Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspenseand concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) his NFL career to date “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes thrown by Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 it was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles that was tossing him the ball. So logically with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions might be more tenuous than Bob Labriola might have you think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one with has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. Contrast that with rushing the ball, where great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide receivers, Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently meet the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, whose overall performance in Denver has exceeded that of his time in Pittsburgh. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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Ignore the Media – JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Community Activity Is Great for Pittsburgh, Steelers

If you ever wanted to know why so many athletes and coaches have such disdain for the media, they’ve given you two really good examples in recent weeks.

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article for Behind The Steel Curtain urging everyone — including the media and fans — to stop taking positive quotes from Steelers players and trying to twist them into negative narratives.

  • Why did I have to write such an article?

Because of the reactions to quotes from both quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and third-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster that couldn’t have been any more positive and of the “taking the high road” variety.

Yet, instead of believing Ben Roethlisberger when he apologized to Brown during his interview with KDKA’s Bob Pompeani that he was sorry for his part in the deterioration of his relationship with former receiver Antonio Brown, you had people calling him a phony and a liar. You even had people such as former Steelers outside linebacker and assistant coach Joey Porter, who appeared on The NFL Network, saying Roethlisberger’s apology was too little, too late.

Then there were those who tried to read things into the positive comments JuJu Smith-Schuster made to the media two weeks ago — to paraphrase, he said he would put team success above individual numbers, and that he’d have no media restrictions in 2019 — as slights at Antonio Brown, who has gone out of his way to attack Smith-Schuster on social media this off-season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster water ballon fight

JuJu Smith-Schuster at his first annual water ballon fight. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Speaking of JuJu Smith-Schuster, as you well know, he’s been an omnipresent social media character since the Steelers selected him in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Everywhere you turn, there’s JuJu Smith-Schuster doing things like dancing with elderly folks at a retirement home, having water balloon fights with little kids at the park and dancing with teenagers at their prom.

Yes, the prom.

Last weekend, Smith-Schuster attended the Chartiers Valley High School prom as the “date” of a male student whose actual date broke up with him right before the event. The kid sent JuJu Smith-Schuster a direct message on Twitter asking him to go with him, and the receiver obliged — the two showed up with matching tuxes and everything.

You might think this would be received as what it was: one of the most unique and refreshing Steelers personalities to come along in quite some time doing something really cool for a high school student who no doubt had his heart broken right before one of the biggest events of his life.

  • Instead of it being a truly depressing time for him, this kid probably had the night of his life and will now forever remember his prom as well as his “date.”

Smith-Schuster attending a kid’s prom is nothing unique in the celebrity world. They do it all the time in cases such as this, when a young fan approaches them — usually on social media — and asks them to be their date.

This isn’t usually perceived as perverted or just a phony publicity stunt aimed at furthering the celebrity’s brand. But if you have listened to some folks in the Pittsburgh sports media this week, “sick” and “phony” are just some of words used to describe JuJu Smith-Schuster’s motives.

Ron Cook, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and co-host of the Cook and Joe Show on 93.7 The Fan, said JuJu Smith-Schuster, 22, was “sick” for attending a prom full of teenagers. He said if JuJu Smith-Schuster had attended the same prom as his daughter, he would have had a huge, huge problem with it.

Mark Madden, the controversial sports shock jock host on 105.9 The X and long-time critic of Smith-Schuster (like Hines Ward before him), has continued to pile on the young receiver this week for his ongoing community presence. And while he said JuJu Smith-Schuster attending the prom wasn’t a problem in and of itself, when you combine it with everything else, it’s clearly obvious he’s simply trying to build his brand.

“Why is there always a camera present,” scolds Mark Madden every time Smith-Schuster is in the news for some community involvement that often shows him having fun and including everyone around him.

  • Again, you wonder why so many people associated with professional sports have a problem with the media.

In this mostly cynical age we now live in, even the fans have started to pile on JuJu Smith-Schuster: “For once, I’d like to see him do something nice in the community without a camera being there to document everything!”

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Here’s a third-year player, who appears to have the ability to be one of the best receivers in the NFL sooner rather than later, doing nothing but positive things for a Steelers organization that, believe it or not, needs an image overhaul, yet, instead of applauding JuJu Smith-Schuster for his “breath of fresh air” approach to life as an NFL player, we’re questioning his motives? Instead of acknowledging the fact that he made a high school kid’s day by attending his prom, we call it inappropriate?

  • Forget JuJu Smith-Schuster’s motives, I’m beginning to question the motives of the media, of certain fans.

As far as the average fan that is concerned with JuJu Smith-Schuster documenting his community involvement for the purposes of posting it on social media, you’ve got some nerve. Yeah, I’m taking to you, person who likes to show me what you just had for dinner, where you had it and who you had it with.

  • Don’t we all do that kind of stuff on social media?

If we go to “karaoke night” and post a video of our horrible singing on our Facebook page, do people accuse us of trying to further our brand? No, they usually just “like” it and tell us how much fun we are.

As for the recent push back by the media who is seemingly trying to turn Smith-Schuster from a good guy into a villain, I’m guessing that has a lot to do with him not being as accommodating as some local reporters would like.

There are rumblings — rumblings hinted at by Mark Madden himself on an almost daily basis — that JuJu Smith-Schuster may not be the friendliest guy when the cameras are off. Or, let me put it this way: he may not be the friendliest guy to the MEDIA when the cameras aren’t rolling. “That kid is about a year away from being an a-hole,” Mark Madden quoted WDVE’s Mike Prisuta, a Steelers reporter and insider, as saying one afternoon during Smith-Schuster’s rookie season.

And there’s the rub. JuJu Smith-Schuster may not be fully on board with the local media, and that’s why some are starting to turn on him and question the motives for his ongoing community involvement.

  • With all due respect to the media, I don’t really care if he likes you guys or not.

I think fans have been conditioned to believe someone is a bad person if he or she doesn’t necessarily like reporters. But if you take a step back and examine things a little closer, that’s usually not the case.

  • For example, it’s quite obvious Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t like reporters, yet, nobody thinks he’s a bad person.
  • Chuck Noll didn’t think much of the media, but nobody ever questioned his character.
  • Bill Cowher had a contentious relationship with the press, but that antagonism remained in the background, at least while the Steelers were winning.

Let’s face it, it’s a weird dynamic, the one that exists between professional sports and the media. Coaches and athletes have to work closely with the media on a daily basis, this despite the media often being critical of them.

2018 steelers throwback jerseys, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Franco Harris, John Banazack

JuJu Smith-Schuster donning Steelers throwback jersey. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

I don’t blame the media for being critical when a performance dictates such an opinion, but you can certainly see where the person being criticized may not want to be very chummy afterwards.

Again, JuJu Smith-Schuster is just 22 years old. And while he’s clearly a master of the social media game, he may have some work to do in-order to improve his relationship with the sports media–the one that really can shape public perception.

  • As for the sports media, it may do you some good to stop looking for trouble when it’s not present.
  • What exactly are JuJu Smith-Schuster’s motives with regards to his continuous community and social media presence?

Who cares? Everyone is having fun. Nobody is being harmed.

The media comes to play every day, and will certainly be there to make the tackle if and when Smith-Schuster does screw up.

As for now, stop trying to draw him off-sides with your false steps.

 

 

 

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Return to Oz? Could the Dual Threat Backfield Really Return to the Steelers Offense?

Anyone else getting an Oz vibe out of Steelers OTAs? It hit on Friday May 23rd while reading Jim Wexell’sCan heart-and-soul backfield alter Steelers’ culture, too?” where the following factoid clunked me on the head:

[Jaylen] Samuels is a mix of H-back and running back who confirmed the Steelers are already experimenting with him in the backfield simultaneously with Conner.

When I came to the world was suddenly in three-strip Technicolor, but instead of Dorthy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, I was seeing visions from the early 1990’s when Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley and Warren Williams headlined the Steelers running back depth chart.

Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

Merril Hoge acts as lead blocker for Tim Worley. Photo Credit: Spokeo

Could I really believe what I was reading? Or was this promise of a two running back backfield going to be like Pittsburgh pipe dream that fades away when attention shifts from fields of St. Vincents to the Steelers preseason?

After all, we’d heard rumors of Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Jerome Bettis, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala backfied tandems that either never materialized or sustained themselves. When questioned, Jim Wexell reassured, “It’s more clear this time since Samuels is half an H-back. The coaches have a plan and are adding to it.”

Other reporters have since re-reported the news that Jim Wexell broke so it seems like the dual-threat backfield might really be returning to Pittsburgh for the first time since the 1990’s.

  • And if that does turn out to be the case, then could turn out to be very good news.

The Steelers inability to keep its top running back healthy has been a chronic problem during the Mike Tomlin era, save for 2008 and 2010. The fact that both of those seasons ended in games where a Lombardi was presented isn’t entirely coincidental.

  • Fielding a dual threat backfield could very well be the key to killing to birds with one stone.

Back in 2016, when Le’Veon Bell returned from suspension, I made an (albeit very amateur) attempt to crunch numbers looking at what the Steelers might need to do to facilitate the health and durability that, combined with Bell’s talent, could deliver a Hall of Fame career.

In doing so I looked at body of work of other Steelers feature backs:

Le'veon Bell's shelf life, franco harris, Jerome bettis, rashard mendenhall, barry foster, willie parker

Peak workloads of Steelers franchise running backs

In a nutshell, the average peak work load of Jerome Bettis, Rashard Mendenhall, Barry Foster and Le’Veon Bell came to 369 total touches and each of those running backs suffered a serious injury in the following season. (For the record, Bettis’ peak workload came in 1997, and he suffered no serious injury the following season.)

On paper, it is very easy to say “coaches should limit the number of carries a running back,” but in practice that is harder to pull off. Think back to the Steelers road win over Tennessee in 2014 or over Buffalo in 2016.

  • Le’Veon Bell took over both of those games, and pulling him to keep him under some sort of “pitch count” for running backs would have been insane.

But when you field a dual-threat backfield you can naturally split carries between running backs without disrupting the flow of the game. Everyone remembers Merril Hoge’s back-to-back 100 yard playoff games against the Oilers and Broncos for the 1989 Steelers.

  • But people forget is that Tim Worley had 50 yards rushing in both of those games as well.

Each running back set the other up for success (ok, officially speaking, Hoge was the fullback and Worley the halfback in Tom Moore’s offense.) That’s also another take away from Franco Harris tenure with the Steelers. He always split carries with Rocky Bleier, Frank Pollard or whoever was playing half back, and that certainly made him a better running back while extending his career.

It is important to remember that dual backfields while long a staple of Steelers offenses, are not necessarily a panacea for Pittsburgh. The quartet of Hoge, Worley, Foster and Williams averaged 104 carries a piece and rushed for a combined 1742 yards in 1990 on an under achieving playoff less 9-7 team.

  • Two years later, Barry Foster ran for 1690 yards all by himself on a 1992 Steelers team that earned AFC home field advantage for the playoffs.

But the fact that the Steelers are actively looking for creative ways to get James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr. and, who knows, Sutton Smith, on the field together is a welcome sign.

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James Washington’s Weight Loss Shows He’s Committed to Improving

If you’re anything like me, you probably never looked at James Washington at any point during his rookie season and said, “That guy really needs to lose some weight.”

It’s rare to think that about any wide receiver, let alone one who came into the league as a second-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State with a reputation of being an accomplished deep threat. Yet, the Steelers apparently thought so, as they reportedly wanted him to be at 210 pounds by the start of the 2019 regular season.

Why would Pittsburgh want an already lean looking rookie to lose even more weight? Who knows, but it’s likely not an indictment of the youngster, considering the team has asked that of a lot of its newcomers in recent years–Le’Veon Bell, Bud Dupree and even veteran running back DeAngelo Williams were just a few players who were challenged to slim down shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh.

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals 2018 Heinz Field,

James Washington vs the Bengals. Photo Credit: Tribune Review.

The good news is, James Washington came to the NFL with a reputation for having an incredible work-ethic, one that was developed while working on his father’s farm growing up. And that’s why, according to Washington, per an article published on Steelers.com, he managed to drop 15 pounds and get down to his team mandated weight this spring.

“I went home for the first two weeks, was putting in some hard work with my dad on the farm,” said Washington, courtesy of Steelers.com. “I was trying to cut down on weight. Eat less. I went to Miami and worked in the sun. Worked on strength, strong hands, all the things receivers work on.”

When you read that paragraph, it makes you realize just how hard the second-year receiver worked this spring, and how well-rounded his commitment was to honing his craft (if you simply believed what some reporters were saying on Twitter last week, you would have assumed Washington told them he lost the 15 pounds on Daddy’s Texas farm).

At any rate, if there’s ever a second-year receiver who has nowhere to go but up, it’s James Washington. Coming off a 2018 campaign in-which he caught just 16 passes for 217 yards and one lone touchdown, James Washington certainly has a ton to prove in his sophomore season.

Will he? That’s impossible to know right now. But he certainly seems willing to give it his best shot possible. And with the current look of Pittsburgh’s receiving corps, he has a great opportunity to establish himself–and do so rather quickly.

Yeah, sure, the Steelers signed veteran Donte Moncrief to a multi-year deal, and they drafted Diontae Johnson in the third round, but that doesn’t mean they no longer have high hopes for a man they recently invested a second-round draft choice in.

During the now infamous edition to his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan that followed a fairly ridiculous and laughable loss to the Broncos on November 25, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger called out two of his receivers. One of those receivers was obviously Antonio Brown, who reacted to his quarterback’s criticisms in the worst possible way, as he burned every visible bridge (and maybe even his legacy as the greatest receiver in team history) on his way to Oakland.

  • The other receiver was James Washington, who dove to catch a pass during the game that, had he simply stayed on his feet and caught it in stride, would have gone for a touchdown.

Who do you think would have handled the criticism of his quarterback better, a veteran who was in the midst of the greatest six-year run for any receiver in NFL history; or a rookie that had accomplished nothing up to that point in his career?

Obviously, the betting money would be on the veteran. But as I already alluded to, the veteran is now wearing the silver and black as a member of the Raiders. As for the rookie, he took the constructive criticism as just that, and he’s now using it to try and make himself a better football player.

It remains to be seen if James Washington will make that all-important first to second year leap in 2019. But if his commitment to getting better is any indication, he’s certainly willing to do whatever it takes to find out.

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Take Away from Steelers OTAs Week One? Ben Roethlisberger is a Bigger Man than Antonio Brown

The Steelers started OTAs this week and as expected, little real news was to be had, save for the report that the Steelers are trying out Sutton Smith at running back.

But the real take away from Steelers OTA’s really didn’t shed light on anything new, but rather reaffirmed a truth everyone in Pittsburgh already knew:

You know the drill by now. With the Steelers in a must-win situation to make the playoffs, Antonio Brown took umbrage at Ben Roethlisberger when he wanted to re-run a play during a walk through, and then went AWOL on his team.

Pictures don’t lie. Ben Roethlisberger is the bigger man than Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Justin Berl, Getty Images via Deadspin

Maybe Antonio Brown was upset that JuJu Smith-Schuster had won the MVP award. Maybe it was all a Drew Rosenhaus ploy to get his client more money. We don’t know and we’ll probably never know for sure.

  • But rather than man up for his actions, Antonio Brown chose to blame it all on Big Ben.

Ben Roethlisberger had an “owner’s mentality.” Antonio Brown begun spinning the yarn, and the national media was only too happy to join in. Rashard Mendenhall called Ben a racist. Josh Harris, that erstwhile authority on all things Steelers, he of the 9 NFL carries, accused Ben Roethlisberger of fumbling intentionally to make Todd Haley look bad.

Emmanuel Sanders joined the pile on (although Sanders was also critical of Brown.) So did Hines Ward. And Dieon Sanders. And just about anyone else the national media could find.

  • Through it all, Ben Roethlisberger kept his own counsel. Roethlisberger remained silent.

KDKA’s Bob Pompeani interviewed Ben Roethlisberger right before OTAs were set to start. Big Ben finally had a chance to strike back.

  • Instead, Ben Roethlisberger chose to apologize.

He apologized to Antonio Brown for his comments following the loss to the Broncos. Explained that he’d tried to reach out to Brown multiple times. He affirmed that he still thought of Antonio Brown as a friend. He credited Antonio Brown for making him a better quarterback.

  • How did Brown react? He called Ben Roethlisberger two faced.

(OK, Brown didn’t specifically name Ben, and did launch several other critic tweets, but who are we kidding here?) Ben Roethlisberger certainly his made his mistakes as a person and as a teammate. But he was big enough to say “I was wrong” and “I am sorry” even when he probably didn’t even half to.

As for Brown? He was too busy tweeting things like “Two Face” to attend Raiders OTA’s. I guess that’s why Jon Gruden made sure to give him a contact that didn’t have any unguarantees….

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Redskins Sign Jon Bostic. Did Steelers Err in Cutting Him? Probably Not. But….

News that the Washington Redskins had signed former Steelers linebacker Jon Bostic once again reinforced the notion the timing is everything in the NFL.

Not quite 3 hours elapsed between Pittsburgh picking Derwin Grey to wrap up their 2019 draft class and the announcement that they’d signed their initial 2019 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class. 2 minutes later the hammer fell: The Steelers cut Jon Bostic.

That set this blogger into motion, penning a missive wondering whether the Steelers had made a mistake. Of course thanks to the 12 hour work day, the article never saw the light of day. Until now, thanks to boys in Ashburn, Virginia.

Cam Heyward, Jon Bostic, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

Cam Heyward & Jon Bostic put Matt Ryan under duress. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

The fact that the Washington wasted little time following the loss of Ruben Foster suggests that the rest of the league sees Jon Bostic belongs in the NFL. Yet, that doesn’t validate my initial gut reaction that letting Jon Bostic wasn’t the right thing to do. Before diving deeper, let’s get two things out of the way:

  1. I’m a certified sucker for underdog stories of players like Jon Bostic.
  2. The Steelers tried to replace Ryan Shazier with a combination of Bostic, Morgan Burnett and subpackages
  3. And they failed.

There’s no arguing the final point. Sure the Steelers defense did improve more than is generally acknowledged by season’s end – See the victory over the Patriots and the should have been victory over the Saints.

However, story of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s 2019 is that the duo has set out to essentially undo its mistakes from 2018. Clearly, the Steelers braintrust do not see the B’s, Bostic and Burnett, as crucial for sustaining that improvement in 2019.

Perhaps they’re on to something. Jon Bostic was already losing snaps in favor of L.J. Fort by the time Pittsburgh played New England and New Orleans.

  • His snap percentages in those two games were 24.2 and 27.3, well below his season average of 52%.

Finally, a Steelers inside linebacker depth chart that reads, Mark Barron, Vince Williams, Devin Bush certainly beats one that reads, Vince Williams, Jon Bostic, and L.J. Fort.

  • So the case for cutting Jon Bostic appears pretty convincing, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe it does. But that doesn’t mean that Jon Bostic didn’t add value to the Steelers in 2018. He his sure tackling and stout work against the run helped shore up shaky run defense. In late November, voters looked poised to send Bostic to the Pro Bowl, and as Sean Gentille reported, Pro Football Focus liked him at the time.

The main argument for reserving a roster spot for Jon Bostic on the 2019 Steelers would have been the depth he could have offered. Should something happen to two of the Steelers top three inside linebackers, there’s no question that Jon Bostic would be a better option than Tyler Matakevich.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Tyler Matakevich will only cost the Steelers $720,000 against the salary cap this year. Sutton Smith and Ulysees Gilbert will cost them even less.

  • Jon Bostic was set to make 2.5 million in Pittsburgh this year.

By letting Jon Bostic go the Steelers saved 1.8 million dollars, money that can be used to resign Joe Haden or perhaps pick up a veteran tight end of safety. So maybe money, and not timing, is everything in the NFL?

Either way, Steel Curtain Rising thanks Jon Bostic for his brief service to the Steelers and wishes him well in Washington.

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Can Sutton Smith Gain the Size Needed to Play Linebacker for The Steelers?

When you look at the frame of edge rusher/outside linebacker Sutton Smith, the Steelers sixth-round pick out of Northern Illinois in the 2019 NFL Draft, you wonder if he’ll have the size to play with the big boys at the professional level.

  • At first glance, Sutton Smith, at 6’1″ and 234 pounds, appears to be light years away from having the ideal size to play outside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s defense.

But maybe that’s because I’m thinking of Dick LeBeau‘s old Steelers defense, and the likes of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who seemed to carry the bulk necessary for their time.

But times are different in 2019. In Keith Butlers defense, Steelers outside linebackers are expected to be more athletic, more agile than they were in the past. In fact, Bud Dupree, who came into the league at around 270 in 2015, dropped 20 pounds by his second year. T.J. Watt, a budding star in the Steelers defense, is listed at 252 pounds.

  • Both players are more lightning than they are thunder. They’re more quiver than they are quake.

What that means is, for a player like Sutton Smith, he may not have very far to go to get to where he needs to be in order to compete in the National Football League.

Sutton Smith, Steelers 2019 6th round pick

Sutton Smith, the Steelers 1st 6th round draft pick from 2019. Photo Credit: Salt Lake City Tribune

If the desire and intensity he displayed in college on his way to 30 quarterback sacks makes its way into the Steelers weight room, there’s no reason Sutton Smith can’t pack on 10 or 15 pounds of muscle. If he does that, he’ll be in the game, he’ll be in the running for a spot on the Steelers roster.

Just take a look at second-year outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi, who is the same height as Smith and listed at 248 pounds. There’s a bit of a buzz surrounding Ola Adeniyi as he enters his sophomore season in the NFL. Who’s to say there won’t be a similar buzz about Sutton Smith this time next season?

  • Who’s to say there won’t be a buzz about Sutton Smith this summer?

Fact is, Sutton Smith has a chance to make it on the Steelers’ roster, even if it’s as an inside linebacker (his current weight would be just about ideal at that position). There’s always room on Pittsburgh’s defense for a guy with the ability to get after the quarterback. There’s always room on the Steelers roster for a player with the kind of intensity Sutton Smith displayed in college.

Sutton Smith may have limitations, but his size, well, that probably isn’t going to be one of them.

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Can the Steelers Salvage Something from Artie Burns? Perhaps There’s Hope in Pittsburgh.

If the Steelers and Artie Burns were an actual romantic couple, one might say the two sides have moved on — if not physically, certainly mentally and emotionally.

  • Or, perhaps more accurately, the Steelers have moved on.

After making Artie Burns a bit of a controversial first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft (25th, overall), the rookie cornerback worked his way into the line-up in the second half of the season, starting nine games and intercepting three passes.

Artie Burns started all 16 games in 2017, and even though he often showed lapses in performance — including an inability to play zone coverage on a consistent basis — Burns still seemed to have legitimate “upside.”

That was especially the case during the 2018 training camp, when the third-year man out of Miami reportedly more than held his own against the legendary Antonio Brown.

Artie Burns, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 Training Camp

Artie Burns intercepts a pass intended for Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

But Artie Burns’ inconsistency in 2017 mushroomed into downright consistent poor play at the start of the regular season. After starting six games, Burns was eventually replaced in the lineup by veteran journeyman Coty Sensabaugh.

  • Artie Burns was a non-factor down the stretch and contributed nothing in the secondary for a team that missed the playoffs by a mere half of a game.

At a time when Artie Burns should have been coming into his own as an NFL cornerback — there were some who said he had the potential to be the best cornerback from the 2016  NFL Draft — Burns was justifiably labeled a bust by many at season’s end.

The Steelers certainly acted like the label was apt, as their first big free agent move was to ink veteran cornerback Steven Nelson to a fairly lucrative three-year contract.

Fast-forward to the 2019 NFL Draft, and the Steelers doubled-down on the cornerback position by picking Michigan State’s Justin Layne in the third round. Perhaps the final nail for Artie Burns came shortly after that when Pittsburgh announced that it would not be picking up Burns’ fifth-year option, meaning 2019 will be his final one before he hits free agency.

Is Artie Burns a Lost Cause?

Truth be told, while nothing the Steelers have done at the cornerback position should give Artie Burns confidence that they have, well, confidence in him, this doesn’t mean he can’t win back their trust by reviving a career that has already had a few shovels of dirt thrown on it.

William Gay, a 2007 fifth-round pick out of Louisville, once struggled so much at the cornerback position, it didn’t seem like his career would last much beyond the 2010 season.

But in 2011, William Gay suddenly “got it,” and was so effective, he parlayed his uptick in performance into a decent free agent contract with the Cardinals in 2012. William Gay returned to the Steelers one year later, following his release from Arizona, and soon became Pittsburgh’s number one corner, starting a combined 40 games between 2013-2015.

Keenan Lewis, a third-round pick out of Oregan State in the 2009 NFL Draft, did next to nothing during his first three seasons, before suddenly putting it all together in 2012. In fact, Keenan Lewis was arguably Pittsburgh’s best cornerback that year, and the timing couldn’t have been better for him, as he was a much-sought after free agent who signed a huge deal with the Saints.

Point is, the Steelers could have very easily parted ways with both William Gay and Keenan Lewis during the lowest points of their respective careers, yet they were each allowed one more chance to prove their worth–and they were successful in doing so.

Artie Burns may not know who he will be playing for in 2020 (or even 2019, for that matter), but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be Pittsburgh. Joe Haden is scheduled to hit free agency next spring, and I’m sure the Steelers wouldn’t mind finding a younger replacement who is just as effective.

Notice how I didn’t throw “cheaper” into the mix, and that’s because Artie Burns can still pull a William Gay or Keenan Lewis and suddenly “get it” just in time to cash in. And if he doesn’t do that in Pittsburgh, well, there will be plenty of teams looking to throw money at the cornerback position next spring.

Artie Burns may have been left for dead by many — including his employers–but that doesn’t mean he’s buried…not yet.

 

 

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Steelers Cut Matt McCrane, Clearing Way for Matthew Wright to Challenge Chris Boswell @ St. Vincents

The Steelers cut Matt McCrane and former AAF defensive back Jack Tocho yesterday to get into compliance with the NFL’s mandated 90 man roster limit. In doing so, they cleared up a minor mystery that came along with the signing of their 2019 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class.

Matt McCrane kicking in Steelers win over Bengals. Photo Credit: Steph Chambers, Post-Gazette

In the blink of an eye, Chris Boswell went from being one of the NFL’s most accurate and dependable clutch kickers to a kicker who struggled to make extra points. Boswell’s botched kick against Oakland cost the Steelers a much needed win and contributed to the loss against Kansas City.

  • Other misses by Boswell either made other contests closer than they needed to be, or complicated comeback efforts.

While both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have expressed their confidence in Chris Boswell, they’ve also made it clear that Chris Boswell will face competition during training camp this summer at St. Vincents. And Mike Tomlin went out of his way to praise Matt McCrane efforts in the win over the Bengals at his post-season press conference.

  • So the working assumption for most of the off season has been that Matt McCrane would compete with Boswell in Latrobe.

However, the Steelers decision to sign place kicker Matthew Wright, kicker out of Central Florida following the 2019 NFL Draft was a bit of an eyebrow raiser. NFL teams routinely bring in extra kickers and punters to training camp, even when there is no real competition, to lessen the load on their starters.

  • But no NFL team is going to bring 3 place kickers to training camp.

And unfortunately, for Matt McCrane, he was the odd man out. That should not be terribly surprising. As noted when the Steelers signed Matt McCrane, his career stats were about what you’d expect of an NFL place kicker who was unemployed in late December.

And as an undrafted rookie free agent, Matthew Wright is going to come cheaper that Matt McCrane. For the record, Matthew Wright made 210 of 213 extra point attempts at Central Florida, but his field goal percentage was only 77.5%, although he did make 85% of his kicks during his senior year.

A 77.5% field goal completion rate sounds rather pedestrian, but Chris Boswell only knocked in 73.9% of his kicks while at Rice.

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Grading the Steelers 2014 Draft Class: Overall Grade B+

The picks are in. Coaches have held their press conferences. New players have done their photo ops. The latest installment of the NFL draft is history. Now it is time to grade the Steelers draft class.

  • The Steelers 2014 Draft Class that is.

Instant draft grades are as understandable as they are ridiculous. The NFL Draft IS the day when teams alternatively forge Super Bowl rosters or cement status as pretenders instead of contenders. The desire to evaluate such a momentous in real time is logical.

  • But it can’t be done. Like wine, NFL draft classes need time to mature or sour.

Just how long is a matter of opinion. Certainly you can start drawing a lot of meaningful conclusions after 4 or even 3 years. But Chuck Noll always used to say it took five years, and if that was good enough for the Emperor, who am I to argue? With that, we gladly grade the Steelers 2014 Draft Class.

Ryan Shazier, Tyson Alualu, Matthew Stafford, Alualu Stafford Sack, Steelers vs Lions

Ryan Shazier gloats over Matthew Stafford after Tyson Alualu’s 4th down sack. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers 2014 1st Round Pick – Ryan Shazier

If ever you sought an argument against drafting for need, look no further than Ryan Shazier. By the time the 2014 NFL Draft rolled around, the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker wasn’t exactly strong, but it was solid. Certainly, the Steelers had more glaring needs (like cornerback.)

And they were right. Ryan Shazier’s overall career statistics (7 sacks, 7 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles) might look pedestrian, but what those numbers don’t show is the timeliness with which Shazier made those plays.

Whether it was forcing a fumble in the playoffs against the Bengals, grabbing an interception against the Colts or making another play at the right time, Ryan Shazier was broaching Troy Polamaluesque lay making ability before suffering the spinal contusion that has most likely ended his career. Grade: Grand Slam

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2014 2nd Round Pick – Stephon Tuitt

When the Steelers picked Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round fate appeared to have stacked the deck against the rookie. The Steelers had a long history of drafting defensive lineman in the 2nd round that blossomed into busts, and they hadn’t had much luck of late in drafting players from Notre Dame.

  • But Stephon Tuitt proved that past performance doesn’t dictate future results.

Tuitt broke into the starting lineup as a rookie because of Brett Keisel’s injury and began making an immediate impact. He built on that in his “sophomore” year, was limited a bit in his next two years by injury, yet had his best year yet in 2018. Grade: Grand Slam.

Steelers 2014 3rd Round Pick – Dri Archer

What a double whammy. This is one that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomiln wanted back two times over. In the 2013 NFL Draft the Steelers traded away their 2014 3rd round pick to move up to draft Shamarko Thomas, in part because they expected to get a 3rd round compensatory pick in 2014.

  • They got that pick and promptly used it to draft Dri Archer, the fastest man in the NFL 2014 Draft.

The Steelers thought to use Dri Archer as a utility back while working him in as a wide receiver. They also wanted him to return kicks. It quickly became clear he could do none of the above. Dri Archer was so bad that when Le’Veon Bell suffered an injury before the playoffs, the Steelers had to go out and sign Ben Tate off of the couch. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 4th Round Pick – Martavis Bryant

Martavis Bryant is an interesting pick to grade. Clearly he is one player who never lived up to his potential, yet as a 4th round pick, with all of his issues, Martavis Bryant delivered decent value.

  • As both a rookie and in his second year, Martavis Bryant made some game-breaking plays.

After coming back from his suspension, Martavis Bryant didn’t make many game breaking plays but started making critical 3rd down catches late in the season. And, while this shouldn’t impact a draft grade, strictly speaking, the Steelers actually got a 3rd round pick for Martavis Bryant, and one that they used to draft Mason Rudolph, a potential starter.

Not bad value for a 4th rounder that you essentially took a flyer on. Grade: Quality Value Pick.

Steelers 2014 5th Round Pick – Wesley Johnson

The Steelers drafted Wesley Johnson in the 5th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and the young man made the roster, which was no small accomplishment for an offensive line which was already becoming deep. Unfortunately, injuries force the Steelers to cut Johnson with an eye towards putting him on the practice squad.

  • The New York Jets had other ideas and claimed him off of waivers.

Since then, Wesley Johnson has appeared in 53 NFL games and started 24. Not bad for a 5th rounder. Grade: Farm Team

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Jordan Zumwalt

Sometimes injuries end NFL careers before they get started. Such is the case with Jordan Zumwalt. The Steelers put him in injured reserve during preseason of his rookie year. They designated him injured/waived in 2015, but took him back when no one else claimed him. They gave him another shot in 2016, but ended up cutting him.

It is hardly fair to label someone like that a Bust, but the Steelers didn’t get any value out of this pick. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2014 6th Round Pick – Daniel McCullers

At first glance, a guy as big as Daniel McCullers shouldn’t be able to fail on the football field. Yet Daniel McCullers saw a decent amount of action as a rookie, and then saw his snap count dwindle year after year.

The Steelers surprised by resigning Daniel McCullers in 2018, and then again in 2019. Still, it is hard to label Daniel McCullers NFL career as anything other than what it has been. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2014 7th Round Pick — Rob Blanchflower

Labeling a 7th round draft picks as a “bust” is a bit harsh. Yet the career paths of Brett Keisel and Kelvin Beachum serve as a reminder 7th round picks can become good players. Rob Blanchflower earned a spot on the Steelers practice squad in 2014, and got invited back to camp in 2015 but got cut at the end of summer. Grade: Bust

Overall Grade for the Steelers 2014 Draft

In 2014 the Steelers had the 15th draft position, tying 2007 for the best draft positioning Pittsburgh has had since 2004, when they picked Ben Roethlisberger. Just like 2007, the Steelers made excellent picks in the first two rounds, and made a solid pick in the 5th round, albeit one that other teams are benefiting.

Their 4th round pick had issues, but delivered value. And their 6th round pick is still in the league. Overall Grade: B+

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