With training camp set to open for the six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers this coming weekend, let's take a look at some of the more interesting positional battles to keep an eye on during the team's camp at St. Vincent's College in Latrobe.
1. Dennis Dixon vs. Byron Leftwich - The battle between the two quarterbacks will be the reason the national media pays any attention to the Steelers during the early weeks of the preseason. The reason, of course, is Ben Roethlisberger's suspension, but leaving aside the story of his off-field transgressions, the competition between Dixon and Leftwich is interesting in its own right. Unlike many teams faced with the prospect of losing their starting quarterback, the Steelers have reason to be optimistic that they can stay above water with either of their next two options. The competition essentially comes down to whether or not Dixon can prove that he has more upside than Leftwich at this point in their careers; if Dixon can show that he has at least close to the same grasp of Bruce Arians' offense; and if Leftwich can prove that his heightened experience makes him the safe bet to start the season.
2. Bryant McFadden vs. William Gay/Keenan Lewis/Joe Burnett - Who will win the battle to play opposite Ike Taylor at the second starting cornerback position? Will it be the veteran McFadden, a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Steelers who was reacquired on draft day? Will it be William Gay, an experienced and still-young corner who endured a lot of growing pains? Or will it be either Lewis or Burnett, 2009 rookies who played sparsely last year and struggled when given the rare opportunity? There are arguments to be made for all four, really, even Gay, who drew the ire of Steeler Nation with his mistakes a year ago. More than likely, though, McFadden will win the starting job, with the other three sprinkled in on nickel and dime packages.
3. Ziggy Hood vs. Aaron Smith/Brett Keisel - It's a safe bet that Keisel and Smith will be the two starters playing alongside Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense, but after Hood's strong finish last season, not to mention Smith's recent injury woes, it's possible that Hood could find himself starting a healthy number of games in 2010. Keisel and Smith are both over 30, and the Steelers should begin to work Hood into the rotation more regularly. Smith in particular should be watched closely. He's returning from a torn rotator cuff, an excruciatingly painful injury. Smith is the ultimate warrior, but it wouldn't be too surprising if he was somewhat limited in '10 as he works his way back into the brutal NFL.
4. Emmanuel Sanders vs. Antonio Brown - In a recent exchange I had with Sanders on Twitter, I asked him which rookies he'd been spending the most time with and getting along with best. His answer? Fellow wide receiver Antonio Brown. That's a good thing. The two already have a healthy friendship and will certainly push each other to get better this year and in years to come. In 2010, though, my guess is while either or both might make a splash as a kick or punt returner, only one will have much of an opportunity to make an impact at wide receiver. You know Hines Ward and Mike Wallace will occupy the top two slots; it's also safe to assume that, given his experience, Antwaan Randle El will be trusted with the No. 3 duties to start the year. And if Arnaz Battle can show something on special teams during training camp and the preseason, I'd bet that he locks down a roster spot for special teams purposes. That leaves Sanders and Brown battling it out for one of the final precious gameday helmets to start the year.
5. Jonathan Dwyer vs. Isaac Redman vs. Justin Vincent - There's plenty of optimism surrounding Jonathan Dwyer, the sixth-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech. The compact, hard-running back could have been a first or second round pick heading into his senior season, but fell down draft boards this spring for a number of reasons, some of which Steeler Nation have assessed to be less than legitimate. Dwyer could help improve the Steelers' efficiency in short yardage running situations as a complement to Rashard Mendenhall. Third down back Mewelde Moore is still an asset because of his versatility (though he could be a camp casualty because of his nearly $2 million salary), but he's no longer really suited to shoulder much of the load in the running game. That leaves Dwyer, Redman and Vincent as the most likely candidates to emerge as a secondary running threat behind Mendenhall.
Bonus: Jason Worilds vs. Thaddeus Gibson vs. Andre Frazier - It's clear that Dick LeBeau and the Steelers are intent on finding depth to sprinkle into the rotation with LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison at outside linebacker. Clearly, Frazier is not a guy who's going to see many snaps on the defensive side of the ball. If he was, he would have been the last two years. In fact, if all goes according to plan (i.e. both Woodley and Deebo stay healthy), the duo should see the vast majority of the snaps on defense, but if Worilds and Gibson prove to be capable headhunters on special teams, I wouldn't be surprised to see LeBeau work in either Worilds or Gibson throughout the year to help keep the starters fresh come December. We all know how much the Steelers struggled on coverage units last year, and the best way for either of the two rookies to secure a helmet would be to demonstrate value on special teams. That goes for Frazier too, who could easily keep his job in 2010 by outplaying the two rookies on special teams this next month.
We're getting close. Who's ready for some football?