Goin’ deep while I decide whether Jim (Cannonball) Butler would have made the cut this week...
Head Coach Mike Tomlin and his staff will make some difficult roster decisions to make in the next few hours—five players have to be moved before Tuesday and 22 more before Saturday deadlines—and that’s the best problem to have of all.
What it means is, there has been no shortage of competition for roster spots and this is one of the deepest teams in the league.
Based on what I’ve observed at practices and games and heard from league insiders, here’s my best guess for the 53-man roster (starters in bold):
Tackle (2): Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke
End (4): Nick Eason, Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith
Linebacker (8): Patrick Bailey, James Farrior, Keyaron Fox, Andre Frazier, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Lamarr Woodley, Donovan Woods
Cornerback (6): William Gay, Keenan Lewis, Anthony Madison, Keiwan Ratliff, Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend
Safety (3): Tyrone Carter, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu
Punter (1): Daniel Sepulveda
Center (2): Justin Hartwig, Doug Legursky
Guard: (4): Trai Essex, Chris Kemoeatu, Jeremy Parquet, Kraig Urbik
Tackle (4): Willie Colon, Ramon Foster, Tony Hills, Max Starks
Tight end (3): Sean McHugh, Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth
Wide receiver (6): Santonio Holmes, Stefan Logan, Shaun McDonald, Limas Sweed, Mike Wallace, Hines Ward
Quarterback (3): Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, Ben Roethlisberger
Running back (3): Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Willie Parker
Fullback (2): Carey Davis, David Johnson
Holder (1): Greg Warren
Kicker (1): Jeff Reed
The emphasis is on players who can fill multiple positions. That figures to be good news for Johnson (tight end-fullback), Legursky (center-guard) and Ratliff (cornerback-safety), not so good news for running back Isaac Redman, center A.Q Shipley and safety Ryan Mundy among others.
As for speculation that six wide receivers are one too many, well, forget it. There’s a need for a third veteran wide receiver—remember, Sweed and Wallace have caught eight balls that count between them in their NFL careers—and McDonald is the kind of polished, low-maintenance player that is ideal for the role.
As for Logan, why release a kick returner who is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball? He’s a keeper on the basis of field position alone. Eventually, he also could contribute as a halfback or wide receiver in pass situations.
Besides, if the team has an obvious weakness at the moment, then it’s a shortage of cool nicknames. You just don’t cut a guy named Joystick—period.
Who are the biggest surprises of the preseason camp, one at each side of the ball? Fox and Wallace are the picks here.
Fox has been lights-out on special teams for awhile, but at 26 years old, he’s clearly ready to take the next step now. Veteran linebacker James Farrior has turned back the clock this preseason, but don’t be surprised if Fox gets more snaps at the left inside position in the months ahead.
Wallace arrived with a lot of athletic potential and questions about his ability to block and run pass routes. The third-round draft pick had a few drops at the start of preseason camp, but since then, he has caught everything thrown his way.
Unlike a lot of rookies, the kid doesn’t have that wide-eyed look on the field, either. Wallace is a work in progress, but if he’s not a difference-maker in a year or two, then I’ll be disappointed.
Oh, yeah, did I mention his 4.34 speed?
OK, now for the disappointments.
Yeah, that means you, Max Starks.
Thus far, Starks has been mediocre at best, and mediocre isn’t good enough for an offensive tackle who signed a four-year, $26.3-million contract not long ago. True, he’s out of position at the left side. And it’s not his fault that the front office has overpaid him for years.
Still, as the highest-paid and most experienced player at the position, the Starks has to do more than step on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s foot. A lot more.
Timmons needs to pick up the pace as well. For all his athletic ability, the linebacker strays out of position too often. Could it be that his skill set is better suited for an outside spot? Stay tuned.
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