We Can't All Be Hockey Fans

Taking into account all of the Steelers' acquisitions, Jim Wexell has a rundown of the depth chart as the team prepares for the start of OTAs on Tuesday.

Over the course of the next four weeks readers here will be inundated with names of football players they probably never heard of, and probably will never hear of again.

It's OTA season, and the Steelers begin their series of 10 spring practices on Tuesday. They'll run for three consecutive weeks, with a fourth week filled by a three-day minicamp.

My job is to make these guys seem like the second coming of Polamalu and Roethlisberger, and your job is to realize that it's only spring and the players are merely jockeying for spots 48 through 53 on the roster.

But, hey, not all of us can be hockey fans, so this is pretty important stuff. I figure that a pre-OTA look at the way the depth chart is shaping up will be a big help.

Quarterback – Bruce Gradkowski will begin to learn the offense as the primary backup. Landry Jones had a miserable rookie camp but will likely be given a redshirt roster spot over John Parker Wilson.

Running Back – The coaching staff has to love all the media attention being given to second-round pick Le'Veon Bell after his outstanding rookie camp, because it will probably motivate Jonathan Dwyer to get into shape. Expect Isaac Redman to be given the job to lose, while LaRod Stephens-Howling should gain the No. 4 spot because of his return skills. Undrafted rookie Curtis McNeal out of USC is only 5-7 but flashed beep-beep quickness in Willie Parker's No. 39 jersey at rookie camp.

Wide Receiver – Third-round pick Markus Wheaton will be the only rookie to miss spring workouts because of that silly rule involving college graduating classes. His class won't graduate until June 14, but he and three front-liners are virtually assured roster spots, so the fifth spot will be contested by Plaxico Burress (36 in August), undrafted rookie Reggie Dunn (178-pound return man with 4.22 speed) and last year's emergency replacement, David Gilreath. Sixth-round pick Justin Brown was most likely destined for the practice squad on draft day.

Tight End – Heath Miller will miss while rehabbing his ACL, so Matt Spaeth and David Paulson will work ahead of David Johnson and Jamie McCoy, two versatile standbys.

Offensive Line – Recent high draft picks give this line its greatest potential since the Alan Faneca-led heyday, but it's a thin group overall and any run of injuries could prove disastrous.

Before deciding whether free-agent pickup Guy Whimper really is a worse backup tackle than Jonathan Scott, the Steelers must determine whether Marcus Gilbert or Mike Adams is the left tackle, and they had better get it right this spring. It may be the most important task of the entire staff heading into training camp.

Either of the undrafted guards – Nik Embernate or 286-pound Chris Hubbard – has to come through as a reserve. They and Dunn were the team's priority free agents after the draft. Embernate was even given a draftable grade by the team, but the media will probably pay more attention to rookie tackles Mike Farrell of Penn State and Mike Golic Jr. of Notre Dame.

Defensive Line – The coaching staff was unhappy with Cameron Heyward's off-season a year ago, and that was reflected in his lack of early playing time. That should motivate Heyward this off-season and we'll get an early look Tuesday. Al Woods is the only other experienced reserve end as seventh-rounder Nick Williams takes aim at the practice squad and a two-year learning process. Steve McLendon could move over in a pinch with expected depth at nose tackle from what should be a turned-around and motivated Alameda Ta'amu, and also Loni Fangupo, perhaps the most interesting late-season pick-up they made last year.

Linebacker – Speaking of motivated, how about Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley? Worilds because of the presence of first-round pick Jarvis Jones and Woodley because of off-season criticism. Chris Carter and Adrian Robinson aren't about to give in to Jones so easily, either. Undrafted rookie Alan Baxter is in line to become the practice squad's OLB.

Inside, depth is a problem as Stevenson Sylvester battles sixth-round pick Vince Williams and Marshall McFadden for roster spots. There are also a couple of street free agents, about whom there is little excitement within the organization.

Secondary – Cornerback just might be the deepest position on the team as Josh Victorian, fifth-round pick Terry Hawthorne, and 4.3 sprinters DeMarcus Van Dyke and Isaiah Green check in as Nos. 6, 7, 8 and 9 on the long list. Robert Golden will need to show he's learning the backup free safety spot. If not, the Steelers may have to move William Gay back there in an emergency.

Specialists – The Steelers added a few interesting kickoff returners, but still would like to find someone to replace Antonio Brown as the punt returner. Veteran punter Brian Moorman will challenge Drew Butler for the punting job, and undrafted long-snapper Luke Ingram might challenge veteran Greg Warren for a job.


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