I was surprised Friday when it was announced that second-year tight end Weslye Saunders was released and that move has left many, including myself, wondering what the reasoning was behind the decision.
It has been suggested by a few that the play of veteran tight end Leonard Pope, specifically one block, in the Steelers 26-23 loss to the Tennessee Titans Thursday night resulted in the coaching staff changing their mind on Friday. I find that reasoning pretty ludicrous myself and so should you.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley talked about Saunders this past Tuesday and he certainly didn\'t give the South Carolina product a ringing endorsement when asked about him.
"I think that will kind of be up to him," said Haley, when asked what Saunders brings to the team. "He’s been out of the mix here for a little while. We’ve had some guys who are here and working and are finding their roles, so to speak. This is a little tougher week to do it. We’re not in pads but he’s going to have to come get in the mix, start competing, and like everybody else across the board, the guys that give us the best chance to win each and every week, those will be the guys helping us. He’s just trying to get back in the flow right now."
Keep in mind that Saunders did not see a lot of playing time in the preseason as the Steelers knew that they were going to be without him for the first four games of the season. Thanks to the timing of the bye week, it caused Saunders to be away from the team for five weeks in total. That is a long time for a young player to be away from a new offense that continues to add more and more to their playbook. It is also enough time for a player to forget what he had already learned during the offseason as well.
Saunders was allowed to return to the Steelers facility this past Monday, but the team only practiced on Tuesday and Wednesday because of the short week. It is very likely that Saunders did not get many reps in practice as a result, and it was likely already decided that he wasn\'t going to play Thursday night against the Titans in addition.
The Steelers asked for and received a roster exemption because they could. It afforded them the chance to see what kind of shape Saunders was in and what he remembered of the playbook. There is a good chance that they didn\'t like what they saw in either of those two areas, or perhaps even both. We unfortunately will never get the answer to that question.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Haley has a long working relationship with Pope, who played for Haley in Arizona and Kansas City. He knows the system. When Pope made the 53 man roster out of training camp his salary for the season became guaranteed. Now that is not a huge factor, but a factor nonetheless. Releasing Saunders cost the Steelers less than $2,000 in dead money.
So what about the long-term future of Saunders? The Steelers coaching staff obviously didn\'t see it in him or they wouldn\'t have released him. Maybe it is work ethic related. There was a rumor floating around that Saunders was always in training room complaining about little bumps and bruises. Can I confirm that? Absolutely not, I\'m just throwing it out there on top of everything else as a speculative reason. Of course we will never know if it is true or not. So why mention it? Because, it is just something to think about. This whole post is speculative for the most part. I was just as high on Saunders as many of you were, so no agenda here.
The Steelers are obviously much higher on rookie David Paulson, one of their four seventh round draft picks. He has surpassed Pope on the depth chart over the course of the last two games and plays on all of the special teams units as well.
When you step back and look at everything laid out in this post you can see that there are several possible reasons as to why Saunders was let go. I can almost guarantee you that this was not a decision that was made rashly or because of one block that Pope made Thursday night. The Steelers had a good reason why they released Saunders, we just won\'t ever know exactly what that reason was.
One final note. Several have asked me if Saunders is eligible for the practice squad and that answer is no. He played in all 16 regular season games last year and that is way more needed for him not to be eligible.