With the start of 2021 NFL Training Camp only a couple of weeks away, there are many storylines circling around local and national media outlets concerning the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into 2021. The common topics often brought up include whether or not Ben Roethlisberger has any left in the tank heading into his age-39 season, how the new-look offensive line will gel together after seeing an extreme makeover this season under the vision of new OL Coach Adrian Klemm, will the run game be improved from the atrocious showing last season with the new additions upfront along with the selection of RB Najee Harris 24th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, and how the offense will look as a whole under the influence of new OC Matt Canada and his heavy pre-snap motions usage in the past.
While these stories have the utmost importance and will be the main headliners to the start of the preseason, I want to mention the topic of training camp battles that decide who makes the backend of the roster and who gets their walking papers. Sure, players can be signed to the enlarged practice squad via COVID-19 protocols, but the goal of every player on the current 90-man roster is to one of the 53. NFL teams can now carry 55 players on their roster thanks to the new CBA, but two of those players are elevated from the practice squad for gamedays but revert back to the practice squad. This article is meant to highlight several “surprise” names you often wouldn’t consider making the initial 53 coming out of camp, the reasoning behind it, and their potential contribution in 2021 and beyond.
Dobbs re-signed with the Steelers this offseason after joining the team for the 2020 season when the Jacksonville Jaguars decided to release him going into the regular season, he only saw a few snaps in the Week 17 game at Cleveland backing up Mason Rudolph, but he has always been seen as a welcomed face in the locker room due to his work ethic and professionalism. The promotion of Matt Canada to offensive coordinator this offseason could reap benefits for Dobbs, as the motion-heavy offensive system that gets skill position players in advantageous matchups all over the field could utilize the athleticism Dobbs possesses in comparison to the rest of the QBs on the roster.
Now Alex Kozora did highlight in a recent study that Canada’s prior offenses didn’t require the use of a mobile QB but utilizing Dobbs on RPO concepts with Najee Harris or Anthony McFarland out of the backfield with the option to tuck and run or throw it to Chase Claypool deep or JuJu Smith-Schuster coming over the middle would create another wrinkle defense would have to guard against. This has been something that the Saints have experimented with this with Taysom Hill and Jalen Hurts of the Eagles figures to play a similar role in his offense. This isn’t to say that Dobbs is at the caliber of those guys, but should he show consistency as a passer in the reps he does get in the preseason along with the possibility of Dwayne Haskins struggling throughout camp, we could see Pittsburgh elect to try and put Haskins on the practice squad and Dobbs win the third QB spot on the roster.
Dax Raymond is a little-known TE out of Utah State that went undrafted back in 2019 and then signed with the Chicago Bears where he spent training camp before going on IR right before Week One of the 2019 season. He was later released with an injury settlement and circled back to the practice squad in October. He would then be released in April and signed with the Steelers right before training camp opened in July of 2020 but rolled his ankle August 18 and was cut from the team. He ended up signing back with Pittsburgh after their playoff loss to the Browns.
When coming out of Utah State, I marked Raymond as a late-round target that was a capable receiver for the TE position. He does a good job stretching the seam up the middle of the field and has the athleticism to be pick up yards after-the-catch. He also understands zone coverages and finds the sweets spots to sit down and present his QB with a target over the middle of the field, having a big frame and reliable hands to win those possession catches. I was truly impressed with his tape as a receiver, and he also showed to be a willing blocker from the wing/H-Back position as well as when split out in the slot on receiver screens. His athletic profile also suggests he could contribute on special teams. Zach Gentry has been a disappointment of a 5th round selection thus far and Kevin Radar is a capable blocking TE and special teamer but lacks upside as a receiver. Should Raymond capitalize on his reps in training camp and in the preseason, I see him having a legitimate shot to win the third TE job behind Ebron and Freiermuth, being built in a similar mold as the two and a good fit in this offensive system.
CB Mark Gilbert
Mark Gilbert was signed after the conclusion of the 2021 NFL Draft as an UDFA. As mentioned in my player profile on Gilbert, his status as an UDFA falls mostly on circumstance, having missed a majority of the past two seasons with a serious hip dislocation, requiring multiple surgeries over the next couple of years. Prior to sustaining the injury, Gilbert enjoyed a productive sophomore campaign, tying for third in the FBS with six INTs and a school-record 21 passes defensed. When going back to the tape in 2017, Gilbert had a knack of being in the right place at the right time in coverage. He plays with good anticipation of the route and will break on the football once thrown, jumping the route for the pick or forcing the incompletion. He also is a capable and willing tackler on the boundary, being willing to come down and assist in run support and stick his face in the fan.
The big knock on Gilbert is obviously his injury history, only playing in four games over the past three seasons. In his most recent tape, it does seem that he has lost a step in terms of overall speed and fluidity in coverage due to the injuries, causing concern whether he will be able to revert back to what he was prior to the injury. He also boasts a frail frame for his height, giving more concerns about durability heading into his age 24 season as a rookie. Still, should his condition improve with more time away post-surgery and get back to more of the player he was in 2017, he should have a shot of pushing for a practice squad role or potentially a role on the boundary should Justin Layne continue to disappoint like he has in his first two NFL seasons. The path to the 53 is an uphill one for Gilbert, but we may just see a similar story to that of James Pierre who battled his way to a roster spot last season should Gilbert be healthy to compete.
WR Tyler Simmons
Tyler Simmons from Georgia was one of many players who were directly impacted by the pandemic last season, losing the opportunity to test in front of scouts at his Pro Day last year due to cancelations across the nation. The Houston Texans signed him as an undrafted free agent and he remained with the team through the summer before being cut. Simmons spent two weeks on the Texans’ practice squad before they released him. Simmons got to opportunity to participate at Georgia’s Pro Day this spring, grabbing the Steelers’ attention enough for GM Kevin Colbert to sign him to the 90-man roster shortly after the workout concluded.
Simmons never blew up the stat sheet for the Bulldogs, tallying only 658 total yards of offense and five TDs in four seasons while also contributing as a punt returner in his final season in Athens, returning nine punts for 143 yards (15.9 YPR). However, Simmons is a well-built athlete, standing 6’0, 201lb and reportedly tested well at the Pro Day, running in the 4.3s in the 40, jumping over 40 inches in the vertical, and over 11 feet in the broad. The guy has legit open field speed as was utilized all over the formation as a boundary receiver, slot receiver, jet motion runner, and running back. Along with returning punts, Simmons played an important role as a gunner on special teams units, making himself useful on punt and kick coverage. While his offensive versatility and ability to contribute in a multitude of ways on special teams, Simmons could play himself into a roster spot during the preseason if he makes a couple big plays. He has good body control and solid hands as a receiver, winning some impressive contested catches on back-shoulder throws as well as being a good check down option in the short game. Should he show that he can provide a comparable skillset to Ray-Ray McCloud from a “gadget guy” perspective in Matt Canada’s offensive system, Simmons could surprise some people by sticking on the roster come the end of the preseason.
S Donovan Stiner
I had the privilege of working with Stiner during my time with the Florida Gators Strength and Conditioning Program in the summer of 2018. He was a quiet, respectable man that was attentive and open to coaching and instruction from a sports performance perspective as well as a football perspective. He has great size and length and has a lot of experience starting the SEC and playing a multiple of roles for the Gators defense, lining up as a split zone safety, a single-high safety, down in the box as a strong safety, and even in the nickel. His length and instincts in off-coverage make him a great option playing deep, having the range to cover ground quickly and impact the pass by breaking it up or playing the ball in the air and converting on the INT. He is an aggressive tackler and has a lot of experience on kick and punt coverage units during his time in Gainesville to help his case to make the backend of the roster.
Still, Stiner does have some warts in his play that he needs to shore up to earn a spot on the 53. His deep speed isn’t great when receivers get past him up the seam in man coverage and needs to be more of a consistent tackler, too often falling off his tackle attempts or simply takes poor angles to the ball, either overrunning or underrunning the play. The playmaking ability is there though and given the lack of depth at the safety position behind Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, Stiner will get his shot to compete with Antoine Brooks Jr., Arthur Maulet, and Miles Killebrew for a chance to make the 53 as a core special teamer and hopefully provide depth as a deep split zone safety with the range and ball skills to impact the pass.
What are your thoughts of the names listed as potential surprises to make the initial 53-man roster? Do you see the path for some of the names provided to pull it off? What other players would you add to the list? Please provide your thoughts in the comments below and thanks again for reading!