Zac Celedonia’s 2021 Steelers 53-man roster projection

Finally, the preseason has come to an end. Well, I enjoy the preseason and look forward to it every year, but normal functioning football folk would tell you it’s still two weeks too long and, at best, the most vanilla form of professional football you’ll find. Regardless of your stance, the Steelers had a pretty successful preseason because they made it out almost completely injury-free. That’s all you want.

Yes, you want to evaluate your depth and get a good look at your starters, but that’s all secondary to making it to the finish line with your most important pieces to your championship puzzle. Aside from a couple of bumps and bruises, as Mike Tomlin would call them, the Steelers will be ready with all hands-on deck and full systems go for week one in Buffalo vs. The Bills on September 12th.

There’s just one matter of business left to handle, final roster cuts. Who stays and who goes, and who goes but comes back on the practice squad? Time will tell, but so will I… right now…

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Quarterbacks (3)*

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins,

*Josh Dobbs: left final preseason game injured so I’m not sure how that’s going to be handled.

Not a whole lot to dissect here. Roethlisberger’s your starter in town as long as he wants to be. Not saying that he still can’t compete at a high level, just saying there are no internal nor external debates there. He may even be back for an encore if this year’s performance goes well.

Mason and Haskins duked it out for the backup spot up until the Steelers’ final preseason game where Haskins looked not good. And I’m a Haskins guy, I was rooting hard, but he didn’t play as well as he did in the other preseason games.

If Haskins had come out and done well, I genuinely believe he could have stolen the #2 spot from Mason, but that didn’t happen. DH led a touchdown drive at the end of the game and went 5/5 on pass attempts after the aforementioned Josh Dobbs got injured, and that was awesome.

But I feel like that was kind of a too little too late situation.

Mason is the backup quarterback for this season, but Haskins has done enough to intrigue the coaching staff and secure the three-spot for the 2021 season. 2022 the Steelers can re-evaluate the room based on how this season goes and what Ben Roethlisberger ultimately decides.

Remember if he plays well, there’s a really good chance he’s back in 2022, and we may never see Mason OR Haskins ever be QB1 for the Steelers. If Ben hangs it up after 2021, anything is on the table, and I mean anything.

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Running Backs (4)

Najee Harris, Anthony McFarland, Kalen Ballage, Derek Watt

The only real controversy I see going around in regards to the running back room is the fate of Benny Snell. Some fans still seem split on whether it will be him or Kalen Ballage who makes the final 53.

Yes, I know Tomlin has spoken glowingly of Snell, often referring to him as “varsity” and going out of his way to bring his name up in press conferences. But I’m out on him.

I’ve seen enough Benny Snell football. You can find big bruiser-type backs anywhere anytime, that’s what Snell is. Ballage at least offers a little more wiggle and he’s got impressive hands for a bigger back. Favoritism only gets you so far, and Ballage outperformed Snell this preseason if we’re being honest. Snell only got to play in one game and looked wildly unimpressive and missed all camp with injuries. Give me Ballage.

McFarland has improved seemingly a lot since last season and looks to have carved out a nice role for himself in Matt Canada’s offense, per numerous practice reports. It’s the Najee Harris show (thank you God), but McFarland is going to be utilized. And Derek Watt’s not going anywhere, especially now with an offensive coordinator set on using him. Watt’s also crucial on special teams.

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Tight Ends (3)

Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry

The first two are obvious, whether you wanna flip flop who’s 1 and who’s 2 is your choice. The Steelers have found themselves with a really good problem.: that being a vertical receiving threat at the tight end position in the form of two men (85 and 88).

Anyone who suggests trading Eric Ebron simply because Freiermuth has shown promising flashes is, for lack of a better term, dumb. Both are obvious locks for 2021.

The battle of Zach Gentry vs. Kevin Rader is one of the hardest choices to make on this team. From what I can tell the Steelers value Rader’s blocking ability, as they should because he’s good at it.

Gentry finally seems to be growing into an NFL tight end. Similar but different to the Benny Snell situation, because unlike Snell, Gentry stuck out this camp and preseason, and I think the Steelers will opt to hold onto the investment (Gentry) over Rader, even though Rader had an impressive preseason.

This is one that I feel could go either way though.

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Wide Receivers (5)

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud

Deep down we all knew this was the top 5. There were some Ray-Ray doubters out there but I never wavered. The top 4 were safe, despite the Washington “trade rumors”.

There was a brief period where the 5th receiver spot, or 6th, seemed to be an open competition. As much as it sucks, the days of the Steelers keeping 6 wide receivers every year seem to be a thing of the past. They will likely stay in the past as long as they have two starting-caliber and, quite frankly, dangerous tight ends to utilize in the passing game.

You want both those dudes on the field at the same time and as much of the time as you can. So, the need for 6 receivers has disappeared because that 6th guy would never see the field.

Rico Bussey and Matthew Sexton had their moments, but that’s all they were: moments. In my opinion, neither did nowhere near enough to push Ray-Ray McCloud off this team, nor give Pittsburgh a reason to keep 6 wideouts.

There was a whole lot of hype around Cody White too, for some reason. All these reports of how the Steelers valued him and he was making plays in camp and playing with the ones, materialized to almost nothing in the preseason in live game action.

I wasn’t impressed.

If they like White so much, they’ll probably sign him to the practice squad but no need to give him a spot on the 53.

But Pittsburgh may just have the best top 4 you’ll find in the NFL, the log jam at the top of the depth chart is something to behold. There may be better teams with better “1-2” punches but no one’s 4 deep like the Steelers currently are with 19,18,11 and 13.

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Offensive Linemen (9)

Zach Banner, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, Trai Turner, Dan Moore Jr., Chukwuma Okorafor, B.J. Finney, Joe Haeg, Rashaad Coward

I don’t know a whole lot about offensive linemen play, aside from obvious stuff the naked eye can see like a pancake block or getting blown back into the quarterback.

These 9 dudes, or at least the first 8 of them, have all been locks since camp opened up. Coward sneaks in as the 9th guy after getting a ton of reps with first-team during the whole “the coaches hate Kevin Dotson” saga.

Thank God that crap’s over. Not that I was ever concerned because I wasn’t.

Coward and Haeg are also veterans with starting experience, same with Finney obviously, so the Steelers have more encouraging depth on the line than mainstream media would lead you to believe. The starting 5 will probably be 72, 69, 53, 51, and 76.

Although you’ll catch an argument from me, and some others, that maybe 65 should be included somewhere in there. Tomlin and his staff love playing the veteran guy though, (Chuks and Banner) so we’ll see.

At the least, Moore will be the swing tackle this season.

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Defensive Linemen (8)

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Carlos Davis, Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux

No real surprises here. Heyward, Tuitt, Alualu, and Wormley are your unquestioned top 4 guys. Some thought it was Davis vs. Buggs, but I see a path where both can and will make the roster.

Both were homegrown guys on the roster last year, had good camps, had good preseasons; There’s room for both so why not keep both?

The rookie Loudermilk was the most scrutinized pick of the Steelers 2021 draft class, especially after the Steelers traded up to get him. Fans and analysts alike (not me) rushed to their Twitter feeds to voice their displeasure, after the Steelers gave up…. wait for it… a 4th round pick in 2022.

So right away, as you can tell from my tone, I didn’t think it was a big deal whatsoever. But people had their minds made up saying the Loudermilk pick was without a doubt the worst pick in the draft.

“Unnecessary to move up for such a lower-level prospect,” they said. “Aaarrghh! Why would they do that with how this roster is currently built? They’re going to need all the picks they can acquire next year after Ben!”

Well fast forward to today, and Loudermilk has had one of the more impressive preseasons among the defensive linemen in camp. And no one knows what Ben’s going to be doing next year. It sounds like people freaked out for nothing, crazy I know.

The Steelers were infatuated with Loudermilk because of his resemblance, both on and off the field, to Cam Heyward. He’s a big boy who can move. That’s some high praise, but you can begin to see what the Steelers saw after watching Loudermilk’s preseason film.

A couple of sacks and a lot of reps later, the 5th round pick displayed hustle and strength that make him look like a lock for 2021. No way he’s cut after the Steelers invested a future draft pick for him, and he answered the bell.

Mondeaux makes it because he’s a good special teams player.

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Inside Linebackers: (4)

Devin Bush, Joe Schobert, Robert Spillane, Buddy Johnson

Batman and Robin, Cheech and Chong, PB&J, Devin Bush and Joe Schobert. Get used to it. These two can be a winning combination for years to come that we’ll all tell our grandkids about.

They’re as safe and solid as it gets.

After the top dogs is where things get sticky. Spillane has had an ugly preseason, to put it lightly. But he’s got the veteran and experience the Steelers love, he’s “earned his varsity time.” But hard work and grit can only cover your butt for so long when you can’t cover anything. I think Spillane’s safe for now but he’s lucky to be so.

Buddy Johnson making it over Ulysees Gilbert was a coin flip. Johnson has had a really good camp and laid a thump on punt team vs the Panthers that got the Steelers sideline pumped up. He’s newer, and Pittsburgh just invested a 4th round pick in him this past draft.

Gilbert has stuck around through a series of injuries and has great athleticism; I just think his time’s up.

If you’re wondering where Marcus Allen is, it’s because he’s not making my 53. At least not right now. Allen got hurt in the final preseason game and I could see the steelers sticking him on IR for the time being.

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Outside Linebackers/Edge: (5)

T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Melvin Ingram, Quincy Roche, Jamir Jones

Just like the previous groups mentioned, the top of the food chain isn’t in question. Watt, Highsmith, and Ingram are all locks. They’ll all play a lot, and they’re going to be freaking good.

My head tells me to carve out a spot for Cassius Marsh, knowing the Steelers staff loves their veteran leadership and experience, but my heart wants what it wants.

If I were running things, and I hope Tomlin and Colbert think the same, I’d keep Roche and Jones over the well-tattooed veteran Marsh. They’re just younger and already at an equal playing level to Marsh.

What’s that tell you? It tells you that they’re only going to get better whereas Marsh has seemingly peaked as a player. There’s no need to keep Marsh over Roche and Jones unless you want to work the experienced angle.

Even then, not all experience is good experience.

Marsh has been a journeyman for his entire career and you can see why. I am worried the Steelers will cut the wrong guy here, but at least now you all know what I’d do.

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Cornerbacks: (5)*

Joe Haden, Cam Sutton, James Pierre, Justin Layne, Mark Gilbert

*IR: Antoine Brooks*

Be warned, I have Mark Gilbert making the final roster after seeing how much playing time and opportunity the staff has given him both on defense and special teams, but he’s a prime candidate to be cut after the NFL’s final cuts.

The Steelers and other teams do it all the time. If another team cuts a quality player who can help Pittsburgh right now, they’ll look to the bottom of their roster to make necessary room.

Guys like Mark Gilbert and Henry Mondeaux would be the first two names I’d watch for that to happen to. But the undrafted rookie from Duke has done more than his undrafted counterpart, Shakur Brown, in my opinion.

Justin Layne likely saw his Steelers career flash before his eyes heading into camp, but he’s done enough to stick for another year.

If the Steelers are going to go looking on the waiver wire for a new body just before the season, cornerback would be the position to look out for.

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Safeties: (4)

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Tre Norwood, Miles Killebrew

Minkah and Edmunds will be one of the best safety tandems in the league, take that to the bank. Fitzpatrick’s already the best in the NFL at his position (debate your mom), and Edmunds has gotten better with every passing season. (Last year being Edmunds’ best by far.)

That’ll be a factor to look forward to this season for Steelers fans. Miles Killebrew was one of the more underrated and lowkey additions the Steelers made this offseason. A special teams superstar, and a sure tackler, Pittsburgh’s going to get their money’s worth out of the stalky safety. He’s rocking Mike Hilton‘s No. 28 too.

Killebrew hasn’t really “stuck out” during the preseason, but I’ve been impressed with his consistent tackling and frequent appearances around the ball.

Tre Norwood has to feel good about himself. 7th round picks don’t USUALLY make a team’s final roster in their rookie season. A lot of players will tell you they’d rather be undrafted than getting picked in the 7th round, because at least then they get to pick their destination.

However, in this case, where the destination picked the player, the destination may have been perfect. Norwood has the ball skills, and the versatility the Steelers love to have in their defensive backs, with experience at both safety and cornerback in college.

The NCAA’s leader in interceptions in 2020, Norwood’s nose for the football has been on full display this preseason. Almost but not quite holding onto a pair of picks, first in the Hall of Fame game down by the goal line, and then again in the final preseason game.

You’d like to see Norwood finish the play but the fact he gets his hands on the ball so often is a very good thing.

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Specialists: (3)

Chris Boswell, Christian Kuntz, Pressley Harvin III

Boswell’s still one of the league’s best and proved it after a perfect performance throughout the preseason.

I have Kuntz stealing the job away from Cameron Kanaday after strong camp, and Kanaday being forced to miss the last game with an illness.

No one should be surprised to see Pressley Harvin’s name here, he’s the best punter in the NFL and an absolute unit. Jokes aside Pittsburgh is set up to have a really strong specialist room.

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There you have it, woo-lah, the Steelers 53-man depth chart for 2021… for now.

Let the record show I think they’re going to add someone who’s not on the roster right now, once final cuts are done.

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