By Jeremy Hritz
This is the last week of preparations before the concluding preseason game against the Carolina Panthers this Friday at 7:30 PM. For a handful of Steelers, this is their final opportunity to make their case for the 53-man roster, and Friday night will be a high-stakes contest for them. Below is a list of 5 players on the cusp, who with a good showing on Friday, have a great chance of securing a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Mathew Sexton has shown, though in a limited sample size, that he has the skill and ability to be an effective return man in the NFL. Against the Lions, he was decisive, and committed to returning a punt in which it appeared no space was available. The end result was a 47-yard return that Sexton nearly took all the way home. His competition, Ray-Ray McCloud, did not fare as well, showing hesitancy in the return game, something that was a characteristic of his performance last season. While Sexton has not shown much as a receiver, the value of a strong return game and its power to flip the field and set up the offense for a scoring opportunity, makes this undrafted prospect a valid candidate for the 53. With a big Friday night in the return game, Sexton could convince the coaches that he belongs on the Steelers final roster.
The outside linebacker room is strong at the top, and now even has quality depth with the signing of Melvin Ingram, and this could open the door at the 4th (possibly even 5th) outside linebacker spot for one of the unproven outside linebackers. Prior to the signing of Ingram, I was concerned about the OLB depth, and Cassius Marsh seemed like a shoe-in for the 4th roster spot due to his experience, but now, the team has the luxury to hang on to its younger edge rushers and allow them time to develop. Enter Jamir Jones who has been steady and has produced both in the training camp practices and preseason games, and establishing this type of pattern is important and noticeable by the coaching staff. Jone has provided consistent pressure on the quarterback, and has even hit the stat sheet with sacks in the preseason games, giving the Steelers every reason to consider him as a realistic option as the #4 OLB. The Key for Jones is showing what he can provide in terms of special teams to increase his value, and if the team believes he has something to offer in this realm, coupled with another good showing against the Panthers, he may latch on to the 53.
Following the first preseason contests against the Dallas Cowboys, tight end Kevin Rader made some noise with a 15-yard reception and physicality in the run blocking game. He somewhat continued that trend against the Eagles. However, in a league that is built on the mantra of what have you done for me lately, Rader has been somewhat quiet, while Zach Gentry has elevated his game in the area of blocking. While he has not shown much in the passing game, Gentry has shown he is more than adequate as a blocker, and with the renewed focus on the running game in 2021, he may be the more valuable candidate at the position than Rader. With two pass catchers at the position already in Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers don’t need such an output from Gentry in terms of receiving, but instead need the blocking ability. This is Gentry’s 3rd year with the team, and the Steelers investment may finally be paying off. If Gentry can put more high-effort, quality blocks on tape against the Panthers, his spot as the #3 tight end will be secured.
At the start of training camp, and even following the HOF Game, I was not confident inn Justin Layne’s prospects to make the roster. However, following the last 2 preseason contests, and coupled with Mike Tomlin’s praise, Layne is within striking distance to remain on the 53 and continue to work to show the Steelers he has the talent they saw when they drafted him. Layne has been slow to develop, and has consistently allowed receivers to get behind him, giving up the big play. He has also been grabby, racking up pass interference penalties, which have also devalued his services. Against the Lions, Layne was solid, and may have had his best preseason showing. Some players develop more slowly than others, and that may be the case with Layne, and while nothing is written in stone, another quality output Friday night will earn him another year on the roster.
I have no clue what is going on with Bennie Snell, and his injury and absence from Friday’s game is a mystery. While it doesn’t happen too often, Snell may be an instance of where a player loses his roster spot due to injury. That said, if Snell can go Friday night, and if he can have a big showing, it could give the team pause to keep an addition running back on the roster in 2021. The Steelers invested a 4th round pick in Snell in 2019, and probably do not want to fold on him just yet. With that said, he must be healthy for Friday, and he must demonstrate value across the board: running and catching, in addition to pass protection. Doing so will put him back into the discussion amongst the coaches, but not doing so spells the end of Bennie Snell Football.