The Pittsburgh Steelers have reported for training camp and their first practice is scheduled for Thursday afternoon at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side.
That’s the official start of the preparations for the 2021 season, and as usual, training camp will start with 90 players — 89 after Vince Williams’ retirement on the eve of camp Wednesday — and end with just 53 on the roster in Pittsburgh.
Here’s Steelers Now’s pre-camp projection of who will end up making that 53-man roster:
Quarterback (3): Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins
The first two, you write in stone. Haskins is younger and has more upside than Josh Dobbs, and is also much more likely to get snapped up by someone else if he gets cut. He’ll need to show that he has picked up the offense quickly, though. Dobbs is extremely intelligent and won’t be beaten because of a lack of preparation.
Running back (4): Najee Harris, Anthony McFarland Jr., Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels
The tough cut here is free agent addition Kalen Ballage. For me, Ballage and Snell just have too similar of skillsets at the end of the day and Samuels’ ability to be a receiving threat, and a fullback, H-back or tight end should be more useful in Matt Canada’s offensive scheme than keeping two short-yardage bruisers. Maybe they can work out a trade for Snell to alleviate the crunch, but that seems less likely.
Wide receiver (5): JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud.
Same five as last year. Next.
Fullback (1): Derek Watt
They restructured his contract, so it no longer makes any salary cap sense to cut him, and Canada has used the fullback extensively in the past, so this experiment gets one more year.
Tight end (3): Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, Kevin Rader
Zach Gentry has done almost exactly nothing in two seasons after being a fifth-round draft pick and Rader looked like a potentially strong special teams contributor in his two-game tryout last season. He’s also willing blocker, which is the big shortcoming of the rest of this group. It wouldn’t be out of the question for the Steelers to just go with two players here, either, with Watt, Samuels and Haeg able to fill some of the third tight end role.
Tackle (4): Zach Banner, Chukwuma Okorafor, Joe Haeg, Dan Moore Jr.
Newly signed addition Chaz Green could also earn a spot here, but Haeg’s versatility and Moore’s status as a fourth-round draft pick will make them tough to cut.
Guard (3): Trai Turner, Kevin Dotson, Rashaad Coward
B.J. Finney is a more versatile player than Coward, with the ability to play center and guard, and probably a better pass protecter, but the Steelers seem to be eyeing run block skills first with their re-worked offensive line, and Coward is probably the better guard at this point in both players’ careers.
Center (2): J.C. Hassenauer, Kendrick Green
Finney could also make the team here, but it’s been Hassenauer that has been pacing the rookie Green at center. I wound’t be surprised if it’s Hassenauer, not Green, to start Week 1, and Hassenauer can also play guard in a pinch, mooting Finney’s versatility.
Specialists (3): Kameron Canaday, Chris Boswell, Pressley Harvin III
You don’t draft a punter to not put them on the team, though I think the battle between Harvin and Jordan Berry may end up being one of the tightest in all of training camp. The Steelers could make a trade there, as well.
Defensive tackle (3): Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley, Carlos Davis
There isn’t really anyone else to put here. The only question is where they keep two or three.
Defensive end (4): Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Henry Mondeaux
The Isaiah(h)s are out. Buggs was passed over for playing time by Mondeaux last year because of special teams concerns, and the team made the surprise move of trading up to get Loudermilk in the fifth round, which I don’t think they would have done if they had faith in Buggs’ ability to grow into a role.
I also don’t see Loudermilk beating Mondeaux on special teams, and the real backups at this spot are Alualu and Wormley moving out from tackle, so that’s what the last DL role is all about. Loudermilk needs the year to bulk up anyway and should make it to the practice squad, which makes his pick all the more head-scratching.
Outside linebacker (4): T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, Melvin Ingram, Quincy Roche
Cassius Marsh gets cut, even though he’s an experienced special teamer, because I’ve kept a lot of those elsewhere and I think Roche has the talent to be a steal out of the sixth round. This could easily be five players, with both making the team instead of someone like Mondeaux, Rader, Samuels or one of the inside backers below.
Inside linebacker (5): Devin Bush, Robert Spillane, Ulysees Gilbert III, Marcus Allen, Buddy Johnson
Gilbert has talent but has yet to stay healthy, Allen has experience, and Johnson potential. None of them all by themselves really make ideal backups at inside linebacker after the retirement of Williams, so I’m keeping options open by keeping all three.
Cornerback (6): Joe Haden, Cam Sutton, James Pierre, Justin Layne, Tre Norwood, Arthur Maulet
Haden and Sutton will start, that much we know. The rest of this is anyone’s guess. I’ll say Pierre is the Nickel, Norwood the Dime, Layne the outside backup and Maulet the inside backup, as well as having the ability to play free safety. Rookie free agent David Gilbert is probably my first guy to miss the cut, but should make it to the practice squad.
Safety (4): Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Miles Killebrew, Antoine Brooks Jr.
Killebrew replaces Jordan Dangerfield as a special teams-only backup safety. Brooks will do the heavy lifting behind the starters.