This is a somewhat simpler exercise since we now know that both Casey Hampton and Rashard Mendenhall will be on the roster to start the year. Trying to project a roster with a few guys marked as disposable seat-fillers for injured veterans isn't always as straightforward as it might seem.
I only see three roster spots that are properly up for grabs - starting fullback/H-back, fifth wide receiver, and final backup defensive back; although I think there are four more spots that are not fully set in stone yet either - two backup TEs, one backup DE, and one backup LB.
My only target parameter from the outset for this was to end up with an even split of 25 offensive and 25 defensive players. This is how I'm projecting our 53-man roster right now, right this minute (though it's subject to change at any time) and presuming that neither James Harrison nor Jason Worilds stays on the PUP list into the regular season.
QB (3) - Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch
Pretty cut and dry.
Unless you have a particularly large man-crush on Jerrod Johnson and/or a particularly strong conviction that Charlie Batch is a walking fossil.
RB (4) - Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Chris Rainey, Rashard Mendenhall
Somewhere in the comments recently I said that I didn't think any of our RBs would be cut (recent signee Jason Ford notwithstanding). Then I properly charted things out and recounted the offensive numbers and have since reconsidered that assessment.
I like Baron Batch. I think he'd be an asset to the team. But I also think he is clearly 5th on the depth chart and don't think that anything short of a serious injury to someone ahead of him is going to change that.
On the upside, Batch has practice squad eligibility so hopefully we can stash him there.
FB/HB (1) - Jamie McCoy
In the mix - Justin Peelle, David Paulson, Will Johnson
The unfortunate ACL injury to David Johnson gives us our first spot that's a pretty open competition.
I like Will Johnson and his story as much as the next guy. I'd be very, very impressed if he went from being out of football for a full year to a Steelers starter just like that. More likely though, I think he'll end up on the practice squad this season.
I don't know much more about David Paulson than the fact that he's a rookie 7th rounder. I don't know much more about Justin Peelle than the fact that he's been in the league since 2002. (Actually, I do also know that they are both products of the University of Oregon.)
For now, I'll say that Jamie McCoy will be our starting H-back and just leave it at that (I will freely admit that I'm not working with a ton of evidence here). However, I will note that Peelle's decade of experience could end up a tiebreaker that'll swing the final decision in his favor (if all else is equal).
TE (3) - Heath Miller, Leonard Pope, Weslye Saunders
I know Saunders has to sit out four games with a suspension, but it was apparently just another one of those Adderall-prescription-that-was-not-properly-reported-to-the-league suspensions, as opposed to some really stupid decision-making. Saunders showed a few flashes as a rookie, and I think his potential long-term upside outweighs the short-term suspension.
Pope hasn't particularly impressed with his play so far, but a pretty reliable recent trend seems to be that a new coach always brings in a veteran that they know. Sean Kugler brought in Jonathan Scott. Al Everest brought in Arnaz Battle. Mike Tomlin brought in Sean Mahan. Haley brings in Pope.
Now, you are correct to cry out that Scott and Mahan only seem to be remembered for the wrong reasons and Battle was cut earlier this year for cap space. I don't know how long Pope will actually stick around for, or how his time in the black and gold will be remembered, but I do think he'll be on the roster at least for this season.
WR (5) - Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, David Gilreath
In the mix - Toney Clemons, Tyler Beiler, Marquis Maze
There are a number of other young receivers kicking around on the roster right now, and any one of them could end up making a strong push for the job in the next couple of weeks. I just chose to restrict my "in the mix" list to the three guys that seem to have the most fans outside of Gilreath.
We'll see if Gilreath can properly lock that spot down in the next few weeks. I will say though that I wonder if ability on special teams coverage will be a deciding factor, because we do have to replace Arnaz Battle's contributions.
OL (9) - Max Starks, Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert; Mike Adams, Trai Essex, Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster
Barring injury, I think the O-line is pretty cut and dry.
Kelvin Beachum and Ryan Lee have had some vocal supporters (maybe not so vocal for Beachum as of late), but I don't think either of them really has/had a shot of unseating Essex/Legursky/Foster this year.
DL (7) - Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon, Brett Keisel; Casey Hampton, Cameron Heyward, Alameda Ta'amu, Al Woods
It'll be an unusual year carrying three NTs, but Hampton, McLendon, and Ta'amu are all locks.
There's a need for a fourth DE to rotate behind Ziggy, Keisel, and Heyward. Between Al Woods and Corbin Bryant, I'm picking the one that has more in-game regular season experience.
LB (9) - LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, James Harrison; Jason Worilds, Chris Carter, Sean Spence, Stevenson Sylvester, Brandon Johnson
Some folks may not like that I'm leaving off Adrian Robinson - the rookie UDFA that's been making some real noise - but I don't see who the likely cut is to make room for him.
Robinson is not beating out Worilds, Carter, or Spence - all three of whom are young players, and the team still wants to realize a return on the draft picks invested for each of them. Sylvester would be in the same category if he hadn't just torn his MCL, but he's still expected to be back in about a month. Now this brings us to Johnson...
The Steelers rarely sign veteran free agents to begin with, so would they really go out and sign Brandon Johnson, just to turn around and cut him in favor of a rookie UDFA? Johnson may not be setting the world on fire right now, but you can probably chalk up a bit of that to him still learning how to play multiple positions in a brand new defense. The vast majority of his NFL experience came in Cincy's 4-3, so there are definitely some adjustments that he needs to make as he fits in.
You can also look at it this way - if we don't keep Johnson, our backup LBs will have a combined five seasons of NFL experience. I'm not sure if we've ever gone into a season where all of our backup LBs were so young, inexperienced, and unproven.
DB (9) - Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Keenan Lewis; Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Ryan Mundy, Will Allen, Robert Golden
In the mix: Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, Myron Rolle
Last year, we kept six cornerbacks, usually we keep five, but this year I think we're just keeping four.
We're now feeling pretty confident that we have some serviceable youth at corner, and we need to do the same at safety. The way I see it, a fifth safety would also be in a position to learn more from the veterans ahead of him than a fifth corner like Terrence Frederick that'd be fighting with Lewis/Allen/Brown for feedback from Ike.
Mundy is going to be the primary backup at safety, and I have Will Allen making it too - mainly because I'm betting he'll also be our special teams captain this year. Arnaz Battle was the captain last year but he's gone, and I don't see anyone else on the roster that might fit the bill (last week I might've thrown a longshot wager on Sylvester, but that's not happening since he hurt his knee).
I personally love Myron Rolle and his story, but if Golden is the one making more plays, it's tough to bet against him.
K - Shaun Suisham, P - Jeremy Kapinos, LS - Greg Warren
Practice Squad (8):
QB - Jerrod Johnson
RB - Baron Batch
FB/TE - Will Johnson/David Paulson
WR - Toney Clemons
OL - Kelvin Beachum/Ryan Lee
DL - Corbin Bryant
LB - Adrian Robinson
CB - Terrence Frederick
I'm hoping we keep Jerrod Johnson on the practice squad, but I also wouldn't be surprised if we did not. With or without him, I think this will be a strong and flexible group of developmental projects.