Steelers Trade Antonio Brown to Raiders for 3rd & 5th Round Picks – Robbery or Riddance?

Accentuate the positive: It is over.

Long before the Art Rooney II met with Antonio Brown, it became clear that the Steelers would trade their Hall of Fame talented wide receiver. And now that process is finally over as the Steelers trade Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd round pick and a 5th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

For both better and for worse, the soap opera is finally over.

Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown trade, Steelers trade Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin

Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin in happier times. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via BTSC

What a Long Strange Trip Its Been

The story began back in December. During the Steelers heart breaking loss ot the Saints, thanks in no part to two bogus pass interference on Joe Haden, Antonio Brown had been on fire. Ben Roethlisberger threw 19 passes his way, as Brown caught for 185 yards and two touchdowns.

  • Yet, a few days later Antonio Brown’s name showed up on the Steelers injury report.

Then, Jim Wexell mentioned that Randy Fichtner had begun his press conference with a preemptive “I’m NOT talking about Antonio Brown.” Antonio Brown didn’t play. The Steelers came out and struggled to beat the Bengals, despite the return of James Conner.

Shortly after the game (perhaps news leaked sooner) reports surfaced that Antonio Brown had walked out of Steelers practice due to an altercation with Ben Roethlisberger during practice.

Mike Tomlin informed us that Antonio Brown ignored phone calls, although Drew Rosenhaus made calls to the coach. Mike Tomlin didn’t dispute a report that Brown had abandoned the team during its “Darkest hour.” Art Rooney II pulled no punches with reporters admitting that it was “Very hard to see” Antonio Brown returning to the team.

Meanwhile, Antonio Brown proceeded to troll the Steelers at every turn on social media, mocking Mike Tomlin alongside with James Harrison during Tomlin’s press conference, photo shopping himself into San Francisco 49ers uniforms and otherwise acting like a buffoon.

Yet, through it all, Antonio Brown managed to sway a good chunk of the national media to his side.

  • Never mind that he was convicted for driving 140 miles an hour on McKnight Road.
  • Never mind that he’d physically threatened one reporter and cursed out Ed Bouchette.
  • Never mind that he’d been accused of throwing furniture off of a 14th floor balcony.
  • Never mind Antonio Brown’s alleged involvement in a domestic dispute.
  • Never mind Antonio Brown needing his dad as a chaperone, unable to do a simple 1-1 with Art Rooney II.

No, never mind any of that. Some how in the eyes of many in the media (Cris Carter excluded) Antonio Brown was a victim of a series of injustices leveled on him by Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and even Art Rooney II.

Antonio Brown Trade Robbery or Riddance for Steelers? How about Both?

The Steelers had done their part to try to keep the door open to Brown’s return, with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward treating Antonio Brown with open arms to one degree or another in the press.

But it became pretty clear early on that question wasn’t “If” the Steelers would trade Antonio Brown but “How much will they get?”

  • We know the answer now: Not much.

I guess what goes around comes around. Last spring during the 2018 NFL Draft, the Steelers shipped troubled wide receiver Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd round pick. Given that Bryant was one bong hit away from NFL oblivion it seemed like Kevin Colbert had gotten away with robbery.

  • He had, and now Jon Gruden returns the favor.

Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame talent. While Brown did suffer a slow start to 2018, he was in Hall of Fame form when the season ended. He is the best receiver in the game and showed no sign of slowing down. He had a team-friendly contract.

  • Yet, all the Steelers could give for him was a third round pick.

Yes, of course the Steelers got a 5th on top of that, but when considering Brown’s talent that’s the equivalent of saying “A third round pick and two box tops.”

However, this is hardly a surprise. In early January Jim Wexell reported that a team source had told him that a 3rd rounder might be the best they could do for Brown. Ed Bouchette had other NFL personnel men tell him that a 6th or a 5th might have been the best the Steelers could do.

  • In the end, both were right as the Steelers got a 3rd and a 5th in the 2019 NFL Draft.

In pure football terms, the Steelers got robbed. However, the Steelers did what they had to do. Perhaps, just perhaps, in early January there was a bridge that Antonio Brown could have taken back to Pittsburgh.

  • Instead Antonio Brown chose to gleefully dump gasoline on that bridge at every chance he has gotten.

At the end of the day, the Raiders may have robbed the Steelers, but the Steelers also rid themselves of locker room cancer that would have scuttled their 2019 season before it started.

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Steelers Would be Right to Resign Eli Rogers

We begin this latest installment of our Steelers 2019 free agent focus by paying homage to the legendary Washington, DC Sports Radio personality, the late Ken Beatrice who often lamented to his listeners:

  • I offer my apologies for not having gone to law school to bring you the sports news.

And this was in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. We bring that up because it is not 100% clear that Eli Rogers as a free agent, as his contract was “tolled.” Whatever that means. But so was Ryan Shazier’s, and at one point word was that Shazier needed a new contract, but now that’s not so clear.

So we’re presuming that Eli Rogers is in fact a free agent that the Steelers must make a decision on.

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Capsule Profile of Eli Roger’s Steelers Career

Eli Rogers joined the Steelers as a member of their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. Fighting his way up a depth chart headed by Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates, Rogers chances of securing a roster spot appeared slim.

  • Yet by late August, USA Today Steelers Wire writer Neal Coolong went as far as to compare Rogers to a young Antonio Brown.

Shortly thereafter, injuries ruined Roger’s rookie season sending him to injured reserve.

In 2016 Eli Rogers vindicated Coolong’s praise by earning the slot receiver job. By the end of the season, Rogers served as Steelers defacto number 2 wide out, and had caught 48 passes, putting him behind only Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

In 2017 JuJu Smith-Schuster’s emergence and Martavis Bryant’s return diminished Eli Rogers offensive role. Although Eli Rogers’ catch percentage dipped in 2017, his performance perked up at the end of the season, and during the playoff loss to the Jaguars he was a perfect 5-5.

  • Unfortunately, Eli Rogers tore his ACL in that game, and began 2018 on the PAP list.

Eli Rogers was activated for the Steelers final 3 games and clearly gave the offense a boost.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Eli Rogers

How does 12 of 14 suit you? Those are Eli Roger’s catch-target numbers for the three games he played in 2019. Pittsburgh’s 2018 offense while potent, was missing something for much of the year.

That missing link was a third wide receiver. James Washington wasn’t quite ready to fill that role, and Justin Hunter was unable. While Ryan Switzer was a quality 4th wide out. It is going to be all hands on deck for the Steelers wide receiving corps as Pittsburgh looks to “replace” Antonio Brown.

Eli Rogers is never got to grow into an Antonio Brown type receiver, but he provides quality depth and has shown he came come up in big games, going 4-4 catching everything Ben Roethlisberger threw his way in his first action in the win over the Patriots.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Eli Rogers

The Steelers are going to bring in another starting-caliber wide receiver, perhaps through the draft or perhaps via free agency – or perhaps using both channels. Assuming those players deliver as promised, does that really leave room for Eli Rogers on the Steelers 2019 roster?

Perhaps more importantly, does that justify investing precious salary cap dollars and signing bonus money in someone you might end up cutting in late August anyway?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eli Rogers

The Steelers clearly like Eli Rogers, having resigned him last summer when they knew he wasn’t going to contribute for most of the year. Rogers delivered as soon as his number was called, picking up right where he left off in the Jaguars debacle.

The Steelers should bring him back, and almost certainly they will.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Has the Steelers Stevan Ridley Reclamation Project Run Its Course?

NFL “Street Free Agents” are just what the name implies. Players who get signed off of the street. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has a pretty good record when it comes to signing Street Free Agents. Kickers Matt McCrane and Randy Bullock provide to recent examples.

Stevan Ridley is another one of Kevin Colbert’s Street Free Agent signings and his impending free agency provides a good time to assess how well the Stevan Ridley reclamation project has worked.

Stevan Ridley, Steelers vs Patriots

Stevan Ridley rips off a revenge run against the Patriots. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA Today Sports

Capsule Profile of Stevan Ridley Steelers Career

When James Conner got injured in the infamous Steelers 2017 loss to the Patriots, the infamous Jesse James game, Fitzgerald Toussiant was Le’Veon Bell’s only experienced backup. Kevin Colbert wasted little time signing Stevan Ridley who’d been a quality NFL running back before injuries derailed his career in 2014.

Stevan Ridley saw immediate action in the Steelers Christmas win against the Texans and in their season finale against the Browns. The Steelers resigned him in the 2018 off season, and Ridley began the 2018 season as James Conner’s primary backup, ahead of Jaylen Samuels.

Ridley only got 29 carries and saw 3 balls thrown his way, managing a 2.8 yard per carry average. Worse yet, he fumbled twice.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Those statistics don’t paint a pretty picture for Stevan Ridley, and make it hard for build a case for bringing Ridley back to Pittsburgh. On a recent Post-Gazette chat, Gerry Dulac quipped to a reader that Ridley “led the league in 2 yard carries.”

  • It IS true that Stevan Ridley’s ball security are at issue, and that his average is unimpressive.

Yet the sample size is small, and Stevan Ridley also looked good at times, including in the Steelers win over the Patriots. The Steelers need depth at running back, and Stevan Ridley provides an experienced hand behind Conners and Samuels.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Depth in the NFL is about quality not quantity. Stevan Ridley is going to be 30 next season, and 30 year old running backs don’t offer much in the way of “upside.”

It is hard to justify a modest signing bonus and even a roster spot on Stevan Ridley when the Steelers should be looking to fill that role with a young player for the 2019 NFL Draft.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley’s future in Pittsburgh could largely depend on the Steelers overall approach to building their running back depth chart.

For the last several seasons, the Steelers have opted to go with a starter, a competent backup and untested younger player manning the third running back slot with Roosevelt Nix rounding out the group at fullback.

If the Steelers stick to form, and only carry 3 running backs plus a fullback, it would be a mistake to keep Stevan Ridley as that third running back. However, if the Steelers find a good back to complement James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, a 2019 equlivent of 2008’s Mewelde Moore, than Stevan Ridley could be a good candidate to occupy that 4th slot, much as Gary Russell did in 2008.

However, with Antonio Brown set to leave town, the Steelers will need to add extra bodies at wide receiver to supplement JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and possibly Eli Rogers as targets for Ben Roethlisberger.

That being the case, it is likely that the Steelers Stevan Ridley reclamation project has come to an end.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Marcus Gilbert’s Steelers Career Ends as Pittsburgh Trades Him to Arizona for 6th Round Pick

The Steelers have made the trade! No, not THAT trade, the one involving Antonio Brown. Instead the Steelers have traded offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals for a 6th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

  • Some sort of roster move involving Marcus Gilbert was expected, although a trade is a mild surprise.

Marcus Gilbert missed the last 11 games of the 2018 season due to injury after missing nine games during 2017 due to injury and suspension. Gilbert was in the final year of the contract he signed in 2015 and was due to make $4.9 million dollars, and it has been speculated that Marcus Gilbert could be a cap casualty.

That speculation turns out to be correct.

Marcus Gilbert, Marcus Gilbert trade

Marcus Gilbert starting for the Steelers vs the Chiefs in 2018. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune Review

Marcus Gilbert Trade Completes Phase of Cycle Begun in 2011

The day was September 11th, 2011, the venue was Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium and the result was one of the most humiliating defeats of the Mike Tomlin era. After defeating the Baltimore Ravens in 4 straight contests, including 3 in 2010, the Ravens struck back decimating the Steelers in the Debacle in Baltimore.

  • This was the game that prompted Warren Sapp to declare the Steelers “Old, Slow and Done.”

During the game the Steelers lost Willie Colon for the year as the starting offensive tackle tore his triceps. The Steelers had played “Plug and Patch” on their offensive line up until that point in the Tomlin era. Many assumed the Steelers would look to either resign Max Starks or Flozell Adams, both of whom had been with the club in 2010 and cut during the summer.

  • Flozell Adams did in fact offer his services to the team, but the price was too steep.

The Steelers would again take the Red Phone to Max Starks, but that move came in October, when it became clear that Jonathan Scott was in over his head and woefully unable to protect Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side.

The Steelers instead announced that Marcus Gilbert would start at right tackle. The decision was important because it signaled the Steelers commitment building a sustainable offensive line. And while injures kept him off of the field for much of 2012, he’s held down the position ever since, aside from rotating with Kelvin Beachum for a bit during the beginning of 2013.

And while that commitment continues, trading Marcus Gilbert ends a phase of that cycle.

Remembering the “Gilbertings”

Marcus Gilbert deserves to be remembered as a player who provided the Pittsburgh Steelers with quality play at right tackle, helping stabilize a position and an offensive line that had under gone tremendous turmoil during Mike Tomlin’s first 4 or 5 seasons.

  • Yet fate was not always kind to those who played close to Marcus Gilbert.

During the 2012 preseason, Marcus Gilbert fell on David Johnson and David DeCastro, injuring both men and costing David Johnson the season in which he was to transition to becoming a full time fullback. Later on, during the 2015 season, Marcus Gilbert landed on Landry Jones, ending the young quarterback’s first start after just a handful of snaps.

Steelers Offensive Line Remains in Solid Shape

As the Steelers learned during the first half of the Mike Tomlin era, “You can never have enough good offensive lineman.” And $4.9 million dollars, is not a lot of money to pay a quality offensive tackle.

But Matt Feiler did an excellent job of filling in for Gilbert in 2018, as did 2018’s 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor. The Steelers will also bring back 2016’s 4th round pick Jerald Hawkins.

Steel Curtain Rising would like to thank Marcus Gilbert for 8 years of quality play for the Pittsburgh Steelers and wishes him well with the Arizona Cardinals.

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Steelers Resign Ramon Foster, Extend Maurkice Pouncey, Tender RFA’s and ERFA’s

Things are happening fast on the South Side as the Pittsburgh Steelers have made a flurry of moves in anticipation of the start of free agency.

  • First, the Steelers have resigned Ramon Foster to a two year contract.

This news does not come as a surprise, given Art Rooney II’s comments about keeping the offensive line together. However, the Steelers previous decision to put a 2nd round tender on B.J. Finney opened the door to speculation that Ramon Foster might be allowed to seek a home outside of Pittsburgh.

  • That will not be happening in 2019.

In a move that amounted to a minor surprise, the Steelers also extended the contract of center Maurkice Pouency, who had one year remaining on his current contract. The move is reported to be a 3 year extension, and will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2021 season.

The two players have vocally stated their desire to continue playing together, with one hinting he’ll retire when the other does. The Steelers usually resign players who have a year remaining on their contracts to extensions during the summer. Doing so now could be part of a move to facilitate Ben Roethlisberger’s extension, or the move could be happening now for salary cap reasons.

Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger retirement, Ben Roethlisberger plans 2018

Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey will be playing together for a while… Photo Credit: Phil Sears, USA Today, via SCI

Finney and Grimble Get Restricted Free Agent Tenders

As mentioned above, the Steelers issued a 2nd round tender to B.J. Finney who is a restricted free agent. Finney is free to negotiate with other teams, but the tender gives the Steelers the right to match any offer or otherwise will cost the other team a 2nd round pick.

  • A 2nd round tender will pay B.J. Finney over 2 million dollars, although the Steelers could work out a long-term deal with Finney.
  • The Steelers also offered an original round tender to Xavier Grimble.

Because Xavier Grimble entered the league as an undrafted rookie free agent, the Steelers would not get any thing should another team sign him, but it does give the Steelers the right to match his offer. In all likelihood, the no team will make an attempt to sign Grimble. This move all but confirms speculation that the Steelers will allow Jesse James to test the free agent market.

Oops! Now Hilton and Feiler Get ERFA Tenders

Finally, the Steelers also offered exclusive rights free agent tenders to Matt Feiler and Mike Hilton effectively keeping the duo in Pittsburgh for the 2019 season.

As Exclusive Rights Free Agents either player can sign with another team, but the Steelers needed to make them qualifying offers to retain their rights. No word or mention has yet been made of tight end Jack McGee, tackle Joseph Cheek, linebacker Keith Kelsey and safety Malik Golden who are also Exclusive rights free agents.

In our profile of the Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class, Steel Curtain Rising erroneously asserted that the Steelers had tendered all of their ERFAs. That was wrong. As of now, only Hilton and Feiler have tenders.

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Coty Sensabaugh Has Quietly Brought Competence to Steelers Secondary. He Should Stay in Pittsburgh

Cornerback is one of the most demanding, thankless positions in football. The NFL with its fantasy football fueled love affair with inflating passing stats, makes it harder and harder for cornerbacks to their job.

Finding quality cornerbacks is tough for every NFL team, and a challenge has bedeviled Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers since Super Bowl XLV.

Could the Steelers find part of their answer at cornerback by looking in house? As Coty Sensabaugh reaches free agency that question means much more to him than anyone else on the South Side.

Coty Sensabaugh, Michael Crabetree, Steelers vs Ravens

Coty Sensabaugh breaks up a pass intended for Michael Crabtree. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Coty Sensabaugh Steelers Career

My what a difference a year makes.

On the eve of Coty Sensabaugh’s first start for the Steelers against the Tennessee Titans in 2017, staff writer Tony Defeo penned a feature extoling Coty Sensabaugh as potentially the latest Kevin Colbert bargain basement steal.

It was a great story line, except for the fact that with Joe Haden out of the line up, the Steelers started giving up a 57 yard pass ever half. And while all of this certainly wasn’t on Coty Sensabaugh, a big part of it was so much that Steelers coaches basically activated Cam Sutton off of the PAP list and started rotating him with Sensabaugh.

Fast forward to 2018. All summer we hear how working day-to-day with Antonio Brown has finally readied Artie Burns. Cam Sutton and Brian Allen are coming along. Many thought that Coty Sensabaugh would be the odd man out.

Yet Artie Burns struggled mightily, causing coaches to rotate Coty Sensabaugh with Burns, and then ultimately bench Burns in favor of Sensabaugh. After that, you didn’t hear much about Coty Sensabaugh, and often times that’s the highest complement you can pay a cornerback.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Coty Sensabaugh

Which player had the 2nd most defensive snaps for the Steelers in 2018? You guessed it, Coty Sensabaugh.

Coty Sensabaugh isn’t “The Answer” for the Pittsburgh Steelers at cornerback. In 2017 one would have been hard-pressed to argue that Coty Sensabaugh anything but a liability for a Steelers defense in free fall.

  • While the Steelers defense still has long way to go, the unit did improve in 2018.

And Coty Sensabaugh was a part of that improvement. Yes, the Steelers need an injection of talent at cornerback, but they also need competence. Neither Artie Burns, Cam Sutton or Brian Allen has proven they can provide that. Coty Sensabaugh has.

The Steelers should keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Coty Sensabaugh

While the Steelers are very far from salary cap hell, they don’t have a lot of space to spare on mid-level talent. And the Steelers track record at drafting cornerbacks is abysmal.

If the Steelers are going to look to fill a need at cornerback via free agency, then doesn’t it make sense to do it on a someone who has legit playmaking ability, rather than someone who is “serviceable?”

The Steelers could do worse at corner than Coty Sensabaugh, but they need to invest their free agent dollars in players than make them better instead of just being “not worse.”

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Coty Sensabaugh

This is a hard call to make. Outside of the signing of Tyson Alualu it has been all quiet on the South Side front in terms of contract extensions. That might not mean anything, as recent history has shown the Steelers to be as likely to resign their own players after free agency begins as they are before.

  • Coty Sensabaugh offers the perfect example of why you can never let the perfect stand in the way of the good.

Or the serviceable. The Pittsburgh Steelers need an injection of talent at cornerback, far beyond what Coty Sensabaugh can give them on his best day. But Coty Sensabaugh gives them competence at a position where it is sorely needed, and the Steelers would be wise to sign him to a modest 2 year deal.

Will they do that? In 10 days or so we’ll know.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Jesse James Free Agency: Why the Steelers Should Keep “The Outlaw” in Pittsburgh

Tight ends occupy an peculiar place in Pittsburgh Steelers history. While tight ends such as Larry Brown, Randy Grossman, Bennie Cunningham and Heath Miller have made key contributions in securing the franchise’s six Super Bowls, their roles have often been unheralded.

As a (mostly) backup tight end, Jesse James has done well occupying the role of an unheralded understudy. As he is about to become a free agent, the key question is, has Jesse James done enough to secure a second contract with Pittsburgh?

Jesse James, Jesse James free agent, Steelers vs Panthers.

Jesse James scores a touchdown in the Steelers win over Panthers. Photo Credit: Phillip G. Pavely, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Jesse James Steelers Career

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft with an eye towards grooming him to replace Matt Spaeth. James played sparingly as a rookie, starting against Oakland where he scored a 4th quarter touchdown, and playing in the subsequent win against the Colts.

Heath Miller’s retirement and Ladarius Green’s lingering health issues thrust Jesse James into the spotlight in 2016. Jesse James started 13 games and made 39 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

Nonetheless, injuries to Vance McDonald saw Jesse James start 14 games and as he increased his receiving total to 43 catches. In 2018 a healthy Vance McDonald limited Jesse James to seven starts as James saw his reception count drop to 30.

Moreover, James’ role in the passing game tapered off in the later part of the year, even as Ben Roethlisberger threw more and more frequently.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

Judged solely on the stats above, Jesse James body of work projects an image of a quality run of the mill backup NFL tight end.

  • Numbers do not lie, but sometimes the truth they tell can be deceptive.

Such is the case with Jesse James. When looking at what Jesse James has brought to the Steelers since 2015, it is better to judge him by the quality of his work, rather than the quantity. Consider:

Those plays illustrate critical contributions that Jesse James has delivered with games on the line in ways that plain numbers simply fail to measure.

With Antonio Brown heading out of Pittsburgh, the Steelers are going to need all of the offensive firepower they can get. Jesse James is not a player who will give opposing defensive coordinators fits.

But Jesse James IS a player who can come up with a critical catch when the games is on the line, and the Steelers must keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jesse James

When asked about Jesse James at the NFL Scouting Combine, Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert was quite forthcoming: “Jesse’s been a nice complementary tight end to us.”

  • While that is hardly a damming assessment, one must consider the Steelers wider context.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have an urgent need to boost their roster at inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver. They’re also facing close to 20 million dollars in salary cap dead money thanks to the impending Antonio Brown trade.

And that means that spending top dollar on a backup tight end isn’t feasible. Jesse James has had a good career for the Steelers as 5th round picks go, but his time in Pittsburgh has run his course.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jesse James

Kevin Colbert was even more blunt when asked about the likelihood of Jesse James returning to the Steelers in 2019, when he clarified: “Any of our players that have an opportunity maybe to look elsewhere where they might have a better chance to be a starter, again, we encourage them.”

  • That seems to spell things out pretty clearly.

To keep Colbert’s comments in context, he’s clearly leaving the door open for James to return, but only after encouraging him to look around elsewhere first.

  • In my view, the Steelers are making a mistake by not trying to sign him before he becomes a free agent.

While you don’t break the bank for a backup tight end, the Steelers should be making him a competitive offer. Jesse James is never going to be a game-breaking tight end, but he’s a dependable player who helps you win.

The Steelers should keep the outlaw in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Time for Steelers to Let Justin Hunter Stalk NFL Future Outside of Pittsburgh

Even if it has been repeatedly proven that winning free agency rarely results in winning a Lombardi (ask Daniel Snyder), free agency excites NFL fan bases. Fantasy Football becomes real. Real money changes hands, players switch teams in moves coaches, general managers, the players themselves and agents, especially agents, assure us are win-win.

  • Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers are never big players in free agency.

That disappoints some Steelers fans, (never mind that the Patriots aren’t very active either) who are forced to settle for under the radar signings.

  • Yet, sometimes Kevin Colbert’s bargain hunting pays big dividends.

Ryan Clark arrived as a stopgap signing in 2006 and helped cement a Super Bowl era. Mewelde Moore’s arrival barely merited mention in the press, yet he was 2008’s unsung hero. Brice McCain only stayed for a year, but punched above his weight while in Pittsburgh.

Then you have players like Justin Hunter, who arrived as a free agent and is now approaching his shot at a third contract from the Steelers…..

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via www.wpxi.com

Capsule Profile of Justin Hunter’s Steelers Career

The Steelers signed Justin Hunter relatively early in free agency in 2017, although it was clear he was only being brought in as a backup. Mike Munchack had drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft and at 6’4” 203 Justin Hunter had all the measurables.

  • The word was he feared contact.

Justin Hunter earned a roster spot, despite the star power of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster and the presence of backups like Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Justin Hunter didn’t dazzle, even in preseason, but word was he was good in practice and, perhaps more importantly, Ben Roethlisberger liked him.

In 2017 Justin Hunter saw action in 7 games and caught 4 passes of 10 thrown his way. The Steelers resigned him in 2018 and Hunter made the team again, although only appeared in 5 games and only managed to catch 3 of 13 passes thrown his way.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

Ooh, this is a toughie. Even a theoretical case for resigning Justin Hunter hardly seems plausible. If Eli Rogers had been healthy at the beginning of the season and/or if James Washington had been ready for prime time, The Turk would have visited Justin Hunter.

But here it goes:

Justin Hunter gives Ben Roethlisberger a tall target. He knows the system and could provide veteran stability for a unit being rocked by losing a Hall of Fame talent…

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

…The Steelers lose Antonio Brown, and its Justin Hunter to the rescue! Yeah, right.

The Steelers took a flyer on Justin Hunter in 2017 and there’s no shame in that. Their decision to resign him in 2018 was questionable, but understandable – to a point.

But nothing Justin Hunter has done suggests he’s worthy of taking up a training camp roster spot. Nothing.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Justin Hunter

Taking a flyer on Justin Hunter in 2017 made sense. Resigning Justin Hunter last spring was a little puzzling, but more a little understandable given the way the depth chart evolved at wide receiver, although with 20/20 hindsight the extra roster spot should have gone to a running back.

  • The Steelers wide receiver corps is undergoing a seismic shift this off season.

No on really knows what the Steelers 2019 opening day wide receivers depth chart will look like, but it will be very different. And it will be poorer, on paper at least. With that understanding, there is no conceivable way that Justin Hunter’s presence makes Pittsburgh’s 2019 WR’s better.

It is time for Justin Hunter to stalk his NFL future somewhere other than Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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The “Other” Steelers 2019 Off Season Priority: Beefing Up Running Back Depth

What’s the Pittsburgh Steelers biggest priority of the 2019 off season? Well, improving at inside linebacker and at cornerback (if not safety as well) top everyone’s list. As they should. Next comes finding someone to “replace” Antonio Brown.

  • That’s where most people’s lists tend to end. They should not.

There’s another off season priority for the Steelers, and while it make take a backseat to the priorities listed above, ignoring it will only come at Pittsburgh’s peril. The Steelers need to strengthen the depth of their offensive backfield. In doing so they’d be wise to remember the contributions of the Mewelde Moore back in 2008…

Mewelde Moore, David Jones, Steelers vs Bengals 2008

Mewelde Moore, the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

 

Steelers Busted Up Backfield Syndrome

It is kind of funny if you think about it. Steelers fans find no shortage of topics to criticize Mike Tomlin on these days, whether its clock management, challenges, talent evaluation, locker room control or getting tripped up on trap games.

Yet the numbers are there for all to see. Whether we’re talking about Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell or the duo of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, Mike Tomlin has shown little inclination to limit the work load of his starting running backs.

  • While that’s a debatable strategy to begin with, it is even more dubious if when you fail to adequately staff your running back depth chart.

This is after all the team that started Ben Tate, Josh Harris and Dri Archer in the playoffs one year, and Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman a year later.

First Step – Admitting You Have a Problem

While the Steelers brass hasn’t issued a mea culpa, there are signs that the coaches have realized they have a problem. Before it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s hold out would become permanent, James Conner was on track to touch the ball 378 times this year.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

Although the Steelers dramatically cut back on Conner’s carries starting with the Panther’s game, James Conner got hurt anyway. That forced rookie Jaylen Samuels into the starting role despite never having played running back full time in his football life.

Fortunately, Samuels was up to the task. Unfortunately, it left the Steelers one play away from starting Stevan Ridley or Trey Edmunds as their starting running back.

The Steelers offense couldn’t control the clock, and airing the ball out resulted in more turnovers – even if Ben Roethlisberger’s interception percentage was down.

Solution Staff Moore Running Back Depth

While it is easy to play arm chair head coach and criticize Mike Tomlin and Randy Fitchner for passing too much, the fact is that their personnel left them little choice. This is one case where the arm chair general managers have the upper hand. Steelers history backs this up.

  • It certainly is true that the passing game is preeminent in today’s NFL
  • It may also be true that “Three yards and a cloud of dust” smash mouth “Steelers football” only delivered wins in Super Bowl’s IX and Super Bowl XL

But it is also true that the Steelers lone Lombardi Trophy of the Tomlin era came in 2008, when the front office had the foresight to staff a running back depth chart that was 3 and arguably 4 players deep. The plan was rely on Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell serving as backups.

Mewelede Moore hadn’t just been overlooked by the Pittsburgh media, having signed as a free agent the same day Ben Roethlisberger signed his first extension, the coaches had ignored him too as Carey Davis got the call when Mendenhall got injured in Baltimore.

Moore rushed for 120 yards the following week, and piled up just under 800 all-purpose yards while only making 4 starts. I’ve long argued that Mewelede Moore was the unsung hero of the Steelers 2008 season which ended in victory at Super Bowl XLIII.

  • How might have 2018 turned out had the Steelers dedicated a roster spot to another running back instead of say, Justin Hunter?

We’ll never know. But we do know that the Steelers brass’ decision to staff running back depth charts which are essentially only two players deep has carried steep costs in December and January time and time again.

James Conner and Jaylen Samuels give the Steelers two good backs going into 2019. Regardless of whether he comes from free agency or the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers must bring a third running back to Pittsburgh; Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must find the 2019 equivalent of Mewelde Moore.

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Has L.T. Walton Done Enough to Earn a 2nd Contract from the Steelers?

After suffering waddling in mediocrity in the ‘80’s and early 1990’s, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been blessed with good to great defensive lines since the not so coincidental arrival of John Mitchell in 1994.

  • What’s almost as impressive, is how the Pittsburgh has pulled it off.

Yes, premium picks such as Joel Steed, Casey Hampton, Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have delivered. But players who were afterthoughts on draft day have been equally important to this equation: Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke and Steve McLendon.

When the Steelers picked L.T. Walton in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft, he informed John Mitchell that he preferred to be calls “L.T.” instead of Leterrius Walton. Mitchell told him that was fine, as long as he played like “L.T.”

Clearly, he hasn’t been a Lawrence Taylor, but has L.T. Walton played well enough to deserve a second contract from the Pittsburgh Steelers? Today we take a look.

L.T. Walton, Mike Tomlin

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

Capsule Profile of L.T. Walton’s Steelers Career

L.T. Walton earned a roster spot as a rookie, but didn’t play much. This is no surprise, because rookies not named “Hampton” or “Tuitt” rarely if ever played for John Mitchell

By late November of his “sophomore” season L.T. Walton had only seen spot duty in weeks 4, 6, and 7. Yet during the Steelers road win over Cleveland, Jim Wexell tweeted:

In a single game, Walton nearly doubled his season snap count, and injuries to Cam Heyward kept Walton on the field, and opened the door to 4 starts.

And while Walton didn’t make any splash plays, the Steelers defense improved during the latter half of 2016. Most of that improvement came from James Harrison starting over Jarvis Jones, and Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave and Artie Burns stepping up.

  • But it is also true that this improvement never happens without stable defensive line play, which Walton helped deliver.

Could L.T. Walton continue to improve in 2017? The record was mixed. L.T. Walton’s 2017 snap count dropped from 24% to 14%, but the line was much deeper and healthier. And he registered sacks in the Steelers wins over Tennessee and Green Bay.

And while it would be unfair to scapegoat Walton for that atrocious run defense fielded by the Steelers that day, L.T. Walton’s response to Leonard Fournette  was as flat footed as any other man wearing Black and Gold on that infamous afternoon.

In 2018 Karl Dunbar’s arrival saw the surprise decision to retain Daniel McCullers, and L.T. Walton found himself on the inactive list behind McCullers and in active for all but 4 games, as his snap count dwindled to below 5%.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning L.T. Walton

L.T. Walton knows the system, and while he might not be anything more than an emergency substitute at nose tackle, L.T. Walton has delivered whenever the Steelers have called his number at defensive end.

  • No NFL team is going to throw money at L.T. Walton.

But that doesn’t mean he is of no use to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have 4 solid defensive lineman signed for the 2019 season, and L.T. Walton would give them a backup with serviceable skills, whose strengths and weakness are well known to the coaching staff.

And L.T. Walton can be had at the veteran minimum. Those are all good reasons to keep him in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.T. Walton

If Karl Dunbar didn’t think enough of L.T. Walton to play him ahead of Daniel McCullers in 2018, there seems to be little hope of L.T. Walton securing roster spot 2019. Considering that he was a 6th round pick, the Steelers can say they’ve gotten good value out of L.T. Walton on his rookie contracts.

But Walton really hasn’t authored much of a case for him getting a second NFL contract. L.T. Walton might carve a role out for himself as a backup defensive lineman for some other team, but the Steelers would be wiser giving some other younger player a shot.

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

In a word, L.T. Walton’s impending free agency isn’t quite generating the buzz that Le’Veon Bell’s is, or even Jesse James’. No surprise there. The Steelers themselves likely haven’t given the issue much thought one way or another.

  • L.T. Walton’s reduced playing time at the expense of Daniel McCullers however is NOT a good sign.

However, these signs can be misleading. Daniel McCullers was inactive for the Jaguars playoff loss, in a game where both Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt were hobbled by injuries. Yet against all odds, Daniel McCullers was back.

  • Could something similar happen to L.T. Walton in 2019?

Probably not. The Steelers will likely allow L.T. Walton to become a free agent while they try to add a defensive lineman late in the 2019 NFL Draft.  If that falls through, there’s a good chance L.T. Walton could still be in need of a job.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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