Over the course of the past several years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have fluctuated when it comes to deciding how many offensive linemen they choose to carry on the 53-man roster. It has almost seemed to go on a bi-annual basis whether they carry eight or nine linemen, with 2014 being one of the years in which they went heavy, with rookie fifth-round draft pick Wesley Johnson proving to be the bottom rung of the totem pole.
Johnson was eventually released in order to make room elsewhere on the roster, having never dressed for a game. In 2013, however, the Steelers began the season carrying just eight linemen, which was obviously before Maurkice Pouncey’s injury. By the end of the year, they added a number of linemen for necessary insulation.
With Johnson and Chris Hubbard serving as the eighth and ninth linemen last season, it would be hard to argue that there was a particularly compelling reason to carry that amount, as they clearly would have been sufficient with eight, as later exemplified by the fact that they played about half the year with that number.
It is not apparent to me that there exists a much more compelling case to load up with nine linemen again this season, given that the current competition for the ninth spot consists almost entirely of former undrafted players with no NFL experience.
The Steelers do return all eight linemen who finished the season on the 53-man roster last season. Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in a recent chat that the decision to carry a ninth lineman came at the request of offensive line coach Mike Munchak, but when it became apparent that doing so was a luxury with needs on the roster elsewhere, a move had to be made.
What is interesting is that only one reserve from last season, Mike Adams, was truly a tackle. While Johnson played all five positions during training camp, he was limited entirely to working at the center position during the preseason, and it was not clear that he would be used at tackle in anything other than an emergency. There was one point last season in which Pouncey was prepared to take a snap at right tackle, in fact.
The two strongest contenders for occupying a reserve tackle position this season are Alejandro Villanueva and Mitchell Van Dyke, both of whom are far from distinguished when it comes to having an NFL playing career.
Villanueva might perhaps have the best chance out of everybody to claim a ninth lineman spot, as the coaching staff appears to be very intrigued by his potential at 6’9” and now pushing 350 pounds or so.
Depending on how the roster shapes up elsewhere, however, he, too, may prove to be a luxury that they can’t afford, as a second interior reserve is more important than a second reserve tackle, simply by virtue of the fact that there are three interior positions. The Steelers appear to have a deeper 90-man roster than they have in recent years.