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Winners and Losers

Rookie running back Baron Batch has been the star of training camp thus far. Perhaps he hasn’t quite reached fan favorite status and earned a nickname the way Isaac “Redzone” Redman did last year, but he’s gained the attention of the one man who counts the most: Mike Tomlin.

Batch killed it during Sunday’s backs-on-backers drill, showing up Jason Worilds before holding his own against James Harrison, the latter having been thrown in by Tomlin to challenge the rookie. Both Tomlin and coordinator Bruce Arians were fired up after his showing, which bodes well for the seventh-rounder.

He’s also earning valuable reps during team drills, lining up just after starter Rashard Mendenhall and backup Isaac Redman and before last year’s rookie back Jonathan Dwyer. In teams, he’s showed great vision, patience, and explosiveness and his on-a-dime cutbacks have led to a number of big runs.

Other Winners
His showing in camp hasn’t been perfect – he failed to catch a ball that turned into a Larry Foote interception in Tuesday’s practice – but he has been able to show the coaching staff that he can be a threat in the passing game come September.

ILB Stevenson Sylvester has had a good performance thus far and the coaching staff should feel comfortable in letting veteran Keyaron Fox walk and going with the younger Sylvester. “Sly” has looked great in special teams, continuing a strong showing that led him to play in every contest last season (the only rookie to do so).

Defensively, he’s exhibiting a nice blend of speed and power in pass rushing drills. If Batch was the offensive star of backs-on-backers, Sly was definitely the defensive star. It remains to be seen whether or not his camp performance will allow him to sneak past Larry Foote as the primary backup on the inside; he’s certainly off to a great start in that chase.

RB Jonathan Dwyer has been the anti-Baron Batch, to the point where he’s now taking reps only after the latter has seen action. After failing to complete the conditioning drills to open camp last Thursday, Dwyer has been downright invisible through the first few days of camp, except for one play on Tuesday where he broke free for a long run.

He’s failed to show any of the power that the team expected when they drafted him late in last year’s draft, and his work ethic seems to be lacking, considering he was one of the very few players who showed up for camp out of shape.

Undrafted rookies are certainly getting the shaft thanks to the lockout. The Pittsburgh Steelers have historically been very good at plucking promising rookies off the free market and turning them into stars and major contributors. The team history is littered with players like James Harrison and Willie Parker, who each broke Super Bowl records (James for longest play and Willie for longest run) for Pittsburgh this decade.

This year though, the lockout and abbreviated offseason have given the Steelers a fetish for veterans. RB Mewelde Moore and free agent TE John Gilmore are the latest examples of players who likely wouldn’t have been in camp in previous offseasons.  A tight end like Weslye Saunders or defensive tackle Anthony Gray, two of the more impressive undrafted names in camp thus far, will be hard pressed to even get a sniff at one of the later roster spots. Gray has the best chance to make the practice squad, but it’s doubtful many of the other undrafted rookies will be given so much as a cup of coffee once the cuts begin.

Anyone with a new contract is looking like a loser for the Steelers right now. Earning a new contract and staying with a team that has made three Super Bowl appearances in the last six seasons should be a winning proposition, but the new CBA has thrown a wrench in the plans of any such player. A rule in the new CBA is preventing any veteran with a new contract from practicing with the team until the start of the league year on August 4th.

This group, which includes key corner Ike Taylor and the team’s two starting tackles, Jonathan Scott and Willie Colon, are contractually required to be at camp and attend meeting, but are denied the opportunity to actually practice with their teammates. As such, players like Scott and Colon, who would benefit the team mightily if they could roll in and learn to play with the members of a reshuffled offensive line, are forced to miss a full week of an offseason program that has already been shortened too much.

Kenneth Torgent is the Steelers beat writer for the Pittsburgh Sports Report. Follow him on twitter at @ktorgent.

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