Summer vacation has begun for the NFL and the 90 players trying to make the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2014 roster.
The Steelers coaching staff got a look at those players at organized team activities and minicamp. Now there’s a respite before training camp begins July 25 at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.
The picture will become clearer when these guys start practicing in pads and hitting for real. But those spring workouts provided a few hints. Based on what the Steelers have shown practicing in shorts, here’s a prediction for their final 53-man roster in 2014.
QB (3): Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones
Nothing shocking here. Jones, a fourth-round pick last year, will hold off a challenge from undrafted rookie Brendon Kay and keep his roster spot. Gradkowski remains the top backup, but he’s 6-14 as a starter. If Roethlisberger misses any significant time, the Steelers will scan the waiver wire.
Roethlisberger played all 16 games last year for the first time since 2008. If the offensive line protects him the way it did in the second half of the 2013 season, Gradkowski and Jones again could be highly paid spectators in 2014.
That’s the way the Steelers want it.
RB (4): Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer, Will Johnson
As long as Bell can play in Week 1, the Steelers’ outlook at this position will be night and day compared to last year. With Bell sidelined, the Steelers opened 2013 with Isaac Redman and Felix Jones as their top two running backs. Now, they have an emerging star in Bell. Complementing him is a guy who ran for 431 yards and eight touchdowns in a three-game stretch last season that included the Patriots’ playoff win over the Colts. Then there’s the fastest player at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. What a difference a year makes.
Johnson is the elder statesman of the unit, the only running back still remaining from 2012.
WR (6): Antonio Brown, Lance Moore, Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant, Justin Brown
One of the biggest questions the Steelers face in 2014 is whether or not they’ll be able to make up for the loss of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. All we know so far is that they brought in enough people through free agency and the draft to merit six receivers on the roster.
The 5’9″ Moore turns 31 on Aug. 31, but the former Saint has averaged 49 receptions and five touchdowns a season since 2007. He’ll battle second-year man Markus Wheaton for the No. 2 receiver spot behind Antonio Brown. Wheaton will try to improve on his six-reception rookie season.
Heyward-Bey caught just 11 passes in the final nine games with the Colts last season. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) charged him with nine dropped passes, and according to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he dropped balls during OTAs and minicamp. However, the 27-year-old with the 4.3 40-yard dash time has 169 career receptions. That’s third-most on the Steelers roster behind Moore and Brown.
Bryant, a fourth-round rookie, will earn a roster spot even if he doesn’t make an immediate impact. There’s tantalizing potential there. That leaves Derek Moye and Justin Brown squaring off for the final receiver spot. The undrafted Moye beat out his former Penn State teammate last year even though Brown was drafted in the sixth round. This year, Brown wins the rematch.
TE (4): Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Michael Palmer, Rob Blanchflower
The Steelers love keeping four tight ends on the roster. Even though he wasn’t really himself last season after shredding his knee at the end of 2012, Miller still caught 58 balls. He caught more only in 2009 and 2012, both Pro Bowl seasons.
Spaeth was on injured reserve with a foot injury last season, but returned to play in the final month. Palmer is mainly a special teams contributor. Blanchflower overtakes David Paulson for the last spot because he’s a better blocker. If either Blanchflower or Paulson make the team, it will be the sixth straight season the Steelers carry a tight end drafted in the seventh round.
OL (8): Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, Cody Wallace, Guy Whimper
Foster, Pouncey and DeCastro are firmly established as starters on the interior of the line. Beachum at left tackle and Gilbert at right tackle also figure to start unless Adams becomes Mike Munchak’s star pupil. Adams faces a make-or-break year and has to at least prove himself as a valuable third tackle. Wallace can play guard and center and made every snap at center in the last four games of the 2013 season after Fernando Velasco went down. The 31-year-old Whimper is past his prime but brings versatility as a guard-tackle.
Rookie Wesley Johnson, who the Steelers drafted in the fifth round, can play every position on the line and should make the practice squad.
DL (6): Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, Brett Keisel, Hebron Fangupo
That’s right. It says here the Steelers will bring back Keisel, who turns 36 in September. Heyward, McLendon and free-agent signing Cam Thomas are the projected starters. Heyward will man one defensive end spot with McLendon and Thomas, both 330 pounds, interchangeable. Both have experience at nose tackle.
The only other players on the roster who have played in an NFL game are Fangupo and Brian Arnfelt, and they combined for 15 defensive snaps last season according to PFF. As a second-round draft pick, Tuitt would have to eat nothing but hot dogs between now and training camp to not make the team. But he’s a raw rookie. One injury to Heyward, McLendon or Thomas could force someone who’s not ready into a starting role. When Larry Foote went down in Week 1 last season, sixth-rounder Vince Williams was forced to learn on the job and Troy Polamalu often had to line up at inside linebacker. If the Steelers learned their lesson from that fiasco, they’ll sign Keisel.
Arnfelt would be the odd man out because the Steelers would need a pure nose tackle on the roster to back up McLendon and Thomas, both hybrids. Fangupo beats out 2014 sixth-round draft pick Daniel McCullers. The 6’7″, 348-pound rookie with 11-inch hands is a practice-squad candidate.
OLB (3): Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter
Worilds has an injury history and sat out much of OTAs with a leg problem. Jones is unproven. The Steelers are in a precarious spot with only Carter behind them, but there are some inside linebackers who can play on the outside in a pinch.
Journeyman Vic So’oto, who is on his fifth team since entering the league in 2011, will give Carter a run for his money. His one career sack is one more than Carter has in three years. As much as it would be nice to move on from Carter, So’oto also has been injury prone. PFF says Carter had four quarterback hurries in the final two games last season, including a career-high three in Week 17. Perhaps that’s a sign that the light is finally coming on for the 2011 fifth-round draft pick.
It might be tempting to sign James Harrison as an insurance policy here, but the Steelers can’t take a roster spot away from any of the following inside linebackers.
ILB (6): Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Arthur Moats, Vince Williams, Sean Spence, Terence Garvin
Shazier is looking like he’ll be the first Steelers rookie to start on defense in Week 1 since Kendrell Bell in 2001. Timmons is expected to become a leader on defense. Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are the Steelers’ only active defensive players with more career starts than Timmons. Shazier and Timmons both can play on the outside if needed.
Williams has the mettle to hang onto his roster spot after his baptism by fire as a rookie last season. Spence is an inspiring story. The 2012 third-round draft pick has a legitimate shot at cracking the roster two years after a horrific, nerve-damaging knee injury in a preseason game. Moats, a free-agent pickup from the Bills, also could play on the outside. Garvin, an undrafted rookie last year, played in 15 games and was second on the team with 10 special-teams tackles, according to PFF.
The Steelers need Garvin’s special teams value and Spence’s upside more than they need a 36-year-old whose sack total has gone down in each of the last four seasons.
S (5): Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell, Will Allen, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden
Thomas still has to wait for his chance after the Steelers signed Mitchell from the Panthers. Golden sticks around because of his special teams prowess. PFF rated him as the second-best special-teamer in the NFL last season.
Allen is 32, but the Steelers need established depth in case Mitchell or Polamalu get hurt. Polamalu, 33, started all 16 games last season, but he hasn’t gone two straight years without missing a game since 2004 and 2005. The only other safeties listed on the roster are Jordan Dangerfield and Ross Ventrone. The latter played in eight games for the Patriots in 2011.
CB (5): Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Antwon Blake, Shaquille Richardson
Replace Richardson with Brandon Flowers if the Steelers sign the former Chief, which isn’t likely. If Flowers signs somewhere else, Richardson overtakes Brice McCain as the fifth cornerback.
The Steelers signed McCain from the Texans during the offseason. He has 10 career starts and five career interceptions in five seasons. Richardson, on the other hand, is a rookie drafted in the fifth round. History isn’t on Richardson’s side. Terry Hawthorne, Crezdon Butler and Joe Burnett are the last three cornerbacks the Steelers drafted in the fifth round. None of them amounted to anything. Then again, Gay was a fifth-rounder in 2007.
Taylor is probably playing his last season. Allen is in the final year of his contract. Gay will take the field as a 30-year-old if the Steelers somehow make the playoffs (his birthday is Jan. 1). The Steelers could be woefully thin at cornerback in 2015, so they might as well see if Richardson is a hidden gem rather than keep a retread like McCain.
Richardson theoretically would join the 23-year-old Blake, who the Steelers like for some reason, as the next generation of Steelers corners.
Specialists (3): Shaun Suisham, Brad Wing, Greg Warren
Suisham and Warren (the long snapper) aren’t going anywhere. The Steelers’ punting situation isn’t nearly as stable.
For all the talk about the Steelers’ declining defense and running game, here’s another disturbing trend since their last Super Bowl season. They’ve gone from ninth in average yards per punt in 2010 to 18th in 2011 to 25th in 2012 to 31st in 2013.
So what do the Steelers do? They sign the punter from the only team that ranked below them last year. Former Bear Adam Podlesh was 33rd in the league with a 40.6 average.
Wing had some off-the-field problems at LSU, but it’s worth the risk for the Steelers. The 23-year-old Australian was a Ray Guy Award candidate in college. An improved punting game could provide the offense and defense with hidden yardage as the Steelers try to get back to the playoffs.