AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

A natural association when the Steelers snagged Devin Gardner off waivers was Kordell Stewart and Antwaan Randle El, though Steelers.com's Bob Labriola squashed any "Slash" comparisons with Gardner, who's a camp body until proven otherwise.

But it's worth noting that the Steelers have signed two quarterbacks-turned-receivers in Gardner and Boston College's Tyler Murphy, who might have the better chance to make the team.

Murphy wasn't an elite passer at Boston College, but he was electric in the running game, using his 6-foot-2, 213-pound frame to rush for 1,184 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014. The Florida Gators transfer reportedly runs the 40-yard-dash in the 4.58 to 4.62 range, which is faster than Gardner's 4.65 range.

While Gardner had trouble keeping the Michigan job in two-plus years as the starter, Murphy flourished in one season with BC, leading the Eagles to a seven-win season.

Both players are considered long shots to make the team, but Murphy could have more upside at receiver than Gardner. Neither seem like viable quarterback options. Tajh Boyd would be ahead of them on any depth chart and he'll enter the summer as the fourth quarterback.

Hulking.

Physically gifted.

Ideal size and strength.

Versatile.

These are a few terms or phrases applied to 305-pound defensive end Stephon Tuitt during the draft process last season. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said Tuitt is a first-round talent who can shed blockers.

Seventeen tackles, one sack and 400-plus NFL snaps later, the Steelers’ second-round pick has shown glimpses, but won’t be handed those labels without more heavy lifting.

Pro Football Focus listed Tuitt, who turns 22 on Saturday, as one of 23 "average" Steelers players. The Steelers can live with "average" for a rookie. Eight Steelers players graded higher than average, according to PFF. There's no shame in "average."

Now he’s got the next three-plus months to shed the "average" label.

“Tuitt has definitely got a high ceiling,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward told TribLIVE.com Wednesday. “We’re just going to see how high it is.”

Even established Steelers ends haven’t produced high sack numbers, so perhaps Tuitt’s future impact should be judged by overall disruption.

Now-retired end Brett Keisel produced 9.5 combined sacks in his first two years as a starter. It wasn't until his fourth season that Heyward recorded more than five sacks in a season.

But any push from Tuitt in this area would be crucial. The Steelers recorded 33 sacks in 2014, its lowest total since 1989. Tuitt is one of four front-seven Steelers drafted in the first or second round of the last three drafts. If Jarvis Jones or Bud Dupree aren't ready to apply quarterback pressure, Tuitt needs to be.

Tuitt is an above-average athlete, but isn’t considered a quick-twitch athlete. He must find his advantages up front with strength or technique.

One knock on Tuitt out of Notre Dame was he would lose effectiveness when tired. Tuitt’s play suffered from gaining 20 pounds as a junior, according to an NFL.com scouting report. His sweet spot is probably around 300 pounds.

But even if Tuitt starts, he won’t have to play on every down. He’d be most effective as a primary starter who can rotate in and out when necessary.

If Heyward has his way, Tuitt’s experiences as a part-time rookie starter will pay off in 2015.

“He started a playoff game for us. He helped accomplish winning the AFC North. He’s been in dogfights,” Heyward said.

A contract extension for Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward would cost more up front, but would be cost-effective in the long term for an ascending player who's not yet a household name.

The Steelers want Heyward to be a Steeler long-term and have told Heyward as much. Heyward wants to be a Steeler, and a Steeler great -- "that means being here the rest of my life, football included, and after," Heyward told local reporters Thursday. Heyward will play the good-teammate role, assuring he won't "ruffle feathers or make waves," but would love a deal eventually.

The Steelers have a history of finalizing deals for key players as they enter the final year of a rookie contract, so expect talks to intensify this summer.

Here are three reasons why doing a deal before the 2015 season makes sense.

Save long-term money: Heyward has a 2015 option for about $7 million. If he has a huge 2015 season, the Steelers are on the hook for that $7 million, plus a new deal.

If the team franchise-tagged Heyward after this year, they could be on the hook for $20-plus million for two years. They could probably pay less than that in up-front guarantees if they cut the deal now.

The meter's running: The Saints' Cameron Jordan, the Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson, the Chiefs' Dontari Poe are all expensive linemen who might get new deals soon.

Those players aren't going away and they will only enhance the market. Cutting a deal now gets in front of the market.

The money for 3-4 defensive ends is reasonable: The five-best-paid ends in a 3-4, according to Overthecap.com -- J.J. Watt, Calais Campbell, Jurrell Casey, Jason Hatcher and Desmond Bryant -- average $14.66 million in guaranteed money. The Steelers can handle that. Except for Watt, 3-4 ends don't swallow the salary cap.

Not that Heyward's worried about that.

"I come to work and help our young guys and learn from our older guys and just try to get better every day," Heyward said.

The Pittsburgh Steelers rank 138th out of 333 international teams surveyed in an ESPN/SportingIntelligence report revealing the sports franchises that spend the most on their players.

The Steelers' average annual player salary is $2.2 million. The franchise’s total player payroll of $118.4 million ranks 33rd.

My take: The Steelers rank ninth among NFL teams in player spending, which makes sense because the Steelers typically try to keep good players in-house with extensions off their rookie deals. The Packers, who rank 127th in this survey, employ a similar strategy. After years of salary-cap issues, though, the Steelers are starting to move on from aging veterans with big salaries, including the retirement of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor this offseason. This could knock them down the list in future years.

video
The throwback stripes are still an acquired taste, but the Steelers' traditional uniforms still breed nostalgia in NFL uniform folklore.

The Steelers have the league's best uniform, according to ESPN uniform guru Paul Lukas.

Pittsburgh edged the Raiders, Packers and Bears, all teams that haven't overhauled their look and kept it simple (we're talking to you, San Francisco).

Here's Lukas on the Steelers:

"Aside from the switch from block numbers to italics (which many fans still gripe about, although it's been nearly 20 years now and we should all just get over it already), the Steelers have stayed the course. They still have their logo on only one side of the helmet, they still don't use helmet numbers during the preseason (you have to earn them by making the final roster cut), they still have that instantly recognizable sleeve striping (the Rolling Stones are even using it to promote their show at Heinz Field), and their gold pants still work equally well with either of their jerseys. And while some folks can't stand the bumblebee throwbacks, that design is actually a big hit here at Uni Watch HQ and helps vault the Steelers into the top spot in this year's Power Rankings. First rate."

My take: The Steelers' uniform resonates because people identify with it in different ways, or with different eras. Maybe they were children of the 1970s and remember the dominance. Maybe they associate the Steelers' yellow with winning. Or maybe they just like the color scheme. For whatever reason it works, though you could make a case for the Packers taking the top spot. Both uniforms are outstanding.

This is an offbeat item but one that holds quirky significance with me.

Instead of forcing rookies to pay thousands to take veterans to dinner, as the odd NFL custom goes, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert took five undrafted rookie linemen to dinner, according to Pouncey's instagram account.

@marcus77gilbert & I took the rookie O-Line out 2 dinner last night

A photo posted by Maurkice Pouncey (@maurkicepouncey) on

Pictured with Pouncey and Gilbert are Utah State tackle Kevin Whimpey, Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Kansas State center BJ Finney, Penn State guard Miles Dieffenbach and Indiana guard Collin Rahrig. All five were signed shortly after the draft in early May.

Undrafted free agents often get signing bonuses that fall short of this dinner bill. The perks are limited, the guarantees scarce, the promises non-existent.

They aren't NFL players, at least not yet.

That's why this gesture from the two veterans deserves a hat tip. Locker rooms don't overlook this stuff. They notice. As well documented in storytelling such as ESPN's 30 for 30 'Broke,' young players often struggle with finances. No doubt they appreciated a good meal, especially from a Pro Bowler such as Pouncey and a solid starting tackle such as Gilbert.

Pouncey and Gilbert just signed new deals that paid more than $20 million in signing bonus money and will pay another $40-plus million over the next four years if they complete the deals. Those numbers aren't prerequisites for picking up tabs, but it's safe to assume these players recognize they are fortunate.

And with five of the Steelers' 12 undrafted free agents playing on the line, at least one of these players could make the 53-man roster.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward addressed the local media Wednesday, and he was asked about new coordinator Keith Butler, who's not exactly new to the Steelers' system and approach. He's been on staff since 2003 and worked closely for more than a decade with former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Considering the Steelers signed much of their defensive roster to fit LeBeau's system, Butler isn't expected to overhaul that system in one year, which Heyward (pictured) seemed to confirm Wednesday, according to the Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo.

"I don't think there will be too many changes," Heyward said. "He might have a couple of more wrinkles, but we're not going to share that now."

Heyward is leaving enough mystery to intrigue Steelers fans. Since Heyward is fueling guesswork, let's assume one wrinkle will be combating the short passing game, which the Patriots and others used to gain yardage on Pittsburgh's defense. Skilled quarterbacks can 6-to-8-yard defenses to death if that's what they are given. Tom Brady did this to a good Seahawks defense in the Super Bowl. The Steelers' drafting of corners Senquez Golson and Doran Grant in the first four rounds suggests the team wants a quicker secondary in part to chase down the short stuff.

The Steelers ranked 27th in passing yards allowed with 4,049 yards last season. That's a rough number for a prideful unit.

At his January introductory press conference, Butler called himself a "whatever-it-takes-to-win guy," which is a tried-and-true public formula for a coordinator to avoid divulging too much. Butler says he wants to tailor the scheme to his players, which is still, at least in part, a 3-4 scheme with LeBeau principles.

But a defense that finished in the bottom third of the league in passing yards, sacks and interceptions could use a few of those "wrinkles" Heyward mentioned.

Antonio Brown's potential holdout from the Steelers' offseason workouts barely lasted a week. On April 20, Fox Sports reported that Brown was mulling a holdout. By April 27, he was back with the team. In between, he tweeted that he missed an offseason workout session to spend time with his newborn.

All good, right?

[+] EnlargeBrown
AP Photo/Don WrightAntonio Brown caught 129 passes for 1,698 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.

Then why does it feel like this story won’t dissipate any time soon?

The dynamics are too obvious, with Brown too good and too underpaid. At the least, Brown’s deal will remain a convenient topic to help scorch the summer.

The Pittsburgh Steelers typically don’t negotiate new deals unless the player enters the final year of his contract, but most players don’t catch 305 passes for 3,984 yards and 26 touchdowns in three seasons.

Browns' touchdown total is one less than Victor Cruz and Pierre Garcon combined since 2012. Both players have a higher average yearly salary than Brown, and managed 1,164 more yards than Brown in six combined seasons.

When the Steelers signed Brown to a six-year, $43.04-million contract in July 2012, they were making a sensible deal with an ascending player. For Brown, having the 13th-best yearly average payout despite the best production in the league can’t be easy.

If he held out, most savvy football fans would understand. He’s 26. He’s been dominant. Teams cut players one year after cutting a deal. Why can’t a player try to flip that plan after three years? Brown is an invaluable piece for a team eyeing contention.

But from the standpoint of the Steelers, who have about $9.74 million in cap space according to ESPN’s roster management system, re-doing Brown’s deal would be a colossal weight, even for a great player.

Perhaps that's why Brown showed up April 27, because he knows they won't budge.

Brown has done too much for the Steelers to throw a few extra million his way and hope for the best. Perhaps strong incremental raises would satisfy. But contracts for top players are about status and respect. Brown would want to be placed well above Mike Wallace's five-year, $60-million deal and closer to Calvin Johnson, who redefines Lions share with a $16.2 million per-year average. That’s nearly $4 million higher than Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, who are making $12.8 million on franchise tag.

The Steelers must try to keep Brown happy and productive while planning for future deals, too. Defensive lineman Cam Heyward, for example, is set to make roughly $7 million on a 2015 option.

One potential solution: Restructure Brown’s deal to include easily reached incentives that push him among the top three-to-five receivers paid on average (Vincent Jackson's $11.1 per year would be the floor). Find an easy way to get him to a more respectable number, then cut a new deal later.

Brown’s average cap hit from 2015-17 is $10.96 million per year. If the Steelers get desperate to decrease that number, they could recreate a three-year deal that includes a hefty signing bonus. That lets Brown play out his formative years at a higher number instead of building up momentum for a negotiation two years from now, when Brown is two years older.

Perhaps Brown will respect the Steelers’ long-standing process and play out his deal.

But the not-so-subtle missive was sent April 20, and agent Drew Rosenhaus’ phone is always on.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are set to wrap up their rookie class contractually, signing third-round pick Sammie Coates on Friday, the team announced.

Coates will get a $632,000 signing bonus on a four-year, $3-million deal, according to a source.

The 6-foot-1 Coates, selected 87th overall, ranks 10th in Auburn history with 1,757 receiving yards along with seven 100-yard games and 13 touchdowns. Coates averaged 20-plus yards per catch last season for the Tigers, and though he has a reputation for dropping passes and must learn an NFL offensive system, general manager Kevin Colbert said Coates has good hands to accompany his high-level athleticism.

Seventh-round Louisville safety Gerod Holliman is the only unsigned Steelers draft pick.

There's greatness inside Le'Veon Bell the football player.

Many people recognize this. The Pittsburgh Steelers recognize this.

That Bell himself recognizes this is crucial to his process of validating the words he spoke to ESPN's Josina Anderson that he will quit marijuana, which landed him a three-game NFL suspension that he's appealing.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarSteelers RB Le'Veon Bell seems to recognize his career is trending upward but it won't do that for forever.

Bell, 23, and former teammate LeGarrette Blount, were arrested in August when an officer in a Northern Pittsburgh suburb smelled marijuana from Bell's car.

Bell had a lot to say, but this, to me, is the money quote: "Football is what I love. I love the game of football and nothing will come to jeopardize that."

That he loves football sounds like an obvious statement, but Bell is placing the onus on himself here -- if he does jeopardize that love, this quote is on record forever, a fresh reminder that he was all talk.

But he doesn't sound like a guy ready to do that.

Bell seems to recognize his career is trending upward but won't forever. Running back stats start to fall off a cliff after age 27, and Bell already must miss three games in his prime. There's one chance for a big contract.

Arguably the most complete tailback in the game has a four-or-five-year-window for Marshall-Faulk-like production. Antonio Brown is the primary receiving option but the offense is largely tailored around Bell. He touched the ball 373 times last season, including 83 catches for 854 yards and 290 rushes for 1,361 yards. He's dangerous in the screen game. His patience as a runner is lauded. Bell, Brown and Ben Roethlisberger should have several years of high-level production together.

The only things that can stop him are injuries and commissioner Roger Goodell.

"Marijuana is not an important thing for me," Bell told Anderson. "It's something I can easily get by."

Bell wants to "get past it ... continuing to be the great football player I know he can be."

Bell put himself on blast, proving trustworthy if he follows his own advice but disingenuous if he falls back into trouble.

The Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday signed their first-round draft pick, Bud Dupree, to a four-year contract.

The outside linebacker was the sixth of the Steelers' eight draft picks to sign.

Pittsburgh drafted Dupree on April 30 in hopes that he might replace former outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who retired earlier this offseason at the stunningly young age of 27. For now, Dupree appears slated to appear at outside linebacker opposite 37-year-old veteran James Harrison.

Selected 22nd overall, Dupree started 38 games for the Wildcats, finishing with 247 tackles, 23.5 sacks, 38 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. An All-SEC honorable mention selection, Dupree ranked in the top 10 in the conference in sacks in each of his final three seasons. His 23.5 career sacks rank as the second-most in school history.

In honor of No. 10 Jimmy Garoppolo replacing the suspended Tom Brady for the Sept. 10 opener against the Steelers, here are 10 things Steelers fans should know about the second-year quarterback.

1) Garoppolo will make $34,021 in Week 1 -- with the chance to make much more in the future

Garoppolo is scheduled to make $578,359 next season, which breaks down to $136,084 over the four-game stretch he's expected to start save a Brady appeal win.

After that, Garoppolo might not play significant snaps for the duration of his four-year contract that ends in 2017. Brady still has at least a few good years left, and Garoppolo has limited reps to balloon his current NFL stat line of 182 passing yards and a touchdown.

His performance against Pittsburgh is about winning for the Patriots, but from a contractual standpoint it's about 2017 money, which is incentive to play well.

2) Garoppolo 'looks like a linebacker'

[+] EnlargeJimmy Garoppolo
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaJimmy Garoppolo passed for 182 yards and one touchdown during his rookie season. He begins his second season as the starter in Week 1 against the Steelers.

Garoppolo's 6-2, 225-pound frame sounds like the average NFL quarterback's build. But Garoppolo played linebacker at Rolling Hills (Ill.) High School. Apparently Bill Belichick has noticed his tendencies for the position.

"I talked to Bill (Belichick) at the combine, and I asked him how Jimmy was doing," said Jeff Christensen, Garoppolo's quarterback coach before the draft, to WEEI.com in April. "He said (Jimmy) looks like a linebacker. He works out like a linebacker. He acts like a linebacker. I really like him a lot, coach. You did a great job with him. Thank you.' ”

3) He's a higher NFL draft pick than any Steelers quarterback since Ben Roethlisberger

The Patriots and Steelers have had franchise quarterbacks for more than a decade, but the Patriots took Garoppolo No. 62 overall last year.

Since taking Roethlisberger No. 11 overall in the 2004 draft, the Steelers' highest quarterback selection is Landry Jones in the fourth round, 115 overall, two years ago

The 37-year-old Brady has four years on Roethlisberger, so the Patriots took a calculated risk on a developmental quarterback with higher upside than most mid-round guys.

4) He's a no-huddle, spread offense disciple

Garoppolo played for Dino Babers, who was an assistant for Baylor coach Art Briles and employed similar offensive principles at Eastern Illinois.

In 2013, Garoppolo threw for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns in an offense that emphasized accuracy and quick decisions.

Spread offenses are punching bags for NFL types that prefer quarterback prospects playing from the pocket, but Babers told me before last year's draft that if Garoppolo wasn't a first-rounder, the teams that passed on him would regret it.

5) Disguising blitzes crucial against Garoppolo

Because he was comfortable throwing the ball quickly in college, and because New England's offense will design plays for that skill set, the Steelers must find creative ways to manufacture pressure off the edge.

The Steelers ranked 26th in sacks last season with 33, but new coordinator Keith Butler has a chance to confuse the second-year player with a variety of looks.

6) He knows how to embrace the big stage.

That's because he did so during the 2014 Senior Bowl, using his steady play during the week to elevate himself as a top-five quarterback in the draft class.

Many evaluators maintained Garoppolo was barely a top 10 quarterback before Senior Bowl week, which he used to surpass AJ McCarron in the line. McCarron, who declined Senior Bowl participation, was a fifth-round pick by the Bengals.

7) He has AFC North respect

At least two offensive coaches scouting for an AFC North team last year felt Garoppolo was one of the best quarterbacks available in the draft.

The Browns privately worked out Garoppolo in April 2014, and the Bengals were about a three-plus-hour drive from the EIU campus. Certainly the Steelers did their homework, too.

8) He's considered a good schematic fit for New England

At Eastern Illinois, Garoppolo released the ball quickly “on an assortment of catch-and-throw plays designed to distribute the ball to his playmakers on short and intermediate ranges,” wrote NFL Network's Bucky Brooks.

New England also does this well.

9) He'll be expected to perform

The last time a Brady backup logged extended snaps, Matt Cassel guided the Patriots to an 11-5 season.

The Patriots return a top-shelf offensive line, several key playmakers and a defense that lost a few parts but usually reloads.

The onus will be on Garoppolo to flash more than potential.

10) Garoppolo vs. new Steelers DBs will be matchup to watch

The Steelers drafted corners Senquez Golson and Doran Grant to create turnovers -- they combined for 15 turnovers in college last season -- and to combat offenses moving downfield with the short-to-intermediate game, which is Garoppolo's strength.

Golson, a second-round pick, is best utilized as a zone corner in space, using his vision to make plays. The Steelers grabbed Grant in the fourth round for his tackling, toughness and playmaking. But expect Garoppolo to test the 5-foot-9 Golson and 5-foot-10 Grant by throwing to bigger receivers toward the middle of the field.

video
Stingy defense has long been a hallmark of teams in the AFC North.

Last season, though, three of the division's teams were in the lower half of the league's total defensive rankings, allowing an average of 350 yards or more per game. The Pittsburgh Steelers (18th), Cincinnati Bengals (22nd) and Cleveland Browns (23rd) claimed the undesirable honors. Only the Baltimore Ravens, at eighth, ranked among the league's best defensively.

Those rankings were a sharp departure from the year before, when all four teams ranged from third (Cincinnati) to 13th (Pittsburgh) in total defense.

As nearly the entire division tries to reinvent itself defensively this season, which team (of the three subpar defenses from last year) has the best chance of seeing a turnaround in 2015 that could put it in the top 10? ESPN AFC North reporters made their picks:

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesMichael Johnson's return makes the Bengals' defense a strong candidate to return to prominence in the AFC North.

Coley Harvey, Bengals reporter: This seems like a no-brainer. Between the Steelers, Browns and Bengals, Cincinnati's defense has the best chance to make the jump back into the top 10. That's mainly because for so long the Bengals were already there. Remember, they had a top-10 defensive unit for several seasons before a change at coordinator ushered in transition last year. Under former defensive coordinator (and current Minnesota Vikings head coach) Mike Zimmer, the Bengals were seventh, sixth and third in total defense in 2011, 2012 and 2013. While it's easy to pin last year's 22nd ranking on Paul Guenther, who was in his first season as a coordinator, the Bengals' drop-off was the product of a few other factors. They had injuries at key linebacker positions and had trouble replacing one of their top pass-rushers, who bolted in free agency the prior offseason. This year, they anticipate being back at full health throughout the secondary, and that pass-rusher, defensive end Michael Johnson, is back. Unlike the Browns and Steelers, who have to replace veterans at multiple positions this season, the Bengals have to fill only one spot: the left corner position vacated by 36-year-old Terence Newman. Cincinnati has the best chance to be dramatically better defensively this season.

Jamison Hensley, Ravens reporter: Cleveland's defense is ready to reach new heights, and it has nothing to do with the way Danny Shelton lifted up Roger Goodell on draft day. The Browns have the potential to field one of the best secondaries in the league. Three starting defensive backs (Joe Haden, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson) are back after making the Pro Bowl in 2014. This secondary will be better if free agent Tramon Williams lives up to his contract ($7 million per season) and Justin Gilbert matures after being a disappointing top-10 pick. The sore spots last season were the Browns' run defense and pass rush. That's why the Browns used the No. 12 overall pick on Shelton, a nose tackle, and a second-round pick on outside linebacker Nate Orchard. The Browns produced 31 sacks last year , and Orchard and Shelton combined for 27.5 sacks last season. The improvement on defense doesn't mean the Browns will win more than a handful of games. The Browns are hamstrung by an offense that lacks a quarterback and playmakers. But the Browns wisely invested in their defense in free agency and the draft, and that will propel Cleveland back into the top 10.

Pat McManamon, Browns reporter: Being from Cleveland, it would be nice to say the Browns here. Their secondary is sound, they invested heavily in the defensive line in the draft and free agency, and they added linebacker Nate Orchard to go with Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson. That's a good place to start. The problem is that the Browns ranked 32nd against the run last season with a defense that was much like this one. Until the Browns actually stop the run, they can't be considered top-10. Pittsburgh is going through transition, from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler. From Troy Polamalu to Mike Mitchell. From a stellar linebacking crew to young guys who are developing (Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones). That's a lot of change for any group. Which leaves Cincinnati as the last team standing -- and the most logical choice to improve. The Bengals re-signed Michael Johnson after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him. That fortifies a line that includes Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko. Vontaze Burfict is a force, and the Bengals as a unit got better as the 2014 season went on -- a natural occurrence after the departure of Mike Zimmer to become Vikings coach. In the first half of the season, the Bengals gave up 23.8 first downs, 357.4 yards and 23.4 points per game. In the second half, the numbers dropped to 18.4 first downs, 323.4 yards and 19.6 points per game. With Atkins one more year removed from ACL surgery, the addition of Johnson and the players as a whole becoming more comfortable with coordinator Paul Guenther, Cincinnati will be the team that jumps back into the top 10.

PITTSBURGH -- The first day of rookie minicamp is relatively light. Players around the league work out without pads, go through special-teams and individual position drills, maybe some light seven-on-seven or 11-on-11 work.

But there was enough movement Friday to notice the bursts provided by two of the Steelers' top three picks in last week's draft, Auburn receiver Sammie Coates and corner Senquez Golson. Quick first steps are evident with both players. (Steelers prohibit writing about details from practices that aren't open to fans, which Friday's session wasn't).

[+] EnlargeSenquez Golson
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicSenquez Golson's speed and instincts allow him to defend on the outside at 5-foot-9.

Ohio State's Doran Grant has burst, too, but he's known as more of a tough, physical player than a burner. First-round linebacker Bud Dupree, also from the SEC, missed the workout session while preparing for the University of Kentucky graduation ceremony on Saturday.

Coates and Golson ran the 40-yard dash in the low to mid-4.4s during the pre-draft process, which is capable speed but not considered elite. More importantly, though, the Steelers want on-field speed, enough to keep opponents on edge. Coates says this is coming every day at the team's practice facility.

"I'm probably a 4.2, 4.3 [on field]," Coates said. "I play way faster."

Coates and Golson battled it out in the SEC West every year. SEC players love to talk about "SEC speed," a term of endearment in the South and a head-shaker in the Big Ten or Pac-12, where players feel they are just as fast.

Coates looks forward to reuniting with Golson and making each other better. Golson didn't cover Coates exclusively at Ole Miss -- Coates was largely a deep threat while often Golson did his damage inside, in space -- but Coates got the advantage with five catches for 122 yards and a touchdown in a 35-31 Auburn win last year.

Golson got an interception against the Tigers, one of his 10 on the season. Coates noticed that every time he played Ole Miss, Golson was always looking to counter if Coates or an Auburn teammate made a big play. "I ran one, he ran one," he said.

"He's a great player, a great person to work with," Coates said. "We're still going at it."

The two might not battle much in Pittsburgh since the 6-foot-2 Coates is a pure outside receiver and Golson, at 5-9, could be best utilized in the nickel, though he can play outside, too. Golson said the nickel allows him to roam more, utilizing his instincts and playmaking, which is why the Steelers drafted him. Give him clear vision lanes to make plays on the ball.

Both players are battling stigmas from the draft process -- Golson's height, and Coates' drops.

"I answer them by how I play," Golson said. "I pretty much silence them the same way, making plays on bigger receivers."

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. was quick to point out during last week's draft broadcast that Coates has first-round ability but his 9.8 percent drop rate hurt him in the process. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Coates has good hands, and his 21.6 yards-per-catch average isn't a bad thing, either.

A few drops won't sway Coates from believing he's a "great player."

"There isn’t anyting I can’t catch," Coates said. "It’s just sometimes I tend to run with the field. I’ve gotten better and I’m working at it every day."

Speed can mask problems, and these two players aren't lacking for it.

SPONSORED HEADLINES