Steelers training camp sleepers for every defensive position

With the start of training camp now upon us, I felt it was a good time to have a look at some “sleepers” who could emerge from the preseason as a surprise. Those players are ones who aren’t talked about much or are somewhat lost in the shuffle of off-field distractions, such as contract negotiations, which overshadow their potential contributions.

Yesterday I took a look at the Steelers offense, hand selecting those players I felt how the potential to surprise us, or at least within their positional group, overachieve beyond our expectations.

Today I will do the same for the other side of the ball, as I examine the major position groups on Pittsburgh’s defense, analyzing those players I feel could make an impact at camp and in the upcoming exhibition games.

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DL – L.T. Walton

Like Landry Jones, it’s not often you classify a veteran as a sleeper. However, Walton didn’t receive his first NFL starts until December of 2016 and ended up performing so well that he continued on as the starter in place of Cameron Heyward.

The Steelers said goodbye to Ricardo Mathews and said hello to former Jaguar Tyson Alualu this offseason, yet, it’s Walton who could see more of the relief role for the returning Heyward and Stephon Tuitt this season, as more of a defensive end than a nose tackle in certain sub packages.

That makes him a sleeper who many have forgotten in the wake of Heyward’s return, Hargrave’s ascension to starter and the addition of Alualu.

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OLB – Keion Adams

Another overlooked player at a position of need is Western Michigan’s Keion Adams, who as the second outside linebacker selected by the Steelers in this year’s draft. The first, T.J. Watt, is consuming all of the preseason attention, but it’s Adams who could carve a niche for himself with a solid training camp.

The Steelers are still sticking onto veterans Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo heading into the preseason, but with neither secured beyond the 2017 season. James Harrison enters a two-year contract extension signed in March at 39 years of age, leaving only Watt and Bud Dupree as the immediate future at the position.

With the Steelers likely moving away from an outside linebacker rotation in 2017, Adams won’t see much playing time aside from special teams, but he’s a name fans shouldn’t sleep on to potentially crack the active roster should injury strike the position again.

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ILB – Steven Johnson

Yet another veteran on the roster who is all but forgotten, Steven Johnson re-signed with the Steelers this offseason after finishing his 2016 season on Injured Reserve.

The Steelers are currently thin at the inside linebacker position after the departure of Lawrence Timmons in free agency. Vince Williams steps into the starting role vacated by Timmons, which means someone will have to step into Williams’ role as a backup and special teamer.

Enter Johnson, who was in a similar role last season, as a roster bubble player who earned his spot on the 53-man roster by virtue of Pittsburgh placing Bud Dupree on Injured Reserve. Johnson is the oft-forgotten name for this year’s training camp battle between the inside backers: some feel Tyler Matakevich could make the leap to a solid backup and perhaps the Steelers time investment in L.J. Fort pays dividends down the road, but for now, the 2014 Pro Football Focus All-Pro selection is the leading candidate to come off of the bench in relief of Williams and Ryan Shazier.

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CB – Coty Sensabaugh

Coty Sensabaugh may have been a gigantic, high profile signing if the Steelers had added the cornerback to their roster as a free agent last season. Instead, Sensabaugh enters the Steelers camp as a low-key addition who played with two teams in 2016.

Sensabaugh’s role figures to be a depth player with experience who could act as a stop-gap if Pittsburgh’s two draft picks at the same position don’t pan out: Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen. Yet, Coty could compete for playing time and perhaps a starting role over slot corner William Gay and injured-riddled 2015 draft pick, Senquez Golson.

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S – Malik Golden

So much for Daimion Stafford being the sleeper at the safety position. Our pick on the Steel City Underground Podcast didn’t report to camp and has been replaced by our new pick, former Penn State safety Malik Golden. (I mean you can’t get any more low-key than joining the team less than two days ago!)

Stafford was a low-key free agent signing who had starting experience with the Tennesee Titans. He may have had the in-roads to a spot on the 53-man roster since the Steelers didn’t address the safety position via free agency or the NFL Draft.

His loss is Golden’s gain.

Currently, the team is looking at a depth chart with Mike Mitchell, and Sean Davis as the starters, with Robert Golden (no relation) and Jordan Dangerfield as the potential backups. There’s no safety net beyond those four players, and looking at how the secondary shook out last season, they’ll need all of the help they can get. But realistically speaking, the Steelers lack of attention toward the position this offseason leads me to believe they’ll stick with the four above, and retain extra cornerbacks rather than add a project such as Malik to the active roster. For the sake of this conversation, he’s the only sleeper we can pick, as Robert Golden secured a three-year deal last offseason and Jordan Dangerfield has been a sleeper for quite some time, dazzling us with a few fill-in performances in 2016.

Malik, on the other hand, will have to impress, and impress quickly. My gut feeling is that he is in the same position as Pitt’s Ray Vinopal was heading into camp last year: a local guy added to the roster who will see little, if any, preseason playing time.

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