Only A Few Camp Concerns

All eyes on Markus Wheaton

The most harmonious off-season of at least the Mike Tomlin era ends today, but some natural concerns return with the Steelers.

In a few hours, the Steelers will not only begin conditioning drills, they'll claim victory for the quietest off-season of at least the Mike Tomlin era, and perhaps longer.

Grab the checklist:

* No suspensions hanging over the team.

* No holdouts, rookie or otherwise.

* No divisive commentary in the air, like the James Harrison comment about Ben Roethlisberger a few years ago or the anonymous comment about LaMarr Woodley last year.

* No injuries about which to worry, not even Nick Williams, the third-team defensive end who finally got back on the field the last week of spring practice.

* No one's even expected to fail the conditioning test this afternoon -- unless Cam Thomas shows up to his new team out of shape. And even then, Brett Keisel's within earshot of ending his premature "retirement."

Can we call this the greatest off-season in the history of the franchise?

Well, it's as quiet as any. Coaches claim they always hold their breath after releasing their players into the wilds of vacation-land from mid-June until late July. So only a few hours remain until those coaches can breathe again. Of course, they'll just turn their worried heads to other topics, and there are a few:

Will the sophomores make their expected improvement?

The two in question are Markus Wheaton and Jarvis Jones. Wheaton is really the only unproven player on offense and therefore the biggest question mark. But he has pedigree, so, even if his mangled pinky finger makes his hands less than perfect, he had a great college career and was very impressive this past spring. With the line in shape, Antonio Brown in his prime, Heath Miller back in good health, and the stable of running backs looking stronger than any in recent years, what Wheaton can provide on the outside of veteran slot receiver Lance Moore is of utmost importance to Roethlisberger.

Jones, of course, is the biggest question mark for most fans, but even some of us who questioned drafting him in the first round last year liked what we saw even as he floundered around the field as a rare rookie starter last season. He did struggle, but at times flashed the ability to grow into a solid-to-good sophomore pass-rusher.

Is the line really in shape?

Well, the interior of the offensive line is in great shape. There's even depth there this year. There's depth at tackle, too, in the form of Guy Whimper. But the three tackles in front of Whimper are the real question marks here. Will Kelvin Beachum hold up at left tackle when teams actually game plan to run him over? Will Marcus Gilbert show consistency? And can Mike Adams learn how to use his upper body in pass protection? Mike Munchak is the new O-line coach and is considered by many to have been the team's top off-season acquisition. The Hall of Famer showed off his teaching skills and experience last spring. Can he turn this group of emerging high-rounders into the kind of fighting unit that led the team to the 2005 title? It's possible.

Will they need Keisel?

Well, if Thomas shows up out of shape -- or in the shape of a nose tackle instead of a defensive end -- and then second-rounder Stephon Tuitt continues to struggle with his NASA rocket science project (otherwise known as the Steelers' defensive playbook), Tomlin may need to call back Keisel, the 36-year-old defensive end who wasn't re-signed but who isn't ready to retire just yet. The Steelers signed Thomas to a backup's contract to replace Al Woods and then drafted Tuitt in the second round to replace Keisel. So the question really comes down to Tuitt's development. And if the aforementioned Williams or Brian Arnfelt can't handle the No. 4 DE spot, there will be depth issues, too.

Are the inside linebackers too light?

Art Rooney II called for an improvement in the run defense and perhaps that's behind the signing of the 330-pound Thomas, a nose tackle they've put at strong-side end. And with nose tackle Steve McLendon putting on the 30 pounds he lost while overtraining last summer, the line will certainly have size. Will that help the Steelers get away with using two inside linebackers who are more quick than strong? Ryan Shazier (listed at 237), of course, is this year's first-rounder and the staff force-fed him the defense in the spring, to the point of holding the final practice mainly for his benefit. Shazier's lightning-quick, but he ran into a brick wall named David DeCastro on more than one running occasion during OTAs. Lawrence Timmons (listed at 234) had been the playmaking mack inside backer but will now move to the strong-side buck position. Can he hold up? Will he make the calls on time? Minor questions, but natural ones.

Can the little guys come up big?

Dri Archer isn't even 5 feet 7 but he was drafted in the third round because the Steelers timed his combine 40 at sub 4.2. That will make him the fastest player in the NFL. Tomlin wants to make the running back a dual receiving threat, but Archer didn't show much without the ball last spring. "I can get a 4.6 guy to do that," Tomlin hollered as Archer came up short on yet another deep ball. So Archer's receiving skills will certainly be a point of emphasis for the offensive coaches this camp.

The defensive coaches will be looking for one of their small, quick corners to win the No. 4 job as well. While most are questioning the top three corners, it's really only the No. 4 spot that's wide open. And there will be several candidates to sort through in Latrobe, including sophomore safety Shamarko Thomas.

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