Steelers Read & React: Which roster bubble candidate needs to shine in training camp?

Texas Longhorns defensive back Ryan Watts (6) catches a ball before a Big 12 college football game between the Texas Longhorns and Kansas State Wildcats on November 5, 2022 at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, KS.
Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This week, Ryan and Ryland look at which players need to have a big showing to make the roster and make some predictions about the AFC North.

Rejoice, Steelers fans! Players report to training camp today and soon enough we’ll be kicking off a brand new season. We’ll be back next week to react to the first week of camp, but for now Read & React keeps its eyes towards the future as we look at which players need a strong summer and Ryan and Ryland make predictions about some of Pittsburgh’s rivals.

Who is a roster bubble player you’re keeping your eye on this summer?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

RP: The Pittsburgh defensive line is an interesting era. On the edges, TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith are one of the better pass rush duos in the league, while also bringing adequate ability when they are asked to drop into coverage as linebackers. On the interior, Cam Heyward hopes to show he is still one of the best in the league as he ages and Keanu Benton appears poised for a breakout in 2024. But behind them is an interesting mix of characters, young and old alike. The easy answer would be to highlight the entire line, but for this, I’ll focus on third-year player DeMarvin Leal.

When Leal was drafted in the third round in 2022, it was easy to see the vision. At 6’4 and just over 280 pounds at the time, it seemed like the Steelers were nabbing a player deemed a “tweener” who they could ask to lose weight and move to OLB or ask to put on a few pounds to be better suited for the defensive interior.

Leal barely played in 2022, logging just 175 snaps. For context, Benton played over 500 as a rookie last year. Still there was optimism for Leal to take a step in 2023, and when Heyward went down with injury it seemed like an opportunity was presented to Leal. He failed to seize it and then didn’t dress for five of the final six games.

This offseason, the Steelers brought in veteran Dean Lowry and drafted another similar player in Logan Lee. If Leal doesn’t show some signs of life this summer, he might very well be on another team by September.

RB: I’ll go with Ryan Watts, a player I hope to get around to doing a film room on one of these days. The rookie sixth-rounder has rare measurable as a 6’3, 208-pound defensive back. A college cornerback, Watts is a bit stiff although not entirely slow (4.53 40-yard dash) for the position, meaning he fits best as a safety or some sort of hybrid defensive back at the next level. There, the evaluation gets exciting.

Watts is a smart defender and an energetic hitter, with the size to be an impact defender coming downhill. His length (34 1/2’’ arms!) is a valuable asset and his cornerback background broadens his repertoire.

Watts seems tailor-made to be a tight end neutralizer at the next level if he can live up to his potential as a versatile safety. Additionally, his willing physicality makes him a ready-made candidate for special teams, especially as Pittsburgh is in desperate need of a new gunner after losing both this offseason.

It’s all speculation at this point, but Watts has a unique enough set of tools to earn a spot on the Steelers’ 53-man roster in 2024. The problem? There are a lot of talented fringe defensive backs all trying to do the same this summer. I think Watts will be able to stand out, but he’ll have to prove that in training camp and the preseason.

We’ll make AFC North standings predictions later this summer. For now, give us an AFC North-related prediction.

Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens throws the ball during the AFC Championship NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs at M&T Bank Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

RB: The Ravens will have a slow start to the season. I think that every team in the AFC North will be in the playoff race this year, but Baltimore might stumble out of the gate and spend 2024 playing catch-up.

For starters, the Ravens lost 3/5ths of their starting offensive line heading into the new season. I’m a fan of the new guys, with names like Andrew Vorhees and Roger Rosengarten being draft favorites of mine in the past, but it’s going to take time for the new group to develop and gel. The addition of Derrick Henry is a fun fit in Baltimore, but at 30 years old, he’s not the player he was although still a dangerous weapon. Lamar Jackson remains one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, but Baltimore’s receiving corps are scary thin — possibly worse than Pittsburgh’s.

On defense, it isn’t quite as bad, but Baltimore lost a Pro-Bowler in the middle in Patrick Queen, and star defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald left for the Seattle head coaching job. The Ravens will be just fine on defense despite these losses, but it might take some time for new DC Zach Orr to settle into the role due to his lack of experience.

To be fair, a lot of NFL teams, even others in the AFC North, have question marks close to or worse than the Ravens’ predicament. But check out Baltimore’s opening five-game stretch in 2024: Chiefs, Raiders, Cowboys, Bills, and Bengals. Four of those matchups will be against teams that will rank among the league’s best this season. It will take Baltimore some time to find their stride in 2024.

RP: In a famous scene from the television show Mad Men, a character tells series protagonist Don Draper they feel sorry for him, only for Draper to coldly reply: “I don’t think about you at all.” For myself and many other faithful of the black & gold, that is a perfect summary of our feelings about the Cleveland Browns. However, for this exercise, I’ll make an exception.

The animosity between Steelers and Browns fans has seen new energy in recent years as the TJ Watt vs Myles Garrett debate has become a yearly tradition since both were drafted in 2017. Garrett infamously won his first Defensive Player of the Year award last season despite having fewer sacks, tackles for loss, tackles, and forced turnovers than Watt — something that is also true with their career totals.

So today I come baring this prediction of ill-will for Cleveland: They fall out of the top ten for team defense and and finish 2-4 or worse in division play.

Defensive rankings for NFL teams are highly volatile from year to year. Let’s look at last year’s final ranks as a guide. Of the teams to finish in the top 10 in yards allowed for 2022, only five (the Bills, 49ers, Jets, Patriots and Ravens) repeated in 2023 and San Francisco fell from first to eighth. The top three teams were completely different as well. In yards allowed, six teams (the Bills, Cowboys, 49ers, Patriots, Ravens and Saints) repeated in 2023. The Browns themselves are a perfect example of this, ranking 23rd in points allowed and 14th in yards allowed in 2022 before breaking out last year.

Maintaining a top defense is hard and the Browns still have a ton of talent on paper. But don’t be shocked if they find it harder to dominate in the same way they did a year ago, especially with Devin Bush projected to have a starting role on the squad.

Join in on Steelers R&R by sharing your takes on this week’s topics. Who do YOU think has the most to prove in the preseason? Feel free to pitch future questions in the comment section or on Twitter/X: tag @_Ryland_B or @RyanParishMedia.