The NFL has a grueling 16-game schedule, and a lot can happen between now and January—just ask David DeCastro.
The rookie offensive guard has yet to play in a regular-season game for the Pittsburgh Steelers and has already suffered a devastating knee injury. In just one play, things can change.
DeCastro, who was expected to start at right guard, will undergo knee surgery, which means Ramon Foster will enter the season as the starter. This is just one of many potential changes that will occur in the starting lineup throughout the season, but not all of the changes in the lineup will happen due to injuries.
As we saw last year, wide receiver Antonio Brown outplayed Hines Ward and eventually overtook him on the depth chart. James Farrior lost playing time to Larry Foote because he was no longer an effective full-time linebacker.
There are a number of players who could have reduced playing time or could even find themselves on the bench come January this season for a variety of reasons.
One candidate is kicker Shaun Suisham.
Suisham was unsuccessfully challenged by Daniel Hrapmann in the preseason, but that does not mean his job is safe.
Last season, Suisham finished last in the league in field-goal percentage, making only 74.2 percent of his kicks. Even worse was his performance outside of 40 yards, where was only 7-of-13.
A similar performance this season would put Suisham on the chopping block, as the Steelers could re-sign Hrapmann or find another free-agent kicker.
Besides Suisham, there are not many starters who will lose their jobs this season, but several may see reduced playing time.
Foote will be a three-down linebacker to start the year, but as the season progresses the Steelers could integrate rookie Sean Spence into the lineup on passing downs.
Spence is an athletic linebacker who has the ability to run with the quicker tight ends and running backs. He has performed well this preseason in coverage, and he has demonstrated the ability to read and react well to running plays.
It is unlikely that Foote will lose his job, though, as he provides a solid veteran presence in the middle of the defense. The fact that he rarely misses his assignments also will provide more freedom for Lawrence Timmons to run around and make plays.
While Foote may lose playing time due to the development of a rookie, Foster could lose his starting job if DeCastro is able to return this season.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette tweeted that Mike Tomlin would decide how to handle DeCastro after the rookie lineman has surgery on Wednesday. If DeCastro is able to return before the end of the season, he should reclaim his starting job. At this point, however, that is a pretty big "if."
The return of another injured starter could take the job from running back Isaac Redman—that is if he doesn't lose the starting spot to another running back first.
Rashard Mendenhall will be returning to the lineup at some point during the season, but until then, Redman needs to keep an eye on Jonathan Dwyer.
As the Steelers take the running back-by-committee approach this year, Dwyer will have plenty of opportunities to make an impact.
If he continues to show the ability to make a big run and gain positive yardage on a consistent basis, Dwyer could take over the role as feature back from Redman.
While Redman is a physical runner who is rarely stopped for a loss, he also rarely makes a big run; that is what makes Dwyer so dangerous. Even though Dwyer is a big back, he runs smaller and has decent breakaway speed. He already has 33-yard and 23-yard runs this preseason, in addition to a 76-yard carry last season.
But it will all be for naught if Dwyer does not perform during the regular season.
So while training camp and the preseason are the times when jobs are earned, the competition for playing time does not stop once the regular season begins.
Pittsburgh has a deep and talented roster, and the players are going to do whatever they can throughout the season to push for playing time. The coaching staff will constantly evaluate the roster and play the players who give the team the best chance to succeed—even if that means benching a starter.
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