There is still one pending roster to be made with the return of Bud Dupree, but before that happens, I just wanted to comment on how much of a banner year this has been for the practice squad for the Pittsburgh Steelers, not just for the 2016 edition, but for members of the practice squad of years past.
As it is generally supposed to be understood, the practice squad is a group of players that is an extension of the team’s ability to function coherently on the practice field and to prepare for their upcoming opponents. Its core function is not about the development of the talent on the practice squad, but actually the development of the talent on the 53-man roster.
That said, there are always stories about players making it from the practice squad to the 53-man roster and finding success. James Harrison is the poster child for a player who can become a star after cutting his teeth on the practice squad, but the Steelers have many other examples.
Aside from Harrison, there are currently ten players on the 53-man roster that have previously spent time on not just any practice squad generally, put Pittsburgh’s practice squad specifically. Now, granted, not many of them are playing in prominent roles, but they have been making their contributions.
The biggest name on that list has to be Alejandro Villanueva, who spent the 2014 season on the Steelers’ practice squad re-learning how to play tackle. He has been the team’s starting left tackle for most of the past two seasons, and has continued to improve. He is not a Pro Bowler, but he is a starter.
At the same position, the Steelers also have Brian Mihalik on the 53-man roster, who would have made the Steelers’ practice squad initially had he not suffered an injury in the preseason. Instead, they signed him off of the Lions’ practice squad to their 53-man roster, so he is not even included in this 10-man tally, which already excludes Harrison. He did, however, replace Matt Feiler, who was on the practice squad this year, and is back there again.
There is another starter in that group, and that is second-year outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo, who was a sixth-round draft pick last year and spent a few weeks on the practice squad before being called up to the 53-man roster last season. He is currently the chief left edge rusher and has produced two strip sacks.
Also of particular note is a trio of practice squad alumni who have climbed up the ranks and started games this year. Chris Hubbard is in his third season on the 53-man roster following a year of seasoning on the squad, but he stepped up into a prominent role this year and started three games at right tackle.
First-year interior lineman B.J. Finney also started ably at left guard for one game and saw extended playing time in two other games at both guard and center. First-year safety Jordan Dangerfield saw a two-game starting stint as well, and was complimented for his performance.
Fellow alumni include additional first-year players in tight end Xavier Grimble, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, and cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz. Of the free, Hamilton in particular has contributed significantly of late.
A pair of more veteran players have also worked their way up to the 53-man roster in inside linebacker L.J. Fort and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Toussaint started two playoffs games for Pittsburgh last year and is once again the backup currently due to injury. Fort was cut recently but made his way back due to injury. Fort spent all of 2015 on the practice squad, while Toussaint was there for about half the season.