Despite many moves, Steelers' depth still a work in progress
The Steelers' depth chart looks nothing like it did when they finished the season against the Browns more than three months ago — and nothing like it will when they open the season against a still-unannounced opponent in a little less than five months.
Even after the most extensive free agent-driven roster reshuffling to date for the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin tandem, with seven players arriving via free agency and nine departing, the Steelers have significant lineup holes and depth issues.
They are not exactly tearing down and starting over, but there is a lot of renovation.
There's still no certifiable wide receiver starter to complement Antonio Brown, so unless second-year receiver Markus Wheaton has a big training camp, a starter could emerge during the first or second round of the NFL Draft on May 8-10.
And will the draft produce a starting defensive end now that Ziggy Hood has signed with Jacksonville and Brett Keisel hasn't re-signed? Cam Thomas, a nose tackle with the Chargers, could play there, but the Steelers haven't had many 330-pound ends in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 system.
The offense looks to be more settled now that LeGarrette Blount is backing up Le'Veon Bell at running back, Darrius Heyward-Bey is around to provide a speed option on long-yardage downs at wide receiver and Lance Moore replaced Jerricho Cotchery as the slot receiver. The majority of the depth-chart gaps are on a defense that keeps getting younger but at least for the moment doesn't look any better than the one that finished an uncharacteristically low 13th last season.
For the moment, they're better than before at running back and safety but thinner at wide receiver, linebacker and the defensive line.
“We're well aware of our depth and what we need to do to add to it, and we'll continue to try to add to it,” Colbert said. “We also know we don't line up until September.”
The work to be done includes:
• Sorting out the defensive line. If another defensive end is found, does Thomas move ahead of Steve McLendon at nose tackle, or do the two share the position?
• Drafting another cornerback, especially now that there is every sign this is Ike Taylor's final season. William Gay started last season, and Cortez Allen is starter-capable, but the Steelers believe he needs to play better than he did in 2013. If the first-round pick turns out to be a cornerback, it's likely he will start immediately.
• Adding depth at outside and inside linebacker, which might be the thinnest positions. Vince Williams, a sixth-round pick, started at inside linebacker last season, and there still aren't any signs Sean Spence can be counted on after missing two seasons with a serious knee injury. If Jarvis Jones struggles to lock down the outside linebacker's job opposite Jason Worilds, the only option at the moment is newly signed Arthur Moats, who did not play full time in Buffalo.
“He's a guy that is going to be able to do multiple things for us,” Tomlin said of Moats.
• Settling on the safety roles. Mike Mitchell looks to be a multi-season starter at free safety, but strong safety Troy Polamalu's contract restructuring — like Ike Taylor's — suggests this could be his final Steelers season. The Steelers look to be readying Shamarko Thomas to start by 2015, but Will Allen is the only experienced backup.
• Making one more move on special teams. The only punter on the roster is Brad Wing, one of college football's best punters at LSU in 2012. The Steelers are all but certain to bring in an experienced punter to compete in camp, just as they signed Brian Moorman to go against Drew Butler last year — though neither was on the roster when the season started.
• Finding some offensive-line depth. Offensive guard is the thinnest position on the offensive line; there's no experienced backup behind Ramon Foster and David DeCastro, although backup tackle Guy Whimper can play there.
“There's plenty of time to continue to add,” Colbert said.