The first wave of roster moves could be considered mundane. The 21 cuts included only a single player who ever had lined up for the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game, and that player – Tyler Grisham – had one career catch in the last four games of the 2009 regular season. The big news to come from the roster moves the Steelers made on Sept. 2 was the decision to place Byron Leftwich on the injured reserve list, a move that sidelines Leftwich for the entire 2011 NFL season.
The second wave of roster cuts, well, not so mundane.
The Steelers went into Saturday, Sept. 3 needing to make five more moves before the 6 p.m. deadline established by the NFL for all teams to be at the 53-player roster limit for the start of the regular season.
Jarrett Crittenton was expected. The eighth defensive lineman on the depth chart when the day began, and he had not done anything sufficiently notable during the preseason to leave the impression he was a real option to beat out either Chris Hoke or Steve McLendon.
After that, General Manager Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin had some difficult decisions to make. The roster seemed to be one player heavy at each of these positions – offensive line, tight end, punter and cornerback.
The decision to release Tony Hills ended quite a roller coaster ride for the former No. 4 pick from Texas. It had been said that Hills showed a spark during camp in 2010, and then in 2011 he had a chance to cement the starting right guard job for himself with a strong performance in the third preseason game, which happened to be against the Atlanta Falcons. But Hills didn't impress the coaches, and Doug Legursky won the job with his play in the preseason finale and will start at right guard against the Ravens in Baltimore next weekend.
Hills' release also indicates the Steelers are pleased with the progress of second-round pick Marcus Gilbert. The rookie from Florida had arrived at training camp unprepared for its demands, and he promptly injured a hamstring and became a spectator. Gilbert finally got himself onto the field, and his play continued to improve in games against the Eagles, Falcons and Panthers, apparently to the degree where he convinced the coaches he could fill the role of swing tackle entering the regular season.
The other beneficiaries of the decision to cut Hills were second-year pro Chris Scott and Ramon Foster, who started four games in 2009 and 11 in 2010 including all three in the postseason.
The question before the preseason finale was whether a rookie could make the 2011 Steelers without playing a down. That became a moot point when fourth-round pick Cortez Allen got onto the field in the preseason finale. Allen didn't practice even five times throughout camp while nursing a leg injury, but on his first play in his first preseason game he got a hand on a pass intended for Armanti Edwards that ended up being intercepted by safety Will Allen. Cortez Allen finished the game in Carolina with two tackles and three passes defensed.
That performance, plus his measurables and potential for development, earned Cortez Allen a spot as one of the six cornerback on the roster. Left out as a result was second-year pro Crezdon Butler, but he has practice squad eligibility. It's doubtful Cortez Allen would have cleared waivers, even if he hadn't played in Carolina.
At tight end, it seemed as though the final spot on the depth chart was going to go to John Gilmore, an unrestricted free agent veteran signed early in camp to be an in-line blocker at the position. But as the preseason progressed, undrafted rookie Weslye Saunders began to make a move, and he played his best game in the preseason finale against the Panthers. In that game, Saunders was a capable blocker, and he also made a nice play on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Dennis Dixon to complete the scoring in the 33-17 win. Saunders had three catches against the Panthers, four on the preseason.
Saunders' improvement, and the athleticism and measurables he brings to the position made him an interesting prospect, and at the same time David Johnson gave indications that he would be able to serve in the role of No. 2 tight end. Saunders' potential won the day over Gilmore's experience.
The final decision to be made was at punter. Daniel Sepulveda or Jeremy Kapinos?
The only issue in this decision seemed to be whether Sepulveda was healthy after undergoing surgery to repair the ACL in his non-kicking leg for the third time. The first surgery came when Sepulveda was at Baylor, the second came in 2008 and the third came last year.
Sepulveda's health never was an issue this summer, because once he was re-signed and then allowed to practice he has not had any problems. Through three preseason games, Sepulveda averaged 47.1 yards on seven punts, with four downed inside the 20-yard line.
Kapinos, though, made it interesting. He punted twice in Carolina, and both went 63 yards. Those kicks gave Kapinos a ridiculous 49.8-yard average during the preseason. Still, the Steelers chose Sepulveda, who has a 43.4 average in 44 NFL games, over Kapinos, who had a 41.1 average in his four games with the Steelers last season.
Five draft picks made the final roster – Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen and Chris Carter – plus undrafted rookie Weslye Saunders. Another draft pick – No. 7 Baron Batch – is on injured reserve.
The Steelers plan on competing for a championship this year, and the roster is loaded at every position with the experience often necessary to accomplish that goal. But there also is enough youth to prevent stagnation. It's a nice blend to start.