Now that the offseason is essentially over and the stench of training camp can faintly be tasted on the day's air, it's the time of year to try and predict the Pittsburgh Steelers' final 53-man roster for the 2012 NFL regular season.
With a great draft class added to the mix, the Steelers have one of the deepest rosters in the NFL. However, while they are in a great position to challenge again for the AFC this year, there are some soft spots that need to be carefully looked over ahead of the start of the season.
I have sculpted this squad hoping to minimize the risks to the roster by maximizing strengths and compensating for weaknesses through the numbers game.
Special Teams (Three)
Earlier this season I was actually asked on Twitter if the signing of Troy Smith meant that he would be the backup this year. Even without Batch or Leftwich on the roster, I had no hesitation in saying he wouldn't be anywhere near.
I expect Leftwich to play a lot more than most backups do this preseason to prove his fitness, while Batch should make the roster without being on the field at all.
This is the most predictable part of the Steelers roster.
Rashard Mendenhall should open the season on the PUP list and I suspect the Steelers are very interested in finding a veteran to help the team during that time.
They may be exploring their options right now, but I suspect a familiar name will ultimately be their guy once again. Jonathan Dwyer is still recovering from an injury carrying over from last season, but he did prove last season that he was developing and he should be healthy come season's start.
I have very high hopes for Chris Rainey even as a rookie and won't be surprised if he is more involved in the offense than anyone else from day one of the season. The Steelers should be a pass-heavy team next year, that will make a guy like Mewelde Moore and Rainey more valuable than Redman and Dwyer.
Baron Batch does not make my roster, I expect him to make the practice squad. The hype surrounding Batch is unnatural for a player who has done so little.
The simple fact is that Batch is a seventh-round pick coming off a major knee injury. He's more likely to not last training camp than be a star in the regular season for the Steelers if we're totally honest.
As with all Steelers, I hope they excel, but I have more hope than expectations with Batch.
While I have some concerns about Mike Wallace's performances on the field this year, I fully expect him to physically be with the team, if not mentally. Wallace and Brown should enter the season starters while Sanders and Cotchery should both be major contributors regardless of their positions on the depth chart.
I suspect the Steelers will carry Marquis Maze for his special teams capabilities. Earlier this year, Sanders was talked about as being the team's primary returner, however, exposing Sanders unnecessarily with his past injury issues doesn't seem prudent.
Maze could have a very similar rookie year to Antonio Brown as a special teamer who could maybe be involved more later on.
Toney Clemons will be one of the on-the-bubble selections who gets in on his potential.
Most people have David Johnson written off already. I am in the minority because I actually think that Johnson is a decent footballer who would be a lot better as a blocking tight end as opposed to playing the role he has in recent years under Bruce Arians.
It wouldn't surprise me at all if Saunders, Miller and Johnson finish as the team's three tight ends next year. It shouldn't make that much of a difference who is the third tight end either way, the position shouldn't feature as much in Haley's new offense.
I fully expect Max Starks to not only return, but if he is fully healthy, to return as the team's starting left tackle. Starks proved last year that he is a quality player when fully healthy and it's not worth risking a new face at that spot just yet.
Marcus Gilbert looks like an excellent right tackle, but that doesn't guarantee that he can cover the blind side, just ask Michael Oher about the difference there.
Mike Adams is unbelievably talented, but he is a rookie so who really knows what to expect from him.
With Starks back, Willie Colon would be a guard on this depth chart with Ramon Foster dropping to the first backup both at guard and tackle with Doug Legursky being a backup center and guard. Depending on how the Steelers see it, DeCastro could be the backup center, too, which would push Legursky to guard if injury occurs.
There is a lot of versatility in this group, so the Steelers will be comfortable carrying nine linemen on the roster without including veterans like Trai Essex or Jonathan Scott. If they need to sign one of them during the season it should be possible.
The defensive end group is basically set unless someone really excels in training camp to steal the fourth spot or if the team goes out of town to add someone.
At defensive tackle the Steelers have some issues to overcome. I do not expect Casey Hampton to be ready for the start of the season while Alameda Ta'Amu is a rookie and Chris Hoke recently confirmed my suspicions that he will not be ready to take over from day one.
Bringing in another body to help Steve McLendon is vital and whether it is Aubrayo Franklin or someone else I do not know, but he would be my choice as of right now.
Franklin would be the player released once/if Hampton returns.
The linebackers basically pick themselves with the only possible move coming with a veteran signing to replace Chris Carter.
The Steelers are a 3-4 team, however, with the lack of rotation depth on the defensive line entering this season, it would not completely shock me to see the team move to more 4-3 formations during stretches in games.
Now I don't expect them to play 4-3 for full games at a time, but the formation could be a plausible avenue to cover the lack of proven defensive tackle depth.
In this instance, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison would move to defensive end, with some combination of Evander Hood, Brett Keisel, Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward playing together inside in front of Larry Foote at MLB and Lawrence Timmons with Stevenson Sylvester/Sean Spence at OLB.
It's not a viable long-term plan, but something which could cover depth in certain situations because there is a lot more talent at linebacker than on the defensive line this year.
Spence and Sylvester should be major forces in special teams coverage while Woodley and Timmons should be expected to step up as leaders for the group with Harrison and Foote.
The Steelers will be delighted to keep their young (excluding Ike Taylor) quartet of cornerbacks atop their depth chart this year, but will want a veteran presence behind them.
Currently, Taylor is the only veteran at the position, so bringing back a player like Bryant McFadden, who is yet to catch on elsewhere, would be a more prudent move than extending a roster spot to Terrence Frederick who was drafted in the seventh round this year. Frederick will likely make the practice squad.
Adding Anthony Madison may seem insane right now, but his special teams value would allow you to let Will Allen go at safety. Thus the Steelers would be able to keep two young safeties to groom behind Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark on the active roster. Madison is a proven veteran too which helps this group.
At the top, Keenan Lewis should be the full-time starter on the outside with Cortez Allen stepping into the nickel role. Ryan Mundy's ability on the field will keep the pressure of Curtis Brown to perform in his second year unless he is ready.
Mundy will remain the backup at both positions while Smith will beat out Will Allen for the fourth spot as the inclusion of Anthony Madison makes Allen's special teams abilities redundant.
Cromartie-Smith will compete with Myron Rolle as the two 25-year-olds look to become a potential starting safety for the Steelers in the future. I give the edge to Smith who is a hard hitter who projects as a possible strong safety with Mundy better suited to be a free safety in the long term.
Clark and Polamalu are old which puts a premium on adding some youthful talent to develop behind. Mundy has proven himself capable so far while Cromartie-Smith has looked good in limited action, mostly on special teams.
Kapinos may not be Daniel Sepulveda, but he is more reliable and a pretty good punter nonetheless. Suisham ideally would have been replaced, but he remains the kicker right now. The best thing about Greg Warren is you only notice him after the ball has been punted away.
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