UNITY TWP., Pa. — The Pittsburgh Steelers completed their eighth practice of training camp 2023 at Latrobe Memorial Stadium on Friday night. That means there are eight down and eight left to go.
The practice cadence slows the next few weeks, once preseason games start, so the team is not yet at the calendar midpoint of camp, but the halfway mark in terms of practice sessions makes for a good chance to re-evaluate our pre-camp predictions.
Quarterback (3): Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph
There is no change to the players, no change to the order, and there isn’t going to be. Fourth-stringer Tanner Morgan has yet to take a team rep. The easiest lock of the whole roster.
Running back (3): Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, Anthony McFarland
Anthony McFarland might have started training camp as a question mark, but he is firmly entrenched as the third running back at this point. The two things that changed there were the season-ending injury to rookie running back Alfonzo Graham, who had been the top challenger for that spot, and also that McFarland has looked outstanding throughout the first two weeks of training camp. He has excelled in blocking drills that gave him issues earlier in his career, and still has been explosive when he gets the ball in space.
Of the backs behind him, Darius Hagans has made the best case with his ball-carrying, but struggling in ball security and pass protection make him a practice squad option at best right now.
Wide receiver (5): Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, Allen Robinson II, Calvin Austin III, Gunner Olszewski.
We have our first change, as I’ve swapped Gunner Olszewski for Miles Boykin for the final wide receiver spot. That conversation could end up being moot, as the Steelers kept six wide receivers in the past, but the makeup of the rest of the offense below makes that a clumsy fit for 2023. Olszewski has been one of the best in terms of getting open for an offense that has struggled with separation at times throughout training camp, and has been a reliable red zone target, working mostly with the second team.
Meanwhile, when Diontae Johnson went down for a couple of days, it was Cody White, not Boykin, that was elevated from the second team to the first team to replace him. Boykin’s value has been primarily on special teams, but with the NFL once again attempting to reduce the number of kickoffs returned, Boykin’s primary special teams phase will be minimized in 2023.
Beyond those first six, Dez Fitzpatrick is probably making the most noise to make the roster, with him and White seemingly destined for the practice squad.
Tight end (4): Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry, Connor Heyward, Darnell Washington
Four tight ends has not been the norm, but without a fullback, and with only five wide receives, the Steelers can make this work. They’ll need to, as all four have been very good, and honestly, No. 5 Rodney Williams II has probably been deserving of a bigger role but is blocked by the talent ahead of him. The deepest group top to bottom on the team.
Tackle (3): Dan Moore Jr., Chukwuma Okorafor, Broderick Jones
The order between Dan Moore Jr. and Broderick Jones at left tackle is still very much up in the air, but both of them are clearly on the team one way or the other. Behind them has been kind of a black hole, with LeRaven Clark not having a good camp as the second-team right tackle, but seventh-round rookie Spencer Anderson seemingly unable to elevate his game to supplant him. Rookie free agent Dylan Cook has been a pleasant surprise, and has probably done enough to get a practice squad spot. This is a place the Steelers could look to make an external addition.
Guard (4): Isaac Seumalo, James Daniels, Kevin Dotson, Nate Herbig
Four guards feels like one too many, but here’s too much talent here to cut any of it. I’ll reiterate my thoughts that they should look to trade Kevin Dotson for something, because he has value but likely a very convoluted path to playing time. Nate Herbig has been the No. 3 guard when opportunities have arisen, even on the left side, where Dotson has usually played.
Center (2): Mason Cole, Kendrick Green
Kendrick Green has not been a great center so far this training camp, but the Steelers might have found a way to make him useful enough to keep on the 53-man roster. Green played three snaps of fullback in practice on Friday night, and looked good doing it. He’s always been a great athlete. They need a second center, and if Green can fill that role and be an occasional fullback, it makes keeping him a lot easier to swallow. Ryan McCollum has played some guard in addition to center, and versatility makes for good practice squad options.
Defensive line (7): Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, Breiden Fehoko, Armon Watts, DeMarvin Leal, Keeanu Benton, Montravius Adams, Isaiahh Loudermilk
I started this exercise with seven player on the defense line before training camp, but a couple things have changed my mind here. One has been the play of Isaiahh Loudermilk, who has shown serious strides in his third season with the team. As a defensive tackle that doesn’t rush the passer much, he could still pass to the practice squad, but I think he’s earned this spot. I say 7.5, because DeMarvin Leal has fairly evenly split his time between defensive line and outside linebacker, and I’m taking a spot away from the edge as a result.
Outside linebacker (5): T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Markus Golden, Nick Herbig, DeMarvin Leal
Leal playing a good bit of outside linebacker has been part of the change here. The other is that Nick Herbig has been outstanding as an undersized fourth-round edge rusher and now solidly not only has a spot in this group, he should be a regular part of the playing rotation at the position. Quincy Roche, on the other hand, has not stood out. Herbig can play special teams, so I don’t see the need to keep a fifth body solely at edge.
Inside linebacker (4): Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Kwon Alexander, Mark Robinson
The addition of Kwon Alexander makes this position fairly easy to figure out. There are four guys with significant, recent NFL experience playing inside linebacker. Those four are on the team. A player like Tanner Muse or Nick Kwiatkoski could make the squad based on special teams. Muse has been the better of those two, but neither has been outstanding. Keanu Neal playing some linebacker makes depth at this group even less important. Chapelle Russell has been solid enough to get invited back to the practice squad.
Safety (5): Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal, Kenny Robinson
The absence of Minkah Fitzpatrick from all of training camp, combined with injuries to Damontae Kazee and Neal, have made this a tough position to scout. Robinson has really excelled in his first season with the Steelers and seems to have grabbed a role. Tre Norwood has played some slot corner in the past, but has been almost exclusively at free safety thus far, and once Fitzpatrick and Kazee return, it’s hard to see him getting any reps there.
Cornerback (5): Patrick Peterson, Levi Wallace, Chandon Sullivan, Joey Porter Jr., James Pierre
I can’t see any of the first five on this list missing the cut. Sullivan is the only full-time slot cornerback they have, and with the aging Patrick Peterson the other option, they’re not going to go into the season without a backup for him.
The injury to Cory Trice means that James Pierre is the No. 4 outside cornerback, almost by default. The question could be whether they keep another slot behind Chandon Sullivan, with Elijah Riley, Norwood and Duke Dawson all options there. Feels like they should, given the injures, but I haven’t found a better way to put the roster together.
Specialist (3): Chris Boswell, Christian Kuntz, Pressley Harvin III
You can put Chris Boswell in ink. Christian Kuntz also seems fairly safe. The battle here is between Pressley Harvin III and Braden Mann at punter, but so far, it’s been all Harvin working with the first group. That’s a chance from my pre-camp guess.
Practice Squad (16): RB Darius Hagans, WR Dez Fitzpatrick, WR Cody White, WR Miles Boykin, TE Rodney Williams, OL Spencer Anderson, OL Ryan McCollum, OL Dylan Cook, DL Manny Jones, OLB Quincy Roche, OLB David Perales, ILB Tanner Muse, ILB Chapelle Russell, DB Tre Norwood, DB Elijah Riley, CB Duke Dawson
Injured Reserve (3): RB Alfonzo Graham, DT Renell Wren, CB Cory Trice