While a total of 90 players will take part when training camp activities start for the Pittsburgh Steelers on July 26th, only 53 names will make it onto the opening-day roster. Unlike years past when many positions on the roster seemed locked in, there are perhaps more opportunities this year for new faces to emerge during camp. Because depth is questionable in several key areas, it appears there could be plenty of backup roles up for grabs in the coming months.
This might not be great news for some of the returning backups from last season, but it will be music to the ears of our camp sleepers. While an undrafted free agent hasn’t made the Steelers’ opening-day roster since wide receiver Tyler Murphy found himself among the final-53 in 2015, several viable candidates appear capable of reversing the trend in 2018. Alongside a couple of returning names like Marcus Tucker who might finally achieve their goal of making a regular-season roster, there’s a good chance at least one of the following new names also will make the team this year.
Linebacker - Matthew Thomas
Athletically, Matthew Thomas has many of the qualities NFL teams are looking for in a middle linebacker. Having posted some of the best times among players at his position at the Scouting Combine, many fans might have expected Thomas to be drafted, however, his tape hasn’t always matched his physical ability.
Forced down the undrafted route, it can only be hoped this will inspire to Thomas to reach new heights. If the former Florida State product can more consistently show the talent he flashed at times with the Seminoles, the Steelers might have found a significant new contributor to add to the mix.
So far, Thomas has said all the right things when talking to the media, and the opportunity available isn’t lost on him. Lacking quality depth at middle linebacker, Thomas is an obvious camp sleeper largely because of the questionable talent around him, as much as due to his own abilities. When speaking to Chris Adamski of TribLive, it was clear that Thomas saw a role for himself in Pittsburgh.
“I can definitely be the type of playmaker (the Steelers) are looking for. I feel like I fit in here (in the NFL). I think I will get better in time. But I definitely feel like I fit in. I felt like (the Steelers) was a good place for me, especially when they didn’t draft any inside linebackers, I felt like it was a good sign.”
Beyond the obvious trio of Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and Jon Bostic, there are no other middle linebackers on the roster with any significant NFL experience. If Thomas can beat out L.J Fort and returning practice-squad player Matt Galambos, there’s every reason to believe he will be a part of the Steelers opening-day roster.
Defensive tackle - Joshua Frazier
Defensive tackle Joshua Frazier might be one of the less-heralded acquisitions the Steelers have made this offseason, but he might have a better chance of making it onto the final 53-man roster than some of the players selected ahead of him by Pittsburgh. Much like at inside linebacker, while the starters are clearly locked in, the quality of the reserve players could benefit from an upgrade.
Frazier will be helped in his pursuit of a roster spot by his familiarity with the Steelers’ new defensive line coach, Karl Dunbar. The big defensive lineman was not the only one to move from Alabama to PIttsburgh this offseason, and Frazier’s transition into the NFL is sure to benefit from the presence of Dunbar. The pair has already spent two seasons together in Tuscaloosa, and the fact that the Steelers drafted Frazier at all suggests the move was done in part because Dunbar vouched for him.
Set to battle a group of returning names that includes Leterrius Walton, Daniel McCullers, Lavon Hooks, and a strong class of undrafted free agents at the position, it will not be an easy task for the seventh-round draft pick. However, if Pittsburgh does opt to keep six defensive linemen once again, it’s hard to believe McCullers has a strong grip on the spot which he’s inexplicably been able to hold onto as the last player off the bench in an emergency.
Coming from a 3-4 scheme at Alabama, Frazier shouldn’t find the basics of the defense as difficult to grasp as some of the other new recruits, and the rookie is apparently unfazed by his new playbook. As he told Kevin Gorman of TribLive.
“Actually, I feel the playbook here is a little bit easier than what we had when I was at Alabama.”
The comfort he noted in getting to work with Dunbar once again can only bode well for the future too.
“When you already know what someone expects, you don’t have to go to him or ask him as much, ‘What do you need from me? What do I need to do?’ You just know.”
Frazier has a lot to prove if he wants to make the Steelers’ opening-day roster but, given the performances of McCullers in recent years that somehow still earned him a roster spot, it’s clear the bar isn’t set too high for claiming the final place along the defensive line. Even if Frazier can show enough to suggest he might be a competent two-down player capable of stopping the run, that might be enough to cement his place on the roster.
Outside linebacker - Olasunkanmi Adeniyi
Depth issues at outside linebacker potentially offer a clear path to a roster spot for the last of our training camp sleepers in 2018. As one of the more sought-after, undrafted free agents this year, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi received the largest signing bonus of any of the players the Steelers added in the aftermath of the draft. Competing against several interested teams, it would cost Pittsburgh an extra $15,000 to secure his services.
That being said, it was opportunity and not money that attracted Adeniyi to the Steelers. The pass-rushing specialist from Toledo believes he’s in the right place to advance his career in the NFL. As he told Chris Adamski of TribLive.
“After I went undrafted, I just kind of weighed my options – and the Steelers called,” Adeniyi said. “They’d showed me love during the process already, and… just thinking about being coached by (position coach) Joey Porter – who had a tremendous, tremendous career playing for the Steelers – I just kind of figured this spot was the best place for me and best opportunity for me.”
While T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo are clearly the top-3 in the pecking order, it’s anyone's guess how the rest of the depth chart shakes out. Farrington Huguenin and Keion Adams are the more obvious names expected to fill the voids left by James Harrison and Arthur Moats, but Adeniyi should not be overlooked.
As a a defensive end/linebacker hybrid pass rusher with the Rockets, Adeniyi is somewhat undersized to play outside linebacker in the NFL at just 6-foot-1, but he’s shown a level of aggression and power that might translate well to the professional ranks. His college tape suggests he may struggle in coverage and possibly lack the athleticism required to become a three-down player, but his edge rushing abilities could make him an ideal situational pass rusher on third-down worth keeping on the roster.