It’s real easy to speculate about training camp and make predictions, but all that goes out the window once the players arrive at St. Vincent and put on the pads. You never know if draft picks will show the talent that got them drafted or if veterans will arrive conditioned. Each year players ranging from futures contract players to veteran free agents shock us all with their talent. Some surprise because nobody was high on them and some surprise despite having hype going in.
Here are five Steelers who have stood out at training camp so far…
Artie Burns (CB)
Comparing to last years camp is night and day for Artie Burns. The rookie nerves are gone for the 2016 first round pick and Burns has been flaunting his new confidence, a necessity to play cornerback in this league. His camp has truly been an example of “iron sharpens iron.” Burns has been assigned to shadow Antonio Brown in every rep of every drill. While Brown unsurprisingly has won more reps than Burns, he has had far more success covering the star receiver compared to last year. While a given that we expect a 1st round pick to play well, his demeanor, development, and success covering Antonio Brown is encouraging and shows he is up for the task of being the Steelers #1 cornerback.
Mike Hilton (CB)
Another cornerback makes the list, but Mike Hilton’s story is different. Hilton may not have the height and draft pedigree of Burns, but he has the fire. He only stands at 5’9 but he plays like a much bigger corner and has impressed throughout camp with his aggressiveness and football instincts. Though likely limited to only playing slot cornerback, it’s better to have a player who excels at one spot than one who is below average at multiple spots. With no clear starter at slot corner because of William Gay‘s age and injuries to Senquez Golson and Cam Sutton, Hilton has a prime opportunity to make the 53 man roster. As SCU’s Zach Metkler wrote, Hilton could be the unexpected answer to our secondary.
Justin Hunter (WR)
Though a lot of people are focused on Martavis Bryant‘s return and rookie 2nd round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster, the wide receiver who’s been the biggest surprise is Justin Hunter. Pegged as a camp sleeper early on, Hunter has certainly stood out with his size and athleticism. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has enjoyed utilizing his new 6’4 target, who’s been highly targeted in the red zone during drills. Hunter’s biggest obstacles are his mental lapses that lead to dropped passes and the Steelers depth at wide receiver. One factor that has benefited Hunter is that third-year wide receiver Sammie Coates, who profiles similarly to Hunter, has been held out of camp due to an injury. If Hunter can prove to be a consistent option and take advantage of the opportunity he has, he may steal Coates’ roster spot.
Fitzgerald Toussaint (RB)
Many people, including myself, were down on Fitzgerald Toussaint going into camp. His 2016 season was disappointing and absent of any memorable plays. On 53-man roster projections, it was a popular choice to have free agent signing Knile Davis make the team over the veteran. Things changed though once we got to camp – Toussaint arrived ready to play. He is in the best shape of his life now, reportedly losing roughly 20 pounds over the offseason. All reports on him from camp says he’s been comfortable, confident, and has shined. Many thought not too long ago that Toussaint’s roster spot was in jeopardy, but as of now, the running back’s roster spot seems secure. Toussaint is a prime example of what a player needs to do to keep their job and prove they deserve it.
Alejandro Villanueva (OT)
I’m sure nobody expected anything other than excellence from Alejandro Villanueva going into camp. The recently inked tackle has steadily improved each year with the team and is arguably the best left tackle the Steelers have had in years. Why I felt inclined to add him to this list is because of his performance versus 1st round pick TJ Watt. The rookie got nothing but high praise throughout the offseason, with coaches and players raving about his technique and athleticism. Villanueva proved to be a reality check for Watt, for he has reportedly won most matchups in the 1-on-1 drills. I don’t see this as a hit on Watt but as a testament to Villanueva’s improvement over the years. He is now the established veteran who will bully the rookies and help teach them what it’s like to face an NFL offensive tackle.