The Steelers cut down their preseason roster from 89 players to the requisite 53 this afternoon. Among the players cut were former second-round pick Senquez Golson and long snapper Colin Holba who they used a 6th rounder on this year. Additionally, the Steelers made two trades in the hours before the roster cut deadline. They traded WR Sammie Coates and a 2019 7th round pick to the Cleveland Browns for a 2018 6th rounder. The pick they got back from Cleveland was the same one they had traded to Cleveland last year to acquire Justin Gilbert. Secondly, CB Ross Cockrell was traded to the New York Giants for a conditional draft pick. The Steelers had been very vocal this entire offseason about wanting to play more man defense. Cockrell is purely a zone corner and struggled in man coverage in the preseason, including getting beat deep by Atlanta’s backup receivers.
There are two things worth noting with the initial roster. First, it includes 54 names. Le’Veon Bell is included on the list even though he has not yet signed his franchise tender. Once Bell signs his tender, the Steelers will have to release one of the other players on the roster to keep the roster size at 53. Secondly, the Steelers have in the past made additional roster moves to claim players cut by other teams. The 53 players currently on the roster may not be the same 53 on the opening day roster in Cleveland next Sunday. Marc, Ben, and Ian discussed the roster last night on the Steel City Blitz Podcast.
Here is a breakdown of the 54 men who made the initial roster:
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Josh Dobbs
No surprises here. Despite the people who wanted to crown Dobbs as the backup after he threw a few good passes, Landry Jones is the #2 QB on this team. Dobbs will be the #3 and may not get a helmet on gamedays. He showed enough upside this preseason to warrant the investment the Steelers made in him. At the end of the day, this team needs Ben Roethlisberger under center if they want to make a deep run in the playoffs.
RB: Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, Terrell Watson, Roosevelt Nix
Since Le’Veon Bell has not yet signed his tender, he does not count towards the 53-man roster. Bell will be the every-down back. Conner will be the top backup. Terrell Watson beat out incumbent backup Fitzgerald Toussaint and free agent signee Knile Davis. Watson absolutely earned his roster spot with his physical downhill running style. Watson may be used as a short-yardage back this season. Nix will once again be the fullback and showed his special teams prowess by blocking a punt this preseason.
WR: Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter
The Steelers opted to keep 6 receivers, as many had projected. Brown and Bryant are the obvious top two with Bryant getting fully reinstated by the league on Friday. Eli Rogers will be the top slot receiver. Darrius Heyward-Bey will get a helmet on Sundays because he is the best special teams player on the team. JuJu Smith-Schuster will have plenty of time to learn the offense and probably won’t be asked to contribute much unless there is an injury. Justin Hunter is an insurance policy for Martavis Bryant. He gives the Steelers a speedy, lanky deep threat that can stretch the field. Demarcus Ayers and Cobi Hamilton were both cut and may get claimed by another team on waivers.
TE: Vance McDonald, Jesse James, Xavier Grimble
The Steelers chose to keep 9 offensive linemen and only 3 tight ends. The trade for Vance McDonald gave the Steelers a tight end that can work the middle of the field and stretch the seams. McDonald is faster with the ball in his hands than any TE the Steelers have had in a long time. Jesse James is a capable #2 TE and is a good enough blocker and can get open across the middle. James isn’t going to bring much after the catch, but he has developed into a decent all-around player. Xavier Grimble has some athleticism and has shown a willingness to go across the middle and make tough catches. He is a better receiver than David Johnson, who the Steelers released. Johnson was their best blocking TE, but the Steelers used OL Chris Hubbard as an extra TE in obvious blocking situations last year which made Johnson expendable.
OL: Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, BJ Finney, Jerald Hawkins, Matt Feiler
Since the beginning of the preseason, the top 8 players on the offensive line were mostly set. Villanueva, Foster, Pouncey, DeCastro, and Gilbert will be the starters. Hubbard will be the top backup at tackle. Finney will be the top backup at center and guard. Last year’s fourth round pick Jerald Hawkins had a bad outing against the Giants but rebounded for a decent preseason. Matt Feiler stepped into the preseason starting lineup when Ramon Foster was dinged up and earned his roster spot.
DL: Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu, LT Walton, Dan McCullers
Like the offensive line, the top 5 on the defensive line were essentially set at the beginning of camp. Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave will be the starters. Tyson Alualu was brought in via free agency to be the “swing” lineman and the top backup at every position. Both Hargrave and Alualu are athletically capable enough to play as one of the 2 down linemen in the nickel defense. LT Walton has showed flashes of athleticism at times. Much was made in the Steelers blogosphere about the volatility of Dan McCullers’ roster spot, but Big Dan apparently did enough in the preseason to hold on to the 6th lineman position. That said, if the Steelers go out looking for defensive linemen in free agency, McCullers’ position could still be in jeopardy.
OLB: Bud Dupree, James Harrison, TJ Watt, Anthony Chickillo, Arthur Moats
All five of the outside linebackers showed flashes of brilliance throughout the preseason. After a solid debut, TJ Watt didn’t do a whole lot over the last three preseason games. Luckily, the Steelers still have James Harrison who will be able to rotate with Watt. Bud Dupree showed the ability to turn the corner and get pressure on the quarterback. If anyone has a chance to be the first Steeler since 2010 to break 8 sacks, it’s Dupree. Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats both had multi-sack games in the preseason as they tortured backup tackles.
ILB: Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich, LJ Fort
The position where the Steelers have the least depth is inside linebacker. Ryan Shazier is a Pro Bowl-caliber when he is healthy. Vince Williams is the best tackler on the Steelers defense and is solid against the run. Teams went after him in pass coverage during the preseason, which is a trend we should expect to see repeated in the regular season. Tyler Matakevich is the top backup at both ILB positions. Matakevich isn’t the fastest player, but he is a good tackler and is a smart player. The Steelers trust him to be the “green sticker” player to set up the defense if Shazier goes down. LJ Fort is a solid special teams player and made a bunch of defensive plays in the preseason.
CB: Artie Burns, Joe Haden, William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh, Mike Hilton, Cam Sutton, Brian Allen
Last year the Steelers broke a 19-year streak of not using a first round pick on a corner. There was some skepticism over the selection of Artie Burns, but he showed flashes in his rookie year. This year, Burns will be the Steelers top corner. Joe Haden was cut by the Browns and signed with the Steelers over a span of about 8 hours on Wednesday. Haden will be the #2 corner, though the Steelers may opt to have Burns and Haden play a dedicated side of the field and not follow receivers around. Gay will likely be the top slot cornerback, though Mike Hilton balled out in the preseason. Hilton made a number of big plays and was always around the ball. Coty Sensabaugh was signed to a 2-year contract this offseason and out-performed Ross Cockrell as an outside corner. Cam Sutton seems destined for Injured Reserve after re-aggravating a hamstring injury. It is likely that Sutton will be placed on IR when Le’Veon Bell signs his tender so the Steelers don’t have to release another player. Brian Allen was a 5th round pick whose technique is raw but showed strength and athleticism in coverage. Allen could be shuffled off the roster to the practice squad if the Steelers add another DB off waivers.
S: Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, Rob Golden, Jordan Dangerfield
Safety is another position where the Steelers lack quality depth. Mike Mitchell was injured for most of the preseason. When healthy, he will make an equivalent number of good plays as mind-numbingly dumb plays. Sean Davis was a second round pick this year who was at his best when he was solely dedicated to playing the safety position. Rob Golden is the special teams captain but was exposed in coverage when he had to play on defense last year. Jordan Dangerfield is a hard-hitting in-the-box safety. He is somewhat limited in coverage but is an asset against the run. The Steelers used Dangerfield in the playoff game against Miami in place of a cornerback when the Dolphins went to a 3 TE set. If the Steelers go looking for safety help on the waiver wire, either Dangerfield or Brian Allen’s roster spots could be in jeopardy.
Specialists: Chris Boswell (K), Jordan Berry (P), Kameron Canaday (LS)
In one of the most surprising moves, 6th round pick Colin Holba did not make the roster. Kameron Canaday beat him out for the long-snapping job. No one really paid attention to this roster battle because it was presumed Holba would win it.