It has been an offseason of change for the Steelers, highlighted by the forced retirements of Pittsburgh legends James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward.
The Steelers, however, remain one of the better teams in the NFL and a legitimate Super Bowl contender so long as quarterback Ben Roethlisber and safety Troy Polamalu stay healthy. As we have wrote since the end of last season, this is the weakest the bottom half of the Steelers’ training-camp/preseason roster (players 45 through 90) has been in nearly a decade, which is why picking the team’s final 53-man roster is not only less worrisome than usual, but may even be fruitless at this juncture.
Due to their continued success in the draft and through the rookie free-agent pool, other teams usually look to grab potential players from the Steelers’ cut list. But this year it will be the Steelers’ front office scouring the waiver wire, primarily to consider potential upgrades at fullback and/or No. 5 receiver, but also with the possibility of adding players at other positions as well, including tight end and defensive back.
Heading into tomorrow’s third preseason game at Buffalo, below is our current projected roster and practice squad followed by brief explanations of the key battles and possibilities at each position group. Please note, however, that this list is very fluid, with several changes recently made due to the Steelers’ injury situation at linebacker and their decision to activate Rashard Mendenhall from the PUP list even though Mendenhall will almost assuredly not dress for at least the first 2-3 regular-season contests.
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 Starks – or season-ending/major injuries)
QB Ben Roethlisberger **
QB Byron Leftwich *
QB Charlie Batch
RB Isaac Redman **
RB Jonathan Dwyer **
RB Rashard Mendenhall **
RB Baron Batch
RB/WR Chris Rainey **
FB/H-Back Will Johnson
TE Heath Miller **
TE Leonard Pope
TE/H-Back David Paulson
WR Mike Wallace **
WR Antonio Brown **
WR Emmanuel Sanders **
WR Jerricho Cotchery **
LT Max Starks **
LG Willie Colon **
C Maurkice Pouncey **
RG David DeCastro **
RT Marcus Gilbert **
C/G Doug Legursky **
G/RT Ramon Foster * *
T Mike Adams **
G/T/C Trai Essex
DE Ziggy Hood **
NT Casey Hampton **
DE Brett Keisel **
DE Cameron Heyward **
NT/DE Steve McLendon **
NT Alameda Ta’amu **
DE/NT Al Woods
OLB James Harrison **
OLB LaMarr Woodley **
OLB Chris Carter **
OLB Adrian Robinson
OLB/ILB Brandon Johnson
ILB Lawrence Timmons **
ILB Larry Foote **
ILB Sean Spence **
ILB Stevenson Sylvester
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 (minimum of 6 games): LB Jason Worilds
Suspended (4 games): TE Weslye Saunders
IR (all season): FB/TE/H-Back: D.J. Johnson
Opening Game-Day Inactives (7): RB Rashard Mendenhall (injured), TE/H-Back David Paulson, OT Mike Adams, OL Trai Essex, NT Casey Hampton (injured), LB Stevenson Sylvester (injured), S Ryan Clark (because game is in Denver, where Clark’s sickle cell trait prevents him from playing in high altitudes)
Last 16 Released From Camp (in order of how close they are to making team and their position matters): WR David Gilreath, P Jeremy Kapinos, S Robert Golden, CB Terrence Frederick, DE Corbin Bryant, QB Jerrod Johnson, WR Toney Clemons, LB Mortty Ivy, TE/H-Back Justin Peele, OL Kelvin Beachum, K Daniel Hrapmann, H-Back/FB/TE Jamie McCoy, WR Derrick Williams, OG Ryan Lee, SN Matt Katula, OG-C John Malecki
Last 16 To Make the Team (in order of likelihood of being cut and their position matters): P Drew Butler, OLB Adrian Robinson, S Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, TE/H-Back David Paulson, OL Trai Essex, LB Brandon Johnson, QB Charlie Batch, FB Will Johnson, DE/NT Al Woods, RB Baron Batch, TE Leonard Pope, S Will Allen, K Shaun Suisham, QB Byron Leftwich, SN Greg Warren, LB Stevenson Sylvester
Practice Squad (8): QB Jerrod Johnson, WR David Gilreath, WR Toney Clemons, OG/OT Kelvin Beachum, OG Chris Lee, DE Corbin Bryant, S Robert Golden, CB Terrence Frederick
QB: The Steelers usually do not keep a fourth QB on the practice squad. However, the three-tier combination of Johnson’s solid preseason, Batch and Leftwich’s age, and the Steelers not having an abundance of great prospects for the practice squad all make Johnson likely to be re-signed to the eight-player practice squad. He has size and talent, and could eventually be a No. 2 QB or even better. There is a chance Pittsbugh could cut Charlie Batch for Johnson, but that is unlikely. If Roethlisberger (who takes more hits than any QB in the NFL) and the brittle Leftwich (who has missed the past two seasons due to injuries) both go down, who do you want stepping in at QB for this veteran team? Yes, you could still likely sign Batch off the street in that case, but he needs daily reps. The threat of injuries is also the reason why I have Batch on the opening-game roster, although he could be cut for one week to open a spot for another linebacker.
RB: Because Mendenhall is sidelined, starter Isaac Redman and Baron Batch are the only two players capable of being regular third-down backs early in the season, thus likely securing Batch a spot on a roster with too many mediocre tailbacks. Batch better play well, though, or he will likely end up on the practice squad when Mendenahll returns for game-action. Will Johnson essentially won the FB/H-back job by default due to D.J. Johnson’s season-ending injury, but this is a spot where Pittsburgh may demote him to the practice squad if an enticing veteran is cut by another franchise.
WR: No candidates played well enough to earn the Steelers’ No. 5 receiver spot until darkhorse David Gilreath moved ahead of three other candidates with a trio of impressive receptions against the Colts last week. However, the guess here is that Gilreath will be cut and placed on practice squad for a week or two while Pittsburgh dresses five tailbacks, including Rainey, who will also serve as the fifth receiver. Even if he were on the roster, Gilreath would not be included on the 46-man gameday dress roster. This is another position where the Steelers will undoubtedly be watching the waiver wire for a potential roster upgrade.
TE: Since he joins Miller as the only other natural tight end in camp, Pope will likely be on the opening-day roster, but his stay in Pittsburgh may be short after the team’s second best tight end, talented second-year man Weslye Saunders, returns from a four-week suspension. The coaching staff appears high on Paulson and the guess here is that they keep one TE-H-Back to go with a multi-skilled fullback. Due to his youth and upside, Paulson gets the nod over Peele and McCoy.
OL: Yes, Essex has played poorly in both preseason games. That is not debatable. Do not forget, though, that Essex has been a decent, dependable reserve at all five positions over the last few years. No NFL franchise was forced to use its No. 8 and No. 9 offensive linemen over the last two seasons more than the Steelers, so why would they cut a proven vet, particularly since Starks has yet to partake in contact this fall after off-season knee surgery, Colon has played one regular-season game over the past two years years and Pouncey is injury-prone? Essex, however, is another player who could be released for a week or two at the start of the season to temporarily make room for extra linebackers. Rookie seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum was lauded through training camp by the Steelers’ media and its front office. Unfortunately, no player on the team’s preseason roster looked worse in the team’s first two preseason games. Seriously, Beachum made Todd Fordham look like Jon Kolb. The Steelers can rest assured that Beachum will clear waivers and could be re-signed to the practice squad if mutually desired, since opposing teams pick up players based off their game film and not media reports.
DL: Bryant was better than fellow rookie Woods last year, evident by Bryant being signed to the Steelers’ active roster and seeing action against the Cardinals when the defensive line was depleted due to injury. Woods never actually played in a 2011 regular-season game, but stayed on the 53-man roster all season because of the size-speed-strength combination that made him a fourth-round pick by the Saints in 2010. This preseason he has flashed that talent, and may have already won the No. 7 defensive line spot. That decision should be easier to make because Bryant still has practice-squad eligibility, while Woods does not.
LB: What a mess. Harrison, Sylvester and Worilds are all currently sidelined with injuries and each is questionable for the season-opener at Denver. Sylvester should make a full recovery from minor MCL surgery and be back by week No. 2 at the latest. Since he has yet to partake in contact this fall, Worilds – unlike Sylvester – is eligible to start the season on the PUP list, meaning he would have to sit out at least six games. Now, the Steelers would never do that with Harrison unless he definitely could not play at least four games. Harrison is a superstar whose presence is key to the team’s defensive success. In contrast, Worilds is merely a seldom-used reserve who is constantly injured. Moreover, his other weakness is a lack of functional strength, but yet Worilds has not been able to do upper-body workouts all offseason following wrist surgery. Why not give him time to heal by keeping him on the PUP list (and thus not counting toward the 53-man roster for at least six games), which would allow the Steelers to keep some combination of rookie free-agent steal Adrian Robinson (who appears to be an even better outside rusher than the speedy Worilds), versatile veteran Brandon Johnson, or special-teams stud Mortty Ivy?
DB: This is another complicated position to project since Clark will not dress for the opener in Denver. However, some fans act like it is required that Pittsburgh keep five cornerbacks on the 53-man roster. Why? Frederick certainly has not played well enough to illicit fear that he would not clear waivers and be re-signed to the practice squad. The bet here is that Pittsburgh keeps five safeties for at least the start of the season. Even though he is overpaid and will be just the No. 4 safety after Clark returns, veteran Will Allen is a Mike Tomlin favorite, meaning he likely makes the team. Cromartie-Smith has some experience and is good special-teams player, but undrafted rookie free agent Robert Golden already is much better in pass coverage. This one is too close to call and should be decided over the final two preseason games.
ST: Butler may win the punter job by default. The rookie from Georgia has been solid throughout the preseason, whereas Kapinos has not played due to a lingering back injury.
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