Stuff from training camp:
--- The foot injury to rookie receiver Eli Rogers Monday may have cut short a sleeper possibility at Saint Vincent. Rogers, undrafted from Louisville, was trying to make the club as a slot receiver and punt returner. He caught the eye of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throughout the spring and at the start of camp.
“Eli, the little slot guy we got from Louisiville, I think he’s going to be good for us, I really do,’’ Roethlisberger said. “I think he’s going to be a little bit of a sleeper.”
--- Antonio Brown will not return punts Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings in Canton, but it’s a good bet he will return them Sept. 10 against the New England Patriots in Foxborough. The Steelers will trot out all kinds of candidates to return punts over the next five weeks with every intention to keep Brown in the job unless someone else shows an above-average ability to do the job.
--- Brown also wants to return punts, which is sometimes half the battle. He is unusual in that when the Steelers have found some excellent punt returners in the past, they often gave up that job once they settled into becoming starters at their positions. That was the case for Lynn Swann, Louis Lipps and Rod Woodson.
--- Quarterback Landry Jones had an excellent practice on Monday as he continues to improve his play at camp at the end of the week. It looks as though he will start against the Vikings Sunday and Roethlisberger will not play. If so, it will be one huge game for Jones, who has not dressed for a game since the Steelers drafted him in the fourth round in 2013. He can ease some anxiety for the coaches and front office, too, if he continues to practice the way he did on Monday as veteran backup Bruce Gradkowski continues to watch from the sideline with “arm fatigue.’’
--- Mike Tomlin is doing precisely what needs to be done with 37-year-old linebacker James Harrison. Nothing. He has not practiced yet and there is absolutely no reason for him to do so. The Steelers did not sign him until after the third game last season and he quickly go up to snuff to where he was their best outside linebacker. Resting him now should ease the concerns of worry warts who did not think the Steelers should sign him for training camp because he was too old and might burn out too soon from the rigors of camp.
--- The Steelers are talking with agent Roosevelt Barnes about a contract extension for left tackle Kelvin Beachum. Whether they can reach a conclusion before Sept. 10 is another matter. One thing they do have, though, is the salary cap space to sign him. According to the NFL Players Association figures, which should be relatively accurate this time of year, the Steelers have $8 million in cap space.
--- There should be little concern about the many frontline Steelers who are listed as “injured” and have missed some practices through the first week or so of camp. With an extra week and five preseason games, Mike Tomlin not only is giving more healthy players days off but the minor injuries at this point are of little concern. The most severe is to rookie cornerback Senquez Golson, who may be lost for the season with a shoulder injury he showed up to training camp with.
--- Jesse James is far and away the best of the new crop of tight ends brought in and should make the 53-man roster along with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.
--- As for Miller, what happened on Monday in practice just should not be permitted. I know the 11-on-11 drill midway through afternoon practice was semi-live but Miller broke into the open medium range down the middle, caught a pass from Landry Jones and ran about 20 yards before three players tackled him. It’s a tough game but why risk Miller’s health in a circumstance like that as he enters his 11th NFL season?
--- Plenty has been written about the good first week of practice that rookie Anthony Chickillo had, for good reason. Chickillo, a sixth-round draft choice from Miami, is trying to make the transition from college defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. It is the traditional way the Steelers have found their outside linebackers through the years – until they began drafting them in the first round lately as true outside linebackers in college. Chickillo has said he is not overthinking things and just playing. Let’s see what happens as camp wears on and they start throwing more defenses and responsibilities at him. That is the true test of rookies, many of whom have been camp stars the first week and faded as the summer progressed.
That is not to say it will happen to Chickillo. Better to have a good first week than a poor one and he may just be one of those rookies who continues his play right through the hot days at Saint Vincent and winds up a real find. The 50 years of camp there though is packed with others who did not and made their final drives down Route 30 at the close of camp.
The Steelers are considering several options for rookie cornerback Senquez Golson, including having him undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.
In the meantime, All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey came off the physically unable to perform list (PUP) and joined his teammates in practice this afternoon. He was dealing with what coach Mike Tomlin called a “very minor” foot injury.
Golson has been on the PUP list since the start of training camp July 25. He went through spring practices with no apparent issues but later told team officials he thought he injured his shoulder during those practices.
His injury is part of the reason the Steelers traded for cornerback Brandon Boykin from the Philadelphia Eagles for a conditional fifth-round draft pick Saturday night. That pick reportedly could become a fourth-round pick if Boykin plays in 60 percent of the Steelers’ defensive snaps this season.
Although only 5-9 and listed at 176 pounds, Golson’s 10 interceptions last season for Ole Miss were second in the nation – only behind the Steelers’ seventh-round draft choice, Louisville safety Gerod Holliman, who had 14.
The Steelers will practice Boykin both inside in the slot, where he played for the Eagles, and on the outside, where he will have a chance to compete with Cortez Allen and William Gay to start. He also will see practice time returning punts, starting this afternoon in practice.
The Steelers held their annual night practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium Friday night. Here are some of the nightlights:
*Landry Jones directed the first-team offense in the goal line drill. After an incomplete pass he threw consecutive touchdowns to Jesse James and Antonio Brown. The offense made it three scores in a row when DeAngelo Williams scored.
*In the backs on backers drill, fullback Roosevelt Nix, a converted defensive lineman, demonstrated impressive strength and blocking ability. Linebackers Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier and Anthony Chickillo also stood out.
*In one-on-one pass rush drills, Jarvis Jones had three opportunities to rush against offensive tackles and failed to win. Kelvin Beachum won twice and reserve Alejandro Villanueva beat him once.
*I wrote about Dri Archer and kickoff returns in today’s paper. Danny Smith tells me some interesting things might happen with the new PAT rules this year, too. The most intriguing aspect is the head coaches can change their minds about kicking or going for two after penalties are called.
“Let’s say the ball is at 15 and we’re kicking PAT, and we grab the facemask of the edge rusher,” Smith said. “It’s a hands-to-the face, 15-yard penalty. Now we’re kicking a 48-yard extra point. Or let’s say they jump off sides. Now we can put it at the 10 and kick it, or take half the distance to the goal and put it at the 1, and run it in. There are things that are interesting about the rules.”
I also asked Smith about PAT personnel now that defenses can return blocked kicks for two points. Why not have smaller and faster players on the field for those situations?
Smith said they are practicing for different scenarios but said it’s important to make sure the opposing players are blocked first. That is easier with bigger (and slower) personnel because they take up more space and have a larger wing span, which helps in protection.
*NFL officials visited Steelers camp the past two days and met with players on rules changes. The one new rule that did not get much publicity over the offseason was this: officials will call a personal foul for aggressively pulling opposing players off piles. This happens most often when there is a fumble and a scrum for the ball. Officials said there were some fights that stemmed from these situations in years past, and they’re working to eliminate those fights.
With an extra week of training camp this year, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is taking the opportunity to rest many of his veteran players. Many of them, like James Harrison, haven’t even participated in a practice yet while others are receiving reduced repetitions.
The byproduct is the coaching staff is getting a good look at many second- and third-teamers who otherwise wouldn’t be playing as much.
Here are some random thoughts on some young players who have stood out:
*Rookie sixth-round pick Anthony Chickillo has been more noticeable than first-round pick Bud Dupree. Chickillo has a knack for rushing the passer. He has a motor, and he competes well. It’s not that Dupreee has been disappointing, just that Chickillo has been able to make a few more plays.
The Steelers only kept three outside linebackers last year and Chickillo has at least four players (Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats Bud Dupree) in front of him on the depth chart, but he is making the staff take a long hard look at him.
*The newest offensive lineman is holding his own in drills. The Steelers signed Kevin Palmer shortly before camp started because Mike Adams had back surgery. Palmer was undrafted out of Baylor and is already with his third team this year. He originally signed with the Cardinals and was cut in May. The Chiefs picked him up but cut him in June.
*Palmer has been taking reps at right tackle and has more than held his own the first couple of days the team has practiced in pads. In a run-blocking drill against 2014 practice squad player Ethan Hemer, Palmer twice reached Hemer and pushed him three or four yards down the field.
Some other observations from one-on-one drills between the offensive and defensive lines on Thursday:
*Ramon Foster had a rough time in one-on-one pass rush drills. He was twice matched up with Cam Heyward and twice was beaten baldy. On the first rush, Heyward pulled Foster forward and easily got into the backfield. On the second he executed a bull rush and pushed Foster backward.
*Kelvin Beachum and Jarvis Jones went at it three times in a row. After Jones got the better of Beachum on the first rep, Beachum won the final two. On the second one, he muscled Jones to the ground. It was only one snapshot from a long practice but it was too reminiscent of Jones struggling to get off blocks and show any kind of violent force.
*Right tackle Marcus Gilbert didn’t get lazy the year after signing a big contract. He was impressive again on Thursday. In a run-blocking drill, he had a pancake block against Stephon Tuitt, last year’s second-round pick.
*Cody Wallace is getting the first-team reps at center with Maurkice Pouncey on the PUP list and playing well for the most part. He won one and lost one against starting nose tackle Steve McLendon in the one-on-one pass rush drill.
*The Steelers hold their annual night practice tonight at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.
It’s time for the Steelers to go get another backup quarterback. Now.
Bruce Gradkowski did not practice for most of the spring because he had a sore arm and he opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list for what the Steelers term “arm fatigue.’’ It is ironic that Gradkowski would have a tired arm because he has not thrown a pass in his two regular seasons with the Steelers.
The other day, Gradkowski was quoted as saying he thought it might be a few weeks before he starts practicing. In the meantime, the quarterbacks behind Ben Roethlisberger have been dreadful in the early goings of training camp, continuing their showing in the spring. It’s so bad that they have trouble handling shotgun snaps from center, dropping them and ruining yet another practice play. Wednesday was particularly bad for them.
Landry Jones and Tajh Boyd cannot be the No. 2 quarterback. Quarterbacks-to-wide receivers-to-quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Tyler Murphy should not be taking snaps at all. Murphy wears No. 16 and the Steelers probably wish the man who used to wear that number at quarterback was back in that position, Charlie Batch, instead of preparing to broadcast games for them on KDKA-TV.
But there is one quarterback out there available. He has a little age on him and he carries some old baggage. His name is Michael Vick, who turned 35 last month.
He comes from the same Tidewater area of Virginia as coach Mike Tomlin, who made inquiries about signing Vick after he was released from federal prison in 2009 after serving 21 months for his dog fighting conviction. The distractions, though, were considered too much for the Steelers and it was never seriously pursued. He signed with the Eagles that August.
Vick has since gone about working to rebuild his reputation. His teammates in Philadelphia voted him the winner of the Ed Block Courage Award. He has worked to try to get passed the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act in Congress.
He also long has had well-documented financial problems.
But he can still play football as the Steelers found out last November when he threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions in he New York Jets’ 20-13 upset victory against them. He also ran eight times for 39 yards in that game.
The Jets were Vick’s second team since his pre-jail days in Atlanta with the Falcons. He played five years for the Eagles and last season for the Jets, who did not try to re-sign him when he became an unrestricted free agent in March.
He’s been trying to find another job with an NFL team since then with no luck. Last week, he issued a video of himself through Twitter to remind all that he can still throw a football.
“I think that I’ve done a lot throughout the course of my career,’’ Vick told the NFL Network in June. “I’ve proved that I can win games and play with some consistency and be a leader. I think those are the qualities that you want in a quarterback.’’
The Steelers have one of those already in Ben Roethlisberger, who has not missed a regular-season snap to injury in the past two seasons. They are praying right now that he can do it for three in a row because the alternatives could be disastrous.
What they need right now is a quality backup, someone who can at least handle a snap from center and does not have a mysterious sore right arm. That first preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings will look more like the Hall of Shame game with anyone but Roethlisberger playing quarterback for the Steelers with Gradkowski out. And Mike Tomlin is not about to let Roethlisberger play much in that game.
Vick is by far the best free agent quarterback available. The Steelers are in desperate need to find one. Tomlin knows him. What could it hurt to sign him? Now.