The Pittsburgh Steelers have a higher percentage of their offseason 90-man roster filled out heading into the 2019 NFL Draft than they typically do. All told, they will account for 76 out of 91 roster spots (because of one exemption), meaning that they will only be able to sign five college free agents if they use all 10 of their draft picks. They normally sign two to three times as many, though of course they can sign others and release players currently on the roster.
That is not necessarily what is going to happen, because this year the Steelers had available to them players from the Alliance of American Football, from which they signed six players. Three of those players came from the Birmingham Iron, the franchise for whom Pittsburgh is an affiliate, and one of them, Casey Sayles, was in camp with them in 2018.
Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert talked about the team’s decision to make use of the AAF talent pool yesterday when he and Head Coach Mike Tomlin addressed the media during their joint pre-draft press conference to discuss the event later this week.
“Currently the roster stands at 74”, Colbert told reporters at the beginning of his press conference. “You know we added the AAF players when they were available to us. And usually those kids would’ve been players that we would’ve added during the future signing in January. When they were playing, they weren’t available to us. At this point, we’re back up to 74”.
He mentions 74, but in practical terms it’s 76. He likely is not including Mike Hilton, who has yet to sign his exclusive rights tender in spite of the fact that he is already participating with the team during the first phase of the offseason program. The other player not being accounted for is likely Xavier Grimble, who only recently signed his restricted free agent tender.
In addition to Sayles, the Steelers also signed Jack Tocho, J.C. Hassenauer, Kameron Kelly, Winston Craig, and JT Jones, the majority of whom at least have been on practice squads before. Hassenauer is the only one from that group who has never been on a 90-man roster before.
Colbert talked about the fact that they currently have 51 players on the roster who have NFL experience at some level on an active roster, and bringing in some of the AAF players that they signed helped them to reach that level.
It’s interesting that he seemed to suggest these might have been players the team would have been interested in signing had they not been under contract with the AAF, but I’m really not so sure how true this is, as other players such as Josh Johnson and Garrett Gilbert were able to break their contracts before the AAF season started.
It’s more likely that they may have had some level of interest in these players in advance—Sayles obviously being among them—but wanted to see how they would look in an alternative professional setting. In order to reap similar rewards in 2020, however, it will be incumbent upon the XFL, and they may not be as obliging, with a contract clause that allows their players to sign with NFL teams after the season.