LATROBE, Pa. – For the players about to compete for roster spots and roles within that roster, an NFL training camp has an unmistakable air of "ready or not, here it comes."
At the end of an afternoon that started with check-ins and weigh-ins and ended with the annual run test, Coach Mike Tomlin said he was pleased with the group's readiness.
"We're off to a relatively clean start. I was pleased with the condition of the men when they reported," said Tomlin. "The weights were impressive, man for man, when you went down the line positionally, and that was reinforced by their performance in the run test. I liked the punctuality of the group, and now we're off and running with this process of team development."
While a foundation can be laid during the offseason program for what will transpire come training camp, the five-to-six weeks between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp might be every bit as significant as the more organized work that takes place during the offseason program. Tomlin said his message to the players as they were about to enter that period was simple:
"We just talked about being highly conditioned and ready for the work that's awaiting us here," said Tomlin.
One player who seemingly took those words to heart was third-year running back James Conner. Following a 2018 season in which he averaged 4.5 yards per carry, accounted for 1,370 yards from scrimmage, and scored 12 rushing touchdowns, Conner arrived on campus and told reporters that nothing he accomplished last season will help him this season.
"I agree with what he said," said Tomlin when asked about Conner's perception. "I'm not looking for comfort relative to what he did a year ago. I do find comfort in what I've seen from him to this point in the journey this year. He's highly conditioned and focused. I see the natural growth and maturation that you see in a professional, and I like what I've seen from him through the OTAs and so forth. I had an opportunity to run into him this summer, and just look at him. He's ready to go."
One of the issues at every NFL training camp every summer is the readiness of the rookies to fulfill the promise they instilled in teams and their fans after they were drafted. Part of that readiness comes from physical conditioning, but another part can come from their mental approach to what they're about to experience.
"We don't have a long-standing relationship (with the rookies), so we're just getting to know them," said Tomlin, "but they're also in uncharted territory. They're going into something they need to acknowledge they've never done before, which is a professional camp. I think with that acknowledgement – our lack of knowledge of them from a long-standing working relationship and their lack of exposure to this environment – we all proceed with a bit of caution and preparedness. I told those guys when they left in the spring that it's better to be over-prepared than under-prepared considering you don't know what lies ahead.
"I like what I've seen from some of those guys, but we're getting to know them and that's just a part of it. That's why we're extremely comfortable talking about the expectations placed on guys in year two. Because we know them, we do have the experience of the past 12 month, and so it is reasonable to expect a certain level of conditioning, a certain adjustment, a certain knowing of what's expected of them."
Still, the fans' focus of the opening of each camp is on the rookies, and within that most of the attention is directed toward the first-round pick. That certainly will be the case with the Steelers, where Devin Bush will be looking to develop far enough and quickly enough to be able to make contributions as soon as the regular season opens on Sept. 8.
"He's got a lot to learn, he's got a lot to prove, and so he should just take that singular focus in terms of the approach of what he needs to do," said Tomlin about Bush. "He's going to be given an opportunity to get snaps, and he's got to take advantage of those things. If he's highly conditioned, he'll have an opportunity to get additional snaps in an effort to accelerate the learning process. Those are just natural things we do with guys who are in the position he's in. How he performs, the level of conditioning, and his continued availability is going to dictate the pace of all of the things we talked about."
STEELERS NOTES: Because the Collective Bargaining Agreement requires an acclimation period once teams report to training camp, the Steelers' practices on both Friday and Saturday will be padless, just as was the case during OTAs and minicamp. The pads will go on and the hitting will begin on Sunday afternoon … During their time at Saint Vincent College, the Steelers will hold 15 practices that are open to the public. Tomlin expressed no paranoia about that. "We focus on the work that's transpiring on the grass, the growth and development of the men fundamentally, the skills relative to their position. Who's watching practice has very little bearing on the work and the focus" … After T.J. Watt experienced some tightness in his hamstring after he finished the run test, the team placed him on the physically unable to perform list. He cannot practice while on PUP and does not count against the team's 90-player roster limit, and he is eligible to come off PUP and return to practice as soon as he's deemed physically ready.