By Matthew Marczi
With the decision to carry five tight ends, the Pittsburgh Steelers seemingly expressed their intent to place tight end Matt Spaeth on the Reserve/Injured List with Designation to Return. In order to place the return designation on a player being moved to injured reserve, that player must be on the final 53-man roster. If the Steelers intended to end his season with a move to the standard Reserve/Injured List, the move would have already been made—as it had been for Plaxico Burress and rookie defensive end Nick Williams—because no waiting would have been required.
With a potential three-months-from-the-time-of-injury recovery period, Spaeth stands to miss a good chunk of the season with his Lisfranc injury, which required a surgical operation to repair the damage. Because of that, he is an ideal candidate for the ‘short-term’ IR.
Many people have disagreed with that notion, expressing concern that a second-string tight end is not a ‘valuable’ enough commodity on which to use the one-and-done short-term IR option. This is despite a first-string tight end still working his way back from an ACL tear and more, and the fact that second-string tight ends see a lot of snaps and are as important to an offense as a slot corner is to a defense.
For perspective, here are Spaeth’s regular season snap count numbers over the past five seasons from most recent and on backward, keeping in mind that the last two years were spent with the Chicago Bears: 430 snaps, including eight ‘starts’, in 16 games; 369 snaps, including seven ‘starts’, in 15 games; 469 snaps, including 12 ‘starts’, in 14 games; 391 snaps, including nine ‘starts’, in 16 games; and 535 snaps, including 13 ‘starts’, in 16 games. That is an average of 28.5 snaps per game; in both 2010 and 2008, Spaeth played just under 50% of the team’s total offensive snaps, in addition. Those were the years they went to the Super Bowl, for whatever that is worth.
Regardless of the debate about whether or not Spaeth is ‘worthy’ of being given the chance to return this year, all signs point to it happening. But the move cannot be made until Tuesday. A lot of things can happen between now and then, but here is a look at a few of the options that the Steelers have to utilize that 53rd roster spot, based on current ‘needs’ and what is available from their own internal cuts:
Offensive Lineman: The Steelers are currently carrying just eight offensive lineman, and they prefer to carry nine. This position more than any is likely to be upgraded via waivers; however, going by the Steelers’ own cuts, the most likely candidates to be brought back are the two offensive linemen that will likely end up on the practice squad, tackle Joe Long and guard Chris Hubbard. With all three reserves being guard-capable, it is highly unlikely that Hubbard makes the cut, but the Steelers gave Long a serious look over the last two games. He even saw a lot of snaps at left tackle in the finale. If no upgrades are made from the releases made by other teams, Long appears to be the best option to add depth to the offensive line.
Outside Linebacker: The Steelers often like to keep nine linebackers due to the value of the position both on defense and special teams, and when they do keep nine, the ninth is most often a fifth outside linebacker. Last year, the Steelers kept undrafted rookie Adrian Robinson as the fifth. This year, many believed Alan Baxter would fulfill that role, but he was released yesterday. After the roster move, Baxter may still wind up in that role.
Inside Linebacker: the Steelers fielded an inside linebacker group that was eight players deep headed into training camp, all of whom the team was happy with, yet only four made the final roster. The math does not add up here, suggesting that inside linebacker should be the most likely beneficiary of the impending roster move. Marshall McFadden was the surprise cut, but Brian Rolle also had a strong preseason, and the team felt strong enough about undrafted rookie Terence Garvin after an offseason tryout that they added him to the 90-man roster, and he was also the first linebacker in to replace Stevenson Sylvester when he was injured in the first preseason game. Barring outside upgrades, I would expect McFadden or Rolle to be the most likely candidates for Spaeth’s roster replacement unless another team picks them up.
Brian Arnfelt: Brian Arnfelt gets a specific mention because his position on the roster is about as deep as anywhere else on the team. The Steelers have entrenched starters at defensive end in Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel with former first-round pick Cameron Heyward chomping at the bit to steal playing time, and following a breakout preseason, the team will be searching for reps to provide Al Woods as well. With three of those four set to hit free agency next year, however, Arnfelt and Nick Williams may be key contributors a year from now. As of now, I consider Arnfelt an absolute lock to make the practice squad after a rather impressive offseason.
Of course, there are plenty of other options, both within the Steelers’ own cuts and through the waiver as previously mentioned, but I believe these are the areas that are most likely to be addressed with the roster move either due to lack of depth currently at the position, wealth of depth at the position before the final cuts, or simply outstanding performances.