Several Steelers are fighting for roster spots with three preseason games remaining. These five players aren’t necessarily in danger of being cut, and at least one of them is virtually assured of being on the team beyond 2016. But these players, who all have been on the team for at least two years, are at a critical juncture in their career and need to take a step forward in 2016.
By not picking up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, the Steelers made it loud and clear to Jarvis Jones that this is a make-or-break season for him.
Jones was drafted 17th overall in 2013 and has just five sacks in three seasons. Twenty players from the 2013 draft, including Browns bust candidate Barkevious Mingo, have more sacks than that. Bud Dupree, who the Steelers drafted last season, already has four sacks. Jones also had the fewest quarterback hurries on the team last season with six.
Even though the Steelers were pleased with his play at certain points last season, Jones played the fewest snaps among the four players who rotated at outside linebacker. The group also included James Harrison, Arthur Moats and Dupree. The 38-year-old Harrison won’t be around forever and Moats is a nice role player, nothing more. The Steelers need impact players at the position, and Jones has yet to prove that he can make an impact.
With Anthony Chickillo on the rise at outside linebacker, the Steelers might not have a reason to keep Jones in 2017 if he doesn’t boost that career sack total.
Ryan Shazier would have to fall on his face on every other play this season to not be on the team in 2017. He faces a different kind of make-or-break season.
Shazier led the Steelers with nine tackles, forced two fumbles and recovered one of them in the Steelers’ 18-16 wild-card win at Cincinnati in January.
He needs to have more games like that and the one he had in a Week 2 win over the 49ers last season. In that game, he made 11 tackles and forced a fumble. But he hurt his shoulder in that game and missed the next four weeks. He’s missed 11 games in his first two seasons.
The Steelers drafted Shazier with the No. 15 pick in 2014. He’s their highest pick since Lawrence Timmons was also drafted 15th in 2007. The Steelers are hoping that Shazier is at least as productive as Timmons has been in his career.
This is a make-or-break season for Shazier because he has an opportunity to shed the injury-prone label and also become a legitimate star. If he doesn’t make a name for himself around the league, he could be on the way to becoming just another guy. The Steelers want more than that from a player taken in the top half of the draft.
Drafted in the fourth round in 2013 as the heir apparent to Troy Polamalu, Shamarko Thomas still hasn’t learned the safety position.
Thomas has played just 22 snaps on defense over the last two seasons. Robert Golden, who was undrafted in 2012, moved ahead of Thomas on the depth chart last year.
In Friday’s preseason opener against the Lions, Thomas made a tackle for loss and almost had an interception. However, he also whiffed against fullback Zach Zenner on a 20-yard screen pass.
Thomas has contributed on special teams, but he could be the victim of a numbers game when roster cuts are made. The Steelers drafted safety Sean Davis in the second round and he’s been impressive in training camp even if he had a disappointing preseason debut. Doran Grant returned an interception for a touchdown against the Lions and had a strong game overall. He was drafted as a cornerback but has been practicing at safety.
If Thomas doesn’t show something in the remaining preseason games he could be on the roster bubble.
Since Casey Hampton’s career ended after the 2012 season, the Steelers have been drawn to mammoth nose tackles in the draft. Alameda Ta’amu, who weighed 348 pounds, was chosen in the fourth round of the 2012 draft and didn’t work out.
Daniel McCullers, listed at 352 pounds, is entering his third season with the Steelers and already has hung around longer than Ta’amu. Now that Steve McLendon has signed with the Jets, McCullers has a chance to win the starting nose tackle job, but he faces stiff competition from third-round rookie Javon Hargrave, who is more athletic than McCullers.
Chosen in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, McCullers’ 6’7″ height has worked against him at times when it comes to leverage. Judging from Steel City Insider’s practice reports, defensive line coach John Mitchell is running out of patience with McCullers.
Landry Jones emerged from the depth-chart basement last year and appeared in seven games. He went 1-1 as a starter and won in relief when Michael Vick was injured against the Cardinals. He also engineered a game-winning drive after Ben Roethlisberger went down in Week 9 against the Raiders.
Jones started the Steelers’ preseason opener and completed six of 12 passes for 55 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. With Bruce Gradkowski injured again, Jones seems poised to seize the Steelers’ No. 2 quarterback job.
Roethlisberger missed four games with a variety of injuries last season. That could be a sign that at 34 his body can’t take hits like it used to. That makes the backup quarterback job that much more important. As much progress as Jones has made, there’s room for improvement. He completed 58.2 percent of his passes last season with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
Jones is another member of the 2013 draft class who becomes a free agent after this season. Jones is the last quarterback the Steelers have drafted. If he’s needed again this season, he has to provide the Steelers with a reason to not draft a quarterback next year.
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