the makeup to be a strong special teams presence, and the coverage units might be where he gets the most playing time as the team’s workouts progress.
3. Undrafted free agents at safety
While the Steelers added prospects along the line, both linebacker spots and cornerback, they couldn’t address everything, and safety was the position that drew the short straw. The Steelers added two players as undrafted free agents: former Aliquippa star Dravon Askew-Henry of West Virginia and P.J. Locke of Texas.
The 6-foot, 202-pound Askew-Henry started more games at WVU (51) than any player in school history, and he finished with 215 tackles in four seasons. Locke (5-11, 210) started 31 games at Texas and had 77 tackles, 51⁄2 for loss, as a senior. He became a YouTube star with some jarring tackles and reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at Texas’ pro day.
4. Quest to replace James
When the Detroit Lions lured Jesse James away with a four-year, $22.6 million contract, it left a 6-foot-7 void at tight end. James had been a dependable backup and occasional starter in his final three seasons with the Steelers.
The Steelers added depth at the position by drafting someone even taller than James. Zach Gentry is a 6-8 converted quarterback who was taken in the fifth round out of Michigan. Kevin Rader, a first-year tight end from Pine-Richland and Youngstown State, also could be on the rookie minicamp roster.
5. Mid-round skill players
In a changing of the guard, the Steelers said goodbye to Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and replaced them on the offseason roster with wide receiver Diontae Johnson of Toledo and running back Benny Snell of Kentucky.
Neither rookie, however, enters with any pressure of being called upon to step in and start for the Steelers. Johnson, a third-round pick, is expected to get much of his work as a punt and kickoff return specialist.
Snell, taken in the fourth round, provides a bruising, straight-ahead presence in the backfield, but he is not viewed as an immediate threat to unseat James Conner. His biggest challenger for carries could be backup Jaylen Samuels.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .