Here we are, the week before the third preseason game. There's been some changes and some shuffling around since the first edition as injuries and additional transactions have continued to shape the Steelers preseason roster, so it's time for a roll call.
To let you know how to read this:
The numbers in parentheses indicate how many people I think should fall into each position group when we go into the season, with the general breakdown at 25 each for offense and defense plus the 3 specialists. The exact numbers for each position are definitely not set in stone though, so maybe we'll have 8 LB and 10 DB instead of 9 LB and 9 DB (it's more a rough guideline to work from than anything).
Guys on the first line of each position group are starters/back ups I see as locks (or at least pretty safe bets barring serious injury) to make the team. "In the mix" are guys returning under contract and any free agent signings (including of our own in-house guys) that can't take anything for granted in camp. "Offseason signings" are the usual collection of castoffs that haven't qualified for free agency and chose to (re)sign with the Steelers at the end of the 2010 season (guys returning from our practice squad have a "PS" after their names).
Rookies are noted separately for convenience with their school, position clarification within the unit (if I thought it necessary), and round in which they were drafted (if applicable). Aside from the top three draft picks - Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, and Curtis Brown - most of the rookies should certainly be considered "in the mix" rather than locks.
Alright now, let's start the roll call on offense with the newlywed and his backups.
QB (3) - Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich
Cut and dry.
In the mix: Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon
I neglected to mention Charlie Batch here before, but don't count him out yet. Dixon took awhile to sign his RFA tender because he (and/or his agent) had pipe dreams of getting traded somewhere with an opportunity to start, but he's going to have to earn it to stick as our 3rd QB. However it shakes out, this should be a position of strength.
RB (4) - Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Mewelde Moore
Mendenhall is our workhorse, Redman the cult hero, and Moore is back as our 3rd-down back.
In the mix: Jonathan Dwyer
Offseason signings: James Johnson
Rookies: John Clay (Wisconsin)
Baron Batch's injury was quite the punch in the gut.
Moore has been our 3rd down/utility back since he signed with us as a free agent in 2008, but he's getting up there in age (just turned 29) and it's time to consider younger talent. In terms of skill set, Batch was almost without a doubt best suited for replacing Moore's role. But now we just have to hope Batch will return healthy, hungry, and ready to make an impact again next year.
I said before that Dwyer and Clay could be an interesting camp battle, and it's even more so now that Batch is out for the year. To give you the quick rundown: Dwyer and Clay were both successful lead backs at one point - Dwyer in '08 had 1,395 yards (7.0 avg) and 12 TDs, ACC Player of the Year; Clay in '09 had 1,517 yards (5.3 avg) and 18 TDs, Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year. They both have skill sets that seem to be better suited for being a lead back rather than a 3rd-down role, however, they both can list a lack of top end speed, lack of receiving ability, and weight problems as reasons for their draft stocks plummeting.
Dwyer did make the final cut last year and absolutely should have had the clear edge coming into camp this year, but he showed up overweight and out of shape. To Dwyer's benefit, Clay hasn't shown a whole lot thus far, but at least he provided a humorous reprieve: miscommunication is often amusing.
WR (6) - Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery
Reigning Dancing with the Stars champion Hines Ward will preside over his band of merry young 'uns - Wallace hasn't come close to maxing out his talent yet and will only further solidify himself as the primary target in this offense, while Sanders and Brown are going to be hungry to build on encouraging rookie campaigns (though who knows when Sanders will actually be back to full strength and completely uninhibited by his foot surgeries). The uncertainty with Sanders makes Cotchery, the former Jet, a lock.
In the mix: Arnaz Battle
Offseason signings: Tyler Grisham (PS), Wes Lyons, Kenny Moore
Rookies: Eric Greenwood (Idaho), Terrence McCrae (Ohio), Armand Robinson (Miami (Ohio))
Adios and vaya con dios to Limas Sweed. I'm deeply saddened that he was never able to fulfill his potential in a Steelers uniform, and wish the best of luck to the young man wherever he finds himself in the future.
If the coaching staff decides not to retain Battle as the 6th WR/special teams ace, Grisham's most likely to be the beneficiary - he was called up from our practice squad in 2009 after the Steelers cut Shaun McDonald in late November and Sweed's personal/emotional problems began to loom large. Grisham played in the last four games to close out that season, and spent all of last year doing his due diligence on the practice squad. Some have described him to be like a poor man's Wes Welker.
However it shakes out, our receiving corps is going to be a bit of a smurf squad again: of the five locks at the top, the tallest are Hines/Wallace/Cotchery at 6' even.
TE (3) - Heath Miller, David Johnson
Miller really does do it all and is eternally underrated for it. Johnson plays plenty of lead blocking H-back, but for simplicity I'm calling him a tight end.
In the mix: John Gilmore
Offseason signings: Jamie McCoy
Rookies: Vaughn Charlton (Temple), Weslye Saunders (South Carolina), Miguel Chavis (DE, Clemson)**
**Note: Chavis has switched between DE and TE, which is interesting because his switch officially came on the same day as Eugene Bright's release - who had also switched back and forth between TE and DE during his time with us
What's missing is a real #2 TE to back up Miller, and since Matt Spaeth signed with the Bears, the UDFAs here have a real shot at making the team. On one hand, Charlton is a former college QB that switched to TE his senior season and could be an interesting player with a hybrid skill set. On the other hand, Saunders' story is a bit of an adventure. He had actually once intended to enter the '10 draft before deciding to return for his senior season.
Last summer, Saunders was regarded as one of the top TE prospects. Then he got caught up in the NCAA investigation into agent-related activity and illegal benefits: Saunders is friends with Marvin Austin and was with him on a couple of trips where agents paid for Austin, and twice lied to NCAA investigators about it before coming clean; he was investigated for a trip to Miami that may have involved contact with an agent; and he was also living in a hotel with a number of other South Carolina players long-term without paying standard rates. Saunders was kicked off the Gamecocks for good in September. He probably still would've been drafted (as many former UNC players were) if he hadn't sustained a stress fracture in his foot while working out at the combine.
OL (9) - Jonathan Scott, Willie Colon - OT; Chris Kemoeatu - G; Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky - C
For better or worse, Jonathan Scott looks to be our starting LT until someone else proves they can do it better. Colon is back and practically guaranteed to start at RT in the wake of Max Starks and Flozell Adams getting released for much needed salary cap relief.
Colon's done good work for us before, and coming into training camp he said that "he believes he’s a better student of the game now after offensive line coach Sean Kugler made him put together a scouting report each week last year in hopes of keeping him engaged."
At guard, Kemoeatu is on the left, the revolving door remains on the right, and our young wonder Pouncey holds everything together at center. Legursky will likely back up all of the interior positions on gameday.
In the mix: Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, Tony Hills, Chris Scott
Offseason signings: Kyle Jolly, John Malecki**
Rookies: Marcus Gilbert (2nd round - G/T, Florida), Keith Williams (6th round - G, Nebraska), Colin Miller (C, Central Michigan), Trevis Turner (OT, Abilene Christian)
**Note: Malecki was signed to replace Dorian Brooks, who left camp for some reason (anyone got the full story on that and not just speculation?)
Who would've thought that Tony Hills would not just throw his name into the hat for the competition at RG, but be the guy to start separating himself from the pack? Go ahead, raise your hand if you called it. Now put it back down, no one believes you. Even though many of us have been frustrated in the past with his lack of on-field contributions (myself included), the team has had their reasons for keeping him around (relinked from Simonsen's piece). And these days, Hills has plenty of extra motivation to solidify his place on the team.
Also, be on the lookout for a swing-tackle type that can hopefully back up both LT and RT - someone to function how J. Scott did for the first half of last season before Starks went on IR with a neck injury. Trai Essex was just brought back and even though he's missed all of training camp, Essex might have the inside track to assume that role given his veteran experience, if he shows he can hold up physically in these next two weeks. You can draw whatever conclusions you like on what the move says about our depth, but I just see it as highlighting that we were three injuries away - to J. Scott, Kemoeatu, and Colon (especially significant since the first two have already been hobbled this preseason) - from having a starting offensive line that probably could not put together 10 years of experience in the league between the five of them no matter what combination of leftover guys was fielded. Debate Essex's effectiveness all you want (and it is easily debatable), but we could use another experienced veteran in the very young position group: average age excluding J. Scott/Kemoeatu/Colon/Essex = 23.8.
Second round pick Marcus Gilbert should just soak up everything he can while Kugler teaches him how to play like one of the big boys, and hopefully he'll grow into our future at LT.
DL (7) - Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke - NT; Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith - DE
Smith, Keisel, and Ziggy should make for a solid gameday rotation at the ends. Big Snack is going to plug the middle as always, and Hokie is a great team guy that's been backing up Hampton for going on eight years now.
In the mix:
Rookies: Cameron Heyward (1st round - DE, Ohio State), Anthony Gray (DT, Southern Miss), Corbin Bryant (DE, Northwestern), Jarrett Crittenton (DE, Middle Tenn. St.)
Don't expect first round pick Cameron Heyward to be playing much early in the season - and I don't care how emphatically you may point at how he's been doing against second-stringers and their ilk during these preseason games. Instead, Heyward will be spending most of his time watching and learning from the combined powers of Smith/Keisel/Ziggy, just like how they brought along Ziggy his rookie year. As such, look for another DE to be included in the rotation to help keep elder statesmen Smith and Keisel as fresh as possible. Ideally, this role would be filled by a savvy old veteran like Nick Eason, but unfortunately that's not an option.
McLendon should get the call to show what he's learned the past couple of years - he was brought up as a depth guy when Smith got injured last season, and it's just a bunch of rookies behind him right now since Ra'Shon Harris (who sustained a foot injury in the first preseason game against the Redskins) was released to make room for Cotchery.
LB (9) - James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds - OLB; James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester - ILB
Harrison and Woodley are one of the best pass rushing tandems in the league. Worild's is sure to be back behind them, and as last year's second round pick, the coaching staff is certainly expecting him to make a big jump this year.
Timmons is a stud, a beast in the middle, and he earned his extension. Farrior's a well respected team leader and his tank isn't quite empty yet, and Foote will likely be the primary backup inside based on experience. Looking to the future, Sylvester could be a real keeper. He impressed all over the field during camp and could start getting his number called this season to be more than just a special teams demon. Sylvester's progress (in addition to lack of cap room) almost certainly made the front office's decision much easier to let Keyaron Fox walk.
Offseason signings: Chris Ellis (PS), Baraka Atkins, Mortty Ivy, Chris McCoy
Rookies: Chris Carter (5th round - OLB, Fresno State), Mario Harvey (ILB, Marshall)
My guess is that they'll try to round out the group with one more OLB and a maybe a developmental project/stud special teamer who could be either position. We had Thaddeus Gibson (last year's 4th round pick) on the roster as a depth OLB coming out of last training camp, but lost him to the 49ers when we tried to slide him to the practice squad to make room on the roster for McLendon when Aaron Smith effectively went down for the season. This year's 5th-round pick Chris Carter might have a shot to make it if he shows the same kind of skills/potential that Gibson did in preseason last year. Not much has really been written focusing on Mortty Ivy, but his name has been popping up here and there as a guy that's quietly been playing hard, playing well, and doing the best he can with his reps to put himself in consideration for a spot.
DB (9) - Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden - CB; Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Will Allen - S
Troy and Clark are starting safeties, that's a given. Will Allen should be the primary back up.
However, depth at cornerback is pretty murky. Ike resigning is huge because without him (Ike is confident he'll be back for the season opener at Baltimore), McFadden would've been our only sure-to-return veteran with any real experience - and McFadden's limitation is that he's much more of a sure-tackler rather than the lockdown kind of guy that'll make QBs wary and free up other DBs to roam elsewhere on the field. Behind them, it will be very interesting to see how the mix of young guys shakes out under new secondary coach Carnell Lake.
In the mix: William Gay, Crezdon Butler, Keenan Lewis, Kevin Dockery - CB; Ryan Mundy - S
Offseason signings: Donovan Warren - CB; Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith (PS), Macho Harris - S
Rookies: Curtis Brown (3rd round - CB, Texas), Cortez Allen (4th round - CB, Citadel), Niles Brinkley (CB, Wisconsin), Brett Greenwood (S, Iowa)
I'd be surprised if someone beats out Mundy for the last safety spot - he hasn't played a whole lot thus far, but I think he acquitted himself well with a solid outing against the Jets during the regular season when Troy was out, and that does count for a bit.
Third round pick Curtis Brown should be a safe bet to make the squad based on draft status, even if he were to seem completely lost every time he hit the field this preseason. Entering camp, I saw Gay, Butler, Lewis, and 4th-round pick Cortez Allen as the guys who should be headlining the fight for the last two roster spots. But with the glut of bodies swirling around right now in this DB stew, who knows for sure who is going to bubble to the top.
Kicker - Shaun Suisham
Punter - Daniel Sepulveda
Long snapper - Greg Warren
In the mix: Jeremy Kapinos - P
Offseason signings: Swayze Waters - K
Kevin Colbert simply and elegantly summed up our prospects for the 2011 season (or really any season for that matter): "How we do this year is going to depend on how much progression we get from our young guys compared to the regression by the older guys."