Second Guessing Steelers Picks of Chase Claypool and Alex Highsmith? Join the Club

Every year, the Steelers draft players in the second and third rounds, and every year, the most audible reaction in Steelers Nation tends to be something along the lines of, “Why did they pass on that other guy?”

The second and third rounds of the NFL Draft are always the best places for those sort of reactions from the fans and media because so many prospects — known names — who were projected for months to go in the first round wind up sliding down the draft board.

Chase Claypool, Steelers 2nd round pick 2020

Chase Claypool scores a touchdown in the Camping World Bowl. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell, Orlando Sentinel via AP

Considering the Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft wouldn’t come until midway through the second round (49th, overall), the reactions figured to be more pronounced and audible this year than usual.

Sure enough, not long after the Steelers made Chase Claypool, the big, fast and strong Notre Dame receiver, their first pick on Friday, objections immediately began to pop up all over social media to the tune of:

  • Why not Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins, who went six picks later to the AFC North-rival Ravens?
  • Why not Baylor receiver Denzel Mims, who went 10 picks later to the Jets?
  • Why not an offensive lineman? How about that depth at outside linebacker?

Speaking of outside linebackers, who’s this Alex Highsmith kid the Steelers drafted in the third round? A former walk-on from Charlotte, a program that didn’t begin to play FBS football until the previous decade? Sure, he dominated the competition in the Conference USA. Sure, he was voted First-Team All-Conference in both 2018 and 2019. But he seems raw. He needs work.

  • Is he going to ultimately replace Bud Dupree in the starting lineup?

Furthermore, will receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster get a second contract after this year? How about running back James Conner? And what about the depth along the offensive line? For that matter, what about the starters along the offensive line? They’re getting a little long in the tooth, aren’t they?

While we’re at it, what about the depth at safety? What about that starter at safety? I’m talking about strong safety Terrell Edmunds, the 2018 first-round pick who hasn’t really made his mark despite two-full years as a starter?

That’s the thing about the Steelers 2020 NFL Draft. They entered it with many questions and few draft picks (only two picks in the first 102 selections) to try and answer them.

  • And that’s why they weren’t going to please everyone.

All they could do was use their first two picks to address specific needs with specific players and do so without reaching.

Did they? We obviously can’t answer that question yet. But, again, NFL Draft history is filled with “Why not draft that other guy?” reactions. It’s also filled with “sure thing” prospects who busted out (Huey Richardson anyone?) and unknown prospects who made it big (ever heard of Brett Keisel?)

It’s easy to say the Steelers added a player to a position of strength — wide receiver. But you could have also said that about running back, a position that includes a former Pro Bowl player in Conner, as well as Jaylen Samuels (fifth round, 2018) and Benny Snell Jr. (fourth round, 2019).

It’s easy to say the Steelers neglected their offensive line with their first two selections, but you can also say Chukwuma Okorafor (third round, 2018) and Zach Banner (fourth round, 2017) are fairly high-end tackle prospects.

Perhaps if the Steelers had more draft capital this season — instead of having just six picks, total — they could address more needs at more positions.

  • But it’s like that old saying: You’ve got to give in order to get.

The Steelers have parted with some premium draft capital over the past year in order to acquire players to help bolster their defense. During last year’s draft, Pittsburgh sent its 2019 first and second-round picks, along with a third-round pick in 2020, to the Broncos and moved into the 10th spot of the first round. With that pick, the Steelers selected Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Last September, the Steelers sent their 2020 first-round pick to the Dolphins for the services of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both players fit nicely into the middle of a defense that quickly ascended up the ladder to the top of the league in yards, points, sacks and takeaways.

Maybe the Steelers should have held onto all of that draft capital and taken their chances with other prospects.

  • Would it have worked out? It’s hard to say, but it’s working out right now with the players they got.

It’s seems kind of corny and a little silly for fans to say things like, “With the 18th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select safety Minkah Fitzpatrick…..” but, in a way, it’s actually true. Not only is Fitzpatrick still young — he’s entering just his third NFL season –h e’s already emerged as one of the best safeties in the game. Therefore, it’s easy to say the Steelers really did acquire their 2020 first-round pick last September.

  • The only problem with that is dealing with restless fans on draft day.

The Steelers could only do so much with their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Did they get it right? It’s impossible to say. But they’re currently no more right or wrong than anyone else.

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Steelers Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker–How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh?

T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree teamed up to form one of the fiercest outside linebacker duos in the NFL in 2019. For Watt, it was a continued ascension up the ladder towards superstar status. For Bud Dupree, a number one pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, it was a breakout season after four shaky editions that had fans questioning why he was even still on the roster in Year 5.

With the pair back together and ready to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks again in 2020, just how high of a priority will the outside linebacker position be for the Steelers as they prepare for the 2020 NFL Draft?

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

After spending his first two seasons establishing himself as the Steelers best defender, T.J. Watt raised his game even further in his third year. With a stat-line that included 55 tackles, 14.5 sacks, two interceptions, eight passes defensed, a whopping eight forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, Watt not only earned Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors, he put himself firmly into the mix for 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, ultimately finishing third behind Stephon Gilmore and Chandler Jones, respectively.

As for Dupree, after coming into 2019 with 20 career sacks in four seasons, a number that was more respectable than his “bust” label warranted — albeit one that was a bit underwhelming for a former first-round pick — Bud Dupree seemingly figured things out in his fifth year, as he recorded 11.5 sacks, to go along with 68 tackles, three passes defensed, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Dupree’s season was so impressive, the Steelers decided to retain his services for 2020, placing the franchise tag on him to the tune of just under $16 million.

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

The depth behind the Steelers top dogs is rather thin, albeit kind of intriguing.

Ola Adeniyi, an undrafted free agent out of Toledo in 2018, impressed coaches and fans with his ability to get after the quarterback that preseason. Unfortunately, he was injured before the start of the regular season and spent the majority of his rookie year on Injured Reserve. After making the roster as a backup last season, Adeniyi had a hard time cracking the lineup on defense behind Watt, Dupree and veteran backup Anthony Chickillo. All-in-all, Adeniyi recorded just eight tackles.

Tuzar Skipper, a 2019 undrafted free agent and, like Adeniyi, a Toledo alum, wowed coaches and fans even more than his old college teammate, recording five sacks in his inaugural preseason. But to the surprise of many, Skipper was waived just before the start of the regular season and subsequently claimed by the Giants, who also waived him halfway through the year and signed him to their practice squad. The Steelers signed Skipper from New York’s practice squad late in the year and inked him to a two-year deal shortly after the season.

Rounding out Pittsburgh’s depth chart at outside linebacker is University of Pittsburgh alum Dewayne Hendrix.

The Steelers 2020 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs

Can the Steelers ink Dupree to a long-term deal? If they don’t by the deadline to do so this summer, will they try the franchise tag again next offseason? After their experience with Le’Veon Bell, that doesn’t seem likely.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Besides, Watt is nearing the end of his rookie deal, one that is set to expire after the 2021 season, provided the Steelers pick up his fifth-year option–an absolute certainty at this point. Given Watt’s current career arc that should soon place him in the same rarefied superstar air as his brother J.J. Watt, the Steelers will likely make T.J. the highest paid defensive player in franchise history.

  • It just doesn’t seem realistic that Pittsburgh can pay both Watt and Dupree superstar money without it severely compromising the salary cap.

With the departure of Chickillo, who was released as a cap casualty at the onset of free agency, again, the lack of proven depth behind Watt and Dupree has to be a major concern. Therefore, the draft priority for the outside linebacker spot can only be considered High-Moderate

 

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Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs — Does Eric Ebron Change Priorities for Pittsburgh?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to be severely lacking at the tight end position. That seemed to change with the free agent acquisition of Eric Ebron in March. But was Eric Ebron enough of an addition to make tight end less of a priority for the 2020 NFL Draft? We’re about to answer that question.

Eric Ebron, Colts

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron, with the Colts in 2019. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

It’s fairly accurate to make the word starters plural when discussing the tight end position in the Steelers offense. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it was mostly a singular term in 2019–and that may have even been a stretch.

After coming off an exceptional and breakout season in 2018, veteran Vance McDonald seemed to disappear a year ago, catching just 38 passes for 273 yards and three scores. In fairness to McDonald, however, he, like every other receiving target, may have been severely limited due to the mostly season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

As for others stepping up to fill the void left by Jesse James, who inked a free agent deal with the Lions? Xavier Grimble, a veteran who was looking to move up the depth chart following James’ departure, was injured and then waived. Nick Vannett, a four-year veteran Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Seahawks early in the year, contributed just 13 receptions for 166 yards in the number two role.

  • So you can see why the concern was there to add another viable weapon at tight end.

And viable, Ebron is. Yes, like McDonald, Ebron, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018, fell off a season ago, catching just 31 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. But just like McDonald, Ebron was hit with the sudden loss of his franchise quarterback, thanks to the surprising retirement of Andrew Luck right before the start of the regular season. And while it is true that Jacoby Brissett, the young Colts quarterback who stepped in to take Luck’s place, was much further along in experience and development than both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges a season ago, his performance wasn’t quite on the level of Luck’s.

And we would be remiss without mentioning Ebron’s ankle injury that forced Indianapolis to place him on Injured Reserve late in the 2019 season.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Coming into his rookie season as a fifth-round pick out of Michigan, Zach Gentry, a converted quarterback who caught 49 passes in his college career, was expected to be a bit of a developmental project at the tight end spot. Gentry didn’t disappoint in that regard, as he appeared in just four games and caught one pass.

Rounding out Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the tight end spot is Christian Scotland-Williamson, a native of Waltham Forest, England and a former rugby player. Scotland-Williamson spent the previous two seasons on Pittsburgh’s practice squad and was signed to a reserve/future contract following the 2019 season.

The Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs

Again, what looked like a position of great need heading into free agency now seems to be one of strength, thanks to the addition of Ebron. If he can return to his Pro Bowl form under Ben Roethlisberger, he could be a dangerous weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Ebron has a history of decent production playing with high-caliber quarterbacks — his first quarterback was Matthew Stafford after the Lions picked him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft— and he has 283 receptions for just under 3200 yards in his six-year career.

Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron should complement each other quite nicely moving forward.

As for adding depth behind the top two tight ends? It should be a priority, but only a Moderate-Low one.

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Steelers 2020 Running Back Draft Needs – How High of a Priority for Pittsburgh

With the Pittsburgh Steelers first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft not coming until the second round (49th, overall), and with the team only having six picks, total, the focus will have to be quality over quantity. But where does running back sit on the pecking order for Pittsburgh as it prepares for a 2020 NFL Draft that could prove to be pivotal as it pertains to the upcoming regular season?

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starter

After a bittersweet first three seasons that included injuries and a Pro Bowl nod, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

  • Conner’s rookie season was relatively nondescript and was ultimately snuffed out by a torn MCL.

However, his sophomore campaign got off to a very promising start, as he opened up 2018 as the starter in place of Le’Veon Bell, who ultimately held out the entire season. Fortunately for the Steelers, Conner put up some very Bell-like numbers, rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns and tallied another 497 yards and a score on 55 receptions.

  • Unfortunately, Conner’s season was beset by injuries, and he missed three games down the stretch.

A season ago, with the Steelers offense struggling to remain afloat amid the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner missed a total of six games and only tallied 464 yards on the ground.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018, showed some promise in his rookie season while filling in for Conner late in the year. He only rushed for 256 yards, but 142 of them came in a critical Week 15 win over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Jaylen Samuels took on a somewhat larger role in 2019 and acted as a bit of a security blanket as an outlet receiver out of the backfield for young quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Samuels also often manned the quarterback position in the Wildcat formation employed by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to offset the absence of Roethlisberger.

  • But while Samuels caught 47 passes, he only tallied 305 yards, while adding just 175 on the ground.

Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick from a year ago, had a bit of a slow start to his rookie season, before coming on fairly strong at the end.

Benny Snell started two games late in the season — including a 98-yard performance in his first start against the Bengals on November 24 — and finished the season with 426 yards on the ground. 

The Steelers 2020 Running back Draft Needs

To reiterate, James Conner is entering the final year of his rookie deal.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • When he’s on, Conner has proven to be good-to-often great.

The problem has been the injury bug, something that likely won’t get better with age and more wear and tear. With the shelf-life for most running backs–even All Pros–proving to be so short in recent years, would it make any sense to offer Conner a second contract and a substantial raise?

As for Jaylen Samuels, he is probably best suited for the Swiss Army Knife role he came into the league with–running back/receiver/tight end–and not so much as a workhorse running back.

Snell Jr., who was very productive at Kentucky, is an intriguing unknown and could possibly thrive in a workhorse role.

Kerrith Whyte Jr., a player Pittsburgh signed from the Bears practice squad late in the year, is another intriguing player, complete with speed and shifty moves.

However, is Snell or Whyte intriguing enough not to address the running back position with a premium selection? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s the Steelers top priority heading into the 2020 NFL Draft and can only be considered High.

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Steelers Didn’t Draft Emmitt Smith in ’90 Because of Tim Worley… But It Actually Worked Out

Steelers fans always like to play the “what if?” game.

For example, what if Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier weren’t injured for the AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders in 1976? What if the Steelers had actually drafted Dan Marino back in 1983? What if Pittsburgh’s coaches had recognized the talent they had in this Johnny Unitas fella, a ninth-round pick out of Louisville in 1955, instead of cutting him in training camp without letting him take a snap that summer?

  • The reason I put Unitas last in those aforementioned examples is because I want to prove a point.

Sure, the ending may have been different for those ’76 Steelers had Franco and Rocky been healthy for that conference title game against those hated Raiders. And, obviously, had Pittsburgh selected Marino in ’83, how could that have possibly been a bad thing for a franchise whose 1970s Super Bowl dynasty was running on fumes and about to come to a complete stop?

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images via The Sun.

As for keeping Johnny Unitas around, on the other hand? Sure, it may have led to championship success much sooner than anyone would have imagined. But would it have led to Chuck Noll, Mean Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, those four Super Bowls in the 1970s and the franchise’s rise to one of the marquee teams in all of professional sports?

It just doesn’t seem possible that all those dots would have still connected the exact same way and led us to where we are today with regards to the Steelers iconic status.

And that brings me to the 1990 NFL Draft, and the Steelers decision to trade their first-round pick to the Cowboys (17th, overall) and move back four slots.

Eric Green, Robert Jones, Steelers vs Cowboys 1994

Eric Green in the Steeler-Cowboys 1994 season opener. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

With the pick the Cowboys secured from Pittsburgh, they selected running back Emmitt Smith from Florida. And with the 21st pick the Steelers acquired from Dallas, they drafted tight end Eric Green from Liberty University.

  • Even if you’re a casual fan of the NFL and its history, you no doubt know that the Cowboys won that deal with a bullet.

Yes, Eric Green stormed onto the scene and was a bit ahead of his time for the position with his size, speed and athleticism. After a lengthy holdout, Eric Green went on to have a fairly sensational rookie campaign that included seven touchdown catches.

Eric Green played five seasons in Pittsburgh, making the Pro Bowl in 1993 and 1994, before leaving as an unrestricted free agent.

In the end, Eric Green wasn’t the one that got away. After signing a huge free agent contract with the Dolphins, Green bounced around the NFL through the 1999 season before calling it a career.

  • Overall, Eric Green’s 10-year career, it was merely okay. It was one of unfulfilled potential, due mainly to his weight issues, drug problems and a lack of a great work ethic.

As for Emmitt Smith, he couldn’t have fulfilled his potential any better if he were a fictional running back created by some Hollywood writer.

Not only did Emmitt Smith quickly become one of the cornerstones of those Cowboys Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, when he finally hung up his cleats following the 2004 season, he was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, with 18,355 yards, a record that still stands today.

And that’s why you’ll often see those “What if?” articles pop up around draft time regarding that 1990 trade with Dallas, and how the Steelers really screwed up.

  • They obviously did, but that’s still revisionist history.
Tim Worley, Merril Hoge, 1989 Steelers Dolphins, Steelers vs. Dolphins

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

If you look at that 1990 draft in context, there was no way the Steelers were going to select Smith or any other running back, not after spending the seventh pick of the 1989 NFL Draft on Tim Worley, running back, Georgia.

And while Tim Worley’s NFL career made Green’s look downright Hall of Fame-worthy (drug issues quickly derailed Worley’s career, and he was out of football following the ’93 season), he showed great promise in his rookie season with the 1989 Steelers, rushing for 770 yards and scoring five touchdowns.

Besides, while the Steelers didn’t find their franchise back in Worley, they thought they’d discovered one in Barry Foster in 1992, when he set a single-season team record for rushing yards with 1,690. And while Foster didn’t have the hunger to be a workhorse running back over the long haul (he left football after the 1994 campaign), the Steelers long search for a long-term franchise running back ended during the 1996 NFL Draft, when they traded a second-round pick to the Rams for the services of Jerome Bettis.

  • Need I say more?

With his size, willingness to punish tacklers and desire to be the workhorse, was there a more perfect running back for the Steelers and the City of Pittsburgh than Jerome Bettis, the man the late, great Myron Cope quickly dubbed The Bus?

In 10 seasons with the Steelers, Bettis rushed for 10,571 yards. By the time Bettis retired after the 2005 season, not only was he fifth all-time in NFL history with 13,662 rushing yards, he left Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan, his hometown, with the Steelers’ fifth Lombardi trophy in hand, following a 21-10 win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.

Jerome Bettis Super Bowl Ring, Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring,

Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Think about the kind of career Jerome Bettis had in Pittsburgh, and how it never would have happened if the selection of Worley in 1989 hadn’t prevented the Steelers from drafting Smith one year later.

  • Would you trade the actual story of Jerome Bettis as a Steeler for a hypothetical one involving Emmitt Smith?

If you’re all about the numbers and Super Bowl titles, maybe you would. But there’s no predicting how Smith would have fit in with Pittsburgh, a team that was suffering from a great malaise in 1990 and about to go through a massive transition at head coach, from the legendary Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher in 1992.

And there certainly is no way to predict with any certainty that Emmitt Smith would have been able to lead the likes of Neil O’Donnell (Larry Brown’s best friend, no, not that Larry Brown) to even one Super Bowl title, let alone three.

  • Nope, I can’t imagine a Steelers history without a chapter that includes Jerome Bettis.

Like Bill Cowher told him on the sidelines at old Three Rivers Stadium back in ’96:

“This is your bleepin city. And you’re my bleepin guy.”

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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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