Football season got one step closer on Monday when Steelers players were back at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for the first day of voluntary offseason workouts.
"It feels great. It's good to be grinding again," said T.J. Watt. "It feels good to be back in town and I can't wait to see all of the guys. When you are away for two or three months you want to see all of the guys, you want to see all of the progress everybody has been making.
"I want to show everybody the progress I have made as well. Overall conditioning, pass rush, dropping in coverage, getting more comfortable with my body and just improving. I am way more comfortable this time around than I was last year, not knowing where I was going to go. I know the playbook, I know all of the guys. It will definitely help me further my progression in this defense.
Phase One of the offseason kicked off for all NFL teams, and includes voluntary strength and conditioning and physical rehabilitation only. But it's more than just that. It's a time of year to build camaraderie, to get to know new teammates, and to work together as one.
"We have some new guys coming in," said Mike Hilton. "It's time where everyone can learn each other and get better. It's very valuable. You have to take this time to get your body back in order, get stronger, faster and build that chemistry with the team.
"It's the football feeling. It's been a long offseason. There still is some time to go. Now that we are back and getting things rolling it feels good."
It was a mix of veterans and young players taking part in day one, including one of the true leaders in the locker room, Maurkice Pouncey.
"Just for the young guys to see how accountable you are," said Pouncey of why he was one of the first to arrive. "How much we are willing to put in anything to win a championship. We have to turn things around and see how it goes this year.
"It's chemistry time. Getting back in shape and getting right for football. The season is long, but this is the start of it. It's fun to be back again.
Seeing the veterans taking part wasn't lost on the younger guys.
"You have to have veterans in every single room to take guys under their wing," said Hilton. "I am still a young guy, so I am still looking up to some guys, they take me under their wing. As a whole, this team can really do something."
For players who didn't have the opportunity to fully take part in the offseason program last year, this time of year is invaluable. Count Vance McDonald as one of them. McDonald was traded to the Steelers during training camp last year, so he has been a regular at the practice facility all offseason, and that just continued with the start of Phase One.
"Even up until this point we have had 10-15 guys stick around," said McDonald. "There is no stress of football and game planning right now. You get the time to know and enjoy all of the people in the building, not just the players but the people all throughout the organization. Not only that, but there is a sense of comfort being able to spend months getting ready, without the stress of the season.
"There is a lot to be said about not being in season and being together. That is where the bonds are made. Guys are super relaxed. Super focused on not just building strength and speed, but getting to know each other. It's a lot of fun."