The Steelers training camp sessions are underway and with the first week of training camp in the rearview mirror, some guys are already staking their claims as big winners. Who are some of the guys that are big winners out of the first week without pads on?
RB Anthony McFarland
The RB3 battle was one I circled coming into training camp as a battle that could be hotly contested. But honestly, after the first week, it doesn’t seem very hot. That can obviously pick up, but blame Anthony McFarland for my thoughts on that. McFarland has been far and away the best running back out of that group and it seems the Steelers have legitimate plans for the running back this season.
McFarland’s shown good hands and his route running is stunningly crisp. He has aligned out of the slot and run the full slot route tree to great success in the first week of training camp. The Steelers know what they have here to a degree and are using him in pony (2 RB) sets. McFarland has seized that role laid out for him early on in training camp and looks great doing it.
The run periods will tell us some more about where McFarland truly is at this juncture, but there is little doubt that the fourth-year veteran has a role that can be carved out. Quick tunnel screens, slant routes, texas routes, out routes, there’s just so much he can do and the Steelers have envisioned for him.
LB Cole Holcomb
The Steelers did not get to see much of Cole Holcomb in the spring as the linebacker recovered from off-season foot surgery. However, the linebacker has proven to be great so far in practice. The coverage skills that Holcomb has flashed are what really catches your attention. Sure, he has been beaten downfield at times, by guys like Calvin Austin III, but his coverage against skill players, tight ends, and running backs to be specific, has been really good.
Holcomb has taken the reins of the defense and seems to be a leader that is respected by everyone on that side of the ball. He’s rightly been the best linebacker on the field so far. The Steelers should be encouraged by the direction of that from Holcomb and where the defense is going.
CB Joey Porter Jr.
Joey Porter Jr. will be only the first rookie to appear on this list but I really like what I’ve seen from him without the pads on. Secondary coach Grady Brown has worked on his false steps and footwork through his transitions more fluidly. It’s not all there yet, but Porter Jr. is starting to get there. I think a lot of people mistake his clunkiness for hip tightness, but his hips don’t look very tight. His footwork is very clunky.
Regardless, his length has shown up in a big way early on. It minimizes speed when he goes up against guys. Now, Diontae Johnson and his pure route running have given Porter Jr. some trouble. But he’s competed and risen to the occasion against Johnson on some reps, too. I saw him grow over this week and really flash his strengths throughout the practices. Porter Jr. is a bit more scheme versatile than given credit for and has already seen the full route tree.
OLB Nick Herbig
The rookie who has had the most seamless week is LB Nick Herbig. He just checks all the boxes off in regards to outside linebacker without pads. Herbig has flashed his bend and explosiveness. His new ghost move, which he learned from T.J. Watt, is turning out to be a great move to complement his rip and dip and a long arm that he implemented into his repertoire with the ghost move.
I am confident he has the pass-rush chops to be a serious sub-package and passing-down rusher. Does he need to become a hybrid who can off-ball or can he stick at outside linebacker full time? We will have to wait until Tuesday when the pads come on and he shows his run defense. But I will say, when he was in coverage, Herbig looked fluid and able to play in that role.
WR George Pickens
Pickens is showing just the type of nuance you want from a guy who is trying to make a year one to two leap. He’s shown some new shake and bake in his routes. I like his ability to decipher zones. Moreover, Pickens seems to have opened up a new route tree. The digs, slants, posts, corners, and other routes that are showing up in his route tree more frequently make his game more colorful and effective than just the standard go ball he saw in his rookie season.
Pickens seems destined to have a second-year leap, and I think he can do it. He might never be an elite separator, but Pickens has enough tools at his disposal to be a more than effective receiver playing his unique way and winning through the ways he does. The start to camp just shows that.