The prevailing sentiment around Steeler Nation since the Pittsburgh Steelers activated running back Rashard Mendenhall from the PUP list on Friday is that second year running back Baron Batch is now on the outside of the bubble looking in and pretty much destined to be a member of the practice squad, assuming he is not picked up by another team.
What most people seem to be basing their reasoning on is pure position numbers without responsibly looking at the best 53 players on the roster. An easy way to point to how numbers are deceiving sometimes, in regard to positions, can be easily pointed out by looking at the wide receiver position last year. The Steelers entered the 2011 season with a whopping six wide receivers on their 53 man roster, with the sixth being Arnaz Battle. Was Battle kept because of his tremendous upside as a receiver? No. Did the Steelers necessarily need 6 wide receivers on the roster? Some would say yes because Jerricho Cotchery was battling a hamstring injury early on, but based on the 4 snaps that Battle received on offense in 2011, all of which came in week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens, the real answer looking back is, no. Battle was a good special teams player that just happened to play wide receiver and that was the reason he was kept on the 53 man roster.
As I pointed out on Friday, it is not out of the question that this year the Steelers could decide to carry only four wide receivers on their 53 man roster, especially considering that those presumed to be battling for a fifth spot have failed to rise above one another. Just this past week head coach Mike Tomlin told David Todd that it depends on what day it is, when he was asked if any of the young receivers had separated themselves from the group yet. At this point it would not be out of the question to see the best of that group come the end of the preseason be signed to the practice squad. In the mean time, Chris Rainey could certainly serve as a fifth wide receiver considering his skill set.
So what exactly has Batch done so far? First and foremost the health of his knee and conditioning level was tested in the first preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. He carried the ball 19 times and was targeted out the backfield once. That one pass to him from quarterback Byron Leftwich was behind him and at his feet, so you can\’t pin that on him.
So what else did Batch do? Mike Prisuta of DVE Radio reported this past week that Batch, Sean Spence and Chris Carter were three players he noticed that saw work on every punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return special teams unit against the Eagles. While I have not verified this, Batch was spotted quite a bit on these units throughout the game. That is a pretty important observation there and one that most fail to figure into their rash assessment of Mendenhall returning and what it means to the final 53 man roster now. In short, these people must not have ever heard Tomlin ever say, “The more you can do, the more you can do.”
While the early return of Mendenhall from the PUP was unexpected, there still is no guarantee that he will be ready for the first game against Denver. A more realistic speculation of when he could likely see his first action would be in week 5 which follows the Steelers bye week. Any earlier than that would be another surprise on top of the surprise that he did not start the season on PUP.
While Batch is not as electric as Rainey is, he can be used in similar type roles, especially on third down. Batch showed in college that he is no slouch as a pass catching running back out of the backfield and his ability to both recognize the blitz and pick it up also jumped out on his college tape. Now of course this is the NFL and not college, but the skill set is certainly there and has been seen observed by several in the media thus far in camp.
With three preseason games yet to be played, how Batch not only plays on offense, but how often he is used and plays on special teams are key things to pay attention to moving forward. While most will easily fall into the trap of the news of Mendenhall returning and combine that with positional numbers to hastily draw their conclusions when it comes to Batch making the 53 man roster, I advise not to throw the Texas Tech product out with the Mendenhall bath water just yet.