Job Security in the NFL: Are Any Steelers Starters in Danger?
Today’s post was inspired by the following exchange on yesterday’s Asked and Answered, Bob Labriola’s Q and A column on Steelers.com:
QUESTION: Do you see Justin Gilbert getting a start against the Chiefs, and do you also see Mike Tomlin making any changes to the secondary?
ANSWER: Justin Gilbert starting against the Chiefs? No. But there could be some personnel changes to the secondary, and those changes could be dictated by injuries. Yesterday, Robert Golden (hamstring) and Sean Davis (back) both missed practice, and both of those guys have significant roles either in the starting lineup, in sub-package alignments, or both. As a rookie, Davis is going to have to show Mike Tomlin that he can practice, because knowing what to do is a big part of it. I cannot predict how the Steelers might react if either or both of those guys cannot play, but if changes have to be made, and those changes produce positive results, then my experience is that’s how changes can become permanent.
We can all think of examples in which a player who was the starter at the beginning of the season was replaced by someone who came in for them while they were injured. I suspect this is the reason so many guys play when perhaps they shouldn’t—because they know their job (at least as a starter, perhaps at all) is only as secure as long as someone else doesn’t play better (or at least more reliably) than they do.
Labriola’s question started me thinking about this year’s team and whether there are guys who are ripe for replacement, if you will. The catch is, right now there are scarcely enough healthy bodies to think about this. But I’m going to do it anyhow. This will be Part 1, Offense, with the Defense getting a long look tomorrow.
I think we can all agree that the quarterback position is safe, assuming Ben stays healthy. I don’t think any of us are ready for the Landry Jones era to begin. Or, for that matter, the Zach Mettenberger era.
But what about wide receiver? After Sunday’s game I wouldn’t blame Todd Haley for promoting Darrius Heyward-Bey over Markus Wheaton. It’s unlikely to happen, though, because Eli Rogers is out with turf toe and we may not see him for a bit, as these injuries are notoriously lingering. When Rogers is back he will resume his place at slot, I assume, but if Heyward-Bey has been playing well and catching the ball reliably on the outside, do you think Wheaton is in any danger? Interesting question.(If I’m Wheaton, with my contract year coming up, I’m going to see that doesn’t happen.)
As for running back, I’m still waiting for the transaction to occur this week which will make a spot for Le’Veon Bell. The presumption is that Daryl Richardson will be released rather than Fitzgerald Toussaint, as the coaching staff knows Toussaint better, and as Richardson didn’t really stand out. And Toussaint is more involved in special teams. I can’t see them releasing someone from a different position to keep Richardson because they are so thin in so many places. Update: Richardson was indeed released.
And speaking of transactions, a rather mysterious thing is going on. On 9/16 the Steelers signed S Jacob Hagen to the practice squad and released RB Brandon Brown-Dukes. On the 20th they released Hagen and re-signed Brown-Dukes. On the 26th they released Brown-Dukes, and on the 27th re-signed Hagen. Perhaps this is due to where they think they are thinnest, but it seems rather strange.
But let’s return to the main point and look at the tight end situation. There isn’t anywhere for TE to go at the moment, but of course if Ladarius Green is actually ready and able to play later this season someone has to go. Presumably that is Xavier Grimble, but injuries could change that as well. Frankly, I think the player they could least afford to lose is David Johnson, because he is by far the best blocker and is also a decent pass catcher. Ben would certainly miss Jesse James, though. He has several times already. (Sorry, Ben, I couldn’t resist…)
The offensive line is an interesting question. As noted in Thursday’s opponent preview, B.J. Finney replaced Ramon Foster and seemed to play quite well. Foster’s injury is a “sternum” injury, and no timeline has been given for him as far as I know. It’s difficult to imagine Finney would replace Foster, a man who just was signed to a handsome new contract, in the short term at least. And he isn’t playing at Foster’s level at the moment, much less surpassing him.
But what about Chris Hubbard? When Cody Wallace is ready to return, which one, Hubbard or Finney, will be cut? Or will they keep an extra lineman? It’s hard to imagine them not adding Wallace when he’s ready, as he has been a steady and faithful backup to Pouncey. Not a great one, but he serves the purpose well.
Does Hubbard get cut because Finney has outplayed him (if he has…) or does Finney get cut because they can’t line him up at tackle, which they can do with Hubbard? As long as they don’t mind Ben getting killed. (Sorry, Chris…) Or are they also teaching Finney to play tackle? I’m guessing not, in the middle of the season, when they just want him to play guard and/or center well. Interesting questions which, of course, could also be moot due to injuries.
And there is also the left tackle position. Alejandro Villanueva has still struggled at times, and perhaps looks worse this year because Heath Miller isn’t lining up next to him. But he’s made a goodly step up from last season, according to Pro Football Focus, although he is scarcely a top guy at the position. And last week he wasn’t the guy giving up any of the sacks, as far as I could tell. Of course, Ryan Harris is the LT in waiting (or RT, for that matter,) but clearly didn’t win the job in the preseason.
As I look at this, I’m realizing even more clearly how thin the Steelers are. It’s sort of reminding me of the 2010 Packers, who had a rash of injuries and had to replace a number of players, mainly in the early part of the season. They barely made the playoffs, and won the Super Bowl.
To be continued…