Previewing the Players on Pittsburgh Steelers' Roster Bubble
Unless the Pittsburgh Steelers want to muddle through another .500 season, they'll need to shake up their personnel in 2013.
Veterans, drafted rookies and undrafted rookies will come together in training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., on July 26.
Several of those players will have to fight to keep their jobs. Subpar performances in previous seasons or injuries have put these seven players squarely on the Steelers' roster bubble.
Any of these players who fail to make an impression in training camp will be called into Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's office.
And he'll be told to take his playbook with him.
Baron Batch, RB
After an injury wiped out his rookie season in 2011, Baron Batch played in 12 games last season and ran for 49 yards on 25 carries. That's less than two yards a carry.
Batch might be the victim of a numbers game in 2013.
The Steelers drafted running back Le'Veon Bell in the second round and signed free agent LaRod Stephens-Howling as a third-down back.
Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman both were ahead of Batch on the depth chart last year and will be fighting to keep their roster spots in training camp.
Batch's salvation might be his work on special teams. He's also a decent blocker against the blitz.
Curtis Brown, CB
Of all the Steelers on the roster bubble, Curtis Brown has the best chance to make the team.
Brown has developed slowly as a cornerback. The 2011 third-round draft pick didn't see the field on defense until his second season. He broke up two passes in 2012, including one in the meaningless regular-season finale.
However, Brown has led the Steelers in special teams tackles in each of his two seasons, according to Steel City Insider (subscription required).
There will be one or two cornerback spots open behind Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay. Terry Hawthorne, the Steelers' fifth-round pick in April, has been hurt for most of the spring according to Steel City Insider and is no lock for the 53-man roster.
The other threats to Brown's job security are Josh Victorian, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Isaiah Green and Nigel Malone. Except for Victorian, none of them have played a down at cornerback for the Steelers, and they'll have their work cut out for them if they want to match Brown's special teams play.
Plaxico Burress, WR
It would be a nice prodigal-son story if Burress can again become an offensive force for the Steelers after returning in the middle of the 2012 season.
Even though he caught just three passes in four games with the Steelers last season, he signed a one-year contract for 2013, according to Spotrac.
However, Burress turns 36 in August. Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider (subscription required) said during minicamp that he "isn't showing any burst or quickness."
Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders figure to be the Steelers' top two receivers. Third-round draft pick Markus Wheaton will have an opportunity to earn the third receiver spot. Jerricho Cotchery, who has caught 33 passes in two years with the Steelers and is five years younger than Burress, will compete for the No. 4 spot on the depth chart.
At 6'1", Cotchery is the second-tallest receiver on the roster with game experience for the Steelers. At 6'5", Burress towers over Cotchery and the rest of the Steelers receivers. So he'll have height on his side as he tries to make the team. That would be an asset in the red zone.
"I know I can still play, I know I can dominate in the red zone," Burress told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Chris Carter, OLB
Chris Carter has sort of been out of sight, out of mind.
It's easy to forget about Carter with all the fanfare surrounding first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones and his impending camp battle with Jason Worilds.
Carter showed promise at outside linebacker during his rookie season in 2011 and started in place of an injured James Harrison for the first three games of 2012.
He didn't have a sack in any of those games, however, and muffed an interception in a 34-31 loss at Oakland.
Carter has yet to record his first career sack. According to Steel City Insider (subscription required), he had two quarterback pressures in 104 snaps in 2012. His season ended in November when he went on injured reserve with an abdominal injury, according to Steelers.com.
Jones, Worilds and LaMarr Woodley have all but secured roster spots. To see a third year in Pittsburgh, Carter will have to contend with second-year man Adrian Robinson, who went undrafted last year and has pass-rushing potential. Undrafted rookie Alan Baxter also could overtake Carter in the pecking order if Carter doesn't make some big strides.
Jonathan Dwyer, RB
Jonathan Dwyer ran for 623 yards last season to lead a rushing attack that ranked 26th in the NFL.
The Steelers addressed that problem by drafting Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell in the second round.
The Sporting News ranks Bell as the NFL's top Rookie of the Year candidate. The Steelers don't necessarily expect that much from Bell. A more immediate goal is to be the Day 1 starter at running back.
If that happens, Dwyer will battle Isaac Redman to be the No. 2 running back. If he falls behind Redman, his roster spot could be in jeopardy. The Steelers brought in LaRod Stephens-Howling as a free agent, and Baron Batch has contributed more than Dwyer on special teams.
Dwyer also has dealt with weight problems in his career. Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider said he looked a little heavy during this spring's organized team activities.
The fourth-year player finished minicamp as the third-team running back, according to Steel City Insider, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told Wexell (subscription required), "You don't want to be third team now."
David Johnson, TE
The burly David Johnson went from two receptions in 2009, to four in 2010 to 12 with a touchdown in 2011. But he missed the 2012 season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in training camp.
Will Johnson commandeered the H-back role and caught 15 passes.
It will be difficult for David Johnson to usurp Will Johnson. However, he could make the Steelers' 53-man roster if Heath Miller's recovery is slower than expected.
Miller had surgery in December after tearing three ligaments in his knee against the Cincinnati Bengals. If he's ready to go in Week 1 or shortly thereafter, he'll be on the Steelers' 53-man roster. Matt Spaeth, who the Steelers re-acquired after two years in Chicago, is likely to start in Miller's place until he comes back.
If Miller starts the season on the roster, David Johnson's best chance of making the team as the No. 3 tight end would be to outperform David Paulson, who caught seven passes as a rookie last season.
If Miller starts the season on the physically unable to perform list, he won't be eligible to play for six weeks, and he wouldn't occupy a roster spot, according to rules published on ajc.com.
That would be bad news for the Steelers, but it would increase David Johnson's chances of making the team.
Stevenson Sylvester, LB
While the 2013 NFL draft was going on, Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said Stevenson Sylvester has one more chance to impress, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Sylvester has made an impression on special teams but has had little impact on plays from scrimmage. He has just one defensive start and has made just five defensive tackles in his three-year career, according to Steel City Insider (subscription required).
The Steelers didn't think enough of Sylvester to tender him as a restricted free agent at $1.3 million during the offseason. Instead, they signed him to a one-year deal worth $630,000, according to Spotrac, basically keeping him for half-price.
To win a spot behind Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote at inside linebacker, Sylvester likely will have to win a game of musical chairs with Marshall McFadden and 2013 sixth-round draft pick Vince Williams.
While he's primarily an inside linebacker, Sylvester has had reps on the outside.
"I am the linebacker that plays all four positions," Sylvester told me in an interview on Black N Gold Central. "I'm still an inside linebacker, but I'm able to take reps on the outside."
If the Steelers think Sylvester is serviceable both inside and outside, that versatility could help him stick around.