That’s right, it’s a game for the rookies. But there are variances. While first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall said his adrenaline won’t pump until he runs out of the Heinz Field tunnel, undrafted rookie DB Roy Lewis said, “This is serious. This is it. You have to play. That’s the way it is.”
So here are the players, mostly rookies, to keep an eye on tonight at 7:30 when the Steelers host the Philadelphia Eagles.
Quarterback – Dennis Dixon (2) runs well for someone who underwent surgery eight months ago to repair a torn ACL. The Steelers feel they got a major steal in Dixon, leaving little hope for undrafted Mike Potts (8) to make the team. But Potts does come from William & Mary, the alma mater of Coach Mike Tomlin.
Running back – Willie Parker isn’t the Fast Willie of previous training camps. Maybe he’s taking the “veteran pace” or maybe he’s not over his broken ankle. Rashard Mendenhall (34) has looked very good at camp, particularly catching passes and running in the open field. Free-agent acquisition Mewelde Moore (21) is the third-down back.
Wide receiver – Second-round pick Limas Sweed (14) has his moments; he also drops passes. Undrafted Micah Rucker (87) is a massive target with Practice Squad written all over him. The battle for the fifth WR spot is between Dallas Baker (81) and Willie Reid (15). The latter must flash as a return man to win the job.
Tight end – Interesting battle for the No. 3 spot between Cody Boyd (out) and Jon Dekker (88). Dekker has better speed and offensive skills, and is a better lead fullback, but Boyd is a bigger target and in-line blocker.
Offensive line – Justin Hartwig (62) is winning the center position, but won’t start tonight. Chris Kemoeatu (68) is the massive left guard who could spark an extension offer from the front office with a good showing. Fourth-round pick Tony Hills (66) is a good-looking athlete, but would get schooled tonight should he enter too early at left tackle.
Defensive line – Last year’s fourth-round pick, Ryan McBean (95), needs to show more, something, in the preseason games or he’ll be cut. He’s athletic, but is being outperformed by Nick Eason, among others. The DL spot on the Practice Squad is being contested by Martavius Prince (96) and Kyle Clement (67).
Linebacker – Lawrence Timmons (94) is superior athletically to Larry Foote, but must show the ability to take on blocks in the run game. Timmons will probably play some OLB tonight, but that’s only to gain experience for emergencies. Sixth-round pick ILB Mike Humpal (55) has some speed for an Iowa boy. The two-time state wrestling champ was also state runner-up in the high hurdles. Keyaron Fox (57) is a special-teams coverage ace with a chance to crack the 53. LaMarr Woodley (56) is a 15-sack stud waiting to happen. Bruce Davis (53) will back up James Harrison and show off his pass-rush skills. The coaches will be watching him cover, though.
Secondary – Tyrone Carter will start at SS, but is on the bubble if sixth-round pick Ryan Mundy (29) shows he’s better in games than he’s shown in camp. William Gay (22) might be the key to the front office’s decision on whether to extend Bryant McFadden’s contract. The aforementioned Lewis (30) is playing safety and corner and could push both Carter and Mundy for a roster spot.
Specialists – Olympic skier Jeremy Bloom (11) needs a couple of bombs to make the team because he’s no receiver or coverage man. Eddie Drummond (18) can’t play another position, either, but will make the team as a return man if he shows he can also cover kicks. Undrafted Travis Williams (31) is a decent cover corner, and might make it with some quality returns.