Labriola On

Labriola on the initial 53-man roster

Once training camp ended and the preseason schedule concluded, the focus shifted from evaluating to putting together the initial 53-man roster for the 2016 regular season.

Meet the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers 53-man roster as of Saturday, September 3.

"You have to assess the overall health of all of the people who participated in the game, because you can't make decisions without the health discussion," said Coach Mike Tomlin about the process. "We have to get prepared to beat the Washington Redskins, and we need healthy bodies in order to do that. You don't have that discussion about the final 53, or who's available within that 53, without assessing the injuries from this performance."

As the preseason finale in Charlotte was about to begin, Tomlin estimated that "five or six jobs are up to be won by about eight or nine guys." Once that worked itself out, and the health of the team had been assessed, the process of cutting from 75 to 53 was allowed to begin, and by mid-afternoon on Saturday, Sept. 3, the Steelers had figured it out. Or at least, they had figured it out sufficiently to comply with the 4 p.m. deadline established by the NFL to have it figured out.

Then it became time to start poring over the waiver wire to see if their 53 can be made better, and then figuring out which players will end up making up the 10-man practice squad.

Tomlin said this about the team as it was leaving Saint Vincent College: "It's a highly conditioned group. They do a good job of communicating. They appear to have the makings of a group that's legitimately close, and by legitimately close I mean it's beyond spending time together being friends. It's about challenging one another, telling each other the truth, being accountable to one another. I saw many positive signs of that development, and that's as critical a part of our team development as becoming good fundamental tacklers and protectors of the ball on offense or any of the other things that are central to team development."

Team development is over. Now, it's time to start playing the games that count.

QUARTERBACKS
(2015 Roster: 3: Landry Jones, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Vick)
(2016 Roster: 3: Landry Jones, William Gay, Ben Roethlisberger)
The Steelers remained a three-quarterback team, and that really was an issue only within a segment of the team's fan base. It had been three quarterbacks on the roster during each of the seasons Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert have worked together, and it will be that way again.

Following a 2015 season in which Bruce Gradkowski landed on injured reserve and the Steelers came to the conclusion that Landry Jones was a better fit for the offense than Mike Vick, Jones was fairly entrenched as the backup at the time the Steelers opened training camp in late July. And nothing changed during a preseason that included Jones throwing four interceptions against the Eagles and bouncing back the following week to complete 19-of-22 with a passer rating of 120.8 the following week in New Orleans.

The only real battle here was for the No. 3 job, but when Bruce Gradkowski sustained a serious hamstring injury and Dustin Vaughan broke a thumb, the Steelers had to go shopping. Bryn Renner was signed to help the team get through the camp/preseason phase, but when the Tennessee Titans waived Zach Mettenberger, the Steelers put in a claim and were awarded a guy who arrived in Pittsburgh with 10 starts in a two-year NFL career.

Mettenberger was added to be the No. 3 quarterback, and that he has 10 NFL starts, even though his team was 0-10 in those games, gives the Steelers the kind of depth they prefer at this position. Having three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, and them all have starting NFL experience is about as good a situation as is possible in today's NFL.

RUNNING BACKS
(2015 Roster: 4: Dri Archer, Will Johnson, Roosevelt Nix, Le'Veon Bell)
(2016 Roster: 4: Rosie Nix, Daryl Richardson, Fitz Toussaint, DeAngelo Williams)
For the second straight September, the Steelers open a regular season with Le'Veon Bell on the suspended list. This time Bell will miss the first three games of the regular season, but the good news is that for the second straight September, the Steelers will be able to turn to DeAngelo Williams to lessen the sting of Bell's absence.

In a second season as a fullback after a decorated college career as a defensive lineman, Rosie Nix is evolving into the kind of player with the combination of skills to handle all requirements of the position at the NFL level.

Williams was sufficiently impressive in 2015, his first season with the Steelers, to have earned the complete trust of Tomlin, his staff, and the entire locker room. On the evening before the preseason finale against the Panthers in Carolina, the place where he spent the first nine seasons of his NFL career, Williams hosted the entire Steelers traveling party for a meal of catered barbecue at the team hotel.

Fitz Toussaint, who was added late in 2015 and started in the postseason when Williams was injured, and Daryl Richardson, who led the team in rushing this preseason with 124 yards on 39 carries (3.2 average), will serve as the backups during Bell's suspension.

TIGHT ENDS
(2015 Roster: 3: Jesse James, Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth)
(2016 Roster: 3: Xavier Grimble, Jesse James, David Johnson)
The Steelers are a team without a No. 1 tight end right now, and it's a potential area for Tomlin and Colbert to look to improve via the waiver wire.

Xavier Grimble has been consistently inconsistent through the camp/preseason, and there can be little argument that Jesse James as an NFL starting tight end is more a result of opportunity than merit. When David Johnson left the Steelers for San Diego as an unrestricted free agent in 2014, it was seen as a move to a team that gave him a better opportunity to make the roster, and yet today he is the best blocking tight end the Steelers have.

During an interview on KDKA in conjunction with the station's telecast of the Steelers' preseason finale, Colbert said Ladarius Green would be physically ready to play before his mandatory six-week stay on the physically unable to perform list is up. Even if that prediction comes true, Green's next practice repetition with Ben Roethlisberger and the first-team offense will be his first.

Until then, unless there is a waiver wire move or some other signing, offensive coordinator Todd Haley may have to get creative to find ways to milk production from this position.

WIDE RECEIVERS
(2015 Roster: 5: Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Tyler Murphy, Markus Wheaton)
(2016 Roster: 5: Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers, Markus Wheaton)
Antonio Brown seems poised to put together another All-Pro season, and there should be nothing to distract him, what with the Steelers having adjusted his contract to get him more money this season. Sammie Coates had a tough start to his preseason, but he bounced back nicely to make the kinds of down-the-field plays the Steelers are going to need from him.

Eli Rogers emerged as the slot receiver, and the fact he has earned the confidence of Ben Roethlisberger is the most important thing he accomplished this offseason. Rogers, however, has to get better at run-after-the-catch, and if he's going to be a go-to guy on possessions down, he's going to have to run the route deep enough to make sure he's beyond the sticks when the football arrives.

Markus Wheaton could find himself the beneficiary of defenses concentrating on other players, and he has the skill-set to take advantage of that, while Darrius Heyward-Bey still has get-deep speed, albeit inconsistent hands, while working with one of the best-deep-ball quarterbacks in the NFL today.

Whatever production the Steelers might miss from their tight ends when it comes to the passing game figures to be made up by this group.

OFFENSIVE LINE
(2015 Roster: 8: Kelvin Beachum, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Cody Wallace)
(2016 Roster: 9: David DeCastro, B.J. Finney, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Ryan Harris, Chris Hubbard, Maurkice Pouncey, Al Villanueva, Cody Wallace)
This group is better than the one the Steelers had to open the 2015 season for one reason – Maurkice Pouncey will open this season as the starting center instead of on the injured reserve list.

The starting five – Al Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert – look to be the team's best group since the mid-2000s when the offensive line included Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, and Marvel Smith. Gilbert sustained what has been reported as a hyperextended elbow, but he has vowed to play through the injury.

Unlike last season, though, the Steelers have a legitimate option to plug in at tackle in the event of an injury to one of the starters. Ryan Harris, signed as an unrestricted free agent, started at left tackle last season for the Denver team that won the Super Bowl, and he also has starting NFL experience at right tackle. The interior reserves include B.J. Finney and Cody Wallace, and even though Chris Hubbard has lined up at guard and tackle for the Steelers, he is better as a guard than he is as a tackle.

DEFENSIVE LINE
(2015 Roster: 6: Cam Heyward, Dan McCullers, Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton)
(2016 Roster: 6: Javon Hargrave, Cam Heyward, Ricardo Mathews, Dan McCullers, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton)
Just as the Steelers have come to be known as a three-quarterback team, it's also fair to label them a six-defensive-linemen team. This season, their six looks to be more than just six for the sake of having six.

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are the best pair of starting 3-4 defensive ends in football, and rookie Javon Hargrave has indicated throughout the camp/preseason period that he has the skills and athleticism to make plays as an NFL nose tackle.

Ricardo Mathews is living proof that not all free agent defensive linemen from San Diego are as useless as Cam Thomas. Last season, it seemed as though L.T. Walton, then a rookie sixth-round pick, was on the initial roster because the Steelers wanted to carry a sixth defensive lineman. But during the summer of 2016, Walton looked more like he belonged, and he should be able to pair with Mathews to provide some options so Heyward and Tuitt don't have to play as many snaps as they did in 2015.

Another of the stated goals for the 2016 season was to develop the ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks by rushing only four people, and Hargrave already has shown some of the stuff necessary to convince coordinator Keith Butler that he can take some snaps as an interior rusher in place of Tuitt or Heyward.

**

LINEBACKERS** (2015 Roster: 10: Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree , Terence Garvin, William Gay, Ryan Shazier, Arthur Moats, Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, Ryan Shazier, Vince Williams)
(2016 Roster: 10: Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, L.J. Fort, James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Tyler Matakevich, Arthur Moats, Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams)
There is an even split of inside linebackers to outside linebackers, and while the group on the inside has been able to replace the two players who left as unrestricted free agents, the group on the outside is still waiting for a couple of its high-profile members to blossom.

Terence Garvin and Sean Spence signed elsewhere early in the offseason, but they have been replaced by L.J. Fort and rookie Tyler Matakevich.

The starters at inside linebacker again will be Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, and there is a growing sense that Shazier is on the verge of a breakout season. Just a couple of weeks ago, Vince Williams signed a three-year contract that binds him to the team through the 2018 season, and that transaction showed what the team thinks of him. Fort showed some aptitude for pass defense during drills at training camp, and Matakevich spent a good bit of the preseason allowing his play to mock the fact he lasted until the seventh round of last April's draft.

On the outside, an injury to Bud Dupree left Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo with a lot of opportunities for playing time on the left side, and both of them took advantage. Moats (2.5) and Chickillo (one) combined for 3.5 of the six sacks the Steelers managed during the four preseason games.

James Harrison and Jarvis Jones again will split time on the right side, and the amount of time Harrison spends on the field again figures to be tied to how productive Jones manages to be.

Of the 10 linebackers opening this season on the 53-man roster, there are four No. 1 draft choices. Obviously, an investment has been made by the Steelers at the position, and now they're looking for that investment to pay dividends.

DEFENSIVE BACKS
(2015 Roster: 11: Cortez Allen, Will Allen, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin, Stephon Tuitt, William Gay, Robert Golden, Doran Grant, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden, Ross Ventrone)
(2016 Roster: 10: Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis, Will Gay, Justin Gilbert, Robert Golden, Senquez Golson, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas)
The complexion of this unit changed rather dramatically during the week leading up to the cut-down date. The first thing was the return to participation of Artie Burns, the team's most recent No. 1 pick, and the most recent thing was the trade for Justin Gilbert, a cornerback who was the eighth overall pick of the 2014 draft.

Burns started the final week of the preseason by making two interceptions in a practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, and he ended it with two passes defensed on separate possessions that forced the Panthers to settle for field goals. Gilbert, who played his college football at Oklahoma State, appeared in 23 games for the Browns with three starts during his two seasons in Cleveland. He had 29 tackles, nine passes defensed, and one interception, which he returned 23 yards for a touchdown.

Senquez Golson, the team's No. 2 pick in 2015, needed surgery following a Lisfranc injury, and his presence on the initial 53-man roster indicates the Steelers consider him a candidate for injured reserve/designated to return. To be eligible for that, a player must spend at least 24 hours on the active roster at some point. Of the players released on the final cut, it would appear that Doran Grant would be a candidate to be brought back, unless the Steelers decide they like someone from the waiver wire better.

Ross Cockrell and Will Gay will open the season as the starters at cornerback, with rookie Sean Davis manning the slot role. Robert Golden and Mike Mitchell should start at safety. Shamarko Thomas and Jordan Dangerfield both are on the roster, and their special teams contributions are likely the reason why.

SPECIALISTS
(2015 Roster: 3: Jordan Berry, Josh Scobee, Greg Warren)
(2016 Roster: 3: Jordan Berry, Chris Boswell, Greg Warren)
This summer, the Steelers got all the way to the eve of the regular season without needing to stage a tryout to find a placekicker to sign.

Jordan Berry, who beat out Brad Wing last summer for the punting job, averaged 50.6 yards on 13 punts (45.2 net, with no touchbacks) during the preseason. Boswell, the fourth placekicker the Steelers employed last season, was 5-for-5 on PATs and 3-for-3 on field goals this summer.

Greg Warren, back for his 12th season, remains a very reliable long-snapper.

In the area of kick returns, Eli Rogers emerged as a competent alternative to Antonio Brown on punts, but through the preseason he was only competent while Brown has been dynamic. Justin Gilbert showed some ability as a kickoff returner for Cleveland, with a 28.3 average on 12 returns in 2015.

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