It’s almost that time Steelers Nation. That time when players begin reporting to training camp.
Ahead of that day, I wanted to explore which names fans should become acquainted with, as in each year’s camp, there are a few names which enter as underdogs but leave with some notoriety.
Those “little known” names on my watchlist this year may not seem “little known” to diehard fans, but for those casual observers who may not know every transaction or may have forgotten about some previous additions to the team, the following players are ones you’ll want to put a checkmark by as the preseason unfolds.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize how good of a player Ryan Shazier was, and how his role on the team needed to be replaced this offseason.
The Steelers made a low-key free agent acquisition in former Colts linebacker Jon Bostic but failed to grab any of the top prospects at the position in the draft. However, one addition to the roster following the draft raised eyebrows: Florida State linebacker Matthew Thomas.
Thomas has all of the tools to play pro football and then some. However, a number of off-field situations shot holes into his draft stock and saw the player land in Pittsburgh as an undrafted college free agent.
With inside linebacker as a big need, Thomas will be a player to keep an eye on as someone with a legit chance of making the 53-man roster with a solid training camp.
I’m willing to bet most casual observers, especially those outside of Pittsburgh, have no idea who Tyler Matakevich is.
Heck, there are some Steelers fans who may not know who the former Temple inside linebacker is. That’s because “Dirty Red” (as he’s known behind the scenes) played all of 19 defensive snaps his rookie season, and then another 19 through twelve weeks last season before coming off of the bench to substitute for the injured Shazier.
Then, Matakevich would play 41 snaps in that game before he too was injured and lost for the season.
There’s speculation that the Steelers staff is really high on Matakevich, and their lack of movement to stock up on other inside linebackers would indicate that could be the case. Matakevich had a number of spectacular special teams plays last season, and while he’s not the most athletic player on the roster, appears to have incredible instincts.
Entering his third season with all eyes on who starts next to Vince Williams, Matakevich will be another name to watch as workouts continue.
Recently the Steelers have been heavily focused on upgrading their secondary. It began with drafting Artie Burns and Sean Davis in 2016 the continued with the selections of Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen a year later.
While Sutton spent a great deal of his rookie season on IR, Allen is the forgotten player of the bunch. The fifth-round draft pick is thought of as a developmental player with raw skill and the size of a receiver, a position he converted from to play one season as a defensive back in college.
Hence, Allen’s use on special teams. While the Steelers added Nat Berhe in free agency to replace the departing Robert Golden, we could see Allen compete for that spot and then some. The team never moved Allen off of the 53-man roster in 2017, which speaks volumes in terms of their reluctance to potentially lose him via waivers or another team who poaches their practice squad.
Another seventh-round pick, Adams missed all of his 2017 rookie campaign on Injured Reserve. That afforded the outside linebacker an opportunity to instead “redshirt” his first NFL season during a time where he’d have an uphill battle to make the roster.
If Adams excels, one of those slots should be his for the taking.
You don’t hear of utility players making much of a splash, but when veterans such as Ramon Foster are signing their praises in early offseason workouts, you may want to pay attention.
Samuels is that type of player. A touchdown machine at NC State, he led the Wolfpack in receptions while not having a defined position as a “do it all” player who lined up as a running back, fullback, tight end and wide receiver.
Samuels has even lined up under center in Wildcat formations, which makes his selection by the Steelers an interesting one… and one to watch unfold as he receives repetitions in practice and throughout the preseason.
This year’s second third-round pick didn’t make the same waves as Mason Rudolph’s selection did, but his addition to the team looms large following an injury to Jerald Hawkins that placed the would-be primary backup to Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert on IR.
Hawkins was lined up as the primary swing tackle following the departure of Chris Hubbard to the Cleveland Browns. With Hubbard gone and Hakwins hurt, Okorafor is in a position to potentially see a ton of playing time early on in his career.
Definitely keep an eye on his progress this preseason.
A pair of receivers rounds out the last names on this watchlist, starting with a preseason and practice squad standout: Marcus Tucker.
Tucker will enter his third training camp with a legitimate shot at making the roster. He’s hung around behind some incredibly deep and talented wide receiver groups. He has outlasted Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, Cobi Hamilton, Demarcus Ayers, and Eli Rogers which bodes in his favor; especially with Rogers currently unsigned, as Tucker is roughly the same size.
You may recall Tucker’s heroics in the final seconds of the final 2017 preseason game, where he caught two clutch passes for 15 and 34 yards which setup Josh Dobbs’ game-winning touchdown run as time expired. If he’s capable of continuing to make such plays, he could be one of the receivers to stick to the 53-man roster.
PITT football fans may be familiar with Henderson, who led the Panthers in all-purpose yards in 2017.
Those outside of Pittsburgh may not be as familiar with Quadree the “return specialist” who has taken several kicks to the house during his collegiate career including a 100-yard TD as a freshman and two punts returned for scores last season.
He’s also quite the runner and receiver, despite being undersized at the pro level (5’ 8”). Regardless, for a team that’s tried to replace Antonio Brown as a punt returner and always searching for kick return specialists, Henderson can also make a claim for a roster spot with a strong preseason.