Steelers rookie DBs Ryan Watts, Beanie Bishop used spring to get up to speed at new positions

Brian Batko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — Beanie Bishop and Ryan Watts had very different experiences for their first weekends with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bishop, an undrafted free agent out of West Virginia, was there every step of the way for rookie minicamp last month and even won a 3-point shooting contest with his fellow newcomers at Petersen Events Center, the Univeristy of Pittsburgh basketball court, scoring a win for the Mountaineers.

"I still got it," laughed Bishop, who played hoops until his senior year at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, Ky.

Meanwhile, Watts was in a cap and gown walking across the stage to receive his diploma at the University of Texas. He had to miss the first session of rookie camp Friday and, after a delayed flight, he landed in Pittsburgh around 2 a.m. Saturday, got to his hotel at 3:30 and then reported to the Steelers facility at about 5:30 to get situated.

"It was crazy getting out here, but I was definitely grateful," Watts said. "I appreciate them for allowing me to have an opportunity [to attend graduation] because it's once in a lifetime, for real. I'm the first of my generation, too, so it meant a lot."

Watts actually offered to arrive early in Pittsburgh and then fly back in time for his ceremony, but Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told him to stay in Austin and enjoy the moment. You can't blame Watts for wanting to make every second count as a sixth-round pick who's being asked to learn a new position.

In that sense, Bishop and Watts are on similar tracks. Both played outside cornerback last season in the Big 12, but Bishop is transitioning to slot corner and Watts to safety. Versatility is key for any rookie, particularly late-rounders and eighth-rounders, as the undrafted fraternity likes to say.

"Those guys are adapting well," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, a secondary coach by nature. "But like everything, I don't get too excited about what we see out here. I lay the groundwork and then hope that things carry on once we put on pads. Because sometimes, you put on pads, and guys disappear."

Neither Bishop nor Watts intend on vanishing come training camp. Bishop is undersized but feisty at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. He knew a move inside was likely for him in the NFL, despite holding his own against bigger wideouts with four interceptions, 20 pass breakups and 67 tackles in his lone season in Morgantown, W. Va.

Bishop used OTAs to adjust to the speed of the pro game, stacking himself against smaller, quicker receivers such as Calvin Austin, Scotty Miller and Roman Wilson and picking the brains of veterans from safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to cornerback Donte Jackson. His main point of emphasis has been trying to time his blitzes as the nickel, inspired by a former Steeler who often executed it perfectly.

"I like watching film of Mike Hilton and seeing how he played his last year here," Bishop said. "Just so I can see, 'OK, this is what I need to do to be able to be successful. This is how I can make the team.' Watching his film gives me a better understanding of what they expect out of the nickels here."

One of the finer points of playing anywhere in the Steelers secondary is communication, so Bishop is constantly trying to improve at picking up on the offense's checks at the line of scrimmage and knowing when to follow a receiver in motion or pass him off. There will be times he has to play tight, press coverage, and others when he's dropping in zone to a part of the field that's not always familiar to him given his background.

Hitting those blitzes in stride is just a small part of the process. But Bishop did enough to earn more reps throughout the spring, even getting some first-team snaps by the end of minicamp, though the signing of Cam Sutton has changed his odds since the draft.


"Beanie in the slot's been good. He is learning, just like most young guys, and so there's a curve in there," Austin said. "There's going to be some things he's good at and some things he's not so good at. But his mentality is good, his work ethic is good, he's a sharp kid and so he's taken to that. I'll be interested and really excited to see what happens when we get to Latrobe and we can really kind of [see], hey, is he going to be able to cover these bigger receivers? Can he get down the big backs? All the things like that."

Much like Bishop, Watts is leaning on the experienced defensive backs around him as he gets his feet wet in a new role. At 6-foot-3, 208 pounds with a 4.53-second 40-yard dash time, many draft analysts projected Watts would move to safety with his plus size and middling speed.

It's serendipitous that his locker is right next to DeShon Elliott, signed to be the Steelers' starting strong safety this season and a fellow Texas product. They're in the same corner as Fitzpatrick, Damontae Kazee and now Sutton, so building chemistry should be an organic endeavor.

"DeShon took me under his wing the first day. Shoot, even Minkah and Kazee did, too, so I feel like I've got some great vets," Watts said. "I've heard about other people in the league how they might not have good vets, or guys who keep to themselves, but I don't have that problem."

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Elliott is a good mentor for Watts to have nearby. They share similar builds in addition to an alma mater and both were sixth-round picks. Elliott is trying to get to know Watts off the field, as well, when he's not showing him the ropes between the lines.

"Once he [came] here I already knew it was my job to make sure he does the right things and moves the right way," Elliott said. "He's got those pillars to be a great NFL player when it comes to being able to understand the game. He's a naturally smart player. He's a great kid. He wants to learn. He's willing to learn. He communicates well. And he's a big dude.

"He sits right next to me in meetings, always asks questions, very engaged in practice and even in walk-throughs, whether he's getting mental reps or actual reps. I know the coaches love him here. I think he can be a great player in the NFL if he continues to work his butt off and make sure he doesn't get to freakin' 230 [pounds]."

At that point, Watts would be bordering on linebacker size, and it doesn't seem like the Steelers have that in mind for him. But they wasted little time in moving him from cornerback to safety, albeit keeping the door open for his college position.

In fact, Austin immediately mentioned Watts being able to utilize his cornerback background to be an asset at safety. And as Austin sees it, Watts has size and length like Joey Porter Jr. or Cory Trice, but potentially with more physicality.

"He could be a guy as a safety that can come down and maybe play on a hash [against a] receiving tight end, or he could play on the slot," Austin said. "He can do a lot of different things."

At this juncture of their careers, Bishop and Watts need to make their names on special teams as much as anything. But there might be room for both of them if they can specialize in their new spots.

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