Steelers training camp preview: 5 positional battles to watch
As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to report to training camp Thursday at Saint Vincent, they do so knowing that much of the roster is set.
Such is the case for a veteran team that carries Super Bowl aspirations a year after missing the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
Still, not every spot on the 53-man roster is locked, with one starting position on the offensive line providing the most noteworthy competition throughout training camp and the preseason.
The Steelers have other vacancies to plug, and the following is a look at five that will merit watching throughout July and August:
1. Right tackle
Matt Feiler started nine of the final 10 games last season as an injury replacement for Marcus Gilbert, but the former undrafted free agent is viewing the competition at right tackle as wide open heading into training camp.
The other top candidate for the position is second-year tackle Chuks Okorafor, who started in place of an injured Feiler at Denver in Week 12. Okorafor, a third-round pick in 2018, could represent the future at the position, but Feiler has been steady when called upon to fill in. Regardless of Feiler’s viewpoint, it is his job to lose when the Steelers put on the pads later this month.
Zach Banner, who spent last season on the 53-man roster, is a long shot, as is Jerald Hawkins, who has missed two of his three seasons because of injury. Seventh-round pick Derwin Gray is a project.
2. Backup quarterback
The Steelers headed into the 2018 season with no NFL-experienced quarterback behind starter Ben Roethlisberger. This year, that backup experience consists of 12 pass attempts over a three-game span by Joshua Dobbs.
Dobbs had a key 22-yard completion on his first NFL attempt at Baltimore, but he struggled when he subbed for Roethlisberger in the second half at Oakland.
The Steelers used a third-round pick on Mason Rudolph in 2018, and he will compete against Dobbs for the No. 2 job this season. As he enters his third training camp, Dobbs might have a slight edge in game experience, but the Steelers had a first-round grade on Rudolph when they drafted him. How he performs in training camp could go a long way in determining whether the Steelers believe Rudolph can leapfrog Dobbs and perhaps eventually succeed Roethlisberger as the starter.
3. No. 2 wide receiver
JuJu Smith-Schuster moved up a spot in the pecking order when Antonio Brown was traded to Oakland. James Washington, the second-round pick from 2018, has the inside track at winning the other starting job and looked impressive in offseason workouts.
If it’s too much to ask a second-year receiver with 16 career catches to win the starting job, the Steelers could turn to veteran Donte Moncrief or 2019 third-rounder Diontae Johnson. Moncrief earned Roethlisberger’s trust in OTAs and minicamp. Johnson shook off early injuries and held his own, although his immediate role with the Steelers could be on special teams as a punt and kickoff returner.
Johnson also could factor into the competition at slot receiver, where Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers are the main competitors for perhaps one roster spot.
4. Inside linebacker
After failing to adequately replace Ryan Shazier in 2018, the Steelers signed free agent Mark Barron and drafted Devin Bush with the No. 10 overall pick. Those additions have infused a measure of speed into the middle of the defense.
The competition at inside linebacker might not involve just one position. Vince Williams has played 74 and 71% of defensive snaps the past two seasons, and the Steelers value his skills as a tackler and disruptive presence in the backfield. Williams, however, doesn’t possess the same type of speed as Barron and Bush and could see his playing time decrease if the rookie shows he’s ready to handle a full-time workload.
Expect the Steelers to get creative with how they deploy their inside linebackers depending on down and distance, and the process will merit watching throughout training camp and the preseason.
5. Backup safety
The Steelers used nine draft picks to address a variety of positions. An area they skipped was safety, and it could be the position with the least depth heading into the season.
Sean Davis will start at free safety for the second year in a row, and Terrell Edmunds, after starting 15 times at strong safety as a rookie, has his spot secured.
After that, things get murky.
Morgan Burnett was released after the veteran safety claimed reluctance at playing a dime linebacker role. Barron could be used there, but the other options are lacking in experience.
Jordan Dangerfield has appeared in 30 games the past two seasons, mostly as a special teamer. Marcus Allen, a 2018 fifth-round pick, appeared in two games last year. Kameron Kelly, a product of the defunct Alliance of American Football, played with the first-team defense during some early OTA sessions.
Two undrafted free agents could compete for a roster spot: West Virginia’s Dravon Askew-Henry of Aliquippa, and Texas’ P.J. Locke.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .