A lot of imaginary football is about to be played out between now and the beginning of the NFL regular season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A team which rarely asks rookies to play significant roles in their first seasons is creating a scenario where the "next man up" strategy steps up, beginning with open position battles across the entire roster. Here is a look at the possible favorites of each roster opportunity by position:
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones - Roethlisberger is still the franchise quarterback. The competition in this group falls behind him. Gradkowski has veteran experience, but Jones has a potentially bright future ahead of him. Should Jones exceed his fourth-round draft expectations, he could surpass Gradkowski as the No. 2. John Parker Wilson will most likely become this year's Jerrod Johnson.
HB: Jonathan Dwyer, Le'Veon Bell, Isaac Redman and LaRod Stephens-Howling - Even though the team tried to use Dwyer as trade bait during the final rounds of the draft, he is the incumbent starter heading into the preseason. Bell has a real opportunity to take over the starting job if he can assimilate to the offense and its blocking schemes. Redman will also be in the mix, although the team would prefer to start one of the first two mentioned. Redman's experience will be invaluable as the team develops young Bell. Stephens-Howling could be the front runner for returning duties, while providing receiving threat out of the backfield on third-downs. If he takes over third-down, there could be little room left for Baron Batch, no matter how well he blocks.
FB: Will Johnson - Johnson needs to continue to improve his blocking, but he is easily the best fullback the Steelers have had since Dan Kreider. David Johnson may be back in town, but his non-brother Will is in no fear of losing his job.
TE: Heath Miller, David Paulson and Matt Spaeth - If Miller is unable to go at the beginning of the season, the team may opt to place him on injured reserve with designation for return, which would grant the team a roster exemption in his absence. If so, David Johnson or Jamie McCoy will be needed to provide a third tight end until Miller is cleared to come back.
WR: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress, Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown - After signing a big deal last year, Brown has become the cornerstone of the passing game. After a big deal was made about signing an offer sheet with the Patriots, Sanders returns to bookend Brown. Cotchery brings veteran wile to the slot, as does Burress to short-yardage situations. The big battle comes for the fifth spot. David Gilreath, Derek Moye and Justin Brown could find themselves in a three way battle for a sixth-spot, with a practice squad spot reserved for at least the runner up. Gilreath could leapfrog J. Brown if he can win a returner's job on special teams.
OT: Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert and Mike Ferrell - While the Steelers have plenty of quality talent to field one of their best lines in years, they just don't know where to play them; or who to play if they get hurt. Adams and Gilbert will be competing for both starting spots, while the loser will take the other. Either way, they will both start. Behind them, the team has no other tackles, outside of futures and undrafted players signed to the off-season roster. Because of his family ties to the NFL, this post was leaning toward Long, but settled on Farrell because of his height advantage over his peers; although it is just as likely for another free-agent to be brought in. At least one undrafted guy will wind up on the practice squad. Guards Foster and Beachum have the ability to move to tackle in emergencies.
OG: Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, Kelvin Beachum and John Malecki - Last year's starting left guard Willie Colon was released days after Foster signed a multi-year deal with the Steelers this off-season. Foster and DeCastro look to be the team's opening day starters. The team's website has Beachum listed as an interior lineman at left guard, after starting several games at tackle during his rookie season of 2012. Malecki's chances for making the roster would increase if he can become starting center Maurkice Pouncey's backup. With Doug Legursky gone, the team no longer has an insurance policy in place. The team brought in a few undrafted centers, but Malecki has experience with the team.
C: Maurkice Pouncey - In case there was any doubt...
LE: Ziggy Hood and Al Woods - Aaron Smith's old position will remain as it has since his career came to an end. Hood is out to prove he was the right choice to replace Smith. Woods is out to earn a future as a solid backup for a position not actively addressed this off-season.
RE: Brett Keisel and Cameron Heyward - The Beard returns for what will most likely be his final season in Pittsburgh. Heyward will need to find a way to prove to the team he is ready to replace Keisel when the time comes, or the team will be seeking his replacement as soon as next year's draft.
NT: Steve McLendon, Alameda Ta'amu - With Casey Hampton put out to pasture, McLendon will get his first crack at leading the defensive line as the primary starter. Ta'amu will be seeking redemption this pre-season, after poor judgment almost cost him his career and more during his rookie season. His redeeming efforts could set him above Hebron Fangupo and draftee Nicholas Williams.
LOLB: LaMarr Woodley, Adrian Robinson ROLB: Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones and Chris Carter - Carter and Robinson could be fighting over the final spot, should the team keep only four outside linebackers. The best backup option behind Woodley is Worilds, but he is slated to start on the right side this year. Robinson, Carter and Jones are all projected as right side backers; although Jones could possibly handle the left side better than the other two. Should something happen to Woodley, it would be more likely to see Worilds moved to the left promoting someone else to right side starter. This mock kept all five, using one primarily for special teams or gameday inactive duty.
ILB(Buck): Larry Foote, Vince Williams, ILB(Mack): Lawrence Timmons, Stevenson Sylvester - While the team may see different roles for Willams and Sylvester, they could replace either should a more suitable candidate make their presence known in camp, like a Brian Rolle or Marshall McFadden. The Steelers have said they will give Sean Spence another season to recuperate; he will spend the year on injured reserve.
CB: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian and Terry Hawthorne - Taylor and Allen are virtual locks for the outside starting spots. After shaky play down the final stretch of the 2012 season, Gay was brought in to sure up the depth in nickel packages. Brown, Victorian and DeMarcus Van Dyke will be battling it out for whatever roster spots remain, along with fifth-round selection Hawthorne. Lake has expressed an interest in working with the draft pick, giving him a good opportunity to make good on his coach's favor.
S: Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas - The Troy and Ryan show is slowly winding down, and the team needs to begin developing the talent behind them. Golden made the team as an undrafted rookie last season, and could have an inside track on Clark's spot. Thomas could be groomed to play a Polamlu like role, although with Will Allen and Ryan Mundy both gone to new teams, Cromartie-Smith could also make the roster as insurance disguised on special teams..
K: Shaun Suisham P: Drew Butler LS: Greg Warren - Expect this unit to look much like it did last year, only with better results under new positional coordinator Danny Smith. Danny Hrappman is on the roster to push Suisham, but Suisham had his best season as a pro last year, and the team will most likely wish to see him repeat his success. Brian Moorman was recently added to push sophomore Butler, however Moorman could simply be a mentor to the young Butler. Moorman is a veteran technician who could turn Butler into one of the league's best; or he could just steal his job. Warren is too consistent to consider someone beating him out this year.
The following eight players may not make the active roster, but could be retained by the team for developmental purposes:
RB John Clay - Curtis McNeal is the only RB remaining on the roster not previously mentioned in this post. Because Batch is no longer PS eligible, the team will most likely stash a back on the squad - but it probably won't be the tiny McNeal. Expect the team to make several swaps of camp bodies this off-season, one of them being a running back - possibly a return of Clay. Clay is not currently under contract with the team, but will serve as a placeholder here until the team finds their scout team back.
WR David Gilreath - Gilreath made the roster for a few games last season, even seeing some returner's duty. This writer is under the impression Gilreath is still PS eligible, even though he also spent a short time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year before returning to Pittsburgh. If he doesn't make the team in camp, he should still make the squad.
WR Derek Moye - Moye has Burress like size. If he can learn to utilize it to his advantage and develop a rapport with Roethlisberger, he could become a pet project for the future of the offense when Burress is gone.
TE Jamie McCoy - With D. Johnson back in camp to serve as a third TE in Miller's absence, McCoy should remain as the team's scout team tight end.
OT: Joe Long - Long, brother of the Rams Jake Long, does not share his sibling's exact skill; however, he may carry enough of the NFL gene to make the squad as an emergency tackle option. Long will have to beat out fellow tackles Golic and Penn State's Mike Farrell.
OG: Nik Embernate - When an NFL team brings you in for a visit, but doesn't end up drafting you; usually it means they closed the door on you. Embernate is one of the rare instances where a team who showed interest before, but passed on him in the draft only to sign him anyway as an undrafted free agent. The team obviously sees something in this young man.
NT: Nicholas Williams - If Williams proves the team right for drafting him in the first place, he could land on the scout team, if not the inactive active roster.
DE: Brian Arnfelt or Cordian Hagans - Both men stand 6-foot-4, at around 300 pounds of mass. With Keisel nearing retirement and the uncertain futures of Hood and Woods, expect the team to retain a LE on the squad.
NT: Anthony Rashad White - Weighing in at 335 pounds according to the team's official website, White sounds like he knows all about big snacks. Perhaps this sleeper could cause the team to forget about Fangupo or Ta'amu. White represents the wild card squad spot. This spot could easily go to LB Marshall McFadden, DB Isaiah Green or one of the draft picks. For this exercise, White's size seemed the most intriguing thing remaining.