By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
Since May, I have been breaking down the Steelers roster by position at GZ Sports Report (links at end of article), giving in-depth analysis on how the Steelers roster is fixing up before the start of the season. With the Steelers high-powered offense and steadily improving defense, the team should be primed for another playoff push. But what will the roster look like come Week 1 of the regular season?
53-Man Roster (by position):
Quarterback (3): Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones
There should be no surprise here to anyone. Big Ben is primed for another season with control of the Steelers high-powered, high-scoring offense. With Gradkowski back again on a 1-year deal and Jones in his contract year, there will be plenty of competition for the #2 spot. But either way, due to Ben’s injury history, the Steelers are likely to keep 3 on the roster. If history has taught us anything, it is that we are likely to see another quarterback under center at some point this season that will be wearing a jersey that doesn’t have a “7” on it.
Running Back (3): Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint
When healthy, the Steelers boast one of the best, yet underrated, stables of running backs in the league. If Bell can remain healthy this season, there is no reason for him to not regain his status as one of the best backs in the league. With the veteran Williams backing him up, expect the Steelers 1-2 punch at running back to be just as effective as they were last year with the team’s much improved run game.
Fullback (2): Roosevelt Nix, David Johnson
There is no question who the Steelers primary fullback will be: Roosevelt Nix. Nix has proven himself enough to the Steelers that the team felt comfortable letting Will Johnson walk away in free agency. While David Johnson is listed as a tight end, he essentially serves as a glorified blocker/H-Back/tight end/fullback/put-me-where-you-need-me player. Fans were not thrilled by the re-signing of Johnson but he brings experience to the Steelers both on offense and on special teams.
Wide Receiver (5): Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Demarcus Ayers
With the best receiver in the league at your disposal with tremendous depth behind him, this could be one of the biggest years in Steelers history for this receiving group. If Roethlisberger can remain healthy for a full 16 games this season, Brown could shatter every single-season receiving record with ease. With deep-threat Martavis Bryant serving a suspension this season, it will be a wide-open race for the #2 receiver spot between Wheaton and Coates, with Heyward-Bey serving as solid veteran depth when called upon. The last spot will likely come down to Ayers, Rogers, or Phillips, but I’m giving the nod to Ayers due to his special teams potential.
Tight End (3): Ladarius Green, Matt Spaeth, Jesse James
The Steelers splash-signing of the offseason has yet to fully participate with the team due to offseason surgery, but when Green is finally able to suit up, look out. He is not a traditional tight end and presents the offense with another dangerous deep threat. James showed signs of development throughout last season after a shaky preseason. If he can continue to make strides in his progression, he will make for a solid #2 tight end to compliment Green in 2 TE sets that the Steelers employ sometimes. Spaeth has the potential to be a roster casualty but as one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, he will likely find a place on the roster, especially if the team has concerns about Green’s health.
Offensive Tackle (4): Alejandro Villanueva, Ryan Harris, Jerald Hawkins, Marcus Gilbert
Villanueva was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2015 season, filling in for the injured Kelvin Beachum. With a full offseason under his belt, he could be in for big things in 2016. The Steelers brought in veteran Ryan Harris to compete and push Villanueva and will provide solid depth that the team desperately needs due to injuries. Gilbert has blossomed under coach Mike Munchak and is a Pro Bowl-caliber player who hasn’t gotten the recognition that he deserves. If he has another solid season, 2016 could finally be the year. The Steelers made an underrated selection in the 2016 NFL Draft by selecting Hawkins in the 4th round. He has a way to go before he is a finished product but the potential is there for great things. Once he reaches his potential, he could push for starting time on the left side.
Offensive Guard (3): Ramon Foster, David DeCastro, Chris Hubbard
There is no denying it: David DeCastro is the best Steelers guard since Alan Faneca. Beyond that, he is quickly becoming one of the best interior linemen in the NFL. DeCastro is currently playing on his 5th-year option and will be in for a big payday very soon. Foster has helped solidify the Steelers guard position for 5 years and will continue to do so for another 3 years after re-signing with the team this past offseason. Behind them, Hubbard has quietly provided quality depth when called upon not only at guard, but at tackle and center as well. There is no reason for him to not be a lock to provide that depth again in 2016.
Center (3): Maurkice Pouncey, Cody Wallace, B.J. Finney
With a healthy Pouncey back (for now at least), the Steelers interior offensive line has the potential to grow and really help the offense flourish. Wallace held down the fort admirably in 2015 as the starter, but Pouncey is clearly the better talent. During the season, the Steelers had to fight of suitors coming for B.J. Finney on their practice squad by upping his salary to that of an active roster player (all while keeping him on the practice squad). This shows that the team sees enough value in him to keep him around, likely as insurance to the oft-injured Pouncey. Furthermore, Finney is a fine football player who could turn into a Wallace-esque backup.
Defensive End (4): Cam Heyward, Ricardo Mathews, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton
Over the past 2 seasons, Heyward and Tuitt have seen an absurd amount of snaps due to the lack of quality depth behind them. If either of them plan on having long careers, the Steelers need to find players who can spell them during games without losing too much talent on the field. Mathews was signed during free agency from the Chargers and should give the Steelers solid depth behind both Heyward and Tuitt. Along with Mathews is Walton, a 2nd-year player, who was mostly inactive during the 2015 season but was on the 53-man roster regardless. He was a nice late-round developmental prospect when the Steelers drafted him in 2015 and if he can help put a dent in the 90% of total snaps that Heyward and Tuitt had last season, it would be a welcome presence.
Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle (2): Daniel McCullers, Javon Hargrave
After Steve McClendon signed with the Jets, the Steelers were left with a huge need at defensive tackle, with McCullers as the only player on the roster with experience. McCullers has reportedly cut some weight off of his monstrous frame in an attempt to improve his conditioning, which has been an issue for him over the first 2 years of his career. The tackle position will be an open race between McCullers and 2016 3rd-round pick Javon Hargrave, who is much smaller than the behemoth McCullers, but is arguably a much better prospect. The Steelers love Hargrave’s pedigree and expect big things from him as he learns the Steelers system.
Inside Linebacker (4): Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Steven Johnson
Last year, Steelers fans began to see a changing of the guard as long-time leader Timmons began to show some decline as he continues to age. On pace to make over $15 million this season (the last on his contract), Timmons future with the team remains cloudy. While his play has declined, he has still been an extremely solid player for the Steelers and will continue to do so in 2015. Emerging star Ryan Shazier is already on preseason Defensive Player of the Year radars across the football world. As an uber athletic, hard-hitting linebacker, 2016 could (and should) be the true breakout year the Steelers have been waiting for since making him their 1st-round pick in 2014. With the turnover in depth this offseason, Williams will be the primary backup at both positions this season and has plenty of experience starting when called upon. The Steelers also added veteran Steven Johnson to compete with Williams as a backup linebacker but will likely see most of his time on special teams. Williams’s main competition to make the roster will come from rookie Tyler Matakevich but (spoiler) we will discuss that in a moment.
Outside Linebacker (5): Bud Dupree, Arthur Moats, Jarvis Jones, James Harrison, Travis Feeney
The Steelers have invested too much in their outside linebackers for it not to work out. With the Jarvis Jones experiment potentially coming to an end very soon, the Steelers must see something out of him that will convince the team that he was worth the 1st-round billing and is worth keeping around. He has shown flashes, but injuries have all but derailed his career thus far. Dupree will look to make strides after he hit a wall during a rookie season where he had a promising start. If neither players work out (which would be a worst case scenario), the Steelers have solid veterans that can play in the blink of an eye with Moats and Harrison. Travis Feeney will make the final 53-man roster due to his superior athletic ability and special teams knowledge over Anthony Chickillo.
Cornerback (5): William Gay, Ross Cockrell, Senquez Golson, Artie Burns, Doran Grant
Even with all of the questions surrounding the secondary, cornerback is surprisingly the easiest position to determine the final roster, as the team will return 2 starters from 2015 in the form of Gay and Cockrell. While Gay’s days as a #1 corner are coming to an end, he still has proven that he has enough left to continue to be a solid presence in the Steelers’ secondary. The Steelers will find out sooner than later what they have with Golson and Burns, who will be expected to develop at a quicker rate than most rookies. If the former high draft picks can develop as expected, the Steelers will finally have a cornerback group that isn’t amongst the laughing stock in the NFL.
Safety (4): Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas
Mitchell, Golden, and Davis are the only locks to make the roster from this group. After offseason surgeries to repair damage that he has been playing with for 2 seasons, Mitchell should be back and better than ever while Golden and Davis fight it out for the remaining starting spot. Thomas is entering a do-or-die season with the Steelers in his contract year and if he doesn’t prove himself during the preseason, he might not even make the opening day roster. Reports state that he has been refocused and reenergized this offseason, especially after the selection of Davis in the 2nd round this year. If Thomas doesn’t make the roster, Ross Ventrone and Jacob Hagen are names to keep an eye out for.
Specialists (3): Chris Boswell, Will Monday, Greg Warren
After the release (and then retirement) of Shaun Suisham, Chris Boswell became the unquestioned kicker for the Steelers heading into 2016. The surprise in this group comes from the new face of the punter position Will Monday. After Jordan Berry’s up-and-down performance in 2015 and the Steelers not having the same starting punter in consecutive seasons since 2010, look for Monday to supplant Berry as the starter. At long snapper, it will be business as usual for Warren, entering his 12th season.
Check out my individual position breakdowns here:
- Dustin Vaughan, QB
- Eli Rogers, WR
- Canaan Severin, WR
- Xavier Grimble, TE
- Caushaud Lyons, DE
- L.J. Fort, ILB
- Tyler Matakevich, ILB
- Montell Garner, CB
- Al-Hajj Shabazz, CB
- Jacob Hagen, S
In the NFL, teams have the luxury of signing up to 10 players onto their practice squads at the end of training camp. Often times, players added to the practice squad are players that have been released from other teams. Since there is no way of knowing what players will be available upon the end of training camp at this very moment, the 10 players listed above are all from the Steelers current 90-man roster.
Quarterback (1): Dustin Vaughan
After coming on as a camp body at the beginning of the offseason, Vaughan has turned the heads of both players and coaches alike during OTA’s and minicamp. Vaughan has been getting routine reps with the 2nd- and 3rd-teams so far and has shown to have a strong arm and an accelerated understanding of the Steelers offense. Vaughan is a dark horse candidate to make the roster as the #3 quarterback on the depth chart.
Wide Receiver (2): Eli Rogers, Canaan Severin
Rogers has a serious chance of making the final roster over Ayers depending on how everything works out. He is built in the mold of Antonio Brown and if he doesn’t make the final roster, there is a chance that he won’t clear waivers for the Steelers to sign to the practice squad. Here’s hoping, though. Severin, on the other hand, is the epitome of a high upside developmental prospect. At 6’2″, 205 lbs., Severin has the chance to turn some heads during the preseason due to his freakishly strong hands. While he doesn’t have breakaway speed, he is a solid receiver prospect.
Tight End (1): Xavier Grimble
After the team released Jay Rome from their 90-man roster, Grimble instantly became the tight end prospect to keep an eye on. Grimble underwhelmed at USC before bouncing around the NFL since 2014 but has the physical traits you look for in a tight end.
Defensive End (1): Caushaud Lyons
Lyons spent last season on the Steelers practice squad, which shows how much they like him as a player considering that they already had Ethan Hemer on the practice squad, who is arguably a better DE prospect. Lyons has great length and athleticism and could push for a roster spot over Mathews and Walton if he performs well.
Inside Linebacker (2): L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich
Of all of the practice squad players, Matakevich has the best chance of making the final 53-man roster. Depending on how the season plays out, it is likely that Matakevich will be called up to the active roster at some point. Fort spent last season on the practice squad before finishing the season on the 53-man roster.
Cornerback (2): Montell Garner, Al-Hajj Shabazz
Montell Garner has already made a name for himself this offseason by showing great ball skills during rookie minicamp and OTA’s. Shabazz has out of this world size and if he can tap into his potential, he could be a factor in 2017 to supplant Doran Grant if he doesn’t produce in 2015.
Safety (1): Jacob Hagen
Hagen might be my favorite prospect on the practice squad. He has great length and measurables and if the Steelers coaches can help tap into his potential, he has a chance of being a surprise 53-man roster recipient. A large portion of his future will come during the preseason this year. Keep an eye out for him.
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