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Labriola on the initial 53-man roster

They've done this before, 13 times before to be precise, but this 14th 53-man roster that General Manager Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin put together over the course of the summer and announced today is unique, and not by choice. Such is the impact of a global pandemic.

In putting together this roster, Colbert and Tomlin had to do the work without an offseason program and without the evaluation tools provided by the five preseason games that were on the Steelers' schedule before COVID-19 forced all of that to be cancelled. Then there also were the new rules allowing for 16 players on the practice squad, four protected guys on the practice squad, the clearer path between the practice squad and the active roster throughout the season, and the lack of video available of their own players for other teams to study and of other teams' players for them to study.

"It is different for all of those reasons," said Tomlin about the roster construction process. "There are things to consider regarding those issues and discussions to be had. But we've been in that process and in that mind-set and in that acknowledgment for some time now."

And after all of that, their initial 53-man roster looks like this:

(All players at all positions listed alphabetically)
QUARTERBACKS – 3: Devlin Hodges, Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph
(Last Year: 3) Joshua Dobbs, Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph)

Anybody who believed the big news to come out of training camp relative to this position was going to be whether it was Devlin Hodges or Paxton Lynch winning the No. 3 job was sadly mistaken. The only thing that really mattered relative to the team's quarterbacks this summer was how well Ben Roethlisberger was going to look coming off the surgery on his right elbow.

"It has felt really good," said Roethlisberger during an Aug. 27 Zoom call with the media. "We've always for the last handful of years done the same routine with a full day, half day, off day. I even went three days in a row last week. It's been feeling really good. I definitely need to give it some time to rest, that kind of one day off every so often out of general fatigue and soreness. It's amazing how fast it bounces back and feels great the next day. I feel very confident going into a regular season schedule where we get Tuesdays off, Friday is a half day, Saturday is a travel-type day. Those kind of scheduled days off throughout the regular season I think are going to be perfect."

By all indications and witness testimony, Roethlisberger has completed the comeback and the Steelers can look forward to entering the regular season with a franchise quarterback whose right arm is giving him no pain/discomfort when he throws a football for the first time in a while. Whether Roethlisberger fulfills Colbert's prediction that he returns as a better version of his recent self after a year off from the wear-and-tear associated with playing quarterback in the NFL will be revealed over time, but there have been no indications that he has lost arm strength.

"I like the idea that from a script standpoint … he hasn't wanted to shy away from any of what you may want to call 'deep opportunities' if one was to present itself," said offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. "And we've taken several."

Added Roethlisberger about his ability to get the ball down the field: "It wasn't like I wasn't able to make the throws last year as much as it was the pain maybe that I had after making them or the discomfort the following day or things like that. I think I feel really good in making some of the deeper down the field throws. One of the practices, I think last week, I wasn't able to step into it, and I threw a go ball down the left sideline. It felt like when it came off my hand it was going to be short, and it ended up making it there in stride. I was pleasantly surprised with how my arm strength has kind of come back to what I think is maybe even a little better than it was before."

RUNNING BACKS – 5: James Conner, Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Derek Watt
(Last Year: 4) James Conner, Roosevelt Nix, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell

It was clear early in the offseason that the Steelers viewed James Conner as a Pro Bowl caliber three-down feature back, and as a result of their faith in him he will open the regular season as their primary weapon out of the backfield.

To assign labels to the other four players they kept here: Benny Snell is the No. 2 behind Conner and eventually figures to see the second-most number of snaps and opportunities to carry the football; Jaylen Samuels is the utility guy whose receiving skills and versatility earned him a spot; Anthony McFarland is a rookie with the kind of speed and burst that could allow him to threaten opposing defenses in a way no one else on this depth chart can; and Derek Watt is what NFL teams want in a fullback.

Tomlin never has been a coach to employ a running-back-by-committee approach, and that doesn't figure to change much in 2020, but the Steelers do have some complementary talents available within this group and the combination of those individuals has the potential to provide a hedge against injury.

Steelers President Art Rooney II said in January he believed it was necessary for the offense to become more efficient running the football. As the player with the most NFL pedigree on the depth chart at this position, Conner will be counted upon to deliver on that directive, but it doesn't appear that he'll have to do it alone. By the end of training camp at Heinz Field, Snell was looking like a player more capable of helping his team protect second half leads by effectively running the ball when the opponent is expecting that, and McFarland and Samuels could turn into package-types who give opposing defenses something different to worry about.

It will be interesting to see how Watt is incorporated into the offense, because Roosevelt Nix couldn't stay healthy long enough to carve out a consistent role for himself in the backfield.

TIGHT ENDS – 3: Eric Ebron, Zach Gentry, Vance McDonald
(Last Year: 3) Zach Gentry, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald

If the idea was to utilize the offseason to provide Roethlisberger with a more diverse complement of offensive weapons, the addition of Eric Ebron to this unit is looking as though it was a good move in that direction. Ebron isn't Heath Miller in terms of consistently reliable hands or the ability to be an effective in-line blocker, but he is a guy opposing defenses will have to account for on every snap because he is a big-play-in-waiting.

Ebron's reputation in his previous NFL stops was that he often came up lacking in the blocking aspects of tight end play, but from the time the pads went on at Heinz Field, Tomlin incorporated physical challenges into the daily practice scripts and he made sure Ebron was a frequent participant against some of the Steelers' better players on defense. Over the course of the weeks at Heinz Field, Ebron seemed to be developing into a player who has been energized by this change of scenery. He still might drop a pass occasionally, but he'll also bring fans out of their seats with a big play.

Like the situation with Conner at running back, the Steelers are depending on Vance McDonald to be available consistently, because much of the excitement for the impact of multiple tight end personnel packages will evaporate if he's not.

WIDE RECEIVERS – 5: Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Ray-Ray McCloud, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington
(Last Year: 5) Diontae Johnson, Donte Moncrief, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, James Washington

If there was one unfortunate aspect to how this unit fared during the training camp process, it was Diontae Johnson having to fight through a calf injury that impacted his on-field time with Roethlisberger. But Johnson was able to put together a string of practices toward the end of camp, and if his ability to develop a rapport with Roethlisberger was delayed somewhat, things were progressing in a positive direction as the Steelers headed back to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

While Roethlisberger may not have had much of an opportunity to work with Johnson, he did seem to take some time during different sessions to establish some rhythm with both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool. With Smith-Schuster, it was simply a matter of rekindling the relationship that resulted in 169 catches for 2,343 yards (13.9 average), with 14 touchdowns and 104 first downs during the two full seasons the two played together. But with Claypool, a rookie, it was more about starting from scratch.

"I always get caught trying to spread too much praise on rookies, because I want them to sneak up on other people," said Roethlisberger, "but it doesn't look like Chase [Claypool] is going to be able to sneak up on anybody right now because people are talking about him and deservedly so. He's just making plays. I think the plays that he's making are impressive, but I think, to me, what's more impressive is that he doesn't ask a lot of questions, which means he knows his stuff. I can change a play with a hand signal or call a different play at the line of scrimmage, and I always check him like, 'Are you good?' He's like, I got it. That's very impressive from a quarterback perspective, because as much as we've thrown at him, he's able to digest it. I'm not saying he doesn't make a mistake, but when he does make a mistake, he's not making the same mistake twice. I just think that's really impressive."

Ryan Switzer not making the initial 53-man roster qualifies as something of a surprise, but the quick emergence of Ray-Ray McCloud as a playmaker both as a receiver and returner undoubtedly impacted that decision.

James Washington is a player who has been something of a tease since being a second-round draft choice in 2018, but maybe what he needs is more time with Roethlisberger. He was a rookie in 2018 and was competing with Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown for attention from the quarterback, and then in 2019 Roethlisberger was done after the first six quarters of the regular season. Washington needs to make an impact in what will be his third professional season, just as the offense will need him to make an impact as one of the three receivers who are veterans of the Steelers offense.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN – 9: Zach Banner, David DeCastro, Kevin Dotson, Matt Feiler, J.C. Hassenauer, Chuks Okorafor, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Stefan Wisniewski
(Last Year: 9) Zach Banner, David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney, Ramon Foster, Fred Johnson, Chuks Okorafor, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva

The move of Matt Feiler inside to left guard to replace veteran Ramon Foster appears to be a smooth transition because Tomlin said he is pleased with the options to replace Feiler at right tackle. Whether it will be Chuks Okorafor or Zach Banner starting at right tackle for the Monday night opener against the Giants may not be known until later in the week of preparation for that game, but as camp closed Tomlin saw it as a situation of being able to pick the better of two solid options.

"It has been a challenging decision for us because both guys are capable," said Tomlin about Okorafor and Banner. "Both guys have been consistently above the line in their performance, and those are good problems to have. I don't know that I necessarily view it as a negative thing where whoever gets named the starter could have a short leash, etc. I think we've seen two guys who are capable NFL starters at that position battling it out, and that's why we're not in a hurry to make a decision from my perspective."

Okorafor was a third-round draft pick and Banner was signed as a street free agent, but at this stage of their development Tomlin believes he has two quality young tackles in addition to veteran starter Alejandro Villanueva.

The guy not selected to start will serve as the swing tackle and the extra tight end in the jumbo package, with veteran Stefan Wisniewski sliding into the role as the primary backup at all three interior line spots. Rookie Kevin Dotson probably missed too much camp time with a knee injury to be much more than a game day inactive through the early part of the 2020 season, but in his limited time on the field he gave the impression of being a future contributor.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN – Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Chris Wormley
(Last Year: 6) Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs, Javon Hargrave, Cam Heyward, Dan McCullers, Stephon Tuitt

This unit is similar to quarterback in that the most important issue of the offseason wasn't finding a nose tackle to replace Javon Hargrave but the return to health and form of a dynamic player who missed most of the previous season. A defensive line that contains a healthy Stephon Tuitt, who missed 10 full games in 2019 with a torn pectoral, along with Cam Heyward is a big enough problem for opposing offenses that the person lining up at nose tackle is not as big a deal.

Still, it seems as though the player most likely to be on the field with Heyward and Tuitt when the Steelers deploy a three-man defensive line is Tyson Alualu, a hard-working former first-round pick who looked to be quite capable of holding down that spot.

The key here is the health of Tuitt and the continued high-level contributions from Heyward, who has been voted first-team All-Pro in two of the last three seasons. After Heyward and Tuitt, Alualu and Chris Wormley, acquired in an offseason trade with the Ravens, figure to get the most playing time at a position where assistant coach Karl Dunbar long has believed in the merits of rotating guys into the game to keep everyone fresher.

LINEBACKERS – 8: Ola Adeniyi, Devin Bush, Bud Dupree, Ulysees Gilbert, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane, T.J. Watt, Vince Williams
(Last Year: 10) Ola Adeniyi, Mark Barron, Devin Bush, Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, Ulysees Gilbert, Tyler Matakevich, Tuzar Skipper, T.J. Watt, Vince Williams

It would've been helpful to have some preseason games to reinforce this belief, but it's possible the Steelers ended training camp believing they may have found the answers to their depth question at inside linebacker in Ulysees Gilbert and at outside linebacker in rookie Alex Highsmith.

Both guys were put through something of an intense tutorial during the time spent at Heinz Field, and neither looked to be completely incapable of contributing in those roles. While neither should be expected to be ready for the kind of full-time action resulting from a serious injury to a starter, both could handle smaller doses of playing time to provide some in-game rest for the starters while also contributing as core special teams players.

Keeping only eight linebackers on the initial 53 might appear to be leaving themselves too thin there, but the fact safeties now line up in the box as hybrids alleviates some of that concern.

DEFENSIVE BACKS – 11: Marcus Allen, Jordan Dangerfield, Terrell Edmunds, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Justin Layne, Steven Nelson, James Pierre, Curtis Riley, Cam Sutton
(Last Year: 10) Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Jordan Dangerfield, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly, Justin Layne, Steven Nelson, Cam Sutton

Supporting the line of thinking that eight linebackers is enough is the fact the Steelers kept 11 defensive backs, with Marcus Allen as the exact type of hybrid player who could be counted as a linebacker. After being waived at the end of each of the previous two preseasons, Allen has found a role that could turn out to be his future in the NFL, and his development as an in-the-box safety is likely what convinced the Steelers to keep him and waive sixth-round draft choice Antoine Brooks.

When camp opened, the Steelers had two safeties – Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick – they could trust with playing time in the back end of their defense, but by the time camp ended they had three. The third is Curtis Riley, a fifth-year pro from Fresno State who was a full-time starter at free safety for the Giants in 2018 when he finished the season with four interceptions and five passes defensed.

The starting cornerbacks – Joe Haden and Steven Nelson – give the Steelers their best tandem at the position in many years, while James Pierre and Justin Layne emerged during camp as viable developmental projects. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton are versatile and valuable in the roles they'll be asked to fill, and the sum total of it all is a unit that not long ago deserved to be seen as a team weakness but quickly has developed into a strength.

SPECIALISTS – 3: Jordan Berry, Chris Boswell, Kam Canaday
(Last Year: 3) Jordan Berry, Chris Boswell, Kam Canaday

No surprises here, at least until a report by ESPN's Field Yates indicated the Steelers had scheduled a tryout with 38-year-old punter Dustin Colquitt, who had spent his entire NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs. Maybe it's just a tryout or maybe it's the first step toward looking to replace Jordan Berry. But if it is a serious attempt to replace Berry, the replacement better be someone who can slide seamlessly into the role of Chris Boswell's holder, because it can be argued the job of holder is more important to the team's success than the job as the punter. Remember, the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII with Mitch Berger as their punter.

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