The Steelers are one of the most stable franchises in the NFL, and they pride themselves on continuity. Players drafted by the team who earn starting jobs are usually rewarded with a contract extension and, often, even a third contract.
While all but two starting spots are all but decided before the second preseason game has even played, that doesn't mean there isn't still some heated competition for roster spots.
Each week during preseason, RapidReports will take a position-by-position look at the players we think are likely to make the final cut to 53 on Sept. 2 and those who we think may soon be seeking alternative employment.
First, a quick glance at who is up and who is down:
Stock rising: Will Johnson was viewed as a long shot to even make the roster only a week ago. Now, he's all but a surefire starter and increasingly becoming a viable part of the offense. A West Virginia University product, Johnson was out of football last season but impressed the Steelers enough during a workout this summer to get a camp invite. By the second week of camp, he had already opened some eyes and was getting some carries and running routes in practice. Then, starting fullback/H-back David Johnson sustained a severe knee injury in the preseason opener at Philadelphia, thereby handing the job to Will (no relation).
Stock falling: Trai Essex has been a fixture on the Steelers' roster since he was drafted in 2005, and he has started games as early as his rookie season and as recently as last season. But with Pittsburgh having drafted four offensive linemen in the first two rounds of the draft over the past three seasons, it's clear that new blood was wanted. With Max Starks on PUP, Essex began training camp running with the first team at left tackle but was quickly surpassed by rookie Mike Adams. Still, Essex is versatile -- he can play every position along the line -- and that's a trait coaches are drawn to. And he is a comfortable option. If Chris Scott doesn't do anything to impress during the remainder of camp, it's likely Essex could cash in another one of his nine roster lives. At some point, though, the numbers game is bound to catch up to him.
And here are our position-by-position projections:
QB -- In: (3) Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch. Out: Jerrod Johnson. Batch grew up just outside of Pittsburgh, lives there, has a charitable organization based in the area and is a popular local figure. Does that make his roster spot safer or more in jeopardy, though? There is a school of thought that the Steelers could cut him because he likely isn't going anywhere, and if something should happen to Roethlisberger or Leftwich, he is a phone call and a 10-minute drive away. That scenario would be far more likely to play out if Johnson performed as if he was uncuttable -- and the Texas A&M product has yet to distinguish himself enough to make that happen.
RB -- In: (4) Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Chris Rainey, Baron Batch, Will Johnson (FB). Out: John Clay. PUP list: Rashard Mendenhall. IR: David Johnson (FB). During his camp-opening press conference, coach Mike Tomlin mentioned the need to find "the division of labor" among the running backs. That quest continues as camp enters its third week. What we do know is that Mendenhall likely will not be back until the regular season begins and that Redman will fill in as the featured back. After that, things get a little murkier. The group lacks experience but includes a host of big-time college performers. The guess, at this juncture, is that Dwyer will become the traditional backup running back, with Batch the third-down back and Rainey a sparkplug who will be used in the slot, as a scatback and as a returner. Clay better hurry up if he wants to fit in somewhere.
WR -- In: (5) Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, David Gilreath. Out: Derrick Williams, Marquis Maze, Tyler Beiler, Jimmy Young, Toney Clemons, Juamorris Stewart, Paul Cox. Can somebody -- anybody? -- step up and seize an available receiver's job? With Wallace still holding out, the Steelers are perilously thin at the position after Brown, Sanders (himself an injury risk) and Cotchery. If Wallace doesn't show up before the season begins (not a likely proposition, but not out of the realm of possibility), there's a plum No. 4 WR job for the taking. The organization is screaming for someone to grab it, but no one has stood out from the inexperienced, undrafted crowd (among the group, only Williams and Clemons were drafted, and only Williams has an NFL reception). If the season began today, it seems Gilreath is the favorite of Steelers management, but he has far from blown them away at camp. Williams is the "safest" choice, and Maze is something of a wild card because he is intriguing in the return game. In fact, if Rainey wasn't around, the solid bet would be Maze to be a return specialist and, therefore, the default No. 5 receiver. Clemons is a local kid who was drafted this year, but he doesn't appear ready -- but he's a perfect practice-squad candidate. Keep an eye on Beiler, who went to Division III Bridgewater College. Mostly, though, expect offensive coordinator Todd Haley to use sets that feature multiple tight ends, fullbacks or a back such as Rainey or Batch lined up in the slot as a way to compensate for the lack of receiver depth.
TE -- In: (3) Heath Miller, Leonard Pope, David Paulson. Out: Jamie McCoy. Suspended for the first four games: Weslye Saunders. Similar to Wallace's absence during camp, the fact that Saunders is unavailable for the first month of the season turns a position of great depth into one in which a roster spot is there for the taking. Paulson probably needs another year of seasoning, opening the door for the 6-3, 240-pound McCoy, who has promise. But the decision of who wins that battle will become moot when Saunders returns.
OL -- In: (9) Maurkice Pouncey, Willie Colon, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Mike Adams, Max Starks, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky, Chris Scott. Out: Trai Essex, Kelvin Beachum, Kyle Jolly, John Malecki. This is far from a position of "strength" for the Steelers, but it is one that has a lot of young talent. The top eight forms a solid enough group; remember, Legursky and Foster have been starting in recent years. Having them as your reserves signifies an upgrade. The Steelers typically dress only seven linemen on game day, so the final spot could go to a player they want to protect from being scooped up by another team. So far, seventh-round pick Beachum has been less than impressive. It's put up or shut up time for Scott, who is in his third camp.
DL -- In: (8) Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Casey Hampton, Steve McLendon, Cameron Heyward, Alameda Ta'amu, Corbin Bryant, Al Woods. Out: Kade Weston, Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, Jake Stoller, Mike Blanc. The Steelers have done a good job during the past three seasons addressing what had become an aging unit. Hood and Heyward were first-round picks, Ta'amu was taken in this season's draft and McLendon was an astute undrafted free agent signing in 2009. Hampton is coming off ACL surgery, and the Steelers like to rotate bodies during games, so the need for depth continues. Bryant, Woods and Weston likely are battling for one or two available jobs.
LB -- In: (8) LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Larry Foote, Jason Worilds, Stevenson Sylvester, Chris Carter, Sean Spence. Out: Adrian Robinson, Brandon Johnson, Mortty Ivy, Ryan Baker, Brandon Hicks, Marshall McFadden. A franchise position of strength seemingly for generations, the Steelers continually add talent. Just look at the past three drafts alone: Worilds was a second-round pick in 2010, Sylvester was taken in the fifth round that year. Carter was drafted before last season, and Spence is an electric -- if undersized -- third-round prospect from this season. With that kind of pedigree after the starting four, it's a tall task for anyone to leapfrog into a roster spot. That being said, Robinson (an undrafted rookie from Temple) is making a strong case with his camp performance, and Johnson (a seven-year NFL veteran) could stake his claim by being the standout on special teams he was for the Cincinnati Bengals.
DB -- In: (10) Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Ryan Mundy, Will Allen, Curtis Brown, Damon Cromartie-Smith, Robert Golden. Out: Myron Rolle, Walter McFadden, Terrence Frederick, Josh Victorian, Andre Freeman. Lewis and Allen are in quite a fight for the second starting cornerback spot, but both will play plenty. Brown, Mundy and, to an extent, Allen also will be on the field for a high percentage of snaps in today's pass-happy NFL. Allen is safe because he is a special-teams stalwart, leaving, perhaps, only one assured spot to be up for grabs. Cromartie-Smith worked his way into the rotation on special teams by the end of last season, and Golden has been one of the hidden gems of camp for an undrafted rookie.
Special teams -- In: (3) Shaun Suisham (K), Jeremy Kapinos (P), Greg Warren (LS). Out: Drew Butler (P), Daniel Hrapmann (K), Matt Katula (LS). Each of the three incumbents at these spots went into camp with a degree of vulnerability in regards to the security of their roster spots. Due in part to a back injury that has prevented him from practicing for most of camp and kept him out of the preseason opener, Kapinos is the most in danger of being cut. Butler, a rookie from Georgia, was impressive against the Eagles (49.7 yards per punt). Hrapmann has a strong leg and could be used as a kickoff specialist, but the Steelers have never been one to use a roster spot for that. Warren has been the team's long snapper since 2005; unless he gives them a reason to replace him, expect him to be in uniform come Sept. 9.