By Matthew Marczi
The preseason finale may not mean a whole lot to many fans, and even to many players—particularly the starters—but for hundreds of players around the league, it is the final preseason game that determines whether or not they have a six-figure salary in their future or if they will be getting an earlier start one their life’s work than they had hoped.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are many such players either on the inside or the outside of the bubble looking to secure one of the last few remaining roster spots up for grabs, and here are a few of them that may be in play based on how things go tonight:
Offensive Lineman: Do the Steelers have an eighth on the roster already? There only appear to be three players even considered as candidates: guard Chris Hubbard, tackle Joe Long, and tackle/guard Guy Whimper.
The Steelers figure to carry John Malecki and Kelvin Beachum as the game day active reserves this year, and both are capable of playing all three interior positions, so that would appear to eliminate the guard-exclusive Hubbard from the running. Whimper has played right guard exclusively the last two games. If the Steelers do not see him as a tackle any more, then he may be eliminated as well. However, they may simply be working him at guard to increase his versatility, increasing his stock.
Long played fairly well at right tackle for an extended look in the last game, and could possibly win the eighth lineman spot if he does a good job tonight, where he figures to get a great chunk of playing time. The wildcard for this spot is a waiver wire cut, but that would come after the final roster cut on Saturday. A bottom-of-the-roster trade, as in Adrian Robinson’s case, is also not out of the question. As of now, there does not appear to be much reason to carry a ninth lineman, so this seems to be a battle for one spot.
Wide Receiver: As it currently stands, there are three candidates for the job: Derek Moye, Justin Brown, and Reggie Dunn. Moye was on the team’s practice squad last year, and is doing himself plenty of favors this preseason. He leads the team with eight receptions, is third with 94 yards, and scored a touchdown. He did drop a screen pass to start off the last preseason game, but he has also displayed surprising elusiveness, breaking five tackles. However, he does not play special teams at all, which could be the deciding factor against him.
Justin Brown had a nice day for himself in the opening preseason game when he caught four receptions for 32 yards. However, since then, he has only caught one pass for five yards (excluding one juggling catch over the middle of the field in the last game negated by a penalty). After being flagged for an illegal block in the back penalty on a kick return in the opener, he has been silent on special teams.
Reggie Dunn may not get a chance to earn a spot on the roster if he does not play tonight, because he has missed practice recently with a minor shoulder injury. If he does get to play, however, his special teams contributions as a dangerous return man could be enough to seal the roster spot with a receiving corps. Already four-deep with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, and rookie Markus Wheaton, Dunn’s return ability would be more valuable than an ordinary fifth receiver who is a minimal contributor on special teams. It is not impossible that the Steelers keep six receivers, with Dunn being the sixth, but it would require an open roster spot from another position.
Defensive Lineman: Do they even keep six? One would figure that the Steelers will only have five active on game day with Al Woods being able to play all three positions. Given the frequency with which the team uses the nickel, a second true nose tackle—especially one that is very inexperienced—is not a priority, so a roster spot is not guaranteed for either Alameda Ta’amu or Hebron Fangupo; they may have to earn it.
Also potentially earning the sixth defensive lineman spot could be defensive end Brian Arnfelt, an undrafted rookie free agent that has been a great surprise with his performance this preseason. He would have to play so exceptionally that the team may fear losing him off the practice squad, however, because the top five players on the depth chart are all defensive end-capable, and he would surely be a game day inactive anyway. Given needs at other positions, it is highly unlikely that the Steeler carry seven, as they did last season.
Defensive Back: Special teams could be key to determining how many roster spots are allotted for the defensive backs, though the Steelers generally keep ten. The players that figure to be locks are Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Curtis Brown, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Shamarko Thomas, and Robert Golden. That leaves potentially two roster spots for what I believe to be the three most likely candidates: Josh Victorian, Terry Hawthorne, and DaMon Cromartie-Smith.
Because Thomas and Golden can both play the slot, the Steelers may be less inclined to carry an excess of cornerbacks, which could afford them the opportunity to carry an extra safety; Golden served as a fifth safety last year, for example. Cromartie-Smith whiffed on a block that led to a blocked punt in the preseason opener, but otherwise has a clean history of special teams play and is experienced in the Steelers’ system, which could give him an edge.
Hawthorne is a late-round rookie draft pick that appears to have some significant upside, and has been playing gunner on special teams; however, Victorian saw playing time last year and is also a gunner. Victorian’s tackling has been a liability, and in part led to a kickoff return for a touchdown in the last preseason game, which could be a big factor in choosing between the two if both are not kept. When in doubt, ties often go to the draft pick. Both are eligible for the practice squad, whereas Cromartie-Smith is not, which will also weigh into the decision.
Linebacker: Given the current situation at the middle third of the defense, there is no room to differentiate between outside linebacker and inside linebacker when determining who will be the ninth linebacker this year, which the Steelers are nearly certain to carry. There are presumably three locks at each position right now: Jason Worilds, LaMarr Woodley, and Jarvis Jones outside and Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, and Marshall McFadden on the inside.
It may seem somewhat surprising to call McFadden a lock, but it is true, especially after the injury and subsequent release of Stevenson Slyvester. Of the reserves, only McFadden was on the roster last season. He has played the Buck linebacker spot with the second-team since the beginning of the offseason. In addition, he leads the team with three special teams tackles. Battling for the fourth inside linebacker spot is Brian Rolle, Kion Wilson, and rookies Vince Williams and Terence Garvin.
Garvin does not seem to stand much of a chance with the competition ahead of him. Rolle has been playing with the second-team defense since Slyvester’s injury; however, the Steelers promoted Williams to second-team after the last preseason game. The wildcard, though, is Wilson, who has been playing on every special teams unit.
The fourth outside linebacker spot will come down to Chris Carter and Alan Baxter. Carter, a former fifth round pick, is entering his third season, but still fails to make an impact even in a preseason game. Baxter, on the other hand, paces the team with a Pass Rushing Productivity of 19.2 with his two sacks and five hurries on 30 pass rushing opportunities. Carter is in a tie for the worst PRP of the preseason with a score of 0.0: zero pressure on 26 pass rushing snaps.
Carter, however, has the veteran and leadership experience, which the coaches tend to go for. Baxter will have to continue to perform at a high level to convince the Steelers to carry him on the active roster, especially given his practice squad eligibility, as they did with Robinson last year. He did register a special teams tackle in the last game.
The ninth linebacker will be the loser of the fourth outside linebacker spot versus the depth at inside linebacker. If Baxter loses out, he has practice squad eligibility, as do Wilson and Williams, which could play a factor in the decision-making process. Carter and Rolle do not have eligibility, so if the Steelers do not wish to lose them, they must make the roster. The ninth linebacker more than any other position will likely come down to special teams.
Running Back: With the release of Baron Batch and the acquisition of Felix Jones, determining how the running back position will look on the final 53-man roster was made more difficult to determine. It is clear that Le’Veon Bell and Isaac Redman, as co-starters, are roster locks, as is free agent acquisition LaRod Stephens-Howling as a change-of-pace back and returner option. Bringing in Jones, however, clouds the roster security of Jonathan Dwyer.
It is very possible, especially given Bell’s injury, that the Steelers carry five running backs in addition to a fullback, which they did last year while Rashard Mendenhall spent the first few weeks recovering from an ACL injury. That would, of course, render this discussion moot.
However, Jones was brought in to offer some legitimate competition to the spot, and his skill set is more varied in comparison Dwyer as a complementary piece to the co-starters. Both backs figure to see a lot of time tonight. Dwyer should have a fairly significant edge, but if Jones really impresses and displays talents that most of the other backs on the roster do not have—such a proficient receiving skills and breakaway speed—he could very well steal the final spot on the roster at running back from Dwyer.