The Steelers should have opened their preseason play this week against the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game. Unfortunately, the preseason was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. To be clear, we are completely on board with sacrificing the preseason if it means we get a full regular season of NFL Football. With no preseason games, it will be difficult to determine which players are leading candidates for the last few roster spots.
With no preseason action, the rookies are even going to be more behind the eight ball this season in terms of in-game preparation. In all likelihood, this means that seasoned veterans like Dan McCullers and Jordan Dangerfield are in better position to make the roster than their on-field play might indicate. One additional rule this year is that practice squads are increasing from 10 to 16 players. Each team is able to designate four of those players as “protected” each week. Furthermore, up 6 players on the practice squad can have unlimited NFL experience.
With these factors in mind, here is a look at the roster “locks,” players who “should make the team” (barring injury or off-field incident), and players on the “bubble.”
QB – Ben Roethlisberger
RB – James Conner, Derek Watt
WR – JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Chase Claypool
TE – Vance McDonald, Eric Ebron
OL – Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Stefen Wisniewski
The Steelers signed Watt, Ebron and Wisniewski to sizeable contracts in free agency, essentially ensuring their status as roster locks. The rest of the locks are all returning starters, except for Chase Claypool who was the Steelers top draft pick this season.
DL – Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley
OLB – TJ Watt, Bud Dupree, Alex Highsmith
ILB – Vince Williams, Devin Bush
CB – Joe Haden, Steven Nelson
S – Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds
On the defensive side of the ball, the starters with the exception of Javon Hargrave are all back for this season. The Steelers have already named Tyson Alualu as the starter at nose tackle. They traded a 5th round pick for Chris Wormley from Baltimore, and that investment makes him a lock as well. Alex Highsmith was the team’s third round pick out of Charlotte and is a lock because of the draft investment.
K – Chris Boswell
P – Jordan Berry
LS – Kameron Canaday
Much to the chagrin of most Steelers fans, Jordan Berry is essentially a lock to make the team. He typically punts very well in warm weather, and has yet to lose a camp battle. Given extra weight put on roster stability this year, Berry is basically a lock. Boswell had a bounce-back season last year and rewarded the Steelers faith in him.
QB – Mason Rudolph
RB – Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland
WR – (none)
TE – (none)
OL – Chukwuma Okorafor, Zach Banner, Kevin Dotson
The Steelers brass consistently reiterated they were comfortable with Rudolph as the #2 QB throughout the offseason, almost guaranteeing his roster spot. Okorafor and Banner will battle for the starting RT position in camp and the loser will likely become the 6th O-lineman who checks in for “tackle eligible” situations. Snell is the best power back on the roster, making his inclusion very likely as well. McFarland and Dotson were both draft picks this year, making their inclusion likely.
DL – (none)
OLB – Ola Adeniyi
ILB – Ulysses Gilbert
CB – Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton, Justin Layne
S – Antoine Brooks, Jordan Dangerfield
The Steelers don’t have a lot of depth at the linebacker position, which makes Ola Adeniyi as the 4th OLB and Ulysses Gilbert as the 3rd ILB highly probable inclusions in the roster. Cornerback is arguably the deepest position on the team and all five from last season will return. Safety is not deep behind the starters, with Brooks as a 6th round pick and special teams stalwart Dangerfield having the inside track on backup positions.
QB – Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch
RB – Jaylen Samuels, Wendell Smallwood, Kerrith Whyte, Trey Edmunds
WR – Ryan Switzer, Deion Cain, Amarah Darboh
TE – Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader
OL – Derwin Gray, JC Hassenauer
On offense, the Steelers will keep a 3rd QB, a 5th WR, a 3rd TE and 9 offensive linemen. At running back, there are 3 near-locks in Conner, Snell, and McFarland plus Derek Watt at fullback. The Steelers may keep a 5th RB as well, especially if they have kick returning abilities like Smallwood or Whyte. Samuels will make the roster in all likelihood, though Kerrith Whyte proved to be a much more effective 3rd down back over the second half of last season after Samuels returned from injury. Any of these players here could also potentially be surpassed by the signing of a free agent or a player cut by another team.
DL – Isaiah Buggs, Dan McCullers, Carlos Davis, Henry Mondeaux
OLB – Tuzar Skipper
ILB – Robert Spillane
CB – Alexander Myers
S – Marcus Allen
The Steelers will keep 6 defensive linemen. Who the last two are between Buggs, McCullers, Davis, Mondeaux, or potentially a free agent remains to be seen. It is likely that 9 linebackers and 10 defensive backs will make the team, but the distribution between inside/outside linebackers and corners/safeties is still up in the air. As it stands, all of the Steelers backup safeties seem to be better strong safeties than free safeties, and the depth there is very thin.
Overall, there are 30 roster locks and 13 roster probables. This leaves 10 more spots to be filled by players on the “bubble.” Of these 10, they will likely be distributed between a 3rd QB, 5th RB, 5th WR, 3rd TE, 9th OL, 5th and 6th DL, 8th and 9th LB, and 10th defensive back. Special teams play in preseason games is usually the separator for these last few roster spots, but without live games happening it will be hard to guess which players have the edge. One other factor to keep an eye on over the next few weeks is which players get cut by other teams and if the Steelers bring in additional players at any position.