One of the dumber rules in the NFL is that teams can only dress 45 players from its 53-man roster each game. This rule is why reserves have to be able to play multiple positions and largely why the Steelers released return specialist Stefan Logan.
This year’s Pittsburgh squad is as deep as any I can remember, so picking the 45 players who will be active for Sunday’s opener against the visiting Falcons is not easy. But here are our guesses at the eight players most likely to be inactive, in order of their likelihood of not dressing.
1. QB Byron Leftwich – This one’s a no-brainer, because Leftwich is out with an MCL sprain. He will not even dress as the 46th-man/No. 3 QB, although the hope is that he can at least be the emergency QB for week No. 2. The Steelers will not have an “emergency QB” this week. In the event of injuries to both Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch, they will turn to veteran receiver Antwaan Randle El, who will already be on the 45-man roster.
2. RB Jonathan Dwyer – Barring injuries, Dwyer is headed for a redshirt year. He is the No. 4 TB, has gotten little/no reps at FB, and adds no value on special teams. No chance he dresses this Sunday.
3. OT Tony Hills – Hills was the veteran surprise of the preseason, earning a roster spot after he entered camp looking like his tenure as a Steeler was soon to be over. If LT Max Starks goes down with an injury, Hills could be the starting left tackle the next week. Pittsburgh, though, only dresses seven offensive linemen on game day, and Hills received no preseason reps at RT and has virtually no NFL game experience.
4. CB Crezdon Butler – Butler, an impressive rookie, is versatile, having seen action at corner, nickleback and even free safety. However, he remains behind William Gay in all three of those areas and the team must sit 1-2 of its 10 DBs on the roster this Sunday. Butler is the best bet.
5. Emmanuel Sanders – The Steelers would love to sneak in Sanders for a few plays, since he is the only other receiver with downfield speed besides Mike Wallace. However, the team is already going to dress five receivers. Sanders is probably the No. 4 WR on the squad right now. But the team rarely plays more than three, and veteran Arnaz Battle is a starting gunner and special-teams standout, while fellow rookie Antonio Brown will handle all return duties. Neither Battle or Brown would have made the team if they were not going to dress.
6. OLB Jason Worilds or OLB Thad Gibson – At least one of these two rookies is likely to sit on Sunday. Fellow rookie Stevenson Sylvester is the No. 5 ILB, but is also a special-teams head-hunter, meaning Slvester will likely dress. Starting inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons would move to outside linebacker — his best position –- in the event of an injury to superstars James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley. Worilds was a second-round pick. But Gibson, a fourth-rounder, looked better at OLB and on special teams in the preseason. Worilds was a reach at a non-need position. It is way too early to pass judgment on his future. However, if Worilds does not even dress for games this fall, then the Steelers made poor use of their second-round pick in April. The guess here is that Gibson dresses Sunday.
7. OG/OT Ramon Foster or OT Jonathan Scott – Foster and C/G Doug Legursky were the regular game-day active reserve offensive linemen for most of 2009. However, Scott adds veteran experience at both tackle positions and is trusted by new Steelers’ offensive line coach Sean Kugler, who coached Scott last year in Buffalo. If Foster dresses, he is the back up at both guard spots and RT. Legursky would come in at center in the event of injury, but the Steelers would have to move RG Trai Essek or RT Flozell Adams to LT if Max Starks went down. That is mass shuffling mid-game. It is more simple if Scott dresses. He enters in the event of an injury at either tackle spot and Legursky comes in for any interior spot. While Foster is probably the best out of these three players, the combo of Scott and Legursky on gamedays makes more sense. Finally, Scott is listed as the emergency back-up snapper behind often-injured Greg Warren. If Warren goes down again, do you really want to see James Harrison snap midgame after his last trial against the Giants?
8. CB Keenan Lewis, or OLB Thad Gibson/Jason Worilds, or S Ryan Mundy – The last spot is the toughest to pick. Lewis had a strong preseason and is not far away from becoming a starting cornerback. It could happen this season. But right now he is the No. 4 CB behind Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and William Gay, and the Steelers will obviously dress special-teams standout Anthony Madison, who will then likely serve as the No. 4 CB on gamedays. The team could opt to sit both rookie OLBs, but OLBs are more valuable to special teams than CBs, particularly since Lewis will not start at a gunner slot, which are filled by Madison and Arnaz Battle. Mundy is the last possibility, but my guess is the team would rather have a No. 4 safety than a No. 5 CB on its game-day roster. Plus, Mundy garnered special-teams experience last season.