The Pittsburgh Steelers' 2016 NFL Draft makes for a heavy investment into a fresh set of recruits to replenish the defensive ranks. The departures of Steve McLendon at defensive tackle, Will Allen at safety, and Antwon Blake at cornerback have made opportunities for depth chart battles by both new rookies, returning undrafted free agents practice squad players and newly added free agents.
We give you an early projection of what we can expect the opening day roster for the Steelers to look like:
Quarterbacks - 3
Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones;
Once the Steelers re-signed Bruce Gradkowski to a one year deal it became clear that the 2016 plan for the position would not make any changes. The Steelers were rumored to have been trying for a mid-to-late round draft pick at quarterback but were unable to snag any of their desired players. That ultimately led to the re-signing of Gradkowski and the assurance that for at least one more year we will be waiting for any insight to life after Roethlisberger.
Running Backs - 4 (7)
Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Roosevelt Nix;
Le'Veon Bell and his backup DeAngelo Williams were the surefire players for the position in 2016, but Fitzgerald Toussaint's late season performance ensured him a spot for at least the immediate future in Pittsburgh. Roosevelt Nix's position as the team's lone fullback was solidified by his consistent play throughout the 2015 season as a lead blocker.
Wide Receivers - 5 (12)
Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Demarcus Ayers;
The suspension of Bryant opened the door for one additional receiver that would usually on the practice squad. The expected players that saw playing time in 2015 will be there, but the final spot may come down to a receiver that could be an explosive returner for special teams. Considering that Ayers was drafted specifically for that position, Pittsburgh may be willing to give him the last spot for opening day.
Tight Ends - 3 (15)
LaDarius Green, Matt Spaeth, Jesse James;
The free agent addition of Green was undoubtedly the most exciting move the Steelers made during the offseason when it came to new acquisitions. He adds to the veteran Spaeth and the second year talent from Penn State, Jesse James. James made a few solid plays which earned him notice in 2015 and could make for an athletic pair of tight end targets in tandem with Green. The key will be if James can prove himself going into the season as a consistent option at the position over Spaeth.
Offensive Tackles - 4 (19)
Marcus Gilbert, Alejandro Villanueva, Ryan Harris, Jerald Hawkins;
Gilbert and Villanueva most likely retain their starting spots with the free agent add in Harris as a viable backup and the rookie Hawkins being a last resort in case of injury at the position.
Offensive Guards - 3 (23)
David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Chris Hubbard;
The guard position has been solidified for Pittsburgh for years now under Foster and DeCastro, and should continue to be with Foster under a new three year contract and DeCastro being one of Pittsburgh better young players. Hubbard will most likely be the only official backup guard, with other interior linemen being able to fill in.
Centers - 2 (25)
Maurkice Pouncey, Cody Wallace;
Wallace earned his keep when he filled in for Pouncey all throughout 2015, making him the best option as a backup interior linemen. But the entire Pittsburgh offense will be ecstatic to have Pouncey back in the lineup.
Defensive Ends - 4 (29)
Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Leterrius Walton, Caushad Lyons;
The Steelers will need a pair of defensive ends to backup Heyward and Tuitt in case of any injury to their starters that played over 90% of defensive snaps in 2015. Walton is a second year sixth round draft pick and Lyons is a player claimed off waivers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Defensive Tackles - 2 (31)
Daniel McCullers, Javon Hargrave
With the dwindling of the usage of nose tackle as a position with more defensive fronts being part of a shotgun formation, the Steelers will probably have Hargrave as a player that can rotate between tackle and end, while McCullers would still be a full time nose tackle.
Inside Linebackers - 4 (35)
Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, L.J. Fort;
Shazier and Timmons retain their spots while the ever reliable Williams is the primary backup for another season, but the added L.J. Fort beats out Tyler Matakevich for the temporary opening day start.
Outside Linebackers - 5 (40)
Bud Dupree, Jarvis Jones, James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Travis Feeney;
Dupree and Jones make for consistent starters with Moats and Harrison being the spell pass rushers that bring havoc, with a young Feeney earning the last spot on the depth chart here with his raw speed and athleticism.
Cornerbacks - 5 (45)
William Gay, Ross Cockrell, Artie Burns, Senquez Golson, Doran Grant;
This is probably the most straightforward of the positions, as the Steelers have two starters from 2015 in Gay and Cockrell, two top-end draft picks in Burns and Golson and a second year defensive back in Grant that has a year in the system.
Safeties - 5 (50)
Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Sean Davis, Robert Golden, Ross Ventrone;
Mitchell and Golden are the opening day starters but Davis and Thomas see significant time in sub packages often used by the defense. Ventrone makes the roster with his hustle on special teams.
Special Teams - 3 (53)
Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Greg Warren;
Pittsburgh will find a team in need of a kicker to deal Shaun Suisham to, while Berry wins the punter job battle over the newly added Will Monday and Greg Warren continues his long snapper duties.
Subject to change
As we move closer to opening day, many of these roster battles will take place and shift the alignment of the roster which will cause for new analysis based off training camp reports and preseason performance. We will keep you abreast on any and all information to get you ready for the set roster of the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers.