While their training-camp roster is nowhere near as deep across the board as last year, the Steelers still have outstanding overall depth in 2011, and thus its coaching staff and front office will face difficult decisions this weekend in deciding the last few spots on the team’s 53-man roster, particularly at their two weakest positions – cornerback and offensive line.
It is difficult to project the final few in and out, because of position flexibility as to the number of players kept at each position. The reserve-quarterback battle was seemingly settled after Byron Leftwich broke his non-throwing arm in preseason game No. 3 against the Falcons. Whereas he could theoretically sit out 6-8 weeks before returning — in which case he would take up a valuable spot on the 53-man roster during that time — Leftwich will likely be placed on the season-ending injured reserve list.
No offense to Leftwich, but this was not a big loss. There was little advantage in having Leftwich as the team’s No. 2 over Charlie Batch and/or Dennis Dixon, who combined to post a 3-1 record last season while starter Ben Roethlisberger was suspended and Leftwich injured.
All three are capable No. 2 QBs who could keep the Steelers’ competitive if Roethlisberger was injured. But like almost every other top NFL team with a franchise quarterback (e.g., Patriots, Colts, Jets, Ravens, Texans, Packers, Saints, Chargers, Falcons, etc.), the Steelers would be unlikely to advance to a Super Bowl with anyone but Roethlisberger starting. If it were for just one start, Batch would give the Steelers a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than probably any current No. 2 QB on a legitimate title contender with the possible exception of the Eagles’ Vince Young.
IS IT REALLY THIS HARD TO REPLACE MATT SPAETH?
The only real straight-up position battle left undecided for one spot lies at No. 3 tight end. After his free-agent signing, veteran John Gilmore appeared a near-lock for this spot and figured to play often in two tight-end sets regardless if D.J. Johnson was on the field as an H-back. However, Gilmore has been unimpressive in the preseason, while rookie free-agent find Weslye Saunders (who only went undrafted due to potential attitude problems) has been excellent.
Gilmore is still a more consistent in-line blocker (the primary duties for this spot) and has experience, which is highly valued by all Steelers’ coaches, including offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. But Saunders is the team’s second-most complete tight end behind standout Heath Miller and a potential starter in this league. His blocking has improved each preseason game and Saunders is a far superior receiver and athlete compared to the aging Gilmore.
This one could go either way. One possibility would be for Pittsburgh to keep Saunders, but then potentially cut him to sign a veteran blocking tight end released from another team to the Steelers’ 53-man roster. They could then try to sneak Saunders back on the practice squad, and would probably have a better chance of doing so than cutting him this weekend. Saunders was so impressive last night that he is going to very tough to cut, and Gilmore has looked pretty weak as a blocking tight end in the preseason.
However, the Steelers’ history is to go with a veteran when in doubt, they still have a better than 50-50 shot of being able to resign Saunders to the practice squad if he is released, the team is focused on making a Super Bowl run this year more so than development for the future, and their No. 1 need for this spot is a blocking tight end, an area where Gilmore has been under-whelming but still more consistent than Saunders. I am rooting for Saunders and this is literally coin-flip after Saunders clearly played better last night against the Panthers, but it could go either way.
REVOLVING DOOR AT RG AND BATTLES FOR LAST ROSTER SPOTS ON THE O-LINE
The 1970s was obviously and will likely always be the greatest decade ever for Steelers’ fans. The 1990s were very good, but the 21st Century has been even better than that decade. However, the only two constant weaknesses for the Steelers over the majority of the last 11 years have been special-teams coverage and poor play at right guard.
Yes, it is disappointing that Antonio Brown will get fewer return attempts on kickoffs. But any Pittsburgh fan who does not believe the new kickoff rule is the greatest change for the franchise since the Joe Greene pick must not remember yesterday, let alone the past 20 years, which have been marred by the Steelers’ annually having among the worst kickoff coverage units in the NFL. Now, kickoff coverage should no longer be a detriment to any team, making the Steelers’ defense even better. And while a concern, Pittsburgh’s punt-coverage units have never been as comparably bad.
However, the revolving door of mediocre talent continues at right guard. Just to refresh your memory, three players started multiple games at that spot last year: Trai Essex, Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster. All were below average at best, but Foster was the most consistent of the three and thus started the final 10 games, including Super Bowl XLV.
But yet it appeared the plan for the Steelers’ coaching staff for this training camp and preseason at this troublesome spot was ABF: Anyone But Foster. Initially, second-year Chris Scott appeared the favorite to win the job per all the team’s beat writers, who raved about his performance over the first week of training camp even though Scott had never played one snap against an NFL opponent. He began last season on the physically-unable-to-perform list due to an injury suffered before training camp and spent the second half of the season on the Steelers’ 53-man roster, but never dressed for any games.
Scott not only lost the starting right guard spot due to a subpar (but not Kendall Simmons-type awful) performance in the preseason opener against the Redskins, but also seemingly fell so far out of favor that his career is now in jeopardy. The one reserve offensive lineman who did look pretty good in that first preseason game was Tony Hills, a relatively slender and nimble reserve left tackle who had a strong preseason to earn a roster spot before 2010 but has looked hideous in his limited time playing in regular-season games. Hills was moved inside after that game, and most assumed he would start at right guard after a couple of solid preseason performances.
But the Steelers instead anointed Legsursky as the starting right guard for opening day. He is smart, dependable, tough, more experienced at guard than Hills and much more athletic than Foster, but is also very short (6-1) for a starting NFL guard in 2011 and a marginal talent who is best as a gameday reserve C/RG. That decision, along with the astute re-signing of Essex to serve as the team’s sixth lineman on gameday (and particularly as its back-up at left tackle), have thrown the battle for the team’s final 2-3 offensive line roster spots in flux.
Essex and rookie second-round pick Marcus Gilbert join the starting five as roster locks for a team that will keep nine or 10 offensive linemen. Hills’ preseason performance and newfound versatility probably gives him an edge for one of the last spots, although he is slated to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Still, Hills could be starting at right guard after a few more weeks of learning the position in practice.
Foster appeared a roster lock when the team arrived at Latrobe, but is he worth keeping around if he cannot beat out Hills to join Essex as one of the team’s two reserve offensive linemen on the dress roster? I still give him a slight edge to make this team due to his starting experience and cheap salary, but he offers less position flexibility than Essex or Hills, and does not have the potential upside of Chris Scott or rookie guard Keith Williams, who are also battling for the final 2-3 spots.
Essex undoubtedly solidified the team’s depth for 2011. After his shaky and nicked-up start, Gilbert has played well enough in the preseason to not only look like a possible starter in 2012 but as someone who may be able to make the dress roster by the end of this season.
Thus, I think the Steelers only carry nine offensive linemen, and right now I am leaning toward the more veteran Hills and Foster. The Steelers would then cut Scott and Williams, and probably will be able to resign both to the practice squad. However, if the front office believes either of those players could be a solid starter in the next three years, then they may avoid the risk of losing that player by cutting Foster or Hills.
CORNERBACK CUTS THE TOUGHEST TO MAKE
The Steelers’ biggest weakness the last two years has been at cornerback and that is unlikely to change this fall, although Pittsburgh remains a strong Super Bowl contender thanks to re-signing, under-rated No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor in free agency. The problem is that Taylor and third-round pick Curtis Brown (who is not expected to play much this fall) are the only roster locks right now for a team that will likely keep six cornerbacks, and could become one of the first NFL teams to ever keep seven cornerbacks on a 53-man roster.
It was my hope that rookie fourth-round pick Cortez Allen, a long-term project from the Citadel, would be hidden on IR this year due a minor hamstring injury that sidelined him for the first three preseason games. But Allen played last night, and played pretty well, although half of Steelers Lounge readers may be able to hold up at cornerback against Jimmy Clausen. Allen was never in much danger of being released, but now looks likely to make the 53-man roster, with IR no longer a real option.
Although they combine to form arguably the worst No. 2-No. 3 CB duo in the NFL, veterans Bryant McFadden and William Gay are both near locks to make the roster, which would leave third-year outside man Keenan Lewis, second-year nickleback Crezdon Butler, and slot-zone specialist Donovan Warren likely batting for one roster spot, although there is an outside chance the Steelers could keep two of those three and carry seven cornerbacks.
Warren was outstanding this preseason, probably the biggest surprise on the team. But he is mainly a slot-zone coverage corner. Those are easier to find and the Steelers should easily be able to cut Warren and re-sign him to the practice squad. Another year of development followed by a strong preseason next year and he could then not only make the team but also be a contributor. Warren’s upside is limited, though.
Lewis is the hardest player on the team to project. I could equally see the coaches cutting him or Lewis replacing McFadden as the team’s No. 2 cornerback before midseason. In 2010, Lewis had a strong training camp and was pushing for playing time before a disastrous performance both physically and psychologically against Denver late in the preseason. After that game, the coaching staff seemingly lost all confidence in Lewis.
He played little in 2010 and was not very good at corner or special teams when he did see regular-season action. Here is how you know the low regard the coaching staff had for Lewis’ abilities last year. When the Steelers employed their nickel defense late in the year when McFadden was sidelined, they opted to move Gay from his natural slot position to the outside and bring in Anthony Madison (a special teams star who was probably the least physically-talented CB on an NFL roster) to play the slot, instead of just inserting Lewis as the outside CB and letting Gay move back over to the slot. Remember that Madison played more plays in one game at corner last year than he had in his previous four NFL seasons combined.
That said, Lewis offers many of the same attributes (e.g., size, toughness, physicality) as McFadden as an outside corner. McFadden is more experienced, smarter, disciplined and one of the best tacklers among cornerbacks in the NFL. But he cannot cover anyone in man, has horrible hips, his best football is behind him, he is injury-prone, and he has been bothered all preseason by a hamstring injury that will likely linger.
More important, the Steelers would save $2.5 million on the salary cap this year by cutting McFadden, while owing him very little ($250 K) in dead money. They then could then put that cash back into one of their higher backloaded salaries that may have the team in future cap hell, possibly as early as 2012, and/or save it to potentially sign someone like Flozell Adams or Max Starks during the year in the event of an injury.
Still, it is unlikely McFadden is cut, in part because sadly he remains right now the team’s best option at No. 2 corner if healthy. Even less likely to be cut is Gay. Not only is he a serviceable nickleback against most opponents (excluding the Patriots), Gay is also the only starting gunner returning on the punt-coverage unit since the Steelers elected against re-signing Madison. He also plays and plays well on most special-team units.
That leaves Butler as possibly the odd man out. After being a surprise fifth-round pick from Clemson, Butler was a star of the Steelers’ 2010 preseason. However, he has been less impressive and more inconsistent (great highs and lows) this training camp and preseason. Gay was only re-signed to a one-year deal and Butler could easily replace him as the team’s nickleback in 2012, possibly providing an upgrade at that spot. Butler does have the height to eventually become an outside corner in Dick LeBeau’s scheme, but he does not appear to have the size or tackling ability the Steelers require of outside corners.
However, the front office is less likely to keep a nickleback prospect as a deep reserve than prospects who posses the size/speed potential to play on the outside like Allen and Lewis. Butler may have the same fate of Joe Burnett, a young, decent nickleback prospect who got caught up in the numbers fight at cornerback last fall and was cut before his second season. Like Burnett last year, Butler has no practice-squad eligibility left for remaining with the Steelers. However, Butler does have greater upside than the smaller, slower Burnett, who was a better college player, meaning that cutting Butler would be a tough call.
OTHER PLAYERS WHO COULD BE RELEASED
If Pittsburgh were to keep a seventh corner or 10th offensive lineman, it would likely mean that receiver Arnaz Battle and/or NT-DE Steve McLendon would be cut. However, both are better and probably more valuable players than the Steelers’ options deep on their conrerback and offensive line depth charts.
Battle plays on every special-teams unit and is the sixth receiver on a team that will utilize lots of four- and a few five-receiver sets this fall. The negative for him is that those five receivers are all outstanding, and clearly above Battle on the pecking order. Moreover, special-teams contributors are less important now and although he played gunner some in San Francisco, he never did so for the Steelers last year.
At receiver, Battle has good size, is smart and competitive, a willing and efficient blocker, and has 178 career receptions. However, he is slow, has below-average hands, and only eight catches over the last two years. Still, the coaches love veterans, Battle adds a lot of value on special teams, and can still be a decent option if needed as a fifth or maybe even fourth receiver in the event of injuries.
The Steelers are very unlikely to cut Chris Hoke, a proven and outstanding No. 2 nose tackle who is respected by his coaches and revered by teammates. It may sound outlandish until you think about the relative newness of the 3-4 defense, but if everyone is healthy, a defensive line of Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Hoke and Cameron Heyward will probably be the best two-deep depth chart for a 3-4 defensive line in NFL history.
However, Smith has been lost for three of the last four years due to season-ending injuries, and he is one of four defensive linemen over 30, with the 35-year-old Hoke likely entering his last season. McLendon, who can play nose tackle or end, could easily slide into the two-deep rotation like he did last year in the event of any injury.
Moreover, McLendon is the one possible cut with practice-squad eligibility that I think would not clear waivers, especially after last night’s game and his solid play as a member of the 2-deep rotation for part of the 2010 season. Finally, he also adds a huge plus for 2012 when he could easily replace Hoke as the backup nose tackle. Next year’s draft looks awful at that spot and rookie free-agent signee Anthony Gray evidently was not the answer, since players who are seen as future contributors or even likely bets for the practice squad generally are not released so that teams can get down to 80 players on its preseason roster.
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 Roethlisberger **
QB Charlie Batch **
QB Dennis Dixon **
RB Reshard Mendenhall **
RB Isaac Redman **
RB Mewelde Moore **
RB Jonathan Dwyer **
TE Heath Miller **
TE/FB D.J. Johnson **
TE Weslye Saunders
WR Mike Wallace **
WR Hines Ward **
WR Antonio Brown **
WR Emmanuel Sanders **
WR Jerricho Cotchery **
WR Arnaz Battle
LT Jonathan Scott **
LG Chris Kemoeatu **
C Maurkice Pouncey **
RG Doug Legursky **
RT Willie Colon **
G/T/C Trai Essex**
T/G Tony Hills
G Ramon Foster
T Marcus Gilbert **
DE Aaron Smith **
NT Casey Hampton **
DE Brett Keisel **
DE Ziggy Hood **
NT Chris Hoke *
DE Cameron Heyward **
NT-DE Steve McLendon
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 Keenan Lewis
CB Curtis Brown **
CB Cortez Allen
K Shaun Suisham **
P Daniel Sepulveda **
SN Greg Warren **
IR: RB Baron Batch
IR: QB Byron Leftwich
New to the Projected 53-Man Roster Since v. 2.0: QB Dennis Dixon, TE Weslye Saunders, OL Trai Essex (re-signed as a free agent), DL Steve McLendon (back on list again like v. 1.0), CB Cortez Allen (moved over from projected IR list)
Gone From the Projected 53-Man Roster Since v. 2.0: QB Byron Leftwich (IR), TE John Gilmore, OL Chris Scott, OL Keith Williams, CB Crezdon Butler
Opening Game-Day Inactives (7): RB Jonathan Dwyer, OT Marcus Gilbert, OG Ramon Foster, DL Steve McLendon, OLB Chris Carter, CB Curtis Brown, CB Cortez Allen
Last 10 Released From Camp (in order of how close they are to making team and their position matters): 1. CB Crezdon Butler, 2. TE John Gilmore, 3. OL Chris Scott, 4 OG Keith Williams, 5. CB Donovan Warren, 6. DE Corbin Bryant, 7. WR Tyler Grisham, 8. K Swayze Waters, 9. LB Mortty Ivy, 10. S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith
Last 11 To Make the Team (in order of likelihood of being cut and their position matters): 1. NT/DE Steve McLendon, 2. TE Weslye Saunders, 3. CB Keenan Lewis, 4. WR Arnaz Battle, 5. OG Ramon Foster, 6. OT Tony Hills, 7. CB Cortez Allen, 8. CB Bryant McFadden, 9. CB William Gay, 10. S Will Allen, 11. NT Chris Hoke
Practice Squad (8): 1. RB John Clay, 2. WR Tyler Grisham or WR Wes Lyons, 3. OL Chris Scott, 4. OG Keith Williams, 5. DE Corbin Bryant, 6. ILB Mario Harvey or LB Mortty Ivy, 7. S Damon Cromartie-Smith, 8. CB Donovan Warren
UPDATE NO. 1: No excuses, but I completley forgot about the punter battle in making these lists, in large part because it is pretty meaningless and rarely discussed amongst Steeler fans. Moreover, it looked like Daniel Sepulveda had this locked up after the first two weeks of training camp and the first preseason game when he looked like Ray Guy against the Redskins.
However, Sepulveda, who is very talented but injury-prone and lousy at pinning teams deep on short-yardage punts, is facing a serious threat from the far less-talented Jeremy Kapinos, who finished last season as the team’s punter after Sepulveda tore his ACL. This could go either way, in large part because Kapinos would be cheaper on the team’s payroll and more likely to stay healthy. But I will stick with my original projection of Sepulveda making the roster.
UPDATE NO. 2: The Steelers surprisingly released 21 players a day early on Friday afternoon and (as expected) placed Leftwich on the injured-reserve list, leaving them with 58 players on their roster. They have to get down to 53 by 6 p.m. on Saturday. No surprises were on Friday’s cut-list, since all 53 players I have projected to make the roster above are still on the team, as are the top three projected cuts above who I cited as being closest to making the team. Kapinos also remained on the roster for now.
The big surprise was that 6-6, 290-pound rookie free agent Jarrett Crittenton – who was far less heralded than fellow rookie free agents Anthony Gray and Corbin Bryant – remains among the 58. Crittenton, a late signing from Middle Tennessee State, is still an extreme long shot to make the 53-man roster. However, this may bode well for his odds of making the eight-player practice squad, especially if the Steelers only keep six defensive linemen on their 53-man roster by cutting McLedon or possibly even Hoke, although I think releasing either would be a mistake and Hoke would shock me.
Among the more notable cuts on Saturday were Warren, a standout this preseason at cornerback, Grisham, and Bryant. All have decent chances of being brought back on the practice squad, with Bryant a near-lock for such an offer unless he is claimed by another team for its 53-man roster.