Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Cornerback: High-Moderate

The Steelers appear to have few pressing needs as they prepare for the 2017 NFL Draft, which begins this Thursday evening.

But while Pittsburgh’s needs might seem to be in-line with a team that just made it to the AFC title game, but of course the goal is to get past the AFC title game. And for that to happen in 2017, that means the Steelers must upgrade at certain areas in the draft.

A perfect example of this could be at cornerback.

Artie Burns, Steelers 2017 draft needs cornerback

For the first time in 20 years the Steelers picked a cornerback first in 2016. Could they do it again in 2017? Photo credit: Pennlive.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters 

The Steelers finally addressed this need with a very high draft choice a year ago, when they made Artie Burns out of Miami their first round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. And after slowly working his way into the lineup, Artie Burns started nine games (mostly all down the stretch) and recorded three interceptions and a fairly impressive 13 passes defensed.

Alongside Burns at the other cornerback spot is Ross Cockrell, the fourth-year man out of Duke who was a fourth round pick by the Bills in the 2014 NFL Draft. Cockrell survived one season in Buffalo before being cut right before the start of 2015 regular season. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Co. quickly snatched Ross Cockrell off the scrap heap, and he appeared in 15 games, started seven and recorded two interceptions and 11 passes defensed.

A year ago, Ross Cockrell was a mainstay at the cornerback spot, starting all 16 games and often being matched up against the other team’s top receiver–including the Bengals A.J. Green.  Ross Cockrell acquitted himself quite nicely; while he didn’t have any interceptions, he notched 14 passes defensed and 47 tackles.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups

A dependable fixture at the starting and slot positions for many years, veteran William Gay‘s play seemed to drop off as the 2016 season progressed.

After starting a combined 60 games between 2011-2015, William Gay only started nine games last year, although he appeared in all 16. He mostly assumed his best-suited role as a slot corner near season’s end, but at age 32, one has to wonder just how much he can still contribute to a Pittsburgh secondary that’s getting younger and more talented with each passing season.

The youngster who ostensibly could replace William Gay as the slot corner and ultimately Ross Cockrell as the starter opposite Burns is Senquez Golson, the third-year man out of Ole Man, who the Steelers picked in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Actually, to call Senquez Golson a third-year man is a little disingenuous, considering he has yet to play a down of football in either the preseason or regular season and has barely even participated in his first two training camps at Latrobe.

A season ago, Senquez Golson suffered a Lisfranc injury just days into training camp, a sprain that required surgery. While Golson was eligible to come off the PUP list mid-way through the season, the lone benefactor of that rule was second-year linebacker Bud Dupree, who was activated near the end of the season.

  • The Steelers actually kept Golson on the active roster for a few weeks, until injuries forced him on to IR.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at corner are Coty Sensabaugh, the journeyman Pittsburgh picked up as a free-agent from the Giants; Al-Hajj Shabazz; and a host of down-the-liners–including Brandon Dixon, Mike Hilton, Greg Ducre and Devonte Johnson.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Cornerback 

As a restricted free agent, Ross Cockrell languished in free-agency with little to no interest after the Steelers slapped a fourth round tender on him earlier in the spring.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs cornerback

Meanwhile, Senquez Golson could go either way. Golson could end up being this year’s Sean Spence, and make a legitimate case for being the NFL’s “comeback player of the year.” OR Senquez Golson could end up as this generation’s Kris Farris, as this site suggested last spring.

As for William Gay, again, his play declined as the 2016 season progressed, and he’s certainly not getting any younger (and neither is Ben Roethlisberger, if you get my drift), although he perhaps could continue to be effective at safety, as has been rumored.

With that in mind, while the secondary seems to be improving each season–the defense finished 16th in passing a year ago, after placing 30th in 2015 — the Steelers need better performance out of their defensive backfield if they’re to bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2017 instead of being an AFC Championship also-ran.

With prospects like Marlon Humphrey out of Alabama, Gareon Conley of Ohio State or USC’s Adoree Jackson possibly available near the end of the the first round, this wouldn’t be a bad year to double-down and go cornerback for the second year in a row.

Given that, the Steelers 2017 draft need status for the Steelers at cornerback is High-Moderate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker: Moderate

What a machine. What a consistent force and performer in the middle of the Steelers defense for 10 glorious seasons.

I’m referring, of course, to inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons who became head coach Mike Tomlin’s first draft choice, when the Steelers selected him out of Florida State with the 15th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft.

Lawrence Timmons started slowly as he learned legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau‘s sophisticated defense, but the athleticism, the explosiveness, they were on display right from the very start.

After serving an apprenticeship under veterans James Farrior and Larry Foote, Lawerence Timmons moved to the  top of the depth chart in his third season and started 124 games between 2009-2016–including a very durable 96-straight over his final six seasons in Pittsburgh.

After the 2016 campaign, Lawrence Timmons became a free-agent and inked a two-year deal with the Dolphins in March, leaving the Steelers with a hole at one of the inside linebacker spots…sort of. Yes, there’s a “Sort of” attached to that statement and how the Steelers define “sort of” will impact their plans for inside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Vince Williams, Ryan Shazier, Steelers 2017 draft needs inside linebacker

Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams celebrate a turnover. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via SportsnetCA

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starters

Speaking of athleticism and explosiveness, Ryan Shazier, arguably the Steelers best player on defense, has both in bunches.

A first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Shazier was thrust into the starter’s role right from the beginning, thanks to the team’s transition period on defense from the veteran group that helped win two Super Bowls in the previous decade to the younger version that sorely needed a “splashy” play-maker. Ryan Shazier proved to be that early-on, as he intercepted a pass and made several impressive tackles during his rookie home debut in a preseason game at Heinz Field against the Bills.

  • Unfortunately for Ryan Shazier and the Steelers, Shazier missed seven games in 2014 due to a sprained knee.

Over the past two seasons, Ryan Shazier has grown into his role of the spectacular play-maker and best player on the defense. Two years ago, Ryan Shazier was the best player on the field, recovering a fumble and literally saving Pittsburgh’s season, when he stripped running back Jeremy Hill of the football in the waning moments of a come-from-behind victory over the Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game.

  • Last season, as the Steelers marched all the way to the AFC Championship game, Ryan Shazier recorded 55 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, as he made his first Pro Bowl.

So, who will take Lawerence Timmons’ job and play alongside Ryan Shazier at the other inside linebacker spot? After inking a two-year contract-extension through the 2018 season, Vince Williams, the 2013 sixth round pick out of Florida State, figures to be the heir apparent to Timmons.

Truth be told, Vince Williams appeared to be destined for a future starter’s role, even before the start of the 2016 season. With Lawrence Timmons lame-duck status and declining play in recent years, Vince Williams’ new deal, which he signed before the start of the regular season, seemed like a proactive move by the organization.

When Ryan Shazier missed four games with a knee injury early in 2016, Vince Williams performed so well in his absence–including a combined 25 tackles in back-to-back victories over the Chiefs and Jets–many wondered if Ryan Shazier would be able to reclaim his starting spot.

Surprisingly, however, Lawrence Timmons stepped up his play so much down-the-stretch, as Pittsburgh won nine-straight games, the idea of keeping the Law Dog around for at least another season began to pick up steam. But that talk soon vanished early in free-agency, when Lawrence Timmons jumped to Miami for $11 million in guaranteed money.

With Lawrence Timmons now a former Steeler, the original sentiment of Vince Williams succeeding him at inside linebacker seems to be the plan heading into 2017.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Inside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Backups 

Behind Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, there’s a little promise but mostly just depth.

In Tyler Matakevich, Pittsburgh’s seventh round pick out of Temple a year ago, the team has a potential tackling machine (493 tackles in college).

  • The key word in that last sentence is “potential,” because Tyler Matakevich certainly didn’t prove much a year year ago, while playing mostly on special teams.

Rounding on the backups are L.J. Fort, a journeyman out of Northern Iowa who appeared in 14 games last season but only recorded two tackles; and Steven Johnson, a veteran the Steelers signed as a free-agent a year ago who has only started seven games in his NFL career.

Although he’s played exclusive on the outside for the Steelers, reserve OLB Arthur Moats also has experience playing on the inside and could serve as an emergency backup in a pintch.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Inside Linebacker

Pittsburgh did add depth on defense during the free-agency period, but not at the inside linebacker spot (although not for lack of trying, if press reports are accurate).Steelers 2017 Draft Needs inside linebacker

Therefore, with Ryan Shazier’s propensity for injuries early in his NFL career–he’s missed 14 of a possible 48 games over three years–and with Vince Williams’s athleticism not being quite on par with what Lawrence Timmons provided for a decade, selecting an inside linebacker in the first few rounds certainly wouldn’t be out of he question for the Steelers.

  • And what happens when/if either Vince Williams or Ryan Shazier gets injured, and the Steelers are forced to go with unproven and/or less talented players to fill the starting role?

Having Vince Williams was a luxury a year ago, but unless someone like Tyler Matakevich makes that all-important first to second year leap, the Steelers might not have that same luxury in 2017 unless they hit on a player in the draft.

Reuben Foster, a top 10 prospect out of Alabama, figures to be long gone by the time the Steelers spot comes up at 30. But some possible names to keep an eye on are Haasan Reddick out of Temple, who is projected to go in the first or second round; and Jarrad Davis from Florida, who also grades out as either a first or second round pick.

  • Finally, while Pittsburgh does have two players slated to start at the inside linebacker spot, the bottom line is the team could always use another play-maker on defense–regardless of what position he plays.

If that player happens to be an inside linebacker and his value coincides with where the Steelers happen to be drafting, it would probably be a wise choice. Given the state of their starters and backups, the Pittsburgh Steelers need at inside linebacker going into the 2017 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.

 

 

 

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Why the NFL’s Impending James Harrison Casino Arm Wrestling Fine is Fine

In case you didn’t hear the news, Steelers monstrously popular linebacker James Harrison–along with many other professional football players– is facing a fine by the NFL for participating in a charity arm wrestling contest at a casino in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. 

Since the 2010 season, when James Harrison was hit with over $100,000 in fines for multiple late hits and shots to opponents’ heads, the “James Harrison was just fined for this (insert something silly–like Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem–here)” jokes have been all over the Internet.

  • When you first heard the news surrounding James Harrison’s latest fine, you may have had to check several online sources to see if this was another funny joke at No. 92’s expense.

Nope.

Not only is James Harrison casino arm wrestling escapade likely to earn him another NFL fine, but, like many in the past (anyone ever actually consider he may have been in the wrong with many of those hits?), he probably deserves to.

According to NFL.com, the league has a standing policy against players participating in promotional events at casinos, and that is exactly what James Harrison and many of his colleagues–as many as 30, all told–did when they agreed to arm wrestle in the name of charity.

Obviously, it’s pretty easy to understand why the league doesn’t allow its players to engage in promotional events at casinos–and that’s because of the often shady reputation of bookies and gamblers, and the fear that they might get their claws in one or several players, causing them to throw or otherwise alter the outcome of a football game.

James Harrison, James Harrison casino arm wrestling

James Harrison at AFC Championship game in New England. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Of course, in today’s day and age, it’s a little harder to picture a professional football player–the minimum annual salary in the  is over $400,000–being corrupted by gambling influences.

But that’s neither here nor there, and in the case of James Harrison and other NFL stars involved in the arm wrestling competition, there (a Las Vegas casino) was some place they weren’t supposed to be.

Sure you can argue, as MMQB’s Andrew Brandt has that the NFL’s policies about gambling are more than a little hypocritical – and this was even the case before the NFL decided to allow the Raiders to move to Las Vegas. That’s true, just as its true that there’s perhaps some hypocrisy on its policies about substance abuse and pain killers.

  • But the rules are nonetheless clear.

And the James Harrison casino arm wrestling escapade is a violation of that rule, just as Martavis Bryant’s continued use of marijuana is a violation of his of the rules.

So be it. Add arm wrestling to your arsenal of silly “James Harrison was just fined for this” jokes, but just know that, in this case, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Tight End Low-Moderate

A Steelers tight end group led by Ladarius Green, last year’s huge free-agent pick-up from the Chargers, and complemented by Jesse James, Xavier Grimble and David Johnson looks really great on paper.

The only problem for Pittsburgh is that the guy who should be leading the way has mostly been a spectator over the first 19 games of his Steelers career. Now was that a one-year occurance, or is Ladarius Green “Damaged goods?” How the Steelers address that question will impact their plans regarding tight ends in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Jesse James, Steelers 2017 Draft need tight end

Steelers tight end Jesse James @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Tight End Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–the Starter

As soon as Ladarius Green was signed to a four-year, $20 million deal last March, it was understood that he’d need a good chunk of the offseason  to heal from ankle surgery he had done in January.

So, how long would Ladarius Green need to rehab? Would he be ready by the start of OTAs or mini-camp? Surely he would be 100 percent and ready to go either at or during training camp, right?

Turns out, Ladarius Green was ready by none of the above and eventually placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list to start the 2016 regular season.

Seems like a lengthy recovery time for ankle surgery?

  • Maybe that’s because Green’s issues were more serious.

NFL.com reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala published an article on August 11 that speculated Green’s absence from offseason and training camp activities may have been a consequence of recurring headaches due to sustaining multiple concussions during his time with the Chargers.

There were conflicting statements from the Steelers, Green and his agent regarding this rumor, but the reality was that Green didn’t make his Pittsburgh debut until a November 13 game against the Cowboys at Heinz Field.

A little over a month later, just when he seemed to be starting to develop a field flipping rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, Ladarius Green suffered yet another concussion, when he took a shot to the head in the Steelers win against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

  • Ladarius Green didn’t play another snap the rest of the regular season and the entirety of the postseason.

Despite optimism and excitement for what Ladarius Green could add to the Steelers offense in 2017, fact is, after multiple documented concussions so far in his career, his return seems like a 50/50 proposition.

Is Ladarius Green someone the Steelers want to count on over the next three seasons?

Steelers Depth Chart @ Tight End Entering the 2017 NFL Draft–Backups 

Behind Ladarius Green is Jesse James, the third-year man out of Penn State, who actually acquitted himself quite well a season ago, catching 39 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns.

  • And in three postseason games, Jesse James proved to be a nice cog in the passing game, catching 12 passes for 159 yards.11

As for Xavier Grimble, 24, after bouncing around the league for a few years, he finally found a home in Pittsburgh a year ago, making the final roster and catching 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

Rounding out the position is David Johnson, the veteran who spent his first five seasons with the Steelers, before spending 2014 and 2015 with San Diego.

During his initial stint in Pittsburgh, Johnson was primarily used as a blocker, and nothing has changed during his second stint, as Johnson caught just seven passes for 80 yards in 2016.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Tight End 

As it pertains to the Steelers current draft needs at the the tight end position, the questions are: should they gamble on Ladarius Green coming back? Should they give the starting keys to James James if Green isn’t able to continue his NFL career?Steelers 2017 Draft Needs tight end

  • Or should they draft a tight end in the first few rounds?

Provided Martavis Bryant is able to return to football in 2017 after missing all of 2016 due to a drug suspension, the Steelers offense figures to be one of the most productive in the NFL next season–and this is even without Ladarius Green’s services.

But if the Steelers do want to add insurance to the tight end spot just in case Green is unable to fulfill his obligations, they can probably forget about O.J. Howard out of Alabama and David Njoku out of Miami, as both figure to be gone by the 30th pick.

  • What about other names such as Gerald Everett from South Alabama and Evan Engram of Ole Miss who could be possibilities in rounds two or three?

With Jesse James showing improvement in his second season, I don’t think tight end is a crucial need for the Steelers in this draft. In fact, I’m willing to go as far as to say that the draft needs status of tight end for the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft should be considered Low-Moderate.

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Raiders Las Vegas Move Proves that Fan Loyalty will Never Matter in the NFL

As a Steelers fan for the past 37 years, the idea of them moving to another city seems like a work of fiction akin to someone building a time machine.

After all, is there a fan base more passionate about and loyal to its favorite football team than the one that has supported the Steelers since 1972, when the winning tradition first started, as did the streak of sell-outs that has now reached 45 years?

It doesn’t seem that way, but then again, you could probably have said the same thing about the Cleveland Browns in the mid-80’s, when they reigned supreme in the old AFC Central, and the Dawg Pound, the nickname for the late Cleveland Municipal Stadium, was maybe the most intimidating home field advantage in the NFL.

Unfortunately, by the mid-’90’s, Art Modell, the now deceased former owner of the Browns, was clamoring  for a new Pound, complete with luxury boxes and other such amenities familiar to modern sports facilities. Modell didn’t get his wishes (like every other professional sports owner, he wanted the city to pick up most of the tab in the form of public funding), so he uprooted the Browns, moved them to Baltimore in 1996 and re-christened them the Ravens.

[Editor’s Note: An fact often forgotten, thanks to Modell’s PR spin machine, is that the city of Cleveland was working aggressively on a stadium package to keep the Browns in Cleveland during 1994 and 1995. During the early summer months, Modell broke off negotiations saying he felt he had a Super Bowl team on his hands. Instead, Modell had actually begun secretly negotiating with the Maryland Stadium Authority to move the team to Baltimore. The city of Cleveland continued with its plans, and put in place the package that built the stadium that houses the Browns today.]

Speaking of Baltimore, just 12 years earlier, that city, home to one of the most storied franchises in the NFL–the Colts–lost its professional football team, when then owner Robert Irsay moved it to Indianapolis. 

  • I can go on and on listing the number of teams that have relocated to other cities over the years, but the point is, when it comes to history, loyalty and passion, they all lose out to money.

You see, despite their statuses as billionaires, most sports owners–in this case, NFL owners–simply refuse to do the bulk of the funding when it comes to building brand new stadiums.

  • In most cases, if they don’t get their way, they move their team to a city willing and able to give them what they want.

Such was the case for Raiders owner Mark Davis, who won NFL approval last week for the right to move his team to Las Vegas starting in 2020. By then, the Raiders (or whatever they’ll be called) will have a sparkling new home thanks to $750 million in tax funds. 


For years, the Raiders couldn’t get their current home city–Oakland, California–to fork over public funding for Oakland Coliseum (nicknamed The Black Hole for its intimidating look and intimidating and passionate fans).

The Coliseum opened in 1966 and became home of the then AFL Raiders. After a decade and a half of almost uninterrupted success–including two world championships–Al Davis, Mark’s late father and legendary former owner of the Raiders, clamored for upgrades to the Coliseum and ultimately agreed to move to Los Angeles.

  • After a lengthy and furious battle with other NFL owners and then commissioner Pete Rozelle, Davis got his way and moved his team to L.A. in 1982.

But Los Angeles, for all its glitz and glamour, didn’t possess the passion, love and loyalty for the Raiders that Oakland did.

According to the Raiders wikipedia page, Davis moved his team back to Oakland for the 1995 season, after the city agreed to upgrade the Coliseum to the tune of $220 million.

However, by modern NFL standard’s the Coliseum just didn’t cut it in the long run, and a new facility was the only thing that would appease the Raiders.

But to the city’s credit, the demands to build a new stadium were met with resistance by local politicians, and now the Raiders find themselves as lame-duck residents in a city filled with fans who have always loved them.

Will Vegas, with all of its diversions that include gambling, nightlife and endless entertainment options, even notice that it has an NFL franchise in its backyard?

Oakland will surely notice that the Raiders are missing, and if the city follows the same path as Cleveland in the late ’90’s and Houston in the early 00’s (let’s not forget about the Oilers relocation to Tennessee in 1997), those same local politicians will have to relent and agree to fund a brand new stadium in-order to get another team (possibly one of the expansion variety) to come to town.

Yes, while Baltimore got the old Browns and ultimately two more NFL titles (the Colts won two NFL Championships and a Super Bowl before they relocated to Baltimore), Cleveland was awarded a new Browns team in the form of an expansion franchise in 1999.

Of course, this deal could not be finalized until a new facility (today its corporate name is FirstEnergy Stadium) was built–at the taxpayers expense, of course.

Same held true for the City of Houston, who was awarded an expansion franchise–the Texans–in 2002 along with, of course, a brand new home in the form of NRG Stadium (its sponsor name at the moment).

  • As for the Oilers, they’re now the Titans and play in NissanStadium (current sponsor), home of the team since 1999.

It is worth noting that the late Bud Adams, former owner of the Oilers/Titans, moved his team out of Houston when the Astrodome, once called the Eighth Wonder of the World, didn’t receive the financial upgrades that would have put it back on par with the more modern stadiums of the day.

So what does this have to do with the Steelers? Nothing, other than to point out that if teams like the Browns, Colts, Oilers and Raiders can all leave their respective cities filled with very passionate and loyal fan bases, perhaps the same could happen to the Steelers one day.

Sure, Heinz Field is a rather modern stadium, but it doesn’t take long for a sports facility to either begin to show its age or seem out-dated, when compared to even newer places.

Heinz Field opened in 2001, so in terms of buildings, it’s practically a baby. But in terms of newer revenue streams? Don’t be so sure.

The old Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, home of both the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings, opened in 1982 and hosted several big time events–including the Super Bowl, two World Series and two Final Fours. By the early 00’s, however, the stadium was seen as antiquated, and the Vikings then owner, Red McCombs, petitioned then governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura for a new stadium.

The Body refused to back down, and as recently as 2012, there was talk that the Vikings could relocate to Los Angeles.

That never happened, as both the Twins and Vikings received new facilities with the help of public funding.

The Vikings now call U.S. Bank Stadium (current sponsor) home; with its modern look and valuable revenue streams, it should keep the Vikings owners happy…for at least a decade or two.

NFL owners are always looking for new revenue streams; such was the case for the  Steelers owners a few years ago, when the Rooney family engaged in a very public battle with  the city of Pittsburgh over the cost of adding 3,000 extra seats to Heinz Field. 

  • What happens in another five, 10 or 15 years, when Heinz Field is perhaps seen as out-of-date and all new revenue streams have been bled dry?

Would the city and state be willing to publicly fund yet another NFL stadium in order to keep the Steelers happy…and in town?

You might say so now, but who knows what the financial climate will look like in the future.

History has shown us that relocation can happen to just about any team, and the Pittsburgh Steelers may be no exception.

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Sad Day in Pittsburgh: Miami Dolphins Sign Lawrence Timmons, Law Dog Leaves Steelers

All good things come to an end. And so it is with Lawrence Timmons time as a Pittsburgh Steeler, as the free agent inside linebacker  signed a two year contract with the Miami Dolphins.

Mike Tomlin made Lawrence Timmons his first draft pick as Steelers head coach when he took Timmons in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft. Timmons went on to start 126 games for the Steelers, including a streak of 6 years where he never missed a game due to injury.

Lawrence Timmons, Mike Tomlin, Joey Porter, Stephon Tuitt, Lawrence Timmons Dolphins

Lawrence Timmons leaves the field in 2014 as Mike Tomlin, Joey Porter & Stephon Tuitt greet him. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via Zimbo.com

As stars such as James Farrior, Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith either retired and/or faded, Lawrence Timmons remained a steadfast, constant presence in the middle of the Steelers defense. From 2012 to at least 2014 Timmons was the most consistent, if not best defender on the Steelers defense.

  • Several times during the last year Lawrence Timmons had expressed a desire to sign a third contract with the Steelers.

The Steelers likewise wanted him back, but if reports are accurate, Timmons signed a 2 year 12 million dollar contract with the Miami Dolphins that included 11 million dollars of guaranteed money. That was more than the Steelers were willing to pay, and likely more than they were willing to guarantee in such a short time span.

Steel Curtain Rising will take a longer look at Lawrence Timmons’ legacy as a Pittsburgh Steeler, but those who wish for a fairly comprehensive recap of his career can click here.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart with Timmons Gone

For the first time since 2009 the Steelers will enter training camp with a new name penciled in at left inside linebacker. Vince Williams will get the first shot at replacing Timmons. The Steelers anticipated this possibility last summer when they resigned Vince Williams to a 3 year contract.

Vince Williams is more of a linebacker in the mold of Larry Foote and provides a hard-hitting presence in Lawrence Timmons’ absence, he lacks Timmons speed and athleticism. Lawrence Timmons defection to the Dolphins likely won’t alter the Steelers plans to target cornerback and outside linebacker in the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, but if a good inside linebacker is on the board in the third round he could very well get a call from Mike Tomlin.

Life Imitating Art?

Steel Curtain Rising strongly supported the Steelers keeping Lawrence Timmons in Pittsburgh, but we understand that salary cap realities require Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin to make hard choices like this.

  • But news that Lawrence Timmons signed with the Miami Dolphins arrives with a large dose of irony at this site.

Two years ago as on April Fool’s Day we published a fax article indicating the Steelers had traded Timmons to the Dolphins to move up in the draft. The article did so well that Jacob Klinger of PennLive went so far as to call the Steelers for confirmation of the story. To this day, it remains the 5th most visited page in the site’s history following our 2014 migration to WordPress.

  • What can we say? This is one of the times when you hate to be right.

In a perfect world, Lawrence Timmons would have finished his career in Pittsburgh. Sadly, we won’t see that happen now.

But Steel Curtain Rising thanks Lawrence Timmons for 10 wonderful years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Thank you Law Dog!

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Tender to Chris Hubbard is a Low Risk No Brainer

When talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers group of upcoming free-agents, reserve offensive lineman Chris Hubbard probably doesn’t enter into most discussions among fans and the media.

But that’s the thing about backup offensive linemen in the National Football League:

  • You never know when you’re going to need them.

Such was the case for the Steelers and Hubbard early last season, when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert and veteran backup swing tackle Ryan Harris were both lost in a 43-14 Sunday night victory over the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Chris Hubbard, Chris Hubbard restricted free agent, Chis Hubbard tight end

Chris Hubbard lines up as a tight end in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

Chris Hubbard, a 2013 undrafted rookie free-agent out of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), bounced back and forth between the team’s practice squad and active roster during 2013, 2014 and 2015 before finally finding a permanent job among the final 53 in 2016.

Its a bit ironic when you look back, as Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka “Embernasty” got all the headlines when the Steelers 2013 undrafted rookie free agent class was announced, but four years later, it was Chris Hubbard who was suiting up for the AFC Championship game.

A versatile lineman who can play guard, center and tackle, Hubbard proved his worth against Kansas City in that aforementioned Week 4 match-up, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns.

With Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris both ruled out against the Jets seven days later, Chris Hubbard got his first career start at right tackle. The result: a more than satisfactory performance in a 31-13 Steelers victory over the Jets at Heinz Field.

  • A week later, Chris Hubbard struggled quite a bit in a 30-15 loss at Miami, as Pittsburgh also lost Ben Roethlisberger with a torn meniscus.

Chris Hubbard started two more games at right tackle before Marcus Gilbert finally returned from his ankle injury, and the young lineman would  remain the backup tackle the rest of the year, as Ryan Harris, who suffered a shin injury against the Chiefs, ultimately had to be placed on Injured Reserve.

Chris Hubbard also saw extensive spot-duty as a third tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy” package, helping David Johnson and Jesse James open holes for Le’Veon Bell.

Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Decision to RFA Tender to Chris Hubbard

As the Steelers approach free-agency, Hubbard is of the restricted free agent, meaning the Steelers retain the right of first refusal should any other team offer Chris Hubbard a contract.

  • Will there be any offers for Hubbard, 25? Probably not. Should have tendered him a right of first refusal option (as they have) anyway?

If you were to say linemen of Hubbard’s pedigree are a dime a dozen, you would be correct. If you also were to say that Jerald Hawkins, Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick out of LSU in 2016, is someone the team probably is counting on to make strides in 2017, you are also surely correct.

  • Fact is, the Steelers seem set at both tackle positions for the near-future.

Marcus Gilbert is signed through 2019, while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who only has two years of NFL experience and is an exclusive-rights free-agent, meaning he simply must take whatever offer Pittsburgh gives him.

A year ago Chris Hubbard was a “nice to have” type player to have on your depth chart, now he’s one play away from protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

Obviously, the Steelers could fill the backup tackle void with just about anyone, but why not with a player who has been in their system for some time now and also has had and will continue to have the privilege of being coached my Mike Munchak, perhaps the best in the business at what he does and certainly the most respected assistant coach on Pittsburgh’s staff.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Chis Hubbard

When you see the improvements of the likes of Marcus Gilbert and more notably Alejandro Villanueva in recent years, Chris Hubbard is certainly in good hands, and if any offensive line coach can get max out of his abilities, it’s Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

  • The Steelers have already offered Chris Hubbard a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

Exact figures for 2017’s right of first refusal offers are suggested to be in the 1.85 million dollar range. So its doubtful that another team will try to sign Chris Hubbard away.

Its says here the Steelers made the right move in protecting Chris Hubbard. The Steelers have invested heavily in his development, and the truth is Chris Hubbard will be on someone’s roster in 2017. He he might as well be on the Steelers’ because you just never know when his services will be needed.

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Why Steelers Would be Wise to Resign Free Agent Markus Wheaton

In the 24 years since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted 29 wide receivers. 27 of those wide receivers have gone on to play in at least one NFL football game, and 24 of those 27 have suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Clearly, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have an eye for drafting receivers.

But if the Steelers have excelled in finding and drafting wide receivers who’re good enough to make the field and play, Pittsburgh rarely picks ones that stay. Of those 24 wide receivers the Steelers have drafted since 1993, only two of them*, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers sat and watched as first round picks Charles Johnson, Troy Edwards, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes left in free agency (or were traded). They did the same with Antwaan Randle El after he authored a game-changing play in Super Bowl XL. If you count Yancey Thigpen, who was essentialy a waiver-wire pickup, the Steelers let their then single-season reception record holder walk in free agency.

IN a week when Antonio Brown signed his third contract in Pittsburgh, we turn our attention to whether Steelers free agent Markus Wheaton can break precedent and secure his second contract.

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton free agent, Steelers vs Seahawks, Markus Wheaton Seahawks

Markus Wheaton in his 9 catch 201 yard game in 2015 vs. the Seahawks. Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP via ESPN.com

Capsule Profile of Markus Wheaton’s Steelers Career

Although the Steelers “Young Money” phenomenon never quite lived up to its hype, Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh having made his mark on the Steelers wide receiving records. Markus Wheaton, whom the Steelers had drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, ostensibly came to Pittsburgh to replace Wallace.

Not that there was any pressure or anything.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola’s tweet from training camp indicate, the Steelers had high expectations for Markus Wheaton:

Unfortunately, injuries ruined Markus Wheaton’s rookie season. While he officially appeared in 12 games, Ben Roethlisberger only targeted him 13 times, of which Wheaton came down with the ball on 6 occasions.

Things looked better for Markus Wheaton going into 2014, as he earned the starting role alongside Antonio Brown. Wheaton had a strong game in the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Browns, but they struggled for the next several weeks. At mid-season he was all but forgotten in the excitement generated by Martavis Bryant’s debut.

  • Nonetheless, Markus Wheaton closed 2014 playing an unsung role by consistently making critical 3rd down conversions.

Markus Wheaton’s 2015 campaign closely mirrored 2014. He got off to an inconsistent start, but stepped up his play during the latter half of the season proving he could be a viable number 2 NFL wide out (although he did have an ugly drop in the playoffs vs. Denver.)

Markus Wheaton injured his shoulder in the Steelers preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, and only appeared in 3 games for the Steelers in 2016 before going on injured reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

One year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to field one of NFL’s deepest wide receiving corps in 2016. Instead the Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Richard Mann struggled to find someone who could occupy the number 2 spot opposite Antonio Brown.

  • The Steelers never really found that number 2 wide out.

To the team’s collective credit, the Steelers compensated effectively by leaning more heavily on Le’Veon Bell and by using quantity to make up for a lack of quality. That formula failed the Steelers in the playoffs, as evidence by the need for 6 Chris Boswell field goals in Kansas City and the disaster that was the AFC Championship.

Markus Wheaton might not give the Steelers a modern day “Swann-Stallworth” type combo alongside Antonio Brown, but he’s a reliable receiver and a legitimate number 2 that has proven he can make defenses pay should they decide to ignore him.

  • Markus Wheaton can also move into the slot, should Martavis Bryant prove he deserves and can be trusted with a starting job.

Better yet, because he spent most of his contract year injured, Markus Wheaton isn’t in a position to command a lot of interest or money on the free agent market. That makes the Steelers resigning Markus Wheaton a no brainer.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

Here are 6 simple reason why the Steelers need not think twice about resigning Markus Wheaton:

In a best case scenario, the Steelers will have the services of all six men on a full time basis next year. While Steelers know there’s no certainty that both Bryant and Green, either man offers Pittsburgh’s offense a far more dangerous weapon than Wheaton does.

Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers got pressed into service far earlier than anyone expected them two, and while Rogers and Hamilton had suffered their growing pains in the AFC Championship, these player did in fact grow up fast.

  • The Steelers will probably keep 5 wide receivers next year with 6 being the absolute maximum.

Bringing Markus Wheaton back, even on a “Prove It” contract, would mean risking exposing losing Rogers, Hamilton or Ayers, guys who have longer-term prospects in Pittsburgh. Given that, the case for investing salary cap dollars and a roster spot in Markus Wheaton seems rather weak.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Markus Wheaton

In a number of albeit imperfect ways, Markus Wheaton’s development to this point in his career reminds me of Jason Gildon’s. Gildon was fortunate enough to do an apprenticeship behind Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, but by the end of Gildon’s sophomore season, Greene pronounced him as ready to start.

  • Jason Gildon did start in 1996 and 1997, but started off slow in both seasons but was playing fairly good football by the end of each.

That worked out well for the Steelers, because by the time he became a free agent, he didn’t have the type of numbers to command a big contract and the Steelers resigned Jason Gildon at a relative bargain.

  • A similar dynamic could be a work for the Steelers and Markus Wheaton.

It says here that, at the right price, the Steelers would wise to bring back Markus Wheaton for at least 2017 as he offers a known commodity in the face of several other “ifs” and unknowns. If some other team wants to get an outlandish offer to Wheaton, so be it, but otherwise the he should remain in Pittsburgh.

*Technically speaking, the Steelers did bring back Will Blackwell for one season after his rookie contract that injury limited to two games.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Shamarko Thomas – 4 Years Later Thomas Fails to Disprove Doubters

The Pittsburgh Steelers do not like to trade future draft picks. The franchise went down that road too many times in the Pre-Noll era and paid the price repeatedly. Nonetheless Noll did it in the summer of 1973 when he traded the Steelers 1974 3rd round pick to the Raiders to acquire Glen Ray Hines.

Because of that trade, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn were forced to sit on their hands after drafting Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert during the Steelers 1974 Draft in hopes that no one took John Stallworth in the 3rd round.

Neither did Tom Donahoe or Bill Cowher, and neither did Kevin Colbert until the 2013 NFL Draft when the Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get the Cleveland Browns 2013 4th round pick to grab Shamarko Thomas in the 4th round, and four years later Shamarko Thomas enters free agency have failed to disprove the doubters.

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Shamarko Thomas & Markus Wheaton as rookies in 2013 at Latrobe. Photo Credit: Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com

Capsule Profile of Shamarkoy Thomas’ Steelers Career

Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake explained Pittsburgh’s break from character by arguing that if Shamarko Thomas, who stands at 5’10”, were two inches taller, he’d have been a first round pick.

  • In a word, Pittsburgh as hot on Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers immediately worked Shamarko Thomas into the defense, a rarity for a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s system. The Steelers goal was to groom Shamarko Thomas as Troy Polamalu’s successor, and the first step in that process was to get Shamarko on the field covering slot receivers as a nickel back.

Most of those came at the beginning of the season, before he got injured forcing the Steelers to bring back Will Allen. While Allen remained “The next man up” when Shamarko Thomas got healthy, Thomas still got some work with the defense, although that ended after the Steelers 2013 debacle against the Patriots.

Shamarko Thomas, Shamarko Thomas workout

Shamarko Thomas working out during the 2014 off season

The Steelers 2014 OTA’s brought the first sign that the Steelers might be having second thoughts about Shamarko’s ability to succeed Troy Polamalu. Will Allen was the number 2 safety on the depth chart, and Shamarko Thomas suffered an injury early in the season. When he returned, his action came exclusively on special teams.

  • Mike Tomlin explained away the move by suggesting that Thomas was simply struggling to board a “Moving Train” as would any player would.

Rookie defensive coordinator Keith Butler gave Shamarko Thomas his first extended shot at earning the starting strong safety job during the summer of 2015. The Steelers started Shamarko Thomas throughout preseason, but Thomas continued to make mistake after mistake. Shortly before the season opener, the Steelers benched Shamarko Thomas in favor of Will Allen.

For the record, Shamarko Thomas played 20 snaps with the Steelers defense in 2015 and 5 snaps in 2016…

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

In 2016, whenever the Steelers needed help at safety, the Steelers looked to Jordan Dangerfield, signaling the definitive end to the Shamarko Thomas experiment.

  • But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for the Steelers resigning Shamarko Thomas.

If Shamarko Thomas has been a brutal disappointment at safety, he’s been a quality often times standout special teams player. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he’s arguably been the Steelers best gunner for the past several years.

Clearly, if Shamarko Thomas has a future in the NFL it is on special teams. Clearly on one will pay him much more the than the veteran minimum, if even that. If Shamarko Thomas is bound to be racing downfield to stop kick and punt returners, doesn’t it make sense for him to be doing it in Pittsburgh?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

When things don’t pan out with a high-profile draft pick (think Jarvis Jones), often times it is in the best interests of both parties to go their separate ways. Yes, Shamarko Thomas is a quality special teams player and, to be brutally frank, Danny Smith’s special teams don’t have the luxury of cavalierly showing good players to the door.

Fair enough. But the truth is even if the Steelers bring Shamarko Thomas back on a veteran minimum salary to play special teams, that means that he’ll be taking a roster spot that could be occupied by another young player who can both do Shamarko’s job on special teams, and potentially contribute something, either now or in a future season, to the offense or defense.

  • Shamarko Thomas isn’t going to contribute anything to the Steelers defense.

That’s simply the reality. As early as 2015 people were already labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst in history. If that’s true, then the Steelers came out of that draft with Le’Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Markus Wheaton and Vince Williams, giving them a pretty successful haul.

But the Steelers missed on Jarvis Jones and missed on Shamarko Thomas, and it is time for them to move on from both mistakes.

Curtain’s Call on Shamarko Thomas and the Steelers

The Shamarko Thomas situation promises to be one of the more interesting, albeit low-profile decisions the Steelers make during the 2017 off season. Reading the tea leaves from reporters such as Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell, there are some signs that the Steelers have some interest in bring Thomas back.

  • But he won’t be a priority, which means he’ll get a chance to test the market.

If the Steelers can bring him back at or near the veteran minimum, he’d be a good addition to their special teams. If someone wants to offer him more than that, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will wisely thank him for his service and send him on his way.

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Report card for Steelers divisional round victory over Chiefs

Quarterback 

Sunday night wasn’t one of the greatest performances for Ben Roethlisberger (he completed 20 of 31 passes for 224 yards, no touchdowns and one interception). However, he could have had a better fate, had Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers been able to hold on to touchdown passes. Of course, things could have been better for Roethlisberger, had he not checked out of a running play down at the goal line and had his subsequent pass deflected in the air and intercepted by Eric Berry in the second quarter. It wasn’t a suburb performance for No. 7, but he did find a way to make a spectacular play on the third and three pass to Brown late in the game that sealed the deal. Grade: C

Running Backs 

What more can be said about Le’Veon Bell? After breaking the franchise single-game postseason rushing mark a week earlier against the Dolphins in the wild card game, Bell broke his own record against the Chiefs, by rushing for 170 yards on 30 carries. If he isn’t the most explosive and dangerous offensive weapon in football right now, I don’t know who is. Grade: A+

Wide Receivers 

Aside from Brown’s 108 yards on six catches, there wasn’t much in the way of contributions from the wide-outs on Sunday. While Rogers netted 27 yards on five catches, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers combined for 10 yards on two catches. Still, though, it’s hard to expect much from secondary receivers with little pedigree and even less experience. Grade: B-

Tight Ends 

The Steelers may not have had the still recovering from a concussion Ladarius Green, but Jesse James sure did provide some big catches and yards. All-told, he had five catches for 83 yards–including one for 26. Grade: B

Offensive Line

When your star running back rushes for 170 yards, and your franchise quarterback only gets sacks one time in 31 pass-attempts, it’s hard to criticize the offensive line. I won’t criticize the line, but a suburb performance by the unit could have been even better, had the offense been able to trade a couple of field goals for touchdowns. Grade: A

Defensive Line 

It was mostly a stellar performance for the defense, including just 61 yards against the run. It wasn’t a stand-out night for anyone on the line, but it was workman-like. Grade: B

Linebackers

James Harrison led the team in tackles with six and also notched the only sack of Alex Smith on the night. Harrison also came through by getting himself held by Eric Fisher during the two-point conversion try that could have tied the game late in the game. Ryan Shazier had five sacks and an interception, while Bud Dupree had four and caused the interception by Shazier, but pressuring Smith and hitting him just as he threw the pass. Grade B+

Secondary 

The Chiefs had just 172 passing yards on the night. Not much more can be said about that. Grade: A

Special teams 

The Steelers limited dangerous return man Tyreek Hill to 72 yards on four kickoffs. Also, Chris Boswell netted all the points for the  team by kicking a postseason record six field goals. Grade: A

Coaching

The Steelers were the better team in all three phases of the game, out-gaining the Chiefs 389 yards to 22y and stifling Kansas City’s return game. Again, a few touchdowns would have been perfection, but when you come out of Kansas City’s Arrowhead with a playoff win, that’s saying a lot. Grade: B+

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