Projecting the 2013 Steelers top-25 offensive players

USA TODAY Sports

A glance at the final 53-man roster from the offensive side of the ball asks several questions - some obvious and others not so much.

Opinions on roster projections are like mock drafts. Everybody has one.

So much can happen between today and opening day, any name added to an imaginary depth chart should be penciled in. With the first round of OTAs completed, a second on the way and training camp yet to follow; several competitions will have to be decided before the Pittsburgh Steelers decide their final 53-man roster.

Most roster projections attempt to spell out all 53 men at once, thinking it possible to describe all the reasons why one player will be chosen over another for each roster spot, in 500 words or less. For this exercise, we will explore the team by unit - more specifically the offensive unit.

If we begin by subtracting the three specialists (place kicker, punter and longsnapper), the roster contains 50 players. More often than not, teams will divide the roster in half, allowing 25 players per unit. This projection will hold to this parameter.

The Starting 11

With some players, starts are highly overrated, as they are awarded to the players on the field for the opening play. Given the wide variety of formations used by Todd Haley, the Steelers could line up in any of a multitude of configurations. This list of starters is simply a push to start the ball rolling.

  1. QB Ben Roethlisberger
  2. FB Will Johnson
  3. RB Jonathan Dwyer
  4. TE Heath Miller
  5. WR Antonio Brown
  6. WR Emmanuel Sanders
  7. OT Marcus Gilbert
  8. OG Ramon Foster
  9. C Maurkice Pouncey
  10. OG David DeCastro
  11. OT Mike Adams

Whether Miller is ready to go by opening day or not, he will be on the roster. Should the team choose to PUP him, they would have a temporary roster exemption; but Miller is still going to return to the roster. The team may still have to sort out pecking orders for the running backs and offensive linemen, but each player listed here is a virtual lock to make the roster somewhere.

The Reserves

The next five also seem guaranteed to make the team as primary backups, if they don't win starting jobs of their own.

  1. QB Bruce Gradkowski
  2. RB Le'Veon Bell
  3. WR Jerricho Cotchery
  4. TE David Paulson
  5. OL Kelvin Beachum

Who knows where Beachum will finally land on the depth chart. He played six games at right tackle last season. As expected, he began learning the interior positions; and now, the rumors about his learning center gave gotten a bit louder. As of right now, he appears to be the top reserve at each spot along the line.

Cotchery falls in third among receivers for his experience in the offense. He may actually land further down, but with the team out of salary cap trouble this year, there is little advantage to releasing him.

If Miller is unable to open the season, Paulson will most likely remain the second TE, with Spaeth taking Miller's spot.

Continuing the theme of reserves, the next five again seem destined to fill predetermined roles, making them likely cut survivors.

  1. QB Landry Jones
  2. RB Isaac Redman
  3. WR Plaxico Burress
  4. WR Markus Wheaton
  5. TE Matt Spaeth

At the moment, Jones seems to be competing against John Parker Wilson for the Steelers third QB spot, which used to belong to Charlie Batch. Unless Wilson has a great camp, Jones wins in case of a tie because of his being a fourth-round draft selection. It does not make him irreplaceable, but he would cost more to release.

Redman falls into the same category as Cotchery - there is zero advantage to the team releasing him at this point, after offering him a $1.323 million RFA tender. The team does not need his cap space, and his experience increases his value.

The receiving corps rounds out with Burress and Wheaton. Not everyone is sold on Burress making the roster, but considering the team's emphasis on red-zone efficiency, Burress creates a big target in tight situations. Wheaton could eventually be better than Mike Wallace ever was, but he may not be ready for a heavy role from the beginning. Regardless, there is little chance of Wheaton not surviving training camp, outside of injury.

The Final Four

If this projection is accurate so far, 21 of the possible 25 spots are accounted for. The final four spots appear to be the true opportunities on the offensive side of the ball.

  1. John Malecki
  2. Guy Whimper
  3. La'Rod Stephens-Howling
  4. David Gilreath/Reggie Dunn/Justin Brown/Derek Moye

With all of our quarterbacks and tight end slots filled, no more will be added. If Miller can't begin the season, David Johnson would be retained as insurance; however, if Miller can't begin the season, he will most likely begin on the PUP list creating a roster exemption for Johnson.

The biggest need remaining is the offensive line. With only six players accounted for so far, it is safe to assume at least two of the final four roster spots will go to linemen. The team has liked Mike Golic, Jr. so far, even running him at tackle during rookie orientation; but the team did sign OT Guy Whimper in free-agency. John Malecki is a carryover from last season, giving him a slight advantage over his peers. This projection will stay conservative and go with Whimper and Malecki for their veteran experience.

The final two spots must be chosen from three possible positions - RB, WR and OL. Like with any NFL team, these final players must be able to contribute on special teams, as well as their positional duties. In 2012, the team went with five receivers and five running backs. Will this year be different?

This projection will select one of each. The remaining running backs are La'Rod Stephens-Howling, Baron Batch and Curtis McNeil. Each can contribute on special teams, but Stephens-Howling could be the returner the team will be needing with Chris Rainey no longer on the roster. Batch did manage to hang onto the roster last season, but with the roster running out of spots, he may get squeezed out in the end.

The receiver selection could be decided by special teams as well. Gilreath returned a few kicks last year, and everyone wants to know what rookie Reggie Dunn could do; but the team also has a pair of bigger receivers in rookie Justin Brown and his former teammate Derek Moye. Which one makes it? Voice your opinion in the poll below.

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