We are at the point in the offseason where writers are starting to release their projections for the Steelers 53 man roster.

Positions such as running back and defensive line are set for the most part, but there are some positions where you often see disagreement. These positions include wide receiver, tight end, linebacker, cornerback, and safety.

In an attempt to see if there is a trend for how many of each position the Steelers have kept during the Tomlin-era, I compiled the counts of each position going back to the 2007 season into a graph.

I gathered the data using Wikipedia, which gave me the final depth chart at the end of each season. Considering how much changes occurs within rosters throughout a season, it seemed like the fairest, most consistent method.


Wide Receiver

Of the 5 positions, wide receiver has been one of the more consistent. Over the past 4 seasons, the Steelers have kept 5 receivers. Although they started the 2015 season with 6 (Tyler Murphy) he was only kept due to Martavis Bryant’s suspension and didn’t remain on the 53 man roster for long.

Many 53 man roster projections for this season have the Steelers keeping 6 wide receivers. It appears there are currently 4 players who have locked positions:

  • Antonio Brown
  • Markus Wheaton
  • Darrius Heyward-Bey
  • Sammie Coates

There are 3 apparent front runners for the remaining 1 or 2 spots:

  • Eli Rogers
  • Demarcus Ayers
  • Shakim Phillips
Eli Rogers
Eli Rogers

Rogers is a fan favorite. He received a lot of buzz last offseason but ended up on injured reserve. Ayers, one of the Steelers 7th round picks this year, was a productive college receiver but it appears the coaching staff see’s his value primarily as a punt returner. Phillips made a few splash plays during the preseason last year and spent the year on the practice squad.

I think the Steelers will continue to keep 5 wide receivers. The Steelers primarily use 3 receiver sets and the 5th receiver will likely not see much playing time, making a 6th receiver almost useless. A case can be made that this spot should go to a punt return specialist, but I personally think Brown should continue to field punts. Because the Steelers love versatility, I think the spot for a 6th receiver will go to a linebacker or defensive back who can contribute to special teams.


Tight End

There isn’t too much to gather from this data. The Steelers tend to vary between 3 and 4 tight ends. They also sometimes keep an extra fullback such as Will Johnson who is capable of playing tight end. It appears there are two locks at the positions:

  • LaDarius Green
  • Jesse James

Assuming they keep three tight ends, the final spot will be a competition featuring:

  • Matt Spaeth
  • David Johnson
  • Xavier Grimble

These are three unique players. Spaeth is the veteran of the group and a has been a very reliable blocker for the Steelers, but lacks versatility and is starting to be plagued by injuries and father time. D. Johnson was recently brought back for his second stint with the Steelers, though he is unproven he offers versatility because he is able to play both tight end and fullback. Grimble is the biggest mystery of the group; he is  young and unproven, but have received a lot of praise this offseason. He is also easily the most athletic player of the trio.

The fact that the team kept two fullbacks last season gives D. Johnson an edge for making this team. He could easily slip into the role filled by Will Johnson last year, being a back-up fullback, tight end, and contributing on special teams. This versatility gives him an edge and increases the odds of the Steelers keeping 4 tight ends.


Linebacker

Last season, the Steelers kept 11 linebackers on the roster, a record-count during Tomlins stint. This is a trend that certainly may continue into this season for the Steelers have a vast pool of young talent with their linebackers. The 8 locks to make this roster appear to be:

  • James Harrison
  • Jarvis Jones
  • Lawrence Timmons
  • Ryan Shazier
  • Bud Dupree
  • Arthur Moats
  • Vince Williams
  • Steven Johnson.

Some argue that Johnson isn’t a lock, but being that he is a veteran and a very experience special teams player, I believe he will make the roster. This leaves likely 2-3 spots for the remaining contending linebackers:

  • Anthony Chickillo
  • Travis Feeney
  • Tyler Matakevich
  • LJ Fort
Anthony Chickillo
Anthony Chickillo

Chickillo spent time on the 53 man roster, but got very limited playing time; he’s a player who will win with toughness and technique over athleticism. Feeney is our 6th round draft pick this year; he is an athletic specimen, and though he’s raw, he could have a big impact on special teams. Matakevich is our other 7th round draft pack from this year; similar to Steelers like Chickillo and Vince Williams, he is a guy who must rely on toughness and instincts over athleticism. Fort spent time on the 53 man roster last year and primarily was used on special teams.

The most common theme for these back-up linebackers is simple: special teams. The roster spots will likely go to whichever linebacker proves to be the most versatile and can have the greatest impact on multiple phases of special teams.

When looking at the table, the 11 linebackers the Steelers kept last year may seem like an outlier, but I believe it shows the direction the team will head in this year. Because of their depth at the position and the team’s emphasis on special teams, I expect the Steelers to keep 10 or 11 linebackers.


Cornerback

Cornerback is a group that’s count has shifted fairly consistently. As you can see by looking at the graph, the Steelers have kept 5 cornerbacks on the roster over the past 3 seasons. Unfortunately for many of the guys on the 90 man roster, this group is pretty set.
The 5 locks of this group are:
  • William Gay
  • Ross Cockrell
  • Senquez Golson
  • Artie Burns
  • Doran Grant
The most likely of the group to be cut or moved to the practice squad is Grant, but being that he was a 4th round pick last year it seems unlikely. The staff has also mentioned the idea of bringing in a veteran corner if one of value gets cut. Because of the youth and inexperience of this group, adding a veteran as the 6th cornerback seems more likely than a young play – though this may give an edge to 29 year old Donald Washington. Though some of the young guys may make an impression during training camp, the only apparent route for one of them to stick with the team is to make the practice squad or if there is (God forbid) an injury.

Safety

Along with linebacker, safety is a position where the count has varied over the years. This is likely due to the ability of safeties to play special teams. There is a lot of opportunity for some young safeties to make this team, unfortunately there aren’t too many contenders to be excited about.
There’s only 3 real locks in this group:
  • Mike Mitchell
  • Robert Golden
  • Sean Davis

That means there are 2-3 spots up for grabs between:

  • Ross Ventrone
  • Shamarko Thomas
  • Jordan Dangerfield
  • …and some other young players.
Though the top 3 safeties are a great group, the remaining depth is very spotty. Ventrone is primarily a special teams guy that has been off and on the roster for awhile. Thomas was drafted to be the heir to Troy Polamalu, but has continually disappointed on both defense and special teams despite his athleticism. Dangerfield is a sort-of fan favorite due to his hard-hitting style, but has yet to make the 53 man roster.
Judging by the players on the roster, it seems most likely that the Steelers will carry 5 safeties, the 4th & 5th being Ventrone & Thomas. Though one can easily make an argument for why Thomas shouldn’t make the roster, the spot appears to be his unless somebody can beat him out or if the Steelers make an unorthodox move and carry only 4 safeties. It is also certainly possible that veteran Will Allen will be brought back onto the roster. Though he doesn’t have the youth and athleticism of a player like Thomas, he compensates with smart play and reliability.