Every year many claim that preseason NFL is meaningless. That is because they are looking for the wrong things. If you want the preseason to help you decide if Ben Roethlisberger is a good fantasy bet, or if T.J. Watt is going to breakout, you may not see anything. However, beneath the top layer, many players have the chance to leave impressions in situations they otherwise wouldn’t have. Who are five players to pay attention in the Pittsburgh Steelers first preseason game?

Matthew Thomas

Matthew Thomas is the perfect example of a player who can take significant strides in the preseason. Thomas is a rookie UDFA with a backstory after being a top recruit at Florida State. Thomas came out of college extremely athletic, but extremely raw regarding understanding and processing the game at an NFL speed.

There is no simulation for speed. Being thrown into the mix is the only way to tell if you are ready for it. When better for a rookie UDFA thrown into action than the early preseason? The Pittsburgh Steelers have some sorting out to do at the top of their inside linebacker depth chart, and will likely use the preseason to figure some of that out.

However, breaking down the depth chart you would expect Thomas to get the vast majority of the second half snaps, if not all of them. It will be a faster environment than college but a far cry from a Sunday in November. Seeing how he reacts and anticipates from this situation will be a great base to track week to week progression.

Thomas also should be able to see plenty of special teams snaps. That is his path to the roster in 2018, so to see his name pop up in that regard would be crucial.

Mason Rudolph

The third round rookie with all of the hype around his name makes his debut for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Like Thomas, we will finally have a starting point on tape to see how speed affects his processing. From there, we can see how he gets used to the changes on a week to week basis.

Also like Thomas, we are wondering when exactly he will get in. In a previous post, we broke down a possible scenario to handle Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs and Landry Jones this preseason. In the most likely scenario, Rudolph does not see the field in the first half on Thursday.

However, if the Steelers do give the entire second half to Rudolph, it should still be a good enough sample of plays to start to form a basis of expectations. Reports out of camp have been that Rudolph is processing the game well. Thursday should be a great chance to see how it translates.

Keion Adams and Ola Adeniyi

One thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is how thin the Pittsburgh Steelers are at outside linebacker. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt will miss Thursday with a concussion and a hamstring respectively. The injuries mean that Keion Adams, a seventh-round draft pick in his second season is going to start across from Anthony Chickillo. Chickillo will play early, but the team may keep Adams in with the second team.

That could mean Adams will run across from Ola Adeniyi for a good portion of the game. These are the two to watch as they are likely the two to round out the depth of this unit.

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Adams is returning from a lost rookie season due to injury. Adeniyi is a rookie UDFA from Toledo. Both are making their NFL debuts. Adams is undersized but had a big combine that showed speed and athleticism off of the edge.

Adeniyi is more of an undersized technician. Still, he plays very low to the ground, providing good bend around the edge and plays with strength. The team has been high on Adeniyi and has even given him some reps ahead of Adams.

The duo of speed and power should be on display for a good portion of Thursday’s game. How do they play off of each other and which player looks more NFL ready will be a debating point after the game.

Cameron Sutton

In our training camp preview we wondered in which variety of ways would Cameron Sutton be used. He is the top backup in the slot. He is likely the top backup on the outside as well. How does the team decipher his snaps between each spot?

On top of that, there is a question as to whether it would be Sutton or rookie first-round pick, Terrell Edmunds, getting onto the field in dime situations. Edmunds is the more prominent athlete, but Sutton is the more instinctive player.

The Steelers have also been experimenting with a dollar defense in the past few days at camp. What spot does Sutton line up in there? There are many hats for Sutton to wear and only so many snaps. Where is he lining up?

James Conner and Jaylen Samuels

This one should be obvious. If Le’Veon Bell goes down, this is the duo you are going to. If Le’Veon Bell leaves via free agency next offseason, this is what you have to build your corps around. What do the Pittsburgh Steelers have in these two?

Reports out of camp are that Conner is not only in fantastic shape, but also has improved his pass catching and pass protecting. One thing we have hammered home is that doing something in practice amplifies when you have to do it in the speed of the game. Even in preseason, we need to see momentum from Conner catching and blocking in the pace of the game.

As for Samuels, the question is how do they involve him aside from pass catching. He can motion out wide and be used on screens and sweeps, but how does he look as a running back? Do they run him under center, or is he more of a WEB back who compliments in the passing game? We should start to see some clarity in terms of a role for Samuels Thursday.

– Parker Hurley is Pittsburgh Steelers team manager of Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on and Facebook.

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