After being suspended for one week for conduct detrimental to the team, Rashard Mendenhall was reinstated by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday afternoon, just hours after a crucial loss to the Dallas Cowboys in week 15.
The Steelers were granted a 24 hour roster exemption, which expires at 4 pm on Tuesday. When Mendenhall was suspended originally, Baron Batch was promoted from the practice squad to take Mendenhall's spot. With Mendenhall returning, Batch becomes a likely candidate for sacrificial lamb as someone will have to go to make room for a former first-round draft pick struggling to get on the field after shaky performances in the final year of his contract. However, Batch isn't the nominee for this bullseye.
The Steelers have multiple positions suffering from injuries. The fact that all of the running backs on the active roster are relatively healthy and able to contribute only adds to the odds of Batch's release, but that doesn't mean that no one else is expendable.
DeMarcus Van Dyke separated a shoulder in the loss to the Cowboys. He has seen most of his action on special teams, but his injury makes him unlikely to participate in the final two remaining games in 2012. He could find himself on injured reserve, which would create the necessary empty roster spot to accommodate a returning Mendenhall; but if Van Dyke's diagnosis leaves the door open for an earlier return, the Steelers may consider waiting out his injury. When Cortez Allen was unable to suit up because of a groin injury, the pressure fell on Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, and Robert Golden to step up, especially with no Van Dyke to pitch in. While none of these three looked very impressive against the Cowboys, an injury that removed Keenan Lewis from the same game and leaves his participation in the future, questions both the quality and quantity of the Steelers depth behind him.
Plaxico Burress, who signed with the Steelers while Jerricho Cotchery and Antonio Brown were dealing with injuries, may also be seen as expendable. Even when Burress found himself as an active member of the team on gamedays, his snaps were few and far between, and his targets were even farther. Depending on the severity of the rib injury sustained by Emmanuel Sanders will determine the necessity for Burress. In a season the Steelers have been willing to run with only four receivers, Burress will continue to sit inactive as long as Sanders is able to play. With recently re-signed David Gilreath waiting once again on the practice squad, the need to retain the elder Burress is lessened even further.
David DeCastro played quite well in his first regular season start at right guard. His play was solid, as was his previously injured knee. While the Steelers still have two injured offensive linemen on the injury report in Willie Colon and Mike Adams, Adams is at least expected to return in the next week or two. If Mike Adams is able to play sooner than later, the Steelers may choose to part ways with guard John Malecki. A healthy Doug Legursky on the bench leaves little use for an extra backup guard. If Adams cannot go, they might hang on to Malecki, in case Ramon Foster is forced to move to a tackle position because of an emergency.
There are three other players who also could arguably be seen as expendable: Brandon Johnson, Adrian Robinson, and Ryan Mundy. All three have contributed on special teams, but none are seeing action on defensive time. Mundy was the first choice of the coaches to fill in for regular starters Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu early this season, but played poorly and soon lost his spot on the depth chart to Will Allen. With Golden seeing snaps at slot coverage could spell a change between the team's perception of Mundy and himself. Mundy, who is not under contract beyond this season, could be cut if they have no plans to re-sign him.
Johnson made the roster after Sean Spence lost his rookie season to injury, and Stevenson Sylvester struggled to recover from another. Johnson's ability to play both inside and outside linebacker positions made him a valuable asset to depth. However, Sylvester has stayed relatively healthy, as have Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote. Despite the health issues of James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, and Chris Carter, Johnson has seen little time outside. The majority of his snaps have come on special teams, where he has often been the cause of penalty flags.
Robinson has also seen most of his action on special teams, and none on defense. In the here and now, Robinson would normally be seen as the expendable one between Johnson and himself because Robinson was an undrafted rookie free agent. The difference between the two is Robinson still has a couple cheap seasons left on his contract, and the coaches have not lost any interest in his potential. In 2013, the Steelers will see Robinson's value higher than Johnson's, although Johnson's experience acts as a trump card when dealing with the Steelers fading hopes for playoffs in 2012. It would not be surprising to see either man axed on Tuesday.
Despite these speculations, the chances of the Steelers placing Mendenhall on injured reserve for the remainder of the season are still very good. Rumors spread about the Steelers possibly discussing contracts with Mendenhall this past weekend. No offers were presented, deals signed, or rumors confirmed. Mendenhall's benching which eventually lead to his skipping of the week 14 contest versus the San Diego Chargers, was originally seen as an omen of his inevitable departure from Pittsburgh. However, the Steelers may want him to return, and simply are trying to protect him from further damage if they feel he is not physically to the point they would like him to be at. If the Steelers feel his lack of practice time has led to decrease in his fundamentals, they may not want to put him in a position to be responsible for the entire season.
With Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman both becoming restricted free agents after this season, the coaches will want to know exactly what they have in them. By now, they certainly know what Mendenhall is capable of.
By 4 p.m. ET Tueday afternoon, several small questions will be answered, but more, even bigger questions may arise in their place.