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What JuJu Smith-Schuster Brings to the Steelers Offense

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In the 2nd-round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers surprised many by selecting receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. After only meeting with the USC stand-out briefly at the NFL Combine, it didn’t appear that Smith-Schuster was on the Steelers’ radar at all.

Funny how quickly things change.

Fast-forward to the present and it is easy to imagine the potential impact Smith-Schuster can bring to the Steelers’ offense early on in his career. In a crowded stable of receivers, Smith-Schuster has the chance to make a name for himself early. This chance will likely come in the slot. With Antonio Brown returning on a new 4-year extension and Martavis Bryant’s return from suspension, the starting jobs are 100% secure at this point. Everything behind them, not so much.

Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, and Cobi Hamilton will all be fighting for depth spots on the outside behind Brown and Bryant. The real competition, however, will be in the slot, where Smith-Schuster, Eli Rogers, and Demarcus Ayers will be battling it out for the starting job.

Rogers and Ayers compare to each other in very similar manners. Rogers (5’10”) and Ayers (5’9″) are both diminutive receivers that excel in space and create separation by using superior agility to evade defensive backs. While this is more of a traditional description for a slot receiver, Smith-Schuster breaks this stereotype by being the opposite.

At 6’1″, 215 lbs., Smith-Schuster is a big, strong, physical receiver that doesn’t get manhandled by defensive players often. Big slot receivers big pose a completely different threat to defenses than their tiny counterparts based on their ability to rely on crisp routes and to box out defenders when the ball is in the air. Smith-Schuster is no exception to this. He demonstrates a knack for being fearless across the middle of the field and is constantly aware of where defenders are around him. This allows him to find open spaces in coverage and make the catch when the ball is thrown his way. Additionally, he can stretch the field vertically, which gives the Steelers another danger down the field that isn’t Brown or Bryant. Rogers showed he could accomplish this last season, but there is no denying Smith-Schuster’s size bonus in this area.

Another strength of his game is his big, strong hands that seem to always find a way to grab the ball when it is in his vicinity. This is especially crucial for 50/50 passes where Smith-Schuster must find a way to go over the defender and fight for the ball so it doesn’t get knocked away or intercepted. While this can be useful in the slot, it also can be indicative of his ability to play on the outside, a place where he saw most of his time at USC.

Smith-Schuster lacks elite speed that most of the Steelers receivers possess, but this does not mean he won’t have the ability to also play on the outside at times if needed. Even though he doesn’t always get great separation from cornerbacks, his ability to be physical when the ball is in the air helps alleviate this deficit, as well as his great route running.

But back to the slot talk.

As a big, physical receiver, that does not always mean that you can block. This is not the case for Smith-Schuster. When watching him on tape, his blocking is reminiscent of Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin. He is selfless in the run game and could be the difference maker to spring a long run. Not only that, but by having a receiver that is able and willing to be a decent blocker means that defenses must respect this and adjust accordingly. Simply put, Rogers and Ayers, while both willing blockers, don’t have the size to be a consistently excellent run blocker.

Slot receivers also typically excel in their ability to make plays after the catch. Big slot receivers, while deceptively elusive, must make plays happen in other ways. A good way of examining this is with screen passes, something the Steelers are notorious for doing. Luckily for Smith-Schuster, he also did some of this in college. Small slot receivers typically rely on their agility and quick movements to make defenders miss on these types of plays. Big receivers, including Smith-Schuster, instead make an initial move at the line and then out-physical would-be tacklers. Smith-Schuster specifically has used a strong stiff arm to ward away defenders trying to make a tackle. This could give the Steelers another option in their screen game that they haven’t had or used since Ward was still around.

While Smith-Schuster should be able to come in and compete right away (and he likely will), how quickly he consistently sees time on the field over the likes of Rogers and Ayers will depend on how quickly he can build chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger. It has been well documented that Big Ben and Brown have a relationship unlike any other in the NFL. Will Smith-Schuster get to that point with Roethlisberger in one year? No. But he also doesn’t need to be there right now. Smith-Schuster’s work ethic and drive to succeed will make him all that more prepared to handle whatever gets thrown his way and to find a way to mesh with Roethlisberger.

Smith-Schuster has the chance to break the mold of recent “conventional” Steelers receivers. He is built and plays like a receiver we haven’t seen in the Black and Gold since Hines Ward and Jerricho Cotchery. His physical playing style will be more than welcome as a compliment on offense and as a different type of target for Big Ben.

It’s just a matter of “when”, not “if”.

Join the discussion at steelernation.com!

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The Steelers’ Tight End Depth is a Free-For-All

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Heading into training camp, many of the Steelers starting positions are set and won’t involve any type of camp battles. Tight end is no exception to this. But just as many positions with depth that has yet to be set in stone, the depth behind starting tight end Jesse James is still very much in question.

During the 2016 NFL offseason, the Steelers made a splash by signing uber-athlete, vertical threat tight end Ladarius Green. On paper, Green possessed all of the traits that the Steelers would want in their big-play offense. Unfortunately, Green’s full potential will never be seen with the Steelers after multiple injuries derailed the young tight end’s time in Pittsburgh, leading to his release.

Jesse James showed plenty of progress as an all-around tight end during the 2016 season and figures to continue that development into 2017. While James doesn’t have the athletic traits that Green offered, he still is a huge target that will allow the Steelers to move the chains, similar to the type of impact that Heath Miller brought to the Black and Gold.

Behind James, things aren’t as cut and dry. As it stands currently, the players behind James are as follows:

  • David Johnson
  • Xavier Grimble
  • Scott Orndoff
  • Phazahn Odom

Each player listed brings a different set of skills to the table that could prove to be valuable to the Steelers offense.

David Johnson is the veteran of the group and, quite frankly, has the most secure spot on the roster of any of the tight ends on the roster not names Jesse James. Why? While he doesn’t offer much as a receiving threat, Johnson played a large role in Le’Veon Bell’s explosion last season. While Roosevelt Nix was one of the most underrated fullbacks in the NFL last season, Johnson served as the Steelers primary inline blocker, sometimes even when Jesse James was still on the field. His ability to seal the edge and quickly work up to the second level easily makes him the Steelers best blocking tight end on the roster. James is not far behind him blocking wise, but at this point it is safe to say that the Steelers will likely keep Johnson on the roster for the cheap amount that they signed him for until James can become a more refined blocker.

Xavier Grimble was the pleasant surprise of the Steelers tight end corps last season, showing flashes of playmaking ability that could lead to a more prominent role in the Steelers’ pass game this season. Grimble still has a long way to go as a blocker, but as we saw last season, the Steelers were not afraid to trot him out onto the field during two-tight end sets and send him down the seam. A perfect example of this came against the Steelers’ Christmas game against the Ravens when Grimble scored his first career touchdown by showing off great athleticism, speed, and decision-making. Grimble’s spot was far from secure before the Steelers released Green, but at this point, it appears that he will continue to be the Steelers #2 receiving option behind James. Although, his spot is still far from secure depending on what the Steelers see in their two undrafted free agents Scott Orndoff and Phazahn Odom.

Of the two, Scott Orndoff is almost the definition of a prototypical NFL tight end and might have the best chance at making the 53-man roster over Grimble if he performs well enough. At 6’5″, 253 lbs., Orndoff was asked to do it all while at Pitt, showing flashes as a receiver and as an inline blocker. While his yards per catch numbers at Pitt are unrealistic to replicate in the NFL due to the jump in talent and his athletic limits, he still has shown the ability to make difficult catches when needed and was a reliable route runner. When called upon, Orndoff was used as an inline blocker to lead the way for 3rd-round pick James Conner. But what really stands out to me about Orndoff is his resemblance to Steelers’ great Heath Miller in one important aspect of his game: Orndoff never shies away from taking a big blow from a defender down the field.Whenever he has the ball in his hands, he is not afraid to lower his shoulder and whenever he is evident that he is going to get laid out immediately following the reception, Orndoff hangs in there tough and makes the reception, sacrificing his body for the sake of the offense. That has “Steeler” written all over it. Orndoff has an uphill battle ahead of him to make the roster, but if you compare him to where Grimble was at this point last season, it appears that Orndoff has the leg up.

When looking at all of the tight ends on the Steelers roster, Phazahn Odom stands above all of them when it comes to pure physical traits. At 6’8″, 250 lbs., Odom is a huge target that has shown the ability to display athleticism all over the field with ridiculous length and strides. If would-be tacklers try to go low to tackle him, he easily does his best Le’Veon Bell impression and simply steps over them. If they try to go too high on him, it proves to be too little to bring him down. While his receiving capabilities have been noted, Odom is still an extremely raw blocker that often avoids big contact with defensive players in the run game. Odom compares to Xavier Grimble coming out of college: an athletic tight end in the pass game and an abysmal blocker. With Odom, the Steelers might be enticed with his potential in the pass game as a pass target which is a large reason why they brought him on board in the first place. Odom has a chance at making it onto the roster behind James if his ability as a receiver proves too valuable to stash away, but realistically, he is the biggest long-shot to make the roster.

When the dust settles and the season begins in September, it can be expected that Grimble and Johnson will see the most time at tight end behind James. With Johnson’s blocking abilities and Grimble’s athleticism as a receiver, the Steelers have some solid choices behind James’ all-around game. Orndoff and Odom will both have their chance to prove their worth, but the practice squad will likely be the landing spot for one, if not both, of them.

At the end of the day, though, we won’t see who is backing up James until Week 1 and it will be one of the closely watched battles of training camp.

Join the discussion at steelernation.com!

For future updates, follow me on Twitter at @GZSports_ZM and follow GZ Sports Report at @GZSportsReport or on Twitter at @GZSportsReport

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Vince Williams Will Be Just Fine as the Steelers’ Starter at Inside Linebacker

By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report

Check out this article on GZ Sports Report

With the 15th pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the Steelers selected Lawrence Timmons, who began his career as James Harrison’s backup at outside linebacker. By 2009, he had become the Steelers starter at inside linebacker and would retain that role for the next 8 seasons. During his 10 year tenure as a Steeler, Timmons put together 126 starts (including 112 straight from 2010-2016) while not missing a game since 2009 and only missing 2 during his career (both in 2009) 981 total tackles, 6 seasons with 100+ tackles (including 5 straight seasons from 2012-2016), 35.5 sacks, 43 passes defended, 12 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 13 forced fumbles.

At 31 years old, Timmons’ time with the Steelers came to an end this offseason after signing with the Miami Dolphins. Timmons had noticeably lost a step as he continues to age, but he will likely find a place in Miami as his career dwindles down.

In 2013, the Steelers used one of their two 6th-round draft picks to select Florida State inside linebacker Vince Williams. Hailing from the same Alma Mater as Timmons, Williams was expected to be nothing more than a depth inside linebacker and, at best, a two-down linebacker with plus run-stopping ability. After getting snubbed by not receiving an invite to the 2013 NFL Combine, Williams missed a golden opportunity to show his potential as an athlete on one of the biggest stages of the NFL offseason. A lack of a Combine invite paired with Williams’ below-average NFL size and lack of true “athleticism” led to his slide into the 6th-round.

Williams began his career as a surprise, starting 13 games during his rookie season in replace of the injured Larry Foote. After Foote departed for the Arizona Cardinals during the 2014 offseason, it appeared that Williams would step up to be the full-time starter next to Timmons in the middle in 2014.

That was until the Steelers used their 2014 1st-round pick on Ryan Shazier.

Almost immediately, Shazier was inserted into the starting lineup ahead of Williams and would remain there after showing flashes of the exciting playmaking ability that he showcased at Ohio State. From that point through the 2016 season, Williams would serve as the Steelers primary backup and rotational inside linebacker and would start just six games in relief of the oft-injured Shazier.

This has quickly changed heading into 2016.

Before the 2016 regular season kicked off, the Steelers rewarded Williams with a 2-year contract extension that translated to a 3-year, $5.5 million deal. However, this did not stop the Steelers from searching for further help during the 2017 offseason. After flirting with some high-profile free agent inside linebackers during the offseason, namely Patriots’ linebacker Dont’a Hightower, the Steelers ultimately signed no one. Following this, they chose to not pick an inside linebacker during the 2017 NFL Draft. This all made one thing extremely clear.

Vince Williams is their guy.

Williams’ playing style is that of a thumper due to his stocky, solid frame. There have always been questions about his ability to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL, as he lacks the desired athleticism that you look for in the position. But Williams’ work ethic and hard-nosed playing style will be more than welcome on the Steelers’ defense. Beyond that, I believe that Williams’ coverage skills are better than people have given him credit for. At worst, Williams will be no worse than Timmons in coverage, which realistically wasn’t that great over the past two seasons. But he can likely do much better than that. When dropping back into zone coverage, Williams reacts quickly and effectively when receivers and tight ends come into his zone. While his speed might prevent him from matching up one-on-one with fast receiving threats, the Steelers don’t need him to do that. Shazier’s athletic ability and safeties Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis’ ability to play in the box mean that the Steelers can free up Williams to do other things for the defense. Williams has the ability to be an effective blitzer up the middle through the A-gap because of his smaller frame and quick burst off of the snap. The Steelers have been using different blitzing schemes and Williams can fill the role that Timmons served in that capacity as well.

Against the run, it is obvious that Williams is a highly effective run-stopper. On the snap, he excels in making quick, split-second decisions to come down and fill running lanes like a torpedo. Throughout his time with the Steelers, Williams has also shown that he can deliver a big blow, especially on special teams. During his time as a spot starter, he has flashed the potential production that he is capable of. During a two-game span in 2016 replacing Shazier due to injury, Williams tallied 25 tackles and 2 sacks, with 16 of those tackles and one sack coming in one game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Shazier and Williams have the potential to form a lightning and thunder pairing on the inside that could be exciting to watch.

While Williams’ performance on the field is solid, it’s off of the field where he really shines. He is an unquestioned vocal leader in the Steelers’ locker room. In this capacity, he often makes comments about aspects of the league that he feels passionately about. One moment that comes to mind is when Vontaze Burfict openly celebrated injuring Le’Veon Bell after a controversial hit during a 2015 matchup with the Bengals that led to Bell missing the rest of the season due to injury. Williams came out and made comments about the issue and continued to stand by his beliefs even after being criticized by the media. Williams is firm in his beliefs and is willing to defend his teammates and handle media responsibilities in a critical but positive manner.

In short, Williams is a big part of the locker room and overall Steelers chemistry on and off of the field, which is huge for a football team that is trying to make another run at a Super Bowl victory. But at the end of the day, retaining a player like him and giving him a chance to hold down a full-time starting spot is a chance that Williams will take and run with.

Some players are naturally gifted and take starting spots with ease. Others must strive each day to get an opportunity to prove themselves. Vince Williams is a walking example of what hard work, effort, and patience can do for a player on the football field when becoming a starter in the league. Just like late-round and undrafted players before him, Williams has shown how being a late pick and developing on special teams and shining in the chances that you’re giving can often pay off handsomely down the road.

Some people will miss Timmons in the middle. Some people will wish that the team had signed a high-profile free agent. Some people will wish that the Steelers had drafted an early-round inside linebacker.

But rest assured, Vince Williams will be perfectly fine as the Steelers starting inside linebacker.

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Keion Adams is the Sleeper That Steelers Fans Will Love

By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report

Check out this article on GZ Sports Report

During the third day of the 2017 NFL Draft, more often than not fans are left asking “…who…?” whenever their team makes their late-round selections. With the exception of some high profile players that slide to various reasons such as off the field issues or injury concerns, most 5th-7th round draft picks fall this far due to deficiencies in their overall game or concerns about their size, athleticism, or strength.

Keion Adams, the Steelers 7th-round pick this year, is no exception to this.

Whenever the Steelers made their selection with the 248th overall pick, many fans were left clueless as to who Adams was, which is no fault of their own. Adams hails from Western Michigan, a MAC school that was put on the map over the last few seasons by another Broncos’ standout: receiver Corey Davis, the Tennessee Titans’ 5th overall pick.

Because of the deficiencies that late round prospects often carry with them, most of the time these selections are based off of the things that the teams like about the prospect on and off of the field. Recent Steelers examples of this include the hard-working nature of Tyler Matakevich and Vince Williams, the versatility of Kelvin Beachum, and the shifty ability as a receiver and returner of Antonio Brown. All of these players slid to the end of the draft due to the similar “issues” that teams saw in them, namely their size, as each player was considered to be below preferred size for their respective positions. Keion Adams fell into this category as well, coming in as a 6’2″, 245 lb. outside linebacker.

In addition to his below average size, Adams also does not possess desired playing power (not that he isn’t strong, but more so that he has a habit of getting swallowed up at times by powerful offensive linemen, especially against the run). To be considered an every-down edge rusher in the NFL, especially with the Steelers defensive schemes, it is imperative that you have the ability to hold your own in all circumstances on the field.

With Adams, however, this is really where the downsides end… much like the aforementioned players selected by the Steelers in the late rounds.

Heading up to the draft, the Steelers showed clear interest in Adams, using one of their 30 official pre-draft visits on him. This makes his selection really not that surprising, especially when you consider his production in college. A four-year starter at Western Michigan, Adams compiled and impressive 126 total tackles, 33 tackles for a loss, 14.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles. Over the course of his college career, Adams displayed excellent bend off of the edge that is similar to some of the NFL’s elite pass rushers. This bend, combined with his natural speed and athleticism, make him a dangerous threat.

Where Adams really stands out is his extreme explosion off of the ball. On film, his first step was one of the best in this draft class, where his instincts and reaction speed make it difficult for opposing offensive linemen to mirror him. This means that he often gets to his point on the edge before the offensive lineman has a chance to beat him there, which translates to Adams making it into the backfield in a hurry. When the lineman does get there, Adams has a nice inside counter move that he could honestly utilize more as he develops his pass rushing set to demonstrate his elusive playing style.

Realistically, Adams has a ways to go to refine his game as a whole, especially as a run stopper. The thing is, however, is that he wasn’t selected to be a run stopper at this point. Adams’ best chance at making the 53-man roster this season is going to be his ability to contribute on special teams and to show some usefulness as a pass rushing specialist and he has the work ethic to accomplish it. To do this, he will likely have to beat out Arthur Moats, a player he physically compares to very well. With the selection of T.J. Watt in the first round, the Steelers found their man to be the every-down compliment to Bud Dupree and James Harrison. That doesn’t mean that Adams won’t have a place to contribute on the field. As he gets stronger on the field, he will be able to become even more involved with the rotation (if he makes the roster) by eventually becoming stout against the run.

Being an undersized player has knocked players in the past, but the size of the player has never been an indication of the work that they are willing to put in to succeed. Adams is the type of player teams like the Steelers love to select late in the draft due to his work ethic and heart, which will quickly grab the attention of fans once training camp and the preseason start.

He will certainly become a player to watch closely.

And don’t be surprised if a few years down the road, we wonder how Keion Adams ever fell as far as he did.

Join the discussion at steelernation.com!

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Predicting the Steelers’ Breakout Players of 2017

By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report

Check out this article on GZ Sports Report

As the summer rolls along, the Steelers are primed and hopeful for another playoff run in an attempt to bring home the team’s 7th Lombardi Trophy. Over the last few seasons, the Steelers have infused the team with young talent that will help take the team into the next era of Steelers football. Every year, new players break out into the spotlight and become household commodities. Which Steelers have the potential to breakout this year and make a name for themselves?

OLB BUD DUPREE

Bud Dupree fell to the Steelers unexpectedly in the 1st-round of the 2015 NFL Draft. His fall was the Steelers gain. After succeeding early on during his rookie year where he put together 4 sacks in 8 games, Dupree hit a wall during the second half of the season. This wall wasn’t entirely unexpected, as the former Kentucky standout was a highly raw player as a pass-rusher. During his second season, Dupree was never truly healthy and mostly relied on his God-given talent to make sacks, most of which were on extended plays where his hustle put him in a position to make the tackle. Nonetheless, Dupree still showed some improvement to his game from his rookie season.

However, this offseason acclaimed pass-rushing coach/guru Chuck Smith worked with Dupree to help refine his skills as a pass-rusher. Smith has coached players like Von Miller and Aaron Donald, two players that are two of the best defensive players in the league. Smith boldly stated that he believes that Dupree is going to be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, which is extremely high praise to the type of potential Smith sees in the young outside linebacker.

The Steelers don’t need Dupree to be the Defensive Player of the Year by any means. But they desperately need a player to reach double digit sacks to be the franchise sack artist that they have lacked since James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley both put up those numbers in 2010. If the end of last season and his work this offseason has been any indication, the arrow is pointing towards Dupree having a huge breakout year in 2017.

S SEAN DAVIS

Just like many rookie defensive backs, Sean Davis had plenty of growing pains during his rookie campaign in 2016. However, by the end of the season, the safety out of Maryland had put together an extremely productive rookie year, finishing with 70 total tackles (which was 4th on the team), 1.5 sacks, and 1 interception. What’s the interesting part of that? He did it all with a torn labrum that he suffered during the third game of the regular season.

After undergoing surgery this offseason, Sean Davis is poised to make large strides in his second season as the Steelers starting strong safety opposite of Mike Mitchell. As the season progressed, Davis began looked extremely comfortable with the defensive playbook and looked stronger in coverage and playing in the box. If his rookie season ultimately ends up being his “worst” season as a pro, Davis has a long and successful career ahead of him roaming the Steelers’ secondary.

DT JAVON HARGRAVE

Of the three rookie defenders in 2016, Javon Hargrave had the earliest success. After standing out in training camp and the preseason, Hargrave went on to start 13 of the 15 games he appeared in at nose tackle. While this was good on paper (and he definitely saw plenty of time), his role as a nose tackle was underused during 2016. Throughout the first half of the season, Hargrave would routinely come off of the field when the defense went into their nickel packages. However, whenever Cam Heyward went down with a season-ending injury, Hargrave instantly stepped up and became a three-down lineman along the defensive line. This increased playing time saw him get his first two career sacks in back-to-back games.

Fast-forward to 2017, and it appears that Hargrave is poised to receive even more snaps than he did in his rookie season. Hargrave’s unique skillset allows him to not only be stout against the run, but also serve as an effective interior pass-rusher, similar to Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins, two players Hargrave has received comparisons to. The Steelers have been high on the young tackle and that will likely continue into the season.

CB ARTIE BURNS

Artie Burns was no doubt thrown to the wolves during his rookie season. As a 1st-round pick at the Steelers biggest position of need for quite a few years, it was no surprise that Burns saw plenty of playing time as a raw cornerback. By season’s end, Burns had logged 810 defensive snaps, which was the fifth-most on the team. As the season progressed, Burns allowed some big plays, which is to be expected by a rookie cornerback. But what stood out was his ability to hold his own against #1 receivers by putting in some quality pass breakups (13) and breaking the Steelers’ interception mark by a rookie (3).

Burns possesses the size and skills to be the shutdown corner that the Steelers have been looking for since Ike Taylor was in his prime years ago. With the Steelers looking to utilize more man-coverage in 2017, Burns will see himself getting even more one-on-one action than he did as a rookie. Luckily for the Steelers, Burns has the opportunity to practice against the NFL’s best in Antonio Brown each day to hone his skills. While the growing pains were present in 2016 and can be expected at times in 2017, the promise is there for Burns to begin playing like a true #1 shutdown corner.

ILB VINCE WILLIAMS

For the first time in a decade, the Steelers defense will be without long-time starter Lawrence Timmons. After departing in free agency to join the Dolphins, Timmons will be replaced by Vince Williams, one of the Steelers two 6th-round draft picks in 2013. The Steelers showed interest in signing some high-profile free agent inside linebackers during the offseason, bringing in players like Patriots’ linebacker Dont’a Hightower. However, after not signing any players and neglecting to select an inside linebacker during the 2017 NFL Draft, the Steelers made clear of one thing: Williams is their guy.

After starting 13 games as a rookie, Williams spent most of his time over the past few seasons as a depth player and spot starter for the oft-injured Ryan Shazier. Williams’ playing style is that of a thumper due to his stocky, solid frame. There have been questions about his ability to be a three-down linebacker as he lacks the desired athleticism that you look for in the position. But Williams’ work ethic and hard-nosed playing style will be more than welcome on the Steelers’ defense and he will grab this opportunity and run with it. Expect great things from the 5th-year pro.

WR MARTAVIS BRYANT

I know what you’re thinking… Martavis Bryant has already proven himself as an NFL receiver by putting up huge stats each time he has been on the field. But when you look closer at his stats, Bryant has never had a 1,000-yard season, one of the typical markers of a “breakout” season by a receiver (although it isn’t solely the deciding factor in that judgement). And truth be told, Bryant’s 21 career NFL games is not exactly a great sample size to dictate how successful a career has been, especially after missing the entire 2016 season due to a suspension.

That changes this season.

Bryant clearly spent his suspension and offseason working to reignite his passion for football and completely transform his physique. His new muscular frame will allow him to be even more of a physical threat without sacrificing any of his elite speed that made him a threat anytime he had the ball in his hands in 2014 and 2015. Think about the possibilities now that Bryant is back. With Brown, Bryant, Le’Veon Bell, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Jesse James all as potential targets, defenses will have to respect each dimension of the offense, which only means good things for Bryant. Bryant has averaged 17.3 yards per catch during his career and has displayed his deep-play ability consistently when on the field. While there are only so many yards to go around for the Steelers, I don’t think it is too far-fetched to imagine Bryant breaking the 1,000-yard mark this season alongside Brown.

Even if he doesn’t break that threshold, Bryant is sure to put together some exciting plays for the Steelers this season.

Join the discussion at steelernation.com!

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Steelers’ Veterans with the Greatest Risk of Being Cut This Offseason

By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report

Check out this article on GZ Sports Report

Year in and year out, NFL players fight for their right to stay on a roster to make an impact for their team. With the exception of a small percentage of players in the league, nothing is guaranteed for players in terms of their ability to remain on a team, especially if their contract values makes them expendable. As new, young, cheaper, more talented/higher upside options becomes available for teams, veterans become casualties of the business that is the NFL. After putting together solid drafts over the past few seasons, the Steelers a young roster infused with top-tier veteran players. However, as previously mentioned, some veterans are at risk of not being on the 53-man roster by Week 1 of the 2017 season. Which players are at the greatest risk? Keep reading to see my take.

ILB Steven Johnson

Johnson might not seem like a player worth mentioning here, but his role (or more so his position) on the Steelers is of increasing importance with the departure of Lawrence Timmons. With Vince Williams stepping up to the starting spot next to Ryan Shazier, the Steelers need solid depth behind them, especially when you consider Shazier’s checkered injury history. The odds are that a player not named Shazier will see time in the starting line up next to Williams at some point during 2017 and that player will likely be Tyler Matakevich, the former 7th-round pick that provided a nice spark on special teams last season (he led the team in special teams tackles) and has the work ethic and mindset to develop into a similar caliber player as Williams. Johnson spent last year fighting for a roster spot and even with the new opening on the inside, threats still remain. L.J. Fort was the player that got thrown on and off of the roster when injuries occurred, but he eventually became a mainstay on the roster when Johnson was lost with a season-ending injury. Fort has bounced around the league but is still a relative unknown that the Steelers have obviously seen something in to keep him around. A dark horse to compete with Johnson is UDFA Keith Kelsey, a player that also compares similarly to Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. As a standout at Louisville, Kelsey lacks the athletic traits that would make him a 3-down linebacker, but he could turn into a special teams standout in a similar manner as Williams, Matakevich, and Johnson have all done during their careers. Even though Johnson has the history on the field on defense while with the Broncos, the Steelers seem like they don’t want to give him a chance to provide on anything except special teams. If Fort or Kelsey step into a position where they can grasp the defense and be consistent presences on special teams, Johnson could see himself on the way out in a position where depth has been crucial for the Steelers.

OLB Arthur Moats

Since joining the Steelers in 2014, Moats has been a solid presence on and off of the field. However, the team’s outside linebacker depth has become deep quickly, with the addition of 1st-round pick T.J. Watt, the continued development of Bud Dupree, and the ageless play of James Harrison. Anthony Chickillo has began coming into his own as a player as well and in 2016 appeared to jump over moats on the depth chart by serving as a rotational piece and receiving substantial special teams time (something you must do as a depth linebacker on the Steelers to stick around). While Moats has the experience and leadership on and off the field, 2017 7th-round pick Keion Adams could prove to be a dark horse player to steal Moats’ position on the team away from him, especially if he can prove himself on special teams, something Moats hasn’t done. Moats will spend this summer and training camp proving that he still belongs in the Black & Gold, not due to a lack of talent on his part, but due to younger, cheaper options around him.

CB William Gay

With the exception of the 2012 season, Gay has been a lifelong Steeler. Just like Moats, Gay will be fighting for his job this summer due to an infusion of young talent around the 32-year old corner. Former 1st-round pick Artie Burns had some growing pains in 2016 but appears to be the future of the Steelers secondary, especially as the team continues to move more towards man coverages. Alongside Burns is Ross Cockrell, an acquisition that has proven to pay off for the Steelers. Add in free agent pick up Coty Sensabaugh, a healthy Senquez Golson, and exciting rookies Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen, and the Steelers have a young, crowded cornerback group. Gay has seen his role reduced over the past season after bumping inside to the slot, a position where he has seen some success as he has aged. However, the Steelers have younger options that could provide the Steelers with more long-term success in the form of Sutton and Golson. If either player can prove that they can hold their own in the slot, Gay could quickly become expendable.

WR Sammie Coates

Last season, Coates had the chance to stand out opposite of Antonio Brown in the wake of Martavis Bryant’s year-long suspension. That unfortunately never happened, as injuries and inconsistency plagued the former 3rd-round pick. With Bryant’s return, new physique, and apparent new fire for football, it appears pretty evident that he will retain his role of the Steelers’ #2 opposite Brown. That brings into question the remainder of the Steelers receiving corps, which receivers coach Richard Mann said is the deepest that he has ever had. With the emergence of Eli Rogers last season and the unexpected addition of 2nd-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster (who has already began turning heads this summer), Coates already appears to be falling down the depth chart (although Rogers and Smith-Schuster are both slot specialists at this point, not necessarily impacting Coates). It doesn’t stop there, however, as Cobi Hamilton played a role for the Steelers’ offense last season and Demarcus Ayers got the chance to show off his solid hands towards the end of the season. Darrius Heyward-Bey is also a factor, as he has provided quality depth and special teams production, even at 30 years old. If Coates can’t prove to the Steelers that his injuries and inconsistencies are behind him as a receiver, then the Steelers might feel compelled to go in another direction for a receiver that can back up Bryant and/or Brown. Coates is definitely on the hot seat at this point.

RB Fitzgerald Toussaint

Toussaint has shown flashes of production for the Steelers, namely during the 2015 season when he stepped up in the playoffs for injured Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams and provided solid play… with the exception of the ill-timed fumble against the Broncos that proved to sink the Steelers and helped propel Denver to their eventual Super Bowl victory. Last season was Toussaint’s best season as a pro, where he put together 58 yards on 14 carries for 4.1 yards per carry. On his career, his yards per carry average is 2.9 yards, which isn’t helped by his small sample size of only 38 carries (in comparison, Le’Veon Bell had 38 carries against the Bills alone last season). The Steelers added 3rd-round running back James Conner this year and Conners punishing running style figures to beat out other backs as the #2 behind Bell. The team also added Knile Davis this offseason to help provide a spark on special teams and give the Steelers further playmaking depth behind Bell. Why the Davis signing is relevant to Toussaint is that the Steelers rarely make signings during the free agency period that don’t ultimately make the 53-man roster during that season. While they don’t have much invested in Davis (1-year/$775,000), Davis provides a much more exciting option as a returner than Toussaint and could has the potential to see a career resurgence as a running back as a versatile playmaker out of the backfield with the Steelers electric offense. Toussaint will spend the summer proving that he is a better option than Davis but it will be an uphill battle.

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