With two weeks of preseason action in the books, we're fast approaching roster cuts that will determine who makes the team and who doesn't. Across the NFL, coaching staffs are losing sleep over contentious position battles, and scrambling to evaluate enigmatic depth players.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no different. Overall, they're getting a bit long in the tooth, but head coach Mike Tomlin and his crew have to be ecstatic about how many of their youngsters are exhibiting real potential. The infusion of young talent in Pittsburgh's camp has a real shot to drive down the Steelers' median age and to make the team better.
1. Maurkice Pouncey, C, 21 years old
It's difficult to understate just how good Pouncey has looked this preseason. He's been tenacious, aggressive, and strong, completely capable of holding the center of the line in pass protection and driving defenders (often more than one of them) down the field to create running lanes. Pouncey has also displayed impressive agility and speed for a man his size, which will allow the offense to run more screen plays (finally) and outside handoffs that require the offensive line to pull and run down field.
There's almost no question that Pouncey will start; it's really just a matter of where. The smart money is on center, his natural position, and not guard. Pouncey has clearly looked better than incumbent starter Justin Hartwig, who might have been a cap casualty by now if not for the uncapped year. It's pretty scary to think of how good Pouncey could be after a few years of professional conditioning -- it usually takes rookies, particularly offensive lineman and particularly 21-year-olds, some time to grow into their frames. Nonetheless, Pouncey may already be the best offensive lineman on the team.
The sky is truly the limit. In fact, if Maurkice's performance thus far tells us anything about the Pouncey gene pool, maybe the Steelers can just go ahead and sign twin brother Mike at right guard?
2. Ziggy Hood, LE, 23 years old
We have yet to see much in the way of preseason production, but reports on Hood's progress this offseason have been nothing but glowing. That's good for the Steelers, whose front three starters' average age is over 32. Hood's versatility makes him the ideal candidate to spell Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith, or perhaps even nose tackle Casey Hampton, keeping the veterans fresh for the marathon season. Here's defensive line coach John Mitchell:
"There's no time limit on playing time [for Hood]. He can play both ends and on the nose. So, the more he can do, the better it will be. He's a young guy, and he's smart. Ziggy played tackle when he was at Missouri, and I'll get him some (practice) snaps here. But it's not to get him on the field more. You need to have guys who are versatile, and Ziggy has become very versatile. You always want your best players on the field, and we believe Ziggy is one of our best linemen."
With a year under his belt of transitioning from a 4-3 defensive tackle to a 3-4 defensive end, Hood is poised to be a surprise contributor on defense this year, even if his snaps are limited. (Which might not be the case if anyone among the aging defensive line falls to injury -- again.) Maybe he'll be to 2010 what LaMarr Woodley was to 2008.
3. Joe Burnett, CB, 23 years old
There have already been reports that Keenan Lewis could push former starter Bryant McFadden for a role opposite Ike Taylor. But what about Burnett, the "other" Steelers cornerback drafted in 2009? He's looked good enough to lock down the nickleback position, holding his own against one of the best, most physically imposing receivers in the game (Calvin Johnson, pictured above), defending one pass, and notching four tackles in Detroit. For an encore, Burnett snagged an interception and defended two more passes this weekend against the Giants. If Burnett can keep it up, there's no way William Gay will beat him out for dimeback duties. With Taylor aging and in a contract year, it's critical that the Steelers continue to develop and evaluate young defensive backs like Burnett and Lewis.
4. Antonio Brown, WR, 22 years old
Brown was twice named the special teams player of the year in the Mid-American conference during his career at Western Michigan, so it's no surprise to see him vying for the Steelers return duties this year. Stefan Logan, his main competition, was effective last year, averaging nearly 27 yards per return. However, Logan doesn't really bring another skill set to the offense (he had only one touch from scrimmage in 2009), whereas Brown appears to be a budding receiving option for five-wide sets.
Behind starters Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, there's real uncertainty in the receiving corps. Arnaz Battle figures to be an occasional option through the air and a standout contributor in special teams, but it's hardly a certainty that Antwaan Randle El will maintain the third spot on the depth chart. There's really no reason Brown can't make this team, perhaps even as the third or fourth option at wideout.
5. Stevenson Sylvester, ILB, 22 years old
Linebackers coach Keith Butler described the Steelers' depth at the inside backer position as "a nice problem to have." With established starters James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons in the way, as well as productive, proven backups Keyaron Fox and Larry Foote, Sylvester may not control his own destiny. Nonetheless, he's shown real upside during the preseason, leading the team with seven tackles in Pittsburgh's debut against the Lions, and shooting up the middle for a sack against the Giants on Saturday night.
Still, Sylvester's success inside won't be enough, despite ideal size and strength. If he's going to make the cut, he needs to prove he can be a force on kickoff coverage, a unit that struggled mightily in 2009. Reportedly, Sylvester is working hard to make the necessary physical strides and adjust to the learning curve of going pro. Hopefully, the Steelers don't lose the promising young linebacker by cutting him in September and hoping he's still around for the practice squad.
6. Dennis Dixon, QB, 25 years old
What else does this guy have to do to win the temporary starting job while Ben Roethlisberger serves a suspension? While reports out of training camp have been mixed, there's no denying Dixon's production in game situations. After two preseason contests, he's completed 13 of 15 passes for 210 yards (a whopping 14 yards per attempt), recorded 58 yards on the ground (11 attempts), and completely protected the football (no turnovers).
I've written at great length about why Dixon is the obvious choice over sloth-like alternative Byron Leftwich, but I think I could stomach the latter if Tomlin at least gave Dixon some preseason time with the first-team offense. Even the staunchest Leftwich apologists have to concede that Dixon has earned it.