Steel City Underground

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Darrius Heyward-Bey
steelers.com

The groaning has already begun. I can sense it from the other side of my computer monitor as I'm typing and you're reading... a roster projection in March?

Well, people do mock drafts before the college season is complete. Heck, they're already working on 2019 mock drafts before we get done with 2018's!

With the few moves the Steelers have already made this offseason, I started wondering where the holes were on the roster. That required me to go over each roster spot, which then led me in the direction of making a roster projection, which also helps guess what picks they may make in the draft.

So that's why you're seeing this in March: what gaps do the Steelers still have to plan to fill in free agency, the draft, and leading up to training camp? Let's take an early look at where they may be making more moves over the coming months.

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Quarterbacks (3)

No major surprises here unless we get a shock in the draft (and the Steelers select a rookie passer).

There will be a camp body signed somewhere along the line to give these three some rest during offseason sessions, but otherwise, I don't anticipate any major movement here until next year.

Running Backs (5)

This all depends on Le'Veon Bell... which depends on Le'Veon Bell.

My thought process of keeping Fitzgerald Toussaint lies in injuries and the kick return game. When James Conner went down, the team realized what sort of luxury Terrell Watson was. Mike Tomlin always deploys a running back on special teams, and Conner didn't pull those duties last season, nor do I think the eventual draft pick at this position (to protect themselves from losing Bell next season should he not sign long-term prior) will see the field on special teams.

Toussaint is an outlier who makes the roster.

Roosevelt Nix will remain as the lone fullback. In the past, the Steelers have kept as many as two fullbacks or a total of five running backs. With more certainty at other positions, I think they can afford to keep an extra guy on this depth chart.

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Receivers (6)

Another position where the Steelers are far from poor at, this depth chart will see a small shakeup from last season, but not by much. I expect the team to grab another receiver in the draft, as Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey both enter the final years of their contract. Since DHB missed the early offseason ax, with William Gay and Robert Golden getting released instead, I believe Heyward-Bey's special teams presence earns him a roster spot for one more season.

I also believe that Eli Rogers, a restricted free agent who hasn't signed yet, will be back. He had a gruesome injury to finish his 2018 season, and that will scare off any potential suitors. A healthy Rogers also returns punts, and he will battle others on the roster (mainly Cameron Sutton) for that role, as the Steelers will once again pretend to not put Antonio Brown back there.

Since Coach Tomlin doesn't like to use defensive backs in return roles, I give the nod to Rogers making the roster as the team's sixth receiver. (They rostered six almost all of 2017, so this too isn't a stretch of the imagination.)

Tight Ends (4)

Another position with uncertainty is the tight end group. Vance McDonald has to stay healthy this season. Jesse James enters the final year of his contract, and Xavier Grimble, back on a one-year deal, is always at risk of being released.

Four tight ends may seem like a lot, but David Johnson earned a roster spot two seasons ago as the fourth: a hybrid who also dabbled as an additional fullback. That makes this a possibility, and no, it's not a luxury to roster an extra tight end.

The Steelers should draft someone to groom for the future, but if they are a later pick who need to develop, I can see them keeping four players here in order to protect themselves from having Grimble or the incoming rookie start, should McDonald go down at any period of the season.

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Offensive Line (9)

Like last season, nine men will make the roster on the offensive line. The first five are all obvious choices. In my opinion, so is B.J. Finney.

That's six with three to go.

The time is now for 2016 fourth round pick Jerald Hawkins. With Chris Hubbard leaving in free agency, Hawkins will assume the "tackle eligible" jumbo package role and should be the primary backup at tackle.

Matt Feiler, who made the roster in 2017, will also compete for a backup role.

Though the team flirted with Jake Matthews several times last year, he's no longer on the roster. They could draft another lineman to develop, and protect that player from being poached off the practice squad by having them as a weekly inactive on the main roster.

Defensive Line (6)

The Steelers just brought Dan McCullers back on a one-year deal, but if they draft someone, I feel he's expendable and could be beaten for the final roster spot.

The others are the usual suspects. Alualu was a tremendous backup last season and L.T. Walton has shown growth each time he's stepped onto the field.

I don't see much reason for the Steelers to have more than six players rostered here, as other positions require more depth. More than likely their depth players on the d-line will be on the practice squad.

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Linebackers (8)

This is part of the roster that will change depending on Le'Veon Bell's contract or a few other situations (Eli Rogers/DHB or the tight end room).

I don't see the Steelers carrying less than nine linebackers. Currently, I have eight listed. There's no doubt they will pick an inside linebacker in the draft. They could grab an edge rusher too, but this year's class is rather weak at the position and the team has other needs which are a priority.

I expect Anthony Chickillo to return and a healthy Keion Adams to compete for a spot. Arthur Moats, currently a free agent, is rumored to still be in contact with a potential return. He could be the fifth outside linebacker if they feel they absolutely need one. (James Harrison was the fifth last year, maybe out of courtesy - they typically only roster four.)

On the inside, Ryan Shazier will be placed on Injured Reserve. Bostic and Williams will be the starters with a dose of the rookie taken in the first three rounds. That leaves four, which is the same number Pittsburgh had on the inside last season.

L.J. Fort could compete, but still figures to be nothing much more than practice squad material and on the outside looking in for a roster spot. His inclusion for a ninth linebacker is pending special teams needs.

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Secondary (9)

The Steelers kept six corners last year, but I don't see it happening for 2018. With William Gay gone, the camp battle will come down to Coty Sensabaugh and Brian Allen. Allen is younger with more upside, while we saw Sensabaugh falter when called upon last year. Allen is bigger and if Morgan Burnett or a rookie safety don't assume dimebacker duties (covering tight ends or playing as the fourth corner in dime packages) he should make the squad... that is, unless, the veteran player has a great camp.

The safety depth chart isn't a lock either. Expect J.J. Wilcox to be pushed by Jordan Dangerfield, who was injured at the start of the season and was brought back to the team's practice squad last October. He never made it back up to the main roster during the season, but we're well aware of how he filled in during a pinch back in 2016.

Wilcox carries a solid cap number and was relatively off of the grid for all but three games last season. He'll be on the hot seat but may have the edge due to his starting experience.

Specialists (3)

Again, no surprises here. I won't entertain much commentary for movement here unless they feel Canaday needs camp competition. Regardless, the Steelers will roster a long snapper.

Conclusion

It's a way (way) too early prediction for a reason. One flaw I already know of is that I have all of the Steelers draft picks making the team. Two of those picks are in the seventh round, so that alone is a daunting task when leaving off veteran players. However, some seventh-round picks tend to stick to the team.

There's still more wiggle room and an additional value free agent signing or two would shift some of the names I've mentioned from on the list to off of it. Anyone on the bottom part of the depth chart is in danger of being released at almost any time, whether that's done to trying to improve the roster or depth due to injury, its the nature of the business.

For that reason, you can take anything outside of my top 40 spots with a grain of salt.





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  1. I like it Joe. Tough task to do this so early, but I like what I see. I still think LJ Fort has a place on this roster. I don’t know how that falls, but certainly he beats out one of those 7th rounders (i know, dependent on position) for me. Great exercise here. I look forward to continuing updates!

  2. While i agree with the majority i still think we should use Bell to move up…with numbers and watching the past few seasons its obvious he is slowing…and he isnt even thr lead back in the league wanting double almost triple what the highest RB is getting now…I think if we resend the franchise tag..then dump him to move up or extra picks would be good…Derrius Guise I think could fill this roll and be the next franchise RB for Pittsburgh…he runs hard..downhill runner who hits the hole and fights for yards..i think it would be a ni e switch up..Bells longest was 26 last year and he only went for 20 yards twice all season…beyond performance I just think all the nonsense is really uncalled for…

    • Joe Kuzma says:

      Thanks for the comment Dennis. Totally on board with Guice. I’d personally love to spend the cash allotted for Bell on a healthy Ryan Shazier, extending Mike Hilton, and possibly keeping Bud Dupree.

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