By Matthew Marczi
The Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their preseason schedule last night with a 25-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers, but they survived the four games seemingly without any major injuries, based on the way rookie running back Le’Veon Bell seems to be recovering from a mid-foot sprain. I am not entirely sure how many answers were provided last night, but now that the games are over, it is time to put an end to the questions. The Steelers have until tomorrow night to get the roster from 75 players to 53, and here is my take on how it might happen (though I reserve the right to be very wrong):
Quarterback: (3) Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones
This position was made a no-brainer last week when the Steelers released John Parker Wilson. Gradkowski has done a lot of positive things this preseason and looks to be the solid game manager type that he has always been, which makes a good backup quarterback. Landry Jones still has a long way to go after throwing three interceptions last night (the last one not entirely his fault), but he did have some bright spots every now and then, throwing two touchdowns and squeezing in a nice pass to Derek Moye that went for a big gain. He should see no action this season, but will hopefully come in better prepared in 2014.
Fullback: (1) Will Johnson
No question here, either. Will Johnson had a good rookie season and has looked even better in the preseason. He suffered a hamstring injury last night, but should hopefully be fine. If not, David Johnson can play the role until Will is healthy.
Running back: (4) Isaac Redman, Le’Veon Bell, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Felix Jones
Perhaps the most controversial move, Jonathan Dwyer does not make the 53-man roster this year. He put the ball on the ground twice this preseason on somewhat innocuous plays and frequently took poor angles and generally made bad decisions that either prevented him from getting the most out of the play or caused the play to go for a loss.
Conversely, Felix Jones looked very good last night, displaying second efforts to get more yardage than he should have. He also made himself available to his quarterback as a release valve a couple of times in the passing game, and offers the Steelers another option as a returner. Dwyer has never made much of an impact on special teams. One factor in the Steelers keeping four backs instead of five despite injuries to Bell (and possibly to LSH again after last night) is the fact that Alvester Alexander has looked fairly decent at times and can be easily stashed away on the practice squad.
Wide Receiver: (5) Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton, Jerricho Cotchery, Derek Moye
Derek Moye has simply played too well to lose out to Justin Brown for a roster spot, even if the latter was a draft pick. Moye is taller and has better hands, is more familiar with the system, and has been highly productive this preseason. He has displayed surprising elusiveness, and at 6’5”, is the tallest target Roethlisberger has had since Plaxico Burress, which may allow him to steal a few snaps on offense as the fifth receiver. In fact, if he does make the roster, I absolutely expect him to be used every once in a while in red zone opportunities, if he can earn a helmet on game day, because he does not play on special teams. Otherwise he will be an inactive barring injury. Brown will be on the practice squad. Return specialist Reggie Dunn only had a couple of brief flashes during this preseason, but even if he did not bobble multiple punts and get tackled for a safety, he still would not have done enough to earn a roster spot.
Tight End: (3)* Heath Miller, David Johnson, David Paulson [- Matt Spaeth]
I fully expect Heath Miller to be activated from the Physically Unable to Perform List very soon, meaning he will be on the roster to start the season. Matt Spaeth makes the initial 53-man roster, but he should soon thereafter find himself on the Reserve/Injured-Designated to Return List, which will open up a roster spot elsewhere that could be used on an extra wide receiver, running back, linebacker, or just about anywhere but quarterback. David Johnson has moved ahead of David Paulson, though, to my knowledge, he was not targeted in the receiving game yet. Johnson will also provide depth at fullback. Outside of one drop, Paulson looked capable as a receiving option, including a touchdown last night, though his blocking still needs improvement. Michael Palmer did nothing to lose a roster spot, and even started to get into the passing offense in the last two games, but the Steelers like Johnson and Paulson. Given the need for bodies at tight end, Nathan Overbay could find himself on the practice squad.
Offensive Line: (9)* Mike Adams, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum, John Malecki, Guy Whimper [+ Joe Long]
The pieces along the starting offensive line have been in place since the Steelers released Willie Colon and failed to offer Max Starks a contract. Kelvin Beachum is currently not a threat to start, to my mind, but he could be starting at a moment’s notice at any position with an injury, because he has now played every position along the line. He may even earn a meritorious ‘start’ at tight end from time to time, especially if Heath Miller is slow to return to action. John Malecki has done a nice job, particularly at center but also at guard, throughout this preseason, and looks stronger than he has ever been. He may turn out to be a superior, and cheaper, Doug Legursky.
The Steelers worked Guy Whimper a lot at guard in the last three games, trying to give him position flexibility, but I believe that Joe Long has earned the eighth lineman spot. He got a lot of work at left tackle last night after being limited to right tackle in the previous two games, and were I the one making the decisions, I would carry him as a game day inactive over Whimper. I do not make the decisions, however. Therefore, I see the Steelers carrying Whimper due to Long’s practice squad eligibility, and when they place Spaeth on IR, I believe it will be Long who is called up, because I seriously question their ability to find a decent lineman on waivers this year. Chris Hubbard should be carried on the practice squad, as he has consistently run as the second-team left guard.
Defensive Line: (6) Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon, Brett Keisel, Cameron Heyward, Al Woods, Alameda Ta’amu
There is a serious question as to whether or not the Steelers even carry six defensive linemen because Al Woods gives them such flexibility. Brian Arnfelt is a very promising and interesting defensive end prospect, but he will not see the field this year behind the top four, and he should be able to be stowed away on the practice squad. He could very well be important next year, however, with Hood, Keisel, and Woods all in the final year of their contracts.
Alameda Ta’amu is the draft pick, but Hebron Fangupo has seen earlier playing time recently, and there are reports that the coaching staff also believes the older Fangupo is the better player. Still, I have too hard a time of seeing the Steelers give up on him already, especially given the growth he has shown both on and off the field. Fangupo’s age also plays against him, as well as the near certainty that the loser will not be carried on the practice squad as the fourth nose tackle, because Ta’amu clearly has more long-term potential.
Outside Linebacker: (4) Jason Worilds, LaMarr Woodley, Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter
The top three positions are a given, and all three will see a lot of playing time this year barring injury. After a quiet first three preseason game, Chris Carter had a strong finale, netting three tackles and two sacks with a forced fumble. He generated no pressure in the first three preseason games. The only reason Alan Baxter loses the battle after being the team’s most productive pass rusher is because he has practice squad eligibility and the Steelers have too many inside linebackers this year not to keep five. Baxter should make the roster next year, however, especially if Worilds leaves in free agency.
Inside Linebacker: (5) Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Marshall McFadden, Brian Rolle, Vince Williams
Brian Rolle may not be a great special teams player by reputation, but he played on a lot of special teams units last night and in past weeks, including first-team kick return and covering punts, from memory. Maybe the Steelers have a higher opinion of his capabilities on special teams than many realize. He has played as the second-team inside linebacker next to Marshall McFadden for nearly all of the preseason, and that fact cannot be ignored. He forced a fumble last night, which is a very valuable asset given the team’s troubles forcing turnovers the last two years.
Kion Wilson may have played on every special teams unit, but he only managed one special teams tackle the entire preseason. Wide receiver J.D. Woods had two special teams tackles and he was cut in the first wave. Baron Batch and Stevenson Sylvester were both key special teams contributors and both of them were cut as well. The Steelers really like Vince Williams, so much that they promoted him to second-team on the depth chart despite the fact that Rolle has been playing ahead of him. He has looked good in about every facet of his game, including in pass coverage, and there is no reason that he could not develop into a strong special teams player. Wilson can go on the practice squad; however, I think they go with Terence Garvin’s upside and versatility instead.
Cornerback: (5) Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Curtis Brown, Terry Hawthorne
Curtis Brown may have been victimized again on defense in the preseason, but he is too valuable on special teams to not make the roster, and there is realistically nothing impressive behind him on the depth chart. Josh Victorian will still likely find himself on the practice squad if he does not make the roster, but that whiff on special teams that allowed a touchdown is too glaring, and he did nothing worth noting on defense. Still, he is likely ahead of Isaiah Green. Terry Hawthorne missed most of the offseason, but got in some work in the last few preseason games on defense and special teams, with fairly nondescript play in both areas, but he easily has the most potential of the three, and it helps that he was a draft pick. Still, I could see Hawthorne and Victorian easily swapping spots.
Safety (5) Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas, DaMon Cromartie-Smith
The first four are locks—no-brainers. Carrying DaMon Cromartie-Smith after allowing a punt block in the first preseason game may raise some eyebrows, but the reality is that he has otherwise done fine on special teams, and plays on a lot of special teams units. Ross Ventrone made a play or two on special teams, but he also drew a penalty and missed a tackle. Cromartie-Smith offers things that Ventrone, and even the other backup safeties, do not: multiple years of experience in Dick LeBeau’s defensive scheme and height. This roster spot could very well be used elsewhere, but it makes sense to use it here. The fact that he is out of practice squad eligibility is a factor here as well.
Special Teams: (3)
Long Snapper: (1) Greg Warren
The veteran quickly disposed of his latest challenger, Luke Ingram, who was released before the preseason started.
Kicker: (1) Shaun Suisham
No competition. Suisham has done well since he’s been here aside from a stretch or two in 2011. He will never be known for making 55+ yard field goals, but he is about as good as anybody in the league since he has been with the Steelers from within 49 yards. I believe he has the highest field goal percentage in team history as it currently stands. He even has the leg to get his fair share of touchbacks.
Punter: (1) Drew Butler
The only question mark, the race goes to the younger leg. Drew Butler put a few punts within the 20 last night, which was good to see. Brian Moorman has struggled with distance. Butler could stand to have better hang-time and to be more consistent in general, but there is no compelling reason to go away from the incumbent in this case.
Practice Squad: (8) Alvester Alexander, Justin Brown, Chris Hubbard, Josh Victorian, Brian Arnfelt, Terence Garvin, Alan Baxter, Nathan Overbay
Almost Made It:
The following players are well within play to make the roster, and certainly may very well make the roster. However, they did not make it on my list, and I will explain why below.
Jonathan Dwyer: It was different when Dwyer’s competition was Baron Batch, a small back who could not run the ball with success. With Felix Jones in a Steelers uniform now—and looking formidable with limited experience—the Steelers now have four backs that can presumably carry a full load, but only one of those two that is not listed as a co-starter in this offense is scheduled to make $1.323 million this season. Dwyer fumbled twice in the preseason, and there are serious question marks about his decision-making and hesitation, especially when it comes to running the outside zone. Last year was supposed to be the year that Dwyer became a year-round professional, but he still allowed his weight to balloon mid-season, and twice this offseason. Between the Yo-Yo Diet and his desire to come to the sidelines for a breather more frequently than his coaches like—and the fact that Alvester Alexander can be a fifth back on the practice squad—it may very well be time to say goodbye for Dwyer. The Steelers may look to trade him as an option.
Jamie McCoy: Depending on Miller’s recovery, Jamie McCoy may be the player brought in to replace Spaeth on the active roster when he is placed on IR to give the Steelers three healthy tight ends, but otherwise he is clearly no better than fifth on the depth chart. Ditto on Michael Palmer.
Kion Wilson: Wilson plays on all the special teams units. Mike Tomlin said that special teams will be the deciding factor for the bottom of the roster. I am calling Tomlin a liar. Actually, I think his special teams abilities have been exaggerated, as have Brian Rolle’s supposed struggles in this area. Wilson would be on the practice squad, but I get the feeling that the Steelers are intrigued by Terence Garvin, which is why they have been playing him at outside linebacker as well.
Hebron Fangupo: Fangupo may supposedly be the better player now, but the Steelers have no ties to him, and he is already older, coming into the game late after serving as a missionary. Alameda Ta’amu has taken big strides on and off the field in the past year, and with the sixth lineman slated not to dress anyway, they may as well go for the long-term potential rather than the marginally better player now.