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.
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