When the Steelers report to Latrobe on tomorrow, so will begin several training camp battles that we will be keeping a close eye on. We have narrowed them down to six to match the six championships the Steelers have. They are as follows.
1. Quarterback – Byron Leftwich vs. Dennis Dixon – Mike Tomlin has let veteran Byron Leftwich receive most of the first team snaps since his re-acquisition from Tampa Bay. The Steelers will need a starter for at least 4 games with franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended to start the season and Leftwich looks to be the guy unless Dennis Dixon can force the Steelers hand with a strong camp. Dixon is also in his final year of his contract, so the motivation is definitely there to prove himself. Most of the Steeler Nation blogs and media would have you believe that Dixon should start, but none have good reasons why. Dixon has all of one start under his belt combined with several mediocre pre seasons games. Dixon also has admitted his leadership skills are not up to standards as well. Leftwich is what he is and that is a quarterback that has had some moderate successes in the NFL. Does this secure the job for him? Absolutely not as Leftwich could still lose the job and fall flat on his face. Dixon will have to show right out of the gate that he is the man that should lead the Steelers. Make no mistake that this is a battle, but a battle that could be over after week one of the pre season. Dixon does not have time on his side and must make good use of each and every snap to overtake the veteran Leftwich. My money is on Leftwich.
2. Right Tackle – Trai Essex vs. Jonathan Scott vs. Ramon Foster – The Achilles injury to Willie Colon opened up a huge hole on the right side of the Steelers offensive line. The only good thing is it happened early enough in the offseason so the Steelers could have a enough time to figure out a solution. Also in their favor has been the rapid development of rookie first round draft pick, Maurkice Pouncey, who was on course to beat out Trai Essex for the starting right guard spot. That now frees up Essex to see if he can win the right tackle spot instead and he will compete against free agent Jonathan Scott and second year undrafted free agent Ramon Foster. Scott played under new line coach Sean Kugler at Buffalo last year and Foster played mostly at left guard in 2009 when Chris Kemoeatu was out injured. There could even be another horse or two added to this battle should the Steelers decide to sign another street free agent, but as it appears right now, the Steelers want one of these three guys to win the job. If I were to handicap this battle, I give the advantage to Essex as to me his play and foot work seem better suited for tackle than guard plus he has games played under his belt on the right side. Scott and Foster could very well both stick on the roster as reserves and it would not be surprising to see either win the right tackle spot out right.
Update: The Steelers signed free agent tackle Flozell Adams a few hours after posting this. This now becomes a battle above for the backup right side swing spot as now either Adams or Max Starks wil play right tackle for sure. Scott is now on the roster bubble for sure with this move and Foster will likely compete for a right side back up roll.
3. Nickel Cornerback – William Gay vs. Joe Burnett vs. Keenan Lewis – Most want you to believe that the starting left cornerback job is up for grabs. That is just not true. The Steelers traded back for Bryant McFadden on draft day because of the play of William Gay in 2009. To think McFadden will not be the week one starting left corner is ludicrous. The Steelers drafted two cornerbacks in 2009 in the form of Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis. Burnett struggled as a rookie, while Lewis was never fully healthy with back problems. Veteran Deshea Townsend is now gone so it leaves Gay, Burnett and Lewis all to battle for the nickel corner spot. Gay has the inside track after playing the role almost exclusively through the 2008 championship season. Burnett started to show glimpses late in the 2009 season and will get his shot at the job. Lewis is more of a dark horse here as he truly is better merely as a left corner and just doesn\’t have the time in at the position. Watch this battle closely as it could get interesting. Right now I like Gay to rebound and win the job, but nothing with him is guaranteed.
4. Backup Running Back – Isaac Redman vs. Jonathan Dwyer – Nobody caused more stir in 2009 than undrafted free agent running back Isaac Redman. By the end of training camp last year, Steeler Nation had him penciled in as the next Jerome Bettis. Redman proved he can run in short yardage situations, but was slow to get up to speed on the things fans do not see. Redman bounced around to the active roster and practice squad and now will get a chance to compete against rookie six round draft pick Jonathan Dwyer. Although technically you could say Mewelde Moore is the backup running back to Rashard Mendenhall, we all know that Moore is not an every down back. He is a role player gifted in 3rd down sets and an established pass catcher. Should Mendenhall go down, the Steelers will need either Redman or Dwyer to step up to a more prominent 1st and 2nd down ball carrier role. Dwyer is handicapped by the type offense he played in college, where he was a fullback in Georgia Tech\’s triple-option offense. Both Redman and Dwyer are straight ahead runners and both are known to move piles in short yardage situations. Redman has the upper hand going into camp, primarily because of having a year in the offense already and improving on his blitz pickups. Dwyer should not be counted out though as this battle will have those in attendance at Latrobe high fiving for both players. I think both can make the roster, regardless of who runs 2nd or 3rd.
5. Reserve Tight End H-Back Fullback – Sean McHugh vs. David Johnson – It might not look much on paper, but this could be the 52nd or 53rd man on the 53 man roster. McHugh had 2009 end early in pre season with a knee problem. His injury allowed 2009 seventh round pick, David Johnson to make the roster. Johnson was not spectacular in the H-back role and merely average in the other phases of tight end play. His special teams play though was above average, but the overall play of the Steelers 2009 special teams unit was dismal as most remember. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians looks to use the fullback and or h-back more in the offense this year. Frank Summers is looking to secure a true fullback role, while McHugh and Johnson will battle for the H-back and 3rd tight end spot on the roster. Neither will be confused for Dan Kreider, but these two players will be out to crack skulls and adjust shoulder pads in camp. While neither is guaranteed a roster spot regardless of their battle, it will intensify training camp and make practices more physical. I think McHugh, if healthy, can win this battle and a spot on the roster. He is just plain better at this role than Johnson is in my opinion.
6. Return Men – Stefan Logan vs. Emmanuel Sanders vs. Antonio Brown vs. Joe Burnett vs. Antwaan Randle El vs. Mewelde Moore vs. Mike Wallace – If the Steelers were allowed to keep 54 men on the roster, this might make things a little easier. The roster limit remains at 53 and last years return specialist Stefan Logan owns a valuable roster spot. The smallish pinball type player only has one shot at making the 2010 roster once again at that is by standing head and shoulders above the completion in both kickoff and punt returns. New to the battle this year are rookie draft pick wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Both are accomplished return men in college with Brown being the better all around return man of the two. Sanders is almost certain to make the 53 man roster as the 4th or 5th receiver based on early reports. Brown is not a lock right now. Throw in cornerback Joe Burnett, who failed miserable in the 2009 pre season as a return man, the aging Antwaan Randle El and Mewelde Moore to keep everyone honest and you just do not have a ton of reps to go around to find the right guy. Let us not forget speedster Mike Wallace in this talk either although he will have enough on his plate adjusting to the number two receiving role with Santonio Holmes now gone. You still have to think he is an out lying option though. The real battle I believe will be between Logan and Sanders for the kick returning job. If Sanders can challenge Logan in output there, I think the punt return duties could be his as well. Logan needs to make himself uncut-able once again and that means he needs some big returns in the pre season. I think his one year flash is over as the Steelers need the roster spot very bad. Let us hope there are tons of opportunities to around in the pre season games. May the best hands and feet win.