The 53-man roster is a fickle thing, and it’s virtually impossible to get all of it right. I’m fairly certain that nobody in the know penciled in the name Justin Gilbert when putting together the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-man roster prediction over the course of the past several weeks, just as an example.
But there are many decisions made on the roster that really could go in a number of directions without a great deal of variability between them, and that is what we saw with the Steelers at the back end of the inside linebacker depth chart.
While there was a large contingent of fans rooting for rookie seventh-round draft pick Tyler Matakevich to make the roster, many assumed that the special teams experience of veteran free agent signing Steven Johnson would have been enough to win him the job.
The Steelers chose instead to carry Matakevich, who played special teams in the first half of the third preseason game, while Johnson played in the second half of that game, and the decision reminds me a lot of the 2013 decision to carry Vince Williams during his rookie year over more experienced options, particularly Brian Rolle, as well as Marshall McFadden, who had played well through two years of preseason games.
But Williams played well too, of course, and he played well enough to beat out players with more experience, as Matakevich has done this year. Williams has in the intervening years become a core special teams player, logging 300 snaps there last year, and Matakevich likely will be groomed for a similar role.
Still, it may take some time before he actually dresses on game day, depending on how the inactive list gets sorted out and where the game day helmets might be needed on a weekly basis. Anthony Chickillo faced a similar situation last year once he was on the roster.
I do believe that now that he is on the roster the intention is to keep him there. I thought that the Steelers might carry all six inside linebackers initially, with Matakevich’s position vulnerable as the played to be waived if they claim somebody off waivers, but he won his roster spot outright.
The team has already given him the opportunity to run the defense during the preseason, letting him play with the green dot on his helmet that signals the fact that he gets the calls in his helmet on what play the defense would run.
The fact that the team thought it was necessary to carry him on the 53-man roster says, to me, just how much they like him that they didn’t want to lose him, similar to the Williams and Adrian Robinson situations in recent years.
They may not have been the most prudent decisions for opening day 2016, but their long-term value is notably greater, and the risk of losing such a player was not preferable to the learning curve they may contend with, as when Williams was thrust into a starting role in 2013. Of course, that is pretty unlikely to happen again this year.