Five things to watch at Steelers minicamp
Phase three of the NFL's offseason conditioning program concludes this week for the Steelers in the form of a three-day minicamp. Unlike the OTA sessions held over the past three weeks, attendance is not voluntary.
The mandatory event begins Tuesday for most NFL teams, including the Steelers, who will ramp up their offseason program at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Most rules remain the same as in during organized team activities. Pads must remain in storage, and no tackling is permitted.
The difference is, teams may hold two practices daily and can keep players on the field for three and a half hours per day.
With minicamp being mandatory, all players under contract must report. This is the loophole that allows running back Le'Veon Bell to skip this week's workouts. Since he has not signed his $14.55 million franchise-tag tender, he is not under contract and can stay home without facing any financial repercussions.
The Steelers had perfect attendance at the first OTA, although quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown were absent for most of the remaining nine voluntary workouts. They will be back on the practice field for the next three days.
Minicamp will be the last glimpse of the players in a practice setting until training camp in late July. With that in mind, here are five issues at stake for the Steelers this week:
Which RBs will benefit from Bell's absence?
James Conner got many of the snaps with the first team during OTAs while Bell remained true to his word that he wouldn't attend voluntary workouts without a long-term contract.
Conner, who missed all of OTAs last year with a hamstring injury, stands to gain the most from the extra reps. He is trying to hold on to the backup job he earned last season until he suffered an MCL injury in December.
The Steelers brought back veteran Stevan Ridley, who was signed after Conner's season-ending injury. They also drafted Jaylen Samuels, a converted tight end, and are giving Fitz Toussaint another chance to win a roster spot.
With his MCL injury behind him, Conner showed he was healthy during OTAs. Another strong performance at minicamp would help him earn first-team snaps next month if Bell sits out training camp, too.
Will Smith-Schuster be ready to participate?
An undisclosed injury kept the second-year wide receiver on the sidelines for most of OTAs. It wasn't until the third week of voluntary workouts that JuJu Smith-Schuster did some conditioning and light individual work.
With Smith-Schuster sidelined and Brown skipping the final eight sessions, the wide receivers getting first-team snaps were veterans Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter. Rookie second-rounder James Washington also was in the mix.
A healthy Smith-Schuster would allow Roethlisberger to throw to his starting receivers. Brown's relentless training regimen removes any concern about his readiness. Smith-Schuster, though, doesn't have the pedigree, so his availability at minicamp will help familiarize himself with new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner's playbook.
Will inside LB Bostic continue to run with second team?
The Steelers gave Jon Bostic, who is entering his sixth NFL year, a two-year contract seemingly to have him fill Ryan Shazier's spot at inside linebacker. But for the past three weeks, Bostic watched Tyler Matakevich get the bulk of the work with the first team.
Perhaps coach Mike Tomlin is being deferential to Matakevich, who is one of his favorites. Matakevich is entering his third season and has carved a niche on special teams.
Tomlin, though, also is known for alternating reps with his players and moving second-team players onto the top unit. That hasn't happened yet with Bostic. Maybe that will change over the next three days.
Will positioning at outside LB and safety change?
One noticeable change at OTAs was Bud Dupree playing right outside linebacker and T.J. Watt lining up on the left side. This was a departure from last season when Watt primarily played on the right side and Dupree on the left.
At safety, free agent signee Morgan Burnett got the initial reps at free safety, although Sean Davis also took snaps as the safety lining up the furthest away from the line of scrimmage. Minicamp will represent the next step in the evolution of both positions on the Steelers defense.
Will more subpackages be used, and what does it mean for Edmunds?
The defensive alignment was pretty simple during OTAs.
The Steelers either used their base 3-4 package or implemented the nickel package with Mike Hilton serving as the slot corner.
Minicamp could see the introduction of the much-discussed subpackage that brings a defensive back on the field at the expense of an inside linebacker.
Terrell Edmunds, the team's first-round draft pick, is the most obvious fit to play the safety/hybrid linebacker spot in such situations.
The Steelers also have versatile second-year corner Cam Sutton seeking an expanded role. The athleticism Edmunds and Sutton bring to the defense gives coordinator Keith Butler a chance to be creative with his schemes. Perhaps the first glimpse of this defensive formation will be provided at minicamp.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.