The Steelers played their final preseason game on Thursday night in Carolina. As we discussed on the most recent episode of the Steel City Blitz podcast, most of the roster spots seemed generally set with only the last few to be decided. In Carolina, Tuzar Skipper continued his reign of terror from the outside linebacker position as he posted 2 sacks, a tackle for loss, and a QB hit. Johnny Holton flashed by catching two deep balls before halftime and coming up with some special teams plays. The tight end and safety positions are still question marks where the Steelers could look to add players from the waiver wire or via trade before the season officially begins in New England on September 8.
Quarterback (3): Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Josh Dobbs
The Devlin Hodges buzz cooled significantly over the later half of the preseason. Rudolph clearly outplayed Dobbs for the backup quarterback spot. Barring a trade, these will be the 3 quarterbacks heading into the season.
Running Back (4): James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Roosevelt Nix (FB)
The Steelers’ investment in Benny Snell in the draft secures his roster spot. Snell also out-played all the other running backs on the depth chart behind him. Once the season starts, expect to see a distribution of work between the three backs. James Conner will still be the primary back, but Samuels will see time on 3rd downs and passing situations. Snell showed his abilities in the passing game (both blocking and receiving) moreso than the running game during the preseason, but he will likely be the short-yardage back. Nix’s spot is secure.
Wide Receiver (6): JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington, Ryan Switzer, Diontae Johnson, Johnny Holton
The top five are set at wide receiver. Ryan Switzer getting the return duties with the first team specialists against Tennessee secured his spot on the roster. The biggest point of contention here is whether Eli Rogers or Johnny Holton is the 6th wide receiver. Holton showed some flashes as a returner during the preseason but proved to be much more of a deep threat on offense. Other than Moncrief, the Steelers don’t have a true offensive speedster that can stretch the field. While Rogers is a similar player to Ryan Switzer, Holton brings an element that the Steelers don’t currently have in the group. Additionally, Holton showed a willingness to play on coverage units, making a handful of special teams tackles during the preseason which adds value to his inclusion in the roster.
Tight End (3): Vance McDonald, Xavier Grimble, Zach Gentry*
Vance is a lock for the #1 spot. Grimble, by virtue of knowing the offense, will probably be the #2 but is better suited to be the #3 right end. Assuming the Steelers don’t make any roster moves before roster cuts, Gentry has been the best of the rest. Gentry’s spot on the roster comes with an asterisk because he is much better suited for the practice squad and will be shuffled there if the Steelers sign a tight end on waivers or add one via trade.
Offensive Line (9): Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, Chukwuma Okorafor, BJ Finney, Zach Banner, Fred Johnson
The Starting Five on the offensive line seems to be set. There was talk coming into camp of competition for the right tackle spot, but Matt Feiler proved to be the best of the group. Villanueva, Foster, Pouncey, and DeCastro will be the other starters. Okorafor will be the swing tackle and top backup at both spots. Finney will be the top backup inside. Banner was on the team last year and dropped a bunch of weight and improved his play this preseason, which keeps him around as a backup tackle. Undrafted free agent Fred Johnson had a great preseason and will be a valuable interior backup. With Mike Munchack as OL coach the Steelers generally kept 9 linemen. Due to the shortage of quality linemen around the league, keeping as many of these guys in house should be a priority.
Defensive Line (5): Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, Dan McCullers
The top four of this unit are absolutely set. Despite the fact that Dan McCullers has been a boom or bust player in his career, he likely stays on the roster. The question here is whether the Steelers keep five or six linemen (more on that below). Traditionally, they have kept six, but their hand may be forced.
Outside Linebacker (5): TJ Watt, Bud Dupree, Anthony Chickillo, Ola Adeniyi, Tuzar Skipper
Watt and Dupree are the starters. But behind them, Chickillo and Adeniyi are both dealing with injuries. Ola had surgery and will likely miss the first few weeks of the season but should not need to go on injured reserve. Chickillo’s injury is a bit more of a question mark. The Steelers signed him to a 2-year contract this offseason, which makes it hard to see Chickillo among the cuts. That said, the Steelers will likely want at least 3 healthy outside linebackers for the season opener in New England. Due to this, I am projecting Tuzar Skipper to land on the 53-man roster in place of a 6th defensive lineman. The Steelers generally only keep 9 linebackers, but the injuries to Chickillo and Adeniyi (along with Skipper’s outstanding play in the preseason) may force their hand into keeping him.
Inside Linebacker (5): Devin Bush, Mark Barron, Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich, Ulysses Gilbert
Devin Bush has been everywhere on the field during the preseason. Trading up to draft Bush turned the inside linebackers from one of the weakest units on the defense to potentially one of the strongest. Sixth round pick Ulysses Gilbert proved during the preseason why he was worthy of selection as well. Gilbert will get a spot on the team and have opportunities to contribute on special teams. Tyler Matakevich’s value lies almost solely in special teams, but he also showed up well enough in run defense in the preseason that he could play the Buck in a pinch.
Cornerback (6): Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Cam Sutton, Artie Burns, Mike Hilton, Justin Layne
Cam Sutton’s play in the preseason may have elevated him into the top nickel corner role. Mike Hilton got burned twice down the seam against Kansas City and his value in coverage is limited, though he is a strong slot blitzer. Third round pick Justin Layne had a rough preseason but the Steelers invested too much draft capital in him for Layne to not make the roster. That said, Layne left the Carolina game with an injury, so depending on its severity he could be a candidate for injured reserve.
Safety (4): Terrell Edmunds, Sean Davis, Kam Kelly, Jordan Dangerfield
Kam Kelly was one of the pleasant surprises of the offseason. Kelly spent some time in the summer on the San Diego Fleet in the AAF but signed with the Steelers after the AAF’s demise. He spent nearly all offseason as the #3 safety and saw a significant amount of preseason snaps due to Sean Davis’ injury. Kelly appears to have solidified his spot as the top backup at both safety positions. Jordan Dangerfield is mostly a box safety but is a good special teams player and will likely make the roster (as he always seems to) based on those qualities alone. The Steelers do lack some depth at the safety position and could look for outside help on the waiver wire.
Kicker: Chris Boswell
Matthew Wright gave Boswell a run for his money in camp and the preseason, but Wright’s missed field goal and extra point against Carolina sealed the deal. Boswell will be the kicker in 2019, but the Steelers may keep Wright’s phone number handy in the event Boswell reverts to his 2018 self.
Punter: Jordan Berry
Ian Berryman improved throughout the preseason and looked great against Carolina. That said, it’s doubtful that he did enough to unseat incumbent Jordan Berry, particularly given that the Steelers signed Berry to a 2-year contract this spring.
Long Snapper: Kameron Canaday
There was not much competition here.
- Trey Edmunds (RB)
- Tevin Jones (WR)
- Derwin Gray (OL)
- Patrick Morris (OL)
- Christian Scotland-Williamson (TE)
- Isaiah Buggs (DL)
- Sutton Smith (OLB)
- Christian Kuntz (OLB)
- Robert Spillane (ILB)
- Jhavonte Dean (CB)
- Dravon Askew-Henry (S)
The Steelers get an exemption for Christian Scotland-Williamson on the practice squad as an 11th player. Other than that, Trey Edmunds finished last season on the 53-man roster due to James Conner’s injury. Tevin Jones and Patrick Morris spent last year on the practice squad. The Steelers drafted Sutton Smith and Isaiah Buggs in the 6th round and Derwin Gray in the 7th round. Buggs performed the best of the group and could earn a roster spot if the Steelers decide to keep 6 defensive linemen and 9 linebackers instead of 5 and 10 as I projected above.
Christian Kuntz went to Chartiers Valley high school and Duquesne University and was signed to the team late in training camp but played well enough in two weeks to earn himself consideration for the practice squad. Kuntz also handled long snapping duties in the final preseason game and could be considered the top backup there if Canaday goes down. The Steelers claimed CB Jhavonte Dean off waivers this past week, so there is obviously some interest there in keeping him around the building. A bit of a homer pick, I selected Dravon Askew-Henry as a safety for the practice squad (there will probably be one) though last year’s 5th rounder Marcus Allen may be more likely.