By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
Check out this article on GZ Sports Report
Year in and year out, NFL players fight for their right to stay on a roster to make an impact for their team. With the exception of a small percentage of players in the league, nothing is guaranteed for players in terms of their ability to remain on a team, especially if their contract values makes them expendable. As new, young, cheaper, more talented/higher upside options become available for teams, veterans become casualties of the business that is the NFL. After putting together solid drafts over the past few seasons, the Steelers have a young roster infused with top-tier veteran players. However, as previously mentioned, some veterans are at risk of not being on the 53-man roster by Week 1 of the 2017 season. Which players are at the greatest risk?
ILB Steven Johnson
Johnson might not seem like a player worth mentioning here, but his role (or moreso his position) on the Steelers is of increasing importance with the departure of Lawrence Timmons. With Vince Williams stepping up to the starting spot next to Ryan Shazier, the Steelers need solid depth behind them, especially when you consider Shazier’s checkered injury history.
The odds are that a player not named Shazier will see time in the starting line up next to Williams at some point during 2017 and that player will likely be Tyler Matakevich, the former 7th-round pick that provided a nice spark on special teams last season (he led the team in special teams tackles) and has the work ethic and mindset to develop into a similar caliber player as Williams. Johnson spent last year fighting for a roster spot and even with the new opening on the inside, threats still remain.
L.J. Fort was the player that got thrown on and off of the roster when injuries occurred, but he eventually became a mainstay on the roster when Johnson was lost with a season-ending injury. Fort has bounced around the league but is still a relative unknown that the Steelers have obviously seen something in to keep him around.
A dark horse to compete with Johnson is UDFA Keith Kelsey, a player that also compares similarly to Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. As a standout at Louisville, Kelsey lacks the athletic traits that would make him a 3-down linebacker, but he could turn into a special teams standout in a similar manner as Williams, Matakevich, and Johnson have all done during their careers.
Even though Johnson has the history on the field on defense while with the Broncos, the Steelers seem like they don’t want to give him a chance to provide on anything except special teams. If Fort or Kelsey step into a position where they can grasp the defense and be consistent presences on special teams, Johnson could see himself on the way out in a position where depth has been crucial for the Steelers.
OLB Arthur Moats
Since joining the Steelers in 2014, Moats has been a solid presence on and off of the field. However, the team’s outside linebacker depth has become deep quickly, with the addition of 1st-round pick T.J. Watt, the continued development of Bud Dupree, and the ageless play of James Harrison. Anthony Chickillo has began coming into his own as a player as well and in 2016 appeared to jump over Moats on the depth chart by serving as a rotational piece and receiving substantial special teams time (something you must do as a depth linebacker on the Steelers to stick around).
While Moats has the experience and leadership on and off the field, 2017 7th-round pick Keion Adams could prove to be a dark horse player to steal Moats’ position on the team away from him, especially if he can prove himself on special teams, something Moats hasn’t done. Moats will spend this summer and training camp proving that he still belongs in the Black & Gold, not due to a lack of talent on his part, but due to younger, cheaper options around him.
CB William Gay
With the exception of the 2012 season, Gay has been a lifelong Steeler. Just like Moats, Gay will be fighting for his job this summer due to an infusion of young talent around the 32-year old corner. Former 1st-round pick Artie Burns had some growing pains in 2016 but appears to be the future of the Steelers secondary, especially as the team continues to move more towards man coverages. Alongside Burns is Ross Cockrell, an acquisition that has proven to pay off for the Steelers.
Add in free agent pick up Coty Sensabaugh, a healthy Senquez Golson, and exciting rookies Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen, and the Steelers have a young, crowded cornerback group. Gay has seen his role reduced over the past season after bumping inside to the slot, a position where he has seen some success as he has aged. However, the Steelers have younger options that could provide the Steelers with more long-term success in the form of Sutton and Golson. If either player can prove that they can hold their own in the slot, Gay could quickly become expendable.
WR Sammie Coates
Last season, Coates had the chance to stand out opposite of Antonio Brown in the wake of Martavis Bryant’s year-long suspension. That unfortunately never happened, as injuries and inconsistency plagued the former 3rd-round pick. With Bryant’s return, new physique, and apparent new fire for football, it appears pretty evident that he will retain his role of the Steelers’ #2 opposite Brown. That brings into question the remainder of the Steelers receiving corps, which receivers coach Richard Mann said is the deepest that he has ever had.
With the emergence of Eli Rogers last season and the unexpected addition of 2nd-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster (who has already began turning heads this summer), Coates already appears to be falling down the depth chart, although Rogers and Smith-Schuster are both slot specialists at this point, not necessarily impacting Coates. It doesn’t stop there, however, as Cobi Hamilton played a role for the Steelers’ offense last season and Demarcus Ayers got the chance to show off his solid hands towards the end of the season. Darrius Heyward-Bey is also a factor, as he has provided quality depth and special teams production, even at 30 years old. If Coates can’t prove to the Steelers that his injuries and inconsistencies are behind him as a receiver, then the Steelers might feel compelled to go in another direction for a receiver that can back up Bryant and/or Brown. Coates is definitely on the hot seat at this point.
RB Fitzgerald Toussaint
Toussaint has shown flashes of production for the Steelers, namely during the 2015 season when he stepped up in the playoffs for injured Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams and provided solid play… with the exception of the ill-timed fumble against the Broncos that proved to sink the Steelers and helped propel Denver to their eventual Super Bowl victory. Last season was Toussaint’s best season as a pro, where he put together 58 yards on 14 carries for 4.1 yards per carry. On his career, his yards per carry average is 2.9 yards, which isn’t helped by his small sample size of only 38 carries (in comparison, Le’Veon Bell had 38 carries against the Bills alone last season).
The Steelers added 3rd-round running back James Conner this year and Conner’s punishing running style figures to beat out other backs as the #2 behind Bell. The team also added Knile Davis this offseason to help provide a spark on special teams and give the Steelers further playmaking depth behind Bell. Why the Davis signing is relevant to Toussaint is that the Steelers rarely make signings during the free agency period that don’t ultimately make the 53-man roster during that season. While they don’t have much invested in Davis (1-year/$775,000), Davis provides a much more exciting option as a returner than Toussaint and could has the potential to see a career resurgence as a running back as a versatile playmaker out of the backfield with the Steelers electric offense. Toussaint will spend the summer proving that he is a better option than Davis but it will be an uphill battle.