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5 for Friday: Training camp and its intangible value

For more than half of the Steelers roster, 2022 marked the first time they had an opportunity to go away for training camp.

Because of the pandemic, the Steelers had been unable to go to Saint Vincent College in 2020 and 2021 for training camp, instead holding their camp at Acrisure Stadium.

Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff were able to accomplish what they wanted to get done on the field in terms of teaching and preparing players for the upcoming season. But off the field? It just wasn't the same.

For players such as Alex Highsmith, who joined the team during the pandemic, they didn't know what they were missing out on until they made their first trip to Saint Vincent College last year.

"Camaraderie is huge," Highsmith said.

Take a look at the Steelers training and preparing for the 2023 season at Saint Vincent College

And that's what is built at Saint Vincent College.

Sequestered in a dorm, the players have no choice but to get to know each other. They're in meetings or on the field together all day. At night, they're hanging out, playing games and getting to know one another.

"I think that's one of the tangible benefits of a destination training camp, and we let it happen organically, but we also tee it up," head coach Mike Tomlin said of the off-field team building exercises that happen at Saint Vincent College. "There's awesome development, collective development in an environment like this where we get an opportunity to be away from our lives and be singularly focused on this collective and spend formal time and informal time together. I just think that's a component of team building that we've all been on enough teams, we know and respect and feel, and really want to pour into.

"So yes, there will be competition, video games, board games, dominos, et cetera. I think that's one of the things if you love football and you love football environments, that's one of the things that you like about destination camps."

The Steelers are one of just a handful of teams that still go away for training camp. They do so because team president Art Rooney II and Tomlin see the benefit not only for what that bonding does for the team, but because it also affords fans the opportunity to come out and interact with players on a personal basis.

"The element of having the fans here, it's amazing," GM Omar Khan said. "It's absolutely amazing. I went for a walk -- I've got to work off some of these meals that I had during break here, but I went for a walk (Thursday), and I was amazed. It was probably like 7:30 this morning, and there were already cars lined up to come into the parking lot, and I just couldn't believe it. It was just a chilling scene for me to see that.

"It just means so much to these people. I owe it to them to do everything I can in my power to not only help bring a championship to this organization but to our fan base. They're so loyal to us, and they've been great with me, and I've been here, what, 23 years. Just that passion is second to none."

Every team in the NFL has spent millions on their practice facility. They are top of the line. Training camps can easily be hosted at those facilities.

But the intangible things that are gained from holding camp away from the team facility are too great to overlook.

And those team-building exercises and availability to fans are a huge part of that.

That's what began this week for the Steelers.

• Kenny Pickett wants to be a more complete leader of the Steelers offense in his second season. He wants to take total ownership of the offense.

That means having the ability to check out of things at the line of scrimmage, knowing where his best matchups are and seeing the game in a different way than he did as a rookie in 2022.

"Checks go with it. It's using everything in the offense, using every option we have on every play," Pickett said. "If we have a certain look on a shot, then taking it and hitting it instead of just going through my progressions. It's taking advantage of circumstances. I don't think I can put it into one sentence, but that's what I'm looking to do."

Pickett knows this is a big season not just for him, but for the team as a whole.

The Steelers were aggressive in upgrading their roster in the offseason, whether it be through free agency or making trades in the draft.

They feel they can be very good. But, as is always the case, so much depends upon the play of the quarterback, which is why it's the most important position in any sport.

"I think we have a shot," Pickett said. "We added a lot of great pieces offensively and defensively. I think our front office did an outstanding job of putting guys in a position to succeed. Now, it's up to us to go out there and play."

• Pickett doesn't need to be Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow this season.

He doesn't need to throw for 5,000 yards or 40 touchdown passes.

He needs to be whatever it is the Steelers need him to be to win on a given Sunday.

Now, that might mean there will be times where he needs to throw the ball 40 times. It also might mean there will be times when they only ask him to throw it 20.

The biggest thing he needs to do is be a leader.

"He needs to be what we need him to be," Tomlin said. "I know that he's preparing with that mindset, and I like his approach and his demeanor in that regard, but I think whether you're talking about guys like quarterbacks or guys like me as a head coach, we need to be what our team needs us to be."

Pickett is fine with that. He's spent his life being a quarterback. He's mature beyond his years.

It's a big reason why his teammates have embraced him as a leader, even though many of them have more seasons in the league under their belts.

"Kenny is hard-working and no nonsense and a legitimate humble dude, and I think that's attractive from a teammate perspective," Tomlin said. "I think he's thoughtful and considerate of others. I think that's attractive."

Pickett gets it. He's not concerned with his numbers, which is refreshing in a league where much of the fandom is consumed by fantasy football numbers. There's only one thing that matters to him.

"Just go out there and win," Pickett said. "You can get into expectations of numbers and stuff like that. I just want to go out there and win. So, whatever it takes, whatever those numbers look like, that's all I'm focused on."

• There were no crazy ego-driven arrivals at training camp this week. It was a very business-like day for the Steelers.

There weren't any helicopters, hot air balloons or fire trucks on display. Everyone arrived, got their stuff unpacked and settled in.

Heck, first-round draft pick Broderick Jones took a ride share service from Pittsburgh to get to Latrobe.

That's a refreshing approach. But it's also one that is expected for a team that seems to be flying somewhat under the radar.

Nobody was thumping their chest or making outrageous declarations. Everything was very matter of fact.

"When you have aspirations about being a world champion, this time of year is very valuable," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "We want to make sure we are turning over every stone, that we are dialed in to every situation we are going to be handed in training camp so we are prepared for when those situations appear to us through the season. This time of year is very important to us. Guys understand that. Guys understand the time is now."

• There are many different ways to win in the NFL. That's particularly true in today's game when no team in the league last season averaged 30 or more points per game.

Some have been critical of the Steelers' spending on the defensive side of the ball while the offense remains relatively cheap. But that train of thought ignores the fact the team's offensive playmakers are mostly young players working on their rookie deals.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Khan said the team doesn't look at its cap allocation in black and white terms.

"There's a good player, and he deserves to get paid. It's my job to try to lock him up," Khan said of how he views things. "But we don't look at it as, hey, we're paying too much to the defense."

Roster building is all about the allocation of resources. But simply looking at the salary cap spending is simplifying things too much.

How a team is drafting also must be taken into account. And the Steelers have spent the past few seasons building their offense through the draft with players such as running back Najee Harris, Pickett, wide receiver George Pickens, tight end Pat Freiermuth and Jones, all of whom were first- or second-round draft picks.

At some point, they'll have to make decisions about second contracts with those players. And that will potentially mean getting some younger players on the defensive side of the ball.

That's how roster building works. Nobody sets out to allocate 50 percent of their cap on offense and 50 percent on defense – at least not on a yearly basis.

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