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How much roster space can the Steelers afford for special teams players?

Outside of the three specialist positions, can the Steelers dedicate too many roster spots to players who only contribute on special teams?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

As the dead period of the NFL league year has reached its midpoint with teams reporting to training camp in less than three weeks, one of the main topics for discussion now and throughout the preseason will be the players who make the 53-man roster. While the main focus will be on the number of offensive and defensive players, each side of the ball will be broken down into how many players teams keep at every position. For the Steelers, there’s a general feel of what players they usually keep with some leeway based on standout performances.

As NFL teams, particularly the Pittsburgh Steelers, get towards the end of their depth chart on both sides of the ball, one of the bigger considerations has to do if the player can contribute on special teams. Because it is such a key component of games, having capable players on special teams can sway the outcome of the game. But how much of the roster can be utilized for players who are strictly special teamers?

It’s very difficult to figure these things out at times when it comes to predicting the Steelers roster for the upcoming season. A prime example is Miles Killebrew. Only playing 13 snaps as a reserve safety in 2022, Killebrew was tied for the most special team snaps for the Steelers and was their special teams captain. As valuable as he is for special teams, will the Steelers have enough space in their secondary to keep a player like Killebrew?

To get a better idea of players the Steelers can keep primarily for special teams, let’s take a look at the snaps played in 2022. The Steelers had 10 players who logged at least 150 special team snaps last season. And just to clarify, none of the three specialists on the Steelers roster— Chris Boswell, Pressley Harvin, and Christian Kuntz— reached 150 snaps. This list is strictly players who are listed at other positions as their primary spots but are key special teams players.

As mentioned before, Miles Killebrew led the Steelers with 290 special teams snaps along with Derek Watt with the same number. Benny Snell and Connor Heyward were just behind these two with 284 special team snaps. The only other player with more than 250 special team snacks was outside linebacker Jamir Jones with 251. The other five players with more than 150 special team snaps were Marcus Allen (230), Miles Boykin (207), James Pierre (196), Tre Norwood (156), and Arthur Maulet (152).

The first thing that stands out about this list is it only five of these 10 players remain on the Steelers roster. The Steelers have not re-signed Derek Watt, Benny Snell, or Marcus Allen, and they released Jamir Jones and Arthur Maulet. Although the Steelers have added players to their 2023 offseason roster who are known for their special teams play, exactly how many make the team is in question.

So going back to the list of 10 players who logged at least 150 special team snaps, the final three players on the list— James Pierre, Tre Norwood, and Arthur Maulet— all logged more defensive snaps than special team snaps. But the top seven names of the list had their special team snaps outweigh their other snaps on either offense or defense. The positions of these players were a running back, a fullback, a tight end/fullback, a wide receiver, an inside linebacker, an outside linebacker, and a safety. So based off of 2020, there were four offensive players and three defensive players who were used significantly on special teams but not as much at their respective positions.

While many Steelers fans believe Derek Watt‘s roster spot on offense will be filled by Connor Heyward, it won’t be so for special teams which was both of their primary contributions from last season. Heyward might take that role in the offense, but he already has his own role on special teams so there will be a void there from Watt unless the Steelers decide to bring him back. The same is true for Benny Snell as it is unknown at this time who will be the Steelers third running back on the roster. The inside track at this point likely goes to Anthony McFarland, but he is not known as a player who contributes on special teams other than a potential kick returner. As for Miles Boykin, he is a key special teams contributor and does a great job filling the role as a receiver who can come in as needed on offense but give great special teams play. But if Boykin holds that role, it would be difficult to keep yet another receiver who doesn’t contribute much to the offense and is primarily a special teams player unless the Steelers keep and dress an extra player.

On defense, there was even more players who contributed on special teams but didn’t reach the 150 snaps. Another inside linebacker in Robert Spillane was a key special teams player but just not as widely used. And as mentioned before, the last three players in the top 10 of snaps all came from the defense yet highly contributed on that side of the ball.

Where things could begin to get tricky is when looking at players such as Miles Killebrew and Tre Norwood who are both safeties. While Killebrew is more of a box safety with Norwood being the opposite, the Steelers need to make sure they have an adequate number of safeties on the roster who could contribute on defense if needs be and not just be special teams players.

Inside linebacker is another position where the Steelers need depth on defense but there is also an opportunity for special team players to make the roster. Tanner Muse was signed by the Steelers this offseason and has been used almost completely as a special teams player. Whether or not the Steelers will have him in the mix for playing time at inside linebacker has yet to be seen, but Muse is a candidate to be a player who would fill-in for the roster spot vacated by Marcus Allen.

Even looking at cornerback, it will be interesting to see how many players the Steelers keep and if those players can contribute on special teams. James Pierre has made himself very valuable since he was an undrafted free agent as he gave depth at the position and quality special teams play. Do the Steelers have new players a cornerback who can fill the special teams role and contribute more to the defense than Pierre?

Because the Steelers front office has done a fantastic job this offseason of increasing their depth across-the-board and creating competition at positions, one thing that could be squeezed out is roster spots for players whose only significant contribution comes on special teams. Outside of the three specialists, the Steelers potentially have enough depth where a special teams ace struggles to make the roster simply because there are better players in their position groups. While this is great for the offense and the defense, hopefully any player who bumps a special teams ace off the roster can fill the role in that phase of the game.