What I Did The Day The Steelers Drafted Ben Roethlisberger

Just like Chad Pennington a few years earlier, I started hearing quarterback Ben Roethlisbergers name linked to the the Steelers as a potential first-round pick, long before the 2004 NFL Draft.

In fact, I remember waking up in the middle of the night in the fall of 2003 and hearing some random national sports talk show host discussing the prospects of Roethlisberger being Pittsburgh’s first first-round quarterback since Mark Malone in the spring of 1980.

Ben Roethlisberger

The day the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger was a momentous one for the franchise. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Of course, at that time, with the Steelers still in the throes of their ’03 campaign, the last thing I cared about was who they’d draft about six months down the road.

  • But if you remember that 2003 season, it was one you may want to forget.

Instead of remaining in the ring of Super Bowl contenders, a ring they occupied  the previous two seasons, the Steelers started the year 2-6, before finishing with a 6-10 record.

The downside was the 6-10 record. The upside was a rare flirtation with a top-10 selection, as Pittsburgh would pick 11th in that spring’s annual NFL Draft.

Despite Roethlisberger’s name being linked to the Steelers for quite some time, the Miami of Ohio superstar quarterback took a backseat to NC State’s Philip Rivers, who was climbing up the draft boards fast and, thanks in-part to playing his college ball at the same school as head coach Bill Cowher, seemed the likely choice, if he were available, and the team was serious about finding its next great franchise passer.

But by the eve of the draft, River’s stock had risen so high, if he wasn’t selected first overall by the Chargers, he would be taken fourth by the Giants.

Rivers ultimately became a Charger, after initially being drafted by New York, who then made a rather bizarre draft-day trade with San Diego for the rights to Eli Manning, the most coveted quarterback prospect in the draft.

That left Roethlisberger as the only quarterback remaining of the “Big Three” prospects believed to have that truly elite talent, talent that could quickly change the fortunes of a franchise.

But there were still six teams drafting before the Steelers and, besides, other players who represented perhaps more urgent needs such as South Carolina cornerback Dunta Robinson and Arkansas guard Shawn Andrews were also linked to Pittsburgh by many in the know.

  • The first round was held on Saturday back then, and like most Saturdays, I had to work.

I listened to pick after pick on the radio, and I was kind of giddy when I heard that Robinson was drafted by the Texans just one pick before Pittsburgh.

  • Who would the Steelers select with the 11th pick?

Would it be Roethlisberger or would the often conservative Bill Cowher go with a safer bet, such as an Andrews?

Before I could hear Pittsburgh’s decision, I was called away for something (the life of a retail manager is one where you’re lucky to enjoy one song on the radio without someone bothering you, let alone an entire draft).

When I returned moments later, I round out Roethlisberger was indeed the pick, and this excitement came over me that I don’t think I had ever experienced following a Steelers draft choice.

  • Even at the time, I didn’t know why I was so giddy.

After all, Tommy Maddox had established himself as the team’s starting quarterback not even two seasons earlier, and even after the drafting of Roethlisberger, it was mostly understood that Maddox would remain in that role for at least the ’04 campaign (and be backed up by veteran Charlie Batch), while the rookie watched and learned from the sideline.

In fact, in subsequent days, there were stories of Maddox being very upset about the Roethlisberger pick (“I thought  they were going to get me a tackle,” is a quote from Maddox I remember reading during that time).

Anyway, it was a surreal feeling, this joy over a first-round quarterback who, as far as anyone knew at the time, could have turned out to be a major bust (that is if he could even unseat the very determined Maddox).

I had no idea why I was so happy, and for reasons that had to do with my limited VHS options (this was a full year or so before I owned my first DVD player), I popped in Tough Guys, an NFL Films production released in 1989 and hosted by legendary head coach Mike Ditka.

This feature chronicled the careers of some of the toughest guys in NFL history–including Jack Lambert, Jim Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Conrad Dobler and Chargers Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts.

That’s right, Fouts was actually included in this group–his story was the last one, in fact–and that was the main reason for popping this tape into my VCR.

  • I was just so happy the Steelers drafted a quarterback, I needed to watch highlights of quarterbacks.

In case you don’t know much about Fouts, in addition  to being one of the most prolific passers of his day, he was also one of the toughest, as he stood in the pocket and took hit after hit, while delivering pass after pass.

Fouts played with many injuries during his career–including a broken nose suffered right in the middle of a game.

It was ironic that Fouts was my main inspiration for watching this  tape that day, because Roethlisberger would go on to build a Hall of Fame career of his own complete with a reputation for physical toughness perhaps unmatched by any quarterback throughout NFL history.

You obviously know the story of Ben Roethlisberger–one that will hopefully continue for a few more seasons (that’s not what this article is about)–and why I was so excited about the drafting of a quarterback by a team that seemingly already had a starting quarterback in place.

There’s just no substitute for that truly elite, franchise quarterback.

As I’ve always said, it doesn’t matter where you rank the truly great quarterbacks of the present, because if your team is lucky enough to have one of them, your team is so far ahead of the game in terms of contending for Super Bowls.

  • The Steelers have accomplished so much since the drafting of Ben Roethlisberger 14 years ago.

The 2004 NFL Draft is one that will always have a special place in my heart, as it was the genesis of so many great memories yet to come.

 

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Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs – Time to Plan for Martavis Bryant’s Departure?

Wide receiver has been a position of strength and talented depth for quite some time for the Steelers, and after injuries significantly hindered the group in 2016, the unit was on the upswing again in 2017, complete with a second-round rookie sensation.

With the 2018 NFL Draft less then two weeks away, how high of a priority is receiver for the Steelers, and should they continue to infuse the corps with high-end talent?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown, Steelers 2018 wide receiver draft needs

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant & Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

The Steelers obviously have the best receiver in the NFL in Antonio Brown, a man who led the league in receiving yards a year ago with 1,533, this despite missing the final two-plus games of the regular season with a calf injury. Brown eclipsed the 100-receptions mark for a fifth-straight time in 2017 (101) and once again provided many clutch moments, authoring the kind of year that actually had him in the discussions  for league MVP by season’s end.

Pittsburgh may have also found an apprentice great receiver–and current starter alongside Brown–in JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie sensation in 2017 who, in addition to taking some of the starch out of the old football guard thanks to his refreshing and entertaining antics, became a much-needed complement to the always double and triple-teamed No. 84 by catching 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster also quickly made a name for himself as a tough and ferocious downfield blocker in the mold of the legendary Hines Ward (a talent that will always endear a receiver to Steelers fans), and even proved to be of great value on special teams by returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the Browns in Week 17.

Smith-Schuster also provided his share of clutch moments in 2017, including a 97-yard touchdown catch and run vs. the Lions on Sunday Night Football as well as a 69-yard catch and run in the waning moments of the controversial Week 15 game against the Patriots, a play that was essentially wiped out of Steeler lore moments later by the overturning of the Jesse James touchdown which cost Pittsburgh a critical victory.

As I alluded to earlier, Smith-Schuster performed so well from day one, he ascended to the top of the depth chart and was the starter alongside Brown down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Steelers Wide Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

Following his one-year absence due to a drug suspension, Martavis Bryant struggled to recapture his form in 2017, as the big plays he was known for during his first two seasons were mostly non-existent. Bryant caught 50 passes for 603 yards and just three touchdowns a year ago, while averaging 12.1 yards per reception.  After beginning the year as the number two receiver, Bryant was dropped behind the rookie Smith-Schuster by mid-season.

Known more for his special teams prowess at this stage of his career, veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey, 31, caught just two passes for 47 yards in 2017.

  • Rounding out the receiving corps is Justin Hunter, a former second-round pick who signed with the Steelers in 2017.

Blessed with size and speed, there was hope and excitement that having a quarterback the caliber of Ben Roethlisberger would flesh out Hunter’s talents. Unfortunately, due perhaps to not having many opportunities at the crowded and deep position, Hunter caught just four passes for 23 yards a year ago.

Steelers 2018 Wide Receiver Draft Needs

On paper, the Steelers certainly have a more than talented receiving corps, with Brown and Smith-Schuster leading the way.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

But Martavis Bryant, who was so vocal about his lack of production a season ago, he was deactivated for the Lions game, is a free agent after this season. Outside of Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, the Steelers have little history of giving wide receivers second contracts, so it appears 2018 will be Bryant’s final year in Pittsburgh.

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter will also be free agents in 2019.

A more pressing concern may be who will play the slot position in 2018, what with Eli Rogers, he of the torn ACL suffered in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, has not yet being re-signed for next season.

While receiver isn’t a position of great need in 2018, it isn’t out of the question that one gets drafted early enough to make people take notice–who saw the JuJu pick coming in Round 2 a year ago?–which makes the 2018 draft need at receiver Moderate. 

 

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Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to Bail on Bud Dupree?

Coming off one of the best seasons any Steelers rookie has had in quite some time, T.J. Watt, the first round choice in 2017, appears to have finally satisfied the organization’s long search for the next prolific outside linebacker, a position synonymous with greatness in the Steel City.

Or has he?

With less than three weeks to go before the 2018 NFL Draft, just how high on the list of priorities is outside linebacker for the Steelers? The answer hinges not on Watt’s development, but on the development of his couterpart whom the Steelers drafted two seasons before him. Let’s take a look.

Bud Dupree, Bobbie Massie, Steelers vs Bears

Bud Dupree tries to get past Bobby Massie. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Starters

As mentioned, T.J. Watt had a whale of a rookie season, tallying 52 total tackles, seven sacks, seven passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble (the only player in the NFL at his position–rookie or otherwise–to post such an impressive stat line in 2017.)

Being the younger brother of the legendary J.J. Watt, it’s perhaps no surprise Watt picked things up so quickly and was so productive in his very first season. As I alluded to earlier, unless he’s felled by an injury, Watt seems destined to be the Steelers next great outside linebacker.

  • But Watt can only man one position at a time–the right side.

What about left outside linebacker, a position that has previously been occupied by the likes of LaMarr Woodley and Jason Gildon?

Coming off of his third year in Pittsburgh, Bud Dupree appears to have all the potential in the world, and unlike disappointing 2013 first round pick, Jarvis Jones, Dupree has often shown flashes of that potential during his first three years with the Steelers.

After coming back from offseason groin surgery late in the 2016 campaign and recording 4.5 sacks over the final seven games, there was great excitement about Dupree heading into 2017.

  • However, despite starting 15 games, Dupree seemed to fall out of favor, at least with a fan base that wondered why he could only muster six sacks.

But as DK Sports’ Chris Carter pointed out late last year, Dupree was asked to drop back into pass coverage 75 percent of the time, something that seems to be more of a job requirement for Steelers linebackers in general, these days, as the pass rushing duties have been dispersed more evenly among all defenders under Keith Butler‘s watch (the defense set a franchise record with 56 sacks a year ago).

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft–the Backups

As of this writing, there are only two backup outside linebackers on the Steelers’ depth chart–2015 sixth round pick, Anthony Chickillo; and 2017 seventh round pick, Keion Adams.

  • 2017 was a bit of a break out year for Chickillo, as the converted defensive end out of the University of Miami recorded three sacks, including two while starting in place of Dupree in Week 1.

At 25 years old, Anthony Chickillo is still young enough to offer legitimate “upside,” and he’ll surely continue to get that chance, as he’s been a regular part of the team’s rotation at the outside linebacker spot since 2016.

As for Keion Adams, it’s really hard to say what he brings to the table, considering he spent his entire rookie season on Injured Reserve. As suggested here last spring, given the Steelers pedigree at the position, being drafted in the 7th round as an outside linebacker might seem hopeless, but Carlos Emmons faced a similar fate in 1996, and had a pretty good career.

Steelers 2018 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs

With veteran Arthur Moats currently a free agent after spending the last four years with the Steelers, there is obviously room for another body or two at the outside linebacker spot.

However, with more pressing needs heading into the draft, such as inside linebacker, safety, and even running back, the outside linebacker spot may not be a position the Steelers feel anxious about addressing during the first few rounds–and this would especially be the case if the versatile Moats is still in the team’s plans.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • The real question in defining the Steelers 2018 outside lienbacker draft needs comes down to how you assess Bud Dupree.

When they drafted him the Steelers knew Bud Dupree was a “project” who offered tremendous athleticism but lacked polish. In his time in Pittsburgh, both traits have been on display, although Dupree’s contributions to the Steelers 2016 turn around are often overlooked.

Still, with three years under his belt, Dupree has yet to dispel the doubters. One prominent Steelers writer contacted by this site for an opinion about Dupree asserted that he will never be anything more than a “marginal starter.”

Yet, when asked about him recently, Kevin Colbert argued: “I think Bud is just scratching the surface to what he can be. He’s shown us enough signs that that can happen and will happen.” That’s an unambiguous statement from a General Manger who holds his cards close to the vest.

With that said, tt is true that Dupree’s fifth-year option has yet to be picked up, but that’s still not enough to make the Steelers need at the position anything but Low-Moderate. 

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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.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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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.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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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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