Predicting 2-Deep Pittsburgh Steelers Depth Chart, Pre-Training Camp
As the Pittsburgh Steelers work through mini-camps and move toward training camp in July, roster battles are in full force.
While the final depth chart is far from decided, some shuffling already seems to be happening. Several surprises may be in order before things are finalized.
Here's an early stab at the top two players at every position on the depth chart.
Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
There's no doubt here.
Roethlisberger is the team's highest-paid and most elite player. He's one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL and possibly the league's best clutch player.
The Steelers got a nasty taste of what happens without a fully-functional Roethlisberger last year down the stretch. Because of that, they upgraded their offensive line.
Make no mistake, his is the safest job on the roster.
2nd String: Charlie Batch
This is a bit of a toss up between Batch and Leftwich, but my nod goes to the guy who's been here longer and is more essential to the team as a player-coach.
Also, Batch has proven healthier in recent years than Leftwich.
While that's a thin argument, either guy would fit well here. Both should be on the final roster, either way.
Starter: Isaac Redman
There's not much argument here.
Rashard Mendenhall doesn't figure to be ready for the opening game, or even the first several.
Redman has the most experience and upside of the other players on the roster. He also seems like a player who's ready to break out. He makes the most out of every opportunity.
If he does that, the contract he's playing for this year could have some zeroes added at the end.
2nd String: Baron Batch
This is a tough call.
Jonathan Dwyer and Batch figure to be the guys with the most potential. Chris Rainey doesn't figure to be more than a situational back, especially as a rookie. John Clay is a goal line specialist.
Of the first two listed, I like Batch better. He has a different style than Redman and is a good change of pace, perhaps better than Dwyer.
Starter: David Johnson
The Steelers have moved Johnson from the tight end/fullback position he's been playing to be a full-time fullback.
He's got competition from rookie Will Johnson out of WVU, but his versatility still figures to put him at the top of the list. There's always room for a guy who can do multiple things.
Plus, Johnson has been an able fullback already. Experience matters.
2nd String: Will Johnson (Practice Squad)
I don't see the team keeping a second fullback. They'd be better off using a tight end or a runner like Jonathan Dwyer to do it.
If I have to pick a backup, however, I'll go with keeping Will Johnson on the practice squad. If the other Johnson doesn't take to this offense for some reason, it will be helpful to have the younger player ready to step in.
Both have done well so far.
Starters: Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown
Wallace and Brown are also virtually guaranteed spots. Wallace holding out is about the only thing that could possibly change that situation.
That doesn't seem likely.
The Steelers know how to handle these things.
Brown had a Pro Bowl season last year, his first as a starter. He is a better player than Wallace and can bring more to the table. He's poised for another huge year as well.
The fact that he's also playing for a contract won't hurt one bit. The combination of these two and Ben Roethlisberger will again be deadly.
3rd and 4th Receivers: Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery
Sanders is a do-it-all guy like Brown and he will, if healthy, make a huge difference in this offense. He should be able to go over the middle and also run deep routes.
His athleticism makes him very valuable. His speed and intelligence make him a guy who could be a starter on other teams.
His health, however, keeps him a question mark.
Cotchery is a possession guy who will be huge in the red zone.
Fourth receiver in Pittsburgh doesn't relegate anyone to bench duty. It means he's behind other great players.
The Steelers have run a lot of three and four-receiver sets and that should continue. Cotchery and Sanders may also be interchangeable in the slot.
Starter: Heath Miller
This is another no-brainer for the Steelers.
While Miller hasn't been as big a part of the offense in recent years, that might change now that Todd Haley is at the helm. He likes to use the tight end as a receiver, something Miller excels at.
A focus on Miller in the red zone would be very good for the Steelers, who have struggled in that department recently.
2nd String: Leonard Pope
The team's lone free agent addition, I expect Pope to be the No. 2 player at this position. He has experience with Todd Haley and doesn't have to serve a suspension for four games, something that will hamper Weslye Saunders.
With David Johnson the fullback, that opens the door for Pope. Don't discount Saunders but, for now, he's strictly number three.
Starters: Mike Adams (LT), Marcus Gilbert (RT)
I don't think Adams missing OTAs will end up being a huge issue. It does put him behind, but he's a better athlete and tackle than any of the other options for the left side.
I could see Gilbert and Adams switching at the start of the season, but eventually things will go this way.
Gilbert was solid last year after being a surprising addition to the starting lineup as a rookie. The Steelers will hope he continues to grow into the role. He seems very motivated this year and doesn't want to be counted out on the left side.
Backup: Trai Essex
Essex has experience at virtually every spot and he could prove valuable as a backup on the inside.
Of the players who might be a backup tackle, I'll take him over Jonathan Scott or the others. Essex is solid and has never really gotten a lot of credit for that. He was brought back because of his versatility.
I'd want him as the backup here.
Starters: Willie Colon (LG), David DeCastro (RG)
Colon is moving inside in a move that may help him commit less holding and false start penalties, and which could keep him healthy as well.
He won't be asked to be as athletic at guard, although he will be used in pulling situations if that stays part of team's offense.
DeCastro figures to start as a rookie, the third year in a row the team will have a rookie starting on the line (this year they will likely have two).
He certainly has the talent and he should be able to adapt quickly to the pro game. He played in a professional-style offense at Stanford and was excellent.
Backups: Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster
The Steelers will likely use last year's starters as this year's reserves. That's a good situation to be in. Foster and Legursky are both solid players and can play multiple spots as well. Legursky is the team's most competent and versatile backup.
There shouldn't be much doubt at guard. This position is now one of the strongest and deepest on the roster.
Starter: Maurkice Pouncey
Pouncey has been a Pro Bowl center in his first two seasons, but injury issues have marred each of them. That could bode badly for the Steelers, who badly need the anchor of their line healthy.
I personally don't worry too much about it, but I think this year will be very telling for the team's center. If he can make it through 2012 healthy, the worries will go away. Otherwise, people will begin to wonder about his durability.
2nd String: Doug Legursky
You can slot Trai Essex here too. The Steelers will use either player first in a situation where Pouncey is out.
Legursky is the better center and he could probably start there for several teams in the NFL. Essex has played the position sparingly, but he could also be there in an emergency.
The depth here is solid either way.
Starters: Brett Keisel (RDE), Ziggy Hood (LDE)
Keisel is a lock until he either gets hurt or hangs them up. I'm not sure either of those is right around any corner.
He's been an unheralded member of the defense for years and is every bit as good as many Pro Bowl ends. He just doesn't get the credit because the Steelers don't utilize defensive ends as big playmakers.
Hood is in competition with Cameron Heyward, but I wouldn't put Hood on the bench. He's better than he gets credit for from fans and he's mostly fighting the ghost of Aaron Smith, a guy nobody can really replace.
Hood has done a fair job and should be able to take his game to another level in 2012.
Backup: Cameron Heyward
Heyward is probably good enough to start, but the Steelers are loaded here and he'll have a hard time denting that lineup until Keisel goes.
If anything happens to either starter, however, the Steelers can rest assured Heyward can keep up. I don't see the team keeping another end on the active roster, either.
Starter: Casey Hampton
I'm not ready to shelve Hampton just yet.
I do wonder how ready he'll be for the first games of the year, though. There haven't been many reports on him, and his age and weight seem to be against him at this point. Still, if he can play, he should be the starter for one final season.
After 2012, I'd expect Hampton to walk away. He was slowing last year before his injury. That will only slow him further.
With a rookie learning behind him, time looks to be short.
2nd String: Alameda Ta'amu
It's really between him and Steve McLendon. I'd expect Ta'amu to get that job unless he really doesn't look good in camp. McLendon is a nice substitute and should still make the roster since he can slide out to end if necessary.
Ta'amu, however, is the heir to Hampton. That figures to start now, especially if Hampton isn't ready to come in and contribute from the first day.
Starters: James Harrison (ROLB), LaMarr Woodley (LOLB)
The Steelers will hope to get healthy seasons out of their two best pass rushers.
Woodley and Harrison both missed significant time last year, and it hurt the team in some ways. Harrison is over 30 now, but he is still young in NFL years because he didn't get started right away. His injury was a freakish thing that I wouldn't expect to see again.
Woodley's hamstring injury nagged even once he returned, so I'd be concerned about him more. That injury will have plenty of time to heal however, so there really is no concern.
If they can both stay healthy, this should be the year both make the Pro Bowl with double-digit sack totals.
Backups: Jason Worilds, Chris Carter
Carter can sub in on the inside too. That's valuable, but Worilds is the team's top backup. He showed last year while subbing for either Woodley or Harrison that he can be a starter in the NFL. For now, he's stuck behind the two stars.
I'm curious about seeing Worilds or Carter on the inside more, given the hole left by James Farrior, but for now the smart money is on them being the key backups outside.
There's still a stiff competition inside that has to get sorted out.
Starters: Larry Foote (LILB), Lawrence Timmons (RILB)
Foote could regain his starting job and play next to the guy who took it last time.
Timmons is a sure bet on the right side. He's been solid, but not yet spectacular so far in his young career. This should be the year he breaks out. If not now, I'm not sure he'll ever develop further. He's already very good, so that's something.
Foote has been a backup since returning to Pittsburgh a couple years back. He came in this year for OTAs determined to regain the starting job he lost when he left town after winning the Super Bowl in 2008.
So far, he's been the most impressive in a very big field of competition. If that holds, he'll be back on the field regularly for the first time in awhile.
Backups: Stevenson Sylvester, Sean Spence
This is murky. The starting job will determine a lot about who plays backup.
Right now, Sylvester hasn't been as impressive as expected and could be staring down another year on the bench. That's not good news for a guy who seemed the heir apparent to James Farrior not so long ago.
Spence is a rookie and he'll push Sylvester and even Foote. He's a playmaker and has a similar style to Troy Polamalu. He could even surprise and thrust himself into the starting job at some point, but I don't see that happening right away.
Starters: Ike Taylor (RCB), Keenan Lewis (LCB)
Taylor is a lock. He played at a Pro Bowl level last season but missed the game because he doesn't tally interceptions or sacks like some corners have been able to.
The AFC is also tough for corners because there's so much talent there. Still, Taylor is a great player and he seems to have even stepped up his game. He takes pride in covering the opponents' top receivers.
Opposite him, it's open season.
Lewis has the most experience. I'm giving him the job for other reasons, however. I think he's got the playmaking ability and upside to be a solid starter, perhaps better than William Gay was in 2011.
Lewis will need a new deal after this year too, further enhancing his motivation.
Backup/Nickel Corner: Cortez Allen
Curtis Brown is in the running for the starting and nickel jobs too, but he's behind Allen and Lewis so far. I really like what Allen showed in limited opportunities last season.
That needs to continue, but it should.
Allen surprised everyone by being better than the better-known Brown last season, but an injury shorted him a chance to do more. He has plenty to prove, but the talent is certainly there to do it.
Starters: Ryan Clark (FS), Troy Polamalu (SS)
The team's safety tandem is among the best in football. Clark hits like a linebacker and with great speed. He also is a good coverage guy and doesn't make mistakes.
He can easily take away the tight ends and slot receivers in the AFC.
Polamalu is the best safety of this generation along with Baltimore's Ed Reed. He plays with a ferocity that you don't see all the time, and he can totally destroy an offensive play.
While he strikes fear into any opponent, he can get caught guessing. That has to be stopped somehow this year. Dick LeBeau will probably try to disguise it better.
Backups: Ryan Mundy (FS), Will Allen (SS)
Mundy is the younger player, but he's been able to hang around despite never really having a huge impact. What is most impressive is that he doesn't embarrass himself when called upon. Also, he can be solid at the free safety spot for a game or two when needed.
Allen is a solid special teams guy and he is a good backup at strong safety. But, he doesn't possess the skills to be a regular starter.
I'd be worried if he was pressed into duty for any length of time.
Starters: Shaun Suisham (PK), Drew Butler (P), Greg Warren (LS)
Suisham doesn't really have any competition, so there's no real chance he gets unseated at this point. I'd like to have seen better competition for him in camp, but that will have to wait.
He's been solid so far in Pittsburgh, but his leg isn't strong enough to suit me.
Butler is in a battle with Jeremy Kapinos for the punting job.
Kapinos has the experience and has been with the Steelers for parts of the last two years (the league's first relief punter), but Butler is a better directional guy with a very strong leg. That could put him at the top of the list when things are said and done.
That's no knock on Kapinos. He should land on his feet.
Warren has been the long snapper for awhile now and he's finally been healthy for a long period. That needs to continue, but he shouldn't have any issues otherwise. He's solid in that job.
There are no needs for a backup at these spots.