Steelers' OTAs: Five players to watch

PITTSBURGH -- Coach Mike Tomlin, both derisively and accurately, calls it "football in shorts."

But the Pittsburgh Steelers' organized team activities, which start today and run through the middle of June, mark a significant step toward preparation for the 2014 season.

Tomlin and his staff will get a chance to work with the full squad for the since time since last December.

The players don't wear pads and there is no hitting -- hence, Tomlin's take on OTAs -- but they practice together 10 times before the mandatory minicamp that concludes the offseason.

And it will give the coaches a chance to see how the newly signed free agents as well as the draft picks and undrafted rookies work with the returning players.

Here are five returning players to watching during OTAs.

WR Markus Wheaton: His position coach Richard Mann said the 2013 third-round pick has the inside track to the starting job opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. And Wheaton will have to earn it at training camp, not over the next month. But the 5-foot-11, 182-pound speedster should get extensive work with the first-team offense after playing sparingly as a rookie, and look for him to make the most of his opportunity. Wheaton has the physical skills to make a big jump in his second season, and he attached himself to veteran Jerricho Cotchery last season, showing how eager he is to learn. A finger injury sabotaged Wheaton's rookie season but his willingness to fight through it impressed Mann. "What I found out last year about Marcus was that he has good toughness," Mann said.

OLB Jarvis Jones: The 2013 first-round pick spent the offseason getting stronger, which is one of the prerequisites to Jones making significant improvement after a trying rookie season. The former Georgia product should also play much faster now that he has a stronger grasp on the defense. What bodes well for Jones and the Steelers: the 6-2, 245-pounder recorded a career-high nine tackles in the regular-season finale when he didn't appear to be thinking as much and just playing. The Steelers need that to carry over. They don't have many other options at right outside linebacker and are counting heavily on Jones to emerge as an impact player in 2014. "I think he'll be a lot better," linebackers coach Keith Butler said.

NT Steve McLendon: The former undrafted free agent had his ups and downs in his first full season as a starter. But defensive line coach John Mitchell expects McLendon to carve out his own identity and improve in 2014. "You have to be yourself and not worry about what you can't do," Mitchell said. "I think we are going to see Steve McLendon rather than Steve try to be Casey [Hampton] or Steve trying to be Chris [Hoke]." McLendon is big enough to clog the middle of the line, and he has shown the ability to get after the quarterback. The Steelers are considering keeping McLendon on the field when they go to their nickel defense and having the fourth-year veteran provide an inside pass rush with Cameron Heyward.

CB Cortez Allen: It's time for Allen to establish himself as the Steelers' No. 1 cornerback after three seasons in which he has shown plenty of promise but has yet to put everything together. Ike Taylor's days of shadowing the top wide receivers are over, and the Steelers need Allen to emerge this season. A high-ankle sprain hampered Allen through the first half of last season but the Steelers have to hope that his play once he regained his starting job is a sign of what is to come. In the final four games last season, Allen twice led the Steelers' defensive backs with two passes defended and led the defensive backs with eight tackles in another contest. He returned an interception for a touchdown in the other game over the last quarter of the season. Now, the Steelers need Allen build on that.

LB Sean Spence: It will be hard for anyone not to pull for the 2012 third-round pick and yet not watch him with bated breath. Spence has made tremendous progress while working his way back from a career-threatening knee injury that he sustained in the final preseason game of his rookie season. The reality is no one knows if Spence's knee will hold up during the grind of training camp, but OTAs should give the Steelers a gauge of where he is in his recovery. At this point, it still has to be considered a bonus if Spence can contribute in 2014. "He is such an exceptional young man and you hope that it works out for him," Butler said, "and I think it will."