Examining The Rationale Behind The Surprising Roster Moves

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 thingsJonathan 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.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • DoctorNoah

    Matt, Dave: do you fear or anticipate that any of our cut players who we plan to re-sign or bring back to the PS might get picked up by other teams? I’m most concerned about Hawthorne, McFadden and Rolle, but also Baxter and Arnfelt. Thoughts?

  • Steeler50

    We are weak at cornerback with Gay mediocre and Brown terrible. Green isn’t bad and is probably better than Brown. We are weak on the offensive line with no help from other teams (who is going to get rid of a NFL qualified tackle?) and Joe Long is the only option. So who gets added…. It all depends on who clears waivers and who is on the practice squad…. and then after that – who gets hurt.

  • steeltown

    Rolle and McFadden maybe IMO… but Rolle doesn’t have PS eligibility anyway.. im not sure Hawthorne or Arnfelt did enough (against 2nd and 3rd Teams) during the preseason to warrant another Team signing them… Baxter could also get scooped up if someone is thin at OLB depth

    Lets hope we can get atleast 3 if not 4 of these guys back

  • steeltown

    I think signing Joe Long to the PS is a no brainer, he should continue to grow and might make the 53man next year

  • cencalsteeler

    I do believe the McFadden release is a sign they like the way Spence is progressing. As most of you know, I never was a fan of Van Dyke or Victorian, so to me replacing them with Green is an improvement. What worries me is the fact they allowed Danny Smith to choose roster spots according to st play. That rubbed me the wrong way and am not too fond of that approach. Because of this, Hawthorne will probably get swept up and we are stuck with DCS. We already have Golden and Shamarko to back Troy and Clark. I’d rather them kept Hawthorne and have DCS to the ps.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    I have always been a fan of Isaiah Green. IMO he is quicker to the ball than any of our other CBs (except maybe Allen). He doesn’t take many false steps. He has tremendous recovery speed. And he seems to have a decent sense of ball awareness.

    (Brace yourselves) I believe he is a better CB than Willie Gay. I am positive that he is faster/quicker than Gay. I am positive he can stick to a WR’s hip better than Gay. I am pretty sure he has better ball skills. And I think the tackling is about a wash. The only thing Gay has on him right now is understanding of the playbook and situational awareness (which is huge in the coaches mind).

    I believe if Green was forced into action, his skills would become apparent very very quickly.

  • charles

    San Diego Chargers. I hope Ben argues again for Starks.

  • walter mason

    I would like to have kept Arnfelt. I hope we can stash him.
    Do we have enough backup defensive lineman? I guess McClendon could always move over if needed. And Ziggy doesnt seem to ever be injured.

  • Brian Miller

    wow, this really does shine more light on how hit and miss we have been with drafting the last 3 or 4 years…we have got to get back to nailing the majority of our draft picks again…the only way we can continue the tradition of the Steelers by building from within.

  • Eric

    I am not a fan of keeping Curtis Brown for special teams play. If someone gets injured, he may need to play cornerback and that is something he doesn’t do well. DCS on the other hand, can play defense but seems to blow assignments on ST regularly. This seems like an inconsistent policy. Ta’amu should have gotten the nod over Fangupo. Youth and potential should trump a very very slight pre season performance advantage.

  • John Hinton

    Excellent point about Spence…I was thinking the same thing. Like many, I’m really pulling for him to make it all the way back.

  • Eric

    Other than Landry Jones, this was an excellent draft. I haven’t given up on Hawthorne or Justin Brown and would expect to see them on the practice squad. If that happens, 5 of 8 picks make the team, 2 on the practice squad and 1 seventh rounder on IR seems like a great draft to me. Looking at the first 4 picks, Shamarko and Wheaton each could have been taken a round higher and Bell and Jones could have been higher in their round. That adds up to great value overall.

  • Eric

    I think the McFadden release was a reaction to the injury situation at TE more than anything. I do hope you are right and Spence comes back strong.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Special teams is always a deciding factor when deciding the bottom of the roster, regardless of who the special teams coach is. When you ignore special teams, you go from a playoff team to picking in the middle of the draft (see: Steelers, Chargers). 9th and 10th cornerbacks and 7th and 8th and 9th linebackers and 5th and 6th wide receivers…these are guys that don’t get on the field other than on special teams, so they need to be good at that, otherwise they’re doing more harm than good. Cromartie-Smith doesn’t have any more practice squad eligibility.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I personally believe the defensive line is stacked, not only in quantity, but in quality. Cameron Heyward and Al Woods are excellent reserves.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Cromartie-Smith’s only error on special teams was the punt block, and that was on the first (following a penalty) special teams play of the preseason. He has always shown well on special teams in the preseason. The coaches believed the quality of play between Fangupo and Ta’amu was more than slight.

  • cencalsteeler

    Matt. You should know how I have been preaching how important special teams play is and how it needs to improve. However, I do not agree with your statement that special teams is a deciding factor when deciding the bottom of the roster. Priority should be positional play and the team needs to beef up the back up roles. Other than your specialty positions on st., all other positions should be, and expected to be, handled by back ups. These are elite athletes and there is no reason someone of that caliber can not handle the duties expected of them to handle being a special teamer.
    I guess the thing I can’t wrap my head around is why do you drop a potential future top cornerback in Hawthorne to save a spot for DCS who happened to make a few good plays on special teams during the preseason? When you look down the road, it seems Hawthorne would eventually contribute more to the Steelers than DCS.

  • MrTeabag

    I am a better CB than William Gay. JK. He is at the very bottom of the barrel. He is under the barrel. He wishes he could see the barrel. ….

    Well, I digress. He is a decent nickel back but he cannot be left on an island. Unless you want him to be kicked off that island.

  • MrTeabag

    4 draft picks remain from 2010
    5 draft picks remain from 2011
    5 draft picks remain from 2012 (including one on IR)

    7 draft picks remain from 2013 (including one on IR)

    Yeah this really does shine a light on how bad we have been drafting the past 4 years.This list includes many of the players who will start for us this year. By all measures the past few drafts have been excellent. I bet the Browns have half this many picks remaining. They wish they could draft this well.

  • MrTeabag

    I think they got rid of fat and unenthusiastic in favor of players who want to excel on the Steelers regardless of talent. To me it is a good strategy.

  • Annon

    Let’s really look at these drafts and give weight to the top picks instead of overall numbers.
    2010 – Worilds (2nd rd) has been a disappointment. Has failed to earn a starting job until this yr, but will most likely lose it to a rookie.
    2011 – Cam (1st rd) is a mild disappointment. Only 2 starters from the entire draft (Gilbert & C Brown).
    2012 – Of the 5, 1 (Spence) has yet to play & may never play, 2 are 7th rd picks that will never be more than backups. Ta’amu & Rainey were huge busts. DeCastro (1st rd) was hurt most last yr & the jury is still out on Adams (2nd rd).
    2013 – Not sure this year’s draft class can be evaluated yet, since we’ve yet to play a meaningful game. Not a good sign when your top 2 picks are injured, though that is not the FO’s fault.
    2009 – only Ziggy Hood (1st rd) who has been a real disappointment & D Johnson (7th rd) are still around. Only Wallace (3rd rd) had a impact, but he is no longer with the team.
    A better question is who from the last 4 draft classes (2009-2012) are impact players/significant contributors (not just starters) that are still with the team:
    2009 – none
    2010 – Pouncey, A Brown (& E Sanders???)
    2011 – Gilbert???
    2012 – DeCastro (was hurt most of last yr), Adams???
    One Pro-Bowler in the last 4 drafts!!! I’m a huge Steeler’s fan, but objectively, the last few drafts have been huge disappointments.

  • Annon

    Speaking of the Browns, let’s look at their 1st rd picks the last 4 yrs.
    2009 Alex Mack (Pro Bowl Center)
    2010 Joe Haden
    2011 Phil Taylor
    2012 Trent Richardson
    Granted, they picked much higher in the draft, but they did not miss w/ their top picks. These four would all start on the Steelers (even Mack over Pouncey). Yes, the rest of their draft picks were pretty horrible, but overall, I’m not sure Pittsburgh’s is much better, if at all.

  • Dave Bradley

    In my humble opinion, Coach Tomlin better pray that Gay is not needed for any extended playing time. Gay is an liability even in the nickel package. Brady,Rodgers, Flacco, Stafford, Dalton,Cutler, heck maybe even Weeden will pick Gay apart. Haven’t we already seen this movie?