The Steelers will bring their 2019 roster together for the first time as a unit starting Tuesday when the third portion of their OTAs begin.
This will be the first time the team’s veterans, free agent signings and rookies will be on the field together. And it certainly won’t be the last over the next few months.
So, while the focus on position battles is typically centered around what happens during training camp at Saint Vincent College and in the preseason games, the foundation for those events begins this week. Even though it is, as Mike Tomlin likes to say, football in shorts, the fight for spots on the roster and in the starting lineup are about to get real.
The key position battles for the Steelers are at inside linebacker, right tackle, slot cornerback and wide receiver.
The inside linebacker battle is an obvious one. Will Devin Bush, the team’s first-round draft pick, be ready for the opener? Or will it be free agent signing Mark Barron holding the rookie off?
The Steelers obviously signed Barron in case they were unable to make a move up and acquire Bush, who they had ranked as their No. 1 inside linebacker prospect in this draft. But the bet here is Bush will be the starter.
At right tackle, Matt Feiler started 10 games in place of an injured Marcus Gilbert in 2018. Chuks Okorafor also made a spot start there when both Feiler and Gilbert were hurt.
Ideally, the Steelers would prefer Okorafor, a third-round pick in 2018, to win that job, with Feiler capable of being a backup at guard or tackle. But Feiler won’t go down easily.
In fact, this could be the most hotly contested battle of all of them. And Tomlin was quick to mention 2016 fourth-round draft pick Jerald Hawkins as being in the mix there as well when he was asked about the position at the NFL meetings in Arizona earlier this year.
The rest of the line remains intact. Perhaps Feiler would offer the most continuity. But the Steelers also really liked Okorafor in the draft last year.
Mike Hilton is the incumbent starter at slot corner, but the Steelers were concerned with his play in the second half of last season to the point of rotating him with Cameron Sutton late in the year.
This season, those two will both get a shot to see who is better capable of handling the job.
The receiver pecking order will play itself out. We know JuJu Smith-Schuster will be the No. 1. But will it be free agent signing Donte Moncrief opposite him, or will it be 2018 second-round selection James Washington?
The Steelers expect Washington to make a big jump in 2019 after struggling as a rookie but they don’t expect him to replace Antonio Brown’s 104 catches, 1,300 yards and, most importantly, 15 touchdowns from a year ago.
- Those won’t be the only position battles that take place over the next few months, but they will perhaps the most closely watched.
Another player who will have all eyes on him will be placekicker Chris Boswell.
Typically, in this kind of setting, there’s not a lot of attention paid to the kickers. They go off on their own and do their thing with little to no fanfare.
But after Boswell struggled through a 13-for-20 season kicking field goals in 2018, he’ll certainly get more scrutiny.
There is, however, little to no chance he won’t be the team’s kicker when the season opens. The Steelers signed Boswell, a 2017 Pro Bowl kicker, to a five-year, $19.72-million contract prior to the start of last season. He’s due to count $4.2 million against the team’s salary cap in 2019. And that number goes up to $6.2 million if he’s released or traded.
Because of that, Boswell will get every opportunity to bounce back.
- Ben Roethlisberger also will be under the microscope after Brown questioned his leadership on his way out the door – or while trying to force his way out.
Roethlisberger took the team’s skill position players to his vacation home in Georgia last week for some team bonding.
This isn’t the first time he’s done that. He also did the same in 2014 and 2015. And yes, even Brown, who said he was never invited to Roethlisberger’s home, was part of those trips.
We can probably give Roethlisberger a pass for not doing that the past couple of years. After all, he has three small children.
- Jordan Lyles has gone from a guy who was an afterthought – signing a one-year, $2-million free agent contract to join the Pirates – to the team’s fifth starter, to the team’s best starter.
OK, he might not quite be the team’s best starter, but he’s been pretty darn good. And with Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer and now Trevor Williams having missed or expected to miss time, Lyles is the anchor of the Pirates’ rotation.
After striking out 12 in a seven-inning outing Friday night against the Padres, Lyles is now 4-1 with a 1.97 ERA.
It figures that after years of trying, the Pirates finally found a fifth starter who wasn’t a dead spot in their rotation just in time to see the rest of the rotation wrecked.
- That said, at 22-20 going into Saturday’s game in San Diego, the Pirates have to be a pleasant surprise.
Considering their entire starting outfield has missed time and the rotation is a mess right now, Clint Hurdle is piecing it together with duct tape.
Can they keep it up? You’d think at some point the injuries would catch up with them.
But they haven’t done so yet.
Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghSports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.