With the start of Pittsburgh Steelers training camp now just three weeks away, it’s time to look at the players who ended the 2016 season either on the team’s 53-man roster or Reserve/Injured list that have the toughest paths back to this year’s initial Week 1 unit.
I’ve ordered these players from toughest to easiest paths in my own eyes and of course the inklings can be debated as they’re subjective. Additionally, this list can probably be expanded by four or five more players with ease so feel free to do so in the comments below.
Fitzgerald Toussaint – Since being promoted to the Steelers roster from the team’s practice squad late during the 2015 regular season, Toussaint’s offensive role with the team has been very limited as you would expect. Last season he played mostly on the kickoff return team and really didn’t turn any heads in that phase of the game. With the drafting of running back James Conner and the addition of free agent running back Knile Davis during the offseason, Toussaint is already outside of the roster bubble ahead of training camp getting underway and thus might need an injury to happen on the depth chart to make the initial 53-man roster a second year in a row.
Cobi Hamilton – Nobody could have guessed at this same time last year that Hamilton would have played as much as he did for the Steelers during the 2016 regular season. For starters, he wasn’t even signed until after training camp started last year. Injuries, however, allowed for Hamilton to find his way to the 53-man roster by Week 6 of the regular season and from that point forward he played 384 offensive snaps in 11 games. With the wide receiver room in Pittsburgh now replenished with talent, Hamilton, much like Toussaint, will need a lot of things to go his way to ultimately survive the final round of roster cuts.
Brian Mihalik – The Steelers added Mihalik to their 53-man roster in October after signing him off the practice squad of the Detroit Lions. That move was mostly related to injuries, however, but with that said, the former college defensive lineman turned tackle by the Steelers still managed to remain on the 53-man roster the remainder of the season. He’s trying to duplicate the feat that current starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva pulled off and that will be a tough chore. Mihalik might have to beat out the more experienced and more position flexible Chris Hubbard during training camp or hope the Steelers decided to keep nine offensive linemen in total.
Johnny Maxey – A late season roster addition in 2016, Maxey beat the odds as an undrafted free agent and even played 51 snaps to close out the regular season. A new season brings new challengers and limited roster spots available and thus Maxey will need some help to avoid the Turk after the preseason ends.
Demarcus Ayers – Last year’s seventh round draft pick was also a late season addition in 2016 after spending time on the practice squad. Ayers’ path to the initial 53-man roster this year might revolve solely around his ability to beat out wide receiver Antonio Brown for the punt returner job as the wide receiver room is full of more experienced players than him.
Senquez Golson – All of you know the story with Golson by now as the former second-round draft pick has yet to play in as much as one preseason game during his first two seasons in the league due to injuries. Golson, who survived the offseason program this year, has a lot of competition to beat out this year during training camp and that includes two draft picks, one savvy and experienced longtime Steeler, as well as a veteran free agent addition.
L.J. Fort – How many of you remember the fact that Fort started and ended the 2016 regular season on the Steelers 53-man roster and that he appeared in 14 of 16 games and two of three playoff contests? Even with veteran longtime starting inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons now at the picture, Fort still has a tough path back to this year’s initial 53-man roster and that path includes him needing to be a core special teams contributor.
Darrius Heyward-Bey – During his three seasons in Pittsburgh, Heyward-Bey has only caught 30 passes for 461 yards and four touchdowns on 63 total targets. His biggest contributions have come on special teams, however, and that’s allowed him to keep one foot planted in the NFL. With the return of fellow wide receiver Martavis Bryant in 2017 from a year-long suspension last season and combined with the Steelers drafting JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second-round and the signing of a much younger deep threat in wide receiver Justin Hunter, Heyward-Bey needs to show once again he can be a huge special teams asset during training camp and the preseason to play a fourth season in Pittsburgh.
Arthur Moats – While still on the right side of 30, Moats’ best years are likely behind him now. With the addition of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Keion Adams via this year’s draft, the James Madison product will certainly need to battle for a roster spot during training camp and the preseason this year. While Moats has averaged almost four sacks a season during his time in a Steelers uniform, his decreasing playing on special teams last season is a cause for concern when it comes to him possibly being able to stick around a fourth season. It could come down to him versus Adams for a fifth and final outside linebacker depth chart spot.
Daniel McCullers – The arrow has not pointed up consistently enough for McCullers during his first three seasons in the NFL and thus the giant defensive tackle really needs to have a strong training camp and preseason if he’s going to see a fourth season in Pittsburgh. The Steelers normally only carry six defensive linemen on their 53-man roster and five of those spots are seemingly already locked up with newcomer Tyson Alualu and former draft pick L.T. Walton serving as the fourth and fifth, respectively.
Jordan Dangerfield – Dangerfield is no stranger to yearly training camp battles as he’s been evolved in them every year of his career. Last season, he finally kicked in the proverbial door and made the initial 53-man roster out of training camp and stayed on it the entire season. While Dangerfield played reasonably well in his 124 total defensive snaps played last season that included him making two starts, his special teams ability is what really makes him an asset to the team heading into training camp this year. However, the Steelers addition of safety Daimion Stafford during the offseason gives Dangerfield a legitimate challenger during training camp and especially if the team ultimately decides to keep just four safeties on their initial 53-man roster.