It's crunch time. Or, more accurately, cut time.
Due at 9:00 p.m. today, the final roster cuts are going to mean a lot of players -- and fans -- spend this weekend broken-hearted. We all have our camp favorites, and it's a sure bet there will be some roster surprises that leave one or more of those guys on the wrong side of the clubhouse doors.
But thanks to injuries at key positions and key players, this could be one of the more "creative" rosters in recent memory. Here are my last-minute predictions.
It's tough to think that Chuck Batch might have played his final game as a Steeler last night, because he has meant so much to this team. But, at some point you need to start thinking of the future, and Batch doesn't project to be a part of the team beyond this year. Johnson has shown tremendous growth over the course of the pre-season, and looks to have the potential for more. When you aren't drafting in the top 15 slots most years, finding a good quarterback is tough, so letting go of Johnson now would be a huge risk.
Other Possibilities: Charlie Batch, or the team only goes with two
We'll get to the asterisk by Rainey's name in a minute. Mendenhall may come back to find his rear-end on the pine quite a bit, as both Redman and Dwyer have shown glimpses of starting potential. Dwyer's growth in the last year has been fin to watch, and if Redman has even the tiniest hole with which to work, he can do great things. It will definitely be running by committee in Pittsburgh, but that committee may turn out to be quite large. Baron Batch has the best hands of the four bigger backs and looks a lot like Mewelde Moore when he plays, but the roster is just too crowded, relegating him to the Practice Squad for 2012. And Rainey? He's just amazing.
Other Possibilities: Barron Batch
I'm going to take a risk here and say the Steelers only keep four receivers. Why? Count the runningBacks -- and consider that Rainey is basically a wide receiver that lines up in the backfield. There is no need to keep a fifth receiver when you have him already as a running back. He is fast, mightily elusive and is just plain fun to watch with the ball. So it makes sense to line him up in the slot as much as they line him up in the backfield. It will be hard to cut David Gilreath, though, because of his return abilities too. But if he stays, who else goes?
Other Possibilities: David Gilreath
Despite being a favorite of new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, Leonard Pope has got to go. Sure, he's a big target, but he's also officially the Slowest Man on Earth™. That leaves David Paulson on the team, an honor he basically is defaulting into thanks to David Johnson's season-ending injury. If needed, Paulson can line up at fullback as a sub for Will Johnson, so he has that going for him as well. Saunders is suspended, so the Steelers will likely use the roster spot opened up by David Decastro's temporary placement on the Injured/Reserve list to keep Leonard Pope for a little while.
Other Possibilities: Leonard Pope
The injury to DeCastro is going to necessitate keeping an extra lineman around at least until he returns. The starters are pretty well set until after week eight when DeCastro is slated to return, but Adams has shown improvement each of the last two pre-season games and could push Starks for the starting left-tackle slot sooner rather than later if he continues this uphill trend. Essex, who shares both name and girth with a class of aircraft carriers, stays because of versatility (of which he has plenty) rather than ability (of which he has little), and Legursky is as serviceable a backup center and guard as you will find in the league. Ryan Lee simply made the team better every time he was on the field. Chirs Scott and John Malecki did not show enough to even warrant consideration.
Note that DeCastro is likely to be placed on Injured Reserve to be stashed until after week 8, at which time he will be activated again. This opens a roster spot for eight weeks, which will probably be filled by Leonard Pope to help account for the Saunders suspension.
Other Possibilities: Kelvin Beachum
This could prove to be one of the most interesting areas of the team this season. Heyward pushing Hood. Hampton sharing time with McLendon. There are a lot of interesting dynamics going on here, and that sort of friendly competition can only serve to improve an already stout (pun intended) group of guys. Ta'amu may be the NT of the future for this team, but McLendon will make him earn it. Woods showed more than enough to beat out Corbin Bryant, as Woods always seemed to be around the ball.
Other Possibilities: Corbin Bryant
The Steelers need an A-plus effort from everyone in this group, because there's a whole lot of hurtin' going on here. Harrison, Worilds and Sylvester have all been hampered by injuries throughout training camp, with Harrison and Worilds just being activated from the PUP list in the last few days. Either Adrian Robinson or Brandon Johnson can thank their lucky stars to be here, owing to the likely season-ending injury suffered last night by rookie third-round pick Sean Spence.
Other Possibilities: Any free agent ILB with a pulse
There was supposed to be a logjam behind Ike Taylor, but it turned out that only Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen really set themselves apart. Not that it unexpected, though; Allen has been considered the future #2 CB on the team, with Lewis holding down the fort for 2012, with Curtis Brown nipping at his heels. But Brown didn't really distinguish himself outside of some good special-teams play, while Allen has elevated his game even more than expected. It's possible that Lewis and Allen could swap spots on the depth chart well before the midpoint of the season. Golden has established himself as a solid safety, and Victorian was the only one of the rest to really stand out.
Other Possibilities: Terrence Frederick, Will Allen
Not much to analyze here. Suisham is the only kicker left on the roster -- but is probably on a short leash. Butler has been consistently better than Jeremy Kapinos and has shown an ability to drop kicks inside the 20, something Kap struggles with. Greg Warren keeps the spot he has held for a few seasons now.
Other Possibilities: Jeremy Kapinos
Practice Squad: Baron Batch (RB), David Gilreath (WR), Derrick Williams (WR), Kelvin Beachum (G/T), John Malecki (G), Ikponmwosa Igbinosun (DL), Morty Ivy (LB), Terrence Frederick (DB)
I don't know all the rules about the practice squad so some of these guys may be ineligible. But with the shortage of eligible players all around, I see them going back to Morty Ivy for the squad.