Most meaningful Steelers roster battles ahead of first preseason game

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Miles Boykin (13). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Miles Boykin (13). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Steelers have some crucial roster battles. Here are the biggest competitions to watch during their first preseason game.

After going six months without seeing the Pittsburgh Steelers compete on the field, I’m certainly ready for some NFL football. Mike Tomlin is getting set to host the Seattle Seahawks in the team’s first preseason game of 2022, and there are plenty of incentives to watch this week.

The Steelers are entering a transition phase post-Ben Roethlisberger, and their roster looks quite a bit different as we prepare for their first exhibition game. What really has me intrigued is the roster battles.

There are several battles that are hard to predict and could come down to the wire. These next three preseason games will be critical in determining who stays with the team and which players are sent packing prior to the start of the season. Here are the most meaningful roster battles to keep an eye on:

Miles Boykin vs Anthony Miller vs Gunner Olszewski

Both Miles Boykin and Anthony Miller are former day-two draft choices and each of them have had pretty strong practices at Steelers training camp. Throw former All-Pro return man Gunner Olszewski in the mix and you have some pretty strong depth at the wide receiver position. However, one (or perhaps even two) of these players will not make the final roster.

In 2021, the Steelers kept just five receivers on their roster at any given point in the season. Right now, it’s easy to see that Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, George Pickens, and Calvin Austin are all roster locks. That means that even if the Steelers decide to skimp on another position to keep a sixth receiver in 2022, one of these guys is gone.

They each have a niche to offer. Olszewski is an excellent return man with all-around special teams ability, Miller can play multiple positions on offense and return punts, while Boykin is a big-bodied receiver and very good on special teams coverage units. Keep an eye on this battle, as it likely won’t be decided until after the final preseason game.

Anthony McFarland vs Jaylen Warren

The running back battle is another one that I’m very interested in seeing how it unfolds. Najee Harris is obviously the bell-cow back, and with as many opportunities Benny Snell has had with the first-team offense this summer, I don’t imagine he’s going anywhere.

This means that the team could have just one final spot available at the running back position (not counting fullback). At the moment, young running backs Mataeo Durant and Master Teague seem to be distant afterthoughts. This means that Anthony Mcfarland and Jaylen Warren have the best shot to battle for the RB3 position this year.

Both players are compact, but with different skill sets. McFarland is a twitched-up runner with blazing top-end speed, but Warren is probably a better runner between the tackles thanks to his muscular frame and contact balance. I think McFarland is in the lead here, but Warren has been one of the more impressive players at Steelers training camp.

Connor Heyward vs Kevin Rader

The Steelers have too many tight ends and not enough roster spots to go around. Assuming that Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry are both healthy to start the season, the third roster spot is likely either going to go to Connor Heyward or Kevin Rader.

Heyward has worn many hats already at Steelers camp — much like he did for Michigan State. I can certainly see him sticking around on the final roster thanks to his ability to play anything from fullback to tight end to H-back — all the while helping out in a variety of ways on special teams.

Rader, meanwhile, is a more traditional ‘Y’ tight end with good size and the ability to block in-line. Rader has been no slouch at Steelers camp either and he has impressed at times.

For those thinking that Heyward and fullback Derek Watt both can’t make the team, I wouldn’t be too sure. Watt has been working exclusively with the running backs while Heyward has only been with the tight ends at camp. It will be interesting to see who the final tight end spot goes to.

Marcus Allen vs Buddy Johnson vs Mark Robinson

This is one of the biggest camp battles that I’m excited to watch unfold. Marcus Allen, Buddy Johnson, and Mark Robinson are all going to be jousting for position in the linebacker pecking order. This would have been an even more complicated group to figure out had Ulysees Gilbert not recently been waived with an injury designation.

Allen has a leg up thanks to his plethora of special teams experience over the past two seasons, but he can’t seem to stay healthy. Johnson is Pittsburgh’s former 2021 fourth-round pick with quality athletic traits but hasn’t shown much yet on the field, while Robinson is a former safety convert from Ole Miss entering his rookie season with the Steelers.

It’s possible that Pittsburgh is able to keep all three of these players — especially if an injury occurs to a linebacker between now and final cuts. However, one could be cut loose and signed to the practice squad. Even if they all stay, I’m interested to see how this group sorts itself out on the depth chart to begin the 2022 season.

Steelers interior defensive line battle

As deep as the Steelers are at wide receiver entering the 2022 preseason, they might be even deeper along the defensive line. This is a big difference from what we saw last year.

The roster locks at the position, in my opinion, include Cameron Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi Chris Wormley, and  DeMarvin Leal. I also think Tyson Alualu is a lock — assuming he stays healthy after his lingering knee issue this summer. The two quality players near the bottom of the roster are Isaiahh Loudermilk and Montravius Adams.

This one has me racking my brain. Historically, the Steelers only ever keep six interior defenders on their roster at any point. However, if you do a quick headcount, there are seven names listed here.

Who doesn’t make the roster? If Alualu stays healthy, my guess is that it has to be Loudermilk or Adams getting the axe. This one will have me biting my nails by the final cutdown day.

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These are some of the more intriguing Steelers roster battles I’ve seen in recent years. These preseason games could have big implications on which players ultimately win out in the end.