Projecting Pittsburgh Steelers' Depth Chart After Peak of Free Agency
Not even three weeks into free agency and the Pittsburgh Steelers have made some significant moves to upgrade the roster.
Veterans that the Steelers no longer wanted were either released or allowed to move on through free agency, while the team looked to rebuild its depth by signing a number of free agents from around the league.
With things beginning to settle down in free agency, it is time to take a position-by-position look at where Pittsburgh's depth chart stands leading up to May's NFL draft.
Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Second QB: Bruce Gradkowski
Third QB: Landry Jones
Pittsburgh's quarterback depth chart will remain unchanged from the 2013 season.
Ben Roethlisberger is the unquestioned starter. He is coming off of one of the best statistical seasons of his career, one in which he took 100 percent of the team's offensive snaps, per Football Outsiders.
While not playing at all in 2013, Bruce Gradkowski did spend a year in Todd Haley’s system and should be very comfortable with the offense. His mobility will serve him well if he needs to step in.
A fourth-round draft pick last season, Landry Jones appears to be entrenched as a developmental third-string option. He was not particularly impressive in camp last season and will need to take a stride forward as he enters his second year in the league.
Starter: Le’Veon Bell
Second RB: LeGarrette Blount
Third RB: Draft Pick
Fourth RB: Free Agent
The Steelers will return their starting running back and fullback from last season.
Le’Veon Bell had an impressive rookie season, rushing for 860 yards and added another 399 through the air. He proved to be an every-down running back capable of making plays in the running and passing games.
However, the Steelers lacked any experience depth behind Bell. Head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t sound particularly sold on the idea of having him carry the ball over 300 times this season, via Steelers.com.
“I am not going to speculate but obviously he is capable of that,” said Tomlin. “I think maybe he carried the ball 350 times his last year at Michigan State. He is a talented guy. Obviously we need to add depth in that area, and we will in the not too distant future, whether it’s in free agency or in the draft.”
That is exactly what they did with the addition of LeGarrette Blount. The 250-pound running back will be able to pound the ball between the tackles and help share the load with Bell. Last season, Blount rushed for 5.0 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns.
With two power backs, look for the Steelers to add some speed to the lineup with a late-round draft pick and a free-agent signing later this summer. LaRod Stephens-Howling would be a good option to bring back given his speed and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Starter: Will Johnson
Will Johnson has the fullback position locked down.
Johnson is much more than a lead-blocker. Though he is not a featured member of the offense, he adds a rushing and receiving dimension to the fullback position that makes him a threat anytime that he is on the field.
Starter: Heath Miller
Second tight end: Matt Spaeth
Third tight end: David Paulson
Heath Miller is now a year removed from an ACL injury that caused him to miss the start of the 2013 season. Even with only 14 games played last year, he was third on team in receptions. He should be even better this year now that he has had time to fully recover.
Behind Miller is Matt Spaeth. He is a solid backup who does not add much to the passing game but contributes as a blocker. While he is the tallest player on the roster, Spaeth is not much of a red-zone threat. He has only nine career touchdowns.
David Paulson rounds out the depth chart at tight end. His play fell off last year following a solid rookie season and 2013 training camp. He has not shown himself to be a strong blocker or receiver, so it is possible that a draft pick could push Paulson off of the roster.
Starters: Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton
Third WR: Lance Moore
Fourth WR: Draft Pick
Fifth WR: Draft Pick
Antonio Brown was Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to receiver last year. He had the best season of his career as he finished second in the NFL with 110 receptions. It is possible that he will play an even greater role in the offense in 2014 as the wide receiver position underwent a makeover this offseason.
Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery both departed via free agency which bumped Markus Wheaton up the depth chart. Lance Moore was signed as well to provide Roethlisberger with another veteran presence amongst the wideouts.
Wheaton was limited due to injuries and lack of experience last season, but he is expected to challenge for a starting spot. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is aware of Wheaton’s speed and will likely use him as a deep target.
Moore has been a productive receiver while with New Orleans and should continue to produce in Pittsburgh. After being released by the New Orleans Saints, his former coach Sean Payton had plenty of good things to say about him, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com.
While his production on paper is obvious, it only tells half the story. Lance came to us an undrafted rookie who went to NFL Europe and spent time on our practice squad. He went on to produce outstanding results on the field for us as a result of his work ethic, reliability and commitment to get better every day. He's been one of the pillars of what we have built here as an organization.
Rather than depending on Derek Moye or Justin Brown to fill out the depth chart, the Steelers should take advantage of the deep wide receiver class and select two players—one early and one late.
Pittsburgh should not select a tall receiver just for the sake of drafting one with size but rather take advantage of the talent available. The Steelers like to throw the ball all over the field, and adding versatile receivers to the mix will only help.
Starters: Kelvin Beachum (LT) and Marcus Gilbert (RT)
Third offensive tackle: Mike Adams
New assistant coach Mike Munchak will take control of the offensive line this year, so it should be interesting to watch him manage the situation at tackle.
Last season, Kelvin Beachum asserted himself once given the opportunity to start at left tackle. He may not have been dominant, but he was more than serviceable and is the incumbent heading into the 2013 season.
Marcus Gilbert grabbed the right tackle spot and is the favorite to maintain this position. He is an effective starter, but there is potential for Mike Adams to win the job.
Adams has a ton of potential, particularly in run blocking. When he locks onto a defender, he can dominate with this strength and open up holes—particularly from the right side of the line. However, he struggles against speed-rushers and has been a liability in pass protection.
Though there may be talent at the tackle position, it has yet to be maximized, and none of the aforementioned players should be considered locks for the starting lineup. In fact, the Steelers may provide Munchak with the opportunity to coach one of the more highly touted linemen in this year's draft class:
Hearing the #Steelers have done a lot of research on OT Taylor Lewan, with several team folks (Tomlin included) in and out of Ann Arbor.
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) March 25, 2014
It is possible that Lewan is available when the Steelers are on the clock in the first round. If he checks out, he becomes a realistic option to not only be the pick, but also a rookie starter.
Starters: Ramon Foster (LG) and David DeCastro (RG)
Third Guard: Guy Whimper
The Steelers are set at guard with Ramon Foster and David DeCastro.
Foster has been one of the more dependable linemen over the years for the Steelers. He is never going to be a Pro Bowler, but he consistently gets the job done as opposed to the liabilities that have manned the position in recent years for the Steelers.
Unlike Foster, DeCastro has a ton of upside and has All-Pro potential. After an injury kept him out for most of his rookie season, DeCastro began to show everyone what he is capable of last season. Expect him to be Pittsburgh’s most dominant lineman in 2014 and make a name for himself in the eyes of the league.
Guy Whimper will be the primary backup and guard as well as a backup tackle. He stepped in and performed well when called upon last season earning himself another contract.
Starter: Maurkice Pouncey
C2: Cody Wallace
Maurkice Pouncey suffered a devastating knee injury in the opening week last season when David DeCastro inadvertently dove into his knee when attempting to cut-block a defender.
Assuming he is fully recovered, Pouncey should once again be one of Pittsburgh’s top linemen.
Pouncey’s best asset is his mobility, and he should benefit from Mike Munchak’s blocking schemes. Playing alongside DeCastro, the Steelers have a potentially dominant interior line.
Cody Wallace had an opportunity to start last season with injuries to Pouncey and Fernando Velasco. He performed well enough to earn a three-year deal from the Steelers.
Pittsburgh may also elect to re-sign Velasco once he is healthy enough to play. He has the ability to play center or guard.
Starters: Cameron Heyward (LDE) and Free Agent (RDE)
Third DE: Cam Thomas
Fourth DE: Brian Arnfelt
Fifth DE: Nick Williams
The depth chart at defensive end is dangerously thin for the Steelers. Ziggy Hood signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Brett Keisel remains a free agent. Cameron Heyward is the only experienced player to return from the 2013 team.
Heyward was one of Pittsburgh’s best defensive players last season, as he overtook the starting job from Hood. He was able to generate pressure from the end position as well as help stack up the run.
Considering that it takes two or three years to develop defensive ends in Pittsburgh’s system, re-signing Brett Keisel to start opposite of Heyward would be the best option at this point. The Steelers need experience at the position, and Keisel already knows the defense.
The Steelers landed former San Diego Chargers' nose tackle Cam Thomas, who will play as a backup defensive end and nose tackle, according to Bob Labriola of Steelers.com. In other words, he will play the role that Al Woods had last season.
Alex Carrington was the only defensive end that the Steelers have expressed interest in signing.
Though inexperienced, Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams will need to contribute next season. Both flashed potential in training camp and the preseason but need to show a lot more when the games count.
With the lack of depth at defensive end, the Steelers could use an early draft pick on the position. Ra’Shede Hageman or Stephon Tuitt would be no-brainer picks if either is available in the second round.
Starter: Steve McLendon
NT2: Draft Pick
NT3: Hebron Fangupo
The value of nose tackle in Pittsburgh’s defense has not changed over the years, but the number of snap counts has.
According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Steve McLendon played 355 snaps last season, well below the 474 snaps that Casey Hampton averaged over his last five seasons.
While McLendon’s role in the defense remains important, he is not getting onto the field because the Steelers run their pass-defense packages more than ever. Rather than take him out of the lineup, Dick LeBeau should find a way for McLendon to generate pressure on the quarterback from the interior of the defense.
Beyond McLendon, the Steelers could use an upgrade at nose tackle and they would be wise to invest a draft pick on a true run stuffer. Hebron Fangupo has been hanging on the roster, but has yet to distinguish himself as a true backup.
If the Steelers want to go thin on defensive linemen, they could bypass an extra spot at nose tackle and use the recently signed Cam Thomas as the primary backup.
Starters: Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams
Third Inside LB: Sean Spence
Fourth Inside LB: Terence Garvin
Lawrence Timmons is as solid as it gets at inside linebacker. He is a dependable player who has developed into Pittsburgh’s best linebacker.
But there are major question marks next to him.
Vince Williams had a decent rookie season but is a two-down player at this point who needs to improve in pass coverage. Though he started last season, his role diminished as the season progressed.
Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that it is too early to know if Williams can play in 2014, but he is “significantly ahead” of where the Steelers thought he’d be. If healthy, Spence becomes a favorite to move into the starting lineup.
Terence Garvin appears to be only a backup and special teams player.
Starter: Jason Worilds (LOLB) and Jarvis Jones (ROLB)
Third Outside LB: Arthur Moats
Fourth Outside LB: Chris Carter
Fifth Outside LB: Draft Pick
Worilds had a slow start to the 2013 while playing right outside linebacker, but developed into a force from the left side. He led the team in sacks and improved his ability to defend against the run.
On the right side, Jarvis Jones was limited to just one sack his rookie season and needs to show a lot more if he is going to be a starting linebacker. Besides the need to get stronger, Jones must develop pass-rushing moves, since he will consistently match up against the top tackles in the league.
The Steelers boosted their depth at the position by signing Arthur Moats to a one-year deal. He can play on the outside or inside and will allow the Steelers to not have to depend on Chris Carter.
Expect them to spend a draft pick on an outside-linebacker prospect whom they can develop over the next two to three seasons.
Starter: Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen
Third CB: William Gay
Fourth CB: Draft Pick
Ike Taylor agreed to a pay cut which will allow him to finish his career in Pittsburgh. Though he struggled at times last season, he will likely remain the starter.
For Taylor to have success next season, LeBeau will have to have him take a step back and not shadow their opponent’s top receiver. He will also need more help from the safeties to avoid getting beat for big plays.
Cortez Allen was supposed to take a big step forward last season but was unable to secure a starting spot in the lineup. He had a pretty strong finish to the season and will enter 2014 as a starter.
The only other veteran on the roster is William Gay. He had an impressive season last year as a nickelback and starter. He should resume his role as the No. 3 cornerback next season.
Pittsburgh needs to replenish its young talent at the position and should select at least one cornerback. A few possibilities include Darqueze Dennard, Justin Gilbert and Kyle Fuller. If selected, these players would likely start the season as the No. 3 or No. 4 cornerback before moving up the depth chart.
A cornerback selected on the third day of the draft would provide depth as well as be a contributor on special teams.
Starters: Troy Polamalu (SS) and Mike Mitchell (FS)
Third safety: Will Allen
Fourth safety: Shamarko Thomas
Fifth safety: Robert Golden
Pittsburgh will have a new free safety to pair with Troy Polamalu this year after signing Mike Mitchell to a five-year deal.
Mitchell is a young player who had his first significant starting experience last season. He has good speed and playmaking ability which is a bit of contrast from Ryan Clark. His physical style of play will be a good fit for Dick LeBeau's defense.
Mitchell’s presence will also allow Will Allen to remain a backup.
Allen played well in this role last season and was a major contributor on passing downs. He will compete with second-year safety Shamarko Thomas.
Thomas will be entering his second season and has potential to be a versatile player on passing downs. He can take on a Polamalu-type role and play near the line of scrimmage or line up against a receiver in the slot.
Robert Golden will be limited as the fifth safety on the roster but adds a ton of value on special teams.
Kicker: Shaun Suisham
Punter: Brad Wing
Long Snapper: Greg Warren
Returners: LeGarrette Blount (KR), Antonio Brown (PR)
Shaun Suisham does not have a powerful leg, but continues to be a dependable kicker for the Steelers. He was one of the few bright spots on the special teams last season.
Brad Wing will try locking down the punting job. The Steelers went through a series of punters last season—Drew Butler, Zoltan Mesko and Mat McBriar—yet finished 31st in the league in punt average.
Greg Warren was once again re-signed to handle the long-snapper duties. He has been the long snapper since 2005.
LeGarrette Blount is an early favorite to return kicks after averaging over 29 yards per return last season for New England, while Antonio Brown continues to be one of the most exciting punt returners in the league. His 12.8 yards per return tied for third in the league.