PITTSBURGH — This time a year ago, the Steelers took a team into New England that included 10 players who are no longer on active NFL rosters entering Week 1 of 2020. They ended their injury-ravaged 2019 campaign with 11 such players, several of whom were elevated from and have now been placed back on their own practice squad.
End-of-the-year attrition is one thing, but when you're going into a new season fully healthy — or close to it — you should have been able to identify as much talent as you can fit under the salary cap in the offseason in order to make a run at another Super Bowl. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert admitted in February that when you finish 8-8, it's the result of a lot of 8-8 decisions. We should find out quickly whether these Steelers upgraded, and we're not just talking about the quarterback spot with Ben Roethlisberger returning.
It starts there, but they'll also need a few free-agent additions to make much more of an impact than the one receiver Donte Moncrief had last season. One will be thrown into the fire right away, with veteran offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski slated to start at right guard in the absence of David DeCastro, who has been ruled out for Monday night at the Giants with a knee injury.
"I've learned in my years in the NFL to be ready for anything," Wisniewski said Aug. 28. "It does look like at this point I will probably be the backup swing guy at both guards and center."
That night, DeCastro left practice after getting hurt on an inside run by James Conner in a live team drill. Wisniewski now steps into the role that was held the last four years by B.J. Finney, but if you're concerned about the Steelers letting Finney walk into free agency, consider this: Finney isn't even listed as a starter on the first depth chart for the Seahawks, who signed him to a two-year, $8 million deal. Wisniewski could be upgrade No. 1.
For Eric Ebron, it would be a massive disappointment to not provide more production than the No. 2 tight end coming out of camp last year, Xavier Grimble. Ebron might even be the Steelers' No. 1 tight end, though he and Vance McDonald are both listed in the top slot on the official depth chart. That position became a revolving door for the Steelers in 2019, going from Grimble to Nick Vannett, who came over in a trade with Seattle after Week 2.
"I think the ability to rotate those two is going to be very useful all season long in an attempt to keep them fresh," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said of Ebron and McDonald. "You will see them out there together, as well."
The third free agent the Steelers are paying at least $1 million to help their offense this year is fullback Derek Watt, whose predecessor did make a Pro Bowl here. But that was three years back, and now Roosevelt Nix is without a home after being cut by the Colts in late August. Grimble was in Indianapolis, too, before he was released last week, and other guys who were key cogs at times last year such as Moncrief, Johnny Holton and Ryan Switzer are either unsigned or on practice squads.
Defensively, last year's top backup at outside linebacker, Anthony Chickillo, did not make the active roster in New Orleans. Inside linebacker Mark Barron didn't sign with Denver until late in the summer and he's already been in and out of practice with the Broncos due to injury. Barron, Moncrief and Steven Nelson were the three 2019 signings worthy of a news conference last offseason, but only Nelson remains from that free-agent class.
"The coaches got the guys they wanted to get in here, and obviously they evaluated them and those are the guys we kept," Nelson said Saturday after the team's final practice before the opener. "Those guys are doing really well, they're learning really well, coming along, and they're just ready for when their number's called."
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