UNITY TWP., Pa. — The first day of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp is a day that is anticipated for seven months, from the end of one season to the symbolic start of the next.
But when it gets there, that first day is often kind of a let-down. Yes, it’s great to get the team together on the field for the first day of practice, but that first portion of camp is more about getting the players used to the heat, the practice cadence, and the routine than it is about things that can be actively measured.
“We just got started,” head coach Mike Tomlin said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s football in helmets and so, I’m not looking at a lot of those type confrontations because they’re not significant in terms of what we’re doing in a football like environment right now. More skill guy related and things of that nature when you’re in helmets because you’re playing with a governor and that governor really minimizes the impact of line play.”
But there’s one area of the game where that governor really doesn’t matter that much, and that’s the kicking game. In that area, the Steelers have a significant competition brewing, and Tomlin got it started in a big way on Thursday.
Pressley Harvin III has been the Steelers’ punter since the team drafted him in 2021, beating out incumbent Jordan Berry in training camp as a rookie. He was pretty much the de facto punter last season, with only token competition brought in for training camp.
This time, it figures to be tougher. The Steelers claimed Braden Mann off waivers from the New York Jets this offseason, and Mann comes with plenty of the same kinds of credentials that Harvin holds.
He was a sixth-round pick of the Jets in 2020 after winning the Ray Guy Award while at Texas A&M. He was the Jets’ primary punter the last three seasons, leading the NFL in punts (82) and yards (3,598) as a rookie in 2020. His career punting average is 45.4 yards. Harvin, who won the Ray Guy Award while at Georgia Tech, has a career average of 43.6.
Mann is the longer hitter with a career high of 72 yards. Harvin has a higher percentage of his kicks land inside the 20, and fewer go for a touchback. Their net yards per punt is just 0.2 off, with Harvin holding the slightest of edges.
In other words, these two are pretty evenly matched, and it should make for a spirited competition for the punt teams.
With the practice in helmets only on Thursday, and the heat making other drills barely bearable, Tomlin gave the punters a nice, long look in the first practice of training camp.
“Coming out and doing it on the first day just gets a little bit of the training camp nerves out,” Harvin said. “I really appreciate it, though, because it’s a lot of sitting around at training camp, sometimes, and it’s real monotonous. As soon as you get here, first day of work, and next thing you know, you have to be up, it gets you in that right mentality.”
Harvin said that since the end of the 2022 season, he’s been working on his body. The notoriously well-built punter is a little bit trimmer in 2023, dropping to several pounds, and he said he feels that work has helped his mental state, as well.
“I’m in the low 250s,” he said. “I feel great, and honestly, it’s the best I’ve felt, mentally, too. I think it’s one of the things where you push yourself in the offseason, so when you the season gets here, it really doesn’t psych you out as much.”
The big thing Harvin wants to prove this season is his ability to be more consistent than he has in his first two NFL seasons.
“Just the consistency,” he said. “The mental clarity is starting to really come and I’m really figuring out what to do. I’ve been here for two years now, going into year three. I know what I’m expected to do.”
The presence of stiff competition means that the Steelers haven’t been completely pleased with the product the last two seasons, but Harvin is certainly going to get a shot to keep his spot. He took the first-team reps on Thursday, with Mann chasing right behind.
It could be that way for a while in what could be a training camp-long battle.