Heading toward final roster cuts, which Steelers are really on the “hot seat”?

Everywhere I turn, Steelers fans, analysts and critics are attempting to create “battles” for roster spots and starting positions. We’ve seen it happen with the backup quarterbacks all the way to a few people in the media throwing out some false ideas on players who may be ahead of others on the depth chart. (Namely Melvin Ingram starting over Alex Highsmith.)

Ahead of the Steelers cutdown to 53 players on the active roster by 4pm on August 31st, I wanted to give my predictions on what the Steelers final depth charts may look like and some historical perspective on why my views are that way.

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Make no mistake, Ben Roethlisberger is the starter.

Whoever is behind him, doesn’t really matter: though I believe it will be Mason Rudolph when the smoke clears.

A lot of people are down on Rudolph, a former third-round pick who had a solid draft pedigree coming out of college in 2018. Former Washington Football Team first round pick Dwayne Haskins has muddied those waters, arriving to the Steelers on a futures/reserve contract in January.

The fourth quarterback, who most fans wouldn’t be able to name in other years, is Josh Dobbs – signed for one year to provided stability in training camp and the preseason.

Seeing as Dobbs was traded two seasons ago in favor of undrafted Devlin Hodges, then unceremoniously cut by the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars after failing to fine a role there, I don’t see any defined path for Dobbs to make the team.

I honestly don’t care as to who is the primary backup behind Big Ben, but feel that Rudolph’s longer tenure with the team looms tall as the Steelers prefer to “redshirt” Haskins.

Regardless, most teams do not keep three quarterbacks – the Steelers do. That’s why the trio will be Roethlisberger, Rudolph, and Haskins for 2021.

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Running Backs

This offseason everyone wanted the Steelers to draft Najee Harris: they did. But somehow, that acquisition has led to this belief that Benny Snell is on his way out of town – due to lack of playing time.

Snell has been hurt up until the last week. So has Kalen Ballage, a journeyman running back on his fourth NFL roster since 2018. Since Ballage has played in the preseason, fans have latched onto his performance against backups and third string players as his ticket to being announced the primary backup in Pittsburgh behind Harris.

I’m not so confident that will be the case.

Some of the proponents of Ballage cite they added him because of Snell’s lack of impact. I counter that the Steelers always add veterans at positions of need each season, particularly those positions they are looking to draft as well.

Ballage was signed before Harris was drafted – as an insurance policy if the backfield were somehow shared between Ballage and Snell. However, the backfield won’t be shared whatsoever.

I don’t see the Steelers giving up on Snell so quickly. With two years left on his rookie contract, and the entire running game stinking under Randy Fichtner, I think Snell makes the roster this season.

If he does, who is the odd man out?

I doubt it’s Anthony McFarland Jr. The Steelers usually roster three running backs – and that would leave both Ballage and fourth-year pro Jaylen Samuels on the outside looking in.

The path to there being four backs is that Pittsburgh has rostered a hybrid player, i.e. an H-back, several times and in addition to a fullback, creating an extra spot that could be open for one of the aforementioned players.

With a 17-game schedule in 2021, would Pittsburgh keep more running backs than usual? Or would they attempt to release Ballage and then re-sign him to the practice squad, as they did with others in the past. (Last year they did the same with Wendell Smallwood.)

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Tight Ends

Why do fans want Eric Ebron cut?

I get it. Dropped passes.

That doesn’t mean he’ll be released with a year left on his contract. Doing so means Zach Gentry or Kevin Rader both make the team – and means one of them plays more on Sundays with rookie Pat Freiermuth as the starter.

The Steelers won’t do that. Fans shouldn’t want a repeat of what that might look like too.

When Heath Miller, Ladarius Green, McDonald or even Ebron got hurt, the other options were Jesse James, Xavier Grimble and a trade for Nick Vannett, who didn’t work out either.

Ebron creates matchup problems and helps the tight end depth – something the Steelers have sorely lacked for years. Calling for his release is incredibly shortsighted with no proper backup plan in place if Freiermuth were also lost during the season for any extended time.

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The linebackers are set. T.J. Watt will play this season – he’s been doing conditioning drills all throughout camp, despite the rumored contract situation.

Joe Schobert joins Devin Bush in the middle, with Robert Spillane as a primary backup.

The Steelers usually keep anywhere from 8 to 10 linebackers on the roster to start a season, with many of those playing on special teams or inactive on game days.

But that’s not my main focus – it’s the media overlooking Alex Highsmith’s play last season, where he was Pro Football Focus’ second-ranked rookie edge rusher, behind only Washington’s Chase Young (who was the number two overall pick!)

The Steelers added Melvin Ingram to help in camp and practice situations, plus to be a solid rotational player or fill-in if someone gets hurt – something the team didn’t have prior.

To suggest Ingram is an outright starter, which has circulated often, is short sighting Highsmith as a rookie starter in 2020 and his role in 2021.

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Cameron Sutton moving to nickel corner in the Lions preseason game was more about injuries than it was Sutton’s performance thus far. The Steelers want Sutton to be a boundary corner, signing him as their priority free agent in March and even releasing Steven Nelson in the process.

The criticism has come because of Nelson’s departure – largely due to salary cap constraints – and a lack of depth otherwise, particularly with replacing not only Nelson, but Mike Hilton, who also left in free agency.

Seventh-round pick Tre Norwood is now getting work at nickel corner and could be the top option, with Sutton shifting back to the outside. Norwood has been called a “Swiss Army Knife” by Mike Tomlin, and appeared to be the top backup safety option after looking like a ballhawk during camp and preseason games.

The Steelers were banking on Antoine Brooks and Arthur Maulet as the slot corners, but Brooks was hurt most of the preseason and has been released. Maulet played one snap against the Lions and left the field as well, leaving Pittsburgh with having to shift to Sutton over out of necessity, and replacing him with undrafted surprise James Pierre.

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There is no battle here: Percy Harvin III, college’s most recent Ray Guy award winner as the best punter in the nation, was drafted to be the starter.

There is no other conversation here. Period.

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