Specifics of the Roster Battles

With Plaxico Burress and Matt Spaeth now injured and gone, six Steelers must be found this preseason. Here's the guide to Saturday's opener:

LATROBE – Angst took hold of the fan base after the Steelers lost Plaxico Burress and probably Matt Spaeth for the season within the last couple of days.

Yeah, they lost their No. 5 wide receiver and their blocking tight end.

Yeah, big whup.

But at this time of the year, every hole is probably over-scrutinized, and over-scrutinization is my middle name (hey, it's better than my real one, Connick).

So I'm here to over-scrutinize the roster on the eve the the preseason opener against the New York Giants.

Could the Steelers have used those two veteran pass-catchers? Probably. But their loss only dropped my list of must-keeps by one to 47.

Read on to learn how I got to 47 and who's in the hunt for the final six spots. The number of positional locks are in brackets, and the new uniform numbers are in parenthesis:

Quarterback [2] – The locks are Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski (5). Fourth-round draft pick Landry Jones (3) brings to mind the put-down of "Opie Taylor" from the movie "White Men Can't Jump." Mike Tomlin thinks Jones might play better in a stadium than he has on the practice fields, and if he does "Opie" becomes a great story in a town that adores backup QBs. But if he doesn't, he'll go "back to Mayberry to tell Aunt Bee she BETTER have my bean pies." The other candidate is John Parker Wilson (4), but the Steelers could live with only two QBs if necessary.

Running Backs [5] – Holdovers Isaac Redman, Will Johnson and Jonathan Dwyer are locks, as are rookie Le'Veon Bell (26) and free-agent roadrunner LaRod Stephens-Howling (34). Baron Batch has been running hard in practice of late, but must excel on coverage units to grab one of the half dozen at-large spots.

Wide Receivers [4] – Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton (11) and Jerricho Cotchery are locks. The battle for the fifth spot will draw my attention tonight: Reggie Dunn (13) needs to flash that 4.2 speed on returns this preseason to overtake Stephens-Howling at KR; sixth-round pick Justin Brown (15) has soft hands but will still drop balls; David Gilreath (18) and Kashif Moore (19) are more experienced than J.D. Woods (17), an intriguing undrafted rookie out of WVU; and Derek Moye (14) is 6-5 and has been a red-zone threat for the backup QBs in practice lately.

Tight Ends [3] – I've never seen Michael Palmer, but he gets my third lock here by default behind David Paulson and Jamie McCoy (82).

Offensive Line [8] – The only question among the top five is whether Marcus Gilbert will be flopped back to left tackle, but it's Mike Adams' job to lose. Additionally, the locks are Kelvin Beachum, John Malecki (62) and Guy Whimper (61). Watch Justin Cheadle (72) and Joe Long (79) battle each other, and the waiver wire, for a ninth spot.

Defensive Line [6] – It appears the four DE spots are taken, but three of those players are in the final years of their contracts. So perhaps rookie Brian Arnfelt (69) has a chance to win an at-large job, since Nick Williams (91) was drafted for the practice squad. Watch big Alameda Ta'amu (74) and Loni Fangupo (92) battle for the backup NT job.

Linebackers [7] – Last year the Steelers kept a fifth OLB, and they probably will again if Adrian Robinson shows up on special teams. But right now I'm only going with four OLB locks. The longshot is undrafted rookie Alan Baxter (45), who could probably clear waivers and land on the practice squad.

Inside, I'll give the No. 3 job to Stevenson Sylvester. I didn't include Marshall McFadden (40) among the 7 locks, but he should hold off rookie Vince Williams (44) for an at-large spot. WVU's Terence Garvin (49) remains a longshot, and I'm not yet bold enough to delete Kion Wilson (48) from this column.

Defensive Backs [9] – With four of the top seven cornerbacks missing the bulk of training camp, Tomlin has to be happy he came to Latrobe with a deep crop. But it's hard to believe I've included Josh Victorian as a lock behind Curtis Brown for the fifth CB job.

The four locks at safety are the starters, Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas (29). So that leaves one at-large DB position open for the likes of Damon Cromartie-Smith (42), Isaiah Green (39) and maybe Ross Ventrone (41) if he can play special teams anything like his brother.

Specialists [3] – Punters Drew Butler and Brian Moorman (8) are the only real competitors here. Butler's the incumbent; Moorman played in Buffalo for new special teams coach Danny Smith. Their performances in preseason games will determine the punting job.

So as you can see by the numbers, the Steelers have 47 players, and they need a wide receiver, offensive lineman, linebacker, defensive back, and probably a quarterback to reveal themselves this preseason.

That would leave one spot available for a wildcard, and it's a lock that his middle name won't be Connick.


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