The first round of cuts have come and gone, so it's time for another roll call! With mini-camp and OTAs getting nixed this past summer because of the lockout, teams only had to get down to 80 guys with this first cut, instead of the 75 guys it usually is. This time through, commentary is much more focused on the remaining depth battles that'll be decided this final week of the preseason, and who should be in the mix for the practice squad.
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. "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). Only our top three picks - Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, and Curtis Brown - are locks to make the team.
As always, roll call starts with the signal callers.
QB (3) - Ben Roethlisberger, Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch
In the wake of the unfortunate injury to Byron Leftwich, our quarterback situation looks to be cut and dry.
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)
Dwyer did make the final cut last year and seems to have gotten back up to speed after showing up to camp overweight and out of shape. To Dwyer's additional benefit, Clay hasn't shown a whole lot thus far, but at least he provided a humorous reprieve: miscommunication is often amusing.
We need a RB on the practice squad, so Johnson/Clay might stick around. But don't forget about the possibility of signing a back to our PS that another team cut.
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). Cotchery, a former Jet and savvy veteran target, will be in.
In the mix: Arnaz Battle
Offseason signings: Tyler Grisham (PS), Wes Lyons
Rookies: Armand Robinson (Miami (Ohio))
It's between Battle and Grisham for the last spot. If Battle wins, Grisham is probably a lock for the PS. If Grisham wins, Lyons might get a look for the PS.
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, while Battle is 6'1 and Grisham is 5'11. But they'll be very, very good.
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: Weslye Saunders (South Carolina)
Gilmore is a seasoned vet - nine years in the league with Chicago and Tampa Bay. Saunders has shown potential as an offensive weapon, but blocking is still very much a work in progress.
If Miguel Chavis - the UDFA DE turned TE out of Clemson - hadn't torn a pectoral against Atlanta, I'm sure he would've been PS bound. As it is, I'm not sure Saunders is the kind of guy we can sneak to the PS (based on the potential he has and status he once enjoyed of being one of the top TE prospects in college football). But whenever I catch myself saying that, I think back to Redman's rookie year (granted, Redman was unheralded out of D-II Bowie State before blowing up training camp). Sometimes you just never know, and I'm not going to pretend I have any more insight than that.
OL (9) - Jonathan Scott, Willie Colon - OT; Chris Kemoeatu, Tony Hills - 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 guaranteed to start at RT in the wake of Max Starks and Flozell Adams getting released for much needed salary cap relief.
At guard, Kemoeatu should be on the left, and by all accounts Tony Hills should be the guy on the right come Week 1, while our young wonder Pouncey holds everything together at center. Legursky will back up all of the interior positions on gameday.
In the mix: Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, Chris Scott
Offseason signings: Kyle Jolly (PS), 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)
Second round pick Marcus Gilbert is in, and Essex should be as well with our need for veteran experience among the depth guys (his position flexibility would make him the other back up O-lineman active on gameday). Foster probably will round out the group, since he's the most experienced guy left, and I see him as the most likely to get the call to fill in at guard for any extended period of time due to an injury.
Williams should be a lock for our PS (provided no one else is so in love with him that they have room for him on their active roster), and C. Scott, Jolly, or maybe even Turner (Mike's personal favorite) could end up there as well.
DL (7) - Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke - NT; Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith - DE
Smith, Keisel, and Ziggy 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 (though Dale Lolley mentioned in his live chat here at BTSC that Hoke could be a surprise cut with the wealth of young talent currently in the pipeline).
In the mix:
Rookies: Cameron Heyward (1st round - DE, Ohio State), 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 should ideally 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. Heyward will probably get his feet wet a few times as the season progresses, but next year is when we should safely expect him to start regularly crushing opponents' hopes and dreams.
As such, look for another DE to be included in the rotation to help keep elder statesmen Smith and Keisel as fresh as possible. And look for McLendon to be that guy - he was brought up for depth when Smith got injured last season, and it's just 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.
But do note that our undrafted rookies have shown good potential - Lolley in particular said he likes what he's seen from Bryant and Anthony Gray (DT from Southern Miss who was released today). Someone is going to be signed to the PS, and hopefully some DL-poor team doesn't waltz in and completely raid the place like Tampa Bay did last year (grabbing Al Woods and Doug Worthington off of our PS).
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: 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 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 ninth LB 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 is a near-lock to make the team based on his quick first step and natural pass rushing ability. If he does make it, he's also a lock to never be active on game day because he needs to bulk up and get much stronger. Harrison and Woodley are inked long-term, but we need to constantly develop OLB talent because who knows what can happen. Rather than hoping Carter will clear waivers for the PS, it's just much safer to keep him around as an inactive guy while he develops and we stuff him with momma's home cooking - he's listed at 248, but some have said that's pretty generous because he looks like he could be a safety at the moment.
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. If we only go with 8 at LB, I like Ivy to the PS.
DB (9) - Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden - CB; Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Will Allen, Ryan Mundy - S
Troy and Clark are starting safeties, that's a given. Will Allen should be the primary back up if he's healthy, and Ryan Mundy will be when Allen is not.
However, depth at cornerback is pretty murky, and both Ike and McFadden are going to be coming back from injuries.
In the mix: William Gay, Crezdon Butler, Keenan Lewis - CB
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), Brett Greenwood (S, Iowa)
Third round pick Curtis Brown is in. But after Brown, there's a glut of bodies swirling around right now in this DB stew, and who knows for sure who is going to bubble to the top.
Between Gay/Butler/Lewis/Warren -- pick two. Granted, that's based on the numbers breakdown I've charted out, so it's certainly not set in stone (as I said up top). If you want to keep one less guy at another position -- then pick three and sound off about it in the comments. But not four -- I feel like that would leave us too thin elsewhere***.
Cortez Allen has good size and potential, but is also still raw enough at this stage that I don't think anyone is going to be clearing a space on their 53-man roster for him. As such, I like Allen to the PS, and Cromartie-Smith as well if we can squeeze him through waivers.
***Personal editorial note: I don't like the idea of "fixing" our secondary by putting all of our eggs in the DB basket and keeping a lot of bodies there, because that is to the detriment of our depth and development at other positions. The way I see it, keeping more bodies isn't necessarily for the better anyways: there are only so many reps to go around in the first place, and only so much time that the coaches have to spend with them anyways. Keeping more bodies results in less reps for each individual if you want to work each of them (and why wouldn't you, since the whole point of keeping someone on the roster is to work them), and it dilutes the amount of personal attention that Carnell Lake, et al. can provide for each guy. Quantity alone won't solve our problems, quality coaching and development will.
Kicker - Shaun Suisham
Punter - Daniel Sepulveda
Long snapper - Greg Warren
In the mix: Jeremy Kapinos - P
Offseason signings: Swayze Waters - K
Want to keep Waters as a kickoff specialist (or maybe just for his cool name)? Let us know who you would cut to make room for him.
Practice Squad Candidates:
RB - Johnson, Clay
WR - Grisham, Lyons
TE - Saunders
OL - Williams, C. Scott, Jolly
DL - Bryant
LB - Ivy
DB - Warren, Allen, Cromartie-Smith
All the guys I mentioned above as possible final cuts who would have a shot at the PS have been collected here. Who do you want to see on our 8-man squad?