As training camp unfolded for the Steelers this summer, it became increasingly evident that one area where the roster was rather well-stocked with young players with potential was at linebacker. Even the guys at the bottom of the depth chart there when camp opened – Alan Baxter, Terence Garvin, Brian Rolle, Kion Wilson – each showed something on the field that made him a prospect.
The problem for those guys at the bottom of the depth chart at linebacker was the number and the ability level of the players above them. At a spot where there figures to be eight or nine on the initial 53-man roster, you had the starters – LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Jason Worilds – plus No. 1 pick Jarvis Jones. In the next group were Chris Carter, Stevenson Sylvester, Adrian Robinson, and Marshall McFadden. That's nine right there.
Coaches always tell guys never to play the numbers game when trying to make a roster, but as the Steelers packed up and left Latrobe for their practice facility on Pittsburgh's South Side it was rather clear that they had a glut of linebackers. They would be cutting guys who could play in the NFL.
It's not always easy to make player-for-player trades in the NFL, because professional football – unlike baseball and hockey – requires guys to be able to perform within a particular team's offensive and defensive schemes. Playing third base is the same for every team in the Major Leagues, but a linebacker or a cornerback or a tight end or a defensive end have to fit the scheme for the trade to work out. And the other issue with trades at this point in the NFL calendar is this: teams only are going to be willing to move players they either are planning to replace or cut.
Call it the professional football version of digging through the bargain bins at Filene's Basement.
There were a number of things the Steelers didn't have at the midway point of this preseason. Depth along the offensive line. Healthy running backs. Clarity at the tight end position. And so they did a little digging through the bins to see what was available.
Forget about trading for capable offensive line depth, primarily because nobody has any. Any offensive linemen you could get in a trade right now you wouldn't want.
The activation of David Johnson from the physically unable to perform list earlier this week – and Johnson's knee being able to withstand practices without swelling – provided some clarity at tight end. Yes, Heath Miller remains on PUP with a return date that's still uncertain, and Matt Spaeth is in the initial stages of coming back from surgery on his foot, but the Steelers know what they have in Johnson and David Paulson, and if Miller needs to begin the season on PUP, they could choose between Michael Palmer and Jamie McCoy as a No. 3.
Running back was a position also complicated by injuries – the relatively minor ones to Isaac Redman (stinger) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (MCL sprain) – and the not-as-bad-as-it-could've-been sprained foot sustained in Washington by Le'Veon Bell. Bodies are required for practice and for repetitions in the final two preseason games, and if the team added someone here it would not have to rush the injured back onto the field, nor would it have to dump too many carries on Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, and Alvester Alexander.
Enter Felix Jones. Exit Adrian Robinson.
Jones (5-foot-10, 215 pounds) entered the league as a No. 1 pick of the Cowboys (22nd overall) in 2008. His speed and explosiveness made him attractive to Dallas, but in his four seasons there Jones' injuries prevented him from ever establishing himself as a full-time starter. His best season was in 2010 when he rushed for 800 yards on 185 carries (4.3 average) to go along with 48 catches for 480 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown. Most significantly, Jones played in all 16 games that season, with seven starts.
That Jones is the only player in the NFL since 2008 to post a 60-plus-yard touchdown run, a 70-plus-yard touchdown reception and a 90-plus-yard kickoff return for a touchdown is a testament to his skills; the fact he missed 16 games with injuries during his five seasons in Dallas is a reason he was available in a trade in August 2013.
Jones had signed with the Philadelphia Eagles during the past offseason, but he was not expected to make the team's roster. As of yesterday, he had been No. 4 on the depth chart behind LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, and Chris Polk. In the Eagles' two preseason games, Jones had a combined 12 carries for 45 yards and two catches for 12 more.
Now Jones joins a group in Pittsburgh working under the cloud of injuries, a group that in all likelihood will open the season without Bell, who had established himself as the Steelers' best back before he was hurt.
Maybe Jones resurrects his career with the Steelers. Maybe Jones barely makes the 53-man roster. Maybe he gets cut. Maybe he just eats up some carries in the final two preseason games. Maybe he does nothing except provide yet another wake-up call to Dwyer, who so far has been unable to exhibit the professionalism on a daily basis that would engender the kind of trust a coaching staff needs to have in its No. 1 running back.
Regardless, it was worth taking a shot. Because Adrian Robinson wasn't going to make this team.