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If the Steelers get players back from IR after the bye, who gets released?

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin often says that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity when referring to dealing with injuries in the NFL. Whether a player is out for just one game or significant amount of time, someone else hast to step up and take his place to fill the gap. But sometimes when that players misfortune turns back to fortune and they return to the roster, someone else must pay the price.

As the Steelers head into their bye week, they now have three players who are eligible to come off the Reserve/Injured List (IR) at any time. With Cam Heyward, Diontae Johnson, and Anthony McFarland all missing their four games since they were placed on IR, they could rejoin the Steelers 53-man roster once they are deemed healthy.

But just because they are eligible to return does not necessarily mean they are able. For example, Cam Hayward is likely going to miss a few more weeks before he is ready to return after having surgery for a sports hernia. While Heyward could surprise everyone and be ready to go sooner, I would not anticipate the Steelers captain being dressed and ready to go for the Steelers next game.

When it comes to wide receiver Diontae Johnson and running back Anthony McFarland, it is quite probable that one or both players could return to the Steelers lineup in Week 7 against the Los Angeles Rams. Although they can open their practice window at any time, the Steelers wouldn’t have to add them to the 53-man roster until 4 PM on Saturday, October 21 which is the day before the Steelers play the Rams.

So the question that I am posing at this time is this: Who loses their spot on the 53-man roster when these players return?

The first option whenever these questions come up would be if there’s another player who is needing to go on IR. If that is the case, it makes these questions much easier. So when looking at Cam Heyward, knowing that he is still likely several weeks out there could be a lot that changes between now and then. If nothing has changed from a health standpoint, it is likely that Breiden Fehoko would be released and hopefully back onto the practice squad. But since there’s time, this can be a bigger question discussed as Heyward‘s return gets closer.

As for Anthony McFarland, I think the answer there is obvious as the Steelers picked up Godwin Igwebuike off of Atlanta‘s practice squad but has had him inactive every game. Now that he has spent three weeks on the Steelers roster, he can be released whenever McFarland returns.

The big question, and the ultimate question posed here, is the roster move with the return of wide receiver Diontae Johnson. There are several possibilities that the Steelers will likely consider when Johnson returns, hopefully by the Steelers next game.

First, the Steelers could simply trade out a wide receiver for a wide receiver. The player at the bottom of the list, and one Steelers’ fans would love to see lose his roster spot, is Gunner Olszewski. While this is possible, it’s not a slam dunk choice. The Steelers like to keep more than five wide receivers on their active roster and have one inactive during the game. This is the route that Steelers took in Week 1 where Olszewski was a healthy scratch. Will the Steelers return to this idea or go with their five receivers like they had this past game?

The other option is the fact the Steelers are carrying an extra tight end. When Pat Freiermuth was out injured this past week, Rodney Williams was moved to the 53-man roster from the practice squad. Although Williams only saw four snaps on offense, he did have several key plays on special teams. Not only did he miss the Steelers blocked punt being a touchdown rather than a safety by mere inches, on a play that looked like there was no chance to get the recovery, he also made the key tackle on Olszewski‘s fumble that saved the Ravens returning it for a touchdown.

Coming through on special teams is not new for Williams. During the Steelers three preseason games, Williams stood out as one of the best players on special teams. For this reason, if the Steelers choose to waive Williams when Diontae Johnson returns, the likelihood of him passing through waivers unclaimed is smaller now than it was during the initial cut down period at the end of August.

In all honesty, the roster move the Steelers are likely to make when Diontae Johnson returns may be tied more to the health of Pat Freiermuth then it is the Steelers wide receivers. If Freiermuth may not be able to go in the Steelers next game, it would be wise for them to keep the extra tight end and make the roster move somewhere else, likely at the expense of Olszewski.

So what do you think? How do you think the Steelers will handle the roster when players, specifically Diontae Johnson, return? Make sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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