Projecting the 2013 Steelers top-25 defensive players

USA TODAY Sports

The league's oldest defense will rely heavily on veteran experience this year as they pursue post-season aspirations, but there are plenty of opportunities for the inexperienced to displace their elders.

Throughout the remainder of the preseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be trying to solve the NFL roster-building equivalence of a Sudoku puzzle. Each piece must not only fit within its own positional group, but it must also compliment specific packages and supplement the roster as a whole.

This roster projection will use the same solving philosophy as the popular numeric puzzle - process of elimination. Every NFL roster is made up of 53 players. Eliminating the place kicker, punter and long-snapper leaves and average of 25 players per unit. We will begin much like we did with the offense, accounting for the more obvious answers first which will narrow down our actual tough decisions.

The Starters

  1. Ziggy Hood - LE
  2. Steve McLendon - NT
  3. Brett Keisel - RE
  4. LaMarr Woodley - LOLB
  5. Jason Worilds - ROLB
  6. Lawrence Timmons - BILB
  7. Larry Foote - MILB
  8. Ike Taylor - CB
  9. Cortez Allen - CB
  10. Ryan Clark - FS
  11. Troy Polamalu - SS

Starting jobs may change hands between players by the opening of the regular season, but for now these 11 players are the most-likely to remain on the roster somewhere throughout. The company ladder runs both ways, it will be up to players like Worilds and Allen to decide which rung they wind up on.

The Reserves

Beginning with the secondary, we find the next five most likely cut survivors.

  1. William Gay - CB
  2. Curtis Brown - CB
  3. Robert Golden - FS
  4. Shamarko Thomas - SS
  5. Terry Hawthorne - DB

We already know the Steelers expect to use Gay outside in Nickel packages, moving Allen into the slot. This virtually guarantees Gay will make the roster barring some catastrophic screw-up or physical breakdown. Brown will probably cling to the roster due to his inexpensive salary over the final two years of his rookie contract, after being the team's third-round selection in 2011. He may not have been overly impressive last season in spot relief, but he is still a work in progress. He will have to be severely outperformed to be displaced from the roster.

The most questionable name in this group could be Hawthorne. His name could be replaced by a veteran teammate with experience and without practice squad eligibility, however secondary coach Carnell Lake sees big things in Hawthorne's future. If Lake is correct, Hawthorne's potential could trump the mediocrity of his teammates in the end. The team did sign him to a contract despite the surgical procedure to remove bone fragments from his knee which could sideline him for both remaining OTA sessions, however he was most likely signed for insurance purposes to cover the cost of his operation. He will need to earn his roster spot like any other player, especially rookies.

Moving inward toward the front-seven, we find our next group of five.

  1. Adrian Robinson - LOLB
  2. Jarvis Jones - ROLB
  3. Marshall McFadden - MILB
  4. Stevenson Sylvester - MILB
  5. Vince Williams - BILB

Last year, Robinson saw most of his preseason activity from the left side of the defense, although he was rushing from a down position. If he has made adequate progress from a defensive end mentality to stand-up linebacker, his 250 pound frame could become the primary backup to Woodley if Worilds is able to hold off rookie Jones for the other starting job. McFadden and Sylvester seem the most probable interior reserves, although both are of the smaller Mack variety. Their true value lies in their special teams contributions. Williams is the most questionable of this group, however he best fits the "Buck" mentality of the 3-4 alignment. Despite being a late-round pick (6th), he could earn a job because of a lack of true competition; even if the team decides to deactivate him on gamedays early in place of special teammers Sylvester and McFadden.

The Final Four

While on the offensive side the final four roster spots were divided evenly among several positional groups, on defense we are still lacking our second-unit defensive line, which will take over the first three spots.

  1. Cameron Heyward - RE
  2. Alameda Ta'amu - NT
  3. Al Woods - LE

Ta'amu has one advantage over his teammates when it comes to positional battles - he has experience in the system. Not only will he be trying to outshine his on-field struggles from last season, but he will also be attempting to reward the Steelers patience with his off-field issues. If he makes the necessary progress this off-season, he should be the favorite to back up McLendon. The team is not talking about Casey Hampton, so neither will we -- for now.

With 24 of 25 possible spots already accounted for, the last slot is a wild card. As it stands now, the roster contains 9 LBs, 9 DBs and 6 DLs - an adequate distribution for gamedays. The final player named could find their self among those deactivated from week-to-week, but at least they will have a job. For this exercise, we will limit our choices to those players who are no longer practice squad eligible and can contribute on special teams when they are active. As with the offense, voice your opinion in the poll below on who you believe will leave training camp with the final job.

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