The Steelers went a long way toward boosting their thinnest depth chart in recent memory and addressing several needs by drafting nine players and signing 15 rookie free agents over the weekend.
Pittsburgh, however, still has a major need to add depth for its offensive line, where the team has only six players on its roster who have played in more than one NFL game. It was ridiculous for some Steeler experts to argue for taking an offensive guard in the first round, since no one on the Steelers’ projected starting offensive line could become an unrestricted free agent until after the 2014 season.
The team addressed this long-standing weakness by taking four players in the first two rounds of the 2010-12 NFL Drafts, and then re-signing guard Ramon Foster to a 3-year contract this offseason. In addition to a lack of depth (particularly at tackle), the Steelers should be concerned about protecting the blindside of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In easily leading the Steelers in total plays, veteran Max Starks was in on every snap at the important left tackle position in 2012, compiling one of his best seasons after finishing each of the previous two years on injured reserve.
Moreover, in their combined three NFL seasons, former second-round picks and projected starting tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, have missed multiple games due to injury. Therefore, an ideal scenario would see the Steelers bring back Starks to compete for a starting job and at worst serve as the team’s No. 3 tackle.
The 31-year-old Starks is one of three veteran free agents at left tackles (along with Bryant McKinnie and Jared Gaither) who several teams would like to add to their roster. Like the other two, though, Starks is reportedly only interested in signing with a team where he could be a starter. The Steelers, who have not ruled out Starks returning, should at least afford him that chance, particularly since they have no depth at tackle and would be forced to start undersized reserve guard Kevin Beachum in the event of an injury to Gilbert or Adams.
It is plausible that the Steelers will sign or re-sign one or two veteran offensive linemen to its training-camp roster. Interior offensive linemen Doug Legursky and Antoine Caldwell may be the best bets, but the projected roster below assumes the Steelers’ have learned from their past mistakes and negligence of the offensive line (e.g., opening the 2011 season with Jonathan Scott as their unquestioned starter at left tackle). The Steelers should use their available resources to re-sign Starks after June 1st (when additional cap space comes open from the release of Willie Colon), while hoping a team like San Diego does not ink him beforehand.
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 Bruce Gradkowski **
QB Landry Jones **
RB Le’Veon Bell **
RB Isaac Redman*
RB Jonathan Dwyer (or possible FA signing Ahmad Bradshaw)
RB/Ret. La’Rod Stephens-Howling *
FB Will Johnson *
TE/FB/H-B D.J. Johnson
TE Heath Miller ** (could also begin season on PUP list)
TE Matt Spaeth **
TE David Paulson *
WR Antonio Brown **
WR Emmanuel Sanders **
WR Markus Wheaton **
WR Jerricho Cotchery *
WR Plaxico Burress
LT Marcus Gilbert **
LG Ramon Foster **
C Maurkice Pouncey **
RG David DeCastro **
RT Mike Adams **
T Max Starks (projected free-agent signing)
G/T/C Kevin Beachum **
C/G John Malecki (or possible FA signing of Doug Legursky or Antoine Caldwell)
T/G Chris Hubbard (or any of the 6 rookie free-agent OL)
DE Ziggy Hood **
NT Steve McLendon **
DE Brett Keisel **
DE Cameron Heyward **
NT Alameda Ta’amu
DE/NT Al Woods
OLB LaMarr Woodley **
OLB Jarvis Jones **
OLB Jason Worilds **
OLB Chris Carter *
OLB Adrian Robinson
ILB Lawrence Timmons **
ILB Larry Foote **
ILB Stevenson Sylvester
ILB Vince Williams
SS Troy Polamalu **
FS Ryan Clark **
SS Shamarko Thomas **
FS Robert Golden *
CB Ike Taylor **
CB Cortez Allen **
CB William Gay **
CB Curtis Brown *
CB Terry Hawthorne
K Shaun Suisham **
P Drew Butler **
SN Greg Warren **
IR: ILB Sean Spence
Opening Game-Day Inactives (7): QB Landry Jones, RB Jonathan Dwyer, TE Heath Miller, OL John Malecki, OL Chris Hubbard, OLB Adrian Robinson, CB Terry Hawthorne
Practice Squad (8): RB Curtis McNeal, WR Justin Brown, OL Ivory Wade and Joe Madsen (or any 2 of the 6 rookie free-agent OL signed), DE Nic Williams, NT Hebron Fangupo, ILB Marshall McFadden, CB Josh Victorian
Other Players On Roster Not Currently Projected to Make Opening-Day 53-man Roster or 8-Man Practice Squad: QB John Parker Wilson; RB Baron Batch; WR David Gilreath, Derek Moye, Kashiff Moore, Bert Reed, J.D. Woods and Reggie Dunn; TE Jamie McCoy and Zach Pilanto; OL Joe Long, Justin Cheadle, Nike Embernate, Mike Golic, Jr. and Mike Farrell; DL Anthony Rashad White, Cordian Hagans, Omar Hunter and Brian Arnfelt; LB Brian Rolle, Kion Wilson and Alan Baxter; S Damon Cromartie-Smith; CB Justin King, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Isaiah Green; K Daniel Hrapmann; SN Luke Ingram
Top Camp Roster Battles:
1. Battle for 1-2 back-up offensive line spots and 1-2 practice squads among 6 rookie free-agent offensive linemen.
2. Alameda Ta’amu vs. Hebron Fangup for back-up NT.
3. Terry Hawthorne vs. Justin King vs. Damon Cromartie-Smith vs. DeMarcus Van Dyke vs. Josh Victorian for No. 9 DB.
4. Stevenson Sylvester vs. Vince Williams vs. Adrian Robinson vs. Marshall McFadden vs. Brian Rolle vs. Kion Willson for final 2-3 roster spots at linebacker.
5. Plaxico Burress vs. Justin Brown for No. 5 WR.
6. La’Rod Stephens-Howling vs. Baron Batch for change-of-pace-back, slight possibility that both are kept and Dwyer cut.
7. D.J. Johnson vs. Jamie McCoy for TE/FB/H-back, assuming Heath Miller is not able to play for first couple of games due to off-season knee surgery but does not go on PUP. If Miller is healthy for opening-day, this position may not be filled, opening up another spot for a sixth WR or an extra lineman.
8. Nic Williams for potential No. 7 DL vs. a potential No. 9 OL.