Kozora: 2021 Steelers’ Way-Too-Early Roster Predictions

I know it’s still early in May and the draft just ended but we’re already eyeing what the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 roster could look like. This is my first crack at predicting the 53-man roster, gameday inactives, and practice squad. I’m not sure if the practice squad will remain at 16 players like last year due to COVID. For now, I’m reverting back to its normal 12 per the latest CBA.

Anyway, here are my first predictions. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Offense (25)

Quarterbacks (3) – Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins

Analysis: Roethlisberger is your starter and Rudolph is highly likely to be the backup. Comes down to Haskins versus Josh Dobbs. Should be a competitive battle, but I’m giving the edge to Haskins, the first round pick with a lot of talent and under team control through 2022. Steelers are probably going to want to hang onto him with a lot of uncertainty regarding the future of the position.

Running Backs (4) – Najee Harris, Anthony McFarland, Benny Snell, Kalen Ballage

Analysis: Harris was the team’s starter from the moment they turned the card in. Behind him gets messy with no clear pecking order. McFarland, for lack of a better term, can be a change-up runner and one Matt Canada knows well from their time at Maryland. Snell and Ballage offer a similar skillset of short-yardage value, Ballage has actually been highly effective, and both are productive on special teams. Snell has really carved out a niche there.

Fullback (1) – Derek Watt

Analysis: Not much of an explanation needed. Watt’s spot was secure when the team restructured his contract.

Wide Receivers (5) –  JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Ray-Ray McCloud

Analysis: Carrying over the same group from the end of 2020. For the first time in a decade, the Steelers didn’t draft a wide receiver, so competition is a little lighter here. Watch out for futures contract Mathew Sexton though. Has the speed and special teams value to try to grab a sixth spot.

Tight Ends (3) – Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, Kevin Rader

Analysis: Not going to assume any outsider free agents right now, though I’d welcome the team bringing someone like Jesse James back on the roster. Rader beats out Zach Gentry for the third spot. Much better blocker and special teams player. That’s what you’re looking for with that third TE.

Offensive Tackles (4) – Chukwuma Okorafor, Zach Banner, Joe Haeg, Dan Moore Jr.

Analysis: Okorafor your starting left tackle, Banner your starting right tackle. Haeg could function as a swingman and tackle-eligible while Moore Jr. probably tries to redshirt this season. No guarantee he’s active on gameday.

Offensive Center/Guards (5) – David DeCastro, Kevin Dotson, B.J. Finney, Kendrick Green, Rashaad Coward

Analysis: Wind up carrying nine offensive linemen. Green will fight Finney for the starting spot. Coward makes it because of his versatility to play guard or tackle. Team protecting themselves versus injury. JC Hassenauer the odd man out.

Defense (25)

Defensive Ends (4) – Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk

Analysis: Have Loudermilk edging out Isaiah Buggs but the former’s roster spot shouldn’t be written in pen. Buggs is the more talented player but has had issues with weight and inconsistent play/mental lapses. This summer is make or break for him.

Nose Tackle (2) – Tyson Alualu, Carlos Davis

Analysis: Steelers almost always keep six defensive linemen. Davis flashed in his roughly 60 snaps as a rookie and could be viewed as the heir to Alualu’s nose tackle spot.

Outside Linebackers (4) – T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Cassius Marsh, Quincy Roche

Analysis: Not many choices here. Feel like you have to go with these four until/if the team signs another free agent. Roche and Marsh will likely begin the year splitting #3 duties in the way Highsmith and Ola Adeniyi did in 2020. But depth here isn’t ideal even though Roche was good sixth round value.

Inside Linebackers (5) – Devin Bush, Vince Williams, Robert Spillane, Buddy Johnson, Marcus Allen

Analysis: Some pretty good depth here. Ulysees Gilbert III is the odd man out. Has the talent, but his history of back injuries are impossible to ignore. Interested to see how Marcus Allen looks in his first full offseason as an inside linebacker. Will he add some weight?

Cornerbacks (6) – Joe Haden, Cam Sutton, James Pierre, Art Maulet, Shakur Brown, Mark Gilbert

Analysis: Some surprises here. End of the road for Justin Layne who just hasn’t shown much as a cornerback in the NFL. That’s worked the first two reasons when Layne wasn’t counted on to play hardly any there. With Steven Nelson gone, that’s changed. Pierre becomes the RCB in sub-packages with Sutton moving to the slot. Maulet is a slot corner/safety mix while a pair of UDFAs make the roster. Brown for slot corner work and special teams. Gilbert had big talent early in his Duke career. If he’s the same guy post-injury, the Steelers may have gotten a steal.

Safeties (4) – Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Miles Killebrew, Antoine Brooks Jr.

Analysis: Counting Killebrew as a safety since the team labeled him a DB when announcing the signing. But the little defense he has logged has come at linebacker. End of the day, he’s a core special teamer. Brooks Jr. may find a home as the sixth defender in dime packages.

Special Teams (3)

Kicker (1) – Chris Boswell

Analysis: There’s no threat to Boswell’s job. Steelers don’t even currently have another kicker on their offseason roster.

Punter (1) – Pressley Harvin III

Analysis: Harvin III needs to prove consistency. Just because he was drafted doesn’t mean he’s going to lock up the spot. But the upside is much bigger with him so for now, I’ll have him edge out Berry. Harvin III will need to improve his directional punting.

Long Snapper (1) – Kameron Canaday

Analysis: Canaday had a somewhat shaky 2020 season, so I’ll be watching his training camp and preseason performance.

Gameday Inactives (5)

QB Dwayne Haskins
OL Rashaad Coward
DL Isaiahh Loudermilk
LB Buddy Johnson
CB Mark Gilbert

Practice Squad (12)

QB: Josh Dobbs
RB: Trey Edmunds
WR: Mathew Sexton, Tyler Simmons
TE: Dax Raymond
OL: J.C. Hassenauer, Aviante Collins
DL:  Henry Mondeaux, Abdullah Anderson
OLB : Calvin Bundage
CB: Stephen Denmark
S: Donovan Stiner

Analysis: Dobbs as the fourth QB to keep pushing Dwayne Haskins, and he’s a great mind in the QB room. Sexton and Simmons look like good fits for Matt Canada’s offense. Mondeaux falls back to the practice squad but has good special teams value that makes him worth keeping around. Bundage can play EDGE or off-ball while Denmark is a toolsy corner yet to put it all together. Stiner beats out seventh-round rookie Tre Norwood for the practice squad spot. Norwood would be far from the first seventh round pick to miss the roster entirely (Josh Frazier, Gerod Holliman, Terrence Frederick).

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