The Steelers made their first mandatory roster cuts today, and while there were no surprises among those released, another move is causing heads to turn.
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports that the Steelers waived center Alex Stepanovich, wide receivers Martin Nance and Steven Black and safety Derrick Richardson. They also placed guard/center Darnell Stapleton on injured reserve, making him ineligible to play for the entire 2009 season.
Why Put Stapleton on IR?
Darnell Stapleton was signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Steelers following the 2007 draft. He made the team, only dressed but did play during the Steelers playoff loss to the the Jacksonville Jaguars.
His development continued and he made the team in 2008 as a back up at guard. Stapleton was thrust into the starting line up during the Baltimore game when Kendall Simmons was lost for the year.
He started for the remained of the year on the Steelers oft maligned offensive line, but improved along with the rest of the unit, which ultimately contributed to the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XLIII.
While some expected Stapleton to be pushed for playing time in camp, coaches viewed him as a player on the rise, both a guard, and at center, where he figured to be the top back up to Justin Hartwig.
In fact, Stapleton started training camp at center due to an injury to Hartwig, but stopped practicing early in camp due to a knee injury. He had surgery which the team declared a success, and was expected to be game-ready in a matter of weeks.
Injury Worse than Expected? Or Did Darnell Disappoint?
It is impossible to know if Stapleton’s injury was worse than reported, but the cases of Marvel Smith and Ben Roethlisberger last year suggest that the Steelers are capable of being coy about injuries.
Regardless, placing Stapelton on IR deprives the Steelers of an experienced back up on the offensive line, an area where the team his little depth.
One could also speculate that Stapelton’s development had stalled, as it was reported that Trai Essex would continue as the starter at right guard regardless of whether Stapelton recovered on schedule or not. While this is plausible, it is also unlikely, as Stapelton did practice enough to disappoint.
Vote of Confidence for Ramon Foster?
Another explanation is that this move marks a vote of confidence in guard Ramon Foster. Foster signed after the draft as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Tennessee, and has impressed coaches to the point where he has generally been seen as out playing this year’s third round pick Kraig Urbik.
All of this is speculation at this point, more will certainly be known as the week evolves.
Steelers Sign Brett Keisel to a Five Year Deal
The other big news is that the Steelers have signed starting left defensive end Brett Keisel to a five year contract extension. Steel Curtain Rising will discuss the move and its implications at greater length later this week.