A new series to get you ready for training camp. While much of our attention and all the headlines will be on the big-name players — QB Kenny Pickett’s jump, how OT Broderick Jones looks, and new defensive starters like CB Patrick Peterson — the summer is a great time to uncover that training camp darling. Just in the way RB Jaylen Warren was that guy last season, we’re highlighting potential sleepers who could be pushing for a roster spot come final cutdowns.
CAMP SLEEPER: RB Alfonzo Graham
Graham is a name we’ve mentioned a handful of times already. The #3 RB spot on the Steelers’ depth chart is wide open. You can call whoever you want the frontrunner but it doesn’t really matter; they’re all neck and neck.
Traditionally, the #3 running back needs to be strong and stout on special teams. That’s where Graham could separate himself from someone like veteran Anthony McFarland, the biggest “name” battling with him. McFarland has shown minimal special teams value and acknowledged his need to improve there. Graham doesn’t share that same concern. He played on special teams throughout his college career, including at gunner, and figures to get plenty of work there this summer in camp. Of course, he’ll need to show he can play special teams well while making the jump from FCS Morgan State, but this won’t be new to him. He’s already bought into doing the dirty work. Now, he just has to refine his game.
And Graham is more than just a special teamer. He’s a dynamic runner and accomplished receiver, who reportedly impressed in OTAs. The knock on him is a lack of size and Pittsburgh gravitates to running backs who can house a couple cheeseburgers but there aren’t a lot of “big” backs Graham is battling with. Fellow UDFA Darius Hagans is much stockier and might be his biggest on-field competition. Practice squader Jason Huntley is only 5’9, 193 pounds, setting up for a competition between different styles of runner and player compared to Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.
Don’t forget about conditioning either. It’s obvious, it’s fundamental, but it’s so key to a young guy making it. And if Graham is going to be a four-down player in camp and preseason action, you better not be huffing and puffing your way through a game. Pittsburgh loves in-shape, highly conditioned running backs. Harris, Warren, even earlier examples like Le’Veon Bell and James Conner were dudes who looked the part and could handle the load. Graham obviously won’t be put in that extreme position but if he never tires, he’ll earn the coaching staff’s trust.
Being highly conditioned is how you help avoid those nagging soft tissue injuries. Pull your hamstring and you’re going to be down for at least 2-3 weeks, critical time that would essentially cost you a chance to make the 53.
No doubt about it, Graham has to earn it. They all do. McFarland and Huntley may have more experience but they’re all entering camp with a blank slate. Provided the team doesn’t go outside the organization, what happens from July 27th to August 29th will define who becomes the third-string running back. But Graham has as good a shot as anyone to stick.