Labriola On

Labriola on the initial 53-man roster

Yesterday, Aug. 31, at 4 p.m., the NFL required all of its teams to reduce their rosters from the 90 players they were allowed to carry throughout the offseason to the 53 they are allowed in the annual quest for a Lombardi Trophy. But instead of viewing this as the end of the competition, the original 53 would be wise to understand the way Coach Mike Tomlin is viewing it:

"You continually are always working to get your roster better," said 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 (on airplanes) 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."

As the start, it has some significance when it comes time to chart the course of the 2019 Steelers and their season. What follows is an analysis of the team's initial 53-man roster, along with a comparison with the 2018 version:

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

There has been no official announcement on whether it will be Joshua Dobbs or Mason Rudolph to serve as Ben Roethlisberger's backup for the 2019 season, and Coach Mike Tomlin explained his reasoning for not making a big deal out of those kinds of things.

"The reason I thoughtfully approach it that way is because these jobs are not ours, we simply occupy positions, and how long we occupy those positions is based on our level of performance," said Tomlin. "So someone could win the job for the opener, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's their job. They have to prove it and earn it continually, like we all do. Ben Roethlisberger continually earns his job. We don't talk about it because of his consistent level of performance, but every time he steps out on that field, that's what he's doing – he's earning the right to be the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. So I thoughtfully take that approach to all that we do. I don't make grand announcements when jobs are seemingly up for grabs because jobs are always up for grabs."

Announced or not, it's inconceivable that Rudolph didn't win the backup job, because he was the most consistent of the quarterbacks not named Ben throughout the summer. Through three preseason games, Rudolph had a 106.6 passer rating and a team-high 65.6 completion percentage. Against the Panthers he quarterbacked three possessions, and the Steelers ended with a missed field goal, a made field goal, and a touchdown that came on a 31-yard pass from Rudolph. He finished the preseason with a 65.1 completion percentage and a rating of 113.1

Devlin Hodges, a player who was undrafted and then ignored during the typical post-draft free agent signing period, earned a spot on the 90-man roster with an impressive performance during a tryout at rookie minicamp. He then generated some early buzz at training camp by making quick decisions and being accurate during what were third-team reps at practice. But once the preseason games began, it became clear to all but those rooting for a happy ending to an underdog story that Hodges lacked the size and arm strength to thrive in the NFL.

And when the protection broke down, as it often does when the reserve offensive linemen take over in a preseason game, Hodges got sacked, while Dobbs was able to make plays with his legs. If a team is going to keep three quarterbacks on its roster, and the Steelers believe in doing that, the No. 3 quarterback should be someone who could help the team win an NFL regular season game. Comparing Hodges to Dobbs, it wasn't hard to see which one had more of the requisite skill-set to get that job done.

RUNNING BACKS – 4: James Conner, Rosie Nix, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell
(Last Year: 4) James Conner, Rosie Nix, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels

The four running backs the Steelers kept were the obvious four based on returning players, plus the investment of a fourth-round draft pick in Benny Snell. As training camp developed, the only thing that could have derailed the obvious was whether Snell would be a willing blocker and an effective special teams player. If he wasn't or couldn't, then Trey Edmunds had a chance to sneak into the picture, because he also was a power runner who had experience as a blocker and had played special teams in the NFL.

As training camp wore on and then the preseason began, Snell improved in pass protection, and then he made a couple of nice plays covering kicks in the first two preseason games. When Edmunds wasn't able to make any plays on either offense or special teams to move the needle on the "wow" scale, this development seemed to become inevitable.

TIGHT ENDS: Zach Gentry, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald
(Last Year: 3) Xavier Grimble, Jesse James, Vance McDonald)

Maybe this ends up being the trio at this position for the Sept. 8 opener against New England, but there's just something about it that makes it feel like a temporary situation. There is no issue with the notion of Vance McDonald being a quality starter, but in today's NFL, the deployment of more than one tight end is too common for the Steelers not to be trying to make moves over the next few days to try to strengthen this unit.

Xavier Grimble never really stepped up and showed he was capable of making the jump from No. 3 on the depth chart to No. 2, but he was the No. 2 because he was the best of the bunch. Zach Gentry has intriguing size and potential, but neither of those qualities would be a help to the Steelers vs. the Patriots and through the early portion of the regular season.

What would the Steelers be willing to give up in a trade to strengthen this position, and what would be available for the price they're willing to pay? And making a waiver claim or two isn't a lock either because the Steelers have the No. 20 priority based on their original draft position last April.

WIDE RECEIVERS – 5: Diontae Johnson, Donte Moncrief, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, James Washington
(Last Year: 6) Antonio Brown, Justin Hunter, Darrius Heyward-Bey, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, James Washington

This unit was one where the only real question was whether the Steelers would keep five or six, and if it was going to be six then the sixth had to be a significant contributor on special teams. Diontae Spencer showed some burst as a returner and as a runner of reverses, but he wasn't developed enough as a wide receiver to be kept unless he was truly dynamic as a returner. Maybe if he had brought one back for a touchdown, but he didn't.

Johnny Holton made more plays as a receiver than Spencer and was somewhat productive as a gunner on the punt team, but apparently the Steelers decided his special teams contributions could be made up by an extra linebacker or defensive back.

Finally, it became apparent that Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers were competing for one spot, with both being slot-type receivers. Where Switzer had the advantage was as a more reliable returner, especially in the areas of decision-making and securing the football, and as a receiver who had earned the trust of Roethlisberger.

It seems likely at least one spot on the practice squad will go to a receiver, and of the players waived by the Steelers, Spencer has practice squad eligibility, as does Holton under the exempt category. A team may have four players under the exempt category on its 10-man practice squad.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN – 9: Zach Banner, David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney, Ramon Foster, Fred Johnson, Chuks Okorafor, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva
(Last Year: 9) Zach Banner, David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Chuks Okorafor, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva

The Steelers again kept nine offensive linemen, and with the exception of an exchange of rookie guard Fred Johnson for the previously-traded Marcus Gilbert, it's the same group.

While it's a positive that three of the team's starting offensive linemen (Al Villanueva, David DeCastro, and Maurkice Pouncey) have played in at least one Pro Bowl, and two of those three (Pouncey and DeCastro) have been voted first-team All-Pro at least once, age is starting to become a factor. Pouncey, Villanueva, and Ramon Foster all are in their 30s, and DeCastro is 29, and so finding talent to be developed is a necessary part of doing business.

The Steelers believe they have that in their current quartet of backups: Zach Banner, 25; B.J. Finney, 27; Chuks Okorafor 21; and Johnson 22. Okorafor will need to continue to strengthen the shoulder he had surgically repaired during the offseason, but his footwork and hand usage combine to make him an intriguing prospect. Banner has turned out to be a rare find, because it's highly unusual for a player to be signed late in a camp and then make the 53-man roster that season, but that's what he did in 2018 after being added to the 90-man roster as a hedge against injuries at the position.

Once a fourth-round pick from USC, Banner lost control of his weight and at one time in his life he weighed 400-plus pounds, but that now seems to be under control. He played a lot of snaps during the preseason and showed some versatility. He earned a spot on the roster for the second straight year.

Injuries were a factor in Jerald Hawkins becoming an expendable part three years after being the Steelers' fourth-round pick. Promising as an athletic left tackle during his rookie camp, Hawkins had the misfortune of sustaining an injury every time he seemed to be gaining some footing as an NFL player, and he was traded to Tampa Bay along with a seventh-round pick in exchange for the Buccaneers' sixth-round pick.

This is a solid group and should allow the Steelers to be one of the top units in the NFL once again, and the team also didn't expose any of their real promising young players to the waiver wire, where they could've been claimed by an offensive-lineman-starved team, such as the Cleveland Browns.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN – 6: Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs, Javon Hargrave, Cam Heyward, Dan McCullers, Stephon Tuitt
(Last Year: 6) Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave, Cam Heyward, Dan McCullers, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton

As was the case with the offensive linemen, the numbers were the same and there was but one change in the names. This September, it was rookie Isaiah Buggs instead of L.T. Walton.

Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar likes the idea of rotating his players throughout each game, and it's typical for only five defensive linemen to be active on game day. In Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, and Tyson Alualu, the Steelers have four proven NFL veterans, but can their No. 5 – whether that ends up being Dan McCullers or rookie Isaiah Buggs – be sound enough to allow for a true rotation each week.

One intriguing prospect within this unit was first-year player Henry Mondeaux, a defensive end who played his college football at Oregon and did some interesting things during the preseason. He should be in the mix for a spot on the practice squad.

LINEBACKERS – 10: Ola Adeniyi, Mark Barron, Devin Bush, Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, Ulysees Gilbert, Tyler Matakevich, Tuzar Skipper, T.J. Watt, Vince Williams
(Last Year: 8:): Jon Bostic, Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich, Matthew Thomas, T.J. Watt, Vince Williams

An increase in the numbers at this position was made necessary by two factors: Ola Adeniyi, who is one of the primary backups at outside linebacker and a guy on the rise, needing surgery on a knee that could cause him to miss a couple of games in the regular season; plus rookies Ulysees Gilbert and Tuzar Skipper simply being too productive to cut.

Gilbert (1.5) and Skipper (five) combined for 6.5 sacks this preseason, and over the course of the summer became contributors on special teams. Against Carolina last Thursday night, Skipper led the team with two special teams tackles, and Gilbert blocked a field goal. It's possible Skipper is on this roster because the Steelers decided he was a more important piece than a sixth receiver.

With the Steelers re-making their defense in a way that adds speed and athleticism and versatility to their back end, they had to keep Gilbert and Skipper, who cost little to acquire and have shown the potential to develop into productive NFL players while showing they can contribute on special teams as that process is taking place. Teams must protect assets like them.

Come Sept. 8, though, the spotlight here will shift to the other end of the depth chart, where Devin Bush, Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, Mark Barron, and Vince Williams will be as critical to the success of this Steelers season as any other unit on this roster with the exception of quarterback.

DEFENSIVE BACKS – 10: Artie Burns, Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly, Justin Layne, Steven Nelson, Cam Sutton
(Last Year: 11) Marcus Allen, Nat Berhe, Morgan Burnett, Artie Burns, Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton

Takeaways. There have to be more than eight interceptions, and that is inarguable. But which players are going to account for the increase is an unknown as the regular season is about to begin.

Artie Burns restored his confidence over the course of the summer and saved his roster spot, and right now he likely is the top backup at outside cornerback. Mike Hilton has worked some at safety this summer, which might be a way for the coaching staff to get more snaps for Cam Sutton, who to this point in his career has been about potential instead of production. Is Kameron Kelly on the roster because the Steelers are so thin at safety, or is this AAF refugee capable of solving some of the issues the team apparently has at safety?

Terrell Edmunds looks to be on the brink of fulfilling his draft position, and one season after Sean Davis helped the Steelers cut way back on the number of long pass plays allowed can he do something to increase their total of interceptions?

There really were no surprise cuts here, and the only player who came out of nowhere to earn a spot was Kelly, and a large part of that perception likely had to do with the low opinion of the AAF.

Which sub-packages are utilized most often and which players are chosen to man those will become more clear once the regular season gets underway. But what seems obvious is that if a guy shows he can make plays on the football consistently, he will see the field a lot.

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

No change here, and none was warranted. Chris Boswell looked nothing like he did last season, and that's a compliment. Jordan Berry's punting can be frustrating at times, but the Steelers didn't believe they had a better alternative, nor was there a stomach for being active in seeking a replacement who might not have turned out to be better.

Made the roster – 7: No. 1 Devin Bush, No. 3a Diontae Johnson, No. 3b Justin Layne, No. 4 Benny Snell, No. 5 Zach Gentry, No. 6b Isaiah Buggs, No. 6c Ulysees Gilbert
Waived – 2: No. 6b Sutton Smith, No. 7 Derwin Gray

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