There have only been two preseason games, but much has transpired since my initial 2011 Steelers’ roster projections were posted two weeks ago. The Steelers arguably now have the deepest receiving corps in the NFL after adding sure-handed veteran Jericho Cotchery to be the team’s No. 5 wideout. Cotchery’s belated signing was partly related to Limas Sweed’s abbreviated training camp.
Despite returning from a torn Achilles and his history of under-achieving, the talented Sweed was still a slight favorite to make the team’s 53-man roster, because of his size and ability to get open downfield. But the former second-round pick was released after three weeks that were highlighted by a confluence of all the negatives that marked his disappointing Pittsburgh career: injuries, psychological frailty, fake hubris exhibited to media, questionable work ethic, and hands similar to Ike Taylor.
Ultra-quick, seventh-round pick Baron Batch looked like the steal of the Steelers’ 2011 draft class and appeared to have an excellent chance of being the team’s third-down back before suffering a season-ending ACL tear. That elevated veteran Mewelde Moore to a roster lock and made Jonathan Dwyer a favorite for the team’s fourth and final running back spot, although there is still an outside shot the Steelers could sign a player off waivers who they believe is better than Dwyer.
Below is version 2.0 of the Steelers’ roster projections. Several spots are still up in the air, but making cuts will be nowhere near as hard for the Steelers’ front office and coaching staff as last year when every position group had a tough roster battle ongoing from what was a much deeper training camp roster.
Take a look below at my projected last few players to make the 53-man roster or be cut this fall, and then compare those lists to last year when the Steelers’ brass would have had a more difficult time trimming down to a 60-man roster. This Pittsburgh team is nowhere near as deep from 45-60, although its two-deep depth chart looks strong everywhere except for offensive tackle, tight end and cornerback.
Do not be surprised to see Pittsburgh delve into free agency, trades or players released by other squads for potential upgrades at No. 2 tight end, a veteran reserve offensive tackle and possibly a fourth running back.
Free agent Reggie Kelly is now an Atlanta Falcon, but finding another veteran blocker to be the No. 2 tight end off waivers or by trading a late-round draft pick is an option if veteran free-agent signee John Gilmore continues to be unimpressive over the final two preseason games.
Flozell Adams unfortunately will likely not return unless there is an injury to Willie Colon at right tackle, because Adams does not want to be a reserve and the front office was not astute enough to try Colon at guard.
But assuming he can lose some weight, the Steelers would be wise to re-sign Max Starks to a veteran’s minimum contract to be the reserve, swing tackle on gamedays, and possibly push Jonathan Scott for the left tackle job if/when Starks is fully in shape. In that scenario, the Steelers could cut rookie guard Keith Williams, who they would likely still be able to re-sign to the practice squad.
Moreover, adding Starks would allow the Steelers to work Tony Hills predominately at right guard, where he could easily end up starting, because he offers much more athleticism than Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky, and is better in pass protection than Chris Scott.
After never seeing regular-season action over his first two professional campaigns, Hills entered the 2010 training camp as a roster long shot but ended up making the team due to strong performances in preseason games.
However, he did not play well in his four actual game appearances in 2011, and once again looked like less than a 50-50 bet to make this year’s squad. That said, his odds were clearly better than they were entering the 2010 preseason, so long as the Steelers did not bring back another veteran tackle such as Adams, Starks or Trai Essex.
However, showing he is once again a gamer (at least in the preseason), Hills was one of the only Pittsburgh offensive linemen who played well in the preseason opener against the Redskins, and then looked both very good as the starting right guard and somewhat serviceable as a reserve left tackle against the Eagles on Thursday.
Regardless if he is starting at right guard or is one of the team’s two back-up offensive linemen on the dress roster, Hills is the only player on the current roster likely to be active on opening day who could theoretically play left tackle besides journeyman starter Jonathan Scott, offering more proof of why Starks should be re-signed.
Rookie second-round pick Marcus Gilbert is not ready for the dress roster and I question if he has enough quickness to ever be a starting left tackle in the NFL, since most teams projected him as a right tackle or guard prospect before the 2011 NFL Draft. But hopefully he will be the team’s starting left tackle by 2013, maybe even 2012.
Most NFL franchises have better depth at running back than Pittsburgh in camp right now. A team like Detroit is likely to cut Kevin Smith and/or Maurice Morris. I would rather have either of those two and a few more soon-to-be unemployed NFL players over the one-dimensional Dwyer, who has now shown up overweight to both of his NFL training camps, showing his lack of professionalism or self-discipline. But yet the powerful Dwyer plays well in actual preseason games, has lost weight since camp opened, and is likely to stick again, in large part due to the Batch injury.
Finally, this version is based on the hopeful assumption that the Steelers find a way to stow rookie cornerback Cortez Allen on injured reserve for the season. NFL teams used to regularly stash rookies on IR rather than release them. However, that is rare now, because those players’ contracts count against the team’s salary cap.
Pittsburgh does have enough cap space to hide a player with a cheap contract like Allen, who is currently one of 10 cornerbacks legitimately battling for 5-6 roster spots at that position. It is possible – although unlikely – that the Steelers could keep seven cornerbacks on its 53-man roster, which would be overkill at the position and limit the coaching staff’s gameday options.
Historically, the franchise kept nine defensive backs (eight in some years), although the Steelers began carrying 10 defensive backs a couple of years ago, because Anthony Madison was essentially a special-teams player and the coaching staff is still trying to develop another Ike Taylor from its collection of mid-round cornerbacks, in large part because the front office continues to not address the team’s only defensive weakness until after the first two rounds of the draft.
Fans currently projecting Pittsburgh to carry eight cornerbacks on its 53-man roster are unrealistic. Please find me one team in NFL history that has ever kept eight pure cornerbacks on its opening-day roster. Good luck on that quest. If it did happen – and I would bet a lot of money it never has – it was only because that squad had multiple corners injured for the first game who were not placed on IR or the PUP list, with that team releasing extra cornerbacks when others returned from injury.
Of those 10 roster candidates, however, Allen is the least ready to contribute this fall. He was drafted as a long-term project after starting just two years at the Citadel and only one year of high school football. While the Steelers have cut several fourth-round picks in recent years (e.g., Fred Gibson, Orien Harris, Ryan McBean), all of those players were multi-year starters at major-college programs. Thus, players like Harris and Gibson had a much lower ceiling than Allen, who could be out of the league in two years or become a legitimate NFL starting cornerback down the road, possessing both above-average size and speed, physical traits now rarely found in fourth-round cornerbacks.
Therefore, it would be imprudent to cut the raw Allen in his rookie year. But it would also be unwise and against Mike Tomlin’s philosophy to use one of the team’s 53 roster spots on someone who probably would not rank among the top 70 in camp who could contribute this fall.
And the Steelers need all their cornerbacks to be ready, because Bryant McFadden – who is a below-average starting cornerback when healthy – is absolutely horrible when he tries to play injured as shown over his last two seasons with the Steelers and Cardinals. On that note, McFadden has been bothered throughout much of camp with the same hamstring problem that seemingly would never fully heal late last season, causing him to miss portions of several games that he dressed for and be even more vulnerable in man-coverage when he did try to play.
If several of the Steelers’ young cornerbacks were both healthy and having strong camps, McFadden would be a prime candidate to be cut. In the frugal 2011 NFL landscape with its decreased salary cap, McFadden is not worth close to the $2.5 million Pittsburgh would save on its 2011 salary cap by releasing him.
Unfortunately, though, that seems unlikely, because none of the young Pittsburgh cornerbacks appear even ready to overtake William Gay for the nickel back role, making Tom Brady a happy man and New England a strong favorite for the Super Bowl unless Dick LeBeau – who against any other team is the best defensive coordinator in the NFL – gets lucky again in not having to face his version of kryptonite in the playoffs.
Allen has also been sidelined with a hamstring strain, which is the type of injury that lingers. This roster projection assumes the rookie is justifiably placed on the season-ending IR due to his major hamstring injury (wink-wink) and the Steelers then keep six more-refined cornerbacks on their 2011 roster.
Taylor is entrenched as the Steelers’ only quality NFL cornerback. LeBeau is unlikely to cut veterans who know his system like McFadden or Gay, and rookie third-round pick Curtis Brown is a roster lock, who I am still hopeful could supplant Gay as the nickel back at some point later this season.
Thus, a healthy Allen would essentially be battling third-year player Keenan Lewis (who was bad in preseason game No. 1 but played well in No. 2), second-year nickel back prospect Crezdon Butler (who has been less impressive in this camp than last year), possible free-agent find Donovan Warren (star of the Eagles’ game), recently-signed veteran Kevin Dockery, and hybrid FS/CB Macho Harris for a maximum of two roster spots. Based on the preseason thus far, Lewis would have the upper-hand on that mostly unimpressive but lengthy list of candidates.
Projected 53-Man, Opening-Day Roster
** = Roster Lock (95% or better barring major injury or arrest)
* = Roster Near Lock (75-94% barring major injury or arrest)
No stars = Clinging to the 53-man roster at this point
(These stars assume no more roster additions or season-ending injuries)
QB Ben Roethlisber **
QB Byron Leftwich *
QB Charlie Batch
RB Reshard Mendenhall **
RB Isaac Redman **
RB Mewelde Moore **
RB Jonathan Dwyer
TE Heath Miller **
TE/FB D.J. Johnson **
TE John Gilmore
WR Mike Wallace **
WR Hines Ward **
WR Emmanuel Sanders **
WR Antonio Brown **
WR Jerricho Cotchery **
WR Arnaz Battle
LT Jonathan Scott **
LG Chris Kemoeatu **
C Maurkice Pouncey **
RG Ramon Foster **
RT Willie Colon **
C/G Doug Legursky **
T/G Tony Hills *
G/RT Chris Scott *
T Marcus Gilbert **
G Keith Williams
DE Aaron Smith **
NT Casey Hampton **
DE Brett Keisel **
DE Ziggy Hood **
NT Chris Hoke *
DE Cameron Hewayrd **
OLB James Harrison **
OLB LaMarr Woodley **
OLB Jason Worilds **
OLB Chris Carter *
ILB James Farrior **
ILB Lawrence Timmons **
ILB Larry Foote *
ILB Stevenson Sylvester **
SS Troy Polamalu **
FS Ryan Clark **
S Ryan Mundy **
S Will Allen *
CB Ike Taylor **
CB Bryant McFadden *
CB William Gay *
CB Curtis Brown **
CB Keenan Lewis
CB Crezdon Butler
K Shaun Suisham **
P Daniel Sepulveda **
SN Greg Warren **
IR: RB Baron Batch
IR: CB Cortez Allen (projected)
New to the Projected 53-Man Roster Since V. 1.0 Was Posted Two Weeks Ago: RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR Jericho Cotchery, OL Tony Hills, CB Keenan Lewis
Gone From the Projected 53-Man Roster Since V. 1.0 Was Posted Two Weeks Ago: RB Baron Batch (IR), WR Limas Sweed (already cut), NT/DE Steve McLendon, CB Cortez Allen (projected to be stored on IR for a year)
Opening Game-Day Inactives (7): RB Jonathan Dwyer, OG/RT Chris Scott, OT Marcus Gilbert, OG Keith Williams, OLB Chris Carter, CB Keenan Lewis, CB Crezdon Butler
Last 14 Released From Camp (in order of how close they are to making team and their position matters): 1. QB Dennis Dixon (Steelers would love to trade him for a conditional 7th-round pick), 2. NT/DE Steve McLendon, 3. WR Tyler Grisham, 4. TE Weslye Saunders, 5. S Damon Cromartie-Smith, 6. CB Kevin Dockery, 7. TE/HB Jamie McCoy, 8. CB Donovan Warren, 9. RB James Johnson, 10. LB Baraka Atkins, 11. K Swayze Waters, 12. FS/CB Macho Harris, 13. OLB Chris Ellis, 14. OT Kyle Jolly
Last 14 To Make the Team (in order of likelihood of being cut and their position matters): 1. QB Charlie Batch, 2. CB Crezdon Butler, 3. CB Keenan Lewis, 4. OG Keith Williams, 5. TE John Gilmore, 6. WR Arnaz Battle, 7. CB Cortez Allen (Makes IR in this projection), 8. RB Jonathan Dwyer, 9. OT Tony Hills, 10. CB William Gay, 11. LB Larry Foote, 12. NT Chris Hoke, 13. S Will Allen, 14. CB Bryant McFadden
Practice Squad (8): 1. TE Weslye Saunders, 2. WR Wes Lyons or Armand Robinson or Tyler Grisham**, 3. OT Kyle Jolly, 4. DE Corbin Bryant, 5. NT Anthony Gray, 6. ILB Mario Harvey or OLB Chris Ellis, 7. S Damon Cromartie-Smith, 8. CB Donovan Warren (Keeping seven CBs out of 61 total players makes little sense, but this guy has been too impressive thus far to cut entirely)
** I am not sure if Grisham has any more practice squad eligibility left with Pittsburgh, since he spent the majority of the past two seasons on the Steelers’ practice squad. The rules are confusing. I know the Steelers’ active roster dropped below 53 players on a couple of occasions during the last two years, although I do not think that spot was vacant for more than a few hours. Why would it be? So what is the time limit? Do you have to release and sign someone simultaneously or is there some sort of window? This would determine if Grisham can be on the practice squad for a third consecutive season.
Grisham is again having another great camp, and is clearly a better receiver right now than Wes Lyons or Armand Robinson. However, even if Grisham is eligible, I would give the rookies a slight edge for the practice squad, because both offer more potential long-term upside and the size of the 6-foot-8 Lyons is very intriguing.
In contrast, Grisham offers nothing of value that is not already abundant on the Steelers’ roster, and if the front office thought he was good enough to be a solid NFL contributor right now, then they would not have signed Cotchery.
The only two justifications for keeping Grisham on the practice squad are that he would more seamlessly be able to transition to the 53-man roster and potentially in to the possible receiver rotation in the event of an injury (although is that even needed if the Steelers’ keep six veteran, proven wide outs on its initial roster?); and because the staff might believe Grisham could replace Cotchery or Ward (if he retires) on the roster for 2012.
Grisham, though, is already 24, and thus it makes little sense to a keep a guy of that age on the practice squad at the team’s deepest position group, because he may be the team’s No. 5 or No. 6 receiver in 2012. And that assumes that (1) the Steelers even keep six receivers next year, (2) either Ward retires or Cotchery does not re-sign, and (3) the Steelers do not take a receiver in April, 2012, which would mark only the second span of two consecutive NFL drafts when Pittsburgh did not take at least one wide out in the past 26 years.