By Chris Adamski
LATROBE — Using a completely rational and fairly logical standard, it could be said that the Steelers are returning 20 of their 22 starters from last season.
Only at left inside linebacker (which the all-but-retired James Farrior previously manned) and left cornerback (where William Gay played before bolting for Arizona in free agency) are last season’s primary starters no longer with the team.
So, a relatively quiet training camp in terms of position battles, right?
Not so fast. A variety of factors — from injury to additions via the draft to holdouts — have left no fewer than nine starting positions on offense and defense in the running to be manned by different players in 2012 than 2011.
A rundown of the positions that will play significant roles that are up for grabs (be it official “starters” or those at a spot where a rotation is used or extra bodies often see the field for multiple snaps per game):
**Left cornerback: This is the lone true battle for a starting spot that has not arisen due to injury and involves veteran combatants, making it a “pure” football decision. That makes it intriguing. Entering his fourth year, it’s Keenan Lewis’ job to lose, but a balky shoulder hasn’t enabled him to seize it thus far in camp. He might not even be able to play in the preseason opener Thursday. Then there’s the fact Cortez Allen seemingly perpetually impresses, so don’t count him out. Either way, the Steelers are pleased that another cornerback with size will be starting.
**Left tackle: Tough to evaluate this yet with Max Starks still yet to get onto the practice field while he rehabs from a torn ACL. Mike Adams has by no means looks overwhelmed as a rookie lining up opposite NFL veterans for the first time. He’s already surpassed Trai Essex on the depth chart, and a couple strong performances in preseason games could make the job his.
**Right guard: First-round David DeCastro takes heat for not living up to the hype — and yet he hasn’t even played in so much as a preseason game yet. The way the Steelers organization gushed about him, he’s carrying a burden of unrealistic expectations for what are mere practices. True, DeCastro himself admits he underestimated the physical strength and skill of NFL players. And he’s been far from a standout on the practice field. But he will get his chance to start Thursday, and don’t be surprised if he starts the regular-season opener, too. Ramon Foster has shown he’ll have something to say about it, though.
**No. 4 receiver: In today’s NFL, four-receiver sets are abundantly common. Also, the fourth receiver is only an injury away from being the No. 3 — and formations with at least three receivers are more common than those with two or less anymore. Mike Wallace’s holdout hurts the Steelers more than merely the loss of a No. 1 receiver — it creates a domino effect that makes everyone behind him move up a spot. After Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, who’s next? Someone among the group of David Gilreath, Derrick Williams, Marquis Maze, Tyler Beiler, Jimmy Young, Toney Clemons or Paul Cox, that’s who. Only Williams has any appreciable NFL game experience whatsoever. Will someone — anyone — emerge?
**Backup running backs: With Rashard Mendenhall all but assured of starting the season on the PUP list and Isaac Redman entrenched as the fill-in feature back, one of the more intriguing storylines of this camp is who will back Redman up and who will take on specialized roles such as third-down back? The group is big on potential but short on experience. Chris Rainey seems certain to make the club in some capacity (return man? scat back?), and Jonathan Dwyer is the favorite to see significant snaps. But remember, Baron Batch was the story of camp last year before tearing a knee ligament. And John Clay was one of college football’s best backs two years ago. Batch could be an ideal third-down back, and Clay might be the Steelers best in short-yardage. But there isn’t room for everybody.
**Fullback: This can of worms was opened up by Tomlin on Tuesday when he seemingly out-of-nowhere brought up the fact that David Johnson was not, in fact, moving to full-time fullback duty and will instead likely remain in a hybrid H-back-type role. Is that a sign Will Johnson is showing he’s able to be a capable NFL fullback? It might be. He was given extra reps there — including some carries — on Tuesday.
**Other questions: What tight ends make the team after starter Heath Miller? Leonard Pope was the biggest offseason free-agent acquisition, rookie David Paulson has impressed in camp, and Jamie McCoy has shown flashes of potential. Don’t forget about Weslye Saunders, who had the look of a starting-type player late last season but is suspended for the first four games of 2012. … Who will be part of the defensive line rotation? After the three current starters and the PUP’ed Casey Hampton, Cameron Heyward is assured a spot, and rookie Alameda Ta’amu is all but is, too, on potential alone. Al Woods, Corbin Bryant and Kade Weston all have shown they are worthy — at times. … What backup offensive linemen will make the team? Is Doug Legursky safe? It would seem it’s either he or veteran Trai Essex — if either. … How much of a mess is sorting through special teams? Punter Jeremy Kapinos can’t stay healthy; will rookie Drew Butler challenge him? Does rookie Daniel Hrapmann have any chance of unseating Shaun Suisham at kicker? Is Matt Katula just an extra “camp body,” or is he a threat to longtime long snapper Greg Warren? Rainey, Gilreath, Maze, Williams and Sanders are the favorites to win return jobs. Can one assert himself?