The NFL preseason is upon us Steelers Nation! That can only mean one thing… mediocre football is to be played!
Okay, I say that tongue in cheek, because we all know the purpose of exhibition games it to evaluate new talent and minimize risk to your current millionaires. That means some timing is off, some rhythm is out of sync, and some sloppy football will be played. You can expect nothing less from a roster of 90 players, many of whom have never appeared in a game with one another.
Still, there is much to be gained from the four preseason games on the Steelers schedule. This will be an opportunity for fringe players to impress in a game-like setting, to potentially secure a spot on the final 53-man roster (or hang around on the team’s practice squad).
Here are five players who stand to gain the most by playing against the New York Giants on Friday night.
With Ben Roethlisberger sitting out as a veteran privilege and Landry Jones effectively out with an abdominal injury, all eyes in Pittsburgh will be fixated on fourth-round draft pick Joshua Dobbs to make his first start under center.
The rookie quarterback obviously has the most to gain, as he’s the first quarterback taken by the Steelers since Landry Jones in 2013, and only the third taken in Mike Tomlin’s eleven drafts. (The other? Oregon’s Dennis Dixon in 2008.)
That makes a new quarterback all the more exciting, especially with the continuing talks of an impending Big Ben retirement. Dobbs could be a developmental project, a total flop, or this year’s Dak Prescott draft steal. This game will go a long way in showcasing what the Tennessee quarterback can do, playing with the better crop of “starters” in this preseason game.
Another fourth round pick, this time from the 2016 NFL Draft, Jerald Hawkins barely had an opportunity to show us what he could do last preseason. The left tackle played 46 in the first game against the Detroit Lions before disappearing and eventually landing on the injured reserve list for the rest of the year.
So why did I choose Hawkins over other offensive linemen?
First, the Steelers invested a draft pick in Hawkins. They need to find out if that investment should continue. They appear to like Chris Hubbard, and rightfully so, as Hubbard impressed enough in relief duty to become the team’s jumbo package “tight end”. However, Hubbard is only signed through 2017.
B.J. Finney is a lock to make the roster as the team’s backup center and guard. Seeing as Hubbard wasn’t expected to play tackle, and was forced into the role following injuries to Marcus Gilbert and backup swing tackle Ryan Harris last season, the team will need to sort out its depth at the position.
Alejandro Villanueva may see some time this preseason, but taking into account his new contract, and facing the fact he’s all but out for this game after entering the concussion protocol from Sunday’s practice, I doubt the coaching staff wants him on the field for any extended period of time. The extra reps are more valuable for Hawkins to grow and get some in-game experience as well. What he does with it is in his own hands.
We’re all gushing over Fitzgerald’s camp thus far, but now it’s time to put up or shut up.
That may sound harsh, but if James Conner returns to fully healthy, Toussaint’s snap count could dwindle. Friday is his time to show that he can play like he practices.
Matakevich had been leading the defensive play calling with the second team, so seeing Fort’s name directly behind Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams in the pecking order came as a shock. That surprise could only last for one game, however. I wouldn’t expect Shazier to play much, if at all, as he’s been banged up in camp as well.
If Fort doesn’t rise to the occasion, he could be sitting out reps with the one’s and two’s the rest of the preseason. Quite frankly, Fort may have the most to lose if he doesn’t make the most of his situation this week.
The last training camp darling is Mike Hilton, a corner who has been tenacious throughout the Steelers offseason programs.
Can the cornerback play mistake-free football and live up to his camp hype in a game setting?
That’s the question which needs to be answered. If he underwhelms, and the remaining defensive backs return to practice, this could be Hilton’s only shot to prove he’s worthy of making the final roster.