This week, thesidelinereport.com takes a look at the AFC North’s respective teams and how they shape up going into training camp. We’ll examine the current roster, likely camp battles and subsequent roster cuts, and what each team must do to address weaknesses. In our final installment, we look at the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Roster and Depth Chart
As usual, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger heads the quarterback depth chart in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers are once again expected to carry three quarterbacks into the regular season, due primarily to Roethlisberger’s age and injury history. Second-year QB Mason Rudolph, may ascend to being Roethlisberger’s immediate backup, and Josh Dobbs, whose familiarity with the offense has served the team well, should remain in play. A practice squad QB will surface from the untested trio of Devlin Hodges, Nick Schuessler and Jalan McClendon.
The running back stable looks crowded with eight names currently listed, but barring camp signings, the final result should be similar to last season, with third-year back James Conner starting, backed up in no particular order by Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. The late-season promotion of Trey Edmunds in 2018 opened the door for him to make a mark with the team during training camp, and fellow backs Ralph Webb, Malik Williams and Travon McMillian will provide ample competition for any remaining opportunities. Fullback Roosevelt Nix returns as the team’s primary (and only) blocking back.
Despite a notorious offseason loss, the Steelers seem mostly content with their wide receiver corp, where the only additions were former Colt Donte Moncrief and rookie Diontae Johnson. Holdovers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, who’s expected to blossom this season, return in prominent roles, and versatile speedster Ryan Switzer will continue to see time in the slot and on kick and punt returns. Little-used Eli Rogers will need a good camp to remain. Camp cut: Diontae Spencer
The Steelers will enjoy the luxury of trotting out the same offensive line for consecutive seasons, although their depth may be tested this season with their offseason trade of tackle Marcus Gilbert. As it is, the starting unit of LT Alejandro Villanueva, RT Matt Feiler, LG Ramon Foster, RG David DeCastro and C Maurkice Pouncey is among the league’s best, and given the relative youth of this group, no dropoff in performance is expected. Swingman B.J. Finney will back up at both guard and center, while lead-footed T Chuks Okarafor will continue to work towards a viable backup role alongside returnees Jerald Hawkins and Zach Banner. 2019 seventh rounder Derwin Gray appears to be a long shot to make the final roster. Camp cuts: Fred Johnson, Garrett Brumfield
Tight end remains problematic for the Steelers, who will again hope for a full season with oft-injured starter Vance McDonald. 2019 fifth rounder Zach Gentry and holdover Xavier Grimble will back up McDonald, possibly aided by recent pickup Kevin Rader, who has yet to catch an NFL pass. Undrafted rookie Trevor Wood may make an impact, but given his size, it will most likely be as a blocker. This may be the weakest roster area for the Steelers, so one can expect a lot of camp activity to try to build quality depth.
In a recurring theme, the Steelers show real continuity along the defensive line. Returning starters Cam Heyward (DE), Stephon Tuitt (DE) and Javon Hargrave (NT) should be healthy and ready to play, while backups Tyson Alualu (DE), Isaiah Buggs (DE) and Daniel McCullers (NT) round out the same depth chart the team sported in 2018. Remaining defensive line prospects include practice squad jumper Lavon Hooks, former AAF DT Casey Sayles and rookie Conor Sheehy, all of whom could be retained for depth purposes.
The Steelers may have finally solved their interior linebacker problem by drafting heralded prospect Devin Bush, who will line up next to the returning Vince Williams, ably backed up by recent signee Mark Barron and veteran Tyler Matakevich. Holdovers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree will continue to man the outside, although Dupree’s starting spot could very well rotate to other parties if he continues to fail to produce. Multi-talented backup Anthony Chickillo backs up at both outside linebacker spots, aided by lightly-used Olasunkanmi Adeniyi. Versatile LB J’Terius Jones may stick on the final roster, but most likely will again be relegated to the practice squad. Given the team’s sudden depth at linebacker, 2019 sixth rounder Sutton Smith seems likely to struggle to make the team.
The search for a dependable secondary continues for the Steelers, who turned to free agent CB Steven Nelson to effectively spell the end of disappointing CB Artie Burns’ tenure as a starter. Nelson will pair with veteran Joe Haden in the starting lineup, backed up by Burns and the underrated Mike Hilton, who will also see extended time as a nickel CB. SS Terrell Edmunds and FS Sean Davis return in the same roles, with Edmunds hoping to capitalize on his solid rookie campaign. Backup SS Jordan Dangerfield brings a wealth of experience with the club, and FS Marcus Allen will once again try to shine on special teams coverage. The lone remaining CB will be the end result of a camp battle between non-household names Justin Layne, Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen.
Embattled kicker Chris Boswell returns to hopefully improve upon his decidedly awful 2018 campaign, and longtime punter Jordan Berry should easily keep his “Mr. Reliable” title intact for this unit. WR/KR/PR Ryan Switzer retains his role as the team’s primary returner, and well-traveled LS Kameron Canaday resumes his duties without competition.
Camps open in two weeks, folks. Get yourselves ready!