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The Optimist’s Take: Free Agents And Making The 53

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Will all of the Steelers’ outside free agent signings this year make the 53-man roster?

When asking this question, of course, I am referring really to linebacker Steven Johnson and defensive lineman Ricardo Mathews, because I suppose that there is no real doubt that tight end Ladarius Green and tackle Ryan Harris will make the team. The latter two may both be opening day starters.

The others, not so much. They were signed purely for depth, after the Steelers lost two defensive linemen and two linebackers in free agency, or simply did not re-sign them, and needed numbers to fill in the blanks. But they did add a defensive lineman and two linebackers during the draft, so how does that influence Johnson and Mathews?

The answer is, of course, “we’ll see”, but Steelers free agent signings of the low-end variety have a strong history of ending up making the 53-man roster regardless of how embattled they might have been during training camp for said roster spot.

Dave Bryan did a study a couple of years back now looking at the team’s history of free agent signings under Kevin Colbert, and only one of 41 players from 2000 to 2013 players failed to make the 53-man roster. A second was added in 2014, of course, when Adam Podlesh had extenuating circumstances that prevented him from ever reporting to the team, but every other free agent signing that year—and there were several—made the roster.

Names stick out to me such as Leonard Pope and Keiwan Ratliff, even Brice McCain, of fringe outside free agent signings whom people dismissed, but all of whom ended up making the roster—with mixed results after that, of course.

Mathews has perhaps an easier path to a roster spot given the lack of proven talent along the defensive line. Nobody behind the two starting defensive ends has played more than a couple of snaps in the NFL currently.

Johnson has a bit of a taller order. While there are potentially two roster slots open, there are three additional players vying for those two spots. Johnson’s advantage is that he is the most experienced of the four, and his special teams responsibilities pair well with those of Terence Garvin, one of the linebackers they are looking to replace.

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