Since the Steelers are returning 20 of 22 starters from their Super Bowl Championship squad the training camp battles for starting positions should be somewhat limited, but still very intriguing.
Here are the position battles I am most looking forward to:
1.) No. 3 wideout
Prime Candidates: Limas Sweed, Mike Wallace & Shaun MacDonald
Longshot: Dallas Baker
With the departure of Nate Washington to the Titans the No. 3 receiver slot is wide open (pun intended) for the taking. The mix of contenders is extremely intriguing. You have the highly regarded (although often maligned) 2nd year man Limas Sweed. Then you have the savvy vet Shaun MacDonald coming off a trying two seasons with the dreadful Detroit Lions. Finally, you have the rookie speedster out of Mississippi Mike Wallace.
I think the battle is really going to come down to Sweed and MacDonald. I believe the Steelers will give Sweed every opportunity to win this job, but he has to step up and take it. The Steelers want and expect Sweed to be the number three guy, but if he falters they have a reliable veteran to step up in MacDonald. Wallace most likely will have at least one season of learning before he makes a major impact as a receiver. Watch for Dallas Baker as a dark horse to steal a roster spot.
2.) No. 2 Corner
Prime Candidates: William Gay, Keiwan Ratliff & Deshea Townsend
[B]Longshot: Keenan Lewi
William Gay is the "pronounced" starter after the departure of Bryant Macfadden to Arizona. Like Sweed, Gay will be given every opportunity to lock up the starting job, but it is simply impossible to count out Townsend.......the guy just won't go away (which is a good thing for the Steelers and their fans)! The Steelers also brought in veteran Keiwan Ratliff during the offseason and drafted Keenan Lewis in the third round of the 2009 draft.
I believe Gay has already proven the job is his, but there is always the possibility of Gay coming to camp with a bit too much confidence. If he does look dor DeShea to show the youngster what it means to be a true professional. Ratliff will be a solid depth player, but should not be a starter at corner unless injuries occur.
3.) Right Guard
Prime Candidates: Darnell Stapleton & Kraig Urbik
Longshot: Trai Essex
This battle could be the nasty one in camp. Two veterans who have shown flashes of starter ability and a rookie mauler who looks to be a prototypical Steeler. Experience is on the side of Stapelton and Essex, but physical ability looks to be an edge for Urbik.
I think Stapelton will start the season as the RG, but I wouldn't be surprised, if he struggles, if Urbik steps into the fold down the road. Essex has proven to be a versatile backup for the O-line, but I think if he was more then a spot starter he would have proven so by now....he has had his chances.
4.) Kick/Punt Returners
Prime Candidates: Mike Wallace, Joe Burnett, Stefan Logan
Longshots: Rashard Mendenhall & Mewelde Moore
The three rookies I mentioned above were all brought in to the Steelers fold, at least in part, because of their skills in the return game. All three have speed to burn and Logan has pro experience from the CFL.
My money is on Burnett for the punt returner slot, but I think the kick returner position is up for grabs. I have Moore and Mendenhall as longshots because they will most likely be too valuable to risk getting injured on special teams as return men. This one is anybody's guess.
I look forward to hearing your opinions. Here We Go Steelers Here We Go!