Why the practice squad matters
The practice squad gets a bit of attention when it is announced, but afterwards people largely forget about it. Real football starts, and no one cares about the guys that are two steps away from seeing the field.
And yet every year the practice squad players make an impact, for good or bad, on the season. The one thing they often do is end up playing. That’s even more true under the current NFL rules that allow veteran players to be on the practice squad and allow for practice squad call-ups that don’t expose players to waivers.
With those new rules, the Steelers have played more than half of the players that were on the practice squad for Week 1 the last two years, with eight players seeing the field in 2020, and nine in 2021. Some have played significant parts in games and some have even moved into full time roster spots, such as Robert Spillane.
Over the past three years the Steelers practice squad players have logged a total of 3,679 snaps, with 6 players having played 200+ snaps. Here are the players with the highest number of snaps played after starting the season on the practice squad over the past three years:
Henry Mondeaux: 570 snaps
Johnny Holton: 549 snaps
Derrek Tuszka: 441 snaps
John Leglue: 407 snaps
You probably recognize each of those players, and you should; they ended up playing important roles in a good number of games even though they weren’t in the Steelers plans when the season started.
Some players on the practice squad right now will play a significant part in the Steelers season this year, and others will play a significant part in a future season. The history and nature of the NFL consistently show this to be the case. It’s why Head Coach Mike Tomlin’s “Next Man Up” mantra is such a big deal. We don’t know which player it will be, but it will happen.
I’m not going to cover all 16 players in one article, we’ll start with the names that people will be most familiar with.
The returning players
John Leglue, OL: Leglue joined the Steelers late in the 2020 season, when they signed him to their practice squad. He received a futures contract at the end of the season and after the 2021 offseason, signed him to the practice squad. When B.J. Finney and J.C. Hassenauer struggled filling in at left guard for Kevin Dotson, the Steelers called up John Leglue. He played almost every snap of Week 13, and took over as the starter in Week 14.
Leglue lacks versatility and isn’t a top athlete. He isn’t a great pass blocker, but he has good size and he’s a great inside zone blocker. His best game was in Week 17, when the Steelers simplified the offense and ran a ton of inside zone against the Browns to win their final home game of Ben Roethlsiberger’s career. His limitations showed up in the 2022 preseason. Those limitations and his lack of position versatility has him on the practice squad again. But if there are injuries at guard, John Leglue will likely be back on the roster.
Anthony McFarland Jr., RB: McFarland joins the practice squad for the first time in his career. A fourth-round pick in 2020, he saw little success as the entire run game floundered, and after an MCL tear right before the season started, he spent most of the year off the active roster in 2021.
McFarland looked like he might be putting it together in the preseason this year, but with the rise of Jaylen Warren McFarland and Benny Snell were fighting for the third running back spot on the roster. While McFarland is a solid kick returner, he offered little else on special teams, while Benny Snell has proven himself as a key special teams player. McFarland brings speed to the running back position and versatility as a solid pass catcher, but while he has dynamic speed when healthy, he has been hampered by leg injuries so far in his NFL career and hasn’t been able to break off big gains.
Carlos Davis, DL: The Steelers seventh-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Davis brings excellent athleticism to the defensive line, and showed flashes of potential in his rookie season. He injured his knee in Week 1 of the 2021 season, and didn’t play again until December. Davis joins the practice squad over several other players the Steelers had in their very deep defensive line group this offseason, including his twin brother Khalil Davis and Henry Mondeaux.
Davis will look to get back to building on his promising rookie season, and Steelers history has shown he is very likely to see the field as defensive lineman are one of the more likely players to get called up.
Delontae Scott, OLB: Scott joined the Steelers as a practice squad signing after he was cut from the Green Bay Packers at the end of the 2021 offseason. He was active for one week of the season, playing 7 snaps on defense and 2 on special teams against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Scott makes the practice squad after a full offseason with the Steelers. He joins starters T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith as the only outside linebackers to last the entire offseason and still be working for the Steelers. We’ll see if that pays off as the season progresses.
Cody White, WR: White isn’t a player that most Steeler fans are familiar with, even though he saw snaps in 15 of the Steelers 17 regular season games of 2021. White spent most of his time on special teams where he recorded 4 tackles. White only saw 77 snaps on offense, but caught 5 passes for 33 yards in that time. He has good size and reliable hands and brings special teams play the Steelers can trust, so he’s a pretty good candidate for a practice squad spot.
Mark Gilbert, DB: Gilbert was an undrafted free agent signing for the Steelers in 2021, and made the practice squad. He was signed by the Detroit Lions before Week 8 and was on their active roster for most of the rest of the season. When the Lions cut Gilbert, the Steelers signed him to their own practice squad.
While he didn’t play in any games for the Steelers, he played a good bit against the Steelers in Week 10. Gilbert showed off his physicality and hustle in that game, specifically in one play where he did a really good job showing both his strengths and weaknesses.
Lions vs. Steelers, OT, 6:56.
Mark Gilbert (#40) is covering Diontae Johnson.
Gilbert is a physical defender, and uses that physicality to stick with receivers well. He isn’t the best at tracking and playing the ball in the air, especially on over-the-shoulder throws. He gives up a catch here when he can’t find the ball, and gets shook by Johnson. But Gilbert stays with the play and strips the football. Gilbert isn’t an elite athlete or a technician, he’s a fighter and the Steelers liked him enough to bring him back.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series when we look at the rest of the players on the Steelers practice squad.