Training camp is now upon us, in case you have failed to take notice. The Pittsburgh Steelers reported to Latrobe on July 28, and began practicing the following day in preparation for their first preseason game on August 12, and eventually, for the 2016 regular season in April.
Every NFL season is like an investigation of sorts, with the offseason and preseason serving as the fact-finding portion, gathering the questions that are most prudent to ask in order to understand the story of the team in the current season. And it is in training camp that we really begin to start finding the answers to those questions.
You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in training camp and the preseason looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they head into a regular season in which they are among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.
Question: How many linebackers can the Steelers afford to keep this year?
For most of the 2016 regular season, the Steelers carried 10 linebackers on their 53-man roster. By the end of the year, it was 11. Including the practice squad, they had as many as 12 linebackers in their system at one point.
And nine of those players are still with the team in 2016. They got another linebacker back from injured reserve, signed one in free agency, and then drafted two more. What in the world are they to do with all of them? And how many can they manage to keep around?
A big part of that equation is and will always be special teams. The two linebackers that they lost last season were major special teams contributors, and their snaps on the third phase of the game will need to be replaced. Another linebacker would not be a bad option.
As it currently stands, in my head anyway, I see eight linebackers who are already fairly close to locks to make the 53-man roster—the five outside linebackers who finished the season on the roster last year, the two starters at inside linebacker, and, of course, Vince Williams.
I can’t imagine that the Steelers don’t carry at least five inside linebackers, particularly when considering the already proven special teams backgrounds of the two veterans in the mix, L.J. Fort, who was with the team last year, and Steven Johnson, whom they signed in free agency.
Meanwhile, rookie Tyler Matakevich is doing his best to make sure that he is not forgotten in the competition, and while he is not revered for his athleticism, he showed up impressively in the backs on backers drill. That combined with his nose for the football should lend itself well to special teams.
Depending on how the rest of the roster breaks, it wouldn’t shock me to see the Steelers keep 11 linebackers on the roster to start the season, and I haven’t even mentioned Travis Feeney yet, who has been sitting out with a minor injury recently. Joey Porter has spoken highly of him and was worried about putting him on the practice squad for fear of him getting claimed. He has some intriguing traits, but he needs to show them first. And that is what training camp and the preseason is for.