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The Pessimist’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 pessimist’s take on the following question.

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

As I recapped in the flipside of this article, Steelers outside free agents have by and large had a very strong track record of managing to make the 53-man roster. After all, if a team signs a player in free agency, they typically hold the belief that they have a roster spot available for him.

That includes those who have signed one-year, veteran-minimum qualifying contracts, who offer little risk if they fail to make the roster—at most, a dead money charge of $80,000 for a signing bonus, which is the maximum that can be offered to a player and still qualify for the salary cap discount.

Just because such players tend to make the roster, however, does not mean that they are ever assured a roster spot, but rather simply that they tend to do what is necessary to earn their roster spots. This year, the Steelers have brought in two players on qualifying contracts to compete for roster spots, and one in particular will have to earn his way onto the roster.

First, consider this. When Steven Johnson, a linebacker, was signed following a pair of free agent losses at the position, he was given a one-year deal, of course, with a modest signing bonus. But the Steelers took the unusual approach—for them—of deferring $55,000 of his bonus as a roster bonus, meaning that that money is unearned until he makes the roster. if he does not, he will accrue a dead money charge of just $25,000. Ricardo Mathews did not receive a signing bonus or roster bonus at all.

These scenarios make them unlike the norm. The Steelers have a history of providing low-level free agents the maximum available signing bonus, but they did not offer either of these players that amount. That is one check mark, at least, against them.

For Johnson, meanwhile, the Steelers already have L.J. Fort, a special teams contributor who was on the roster last season, and they just drafted Tyler Matakevich in the seventh round, who recorded nearly 500 tackles in college. Jordan Zumwalt still lingers. If two of those three players make the roster, Johnson will be the odd man looking out.

There is not as much competition for Mathews’ position, of course, and he figures to have a strong chance of making the roster due to sheer numbers. Behind the starting defensive ends are two second-year players in sixth-rounder L.T. Walton, who received a handful of snaps, and claimed undrafted player Caushaud Lyons, who spent most of the season on the practice squad.

One of them may make the roster, but it’s unlikely they would both win out over the more experienced player. Especially not after the team has already made clear that they need to do a better job of finding talent to sub out their starters along the defensive line.

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