Short of actually getting cut, there is perhaps no better way to learn during your rookie season that your job security is fleeting and tenuous than by simply looking around the locker room for that sort of wakeup call. According to Pittsburgh Steelers seventh-round draft pick Tyler Matakevich, that more than anything else is the lesson that he took away from his rookie season in 2016.
“The big thing is on any given day you see new faces here”, Matakevich recently told the team’s website in reflecting on his experiences in his first year in the league. “To me that was the biggest thing. You have to come here and work every single day. Anything can happen at any minute”.
He has good reason to be acutely aware of that, as his position at inside linebacker was among those that were particularly susceptible to tweaks and alterations over the course of the season, and he was fortunate to retain his roster spot throughout the entire year.
There were five inside linebackers who initially made the 53-man roster out of a group of six serious contenders, with free agent acquisition Steven Johnson being the one to get the short end of the stick. But he was signed to the roster shortly after that, when the team moved Bud Dupree to the injured reserve list.
As a veteran on a one-year contract, Johnson’s release made the most sense. Dupree had to be on the initial 53-man roster in order to be eligible to be designated to return later in the season, so one of the six inside linebackers had to be released.
When it came time to promote Dupree to the 53-man roster later in the year, however, it was L.J. Fort who got released, in spite of the fact that he was actually the first inside linebacker off the bench in the season opener, and had worked with the second-team defense all throughout the offseason.
Johnson suffered a season-ending injury shortly after that and went himself on injured reserve, with Fort being promptly re-signed to take his spot on the roster, so Matakevich was surrounded with plenty of movement just within his own meeting room with inside linebacker coach Jerry Olsavsky.
From the final roster cuts to the end of the season, I count 16 player-for-player transactions that the Steelers made over the course of the season, moving one player from the 53-man roster to elsewhere and replacing him with another.
That is not exactly the experience that college players are familiar with, as a college football roster is generally static throughout the season, given that the roster is made up of college students from that university. Only the rare instances of suspension or academic ineligibility really affect the roster.
But the NFL is a job, and like most jobs, it requires continual re-evaluation of your effectiveness at your job. Matakevich got a powerful lesson in just how vulnerable a player at the end of the roster’s job can be, and he certainly won’t forget it. His peers would be wise to learn to do the same.