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Using the past to predict the layout of the Steelers’ 53-man roster

Trade-offs are inevitable when you’d like to keep more than an ideal number of players on your roster at any given position.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the 2018 NFL Preseason is complete, the next step for the Steelers is cutting down the roster from 90 players to 53. When choosing the final few players to make the team, it’s important to get an idea of how crowded the roster is at various positions, as well as the team’s past of keeping any number of athletes at various spots on the field.

Here are the numbers from 2015 to 2018 on how many players the Steelers kept at each position (and the average whole number during those three seasons):

Initial Roster Positions by Year

Position 2017 2016 2015 3 Yr Avg
Position 2017 2016 2015 3 Yr Avg
QB 3 3 3 3
RB 3 4 3 3
FB 1 1 2 1
TE 3 3 3 3
WR 6 5 6 6
OL 9 9 8 9
DL 6 6 6 6
OLB 5 5 6 5
ILB 4 5 4 4
CB 7 5 6 6
S 4 5 5 5
PK 1 1 1 1
P 1 1 1 1
LS 1 1 1 1
TOTAL 54* 54** 55*** 54

*Roster exemption for Le’Veon Bell not showing up to camp.

**LeVeon Bell was suspended and did not count towards the 53.

***LeVeon Bell and Martavis Bryant were both suspended and did not count toward the 53.

The best place to start predicting the 2018 roster by position is the three-year average. Unfortunately, that approach yields a 54-man roster. Even though the Steelers will probably receive a roster exemption for Le’Veon Bell once again, that extra player is likely to be cut by Week 1, so one roster spot needs to go in order to be prepared for Week 1.

The best place to cut down to 53 would be reducing the number of corners or safeties on the roster. After taking into account that seven CB’s were kept in 2017 in order to put Cam Sutton on the IR (he was replaced by ILB Steven Johnson, with Johnson being released days later when Bell was moved to the active roster), the Steelers have only kept 10 defensive backs in two of the last three years. Most likely they will keep 10 in 2018 and either go with six corners and four safeties, or make an even split with five at each position. That puts the roster at 53.

As for positions where the Steelers might possibly keep an extra player, it’ll have to be at the expense of cutting a player from somewhere else. The positions that have the longest shot of changing in their roster numbers would be the specialties (PK, P, and LS), along with the DL, TE, and FB positions (2015 being the outlier when Will Johnson and Roosevelt Nix both earned a spot before Nix took over the full-time fullback duties the following season).

Numerically, QB would also fall into the category of no flexibility, but with the unique situation this season, it’s become a popular discussion whether to keep a fourth player. To do that, another position group would have to lose a spot, and the most likely candidates would be along the OL or at WR. Trimming from any other position would leave the team dangerously thin. Plus, with one receiver spot going to the newly acquired return specialist Ryan Switzer, it would be difficult to drop the number of receivers to five.

Quarterback isn’t the only position where there’s talk of keeping an extra player. Both RB and ILB also could benefit from having another player in the rotation, with the greater priority going to inside linebacker. One cannot forget the importance of special teams, so either position could add value, depending on the player who’s kept.

After reviewing the numbers, it would be very difficult for the Steelers to keep a fourth quarterback, or even a fourth running back on their initial 53-man roster. If they’re willing to go with eight offensive linemen, that one spot might be used to add depth to the inside linebacker position, where there are still concerns due to the loss of Ryan Shazier. Other than that, the Steelers will most likely stick to the formula that has brought them success over the last several years when it comes to trimming the roster.