Entering each training camp, there are typically only a handful of roster spots that are truly open. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the most wide open battle could be along the defensive line. The team usually tries to keep six, doing just that in three of the last four years.
Only four players have locked up a spot. The three surefire starters: Steve McLendon, Cameron Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt. Daniel McCullers showed too much progression in year one to think he’s in danger of not making the roster.
From there, it’s all guesswork. The Steelers saw reason enough to decide against making Cam Thomas a cap casualty but that was a move, or lack of one, out of necessity than desire. Cutting Thomas would have meant entering 2015 without any backup defensive end ever taking a regular season snap in a Steelers’ uniform. Being a veteran with system experience was enough to get to camp.
But if his play is anything resembling 2014, it’ll be increasingly difficult to justify keeping him for another year. It’d be going against the “best 53” mindset every team preaches.
If not Thomas, then who?
L.T. Walton was the team’s sixth round selection but shouldn’t be tasked with being the top backup in the beginning. He’s learning a new position, playing the two/three technique in college, and making a hefty competition jump. Walton will be fighting for a helmet on the roster, let alone any serious playing time.
Ethan Hemer has spent time on the practice squad, being re-signed after Josh Mauro was poached by the Arizona Cardinals. In fact, as unusual as it sounds, he has the third most Steelers’ experience of the backups, trailing only McCullers and Thomas. But he’s a limited athlete and making the jump from practice squad to serious playing time would be unsettling.
Matt Conrath is a name to keep an eye on. Though miscast in a 4-3, he has Sunday experience, playing 135 defensive snaps in 2013 for the St. Louis Rams. He has an intimidating frame, weighing in at over 6’7 and 306 pounds.
Clifton Geathers didn’t play a snap after being signed following Brett Keisel’s torn triceps but was recommended to come back by defensive line John Mitchell, high praise from a well-respected coach. His limited tape with the Washington Redskins didn’t inspire anyone but he’ll have as good a chance as anyone coming into Latrobe.
Joe Kruger has added weight to bulk up as a 3-4 end, weighing 287 pounds according to the Steelers’ website after arriving at the 2013 NFL Combine 18 pounds lighter. He’s never taken an NFL snap, making all this projection, but the size – especially vine-like 34 3/8 inch arms – create a profile worth taking a second look at.
The others still have that new car smell. Dominique “Niko” Davis is a UDFA from Liberty while Georgia’s Mike Thornton is fresh off the tryout pile. Chances are slim they even make waves but with the lack of depth, nothing is impossible.