The Pittsburgh Steelers commonly return most of their starters from previous seasons unless they have retirements or injuries. This year, they did have a couple of retirements, one of which was a starter (James Farrior). That doesn’t mean that players down the depth chart don’t have a chance to work their way into the starting lineup more often.
One of the things Mike Tomlin has always maintained is constant competition for playing time. The best players on the roster play in the games. If a backup proves to be more consistent than an incumbent starter, he will be the guy taking the snaps.
Here’s a look at six players that could find themselves pushed down the depth chart by the season’s midpoint.
Hampton has been a stalwart for years along the defensive line and has been one of the NFL’s top nose tackles. On the wrong side of 30, however, and after experiencing injuries and aging in 2011, Hampton’s days are numbered.
He will return to Pittsburgh this season for what is likely a farewell tour. The Steelers drafted his likely replacement in Alameda Ta’amu in the 2012 draft and also have Steve McLendon on the roster as a potential short-term replacement.
McLendon could be taking snaps regularly long before midseason if Hampton cannot return healthy. I don’t believe Hampton will be able to be an every-down player anymore and may be reduced to a part time role immediately. Ta’amu also may steal some snaps as he and McLendon try to position themselves as the long-term future at the position.
There’s been a ton of debate around Hood, who has really been solid since Aaron Smith stopped being able to play regularly. The former first-round selection has steadily improved his work and has become a solid if unsung member of the defensive line.
The problem for Hood is that Cameron Heyward, last season’s first-round choice, is waiting in the wings, and he’s a beast too. There really is no good way to handle this problem because the Steelers won’t do anything with the stellar Brett Keisel on the other side of the line.
Hood may not be supplanted completely or at all, but if you’re looking for a player with zero margin for error because of the depth behind him, he’s your man. As good as he is, he’ll have to be that much better to keep holding off Heyward.
Kicking transitions at midseason are a common thing in Pittsburgh. Suisham got his job halfway through the 2010 season when Jeff Reed no longer could cut it. Reed got his job from Todd Peterson midway through the 2002 season as well. 2012 could be another turn of the carousel.
It’s hard to predict failure, but with Suisham, I wonder a lot about how long he can sustain a roster spot. His career accuracy numbers, even with the improvements of last season, are not very good. His leg strength is questionable at best too. Given that there are plenty of strong-legged, young kickers looking for work, there’s no reason to think a dip in production won’t put Suisham on the market.
Suisham isn’t considered a key cog and has never really felt like a permanent replacement for Reed, but the team has stuck with him because of the difficulty in finding a successful kicker at Heinz Field. But like so many before him, he won’t be immune if the team realizes it isn’t getting the production needed.
Am I taking a big leap? Yes, but that’s because this is a prediction coming months before the fact and for a team that really doesn’t have a ton of starters that can even potentially be in danger of job loss. Wallace, however, isn’t the team’s best receiver anymore.
If a player like Emmanuel Sanders can return to health and produce from the slot, he may just be able to push Wallace more than people realize.
Wallace is a burner who does great things with the deep ball, but he doesn’t have much value beyond that. He can’t go over the middle regularly. He doesn’t do nearly as well with short and intermediate routes. He sometimes suffers from either a lack of communication with his quarterback or a lack of route running skills.
These are all weaknesses that Sanders, a more complete receiver who’s simply had trouble staying healthy, can exploit. If Wallace continues to spurn a long-term contract with Pittsburgh, his position becomes even more tenuous.
Calling Rashard Mendenhall an incumbent starter when he’s almost assuredly going to start the season on the physically unable to perform list may be a stretch, but I have reason to believe Mendenhall will be so supplanted by midseason that he may not get another contract offer from Pittsburgh.
The major issue for Mendenhall is going to be proving he’s again healthy enough to take on a heavy workload. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, both likely to be less expensive in 2013 than Mendenhall, will get the first chance to work behind that new offensive line. Either one has the ability to be a regular contributor in what now looks to be a tandem system.
Mendenhall may be an afterthought by the time he’s ready to play. He may go from 2011 starter to 2012 bench warmer simply because he wasn’t able to get on the field first. He’s working hard to make a quick return, but there are no guarantees.
I only use Starks as a starter because his return will make it slightly more difficult for Mike Adams to grab the starting job at left tackle. If he doesn’t win the job, this situation will become likely. Starks is a good player, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in recent seasons.
There are various ways to get supplanted, but an injury is most common. I’m not going to predict an injury, but I am going to predict that, by the time they’ve played eight games, Adams may be a more viable player in the same way as Marcus Gilbert in 2011. Gilbert held off previous starter Jonathan Scott because he simply played better.
The same could happen here. I do believe Starks was brought back as a backup, but he is the previous starter at left tackle and could still reclaim that job if he plays more consistently than Adams in the preseason. At this point, nothing is certain.