I want to jump on the bandwagon and offer my early guess as to the makeup of the finalized 53-man roster going into the regular season... first and foremost, I would like to point out that I rarely watch football games, hence the layman's view, so I certainly lack the expertise and insight of a professional sports blogger. However, I have been reading up on information from camp and from the first preseason game (partly out of boredom with the lack of any meaningful stirrings from the NHL at the moment), and I did catch the end of the 2nd and 4th quarters. so I do feel like I have a pretty decent grasp of the situation. I began my exploration of the Steelers training camp roster in an attempt to enhance my enjoyment of playing Madden on the PS3 by updating my seasons as I progressed through by using the correct roster. I'm currently starting on my 2011 season (I have an older Madden 10, which started in the 2009 season, and I've been choosing my draft picks and renaming them to match players that should be currently on the team but were not in the game) and preparing to scout a draft class that will provide me with decent analogs of Adams, DeCastro, and other prospects to use when my 2012 season rolls around. Which brings me to my observations of the current stirrings in this year's Steeler's training camp, so without further ado, my 53-man roster projection from a layman's perspective...
QB (3) - Roethlisberger, Leftwich, Batch
This is the lineup at quarterback that I had assumed we would see even before the camp began... and so far its looking like its pretty much a lock. Roethlisberger is a no-brainer, he is currently one of top quarterbacks in the league, and if he can continue to stay healthy the Steelers should have quite a year. Leftwich seems to be a lock at #2, although I have yet to see anything monumental about his performance, if he can stay healthy he makes the obvious choice as backup QB. Despite what many people have said about Charlie being too old and his time as a Steeler being over, I don't buy it. Granted, I'm a tad biased (went to the same High School as Charlie, although quite a few years behind), but it occurs to me that a good deal of the quarterback's job is mental, not just the physical ability to throw the ball. Charlie has the mental aspect of the game in spades, and is a valuable asset to the team even from the sidelines. He is like an extra coach out there (and likely one day soon will literally be a coach), and if he is cut, sitting at home waiting for a call if an injury occurs like many seem to suggest, they lose that unique perspective he brings to the field. He also has proven himself capable of leading the team in an emergency, and even without the strength in his arm to be a deep threat, he still has the skill and ability to make the key plays when needed. Jerrod Johnson, while he may be excelling in the physical aspects of the game, is too young and inexperienced to lead the offense. He proved that during the first preseason game when his sloppy play calling and unnecessary penalties directly led to the Eagle's victory by leaving them an entire 2 minutes on the clock to make their comeback. Hopefully they will keep him on the practice squad, as the backups are currently aging and he has the physicality to develop into a great quarterback if he is able to take time to learn to master his mental play.
Halfbacks (4) - Redman, Dwyer, Batch, Rainey (Mendenhall replacing Dwyer upon his return)
The entire backfield seems to have been locked recently due to injury, but it still bears comment. Redman and Dwyer seem to have fairly similar play styles and abilities, with Redman just simply being better at it. That makes Dwyer expendable when Mendenhall is able to return, although it still waits to be seen if Mendenhall will retake his place at starter, or if Redman can keep the position for the remainder of the season. Behind them, Batch is a decent short yardage back, has good hands, and is an amazing blocker. Seems versatile enough to be the teams 3rd down back. Rainey though is the real shining star of the backfield, he has the ability to make plays from anywhere, he is faster than anybody else out there, and is versatile enough to run, catch, and return. Clay, even before the injury that may end up ending his season anyway, was the clear loser going into camp. He is a one trick pony, something that normally doesn't last long in the Steeler's organization, and his ability as a short yardage back is also a talent shared by several other players who have more than one trick up their sleeves. The other battle in the backfield over the newly re-established fullback position was between Johnson and Johnson... David was coming out of the gate as the obvious choice, especially with his versatility to shift between fullback and tight end, but unfortunately he blew out his knee and ended his season early. The lesser Johnson currently wins the race for fullback by default... but without David's versatility and positional flexibility, do they really want to use up two roster spots to field both a fullback and an extra tight end? They may want to toy with the notion of one of the other tight ends shifting to the backfield (their newest acquisition Peelle has limited experiencing as fullback) or playing a second halfback in place of a fullback... unless Will Johnson can prove he has what it takes to make the roster, I say give the spot to somebody else instead.
Wide Recievers (5) - Brown, Cotchery, Sanders... and... ???
This is the most difficult one to determine really, as there are many factors in play. We can safely assume they will be keeping 5 receivers (they don't need 6, because Rainey has the flexibility to move out to WR if needed), but who the 4th and/or 5th receiver will be has yet to be established. Brown, Cotchery, and Sanders are obvious locks, they are all quality players who deserve to be out on the field and dressed for every game. I'm willing to write off Wallace already... the rumors that he will be back before X occurs have been persisting since his contract negotiations began, so I find it hard to believe when anybody claims an insider source says that he will return by the time X occurs. He is fast, and when he is on the field he commands double coverage, opening up the other receivers to make big plays, but he isn't nearly as good as he thinks he is, he has one trick up his sleeve, his ability to outrun the defense and become a deep threat. But the offense is shifting, they want Ben to get rid of the ball quicker this year so he can stay off his back, and Wallace just doesn't have the ability to do anything beyond running at full steam straight up field and hoping to get open. The other receivers will be able to get open because the offense will have so many targets to choose from amongst the wide outs, tight ends, and backs that the opposing defenses won't be able to afford to keep double coverage on anybody. So the main issue at wide out comes down to 1) will Wallace ever come back, and if so will he be so far behind in learning Haley's new offense that the currently established starters will still be ahead of him on the depth chart? and 2) will any of the other wide receivers show any special flashes that will result in them establishing a clear dominance at the head of the pack? So far, my money is on Derrick Williams, mostly because he has experience and the drive to not get sent packing... most (all?) of the others still have practice squad eligibility if they aren't able to make the final roster. But so far nobody has particularly impressed... lets wait for game 2 to see if anybody can pull ahead.
Tight End (3) - Miller, Pope, Peelle (Saunders knocking off one of them after his 4 game suspension)
Technically, this is another one that is going to be hard to call, even going into the start of the season... obviously Miller is going to be the top tight end, he's one of the best in the league. Saunders seems likely to be #2, he's got decent ability, but he's out for the first 4 games. Pope seemed like the obvious choice going into camp to be #2 in Saunders absence, being a veteran of Haley's offense in Kansas City and Arizona. However, he has yet to shine in camp, but fortunately for him the others behind him in line aren't exactly shining either. Peelle is another veteran, but he just arrived and we haven't seen what he is capable of in the Steeler's offense... however, he has had experience in the past shifting to fullback, and the Steelers love versatility, especially in a player they signed to replace the injured h-back David Johnson. If Peelle is able to step into Johnson's shoes, they may indeed keep 4 tight ends, with Peelle fulfilling the roster spot dedicated to fullback/h-back on the team. However, it is really too early to tell for certain what will happen. McCoy has also had experience shifting as an h-back, although well behind Johnson in ability, his absence created a void that needs to be filled with a warm body. Paulson is young and talented, and may be able to supplant Pope, but for the moment I'm giving the spot to experience, unless somebody is able to have a truly impressive showing in the coming weeks.
Offensive Line (9) - Starks, Colon, Pouncey, DeCastro, Gilbert, Adams, Foster, Legursky, Essex
Barring injury, the Steelers have kept 9 players on the offensive line to start the past few seasons, so that seems unlikely to change. However, if the last few years are any indication, maybe it wouldn't be a terrible idea to have a 10th man waiting in the wings... but I believe the lesser linemen are still practice squad eligible, so they don't need to take up roster space per se... Colon's shift to guard was long overdo, and all indications are that he was born to play the position, so his spot has been set since before camp began. Pouncey is an pro bowl center and hopes to have another great season... another sure lock. DeCastro was set to start right off the draft, but early camp jitters dropped him down the depth chart, and he recently re-established himself as the sure choice for starter. Gilbert started last season, so his return to starting was more or less assured as well. The toss-up to start was between Adams and Starks... personally, even before they resigned him, I assumed Max would get the job. If anything, simply because Ben is going to want his best friend watching his back, not an inexperienced rookie with which he has little knowledge of his abilities. However, early camp led people to believe Adams was good to go... until a poor game in Philly and an injury set back his progress. Now Starks is back on track as the starter going into week 1. The backups should be Adams, who has the ability and with enough experience will easily become the new starter, and the established backup veterans who have positional flexibility. Foster, who can play guard and tackle, and has already been established as a capable, if not overly expceptional, starter. Legursky, who can play center and guard, and is the de facto #2 behind Pouncey. Last but not least, Essex, a jack of all trades but master of none. He may never be good enough to start, but he can play any spot on the line, and that is an amazing ability to have as a backup. Of the remaining lineman, Beachum seems the most likely to still present a challenge for a spot, but I see him heading to the practice squad. It may benefit them to keep a couple on the practice squad... Colon and Starks are definitely aging, and even the top backups aren't spring chickens any longer, so they will need to eventually establish a talented core of backups behind the powerhouse youngsters DeCastro, Adams, Gilbert, and Pouncey.
Defensive Line (7) - Hood, McLendon, Keisel, Hampton (eventually), Woods, Heyward, Ta'Amu
The core starters for pretty much the entire defense have been well established since the end of last season... however, injuries have slightly opened up the playing field for younger players to get a shot. McLendon has proven he has the size and ability to be a menacing threat at nose tackle... he may even keep the starting spot when Hampton returns. Woods ultimately had incredible luck, but had an amazing play in the first preseason game, and has showed he can be a viable option at defensive end. Heyward also has shown his ability, although his camp thus far has not been overly spectacular, I still see him as being ahead of the rest of the pack. Ta'Amu has shown that he is a rookie who needs time to learn and grow, but he has the talent to play the game if given the opportunity. Plus, I like the suggestion that some have made that they could field a line consisting of Hampton, McLendon, and Ta'Amu in obvious rushing situations... good like breaking through that wall. Bryant still has a shot at making the roster, but he may be destined for the practice squad... the remainder are likely to be among the early cuts.
Linebackers (8) - Woodley, Foote, Timmons, Harrison (hopefully soon)... backups currently in flux...
The starters ate linebacker have been pretty well established by the dominant veterans, but a couple of injuries and some impressive plays in camp have made the exact layout and number of linebackers on the depth chart questionable... Worilds would be the obvious choice for top backup on the outside, but he is injured, along with Harrison, giving other players the opportunity to shine in camp. Carter has been doing fairly well, getting the opportunity to start in Harrison's absence, and seems a likely roster lock at this point. Brandon Johnson has also been having a great camp so far, as an established veteran with everything to lost if he can't lock a place on the 53-man roster. Robinson, however, has also had a good camp, so he may be able to push Johnson. At the moment, they're both in, due to injuries to Harrison and Worilds, but will they keep 5 outside backs when they return? It seems unlikely, they tend to have 8 linebackers on the roster, and if anything seem to have less depth on the outside than on the inside... but with the last few seasons track record of injuries, they may entertain the notion of keeping extra linebackers. If they keep 5, I'd give it to Johnson, and keep Robinson on the practice squad. In the middle, Sylvester and Spence seem like the obvious choices, although McFadden had a decent showing late in the first game. Its still open, but lets wait and see... one thing for sure though, they can certainly stand to have a defense heavy practice squad... the Steelers may have the best defense in the league, even being in top form despite some of them getting up there in age, but some day they will eventually have to be replaced, so lets start training the future now.
Cornerbacks (5) - Taylor, Lewis, Allen, Brown... and a #5?
Taylor is obvious, and Lewis seems determined to be #2 and head to the pro-bowl this year... that leaves Allen and Brown to fight over the nickle and dime spots. The Steelers also seems to like to keep a 5th corner, and so far it seems like McFadden and Frederick are having decent camp and are on about even footing. I don't think it likely that they will keep 6... especially with the possibility of a 9th linebacker, or of having to field both a fullback and an extra tight end, maybe even the possibility to keeping 5 safeties...?
Safety (4) - Polamalu, Clark, Mundy, Allen
Polamalu, Clark, and Mundy are obvious locks... Polamalu is the best safety in the game today, continuing to make amazing plays despite people being concerned about his age or history of hidden injuries. Clark also does an amazing job, perhaps overshadowed by the sheer talent emanating off of Polamalu, but still an amazing player nonetheless. Mundy is an amazing backup, able to be #2 at both positions (Steelers mantra... positional flexibility and versatility are the key...) Will Allen, while he certainly has some issue with drawing unnecessary penalties, is an established veteran who will more likely than not beat out the younger players below him. However, Cromartie-Smith is a fairly decent threat to his position, so there is still a possibility there... I say Cromartie-Smith goes back to the practice squad though.
Special Teams (3) - Warren, Suisham, Kapinos
Warren seems like the obvious choice to return as long snapper... he has had some issues with injury, but he does one thing, and he does it well. Suisham I see as being able to beat out Hrapmann... Hrapmann has a more powerful leg and can hit field goals from farther away, but Suisham has more experience and is more accurate... plus he already knows how to kick in the strange wind shears created by the shape and positioning of Heinz Field. Kapinos, if he ever gets back on the field recovered from his back injury, is far superior to Butler. Like Hrapmann, Butler has a more powerful leg than the established veteran, but Butler is very inconsistent in his punts... and consistency and reliability is more important than distance. However, if Kapinos doesn't get back to camp soon, he will certainly lose the job by default...
If my math adds up correctly, I have 51 roster spots accounted for, that leaves 2 in flux... will they still field a fullback without David Johnson? Might they keep a 4th tight end to serve as an h-back instead? Will the defense keep 9 linebackers, 6 corners, or 5 safeties...? Its still early in camp, we will have to wait and see what happens... I will try to remember to come back and update my predictions, possibly after the next game, if not at the very least after the first round of cuts occurs...