Fans will get their first look at the 2012 Steelers on Friday at Saint Vincent College.
As training camp begins, here are a few positional battles that fans should be keeping their eyes on.
Keenan Lewis vs. Curtis Brown vs. Cortez Allen
Everyone knows that Ike Taylor will be starting at cornerback for the Steelers this year. But what’s not certain is who will be starting opposite him. Keenan Lewis is the most experienced of the trio. He probably will enter training camp as the leading candidate. But Coach Mike Tomlin can’t seem to stop raving about how good Cortez Allen is. He’s touted both his size and athleticism. But Curtis Brown was a demon on special teams before he got hurt. That got everybody’s attention.
Personally, I’m not sure of which of these 3 will emerge as the starter. But I feel very certain that regardless of who wins this battle, he will be an upgrade over William Gay.
Max Starks vs. Mike Adams
Left tackle may be the most important of the offensive line positions. But it’s also been the most confusing over the off-season. Initially we were told that Marcus Gilbert would be moving to left tackle. But then the Steelers drafted Mike Adams, and it was announced that he would likely be the starter at left tackle, and Marcus Gilbert would remain at right tackle. And then the Steelers signed Max Starks, who was the starter at the position before getting injured.
Starks is slightly taller and heavier than Adams. And of course, he has actual experience as a starting left tackle in the NFL. But Adams is younger and probably has quicker feet. This should definitely prove to be an interesting battle.
Chris Rainey vs. Baron Batch
Baron Batch was the star of the 2011 training camp and preseason. And then he got hurt and was lost for the season. Chris Rainey was a speed demon with great hands who was a human highlight film in college. Both will be competing to play the Dexter McCluster role in Todd Haley’s offense. Both have great hands, and the ability to gain lots of yards after the catch when they receive the ball in space.
But with Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, David Johnson (who the Steelers announced would be moving to fullback), and John Clay, all vying for roster spots, it’s possible that either Rainey or Batch may not even make the final roster. So this battle will be particularly important.
Stevenson Sylvester vs. Larry Foote
Foote is the veteran who knows the Steelers’ defense like the back of his hands. After all, he started in it for six years before being leaving as a free agent in 2009 due to the emergence of Lawrence Timmons. Because of his extensive experience, the Steelers coaches feel comfortable handing James Farrior’s spot to Foote. In particular, they feel confident that Foote can serve as a defensive captain, and call the defensive formations based on what he’s seeing from the offense.
But Stevenson Sylvester isn’t willing to let Foote have the position without a fight. Sylvester believes that as a 3rd year player, he’s ready to step into Farrior’s old position. Sylvester lost weight over the off-season in hopes that it will allow him to play faster than he did last season. Even before he lost weight, Sylvester was probably faster than Larry Foote. But the question in coaches’ minds is whether he understands the defense as well as Foote does.
Casey Hampton vs. Alameda Ta’amu vs. Steve McLendon
Casey Hampton was signed for one more year, even though he’s 34 years old and he suffered an injury at the end of last season. He’ll start out the season on the PUP list. But even when he’s healthy, does anyone actually believe that he’s still the player that he was 5 or 6 years ago? I certainly don’t.
The Steelers drafted Alameda Ta’amu to be heir apparent to Hampton’s position. Ta’amu is even bigger than Hampton. But Steve McLendon isn’t content to allow this to be a 2-horse race. McLendon played admirably as a backup last season, even though at 280 lbs. he was under-sized for a nose tackle. But reports say that McLendon has gained weight and is closer to 320 lbs. now. Moreover, starting center Maurkice Pouncey says that McLendon is actually the strongest of the 3 potential starters. That’s high praise coming from a guy who has practiced opposite all three players.
Jonathan Dwyer vs. John Clay
We’ve already talked about Chris Rainey versus Baron Batch. But that’s not the only running back battle that fans should keep their eyes on. Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay will also be battling.
Dwyer was drafted as a highly touted player coming out of college, but he hasn’t lived up to expectations so far. He’s had difficulty learning his assignments, and he has battled weight issues. Both issues have earned him a place in Mike Tomlin’s doghouse in the past. But reports indicate that Dwyer is finally maturing as a player. He apparently worked very hard during the offseason, and reported to training camp in good physical condition. But Clay isn’t going to go down without a fight. Clay was signed as an undrafted free agent last year, and he played surprisingly well when given the opportunity at the end of last season. At 6’1″, 248 lbs, Clay runs like a bowling ball, and should prove to be a capable backup behind Isaac Redman as a power back in the Steelers’ red zone offense.
Regardless of which of these position battles you think will be most interesting, it’s clear that this is going to be a very interesting training camp.