The NFL off-season is over and rookie mini-camps are proceeding, meaning teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers have to start thinking about their future roster. Both veterans and UDFAs will end up getting cut but the real decisions come within the position battles. These Steelers key position battles will help shape the depth chart and will define the start of their season.
Pittsburgh added a few starting offensive pieces and even fewer on defense. Minimal cap space was the unfortunate reason behind this. Players like Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson will be greatly missed in the secondary and they didn’t find suitable replacements via free agency or the draft. There are still rumors swirling that the team could bring in a last-minute cheap veteran. Meanwhile, don’t put too much trust in the rumor of Julio Jones joining the Steel City.
The current roster is filled with unknowns in critical areas and some positions don’t have a clear-cut starter just yet. Tight end, center, left and right tackle, inside linebacker, and cornerback are all going to have in-depth battles during camp. There’s also the high-profile war between who will be named Ben Roethlisberger‘s heir under center. All of this will be discussed within the Steelers key position battles to keep an eye on.
2021 Steelers Key Position Battles: Offense
Center | Kendrick Green vs BJ Finney vs JC Hassenauer
Pittsburgh’s once glorious offensive line is a shadow of itself and Maurkice Pouncey‘s retirement leaves them without an anchor. This will shape up to be one of the biggest key position battles JC Hassenauer started four games last season as Pouncey’s backup, BJ Finney was brought back for a second stint for the team, and Kendrick Green was drafted in the third round in the 2021 draft.
Finney is the veteran of the group and also holds the most experience starting on this offensive line. He’s had a very inconsistent career though and is on his fourth team in as many years. Green seems to be entering camp as the default starter after being First-Team All-Big Ten in 2020. He only started four games at center in college and primarily played at guard.
JC Hassenauer seems like the odd man out here but he has a solid chance to be the Week one starter. Green still has to overcome the learning curve of a new primary position but is the ideal fit for OC Matt Canada’s new vision for the offense. Finney has the trust of the team behind him but has to prove he can be consistent as the starter.
As much of a fan-favorite that BJ Finney is, it will come down to JC and Green. Being a third-round pick by one of the better teams in the draft, the Steelers saw something in Green as their future center. Through OTAs, JC Hassenauer has all eyes on him so far. With Green still needing to feel comfortable in his new role, the rising veteran in JC will become the week one starter. However, Green could become the starter later in the season once he mixes his knowledge of the position with his aggressiveness on the field.
Winner: JC Hassenauer
RB | Benny Snell vs Anthony McFarland / Jaylen Samuels vs Kalen Ballage
Pitsburgh’s first-round pick Najee Harris will be the featured man without a doubt. It’s still up in the air whether Snell or McFarland will be his backup. Jaylen Samuels and Kalen Ballage are also on the team, but at the bottom of the totem pole and only two of them will see a roster spot, making this one of the Steelers key position battles in 2021 training camp. Let’s start with who will see the second-most snaps at RB. Benny Snell enters training camp as the No.2 but the new scheme to the run game doesn’t bode well for him.
Harris and Snell are very similar RBs in their style while McFarland gives the advantage of being a quicker change-of-pace guy. Snell would become the direct backup if Harris needs a break or is injured but McFarland will have the larger snap count. Some analysts even see Snell being a possible cut if he’s not valuable in short-yardage situations anymore. I wouldn’t go that far but he does need to find a way to be a bigger asset to the Steelers.
Before camps started, Jaylen Samuels seemed like a lock for a roster spot with Kalen Ballage just being a veteran presence in camp. Instead, Ballage has had a very positive outing at OTAs while Samuels has been struggling. Ballage’s receiving ability and versatility as a wingback gives him a clear advantage at this point while Samuels seems to have overstayed his welcome on the roster according to the fans.
Winner: Anthony McFarland/Kalen Ballage
QB | Mason Rudolph vs Joshua Dobbs vs Dwayne Haskins
Ben Roethlisberger should play his final year as Pittsburgh’s starter and there is still no clear-cut answer to who takes over from there. Mason Rudolph has the only real experience starting for the Steelers but has a mediocre 5-4 record and is vastly inconsistent. Joshua Dobbs has returned to Pittsburgh and will once again battle with Mason Rudolph. Dwayne Haskins was the “high-profile” signing that everyone seems to have a close eye on during OTAs.
There will likely only be three QBs on the roster by Week one and someone has to go in this key position battle. Rudolph is at least safe from being cut barring a miracle camp outing from both Dobbs and Haskins. He was just given a one-year, $5 million contract extension and has the only real background being the starter on this team. Still, he still makes rookie mistakes and has a few blemishes on his record (Myles Garrett). Dobbs was with the Steelers for three seasons after being drafted in the fourth round in 2017. He’s only thrown 17 career passes and the jury is still out on his full potential on the field.
The Steelers have been using him as their scout QB with his mobility skills. Haskins, on the other hand, faltered in Washington as a former first-round pick. Despite that, Roethlisberger has been endorsing the young QB and his stellar arm during OTAs. Rudolph remains the QB2 going into the season, leaving the battle to Haskins and Dobbs. The way camp has been so far, Dobbs hasn’t really caught the eye of anyone in particular while Haskins has been getting an audience from time to time. Dobbs is a great player but it’s been almost five years now and he still hasn’t progressed much. Haskins secures a roster spot to continue his hopeful redemption story.
Winner: Mason Rudolph QB2 and Dwayne Haskins QB3
2021 Steelers Key Position Battles: Defense
ILB | Vince Williams vs Robert Spillane vs Buddy Johnson
Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans were relieved when Vince Williams was able to return to the team during free agency after being a cap casualty. Still, this remains one of the Steelers key position battles for training camp. The nine-year veteran has been a consistent contributor for the black and gold but is 31 and could find himself edged out. Robert Spillane filled in for Devin Bush last season and excelled despite being a UDFA. Buddy Johnson, a 2021 fourth-round pick, has the tools and talent to be an impact starter himself.
Williams enters camp as the early favorite with his experience and chemistry alongside Devin Bush. He’ll keep the job if he doesn’t lose a step and the young backups aren’t fully developed yet. I don’t see that being the case though. After getting a taste of the spotlight last year, Spillane is going to put everything he has into winning this camp battle, especially with Buddy Johnson now on his tail.
As much as Johnson looks like someone who can start immediately, he will end up being a bigger star this year as a special team tackling machine. That leaves the veteran and the hungry young star. Early reports out of camp show Spillane and Bush having great chemistry when paired together on the field. His underneath coverage abilities should edge Williams in this battle but the veteran will be heavily used in rotation. Buddy Johnson should be a huge increase in snaps next year though.
Winner: Robert Spillane
2021 Steelers Key Position Battles: Special Teams
Punter | Jordan Berry vs Pressley Harvin lll
This is pretty much Jordan Berry‘s last training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s been shaky for the last few years and even lost his job for a while last season. The only reason this is still a battle is because Berry posted a career-high 45.8 yards per punt last year. Harvin enters the league with a powerful leg and excellent ball placement. Once Harvin nails down being a placeholder, he’ll be a great punter for Pittsburgh. This shouldn’t have a surprising outcome once week one rolls around.
Winner: Pressley Harvin lll
Honorable Mention Steelers Key Position Battles
Wide Receiver: Anthony Johnson rises from the bottom of the roster and earns the last WR spot or at the very least a place on the practice squad.
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