The Jacksonville Jaguars released veteran running back Leonard Fournette on Monday, reigniting speculation that the Pittsburgh Steelers could be interested in the former No. 4 overall NFL Draft selection.
Fournette rushed for 2,631 yards in his three seasons with the Jaguars, including a 1,152-yard season in 15 games in 2019. But the LSU product also grew dissatisfied with his situation in Jacksonville, requesting a trade over the offseason.
That trade, in which the Steelers were frequently suggested a partner, never materialized, and Fournette was waived on Monday.
Though the Steelers were a repeatedly rumored destination for Fournette in a trade, the circumstances are much different now.
The Steelers used one of their 2020 NFL Draft selections on running back Anthony McFarland, Jr. from Maryland, and he impressed through the first two weeks of his first training camp.
The Steelers have also already gone through their cycle of restructuring their contracts to get salary cap compliant for the 2020 season. Fournette is owed $4.2 million in salary for 2020 that would have to be absorbed if the Steelers or another team claimed him on waivers. The Steelers do not have that amount of cap space available, meaning they would have to begin the process of renegotiating a contract in order to make space very quickly.
There also isn’t a player in the Steelers running backs room that they could release in order to realize any cap savings if they landed Fournette, as their entire running backs room consists of players on their rookie contracts or for near the veteran minimum.
The combination of factors makes it seem unlikely that Fournette will end up with the Steelers, especially considering the fact that they likely could have acquired him for very little earlier this offseason and chose not to. But until he lands elsewhere, it seems likely that the speculation will continue and it’s a situation worth monitoring.
Eric Ebron is standing out in a very good way at training camp thus far. James Daniel noted on Tuesday that Ebron “had made a few splash plays” already in camp, and he continued that on Wednesday, not even a day after being called the “missing link” to the offense by fellow tight end Vance McDonald.
On Wednesday, Ebron skied over All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to make an impressive contested catch. Later in the team sessions, Ebron laid out to make a fantastic diving catch for a touchdown. Those were the key two plays Ebron flashed in the passing game. Daniel praised Ebron’s receiving skillset.
“Ebron’s calling card for the time he’s been in the League is pass-catching ability, and he’s got some quickness, some speed, route-running stuff that a lot of guys don’t have,” Daniel said.
With the team raving about the energy he brings to the table as well, Ebron’s stock is shooting through the roof.
After much criticism throughout a lackluster 2019, Ryan Switzer showed up to training camp looked more shredded than ever before. He was battling for a roster spot, and showing up in the best shape of his life is a good way to impress the coaches. Even with his close relationship with Ben Roethlisberger, Switzer had to prove himself. As the only pure slot on the roster, Switzer has a unique skill set, which Tomlin acknowledged on Wednesday.
“He’s a guy that understands that’s a niche for him,” Tomlin said. “He embraces the detail required to be successful in there. He will continue to carve out his role in this process like everybody else is, but he does bring that unique experience to that position specifically.”
Switzer made a leaping grab over Mike Hilton on Tuesday for a touchdown, and caught yet another touchdown Wednesday in the two-minute team session along the sideline. It was a broken play by Roethlisberger, and Switzer worked the scramble drill with him to connect for the touchdown. Switzer also caught a key pass on a 3rd and 12 play to convert for a first down in the same two-minute drill session. Truth be told, it seems Switzer is on a mission.
“I have to prove No. 7 (Ben Roethlisberger) right. I have to prove a lot of people right,” Switzer said. That’s what I’ve been focused on. I haven’t focused on the people I’m trying to prove wrong. I’m trying to prove Coach Tomlin and Mr. Colbert and Mr. Rooney right.”
It seems Switzer is making a very strong case to make the 53-man roster at this point as the slot specific receiver on the team.
It was a big day on Wednesday for the inside linebackers, as all of the big three made plays that stood out. Devin Bush made a fantastic play on Anthony McFarland. Bush kept pace with McFarland all the way down the field on a deep pass and made a play in the end zone to bat the ball away. In the team sessions, Bush batted yet another ball away from McFarland.
Vince Williams had a standout rep, as he stayed patient and knocked the ball away from Kerrith Whyte in the linebacker-running back coverage drill. Ulysees GIlbert III continues to delight in camp as he registered a few pass breakups on the day both in the drills and in the team session.
For a unit with some depth concerns, the flashes from all three linebackers atop the depth chart are promising.
While Roethlisberger continues to get lots of praise at training camp, his backup, Mason Rudolph, struggled on Wednesday. In the no-huddle drill, Rudolph did not complete a single pass. After that, he switched to the two-minute drill, where errant passes and a drop hurt the drive from even getting off the ground.
Rudolph should have been intercepted on a few passes but was not due to bad hands from defenders or good defense from the wide receivers to prevent the interceptions.
Rudolph did throw a nice pass to Deon Cain, but Cain fell before catching it. Rudolph also connected with Chase Claypool for a touchdown on the day. Regardless, it would be better if there were rave reviews coming out of camp about Rudolph, not ones that report he is struggling.
Banner is in fierce competition with Chuks Okorafor for the starting right tackle spot. While Okorafor saw the first-team reps on Wednesday, Banner has shown out the past two days in an effort to prove he is worthy.
On Tuesday, Banner faced Bud Dupree twice and they split the reps against each other, with Banner impressing coaches. In the one-on-one pass-rush drills, everyone that Banner faced was stymied, including seventh-round rookie Carlos Davis. It was an impressive showing for Banner.
On Wednesday, Banner was light on his feet and looked quick. After transforming his body over the past two years, Banner is in better shape than ever before. Banner even got some work in on the Juggs machine prior to practice.
As the competition develops, if Banner continues to impress, he may force himself into the starting spot.
Since reporting to Pittsburgh, it has been noticeable that Benny Snell appeared far slimmer than the 2019 season. On Wednesday, Snell confirmed that he had shed weight. In 2019, Snell weighed 224 pounds but said he has now lost 12 pounds and weighs 212 pounds.
Despite that, Snell did it all on his own, which earned the praise of Mike Tomlin. Snell clarified the reasons as to why he and the coaching staff decided he follow the same route that Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, and Jaylen Samuels took.
“The Steelers gave me a plan,” Snell said. “I stuck to it, and I feel like it will help me a ton going into this year with my lateral quickness, my speed, me taking care of my body, the hits I can take, etc.”
Snell is looking to showcase his new athletic skills to become a more dynamic runner. Last year, he was used as a between the tackles, short-yardage power back. In 2020, he will want to prove he has the explosiveness to win outside the tackles, thus earning him more snaps as a scheme diverse runner.
Special teams are often overlooked but are a key part of the team. Nothing has been truer for the under the radar punter competition between Jordan Berry and newcomer Corliss Waitman out of South Alabama. Despite the tough challenges, Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith both seem comfortable they will be able to sort it out and create a competitive environment for the competition.
“There’s a lot of those battles in terms of the division of labor that’s worrisome in this environment,” Tomlin said. “We will push through it. We will create a competitive environment.”
Waitman comes off a college career of averaging 42.7 yards per punt. Berry is the incumbent and experienced veteran, however. Still, Smith says the Steelers will forge ahead.
“We have time,” Smith said. “We put them in different situations. I’m going to tell you the truth, and I think it’s going to happen a lot throughout our league, when we all open up and there are 16 games being played the first week of the NFL season there are going to be guys out there on every team that we are all going to see what they can do under pressure for the first time in this environment that we’re in.”
How the punting competition works out will be anyone’s guess given the current conditions, but Berry, with experience, would likely be the favorite at this point.
When the Steelers selected Benny Snell out of Kentucky, he was known for being a big, bruising running back. A lot of words were thrown around for him, but many described the standout Wildcats runner as a real throwback: Snell was akin to the mold of Jerome Bettis. A true power back with little burst, but he would be a challenge to bring down for any defense.
Snell made sure that reputation stayed in contact last year in 2019. His tough-nosed running style dubbed “Benny Snell Football” was a highlight of his game. He would throw violent stiff arms, run through opposing defenders, and execute his role as a short-yardage power back to perfection. In the NFL nowadays, however, that role has very little value to teams. Snell likely knew this, and while he has good technical traits, he knew his athleticism needed a boost.
So, when Snell came into training camp slimmed down on report day, he turned eyes. This has been a common thing for Steelers running backs for a little while now. Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, and Jaylen Samuels have all dropped weight to add more speed and explosiveness from their rookie year to their sophomore season in the NFL.
For all, the added juice helped them add another element to their game — running outside the tackles. For Bell and Conner, it turned them into dynamic, top-flight running backs. Samuels has more technical issues to work on, but Snell is in the camp with Bell and Conner. Snell already has excellent vision and contact balance, which is why he is so effective in between the tackles. However, to take the next step, he has to run outside the tackles. Thus far, it seems his new body has attracted eyes.
“He looks really focused this year,” Conner said. “You can tell he put in a lot of work in the offseason. He looks slim, fast, eager to learn.”
Running Backs coach Eddie Faulkner backed up what Conner said as well: “It is true, Benny looks better. He has done a lot of running, you can see the work he has put in. The exciting part about it is he did it while being away from us, so you know he had a focus on getting right and getting in the best shape that he can,” Faulker said.
Those are two guys that work closely with Snell daily, so to see these reports is quite exciting. Coach Tomlin also acknowledged that Snell transformed his body. It seems this was in the cards for the Steelers, but Snell’s ability to make it happen seems to have earned respect around the coaching staff.
Next, the critical thing will be seeing if that lost weight translates into significant burst. Conner did, and he now works both inside and outside the tackles with ease. If Snell can do that with his high football IQ, he has the chance to become the lead back if Conner leaves after 2020. Also, Snell has to prove himself capable as an open field weapon and receiver. There are a few steps for him to take here, but any added explosiveness to burst through small areas will help Snell in his pursuit to grab more snaps.
The 2020 season for the Steelers defense was delightful. The amount of high-end play they got across the entire defense was a huge reason as to why they were so dominant last season. Established studs like Cam Heyward were still great, T.J. Watt took another step up, and others, like Bud Dupree, had breakout, career years.
However, no player’s breakout went more under the radar than Cam Sutton’s step up. As the do-it-all subpackage defender in the secondary, Sutton was tasked with doing a lot of jobs in the Steelers secondary. From boundary corner, slot corner, dimebacker, and deep safety, Sutton did it all for the Steelers. Most importantly, he did it extremely well and earned himself the most playing time of his career to date. The coaching staff was not shy in giving him praise in this training camp after his standout 2019 season.
It is his football IQ that allows him to condense all of those aforementioned roles into one super subpackage player that few teams actually possess. The stats show off just how impressive Sutton’s 2019 season actually was despite only playing a limited amount of snaps.
In man coverage, Sutton only allowed .86 yards of separation per target, which is a truly elite mark, even just on 28 overall targets. On those targets, he allowed a 53% completion percentage and a 69.5 passer rating. Overall, those are great numbers. In addition, Sutton was a great open-field tackler, as he only missed two tackles all season. Even against star receiver Keenan Allen, Sutton shut him down for only one reception for six yards on six targets. In those targets, Sutton registered four pass breakups.
It is undeniable that Sutton stepped into his own. That is shown on the stat sheet and of course, on tape as well. It seems to have earned a more prominent role heading into the 2020 season on the Steelers defense.
“I think Cam (Sutton) will have an expanded role I would think in terms of—he will still play some nickel for us, he plays some dime for us. He plays corner for us, he has played some safety for us,” Coach Austin said.
It is key to note that Sutton actually started over current starting nickel cornerback Mike Hilton at the beginning of last season. Whether Austin’s statement means Sutton will eat into Hilton’s snaps in the nickel package is a question to be determined, but it seems he very well might. In dime package, it would see that Sutton would continue his duties as the dime backer and third deep roaming safety in that formation.
Regardless, in a contract year for Sutton, the bigger role he takes on will be representative of his payday. The Steelers with both Sutton and Hilton hitting the market will have to pick which player they would like to retain. For 2020, Sutton makes every Steelers fan feel comfortable about the cornerback depth at bost spots, and he is the likely backup to Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety, too.
The extent of Sutton’s role may reveal how much confidence this coaching staff has in Sutton. Regardless, however, it is a big year for Sutton and if his play has shown anything, it is that he is an underrated, emerging piece on the Steelers defense.
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