Finals are over so I'm back after a brief hiatus (not that anyone's likely noticed or cared) and I'm bored. This is my still very early but further revised attempt to guess next season's 53-man roster based on last year's squad, free agency, the draft, and mandatory minicamp (previous attempt is here if anyone's curious, and my first attempt is similarly linked there if anyone's really curious or bored and wants to see how things have evolved). In this edition I've also added a Nota Bene section after Changes.
1). WR has gone from 6 to 5 deep - Limas, Limas, Limas. I was really pulling for him. And for some reason I like him enough as an underdog, underachieving former second rounder that I will keep pulling for him next year. I refuse to throw him on the trash heap as a worthless player with no place in the league. But I have to be realistic: with surgery to repair that torn Achilles, he's guaranteed to miss training camp and probably the bulk, if not all, of next season. I mentioned in this comment to my last version that I really didn't think we'd be 6 deep at WR, and that I think we'd have another RB/FB instead. I'm going to stick by that for now, which brings me to change #2.
2). Isaac Redman penciled in as another RB - I know I technically put him as backup FB, but with the way I did my chart, that was the open slot for him. In a roundabout way, I think Redman and Stefan Logan are the two guys whose odds for making the team went up the most after Sweed's injury. RB is a position where your solid depth one day can be absolutely decimated by injuries the next (remember how Parker and Mendenhall went down and Gary Russell got called up back in the day?) Redman showed great tenacity in those now legendary goal-line drills last training camp, and put in a year on the Practice Squad. If he's done his work this offseason he's going to get a fair shot to make the roster.
But I will admit that I'm not sure if he brings anything new to the table. Mendenhall isn't a burner, Moore has long been a "utility back", I've heard about Dwyer being "well rounded" but not having a "second gear", and Summers is built to move a mass of humanity rather than break a run around it. Likewise, Redman shined in goal-line/short yardage situations, but I don't remember him doing much else beyond that. That's why I think Logan's chances for making the team went up quite a bit - he's got speed and shiftiness that no one else in the backfield has, and Tomlin did mention trying to find ways to work him into the actual offense. So do I now like Logan's chances for making the team again? No. I just think his chances are much better than they were before, in an odd and convoluted way.
3). Swapping Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett on the CB depth chart - Minor change, based entirely on tannofsteel84's post this morning. Apparently CBSSports.com has put the scuttlebutt out there that Lewis has begun to emerge as something of a darkhorse to push Bryant McFadden for a starting spot, even though everyone's pretty sure that McFadden will reprise his starting role. In loosely related news, B-Mac also paid Lewis an undetermined amount to get his No. 20 back, and Lewis will now be No. 23.
4). Justin Vincent penciled in back on the Practice Squad - It may seem an inconsequential change, but it's a change nonetheless. Bumping Redman up left a void, and if Vincent has one more year of PS eligibility, he'll get the spot.
5). Demetrius Taylor penciled in at "question mark" for FB on both the 53 and the Practice Squad - If you thought the last change was inconsequential, then this probably seems completely irrelevant. But the Pittsburgh Post Gazette article on him that was in a six-pack last week really got me thinking, so he gets a mention just for being on my radar (and the only UDFA on my radar right now).
1). Matt Spaeth's "blocking" has given many Steelers fans some serious heartburn during his tenure in black and gold. But even if Sean McHugh is healthy, I don't think it's a slam dunk that Spaeth will then be cut. Much to the consternation of many people out there, I think he will be back and here's why: Pouncey and Kugler will make the offensive line better.
What does that have to do with shaking out the TE depth chart? Well if the o-line's blocking improves, then when we're in 2-3 TE sets we don't have to keep them all in to block as much (Spaeth's weakness). But if he can release more often and use his 6'7 frame to create proper mismatches in coverage down field, especially in the red zone, he can return to what earned him First Team AP All-American honors and the John Mackey Award for best TE in 2006 (despite playing with a separated shoulder the last month of the season). You can't teach height, and Sweed's injury means that our tallest receiver is likely going to be Arnaz Battle at 6'1. There are going to be times when we just need big targets, and Heath Miller can't do it all on his own.
That being said, McHugh's skill set seems very similar to Johnson's. McHugh has more experience, but I don't know if that will be enough to break back in to the lineup. I will admit the possibility of having all four of them (GASP!) on the roster instead of Redman filling Sweed's vacancy. But I don't really like that idea and am already regretting even bringing it up.
2). There's been a bit of a Stevenson Sylvester love fest (or was a week or two ago but whatever), and I don't exactly know why. Well I do know why, I saw a few of his highlight videos from Utah that were posted around here and admittedly was impressed by some of the stuff he did. But all of the "we can't afford to cut our defense's future starting ILB because another team is definitely going to snatch him up and he'll never make it to the practice squad" is a bit premature. Remember the Redman love fest? How "we can't afford to cut a clear goal line stud that's going to tear up the league because another team is definitely going to snatch him up and he'll never make it to the practice squad"?
The Redman love fest was largely based on his performance on the field against our first team defense in training camp. The Sylvester love fest is based on his cherry picked college highlight reel when training camp is still three months away. I think Sylvester the Cat has good potential down the line and was a solid find in the 5th round, but some of this talk about him is very premature. I'm not saying that he won't be a future starting ILB for our defense - I'm saying that right now we don't have the evidence to make any claims like that. Let's wait until he shows what he can do for us with the pads on.
QB (3) - Only question here is who goes to make room for Big Ben when he comes back from his dates with Dr Drew.
RB (3) - There's going to be a new body - likely Jonathan Dwyer - behind Mendenhall and Moore. I don't think Logan will be reprising a "returner only" role.
FB (2) - Assumption is that Summers is going to be healthy and back up to speed. Redman adds more depth to the backfield (see Changes section at the top for why I listed him at FB).
WR (5) - We're no longer rolling deep because Limas Sweed assuredly won't be healthy enough to make the cut this year (this humble, hopeful soul is now hoping for next year). Ward and Wallace are set in stone, and Randle El is even odds to make it back. After going out and grabbing Battle in free agency as well, and with his purported strong special teams play, I'd be pretty surprised if he was left off. As a third round pick, Sanders is high enough that he's a safe bet to make it.
TE (3) - Miller is a lock and I think Johnson is a safe bet as well. I think Spaeth will be back for one more year as well (see Nota Bene section above). McHugh remains very much in the mix though under my question mark category.
OL (9) - Breakdown is four tackles, four guards, and one center.
At tackle, Starks and Colon are the clear starters. Free agent Jonathan Scott - a Kugler signee - becomes the primary backup, and Essex returns to his familiar role of being the position flexible backup.
At guard, Kemoeatu is at left and I'm confident Pouncey can be penciled in at right. Foster has to be back after the solid year he had, and Urbik should get at least another year to develop. Or not if he wants to be Tony Hills future roommate.
At center, Hartwig starts but behind him things are interesting. Stapleton is gone, Legursky remains, but with 9 guys already in the position unit, I think Legursky might get cut as well. That then makes Pouncey the presumed backup at his future spot.
DL (7) - Breaks down into five ends and two nose tackles. Hampton and Hoke are back, it's a given. Smith and Keisel are locked back in to start, Hood continues to round into shape getting to rotate in, Eason gets called back as a "savvy veteran" for the rotation as well, and Harris (as we learned the hard way last year) is too good to try to stash away and merits a roster spot again. Kirschke stays in limbo without a contract and we thank him again and wish him the best.
LB (9) - This is actually kinda hard to pin down, in my mind. I believe we had 9 LBs after final cuts last year, so I'm using that as my start point. There are 7 locks: Silverback, Woodley, and now Worilds at OLB; and Farrior, Timmons, Fox, and Foote at ILB.
That leaves two spots, and I think one should go to a veteran and one should go to someone new. Fourth rounder Thaddeus Gibson could be that someone new, so what about someone old? Andre Frazier is a long-time reliable backup at OLB that knows LeBeau's system and is a safety net, but Patrick Bailey is a hard-nosed special teamer that might be tougher than expected to leave off despite his lack of contributing as an actual LB (so far as I know). If neither Gibson nor Sylvester the Cat nor some other hotshot rookie tears up camp, both might end up being back to round out the linebacking corps.
DB (9) - Position group is 9 deep out of necessity - five corners and four safeties. Ike is on one side, and McFadden should be back on the other. William Gay gets to return to the nickel role where he's more comfortable, Joe Burnett remains status quo behind Gay, and Keenan Lewis is back because of his size and hopefully because he's improved enough to get to see some field time. Some might say Anthony Madison should get a spot for his special teams play, but with the free agent signings (Battle and Allen) and draft picks like Worilds who are expected to excel on ST while they develop, I think Madison's inability to be a legitimate backup at corner tips the balance and he unfortunately gets cut again. Thanks for more than a decade of service Deshea.
Troy and Clark are starting at safety, that's a given. Will Allen is the primary back up and a special teams ace, and I'd be surprised if someone beats out Mundy for the last safety spot because despite his shortcomings thus far, he does have experience in the system and that does count for a bit. Former Thorpe winner Tyrone Carter, thank you for your years of service as well. (Note - we didn't take a safety in the second round because, among other reasons, there is likely no space on the roster for him)
Not much to break down - we'll have Robopunter, a guy with funny hair who has very special interactions with paper towel dispensers, and someone not named James Harrison as longsnapper. But it should be noted that two years running now, Jared Retkofsky has been called midseason to replace an injured Greg Warren. Will we make it three? Will Warren's ACLs decide to hold together for 17 weeks for a change of pace and Retkofsky gets to keep moving furniture? Or will Retkofsky get the job in training camp and Warren gets thanked for his years of service?
Pants Squad Breakdown:
Half rookies, half retreads.
Steve McClendon should be a safe bet to come back, remembering John Mitchell's comments about last year's rookie defensive lineman as a group (Ziggy, Harris, and McClendon) being one of the best groups he's had. Incidentally, McClendon has been Ziggy's offseason workout buddy. Tyler Grisham will probably return to the squad despite the late call up last season. Eugene Bright is penciled in because there will definitely be a TE on the practice squad, and as of right now it's him by default. There will also definitely be a RB, and Vincent currently has the nod.
Doug Worthington is the latest addition to Mitchell's conversion program, and he really does sound like a future 3-4 DE in the making. Chris Scott sounds like a serviceable OL prospect as well, but he'd have to seriously outshine Urbik to be considered for the active roster, so I'm calling him a pants squad lock right now. Stevenson Sylvester and Crezdon Butler, a pair of very fun names, have the nominal inside tracks for LB and DB on the pants squad since they were drafted.
Surprise, surprise - there really aren't many open spots on the team.
Sweed's injury means we're back to two open spots on offense - at least one of which is at RB and Dwyer is likely on the inside track to take it. And only three spots on defense seem to be in play as well - though at least one of the two spots at LB is assured to go to a veteran, and if the coaching staff still likes Burnett/Lewis, then there might not be an opening at corner after all. Actually doing this breakdown also makes Worilds at OLB in the second a crystal clear sorely needed depth pick, as many people have already said, and I will always trust Colbert's board over mine so I'm 100% behind it.
Moral of the story - there are going to be a lot of sad rookies in Latrobe. Just about all of our UDFAs are guaranteed to NOT make the roster, along with most of our 3rd day picks. As a result, training camp should be that much more intense this year. And who knows, out of the fire and carnage and brutal competition, maybe someone will be galvanized and emerge as something really special.