As the offseason calendar in the NFL hits mid-June, most teams have wrapped up their organized team activities (OTAs) and are prepping for minicamp. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, OTAs were a good opportunity to see the future 2019 squad altogether. The rookies got to work with the veterans and the team is taking shape. Now would be as good a time as any to grade each Pittsburgh Steelers position group as they head into minicamp and eventually training camp. Today, we will focus on the offensive side of the ball.
Handing Out Positional Pittsburgh Steelers OTA Grades
The first of the Steelers position groups to look at is the quarterback group. Currently, the roster sports four players at the position. Ben Roethlisberger is the veteran leader of this group, followed by third-year Joshua Dobbs, second-year Mason Rudolph, and lastly undrafted free agent Devlin Hodges. To the surprise of no one, Roethlisberger is the starter of this group with the more intriguing story being who will be the backup and possible future of Steelers at this position.
Both Dobbs and Rudolph are using each and every opportunity to learn and prove themselves as the backup. Dobbs had a strong preseason last year but struggled in limited playing time during the season. Rudolph didn’t receive any meaningful action last season but was granted more time with the starters during OTAs. Possessing an almost identical build to Roethlisberger, Rudolph is likely the odds-on favorite to be the future Steelers quarterback. Hodges was the most prolific quarterback in FCS football last year and the player of the year, but he likely will be cut or made a member of the practice squad.
With a future Hall of Famer as the starter and two young guys with a ton of potential, albeit with minimal experience, the Steelers have a strong quarterback group.
The Running Backs
Next up for the Pittsburgh Steelers position grades is the running back group. There are seven members of this group, led by James Conner, as well as fullback Roosevelt Nix. This group is quite intriguing, as their youth and lack of experience are well documented. Joining Conner in this group are second-year guys Jaylen Samuels and Trey Edmunds. Samuels and Edmunds received limited looks last season, mostly when Conner was injured. That didn’t stop Samuels from having one of the best rookie performances for a running back in Steelers history against the New England Patriots in Week 15.
The running back group also features an intriguing addition and subtraction from the previous year. The subtraction, as many know, is Le’Veon Bell. Bell’s presence, or lack thereof, loomed over the team all of last season. Bell’s departure to the New York Jets as a free agent truly hands the keys to Conner and this young group. A young group featuring the addition of rookie Benny Snell Jr., who has quickly earned himself many fans. He was also making himself known during OTAs as well.
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The loss of Bell is noteworthy, and the injury concerns of Conner shouldn’t be thrown away either. However, this young group has a good mix of speed, power, pass-catching, and depth. With all that potential, this group is one to keep your eye on.
The Wide Receivers
Similar to the running back group, the wide receivers are an intriguing bunch as well. Led by Pro Bowler JuJu Smith-Schuster, this is the second largest offensive group. There are some notable additions and a glaring subtraction from a year ago. After a well documented and turbulent offseason, Antonio Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders. Replacing his production will be a task. It has led to the signing of veteran Donte Moncrief and the drafting of Diontae Johnson. The Steelers also still have Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers as slot receivers and return specialists. The team is also hoping James Washington takes a big leap in his second season.
There are plenty of questions about Smith-Schuster being able to carry the burden of top wide receiver for the team. Moncrief has brought some professionalism and veteran insight to the young group. If he can remain healthy, he can provide steady production and mentor guys like Washington and Johnson. Johnson has made some impressions on his quarterback. Roethlisberger told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The one thing I noticed was he caught every ball I threw to him. I even threw him some bad balls on purpose, throw some high, behind him, just to see if he would catch them. And he caught every one. It was impressive.”
While this group may be young, there is tremendous potential. If everyone stays healthy, this group has the chance to put up big numbers with Big Ben. Watch out for this group.
Pittsburgh Steelers Position of Concern: Tight Ends
The offensive group that is up for most concern is the tight end group. This group includes veterans Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble, as well as rookie Zach Gentry. McDonald is the unquestioned starter, but he carries concerns regarding his durability. He has never completed a full 16 game season. He had a career year last year, and there is hope he can continue that momentum. Behind him is Grimble, who has been largely unremarkable in his time in Pittsburgh. The Steelers really need him to step up and make an impact this season.
With the departure of Jesse James to the Detroit Lions in free agency, Pittsburgh turned to the draft for a replacement. There was certainly some head scratching when they drafted Zach Gentry from Michigan. Gentry has the size. He is athletic and can grow into the position. However, he lacks the strength you want from a tight end. He was also plagued by drops throughout his career in college. Gentry needs to learn fast if he hopes to be a reliable option like James was.
The Steelers only have one proven player at this position headed into 2019. They will need Grimble or Gentry to step up and help McDonald. Otherwise, it will be a rough season from the tight end position.
Pittsburgh Steelers Position of Strength: Offensive Line
One of the most solid offensive line units in the NFL calls Pittsburgh home. The largest offensive group with 15 players, the offensive line is led by Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster. David DeCastro and Alejandro Villanueva round out four of the five starting spots on the stellar offensive line. These four form the core of a line that has allowed Big Ben to put up career numbers in the last few years. This unit is the same that cleared the way for Bell and Conner to have Pro Bowl seasons. The biggest question following OTAs is who will the new right tackle be.
During the offseason, the Steelers traded away right tackle Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals. This opened up a spot for one of three guys to step up and claim. Matt Feiler started 10 games last season for an injured Gilbert and would be the logical “next man up.” Fighting to take the spot is Chukwuma Okorafor and Jerald Hawkins. Okorafor is the youngest of the three, but he is more athletic and has a bigger frame. Hawkins is coming off an injury that kept him out of last season. He is better physically than Feiler and has more experience than Okorafor. Think of him as a solid middle ground between Feiler and Okorafor.
Letting a veteran like Gilbert go signals confidence in the other guys on the roster. Whoever starts at right tackle will still be a part of one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. This position group is solid and reliable.
Over the course of OTAs, the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to get a glimpse of what the 2019 team is shaping up to be. The tone is much different than it has been over the last couple of seasons. It seems more focused and determined to prove this is still a team to watch out for. There is a good mix of veteran leadership and young guys full of potential. There are plenty of things to watch out for as the team moves closer to the season. Don’t look now, but the season is less than three months away.
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