Heading into the home stretch of training camp, the Steelers are primed to have some pretty fierce competition for spots on the final 53-man roster.
It won't all be decided in this last week of camp, the Steelers still have two preseason games before the roster needs to be trimmed to 75 on August the 26th, and a further one preseaon game after that before final cuts on August the 30th, but this will be the last week that players on the bubble have a chance to impress up close and personal in an environment designed to showcase their talent.
On defense, competition rages at all three levels of the defense, but for the sake of a manageable scope this article shall focus only on the defensive backs and linebackers.
At the safety position, Mike Mitchell, Troy Polamalu and Shamarko Thomas are all roster locks, and beneath them is veteran Will Allen, who although not assured a roster spot, seems a likely candidate given his experience in the Steelers defense.
At cornerback, Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay are locked in. The Steelers are going to need to keep at least 5 true cornerbacks, and Antwon Blake seems a frontrunner for one of those spots due to his stellar training camp thus far. The last place will most likely come down to a battle between rookie Shaquille Richardson and Brice McCain
At linebacker, the Steelers have 5 virtual roster locks (starting four plus Spence). To add to that, Arthur Moats and Vince Williams are likely candidates for quality position depth.
Lets say for argument sake that between the defensive backs and linebackers, the Steelers keep 18 total guys on the 53-man roster. That's a pretty reasonable estimate.
So, as it stands it's safe to say that 16 of the 18 spots between the linebackers and defensive backs are secure ( that includes Will Allen, who will be difficult but not impossible to unseat). That leaves a precious two spots for those on the roster bubble.
The most pivotal trait separating those players that are awarded these final spots from those who are not will not be their proficiency at cornerback, safety or linebacker, although of course that will be of huge importance, it will be their ability to contribute on special teams.
Special teams is how a guy on the bubble earns his spot. It's distinctly unglamorous, but a great special teams player who has a degree of potential will always grab the roster spot way down the depth chart over a guy with similar potential and little to offer on special teams, perhaps even if he has shown a little more promise.
That's just the reality of the NFL.
Third year pro Robert Golden is a good example. He made the team in 2012 as an undrafted free agent in part due to his special teams ability. He finds himself yet again on the roster bubble in 2014, but his special teams ability is well established, with Pro Football Focus grading him as the second best in the league last season. He has performed well thus fair in training camp, getting reps with the first team on occasion, and could be a candidate to knock off Will Allen. If not, I'd consider him a front runner for the 17th spot considering his ST prowess and two years experience in the Steelers defense.
Another safety making waves is second year pro Jordan Dangerfield. Realistically, the odds seem to be really stacked against this guy. Positionally, he's got the more experienced Robert Golden above him and up until now he's not had much chance to prove himself on ST. However, he's been lighting up training camp and had a stellar game against the Giants in preseason, notably on special teams. He played 18 snaps on ST, registering two tackles and downing a punt. He faces a very tough road going forward, but all he can do is continue to make cutting him difficult and prove himself on special teams, that will be his best avenue towards a roster spot.
Will Allen is already a proven special teams player, and a veteran presence, but my feelings are if a young safety impresses enough , Allen's spot isn't guaranteed.
Cornerback Brice McCain is in contention, especially if the Steelers opt to keep six true cornerbacks, but he hasn't done a great deal to differentiate himself from the crowd thus far.
Linebacker is where the numbers crunch really comes into effect. The Steelers currently have a wealth of talent/potential who, under different circumstances, could all make the 53-man roster.
As it stands, Terence Garvin, Jordan Zumwalt, Howard Jones and Chris Carter are all likely competing for that 18th, and final roster spot.
For my money, Terence Garvin has to be the front runner. He impressed the Steelers enough last season to make the 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent, and has significantly more experience on special teams and in the Steelers defense than any of his competition save Chris Carter. The player known as "big safety" played in 15 games last season, starting one, and made 9 solo tackles on special teams. His athleticism is a real boon in a league that is becoming increasingly proliferated with nickel and dime defensive packages, and he's practiced at both inside and outside linebacker. Garvin's potential to cover in space means he is not just limited to the traditional linebacker role. It's also a big plus on special teams, where he must continue to improve to secure a roster spot.
Carter has three years experience in the Steelers system as a 5th round draft pick, but he's never managed to earn any significant snaps on defense, nor has he particularly stood out on special teams. His experience at outside linebacker, a position without much depth, may weigh in his favor but I don't think he trumps Garvin's overall potential.
It is Jordan Zumwalt and Howard Jones that face a real uphill battle.
Zumwalt was a 6th round pick in this years draft, and got off to a bad start when the NFL's rules about graduating students meant he couldn't participate in the rookie or minicamp. To add to his misery, a groin injury has kept Zumwalt sidelined for much of training camp. To his credit, Zumwalt performed admirably against the Giants in preseason, with six tackles in 25 snaps. However he didn't play a single snap on special teams. A fiery demeanour and position versatility will not be enough, he will need to show special teams coach Danny Smith that he has what it takes over the next three preseason games if he stands any chance of beating out Garvin, Carter, Golden or any of the others.
Howard Jones, or HoJo as some call him, was signed as an undrafted free agent. He really opened some eyes with his performance against the Giants (two fumble recoveries,one returned for a TD), both on special teams and at linebacker. However he is almost entirely new to special teams play, having never played there in his four years in college. Jones recognizes where his best chances lie, and recently told the Pittsburgh tribune he's working hard in all of the special teams units trying to maximise his chances.
As it stands, I'm sure the Steelers have no desire to cut Jones, Carter, Garvin, Dangerfield, Golden or Zumwalt. All have shown the Steelers a reason to keep them around a little longer, but the harsh reality of the NFL is at the very best three of them will make the final 52-man roster, most likely only two.
For everyone perhaps save Carter, it is really too early for the Steelers to truly judge what they've got in these players. They obviously like what they've seen in Golden, Carter and Garvin, otherwise they wouldn't have let them stick around, but the other three have thus far shown plenty to make the coaching staff want to keep them on the roster a little longer.
Barring something seriously dramatic happening in the last few days of training camp or during the next three preseason games (something not entirely unlikely), the distance between each of these players is going to be too small to judge on potential or positional utility alone.
Come August the 30th, the last two, perhaps three remaining spots on the roster for these players will be decided by who shows the greatest ability to contribute on special teams in 2014. This will not be news to any of the players facing the chopping board, who know they need to impress as much in defensive drills as they do running with the special teams.