Panthers Bouncing Brandon Boykin Reinforces Fundamental Fact: Kevin Colbert Makes Good Decisions

Steelers OTA’s will bring a week of fresh news to Steelers Nation, as last week’s biggest “Steelers story” was the Carolina Panthers cutting Brandon Boykin less than two months after signing him to a one year $840,000 contract in favor of Shaquille Richardson.

  • Someday a college professor somewhere will write a paper about the role that the internet and social media play in sustaining Steelers Nation.

In the early ‘90’s a story like the Boykins, outside of Pittsburgh, would have merited maybe a line at two the “Transactions” column crammed at the back of a sports page. Don’t believe me? That’s how the Boston Globe treated the Panther’s decision to cut Barry Foster after the Steelers had traded him.

  • Today every Steelers site dutifully wrote their “Panthers cut former Steeler Brandon Boykin”  post
  • Steelers Nation simultaneously debated the decision on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.

So be it. This isn’t a Watch Tower post, but rather one that shows how the Boykin story illustrates a basic point:

  • Kevin Colbert usually makes good personnel decisions.

Ah you say, but what about Dri Archer and Shamarko Thomas to name two recent, high profile draft day disappointments?

Fair enough. Kevin Colbert doubtlessly would like to have both draft picks back. But NFL drafting success is part art, part science and part blind luck. But when it comes to evaluating the talent on the Steelers roster, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are pretty good decision makers.

When Brandon Boykin signed with the Panthers, large swaths of Steelers Nation reacted as if the Steelers had just lost Rod Blount Boykin, to use a phrase coined by Dale Lolley. A case could be made for keeping Boykin, but he was no Rod Woodson or Mel Blount. Nor was he an Ike Taylor or even a Deshea Townsend.

  • Pittsburgh’s decision to go all in on Senquez Golson, Doran Grant and an unnamed draft pick (now Artie Burns) certainly carries risk for Steelers 2016 title hopes.

But now Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman, two guys who just took their team to the Super Bowl, have made decided to trust in Shaquille Richardson over Brandon Boykin. Richardson, if you’ll remember, was the Steelers 2014 5th round draft pick who got cut in training camp and has yet to play a down of NFL football.

  • None of this should suggest that Kevin Colbert remains immune from making personnel mistakes.

That is hardly the case. The Steelers let Ryan Mundy go in 2013 and if his stat sheet is any guide, he’s had two solid seasons in New York and Chicago. That same off season, the Steelers gave up on Willie Colon due to his injury history and opted not to renew Doug Legursky’s contract. You’d better believe that when Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year and Mike Adams couldn’t cut it at right tackle, Mike Tomlin wished he’d had either Colon or Legursky at his disposal

  • Keenan Lewis is another player the Steelers let get away in the 2013 off season that they wish they could have back.

But the decisions to let Mundy, Colon, Lewis and to some extent Legursky walk were as much or almost as much the result of salary cap restrictions as they were results of talent evaluations. That doesn’t exempt Colbert from criticism, because a general manager has to make those choices.

  • But outside of Lewis, Colon and Mundy, you’d be hard pressed to find someone the Steelers cut who thrived elsewhere.

What about Kraig Urbik?

Urbik is certainly one of the “ Ones that got away” from the Steelers 2009 draft class, but the Steelers wanted to keep Urbik, but were forced to expose him to the wavier wire because Byron Leftwich’s injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2010 suspension. Urbik’s started 57 games for the Bills over the last six seasons, but the Steelers decision to keep Batch looked pretty smart when Dennis Dixon went down in week 2.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin may miss on draft picks. They might overestimate the development potential of a player, such as Cortez Allen. They might trade for guys who disappoint, such as Levi Brown, Felix Jones or…. Brandon Boykin.

But when the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin let a guy go, its not too often you’ll see the guy make a name for himself elsewhere.

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Steelers Sign David Johnson, Is Matt Spaeth’s Roster Spot in Jeopardy?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed tight end and fullback David Johnson, who returns to the team following his departure as a free agent in 2014.

Few if any outside of the South Side are privileged to hear Kevin Colbert’s conversations with outgoing free agents, but one can only imagine that Colbert’s parting words include some variant of “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

  • In contrast to his predecessor, Tom Donahoe, Kevin Colbert has readily welcomed back departed free agents.

The Steelers drafted David Johnson in the 7th round of the 2009 NFL Draft, and Johnson worked in as a tight end/fullback. Todd Haley wanted to convert David Johnson into a full time to fullback, but Johnson unfortunately tore his ACL during the 2012 preseason. ACL Tear. In 2013 Johnson recovered, but injuries to Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, along with the emergence of Will Johnson at fullback, forced Johnson to take the starting tight end role.

Johnson performed well enough, but alas was injured in early in the season.

The Steelers allowed Johnson to depart, and he landed in San Diego, where, per Pro Football Reference, he appeared in 30 games and started 6. Johnson’s projected role in his return with the Steelers has not been formally clarified, but expectations are that he will play in a tight end and/or H-Back role.

  • Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell has pointed out that since 2011, the Steelers have opened every season with 4 tight ends.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamanski adds that the Steelers only use a fullback on 1/10 of their offensive plays, and appear to be more or less set at the position with Roosevelt Nix.

Matt Spaeth’s Roster Spot in Jeopardy?

As of know the Steelers depth chart at tight end looks like this: Ladarius Green is number one, followed by veteran Matt Spaeth, “rising sophomore” Jesse James holds down the third spot, while 2015 practice squad alumni Xavier Grimble is penciled in as the number 4 man. Undrafted rookie free agent Jay Rome also has a roster spot.

  • The player most threatened by David Johnson’s return is Matt Spaeth.

While Matt Spaeth’s unheralded return has most certainly played a role in the rushing success and pass protection enjoyed by Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Ben Roethlisberger, Spaeth is 33 years old has a 1 million dollar base salary with just over 100,000 dollars in signing bonus money allocated to him. Assuming David Johnson signed for the veteran minimum, the Steelers could get younger while saving on the salary savings by cutting Spaeth in favor of Johnson.

  • But for that to happen, Johnson would clearly need to beat out Spaeth.

Spaeth’s role as a blocker up front might go largely unnoticed by fans and even the press, but rest assured that Mike Tomlin, Mike Munchak and Todd Haley appreciate it. That, combined with Johnson’s own injury history will place the burden on Johnson.

Competition tends to bring out the best, and the Steelers have given themselves a low-risk option to bolster their depth at tight end. Welcome back to Steelers Nation David Johnson!

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Steelers Resign Bruce Gradkowski, Who’ll Compete with Landry Jones for QB No. 2 Slot

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert seemingly left the door open for the Steelers to pick a quarterback during the 2016 NFL Draft, but when the picks where in a quarterback was not among them. Nor did the Steelers bring a quarterback in with their 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class. Then word broke that Brian Hoyer, whom the Steelers liked, signed with the Bears.

  • The stars seemed to align for a Bruce Gradkowski return and it appears that will happen.

Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review is reporting that the Steelers have resigned Bruce Gradkowski to a one year deal. The move comes with a bit of a twist, as the Gradkowski will apparently have to compete with Landry Jones for the right to backup Ben Roethlisberger.

This development hardly comes as a surprise, as Gradkowski’s repeated last summer caused Steelers Digest Editor Bob Labriola to compare Gradkowski to Byron Leftwich. As Steel Curtain Rising argued when it made the case for Gradkowski’s return, Charlie Batch also bore the “brittle” label, yet proved to be more durable than either Leftwich your youngster Dennis Dixon.

Gradkowski is a Pittsburgh native, hailing from Green Tree and is a graduate from Seton-La Salle. He’s been in the league since 2006, having played for Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Oakland and Cincinnati before landing in Pittsburgh in 2013. Gradkowski has not thrown a pass in a regular season Steelers game, but did look sharp in relief of Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers 2014 playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

While Landry Jones improved tremendously in 2015, ultimately unseating Michael Vick as the Steelers QB number 2, his play in the Steelers playoff win vs. the Bengals left a lot to be desired. In addition to Roethlisberger, Jones and Gradkowski, the Steelers also have Dustin Vaughan on their roster.

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Steelers ex-lineman Byron Stingily Signs with Giants

Perhaps you can file this under “Didn’t even know he was still around,” but the Pittsburgh Steelers lost another free-agent on Monday when reserve offensive tackle Byron Stingily signed with the Giants. 

Stingily, who played four years with the Titans before being cut prior to the start of the 2015 regular season, was signed by Pittsburgh last October following the season-ending ACL tear suffered by starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum in a Week 6 victory over the Cardinals at Heinz Field.

However, after starting five games for Tennessee in 2014, Stingily didn’t appear in any action for the Steelers upon his arrival. Instead, Alejandro Villanueva, a bit of a project who was originally signed by the Eagles to play defensive end after playing tight end in college, stepped in for Beachum and never missed a beat. Villanueva started 10 games down the stretch and helped the Steelers make the playoffs and win their first postseason game in five years.

Villanueva’s emergence coupled with the signing of veteran Broncos swing-tackle Ryan Harris in March made Stingily expendable.

The details of Stingily’s contract with the Giants were not disclosed.

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Giants Sign Will Johnson Steelers Free Agent Fullback

The Arizona Cardinals have long been known as “Pittsburgh West,” the Tennessee Titans have made a play to call themselves “Pittsburgh South” and the Buffalo Bills could arguably be called, “Pittsburgh North East.”

  • IS it time to start calling the New York City Pittsburgh on the Hudson?

That may be a little premature, but today’s free agency news saw the New York Giants sign Will Johnson, Steelers hybrid fullback and tight end. This comes on the heels of the New York Jets decision to sign Steve McLendon. Former Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon signed with the New York Jets in 2013 after being cut by the Steelers and played there in 2014 and 2015, although he remains a free agent.

Will Johnson caught the Pittsburgh Steelers eye at a West Virginia Pro Day after he’d been out of football for a year. The Steelers signed Johnson as an undrafted rookie free agent, but went into training camp thinking that David Johnson would be making the transition to full time fullback under Todd Haley’s first season as offensive coordinator.

Will Johnson’s role with the Steelers began to evolve in 2015, as Roosevelt Nix’s emergence allowed the Steelers to use Johnson as a tight end, although he did serve as a short yardage back in relief of DeAngelo Williams while Le’Veon Bell was suspended.

Normally, Will Johnson is the type of free agent the Steelers want to keep, but Roosevelt Nix, a converted defensive lineman, did quite well at fullback this season, making Will Johnson expendable.

Terms of Will Johnson’s contract are not currently available, but it does run for two years, binding him to the team until 2017.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers Nation Speaks: Steelers Free Agency 2016 Poll Results Complete

In the end, Brandon Boykin got a lot of love from Steelers Nation. Or at least this corner of it. As the Steelers 2016 pre-draft visits have begun, Steel Curtain Rising has taken down its Steelers free agency 2016 poll. While it is possible, perhaps even probable the Steelers will make move free agent moves before convening training camp in Latrobe at St. Vincents, the organization’s focus has clearly shift to the draft.

steelers 2016 free agents, steelers nation, votes, william gay

Steelers Nation voted on Steelers 2016 Free Agents

  • But over the last 45 days or so, Steelers Nation has had a chance to vote on what they think Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should be doing.

Brandon Boykin was the third most popular Steelers free agent, William Gay was first with 51 votes and Ramon Foster was second with 46, followed by Boykin’s 41. The Steelers resigned William Gay and Ramon Foster, but let prance to the Carolina Panthers. Darrius Heyward-Bey came in fourth, whom the Steelers also resigned.

No one outside of that group got more than 30 votes. Almost as many people wanted to see Kelvin Beachum protecting Ben Roethlisberger (25), as want to see Bruce Gradkowski back him up (24). No one else got more than 20 votes.

  • The next highest vote getter is somewhat of a surprise: Doug Legursky who got 19 votes.

Steel Curtain Rising sung Legursky’s praises when he first reached free agency in 2013 and warned the losing Legursky could carry consequences (it did) and scolded the Pittsburgh media for not even bothering to cover it when he signed with the Buffalo Bills. Nonetheless, this site did not call for Legursky’s return to Pittsburgh, but a good chunk of our readers have.

Both remain unsigned and at this point will likely stay that way until after the draft. The Steelers may still bring back Will Johnson, but word is Will Allen will not return. Steelers long snapper Greg Warren also got 18 votes, although the Steelers had already resigned Warren before the voting began.

Below Warren and the Wills, only Antwon Blake and Terence Garvin found double digit support in Steelers Nation, with Michael Vick, Byron Stingily, Clifton GeathersCam Thomas, Jordan Todman and David Nelson (who?) all polling in single digits.

Of the group above, only Jordan Todman has signed elsewhere, and the Steelers are not likely to resign any of those players. Steel Curtain Rising thanks everyone who voted in our poll, and encourages you to vote in our Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Poll.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers Sign Ricardo Mathews, Bolster Defensive Line Depth

Pittsburgh added some desperately needed depth to its defensive line in a move that saw the Steelers sign Ricardo Mathews. Terms of Ricardo Mathews contract have not been announced yet, but he is believed to have signed for the veteran minimum, which would be $760,000.

Ricardo Mathews has been in the NFL since 2010, when the Indianapolis Colts selected him in the 7th round of the 2010 NFL Draft, taking him with the 283rd pick. Matthews played his entire rookie contract with the Colts, appearing in 52 games and making 6 starts. During his time in Indianapolis, Matthews defensed 4 passes, posted 1.5 sacks, and made 30 tackles.

The Colts did not resign Matthews in 2013, as Matthews opted to sign a 2 year contract with the San Diego Chargers. In San Diego, Matthews played both Nose Tackle and Defensive End, making 9 starts and recording 2 and a half sacks, 29 tackles while forcing four fumbles.

Based on available information, the Steelers are likely looking at Matthews as backup.

Matthews Welcome, but Steelers Defensive Line Depth Still Thin

Ricardo Matthews is a welcome addition to the Steelers defensive line, but he should be seen as a replacement for unsigned Cam Thomas as opposed to recent free agent defector Stevey McLendon. Even with his addition to the depth chart, defensive line remains one of the Steelers thinnest spots.

In Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the Pittsburgh Steelers have two outstanding defensive ends. Daniel McCullers remains an interesting prospect at nose tackle, but he has a lot to prove after making minimal improvements from 2014 to 2015. The Steelers will also bring back L.T. Walton, whom they picked up in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

  • Beyond that the cupboard remains very thin.

The Steelers do have Caushaud Lyons, a waiver wire pick up just prior to 2015’s opening day, but Lyons was never active during the season and does not have any game day experience from his time in Tampa Bay.

Per Mark Kaboly’s report on the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, the Steelers have used up a total of 13 million dollars in 2016 salary cap space to sign free agents, including their own.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Panthers Sign Brandon Boykin, Steelers Cornerback Depth Now “Officially” Thin

No one in Steelers Nation knows if Steelers secondary will improve or backslide in 2016, but one fact is certain: It will look far different. The face of the Steelers defensive backfield continues to change as the Carolina Panthers sign Brandony Boykin, whom the Steelers acquired via trade during training camp.

Brandon Boykin was the subject of one of the Steelers strangest stories in 2015.

The Steelers gave up a conditional 5th round pick to get Boykin and when he arrived at St. Vincents, many commentators thought he might be push for the starting job. Instead, Boykin remained on the bench, unable to move past Antwon Blake and Ross Cockrell.

Boykin did begin splitting time with Antwon Blake late in the Steelers 2015 season, and generally did well. The reasons for his failure to play were never publicly discussed, but indications are that he had difficulty picking up Keith Butler’s defense.

Regardless, Brandon Boykin generally did play well for the Steelers when his number was called, having intercepted a ball in the Steelers rout over the Colts, and registering a sack in the team’s late season loss to Baltimore. Boykin didn’t make any “splash plays” in the playoffs, but did record six tackles.

Steelers Cornerback Depth Decidedly Thin

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin took the Pittsburgh Steelers into free agency with a plan, and that plan was clearly not to overpay anyone beyond what they determined was their worth. Former starting cornerback Antwon Blake is now a Tennessee Titan and Boykin is now a Carolina Panther.

As of now, the Steelers prospective 2016 depth chart at cornerback would have William Gay and Ross Cockrell as starters, with Senquez Golson as the number one backup. Doran Grant could also be in the mix, although the team is rumored to be considering moving him to safety.

Cortez Allen remains with the team, although Mike Tomlin has publically stated that he has doubts about Allen’s ability to contribute and does not even know his health status.

  • While Kevin Colbert vote of non-confidence in Allen was not as strong as Tomlin’s, Allen will have to prove he deserves a roster spot in training camp.

In contrast, at the NFL owners meeting Mike Tomlin spoke glowingly of Senquez Golson and the NFL Owners meetings, the Steelers 2015 2nd round pick whose season was lost to injury, and Steel Curtain Rising will expanding on this further. Stay tuned Steelers Nation.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

 

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Steelers Sign Steven Johnson Inside Linebacker & Special Teamer from Tennessee

In the first month of free agency the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost a cornerback, an offensive tackle, a nose tackle, two inside linebackers and a running back while picking up a tight end and an offensive lineman.

  • That’s 5 free agent defections vs. 2 free agent acquisitions, for those keeping tabs.

Pittsburgh took a step towards righting the balance today in a move that saw the Steelers sign Steven Johnson to play special teams, and provide depth at inside linebacker.

Steven Johnson broke into the league as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2012 with the Denver Broncos where he appeared in 11 games as a rookie and followed that up with appearances in all 16 games during his second year. Johnson’s most extensive play came in 2014, when he made seven starts for the Denver Broncos and appeared in 14 games.

  • The Broncos did not retain him after the season, and Johnson signed on with the Tennessee Titans

Playing in Dick LeBeau’s defense appeared in sixteen games. Per Pro Football Reference, Steven Johnson has 33 total tackles, 14 assists, one half sack, 1 forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.

Johnson Signing Shows Tomlin, Colbert March to Own Drummer

Two of the Steelers 5 free agent losses thus far have come where Pittsburgh’s depth remains at its thinnest – cornerback and defensive line. In contrast, the Steelers lost inside linebackers Sean Spence and Terence Garvin yet with Vince Williams, L.J. Fort and perhaps Jordan Zumwalt, the Steelers still have solid depth behind Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier.

  • So how do the Steelers respond?

They out and sign a reserve inside linebacker/special teams player while Mike Tomlin declares that the Steelers won’t sign a free agent cornerback.

This comes as no surprise – Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert rarely make personnel decisions out of fear, and steadfastly march to their own drummer.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers Free Agent Jordan Todman Signs with the Colts

The depth of the Steelers backfield is a bit thinner today, after it was announced on Friday that reserve running back Jordan Todman signed a deal to play with the Colts next season.

  • Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

As far as free-agent defections go, this one shouldn’t sting the Steelers. Fact is, with All-Pro Le’Veon Bell and accomplished veteran DeAngelo Williams as the first and second-string running backs heading into 2016, there wouldn’t have been many hand-offs available for Todman–and that’s if he could have beaten-out the promising Fitzgerald Toussaint for third-string on the depth chart.

After arriving in the NFL in 2011, Todman, 26, had brief stays in both Minnesota and San Diego during his rookie season, before landing in Jacksonville in 2012. In three seasons with the Jaguars, Todman rushed for a combined 450 yards and scored three touchdowns.

  • After signing with the Panthers last offseason, Todman was cut right before the start of the regular season, and the Steelers quickly added him to their roster.

After only rushing for 22 yards during the regular season, Todman was suddenly thrust into action during the playoffs, when DeAngelo Williams, who rushed for 907 yards in place of the first suspended and then injured Bell, suffered a severe ankle injury in Week 17.

Teaming up with fellow reserve running back Toussaint, Todman rushed for a combined 71 yards in two postseason games, as Pittsburgh advanced to the divisional round.

A journeyman and career backup up to this point of his career, maybe Todman will finally find a way to contribute extensively as a member of the Colts.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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