Stanley Cup playoffs are over and NBA finals are almost over. The World Cup is in full swing, but I'm still 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, mandatory minicamp, and now OTAs. My last version is here, previous version similarly linked there, etc. all the way back to the first attempt I made during the draft.
I played around with the format of things this time around and like it more - I turned my old conclusion into an intro to the roster itself, renamed my '?' category as "Cusp" and added some "Cusp discussion" at the end of each position group, added a list of actual and projected veteran losses, and put my Nota Bene section at the end as sort of my closing points on a couple of random things. It's become quite a long post with the bulk of the content almost identical to previous versions, so Personnel Changes and Nota Bene are where most of the new material is if you want to save time skimming.
1). Isaac Redman back to the Practice Squad (and Justin Vincent getting bumped off as a result) - I know I just promoted him in the last version, but the more I looked at it, the more I didn't like that decision. I'm back to the position of Dwyer/Summers/Redman: pick two. Our RB stable is still lacking a speedy presence since I didn't swap in Logan, so I'll just say that no roster is perfect and I'm sticking with a combination of guys that I think will nonetheless give us the best chances of winning and sustaining success into the future.
2). Antonio Brown is in as a 6th WR - I wanted to fill Redman's vacancy with a guy that has return ability/potential. I haven't heard anything about Logan in OTAs, while I like what little I've heard about Brown in OTAs, and so I'm going with Brown. For more on Brown (sort of), I added a short paragraph to the WR breakdown and see the Nota Bene point on Randle El at the end.
3). Andre Frazier in as a backup OLB - I'm finally filling that [old body] spot that has been around since the first roster I did, and in my mind Frazier is the only guy who can fill it. There needs to be a veteran backup at OLB - any plan to just slide Timmons over from inside and then have a bunch of rookies milling around is bound to bite us on the ass.
I see only two open spots on offense that are up for grabs - at least one of which is at RB and Dwyer is likely on the inside track to take it. Only three spots on defense seem to be in play - 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 any opening at corner after all.
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. But hopefully that leads to some awesome competition and someone emerging as something really special.
QB (3) - Only question here is who goes to make room for Big Ben when he comes back from his dates with Dr Drew.
Cusp: Charlie Batch - The old Volvo 240 stationwagon, not very sexy but long been a safe and reliable fallback, will finally be retired when Ben returns (barring any injuries to Leftwich/Dixon).
RB (3) - There's going to be a new body - likely Jonathan Dwyer - behind Mendenhall and Moore.
Cusp: Stefan Logan - Could be back if he has developed as a viable weapon on offense. But regardless of whether or not he is back, there will be no "returner only" roster spot this year.
FB (1) - Assumption is that Summers is going to be healthy and back up to speed.
Cusp: Demetrius Taylor - I'm breaking my personal rule to exclude all rookies from "cusp discussion" since he's the lone actual listed FB that we're taking into camp.
WR (6) - At first I had us rolling deep, then Limas Sweed's Achilles recused him from the discussion (this humble, hopeful soul is now hoping for next year) and I left the corps as the five guys that follow:
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 practically guaranteed to be on the roster.
Now I'm back to saying we're rolling deep, and adding sixth round pick Antonio Brown. He and Sanders can be paired up and keep pushing each other until one (hopefully both) becomes NFL-caliber. Remember when Tomlin had Bruce Davis on Tony Hills and would yell that he'd turn one of them into a football player (or none but who's counting?), well I want Randy Fichtner/Scottie Montgomery/someone with a bullhorn to be yelling the same thing at them in training camp.
Props to whoever called it after the draft and made Antonio Brown their sleeper to make the squad. Maybe you were just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it would stick, but I'm on board.
Cusp: Tyler Grisham - Grisham got a late call up at the end of last season. However, the FA additions of Randle El and Battle and draft status of Sanders mean there are significant new obstacles between him and returning to the roster.
TE (3) - Miller is a lock and I think Johnson is a safe bet as well. My money says Spaeth will also be back since he can be a receiving threat with his 6'7 frame that neither Johnson nor McHugh can replicate (for more detail on my train of thought see the Nota Bene section in the previous version).
Cusp: Sean McHugh - Remains very much in the mix, but ultimately I think he ends up on the outside looking in since he has a very similar skill-set to Johnson, and Johnson gets the edge because of his youth.
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.
Cusp: Tony Hills - Worth a mention, but not much more than that.
At guard, Kemoeatu is on the left and I'm confident Pouncey can be penciled in on the right. Foster has to be back after the solid year he had, and Urbik will likely get another year to develop. Or not if he wants to be Tony Hills future roommate.
Cusp: No one really since Darnell Stapleton wasn't tendered.
At center, Hartwig starts but behind him things are interesting. Stapleton is out of the picture, Legursky remains, but with 9 guys already in the position unit, I think Legursky might get cut as well. Urbik has been taking snaps at center during OTAs to add a little more positional flexibility to him, but Pouncey would be the presumed backup at his future spot.
Cusp: Doug Legursky - For the reasons just stated above.
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 (making him the lone backup with real veteran experience), and Harris merits a roster spot again and might earn some rotations if he shows he's up for it.
Cusp: Scott Paxson and Steve McLendon - Paxson has maxed out his service on the Practice Squad as a developing NT, but in the end he's not good enough for our roster. McLendon could get a shot to show what he's learned after a year on the Practice Squad, but I expect he'll need some more work.
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. But for now I'm going with Gibson and Frazier.
Cusp: Patrick Bailey - For the reasons just stated above.
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 see some field time (I'm doing my best to temper my expectations for him despite the scuttlebutt that he's a darkhorse to challenge McFadden for the other starting spot). 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.
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.
Cusp: Anthony Madison - For the reasons just stated above.
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. I'm voting for Greg Warren - but it should be noted that two years running now, first one then the other of Warren's ACLs have come apart, and Retkofsky was called back from moving furniture to finish the season.
Cusp: Matt Stewart - signed to replace Jared Retkofsky because apparently Tomlin is interested in more positional flexibility, even from specialists. Stewart is a former LB that added long snapping to his skillset since joining the NFL.
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 Redman 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 (with a sweet beard too). 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.
I discussed my views on Sylvester in last edition's Nota Bene section. As for Butler, my first impression was that he may be fast, but he still looked much too raw to me (even in his "highlight reels") to make our roster this year. The quote from Ray Horton about how Butler "looks like he's going to make our team better" is something to keep in mind though since coaches don't hand those out like candy, so we'll see come training camp.
1). Jonathan Scott - I think you always have to take note when a coach (especially a new one but let's not limit ourselves) brings in one of their guys.
- When Tomlin came aboard in 2007, he brought in Sean Mahan. Granted that didn't work out too well and Mahan got shipped right back to Tampa Bay a year later. But that doesn't change that he was added probably in large part because Tomlin knew him from way back when, and Mahan was a starter his only season here.
- In 2008, Tomlin brought in Mewelde Moore, and I think we can all agree that it was an outstanding, under the radar FA acquisition.
- The return of Foote and Randle El could come under this heading as well.
New OL coach Sean Kugler's time in Buffalo perfectly overlaps with the two seasons that Scott spent in a Bills uniform. In short, there's no way it's just a coincidence that Scott just happened to be signed after Kugler was brought in. As such, Scott is someone we can't just write off and instead should have on our radar this year to a certain extent. He's not going to be the second coming of Mahan: Mahan was brought in when our center position was in flux following Jeff Hartings retirement, and we have set starters at our tackle spots. I think Scott becomes our top backup at tackle in case Starks/Colon are injured and will be in the mix to dress on game day.
(Ironic note - I first became aware of Jonathan Scott when reading about Tony Hills. Right after we drafted Hills, buried in some profile of him was a note about how Texas coaches thought Hills was farther along in his development at that point than Scott was when he was drafted. In that blurb, Scott was billed as currently starting for the Lions. He ended up being one of the final cuts that year out of Lions' training camp.)
2). Antwaan Randle El - much has been made of how he's one of the "good old guys" and a great big magnetic personality and wonderful guy to have back in the locker room, but how about on the field? ESPN's AFC North Blog had an article last week from Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson detailing how WR is unsurprisingly our biggest weakness this year. The following jumped out at me:
Antwaan Randle El might have a very difficult time holding off a pair of rookies for the No. 3 wideout position. Pittsburgh used its third-round pick on Emmanuel Sanders and a sixth-rounder on Antonio Brown. Both players were very productive at the college level and look to be ideally suited for the slot role in the pros. Brown is more physical and probably better with the ball in his hands, but Sanders is very explosive, faster and an excellent deep threat.
Meanwhile, Randle El is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of receiver at this point. He, of course, offers some trick-play abilities, but in the end, he seems like someone who will be passed up on the depth chart.
Many people have noted how Hines has his attention trained on Wallace during practices and is constantly in his ear with advice, and how Wallace is a promising, well-behaved, studious young padawan to the old Jedi master. As such Randle El is likewise ideally suited to being an old teacher with not one but two young padawans in Sanders and Brown.
All of their contracts are going to be up at the same time (safe assumption that the two rookies are going to ink 3-year deals, and Randle El was brought back in with one of those). So when Randle El is presumably ready to become one with the Force, I foresee his two pupils fighting to the death for the right to take up the mantle of the slot receiver/returner. Or maybe not quite to the death, but whatever. I'm not interested in Sanders/Brown going the way of Willie Reed, so here's hoping they stay healthy and are good young padawans. The returning master is already delivering sage proverbs:
"Yeah, (but) you've got to know where to punch," Randle El said in reference to the blows Brown threw to Lewis' helmet.