With less than two weeks now remaining until the Pittsburgh Steelers must set their initial 53-man roster for the 2017 season, it’s easy to speculate that most of you reading this post have the team keeping either nine or ten linebackers in total as part of your predictions. That’s certainly understandable and in fact, in my latest 53-man roster prediction I have them keeping nine in total. Is it, however, worth exploring the possibility that they’ll ultimately keep eight linebackers in total this year?
Who are numbers 9 and 10? – With two weeks remaining in the preseason, I think most of you would probably agree that veterans Arthur Moats and Steven Johnson are likely the number 9 and 10 linebackers on the roster regardless of what order you choose. Assuming the Steelers feel the same way, one must think that at least one of those two players isn’t likely to dress on a weekly basis as long as the overall health of the linebacker group remains intact. In short, the team probably doesn’t need to carry both on their final 53-man roster.
Overall value of Moats and Johnson? – If we assume Moats and Johnson are numbers nine and ten, what value does each of them have? Unless something drastic happens, neither are likely to play much, if any, on defense during the 2017 season. Moats was passed on the depth chart last year by Anthony Chickillo and there’s currently no reason to think he will jump back over him in 2017. While Moats can still play special teams, it’s no longer a phase of his game that he excels at. Johnson, on the other hand, who has a nice special teams resume, was inactive for the first three games of the 2016 regular season just the same. Chickillo, T.J. Watt, Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort all can special team contributors in 2017 and when you add in another core-type special teams player such as rookie running back James Conner, the need for two more special teamers who also play linebacker might be overkill.
Keeping 8 would certainly allow for a 7th cornerback to be kept – Regardless of what your roster prediction numbers look like at various position groups, keeping only eight linebackers in total would virtually guarantee you a chance to keep a seventh cornerback if you wanted to. The Steelers, however, at least from my research, haven’t kept seven total cornerbacks since head coach Mike Tomlin arrived in 2007 so odds are great he won’t do it this year. If, however, there were a year to make a push for seven total cornerbacks to be kept, this would be the year as rookie Cameron Sutton has yet to play a preseason down and both William Gay and Ross Cockrell more than likely won’t be back in 2018. Sure, two of the seven cornerbacks would likely be inactive every week, but the team needs seven inactive players every week just the same. For those of you concerned about rookie draft pick Brian Allen clearing waivers, or ultimately being poached from the practice squad, keeping only eight linebackers in total would almost certainly open a roster spot for him.
A fourth tight end, maybe? – Most of you probably have the Steelers only keeping three tight ends in total this year with David Johnson also serving as a backup fullback to Roosevelt Nix. While keeping four tight ends in total seems outlandish, it’s hard to just push Jake McGee to the side right now just the same. He’s shown to be a very good run blocker and appears to have the makings of an above average special teamer. Who has more current gameday value in your eyes: McGee, Moats or Johnson? Keeping only eight linebackers in total this year would allow for not only a seventh cornerback to be kept, but a fourth tight end such as McGee as well.
Practice squad shuttle material – I don’t know what each one of your current 53-man roster predictions looks like, but with that said, tell me the name of the player that’s currently on it that could potentially be shuttled back and forth to the practice squad should the need ever arise to do so during the first quarter of the season. Even better, which player is out the door first should the Steelers need a roster spot due to injuries? Fort? S.Johnson or Moats, assuming you kept one or both of them? McGee would be a great player to shuttle back and forth.
Summary – Sure, keeping only five wide receivers and nine linebackers in total would likely provide enough roster openings for a seventh cornerback and a fourth tight end, but with that said, do you really want to see the Steelers enter the 2017 season with just five wide receivers on their 53-man roster? If you are fine with five, that means you’re likely going to have to choose only one of Sammie Coates, Justin Hunter or Darrius Heyward-Bey. Odds are likely not good that the Steelers will ultimately only keep eight linebackers in total, but with that said, I think I have made a somewhat decent argument for that very thing to happen.