QB - Roethlisberger, Leftwich, Batch
In game 2 we finally got to see Charlie in action, and got another look at Johnson. Johnson had a much better game this week, showing a better understanding of the game without the unnecessary penalties and clock stopping that plagued him against the Eagles. He also showed some ability to run and get some yardage on his own, but I don't particularly consider this a good thing. He's like Dennis Dixon out there, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but being 3rd string on an injury prone offense means you should probably limit your exposure to injury if you want to survive. Scrambling is good, it lets you avoid the rush and get the ball to an open receiver, but running it yourself should be a last resort. I'm in favor of keeping Johnson on the practice squad, he definitely has potential, but he has a ways to go before he is ready to play in the NFL. Another argument for putting him on the Practice Squad is that he needs to learn and grow, and a 3rd string quarterback doesn't get an awful lot of reps in practice or time on the field unless there is injury... and honestly, if there is enough injury that the 3rd string quarterback is in to play, do you really want to rely on Johnson? In response to the detractors who say that Charlie had a poor showing during the game, they must have been watching a different game than I was. Charlie didn't score, but he showed a level head in spite of constant pressure from the defense overpowering the terrible backup offense. He got sacked, but on another obvious sack he showed the presence of mind to get the ball away, carefully placing it where it couldn't be picked off, just before getting hit. He also had an amazing pass to Gilraeth in a situation where less experienced quarterbacks would have seen the penalty and just thrown the ball away to get the free yards. I also noticed that 2 of his 3rd down incompletions were not entirely his fault. One was to Brown, who was trying to catch it and keep going, but ended up outrunning the ball and missed it trying to reach behind over his shoulder. If he had stopped and made the catch he would have had been stopped pretty much right on the spot, but its still better than no yards on an incompletion. The other was up in the air to Sanders, and the announcers commented on how he could have caught it if he had reached up for it, but with the defender behind him he was afraid of exposing himself to the hit. So Charlie is still ahead of Johnson, and shows he still has the head and hands to play.
HB - Mendenhall, Redman, Dwyer, Rainey
This one, unfortunately, has gone from clear cut to questionable. By activating Mendenhall off the PUP, they now have to count him into the 53-man roster. As it was, I had assumed that Dwyer would stay only until Mendenhall returned, because he is too similar to Redman to need both of them, and Redman is just better. However, with Redman injured (but probably back in time for the season opener) and Mendenhall scheduled to spend the first few weeks on the sideline, Dwyer becomes necessary. Batch is a great 3rd down back, he is an excellent blocker, he can make decent runs and quick catches, but he doesn't have the ability to be a reliable #2, or especially a fill-in starter in the event of injury. Dwyer has proven himself capable of stepping in as a temporary starter if needed, so he looks like he'll be staying. Batch will likely be on the practice squad, and I wouldn't mind seeing him return as a featured 3rd down back, but I don't see them as having the roster space to accommodate holding onto 5 running backs. The only thing that could save Batch would be if they chose not to keep a fullback... he has the ability to play much the same role, excellent blocking, short yardage ability, so they could try to turn him into a hybrid, but its very unlikely that they will take this route. Rainey is still a lock because of his versatility and great return ability, but he showed some negatives in the game against the Colts. His first play he took a massive hit to the head (his own fault, the replay showed him trying to lower his head and power through, not a good idea for somebody of his size) that resulted in a fumble. Forgivable, not many people would hold onto the ball after a hit to the head like that, but when he returned to the field later he was noticeably hesitant in his plays. This led to some dismal runs and missed catches (I think another of Charlie's incompletions was partly due to Rainey's hesitation, if I remember correctly... maybe it was before he came on the field...) So unless Batch has an amazing showing at the next two games, or if somebody ahead of him gets badly injured or screws up unforgivably, he is destined for the Practice Squad.
FB - Will Johnson
As mentioned previously, David Johnson's injury pretty much handed the job to Will by default. Also, I am now fairly certain that he practices voodoo... David Johnson was doing better than him, then gets knocked out for the season... fast forward to game 2, Will has a decent game, but newly signed Jason Ford showed an amazing ability, threatening Will's lock on the roster, until he goes down with what appears to be a fairly bad leg injury... so while there is still the possibility that Peelle or McCoy (or even Pope, he showed some nice blocking in game 2) could step in and fulfill David Johnson's role as H-Back, or my favorite unlikely choice in trying to use Batch in place of a fullback, it seems to be Will's job to lose... and can the Steelers afford to have more players go down with mysterious leg injuries if they threaten Voodoo Johnson's place on the roster?
WR - Brown, Wallace, Sanders, Cotchery, Gilraeth
Popular opinion indicates that Wallace will be returning "soon," and while they have been saying that since before training camp started, he will only hurt himself by holding out into the regular season... so we have to assume that he will be on the 53-man roster. The offense, particularly Brown, has proven so far that they are more than capable of making big plays without Wallace, so the hype that Wallace is needed to win or that he is somehow an elite receiver should be fading. Brown, Sanders, and Cotchery are obvious locks, and at this point I'm fairly well convinced that Brown will be starting ahead of Wallace even if he does come back. Sanders is the likely #3, but he hasn't been overly impressive thus far, so Cotchery could still pass him, but I think they will end up the way they are. The 5th receiver had been up in the air all camp, as nobody really flashed anything special, but after his amazing game against the Colts, Gilraeth seems like a lock for the #5 spot. I would love to see Derrick Williams getting a chance to make the roster, but now I'm not sure if he has what it takes to overcome Gilraeth, and he is beyond his Practice Squad eligibility. The remaining front-runners for the spot, Beiler, Clemons, and Maze, are still a ways away from making the team. Maze in particular had a dismal game against the Colts. I had heard that he was one of the top choices for WR5, and that if he wanted to lock it he would have to prove his versatility as a returner... lets just say, he did a terrible job of demonstrating his ability there... one of them should make the Practice Squad, but at this point, who knows who it will be.
Tight Ends - Miller, Saunders, Pope
Miller is going to the Pro Bowl, and Saunders is an excellent backup, so they should both be locked in. Pope has proved that he can learn how to block, is an excellent red zone target at 42 feet tall, and comes in as a veteran of Haley's offenses in both Arizona and Kansas City, so I still see him as very likely to be the 3rd Tight End. However, Saunders will be missing the first 4 games due to suspension, so the start of the season they could easily have a 4th Tight End make the roster... but they may rather use that elsewhere, since halfbacks and wide receivers could both benefit from an extended look for players "on the bubble." I still see it going to a Tight End though, as rookie David Paulson has shown some nice ability, enough so that if he doesn't make the roster he should still be on the Practice Squad, and both Peelle and McCoy have shown some decent plays, although the two of them seem less likely unless they can prove their ability as an h-back. I have heard suggestions that Pope could be utilized like Johnson in place of a fullback, but somehow that seems less likely to happen than Peelle or McCoy doing it. McCoy could make the Practice Squad again, but if they are going to give it to any Tight End, I think Paulson is the better choice.
O-Line - Starks, Colon, Pouncey, DeCastro, Gilbert, Adams, Foster, Legursky, Essex
Still like my choices for the offensive line,nothing really has changed here. Starks, when he is ready, should start at Left Tackle, as Adams has proven that he isn't there yet. I also like the idea of Gilbert shifting to the left rather than having Essex start there while they wait on Starks, since Essex is a great versatile backup, but not a starter calibre player, especially guarding the blind side. If Gilbert is on the left until Starks returns, maybe Adams would perform better on the right, since he hasn't been proving himself on the left. They have so much faith in Adams and Essex that they were shifting Foster to starting Right Tackle when Gilbert moved to the left... Colon, Pouncey, and DeCastro can be an amazing force in the middle of the line, we could see some more Pro Bowl appearances there... (although they won't get to play, since they will be busy preparing for the Super Bowl) Foster, Legursky, and Essex still seem like the best options as flexible backups, so I don't see them losing out to the younger players, although it is still possible. Beachum had a pretty good showing, practically guaranteeing himself as one of the first round of cuts, while the remainder of the backups also struggled to protect the pass and open up the run late in the game (against the Colts backup defense, no less) Malecki and Lee are the most likely to have a shot at making it, but neither of them had overly impressive plays, Malecki being relatively responsible for at least one of the plays where the defense got in on the quarterback... Scott and Jolly have both got enough experience in the NFL that their lack of anything would indicate their days are done. One of the lesser O-Line could make the Practice Squad, but there are a lot of good young players on the team that they wouldn't want to lose, and only 8 spots to put them in, so the lackluster backups here may not stand much of a chance.
*** Quick note on the defense in general... they did terrible when it came to stopping the run against the Colts. There were a few nice blocks, especially down at the goal line when they only managed to get in because the review booth was too lazy to make the correct call, but as a whole they let up way too many yards on the ground. This is completely unforgivable, because throughout most of the training camp the offense was focused on improving the running game this year, so the defense should have been extremely used to defending against it. They may have been anticipating passes on nearly every play, since it was Andrew Luck, but they should have been better. They also struggled with Luck's penchant for screen passes, another thing the defense should have been familiar with as the new offense is supposed to rely more heavily on short and quick passes to backs and ends in addition to the receivers... lastly, they were extremely thrown off by the Colts extensive use of motion and audibles on the play. Whoever was stepping up as the defensive captain needs to be able to read the play and help direct the other players when that sort of thing happens. ***
DE - Keisel, Hood, Heyward, Woods
I have heard rumors that they Steelers could opt to only keep 3 Defensive Ends this season, but I'm going to choose to assume they will keep 4 for two reasons... first, and least significant to the team's actual decision on the matter, is that I play Madden, so I'm used to being forced to keep 4 minimum DE (they also enforce 1 FB, 10 O-Line with 2 at each position, and 3 DT even though many teams regularly keep less than those numbers)... the second reason, and much more important, is that the suggestion of only keeping 3 Defensive Ends was due to McLendon's past experience in playing there, suggesting that he could move over if need be. However, now that he appears to be the de facto starter, even after Hampton's return, they can't rely on his flexibility to move to the end. Heyward is a lock as the top backup, and while Woods didn't have any splashy news worthy plays this week, he can still make an impact as a backup. The remainder of players on pretty much the entire defensive line seems like obvious roster cuts.
NT - McLendon, Hampton, Ta'Amu
This is pretty straight forward as well, McLendon was pretty much the star of training camp and the most improved from previous years, solidifying his place on the team and offering a real threat to Hampton's tenure at starting Nose Tackle. Ta'Amu, who was projected to be the next big star to step in and replace Hampton when he retires (probably next year) has had a decent camp, but with the usual rookie mistakes, and has been far surpassed by McLendon's stellar performance.
OLB - Harrison, Woodley, Worilds, Carter
This one is unfortunate, because there are too many talented players and not enough room on the roster. At the moment, Harrison and Worilds are still out on the PUP, so they are not currently taking up roster space, but both are projected to return, if not by Week 1 in Denver, then at least very early on in the season, which would indicate they will be taken off the PUP rather than missing out the first 6 weeks. In their absence, Carter has shown his capability as a starter, which is good considering Harrison will probably be retired within the next few years, although when healthy Worilds should remain ahead of him as the top backup. Adrian Robinson has also shown some great ability while they have been out, and while he has the possibility of making the roster if they choose to keep 9 linebackers or if Harrison or Worilds remain out, I think he would be an excellent addition to the Practice Squad. He can continue to train and grow and come in later when the aging veterans move on, actually, with his play this season he could easily make the team next year if he continues to grow at the same rate. Personally, I like what I have seen from Brandon Johnson, I would like to see him make the team if they have a roster spot available, but its going to be tough... he can play inside and outside, although not the greatest, he's shown some nice plays on coverage and is excellent at special teams.
ILB - Foote, Timmons, Spence, Sylvester
This is another one that is tough to call... not the starters, that is a lock, and Spence has shown himself more than ready to be the top backup, but the 4th man is still questionable. Sylvester, coming off last season, seemed likely to start this year as the top backup and possibly to challenge Foote at BUCK position, but he didn't have a great camp, and is now injured badly enough that he could be out at the start of the season. This puts his roster spot from guaranteed to questionable... and there are a few players that wouldn't mind supplanting him. Ivy had a really nice punt block against the Colts, and while he didn't necessarily do anything else remarkably noteworthy, this does give him quite a boost when competing with somebody who isn't even on the field. My personal choice would be to give it to Brandon Johnson, a man that can reliably play both inside and outside and can be a monster on special teams... but he has a bit of an uphill battle if he wants to make the team. McFadden played pretty well against the Eagles, but less so this week against the Colts. He is an option for the Practice Squad, but certainly not a lock.
CB - Taylor, Lewis, Allen, Brown, McFadden
The top 4 are practically set in stone... Taylor is obviously the #1 Cornerback, and Lewis, while he didn't have the best game against the Colts, seems like he is set to start opposite Taylor. My reasoning for this is that an interview with one of the coaches (probably wasn't Lebeau, probably the Defensive Backs coach, but I forget...) referred to Allen as the starting Nickleback, indicating that they plan to play Nickle quite often this season. This leaves Brown as the Dimeback, while he hasn't had the greatest season, he is still a ways above everybody else in line for the job. The #5 Cornerback, which the Steelers tend to always keep 5 Corners, is still up for grabs. At the moment, McFadden seems to be in the lead, as Frederick didn't have the most impressive showing. Also, don't count out Victorian just yet. He had a near interception against the Eagles, was berated by many people for missing the sure pick, and came back this week against the Colts to do it again, this time keeping the ball and ensuring the Steelers victory. One of those three should make the roster as the fifth corner, and one of them should make the Practice Squad and be a big impact on the team in the future.
S - Polamalu, Clark, Mundy, Allen, Cromartie-Smith
Quite a few people have suggested that since Clark will be unable to play in Denver for Week 1, the Steelers are likely to open the season with 5 safeties. I think this is reasonable logic, so I am going to go with it. Polamalu and Clark are nigh unstoppable when they are on the field together, they have excellent chemistry when they play together. Mundy is an excellent backup who plays equally well at either Strong or Free Safety. Allen I have heard is likely to be cut in favor of one of the younger players, but I have to go with experience here and its hard to fault his special teams play, plus I just can't resist rooting for the underdog... Cromartie-Smith is the next best candidate, whether they go with 4 or 5 safeties he has a pretty decent chance to make the roster. They are both being pushed by Rolle and Golden, who are both young and have their good days and their bad days, it will be interesting to see how this one plays out. One of the younger players can make a good run for the Practice Squad too.
Special Teams - Suisham, Butler, Warren
Suisham still has the upper hand on Hrapmann for Kicker, both are doing well, with Hrapmann having a slight edge in distance, but unless Suisham screws up badly I'd have to go with experience and reliability on this one. Hrapmann has a bright future ahead of him, so they could keep him on the Practice Squad, even though it would be an odd choice when they only have 8 spots to work with and its not as if they need to replace Suisham any time soon, but they wouldn't want to lose him either... For Punter, I would much rather see Kapinos return, especially with Butler's issues with inconsistency evidenced during training camp, but Kapinos can't win the battle if he doesn't step onto the field, so its Butler's spot by default. Warren, if he can remain healthy, is the obvious choice to return as Long Snapper. Its not as if Katula is likely to be picked up by anybody else if they cut him again, they were able to call him in off his couch the last few times Warren went out...
I am less familiar with the workings of the Practice Squad... I know it has 8 players maximum, they get paid significantly less money, and is the closest thing the NFL has to a minor league affiliate for young plays to develop in... but its still too early to have a firm grasp on who is likely to make the Practice Squad, so I am less confident in my predictions here than I am with those on the 53-man roster...
Jerrod Johnson (QB) - Needs room to improve, best place to do that is here.
Baron Batch (HB) - Dwyer (8 pro games) and Rainey are also PS eligible, but have a better shot at the roster.
??? (WR) - One of the young receivers should be on the PS... Beiler, Clemons, or Maze...
David Paulson (TE) - Shows great potential to be a big name in the future.
Adrian Robinson (OLB) - Amazing linebacker, has a great future ahead of him.
??? (CB) - One of the young corners should make the PS, one the roster... McFadden, Frederick, or Victorian...
Myron Rolle (S) - Not convinced it will be him, but I can see one of the Safeties making it here...
Daniel Hrapmann (K) - Has a bright future ahead of him, and don't want anybody else to have him.
The other thing there seems like there is less speculation about than there should be is who the captains will end up being. In recent years, it maybe have been because we knew who it would be going into the preseason... Hines Ward was Offensive Captain for 7 years in a row and James Farrior was Defensive Captain for 8 years in a row. Now that both of them are gone, somebody else will have to step into their roles as leaders on and off the field. Apparently they are able to designate up to 6 Captains, and in the past (2009, and in 2004-2006 before the Captaincy rules came into effect in 2007) they had 2 each of Offensive, Defensive, and Special Teams captains. However, 4 of the 5 past seasons since those rules came into effect (and again in years past) those chose to only designate 4 Captains. Ostensibly, Big Ben is considered one of the Offensive Captains, but I like to think of him as Team Captain, with the other three slightly below as Offensive, Defensive, and Special Teams Captains...
Offensive (Team) Captain - Ben Roethlisberger
This is a pretty obvious choice, as Ben was Captain for 3 of the past 4 seasons, so it is fairly safe to assume he will fulfill that role again this season.
Offensive Captain - Heath Miller
Heath stepped in to be Co-Captain with Hines Ward during the 2010 season when Ben started off the season suspended. He has more experience than most of the rest of the Offense, and has fulfilled a leadership role in the past, so he seems like an obvious choice. Jerricho Cothcery could also be an interesting choice as Captain, as he has already stepped in to fulfill Hines Ward's role as veteran possession receiver, so why not take over his Captaincy duties as well? Miller has more experience with the Steelers though, so I figure it will go to him.
Defensive Captain - Larry Foote
Foote is an obvious choice for numerous reasons... first, looking back the the Steelers Captaincy history, every year from 1998 to 2011 the Captain has been a linebacker. The single exception being in 2002 when 1 of 2 Co-Captains was a Safety. Secondly, Foote has more experience with the team than most other players, not counting his short stay in Detroit, so he fits the bill as wizened veteran with working knowledge of the inner workings of the Steeler's defense. Lastly, he is taking over for longtime Defensive Captain James Farrior, so if their BUCK has always been their go to Captain, it seems like he may have it simply for his positional advantage. Another likely candidate, especially if they choose to designate 6 Captains this year, is James Harrison. He has previously been a Special Teams Captain, and during one of the seasons that they had 2 Defensive Co-Captains he shared duties with James Farrior, plus he is a staple of the defense and a trusted veteran. The main reason I have him behind Foote here is that it is still questionable whether he will be ready to play by Week 1. The other option I think would be amazing to see would be if Troy Polamalu were named Captain. He has the experience, he's easily one of the top defensive players in NFL history, and apparently has supreme vision on the field, as he often sees something he can exploit and tells Clark to cover him while he goes in. His only drawback is that he is a Safety, which puts him behind the linebackers when it comes to the likelihood of being named Captain.
Special Teams Captain - ???
This one is actually very difficult to speculate on. For one thing, the Special Teams Captain is the only one that seems to have very little consistency from year to year... mostly due to the fact that players on Special Teams are supposed to eventually get better and move on up to first or second string. The other issue that makes this decision difficult is that Special Teams players are by their very definition on the roster bubble, so who knows who will still be around by the time the opening roster is released. The players that I view as obvious choices, depending on whether or not they can actually survive the final cuts, are Will Allen and Brandon Johnson. Will Allen is a veteran with quite a bit of experience in the Steelers organization and noted for being a Special Teams monster. Brandon Johnson, while this is his first year with the Steelers, has a few years of experience under his belt as well, is noted for his Special Teams play, and has previously been a Special Teams Captain with the Bengals. Other than those two, most of the players regularly appearing on Special Teams will be fairly young and inexperienced, not the greatest option for being a Captain... although in the past Jeff Reed was one of the Special Teams Captains, so it wouldn't be unheard of for Shaun Suisham to earn the honor.