Injuries are like In-Laws. They're never expected, nor welcomed; yet they keep showing up. David Johnson and John Clay were already finding themselves on roster projections, and practice squads, across Steeler Nation. Today, they technically aren't even Steelers, anymore. I'm sure we'll see them again, but I don't expect the coaching staff to spend a second mourning the loss of its' players; they will continue to move forward. Standard is the Standard, don'cha know. Roster Spots for the upcoming season, were already at a premium. Normally, injury simplifies these equations, due to process of elimination. This year, however, they are actually making things quite difficult for those who will decide the final roster. These are the Six biggest roster spot battles left for camp to decide, in my opinion; emphasis on the "roster spot battles", versus "Position Battles". This article is not taking cap hits in to account; simply roster development. Much to the chagrin of my dissenters, lets begin.
Why not call them position battles? There is a difference. Position Battles are also taking place, though these are usually for the right to start. Starks vs. Adams, Suisham vs. Hrappman; these are position battles. The loser of the Kicking Battle, loses his job; so, it could be considered a roster spot duel...but, not for this article. Starks vs. Adams, no one is losing their roster spot. Battles are not listed in any particular order, so let's start with the easiest one.
When considering the reserve positions along the offensive line, Michael Adams would probably not be any more effective at RT, than Essex, or Foster. Considering he is a rookie, still trying to learn the left side; I don't think we see him over at RT. I feel this provides the need for Max Starks. If Adams beats Starks for the LT spot, Starks could provide support for both Tackle spots. If Starks beats Adams, we will need a quality reserve RT available, without having to move Willie Colon away from LG, if Marcus Gilbert gets hurt. However, we've already got 3 tackles on the roster, and spots are at a premium. Doug Legursky is our second best Center, as proven by actual NFL (Super Bowl) experience. Unless the coaches go big and keep 9 guys, this means we only have one roster spot left along the line. Ryan Lee and Kelvin Beachum have shown potential, but they are most likely headed for the Practice Squad; because they are rookies, and probably unprepared to be as flexible as the Steelers usually need their reserve linemen to be.
So, this last guy needs to be able to back up RT, at least, if not both Tackle spots. Plus, I'd like him to be the primary reserve guard, preventing Legursky from getting injured, leaving us with only one, occasionally fragile Center, Maurkice Pouncey; or at least be able to play Center, if Legursky has to be the primary reserve Guard. This is where Foster and Essex come in. We already know Essex has played everywhere on our line over the years. Despite some of the bemoaning bemoaned towards the speaking of his name, we owe a lot to Mr. Essex. He has bailed us out more times than I can count. He will never be a Hall of Fame-er, but he always has done everything that has been asked of him. Foster is not a Center, I've never seen him play Center, and I don't want to ever see him play Center. The task is his, to win this battle on his ability to play Guard, which is already documented by his career with the Steelers; and his ability to play RT, which we will get to see against the Indianapolis Colts, and their talented pass rush. If Foster plays well, the roster spot could be his. If Foster is equally, or more disappointing than Essex, I think Essex wins the battle for his ability to be a 3rd Center.
This is turning into a major mess. Robinson is looking like a guy that should've been drafted. Chris Carter is looking like the guy we thought we drafted. Johnson was brought in, because we already knew Worilds was going to miss time due to injury. He's good for that. However, even Johnson looked impressive against the Eagles in preseason action. What on earth do you do with Jason Worilds? He's been our primary reserve OLB the last few seasons, and is only out, because he's hurt. Suddenly, I think he's in danger of losing his job. If Johnson continues to play well, and Worilds continues to miss time, do you cut Johnson as an act of loyalty to Worilds, when he has barely played enough to warrant such consideration. Do you keep them both? Who plays before who? What about Robinson? Can you get him all the way to the Practice Squad? possible, but not likely. Do you cut Sylvester, Mr. Special Teams, to keep an extra Outside LB, and leave yourself short Inside? Which other hopeful do you cut at another position, to allow yourself to keep Over the next 3 weeks, each Plaintiff will make their case, leaving no evidence unreported; while the Defendant, Mr. Worilds, waits to be cleared to practice. This will be a tough decision, considering the number of games missed by our starting OLBs, last season. Special Teams or Inside Linebacker ability could be the scale tipper. Time will be the jury on this one. If Worilds makes it back to camp, he better play like his life depends on it; because it just might.
Coach Tomlin thought he had the perfect solution; David Johnson will play Full Back AND Tight End, instead of that half-FB/half-TE thing he was last year. Evidently there is a difference, because of where the player lines up, even though their role in the plays is the same. Before I even really had time to laugh at this thought, DJ got hurt, and blew away Tomlin's reasoning. I realize Tomlin was hoping to make an extra roster spot available, through DJ's flexibility; but I'm not sure for whom. The biggest deciding factor in this battle will come down to Haley's opinion on 3 TE sets. I realize this has been a staple of our offense for a while, but I feel there are other ways of accomplishing the same effect. If we play 3 TE sets, then someone will have to emerge at the TE position, to fall in line behind Heath Miller and Weslye Saunders, when Saunders returns. Pope is probably our #2 TE, due to his NFL experience, when we roll in to Denver, week one.
However, 3rd TE was supposed to also play FB. Will Johnson was slated for the Practice Squad because of DJ, now his chances to make the roster have grown exponentially. He has college experience at TE, but that doesn't necessarily mean that will translate to the pro game. McCoy has been camping well at TE, but is just now getting work at FB. He may not have enough time to outwork Will Johnson. Justin Peelle, you're being considered in this battle as a consolation prize for signing a Steeler contract. I wish you the best of luck, wherever you go when the Steelers cut you after camp. David Paulson has upside, but has been too sloppy to be considered for the 53, this season; I think he's Practice Squad material. Pope has experience as an H-back, but has not lived up to most fans' expectations. Personally, if I have 2 quality TEs, and my 3rd is a toss-up; I'd want my 3rd to specialize at Full Back. If I really think he's needed on the line, motion him out there. Want a presence along the line? Put in a reserve o-lineman at one of the interior TE spots. There are lots of ways around keeping 3 active TE's on a roster; it will be interesting which way the Steelers go, especially when Saunders returns. Pope will at best become the 3rd TE, with a chance of being inactive. McCoy, Paulson, or W. Johnson could find themselves cut and/or PS bound. If Will Johnson makes the roster at FB, the spot for a 3rd TE vanishes, leaving the rest in limbo. This will be one of the most heated, while least noticed battles through the remainder of the preseason.
Another hot topic on BTSC threads, is whether anyone is actually winning this battle; or who is trying to lose it. Cromartie-Smith has a leg up on the rest towards making the final 53 as the 4th safety (2nd SS), due to the years he has served on the Practice Squad, and his effectiveness on Special Teams. Myron Rolle, who many wanted to see beat out D. C-S, hasn't made any better case for himself than D. C-S. Golden, who gets lost in the shuffle sometimes, throws his hat in the ring, with his experience at Corner. Speaking of Corner, since Terry Carter went down, Walter McFadden is making his push. He played much better than Andre Freeman, against the Eagles. McFadden's best hope lies in making the Practice Squad, unless he can beat out Terrence Frederick to stay on the roster. Golden has a chance to make the Practice Squad as well, due to Clay's injury vacating a PS spot; but Golden will have to beat out Rolle for this spot, if Rolle can't beat out Cromartie-Smith. I don't see Golden beating out Cromartie-Smith, as Golden seems more like a FS to me, instead of the backup SS we need. Walter McFadden needs to continue to step up, because with Terrence Frederick likely to make the roster, the Steelers may not choose to use 2 PS spots on DB's. Walter will have to change their minds. This will be the most evenly contested race to the beginning of the season.
5) Mike Wallace VS Toney Clemons VS. Marquis Maze - The Invisible Battle
See, and you thought Wallace was only competing with Antonio Brown for "best paid Steeler receiver". Wrong. I guess I should clarify. Wallace isn't competing against the other two directly; but he could directly affect the outcome of the battle already taking place between Clemons and Maze. We already know Mike will be back at some point, we just don't know when. Clemons is making his push to make the roster, based on his size; while Maze is trying to make it, in spite of his. Clemons brings value as a true Wideout. Maze offers excellent kick return ability. Personally, I am guessing one of the two, makes the roster, while the other attempts to hit the PS. Which is which? That depends on Wallace. If Wallace holds out into the season, we would be down to Sanders, Brown, and Cotchery. Clemons would be battling with Derrick Williams to be the 4th WR. If Wallace reports in time to be ready for the regular season, Maze would seem the more favorable option, to at least back up the return positions; relegating Clemons to the PS. Wallace is the tiny pebble, causing major ripples through the receiving corps, all the way to the PS. With Clemons and Maze being two completely different types of receiver, this will be one of the most difficult battles to gauge, as their respective strengths are incomparable.
6) Casey Hampton VS. The Field - The Battle for Survival
Hampton is widely respected as the best 3-4 Nose Tackle of his era. How quickly times have changed. Hampton is getting older and slower, though his strength is never in question. There were concerns coming into camp about Steve McLendon being able to hold down the fort, while awaiting Hampton's return. Now, there are only doubts about Hampton. Is Hampton going to be ready by week 6? If he is, are you going to start him in front of McLendon, especially if Steve continues to play "lights-out"? Not likely. Hampton could come in as the #2 NT, pushing Alameda Ta'amu to 3rd; but do we need 3 NT's, considering the lack of roster spots, for guys who could contribute to the future of the organization? Ta'amu would never make it, all the way, to the practice squad. While Hampton is out, one of our young players has the chance to utilize his vacant roster spot. Who gets it, that needs it? Will it be possible to get that player on to the PS, at Week 6? When the 6 week PUP is up, Hampton will count against the roster, regardless whether he is 100% ready, or not. Would you IR Big Snack in one of the few years of professional football he has left in him? I am glad I am not the one who has to make this decision. If Hampton returns, there are only 3 guys I can think of who might get cut to make room: Charlie Batch, Jonathan Dwyer, or Al Woods. I've seen us lose Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich in the same season, before. I want Charlie on the team, even as an inactive; and Jerrod Johnson on the Practice Squad to get a year under his belt. I want Dwyer on the team, because I've seen how quickly injury has started screwing with us already, and don't want to find myself relying on Baron Batch to be THE man, if something should happen to Isaac Redman, or if Rashard Mendenhall re-injures himself upon his own return. Woods would be the most expendable, but I would only be willing to cut him if I was positive Casey would be back at 100%. This "battle" will happen under the radar, and behind closed doors; but it could have major implications on the outcome of this 2012 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.