Now that we have completed our look at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 90-man roster heading into training camp a bit under a month from now, it’s time to take a look back at the team’s 53-man roster from last year’s regular season, for the purpose of revisiting the contributions of the players that are no longer with the team, and whether or not those contributions have been adequately replaced.
Roster turnover is just a natural fact of today’s NFL, which have only become more prominent since the advent of free agency more than two decades ago. It’s very rare for a team to return all 11 starters on one side of the ball from one year to the next, let alone to do so for both the offense and defense.
The Steelers are certainly no exception to that rule, and they figure to have a number of lineup changes from 2015 to 2016, which seems to be increasingly common for them in recent years.
Perhaps not the most important member of the team—his significance was certainly diminished last season in large part thanks to the emergence of Roosevelt Nix at fullback, but also due to the drafting of Jesse James—the free agency departure of fifth-year veteran Will Johnson will never the less have to be addressed in some form or fashion by the Steelers this season, even if it means choosing not to address it.
Originally an undrafted free agent in 2011, Johnson failed to sign with any team that year in large part due to the lockout, but is alma mater gave him an opportunity to attend their Pro Day the following year, and the Steelers offered him a contract.
Set to compete against veteran David Johnson for the starting fullback position that year, the job was won by default due to injury, and he had his best statistical season that year to date, catching 15 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. He showed soft hands, some speed, and athletic ability, and many believed that the Steelers could get further production from his skill set, but it never came to fruition in an offense already loaded with talent.
Pittsburgh did highly value him because of his versatility that could play out of the backfield—he even had a rushing touchdown last year—as well as at the line of scrimmage, in concert with his ability to catch the ball and to contribute on special teams.
They had interest in re-signing him this offseason, but the Giants offered him a two-year contract, whereas Pittsburgh would likely have been limited to offering him a one-year, veteran-minimum deal. Frankly, I am interested to see what he can accomplish in a Giants offense that has showed some favoritism toward versatile types such as his.
In the meantime, the Steelers replaced him with the man he replaced, re-signing David Johnson after two years with the Chargers, though he is not guaranteed to make the roster. With Nix coming in last year and establishing himself as a legitimate fullback, a flex player is less necessary, but having somebody who can line up and take those snaps in the event of injury is still valuable.