On the Steelers: Offseason position battles surprisingly few


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Between the 2012 season and 2014, the Steelers will have undergone a transition they have not experienced in quite some time.

You can find 15 different projected starters today from those regulars in 2012. General manager Kevin Colbert balked when asked after the 2013 season about the Steelers being in transition, and maybe he was correct. Transformation would be a better word.

Yet for all those changes, there might be openings for only three starting jobs entering the first of the organized team activities, or spring practices, Tuesday on the South Side. There will be more new starters than that, such as Mike Mitchell at free safety for the departed Ryan Clark, but practical job openings to start are few.

How can that be for a team that has weeded out so many veterans and finished 8-8 the past two seasons? The answer would be that young players were put in place before today.

For example, the entire starting offensive line returns intact, sort of. Center Maurkice Pouncey is included even though he wasn't intact for all but the first series of the 2013 season, when he left with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. There could be competition at either tackle, but Marcus Gilbert started every game on the right last season and Kelvin Beachum started 11 games on the left after he replaced an ineffective Mike Adams. Adams has a long way to go to nudge either one from his perch.

No, the real competition to start should come in threes: One each at defensive end, inside linebacker and wide receiver.

That is not to say someone cannot convince the coaches between now and the regular season that he deserves to start over an incumbent -- just that there are three jobs truly open.

Here's a look at those and others that have a small chance to develop a competition in training camp:

Defensive end

The Steelers lost two in free agency, Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, and turned their backs on another, Brett Keisel. They signed Cam Thomas in free agency and drafted Stephon Tuitt in the second round. Thomas played mostly nose tackle in San Diego and lost his starting job in the final quarter of last season. The Steelers say he can play nose tackle and end. Cameron Heyward a few weeks ago referred to him as a swing man, a backup at both spots.

They also have inexperienced Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams at end. There's always the chance someone such as Daniel McCullers, Hebron Fangupo or Thomas could play nose tackle and put Steve McLendon into play at end.

Our projection to start: Tuitt, and they can live with his rookie mistakes.

Inside linebacker

Vince Williams returns after being thrust into a starting job as a rookie after Larry Foote was knocked out for the season and Kion Wilson failed in his two starts. Terence Garvin, who started one game for the injured Williams near the end, also is present. This should be a no-brainer for coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Our projection to start: Rookie Ryan Shazier, and again they can live with his rookie mistakes.

Wide receiver

The Steelers lost three of their top four receivers in the past 14½ months in Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. Antonio Brown is the one constant in the new group and not a bad place to start. Everyone else is virtually new.

The Steelers signed veteran Lance Moore in March after Moore, 30, was cut by the Saints in what appeared to be a salary dump. They also signed disappointing former Oakland first-rounder Darrius Heyward-Bey as a free agent. They drafted Martavis Bryant of Clemson in the fourth round.

Returning is Markus Wheaton, their third-round pick in 2013 who caught six passes as a rookie, three in his only start against Minnesota in the fourth game of the season. He missed four games with a hand injury and had surgery after the season.

Among others of note at the position are Derek Moye and Justin Brown.

This is a group that needs to come up to speed quickly with Ben Roethlisberger, who pushed hard for the Steelers to re-sign Cotchery. Moore will take Cotchery's spot in the slot and it's possible he could start when they deploy two receivers. But they need someone to play that split end or "X" spot, the one formerly occupied by Wallace, then Sanders.

Our projection for split end: Wheaton.

Elsewhere

Other possible competitive positions besides offensive tackle:

There is a chance a change could occur at nose tackle, where McLendon started last season after Casey Hampton was not brought back. Thomas, Fangupo or McCullers could make a play for that job. We just do not see that happening.

The Steelers traded their third-round choice in this year's draft in order to select safety Shamarko Thomas in 2013. It does not appear he will start in his second season because Troy Polamalu is in front of him at strong safety and Mitchell was the team's top signing in free agency to play free safety.

There will be no competition at cornerback, where the top three are Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay. Shaquille Richardson, a fifth-rounder this year, will get an opportunity to play, but it's our contention he will not crack that top three.


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