Steelers Make Correct Calls on 53-Man Roster, But Maybe Not the Practice Squad

As usual, the Steelers’ front office and coaching staff had to make some tough decisions on the team’s final roster cuts. And as the brain trust of the best franchise in the NFL normally does, they made the right ones. I am not just proclaiming this because I correctly picked 52 out of the 53 players who made the team’s roster, having missed on Tony Hills getting released which pretty much no one projected after the preseason.

Instead, the Steelers kept the exact 53 who I was hoping they would keep after Thursday’s preseason finale against the Panthers. The only change I would have made was to not play rookie cornerback Cortez Allen (a long-term project from the Citadel who sat out the first three preseason games with a slight hamstring injury) against Carolina, store him on the injured-reserve list for a year, and thus keep Crezdon Butler as the team’s sixth cornerback on the 53-man active roster.

Butler was the hardest cut to make and was quickly picked up by the Cardinals (Pittsburgh West) as a reserve corner. Despite erroneous reports to the contrary, Butler was ineligible to be signed to Pittsburgh’s practice squad even if he had cleared waivers, because he spent the entire 2010 season on the Steelers’ active roster.

To clear up confusion, an active roster has nothing to do with being among the 46 players who dress for games or if a player actually participates in games. Instead, active roster simply means a team’s 53-man roster and players can no longer be on a practice squad after one accrued (9 games or more) NFL season on a 53-man roster. That is the same reason why Joe Burnett could not be signed to any team’s practice squad after the Steelers cut him last season

The negative is that Butler could have potentially been a good nickleback for the Steelers. But his inability to earn playing time last year or this fall despite the weakness of Pittsburgh’s cornerback depth chart should not have engendered much confidence. Moreover, current rookie third-round pick Curtis Brown is likely to replace William Gay as the Steelers’ slot corner in 2012, assuming Brown is not already starting opposite of Ike Taylor by that point.

The release of Hills was the most surprising, but it made perfect sense. To refresh your memory, Hills was a late-fourth round pick in 2008 viewed as a boom-or-bust left tackle project, because he had failed to progress much at Texas despite possessing excellent athleticism after being a high school tight end. He saw no action for his first two NFL seasons and was a long-shot to make the Steelers’ 53-man roster entering the team’s 2010 training camp.

However, the light appeared to come on last fall for Hills, who shone so brightly in the Steelers’ preseason games that he made the roster. Hills, though, was pretty bad when he actually got a chance to play meaningful minutes against the Titans and Patriots during the regular season.

He began this fall at best as a 50-50 shot to make the roster as a reserve tackle. However, after playing well in the preseason opener against the Eagles, Hills was surprisingly moved to right guard, where he started the next two exhibition games, and looked decent and mobile in Pittsburgh wins against playoff-caliber opponents in the Eagles and Falcons.

Still, the Steelers named Doug Legursky their starting right guard for the season-opener against the Ravens. Theoretically, Hills could keep practicing at that position and might have eventually snatched the starting job away from Legursky. But that would be a risky and uncharacteristic in-season move for the Steelers, since Hills had almost no football experience at guard before this preseason, has not proven himself at any position in actual NFL games, and is physically not built to play the powerful right guard spot in Pittsburgh’s offense.

Moreover, super-sub Trai Essex (who began 2010 as the starting right guard and can play both tackle spots) was re-signed to be the team’s sixth offensive lineman. With rookie tackle Marcus Gilbert also a roster-lock, this meant that Hills was battling Ramon Foster and Chris Scott for two roster spots among the nine likely offensive linemen.

Foster, however, had the advantage of starting the final 10 games last season – including the Super Bowl – at right guard, a position where he may still earn back the starting job from Legursky. Moreover, his real-game experience and more natural build for the guard position makes him a better fit for the game-day dress roster this fall than Hills. Plus, Foster will not become an unrestricted free agent until after 2012, while Hills was slated to reach free agency after this season.

Chris Scott spent the first six games of his rookie season in 2010 on the physically-unable-to-perform list before being activated to the 53-man roster, although he never appeared in a game. He was the surprise of training camp this fall and appeared the favorite to win the right guard job before the exhibition season.

While his mediocre performance in preseason games showed he is nowhere near ready to start or probably even play this fall, Scott still has potential and three more full seasons to improve before he is an unrestricted free agent. If he can develop into another Essex – a valuable and versatile lineman with no natural position but who is a huge asset as a reserve – he will serve the Steelers well in the future, and there is still a decent chance he will become a solid contributor and possibly even a full-time starter. The same cannot be said for Hills, whose time and opportunities have passed. Keeping Scott and Foster were the right calls for both the present and future.

Loyal and long-time readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of cornerback Bryant McFadden or punter Daniel Sepulveda, and honestly am not happy that either is on the Steelers’ 2011 roster. McFadden will earn $2.67 million from the Steelers, who could have saved most of that money by cutting him.

However, despite his injuries and inability to play man-coverage against roughly 90 percent of NFL receivers, McFadden is still the second best outside corner on the Steelers’ current roster, outstanding in run support, understands Dick LeBeau‘s scheme, and none of the many mid-round cornerbacks the team has drafted in recent years has yet come close to unseating him as a starter.

Now, the Steelers will have major problems getting under the salary cap for 2012, and McFadden will likely be released before next season or agree to a significant paycut with no further contract extension. But the team could not risk cutting him before 2011, since the only other two realistic options would be starting Gay (who is worse as an outside corner than McFadden), and then that would also leave a huge hole at nickleback, or starting the inconsistent Keenan Lewis, who has a history of confidence problems, and is still both raw and largely untested in regular-season NFL action.

Sepulveda is the Pervis Ellison of NFL punters. He cannot stay healthy and is a horrible pooch punter. But he is very talented and has a booming leg. In contrast, Jeremy Kapinos is a journeyman talent, although he has better touch on downing opponents deep in their own territory. However, punters like Kapinos can easily be signed as free agents if (or when) Sepulveda gets hurt again. In fact, Kapinos probably will be available if Sepulveda goes down. But while he is healthy, Pittsburgh was wise to keep the more talented player.

Questionable Decisions on Practice Squad

Practice squads should obviously be used to add depth for practice at positions not as plentiful on the roster. However, it is also a good place to store and develop potential contributors, who have a good chance to make the roster in the future or possibly even that season in the event of injury, and/or to keep players who add a different skill-set than is found on the regular roster at their position group.

The best addition to the practice squad was rookie defensive end Corbin Bryant, who some thought had a realistic chance to make the roster, although that seemed highly unlikely with Chris Hoke and Steve McLendon battling for the final 1-2 roster spots (both were fortunately kept) on the defensive line. Bryant, however, will benefit from a year on the practice squad and will likely be favored to earn a regular roster spot in 2012, particularly if Aaron Smith retires after this season.

6-foot-8-inch Wes Lyons offered more physical potential, but I have no problem with bringing back  Tyler Grisham for his third and final season of practice-squad eligibility. Grisham is a far better option to be promoted this year to varsity if one of the Steelers’ top five receivers goes down and may finally make the team next fall when Pittsburgh will likely not keep as many veteran reserves throughout its roster due to salary-cap issues.

Among the eight players on the 2011 Steelers’ practice squad, the other excellent signing was the return of 2010 practice-squad member Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, an athletic safety prospect who could be signed to the 53-man roster in the event of an injury and/or become a cheaper replacement for current No. 4 safety Will Allen on the 2012 Steelers.

I was less thrilled with the other five, although I understand the logic of adding Jamie McCoy, since he adds both a fourth tight end and second h-back/fullback to the overall roster. If starting h-back/fullback D.J. Johnson or reserve tight end Weslye Saunders are lost to injury, the Steelers could easily bring up McCoy from their practice squad, and he already knows the offense.

Less logical and more irritating was the signing of bruising, one-dimensional tailback John Clay, who was not very impressive in the preseason. The team already has three power tailbacks among the four on its roster in starter Reshard Mendenhall, Issac Redman (an emerging force and complete No. 2 tailback) and second-year player Jonathan Dwyer, who showed up fat for training camp but capped off an impressive preseason with a team-high 88 rushing yards on 13 carries against the Panthers on Thursday.

None of those three are slated to be unrestricted free agents until after 2012 at the earliest, so Clay does not add any new skills to the current team and is unlikely to make the 2012 roster when the only Pittsburgh tailback who might not return is veteran third-down specialist Mewelde Moore, and he would likely be replaced by Baron Batch or another speedster — not a Big 10 plugger like Clay.

Instead, the Steelers should have kept preseason standout Donovan Warren, who seemingly would have a decent shot of making the roster and possibly contributing at corner in 2012 when Pittsburgh will likely cut ways with either McFadden and/or Gay. Yes, the Steelers do not need a seventh cornerback among their 61 players practicing, but a seventh cornerback is more needed than a fifth tailback, particularly a fourth power tailback.

Former West Virginia star Mortty Ivy is now in his third season of bouncing around various NFL practice squads, although he has yet to play in a real game. The undersized 239-pound Ivvy had a very strong preseason on special teams and played well at linebacker. Thus, he earned his spot on the practice squad as the Steelers’ No. 9 linebacker through in-game performances. That said, I still would have preferred keeping rookie Mario Harvey, a bigger, faster, inside linebacker with more upside, but who was bothered by nagging injuries this fall.

By keeping only nine offensive linemen on its 53-man roster, Pittsburgh needed two offensive linemen for the practice squad. Most assumed that one would be guard Keith Williams, a sixth-round pick in April who was impressive early in training camp but fell victim to the numbers game after Essex was re-signed. Now, Williams has not been claimed by any other team. Maybe the Steelers offered him a spot on the practice squad, but he turned them down to join another franchise’s practice squad, where he sees a better opportunity.

But if that was not the case (and we will soon learn what happened), Pittsburgh keeping journeyman interior lineman John Malecki over the more-talented Williams was a questionable choice. Trevis Turner, the final member of the practice squad, is an intriguing prospect. He is a raw 6-foot-7, 330-pound tackle with good feet from Abilene Christian.

Thus, the mammoth Turner is the type of player perfect for the 11th offensive-line spot on the practice squad, although he appears to be a long way away from and probably a longshot for ever making a 53-man roster. Still, how could anyone complain about giving the last spot on the practice squad to a 24-year-old father of three sets of twins. Turner’s six children leads all 63 players (including Baron and Byron Leftwich on IR) currently under contract for the Steelers, beating out the five each fathered by 35-year-old defensive linemen Hoke and Smith. In addition to his own 330-pound frame, this guy has mouths to feed.

Regardless, I have learned not to get too excited or upset about practice-squad signees. Rarely do players signed to the practice squad end up contributors for the Steelers and even rarer are those not signed that Pittsburgh fans ultimately regret or even remember a few years down the road. For now, though, I am penciling in Bryant on the projected 53-man roster for the Steelers in 2012 and no one else from this practice squad.

This entry was posted in 2011 steelers, Defensive Line, Draft, Front Office, Offensive Line, Preseason, Wide Recievers. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Cols714

    Once again you have no evidence that this was even possible.

     ”The only change I would have made was to not play rookie cornerback Cortez Allen (a
    long-term project from the Citadel who sat out the first three
    preseason games with a slight hamstring injury) against Carolina, store
    him on the injured-reserve list for a year”

    Wishful thinking is not analysis. Obviously this would have been the correct move had they been able to do it. But if the guy isn’t injured, then he isn’t injured and he does have a union that is able to file grievances (sp?) over shady stuff like this.

    • ted

      Cols, you are absolutely correct. This used to be common-place in the NFL, but not only the CBA, but the salary cap (which counts players on IR) rooted out stowing guys on IR who were not really hurt that bad. However, if a guy can’t play in any of four preseason games, one would presume (although I do not know for sure), you would be able to put him on IR. I do not know the specifics of this rule, though. Does a doctor have to write that he would be out for a certain amount of time, because Leftwich could theoretically have returned in 6-8 weeks? Either they could not pull this off, or (more likely) they just were not very high on Butler and would rather get Allen the work in practice ths year. Guys on IR can work out and do walk-throughs, but cannot partake in any paded practices. The Steelers may have believed that experience for Allen this year was more valuable than keeping a potential future nickleback around.

      • Hutch

        I’m as in the dark about the policies on IR as you are Ted, but it seems like there would have to be some kind of minimal medical (or, rather, injury) standard met to put a player on IR. Otherwise you would see teams stashing most of their high upside but perhaps not quite ready for prime time players for wholly manufactured reasons, i.e. “He’s got some tightness in his shoulder so we’re just going to put him down for the season.” 

        While this might sound like a good idea for some players, the vast majority would probably like to be able to shop themselves on the market (and attain the best possible situation for their continued careers) if their current team can’t utilize them or is unwilling to commit a roster spot to them. The NFLPA has to have some standards/monitoring system in place to prevent this kind of activity. Or, at least, it seems like they ought to.

    • Bob Costas

      I am not sure about this but I think that a player placed on IR is not allowed to practice with the team while on IR.  If that is true, I don’t know how much value this really has for developing a young player.

  • Anonymous

    Anyone know where D.Warren ended up? I was impressed with his play this pre-season…but I don’t really know what I’m looking for either so…

  • Cols714

    I agree that John Clay adds basically nothing to the practice squad that couldn’t be found from some street free agent if one of the RBs goes down.

    Pretty pointless to keep him on the practice squad/

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    I wonder if the reports that Williams and Hills were impressive were based on anything real.

    • ryan

      This is a great point that can’t be emphasized enough.

    • ted

       Good point, because we do not know on Williams. However, we saw for ourselves and through JJ’s breakdowns that Hills looked pretty good on the o-line at least in preseason games. Apparently, though, he has never impressed the staff in practice, and I never bought into the idea that this light, non-physical left-tackle prospect could move over so quickly to RG and emerge as a competent starter.

  • Randy Steele

    I thought this was an excellent analysis, Mr. Kian. My only nitpick: Mortty Ivy vastly outplayed Mario Harvey this summer. You think Harvey was slowed by injuries and has more upside? Maybe, but not enough to compensate for the ability to give 100 percent of all he has on the field, which Ivy has showed he can do.

    That said, you’re again correct to conclude there’s little reason to get excited about the guys on the practice squad. Maybe it’s unfortunate, but the truth is that very very few ever become difference-makers on the field.

    • ted

      Randy, you are right and I tried to note that above. Harvey did not play much and when he did get, he did little. My point was, though, can you ever see Ivy being anything more than maybe a No. 8 LB overall and STs star when teams actually are able to return kicks? That would be his ceiling. Who knows on Harvey, but he is a bigger, faster and much younger, which leads me to believe he has higher potential. Odds are, though, neither will ever play a down in a regular-season game and while we recognize these names, we won’t remember much of anything about them in a few years. Bryant is the only one I am excited about. I really could see him on the 2-deep at DE within a couple of years, particularly since we are not going to invest any high draft picks at this spot after the last two years.

  • Anonymous

    I think this is a pretty solid analysis. The only point on which we differ is that I would have preferred Wes Lyons to Tyler Grisham. Your point that Grisham is readier to step in and play is a good one, but I don’t think that’s very likely. I think ahead of him you have Ward, Wallace, Sanders, Brown, Cotchery, Battle, Miller, and Saunders – the last two obviously are TEs, but if you’re missing two receivers due to injury and in a scenario where you want to go 5 wide, I think you put Miller into a receiving role before Grisham. On the other hand Lyons, while very raw and inconsistent, has shown he does have good hands, and of course at 6’8″ would be the tallest receiver in the NFL (tied for tallest ever). I know height isn’t everything and talent is more important, but it’s not something to ignore completely either. Assuming you have no intention to play either this season, I think the chance you can develop a physically gifted player like Wes Lyons is worth more than reliable-but-limited Tyler Grisham.

    I also think there’s a chance the Steelers pick up a player, particularly an offensive lineman, off waivers. If they do that then Ramon Foster is a candidate for the boot.

  • eye-in-the-sky

    I don’t see where all your confidence in Curtis Brown comes from.  You say Lewis is “largely untested” in the NFL, Brown hasn’t been tested at all.  Texas ain’t the NFL.  He may have potential, but he’s miles behind Lewis at this point.  In fact I predict Lewis will be the starting LCB before mid-season and for many years to come. Admittedly he was a little over aggressive last year, but Lake seems to have fixed that, and he looked damn good against both Desean Jackson and Roddy White.  Brown looked decent against a bunch of second and third stringers on a really bad team. I just don’t get it.

    • ted

      Good points, EITS, my confidence in Brown has not yet been validated at the NFL level. However, he was literally a steal in the late third round, while Lewis was considered a bit of a reach, and more of a boom-bust type in roughly the same spot three years ago. The big difference is that it very easy to project Brown as a solid nickleback. In fact, one of the reasons he fell was because many teams do not believe he has the size to ever be starting CB and that may well be the case for the Steelers, which like bigger outside corners like Lewis. I have been very impressed with Lewis this preseason.

      In fact, as I wrote the other day, I can easily see him replacing BMac as the starting corner this year, particulalry if BMac is nicked up. They have a lot of physical similarities except that Lewis has much more upside at this point, although he is a more risky start. If BMac is unable to play, the Steelers will be forced to likely play Lewis in his spot, because Brown is not ready yet to play the slot, with Gay moving over. Thus, Lewis will likely get his chance this year to produce and one of the big reasons he was kept on the roster was because he is signed through 2012.  But last year showed the coaching staff is not confident in him yet. Hopefully he can change that this year.

      • Cols714

        I would love for lewis to replace bmac.

      • Joedeedy3

        By the way I do agree with the rest of your analysis. I may be a little basis towards Lewis because I got to watch him several times while he was a OSU in the pass happy PAC 10.  He is a helluva cover corner. The problem is they never played zone, their corners lived on an island. They beat USC twice while he was there and I watched him lock down Mike Williams and Steve Smith (the one with the Giants) during their best years and been waiting for him to hit the pros. I knew it would take a minute to adjust to the zone, but once he does, I think he’s going to be special.

  • Randy Steele

    Just read that Dorin Dickerson (former West Allegheny/Pitt Panther/Houston Texan) is coming to the Steelers’ complex for a workout. He plays a hybrid TE/HB position and might be a better fit for the Steelers than McCoy.

    • ted

       Better athlete and thus maybe better upside, but McCoy should theoretically be able to jump to the regular roster and contribute better in those roles right now. McCoy is the superior blocker.

  • Rob D

    Great writeup, ted. Appreciate the work and time and thought you put into it.

    Anyone else worried about Legs at RG? I am as skeptical of him in that position as I was aghast at the idea of Hills playing there. He’s obviously a fave of the coaching staff and I appreciate his yeoman work for us after Pouncey went down last year before the SB but …He’s not big enough to play RG IMO. He’s one of the smarter guys on the team and I like him as a player etc. etc. But I just don’t buy him at that position. It sounds like a panic move after they tried everyone else and his fat brother there. IF Pouncey goes down again, where are we? We slide Legs back to center and start Foster again, I guess. I am very worried that Pouncey’s foot is going to keep him out of a few games or more this year. He’s already tweaked it in the preseason.

    I just wish there was a little more logical decision making going on for the RG slot. It looks like they picked the smartest guy for the job and not necessarily the best body for the job.

    • ted

      Rob, thanks for the kind words. Like you, I have no idea what the coaches were thinking at RG. We began camp seemingly wanting a new RG and after one week were ready to make a late fifth-round pick from last year who had never played one play in an NFL game a starter. Then he plays below-average (but not awful) in one preseason game and never gets a shot again. Then we move an undersized, reserve LT and start him for two preseason games before naming Legsursky the starter. Everyone liks Bronco and he is tough. But he should be nothing more than a reserve C and maybe RG on gameday. He can play well against certain opponents at RG, but the Ravens are not among them. He literally gets tossed backward by bigger, stronger players, and his best NFL position is obviously center.

      I still think Foster played by far the best of the three RGs last season (including Legursky), which is why he started the final 10 games and he matches up better against big DTs. But I guess we want more mobility.

      • Cols714

        Agreed that this was strange.

      • Aaron

        My best guess would be they were looking for more mobility and pass blocking.  Having Pouncey at center probably the line a little more freedom as far as combo blocks, but in the case of both pass protection and swings Legurky would give you more than a heavier, more stationary RG.

        At least that is my best guess

  • kyle

    John Clay is on the practice squad because the steelers always have a running back on the practice squad.  It’s not the eight best players who didn’t make the team.  It’s a mix of bubble guys and people who can help on the scout team.  They didn’t keep Justin Vincent around for three years because of his potential.  I agree with your roster analysis though.

  • Hpw101

    Rob Bironas