As the draft moves further into the rear-view mirror, football enthusiasts now turn their attention to off-season workouts and begin to count down the days until training camp. After the draft, most teams have a pretty good idea of their roster landscape, and begin to see who will fit roles and who is capable of being on the active roster. Of course, there are always injuries, trades, and teams cutting other players that may lead to some roster change, but for the majority, what you see is what you will get in terms of the 90-man roster. As we head into training camp, now is a better time than ever to look at who will be competing on the 90-man roster with chances of making the 53-man roster. The majority of roster spots come down to just a couple of training camp battles, and in the Pittsburgh Steelers case there are five key battles to watch for as the team heads into training camp. That all said, let’s break down those five battles, giving an edge for who should make the roster and why.
Making the Cut: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Battles
- Tyler Matakevich vs. Anthony Chickillo vs. Travis Feeney
You could throw Steven Johnson on this list as well, but the Steelers actively pursued Johnson this off-season and he is known as a strong special teamer, so he more than likely has the edge over these three. Of these three, however, they should have room to carry two of them. Also, like Johnson, whichever two make the team will more than likely be strong special teamers.
Chickillo was a 2015 sixth-round pick, while Feeney and Matakevich went in the sixth and seventh rounds of the 2016 draft, respectively. What that says is that all three are expendable, and more than likely any that get cut can clear waivers and wind up on the practice squad. Matakevich is probably the least likely to clear waivers, however, due to name value. The 2015 Bronco Nagurski winner for best defensive college player has a name many general managers may see being cut in late August and look to give him a shot. He projects to be a natural special teamer, and it would be in the Steelers best interest to carry him on the roster.
The Steelers should have four middle linebackers who are locks on the roster, and four outside linebackers for locks on the roster, so adding Matakevich as your fifth inside backer, and letting Feeney and Chickillo duel it out for the fifth outside spot also makes sense. Feeney is faster and fits more into the special teams type of skill set, but Chickillo was called up from the practice squad last year, and not only saw time on special teams but saw a few snaps as a linebacker on defense as well. Feeney is undersized, and it is unlikely he can handle the roles of an edge rusher this season. He also has dealt with shoulder problems and has had both shoulders operated on while at Washington. With Chickillo having experience, and Feeney being a name that can easily clear waivers and make it to the practice squad, the expectation is that Chickillo and Matakevich have the edge in the early portion of the off-season.
Winners: Anthony Chickillo and Tyler Matakevich
- Shamarko Thomas vs. Ross Ventrone vs. Jordan Dangerfield
The Steelers will have three locks at safety in Mike Mitchell, Sean Davis, and Robert Golden, so the fourth man may be seeing playing time on defense, as Golden and Davis are far from established players. However, similar to the linebacker battle, this one will come down to who can provide the most on special teams. Even more similarly to the linebacker battle, there is a decent chance they can throw two of these safeties on the 53-man. In this case, Ventrone should be the closest to a lock. He has been with the Steelers the longest and gives the most special teams value. If the Steelers are confident that Ventrone can play safety in emergency scenarios, they may cut loose the other two and add an extra player elsewhere. However, it would be tough today to say that the Steelers would be confident in only carrying four safeties.
Therefore, arguably the last roster spot on the team will come down to Thomas and Dangerfield, and that does not look good for Dangerfield. Thomas was drafted to be a starting safety and a replacement for Troy Polamalu. While that has not worked out well for Thomas, he does have the experience of practicing and at some times playing in the strong safety position. Dangerfield would be best off beating Ventrone for a special teams position, but given Ventrone and his relationship with the Steelers he will have the hardest time of the three making this team.
Winners: Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone
- Eli Rogers vs. Demarcus Ayers
What special teams coach Danny Smith noted when explaining the drafting of Demarcus Ayers in round seven should not bode well for Eli Rogers. He mentioned how much they needed someone to replace Antonio Brown as the punt returner. Smith proclaimed that he rated Ayers as the best returner in the draft, and when asked if Rogers will have a chance to compete for the punt returner job, he pretty much deflected the question.
Rogers may be in a position where he is more so dueling with someone like Shamarko Thomas rather than Ayers because of this. The Steelers gave Rogers a lot of chances last year, and he had a decent shot at making the team in the summer before spending the year on the practice squad. They carried six wide receivers last year, but that had to do with Tyler Murphy being an emergency quarterback while they eased in Michael Vick who was signed just weeks before the season as a backup quarterback. It is unlikely that the Steelers carry six wide receivers as opposed to five safeties, so Rogers may have to flat out beat Ayers on the field. With the Steelers desperately wanting Brown off of the punt return unit, but giving Rogers no chances to earn the job last year, and even signing Jacoby Jones for a week rather than testing Rogers, spells out how they feel about him returning kicks. It gives Ayers a major advantage from day one, and gives Rogers a major hill to climb.
Winner: Demarcus Ayers
- Chris Hubbard vs. B.J. Finney
As mentioned in the other two positions, there is a good chance the loser of this battle will be dueling with Shamarko Thomas for the final roster spot. There is a feeling that the Steelers like both of these two young men, and there is probably a better chance both of these two make the roster rather than Rogers, and even a decent chance they both make it over Thomas.
Hubbard has been with the team for three years. He has position versatility, and last year appeared in eight games for the Steelers. Finney mainly projects as a guard, but could swing around in emergency situations if needed. Last year, while Finney was on the practice squad, the Steelers gave him a raise mid-season, one that resembled a player who is on the 53-man roster. It was speculated that teams had heard and saw Finney and were planning on trying to sign him away from the Steelers practice squad, and onto their active roster. The raise helped keep Finney in Pittsburgh, and you have to wonder why they would give him about a $20,000 raise last year if they had no intentions on using him at some point. Hubbard is a restricted free agent next year, so the thought here is that the Steelers will overpay Finney for one more year to hang out on the practice squad, with the full intentions that next year they make the shift to Finney and sign him to a multi-year deal.
Winner: Chris Hubbard
- Chris Boswell vs. Shaun Suisham
While the battles above are fun and between position players, this battle will have the biggest impact on the 2016 Steelers. Suisham was the man in Pittsburgh at this point last year. In five years in Pittsburgh, Suisham is 124 of 141 and he has never missed an extra point. In the preseason of the 2015 season, however, he went down with an ACL injury that sidelined him for the year. After signing Garrett Hartley and trading for Josh Scobee with nothing to show for it, the team finally found their man in Chris Boswell. “The Bos” went 29 of 32, the same results that Suisham showed in his last year in 2014, but did miss one extra point. It can be noted that Suisham has yet to kick an extra point since they moved it back last year. Still, Boswell won over most of the fans, and is only 25 compared to Suisham who will turn 34 this year. On the other side, Suisham is signed on for the next three years while Boswell will be a free agent after this year.
This one will truly be won during training camp, but even with his contract, the edge should go to the younger Boswell. The Steelers should be looking to showcase Suisham in the preseason and show teams that he is still the same old guy who was legitimate before his injury. In doing that, it would give a hope that the Steelers can trade Suisham and his contract for a late round pick, similar to how they acquired Scobee last year. With the bit of money that is cleared up by Suisham, the Steelers could then look to extend Boswell to a similar deal that they had just given Suisham. It also gives them the time to make sure Boswell was not a one year fluke, and in the very worst case scenario, the Steelers eat a small portion of cap this year to cut Suisham if he is showing that he cannot come back from his injury.
Winner: Chris Boswell
After examining these five position battles, what may be the most interesting of them all would be Shamarko Thomas vs. BJ Finney vs. Eli Rogers for the very last roster spot. How the Steelers feel about their situations within each position, and how they feel about how these three can contribute on special teams will make the difference. That would truly be the biggest toss up, and it would be a lot tougher to break down where the Steelers feel on these guys in comparison to players they are battling in the same positions. So what do you think? Does it really come down to these three? Are any of them locks in your eyes? If so, who will and will not make the Steelers 53-man roster out of the twelve players examined here?