By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — Instead of highlighting a specific position battle or player feature, here’s a look at the depth chart and some possible surprises on defense during this training camp at Saint Vincent College.
Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen will be the starting cornerbacks, if Allen can stay healthy, which is a big if. Will Gay will be the first guy off the bench in the nickel, and he will play outside while Allen slides inside in the nickel.
The Steelers have kept six corners in the past, and Curtis Brown was counted on to be among those this year, but once again he is injured. First, a sore left hamstring cost him two days, and now it’s a bum ankle. I don’t expect Brown to make the final cut. He has been a liability on the field and never is healthy.
So, two of the remaining three corners will be Isaiah Green and Josh Victorian. Newcomer Ryan Steed, a first-year player like Victorian, could snag the final spot if third-year player DeMarcus Van Dyke can’t get healthy. A serious hamstring injury has kept him on the sideline throughout camp. Rookie Terry Hawthorne could also be in the mix, but the fifth-round pick has been out since the spring after right knee surgery. Newcomer Buddy Jackson is in the mix, too, just a couple years from his time at Pitt.
Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Robert Golden are three of the four safeties that the Steelers are expected to keep. Shamarko Thomas should be the fourth, but Damon Cromartie-Smith is in his final season without practice squad time and could make a late push. I still believe Thomas will snag the fourth spot.
Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons are the club’s inside backers with Marshall McFadden and Stevenson Sylvester are listed as the backups. McFadden has had a nice camp, but Sylvester is on borrowed time. An often-injured under-performer, Sylvester hasn’t shown anything, yet, but at least has been healthy.
Rookies Vince Williams and Terence Garvin should battle with McFadden for the two open spots behind Foote and Timmons. Williams is the team’s sixth-round draft pick, while Garvin was a free-agent signing from West Virginia. Brian Rolle and Kion Wilson also are in the mix, but are running markedly behind.
Jason Worilds finally returned to practice Wednesday, but he has had health issues throughout his career. That has been his biggest problem, as Worilds has been productive when healthy and playing. If he misses any more time, that could open the spot for No. 1 pick Jarvis Jones to take it. Both make the team.
On the other side, third-year pro Chris Carter backs up starter LaMarr Woodley, who I believe is going to have a big year. Both will make the team, but my surprise pick is rookie Alan Baxter. Second-year player Adrian Robinson also is in the mix, but the club probably will keep nine linebackers total, four inside and four outside with one extra. I believe Baxter will secure that final spot.
Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel compose the D-line from left end through nose tackle and right end. Cam Heyward is the first end off the bench, and fourth-year pro Al Woods is position flexible enough to play end and nose tackle. He has improved steadily and has no practice squad time left, so I believe he makes the final 53-man roster. Hebron “Loni” Fangupo and Alameda Ta’amu are listed as backup nose tackles, but only one can make it. That should be Fangupo, as the Steelers finally dump Ta’amu, who just returned this week after opening camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List.
I failed to mention this on offense, but obviously Shaun Suisham will be the Steelers place-kicker again this season, and Greg Warren will be the long-snapper. The other long-snapper was released, and first-year player Daniel Hrapmann probably doesn’t have much of a chance to beat out Suisham.
The Steelers punter this season is another story. It will be either second-year player Drew Butler, who was average and inconsistent as an NFL rookie last fall, or it will be 13-year veteran Brian Moorman. Butler has beefed up a bit from 15-20 pounds to 220-225, and this added mass should help him. However, Moorman has been a Pro Bowl player in the past. It all comes down to the Steelers thoughts on Butler’s upside or Moorman’s track record. Both are kicking pretty well so far, and I believe Moorman has had an edge.
Things could change if someone stands out in the preseason games, but this is how it looks halfway through camp.