Roster projections are like opinions -- everybody's got one, and, usually, they all stink; especially when you're trying to predict how the transitioning Pittsburgh Steelers will sort themselves out while preparing for the 2014 NFL regular season.
Especially, when you're swinging for the fences before the pitcher has even taken the mound.
The Steelers have a history of making at least a few head-scratching moves as they whittle their way down to final 53-man rosters. Between busted draft picks, unfortunate injuries and undrafted rookie projects, predetermination means nothing in the end. However, as any artist can attest, masterpieces rarely match original intentions; but one must still at least begin with a basic idea.
Based on a myriad of factors - off-season transactions, experience and utility within established schemes - we'll simulate a final roster and explore how some crucial battles could be decided. Of course, once the players take the field, performance will ultimately trump all.
For the purposes of this exercise, we will limit ourselves to 25 offensive players, 25 defenders and three specialists, even though the team will not restrict itself in the same manner. The team will keep the 53 best players, even when preferable positional quotas must be waived.
Without any further ado, let's dig in. (Players in parentheses represent likely gameday inactives. There are seven total each week.)
QBs -- Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, (Landry Jones)
Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Roethlisberger, the Steelers franchise passer, will take the helm once again in 2014, regardless of contract and coaching chemistry rumors. Native son Gradkowski will play the experienced backup. Watching Jones progress in his second training camp could be worthwhile, since he'll only be seen holding a clipboard all season long should Roethlisberger stay healthy.
Honorable mention -- Brendon Kay. Like many Jerrod Johnson's before him, the odds of his supplanting one of the three above him in his rookie season will be all but insurmountable.
RBs -- Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer, Will Johnson(FB)
No matter how the 'division of labor' sorts itself out, three things are certain in the running back room. Bell is the future of the franchise at the position. The presence of Blount not only represents an upgrade over Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Felix Jones as a reserve; but he also will prevent the Steelers from asking a Jamal Anderson-like workload, eventually wearing down the promising Bell too soon. Look for Johnson to be more involved in not only the run game, but also the passing game in addition to his blocking duties.
Honorable mention -- Alvester Alexander. If the Steelers decide not to sign or keep a third back, expect Archer to switch back to a RBs jersey number. Alexander worked with the practice squad for all of 2013, and his experience in the offense should give him an advantage over his competition. Keeping Archer as the third back would represent the extensive expectations the team has for LeBackfield, both statistically and physically.
TEs -- Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Michael Palmer
Unlike 2013 when the team kept five tight ends because of injuries, the team will rely on the healthy duo of Miller and Spaeth to be the work horses in the offense. Palmer's exploits on special teams should find him third on the team's depth chart.
Honorable mention -- David Paulson. Paulson has been less than impressive during his first two seasons with the team. Despite displaying decent hands and athleticism at times, an apparent lack of strength and blocking ability could ultimately be his undoing. Last year, the Steelers chose to use offensive tackle Mike Adams when employing a third tight end, rather than turn to Paulson. He has more to prove than most of his teammates.
WRs -- Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Derek Moye, (Martavis Bryant)
One would be hard pressed to remember the last time the team held six receivers on their final roster - seven if Archer is included in this grouping - but the lack of experience between Wheaton and Bryant could push the team to keep as much experience on the roster as possible, especially after Roethlisberger spent the last few years relying on guys like Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery who have all found new homes. Bryant could be a practice squad candidate, however including him as an inactive member of the 53 prevents other teams from signing away the sizable project. Speaking of size, Moye's experience could create a place for him on the active roster as a redzone and endzone target, in what continues to be a smaller receiving corps.
Honorable mention -- Kashif Moore. Moore spent the 2013 season on the team's practice squad after an impressive first training camp with the team. Should a veteran like Heyward-Bey or Moye fall out of favor with the coaches David Gilreath-style, Moore could find himself working his way into a promotion. Moye and Heyward-Bey could also find themselves expendable for an extra running back depending on how the team ends up viewing Archer's role.
OTs -- Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum, (Guy Whimper)
Adams and Gilbert remain the team's only two true tackles despite the fact Beachum could begin the season as the team's starting left side blocker. Whimper, who was used primarily as a reserve on the interior, continues to rely on his experience on the exterior to provide versatility to the Steelers' bench and his own perceived value.
Honorable mention -- Wesley Johnson. Despite being a late-drafted rookie, Johnson has already displayed a Beachum-like versatility in shorts. He stands a legitimate chance of making the roster, although the smart move would be to stash him on the practice squad, giving him a year to polish technique and build NFL strength.
OGs -- Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, Cody Wallace, (David Snow), Maurkice Pouncey (C)
Foster, DeCastro and Pouncey will continue to lock down the offensive line's interior, especially if the trio can manage to stay on the field together for multiple games. Wallace proved a capable guard and center as a reserve in 2013. Snow also brings versatility to play not only guard, but also center - a position which the Steelers ended up needing three players to fill last season.
Honorable mention -- Chris Hubbard. Hubbard is yet another player the team chose to keep close on the practice squad last year. The slightly smallish guard fits the mold of the more-athletically minded linemen the team is turning toward while attempting to implement more zone-based outside rushing to their offensive attack.
DL -- Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, Brian Arnfelt, (Daniel McCullers)
Heyward and McLendon are now the old men along the defensive line, granted the team does not bring Brett Keisel back because a lack of depth makes itself evident in training camp. Thomas may have been signed to play left end, but he has a chance to take Al Woods place as the backup nose tackle as well, thanks to the drafting of Tuitt preventing Thomas from being cemented in at end. If Thomas does become McLendon's understudy, The team could choose to hang onto projects like McCullers and Arnfelt rather than seek more experienced reserves.
Honorable mention -- Hebron Fangupo. Fangupo proved serviceable enough to displace former draft pick Alameda Ta'amu last year. However, with roster spots at a premium, a player who plays only one position, in only one alignment as only a second-stringer at best, may find himself on the outside looking in.
OLB -- Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, (Chris Carter)
Worilds and Jones officially become the new dynamic duo in Pittsburgh, with LaMarr Woodley now in Oakland. Moats brings versatility to the bench, with the possibility of being a Brandon Johnson, inside-out utility player. Carter most likely retains his job for one more season, although more through special teams play and experience within Dick LeBeau's system more than sheer excellence at his position.
Honorable mention -- Vic So'oto. Of all the intriguing young prospects the Steelers brought into the OLB corps this off-season, So'oto stands the best chance of displacing the under-achieving Carter -- mainly due to So'oto's pro size, experience and lack of practice squad eligibility. Carter vs. So'oto will be one of the better competitions during camp and the preseason.
ILB -- Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, (Sean Spence), Terence Garvin
Shazier will do what most believe a rookie cannot do -- start in a Dick LeBeau defense during a rookie season. With Timmons continuing to quarterback the defense from the middle, Shazier will have all the mental guidance necessary to aim his natural athleticism. Williams, who started in Shazier's place most of last year, returns as the most experienced reserve on the roster. Garvin will be looking to reclaim his role as a kicker's worst nightmare. Spence makes his long-awaited return after a career-threatening injury, even though he may spend most of the year as a reserve and special teams contributor until the team is ready to rely on his durability.
Honorable mention -- Kion Wilson. Wilson was able to seize his opportunities during last year's pre-season, however, he was not able to maintain his roster spot for the entire year. With Williams and Garvin both returning and the re-addition of Spence, Wilson will have to prove to the coaches they missed something his first time around. UPDATE: Wilson has already been released since the publishing of this projection.
CB -- Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Antwon Blake, Brice McCain, (Shaquille Richardson)
Secondary coach Carnell Lake has gone on record countless times in support of Blake and McCain. His history with fifth-round pick Richardson has also been well documented. Richardson will need to rise above the Terry Hawthorne comparisons and will need to stay healthy to do so. Taylor will play what will most likely be his final season in Pittsburgh, while Allen and Gay could possibly continue to play musical chairs on the depth chart.
Honorable mention -- Isaiah Green. Green yo-yo-ed between the scout team and the active roster for most of 2013. His experience and another solid pre-season in coverage will be necessary to push one of Lake's favorites to the curb.
S -- Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden
The lion returns to his rightful place in the jungle -- the secondary. While Polamalu will still be expected to be a playmaker, he will also have to be a lone mentor to a young positional group on the field, which should limit his utilization as a linebacker in at least the early stages of the season. Newcomer Mitchell has some big shoes to fill replacing Ryan Clark. Thomas and Golden will be extremely active reserves participating not only in special teams duties, but also as slot defenders in sub-package situations.
Honorable mention -- Will Allen. The Steelers have kept five safeties each of the past two seasons. Allen was not among them last year. An injury to DaMon Cromartie-Smith and the inexperience of Thomas and Golden led the team to bring the familiar and experienced Allen back after his new career in Dallas came to a quick and decisive end, despite the Cowboys' issues at the position due to injuries of their own. If Thomas and Golden prove capable, Allen could prove expendable once again.
K-- Shaun Suisham P-- Brad Wing LS-- Greg Warren
Suisham has been accurate enough for the Steelers to make any camp competition a mere formality. Warren has been consistent enough to say the same. The primary kicking competition will come in the punt game as the team continues to search for a steady and consistent solution. Podlesh is an experienced if not overly impressive veteran. Wing has the physical tools if the team can mold his character. The younger Wing could provide some solidarity to the position for years to come.
Honorable mention -- Adam Podlesh. Consistency will be the key to winning the punter battle. Podlesh needs to rely on his experience more than anything. Wing may be the superior talent, but he will have to prove dependable. The Steelers are growing tired and probably slightly embarrassed of having to keep changing punters like soiled undergarments. Both men are new additions this year; and at this point, the team is ready for someone to make them forget about Drew Butler, Mat McBriar, Zoltan Mesko, Jeremy Kapinos, Daniel Sepulveda.....
Since we've already taken this prognostication way too far, way too soon, we might as well go all the way and explore top candidates for the eight practice squad spots up for grabs.
Alvester Alexander - RB
If the Steelers run with four backs this year (including Archer and Johnson), the team will still keep at least one runner on their scout team; not only as a tackling dummy for defensive practice, but also as a familiar face should injury bugs sting starters.. Alexander's primary competition will be unfamiliar newcomer Miguel Maysonet.
Rob Blanchflower - TE
The Steelers are falling in love with Blanchflower, who stands a legitimate shot at making the active roster. A year on the scout team would allow him time to grow both physically and mentally. Blanchflower's inclusion on the practice squad would leave little room for Eric Waters or TE/LS Bryce Davis.
Justin Brown - WR
What the Steelers lack in stature among their starting receivers, they make up for in young prospects. Brown's experience would give him the edge for this spot over fellow tall guy C.J. Goodwin, and his size an advantage over fellow wideouts Kashif Moore, Danny Coale and Lanear Sampson.
Wesley Johnson - OL
The team is hoping Johnson can become a jack-of-all-trades. They are in need of tackle depth, creating the biggest opportunity for someone else to seize his.. Regardless of who the team chooses to take this spot, this OT will give the team enough players to field two complete offensive lines for practice purposes.
Isaiah Green - CB
The Steelers already have plenty of players needing snaps, however a quality of depth may allow Green to prove himself valuable once again. In fact, he could force Richardson to trade him places on the active roster.
Jordan Zumwalt - LB
Zumwalt will have his hands full with Howard Jones if he wants to land even a practice squad spot. He would then have to beat out So'oto and Carter if he hopes to make the gameday squad. A seat on the scout team would be enough of a success for a 2014 sixth-round draft pick.
Nicholas Williams - DE
The Steelers drafted Williams in the seventh round last year as a possible LE project, then he blew an ACL in training camp; then, the team added Thomas and Tuitt to further crowd the room. Arnfelt gladly took Williams opportunity last season, putting Williams even further in the hole. While the team decides the future of the 3-4 alignment, a healthy Williams could be retained as a developmental reserve option.
Josh Mauro - DE
If Thomas and McCullers force Fangupo out of the equation to backup McLendon's NT, the team will be looking to stash some end depth, especially having only kept six total linemen in our projection. Mauro represents the wild card spot, and he could easily be replaced by a linebacker, offensive lineman or defensive back.
The two kingpins here are Archer on offense and Thomas on defense. How either is used on their respective side of the ball could send ripples throughout the rest of the depth chart.
When 'football in shorts' resumes, every player will have the same chance to rise above their competition. It will be interesting to see who stands up when it's time to put their pants on.