“Next man up.”
It is the mantra by Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin when it comes to the inevitable issue of injuries in the NFL. It’s just the reality of each season. Players will get injured. The way to deal with these injuries comes down to who is injured and what the plan is for the replacement.
In 2019, the Steelers had two players who finished the season on Injured Reserve and missed at least 10 games who are the top two salary cap hits for the 2020 season. When it came to replacing Stephon Tuitt, a new rotation along the defensive line emerged with Javon Hargrave playing a greater number of snaps which allowed the Steelers defense continued to roll along. As for Ben Roethlisberger, the offense sputtered the entire season and couldn’t put up the points in order to secure enough victories to qualify for the postseason.
Now that we’ve had to relive those moments, what does this tell us about the 2020 season? Are the Steelers any more prepared to deal with injuries than they were in 2019?
The obvious answer is I’m jumping the gun on bringing up the issue. The Steelers must first work on shaping the roster for the 2020 season. Between retaining their own players, any kind of move in free agency as minor as it may be, and the 2020 NFL draft, the Steelers roster in May will give a much bigger indication as to how they could handle injuries in 2020.
Unfortunately, the Steelers are facing those three issues in a much different way this off-season. For the first time since 1967, they do not have a first round draft pick. Unless a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed by March 18, the 30% rule will keep the Steelers from restructuring contracts to free up salary cap space. With the Steelers currently only $1.6 million under the cap, both retaining players and signing any new players will come at great cost.
More than any year in a long time, the Steelers current roster is going to mostly shape their 2020 season before the new league year even begins. So how does the current Steelers roster look when it comes to dealing with injuries?
As usual, the quarterback position is the most important thing on almost every NFL roster. And with Ben Roethlisberger’s salary taking up a huge $33.5 million cap hit in 2020, allotting anymore money to the position just doesn’t make sense. As much as some would like to have a veteran back up, do the Steelers really want to spend money they really don’t have on a player they hope never steps foot on the field? Especially for this year, it’s not a good idea. So, much like Art Rooney II has previously said, the Steelers are going to roll into 2020 with Mason Rudolph and company as their backups at the quarterback position.
The only position or the Steelers which may not be as susceptible to injury would be at running back. While many fans believe this entire position needs an upgrade, even if nothing is addressed there is at least depth which does not drop off nearly as much as some other positions. The biggest reason for this is it being very rare an NFL team has a featured running back which lasts all 16 games in a season.
The Steelers also seem to be set at wide receiver right now, but injuries could completely change the story. When it comes to the offensive line, the Steelers still have to tender Matt Feiler which will probably come at the expense of Ramon Foster. A position which had a lot of depth in years past may not have the same luxury in 2020. It also did not help the two young players who spent time on the 53-man roster— Fred Johnson and Patrick Morris— were claimed by other teams when they faced the waiver wire.
To round out the offense, tight end is a big position of concern even with the Steelers current situation. The team has a club option on Vance McDonald, but otherwise all they have is Zach Gentry and his one reception from 2019 along with a few practice squad guys. McDonald could be cut to save some salary cap space, but what would the Steelers plan be for tight end moving forward. And when it comes to fullback, right now it is Roosevelt Nix or nobody.
In 2019, the Steelers defensive line handled the loss of Stephon Tuitt by splitting up the snaps among Javon Hargrave and Tyson Alualu. With Tuitt returning for 2020, it looks as if the Steelers cannot retain Hargrave so their luxury of depth will take a hit.
The only other position on the defense which appears to be completely set is the cornerback position. With the Steelers finally having stability at both spots with Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, if either should go down due to injury the Steelers would be faced with either Justin Layne who has yet to play a defensive snap in the NFL, or Cameron Sutton who may be forced to be the nickel corner if the Steelers can’t free up enough money to tender Mike Hilton. We need not even mention Artie Burns as it is a foregone conclusion he will not be with the team next year.
The outside linebacker depth lies mainly on retaining Bud Dupree. Even if the Steelers kept every player from 2019, Anthony Chickillo hasn’t shown that he is much of a reliable backup at the position. Chances are Chickillo is gone especially if the Steelers need to make room for Dupree. Beyond him and T.J. Watt, the back ups are highly unproven.
Inside linebacker brought an interesting rotation based on health in 2019. Many feel Mark Barron will not be retained in order to free up some salary cap space. If so, the Steelers are once again dealing with youth as their backups to Vince Williams and Devin Bush with Ulysees Gilbert III. As for safety, who knows the Steelers options beyond Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds.
As you can see, trying to fill all the holes to have quality reserves in case of injury is something which is highly unattainable for the 2020 Steelers. It’s not to say who the Steelers currently have as reserves are unable to step up and give them quality play, it’s just another factor which cannot be determined. Should he be needed, could Ulysees Gilbert come on the scene out of nowhere and have a great season should one of the linebackers go down? Absolutely! But there is little in the body of work to come to this conclusion.
In other words, the Steelers cannot prepare for injury for every player across the board on both sides of the ball. Would it be nice to get a different backup for Ben Roethlisberger in 2020? I don’t think any Steeler fan would not want to see such a thing. But being able to afford it is just not reasonable. And when it comes to the draft, many people would like to see a running back taken very early in either the second or third round. But is that a position where the Steelers need an upgrade more than filling a hole that may be needed somewhere else?
The Steelers are in a tough position for 2020. The best thing they can do for success is to stay healthy. Unfortunately, this is the NFL and injuries are bound to happen. So when it comes to answering the call of “Next man up,” we may just have to keep our fingers crossed.