Looking Forward to the Steelers Season Helps Beat the COVID-19 Blues

I was 12 years old. It was late-summer, and the Pirates were playing the Braves down in Atlanta. At one point during the game, a third baseman (I don’t remember which team he played for) dove into the stands or the dugout to catch a foul ball. After he did so successfully, a Pirates television announcer (it had to a be Pirates guy, since we were too poor to have anything but over-the-air TV during that time) joked, “I’m not sure if he got both feet in bounds during that catch.”

 

Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

When he said that, I got this warm and fuzzy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Why? I knew that football was right around the corner. I knew training camp would soon be starting up. After that, it was the preseason (believe it or not, back in those days, a preseason game was darn-near as special to me as a regular season game), and then, it would be Week 1 of the 1984 regular season.

I had already been a huge Steelers and NFL fan for a few years by that point, but I’ll never forget the warm and fuzzy feeling that just the thought of the upcoming football season gave me in that moment.

Devin Bush,

Steelers rookie Devin Bush on the fields of St. Vincents. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo! Sports

Just about every summer since then, I’ve had a brief moment where the thought of the impending football campaign has given me a feeling of joy.

Dorin Dickerson, a former Pitt and NFL tight end who grew up in Pittsburgh and is now a radio host on 93.7 The Fan, recently talked about a similar feeling he experiences even to this day, many years after his playing career.

He talked about how he starts to feel a little anxious and gets a bit of an adrenaline rush every summer when college and NFL training camps start back up. He mentioned freshly cut grass and how that made him “smell” high school football.

I got that part of it, at least–the smell of football in the air. Save for a brief stint playing midget football as a 12-year old, I never competed in the sport at a high level. But I always understand that time of year when you can just smell football in the air.

  • Even to this day, when I walk past any high school or college football field during the summer, I get goosebumps.

This is how much I love the sport.

Yes, I love baseball a ton and acknowledge that there is something very special about the early days of every MLB season — I get together with family right before the start of each season to watch a classic baseball movie (there’s nothing like a baseball movie) — but those football goosebumps, they’re real to me, damn it.

That feeling I described earlier–the warm and fuzzy one–has come in many forms every summer since that moment back in 1984. Whether it’s the smell of grass in the air, like Dorin Dickerson described, walking past a high school football field in mid-July or even the feel of a cool breeze while walking outside on a late-August evening.

  • Football has always been there for me.

And that’s why I’m growing more and more concerned that it won’t be there for me this summer. It won’t be there for any of the fans, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic that has the world trembling in its cleats–kind of like a running back used to when he saw Jack Lambert and his toothless scowl staring back at him from across the line of scrimmage.

With every professional, collegiate and high school sport currently shutdown because of COVID-19, it seems like only a matter of time before football follows suit.

  • If it does, what then?
Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger at St. Vincents in summer of 2019. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

Obviously, you move on with your life. You cope. You gain perspective and realize that there are more important things than who will make the Steelers 53-man roster. There are more pressing matters than Ben Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired elbow or whether or not head coach Mike Tomlin can finally lead his team to a seventh Super Bowl victory.

There are more important things than Pittsburgh’s chances of winning the AFC North. The Steelers conversion percentage on third downs? That pales in comparison to the percentage of people that have succumb to the virus.

The Steelers AFC North record in 2020 will mean very little if we have record-highs in unemployment due to so many businesses shutting down over the pandemic.

  • I get it, football means very little in the grand scheme of things.

But life has a habit of tackling us in the backfield on a fairly regular basis, even when there isn’t a deadly virus spreading throughout the world, and it’s always nice to have a pastime, a diversion, something to look forward to.

In fact, someone once said that the key to happiness is always having something to look forward to.

Obviously, football isn’t the only thing that brings me joy, that gives me something to look forward to. But football has always been such a huge part of my life and is without a doubt the MAIN thing I’ve always looked forward to.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the world between now and when football is scheduled to start later this year, but I hope the late-summer includes a brief moment where I feel those warm and fuzzies in the pit of my stomach.

That could only mean one thing.

 

 

 

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Terry Bradshaw’s Elbow Should Act as Cautionary Tale for Ben Roethlisberger’s Recovery

Isn’t it weird how the careers of former Steelers multi-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Terry Bradshaw and current Steelers multi-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have come to parallel one another?

Neither has ever had a reputation for being very chummy with their teammates or all that connected to the fans. Then there’s the deal with the media and both seemingly telling reporters what they probably thought they wanted to hear at the time.

Terry Bradshaw, Terry Bradshaw elbow

Terry Bradshaw on December 10, 1983 after his last touchdown pass. Photo Credit: AP, via Post-Gazette Newsinteractive

And what about Terry Bradshaw’s admission that he contemplated retirement shortly after the Steelers won their fourth Lombardi trophy in six years thanks to a 31-19 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV? That sounds an awful lot like Roethlisberger’s months-long flirtation with retirement following the blow-out loss to the Patriots in the 2016/2017 AFC title game.

  • And how about those surgically repaired elbows?

I got a sense of just how eerily similar those elbows were about a month or so ago when stories first surfaced that Ben Roethlisberger, who missed all but six quarters of the 2019 regular season after undergoing major elbow surgery, was scheduled to start throwing tennis balls as one of the first steps in his rehab.

As it turned out, Ben Roethlisberger was ahead of schedule in his recovery and after a visit with the doctor who performed his surgery, he was cleared to begin throwing footballs once again in late-February.

  • On the surface, it would appear Big Ben is on a fast-track back to full recovery.

And when you read things from Ben Roethlisberger, such as his current throwing regimen, which he discussed in a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook, it can only give Steelers fans hope and optimism that he will be back to close to 100 percent by the start of the 2020 regular season.

I had thrown a Nerf ball a little bit before to my kids in the living room and my arm felt pretty good. I knew it was going to be OK.

But still, it felt so neat to throw a football. It had been a long time. I guess it was like riding a bike a little bit. You get back on and go. It’s not like it had been a year. It has been months. I never throw much in the offseason, anyway, so I looked at the time I had off like it was my offseason.

Ben Roethlisberger also said in the interview that he’s throwing about 40 passes a day at a distance of 20 yards and he’d like to ramp things up in the near-future.

Again, encouraging.

Terry Bradshaw knows a thing or two about having major elbow surgery late in his career, and he shared his thoughts with Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette of The Athletic in a recent interview.

“Yeah, in the back of his mind, he’s 38 now,” Bradshaw explained  toBouchette. “He has to say to himself, ‘OK, take care of this thing.’ Don’t come back until you’re 100 percent strong and you can make all the throws and there is no pain, etc. I feel like that’s what’s going to happen. I’m hoping that he’s fine. But I can’t say; I’m not there. I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him, but it’s an elbow injury.

Let me say this: Under proper supervision, I would expect him to come back strong.”

Back to those tennis balls. For whatever reason, it took me back to the early-’80s and Bradshaw’s attempt to come back from the elbow surgery he had prior to the 1983 regular season.

According to Myron Cope, the late, great Steelers radio color analyst, Bradshaw was quite optimistic that offseason and told Cope that, among other things, he was throwing 40, 50 and even 60 yard passes.

  • But when the Steelers got to training camp, the Blonde Bomber could barely throw 20 yards.

Myron Cope, a colorful character who was also a reporter for Channel 4 and had his own nightly sports talk radio show on 1250 WTAE, went as far as to arrange a meeting between Bradshaw and a Myna bird with mysterious healing powers. That’s right, in a segment that aired on Channel 4 Action News some time in 1983 during Bradshaw’s ongoing attempt to heal his elbow, this Myna bird sat on Bradshaw’s right arm and “infused” him with his “healing powers.”

Don’t believe me? Relive the moment for yourself:

Obviously, if you know anything about both Terry Bradshaw and the late Myron Cope, you realize this was done mostly for entertainment, but make no mistake, Bradshaw really was searching for answers.

After sitting out most of the regular season, Bradshaw did attempt a comeback late in ’83. He started the next-to-last game of the season against the Jets at old Shea Stadium (the last Jets game ever played there). He played the first half, throwing two touchdown passes in the process, before pulling himself from the game after aggravating his elbow while throwing his last touchdown pass to Calvin Sweeney.

  • It was the last time Bradshaw ever set foot on a football field as a player.

You might be saying, “Well, that was the early-’80s. We’ve come so far since then in terms of medical advancements.”

Terry Bradshaw,

Terry Bradshaw wears a grim look during Steelers Mini Camp on May 29, 1984, at Three Rivers Stadium. (Photo Credit: Jim Fetter, The Pittsburgh Press)

 

Maybe, but Myna birds aside, the early-’80s probably seemed far more advanced medically from what they were 20 or 30 years prior. Bradshaw, who was in his mid-30s at the the time–not 38–probably thought it was just a matter of time until he was fully recovered.

  • Obviously, that time never came. Bradshaw retired in the summer of 1984.

So am I saying Ben Roethlisberger will face a similar fate to that of Bradshaw’s 37 years ago?

No, but the current rhetoric being thrown around–the verbiage–about Ben Roethlisberger’s training and where he’s at in the process (save for the Myna bird, of course) is strikingly similar to what fans were hearing about Terry Bradshaw’s recovery in the spring of 1983.

Will Craig Wolfley, the sideline reporter for Steelers radio broadcasts and the closest thing to Cope, have to arrange a meeting between Roethlisberger and some animal with mysterious powers later this year (maybe even during the regular season)? Unlikely, but one never knows.

  • That’s the thing about Ben Roethlisberger’s recovery process, we just won’t know until we know.

Terry Bradshaw, and his futile attempt to come back from major elbow surgery, taught me that 37 years ago.

 

 

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Tyler Matakevich’s Contract with the Bills Puts Free Agency into Perspective for Steelers Fans

Tyler Matakevich, admittedly one of the best special teams players in the NFL during his four-year career with the Steelers, quickly became a Bill at the start of free agency on Wednesday, after signing a two-year deal worth approximately $9 million.

  • You know what Tyler Matakevich was never one of the best at during his time in Pittsburgh?

Playing inside linebacker. In fact, he was so ordinary at it that, three years after drafting him out of Temple in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Steelers had to trade up to the 10th spot of the 2019 NFL Draft just to select Devin Bush. And that happened after they signed veteran Mark Barron to a lucrative enough deal last March.

  • Yet, the Bills sought fit to sign him to such a decent contract.

That’s nine million dollars for a depth player and a special teams ace in an era when that part of the game is becoming less and less of a factor in the NFL.

Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Bengals

Tyler Matakevich at Heinz Field in the rain. Photo Credit: Pininterest.

Nice work if you can find it.

So why did the Bills offer Tyler Matakevich so much money? Because they could. According to Over The Cap, the Buffalo Bills currently have $32 million in cap space to play with. When you have that kind of social distancing (to kind of bring a little laughter into these tough times) between the amount of money you’ve already spent on players and your salary ceiling, a player like Matakevich is a luxury.

It’s the kind if thing you can do when you have money to play with. Will Tyler Matakevich make a huge difference for the Bills next season? Not unless he does something like block a punt during a critical moment in a key game.

  • And that’s why it’s hard to get that worked up over the annual circus that is NFL free agency.

Anyone can sign players if they have the financial flexibility to do so. Those teams get patted on the back in March and April for their activity. If they’re lucky, they may even get added to the “winners” column of the many “NFL Free Agency Winners and Losers” articles that pop up this time of year.

Some are even more successful. Early in his tenure as owner, Daniel Snyder’s Washington Redskins repeatedly and vigorously completed for “off season Lombardi Trophy.” Indeed, former general manager Vinny Cerrato was the architect of multiple successful “off season Lombardi” runs.

  • But the truly smart organizations make the most intelligent signings. Why? Because they have to.

They’re normally up against the cap thanks to being so consistently competitive; they must be wise with their money, with their decisions in free agency.

I’m not going to sit here and say that Pittsburgh, a team that had to cut several players and restructure the contracts of a few others just to make room under the cap (even after the signing of the new CBA increased the salary cap to over $198 million) is a free agent “winner” simply because it signed Derek Watt, a fullback and special teams demon, formally of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Derek Watt, T.J. Watt,

Derek Watt and T.J. Watt at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely, USA Today via BTSC

But Derek Watt, whose contract with the Steelers is reportedly for three years and over $9 million, will likely fill both Matakevich’s spot on special teams and the one previous held by Roosevelt Nix,who was cut on Wednesday after an injury-riddled 2019, as the team’s fullback.

  • He could also do spot duty at tight end in a pinch. 

What does that mean? The Steelers are likely going to expect more from Watt for his money than the Bills, who also had the capital to acquire receiver Stefon Diggs from the Vikings, will expect from Matakevich.

If Matakevich excels as a special teams ace but fails to improve as an inside linebacker, he’ll still be a valuable commodity for the Bills.

But if Derek Watt, yes, he’s the brother of both T.J. Watt and J.J. Watt, comes up short, Pittsburgh will likely be weaker at two positions in 2020.

  • The Steelers simply can’t afford that.

They also can’t afford to do much else in free agency this spring. But look at at this way. At least they didn’t have the “luxury” of spending $9 million on someone who can only excel on special teams.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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Steelers Need to Beef Up at Tight End, But Expect Free Agent Nick Vannett to Depart Pittsburgh

One can debate whether quality tight end play is an essential ingredient to a Steelers Super Bowl season, but Heath Miller’s dependability sure did contribute to wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Since Heath Miller retired, the Steelers have struggled to play consistently well at tight end.

One move they made to remedy that in 2019 was to bring in Nick Vannett. At 6’6″ and 261 lbs, Nick Vannett certainly looks the part. However, is he productive enough to be a part of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2020 and beyond? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

Nick Vannett, Steelers vs Benglas

Nick Vannett in his first game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Nick Vannett’s Career with the Steelers

Nick Vannett spent his first three full seasons as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, who selected him out of Ohio State in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. But with the likes of Jimmy Graham taking most of the reps as the starting tight end, Nick Vannett could never break through the glass ceiling in Seattle, as he started just 16 games and caught 67 passes through the 2019 season, before being traded to Pittsburgh last September in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick.

As the number two tight end behind Vance McDonald, however, Vannett caught only 13 passes for 128 yards over the final 13 weeks. He did step in and start his first game for the Steelers, making a critical third down conversion catch in helping the Steelers beat the Bengals for their first win of 2019.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Nick Vannett in 2020

Yes, Nick Vannett’s productivity was lacking a season ago, but with the Steelers quarterback situation so compromised with the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the final 14 games, very few skill position players showed out.

Again, Nick Vannett looks the part and could certainly benefit from catching passes from a healthy Roethlisberger in 2020. Would he surpass Vance McDonald in terms of productivity? Not likely. However, he could be the number two tight end the offense has been missing since Jesse James left via free agency following the 2018 season.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Nick Vannett in 2020

Vannett’s rookie contract averaged just over $760,000 per year, according to Spotrac. While his productivity certainly wouldn’t warrant the type of contract that Jesse James signed with the Lions last year, for example (James inked a four-year deal worth $25 million and included $11 million in guaranteed money — and caught just 16 passes last year), he’s likely to get a raise in free agency.

With the Steelers again up against the cap — even with an increased ceiling after the NFLPA voted to approve the new Collective Bargaining Agreement on Sunday — paying an unproductive number two tight end $1 million-plus may not be a luxury the team can afford.

Besides, Zach Gentry, a fifth-round pick out of Michigan a year ago, is looking to make a leap in his sophomore year. And while his productivity was basically non-existent in his rookie season, he’s a much younger and much cheaper alternative as the number two tight end. And even if Gentry is destined to be a number three tight end, this doesn’t mean the Steelers won’t look to the early rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft to address the position with someone with more upside than Vannett.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Nick Vannett

I think this is an easy call for the Steelers. Vance McDonald, whose salary will eat up over $7 million in cap space next season, appears to be sticking around.

The team needs to save money anywhere it can, and there’s no point in paying two tight ends seven-figure salaries. Therefore, the Steelers will move on from Nick Vannett, hope for improvements from Zach Gentry in his second season, and fortify the position in the upcoming draft.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Mulling Steelers Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler’s Future in Pittsburgh

The Steelers have made it a habit in recent years of taking undrafted free agent offensive linemen and molding them into starting-caliber players. Matt Feiler is perhaps the most recent example. However, is he worth bringing back as a restricted free agent? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

Matt Feiler,

Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 Restricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Matt Feiler’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg in 2014, Feiler initially signed with the Texans, where he spent that season on their practice squad after being cut near the end of training camp. After failing to make Houston’s roster out of camp the following year, Feiler was then signed to the Steelers practice squad at the beginning of the 2015 campaign.

With the exception of a brief cup of coffee on the active roster, the practice squad is where Feiler remained through the end of the 2016 season. Feiler finally made the Steelers 53-man roster in 2017, appearing in five games and starting the regular season-finale at guard. In 2018, Feiler started 11 games at right tackle for the injured Marcus Gilbert. After Gilbert was traded to the Cardinals last offseason, Feiler won the starting right tackle job in training camp and started all 16 games in 2019.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2020

Feiler will turn 28 right before the start of the 2020 training camp, which means he’s coming into the prime of his career. Also, as a restricted free agent, the Steelers have the option of placing a second-round tender on him. Last offseason, the Steelers did the same to reserve guard/center B.J. Finney to the tune of $3.095 million.

Even if a second-round tender is a bit more expensive this season, that still wouldn’t be a bad price to pay for a lineman that has started 26 games over the past two years. Furthermore, Feiler has experience at guard, which gives him that all-important position flexibility.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2020

As always, the Steelers are currently up against the salary cap. Chukwuma Okorafor, who is entering his third season after the Steelers selected him in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, theoretically should be ready to jump into a starting role in 2020. Also, the arrow appears to be pointing up for Zach Banner, a USC product who saw increased playing-time last year as a tackle-eligible receiver in many short-yardage packages. If the Steelers are confident that one or both youngsters are ready to start at right tackle next season, money might talk, and Feiler may have to walk.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Matt Feiler

With veteran guard Ramon Foster a prime candidate to be a cap casualty, and with Finney about to become an unrestricted free agent, Feiler’s versatility may prove to be an asset to the Steelers in 2020 and beyond. A season ago, in a game against the Rams at Heinz Field, head coach Mike Tomlin started Feiler at left guard in place of an injured Foster, while Okorafor started at right tackle. Why that lineup, instead of inserting the reliable Finney in at left guard?

As Tomlin said after the game, he wanted bigger bodies up front in order to deal with the Rams’ impressive front seven, one that included Aaron Donald. Maybe Tomlin was giving us a glimpse into the Steelers’ future along the offensive line. Whether that was the case or not, I believe it would be in the Steelers’ best interests to bring back Matt Feiler in 2020.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Time to Say Goodbye? Steelers B.J. Finney Reaches Unrestricted Free Agency

An undrafted free agent out of Kansas State in 2015, B.J. Finney has appeared to be destined for a starting role in the middle of the Steelers offensive line for years. Will he finally get his chance in 2020? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

 

Capsule Profile of B.J. Finney’s Career with the Steelers

After spending his rookie season on the Steelers practice squad, Finney made the final 53-man roster in 2016 and even started three games at both center and left guard. Finney has started a total of 13 games at center and both guard positions during his four years in Pittsburgh–including four at center a year ago–and the line hasn’t missed a beat. Finney was a restricted free agent a season ago, and the Steelers thought enough of him to place a second-round tender on him to the tune of $3.095 million.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

With veteran left guard Ramon Foster a prime candidate to be a cap casualty and Pittsburgh continuing to find financial freedom lacking, Finney would seem like the perfect fit to transition into a starting role in 2020. With Foster, 34, due to make over $5 million next season, the Steelers could net a savings of roughly $1.5 million if they can ink Finney, 28, to a deal that averages close to the $3 million he made in 2019 on his tender.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

Matt Feiler is a restricted free agent, one that would likely command a tender that’s equal to or greater than the one Finney signed last year. Feiler, who started all 16 games at right tackle last year, can also play guard. Also, Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, both offensive tackles, earn far less than what Finney is projected to make next season.

Plus, one or both might be ready to start at right tackle in 2020. If that is the case, the Steelers, who started Feiler at left guard in place of an injured Foster in a game against the Rams last year (and not Finney), might feel that they can transition Feiler to left guard permanently.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and B.J. Finney

I think Finney has what it takes to be a starting guard or center in the NFL for the next five years. In a perfect world, he would just slide into the starting left guard position for the Steelers and there would be no drop off from Foster’s play. But this isn’t a perfect world.

This is a world where the Steelers must make some tough decisions, based mostly on finances. With so much money already tied up in the offensive line, they probably can’t retain both Finney and Feiler. At the moment, they have more control over Feiler than Finney. And that’s why I think they may have no choice but to let B.J. Finney walk as an unrestricted free agent.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Mike Hilton: Hold Him While You Can

In 2015, the Steelers went to Ole Miss in search of a 5’9″ defensive back who they thought could be a plug-in slot corner at the professional level.

His name was Senquez Golson, a player they selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Only problem, Golson never saw any live action for the Steelers, as injuries derailed his career quite literally before it even began. Thankfully, another 5’9″ defensive back from Ole Miss came on the scene two years later and became that all-important slot corner the Steelers had been searching for for years. His name was Mike Hilton. Since 2017, he’s been one of the most effective at his position in the NFL. But now that he enters 2020 as a restricted free agent, can Pittsburgh afford to keep him?

Mike Hilton, Steelers vs Ravens

Mike Hilton had several key stops in Steelers win over Ravens. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, via Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Career with the Steelers

An undrafted free agent in 2016, Hilton was signed by the Jaguars but didn’t make the final cut out of training camp and was released. The Patriots quickly signed Hilton to their practice squad but just as quickly–one week later–released him. Hilton was team-less for most of 2016 before landing on Pittsburgh’s practice squad in December of that year.

Hilton became a training camp sensation in 2017 and remained the talk of Latrobe all the way up until the end, when he not only made the Steelers final 53-man roster, he was named the starting slot corner (or nickelback) to begin the year. And oh what a rookie year it was for Hilton, as he recorded two interceptions, six passes defensed and four, that’s right, four quarterback sacks–including a whopping three in a Week 16 blow-out victory on Christmas Day in Houston.

The sack rate hasn’t been the same over the last two seasons, but Hilton’s consistent and impressive play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. Hilton was an exclusive rights free agent prior to the 2019 season, meaning he had zero leverage to negotiate a new deal. Unlike previous exclusive rights free agents, such as left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the Steelers and Hilton weren’t able to reach an agreement on a long-term deal. Therefore, Hilton signed his tender which paid him $645,000 a season ago.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton

After years of searching for the right parts to make the secondary work, the Steelers appear to have finally found the correct formula. Let’s face it, in the modern world of professional football, where passing is king, a slot corner is basically a starter, which may explain why Hilton was on the field for 62 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019. Like with other restricted free agents, the Steelers have options with Hilton.

They can sign him to a low tender of about $2 million. Or if they’re really interested in retaining him, they can place a second-round tender on Hilton, which will cost about $3 million in 2020. That’s a huge hike in pay, sure, but at 25 years old, Hilton is young and his prime years are likely still ahead of him.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton

Obviously, Hilton isn’t the biggest Steelers defender who is on the verge of free agency. Bud Dupree and Javon Hargrave have garnered most of the headlines in that regard, and if one or both stick around, it’s going to be quite expensive. Unlike exclusive rights free agents, restricted free agents have the opportunity to go out and negotiate a deal with another team, a deal Pittsburgh would have the option of matching.

But, again, slot corners are essentially starters, and the good ones make good money. With little room under the salary cap, and with Cam Sutton about to enter his fourth year as a versatile member of the secondary, it might behoove the Steelers to allow Hilton to explore other options. If another team bites, maybe they can get a second-round pick for their efforts.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton

This is a tough call. If NFL players vote to accept the proposed new CBA, that changes everything as far as free agency goes. Not only would the salary cap increase, teams would then able to do such things as restructure current contracts so as to create even more space under the cap. Under that scenario, I say you do what you can to lock Hilton up to a long-term deal.

Unfortunately, that scenario hasn’t presented itself just yet. Having said that, however, I believe the Steelers need to find a way to create $3 million under the cap to keep Hilton around for one more year, and they should place a second-round tender on him prior to free agency.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

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Free Agency is Almost Here. Steelers Nation Won’t Have Artie Burns to Kick Around Anymore

In an ideal world, cornerback Artie Burns, a 2016 first-round pick out of Miami, wouldn’t be a part of the Steelers 2020 class of unrestricted free agents. All teams have fifth-year options on the contracts of rookies who were drafted in the first round, an option that must be picked up before the fourth year even starts.

The Steelers elected not to do that with Burns last offseason, a telling move that put not only his fifth but his fourth year with the team in jeopardy. Thankfully for Burns, he made the Steelers final 53-man roster out of training camp, but did he do enough in 2019 to warrant an extended stay into 2020 and beyond?

Artie Burns, Chris Conley touchdown Steelers, Steelers vs Chiefs 2018

Chris Conley burns Artie Burns for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Artie Burns’ Career with the Steelers

After the Steelers chose Burns with the 25th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, to say the reactions were mixed would be a lie. They were overwhelmingly negative. Why? Burns was said to be raw and a poor tackler. Also, Burns played primarily man-to-man in college, while the Steelers implemented more zone coverages than any team in football in 2015. However, there were a select few who said that Burns had the potential to be the best cover corner in the 2016 draft.

And after becoming the starter midway through his rookie year, the views of those few in Burns’ corner appeared to be spot on, as he recorded three interceptions and 13 passes defensed. Burns started all 16 games in his sophomore year, and even though he appeared to struggle a bit with zone coverages, the arrow still pointed up, this despite a decline in play down the stretch and in the playoff loss to the Jaguars. Despite positive reviews out of training camp, as he battled the legendary Antonio Brown to a draw on most days, Burns play declined so much in 2018, he was benched after six games and was a non-factor in the secondary by the end of the season. Burns’ role a year ago was mainly on special teams; he barely factored into a much improved secondary, as he was on the field for only 66 defensive snaps and started just one game in place of an injured Joe Haden.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Artie Burns

Burns won’t command much of a market in free agency. After earning just under a million dollars last year, it’s safe to say the Steelers could possibly resign him at a bargain price for 2020–perhaps one of those “Show me” one-year contracts. Burns was a starter not long ago, and he appeared to hold his own in his lone start in 2019, while also contributing regularly on special teams.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Artie Burns

The Steelers did have a much-improved secondary a year ago, but the fact that Burns hardly figured into the mix on defense–I’m sure the Steelers would have liked to spell the veteran Haden from time to time–was quite telling. Also, I’m sure the Steelers are eager to see what Justin Layne, a third-round pick out of Michigan State a year ago, can do in his second season. And with veteran Cameron Sutton in the mix, Burns may spend another season as the invisible entity in Pittsburgh’s secondary.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Artie Burns

If ever a player needed a fresh start, it’s Burns. And given what the team has at the top of the depth chart at corner in both Steven Nelson and Haden, I see no need for Pittsburgh to put up much of a fight to retain the services of Artie Burns.

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Steelers Free Agent Profile: L.T. Walton (What? He’s Still Around?)

The image of “The Red Phone” is one that conjures “emergency” in popular culture, wehther you’re watching commissioner Gordon call Wayne Manor or viewing a Cold War epic whose plot centers on use of the Washington-Moscow hotline.

  • The NFL is no different. Every General Manager has a list of emergency players to turn to when disaster strikes.

Kevin Colbert has his list. Sometimes it has involved calling players with no history in Pittsburgh, think Matthew McCrane stepping in for Chris Boswell. Other times he’s turned to familiar faces – think Max Starks at any number of points in his career. In 2020 injuries to Stephon Tuitt forced Kevin Colbert to again to seek a surprise name from his emergency list, that of L.T. Walton.

L.T. Walton, Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin embraces L.T. Walton in the Steelers October 2017 win at Baltimore. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Capsule Profile of L.T. Walton’s Career with the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers drafted L.T. Walton in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. He earned a roster spot, but didn’t play which is no surprise in John Mitchell’s system.

Cam Heyward’s season ending injury in the middle of 2016 opened the door for L.T. Walton to get some playing time, as L.T. Walton saw his snap count rise to 24%. While the dramatic improvement shown by the Steelers defense in the 2nd half of the 2016 season came from James Harrison starting for Jarvis Jones, and stepped up play by Javon Hargrave, Sean Davis and Artie Burns, it would have been possible had L.T. Walton been a liability on the field.

Could L.T. Walton build on that in 2017? His record was mixed, with his snap count dropping, but Walton adding sacks in the Steelers wins over Tennessee and Green Bay. Walton also struggled while playing nose tackle in the playoff debacle against Jacksonville, but no Steelers defender played well that afternoon.

  • In 2018, John Mitchell gave way as defensive line coach to Karl Dunbar, and Karl Dunbar decided to give Daniel McCullers another shot.

And Daniel McCullers’ second shot came at L.T. Walton’s expense as his as his snap count dwindled to below 5%. L.T. Walton hit the free agent market a year ago, and failed to get any attention either inside or outside Pittsburgh.

The Steelers signed him on October 21st after putting Stephon Tuitt on IR, then put L.T. Walton on IR on November 19th without dressing him once.

The Case for the Steelers Signing L.T. Walton

“He knows the system,” is the credo coaches frequently fall back on when signing a journeyman veteran whom they’ve parted ways with in the past. That certainly applies to L.T. Walton. Moreover, with Javon Hargrave set to depart in free agency, and with the Steelers having little depth behind Heyward, Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and Isaiah Buggs and even less draft capital to add that depth, a veteran minimum contract for L.T. Walton seems like a low-risk high reward proposition.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.T. Walton

L.T. Walton is a player who has been in the NFL for four years and played a total of 480 snaps. 255 came when Cam Heyward was out and there was literally no one left to play. He sat on the open market a year ago and no one showed any interest, and managed to get injured after his surprise midseason return despite never even dressing.

Do I need to keep going? Even a veteran minimum contract takes up a roster space that could be used to give a chance to the next Willie Parker, James Harrison or Devlin Hodges. Using it one on L.T. Walton would be a waste.

The Curtain’s Call on L.T. Walton and the Steelers

This has all been an academic exercise, hasn’t it? Because there’s no chance the Steelers resign L.T. Walton. Right?

Probably. But….

Stranger things have happened on the Steelers defensive line during free agency. In 2015 the Steelers resigned Clifton Geathers the emergency defensive lineman signed to replace Brett Keisel. In 2018 the Steelers shocked the world when they resigned Daniel McCullers. Last year they did it again.

With that said, the smart money says that neither the Steelers, nor the rest of the league, give L.T. Walton a second look in free agency this spring.

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The Steelers Brain Trust is “Comfortable” with Their QB Situation. They Have No Other Choice.

As has become his custom in recent years, Steelers president Art Rooney II addressed the media in the aftermath of the 2019 regular season, one in which Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for a second straight year.

Perhaps more so than in 2018, when the Steelers missed the postseason after squandering away a 2.5 game lead in the AFC North with six weeks to play, Art II was probably a little more understanding of last season’s failures, given the absence of his most precious resource–quarterback Ben Roethlisberger–for all but six quarters of the regular season.

  • That Pittsburgh finished 8-8 instead of totally collapsing in the wake of Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury was commendable.

But this does not mean the quarterback play of the backups was stellar. In fact, one could describe the contributions of second-year man Mason Rudolph and rookie Devlin Hodges as workman-like on their best days and absolutely awful on their worst.

Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2019. Photo Credit: AP via

And maybe that’s why it may have been a bit of a surprise when Rooney said he was comfortable with the Steelers quarterback situation–specifically with Rudolph as his team’s backup–heading into 2020.

“As we sit here today, we are all comfortable with Mason being our backup,” said Rooney on January 15 via Steelers.com. ” Speaking of unusual seasons, he had an unusual season. He had to deal with some unusual circumstances, including injuries and everything else. I think it was an experience for him . . . the old story, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Hopefully it is that kind of situation for him. I think we are all pretty comfortable with Mason coming back as our backup and being a guy who can continue to develop.”

  • Of course, the key phrase in that Rooney quote may be “As we sit here today,” because lots can happen between now and the start of training camp and the regular season.

But I wouldn’t count on it. In fact, I think Rooney was preparing the fans and the media for a free agency period that doesn’t include the signing of a veteran backup quarterback. And not necessarily because Art II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are “comfortable” with Rudolph.

  • Being “comfortable with Roethlisberger, Rudolph and Hodges may just be their only option.

As always, the Steelers are right up against the salary cap, with not much room to work with. Also, with the current lack of a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) beyond March of 2021 (March always marks the start of the NFL’s new calendar year), the team doesn’t have the ability to free up cap space by restructuring contracts.

As of now, all general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin can do to make room is cut veteran players. Will that free up much space? Probably not enough of it.

You might think that’s a shame what with such a stellar (and perhaps unprecedented) class of veteran quarterbacks on the verge of hitting the free agent market next month.

  • But let’s be real.

Unless Roethlisberger says that he’s had enough and decides to retire before or around the start of unrestricted free agency, the Steelers wouldn’t even bother pursuing guys named Tom Brady, Philip Rivers or even Teddy Bridgewater. Heck, even someone like Ryan Tannehill would probably command the kind of salary that would eat up most of Pittsburgh’s cap space.

Why? Those guys are going to be looking for starting offers–offers they’ll no doubt receive from teams dying for better quality in an always quarterback deficient league.

And on top of that, any quarterback that seems good enough to be someone’s quality veteran backup is probably going to be deemed valuable enough to sign on as a starter somewhere.

  • Perhaps they could bring in a veteran as insurance, but unless it’s one of the top guys out there, what are the odds he’d be much better than Rudolph?

Rooney knows this, as do his executives and coaches. Maybe Rooney is truly sincere in saying he’s comfortable with the quarterback situation, but if he’s not, why would he say that knowing he doesn’t have the financial resources to go after someone better than Rudolph? Saying it would just incite the fans. It would also make Rudolph look weak.

The days of looking over at the Steelers sideline and seeing names like Charlie Batch, Tommy Maddox and Byron Leftwich listening in as Roethlisberger and his coaches plan the next play are over.

  • $30 million annual salaries for the starters pretty much ended those days.

$33 million is what Pittsburgh will pay Big Ben next season, and if you decide to go all out to keep your starter, you’re not going to be able to invest much in your backup, save a high-pedigreed draft choice.

Rudolph, who the Steelers picked in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft, is that, and he has two more years remaining on his rookie deal.

The Steelers are likely going to head into 2020 hoping for two things when it comes to their quarterback position: A healthy Roethlisberger and an improved Rudolph.

  • If they get 100 percent of the first thing, it doesn’t matter about the second.

If they can get 75 percent of the first thing, they just have to hope the second thing has improved enough to get them through a few games.

  • If they get zero percent of the first thing, it may lead to another season without the playoffs.

These are the realities the Steelers are facing, and that’s why they may have no choice but to be comfortable with their quarterback situation.

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