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Labriola on the 'how' that leads to the 'who'

Ready or not, here it comes:

• The 2020 preseason was over before it began, but even if it had gone on as scheduled, it would've ended yesterday. And immediately after turning the page on that part of the calendar, NFL teams would've turned their attention to the business of getting their rosters down to the mandated limit of 53 players.

• Because this preseason was cancelled, the job of cutting the roster to 53 might be more difficult, more of a crapshoot, but the process will happen on schedule because that's part of the business of professional football, and by 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 5, the job has to be done.

• In explaining the process, the procedure, the first thing to understand is it won't begin Saturday morning, and it didn't begin last Monday either. It's a process, an ongoing exercise that often contains the kind of ebb and flow found in a typical regular season game. Individuals can play themselves on and off the roster more than once, and their status can be impacted either positively or negatively based on how some of their teammates are progressing and developing.

• "We start meeting once we start playing games, and we meet after every game to develop a global personnel meeting," said Coach Mike Tomlin about how things work during a traditional preseason that contains at least four games per team. "But we acknowledge none of those decisions (along the way) are final … We could have outstanding performances, we could have injury. And those things are very real possibilities that could change the trajectory of any conversation, and so a lot of them are not worth having in any great detail in advance."

• Of course, this summer offered no preseason games to help this process along, but the Steelers still met regularly to evaluate the overall roster as well as the individual units that will make up the final 53, and they did it with the understanding that not all 53 spots were up for grabs. "Just the known commodities who play this game and play it at a high level and are under contract with us and are core components of our team … unless something happens, they have roles here," admitted Tomlin. "Yes, there are spots settled, but there's nothing earth-shattering or groundbreaking about that."

• Today will contain the Steelers' final training camp practice at Heinz Field, and in the context of what the run-up to this 2020 regular season has been that practice could be compared to a normal preseason finale. Because of the limitations of this summer, there is no doubt this final session won't be a throwaway, but it's also a fact that as soon as the horn sounds to signal the end of today's practice, Tomlin's thoughts will turn to Monday, Sept. 14, and the New York Giants.

• "As we walk off the field – it's that level of urgency, and I can't stress that point enough," said Tomlin. "We walk off the field, it's all eyes on our regular season opener and putting ourselves in position to do what we need to do there. So in some form or fashion, it's almost instant in terms of thinking about the things that need to be done and the process in terms of meeting and having necessary discussions about getting the team cut down."

• And by the time those discussions take place, there will have been judgements made as to which of the 80 players are "varsity" and which players fall short of that standard.

• "That's a great place to begin," said Tomlin, "but the conversation always gets more complex than that because we're not trying to assemble the very best players, we're trying to assemble the very best team. So division of labor, cooperative work, position flexibility, and things of that nature make the conversations more complex when you get down to the nitty-gritty. But at least initially, in the early stages, sure, it gets that simplified."

• Maybe the varsity/JV distinction simplifies the process, but it alone doesn't always translate to a roster spot.

• "It might just mean (a player is) varsity in one particular area, and that's not a high priority for us," said Tomlin. "Sometimes people are specialists, and you only see them as employable in certain situations. The veteran edge rusher, or the veteran pass-rush specialist, for example. Often times, there are elements of people's play that make them varsity, but maybe not necessarily varsity for you in terms of the makeup of your team. That's why every year this component of the process is big, not only evaluating the guys you're evaluating in your city but also evaluating guys globally, because somebody might not fit in another circumstance but may fit perfectly for you. I enjoy the process."

• The process used by media and fans to project a 53-man roster typically starts and focuses on assigning a specific number of players to the various positions on the team. It might surprise the prognosticators that the element around which they tend to base their predictions is not one the Steelers use as the foundation of their decisions. Sure, they get around to considering how many running backs to keep vs. how many wide receivers, as one example, but it's not the priority many have come to believe.

• "That's not an early part of the discussion," said Tomlin about determining how many players are to be kept at each position. "Initially, you're talking about who's varsity and who's not. So looking at it positionally from a numbers standpoint slows that down. I think for competitive balance within your team, that's one of the last variables you're looking at when you're trying to decide between capable men."

• While Colbert, Tomlin, and Art Rooney II are working on turning 80 into 53, others in the personnel department are sniffing around the other NFL cities to gauge interest in a trade, either in acquiring someone or some particular position or dealing someone or some particular position.

• "Those conversations happen periodically between personnel men throughout the team development process that is training camp and the preseason," said Tomlin. "It is standard business procedure, not only for us but for everybody in the National Football League. So you never get a sense of anybody's level of urgency, like hey, they're really shopping for this position this year. You could speculate in that regard, but the bottom line is all 32 cities are making those calls and talking about potential trades and who's open to what. It's just part of this time of the year.

• "It might be as simple as asking, 'Are you interested in moving anyone?'" Tomlin added. "'Do you have excess at any position?' Everybody who is in this business, you're not tricking anyone in those phone conversations. Everyone is professional. Usually it ends up in some non-committal questions, like, 'Do you have an excess of talent at any position that you're interested in moving?' And they say, yes, or no, and they may talk specifically. But if it's not the area of need for you, then why would you undress yourself in that way? I think that's just the standard level of communication that goes on between clubs and individuals relative to those discussions."

• And one more piece of advice:

• "You continually are working to get your roster better," explained Tomlin, "and that's one of the points we always make to our team: That just because you make the initial 53, you have to continue to earn it daily. And that's everyone. That's the reality of it. People are flying around the National Football League every Tuesday looking for work and getting hired because of what transpired the previous Sunday in stadiums. There is no anointing, there is no finality to it all. The team development process is ongoing throughout the journey. If anything, this is just the start."

• There you have it. That's a description of the "how," and come 4 p.m. on Saturday we'll learn the "who."

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