After wrapping on articles making predictions for the Steelers offense, and the Steelers defense, I started thinking: what players are in danger of not making the final 53-man roster this upcoming season? Here are 6 who could be considered "on the bubble".
If getting released and re-signed were an art form, Ventrone may have perfected it. In 2011 alone, Ventrone was was signed, promoted, or released 21 times by the New England Patriots, who he had initially hung on with after going undrafted in 2010.
Ventrone would first sign with the Steelers in 2013, but would become a camp casualty in late August, before resigning to the team's practice squad later that same season. Ventrone would then sign with the Steelers again in 2014, eventually playing in 9 games (where he was often confused for Troy Polamalu, due to the players' similar hair styles.)
Ventrone would make the 2015 cut, due to Martavis Bryant's suspension. When Bryant was activated in October, Ventrone was waived, and rejoined the Patriots practice squad 2 weeks later, before being released less than a month later (his 30th and 31st transactions with New England.)
Ross would bounce back to the Steelers, getting activated for Pittsburgh's final regular season game against the Cleveland Browns (which marked his 41st transaction of his career.)
Ventrone defines a human boomerang (if that were a thing) who could be on, or off, the Steelers roster come August. A lack of safety depth, coupled with a knack for playing special teams, could keep Ventrone from adding to his transaction total, though history may be destined to repeat itself… once, twice, or more, in 2016, provided he's eligible to join Pittsburgh's practice squad.
If not, this could be the end of the endless transactions between Ventrone and the Steelers.
A fourth round draft choice usually isn't as polarizing as the "Sharknado" has been.
During the 2013 NFL Draft, many speculated not if, but when the Steelers could select Troy Polamalu's eventual replacement. The Steelers were coming up at pick 115, but made a move that would send tremors throughout the football world, by moving up to pick 111. Pittsburgh first made news by swapping draft picks with their longtime rival, the Cleveland Browns; the first time those franchises had made a trade in 45 years.
The aftermath would be the selection of a safety, a self-anointed heir to the Polamalu mantle: Syracuse's Shamarko Thomas.
Thomas looked promising at first, playing in 14 games, starting twice, contributing 22 solo tackles with 7 more assisted tackles. The following season, Polamalu took Thomas under his wing, training with him during the offseason, potentially sharing a peek into the future at the defense's strong safety position.
During Troy's final season, Thomas would battle the injury bug, playing in 11 games, and recording 7 total tackles, with a forced fumble.
Following Troy's retirement, many anticipated Thomas as a starter, replacing the future Hall of Famer. Instead, Shamarko would have a disastrous preseason, losing his opportunity to veteran Will Allen. Despite dressing for 15 games, Thomas would see little playing time with defensive unit, logging 20 snaps while registering a single tackle. By contrast, the oft-maligned Cortez Allen (who only appeared in the opener against New England) played 32 snaps with 3 tackles.
Thomas would see far more time with the special teams unit, receiving the 2nd most reps (285) of all defensive backs (Robert Golden was first with 310.) Yet, Thomas was penalized on 3 separate occasions in the third phase of football, racking up 45 yards of penalties for Fair Catch Interference (twice) and Interference with Opportunity to Catch.
He was the only Steeler to be penalized for either infraction in 2015.
With the coaching staff at odds with Shamarko's ability to play in the secondary, bundled with his inability to play disciplined football on special teams, it would not surprise me to see the coaching staff give Thomas one last preseason to prove his value. Otherwise a player with numerous opportunities to succeed may find himself without one to start the 2016 season.
After 2 uneventful years in San Diego, David Johnson returns to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many had already given Johnson a spot on their mock 53-man rosters, however, the seldom-healthy hybrid tight end/fullback may also find himself on the outside looking in.
Johnson apparently fills a void left behind by Will Johnson, who signed with the New York Giants this offseason. Will Johnson often lined in both spots, utilized in jumbo sets as an additional blocker, or as an occasional runner or pass catcher. It would appear the Steelers like versatility, something the former Johnson offers in place of the latter Johnson, minus the rushing aspect.
Yet, it's the lack of the rushing component which may find David Johnson embattled with fellow tight ends Matt Spaeth and Xavier Grimble, both who offer more consistency or upside than D.Johnson, who only has 24 career receptions in 82 games (with 1 each in his last two season with the Chargers.)
Considering the Steelers were successful in converting Roosevelt Nix to fullback last season, and passed on retaining Will Johnson, the shear number of spots available on the roster, plus zero dollars in cap penalty should the team waive him, may dictate whether David Johnson is expendable.
Speaking of the tight end depth chart, Matt Spaeth is an oft-rumored camp casualty. The nine year pro is not known for his pass catching, but has still be marginally more successful than David Johnson has over the last few seasons, hauling in 6 passes and scoring two touchdowns.
Spaeth's true value comes as a veteran and a situational blocker, particularly in the running game. However, it's his lack of versatility, and his recent injury history, which could see the Steelers gamble on getting rid of a player a year early, rather than holding onto him a year too late.
It's no secret the Steelers are changing the guard at the tight end position, following the retirement of Heath Miller, the signing of Ladarius Green this offseason, and the addition of Jesse James through the draft in 2015. With Spaeth turning 33 in November, and missing a pocket of games the last few years, it's possible the Steelers could move on, due to a cap friendly $137,500 in dead money if he's released. Yet, veteran depth, consistency when available, and low price, should see Spaeth edging out his peers for a spot on the final 53.
It's not often one would expect a 7th round draft choice to make the final roster, yet, due to a lack of picks on the offensive side of the ball, and an opening left behind by the suspended Martavis Bryant, Ayers has an opportunity to do just that.
The former University of Houston standout will have to make his case by doing what he was drafted to do: be a reliable kick returner, something the Steelers have had a revolving door of over the last several years. The team was not shy in stating their intended purpose when selecting Ayers, and they have not been shy about their desire to remove Antonio Brown from punt return duty.
Regardless if the team is successful in their bid to replace AB on special teams, Pittsburgh is in dire need of a backup plan, a fact which was painfully obvious when Brown was sidelined during the Divisional Playoff round against the Denver Broncos.
For Ayers to make the squad, he will have to beat as many as 6 other NFL hopefuls, including fellow receivers Eli Rogers and Shakim Phillips, both whom are undrafted camp retreads. Phillips earned a spot on the practice squad last season, while Rogers sat out 2015 to recover from injury.
Each player has upside, but it's Ayers who is the shiny new toy with the most lose.
After playing in eight games for the Steelers over the last two seasons, the former practice squad member and undrafted guard from Alabama-Birmingham finds himself in a camp battle with two new additions to the offensive line: Ryan Harris and Jerald Hawkins.
Harris, who started all 16 games with the Denver Broncos last season, signed a two-year deal with the Steelers in March. He can play on both sides of the line, and is expected to compete for the starting left tackle position with Alejandro Villanueva.
Hawkins, who drafted in the 4th round, can also play on both sides, though many felt he left college early. He will factor into Mike Munchak's future plans should Villanueva or Harris either not pan out, or succumb to injury.
Harris' $3.9 million contract ($675,000 signing bonus, $675,000 guaranteed) cements his roster spot. I also doubt the Steelers would be willing to gamble with placing Hawkins on the practice squad, though last year's fourth round pick, Doran Grant, spent time there last season (before being called up to the main roster, perhaps as a means to protect their investment.)
Hubbard may find himself at a crossroads, depending on how many offensive linemen the Steelers carry into the regular season. That magic number is usually 8, leaving Hubbard as potentially the 9th lineman on the depth chart when the dust settles.
In addition, with Hubbard having spent portions of the last 3 seasons on the practice squad, as well as having an accrued NFL season in 2015, the guard's practice squad eligibility is also in jeopardy. Should he fail to make the final cut, this could mark the end of Hubbard's career in a Steelers uniform.
Practice Squad Eligibility
The NFL has adjusted their rules for practice squad players for 2016. It was unclear if the league would revert to the old rules, since the amendment expired with the 2015 season (much like the experiment with PATs had to be renewed for 2016.)
The increase from 2 to 4 players being permitted to have 2 accrued season might save Ventrone or Hubbard's jobs, if they don't make the final 53-man cuts.