Steelers 2018 Running Back Draft Needs -Time to Seek Le’Veon Bell’s Replacement?

You wouldn’t think running back would be a top priority for the Steelers heading into the 2018 draft, what with star and all-world/dual-threat running back Le’Veon Bell on the roster, he of the 2,000 yards from scrimmage capabilities and multiple All-Pro/Pro Bowl decorations.

  • But for the second year in a row, Bell and the Steelers are at an impasse regarding his salary requirements.

Sure, Bell can only play in Pittsburgh in 2018, thanks to being franchise tagged for a second straight year (after earning $12 million in 2017, Bell is scheduled to make $14.5 million in 2018), but his reported demands for a deal that averages $17 million per season means the odds of him being around in 2019 seem remote at best.

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens,

Le’Veon Bell turns corner on Brandon Carr en route to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

Like previous years when he wasn’t out of the lineup due to health issues or because of a suspension, Bell was the workhorse of the Steelers backfield in 2017, starting 15 of a possible 16 games and accounting for nearly 75 percent of the team’s 437 rushing attempts. Le’Veon Bell also tallied another 655 yards out of the backfield on a career-high 85 receptions.

  • With 1,946 yards from scrimmage, it was Bell’s most productive season since 2014, when he had 2,215 total yards.

But in terms of effectiveness, some would say Bell’s 2017 campaign left a lot to be desired, as his 1,291 rushing yards were just 23 more than he had the previous year when he tallied 1,268 on 60 less carries. Bell also averaged 4.0 yards per attempt (his lowest since 2013), and his longest run from scrimmage was just 27 yards.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

With Bell leading the way, the Steelers depth at running back doesn’t look half bad.

  • James Conner was everyone’s favorite heart warming story last season when the Steelers drafted him in the third round out of the University of Pittsburgh.

On the heels of his very public battle with cancer that was discovered in late-2015 while rehabbing from a torn MCL that wiped out all but one game of his junior season, you wanted to see James Conner do well. And in the limited exposure he did see on offense, James Conner showed great promise, totally 144 yards on 32 carries. Unfortunately, Conner’s rookie season came to an end in Week 15 when he suffered yet another MCL injury.

  • To make up for the absence of Conner, Pittsburgh signed veteran Stevan Ridley, who was riding the couch in late-December after not being able to catch on with anyone.

In limited action down-the-stretch in relief of a resting Bell, Stevan Ridley looked decent enough, tallying 108 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. It looks like Ridley, 29, will be providing veteran depth again next season, as he and the Steelers agreed to terms on a one-year deal.

Speaking of one-year deals, the Steelers will also have Fitzgerald Toussaint back again in 2018, after he and the team reached an agreement on a one-year contract that will pay him $790,000. With just 125 yards on 38 carries as a Steeler, Toussaint is perhaps best known for being thrust into the spotlight during the 2015 postseason, one that came to a crashing halt shortly after Toussaint fumbled in the fourth quarter against the Broncos in the divisional round.

Steelers 2018 Running Back Draft Needs 

The Steelers depth at running back may not look so bad with Le’Veon Bell leading the way, but is there a future starter in the mix?

Yes, James Conner does possess great potential, but he also has two surgically repaired MCLs on his resume, and I don’t have to tell you how important healthy knees are for a running back–or how quickly damaged ones can end a career.

Ridley and Toussaint may be competent backups, but that’s just about it.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Sure, Stevan Ridley had a great season in 2012, when he rushed for over 1,200 yards as a member of the Patriots, but in running back years, 2012 was a lifetime ago, and 29 is when “Life’s Work” starts beckoning most backs.

  • As for Fitzgerald Toussaint, if he possessed any potential to be anything other than a number 3 running back, , he would have showed it by now.

This brings us back to Le’Veon Bell.

While I’m inclined to blame the less-effective 2017 season on the Bell’s off season groin surgery as well as his decision to hold out all of training camp, I’m not so inclined to say Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers will be able to reach an agreement on a lucrative deal both sides will be happy with.

This isn’t to say it’s paramount the Steelers target and draft a running back with their first or even second pick. However, if general manager Kevin Colbert decides to play his “Best Player Available” card and–much like 2008, when Rashard Mendenhall slipped all the way to the 23rd pick of the first round–a running back with a first round grade is sitting there at 28, he may be too tempting to pass up.

No, it’s not critical that Pittsburgh drafts a running back in the first round, but all things considered, the need must be rated Moderate-High.

 

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Kudos to Kevin Colbert for Bringing in Two Free Agents Who Can Start for Steelers

I don’t know much about the NFL’s salary cap, and chances are, neither do you.

I do know the Steelers need help at both inside linebacker and safety–or at least they did–and I was wondering how they were going to find two competent pieces in free agency.

And if they did that, would they have enough money to pay star running back Le’Veon Bell $14.5 million in 2018 (unless the two sides can reach an agreement, which seems remote at this point).

Turns out, Pittsburgh was able to address both inside linebacker and safety last week, thanks to the signing of veteran linebacker Jon Bostic on Sunday, followed by the signing of veteran safety Morgan Burnett on Tuesday.

Morgan Burnett, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Packers

Morgan Burnett late in the Steelers 2017 win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Evan Seigle, via Packers.com

According to several pieces I’ve read as well as the site, spotrac.com, Burnett’s salary will eat up just  under $2.5 million in cap space this season. Considering the Morgan Burnett’s contract is worth a reported $14.3 million over three years, that’s kind of amazing–or at least means the money is back-loaded and will account for over $5 million in cap space in 2020 (the final season of Morgan Burnett’s deal).

Morgan Burnett is a consistent veteran and was one of the best pieces on the Packers’ defense the past several seasons, so much credit has to go to the Steelers for being able to bring him to town.

As for Jon Bostic, considering his contract is for $4 million over two seasons, no extensive research is needed to know he won’t eat up much cap space this year or next.

  • But who really cares about cap space, prorated bonuses and contacts? I know I prefer to focus on football.

I do know both Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett are capable of starting for the Steelers in 2018 and, at least on paper, will make the defense stronger than it was when it was getting manhandled by the Jaguars in 45-42 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs on January 14 at Heinz Field.

They just have to make fans forget how easily the likes of Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette tore through the defense with ease at Heinz Field in the regular season and then again in the playoffs (don’t look now, but the Jacksonville Jaguars playoff record in Pittsburgh is 2-0).

If Burnett can be a steadying back-end presence in the secondary and that always crucial last line of defense in 2018, he will be an instant upgrade over Mike Mitchell, who all too often wasn’t either of those things in 2017.

Massaging the salary cap is never an easy thing for the Steelers this time of year, but they managed to bring relief to their aching defense, and do so without wrecking the future–or so it would seem.

Maybe Burnett’s $5 million cap hit will hurt the Steelers in 2020. But, then again, maybe quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be getting on with his life’s work by then (hopefully, with at least one more Super Bowl on his career resume), and the organization will find salary cap relief organically.

  • But I’m not worried about that right now.

I just feel like giving props to the Steelers front office–namely Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan–for finding a way to get the right pieces for its defense (at least on paper) and doing so at a reasonable price.

Not an easy thing, and this is why they make the big bucks.

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Steelers Eli Rogers Non-Tender Shows How Perilous NFL Life Is for UDFAs

Steelers slot receiver Eli Rogers announced on his Twitter page on Tuesday that he would be hitting the open market on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the onset of NFL free agency.

The reason Eli Rogers, who was actually a restricted free agent at the start of the offseason, is now a total free agent,is because Pittsburgh elected to not tender him the lowest possible restricted, which would have been $1.9 million.

Eli Rogers,

Steelers made Eli Rogers an unrestricted free agent. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Eli Rogers, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Louisville in 2015, spent his entire rookie season on the Steelers Injured Reserve list after suffering a foot injury in training camp.

  • After impressing just about everyone in his 2016 training camp, Eli Rogers made the Steelers roster as their slot receiver.

Rogers caught 48 passes for 594 yards and three touchdowns in 2016, with his role becoming more critical as the season progressed, what with injuries ravaging the receiving corps.

Things took a turn in 2017, however, when Martavis Bryant, who missed all of 2016 with a drug suspension, and JuJu Smith-Schuster joined the ranks, making for a crowded position.

With so many targets vying for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s attention–especially superstar receiver Antonio Brown and dual-threat running back Le’Veon Bell–the chances of Eli Rogers repeating his 2016 performance seemed pretty slim.

And they became even slimmer when JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie sensation if there ever was one, burst onto the scene and took reps away from Rogers at the slot position. By season’s end, he even surpassed Bryant as the team’s number two receiver, tallying 58 receptions for 917 yards and a fairly impressive seven touchdowns.

That second part–Smith-Schuster taking playing time and targets away from the often disgruntled Martavis Bryant–may have worked out in Eli Rogers favor, as it pertained to a blueprint for the 2018 campaign.

After all, for all the talk of how physical and tough Smith-Schuster is, fact is, he has the potential to be one hell of a receiver, and if he’s good enough to be the number two guy, why mess around with Bryant, as skilled as he so obviously is?

And with Martavis Bryant far from your prototypical slot guy, that would be good news for Eli Rogers, this despite his production dipping to just 18 receptions for 149 yards and a score in 2017.

  • Furthermore, Eli Rogers was decent enough as a punt returner a year ago, averaging 7.7 yards per return, he looked primed to permanently wrest the job away from the very valuable Brown.

While I’m not sure what the Steelers plans for Eli Rogers were prior to January 14, the torn ACL he suffered that day in the 45-42 playoff loss to the Jaguars certainly didn’t help his cause.

Faced with an entire offseason of rehabilitation, Rogers doesn’t appear to be valuable enough to the team to risk paying him just under $2 million.

  • Word is Eli Rogers may still be in Pittsburgh’s plans, but undoubtedly at a much lower price.

And therein lies the plight of your average NFL UDFA.

Had Eli Rogers been a premium draft pick, the team may have been less willing to expose him to the open market so soon into his budding football career.

  • Eli Rogers is your prototypical slot receiver and may eventually excel in the role, given time to develop.

But second round picks are given second and third chances, such as 2015 second round pick, cornerback Senquez Golson, who never played a down in two-plus years due to multiple ailments, yet the Steelers carried Senquez Golson  on the roster for, well, two-plus years.

  • Receivers with potential to burn, such as Mryant Bryant, a fourth round pick with top-10 talent, are given multiple chances, even in the face of multiple drug suspensions.

In fact, recent reports of other teams showing interest in Martavis Bryant’s services were quickly squashed at the Combine by Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who made it quite clear No. 10 was not available.

That’s right, Pittsburgh is willing to risk the chance that Martavis Bryant will again become disgruntled and ask for a trade and/or throw his teammates under the bus on social media (behavior during the 2017 season that ultimately forced head coach Mike Tomlin to deactivate him for the Lions game on October 29) in the hopes that he will finally fully develop into the Randy Moss-like receiver everyone has been waiting for since he was drafted.

  • But the Steelers aren’t willing to gamble much on Eli Rogers’ abilities or injured knee.
  • Again, that’s the life of an undrafted free agent in the NFL.

Where Eli Rogers ultimately goes from here is still unclear, but regardless of how long his football career lasts, he’ll likely never have to stop proving his worth.

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Why One Big Summer ’17 Steelers Move Fuels Free Agency Excitement in the Spring of 2018

Steelers fans have been groomed to expect the least when it comes to the team’s activity (or lack thereof) in the NFL’s annual free agency frenzy that begins on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

But you know what? Something the Steelers did at the end of last summer has me more excited about the start of free agency than usual. Why’s that? To find out read on young Padawan, but first let’s acknowledge why the start of free agency has generally been a ho-hum affair in Steelers Nation.

  • To say Pittsburgh rarely makes a splash in free agency is an understatement.
  • To say the Steelers don’t wind up on many “winners” lists following the initial stages of the free agent period is a given.

Indeed, you could even argue that when the Steelers have tried to make splash free agency signings, its backfired on them!

And why shouldn’t they? Number one, it’s generally not the “Steelers Way.” In other words, Pittsburgh’s always been an organization that’s keen on improving itself with college prospects seeking to make it at the professional level (in other words, the draft), and not free agents seeking to cash in on that all-important second contract.

Number two, they generally don’t have much room under the cap, that is, unless they “kick the can down the street” as they say and restructure contracts, a practice that, sooner or later, catches up to everyone.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers Interception, Tyson Alualu, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden intercepts an Andy Dalton pass. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

I don’t mind the Steelers doing their business this way. After all, the reason they’re often up against it in terms of cap space is because of all the success they’ve enjoyed over the years with improving the team with drafted players.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert are all examples of former draft picks who have elevated themselves to the top ranks of their respective positions. And with that comes huge pay raises and second and third contracts. (If the organization can reach an agreement with Bell on a lengthy and lucrative deal, he’ll be the latest homegrown talent to challenge the remarkable talents of executive Omar Khan, whose reputation for massaging the team’s salary cap is quite legendary.)

Besides, as I’ve said many times, when it comes to NFL free agency, it is far from “free,” meaning the cream of the crop very rarely reaches the open market, what with the ironic franchise tag preventing this from happening. So, you’re ultimately left with a pool of players who weren’t even deemed worthy enough to have their free agency restricted by their former teams.

And this circles everything back to this Wednesday, and the start of the 2018 NFL free agency period.

Again, Steeler fans have grown accustomed to not expecting much.

  • However, based on last offseason’s activities, I’m a little more excited about things this year.

I’m not talking about Pittsburgh’s acquisitions last spring that were obviously moves of depth, such as the signing of journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and veteran defensive end Tyson Alualu.

I’m talking about the Steelers acquisition last summer, when they quickly scooped up veteran cornerback Joe Haden, mere hours after he was released by the Browns.

That’s not chump change.

Sure, it was a perfect storm that brought Joe Haden to the Steelers, as he wasn’t your typical free agent that had the entire month of March to shop his services and decide on the best offer.

But what the Joe Haden deal represented to me was that the Steelers were serious about contending in 2017.

  • They had one gaping hole to fill–the cornerback spot–and they filled it with a high-priced player.
  • Does this necessarily mean the Steelers will be aggressive during the true free agency period  this spring?

That’s hard to say, until it happens.

But as if this writing, I’m feeling pretty confident that if the Steelers feel there is an inside linebacker or a safety who can help them win now, they will do everything they can to bring him into the fold for the 2018 season.

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Why Steelers Shouldn’t Resign Stevan Ridley, the Free Agent Backup Running Back

It’s an uncertain time to be a running back for the Steelers. If you’re superstar Le’Veon Bell, will you be here next year, the year after that and for the rest of your career?

  • If you’re second-year back James Conner, will the torn MCL you sustained near the end of your rookie season heal in time to be ready for 2018?

And if you’re veteran Stevan Ridley, picked up near the tail-end of the 2017 campaign as  a result of James Conner’s injury, do you even want to come back? Stevan Ridley and the merits of retaining his services beyond the proverbial cup of coffee that was his time with Pittsburgh in 2017 is what we’re going to discuss right now.

Stevan Ridley, Steelers vs Browns, Steelers free agent Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley rushing for Steelers in Jan 1st win over Browns Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Stevan Ridley’s Steelers career

The classic journeyman running back, Stevan Ridley, 29, was a third round pick of the Patriots in the 2011 NFL Draft. Ridley played in New England for four seasons, with his standout year coming in 2012, when he rushed  for 1,263 yards on 290 carries.

A free agent the following spring, Stevan Ridley signed a deal with the Jets, but only remained with them for one season, before bouncing around the league through the end of the ’17 season, when the Steelers came calling on December 19.

Stevan Ridley looked pretty good in limited action for the final two games of the regular season–including a Week 17 start in a game against the Browns that was virtually meaningless. All-in-all, Ridley tallied 26 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown with Pittsburgh, but saw no action in the divisional round playoff loss to the Jaguars on January 14.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley 

It shouldn’t cost more than the veteran minimum to retain the services of a player like Stevan Ridley, who arrived in Pittsburgh literally hours after watching football from the comfort of his own home. He is a veteran with a history of productivity and perhaps showed he has some tread left on his tires during his limited work with the Steelers in December.

If Le’Veon Bell were to sit out 2018, and if James Conner isn’t fully healed by the start of the season, other than Fitzgerald Toussaint, at this point, a restricted free agent, who would start in Pittsburgh’s backfield as things stand right now?

Stevan Ridley might not be a world beater, but the fact that Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin instructed Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones to hand the ball to Ridley while keeping Toussaint on the bench should tell you all you need to know.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Regarding retaining the services of the All-Pro Le’Veon Bell, many fans contend that any running back could have success behind the Steelers impressive offensive line, one that now includes three Pro Bowlers.

Perhaps an unfair thing to say, but Ridley was  the very definition of any running back, and he averaged 4.15 yards per carry behind the Steelers hogs. If Stevan Ridley can do that, why not James Conner? Why not Fitz Toussaint? Why not any number of college running backs the Steelers could pick up in the 2018 NFL Draft in and indoctrinate in its system?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley did well in his limited time rushing for the Steelers. And while his ability to get off the couch to deliver on short notice, in contrast to say Sean Spence, is impressive, one also must keep in mind that Ridley was playing behind an All-Pro offensive line, and against two teams fighting for draft position.

The most consequential decision the Steelers face in free agency is on Le’Veon Bell. But regardless of whether Bell returns or seeks greener pastures, its also hard to argue that the Steelers shouldn’t be able to find someone who can add more to their backfield other than Ridley in 2018.

So if I’m Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, I’m telling Stevan Ridley, “We have your number. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”

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What Should The Steelers Do With Restricted Free-Agent Anthony Chickillo?

“Depth is the first victum of the salary cap.” It might be a cliche, but most cliche’s era their idiomatic status because they’re true. Unlike 70’s and 80’s, the salary cap has made it near impossible for any team to be as deep as it wants to be.

  • Sure, a team that drafts exceptionally well can stock its backup slots with true rising stars, but free agency renders such situations temporary.

Think of the Steelers recent history at inside linebacker.

Just a few years ago Pittsburgh boasted Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence AND Terence Garvin. Bob Labriola described the Steelers depth there as “obscene.” That was then, this is now. In the space of a few series against Cincinnati, the 2017 Steelers went from having inside linebacker as a team strength, to having to call Sean Spence off of a couch in Florida to start the next week.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers gear up for 2018’s free agency period, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would do well to keep that experience front-of-mind as they make decisions regarding restricted free agent linebacker Anthony Chickillo.  

Anthony Chickillo, DeShone Kizer, Steelers vs Browns

Anthony Chickillo closes in on DeShone Kizer. Photo Credit: David Richard, AP via PennLive.com

 

Capsule Profile Of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

Anthony Chickillo was a defensive end for the University of Miami Hurricanes who came to Pittsburgh as a sixth round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Given the Steelers long history as a 3-4 defensive team, Chickillo’s size (his draft profile listed him at 267 pounds) wasn’t going to translate well to the pro level–at least not in Pittsburgh. Therefore, the plan was for Chickillo to transition to outside linebacker under the tutelage of position coach Joey Porter.

But there was the matter of Anthony Chickillo making it onto the final roster during his rookie training camp. While Chickillo did initially make his first roster, he was waived days later and signed to the practice squad.

Fortunately for Anthony Chickillo, he was quickly promoted to the active roster and, according to his Wikipedia page, he made his NFL debut at Heinz Field against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6.

  • All-in-all, Chickillo appeared in seven games in 2015, forcing one fumble and recovering another.

However, it was in his second season when Anthony Chickillo, now fully transitioned to the outside linebacker position, would learn his craft via baptism by fire.

Anthony Chickillo was not only part of the team’s early-season plan to rotate its outside linebackers, he actually started seven games, after 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree was placed on Injured Reserve following offseason surgery.

Anthony Chickillo recorded 19 tackles and the first 2.5 sacks of his career in 2016, before ultimately taking a backseat to veteran James Harrison and the newly-activated Dupree down the stretch.

Anthony Chickillo’s finest hour occurred against the Browns in Week 1 of last year, when he posted two sacks while starting in place of Dupree and recorded the Steelers first touchdown of the season, after recovering a blocked punt by Tyler Matakevich in the end zone early in the first quarter.

Chickillo appeared in all 16 games a year ago, but he only added one more sack to his Week 1 total.

The Case For The Steelers Tendering Anthony Chickillo 

It shouldn’t take much more than a low tender to keep Chickillo around for another year. With veteran Arthur Moats about to hit unrestricted free-agency, the Steelers could soon be lacking in proven depth at the outside linebacker spot behind Dupree and second-year man T.J. Watt.

  • However, the Steelers need to be smart here.

Anthony Chickillo body of work, while not jaw dropping, certainly shows his can play in the NFL and his development is trending in the direction of “starter capable.” Offering Anthony Chickillo a tender that is too low might invite a team to extend him an offer.

And, if anything will be different than previous years, we know that James Harrison isn’t going to be around as an emergency outside linebacker.

The Case Against The Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo 

The case against the Steelers offering Anthony Chickillo a restricted free agent tender would go like this. At age 25, hasn’t evolved much beyond that of a depth player since making the transition from his college position. Sure, he’s trending towards “starter capable status,” but is he there yet?

  • The Steelers have to be stingy about using their salary cap space.

Its true that Pittsburgh’s depth at outside linebacker has befitted the team over the past few seasons, but depth isn’t a luxury that a team that borders on salary cap purgatory can afford.

While its true that Anthony Chickillo is the kind of player you’d like to get back for at least another year, the harsh realities of salary cap dollars an sense suggest that Pittsburgh’s best choice is to take the risk of making him a free agent, and bringing him back for the veteran minimum.

Curtain’s Call On The Steelers And Anthony Chickillo 

To reiterate, the Steelers depth at outside linebacker could be severely lacking if the veteran Arthur Moats decides to ply his trade elsewhere. At the end of the day, the Steelers really just need bodies at the position. Perhaps that’s not  a ringing endorsement for Anthony Chickillo, but he does know the Steelers system, and he has seen an awful lot of playing time over the past two seasons.

  • Besides that, Anthony Chickillo has been a regular on special teams, a unit that’s often overlooked during the free-agency period, as fans are more focused on the big names on offense and defense.

Anthony Chickillo might just be a backup outside linebacker, but he’s an extremely competent backup, and the Steelers may not be looking for much more than that for 2018.

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No Time to Say “Bye” to the Boz. Why Steelers Must Resign Chris Boswell, Place Kicker Extraordinaire

NFL kickers are curious characters. In the pre-digital age, in the “Overview” section of Steelers Digest, Bob Labriola took similar questions — and dished out similar answers — to his sessions on “Asked and Answered.” If memory serves, Labriola’s retort to a reader’s question about Gary Anderson’s Hall of Fame potential with:

  • “The Hall of Fame is for football players. Gary Anderson is a kicker.”

Wow. And if part of me feels compelled to take issue Labriola’s harshness, I’m forced to confess I once penned a missive comparing Steelers placekickers to ex-girlfriends. And while its a great read, if I do say so myself, who would ever dream of writing a similar article about Steelers linebackers?

  • I daresay you wouldn’t.

But if we can quibble over whether placekickers are legitimate football players, the Steelers 2017 season reinforced the crystal clear reality that quality place kicking makes a legitimate difference in the outcomes of football games. That’s a lesson everyone much remember as popular Pittsburgh place kicker Chris Boswell reaches restricted free agency, and the Steelers braintrust decides his future in the Steel City.

Chris Boswell, Chris Boswell steelers restricted free agent, Steelers vs Packers

Chris Boswell kicks a 53 yarder to put Pittsburgh over Green Bay in 2017. Photo Credit: Charles LeClarie, USA Today, via Lindysports.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Bowsell’s Steelers Career

Speaking of popular Steelers kickers, Shaun Suisham sure was one of them, after taking over for the once-popular–and just released–Jeff Reed midway through the 2010 season. In four-plus years in Pittsburgh, Suisham connected on 87.9 percent of his field goals attempts. Unfortunately, exactly one year after signing a contract-extension, Suisham was lost for the 2015 campaign with a torn ACL suffered in the Hall of Fame Game against the Vikings.

After a couple of veteran replacements didn’t work out–including Josh Scobee, who came to town via trade in late August–Boswell won a tryout following Scobee’s release just four weeks into the ’15 season.

Boswell proved to be an accurate replacement right from the start, connecting on 29 of 32 attempts during his rookie season. He also hit the game-winning field goal in the final seconds of the wild, wild-card win against the Bengals, giving the Steelers their first playoff victory in five years.

Boswell wasn’t as accurate in 2016, making 21 of 25 tries, but he was the hero of sorts in the divisional round match-up against the Chiefs, providing the only offense with six field goals in an 18-16 victory.

  • Last season was Boswell’s finest so far, as he connected on 35 of 38 attempts, and was fourth in the NFL with 142 points.

Boswell’s highlights included four-straight game-winning field goals–including three on the final play–during Pittsburgh’s eight-game winning-streak.

The Case For The Steelers Tendering Chris Boswell

Good kickers might not be hard so find in 2018, but the great ones sure are. With an 89.5 career percentage on field goal attempts–including just under 95 percent in 2017–it appears Boswell, 26, is just hitting his stride.

Furthermore, Boswell not only has the accuracy, he has the leg, as evidenced by connecting on six of eight attempts from 50-plus yards so far during his career–including a 53-yard game-winner against the Packers last season at Heinz Field, a place that’s notoriously tough on kickers. kickers.

According to spotrac.com, Suisham’s contract extension in 2014 included a signing bonus of $2.85 million–a number that’s always prorated over the life of a deal–and a base salary of $855,000 that year.

With those numbers in mind, it stands to reason a new deal for Boswell, whose base salary was $615,000 in 2017, shouldn’t cost Pittsburgh much more.

The Case Against The Steelers Resigning Chris Boswell

It’s certainly possible the Steelers could find a cheaper alternative this summer in a training camp invite. After all, who was Chris Boswell, who was Shaun Suisham, who was Jeff Reed, who were any number of really accurate NFL kickers throughout history before they latched on with a team?

Do the Steelers really want to devote such a significant portion of their salary cap dollars to a kicker?

Curtain’s Call On the Steelers And Chris Boswell 

Of the many personnel decisions the Steelers will have to make this spring, the contract status of Boswell is probably at the bottom of the list, and that’s because it’s a no-brainer.

The Steelers should certainly offer a restricted free agent tender Chris Boswell and, ideally, Kevin Colbert should offer him a long-term contract to keep him kicking in Pittsburgh for a long time.

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Why Steelers Linebacker T.J. Watt Could Be Pittsburgh Defense’s Next Big Playmaker

With the apparent permanent loss of sensational inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, due to the horrific spinal injury he suffered in a Monday night game against the Bengals last December 4 in Cincinnati, the Steelers‘ defense appears to be severely lacking in the play-maker department as the team sets its sights on free-agency and the upcoming draft.

But while it is true that Pittsburgh may never effectively replace the talents that Shazier brought to the defense before his injury–even though the organization must make that a top priority this spring–this doesn’t mean the unit doesn’t have a potential replacement, at least in terms of someone it can count on to make big plays at key moments.

  • I’m talking about outside linebacker T.J. Watt, a rookie sensation in 2017 if there ever was one.

Unlike some other defensive rookies in previous years, Watt appeared to be the real deal right from the onset of OTAs and training camp, and he continued to impress in live action, starting with two sacks in his very first preseason game against the Giants.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt strip sacks Joe Flacco. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Speaking of two sacks, Watt recorded two official ones in a Week 1 win over the Browns on September 10. Along with those two sacks–and two more quarterback pressures–Watt displayed the kind of athleticism that–no offense to him–the legendary James Harrison couldn’t even have dreamed of in his prime, when the rookie skied high in the air to pull down an interception thrown by fellow rookie DeShone Kizer.

All throughout 2017, Watt continued to show that his football bloodlines ran deep (his older brother is the famous J.J. Watt) and displayed the kind of all-around talent not seen at the outside linebacker position in Pittsburgh arguably since Chad Brown manned the position in 1996.

In-fact, Watt was the only linebacker in the entire league–rookie or veteran–who had a stat-line that consisted of at least 50 tackles (52), five sacks (seven), five passes defensed (seven) and an interception (one).

Watt also demonstrated he might have that all-important clutch gene, as evidenced by, among other things, a blocked field goal in a game against the Titans in Week 11; and, more importantly, a strip sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco three weeks later, a play that effectively clinched the AFC North for Pittsburgh.

  • Does this mean the Steelers shouldn’t put a top priority on finding another capable inside linebacker?

Of course not.

  • Does this mean T.J. Watt should be that inside linebacker, as has been suggested by some pundits and fans alike?

Of course not.

Ryan Shazier was the Steelers greatest defensive play-maker since the legendary Troy Polamalu made life miserable for opposing offenses for well-over a decade, but unlike Polamalu, Shazier was no safety.

Defensive play-makers–those terrors that keep opposing offensive coordinators up late at night–they come in all shapes and sizes…and can play just about any position.

T.J. Watt, outside linebacker, Wisconsin, just might be the Steelers next great defensive play-maker.

 

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Why Mike Tomlin Is Still the Right Head Coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers

You know what they say: “Don’t make a decision about something when you’re emotional.”

As a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I was pretty emotional after their quick ousting from the 2017/18 NFL playoffs at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars on January 14 at Heinz Field.

  • “Why weren’t they prepared?” like many other fans, I asked rather angrily. Furthermore, we had a right to be angry.

And, of course, the wave of negative news that quickly surfaced in the days after the Steelers season came to a crashing halt, such as star running back Le’Veon Bell arriving with about five minutes (or perhaps more, depending on who you believe) left in the walk-through practice the Saturday before the playoff loss, just seemed like one straw too many.

  • Yes, for a brief moment, I thought about the possibility of the Steelers moving on from long-time head coach Mike Tomlin and taking things in a whole new direction.
Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, at a December 2017 press conference. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

But while I thought about it, I never actually allowed those words to leave me lips. For one thing, it’s just ludicrous, right? Why part ways with a head coach who has accomplished as much as Mike Tomlin has during his 11-year tenure with the Steelers organization?

  • We’re talking about a man with a 116-60 career record, eight playoff appearances, six division titles, two trips to the Super Bowl and one Lombardi trophy in Super Bowl XLIII.
  • That’s only one win less than Don Shula in the same time span, the winningest coach in NFL history.

Anyway, here we are three weeks later, and after taking some time to reflect–and discovering that perhaps, as he told reporters recently, Bell had a personal reason for missing that final practice and was given permission by his head coach–I realize that maybe things aren’t always as they appear–or as they’re reported.

  • Obviously, someone had an ax to grind with Mike Tomlin–perhaps now ex-offensive coordinator Todd Haley–and wanted to make him look bad.

But that’s neither here nor there, because, even without the leaked story about Bell missing practice, there are those who will never give Mike Tomlin his due and will continue to scream for his dismissal as head man on the Steelers sidelines.

Part of me can’t figure out why, but then, Mike Tomlin is the first Steelers coach of the social media era. And, as you probably know, there is rarely anything logical or rational about most takes on Facebook or Twitter.

Yes, whereas in the late-90’s, when only a select few fans could call into sports talk radio every night and tell the hosts what they thought of Bill Cowher‘s coaching acumen (or lack thereof), today, every Tom, Dick and Harriet from all over the globe can take to the world wide web and use all capital letters to tell you how much they hate Tomlin’s clock-management skills.

And they’re not all irrational either. There are some logical fans, albeit fans with an agenda against Mike Tomlin, who can come up with some darn good reasons why the Steelers should find a new head coach.

But the good news is, regardless of the illogical or even sane negative takes on Mike Tomlin, Mr. Obvious obviously being obvious, the Steelers won’t be in the market for a new head coach anytime soon.

For starters, it just goes against reason and logic to suggest the Steelers, a team that has played exactly one game under Mike Tomlin where it was already out of playoff contention at kickoff, are in total disarray, as has been suggested time and time again, by both the media and fans, alike.

In a classic case of giving the players all the credit and the coach none, Mike Tomlin’s critics state–and with a straight  face, mind you–that Pittsburgh has only been as successful as it has over the years because it boasts a superbly-talented roster that includes a franchise quarterback in one Ben Roethlisberger and numerous All-Pros.

Conveniently, this ignores the fact that NFL history is littered with countless superbly-talented rosters that never came close to achieving what the Steelers have under Tomlin, and that’s because those teams lacked a leader the equal of a Tomlin.

Secondly, the Rooneys have never had a fast-trigger with getting rid of coaches–at least not over the past 49 years, when they’ve employed just three of them.

And there’s a simple reason for that: you don’t get rid of a head coach when he wins, which the Steelers coaches have done, since Chuck Noll gave the organization the blueprint for success back in 1969.

  • Why? Because even good ones are just oh so hard to find.

Maybe I’m more exhausted from arguing with other fans about the Steelers head coach than a supporter of another team would be from arguing about their team’s coach, because it’s so uncommon for any team to employ a coach as long as Pittsburgh has employed Tomlin.

But if you look around the league, you’ll see that the most stable franchises–even the ones that don’t win Super Bowls every season–have long-tenured head coaches.

Take a look at the Packers, and their head coach Mike McCarthy; he’s been with Green Bay since 2006, and has a track-record pretty much on-par with Tomlin.

  • Like Pittsburgh, the Packers haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since they defeated the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. And, like Steelers fans, Green Bay faithful have high expectations of their team.
  • You don’t think Packers fans have been quite vocal on social media about McCarthy’s underachieving teams the past seven seasons?

Like Steelers fans, do you think Packers Cheeseheads are betting the farm McCarthy will be an abject failure once his franchise quarterback–Aaron Rodgers–hangs up his cleats?

A good guess is that they are–again, fans are usually more apt to give credit to the player than to the coach.

However, I’ll just wager a bet that the Packers’ front-office won’t be looking for a new head coach in the near future, not unless McCarthy drifts far from the consistency he’s provided the organization the past 12 years.

Yes, consistency, something that your garden variety entitled fan rarely puts much stock in–until it’s gone.

As a fan of the University of Pittsburgh Men’s basketball team, I can tell you I was pretty darn frustrated year after year, as I watched head coach Jamie Dixon achieve great success in the regular season, only to underachieve in the postseason.

  • Many other Pitt fans–including some highly-influential alums–felt the same way.
  • Long story short, Dixon was effectively forced out two years ago–even if he officially left to coach his alma mater, TCU.

In the wake of Dixon’s departure, the Panthers hired Kevin Stallings, a coach that was far down the list of desired successors, and, today, the program finds itself back at rock-bottom, complete with an 0-11 record in the ACC.

Right about now, those yearly appearances in the Big Dance–even if  they often stalled out in the Sweet 16–don’t look so bad.

If insiders such as Ed Bouchette, Gerry Dulac and Bob Labriola are to be believed–and there’s nothing to suggest they aren’t–the Steelers goal every year is to compete and have a chance to win a championship.

With the exception of maybe a half a dozen years, the Steelers have been a legit championship contender every season, dating back to 1992, when Cowher took over for the legendary Noll.

Far few teams can make that kind of claim, and there’s something to be said for that.

Right now, the New England Patriots are in the throes of one of the greatest championship runs in professional sports history. Despite their 41-33 loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII on Sunday night, the Patriots have now made it to eight Super Bowls since 2001, winning five of them.  But when the run is over, and Tom Brady finally does retire, will head coach Bill Belichick stick around and try to rebuild?

  • And when Belichick does finally part ways with the Patriots, will they be able to maintain the current winning culture over the next 20 or 30 years?

Finally, while you might consider Tomlin’s years to be a waste–only a truly entitled fan would think that way–fact is, he truly is at an elite level in his profession.

So, while you and I might continue to battle back and forth on social media over Tomlin’s coaching acumen (or lack thereof), he’ll continue to man the Steelers sidelines.

Good head coaches are hard to find, and Mike Tomlin has proven to be a great one.

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Everyone “Wishes Him Well.” But Is It Actually OK To Hope Ryan Shazier Plays Football Again?

In the nearly two months since Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier was lost for the rest of the 2017 season with a spinal injury in a Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 4, the well-wishes and prayers for his recovery have been coming his way non-stop.

  • That’s understandable and as hit should be.

The spinal injury Tyan Shazier suffered didn’t just put him in a precarious spot from a football perspective, as so many spinal/neck injuries do, it left him paralyzed from the waist down, a condition that’s persisted to this day and one that, hopefully, is temporary.

Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs

Ryan Shazier returns an interception at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via USA Today’s Steelers Wire

However, amid all the well-wishes and prayers for Ryan Shazier to soon leave his wheelchair behind, the one thing people are almost afraid to hope for is his ability to play football again.

Just try and have a conversation with anyone about Ryan Shazier’s health, and if you even mention how much you’d love to see him back in a Steelers uniform, the predictable response you get from the other person is, “I just hope he can walk again, that’s the most important thing.”

It was apparently even taboo for football experts, such as MMQB’s Peter King, perhaps the most prominent NFL writer around, to talk about the football ramifications of Ryan Shazier’s absence from the Steelers defense down the stretch of the 2017 campaign, as he seemed almost apologetic when discussing it during his local radio appearances or in one of his columns.

  • Did Peter King need to be apologetic?

Ryan Shazier meant a lot to the Steelers 2017 defense, so much so, in-fact, the chances of them finding another player who will possess his rare combination of speed and explosiveness seem pretty slim–at least in the immediate future.

  • And that’s one of the reasons I’m rooting for Ryan Shazier to play football again for the Steelers and to do so at the highest level possible.
  • “That’s selfish and insensitive!” you might shout at me rather self-righteously.

Really?

Let me ask you this–and I don’t mean for this to sound flippant in any way–but if Ryan Shazier plays football for the Pittsburgh Steelers again, wouldn’t that pretty much take care of the walking part of the equation?

I ask that rhetorically, because it obviously would.

  • So what’s the big deal about wanting Ryan Shazier to play football again?

Does that really make me seem selfish? Maybe it does, but selfish for good reasons. Why wouldn’t I want Ryan Shazier to recover to such an extent he’s an All-Pro caliber inside linebacker again?

  • Wouldn’t that just be the greatest feel-good story in the history of sports?I can’t think of a better one, that’s for sure.

And while you’re busy feeling guilty or calling me selfish, you should probably know that Ryan Shazier, himself, is also dreaming of more than just being able to walk again.

  • Think about it: We’re talking about a guy that spent most of his life playing a sport he loved with all of his heart and soul.

Before games, it was common for Ryan Shazier to warm up shirtless–regardless of the temperature, which was often quite cold. If that wasn’t an indication of absolute passion, I don’t know what is.

The way Ryan Shazier roamed from sideline to sideline with such zest and zeal on just about every play, you don’t do that if you’re not living your dream, your calling in life.

At this point what’s the most likely scenario that sees Ryan Shazier setting foot on a football field again? Suiting up and running through the tunnel wearing number 50? Or coming out for some special tribute to his far-too short career with the Steelers? Sadly, that latter scenario is the one we’ll most likely see.

  • But that doesn’t mean Ryan Shazier playing football again it’s not something worth hoping and praying for.

Do I want this because it will make the Pittsburgh Steelers a better football team? Absolutely.

But I also want it for Ryan Shazier, because I know he’s hoping and praying for the same thing.

 

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