Right off the bat, we don't care about what happened with Hines, James, or Rashard in the offseason. That's behind us. This is the 2011 NFL Season. If you're not geared up for it and are still thinking about the summer, you need to re-evaluate your life. All the reporters asking questions about what happened over the summer are jokes. You're better off asking them what they had for breakfast before they drove up to camp.
And signing Plax makes no sense from a salary cap or depth chart perspective. But we've already talked about that.
Looking at the roster as it stands right now, there are 31 players on the roster that are definite locks to be suiting up for the Steelers come September 11.
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich
RB: Rashard Mendenhall
WR: Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown
TE: Heath Miller
T: Willie Colon, Jonathan Scott, Marcus Gilbert
G: Chris Kemoeatu, Ramon Foster
C: Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky
DE: Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward
NT: Casey Hampton
OLB: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worlids
ILB: James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons
CB: Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden
S: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Will Allen, Ryan Mundy
Beyond those 31, there are 12 more players that should make the team, assuming nothing drastic happens.
QB: Dennis Dixon
RB: Isaac Redman
TE: David Johnson
OLB: Chris Carter
ILB: Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester
CB: Crezdon Butler, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen
K: Shaun Suisham
P: Jeremy Kapinos
LS: Derek Chard
I included the specialists on this list and not the "locks" list because if someone has a horrendous preseason there's always the possibility of getting cut.
That leaves a total of 10 roster spots open for competition during camp. It's safe to say that many of them will be won or lost based on special teams play, so keep a close eye on that as the preseason moves along. Of course, not all camp battles are for a spot on the team. There are also battles for spots on the depth chart. We'll take a look at both.
Depth Chart Battles
Left Tackle: Jonathan Scott vs Marcus Gilbert
Scott started the latter portion of last season at left tackle after Max Starks went down with an injury. He wasn't the greatest LT in the world and had some troubles with penalties and in pass protection. Gilbert, the Steelers second round pick out of Florida, might be good enough to challenge for the starting job right off the bat. We'll know more once they start hitting each other in camp.
Prediction: The Steelers try to re-sign Starks or Adams at a discounted rate. Jonathan Scott wins the job out of camp but is replaced by Marcus Gilbert sometime around November.
Right Guard: Ramon Foster vs Doug Legursky
This might be the hardest of all the camp battles to call. Foster played most of last year at guard (right or left depending on Kemoeatu's health) while Legursky played both center and guard, including starting at center in the Super Bowl. They both have the ability and Legursky's feet are faster than Foster's but I think Foster is the stronger of the two. Whoever wins the spot is going to have to be on their toes for all the guys Colon gets beat by on the outside.
Prediction: Too close to call. Could go either way.
Nickel Corner: Keenan Lewis vs Crezdon Butler vs Curtis Brown vs Cortez Allen
Gay is an unrestricted free agent and it remains to be seen if the Steelers will re-sign him. For now, Lewis, a 3rd round pick in 2009 has to either show he's got something or he's probably going to lose his roster spot. He was horrible in the preseason game against Denver last year, giving up touchdown passes and taking terrible penalties that led to the coaches benching him. When he did play on Special Teams as a gunner last year, he looked lost, constantly running out of bounds on punt coverage. The door is open for Crezdon Butler (2010 5th round pick) or Curtis Brown (2011 3rd round pick) to step in to the nickel role. Butler has great speed and makes great plays on the ball while Steelers brass called Brown "Texas' best cover corner last season." This should be a fun one to watch, with Lewis being the only one who needs to show anything to keep a roster spot. Cortez Allen (2011 4th round pick) has a lot of raw skill but he needs work on honing it and will likely only play special teams this year.
Prediction: Brown wins the nickel corner, Butler plays as the dime corner, Lewis gets cut.
Battles for Roster Spots
Third Down Back: Baron Batch vs Jonathan Dwyer
People were excited last year when the Steelers drafted Dwyer out of Georgia Tech. We quickly found that Dwyer was great with the ball in his hands but pretty much clueless without it. The Steelers drafted Batch in the 7th round out of Texas Tech and he has become an online sensation for his interaction with fans through his blog and twitter account. Mewelde Moore is a free agent and the Steelers could always look to bring him back if they feel the need for an experienced 3rd Down Back.
Prediction: Batch wins the 3rd down back role, Dwyer improves over last year but still gets relegated to the practice squad. The Steelers don't sign Willie Parker.
Third Quarterback: Dennis Dixon vs Charlie Batch
This battle should more be "Charlie Batch vs age." Dixon is a restricted free agent and assuming no other team out there wants to give up a 5th round pick to sign him, he'll be back in black and gold this year. While Batch was able to come in and play solid ball when we needed him last year, it's likely the Steelers will opt for Leftwich and Dixon (unless Lord Byron looks absolutely atrocious in camp) as their backups.
Prediction: Dixon, but Colbert keeps Batch's number on speed dial in case a quarterback gets hurt.
Third Tight End: Eugene Bright vs Weslie Saunders vs Vaughn Charlton vs Jamie McCoy
With Matt Spaeth departing in free agency for Chicago, David Johnson will likely step into the #2 tight end role while keeping his H-back responsibilities. This opens the door for a 3rd tight end. Bright was on the practice squad last year while the other three players were undrafted free agent signings this year. Saunders is the most intriguing of the group, having been suspended from South Carolina last year for improper contact with an agent. Many considered him one of the top tight ends in college football before last season, but it remains to be seen how his year away from the game will impact his abilities. If he pans out, it could be a huge pickup for the Steelers.
Prediction: Saunders wins the job with at least one of the others landing on the practice squad
Fifth Wide Receiver: Arnaz Battle vs Tyler Grisham vs Limas Sweed vs Limas Sweed's hands
With the departure of Antwaan Randle El, the job of 5th wide receiver is open. It's likely that only one of these guys will make the team. Grisham has great hands but is a little guy who doesn't contribute much on special teams. Battle is just the opposite. He was one of our best special teams players last year, but gave us basically nothing as a wide receiver. Sweed has everything it takes to be a receiver except the hands. He has the size, speed, and break-away ability that made him worthy of a 2nd round pick in 2008, but he just can't catch the ball. The rumor mill is still swirling about Plaxico, but once some of the other pieces start falling at wide receiver in the free agent market, someone is going to throw some big money at Burress.
Prediction: Battle wins the spot based on special teams play. Sweed is cut. Burress signs with New York, St. Louis or Jacksonville.
Back-up Nose Tackle: Steve McLendon vs Anthony Gray
With Chris Hoke a free agent, it's unsure whether he will return to back up Casey Hampton this year or not. So for now, the battle is open for a back-up nose tackle. McLendon bounced back and forth between the practice squad and the roster last year while Gray was an undrafted free agent signing out of Southern Miss. Gray has a massive body and could be a good backup. In all likelihood, the Steelers will probably bring back Hoke to fill the role with McLendon and/or Gray starting the year on the practice squad.
Prediction: Re-sign Hoke
Fourth Offensive Tackle: Tony Hills vs Chris Scott
In a battle of players who have been disappointments thus far, there is likely a roster spot on the line. Hills was drafted in the 4th round in 2008 and has shown very little. Despite all the injuries that have hit the Steelers line, Hills has gotten basically no playing time, despite his size. Chris Scott was drafted in the 5th round out of Tennessee last year, but spent the entire season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. The other option here is that Trai Essex is a free agent and the Steelers might be able to bring him back. Essex is a good option as he can play 4 of the 5 positions along the offensive line and has experience in our system. Signing Essex would take some of the pressure off Marcus Gilbert initially as well, giving him more time to develop.
Prediction: Re-sign Essex.
Fourth Offensive Guard: Dorian Brooks vs Keith Williams
Brooks spent last year on the practice squad and the Steelers drafted Williams in the 6th round this year. It's unlikely either of these guys would see much playing time with the loser of the Legursky/Foster battle being the top backup at guard. Williams has a great work ethic and mean streak while Brooks knows the system. Should be a good battle that might end with both players on the practice squad, particularly if Trai Essex is re-signed.
Prediction: Well, I said above that the Steelers should re-sign Essex, so if they do, it's likely neither of these guys will make the opening day roster.
Other Players to Watch
John Clay (RB) - Picked up as an undrafted free agent, Clay was the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after putting up huge numbers at Wisconsin. At 6'1" 250 lbs, he has the frame to be a great short-yardage back. Even if he doesn't make the team, he could use a year on the practice squad. It would be nice to see the Steelers use Redman more in a complementary role to Mendenhall, and Clay might be able to snag a roster spot as a short-yardage specialist.
Ra'Shon Harris (DL) - Drafted by the Steelers in the 6th round in 2009, he has bounced between the Steelers, Panthers and Bills practice squads and is back for another shot at the Steelers roster. With Smith, Keisel, Hood, and Heyward on the depth chart above him, it'll be tough for Harris to crack the rotation, but if the Steelers decide to keep 5 DEs, he'll probably be the guy.
Mario Harvey (LB) - Was a tackling machine for the Marshall Thundering Herd. If the Steelers choose not to re-sign Keyaron Fox, Harvey could win a spot on the team if he shows some ability to play special teams.
Free Agents the Steelers Might Look to Re-Sign
Mewelde Moore (RB)
Trai Essex (OL)
Chris Hoke (NT)
Keyaron Fox (ILB)
Willie Gay (CB)
Greg Warren (LS)
The Steelers might take a look at other free agents from around the league, but due to the terms of the new CBA, players signing new contracts aren't eligible to practice until August 4th anyways, so the Steelers have some time to do their due diligence on any free agents they might want to add to the team. We'll be updating our projected roster list fairly frequently. Damn, it's good to have football back.