By Alex Kozora
Before I head out to St. Vincent College today to take in the first practice, there’s a couple storylines I’ll be paying close attention to for my post-practice reports. These aren’t going to be anyone’s first choice to talk about heading into the season but are nonetheless important. The headlines that lie under the radar, as it’s implied in the title.
– I’ve mentioned it a few times already and don’t want to harp on it too much, but I’m dying to see the progress Mike Munchak makes with Mike Adams. Adams has shown to be a capable run blocker in small doses but his pass protection is atrocious on nearly every level. If Munchak can’t make progress with him, you have to wonder how much longer Adams can stick with the team. Proving he can maintain his base, not playing too upright or doubling over, and if he can mirror against counter moves is paramount to his future success.
– Sticking with the offensive lineman, it’s always interesting to see what players are tried at multiple positions. Wesley Johnson has starting experience at four spots. His best chance will come at guard, but don’t be surprised if he runs as a third team tackle in camp as well. If the Steelers plan to keep just eight lineman, either he or Guy Whimper will receive a pink slip.
– Who will be the starting gunner opposite of Antwon Blake? A good first guess is Shamarko Thomas but there will be others competing. In order for guys like Brice McCain or Shaquille Richardson to make the team, they’ll have to run down punts, along with the other areas of special teams. A backup upback, R3 on kickoffs, all these things matter when shaping a roster.
Someone making a push to be a starter on special teams will get noticed when it comes to make final cuts. As Mike Tomlin once described Curtis Brown, these players need to play like “their hair is on fire”
Hopefully, they have a better career than Brown’s, too.
– Who could emerge at outside linebacker? Chris Carter is a second or third team outside linebacker by default, but it’s clear at this point in his underwhelming career, he’s nothing more than a special teamer. His pass rushing days are hopefully over. Could guys like Vic So’oto or Howard Jones step up and grab a spot? Or will they fall the way of Alan Baxter and Adrian Robinson, hyped prospects that never fully materialize.
– Training camp will give the world the initial look at how Dri Archer may be used. What will be the running back/wide receiver snap count split? How creative will they get with him? Sure, the team may want to hide some of their tricks, but they’re going to have to rep it first. I’m excited to check it out.
– I want to see Markus Wheaton play fast. That’s what he was billed as coming out of Oregon State. But after missing most of the spring in 2013 due to NCAA rules and finger injuries that limited him, this might be the first time in his career where his head has stopped spinning. He’s healthy and finally understands the playbook. No more thinking, all instincts. That lends itself to playing quicker. Let’s see it. There’s a lot of pressure to produce.
– Will the offseason hype surrounding Justin Brown carry over? Will the drops that have plagued Darrius Heyward-Bey’s career continue? There isn’t anything concrete past Lance Moore but there certainly is intrigue.
– On the whole, I always look forward to how younger players react to mistakes. Do they sulk and turn one bad play into three? Or do they take coaching well, learn, and rebound. Think of guys like Martavis Bryant and Richardson. They have upside but are raw and will make mistakes. How mentally tough are they?
– I know the stigma behind the “camp bodies”, guys that are meant to be forgotten in a month. And sure, most of them will be. But history says one or two will come out of nowhere and make noise in camp. Reps are limited, though, and these players will have to make the most of what they get. No margin for error.