This is never a fun time of the year to write this kind of article.
Almost 1,200 men—37 of them current members of the Pittsburgh Steelers—will find themselves unemployed in a matter of days (or, depending on when Jeff approves this story, some might already be there). A small contingent of these players will find their way onto practice squads, where they will cash nice checks for a season or two before a new crop of not-quite-good-enough players keep the wheel turning. For the rest, some 864 of them, reality will take hold and the dream of playing in the NFL will fade away.
Several of the players discussed here are probably goners. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed learning their backstories and watching them compete. Let’s get right to it:
Entertainment value, stock up
What a game, right? The preseason is the preseason, but Joshua Dobbs and Marcus Tucker’s game-winning, two-man foray to the end zone was certainly worthy of adulation. If nothing else, it was a satisfying end for those of us who consume the NFL brand with a borderline masochistic hunger.
The class of 2015, stock down
Senquez Golson’s forthcoming departure from the Steelers will be and should be amicable. Golson, a second-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, hasn’t practiced since the first week of training camp and did not participate in any of Pittsburgh’s previous three preseason contests. Sidelined by an injury for the third consecutive season—for context, Golson hasn’t played a competitive snap since 2015, his final season at Ole Miss—Golson was a long-shot to make the roster, anyway. The fact that he was unable to participate in Thursday’s contest will seal his fate.
Golson, despite never actually playing for the Steelers, cannot be summarily cast aside as a bust. Truthfully, we don’t know. Jamarcus Russell was a bust because he ate donuts and drank lean until the spare tire around his gut prevented his arm from working. Dion Jordan was a bust because he loves drugs. Justin Gilbert was a bust because he is and was a terrible football player. Senquez Golson is just super unlucky. He never got the opportunity to demonstrate what he is or isn’t, a fact which will leave a sour taste in my mouth whenever his departure is finalized.
I can’t speak on other roster moves with such certitude. Take, for example, Sammie Coates, who was selected one round after Golson in 2015. Coates dropped a very catchable third-down pass on Thursday (his only target of the game, no less), which isn’t a huge issue in and of itself. But the general averageness of Coates’ latest endeavor was magnified tenfold by Justin Hunter’s three-catch, 75-yard performance.
The Steelers likely will keep six receivers on the roster. Four of these receivers, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers and JuJu Smith Schuster, have already secured their spots. What the Steelers are left with, then, is three receivers battling for two roster spots (maybe four, given Tucker’s Super Saiyan performance on the final drive; perhaps five, given Cobi Hamilton’s roach-like proclivity for refusing to go away quietly; or possibly six, given Demarcus Ayers’ special teams acumen). To many, it seemed as though Hunter and Coates were battling for one of those spots, which is a plausible deduction as both players exhibit similar profiles (though it should be noted that Coates is a superior special teams contributor).
(Update: The Steelers will reportedly release Hamilton).
The Steelers took a flier on Hunter early in the off-season and probably didn’t plan on finding themselves in their current quandary. Coates and Hunter (plus Hamilton, Tucker and Darrius Heyward-Bey) are good receivers, and they shouldn’t have trouble finding homes elsewhere. Releasing Coates or Hunter—both former high draft picks with obvious upside—will not be a decision that the Steelers take lightly. Even if Coates is able to hold off Hunter et al., he figures to be no higher than fifth on the receiver depth chart and will play a considerable role on special teams.
Jesse James, also drafted in 2015, will see a tangible decrease in his snap totals and could ultimately be relegated to the second-team following Pittsburgh’s acquisition of Vance McDonald. Sad!
Joshua Dobbs, stock up
Dobbs did not supplant Landry Jones on the depth chart, but look at these numbers: 16-23 for 212 yards and two total touchdowns. Not included in the box score are the numerous sacks Dobbs avoided by displaying an innate awareness of the pocket as well as his masterful game-winning touchdown drive with less than one minute on the game clock. Dobbs’ yardage and completion totals would’ve been even better, had Coates and Jake McGee not dropped easy passes on two separate third-down plays. Dobbs’ touchdown pass, a 58-yard strike to Hunter, was the best throw of his professional career to date.
James Harrison, stock up
James Harrison, 39 (in human years), played well into the second quarter of Thursday’s contest. He might have played even longer than that. I don’t know, I blacked out from sheer panic. Fortunately, Harrison made the most of his extended dress rehearsal, hitting Joe Webb twice, sacking Webb once and collecting a handful of quarterback pressures. He also baited one of Carolina’s nameless offensive tackles into a false start, even though the Panthers were playing in their home stadium in front of 3,700 people. What a weapon.
Trey Williams, stock down
An inconsequential fumble was not only enough to seemingly offset the positivity of Williams’ return touchdown from two weeks ago, but it might also cost him a roster spot. After his fumble, Williams ceded punt duties to Sutton, who then ceded to Ayers. Not good.
Terrell Watson, stock up
The Steelers started Watson and gave him 19 carries, indicating that they either wanted a better look at their potential no. 3 back or they just needed a body to burn through four quarters of meaningless carries while safeguarding players that they actually want on the roster. Regardless, Williams played well, generating 89 hard-earned rushing yards and catching a pair of passes. At the very least, he’ll be invited to join the practice squad.
(Update: With Knile Davis and Fitz Toussaint reportedly among the cuts, Watson has likely made the team).
James Conner, stock up
Conner received zero carries, which probably confirms that Pittsburgh is comfortable rolling with him as the no. 2 back out of the gate. Conner did play special teams, preventing Curtis Samuel from scoring a return touchdown in the process.
Mike Hilton, stock up
Mike Hilton, the GOAT, was his typical high-flyin’, play-makin’ self. On one particularly awesome display of his laudable skillset, Hilton rushed from the slot, instantly finding a clear path to Webb. Left guard Geno Gradkowski, unwilling to be complicit in the assassination of his quarterback, grabbed Hilton’s shoulder pads, committing a pretty obvious hold in the process. Hilton, unconcerned with the legality of the play in question and the massive bear creature standing in his way, escaped Gradkowski’s grasp and pursued Webb, who has now rolling out to his left, toward his own sideline. Hilton, still in pursuit, paused for a second to blithely accuse the official of missing the hold before refocusing on Webb and collecting his third sack of the preseason. It should be noted that the aforementioned play occurred on third-and-eleven and knocked Carolina out of field-goal range.
Pittsburgh’s acquisition of Joe Haden has only strengthened the logjam that is the secondary, but the Steelers would be wise to ensure that Hilton gets a hat this season. He clearly has NFL pedigree, and the Steelers are in no position to turn a talented young defensive back away.
The Watt family, stock up
T.J. is well-positioned to be a major contributor to the Steelers as a rookie, while J.J. has raised somewhere in the ballpark of $15 million to aid Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Your personal opinion of J.J. Watt matters not; this is a stunning accomplishment and an encouraging display of humanitarianism.