The practices are getting less physical and more technical, which means, the end of camp is near.
The next week there are two goals -- (A) continue to get the timing down with the passing game as well as with the blocking and (B) get the guys who are banged up back into the mix and allow the guys who have been going for nearly three weeks now their legs back.
The practice yesterday, for instance, was in shorts and shoulder pads, meaning there was no hitting and not much activity for the defense.
And because of that, one could say the practice was designed to make the offensive players smile, the defensive players scowl and the heat was enough to make tears well up in the eyes of one player who got sick. I suppose I could say something clever like "I know something you don't know, nah, nah, nah" but that would be silly and immature and I for one cannot imagine an adult taking that kind of approach with other adults......
So now that camp is over, or for the most part over, let's have some fun -- which the offensive players reportedly had yesterday -- and look at some rankings (based on my observations, and for the record, no, Tennessee will not be ranked) to consider as we move through the season.....
Let's start with the 10 MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS on this team in order.
(And think about this before you say "WHAT" to some of these selections -- value means this - (a) a good player (b) at a key position where either depth is thin or there aren't many alternatives ready to step in and play.)
1.) Jason Pinkston - This one is not even up for debate and there isn't even a close second. Jason has become and excellent tackle, he plays the left side and if he is hurt, there isn't anyone on this roster that I've seen who could even come close to the level of production and protection he's provided. In fact, I think we saw some of this in the Sun Bowl when he was out and it looked like a jail break coming from the left side on almost every play. He is the one guy this team simply cannot lose for any extended period of time.
2.) Jonathan Baldwin - I know, there are plenty of receivers on this team who are capable. But there isn't another one in Baldwin's league. He is the one guy who can make defenses find him and roll to him and defend him on every single play. He is a game-changer and a guy who can go up and get the ball regardless of how bad it is thrown -- and given how the quarterback on this team throws the ball some times, well that is an important thing. He is a threat to score a touchdown on every play. Without him the offense loses a lot of firepower and trust me, this is an offense that needs all the firepower it can get.
3.) Nate Byham - Brock DeCicco is not ready, he needs to redshirt, Mike Cruz needs to decide if he really wants to play football and Dorin Dickerson is not a traditional tight end and he's not capable of doing the things Nate can do, in blocking and other areas not related to catching the ball. Nate is simply an outstanding and physical tight end and based on what we've seen from the offense without him in there (he's missed some days with a concussion) he is indispensible.
4.) Aaron Berry - Yeah, I know, he didn't play well all the time last year. And while there are some young corners with talent on this team, Berry is the only true lock-down corner on this team and the only player with that "takes away half the field" ability. If he is not healthy, a lot of what this team likes to do on defense goes out the window because he's the only corner who can man up just about any receiver and do so from press coverage. He has played extremely well in camp and I'd expect a big year from him.
5. and 6.) (tie) Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard - Yes, I know the team could piece together some combination of Shayne Hale/Brandon Lindsey and Nate Nix and survive but the drop between these two and whoever is behind them is significant. Unlike the younger guys, these two are no longer just pass rushers, they are complete defensive ends, they are football players.
7.) Dom DeCicco - Pitt has three safeties who are ready to play and contribute. One is tough yet a bit undersized, the other is big and athletic but not particularly reliable for a lot of reasons. DeCicco is a smart football player, who always knows his assignments and is big and athletic - thus giving the coaches some flexibility in how they use him.
8.) Mick Williams - The team would certainly be in good hands with Myles Caragein and Gus Mustakas handling the tackle spots if Williams were to get hurt. But neither of those guys bring what Williams does, which is the ability to create havoc on every single play. Williams has also developed into the vocal leader of this defense.
9.) John Malecki - Similar to Williams, the team would certainly survive with Joe Thomas stepping in at right guard and Jacobson at left guard. But the bottom line is, neither player is as consistent as Malecki and the jury is still out on whether Jacobson is even really ready to play as he is still making some inexperience mistakes. It is certainly not a question coaches would want to be forced to consider.
10.) Adam Gunn - His versatility and experience -- he is a sixth-year senior and he can play all three linebacker spots -- make him invaluable to this team. The linebackers as a unit are extremely young and inexperienced and he is the one player who really knows what he is doing out there and can help the other two get to where they need to be. That's especially true early in the season when the youngsters on that unit are still trying to figure out where to line up and what to do.
Pitt's 10 BEST players regardless of position ......
1.) Mick Williams - The guy is a machine and he's been a nightmare for the offense this entire camp, or at least until he was given lots of reps off and started to dial it down a little bit.
2.) Jonathan Baldwin - He has certainly become a legitimate wide receiver and not just a fast guy who is tall and runs down the field.
3.) Gus Mustakas - - Probably a surprising choice to some, but not his coaches or teammates. But in terms of knowing what he's supposed to do, executing it and understanding his position, he's one of the most football smart players on this team and when healthy, he'll be extremely productive as well.
4.) Aaron Berry - For years it has been said that if he ever dropped the silly off field stuff and all the other nonsense he got mixed up in, he could be a really, really good football player. We've seen that this camp and he has by a lot been the best defensive players in this camp.
5.) Nate Byham - He's been slowed by a concussion, but he is the prototypical NFL tight end, the complete package who catches, blocks and does all the little things to help an offense.
6.) Jason Pinkston - If I did this list about a month from now, it wouldn't shock me if Pinkston was much higher on this list. He is a guy who is developing into an excellent left tackle and as he settles in and plays more (remember, he missed all spring) he will only get better.
7.) Jabaal Sheard - He's a natural athlete and he's got just enough of a nasty streak to make him dangerous. He is quick off the ball and has excellent instincts, he'll make plays that a guy his size shouldn't just based on his athletic ability.
8.) Greg Romeus - If this were a list of top NFL prospects, he'd be No. 1. He is everything the NFL is looking for -- a 6-foot-6 guy who can run and sack the quarterback. He, like Pinkston, is one who will continue to rise up this list as he gets more experience but he is still a little bit green and still in need of some refining and consistency.
9.) John Malecki - A good old fashioned football player, Malecki is the heart of this offensive line - a guy who'd you have to cut his leg off to keep him out of the lineup. He's physical, he's got a mean streak, he is a smart football player and he has developed into a very good offensive guard.
10.) Dom DeCicco - I remember his first few games last year when he struggled, mightily. Forget about that as he has developed into an excellent safety and a guy who is legitimately the quarterback of the defense. He's always in the right place and he is athletic enough to make the play once he gets there.
Ok, now let's look at the 10 BEST ATHLETES on this team.....
1.) Jonathan Baldwin - Shocking I know, captain obvious, but here is a guy who is 6-foot-5, runs a 4.37 40-yard dash, has a 42-inch vertical leap and bench presses more than some of the linemen. The other day before practice he was throwing footballs about 60 to 70 yards, punting them about that far and even kicked a 37-yard field goal. Then yesterday he was THROWING fade passes into garbage cans stationed in the back corner of the end zone from the center of the field and he was more accurate than some of the quarterbacks he was having a friendly competition with......He has been referred to as an athletic "freak" by his teammates and coaches and to steal a quote from the movie "Catch Me if You Can" - "I concur...."
2.) Greg Cross - The fact that they haven't figured out how to use this guy is one of the great mysteries that I've observed since I've been covering this team. I was talking to some of the players who said you should see this guy play basketball. He is actually developing as receiver and there has to be some way to take advantage of the things he can do.
3.) Buddy Jackson - Remember him? We almost forgot him, too. But he is still on the team and in case you need a refresher on his athletic credentials read this article......
4.) Elijah Fields - This is not shocking either. His athleticism is never a question. It is everything else that holds him back.
5.) Jabaal Sheard - Again, he's not nearly as hyped as the other defensive end on this team, but he is an athletic specimen just the same. And like I said, he can do a lot of things that a guy his size should not be able to do.
6.) Dorin Dickerson - Another combination of size and freakish speed. He can run, he is one of the three or four fastest players on the team and he is strong. All you need to know about his raw athletic ability is this -- the Sporting News recently ran a list of the best NFL prospects in the nation and Dickerson was on it even though he's barely seen the field in his career and has done very little in terms of production.
7.) Myles Caragein - Probably a bit of a surprise to some of you, but this kid was a state wrestling champion in high school and he is both extremely quick and he is very strong. He has great feet and great hands and is going to be a very good player for this team. I also often joke that if there was a steel cage match involving the entire team and only one player was walking out, my money would be on Myles.
8.) Greg Romeus -- Another player they use the work "freak" with and often. He is 6-foot-6, runs like the wind, can dunk a basketball reverse, forward and everything else.
9.) Cameron Saddler - He is small, but he is lightning quick and he has all of the "you can't coach that" instincts and ability to change direction stuff which electrify crowds and lead to big plays. Watching him return kicks is fun.
10.) Mike Shanahan - Stereotypes of white receivers can be hard for a player to overcome but this kid has and here is the bottom line - he is extremely athletically gifted. He was a big-time basketball player, he has a great vertical leap, he is fast and he has the best hands on the team. I don't know that he has dropped a pass this camp -- even after he broke a bone in his hands. I've seen him twist, bend, jump, dive and roll to catch passes - his balance is incredible.
And for all you draft geeks out there -- the 10 best NFL prospects regardless of class on this team --
1.) Greg Romeus - There is such a premium placed on pass-rushing defensive ends in that league and Romeus has every tool they are looking for. He'll go to the combine and I would expect he'll be one of those guys who opens a lot of eyes. It won't shock me if this is the last season we see him in a Pitt uniform.
2.) Jonathan Baldwin - What more can we say? The only thing I can see which might hold him back from being a first or second-round pick is bad quarterback play but even these quarterbacks have had little trouble finding him and getting him the ball. Like Romeus, he'll be impressive in a combine.
3.) Jason Pinkston - Dave Wannstedt once said "Jason can be a good defensive tackle, he'll be a great offensive tackle" and I believe him. Pinkston's injury history could be the one thing which holds him back, but simply put there aren't many athletic left tackles out there who can move as well as he does and who are as strong as he is.
4.) Nate Byham - Like we said before, a prototypical NFL tight end with good size (6-4, 265), strength and speed and he's an excellent blocker. He should be one of the top tight ends in next year's draft.
5.) Mick Williams - Size will hurt him, but I've seen his name on plenty of draft prospect lists because of his explosiveness and his first step. He is also deceptively strong and he moves extremely well from sideline to sideline considering his size (6-1, 280) and the position he plays.
6.) Dorin Dickerson - Once again, you can't coach his speed and his athleticism. He is viewed by NFL teams as an H-back/fullback/tight end and while he has not shown much in terms of production in his time at Pitt, his potential is what is being measured here and by NFL teams. I was a little stunned to see his name on some of the "NFL prospects" lists but consider this - if he got an invite to the combine, he'd clearly turn a lot of heads just with his 40-time alone (he runs like a 4.39 or so).
7.) Jabaal Sheard - If he were a couple inches taller he'd be higher on this list. Regardless of that, he will be a legitimate prospect for the same reasons Romeus is regarded so highly - there simply aren't enough pass rushing defensive end types out there. And unlike Romeus, who is a defensive end, I think Sheard could probably play that pass rushing outside linebacker position in a 3-4 defense like the Steelers.
8.) Aaron Berry - No question he has to have a big year, but the bottom line is lock-down cover corners are as valuable as gold in the NFL and there just aren't that many out there. If Berry can finally be the player he should have been two years ago, there is no question he'll get drafted, particularly if he runs as well at the combine as he is capable of.
9.) Ray Graham - Ok, we are going way out on a limb here, but not really. Yes, he hasn't played a college game yet but, again, he does so many things on the field that (I hate this cliché by the way) "you can't coach" that a couple of years in the weight room and with some experience, I expect him to be a big-time player for Pitt. And in terms of NFL prospects - he has breakaway speed, the great feet, seems to have good vision and he is good size already.
10.) Elijah Fields - This is a player who still doesn't get it. But, if in the next two years, the light comes on and he decides to focus on becoming a player who lives up to his potential, a player who doesn't take plays -- heck, for that matter whole days -- off, a player who listens and does the things he needs to do and who avoids some of the immature silliness off the field that seems to follow him - in other words if he commits to becoming the player he should be, he'd jump way up on this list. He is a safety with the size, speed and athleticism that should have NFL teams drooling over him but instead he's been an underachiever who is starting to run out of both time and chances get it right.
Now, finally here we rank the TOP TEN YOUNG PLAYERS on this team based on our observations. These are guys who haven't played or have played very little we can't wait to see develop and get a chance to play
1.) Ray Graham - He is exciting to watch and he can make defenders, good defenders, look silly with his ability to change directions. He has some things to learn in terms of blocking and whatnot, but let's face it, nobody will ever accuse LeSean McCoy of being a great blocker but that's not what he's paid to do and that's not what fans pay to see him do, either.
2.) Dan Mason - The first day I saw him in pads I said "he certainly looks the part". Then I saw him knock a few people into next week and I said "he certainly plays the part, too." He is a true freshman but there is no way they are keeping him off the field.
3.) Jarred Holley - He has very quietly moved his name into the discussion for playing time in the secondary. And every time he is in the scrimmages or 11 v 11 drills, he seems to make plays - and big plays as well. He is certainly knocking on the door.
4.) Cameron Saddler -I don't know that he'll ever be a big part of the receiver's package just because he's 5-foot-7 and heck, these quarterbacks struggle to accurately throw the ball to 6-foot-5 Jonathan Baldwin. But as a kick returner, as a slot receiver who takes reverses and/or end arounds or catches some swing or screen passes in the flat -- he is an exciting player. He can make guys miss and he is so low to the ground, he changes direction without breaking stride. He's a lot of fun to watch when he gets the ball in the open field.
5.) Dion Lewis - He doesn't quite have the flair of Graham and he's not quite the breakaway threat, but he is a good, tough, inside runner (I think he is better than McCoy at hitting the hole and moving the pile in short yardage) and he does make some people miss and turn what appear to be short runs into first downs. He is a tough player and a guy who I think will be a threat to go for a 100-yard game every week.
6.) Mike Shanahan - I wasn't a believer last year. I am now. He really is good and at his size, he will give Pitt a chance to do some different things in the passing game down the road. He has great hands and he runs great routes.
7.) Devin Street - He's extremely young and won't see the field this year but he's 6-foot-3 and he's fast and from what we've seen he catches the ball extremely well. With a year in the weight room and the conditioning program he could become an excellent player and reliable option as soon as next year.
8.) Tyrone Ezell - Like Mason, he certainly looks the part as he is a big, physical player already. He won't see the field because defensive tackle is a deep position and they don't need him to. But at 6-4, 270 pounds, he is already a kid who looks like he could contribute in a pinch. The thing that impresses me about him, however, is he is deceptively fast and we've seen this on some plays when he's chased screen passes and made the tackle on the running back all the way over on the sideline.
9.) Juantez Hollins - Ok, we are going way out on a limb here. He is very, very raw and he has a long way to go in terms of learning how to play tackle and learning techniques. But you can't coach size (he's 6-foot-5, 275 pounds already) and good feet, which he has. Give this kid a couple of years in the weight room and with Tony Wise coaching him up, I think he can become a top tackle.
10.) Shayne Hale - He's been hurt for a lot of camp so it is hard to gauge where is at right now, but what we saw in the spring was a defensive end capable of rushing the passer as well as playing the run and making tackles. He has a lot of ability, but he still has a long way to go to be ready to become the kind of dominant defensive end coaches think he can be.
Hope you enjoy these lists, even if you don't agree with them. We'll see if we can come up with more rankings and stay tuned as our list of top 20 "Let's Go Pitt" songs will be posted sometime in the next few days.