Note: This post was written by barnerburner. I merely posted it under my name so as to have access to the sponsorship script and branding bar. Many thanks to him for the legwork involved with putting this together. -Michael B.-
I thought about making a nice chart, but the lack of clarity at the cornerback position made formatting it very difficult. Next time through I'll try to have one.
The numbers in parentheses indicate how many people I think should fall into each position group when we go into the season, with the general breakdown at 25 each for offense and defense plus the 3 specialists. The exact numbers for each position are definitely not set in stone though, so maybe we'll have 8 LB and 10 DB instead of 9 LB and 9 DB (it's more a rough guideline to work from than anything).
Guys on the first line of each position group are starters/back ups I see as locks (or at least pretty safe bets barring injury) to make the team, while "in the mix" are guys returning under contract and resigned in-house free agents that can't take anything for granted in camp. "Offseason signings" are the usual collection of castoffs that haven't qualified for free agency and chose to (re)sign with the Steelers at the end of the season (guys returning from our practice squad last year have a "PS" after their names).
Rookies are noted separately for convenience with their school, position clarification within the unit if I thought it necessary, and round in which they were drafted if applicable. Aside from the top three draft picks - Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, and Curtis Brown - most of the rookies should certainly be considered "in the mix" rather than locks.
Since most of us probably aren't familiar with the UDFAs, here's some light reading from Steelers.com on most of them. Though I don't know much more about them than that, it sounds to me like John Clay (RB), Terrence McCrae (WR), Weslye Saunders (TE), Anthony Gray (NT), and Mario Harvey (LB) could be guys worth keeping an eye on in particular.
QB (3) - Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Dennis Dixon
We're more or less set here since Dixon finally signed his RFA tender.
Rookies: Chris Dieker (Southern Illinois)
RB (4) - Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman
Mendenhall is our workhorse and Redman the cult hero, all that's missing is a utility back for gamedays.
In the mix: Mewelde Moore, Jonathan Dwyer
Offseason signings: James Johnson
Rookies: Baron Batch (7th round, Texas Tech), John Clay (Wisconsin)
Moore has been our 3rd down/utility back since he signed with us as a free agent in 2008, but he's getting up there in age (just turned 29) and it's time to consider younger talent. In terms of skill set, Baron Batch is probably best suited for replacing Moore.
But Dwyer and Clay could be an interesting camp battle: they were both successful lead backs at one point - Dwyer in '08 had 1,395 yards (7.0 avg) and 12 TDs, ACC Player of the Year; Clay in '09 had 1,517 yards (5.3 avg) and 18 TDs, Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year. They both have skill sets that seem to be better suited for being a lead back rather than a 3rd-down role, however, they both can list a lack of top end speed, lack of receiving ability, and weight problems as reasons for their draft stocks plummeting.
WR (6) - Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown
Reigning Dancing with the Stars champion Hines Ward will preside over his band of merry young 'uns - Wallace hasn't come close to maxing out his talent yet and will only further solidify himself as the primary target in this offense, while Sanders and Brown are going to be hungry to build on encouraging rookie campaigns (though recent news indicates that Sanders might be looking at starting the season on the PUP list).
In the mix: Arnaz Battle, Limas Sweed
Offseason signings: Tyler Grisham (PS), Wes Lyons
Rookies: Eric Greenwood (Idaho), Terrence McCrae (Ohio), Adam Mims (Furman), Armand Robinson (Miami (Ohio))
The most interesting question for the receivers is whether Sweed has put all of his past demons and last year's Achilles injury behind him, and will he show that he's ready to deliver on the potential that made him a former second round pick. Sweed apparently thinks so and thinks he's ready.
Battle is really just a veteran that plays special teams. Given that, let's say some young kid comes along with measurables and raw potential - like a guy who is 6'3, 193 with 4.4 speed, said to have good hands and the ability to high-point the ball, and shows the apparent toughness to go over the middle and hang on after the catch. Now that purportedly describes Terrence McCrae. If McCrae shows a willingness to earn his stripes the hard way on special teams while doing his due diligence to learn the nuances of being a receiver and route running, I just might give him a chance as a dark horse to supplant Battle and make the roster.
TE (3) - Heath Miller, David Johnson
Miller really does do it all and is eternally underrated for it. Johnson plays plenty of lead blocking H-back, but for simplicity I'm calling him a tight end.
Offseason signings: Eugene Bright (PS**), Jamie McCoy
Rookies: Vaughn Charlton (Temple), Weslye Saunders (South Carolina)
**Note: Bright has switched back and forth between TE and DE
What's missing is a real #2 TE to back up Miller - hence the Steelers having brought in Daniel Graham for a visit last week to explore options. And since Matt Spaeth signed with the Bears, there's a good chance that one of these two UDFAs will make the team. On one hand, Charlton is a former college QB that switched to TE his senior season and could be an interesting hybrid-type player. On the other hand, Saunders' story is a bit of an adventure. He had actually once intended to enter the '10 draft before deciding to return for his senior season.
At this time last year, Saunders was regarded as one of the top TE prospects. Then he got caught up in the NCAA investigation into agent-related activity and illegal benefits: Saunders is friends with Marvin Austin and was with him on a couple of trips where agents paid for Austin, and twice lied to NCAA investigators about it before coming clean; he was investigated for a trip to Miami that may have involved contact with an agent; and he was also living in a hotel with a number of other South Carolina players long-term without paying standard rates. Saunders was kicked off the Gamecocks for good in September. He probably still would've been drafted (as many former UNC players were) if he hadn't sustained a stress fracture in his foot while working out at the combine.
OL (9) - Willie Colon, Jonathan Scott - OT; Chris Kemoeatu - G; Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky - C
Colon is back and practically guaranteed to start at RT in the wake of Max Starks and Flozell Adams getting released for much needed salary cap relief. For better or worse, Jonathan Scott looks to be our starting LT until someone else proves they can do it better.
At guard, Kemoeatu is on the left, the revolving door remains on the right, and our young wonder Pouncey holds everything together at center. Legursky will probably back up all of the interior positions on gameday.
In the mix: Ramon Foster, Tony Hills, Chris Scott
Offseason signings: Dorian Brooks (PS**), Kyle Jolly, Nevin McCaskill
Rookies: Marcus Gilbert (2nd round - G/T, Florida), Keith Williams (6th round - G, Nebraska), Joshua Harrison (OT, South Carolina State), Colin Miller (C, Central Michigan), Trevis Turner (OT, Abilene Christian)
**Note: Brooks was called up for the Super Bowl after Pouncey was put on IR, so technically he ended the season on the 53-man roster. But for all intents and purposes we should probably just consider him a practice squad guy from last year.
Be on the lookout for a swing-tackle type that can back up both LT and RT - someone that can do what J. Scott did for the first half of last season before Starks went on IR with a neck injury. Since Trai Essex is gone and there have been no signings this offseason for a J. Scott-type veteran, it'll probably be whichever young kid impresses the most during the preseason (though I suppose it could also be J. Scott again if the young kid impresses so much that he earns himself the starting shirt at LT). Second round pick Marcus Gilbert will probably get a shot to start at RG while Kugler teaches him how to play OT (hopefully LT, specifically) like one of the big boys.
DL (7) - Casey Hampton - NT; Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith - DE
Ziggy, Keisel, and Smith should make for a solid gameday rotation at the ends, and Big Snack is going to plug the middle as always.
In the mix:
Offseason signings: Ra'Shon Harris (PS)
Rookies: Cameron Heyward (1st round - DE, Ohio State), Ty Boyle (DE, North Dakota), Miguel Chavis (DE, Clemson), Anthony Gray (DT, Southern Miss), Corbin Bryant (DE, Northwestern)**
Don't expect first round pick Cameron Heyward to be playing much early in the season - instead he'll be spending most of his time watching and learning from the combined powers of Smith/Keisel/Ziggy, just like how they brought along Ziggy his rookie year. Instead, look for another DE to be included in the rotation to help keep elder statesmen Smith and Keisel as fresh as possible. Ideally, this role would be filled by a savvy old veteran like Nick Eason, but unfortunately that's not an option.
McLendon could get a shot to show what he's learned after a couple years - he was called up as a depth guy when Smith got injured last season. Sources have said that Chris Hoke had pretty much inked a deal and would return as Hampton's back up, but until I see an official report saying he has signed (ESPN still shows him as unsigned and he's not listed on the roster on Steelers.com), I don't think we can take it for granted.
LB (9) - James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds - OLB; James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons - ILB
Harrison and Woodley are one of the best pass rushing tandems in the league, and Worild's is sure to be back behind them as last year's second round pick and a stud special teams contributor.
Farrior's a well respected team leader and his tank isn't quite empty yet, and Timmons is a beast in the middle.
In the mix: Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester
Offseason signings: Chris Ellis (PS), Baraka Atkins, Mortty Ivy, Chris McCoy
Rookies: Chris Carter (5th round - OLB, Fresno State), Eric Clanton (OLB, Citadel), Mario Harvey (ILB, Marshall)
My guess is that they'll try to round out the group with one more OLB, two more ILBs, and a developmental project/stud special teamer who could be either position. We had Thaddeus Gibson (last year's 4th round pick) on the roster as a depth OLB coming out of last training camp, but lost him to the 49ers when we tried to slide him to the practice squad to make room for McLendon on the roster when Aaron Smith effectively went down for the season. This year's 5th-round pick Chris Carter might have a shot to make it if he shows the same kind of skills/potential that Gibson did in camp last year.
Meanwhile, Foote should be the primary back up at ILB and Sylvester should have the inside track for the other spot replacing Keyaron Fox.
DB (9) - Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden - CB; Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Will Allen - S
Troy and Clark are starting safeties, that's a given. Will Allen should be back as the primary back up and a special teams ace.
However, depth at cornerback is pretty murky. Ike resigning is huge because without him, McFadden would've been our only returning veteran with any real experience - and McFadden's limitation is that he's much more of a sure-tackler rather than the lockdown kind of guy that'll make QBs wary and free up other DBs to roam elsewhere on the field. Behind them, it will be very interesting to see how the mix of young guys shakes out under new secondary coach Carnell Lake.
In the mix: William Gay, Crezdon Butler, Keenan Lewis - CB; Ryan Mundy - S
Offseason signings: Donovan Warren - CB; Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith (PS) - S
Rookies: Curtis Brown (3rd round - CB, Texas), Cortez Allen (4th round - CB, Citadel), Niles Brinkley (CB, Wisconsin), Brent Greenwood (S, Iowa)
I'd be surprised if someone beats out Mundy for the last safety spot - he hasn't played a whole lot thus far, but I think he acquitted himself well with a solid outing against the Jets during the regular season when Troy was out, and that does count for a bit.
Third round pick Curtis Brown should be a safe bet to make the squad based on draft status, even if he were to seem completely lost during camp. I see Gay, Butler, Lewis, and 4th-round pick Cortez Allen as the guys to watch in what will hopefully be a good fight for the last two roster spots.
Kicker - Shaun Suisham
Punter - Jeremy Kapinos
Offseason signings: Swayze Waters - K
Rookies: Aaron Bates (P, Michigan State), Derek Chard (LS, Connecticut)
ESPN and other sources are confident enough to say Daniel Sepulveda has resigned with us, but like Hoke, he's not yet showing up on Steelers.com's roster.
And we actually don't have any long snappers on the roster aside from UDFA Derek Chard (haven't seen anything yet about Greg Warren possibly returning).
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