1. The 2014 draft class: The rookies are brimming with promise and a handful of them should help right away. Coach Mike Tomlin and his assistants get their first look at the players in a live game who collectively are a key to the Steelers rebounding from consecutive 8-8 seasons. First-round pick Ryan Shazier is unlikely to play after missing three consecutive practices because of the right knee injury that Tomlin has called a “boo boo.” Even if the ailment is a minor one, the Steelers would be crazy to take anything but a cautious approach with the inside linebacker. Second-round pick Stephon Tuitt has created as much of a buzz at training camp as Shazier. He is likely to start at left defensive end. It will be interesting to see the different ways in which the Steelers deploy third-round pick Dri Archer, a running back/wide receiver/return specialist, and wide receiver Martavis Bryant, a fourth-round pick, has made his share of plays in practice. Now it’s time to see if the 6-foot-4, 211-pound speedster can transfer that to a game.
2. Justin Brown: Tomlin almost always sidesteps questions such as the one posed to him Thursday when the eighth-year coach was asked if any players have surprised him during camp. He mostly spoke in generalities but did mention Brown specifically. That added more confirmation that few, if any, players on the Steelers' roster have improved more since last season than Brown. The 2013 sixth-round pick spent all of last season on the Steelers’ practice squad but he stood out during offseason practices and has continued his strong play in camp. Brown has already displayed toughness, returning to practice one day after undergoing surgery to fix a broken nose. Tonight he gets to show how much he has improved in a game. Brown has the inside track to a roster spot at a crowded position but it is early. He will have to produce in preseason games to hold off players such as Derek Moye and Darrius Heyward-Bey if the Steelers keep only five wide receivers.
3. The long shots: A handful of undrafted free agents and players who signed futures contracts have flashed during camp. They include safety Jordan Dangerfield, guard/center Chris Elkins and outside linebacker Howard Jones. They will receive extensive playing time with the starters expected to receive only a limited number of snaps. I’m especially looking forward to watching Jones, who signed with the Steelers in May after starring at Shepherd University, a Division II school in West Virginia. He has played well in camp and may have the easiest path to the 53-man roster since the Steelers are not especially deep at outside linebacker.