The month of May is perhaps the most unique month on the calendar. While May typically signals the end of school years and television series, it also signifies the dawn of summer and vacation season. For Steelers fans, May is another pivotal steps toward the birth of a new season, as the Steelers will hold OTAs Tuesday through Thursday over the next two weeks beginning May 24.
The Steelers' 2022 draft class recently received its first taste of the NFL during Pittsburgh's rookie minicamp. Much is expected of Pittsburgh's rookie class in 2022. First-round pick Kenny Pickett will compete with Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph to be the Steelers' new starting quarterback. George Pickens and Calvin Austin III will be tasked with filling the voids left by the JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington departures in free agency. The Steelers are hoping that DeMarvin Leal can bring a youthful fire to Pittsburgh's veteran defensive line.
Let's take a look at the five things Steelers fans should keep an eye on during minicamp.
The QB battle
Tuesday will be the first practice with the Steelers' new quarterback trio of Pickett, Trubisky and Mason Rudolph. While Rudolph is considered the underdog, his knowledge of the offense as well as his overall experience inside the facility will be at his advantage during the early portions of this position battle.
Trubisky started to work with his new teammates shortly after signing with the Steelers in March. His experience as the starting quarterback in Chicago, as well as his season working with Josh Allen and Brian Daboll in Buffalo will benefit him in his new position battle.
As far as Pickett is concerned, the rookie's poise and command of the huddle is certainly something the coaches will be watching over the course of the summer. From a technical standpoint, Pickett has already begun working on the quickness of his release. Being able to get rid of the ball fast, and accurately, is a necessity for an NFL starting quarterback. Just ask Tom Brady, who has made a career out taking what the defense gives him before taking his calculated shots.
Johnson, Tuitt's participation
The statuses of Diontae Johnson and Stephon Tuitt will be something to watch during OTAs. A Pro Bowler last season, Johnson is going into the final year of his rookie contract. He was recently a no-show at a Pittsburgh-area youth football camp that he was scheduled to host.
Johnson, who set career-highs in receptions (107), yards (1,161) and touchdown catches (8) in 2021, is certainly looking to cash in on the skyrocketing market for top-tier receivers. His current market value, according to Spotrac, is projected at $88.28 million over four years with an average annual salary of just over $22 million. To put that into perspective, Antonio Brown, who was considered the best receiver in football in 2017, signed an extension that offseason that paid him roughly $17 million per season.
Is Johnson worth $22 million a season? While he wasn't directly asked about Johnson, outgoing Steelers GM Kevin Colbert was asked earlier this offseason what merits investing considerable money into a veteran player.
"Any player at any position that we desire to pay, we feel he better be special at his position and maybe exceed where he was drafted and just recognize what they have accomplished at this level," Colbert said, via 93.7 The Fan. "Again, I think we can do that at any given position for that special player within that group."
Tuitt's situation is entirely different. The veteran defensive end did not play last season after suffering an injury along with the sudden, tragic death of his brother. The Steelers have publicly left the light on for Tuitt to return to the team this season. If Tuitt doesn't return, Pittsburgh will lean more on rookie DeMarvin Leal, a versatile lineman who posted 8.5 sacks during his final season at Texas A&M.
New weapons on offense
The Steelers' receiving corps will have a new flavor this season. Johnson is still at the top of the pecking order, while Chase Claypool enters OTAs as the No. 2 receiver. The rest of the receiving corps includes players who were not on Pittsburgh's roster last season.
As expected, Pittsburgh used their second-round pick on a receiver, selecting former Georgia wideout George Pickens with the 52nd overall pick. Pickens' upside was one of the reasons why the Steelers selected him over other receivers who were still on the board. He caught 85 passes and 14 touchdowns during his first two seasons at Georgia before he suffered a serious knee injury last spring. Instead of shutting it down and preparing for the draft, Pickens returned to help the Bulldogs capture their first national title in over 40 years. He showcased his big-play ability by pulling down a 52-yard pass in Georgia's win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game.
It's too early to depict whether or not Pickens will be able to challenge Claypool to be the Steelers' No. 2 receiver. But developing a quick rapport with Pickett would go a long way in helping him get more targets later this summer, especially if Pickett is able to win the starting job. How quickly these two mesh is something to keep an eye on during OTAs.
There seems to be a wide range of opinions regarding Calvin Austin III, who was selected with the 138th overall pick. Austin's size (he's listed at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds) undoubtedly led some fans to flash back to Dri Archer, a 2014 third-round pick who lasted just two years in Pittsburgh. Like Archer, Austin parlayed his speed into a successful college career. During his final two years at Memphis, Austin caught 19 touchdowns while scoring two more touchdowns on punt returns.
Versatility is one of the things Tomlin mentioned regarding Austin. Along with possibly running jet sweeps, Tomlin said that he can possibly envision Austin playing on the outside as well as in the slot, where shorter receivers typically line up. Like Pickens, Tomlin says that Austin has physical qualities that aren't typical of a player of his size. It will be interesting to see how they use Austin during the early portions of camp. Furthermore, early flashes of potential from Austin would help quell any outside concerns about his lack of size.
He's not a receiver, but expect fellow rookie Connor Heyward to contribute to the passing game in 2022. Along with his family ties (his older brother is Steelers Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cam Heyward), Connor Heyward is more of an H-back who played multiple positions during his time at Michigan State. Heyward's versatility should help create more options in second-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada's playbook.
Pittsburgh has a history of selecting H-back type players. In 2018, they spent a fifth-round pick on NC State's Jaylen Samuels. While technically listed as a tight end, the Steelers used Samuels as a running back. Samuels had his moments during his three seasons in Pittsburgh; he had over 140 rushing yards in a 2018 win over the Patriots and had 73 receptions and four touchdown catches during his first two years with the Steelers.
Along with his versatility, Colbert said that the Steelers were extremely impressed with Heyward's receiving ability, especially for a player of his size. Heyward, who caught a pivotal touchdown pass in Michigan State's win of Pitt in this past December's Peach Bowl, will undoubtedly look to show this skill off during minicamp while helping the Steelers find a role for him within the offense.
The Steelers used free agency to round out their receiving corps. They signed former Patriots wideout Gunner Olszewski, an All-Pro in 2020 after he led the NFL in punt return yards. Pittsburgh also signed former Ravens wideout Miles Boykin, a 2019 third-round pick who caught seven touchdowns during his first two years in Baltimore.
Rebuilt offensive line
One of the Steelers' weakest position units last season, Pittsburgh brought in free agents James Daniels and Mason Cole to help fortify the line. Daniels, who made 49 starts in four years with the Bears, is expected to be the team's new starting right guard. Cole, a former Cardinal and Viking who has 39 starts under his belt, is slated to replace Kendrick Green at center.
Dan Moore Jr. and Chukwuma Okorafor will return as Pittsburgh's starting tackles. Joe Haeg is still the primary backup, but it will be interesting to watch if anyone challenges him this summer. Jake Dixon, an undrafted rookie who played his college football nearby at Duquesne, is one of Pittsburgh's young tackles who will look to crack a spot on either the 53-man roster or the practice squad.
There could be a potential position battle brewing between Green and Kevin Dotson at left guard. A solid starter as a rookie in 2020, Dotson had a disappointing 2021 season that included missing four games with an injury. Dotson is considered the front-runner to keep his starting job, but the hard-working Green could make it interesting.
New faces on defense
Defense took a back seat in this draft, but that doesn't mean that the defensive players the Steelers selected aren't expected to play significant roles in 2022. DeMarvin Leal comes to Pittsburgh after racking up 8.5 sacks last fall at Texas A&M. Linebacker Mark Robinson, a Day 3 pick, tallied 91 tackle and three sacks last season for Ole Miss. A former running back who didn't play linebacker until last fall, Robinson's upside is one of the things that attract him to the Steelers and senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach Brian Flores.
"When there's a new position, there's a little bit of a learning curve early in the season," Flores recently said of Robinson, via Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider. "But as you watched him progress going into games 5-6-7-8 and into the season, you saw him improve, get better. That's really what you're looking for. You like to see that as a coach.
"He's a hard-working kid. I got that feeling just meeting him. It's important to him. That's a big part of making progress as a player. I know he'll work to get better."
Like several of Pittsburgh's other rookies, versatility is one of the biggest things the Steelers like about Leal, who played across the defensive line during his time with the Aggies. Leal's versatility will surely come in handy for a defensive line that struggled to stop the run last season.