By Matthew Marczi
Training camp is always an important time for every player, but it is more important for some—namely, those looking for spots on the roster, and especially the ones who no longer qualify for the practice squad.
Starting this week at training camp, a handful of players on the roster for the Pittsburgh Steelers are entering do or die mode, either due to fulfilling the length of their allotted time on the practice squad or spending too much time on the active roster to qualify for the practice squad. Here is a quick list at some of those players and their likelihood of sticking around in 2013.
DaMon Cromartie-Smith – Having already been a feature on the topic, Cromartie-Smith is as well aware as anybody of the predicament he now faces, understanding that if he does not make the 53-man roster, his NFL career may well be over. Now, last year’s two main backups at safety left via free agency, so perhaps that gives him a fighting chance. But you know Shamarko Thomas is making the roster, and Robert Golden beat him out for a spot last year as a fifth safety. However, part of Golden’s charm was his ability to also play cornerback. It is not out of the question that the Steelers decide to carry Golden as a sixth or seventh cornerback, allowing them to carry a fifth safety again—particularly if both or either Josh Victorian and Terry Hawthorne end up on the practice squad. Realistically, it is a slim chance, but if he has a strong showing in the preseason, it is not inconceivable.
John Malecki – Another veteran of the practice squad, Malecki finally saw his first game action in the season finale last year, and did not embarrass himself in the process. The Steelers lost two starters along the offensive line and parted with one of their key reserves while not adding any via the draft, so you have to think that he has as strong a shot as any outside of Kelvin Beachum to net one of the two to four reserve lineman slots.
Baron Batch – After missing his entire rookie year due to a torn ACL, Batch established himself as a capable special teams player and pass protector last season. However, with the drafting of Le’Veon Bell and the signing of LaRod Stephens-Howling, there figures to be at least one odd man out amongst the running backs. While the size of their contracts play against them, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman pose a formidable threat toward Batch making the roster, and, barring Stephens-Howling falling on his face as a return man, he will have to show that he is more valuable than at least one of those two. What he has shown now may not be enough, and he will have to demonstrate that he can be a more complete player than he was last year.
DeMarcus Van Dyke – Drafted in the third round by the Oakland Raiders the same year the Steelers drafted Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, Van Dyke was a player coveted by the team in that same range, and they were quick to scoop him up after the Raiders released him last year. As a late signing, he had no time to integrate into the Steelers’ defensive scheme, so he did not receive any playing time, even ahead of Brown, Victorian, and Golden. Additionally, his inconsistent performance on special teams raised some concerns. However, his speed and size are just too tempting to give up on, and his first position coach in the league, former Steelers cornerback Rod Woodson, is in camp this year as an intern. Right now one would have to think that he is in strong position to be the team’s fifth cornerback, and could pass Brown if the latter continues to struggle.
Stevenson Sylvester – Sylvester is another player who understands all too well that he must be in do or die mode this training camp. After all, his position coach, Keith Butler, said as much. Entering his fourth season, he was the only one of the team’s restricted free agents this year that was not offered a tender. Even if he can prove that he can stay healthy, he will likely need to show some position flexibility as well as an improvement in his special teams play. The Steelers could elect to put Vince Williams on the practice squad, making the point moot, but either way, special teams will be a key concern here.
Chris Carter – Another young linebacker who has a hard time staying healthy, Carter is entering his third season facing the very real possibility that he finds himself at the end of the totem pole at outside linebacker. He is clearly behind starters LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds. Coaches are very fond of Adrian Robinson, so much so that they switched him to the right side. There is also no way imaginable that Jarvis Jones does not make the roster. Carter has underperformed not only on special teams, but also on defense when he was given the chance to fill in for James Harrison. If a player fifth on the depth chart at his position does not excel at special teams, what value does he offer? After all, isn’t that the argument against Plaxico Burress?
Glut At Tight End – One thing is pretty clear: if Heath Miller is ready to play on week one, then only one of these players will make the roster. David Johnson, David Paulson, and Jamie McCoy have all used up their practice squad eligibility, and it would be difficult to label any of them a lock. In 2012, Johnson was in full-on fullback mode, set to battle rookie Will Johnson for the spot before he tore his ACL. Now that Will Johnson has secured the fullback spot, David Johnson is back in the tight end race, opening the offseason as the starter ahead of Matt Spaeth despite continuing to be slowed by his ACL injury.
Spaeth is a lock to make the roster, but there is nothing guaranteed behind him. McCoy figures to have little chance of surpassing either Johnson or Paulson after failing to get on the roster the last few years, and he can no longer be tucked away on the practice squad, so he may well be moving on to his life’s work in another month or so. While Paulson played all of last season, and eventually earned the second spot on the depth chart, that does not make him a lock, either. Head coach Mike Tomlin was a fan of his coming out of college; however, Johnson has also been a favorite of the coaching staff. Given his struggles to rehab his knee and his struggles at in-line blocking—and projecting that Paulson will add strength in his second year—it looks like Johnson will be on his way out at well. He may have a short stay while Miller recovers from his own knee injury, but one figures that once he is back, whoever ends up as the fourth man will be gone.