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Special teams will define Steelers final 53-man roster

Camp will come down to Danny Smith’s players.

NFL: AUG 07 Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The biggest narratives at Latrobe may be offensive line camp battles, or Kenny’s progression. But some of the most gut-wrenching decisions, when it comes to the Steelers final 53-man roster, will ultimately fall onto Danny Smith’s lap. The biggest unknown facing the Steelers right now is how they will rebuild their special teams units, and the answers will determine the fate of up to a dozen players.

Pittsburgh lost a lot of veteran special teams experience this offseason.

Note: All snap counts cited in this article are from the 2022 NFL season.

Special teams snap counts: Departed players

  • Derek Watt - 290 - 66.2% of snaps
  • Benny Snell - 284 - 64.8%
  • Jamir Jones - 251 - 57.3%
  • Marcus Allen - 230 - 52.5%
  • Arthur Maulet - 152 - 34.7%
  • Robert Spillane - 134 - 30.6%
  • Terrell Edmunds - 107 - 24.43%
  • Steven Sims - 102 - 23.3%

That’s a lot of snaps to redistribute in 2023, and not many vets to pick up the slack. Players like Miles Killebrew and Connor Heyward are already playing 23 of special teams snaps. Tre Norwood and Jaylen may be asked to double their contributions.

Steelers special teams snap counts: Returning players

  • Miles Killebrew - 290 - 66.2%
  • Connor Heyward - 284 - 64.8%
  • Tre Norwood - 156 - 35.6%
  • Jaylen Warren - 127 - 29%

The loss of so much talent could significantly benefit players who may otherwise be on the bubble to make the roster. I’d argue Miles Boykin is a roster lock on special teams experience alone, and the same may be true for James Pierre.

Snap counts: Players “on the bubble”

  • Miles Boykin - 207 - 47.3%
  • James Pierre - 196 - 44.75%
  • Gunner Olszewski - 106 - 24.2%

There will be new faces on the final 53 this season, and for some of them, special teams contributions will be the reason why they’re here.

Steelers considerations for 2023

RB Alfonzo Graham: Told us that he returns all types of kicks and will even chase down kicks on ST.

FB Monte Pottebaum: 6’1” and 244 pounder, who has some linebacker play in the past, so he may amicable to special teams contact.

WR Hakeem Butler: He played 29 ST snaps in his two games with the Eagles, but he’ll have to be more impressive than Miles Boykin to make the 53.

WR Jordan Byrd: The undrafted free agent was named to 3 All-Mountain West teams as a return man. He had 3 touchdowns on kickoff returns and 1 on a punt.

ILB Nick Kwiatkoski: He’s played ST his entire 7-year career, and in the last two seasons, he’s become uniquely a special teams player.

ILB Marcus Robinson: He didn’t play many ST snaps in his rookie year, and it sounds like he’s not yet in the mix for starting reps. Contributing more on ST will be essential in his year 2 development.

LB Nick Herbig: He played some ST at Wisconsin, and may need to contribute here to avoid being a game-day inactive.

LB Tanner Muse: He’s logged 425 ST snaps over the past two seasons in Seattle. Could he, Robinson and Kwiatkoski be a classic case of Tomlin’s ‘Dogs V Bones?’ Are there 2 bones out there?

CB Cory Trice: Everyone’s expecting him to be a roster lock, which may be true. But if he can’t outplay James Pierre on special teams, Pittsburgh may be forced to keep an extra CB on the roster.

The need for special teams trickles down across the entire roster. If Calvin Austin fails to win the return role, an extra spot will need to be devoted to someone like Gunner or Byrd. The same is true if Pierre becomes indispensable. This is where the real drama of camp will occur, far away from Pickett and Pickens, on a field so quiet, you can hear Danny Smith chewing...and thinking.

Kyle Chrise is the host of the podcast “What Yinz Talkin’ Bout.”