Early Look at Final Roster

The first set of cuts is still about 2 weeks away. In between, the players on the bubble have two preseason games to prove to the coaching staff why they should stick. However, the Pittsburgh Steelers do not have many roster spots open, making the paring down to 65 on August 26th a fairly easy task.

The big story for the final 53 Pittsburgh Steelers will likely concern the running back, but more on that in a moment. I'll start first with the defense, which is likely to experience little turnover from last season, save the additions of Ike Taylor, Alonzo Jackson, and Troy Polamalu.

On the defensive line, the current word is that the Steelers will only carry 6 defensive linemen, instead of 7. You can count on Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Kimo Von Oelhoffen making the squad. The last three spots will be culled from Brett Keisel, Kendrick Clancy, Rodney Bailey, and Chris Hoke. Roy Attieh and David Upchurch could be battling for a spot on the practice squad. Jabari Issa is not eligible for the practice squad and he will be cut unless there is an injury to one of the starters, and in that case, the Steelers might go back to 7 roster spots. Clancy may be the odd man out and has not impressed at all in camp. Upchurch is my dark horse to unseat both Clancy and Hoke. Keisel is a lock and there is a slight chance the Issa could chase Bailey, who looked like a liability against the Detroit Lions.

At linebacker, unless the Steelers keep 9 players, there is little camp drama for this unit. The set in stone candidates are Kendrell Bell, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, James Farrior, Larry Foote, Alonzo Jackson, Clint Kriewaldt, and Clark Haggans. There are your 8 linebackers for the 2003 season. Justin Kurpeikis is not eligible for the practice squad and the Steelers may have some concern about who will back up Joey Porter. Jackson is very raw at the OLB position and may not play well if rushed into duty. However, James Harrison is getting good reviews in camp and is eligible to play on the practice squad, which is what I think the Steelers will do instead of carrying 9 players at linebacker. That's obviously bad news for Bill Cowher's favorite camp pet, Dantonio Burnette.

The Steelers only carried 8 defensive backs last season on the final roster. This season, the Steelers will almost surely carry 9 DBs. The 4 safeties are well known to most by now: Brent Alexander, Chris Hope, Troy Polamalu, and Mike Logan. Russell Stuvaints and Erik Totten will battle it out for practice squad honors. Totten provides the steadier play, while Stuvaints has better size and athleticism. The guess here is that Stuvaints will win the job given his superior size. Rashad Faison looks destined for the first round of cuts. At corner, Chad Scott, Dewayne Washington, Deshea Townsend, and Ike Taylor are sure bets to make the squad. The final spot is between Hank Poteat, Chidi Iwuoma, and Nashville Dyer. Iwuoma is the special teams ace and serviceable corner, though he looked hopelessly short against Detroit in the first preseason game. Dyer and Poteat are taller, but Hank has a juicier salary cap hit than the other two and Nashville can sit on the practice squad, though we should keep in mind that the PS cap is 5. Iwuoma gets the nod unless Dyer continues to develop and impress.

Special teams will claim 3 roster spots for Jeff Reed, Josh Miller, and Mike Schneck. The only thing that could figure here is the cap, but that's little reason to gamble with your kicking game.

On offense, the Steelers will carry 3 quarterbacks. Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch are the no-brainers. Brian St. Pierre is the current default 3rd QB unless Tim Levcik can recover quickly enough to challenge him. St. Pierre has struggled in camp and Levcik looks to be the better QB. However, St. Pierre has shown some signs of life and the Steelers are likely to let the 5th round pick enjoy a year to develop.

The offensive line is a mess. Jeff Hartings may not play at all in 2003. At the very least, Hartings' injury concerns will force the Steelers to carry 10 offensive linemen this coming season. What seemed like a strength last year is turning into a disaster this year. The locks are Keydrick Vincent, Oliver Ross, Todd Fordham (who looks quite good at guard), Kendall Simmons, Chukky Okobi, Hartings, Alan Faneca, and Marvel Smith. There is 8 already, depending on what happens with Hartings. The headless Mathias Nkwenti will likely make nine. Calvin Collins is the versatile veteran that will act as insurance at the center position. Jimond Pugh has been a liability at center and might disappear come the 26th. Josh Burr had a rough game against the Lions, but he has impressive size and some other team will likely look at him when the Steelers cut him. Jack Fadule's best hope is to catch on with the practice squad.

The wide outs will be a small group in 2003. Unless Jason Armstead can show something more than he did against Detroit, the Steelers will carry just 5 wide receivers. Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El, Lee Mays, and Chris Doering. The rest of this group probably won't survive the first cut, except perhaps Khori Ivy, who has enjoyed a few bright camp moments.

Right now, Pittsburgh appears to be settling on 3 tight ends. Mark Bruener has recovered well from surgery, Jay Riemersma is adjusting quickly, and Jerame Tuman is a solid backup at receiving TE. I like Matt Cushing as the 4th guy and the spot should be available with the Steelers only maintaining 5 WRs. But that will make more sense after I discuss the running backs and fullbacks. Casey Poppinga's only hope is the practice squad.

The crux of this roster story is the running backs. The Steelers are known to carry 5 RBs. Jerome Bettis, Amos Zereoue, and Dan Kreider are the certain 3 to make it. Wes Ours is a sure cut, but could figure in the practice squad depending on how the fullback situation shakes out. Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Verron Haynes, and J.T. Wall are playing for one spot. Fu is the back up fullback who has plenty of experience as a third down back. If only Fu could stay healthy. At least, though, he is an important part of special teams, which many overlook when eyeing his cap hit greedily (along with his reputation as a China Doll). Haynes was supposed to replace Fu, but he's proven to be no help at fullback. In fact, it takes Wall plus Haynes to outperform Fu. The Steelers do have the flexibility of carrying 6 running backs, dropping Fu and his salary. They could also do something radical and hold onto camp phenom Dante Brown. Brown will at least make the practice squad and retaining either Wall or Cushing provides adequate backup to Kreider. This battle is wide open and the most difficult to predict (and the most interesting to watch). Everyone seems to be performing well.

Mike Mularkey had this to say about the running backs after the dismal game against the Lions, "We did run the ball pretty well. We got stuffed on some things but we averaged five yards a carry, if you're not counting the reverses or the scrambles. We hit some runs, which I was pleased to see. I think our backs ran well."

Might the Steelers trade Fu? How happy are the coaches with Haynes' play? Could Brown replace Haynes? Will Wall play well enough to stick? The Steelers will not rush to any conclusions during the first cut.

There are really 5 spots open for competition on the final roster and 5 practice squad spots. Looking back at the practice squad considerations: Wall, Brown, Armstead, Poppinga, Fadule, Stuvaints, Dyer, Harrison, and Upchurch. My guess is that we will see Armstead, Stuvaints, Dyer, Harrison, and Upchurch. The Steelers should have little problem getting down to 65 players come August 26th. I expect the PS-9 to survive along with a few other players that could prove valuable if an injury occurs. The Steelers might also save tougher cuts, such as Poteat or Clancy, for last.

Jim Russell

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