The past two years have been difficult for Steelers fans as the salary cap has seen many long-time players part ways with the team. The youth movement is afoot and their success this season will hinge on how well the young players acclimate themselves to significant playing time in the NFL. Over the last two offseasons we have seen the departure of Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, Chris Kemoeatu, James Farrior, William Gay (though he came back), Daniel Sepulveda, Mewelde Moore, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch, Mike Wallace, Max Starks, Doug Legursky, James Harrison, Keenan Lewis, Willie Colon, and Casey Hampton. The Steelers are more or less right up against the Salary Cap, so don't look for them to sign any big name free agents in the week or so before Training Camp begins.
The bright side of this roster turnover is that this year's trip to Latrobe means more than many in the past. There could be upwards of 15 roster spots that are won and lost at St Vincent College over the next month. In addition to the 15 "open" spots there will be plenty of battles for position on the depth chart. As things stand in the middle of July, there are a lot of questions about how the Steelers roster will look on opening day.
As things stand right now, there are 25 players that should be considered a "lock" to make the Opening Day Roster.
Roster Locks (25)
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski
RB: Le'Veon Bell
WR: Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders
TE: Heath Miller*
OT: Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams
OG: Ramon Foster, David DeCastro
C: Maurkice Pouncey
DE: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward
NT: Steve McLendon
OLB: LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worlids, Jarvis Jones
ILB: Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote
CB: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay
S: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark
* - Heath Miller will likely begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list as he recovers from his ACL surgery in January. He can stay on the PUP List for up to 6 weeks and he would not count against the 53-man roster during that time.
The next grouping of players are those that "Should" make the team, barring any kind of injury, arrest or suspension.
QB: Landry Jones
RB: Jonathan Dwyer
WR: Marcus Wheaton
TE: Matt Speath, David Paulson
OT/OG: Kelvin Beachum
The Steelers spent a 4th round pick on Landry Jones. The last 4th rounder not to make the 53-man roster was Fred Gibson in 2005, making Jones almost a lock. Dwyer was the Steelers feature back for much of last year and while he will have to prove he still deserves that role in camp, he brings more to the table than Isaac Redman. Wheaton was the Steelers 3rd round pick and is all but a lock as long as he doesn't get injured or arrested. The Steelers signed Spaeth in Free Agency and he will likely be the starting Tight End until Heath returns from injury. David Paulson was a pleasant surprise last season, working his way into the #2 TE role as a rookie. Beachum started 5 games as a rookie last year at RT, but doesn't have the size or the strength to stay there so he will likely be a "swing" lineman that will be the first guy off the bench as a reserve.
OLB: Chris Carter
ILB: Stevenson Sylvester, Sean Spence
CB: Terry Hawthorne
S: Shamarko Thomas
Carter was unimpressive in the playing time he got last year and has ended both of his professional seasons on the Injured Reserve list. That said, he has more experience than anyone else on the roster and should make the team unless he is vastly outplayed by Adrian Robinson. Sean Spence is still recovering from his knee injury and might not play this season. He will likely be on the PUP List and not count against the 53-man roster but will remain with the team. Like Carter, Stevenson Sylvester hasn't been the most impressive player, but he is the most experienced player on the roster to be the top reserve at Inside Linebacker. Hawthorne and Thomas were mid-round draft picks which all but assures their spot on the final roster, though Thomas should have an easier time than Hawthorne who will have to compete with a crowded defensive backfield.
K - Shaun Suisham
P - Drew Butler
LS - Greg Warren
The Steelers will carry an extra kicker (Daniel Hrapmann), punter (Brian Moorman) and long snapper (Luke Ingram) into camp, but Warren has been an institution at long snapper while Suisham had a solid year last season and should not be in danger of losing his roster spot. Butler may get some competition from Moorman in camp, but ultimately I think the Steelers will stick with the younger and cheaper option at punter. Either way you slice it, 3 of the 53 roster spots will be taken by specialists.
At 25 roster locks and with 14 more players that should make the team, that gives the Steelers 39 roster spots that are relatively secure. Depending on where Heath Miller and Sean Spence fall (PUP List, IR, active roster), there will be between 14 and 16 other roster spots that will be up for grabs in training camp.
Battles For Roster Spots
Running Back: Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling
Both of these players could wind up on the 53-man roster. The Stephens-Howling signing might have been the most under-looked move of free agency but could pay huge dividends. The former Pitt star is a huge upgrade over Chris Rainey and is capable of returning kicks as well as being a third down/change of pace running back. Redman was a bit disappointing last season when he had the opportunity to claim the role of starting back, and he will be at the center of a battle with Jonathan Dwyer, Le'Veon Bell and Stephens-Howling for the starting role.
Fullback: Will Johnson, David Johnson
David Johnson spent last year on the injured reserve after suffering a knee injury in the preseason. He had been the Steelers H-back in Bruce Arians' offense. Will Johnson is more of a traditional fullback and played well as a lead blocker and one-pass-a-game catcher last season. It's unlikely the Steelers will carry two fullbacks into the season, though if Heath begins the season on the PUP list it is possible that David Johnson will get his roster spot as a third tight end.
Wide Receiver: Plaxico Burress, Jerricho Cotchery, Justin Brown, David Gilreath, Derek Moye
Burress and Cotchery are the veterans of the group but both only have one year left on their contracts. Burress could be made expendable by 6th round pick Justin Brown. At 6'3" Brown gives the Steelers a young player with size and speed, and he could win a roster spot if he out-performs Burress in camp. Cotchery's position as the #3 receiver should be relatively secure, though the presence of Marcus Wheaton on the roster means that Cotchery probably isn't in the Steelers long-term plans. Gilreath was one of the preseason stand-outs last year and was added to the active roster late in the season. Moye is a local favorite from Rochester High School and Penn State and at 6'5" factors into the "tall WR" conversation. The Steelers will likely carry 5 receivers into opening day, which means that two of these five will make the team.
Offensive Tackle: Guy Whimper, Joe Long
Offensive Guard: John Malecki, Mike Golic Jr, Justin Cheadle, Nik Embernate
The Steelers won't keep just 6 offensive linemen on their roster. In the past, they have carried 8 into the season and usually dress 7 on gameday. This means that there is an open competition, not just for a spot on the 53-man roster but for a helmet on Sundays. John Malecki has expunged his practice squad eligibility, but his playing time at the end of last season should give him the edge in this race. Guy Whimper has 7 years of NFL experience and started 22 games over the last 3 seasons for Jacksonville. Justin Cheadle and Joe Long were members of the practice squad last season. Golic and Embernate were undrafted free agent signings this year and are both unknowns. This is a wide open competition for two roster spots. Position flexibility will be a huge factor as the Steelers like their reserve linemen to be able to play multiple positions along the line.
Defensive Line: Al Woods, Alameda Ta'amu, Nick Williams
The Steelers will likely keep 6 defensive linemen heading into the season. Since 4 of them are locks to make the roster (McLendon, Keisel, Hood, Heyward), this leaves the other two spots open to competition. Al Woods won the last spot on the line last year and saw a handful of snaps throughout the year. Ta'amu was basically on a redshirt season that he derailed by playing drunk bumper cars on the South Side. Somehow, he's still on the team and has a chance to make the roster as the back-up nose tackle. Nick Williams was a 7th round pick and has the athletic upside to turn into a solid player but is very raw in his game.
Linebacker: Adrian Robinson (OLB), Marshall McFadden (ILB), Vince Williams (ILB)
Robinson made the opening day roster last year after an impressive display in the preseason. He spent last season on the active roster but saw little playing time as the fifth outside linebacker. McFadden was on the practice squad for most of last season, but with Spence's injury there is an opening at inside linebacker. Williams was a 6th round pick this year after an impressive career at Florida State as the captain of their defense. If he plays well in camp, Robinson could beat out Carter for the 4th OLB spot on the depth chart. The 4th ILB spot will likely be an open competition between Williams and McFadden should Spence start the year on IR or the PUP list.
Cornerback: Curtis Brown, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Josh Victorian, Ross Ventrone
Brown, Van Dyke and Victorian all saw the field last year due to the Steelers injury-depleted secondary. Brown continued to be a special teams standout but struggled when forced into regular defensive duty. Brown was so bad in the nickel role against San Diego that he was replaced at halftime by Josh Victorian. Van Dyke was a penalty machine on special teams, and was such a liability that Coach Tomlin basically called him out in a press conference. Ventrone, a Chartiers Valley graduate, was signed at the end of last season off the Patriots practice squad. With four corners relatively secure in their roster spots, it is likely only one or two of these guys will make the team.
Safety: Robert Golden, Damon Cromartie-Smith
Golden was a surprise addition to the roster last year, winning a spot with his stellar play in training camp. He saw time in a few games towards the end of the year, primarily in a nickel back/slot back role, which is not his forte. Cromartie-Smith has been hovering between the practice squad and the active roster for the last few seasons but hasn't seen any significant time. The drafting of Shamarko Thomas puts the onus on one of these two to make big plays in camp and prove that they belong.
Kick Returner: LaRod Stephens-Howling, Reggie Dunn
Stephens-Howling has averaged 25 yards per return in his career and has taken 3 kickoffs back for touchdowns. In 2010 he led the league in return yards. Given the uncertainty of the last few spots on the 53-man roster, a spot could be won by someone who shows unique abilities as a kick returner. The Steelers have done this in the past with Allen Rossum and Stefan Logan. One guy to keep an eye on is undrafted rookie Reggie Dunn who ran a 4.22 40-yard dash during his Pro Day at Utah. Dunn set an NCAA record in 2012 with 4 kickoff returns for touchdowns.
As I mentioned previously, depending on how the injury situations for Miller and Spence play out, the Steelers will have between 14 and 16 roster spots open for competition. I identified 28 players that will likely be competing for those spots, so even though I said "the Steelers may keep all of these guys" in most of the sections, the team does not have the roster space to keep all of them. In addition to these roster spots that are open for competition, there are other roster battles that will be decided during camp. The starting lineups seem mostly set in stone (aside from starting Tight End if Heath is out to start the year).
Starting Running Back: Le'Veon Bell, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling
This will be the biggest battle of training camp. After the Steelers Running Back-by-committee approach last season, the team parted ways with Rashard Mendenhall and drafted Le'Veon "The Prescription" Bell in the second round. Dwyer and Redman are similar backs and it is possible that only one of them makes the final roster. Dwyer brings more to the table as a feature runner but Redman has historically been better in short-yardage situations. Bell is likely the long-term answer here, but it's uncertain whether he'll be able to assume the role of starting back right out of camp. Dwyer played last preseason like he had something to prove, and if he plays that way again he will probably be the starting back on opening day.
Starting Tight End: Matt Spaeth, David Paulson
If Heath Miller starts the season on the PUP list, the position of starting tight end will be open for debate. Paulson played well as a rookie last year but he might not be ready to be an every-down player just yet. Spaeth isn't very good, but has experience with the Steelers and is more or less a known commodity for the offense. He provides stability even though there isn't anything that he does incredibly well.
#3 Wide Receiver: Jerricho Cotchery, Marcus Wheaton
The third wide receiver has become a valuable commodity in the NFL. Cotchery is a solid veteran presence and will see playing time and make tough catches over the middle. Wheaton is a rookie with a ton of upside but will have to improve on his route-running and catching the ball away from his body in order to fully grasp the #3 spot on the depth chart. It wouldn't be surprising to see Wheaton in that role by the end of the season, but it's likely that Cotchery will start there in September.
Starting Right Outside Linebacker: Jason Worlids, Jarvis Jones
In the past, fans have colloquially referred to the Steelers ROLB position as "designated for the clinically insane." Given the Steelers history of ROLB's from Greg Lloyd to Joey Porter to James Harrison, it's hard to argue with that assessment. Jason Worlids figures to take over the starting role, but he has been mostly underwhelming in the playing time he has received. He led the team in sacks last season with a mere 6, but that likely says more about the injury situation to Harrison and Woodley than Worlids' ability. Jones was the Steelers first round pick and is the starter-in-waiting at the position. It is just a matter of time before Jones, the NCAA's sack leader, claims his spot in the starting lineup.