Two weeks from today, the Pittsburgh Steelers will officially get their season rolling when players and coaches arrive in Latrobe, PA, to open training camp at St. Vincent College.
There will be plenty of storylines to follow as the Steelers prepare for the season and battle for roster spots, but one of the big questions is what the final 53-man roster will look like when they open their season in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12.
Here’s a (very) early 53-man roster projection for 2016.
QUARTERBACK (3) — Ben Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Bruce Gradkowski
The skinny: The biggest storyline here is whether Jones can do enough to make the Steelers confident he can capably lead the team if Roethlisberger misses time this season. The organization hopes so, because Gradkowski is unlikely to be a viable option — even a spot-starter at this point. Could the Steelers look at other options as camp progresses? Maybe, but, as of today, these are your three QBs.
Keep an eye on: Dustin Vaughn. Vaughn has a cannon for an arm and a prototypical NFL size (6’5, 240) that might make things interesting if he meshes with the Steelers offense in camp. He spent last season on the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad after making the Dallas Cowboys’ roster in 2014.
RUNNING BACK (4) Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Roosevelt Nix
The skinny: This is probably the easiest unit to predict. Bell and Williams are the best 1-2 punch in the league, and Pittsburgh feels extremely comfortable with Toussaint as a reserve. Nix heads into camp locked in at fullback, and his special teams contributions as a rookie can’t be overlooked.
TIGHT END (3) Ladarius Green, Jesse James, David Johnson
The skinny: Green, who came over this offseason from the San Diego Chargers and signed a four-year deal with Pittsburgh, is expected to replace the recently retired Heath Miller as a starter — and Green has the star potential to shine in this offense. James showed flashes late in the season as a rookie, and he’ll continue to be groomed for a backup role.
My first “surprise” pick is Johnson winning a spot over Matt Spaeth. Spaeth is a proven vet to be sure, but the Steelers brought Johnson back for a reason. Johnson, who played four seasons with the Steelers before spending the past two with the Chargers, gives the Steelers more flexibility at the position due to his ability to play fullback if needed, and this might give him the edge.
Keep an eye on: Xavier Grimble. Grimble spent last season on the Steelers’ practice squad and got rave reviews from teammates during OTAs. No question he’s on the outside when it comes to a roster spot, but the Steelers may try to keep in him in the fold for another season on the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVER (5) Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers
The skinny: Brown, Wheaton, Coates and Heyward-Bey are undoubtedly a lock to be one of the deepest wide receiver groups in the league. That leaves two questions: One, will the Steelers keep five or six receivers, and, two, who will get the last spot(s)?
Much will be determined based on whether or not the team keeps 10 linebackers on the roster (likely) and how impressive rookie Demarcus Ayers is as return specialist. If the Steelers keep five receivers, Rogers will have his hands full fending off Shakim Phillips and Levi Norwood for that final spot.
Keep an eye on: Norwood. He’s a long shot, but his ability to return punts and his production at Baylor make him an player to key on early in camp.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9) Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Alejandro Villanueva, Ryan Harris, Cody Wallace, Jerald Hawkins, Chris Hubbard
The skinny: This is a deep, talented group with experience at all positions.
Keep an eye on: B.J. Finney. Of the nine players listed above, only Chris Hubbard could be in jeopardy of losing his job, and that’s because of Finney. Like Hubbard, Finney is an interior lineman who can play either guard or center and, after a rough training camp as a rookie, he earned quite a bit of praise during his time on the practice squad. The Steelers like Finney, so he’s got a chance.
DEFENSIVE LINE (6) Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Dan McCullers, Javon Hargrave, Ricardo Mathews, L.T. Walton
The skinny: Much like the offensive line, this group looks to be set — barring injuries or a potential surprise who steals a reserve role.
Keep an eye on: Caushaud Lyons might give the veteran Mathews all he can handle. Still, Mathews might get the edge based on experience and the all-important fact that he can play inside or outside.
LINEBACKER (10) Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, Arthur Moats, Vince Williams, Anthony Chickillo, Travis Feeney, Steven Johnson
The skinny: Will the Steelers keep 10 linebackers on their roster? It’s probable, and that could leave some spots up for grabs. Feeney could be a boom or a bust, and it’ll be interesting to see if he does enough to earn a valuable roster spot as a rookie. Chickillo’s development in his second season should be another storyline to follow. And Johnson gains an early edge for a final spot due to his experience and special teams contributions.
Keep an eye on: Tyler Matakevich. If there’s one player heading into camp Steelers fans should keep an eye on, it’s Matakevich. A four-year starter at Temple, all Matakevich did was make plays. Some compare the undersized inside linebacker to former All-Pro Zach Thomas and, when you watch the film, the description fits.
Matakevich has the credentials for the comparison; he added the Nagurski and Bednarik awards to his first-team All-America honors last season as a senior.
Honestly, I like Matakevich to beat out Johnson for a roster spot, but I just need to see him do it in camp.
DEFENSIVE BACK (10) William Gay, Mike Mitchell, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Senquez Golson, Robert Golden, Ross Cockrell, Doran Grant, Shamarko Thomas, Donald Washington
The skinny: No one is going to call this group special, but the hope is it can be just good enough to help the Steelers win their seventh Super Bowl. The development of Golson and Davis could be crucial to this unit being better in 2016. Keep an eye on Thomas; if he falters again in camp, special teams ace Ross Ventrone could easily take his spot.
Keep an eye on: I’m sure a few of you are saying, “Who the heck is Donald Washington?” He’s a 29-year-old cornerback with NFL experience as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs for three seasons. During that time, he played safety, and that experience might give him a potential edge for a final roster spot over Thomas, Ventrone or Grant. Washington’s a long shot, but I think he pulls off a surprise.
SPECIALISTS (3) K Chris Boswell, P Jordan Berry, LS Greg Warren
The skinny: With Pittsburgh’s decision to settle on Boswell over Shaun Suisham at kicker, this unit looks to be set and should be a strength this season.
Keep an eye on: Will Monday. While far from camp fodder, he’s someone to watch out for. Monday had a decorated career at Duke that included four straight seasons of all-conference honors.
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