Should We Believe? Steelers Talk of Pairing Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren in Split Backfield

The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly came out with something interesting at the end of the first week of Steelers 2023 OTAs: Namely that Steelers coaches are exploring ways to get Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

Credit Kaboly for delivering one of juiciest nuggets of come out of what are normally nearly newsless Organized Team Work Outs.

  • Or did he deliver a nugget?

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. You are wise don your Doubting Thomas cap on this one. But before we delve into the nuances of the question, let’s look at the facts.

Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren

Could we see Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren paired in the same backfield? Photo Credit: Jordan Schofield via SteelerNation.com

First, Kaboly doesn’t simply acknowledge that fans have a right to be skeptical, he gives them reasons to reinforce their skepticism. He points out that the combos of Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, and Harris and Warren have been on the field a total of 24 times.

However, he gets Jaylen Warren on the record explaining, “They have said they are planning to find ways to get us both on the field at the same time and just do different things with me.”

Kaboly goes further to point out that Matt Canada has been tinkering with a two-back offense and cites the success the Steelers had last year when they had two backs on the field. (Fun Fact: While its clear the Steelers won’t bring Derek Watt back, they were 7-1 in games where Watt got a carry. Just say’in…)

All of this is encouraging news to us Generation X Steelers fans who still pine nostalgically for  a return tothe old Pro Set offensive backfield (cue the “If it was good enough for Franco and Rocky why isn’t it good enough for The Bus and FWP?” quotes), but encouraging only to a point.

  • We have heard stories like this come out of OTAs before.

In fact in 2019 Jim Wexell got confirmation from Jaylen Samuels that the Steelers were experimenting with putting him in the same backfield as James Conner. By Kaboly’s count, that happened 11 times in 2019.

And of course they’ve been other rumblings at other points in the 21st century about the two back offense returning to Pittsburgh, just as stories about “this year the Steelers will give the fullback a few carries each game” and “we’re gonna throw to the tight end more” were training camp staples during the 1990’s. That never happened.

  • But why then, might this time be different?

Well, let’s just say that Kaboly has established some credibility here.

Last year, on June 7th to be precise, Kaboly got Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner on the record discussing his plans to reduce Najee Harris’ snap count. At the time, I read the story with great interest but finished with a big mental “Yeah, right.”

But in 2022, Najee Harris had 313 touches of the ball as opposed to 381 in 2021. Moreover, his snap count dropped further, from 980 offensive snaps to 763 offensive snaps.

One of the reasons why the Steelers were able to but reduce Harris’ workload and get him off the field more often is that Jaylen Warren essentially forced coaches to find ways to get him on the field.

Maybe, just maybe Harris and Warren will find ways to force coaches to put them out together….

 

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Ditch Mitch? Ah, No. Steelers Extend Mitch Trubisky for 2 Years

Sometimes, it pays to listen. Throughout the 2023 off season the Steelers brass has been saying they want Mitchell Trubisky to stay in Pittsburgh as a long-term backup quarterback. They even confirmed that they were leaving the door open for Mason Rudolph.

And this week, both men signed contracts with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A few days after inking Mason Rudolph to a one year deal, the Steelers extended Mitch Tribusky’s contract by two years. According to the NFL Network, the new deal will keep Tribusky in Pittsburgh through the 2025 season and pay him 19.4 million dollars with a chance to earn 33 million through incentives.

Prior to the extension, the Steelers were on the hook to pay Tribuisky another 8 million this year, bringing his salary cap value to over 10 million dollars. That’s dirty cheap for a starting quarterback but rather expensive for a backup who, under the best of circumstances won’t do anything more than wear a headset and huddle with the starter and head coach during the 2 minute warning.

Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 quarterback competition

Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Brandon Sloter / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and The Athletic.)

Trubisky to Follow in Footsteps of Another Ex-Bears QB?

Of course “the best of circumstances” don’t always prevail in the NFL. After getting benched against the Jets, Mitch Tribuisky was forced into action twice thanks to Kenny Pickett concussions.

And his play in those games calls to mind another former Chicago Bears quarterback, who after a stint on the Great Lakes, found his way to Pittsburgh. That quarterback is Mike Tomczak, who after 77 games and 31 starts in Chicago, followed by stops in Green Bay and Cleveland, arrived in Pittsburgh in 1993.

Mike Tomczak, Barry Foster, Steelers vs Raiders

Mike Tomczak hands off to Barry Foster in 1994. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

Trubisky’s play in the Steelers upset over the Buccaneers and win over the Panthers evokes memories of Mike Tomczak at his best – a game manager/game manager plus who can step in and deliver when called up.

In the same vein, Trubisky’s play in the home loss to the Ravens, brings to mind Mike Tomczak at his worst – ask him (or let him try) to do too much will get you into trouble.

But that’s true of most backup quarterbacks (even Charlie Batch).

After backing up Neil O’Donnell in 1993, Tomczak stuck with the Steelers through 1999. If Trubisky plays out his full contract he’ll have a real shot at matching Tomczak’s tenure.

Another Cook Joins Pat Meyer’s Kitchen

Broderick Jones won’t be the only new offensive tackle in offensive line coach Pat Myer’s room next year. The Steelers continued to add to the depth behind Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor when they signed tackle Dylan Cook.

Cook spent most of 2022 on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad, and was resigned after the season but got a pink slip shortly after the draft.

Cook is from Montana and actually play quarterback in high school. He stands 6’6” and weighs 303 pounds.

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Wither Ahkello? Yep. Steelers Cut Ahkello Witherspoon, Sign XFL “Stars”

An unexpected trade. Disappearance on the bench. An interception machine. Getting burned in Philly. Injury. And finally post draft dismissal.

Those 16 words sum up Ahkello Witherspoon’s career as a Pittsburgh Steeler, who cut him yesterday and gained 4 million dollars in salary cap space.

A.J. Brown, Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Eagles

A.J. Brown scores a touchdown over Ahkello Witherspoon. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Witherspoon’s waver marks the second post-draft disruption on the Steelers cornerback depth chart, with Arthur Maulet having requested and been granted his release. Prior to the draft, the Steelers lost cornerback Cam Sutton but replaced him with veteran Patrick Peterson.

During the 2023 NFL Draft the Steelers added Joey Porter Jr. in the 2nd round and Cory Trice in the seventh round.

So it appears that the decision to part ways with Witherspoon is as much numbers game as anything else.

By the time Kevin Colbert brought him to Pittsburgh, Witherspoon the former 3rd round pick was on his third team. He languished on the bench until week ten, before exploding with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defensed during the latter part of the season.

That was enough to earn Witherspoon a 2nd contract in Pittsburgh, but his second year did not go so smoothly. He started the first three games and even continued his ballhawking ways against Joe Burrow in the 2022 season-opening upset of the Bengals. Injuries kept him out through week’s four and 7 but he returned against the Eagles where A.J. Brown promptly burned him for one of Philly’s three touchdown passes.

Mike Tomlin benched him at half time during that game and Witherspoon never saw the field again for the Steelers.

  • And now he apparently never will.

In addition to Peterson and Porter, the Steelers will return veteran cornerbacks Levi Wallace and James Pierre. They also signed Minnesota veteran Chandon Sullivan during the draft.

Steelers Claim Jones, Sign XFL “Stars” Butler and Luq-Barcoo

Some of the money the Steelers are saving by cutting Witherspoon will go to the trio of players Pittsburgh picked up here in mid-May. First the claimed Manny Jones off of waviers after the Arizona Cardinals cut him.

  • Jones landed in Phoenix as an undrafted rookie free agent and appeared in 4 games in 2022.

The Steelers also signed XFL “stand outs” cornerback Luq Barcoo and wide receiver Hakeem Butler. Barco played for the XFL’s San Antonio Brahmas where had 1 interception and 31 tackles, which was enough for Pro Football Focus to grade him as the 2nd best tackle in the league.

Hakeem Butler comes from the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks, who posted 51 catches for 599 yards and eight touchdowns and his name will be familiar to Steelers fans with long memories. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert took a long look at Butler prior to the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers interest was so strong that pre-draft analyst Matt Williamson suggested the Steelers take Butler if Devin Bush was unavailable and Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell echoed similar sentiments.

Alas, Butler lasted until the Cardinals took him in the fourth round, but injuries wrecked his NFL career, limiting him to two appearances, both with the Eagles in 2020. Butler did have one catch for the CFL’s Edmonton Elks during 2022.

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Steelers Draft Needs @ Safety – Pittsburgh Has Luxury of Being Strategic

Safety has been one of the most intriguing areas on the depth chart during this off season. The Steelers said goodbye to a former first round draft pick in the form of Terrell Edmunds, resigned an older veteran, brought in one free agent and made a trade that could someday impact the position.

So how does all of this impact their approach to the 2023 NFL Draft? Let’s find out.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers 2022 Opening Day,

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Joe Burrow’s first pass. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Safety: The Starters

In Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers have a safety who is already adding to the legacy left by the likes of Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.

By any measure, Minkah Fitzpatrick is a play maker. In just four years he has 17 interceptions, including three pick sixes. And as true playmakers do, he makes them at timely moments in games. Just ask Joe Burrow who threw right to Fitzpatrick on the second play of the 2022 season.

Fitzpatrick is far more than a ball hawk. He comes away with deflections with the game is on the line, manages to make tackles in bounds when the clock is running, and is on the field wherever the action is.

Starting opposite Fitzpatrick is Damontae Kazee. Kazee is new to Pittsburgh but he had 2 interceptions in 9 games for the Steelers last year, and he made those at critical moments of the game. Kazee’s durability is an issue, however.

Steelers  Depth Chart at Safety: The Backups

The Steelers have also signed Keanu Neal. Like Kazee, Neal has durability issues, but he also brings 80 games and 61 starts of experience to the Steelers. With his resume, Neal could conceivably push Kazee for the starting job, but his contract suggests the Steelers are not projecting him as a starter.

The Steelers also have Tre Norwood the proverbial “Swiss Army” knife. Norwood arrived in Pittsburgh as a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and appeared in 17 games as a rookie. While his snap count dropped from 33% of defensive snaps to 26%, he’s still an asset.

The Steelers also have Miles Killebrew who mainly plays special teams, but did has played 50 defensive snaps over the last two seasons.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Finally, the Steelers have Patrick Peterson. Peterson arrived in Pittsburgh as a cornerback, but its been suggested and perhaps even implied by Mike Tomlin that he could play safety.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Safety

The Steelers have positioned themselves well at safety. While neither Kazee nor Neal project as long term starters at the strong safety position, both are viable options for Pittsburgh in 2023.

So the Steelers could strength the position in the draft, should do so if they get the opportunity, but do not need to reach to fill a need.

In other words, they have the luxury of being strategic.

When all is said and done, the Steelers need at safety going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate.

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Set up for Success? Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

The Steelers offer a study of contrasts at cornerback. They’ve sent Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson to the Hall of Fame. They’ve had to other excellent corners in Dwayne Woodruff and Ike Taylor.

Yet, in the 21st century they’ve struggled to draft good cornerbacks.

And cornerbacks are very expensive to find on the free agent market. Worse yet, they’ve just lost a “home grown” cornerback Cam Sutton. So how does this impact their plans for the 2023 NFL Draft.

Samaje Perine, Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bengals

Samaje Perine scores one of his 3 touchdowns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Cornerback: The Starters

Omar Khan wasted little time in replacing Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, a veteran corner most recently out of Minnesota. Peterson is into his 30s, which is a danger sign for a cornerback, but he has continued to play at a high level.

Opposite Peterson, the Steelers top corner is Levi Wallace, a free agent they signed one year ago. Levi Wallace started 9 games for the Steelers and proved himself to be a bit of a ball hawk, pulling in 4 interceptions including key picks in the wins against the Saints and Browns.

Peterson at his age clearly isn’t a long term answer at corner back and Wallace while “good” and someone who can help the Steelers win doesn’t look like a long term starter

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind their starters, the Steelers have Ahkello Witherspoon, a player they traded for just before the 2021 season. Ahkello Witherspoon sat on the bench for the first part of 2021 and fans wondered why the Steelers wasted a pick on him.

They he saw action in the second part of the year and in just nine games he picked off 3 passes and deflected 13 others. Witherspoon started 2022 with a bang, picking off Joe Burrow in the season-opening upset of the Bengals, but got injured in the third game of the season, saw action and got burned against Philadelphia and did not play for the rest of the season.

The Steelers also have Arthur Maulet, a bargain basement free agent signing they made in 2020. Maulet is sort of like Mike Hilton lite. He’s not a superstar, but he’s shown the ability to make plays at critical moments while playing in the slot.

Finally, the Steelers have James Pierre, a restricted free agent who they decided to keep in Pittsburgh. Pierre looked like rising star in early 2021, found himself on the bench after suffering a couple of costly breakdowns but made a comeback in 2022, helping spark the Steelers midseason turn around with an interception to start the Colts game.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

The Steelers 2023  Draft Needs @ Cornerback

As they’ve done at every area on the depth chat, except for outside linebacker, the Steelers have positioned themselves well for the draft.

They don’t need to draft someone who can win the starting job on opening day, but they sure could boost their short and long term fortunes if they do find one in the form of say, Joey Porter Jr.

Ditto the backups. Unlike outside linebacker, the Steelers don’t need to find a corner who can step in as an injury replacement, but picking one who can do just that would provide both long and short term benefits.

So in other words, the Steelers really need to come out of the draft having picked either a projected long term number 1 cornerback or someone who projects as a number 2 or number 3 corner, they’ have done OK.

Therefore the Steelers need at cornerback going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Inside Linebacker – More Questions than Answers

Perhaps its fitting: It was in a win against Cincinnati in December 2013 that Vince Williams stood out enough to signal that stability was returning to the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker. Four years later Ryan Shazier’s injury at Paul Brown Stadium would destabilize that spot on the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker and the franchise is still shuffling to regain its footing.

Might they find that footing in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Mark Robinson, Gus Edwards, Steelers vs Ravens M&T Bank Stadium

Mark Robinson stops Gus Edwards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The (Presumed) Starters

Everyone expected the Steelers to move on from Devin Bush. And they did, without a second thought.

Who expected Robert Spillane to bolt? But bolt he did. But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin from cutting Myles Jack, the Steelers other starter from 2022 and to look outside the franchise’s comfort zone and sign not one but two inside linebackers in the form of Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts.

Holcomb brings four years and 48 games of starting experience from Washington. Elandon Roberts brings seven years of experience and 76 starts from seasons with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins.

The Steelers once unexpectedly lost a free agent inside linebacker (Earl Holmes) and reacted by signing James Farrior, one of their best free agent pickups ever. They also reacted the the loss of Shazier by signing Jon Bostic who was pretty good on first and 2nd downs, but had to leave the field after that and hence had to leave town.

Are Holcomb and Roberts Farriors or Bostics? Today there’s no way to know.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backup

In contrast, there are a few things we know about the Steelers lone backup at inside linebacker. While conceding that he wasn’t comfortable giving rookie Mark Robinson a leading role in late season contests against the Ravens and Browns, Mike Tomlin doled out rare praise complementing the rookie:

He’s a guy that likes physical confrontation. That’s the one component of his game that has never been in question, growth and development and all other areas due to youth and lack of experience is.

The Steelers drafted Mark Robinson in the 7th round of the 2022 NFL Draft as a project. Robinson played for three schools during his college career and only moved to linebacker as a senior, spending time at running back during one of his colligate stints.

Robinson was inactive for most of 2022, only seeing his first action against Carolina, but he still played 50% of the defensive snaps against the Ravens, helping shut down a running attack that had embarrassed the Steelers just 3 weeks earlier.

The Steelers also have Tanner Muse who played safety and then “linebacker” for the Seattle Seahawks. Muse is seen mainly as a special teams signing, but Pittsburgh is listing him as a linebacker.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker

The Steelers are thin at inside linebacker. Yes, they appear to used free agency to bring one legitimate starter and one starter capable linebacker in free agency and they have a solid up and coming rookie. But is that enough to be comfortable?

Not by a longshot. The Steelers started 2020 with Devin Bush, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane as their top three linebackers, and by December their starting duo in the middle was Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen.

Everyone remembers Ben Roethlisberger‘s horrible performance in 2020 disaster at Cincinnati, but check the running stats to see how well the Allen-Williamson duo worked out. (Yes, there’s that Cincinnati-Inside Linebacker-Steelers axis rotating again.)

Taking that into account, the Steelers need at inside linebacker going 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker – Watt’s the Depth Behind T.J. & Highsmith?

Since the days of the Super Steelers ended there is no one position that has captured the imaginations of Steelers Nation the way outside linebackers have. Whether its been Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, James Harrison or Bud Dupree there’s nothing the ignites the passions of the Black and Gold faithful as an outside linebacker making a “Splash Play.”

In 2023 the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded their best tandem of outside linebackers since the days when James Harrison and (a healthy) LaMarr Woodley played together. But does that mean Pittsburgh should or even forgo a blue chip outside linebacker should he fall to them in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Steelers Depth Cart at Outside Linebacker: The Starters

Just how good is T.J. Watt? Well, he only registered 5.5 sacks in 2023 after missing seven games due to injury, but with him in the line up the Steelers were able to upset the defending AFC Champions at home. Without him they struggled and lost to teams like the Jets and the Browns.

Even if T.J. Watt took a good 4 or 5 games to regain his form after returning from his injury, he still forced other teams to account for him.

And thanks to that, Alex Highsmith registered 11 of his career high 13 sacks in games that T.J. Watt played. Highsmith didn’t simply improve his pass rushing, but he also did a better job of setting the edge and helping stuff the run.

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind the T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith the Steelers have… no one?

That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but on their own website they list Chapelle Russell, Emeke Egbule and Tae Crowder. All of whom are listed as “Linebacker.” Presumptively, at least one of those guys can move outside. Right?

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker

If press reports are correct, the Steelers offered Bud Dupree a one year deal and Bud said, “Thanks but no thanks” and took a two year deal from Atlanta. So its not much of a stretch to conclude that Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin were counting on Bud Dupree’s return to Pittsburgh.

That hasn’t happened.

So as a consequence the Steelers now have a player bordering on being a generational talent and a player on the verge of being a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker backed up by… Guys who will be lucky to make practice squad come September.

In a nutshell, the Steelers certainly don’t need to draft an immediate starter, but they do need to find someone who can play quickly if injury should strike.

So, the Steelers need at outside linebacker heading into the into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Extreme.

 

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And the Steelers Pick: Alan Faneca 1st Round 1998 NFL Draft – I Remember Where I Was. Do You?

There haven’t been many Steelers draft picks who turned out better than Alan Faneca over the past few decades.

Faneca was a guard from LSU who the Steelers selected in the first round (26th, overall) of the 1998 NFL Draft.

Alan Faneca, Tommy Maddox, Steelers vs Ravens

Hall of Fame Guard Alan Faneca was forced to play tackle at times during 2003. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, AP via the Athletic

It didn’t take long for Faneca to become a fixture on the Steelers’ offensive line; he started 12 games at left guard as a rookie and a total of 153 over his 10 years in Pittsburgh. While Faneca did become a full-time starter right away, he didn’t earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl until 2001.

Faneca was also named a First-Team All-Pro in ’01, an honor he would achieve a total of six times during his distinguished career. Faneca was also named a Second-Team All-Pro twice and was voted to the Pro Bowl a grand total of nine times in 13 years.

Faneca finished out his career with stints with the Jets and Cardinals after leaving Pittsburgh as a free agent following the 2007 season.

Faneca was regarded as the top guard of his era, as he started a total of 201 games over 13 years and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s.

Faneca is now a member of the Steelers Hall of Honor and, more fittingly, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame after being enshrined in the summer of 2001.

  • OK, we get it, Tony. Alan Faneca was special. What’s the point of this article?

The point is, I remember exactly where I was when the Steelers picked him in the first round back in 1998

Where was I? I was stocking shelves at this store called Save-A-Lot. (That’s right, insert your jokes about a sportswriter stocking shelves here.)

Not only was I stocking shelves at work, but I was barely paying any mind to what was happening during the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft. In fact, I don’t think I even found out who the Steelers picked until I got home from work later that afternoon. What was my initial reaction when I found out about the selection of Faneca? I believe it was something along the lines of, “Cool.”

I had never even heard of Alan Faneca, but maybe that’s because I was pretty much over the annual NFL Draft by that point.

Pittsburgh was coming off the 1997 season in which it made the playoffs for a sixth-straight time and played in the AFC title game for the third time in four years.

Yancey Thigpen, Ray Crockett, Steelers vs Broncos

Yancey Thigpen advances on Ray Crockett. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

While I didn’t know the fun was about to be over (Pittsburgh would miss the playoffs for three-straight seasons, starting with a disappointing 7-9 campaign in 1998), my zeal for the annual draft had long since been replaced by how awesome the Steelers had became at actual football during the 1990s.

The Steelers were mediocre-to-horrible in the 1980s, and it was in this reality that I found the NFL Draft to be exhilarating as a teenager desperate to fill the void of those Super 70s teams I had only heard of. Which high-profile college prospects from the big-time schools would come to Pittsburgh and save the day?

  • Maybe that’s why my reaction to the Steelers’ first-round pick in 1988 was much different.

I looked forward to that year’s draft more than any before or since. Who would the Steelers take, and would it be Lorenzo White, a high-profile running back from Michigan State?

The Steelers selected 18th in the first round, and White was still available when it was their turn to pick. I was so happy, I, a 15-year-old moron, began to run around my grandmother’s house, screaming, “We’re gonna get Lorenzo! We’re gonna get Lorenzo!”

  • Pittsburgh wasted no time turning its pick into the commissioner.

“With the 18th pick in the first round of the 1988 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select….Aaron Jones, defensive end, Eastern Kentucky.”

Who?

I was crestfallen. I may have even shed a tear or two. My dreams had been shattered.

I never even heard of Jones, and despite the fact that I eventually found his name listed as the second-best defensive end prospect when I reviewed the draft preview from that morning’s paper, I was still pretty darn upset.

Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Steeler Training Camp 1991

Dick Haley and Chuck Noll at St. Vincents in 1991. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images via FOX News.

Jones went on to have an unremarkable career and was yet another failed attempt by head coach Chuck Noll and Dick Haley to recapture the magic of the Steel Curtain defense from the previous decade.

I continued to live and die with the draft over the next few years until Bill Cowher came along in 1992 and brought with him the winning Steelers culture I spent my youth yearning for.

While I haven’t lived and died for the draft in quite a while, I definitely pay more attention to it now than I did the day Pittsburgh selected Faneca a quarter of a century ago.

It’s hard not to pay attention to the annual NFL Draft in this 24/7 news cycle we find ourselves in. Thanks to social media, podcasts and blogs, the draft is top news from the second the Steelers season ends in January until many weeks after they select their new class in April.

  • But the 1990s taught me a lot about what really matters when it comes to prospects like Alan Faneca.

It’s not about whether or not I know anything about him. It’s not about the position he plays. It’s not about the school he played football at.

All that matters is what he can do to help the Steelers on Sunday afternoons in the fall.

I don’t even have to know who this prospect is in order to enjoy that.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Tight End – Can the Depth Chart be Beefed Up?

Tight ends in threes. The Steelers have carried three tight ends, no more or no less, on their roster seemingly forever.

As the 2023 NFL Draft approaches, the Steelers have 3 tight ends under contract for coming season. Yet, this draft is said to be deep at tight end. Does that mean the Steelers can ignore the position?

Pat Freiermuth, Connor Heyward

Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry at Acrisure Stadium. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via Bestodds.com

 

Steelers Depth Cart at: The Starter

How do you know where the Steelers stand at Tight End? How about this: Moouth!

That’s the sound that Steelers fans have been waiting to chat and hear since Heath Miller retired. Watching Pat Freiermuth’s play over the first two years of his it is easy to see why.

Pat Freiermuth immediately established himself as a starter, a reliable “Go To” target in the over the middle and a leader on the field. Thus far he’s caught 123 passes on 177 targets for a 69.5% catch rate, while hauling in 9 touchdowns. If his catch percentage dropped, his yards per reception (or target) and his first down catches increased.

You can’t quite say “Pat Freiermuth is unquestionability the Steelers long-term answer at tight end” however, because he has had 3 concussions in two years. Freiermuth insists he’s not worried about it, but the Steelers would be foolish not to be concerned.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers drafted Zach Gentry as a project with their fifth pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Injuries and his learning curve kept him from doing much in 2019 and 2020, but in 2021 Gentry emerged with a respectable season, showing signs that he could be a legitimate number 2 NFL tight end.

He really didn’t do much to build on that in 2022 but the Steelers still resigned him, although that second contract comes with a bit “but” (see below.)

The Steelers added Connor Heyward to the mix with their 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Mike Tomlin’s love for NFL blood lines doesn’t always work out (see Devin Bush, and to a lesser extent Terrell Edmunds), but Connor Heyward’s rookie year vindicates Tomlin’s family fetish.

Heyward only touched the ball 14 times, but he made those count, delivering big plays that helped break open the games against the Buccaneers, Falcons and Browns and helping seal the win over the Raiders.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Tight End

The 2023 NFL Draft is said to be deep in tight ends. But the Steelers really don’t have the luxury of drafting a tight end early.

But be clear about one thing, everything about Zach Gentry’s contract, from its one year length, its meager $152,000 signing bonus and the fact that it’s a hair over the veteran minimum salary, says “You can be cut at St. Vincents without a second thought.”

However, the Steelers don’t have a 5th or a 6th round pick, which is where you’d typically find a backup tight end.

But just because Pittsburgh’s draft capital might not allow them to draft a tight end, doesn’t change the fact that going in to the 2023 NFL Draft the Steelers need at tight end must be considered as Moderate.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Running Back – Does Pittsburgh Have the Picks to Add Depth?

2022 was a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. For the first time since 2007, Mike Tomlin ran Willie Parker “Until the wheels fell off,” the Steelers rushed for over 2,000 yards.

That’s a dramatic improvement for a franchise that has struggled to run the ball consistently ever since James Conner got injured in the middle of the 2018 season.

Do the Steelers need to address running back in the 2023 NFL Draft to sustain that improvement? Let’s find out.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starter

In his rookie season Najee Harris became the first Steelers running back to crack the 1000 yard mark since Le’Veon Bell in 2017. In his sophomore season, Najee Harris became the first Steelers back to have back-to-back 1000 yard seasons since Bell’s ’17 campaign.

  • It wasn’t easy.

As a rookie, Harris ran behind a weak offensive line, but succeeded in running strong and, at times, making it look easy. Harris suffered a foot injury in training camp and the offensive line’s run blocking was subpar during the first half of the season.

Harris struggled through the first 8 weeks of the season. Many of his critics pounced, arguing that his mediocre rushing averages proved that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had erred in investing a first round pick in him in 2021.

But if his stat line failed to impress, for my money, Harris continued to pass the “eye test” early in the season. The fight was there, even if the blocking wasn’t, and it seemed obvious he was nursing an injury.

Like they did with nearly everyone else on the team, Steelers Nation saw a different Najee Harris after the bye week. Harris began running with authority and power, 6 of his seven touchdown, and logging 3 90 yard plus games, including 111 yard effort in the road win over the Ravens.

Perhaps most impressively, Harris earned his second straight 1000 yard season while playing nearly 20% fewer snaps than he had in 2021.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

The emergence of Jaylen Warren is the reason why Najee Harris was able to remain on the sidelines for close over 200 more snaps than he had has a rookie. Warren made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent, first earning a roster spot and then carving out a role as their third down back.

As a rookie, Jaylen Warren played in 31% of the Steelers offensive snaps, both on third downs and rotating in with Harris. He only ran for 379 yards with a season-high effort of 76 against the Ravens, but he proved himself to be a true number 2 running back.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Beyond Warren on the depth chart is Anthony McFarland. McFarland returns to the Steelers on a futures contract, after spending 2022 on the practice squad, save for his activation against the Colts. McFarland only ran for 30 yards in that game and caught 2 passes for 11 yards, but for the first time since the Steelers drafted him in 2020, he looked like he belonged in the NFL.

The Steelers also have Jason Huntley and Master Teague on their roster.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Running Back

As of this writing, both Derek Watt and Benny Snell remain unsigned. The Steelers may have seen enough from McFarland to pencil him in as the third string running back, but there’s no one on the roster remotely capable of taking Watt’s spot.

Ah, remember the good ole days of 2000, when the Steelers opened the season with fullbacks Jon Witman and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala on the active roster and Dan Kreider on the practice squad? Yeah, times change.

The Steelers need to beef up their depth at running back this off season, but lacking a 5th and 6th round pick, they’ll be hard-pressed to do it in the draft. Which is a shame because their need at running back going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Fair.

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