Steelers training camp preview: Breaking down the defense |

Steelers training camp preview: Breaking down the defense

Chris Adamski
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt tied for third in the NFL with six forced fumbles last season.

A player-by-player look at the Steelers offense entering training camp:

Defensive linemen

Cameron Heyward

No. 97, 6-5, 295 | Heyward turned 30 in May and will be eligible for a contract extension next year, which would be leading into his 10th in the NFL. He has been a defensive captain for five seasons and is looking for his third consecutive Pro Bowl berth.

Stephon Tuitt

No. 91, 6-6, 303 | Tuitt is one of the team’s better defensive players, but he has been limited to between 12 and 14 games every season since playing 16 as a rookie in 2014. That’s one reason he’s yet to have received Pro Bowl recognition. Is 2019 his breakout nationally?

Javon Hargrave

No. 79, 6-2, 305 | Hargrave is at the center of one of the more fascinating contract decisions the Steelers have faced. He played only 43.6% of the defensive snaps last season, but he was very disruptive. Is that worth big money? The clock is ticking on the Sept. 8 extension deadline.

Tyson Alualu

No. 94, 6-3, 304 | Alualu was a perfect fit as the Steelers’ No. 4 defensive lineman the past two seasons, and it was a savvy signing to bring him back in that role at age 32. He’s a good insurance behind the three starters.

Dan McCullers

No. 93, 6-7, 352 | McCullers twice has been re-signed by the Steelers, and he’s entering his sixth season with the team. But he rarely gets on the field, and he plays a position (nose tackle) that becomes less important every year.

Lavon Hooks

No. 95, 6-3, 312 | Hooks is entering his fifth NFL camp (fourth with the Steelers). At 27, he repeatedly has shown enough to stick around but not on the active roster. With the departure of L.T. Walton, a spot is open for Hooks.

Isaiah Buggs

No. 96, 6-3, 295 | The Steelers are strong on the defensive line, but they could use an infusion of youth. Enter Buggs, a sixth-round pick who was a playmaker on a star-studded Alabama defense.

Casey Sayles

No. 74, 6-3, 289 | Sayles is back after standing out among undrafted/first-year defensive linemen last summer at Saint Vincent. He also was solid during a stint with the AAF’s Birmingham Iron. This is his third NFL training camp.

Greg Gilmore

No. 65, 6-4, 311 | Another AAF alum, Gilmore is also back for a second training camp at Saint Vincent. He was an intriguing prospect heading into last year as a big-bodied priority undrafted free agent out of LSU.

Henry Mondeaux

No. 72, 6-4, 280 | A starter for 2½ seasons at Oregon, Mondeaux went undrafted last season but stuck with the Saints through training camp. He spent time on their practice squad, along with Kansas City’s. The Steelers signed him after a May tryout.

Winston Craig

No. 64, 6-4, 291 | A Richmond alum, Craig kept getting brought back by the Philadelphia Eagles the past two years, and he apparently showed enough in the AAF to earn a shot with the Steelers.

Conor Sheehy

No. 61, 6-4, 295 | Sheehy was a senior captain, and 2 ½-year starter with one of the nation’s best defenses at Wisconsin. Sheehy still fits the profile of a 3-4 NFL lineman.

Outside linebackers

T.J. Watt

No. 90, 6-4, 252 | With his familiar last name and a 13-sack season to his credit, Watt could be on the cusp of leaguewide stardom if his play continues to ascend in Year 3. Watt tied for third in the NFL with six forced fumbles last season.

Bud Dupree

No. 48, 6-4, 269 | Still only 26 and playing on a $9.23 million fifth-year option, Dupree’s best seasons might be ahead of him. Or, perhaps he is what he is: a solid but unspectacular player unlikely to receive a longterm extension during camp.

Anthony Chickillo

No. 56, 6-3, 255 | Chickillo signed a two-year contract this spring, but its structure makes it more like a one-year, $1.9 million deal to be a top backup. He’s due $5 million in 2020 (with manageable dead money if cut), so he better be a starter by then if he wants to collect it.

Ola Adeniyi

No. 92, 6-1, 248 | Some say he’s similar to James Harrison because of his size, style and MAC pedigree. Adeniyi, an undrafted rookie out of Toledo last season, might be one of the roster’s biggest sleepers. He lost most of last year to the IR list, but the No. 4 OLB job is seemingly his to lose.

Sutton Smith

No. 42, 6-0, 232 | Smith was highly productive at Northern Illinois (29 sacks the past two seasons) but is undersized and not projectable as an NFL pass rusher. He worked out some at fullback at OTAs, and he could end up at inside linebacker.

JT Jones

No. 40, 6-3, 245 | Jones had 21½ sacks in 37 games over his final three seasons at Miami (Ohio), and he had four sacks in eight Alliance of American Football games this past winter. He could end up a developmental edge rusher on the practice squad.

Tuzar Skipper

No. 51, 6-3, 246 | Skipper made the camp roster after impressing during a rookie camp tryout. He has qualities of an under-the-radar prospect: went to junior college, then missed a season because of a major injury before a breakout 2018 with 8½ sacks for Toledo.

Inside linebackers

Vince Williams

No. 98, 6-1, 233 | Just five teammates remain from when Williams joined the Steelers in 2013. He has earned two contract extensions since, but with Mark Barron signed to a $12 million contract and Devin Bush drafted No. 10 overall, could Williams’ playing time diminish?

Mark Barron

No. 26, 6-2, 230 | The Steelers assigned Barron a defensive back’s number but list him as a linebacker. That perhaps speaks volumes about how the Steelers plan on deploying Barron, who seems an ideal fit for passing downs.

Devin Bush

No. 55, 5-11, 234 | Perhaps the most anticipated rookie for the Steelers since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Even Roethlisberger didn’t start his NFL debut. Bush likely will. The only question is how extensive of a role he will have immediately.

Tyler Matakevich

No. 44, 6-1, 235 | A college star undersized for the NFL, Matakevich is a coaches’ favorite and special-teams contributor who never has been given a true chance at playing linebacker in the NFL. He will be a free agent at season’s end.

Ulysees Gilbert

No. 54, 6-0, 230 | The sixth-round pick took his reps, as expected, at ILB at OTAs and minicamp. However, his most likely path to a 53-man roster spot as a rookie is going to be on special teams.

Robert Spillane

No. 49, 6-1, 229 | Spillane did not play on defense during a short tenure on the Tennessee Titans 53-man roster last season, limited to 20 special-teams snaps. He was playmaker in the preseason and a productive tackler at Western Michigan.

Tegray Scales

No. 46, 6-0, 227 | Scales was a highly productive and decorated player at Indiana but lacks the measurables for the ideal NFL linebacker. He went undrafted last year.


Terrell Edmunds

No. 34, 6-1, 217 | Edmunds became one of the Steelers’ more valuable defenders as a surprise first-round pick last season. Only five defensive players across the NFL played more snaps. How much will Edmunds’ role change in Year 2?

Sean Davis

No. 21, 6-1, 202 | Over three seasons, Davis has been about everything you could ask out of a second-round pick: a reliable and significant contributor. But as he enters the final year of his contract, the Steelers must decide if (and how much) they want to invest in Davis.

Jordan Dangerfield

No. 37, 5-11, 199 | His association with the Steelers began in early 2014, and by the end of last season, Dangerfield carved out a role on defense. Special teams is where he most earns his pay, but Dangerfield could earn more time at safety.

Marcus Allen

No. 27, 6-2, 215 | After appearing in only two games last season, Allen seems poised to make an impact. Perhaps he fills the dime/hybrid linebacker role vacated by Morgan Burnett. The top backup spot at both safeties also is up for grabs.

Kameron Kelly

No. 38, 6-2, 205 | Signed out of the AAF, Kelly opened up eyes about his potential by getting first-team reps early during OTAs. Kelly appears to have NFL-caliber athleticism, but he doesn’t have defined position.

Dravon Askew-Henry

No. 41, 6-0, 202 | A former standout at Aliquippa and West Virginia, Askew-Henry went undrafted. He could excel on special teams.

P.J. Locke

No. 24, 5-10, 202 | Signed two days after the draft ended after starting 31 games at Texas, Locke has pedigree, speed (a reported 4.38 in the 40) and a reputation for laying some thump with his tackles.


Joe Haden

No. 23, 5-11, 195 | Haden has been the No. 1 CB the Steelers seemingly have spent a generation searching for. He’s entering the final year of a $27 million deal. Will he sign an extension during camp?

Steven Nelson

No. 22, 5-11, 194 | The three-year, $25.5 million contract he signed was the largest given to an outside free agent in Steelers history. Nelson is a plug-and-play starter at outside CB, but the deal contract was structured so the Steelers easily can cut bait next spring if his 2019 isn’t up to snuff.

Mike Hilton

No. 28, 5-9, 184 | Hilton has not yet signed his contract tender, as agent Drew Rosenhaus is making a statement that Hilton is worth more than that. And while exclusive-rights free agents have little leverage, the Steelers don’t have an obvious alternative at slot/nickel cornerback.

Artie Burns

No. 25, 6-0, 197 | Is there a player with more at stake at camp? Burns’ career is at an obvious crossroads. It’s conceivable he has played his final NFL down on defense. But at 24, it also is possible he could regain the form that made him a first-round pick.

Cameron Sutton

No. 20, 5-11, 188 | The former third-rounder has had two-plus years in the organization, and he has performed adequately in limited action. Can he finally make more of a name for himself?

Justin Layne

No. 31, 6-2, 192 | Layne, a third-round pick, becomes the latest in a long line of cornerbacks the Steelers have drafted over the past decade. He’ll look to have more success than most of his predecessors, though his role as a rookie is unclear.

Brian Allen

No. 29, 6-3, 215 | Allen was relatively new to cornerback when the Steelers drafted him in 2017. His size and speed (sub-4.5 in the 40) continue to make him intriguing, but the depth chart is crowded.

Herb Waters

No. 35, 6-2, 194 | A converted college receiver, Waters spent most of 2018 on the Steelers practice squad. At 26, time is running out, but he shows ability that intrigues the Steelers.

Alexander Myres

No. 33, 5-11, 192 | Reportedly the Steelers’ most sought-after free agent signed in the frenzied minutes after the draft, Myres had a reputation as a hard hitter and good tackler at Houston. He could be a good special-teamer.

Marcelis Branch

No. 39, 5-11, 180 | A Robert Morris graduate, Branch is bigger and stronger than his measurables suggest. He also embraces special teams, a necessary requirement if he has a shot at sticking with the team.

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Categories: Sports | Steelers
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