It is a week from the end of the three-day NFL Draft, which most experts believe saw the Steelers tally one of their better hauls in recent memory. Moreover, thanks to some unbelievable, bust-your-tail reporting by Steelers Depot, names of the 12 undrafted free agents signed by Pittsburgh were released within a few hours after the draft, or about 36 hours sooner than usual.
The Steelers may still make some minor roster moves before late July when they open training camp in Latrobe. But their training-camp roster appears mostly set. Thus, I will do our first projected Steelers’ 53-man roster for 2012, with a few caveats, since this projection seemingly has more flexibility and thus will likely change more often than in recent years:
SURELY A VETERAN RUNNING BACK WILL BE ADDED TO THE MIX, RIGHT?
First, this projection assumes Pittsburgh will re-sign two veterans, although more minor additions could be made, including after other teams are forced to cut players to comply with the 53-player roster limit.
While I would prefer signing a more talented free agent (e.g., Tim Hightower, Jerious Norwood, Thomas Jones, Joseph Addai, Ronnie Brown, etc.), odds are the Steelers will re-sign versatile, veteran tailback Mewelde Moore after their only running back addition among rookies was Chris Rainey, a 180-pound scatback/slot receiver/return specialist.
With Rashard Mendenhall a near-lock to begin the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) for at least six weeks after tearing an ACL against the Browns in last year’s regular-season finale, the Steelers need another veteran back on the roster. Isaac Redman is a complete back who appears ready to take over the starting role, but must cut down on his fumbles.
Jonathan Dwyer has played well in both pre-season and regular-season games in his rare opportunities, rushing for 107 yards against Tennessee last season in his only extensive regular-season action and averaging 4.7 yards on 76 career pre-season carries over the last two falls. Dwyer has a chance to earn significant playing time this fall if he actually shows up in shape for training camp, something he failed to do each of the last two years.
As of right now, Baron Batch, Rainey, and John Clay are battling for what would likely be two more running back spots on the roster (excluding H-back/situational fullback types). Batch, a lightly-regarded seventh-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2011, was the surprise of the first few weeks of training camp last fall when he appeared primed to earn significant playing time as a shifty, situational receiving back who could eventually supplant Moore as the third-down back. Unfortunately, he suffered a gruesome knee injury (torn ACL and MCL) on August 10th and was placed on injured reserve for the season.
It usually takes two years for a skill-position player to fully recover from such a knee injury and Batch cannot afford to lose any of his quickness and moves, which were his strengths. With the drafting of Rainey and the probable return of Moore, Batch will need a strong camp and preseason just to make the roster.
Clay is another Big Ten power back who lacks the speed to excel in the NFL. After going undrafted despite a strong career at Wisconsin, the 248-pound Clay spent most of the 2011 season on the Steelers’ practice squad but was signed to the 53-man roster late in the year after Dwyer was lost to a season-ending injury, which occurred before Mendenhall tore his ACL.
Mostly unimpressive in limited playing time, Clay did score on a 10-yard run on his first NFL carry. Nevertheless, he has an uphill climb to make the roster. For better odds, he probably needs an injury to Redman or Dwyer, or for Dwyer to show up to Latrobe out of shape.
Moore has always been a marginal athlete for an NFL tailback and has slowed down considerably more as he approaches his 30th birthday. However, he is the most sure-handed, ball-protector from this group, by far the best in blitz pickup, and easily the most experienced NFL running back, especially in big games and clutch situations. Plus, the guy has a knack for making plays in some form (including special teams) that help win football games. Assuming he is re-signed, Moore is a near lock to make the team, because he is a Mike Tomlin favorite and the Steelers usually elect to keep their own veterans when in doubt.
PLEASE, PLEASE BRING BACK BIG MAX
The other assumption may be more of a reach. Even though the Steelers’ offensive line depth chart looks better now than it has in nearly a decade following the additions of first-round guard David DeCastro and second-round tackle Mike Adams, let’s make the assumption/hope that around the start of training camp (if not a little afterward), Pittsburgh is able to re-sign veteran tackle Max Starks (who is coming off an ACL tear suffered in the playoff loss to Denver) to a reasonable one-year deal.
Assuming Willie Colon stays healthy for the first time in two years and Adams does not fail any more piss tests, the Steelers would then release Jonathan Scott, who is slated to earn a base salary of $2.2 million for 2012, the last season on his two-year contract. Even if Starks is not signed, Scott is likely to be released unless he agrees to a significant paycut, a choice he may not even be presented.
Moreover, although DeCastro is lining up at at his college position of right guard during the team’s current rookie minicamp and Colon will initially return to play right tackle, a healthy Starks or the rapid development of Adams could result in Colon finally being moved inside to guard, which seemingly appears a more natural fit for his 6-foot-3 frame, since NFL tackles now average 6-foot-6.
DeCastro is the best pulling guard prospect to enter the NFL in a decade. Athletic guards who can pull usually play on the left-side, but Stanford wanted to keep its second best offensive lineman (Dolphins’ second-round steal Jonathan Martin) at left tackle to protect Andrew Luck’s blindside, which is why DeCastro pulled from right guard for the Cardinal.
Since Colon is familiar with playing on the right-side of the line, it makes more sense for him to be eventually (if not in 2012, then definitely in 2013) tried at right guard than left guard, allowing the more athletic DeCastro to pull from the left-side.
The other options are to keep Scott as a reserve for 2012 if he is willing to reduce his base salary from $2.2 million to $685,000 (and I doubt he would), bring in Starks as a reserve who would only start due to injury or others’ performing poorly, or cut Scott and not sign Starks, instead going with a younger, cheaper reserve or two to fill out the offensive line depth chart.
In the latter scenario, the Steelers would still have eight serviceable options on the offensive line, with Adams or guard Ramon Foster (whoever does not start), Doug Legursky and Trai Essex offering quality depth.
Chris Scott, rookie seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum, 2011 practice-squad members John Malecki and Trevis Turner, and Ryan Lee, an athletic but undrafted rookie free agent from Furman who is already a YouTube sensation amongst Steelers Nation, would all be in competition for the ninth and a possible 10th roster spot on the offensive line.
THINNEST TRAINING CAMP ROSTER SINCE THE LATE 1990s?
Mendenhall (PUP) and second-year tight end Weslye Saunders, who is suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the 2012 season, will not count toward the 53-man, opening-day roster. Although he may not be ready for opening day, veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton (also recovering from a torn ACL) is not expected to be placed on the PUP list, which requires players to miss at least the first six games. However, concerns about the 35-year-old Hampton’s health will almost necessitate the Steelers keeping seven defensive linemen on their 53-player roster to start the season.
There will be some camp battles for roster spots and the numbers at each position will be determined by quality of play in training camp and the preseason. For example, the Steelers could elect to keep five or six receivers, nine or ten offensive lineman, eight or nine linebackers, nine or ten defensive backs, etc.
However, the upcoming training camp and preseason is unlikely to produce the angst before final cuts that the 2011 and especially 2010 campaigns did, both of which featured ridiculously deep training-camp rosters that resulted in multiple Pittsburgh cuts who were immediately picked up by other franchises and added to their 53-man rosters (e.g., Crezdon Butler, Tony Hills, Patrick Bailey, Kraig Urbik, Stefan Logan). From that group, though, releasing Urbik – now a starting guard for the Bills – a year after making him a third-round pick seems to be the only Pittsburgh mistake.
This year it may be Pittsburgh scouring the waiver wire in early September. For example, the Steelers have historically kept five or six receivers on its 53-man roster, although six now seems a more logical number with the advent of 3- and 4-receiver sets in the team’s offensive playbook.
At this point, former Penn State standout Derrick Williams and rookie seventh-round pick Toney Clemons are the favorites for the fifth receiver spot, with both having a decent shot of making the final roster if the Steelers keeps six receivers.
Williams, though, spent the entire 2011 season out of football after being cut by the Lions following the preseason, whereas Clemons (who has a nice combination of size and speed) was not expected to be among the 253 selections in the 2012 NFL Draft, since he was rated as 368th best overall prospect by CBS SportsLine and seemingly no other major services projected him to be drafted at all.
Accordingly, annual preseason sensation Tyler Grisham seemingly picked the wrong offseason to leave Pittsburgh for Denver, since Grisham not only would have actually had his first decent chance of making the 53-man roster, but probably would have been favored to do so. Nevertheless, do not be shocked if Grisham is signed to the Steelers’ roster if he fails to make the Broncos and some youngsters in Pittsburgh’s camp do not emerge. If that happens,it would be inevitable that many fans and even some Pittsburgh media reports to compare Grisham to Wes Welker.
The Steelers, however, has been among the best franchises at identifying hidden talent among the team’s undrafted rookie free agents, with an alumni list that included eventual 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, two-time Pro Bowl tailback Willie Parker and legendary safety Donnie Shell.
Therefore, they will need some of their 12 undrafted rookie free agents (highlighted by Georgia punter Drew Butler and Pitt outside linebacker Brandon Lindsey) singed last week or some of the castoffs from other franchises signed to futures contracts this offseaon (e.g., Williams, former Ohio State star Troy Smith, FSU Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle) to have strong training camps and push for roster spots.
Considering the recent success of the Steelers’ scouting department, do not be surprised if some prospects most fans have not heard of emerge in July and August, ultimately finding their way on the 53-man roster, in part because Pittsburgh currently has more openings for its final spots than any year in nearly a decade. That should make for an interesting training camp.
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 – outside of Moore and Starks – or season-ending injuries)
QB Ben Roethlisberger **
QB Byron Leftwich *
QB Charlie Batch *
RB Isaac Redman **
RB Mewelde Moore * (projected FA signee)
RB Jonathan Dwyer *
RB Chris Rainey
TE/FB/H-B D.J. Johnson *
TE/FB/H-B David Paulson
TE Heath Miller **
TE Leonard Pope
WR Mike Wallace **
WR Antonio Brown **
WR Emmanuel Sanders **
WR Jerricho Cotchery **
WR Toney Clemons
LT Max Starks * (projected FA signee)
LG David DeCastro **
C Maurkice Pouncey **
RG Willie Colon **
RT Marcus Gilbert **
C/G Doug Legursky **
T Mike Adams **
G Ramon Foster *
G/T/C Trai Essex*
DE Ziggy Hood **
NT Casey Hampton **
DE Brett Keisel **
DE Cameron Heyward **
NT Alameda Ta’amu **
NT/DE Steve McLendon*
DE/NT Al Woods
OLB James Harrison **
OLB LaMarr Woodley **
OLB Jason Worilds **
OLB Chris Carter
OLB Brandon Lindsey
ILB Lawrence Timmons **
ILB Larry Foote **
ILB Stevenson Sylvester **
ILB Sean Spence **
SS Troy Polamalu **
FS Ryan Clark **
S Ryan Mundy **
S Will Allen *
S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith
CB Ike Taylor **
CB Keenan Lewis **
CB Cortez Allen **
CB Curtis Brown **
K Shaun Suisham
P Drew Butler
SN Greg Warren **
PUP: RB Rashard Mendenhall
SUS: TE Weslye Saunders
Opening Game-Day Inactives (7): WR Toney Clemons, TE/H-B David Paulson, OG Ramon Foster, OL Trai Essex, NT Casey Hampton or DL Al Woods, OLB Brandon Lindsey, S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith
Last 21 Released From Camp (in order of how close they are to making team and their position matters): P Jeremy Kapinos, DE Corbin Bryant, CB Terrence Frederick, ILB Mortty Ivy, WR Derrick Williams, RB Baron Batch, WR Marquis Maze, OL Chris Scott, K Grant Ressell, CB/S Myron Rolle, OL Kevin Beachum, RB John Clay, OLB Adrian Robinson, Jr., TE/WR Wes Lyons, DB Robert Golden, TE/FB/H-B Jamie McCoy, OG/C John Malecki, QB Troy Smith (Decent shot if Leftwich or Batch is injured), OG Ryan Lee, FB Will Johnson, OT Trevis Turner
Last 14 To Make the Team (in order of likelihood of being cut and their position matters): OLB Brandon Lindsey, P Drew Butler, S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, DE/NT Al Woods, WR Toney Clemons, TE/FB/H-B David Paulson, OLB Chris Carter, K Shaun Suisham, TE Leonard Pope, RB Chris Rainey, RB Mewelde Moore, S Will Allen, TE/FB/H-B D.J. Johnson, QB Charlie Batch
Practice Squad (8): RB Baron Batch (if fully recovered from knee injury) or RB John Clay, WR Marquis Maze, OL Trevis Turner, OG Kelvin Beachum, DE Corbin Bryant, OLB Adrian Robinson, CB Terrence Frederick, DB Robert Golden