Training camp has kicked off for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and there is no shortage of excitement surrounding a team that looks to be contenders again this year.  Camp should provide some clues about whether or not the Steelers — who made it to the AFC Championship game last season — have improved enough to loosen the New England Patriots’ stranglehold on the AFC.

The Steelers, a team full of youth, will go as far as their young players take them this season.  Training camp will showcase which youngsters have taken steps forward in their development.  It will also be interesting to see which rookies , if any, are ready to make an impact right away.

The Steelers have the second-most talented roster in the NFL, at least according to Gil Brandt of NFL.com in his ranking of the NFL’s 10 most talented teams.  With such a talent-rich team, there is certainly no shortage of players to watch in training camp.

Here are five names to keep an eye on:

TJ Watt

At six-foot four and 236 pounds, the rookie linebacker certainly possesses enough size to make an immediate impact.  He also has plenty of speed and athleticism to dominate — his combine performance was very similar to that of Green Bay Packers star linebacker Clay Matthews.  However, Watt is not a finished product, and there are two factors that could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time right away.

First, he only had one full year of experience at linebacker in college; he originally signed with Wisconsin to play tight end, and later made a position switch.  Second, Pittsburgh’s zone-blitz defense is notoriously difficult to learn, and usually takes young players a while to fully grasp.

Pittsburgh doesn’t like to give defensive rookies meaningful playing time right away, but Watt has a chance to earn it in training camp and the pre-season.  The team will give him every opportunity to do so, as they are desperate for someone to help reduce the workload for 39-year old James Harrison.

Senquez Golson

Here’s a name Steelers fans probably forgot about.  Golson was Pittsburgh’s second-round pick in 2015, but still has yet to play in a regular season game due to injuries.  Perhaps this is the year the former Ole Miss cornerback shakes the injury bug and shows what he can do.

Golson was one of the most skilled cornerbacks in his draft class, but fell to the second round due to his lack of size.  He certainly has potential, with good speed and excellent ball-hawk skills — he had 9 interceptions in his final season of college while playing in arguably the best conference in the nation.  However, it remains to be seen if that potential has taken a hit from the injuries.

The Steelers are in need of playmakers in the secondary.  Regardless of his injury history, Golson will be given the opportunity to prove he’s a starter.  Of course, he will have to stay healthy for that to happen.

Martavis Bryant

The team is thrilled to have Bryant back after he sat out the entire 2016 season due to suspension.  The offense missed his speed and playmaking ability, and had trouble finding a legitimate number two option to replace him.

Has Bryant put the substance abuse and depression issues behind him?  The Steelers are nervous that he hasn’t, which is what prompted them to select  Juju Smith-Schuster with their second-round pick.

Also, what kind of shape will Bryant be in after being out of football for an entire season?  The receiver says he spent the past year training, and claims to have put on 20-pounds of muscle since being suspended.  There will almost certainly be an adjustment period, as you would expect for someone who missed a full year of football.  The question is, how far behind is he, and will he be able to knock the rust off before the regular season begins?

Jesse James

Following the release of Ladarius Green, the team elected to forego selecting a single tight end from what was considered a deep draft class at the position.  It appears that Pittsburgh has confidence in James, as there is little doubt he will be the starter.

James, Pittsburgh’s 2015 fifth-round pick, has been a pleasant surprise as he enters his third year in the league. The former Penn State Nittany Lion was a reliable security blanket for Ben Roethlisberger last season, catching 39 passes for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns.

If there’s been any knock on his game, it’s his lack of ability as a downfield receiver.  Thus far in his career, James has proven to be primarily an underneath and red-zone target.  Will the tight end be able to take another step in his development and establish himself as a downfield option?

Vince Williams

It appears that Williams be the other starting middle linebacker beside Ryan Shazier this year.  The spot was formerly held by Lawrence Timmons, who decided to take his talents to Miami in the off-season.  The Steelers believe Williams is more than capable of sliding into a starting role at this point in his career.

It’s never easy to replace a Pro Bowl linebacker and long-time defensive leader, but the team has faith in Williams.  The question is, how far of a drop-off will there be?

Williams is entering his fifth season with the team, and spent each of his first four seasons as a reserve.  Training camp will provide the first look at the 27-year old linebacker as a starter.

 

 

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