It is finally back. While the preseason does not necessarily constitute that football has officially returned, it does feel good to know that the Steelers will be running out of the tunnel to play an organized game against an NFL opponent.
Friday will probably not be the day we learn how Ben Roethlisberger will bounce back after losing Antonio Brown, or how JuJu Smith-Schuster will step up to fill that presence. With three more preseason games, we may not even see either suit up.
The first week of the preseason is not for the stars of the organization. However, there is plenty to learn from this game, especially when it comes to the depth of the roster. Depth players play the snaps in week one, and this is a chance for these players to lay a foundation that can get them noticed for the rest of the summer. We can start to see the depth chart being sorted and learn which bottom-of-the-roster players may sneak their way onto the 53-man roster.
With that in mind, football is back, and there is plenty to absorb in what many will tell you is a meaningless game. Who are the five players that you should keep your eyes on throughout the game?
1. Sutton Smith
Sutton Smith may be a consistent member of the “players to watch” list this preseason. Smith lit up the MAC, posting 29 sacks and 56.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. However, his physical limitations have many questioning his NFL application, which saw him falling to the Steelers in the sixth round.
Smith comes in as a refined pass rusher, with good speed and tackling ability. He has special teams capabilities and has even played full back in OTAs as well as parts of training camp.
With T.J. Watt banged up, Smith is going to get plenty of snaps at outside linebacker on Friday. Considering how refined he is, and quality of play across from him, he could certainly make a name for himself in the stat sheet. On top of that, Smith will be competing on special teams, which is where he can win a roster spot. We may even see Smith play three sides, and get a look on offense. Without a doubt, he will be a player to look for from the opening kick off to the final snap.
2. Kameron Kelly
The AAF was intended to give fringe NFL players a chance to show their talents and get picked up by an NFL team. Although short-lived, the league may have done as intended for Kam Kelly. Kelly was a UDFA from San Diego State who spent some time in Dallas before becoming a player in the AAF.
Kelly switched between wide receiver and cornerback in the AAF, and with safety experience in college, the versatility drew Pittsburgh’s attention. With Sean Davis sidelined due to a finger injury it was expected long-time special teamer Jordan Dangerfield would be the next in line. However, that role has gone to Kelly in the early days of camp.
The Steelers certainly want to see what he can offer in a game situation, and will not reward him anything based on a few camp sessions. This should give Kelly a chance to start and play deeper into the game than any other starter. Kelly may get a look at free safety, and in the box as a dime or nickel player. His role, usage, and special teams ability could lock down a spot for him.
3. Ola Adenyi
Last preseason the UDFA from Toldeo led the Steelers in sacks. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury relegated him to the injured reserve. Still, he worked back and overcame the injury to get on the active roster for one game to close the season.
For a UDFA to work back and get a chance to earn a helmet shows what the team sees in him. In year two, he picked up right where he left off and has assumed his role as a veteran.
The Steelers know what they have and are optimistic with the start to Adenyi’s summer. They do not want to see him get hurt again, but at the same time, he is a UDFA who has lit up camp but has yet to show that he is a legitimate NFL defender.
While the ability of others will be tested, the usage of Adenyi should help tell us what this team thinks of him, and whether he is a back end roster player who they need to see more from, or if he can push Anthony Chickillo for the first pass rusher off the bench.
4. Diontae Spencer
Diontae Spencer is an undersized receiver checking in at 5’8″ and 163 pounds. He spent some time in the NFL in 2014, but developed his game in the CFL the past couple of seasons. His big-play ability and progression caught the Steelers eye, and now that he is back in a camp, he is making the most of his opportunity.
If Spencer wants to make the roster, he will have to beat out Eli Rogers or Ryan Switzer. The easiest way to do this would be as a return man. The Steelers will surely give the big-play weapon a chance to prove himself in that area, and a long return could provide momentum. On top of that, Switzer and Rogers are looked at as more quick-shifty slot players who can work the intermediae.
Spencer has a chance to provide a vertical element that these two don’t provide as often. Big plays are the name of the game for Spencer. How many can he make?
5. Jerald Hawkins
When Hawkins was drafted in round four, his upside was high, but his refinement was low. The idea was that getting him in a room with Mike Munchak could do wonders with his talent. Hawkins suffered a shoulder injury in his first preseason that ended his rookie year prematurely. He got back into the swing of things in year two, but another injury in year three, this time to his quad, has him well behind entering year four without Munchak getting his hands on him for very long.
With Hawkins being so questionable, the team drafted Chukwuma Okorafor in round three of the 2018 draft, and he appears to be head and shoulders ahead of Hawkins as the team swing tackle. With B.J. Finney, as the swing guard, the top seven spots on this offensive line are locked in.
The Steelers will keep eight, and potentially even nine offensive linemen, but Hawkins is going to have to beat out Zach Banner, as well as rookies Derwin Gray. Fred Johnson and Garrett Brumfield. With the top seven locked in we will not see much of them this preseason, especially the starters.
Combining this with Hawkins having two years to make up on and the team still being invested in his upside, and Hawkins should see plenty of snaps this preseason. Will he look rusty? Will he look capable at all, or is it time to move on from what could be a missed pick? We will learn more about Hawkins on Friday.