In a perfect world, Steelers receiver Justin Brown would not have participated in rookie minicamp for a second consecutive year. The camp’s name suggests Brown was out of place, which he was as the only 2013 draft pick that had to take part in the three-day camp.
Brown was selected in the sixth round last year and did not make the 53-man roster. He spent the season on the practice squad, which made him eligible to participate in the camp for the second year in a row with other members of the 2013 practice squad, the 2014 draft choices and undrafted free agents.
Brown, who came to the Steelers after playing for Penn State and Oklahoma, said his second go-round at rookie minicamp stood in stark contrast to his first.
“It’s a lot different having that year under my belt, just knowing the system,” Brown said. “My first year, I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Now, I’m more comfortable and I can just play.”
Brown hopes to carry that confidence over into offseason training activities, which begin next week at the team’s training facility on the South Side. He will be in a battle to make the 53-man roster again this season.
The Steelers lost two of their top three receivers to free agency when Emmanuel Sanders signed with Denver and Jerricho Cotchery signed with Carolina. They signed Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey in free agency and drafted former Clemson speedster Martavis Bryant in the fourth round to go along veteran Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton, the third-round pick in 2013 who figures to begin training camp as the other starter.
Moore was signed to replace Cotchery, and Bryant figures to make the team. That leaves one spot for Brown, Heyward-Bey and Derek Moye, who beat out Brown for the final roster spot last season.
“I’m not worried about the numbers game,” Brown said. “I’m trying to get better and not getting caught up in who they drafted. You’ll have to compete no matter what. This is the NFL.”
Brown and Moye played together at Penn State, and Moye, an undrafted free agent, beat the odds by taking a roster spot from a draft pick. Moye made the team after a strong preseason and ended up dressing for eight games. He caught two passes for 20 yards, including one for a touchdown in the second game of the season at Cincinnati.
One advantage Brown has over Moye is his ability to play special teams. He is working with special teams coach Danny Smith this spring in hopes of making himself more valuable to the coaches. Moye was not deployed much on special teams last season.
“They say all the time if you’re not a starter you have to be on one of the special teams, so that’s what I’m shooting for,” Brown said. “I’m just trying to do whatever I have to do to contribute to the team. Having another year under my belt and being more comfortable with the offense and with Danny Smith on special teams, I’m doing whatever I can do.”
In the end, it will come down to how much Brown has improved as a receiver. As a rookie, he knew only one position. He’ll enter this season with the ability to play all three.
Brown is hoping his year as an understudy leads to a larger role on the active roster this season.
“I just worked on the little things, working on the top of my breaks, using my body,” Brown said. “I spent a lot of time watching the vets in the last year, guys like [Cotchery], [Brown] and Emmanuel [Sanders], watching film of them, trying to be a better all-around football player.
“You definitely get a better feel for it. That year being on the practice squad, watching the vets and the starters and learning from them, I tried to add some things to better myself as a receiver.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.