Pittsburgh Steelers: Projecting the 2011 Depth Chart
With the draft a little more than two weeks away, it's time to start looking at how potential draft picks will affect depth charts once the rosters are put together. This task is, however, made difficult by the lack of free agency.
As the lockout and CBA drama drags out, the prospects for a season become more and more dim, but there is still no reason to doubt that something will get done before it's too late.
Here's a look at a very early projection of the Pittsburgh depth chart including draft picks and a couple of projected free agent moves. It's a look into the crystal ball murky with unknowns, but an interesting prediction to see.
Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
This is a no-brainer. Roethlisberger, who will be a newlywed by the time the season begins, is a lock to be the starter in Pittsburgh as long as he's healthy. No use spending too much time on this one.
Backups: Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch
It's hard right now to imagine either of these guys not being on the team. I don't expect them to bring Dennis Dixon back. Dixon wants to get playing time in the NFL and will probably try to sign with a team that gives him a chance to play. He doesn't have that here.
Batch and Leftwich are capable players, but imagining either one playing for an extended stretch is almost frightening.
Practice Squad: Scott Tolzien
I've mocked Tolzien in at least one of my mock drafts, but he may end up as a practice squad player for a year while the Steelers try to sort out what to do with Leftwich and Batch. One of the two figures to be gone after the season, opening the door for Tolzien to make his way onto the roster by 2012.
Starter: Rashard Mendenhall
Another no-brainer as the starter. Mendenhall has put together back-to-back 1,000+ yard seasons and really emerged last year as the team re-committed to the rushing attack. He should, if healthy, put up another big year and could benefit from a revamped offensive line (stay tuned).
Backups: Isaac Redman, Derrick Locke
Redman will probably handle at least some of the short yardage plays and Locke, if drafted, could be a home run threat in Pittsburgh as the speed back and possibly in some return situations. At this point, we're going to say Mewelde Moore is not coming back. That would leave Locke and Redman to split up the pass-catching duties out of the backfield.
Practice Squad: Jonathan Dwyer
If the Steelers can sneak him onto the practice squad, they'll have a nice stable of backs in the fold.
Starters: Hines Ward, Mike Wallace
Ward and Wallace should team up for another productive season with Ben Roethlisberger. Both could see their numbers rise now that they'll have a full season with their starting quarterback.
Roethlisberger and Wallace didn't seem to be consistently on the same page last year. Hopefully, that'll be solved by off-season work and another year of playing in the same system at the same positions.
Ward will look to rebound after having the first down year in recent memory, but he may see his playing time start to slowly be cut down if he struggles to put up numbers again. Why? Because of the backups.
Backups: Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Antwaan Randle El, Arnaz Battle
Randle El and Battle figure to be role players and have more of an impact on special teams and in five receiver sets.
The real game-changers here are Sanders and Brown, who should thrive in their second seasons after excellent rookie campaigns. It is possible that Sanders could cut into Ward's playing time if he continues to develop into a consistent threat. He's on a Mike Wallace-type track right now. Brown should return the kicks and punts and also be a threat as the fourth wide receiver.
Practice Squad: Wes Lyons
Hard to ignore the size. If he has any upside at all, they will probably try to find a way to fit him on the practice squad.
Starter: Heath Miller
Miller had a down year by his standards, but still put together decent numbers. He should rebound nicely as one of Roethlisberger's favorite targets. He's a do it all player and, if the offensive line improves, he should be freed up for more plays in the passing game.
Backups: David Johnson, Henry Hynoski
I'm not sure where the Steelers would draft Hynoski, but let's say he lands here. He will, in that case, be the fullback and will also serve as the third tight end when the Steelers trot out the jumbo package.
Johnson is a decent blocker and pass catcher who's done well manning the fullback position. He could earn a promotion with his play and allow the Steelers to say goodbye to largely disappointing Matt Spaeth.
Starters: Max Starks (LT), Chris Kemoeatu (LG), Maurkice Pouncey (C), Marcus Cannon (RG), Willie Colon (RT)
Starks and Colon should be back and healthy (right now, there's no reason to believe Pittsburgh won't be able to re-sign Colon when free agency finally arrives). Cannon should be able to step into the guard spot right away if he's as-advertised. The rest of the line remains unchanged for now.
Backups: Doug Legursky (G,C,T), Ramon Foster (G,T), Chris Scott (T,G), Flozell Adams (T)
The Steelers will likely try to restructure Adams' contract and he may want to return to make one last run at a ring. They have to re-sign Legursky. He could challenge for playing time if anyone struggles. He could start on some teams, so he may be a tough negotiation. Foster was decent at right guard last year and is versatile. Scott had no impact as a rookie, but still has some upside.
Practice Squad: At least one rookie
The Steelers, with so many injuries along the line, will probably have at least one rookie un-drafted player on their practice squad just in case someone or multiple someones go down with injuries.
Starters: Brett Keisel (DE), Casey Hampton (NT), Ziggy Hood/Aaron Smith (DE)
I'm going to put Hood and Smith in a platoon because it's going to be hard to put either player on the bench. Rotating may help keep Smith healthy and fresh for a full season. Keisel is excellent and Hampton was good last year even though he was a little slower than previous years.
Backups: Kenrick Ellis (NT), Nick Eason (DE)
The Steelers won't need a third backup since they're going to platoon Hood and Smith. Ellis would be a nice snag in the draft and could be groomed behind Hampton for a year or two. Eason is a free agent, but the team would be smart to bring him back over Chris Hoke because of his age.
Practice Squad: At least one player
Having Steve McLendon around last year proved to be a good choice, so they'd do well to have someone, perhaps another rookie, around just in case.
Starters: James Harrison (O), Lamarr Woodley (O), Lawrence Timmons (I), James Farrior (I)
No changes from last year's excellent unit. It wouldn't be a shock to see someone from the backups list eat into Farrior's playing time this year if Farrior slows down finally. Otherwise, expect this unit to put up big numbers just like last year. Another Pro Bowl season from Woodley and Harrison is definitely in the cards somewhere.
Backups: Greg Lloyd (I), Larry Foote (I), Stevenson Sylvester (I)
The Steelers always seem to draft a linebacker and have a hole now that Keyaron Fox is likely to move on to a team where he has a chance to start. Foote and Sylvester will be back to battle over being the primary backup on the inside. Lloyd could come in via the draft and try to pick up where his famous father left off.
Practice Squad: Thaddeus Gibson (O)
Gibson would be a nice addition. If you want some precedence for this type of move, look no further than current starter James Harrison, who was on and off the team several times before finally carving out a job.
Starters: Ike Taylor (CB), Aaron Williams (CB), Troy Polamalu (SS), Ryan Clark (FS)
We finally arrive at the landing spot for our first round draft pick. Williams, if selected, would slot in as the starter opposite Ike Taylor, who will likely be brought back. The interest is mutual, so expect a deal to get done once the team takes care of Lamarr Woodley. Polamalu will be healthy and Clark will return. Look for more big plays if Williams joins in. He has the potential to make the team even more frightening.
Backups: Bryant McFadden (CB), Kevin Rutland (CB/S), Crezdon Butler (CB), Anthony Madison (CB), Will Allen (S)
I'm moving Ryan Mundy off the roster, although he still could make it depending on how the corner situation develops. I'm also keeping Madison over the disappointing Keenan Lewis, who has likely run out of chances in Pittsburgh. McFadden may fit better as the nickel corner, but could be pushed if Rutland or Butler emerges as a good player. Allen will be the backup safety.
Kicker: Alex Henery
A lock to be drafted by somebody, it would be nice to see the Steelers land the strong-legged, accurate kicker. He could also punt, but we'll be conventional and give the Steelers two specialists. We don't want to put too much on the rookie's plate.
Punter: Daniel Sepulveda
The Steelers really can't do much better with free agents and could use Henery temporarily if Sepulveda is still recovering from his ACL tear. When healthy, he's an excellent, strong punter. Hopefully he can return better than before and have a nice bounce-back season.
Clearing Up Some Issues
You may have noticed that I haven't filled every spot. That's because it's still too early to pick out all of the complimentary pieces and minor contributors. There are guys like Tony Hills and Ryan Mundy who will be in the conversation when the last roster spots are decided. This is just a look at how the major pieces will hopefully shake out.
We'll come back and update this more as the weeks pass and as the CBA drama hopefully resolves.