Public Traning Camp practices have wrapped up for the Steelers and they will finish the rest of camp at their South Side facility with three more games to play in the preseason.
They’ll open in Cleveland on September 10 and the starters, who see limited time in preseason, are chomping at the bit to be able to finally play.
Everyone has high expectations for the Ben Roethlisberger‘s and Antonio Brown‘s of the world (and Le’Veon Bell if he decides to show up). But what about some specific role players who may have a big impact, positive or negative, based on the way they play?
The Steelers have one of the most tenured offensive lines in football. They’ve played together for a few seasons now. They’ve got a secondary corps that, while they still may have some growing pains, spent the majority of last season together and are familiar with each other. Their linebackimg core, one of the strengths of this franchise for almost its entire existence, has a few new faces that could make an impact.
Here are three players, all of which come from one of these positions mentioned above, that you should keep an eye on in 2017.
OT Alejandro Villanueva
Military veteran Alejandro Villanueva spent some time playing some tight end and on the defensive line while in the Army. He was cut from the Eagles upon his start in the NFL. The Steelers saw something they liked and decided to take a chance on the big guy.
They noticed him during a preseason game against the Eagles in 2014, a game in which Villanueva was waived two days later. The Steelers signed him eight days after he was waived and stashed him on the practice squad.
In 2015, former Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum went down with a torn ACL. The next man up mentality kicked in for Villanueva who never looked back. In fact, he caused the Steelers to let Beachum walk in free agency and move ahead with him as the starter. He was fantastic to finish the 2015 season and was even better last year.
His play earned him a lucrative 4-year, $24 million deal on the day that Training Camp opened. He would’ve had to play on a $600,000 restricted free agent tender had the deal not been signed.
Villanueva struggled early last season when he allowed 5 sacks in the first 6 games of the year. Keeping in mind that the Steelers almost set a record for the lowest amount of sacks an offensive line has allowed in a single season, Villanueva was responsible for a majority of the early ones. So, what made him worthy of the contract?
His play late in the season and into the playoffs. He ranked as the 23rd best offensive tackle in the league last year but his play was so solid heading into the playoffs that it seems he’s really come into his own.
If the Steelers get playoff Villanueva, then the contract was well worth it. If they get early season Villanueva for all 16 games, there may not be much hope for the playoffs if Roethlisberger gets battered around.
Keep an eye on how Villanueva plays this upcoming year.
CB Ross Cockrell
Count me amongst the crowd who’s been tough on Ross Cockrell during his Steelers tenure.
Head coach Mike Tomlin was high on Cockrell as far back as the 2014 draft when he was coming out of Duke. The Steelers had planned on taking him but the Buffalo Bills had other plans.
It just so happened that some underwhelming performances in Buffalo had him cut a week before the season started in 2015. The Steelers signed him five days prior to the beginning of the season.
He routinely sat out the first game but received some heavy playing time after that. He’s been starting for the team ever since.
With last year’s emergence of Artie Burns and the Steelers going with Cameron Sutton in the draft this season along with signing Coty Sensabaugh, Cockrell’s playing time has a real chance of being cut down if he doesn’t perform.
The Steelers brought Cockrell back for this coming season after his 8 tackles against Miami in the Wild Card round last year in his first career playoffs start impresses some people.
With some more depth at corner and Cockrell not having his best camp thus far, what role will he play when the Steelers arrive in Cleveland in three weeks?
OLB Keion Adams
When picking a seventh round selection, you’re looking for a real diamond in the rough. It’s likely you won’t find the next Tom Brady, although that’s happened before. But finding an impact player is something you’d like.
Maybe a special teams returner or, in the Steelers case, a quick linebacker to add to their already scary pass rush.
Keion Adams played at a smaller Western Michigan University and got his name known by being a solid pass rusher. He had 12 sacks and 28 tackles for loss over his final two seasons at WMU.
At 6’2″, 245 lbs, Adams is light on his feet and makes it tough for linemen to be able to hop out of their stance quick enough to cover him, at least at the college level.
His small size for an NFL pass rusher may cost him in the end. He will easily be pushed around by some of the league’s bigger linemen and he will need to find some more counter moves to get around them.
NFL scouts compared him to Arthur Moats as he entered the league. Ironically, he is battling Moats for the final outside linebacker spot. The trouble is, Adams’ shoulder injury caused him to miss the first preseason game, one in which Moats looked really strong.
If Adams winds up making the team, he could be a sneaky weapon for Keith Butler‘s defense. If not, another NFL team might find a solid depth linebacker to place on their practice squad, assuming the Steelers wouldn’t place him on theirs.