Steelers 2018 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs – How to Replace the Irreplaceable Ryan Shazier?

“An NFL player’s career can end in a second.” It’s a cliché which gets throw around far more frequently than it actually happens. But lack of frequency that doesn’t do anything to dilute the cliché’s fearsome truth.

Will Ryan Shazier play again? He vows to, and God knows everyone is rooting for him to do it, but Ryan Shazier is only barely walking again. The loss of Shazier devastated the Steelers defense and it is no secret that it greatly impacts their plays at inside linebacker for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals

Vince Williams sacks Andy Dalton in December 2017. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

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

Vince Williams inherited the role as leader of the Steelers inside linebacking corps when Shazier went down as he was in the process of having the best year of his career. The truth is, that Vince Williams simply lacks the athletic ability of either Shazier or his predecessor Lawrence Timmons. He’s more of a bruiser in the Larry Foote mode.

  • More knowledgeable football minds have taken issue with Vince William’s ability over on Steel City Insider.

These commenters know more about football than yours truly and, with that conceded, the far more pedestrian analysis here is that when paired alongside a superb athlete, Vince Williams is solid inside linebacker; absent that athletic presence, he’s going to struggle a bit.

To fill the hole created by Shazier’s absence, the Steelers turned to Jon Bostic, a veteran with experience starting experience gained in Chicago, Indianpolis and New England.

  • Bostic was in fact a 2nd round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 2013 NFL Draft and is a fine athlete.

The worry/knock on Bostic is that he has a history of injuries, which limited him in 2015 and cost him the entire 2016 season. Still, when healthy Bostic has been effective, and word is that he is a suburb tackler.

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

Losing Ryan Shazier taught the Steelers a hard lesson: Depth may look solid on paper, but sometimes that fails translate on the football field. Within a few plays of losing Shazier, his primary backup, Tyler Matakevich, also go injured.

No problem, the Steelers still had L.J. Fort whom they’d groomed for several seasons, and Arthur Moats could move inside in a pinch, couldn’t he?

  • Neither of those options worked out well, so the Steelers signed Sean Spence off the street.

Unfortunately, Sean Spence was out of football for a reason. Even when accounting for his rustiness, Sean failed to provide the stability in place of Shazier has he had done during 2014 and 2015.

Steelers 2018 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs

The needs assessment of the Steelers at inside linebacker prior to the 2014 NFL Draft revaled just how quickly an area on the depth chart can jump from a position of weakness to one of strength. The Steeler of wisely ignored that, and drafted Ryan Shazier anyway.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • This year, Shazier’s injury reveals how the reality plays out in reverse.

The Steelers depth at inside linebacker is perhaps thinner than at any other area on the roster.

The Steelers apparently have a lot of confidence in Tyler Matakevich, if 2nd hand accounts from beat writers are any sort of guide. Like his inside linebackers coach, Jerry Olsavsky, Tyler Matakevich is one of those late round players who isn’t supposed to be big enough or fast enough but has a motor that never quits.

  • Fair enough. If Tyler Matakevich develops into a Jerry Olsavsky like player, then he’ll be an asset to the Steelers.

But even if that happens, he still lacks the athleticism to complement Vince Williams effectively. As they have done at safety, the Steelers have wisely signed Jon Bostic which will free them for needing to reach to fill the position. However, the Steelers 2018 draft needs at inside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers 2018 Safety Draft Needs – There’s No “Safety in Numbers” Pittsburgh Needs Talent Instead

The 2018 off season has already seen the Pittsburgh Steelers make numerous changes to their roster, and no area has seen more renovations than safety.

Interestingly enough, the two additions have come via free agency, which has been the preferred method of filling this critical spot on the depth chart of Kevin Colbert, the sterling example of Troy Polamalu notwithstanding. Has the free agent market has restocked Steelers sufficiently or should the Steelers target safety in the 2018 NFL Draft?

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

The concept of “starter” at safety has perhaps never been more nebulous in Steelers history. Sean Davis of course will return, but his role may be changing as a shift from strong safety to free safety is being openly discussed.

The Steelers of course drafted Sean Davis in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Davis became an immediate starter and performed so well that Davis earned Joe Green Great Performance Award aka rookie of the year honors.

  • 2017 did not go as well for Davis, as he struggled at times and failed to make that vaunted 2nd year leap.

If Gerry Dulac’s reporting is any guide, the Steelers view some of the criticism leveled at Sean Davis to be unfair, particularly for the rough outing he suffered at the hands of Tom Brady and Ron Gronkowski in the Steelers loss to the Patriots. Take that for what you will, the Steelers went at great pains to try to defect critism from Jarvis Jones and perhaps are doing the same thing with Bud Dupree.

  • But if nothing else, it shows the Steelers still have confidence in Sean Davis.

The Steelers of course signed Morgan Burnett to replace Mike Mitchell, although his role has yet to be defined. Some have suggested he’ll play more of a dime linebacker role, similar to what William Gay played last season.

However, the Steelers are paying Morgan Burnett over 4 million dollars a year which is not the type of contract you give to a situational player. Burnett figures to start in the Steelers secondary, and brings a strong pedigree to the team, including a reputation for being an excellent tackler and strong communicator.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Behind Sean Davis and Morgan Burnett, the Steelers have J.J. Wilcox, Jordan Dangerfield and Nat Berhe.

The Steelers acquired Wilcox via a trade prior to the season, and he saw immediate playing time in the team’s first three games, only to see his participation essentially disappear after that – all but 10 of Wilcox’s 134 defensive snaps came in the first three games of the season.

  • Wilcox was reputed to be a cap casualty, but he’s with the team now, perhaps because new secondary coach Tom Bradley saw something he liked.

The Steelers likely traded for Wilcox because Jordan Dangerfield got injured during preseason. Dangerfield spent the 2014 and 2015 season on the Steelers practice squad before landing a spot on the regular season roster in 2016 where he saw action in 14 regular season games and two post-season games.

The Steelers also recently signed Nat Berhe. Berhe is seen as more of a replacement of Robert Golden, who’d led the Steelers special teams for several seasons, but struggled when called into action in the secondary.

Steelers 2018 Safety Draft Needs

As mentioned at the top, Kevin Colbert has historically relied on free agency fill needs at safety more frequently than he has for probably any other position. One of his first moves was to bring in Brett Alexander in the 2000 off season. A year later it was Mike Logan. Further on down the road he looked to Ryan Clark and then Mike Mitchell.

  • Of course, Kevin Colbert hit a grand slam home run when he traded up to draft Troy Polamalu in the 1st round of the 2003 NFL Draft.

And, his sophomore struggles notwithstanding, Sean Davis the early returns on Sean Davis are positive. Yet Kevin Colbert also used premium picks on Anthony Smith and Shamarko Thomas, two players who can only be described as busts.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Any look at the Steelers depth chart at safety reveals an inconvenient truth: The Steelers have quantity of unknown quality.

There are some positions on a football team where you can “get by,” to a certain extent, but substituting a little quantity for lack of quality. Safety is not one of those. There’s no way to wall paper over things when your safety gets beaten deep, fails to provide a double coverage or takes a wrong angle after a running back has breached the second level.

By signing Morgan Burnett and Nat Berhe the Steelers have wisely insulated themselves from the need of having to reach to fill this position, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 draft needs at safety must be considered High-Moderate.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Watch Tower: Did Munchack Help Push Haley Out? Journalistic Freudian Slip on Le’Veon Bell & More

It is mid-April. Free has worked itself out. The NFL draft is almost here as the Steelers 2018 off season reaches its critical mass, leaving the Watch Tower with plenty of material to shine its lights on.

With that, we take a look at new insights into Todd Haley’s departure and the Steelers ownership situation, some extra detail behind an unusual free agent signing while awarding kudos for adding primary details to the story on the Steelers secondary.

Todd Haley, Mike Munchak

Todd Haley and Mike Munchak at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

Did Munchak Help Push Todd Haley Out?

The off season’s first piece of news was the departure of Todd Haley, a move which Steelers Nation greeted with adulation. The last edition of the Watch Tower recognized the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette for breaking the story and awarded kudos accordingly.

The conventional wisdom, which falls in line with Bouchette’s story is that hat the Steelers parted ways with Todd Haley keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. That almost certainly factored into the decision. But it seems like that wasn’t the Steelers only motive, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct:

The Steelers, in fact, hold Munchak in such high regard that some in the organization believe he, not Ben Roethlisberger, forced the departure of offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
On the same day Mike Tomlin announced Haley wouldn’t be brought back, Munchak turned down a second interview to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. [Emphasis added.]

True to his style, Wexell casually weaved that scoop into the text of an article detailing Steelers offensive line prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. While the Watch Tower can’t see behind (enough) paywalls to be certain that Wexell is the only reporter to come up with the Mike Munchak angle in Haley’s departure, some quick Googling appears to confirm this.

Yet again, Wexell earns Watch Tower kudos for his keen reporting.

Reading Between the Lines on Le’Veon Bell

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler made curious comment while surmising the situation between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell:

The Steelers would prefer players not divulge negotiations through the media. They also understand Bell can say what he wants; he’s not under contract. The fact they haven’t leaked any negative press about him over the past few months can be perceived as a good sign. [Emphasis added]

Fowler might not have intended this, but the implication behind his words is that Seelers HAVE leaked negative information about Bell. The Steelers leaking information about a player isn’t earth shattering. When news broke that Bell had been late for a walk through, a reader on Steel City Insider suggested that Steelers management had leaked the information, saying he knew an agent that and seen that tactic used against him.

A veteran reporter like Fowler isn’t going to “break Kayfabe” (pro wrestling term, Google it if need be) over something like this, but the Watch Tower wonders if this wasn’t the journalistic equivalent of a Freudian slip….

Zeroing in on the Steelers Secondary

The Steelers have cleaned house in their secondary this off season, from changing secondary coaches (the Watch Tower still isn’t 100% convinced that Carnell Lake‘s departure was 100% voluntary, but let’s not get side tracked, to cutting two former starters and a key backup in the form of Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden.

  • And they’ve of course made moves in free agency to replace both.

While many of these moves were anticipated, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided some of the first real insight into the change, as he correctly reported that Steelers would cut Mike Mitchell, although his report also indicated J.J. Wilcox would probably go as well, and Wilcox is still with the team.

In doing so, Gerry Dulac also provided some detailed reporting on how the Steelers see Sean Davis, their rookie standout from 2016 who appeared to struggle in 2017. While there might not have been anything overly earthshaking about Dulac’s insights, he was clearly getting his information from someone well-versed in the team’s thinking, and he deserves credit for delivering that to his readers.

About those Steelers Minority Owners…..

The last edition of the Watch Tower also awarded kudos to Ed Bouchette for his reporting on the apparent (since denied) unrest amoug the Steelers minority owners. The real news nugget that earned Bouchette praise was the insight he offered into the stake that minority owners hold in the Steelers.

Here’s the quote in question from Bouchette:

But, again if true, it’s the audacity that a couple of the Steelers’ 18 listed limited partners think they can have an influence on the coach by ringing up Rooney. Collectively, these guys might own 5 percent of the team — or less. They sound like college boosters.

Until that point, very little information on who owned how much of the Steelers had entered the public eye, save for the knowledge that the Rooney family (and/or the Rooney family and the McGinley family) maintained control.

However, a report by ESPN on Steelers minority owner David Tepper’s quest to by the Carolina Panthers appears to contradict Bouchette’s reporting. In writing about Tepper’s bid ESPN’s Darren Rovell, David Newton offered:

Tepper, the founder of the global hedge fund firm Appaloosa Management, has a net worth of $11 billion, according to Forbes. He currently owns 5 percent of the Steelers.

So which is it? Do the Steelers minority owners own less than 5% of the team or does Tepper, one of 13 non-Rooney, non-McGinley owners listed own 5% by himself? Or, are the equity advisers supporting Tepper’s acquisition puffing up his stake in the Steelers in order to make their client look more attractive?

  • It is impossible for the Watch Tower to know for sure….

…But this is what the Watch Tower thinks. Look closely at Bouchette’s quote. While his words are (in all likelihood intentionally) vague, it seems like Bouchette only referring to the specific minority owners who made noises about pressuring Art Rooney II to fire Mike Tomlin, not the entire group.

And if that is the case, then it would follow that Bouchette knew the identities of the minority owners in question or that he was at least told by someone inside the organization – “Hey, these guys don’t even own 5% of the team.”

Finally, it suggests that, despite Art Rooney II’s protestations that “he never got the letter,” some of the minority owners did push for Tomlin’s ouster.

An Interesting Detail to an Unusual Free Agent Signing

The Steelers opening salvo in free agency involved a rare move with a low profile player, namely punter Jordan Berry. The Steelers resigned Jordan Berry between the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl.

  • The Steelers bringing back Jordan Berry is no surprise.

But everything else about the deal was a little off rhythm. The Steelers announced the signing, long before it was time to tender restricted free agents and more over the contract was below the minimum tender. The Steelers have offered long term-deals to exclusive rights and restricted free agents before, see Willie Parker, James Harrison, Alejandro Villanueva or even Roosevelt Nix this year.

  • But those were all long term contracts for well above the minimum tender amounts.

As it turns out, the Jordan Berry needed a contract to keep his work visa valid, and the Steelers moved quickly to accommodate him, and even structured the contract so he’d earn at the level of a restricted free agent.

Now, when Steelers fans gather to watch the 2018 NFL Draft, it is safe to say that they’re not going to be talking about Jordan Berry’s contract, but that was an important detail missing from a story that ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler filled, and for that he wins Watch Tower kudos.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

How James Harrison’s 2nd Retirement Brings his NFL Career Full Circle

Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison announced his retirement today. Ah! How’s that for daily dose of  déjà vuall over again?

This not the first time you’ve read the opening sentence of this blog and it is not the first time yours truly has written it. James Harrison has already retired. He did so on August 30th 2014 in standing their at the podium on the South Side.

  • 47 games and 15 sacks later, 6 forced fumbles later and 2 interceptions later, Harrison is doing it again.

Except this time won’t be another comeback and this time James Harrison’s retirement isn’t “news”€ save for the fact that we really can say that Silverback’s NFL career has come full circle.

James Harrison, Art Rooney II, James Harrison Art Rooney Handshake, James Harrison 2nd retirement

James Harrison’s 2nd retirement brings him full circle. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

James Harrison 2nd Retirement Brings His Career Full Circle

James Harrison will and should be remembered and celebrated as the undrafted rookie free agent who worked a tenuous hold on an NFL practice squad slot into the man became the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, author of arguably the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history in Super Bowl XLIII, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers sack records and for being an all around ass kicker to delivered game-changing plays time and time again.

  • James Harrison also made life hell for bloggers.

Seriously. What separates a good blogger from a “content aggregator?”€ Well, for my money a good blogger finds ways to add value to the story. That can lie in saying things a little better than everyone else is staying them, or by exploring new angles to the story that others overlook.

  • Both things take a fair amount of work.

Because to really do either of them well, you must also take pains to avoid repetition. And its kind of hard to get original when writing, “Steelers release James Harrison” when the event gets repeated 5-6 times. Ditto “Steelers resign James Harrison“€ and of now “James Harrison retires.”

  • But really, that’s just the nature of the incredible journey that James Harrison blazed in his career.

He started on the practice squad roster bubble, worked himself into a regular roster bubble player, then established himself as a backup, and then took on the role of the veteran refused to let a team move on from.

In a perfect world, as Art Rooney II stated, James Harrison would have stood their on the dais alongside Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Cam Heyward hosting the Lombardi Trophy. Unfortunately, that didn’t and will never happen.

Hopefully, time will heal all wounds in the case, and both James Harrison and Steelers Nation will embrace his return to the Steelers family, the way Franco Harris and Rod Woodson have and how we wish (probably in vein) that Terry Bradshaw would.

  • While it is longshot, Canton, Ohio would provide the perfect venue for such a reunion.

But until then, perhaps it’s fitting that James Harrison’s 2nd retirement arrives absent any pomp or circumstance as a type of side note event that, in the pre-digital world, would have warranted a couple of three inches of text. In other words, perhaps its fitting that James Harrison’s career ends the way it began.

Good luck and God Speed Debo. Steelers Nation will leave the light on and the door unlocked for whenever you’re ready to come home.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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. 

 

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs – Time for Pittsburgh Reinforce Depth

You can criticize Billy Cowher’s drafting record with both Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert on many grounds. However, no one can fault The Chin for failing to take offensive line seriously in the NFL draft.

  • Almost without exception, throughout his tenure, Bill Cowher invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman.

He didn’t do that in his final draft, and neither did Mike Tomlin in his first 3 drafts (well, OK they did take Kraig Urbik with one of their 3rds in the 2009 NFL Draft.) Then, when the consequences of playing “Plug and Patch” on the offensive line began to take their toll on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers invested two firsts and 2 second round picks on offensive line between 2010 and 2012.

The 2012 NFL Draft was five years ago, and the Steelers haven’t drafted an offensive lineman higher than Jerald Hawkins in the 4th since then. Should Steelers change their approach to offensive line in the 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s see.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs

David DeCastro blocks for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starters

One of the reasons why the Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman since 2012 is because they haven’t had to. Yes, other positions have beckoned, but each of the Steelers starting offensive lineman is working on his second contract, and that is no accident.

The Steelers offensive line rebuild began with Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and each and every year that he’s been health since then he’s been Pro Bowler. Marcus Gilbert came next and is regarded in the franchise as one of the best at his positions. David DeCastro fell to the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft, and David DeCastro is a legitimate Pro Bowl guard who adds the necessary streak of nasty to the line.

  • While these high-pedigree draft picks have delivered, they’ve got good company by men overlooked on draft day.

Ramon Foster joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was starting in the Super Bowl a year later. The Steelers looked to replace Foster in a number of ways, but Foster continues to hold his own. Starting next to Foster is Alejandro Villanueva, the former US Army Ranger and West Point graduate that the Steelers picked up after the Eagles dropped him from their practice squad.

The man standing the curtain is Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who might be the best position coach of any type in the NFL.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

The Steelers offensive line depth took a hit when Chris Hubbard signed with the Cleveland Browns this spring as a free agent, but franchise still has solid backups it can count on. Leading the pack is B.J. Finney, who has started at both center and guard and acquitted himself well.

At tackle the Steelers have Jerald Hawkins. Hawkins missed his rookie year due to injury, and struggled through his second training camp. However, he saw action in 2017 as a 3rd tight end. Finally, the Steelers bring back Matt Feiler, and exclusive rights free agent who has seen action in 6 NFL games.

Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it? Is that how the old adage goes?

The truth is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best if not the best offensive lines in the NFL. And, after all the years of offensive line turmoil the characterized the early part of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, it a bit ironic that Steelers Nation has come to take quality offensive line play for granted.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Complacency can cripple a contenders quest to transform itself into a champion.

To understand how that applies here, perform this little exercise. How old is the Steelers offensive line? You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Oh, we have a young offensive line, that’s one of the thing that’s so exciting about it.” Well, that was true for several seasons, today, not so much.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell draws out this point:

The average age of the Steelers’ starting offensive line on opening day will be 29.8. That’s quite older than the much respected 2005 championship line that averaged 27.6 years of age and fell apart soon thereafter.

Ramon Foster might be the only lineman above 30 now, but Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva turn 30 this year. Sometimes, father time imposes his will quickly.

No one really pegged the 2001 Steelers secondary as old when they fell short in the AFC Championship, yet Bill Belichick saw enough to know he could throw the ball throughout the entire 2nd half the 2002 opener, and there was nothing Pittsburgh could do to stop him.

That doesn’t mean there are ominous storm clouds hanging above the Steelers offensive line in the immediate future. But the Steelers would be very wise to add to their pipeline of offensive line talent, and therefore the Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs must be considered Moderate.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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. 

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs Hinge on Vance McDonald & Jesse James Future in Pittsburgh

While the Pittsburgh Steelers perhaps can’t boast of the same type of legacy of excellence at tight end that they do at other position areas, the services of Mark Bruener and Heath Miller did allow the franchise to enjoy (almost) two straight decades of high-level stability at tight end.

Whilethe Steelers tight ends ended 2017 on an up note, Pittsburgh has seen false starts at tight end in the last two years. In looking at the 2018 NFL Draft, the question the Steelers need to answer for themselves is, was the success they experienced at the end of 2017 is sustainable or just another Sisyphean attempt to replace Heath Miller’s legendary dependability.

Vance McDonald, Jesse James

Vance McDonald with Jesse James. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

The Steelers have been full of suprises at tight end of late. Last spring, after passing on drafting a tight end in a draft that was said to be deep at the position, the Steelers cut Ladarius Green a few weeks later.

Vance McDonald took time to work his way into the Steelers offense, and injuries sidelined him for six games during various points in the season. But, by the year’s end, Vance McDonald was the undisputed starter. Early on word was the McDonald dropped too many passes in practice.

However, during the later half of the year, Vance McDonald and Ben Roethlisberger developed a strong rapport, and McDonald started coming up with the ball at critical times, including making 10 catches on 16 targets in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

By all accounts, the Vance McDonald trade was prompted by Jesse James’ lack luster training camp and preseason performance. Nonetheless, Jesse James had as strong 2017 campaign. He caught 68% of the passes thrown his way, and came up especially big (along with McDonald) in the Steelers last second win against the Ravens.

  • Jesse James blocking still must improve, but he’s delivering solid value as a 2nd tight end.

Behind Jesse James, the Steelers have Xavier Grimble, who completed his second year on the active roster after 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. In those two years Grimble has show himself to be a competent 3rd tight end, and an able receiver although he his blocking has not stood out.

Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs

The Steelers have a solid starter at tight end, an excellent number 2 tight end and a serviceable number 3 tight end, so Pittsburgh set at the position heading into the 2018 NFL Draft right?

Not so fast.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Vance McDonald’s strong finish to 2017 was no mirage, but there’s a “but.” First, Vance McDonald’s injures cannot be ignored. In five years in the NFL, he has never appeared in 16 games. He’s also in the final year of his contract and will be free agent come March 2019.

  • Jesse James doesn’t have the injury history, but he too will be a free agent next spring.

If Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are confident that they can commit the cap space to ensure that McDonald and James stay in Pittsburgh for the next several seasons, there’s no real need to target tight end with a premium pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Steelers can certainly upgrade from Xavier Grimble for the third tight end slot, but a late round pick would arguably be better spent on adding depth elsewhere.

The Steelers are an organization that likes to promote from within and the thinking here is that the team prefers and likely plans to keep McDonald and James in Black and Gold. Therefore the Steelers 2018 tight end draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs – Is Line Deep Enough for a Super Bowl Run?

“Rebuilding.” It is a term that both Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin passionately rejected when the Steelers were enduring twin 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013.

  • Semantics aside, the Steelers were rebuilding following Super Bowl XVL, particularly on defense.

Kevin Colbert adopted a front-to-back approach to rebuilding and while each position area on the defensive depth charts has seen its ups and downs, Colbert has clearly enjoyed the most success with the defensive line. Is that success sufficient to sustain the Steelers quest for Lombardi Number 7, or should the Steelers again look to defensive line heading into 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

Consume draft day comments from team executives with a grain of salt. No head coach or general manager is going blurt out:

Yeah, believe it or not  all 8 of the guys we thought would be on the board and anted to pick were gone and, to be frank, the trade offers we got were shitty. So we had no other choice but to take Joe Smith. But hey, we’re glad to have him on the team, and are excited to welcome him to city. No, really….

However, when the Steelers drafted Cam Heyward 1st round in the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert proclaimed it a “historic day” for the franchise. Kevin Colbert was right. Cameron Heyward was the first player to join the Steelers following Super Bowl XLV, and it is hard to conceive of a better player to begin your rebuild project with.

Cam Heyward has been a difference maker for the Steelers since becoming a starter in mid-2013, but his efforts have largely been ignored outside of Pittsburgh. In 2017 Cam Heyward made the 1st team AP All Pro team, after recording a record 12.5 sacks.

  • Next to Heyward, the Steelers have Stephon Tuitt, who has had to deal with nagging injuries and might not have matched Heyward’s numbers, but is clearly an elite defensive end.

Playing between these two giants, is Javon Hargrave, the Steelers 3rd round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft. Javon Hargrave had a phenomenal rookie year in 2016, and started 2017 off strong, only to be dogged by back injuries during the later portion of the season.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

Rotation fueled much of the success of former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell’s system. Whether he was starting Kevin Henry, Joel Steed and Ray Seals, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel or the Steelers current starting trio, Mitchell believed in mixing in a fresh body throughout the game.

  • During 2014, 2015 and even 2016 the Steelers lacked the personnel to effectively.

Cam Thomas simply wasn’t good enough and while Ricardo Mathews represented a bit of an upgrade, the Steelers played the 2nd half of 2016 without Cam Heyward.

Last spring the Steelers signed Tyson Alualu who provided that vital fourth man the makes the Steelers defensive line rotation work. 2017 marked a big year for L.T. Walton, who saw his snap count almost double, and he recorded his first two sacks in wins against Tennessee and Green Bay. Newly resigned Daniel McCullers will be back, as apparently Karl Dunbar would like to extend the young man yet another chance.

Steelers 2018 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers defensive line is a unit influx. Since Keith Butler took the reigns, the Steelers have played in their base, 3-4 defense less frequently including alignments that employ four down lineman. Recently, as pointed out by a questioner on Bob Labriola’s Asked and Answered, the Steelers  now list Cameron Heyward as a defensive tackle.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

However, health as opposed to any of those changes are the important drivers of the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs.

Javon Hargrave struggled with injuries during the later half of 2017 and didn’t appear to play much during the playoff loss to the Jaguars. L.T. Walton played in his place, and he too had elbow surgery. Stephon Tuitt missed four games due to injury and was also on the injury list going into the playoffs.

  • Do those injuries offer a warning sign for 2018? Only the Steelers medical staff knows.

Absent any insight, its best to assume that this medical wild card won’t come into play and, while the Steelers could use someone to push Daniel McCullers, their depth at defensive line remains solid, and therefore the Steelers 2018 defensive line draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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.

 

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!