Neil’s NFL Daily: August 4, 2013
Neil Hornsby continues his training camp tour by dropping in on the Steelers and getting a first-hand look at their dwindling tight end reserves.
Neil’s NFL Daily: August 4, 2013
Friday, August 2 – Steelers Camp (Latrobe)
One of the highlights of the tour was supposed to be watching the Steelers scrimmage at Latrobe High School stadium, but unfortunately a malady with the grass there meant a change of plans.
It wasn’t too much of a come-down as St. Vincent College still provided an awesome, beautiful alternative for watching football. It also helped that the fully-padded practice was as about as intense as it gets, with plenty of vicious hitting and the sound of pad on pad echoing around the natural bowl which rises above the practice fields.
Through it all Mike Tomlin kept the enthusiasm extremely high — directing the scrimmage and two-minute drills with a passion only Pete Carroll could match from previous camps.
Through all this, however, was the issue of injuries — it wasn’t that there was many, but the positions are important and the depth paper thin.
My Kingdom for a Tight End
There’s very few tight ends left in the NFL who are the full package — a guy who is not only a quality receiver but can block well too. Although his run blocking was lackluster last year (-15.0 grade), Heath Miller has proved his capability in that regard during many previous seasons and he compensated by raising his work in the passing game to new heights (+15.2). I think he’s one of the Top 5 to 10 players at his position in the game, and will be devastating if he puts both parts of his skill-set together in one season. The problem is he’s recovering from a torn ACL, MCL and PCL combination that has him optimistically returning in Week 7.
That in itself is a major blow, but when your likely replacement is a good blocker with next to no receiving ability it hurts even more. In the past two years Matt Spaeth has caught 13 balls for 78 yards, with a long of 13 yards. For those tight ends with more than 60 routes run he’s been the lowest ranked player in both those years in terms of yards per route run — this is the furthest thing from a weapon you could see in the passing game. To make matters worse, he didn’t participate on Friday as he had to have his knee drained. Apparently it’s no big thing, but with David Johnson still on PUP and the next man up the Steelers seventh-rounder from 2012, David Paulson, who struggled in his 316 snaps last year, this unit is at the bare bones.
Building through the Draft
The Steelers haven’t got the worst recent history of drafting by any means, but when you rely so heavily on this method to build your team it needs to be close to the best, and it’s far from that. Pittsburgh’s drafts after 2008 have delivered some good contributors but no real superstars beyond Antonio Brown (unless you subscribe to the hype surrounding Maurkice Pouncey).
Two of the best players from 2009, Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis, are with other teams, and even when they do uncover a player who looks he could be the real deal, like Cameron Heyward, they leave him on the bench in favor of Ziggy Hood — a guy who looks like he was built to play football but rarely does.
Cortez Allen certainly looks like he could come through and, despite my frustration that Pouncey has been branded a Hall of Famer without actually playing at a Pro-Bowl level once, I believe his skill-set and performance trajectory means he will soon start to approach the myth.
That said, the Steelers need the 2013 draft to start bearing real fruit immediately if they are to be successful this year, and the main hope there is Le’Veon Bell.
On Friday he looked really good both running the ball and, perhaps more tellingly, in pass protection drills. I didn’t see much in the way of receiving but the word is he has the soft hands and skill to complete every route on the running back tree. He took some big hits going inside but still showed the tenacity to drive through them and fall forward, while one particularly stunning cut, running right, allowed him to show his speed to the edge.
There was, however, an irritatingly opposing negative to the aforementioned good work in pass pro — but it didn’t come from him. First-round pick Jarvis Jones had looked slow and lacking in burst all night, and when Mike Tomlin called for a one-on-one between his first two picks it was a duel the LB should win. Unfortunately, without exactly stoning him dead, Bell gave a little ground before pushing Jones outside, a clear win for the back and a little bit of a good news/bad news scenario that may be the precursor for the Steelers’ year.
— It’s clear that in 11-personnel Jerricho Cotchery will be the slot receiver. Not only did he line up there consistently, but he played well too.
— The 2013 Pittsburgh O-Line was very close to the one I previously advertised (see below), but with Mike Adams on the left and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.
— With Brett Keisel held out of drills, Cameron Heyward played right end.
NB: I’ve amended the Steelers’ depth chart accordingly, added in the position battles in purple and the update is below:
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Neil founded PFF in 2006 and is currently responsible for the service to the company's 22 NFL team customers. He is constantly developing new insights into the game and player performance.