By Matthew Marczi
The last few spots on a 53-man roster are almost always tough to predict. However, the final roster for the Pittsburgh Steelers was even more difficult to call than usual this year, given the amount of roster turnover from a year ago, including emerging starters replacing aging veterans, which drained the depth at certain positions. Sorting out who will fill those vacancies was quite a challenge.
One element that I found interesting this year was that no rookie undrafted free agents made the roster, despite some, like Brian Arnfelt, Terence Garvin, and Alan Baxter, doing very well for themselves, although all three may find themselves on the practice squad. Last year, three such players made the roster: punter Drew Butler, defensive back Robert Golden, and outside linebacker Adrian Robinson. Two of the three are still here. Fullback Will Johnson also was a first year undrafted player; however, he went undrafted in 2011, and never made it to a camp, and thus was not considered a rookie.
Many former undrafted players did, however, make a 53-man roster for the first time: wide receiver Derek Moye, safety DaMon Cromartie-Smith, cornerback Isaiah Green, and interior lineman John Malecki. Kion Wilson and Hebron Fangupo are also young former undrafted players with limited NFL experience who have made the roster this year.
On Friday, I assembled my thoughts on how the 53-man roster would shake out, and while I nailed a couple of things—Jonathan Dwyer and Baxter getting cut, Guy Whimper and Cromartie-Smith making the roster—some things went awfully haywire, particularly at tight end and inside linebacker.
So where did I go wrong in my attempts to predict the Steelers’ thought process while assembling the roster, and what were they thinking? I think it would be interesting to look at a few of the roster decisions to see what it says about their methods.
While I figured the Steelers would carry both Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth at tight end to start before moving Spaeth to the short-term Reserve/Injured List, I did not predict that they would carry five total tight ends. What this tells me is that they feel it is necessary to have three healthy tight ends on the roster to start the season in order to execute their offense, which is why they retained veteran waiver pickup Michael Palmer. He will likely be the third tight end on game days until Miller is ready to play. After that, he may be cut.
What this also tells me is that the Kelvin Beachum experiment at tight end in the third preseason game may have not been much more than that—an experiment. Otherwise, I have a hard time figuring out why having three healthy tight ends was such a dire need. This could say something about Will Johnson’s potential availability in Week 1, which would move David Johnson back to his old fullback position, and would leave just Palmer and David Paulson at tight end. Hopefully that is not the case, however.
Another thing that I underestimated about the pre-cut statements from the organization was the emphasis on special teams play on the bottom of the roster, which really shook up the inside linebacker depth. While I had players like Cromartie-Smith and Curtis Brown making the team primarily as special teams players, I felt that that aspect of the game would be less of a factor there.
Part of this was due to my confidence that Marshall McFadden had already cemented himself as a lock as the third inside linebacker. Yet, for a position that began training camp eight members deep, only four were ultimately retained. McFadden was among those released, and assuredly much of that had to do with some less than stellar special teams play. Even though Brian Rolle outperformed Wilson on defense, including being promoted to second-team with McFadden, Wilson played seemingly every snap of special teams throughout the preseason. Rolle and rookie Vince Williams, from what I could tell, played about the same amount of special teams, but Williams was likely seen as having greater upside and thus has stuck around.
I do believe that one of the inside linebackers that were released will be brought back to the 53-man roster after Spaeth is moved on Tuesday. Whether that will be McFadden—whom I would expect—Rolle, or Garvin, is yet to be seen. That is, of course, assuming that inside linebacker is where the spot will be used, but it is the most likely, given that the team is carrying less defensive than offensive players right now and the depth chart along the defensive line and secondary are already more or less stocked full. Baxter could also factor in here.
The other two semi-surprises were regarding that aforementioned pair of former undrafted second-year players that the Steelers acquired after other teams released them, Fangupo and Green. Fangupo certainly was not kept for his special teams prowess, although Green’s play on special teams likely was a factor in retaining him.
Fangupo was battling Alameda Ta’amu, the Steelers’ fourth-round pick from a year ago, for whom they traded up. As a rookie, he showed up out of shape, and then in October had a serious DUI incident that resulted in a two-game suspension and eventual release, ultimately landing on the practice squad.
However, Ta’amu was a new man both on and off the field this year, and was so intent on coming into camp in better shape that he pulled a hamstring running sprints. That injury did set him back some, but it was not enough to eliminate him from the competition. In fact, the decision was probably a close one.
Fangupo, however, was believed to have outplayed Ta’amu in the minds of the coaches, and of course the move yesterday cemented that. Were that not the case, the team would assuredly have gone with the much younger draft pick with greater upside in Ta’amu than the already-28-but-a-high-character-guy Fangupo. As a sixth defensive lineman who, barring injury, would likely not even dress this year, I expected the Steelers to go with the younger upside option; however, they elected to go the meritorious, better-right-now route.
Does this suggest that Fangupo might actually play this season if the deciding factor was which player is better right now? I do not know the answer to that, but I believe it is possible. The DUI incident from a year ago could have also been hanging over their heads, although I am inclined to believe that the organization has generally forgiven him his transgressions after turning over a new leaf.
As for Isaiah Green, his big selling point, other than speed, has been availability. A number of cornerbacks were sidelined with injuries early in training camp, which allowed Green to get a lot of playing time earlier than he would have otherwise, helping his case for a roster spot. Green was signed to the practice squad in December and retained on a futures contract signed in January.
His competition for the fifth cornerback spot was Josh Victorian and rookie Terry Hawthorne. Like Green, Victorian is just 5’10”; however, Green has sprinter’s speed, which helps make him an asset on special teams. Victorian, meanwhile, had been a liability as a tackler in his brief appearances on defense last year, and it reared its ugly head this preseason when he whiffed on a special teams tackle that opened the floodgates for a 109-yard kick return touchdown. Combined with his unimpressive showing on defense, it is not surprising that he did not make the roster.
Hawthorne was this year’s fifth-round draft pick, a high-upside guy but who was bothered by a knee injury that forced him to miss a good deal of the offseason. His inability to take the field hampered his ability to earn opportunities to display his skills. Still, I had him making the roster due to the upside factor, but instead the team opted for Green, with whom the team is a bit more experienced. Remember, being on the practice squad in December last year gave the team a good look at him then, and he has also been with the team throughout the offseason. Hawthorne should still play a role in this team’s future, but his present is in all likelihood on the practice squad.