Steelers Trade for Vance McDonald. Does “Varsity” Tight End Mean Trouble for Xavier Grimble?

With the clock ticking on Ben Roethlisberger‘s career and therefore the franchise’s Super Bowl window, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert looked at the team’s tight end depth chart, found it wanting and took action.

  • The Steelers traded a 4th round pick form the 2018 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for tight end Vance McDonald and a 5th round pick in 2018.
Vance McDonald, Vance McDonald Trade, Steelers trade for Vance McDonald

New Steelers tight end Vance McDonald advances the ball for the 49ers against the Broncos. Photo Credit: AP via Yahoo Sports

When asked what led the Steelers to make such an uncharacteristic move so late in the season, Mike Tomlin refused sugar coat his assessment of his Tight Ends:

The guys hadn’t been consistently varsity enough for our comfort. It’s as black and white as that. They’ve had some moments positively and had some moments negatively, and so we were in the market for a guy that was NFL-capable. McDonald is that.

Jesse James ears are burning brightly. When the Steelers drafted James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft the Pennsylvania native wasn’t regarded as Heath Miller’s heir apparent, a move made clear by the Steelers rapid signing of Ladarius Green to start free agency in 2016.

Nonetheless, James started for most of the 2016 season while Ladarius Green remained injured, and generally played above expectations, including making key catches in the game winning drive of the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. When the Steelers cut Green in June, James WAS the heir apparent, but his performance in training camp and preseason hasn’t been consistent.

  • But if Jesse James ears are burning Xavier Grimble’s  hands are likely the ones to tremble thanks to this move.

Grimble spent parts of 2014 on the Patriots and 49er’s practice squads, and then served a full internship in 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. While Grimble made the final 53 man roster, his performance was inconsistent down the stretch, despite having ample opportunity to prove himself in Green’s absence. Word is that Grimble has been inconsistent for much of the summer, and McDonald’s arrival could signal a visit form the Turk for Grimble.

Mike Tomlin has not commented how Vance McDonald’s arrival impacts the rest of the tight end depth chart, nor would he commit to using McDonald in any specific way, explaining that the Steelers first signed Darrius Heyward-Bey as a wide receiver, not realizing his ability on special teams.

The San Francisco 49ers drafted Vance McDonald 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, taking him six slots after Le’Veon Bell. During his first four season in the NFL, Vance McDonald has started 30 games and appeared in 48, while catching 64 passes for 391 yards for seven touchdowns.

In addition to Grimble, James and McDonald, the Steelers also have veteran David Johnson along with Jake McGee. The Steelers cut hopeful Phazahn Odom shortly after acquiring McDonald.

Welcome to Steelers Nation, Vance McDonald.

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Watch Tower: Steelers Antonio Brown Draft Story Revealed, Optimizing OTA Coverage & More

The Watch Tower’s lights haven’t lit since mid-February but the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the scribes that cover them, have logged a busy off season. So as the NFL’s true down period begins, the Watch Tower turns its attention to Steelers draft coverage, getting the most out of OTAs, bumping into an old friend, and much more.

Antonio Brown, Steelers Draft Antonio Brown,

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler penned draft room story on the Steelers drafting Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Jeremy Fowler Delivers Story Behind Steelers Drafting Antonio Brown

Two years ago the Watch Tower noted the chronic lack of Steelers draft war room stories and called on the credentialed press to change things. Last year, Jim Wexell supplied a nugget, revealing that Steelers almost drafted Jevon Kearse instead of Troy Edwards in the 1999 NFL Draft. Alas, while that morsel represented a succulent sample of Wexell’s work, it was only that, a nugget.

This year ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler delivered with a fantastic, 2,300 plus word feature on how the Steelers came to draft Antonio Brown in the 2010 NFL Draft.

  • It seems like Jeremy Fowler has heeded the Watch Tower’s call.

Actually, it is probably a safe bet that Jeremy Fowler has never set eyes on this site, let alone the Watch Tower, but that doesn’t dampen the Watch Tower’s enthusiasm for a truly phenomenal story detailing how the Steelers made greatest 6th round steal this side of Tom Brady.

Included in “The Brown 21,” one rule for each of the 21 receivers picked before Brown, are insights from Brown’s coach at Central Michigan Butch Jones, Phil Savage, Bruce Arians, Scottie Montgomery, Charlie Batch, and Drew Rosenhaus.

  • Note, none of the above names above currently work for the Steelers.

While Jeremy Fowler did quote Mike Tomlin, he didn’t get anyone from the current Steelers scouting or coaching staff to speak on the record about how Pittsburgh came to draft Antonio Brown. No surprise there.

But that didn’t Jeremy Fowler from hustling to tell a good story on the Steelers most important draft pick of the Mike Tomlin era. And for that Jeremy Fowler wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Lolley Calls Steelers 4th Round Pick 2 Months in Advance

The Steelers shocked (and angered) much of the fan base when the pick Tennessee Quarterback Joshua Dobbs in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Count the Watch Tower among those who weren’t expecting this.

  • But, as pointed out on here before, Dale Lolley’s readers shouldn’t have been caught off guard.

Based Art Rooney II postseason press conference, Dale Lolley told his readers “The Steelers will likely take a shot at a quarterback in the middle rounds of this year’s draft, much like they did with Jones a few years ago.”

Josuha Dobbs, Steelers OTAs

4th Round Pick Joshua Dobbs at Steelers OTA. Photo Credit: AP via wpxi.com

Just as they’d done with Landry Jones in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Steelers drafted Dobbs in the 4th round. Perhaps Lolley had inside information, perhaps reporter’s intuition guided him, or maybe it was a mix of both.

It doesn’t matter. One thing is certain, Dale Lolley had the story two and a half months before the draft. Next time he speaks up like this, the Watch Tower will take note.

It’s Not Easy Being Green II

The saga of Ladarius Green, and analysis of the press coverage he generated during his short stay in Pittsburgh could easily provide material for several dozen Watch Tower columns.

  • Fear not, we won’t attempt to do that here, but we’ll again focus on the work done by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Ladarius Green, Ed Bouchette Ladarius Green, Steelers Thanksgiving Colts, Edwin Jackson

Ladarius Green catches a pass in the Steelers 2017 Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Jeff Brown, Icon Sportswire

Last summer when Ladarius Green couldn’t get off the PUP list, Ed Bouchette got ahead of the story, going as far as to compare the Green signing to Chuck Noll’s badly botched Frank Lewis for Paul Seymor trade. At the time the Watch Tower wondered if that was idle speculation, or if Bouchette was signaling he knew a deeper back story he couldn’t yet report.

As soon as Green hit the wavier wire, Bouchette labeled the move as Pittsburgh’s worst free agent signing ever, and justified has argument by revealing that the Steelers failed to fully investigate his concussion history.

Once again, the Watch Tower says, “This Bud’s for you Mr. Bouchette.”

Making the Most of Steelers OTA’s

May showers in June flowers mean one thing for football fans – OTAs. OTA’s are only football in shorts, don’t often provide much meaningful news yet they’re all the rage. Except they’re not, for the men and women who cover them. Two years ago, a credentialed member of the Steelers press corps confided in a private email exchange:

Have not gone to OTAs yet but probably will next week. They are kind of annoying, frankly. There is no locker room access and you can only talk to the players as they are coming off of the field so its typically a scrum, especially the first week and even more so with a bunch of bored media.

The internet has made this phenomenon a stable of sports coverage – you’re used to seeing 2 dozen or so reporters bunched together, twisting themselves into pretzels as they squirm and stretch to shove a microphone towards Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell or Martavis Bryant’s mouth.

Mike Tomlin, St. Vincents, Steelers Training camp

Mike Tomlin addresses the media @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports

Such frenzies have always struck the Watch Tower as a bit odd, given that the same interview will probably be live on Steelers.com well before the reporters can write, let alone file, their stories.

After explaining the pecking order for interviews during off season workouts, Wexell made a (perhaps not so) subtle dig at his competitors observing that they preferred to watch passing trains while he reported on the progress of players like John Maxley, Francis Kallon, Matt Galambos, Keith Kelsey and Phazahn Odom.

He also took time out to do a story on Ethan Cooper, an undrafted rookie free agent lineman out of IUP, getting his full-length feature out almost a month before the Tribune Review and Post-Gazette writers did theirs (although, to be fair Mike Prisuta published a feature on Cooper on Steelers.com before Wexell.)

Ethan Cooper, Steelers OTAs 2017

Steelers undrafted rookie free agent Ethan Cooper interviewed @ OTAs. Photo Credit: Scout

Devoting previous reporting time to stories on obscure roster bubble babies can carry a cost – Mike Tomlin is known to playfully taunt Penn Live’s Jacob Klingler as “Mr. Irrelevant” for doing just that. Fair enough. Some of those men Wexell profiled won’t make it to Latrobe, let alone the 1st preseason game.

Beyond that, the Watch Tower awards kudos to Jim Wexell for finding a way to be different in an age where “content” gets recycled ad nauseam to the point where major dailies appear to be doing knockoff stories based on interviews posted on Steelers.com.

And, lest anyone label Steel City Insider a “bottom feeder” site, at the close of minicamp Wexell published an exclusive one-on-one interview with Ben Roethlisberger.

Hello Stafford (and, BTW So Long Shamarko)

Former Tennessee safety Daimion Stafford arrived in Pittsburgh at the end of May, effectively ended Pittsburgh’s 2017 foray into free agency and ending Shamarko Thomas tortured tenure with the team.

  • Not that you’d know that from reading the major dailies, media sites and major fan sites that cover the Steelers.

The Steelers signed Stafford and day later, the New York Jet’s picked up Thomas. Yet, almost no one who writes about the Steelers connected the dots. The Watch Tower has taken the press to task for ignoring past late-spring departures of Mewelde Moore and Doug Legursky, but concedes that there’s probably less news value in Shamarko’s non-return.

  • But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a good story to tell.

Last year Art Rooney II acknowledged the Steelers had “made mistakes” with their secondary. It would seem like that quote might made a good lede about the mistakes the Steelers made and how they’ve changed their approach (or not) in hopes of avoiding them.

Shamarko Thomas, Carnell Lake, Steelers 2015 OTAs

Carnell Lake & Shamarko Thomas @ Steelers 2015 OTAs. Photo Credit: Pin Interest

Or, a crafty writer could take Carnell Lake’s words about Shamarko Thomas and tie them to the Senquez Golson comeback story, given Lake’s draft day assertions that both players would be first rounders if they were two inches taller. That’s another enticing lede to another non-story with the potential to provide a lot of insight.

So be it. No one’s surprised that Shamarko won’t be at St. Vincents this summer. But we will share that this site’s free agent profile of Shamarko Thomas saw a spike in page view the day he signed with Jets. Just Say’in.

Running into an Old Friend – McMillen & Wife is Back

Sometimes its just nice to run into an old friend.

That happened a short while back when yours truly was looking for an image of Neil O’Donnell and Google took me to McMillen and Wife. If you’re not familiar, McMillen and Wife was a pioneer Steelers fan site in the late 1990’s. In terms of offering innovation, giving fans a voice and delivering quality analysis, McMillen and Wife the same sort of trailblazer that Behind the Steel Curtain was early in the Tomlin era.

  • Indeed, as mentioned in our very first post, McMillen & Wife helped inspire this site’s launch.

Work and life complications kept site founder and editor Tim McMillen from doing much after the early 00’s and while a friend kept the it going for a while, the site went more or less dormant for the last decade.

  • But Tim McMillen is back with a vengeance.

McMillen doesn’t consider himself a blogger and is more passionate about design aspect of the site. When McMillen started very you could type in Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene or Franco Harris’ names into Yahoo! and find almost nothing. As McMillen explains, “At the time, the pictures I was posting were some of the ONLY classic Steelers pics on the net! Hard to believe, really, because we take it completely for granted that we can find just about anything we want nowadays.”

And while the Watch Tower won’t steal his thunder, it will say that McMillen has found an unorthodox way to offer something unique to fans. Check it out just make sure you visit the site when you have plenty of spare time….

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ICYMI (I Know I Did) Steelers Sign Daimion Stafford Highlighting Headline Glut

In case you weren’t paying attention (I wasn’t) the Steelers signed Daimion Stafford last week in an effort to bolster their depth at safety behind Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield.

  • The move highlights two rather obvious trends, the latter of which can still sneak up on you.
Daimion Stafford, Steelers sign Daimion Stafford

Steelers signed free agent safety Daimion Stafford from the Titans, ending the “Shamarko Thomas” era. Photo Credit: Titainsonline.com

First, as has been apparent for quite some time, the move drove the final nail in the coffin of the Shamarko Thomas debacle at safety. The Pittsburgh Steelers gave up on Shamarko in 2015 when the benched him in favor of Will Allen prior to the season opener vs. the Patriots. They next dispelled any remote possibility of second thoughts by playingJordan Dangerfield over Shamarko early in 2016.

  • You knew that, we knew that, but perhaps Shamarko Thomas didn’t quite know that, as he signed with the Jets a day later.

Dare we suggest Shamarko Thomas was holding out hopes that the Steelers would bring him back thanks to his special teams prowess? Maybe he did. The case for bringing back Shamarko Thomas on a veteran minimum contract to play gunner was reasonably strong. But Shamarko Thomas’ free agent profile came with a big “But” which we’ll remind everyone of here:

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.

By the look of things, this is exactly what the Steelers are getting in Daimion Stafford.

Like Shamarko Thomas (and Jarvis Jones), Daimion Stafford arrived in the NFL via the now much-maligned 2013 NFL Draft. Unlike Shamarko Thomas, Daimion Stafford was a 7th round draft pick. And also unlike Shamarko Thomas, Daimion Stafford has actually delivered some value in the secondary.

Per Pro Football Reference’s stats, Daimion Stafford has appared in 62 games as a professional for the Tennessee Titans, and even started in 6 games. That’s six more starts than Shamarko has to his name. He also has 2 interceptions, which is two more than Shamarko Thomas. He also has three sacks and three fumble recoveries.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reports, a source in Nashville characterizes Stafford as:

A decent role player who will help best on special teams. He’s a big hitter but limited in man coverage, better in zone. Not afraid to come up in run support and doesn’t mind being physical.

  • That sounds exactly like the resume of someone who can do what Shamarko did and offer more.

To the extent that a team’s number 5 safety can continue to a Super Bowl, run Daimion Stafford is the perfect kind of player for the Steelers to take a flyer on.

(And onean’t help but wonder who was Wexell’s source, given that Dick LeBeau, Desha Townsend, Lou Spanos, Nick Eason and Keith Willis are defensive coaches for the Titans, with Russ Grimm and Mike Mularkey also the offensive side.)

Steelers Daimion Stafford Signing Highlights Headline Glut

The other interesting thing about the Steelers signing Daimion Stafford is how it highlights the dangers of the headline glut we face in today’s fractured media landscape.

Had the Steelers made this type of move in the late 80’s or early 1990’s, out of town fans would have learned of it through the Steelers Digest or perhaps in the “transactions” section of their local sports page. With the mid-1990’s came the internet, and it’s a fair bet to say that the Tribune Review and/or Pittsburgh Post Gazette would have run a short article on the move. Things would have been much the same during most of the 00’s, except that fans would have had several more outlets to get the news.

  • Now of course the number of sites publishing articles announcing the Steelers signing of Daimion Stafford on the subject has exploded.

That’s important because the Steelers are making many roster moves at this time of the year, although the vast majority of them involved undrafted rookie free agents and other players who’ve been signed to “Futures Contracts.” As a consequence, when I saw the headline “Steelers Sign Stafford” I assumed he was just another one of those.

Instead, he’s a free agent signing, albeit a very low level one, but one that could have an impact in 2017.

And with so much clutter floating around, there, yours truly almost missed it…..

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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Why Pitt Standout James Conner’s Impact with Steelers Could Come Sooner than You Think….

“I’ve seen him play. You’ve seen him play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be good.”

That quote was from me to my brother last week, shortly after the Steelers selected Pitt running back James Conner with their compensatory third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Conner, Steelers 2017 3rd round draft pick

James Conner rushing for Pitt @ Heinz Field. Photo credit: PennLive.com

Obviously, being from Pittsburgh and a huge fan of the University of Pittsburgh, my opinion about James Conner may be partially due to homerism. After all, leading up to the draft, how many football fans expressed a desire for their favorite pro team to draft a player from their favorite college team?

This happens all the time.

But I wasn’t the only one who reacted joyfully to the news that Conner’s college home stadium–Heinz Field–would turn into his professional home stadium.

  • First, who doesn’t love everything about James Conner?

After rushing for 1,759 yards in his sophomore year of 2014, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year.

  • But just when it appeared that Conner was headed for greatness, he received a double punch to the gut.

The first punch was a torn MCL, which he sustained in the 2015 season opener. The second, more devastating strike occurred many months later, when Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer  that was discovered by doctors while he was undergoing rehab for his injured knee.

You know the story by now: Conner absorbed both punches and kept on fighting. By May of 2016, he was declared cancer-free; and in his final season at Pitt, he rushed for 1,092 yards on 216 attempts.

  • Obviously, less than a year after the physical toll that chemo and the MCL tear took on his body, the burst and explosiveness weren’t quite the same.

It’s impossible to know where James Conner would have been drafted without those setbacks, but he was selected high enough that he’ll be given much more than a puncher’s chance to have a decent career with the Steelers.

  • And why does it have to be just decent?

I realize Le’Veon Bell, and his current status as the NFL’s best running back is one reason James Conner may never get to truly make his mark at the professional level. Another reason is obviously the knee injury.

But when James Conner lines up in the offensive backfield this season, he won’t be the only Steelers running back who suffered a torn MCL at Heinz Field in 2015. Le’Veon Bell sustained that very same injury in Week 8 against the Bengals and was done for the year.

  • Which brings me back to the chance James Conner might get to make a difference for the Steelers sooner than people think.

For anyone to examine the Steelers top four picks, which also include linebacker T.J. Watt, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cameron Sutton and wonder if they will be able to help them in their rookie seasons may have forgotten about the depth issues the team has faced in recent years.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell before he was injured against the Bengals. Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS.com

And that’s especially been the case at the running back spot, where Le’Veon Bell, despite his all-world talents and tremendous production, has missed a total of 17 games due to either injuries or suspensions over his first four seasons.

As for the postseason, the 2016 edition was the first Le’Veon Bell was actually healthy at the start of. And while he did set franchise records by rushing for a combined 337 yards in back-to-back victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, he was limited in the AFC title game versus the Patriots after aggravating a groin injury he reportedly had been nursing for a couple of weeks.

Unlike the torn MCL Le’Veon Bell suffered in 2015 or the hyper-extended knee he sustained at the end of the 2014 season (both occurring after questionable tackles in games against the Bengals), it could be argued that an injured groin for a running back is a symptom of overuse.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the one thing that is certain is that Pittsburgh has been limited at the running back spot in each of the past three postseasons.

  • You know what they say about not learning from history.

Therefore, while it would be foolish to think James Conner is going to get any greater workload than what LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams both received while playing behind a healthy Le’Veon Bell in the past, it would also be foolish to assume he won’t be called upon to help the Steelers in 2017.

If the Steelers truly believe Bell’s injury, which required surgical repair in March, was caused by overuse, they might already be thinking about lightening the star running back’s load–even if it’s just a few less carries a game.

If the Steelers are forced to turn to James Conner for one reason or another, what kind of running back will they be getting? That’s hard to predict. Obviously, like every other draft prospect, Conner has his weaknesses, which, according to his NFL.com draft profile, include average lateral movement and a lack of elite speed. But then again, those were some of the same criticisms Bell had to overcome coming out of college–and that was before he suffered a torn MCL. 

James Conner, Steelers, Le'Veon Bell backup, Steelers backup running back

Soon former Pitt running back James Conners will be delivering stiff arms while wearning the Black and Gold. Photo Credit: Julia Rendleman, Post-Gazette

Despite his maturity issues that have led to two drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell is a hard worker and has certainly gotten the most out of his abilities. If there was a do-over of the 2013 NFL Draft, instead of lasting until the second round, No. 26 would be a top-10 selection.

Will James Conner have a chance to get the most out of his abilities in Pittsburgh? There’s no doubt he’s a hard worker, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. As per Kevin Colbert in his post-draft media appearances, Conner has a great opportunity to make a name for himself on special teams.

As for moving up the running back depth chart, James Conner obviously has to develop an all-around game that includes being a reviving target for Ben Roethlisberger out of the backfield and picking up the blitz (two things Bell also excels at, which is why he never comes off the field).

The sooner James Conner improves in areas besides just running the ball, the quicker he’ll distance himself from the likes of Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, which shouldn’t pose too great a challenge.

  • What about the very top of the running back depth chart?

As it stands right now, why would anyone want to mess with what Le’Veon Bell is doing? The answer is, nobody would.

But in addition to his injury history and suspension issues, there could be contractual issues with Le’Veon Bell. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Sure, he will get paid rather handsomely, but he’s eventually going to want a multi-year deal that will annually pay him at least the $12 million he’ll earn next season.

  • What happens if the two sides never agree on Le’Veon Bell’s worth?

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell will ink a new deal and go on to have a Hall of Fame career, while James Conner develops as a player and bides his time in Pittsburgh for four years, before signing with another team looking for a featured running back.

But this is not a perfect world, and that’s why James Conner’s impact with the Steelers could come a lot sooner than people think.

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Steelers Draft TJ Watt in 1st Round of 2017 NFL Draft. Is He “Unicorn” 3-4 OLB Pittsburgh Seeks?

While it took an inordinate amount of time, especially for those of us who live 1 hour ahead of Eastern time, but Pittsburgh got its man in the 2017 NFL Draft as the 30th pick saw the Steelers draft T.J. Watt, Outside Linebacker out of Wisconsin.

T.J. Watt is of course the younger brother of the Houston Texan’s JJ Watt.

Steelers draft TJ Watt, Mike Tomlin, TJ Watt, Art Rooney II, Steelers 2017 1st Round Draft

Mike Tomlin, with T.J. Watt and Art Rooney II

When asked about coming to Pittsburgh Watt offered this:

The Steelers are a hardworking organization that does it the right way. They have a great bond within the locker room and with the coaches as well. I am really looking forward to it. It’s a great fit for me. It will be a great transition coming from Wisconsin to here and that is why I am so excited.

Based on TJ Watt’s highlights from his junior year at Wisconsin, the Steelers are excited too.

You can be forgiven if you conclude that T.J. Watt brings an extensive resume to Pittsburgh. He doesn’t. After sitting out his Red Shirt Freshman year at tight end, he moved to defense, and then had difficulty making the transition to defense, only playing 8 games as a sophomore.

  • However, his junior year was impressive, as he recorded 11 sacks, 15.5 tackles for a loss, and made 63 tackles with one interception.

However, that experience didn’t deter the Steelers as Mike Tomlin explained:

T.J. is a rock solid young man who has a lot of upside. He doesn’t have a lot of experience at the position, but at the same time we saw some things that were exciting to us. His hand usage in particular for a guy with his short resume at the position was exciting. His production speaks for itself. He’s just a quality guy and a quality pick for us.

Although several names mocked to the Steelers were gone by the time they picked 30th, In picking Watt, the Steelers passed on an number of cornerbacks who will probably no longer be there late in the second round.

Is T.J. Watt the “Unicorn” OLB the Steelers have Been Seeking?

While outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” was seen as a major Steelers need heading into the draft, a strong sentiment existed that favored the Steelers drafting secondary first (pun intended), given edge rushers are not as effective against quick release quarterbacks.

This is nothing new.

Prior to the Steelers picking Cameron Heyward with their first round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Tim Gleason, aka “Mary Rose” from Behind the Steel Curtain lobbied for the Steelers to take a cornerback, arguing that “Tom Brady will get rid of the ball before Cameron Heyward can even touch him.”

  • What has changed, however, is that the Steelers play in their base 3-4 defense less and less frequently.

That has led some writers, such as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, to suggest that the Steelers abandon their search for a quality 3-4 linebacker, who can rush the passer, set the edge against the run, AND drop into coverage and focus on getting a player who more closely matches a 4-3 defensive end.

However, a few days before the draft, Wexell’s colleague at Steel City Insider, Matt C. Steel rated T.J. Watt as 3rd best overall fit for the Steelers in the draft explaining:

This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker. Watt still has the frame to put on another 10-15 pounds, and with only one year of playing defense, his upside is tremendous. The knee injuries prevent me from putting him first on this list, but I’m hearing the Lions, Cowboys, and Packers are all showing heavy interest, so I’d be surprised if he makes it to pick 30.

T.J. Watt himself seems to be aware that he’s being brought in Pittsburgh to play just that role, as he told Jim Wexell:

That’s something I’ve been doing at Wisconin [sic] these past two years and I think that’s why I translate so well to the (Steelers) defense. I’ve shown on film I can play a 3-technique if I really have to. I can set the edge really good, and I can get after the passer. I think that’s ultimately what makes a really good football player and I think having great players around me is what’s going to make us a great team.

And so it is. Four years ago the Steelers went down this route in their first attempt to replace James Harrison when they drafted Jarvisy Jones with the 13th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. As we know, the Jarvis Jones experiment failed miserably.

  • Jarvis Jones had a great college track record, but poor mesaurables.

In contrast, T.J. Watt seems has measurables but not a lot of college production. So the Steelers are taking the opposite tact in trying to replace a man who is irreplaceable. Let’s hope they have better luck.

Welcome to Steelers Nation, T.J. Watt.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Safety: Moderate-Low

Safety is yet another area on the Steelers depth chart where Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have put extended efforts towards renewing. For eight years, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark held down the Steelers two starting safety roles giving Pittsburgh one of the NFL’s best tandems.

The Steelers thought they had added an important piece of the puzzle when they traded up to draft Shamarko Thomas in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he did not work out as planned.

However, the puzzle unquestionably began coming together for the Steelers in 2016 and the only question at this point is whether the Steelers will seek to add more pieces in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Sean Davis, Mike Mitchell, Tyler Boyd, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs safety

Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell team to throttle Tyler Boyd in Sept 2016. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

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

To give you an idea of how much turnover this unit has seen, Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell is one of the old hands, and he only arrived in 2014. The Steelers of course made a rare, day one “splash” free agency signing when they signed Mitchell on the first day of free agency in 2014.

A groin injury, and a lack of familiarity with Polamalu’s free-wheeling style, limited Mike Mitchell’s effectiveness in 2014, but he came back with a vengeance in 2015, coming down with 3 clutch 4th quarter interceptions while laying in the wood with welcome regularity.

Starting opposite Mike Mitchell is 2016’s 2nd round pick Sean Davis, who came to Pittsburgh from the University of Maryland. On September 12th, playing just a few miles from Byrd Stadium, Sean Davis became the first rookie defensive back to start a season opener since fellow Terrapin Chad Scott had done so in the 1997 opening day thumping the suffered at Three Rivers Stadium by the Steelers at the hands of the Cowboys.

  • By mid-season Sean Davis was making the kind of plays that made you wonder why he wasn’t a 1st round pick.

He helped stuff out a Giants comeback with his first NFL interception, showed off his versatility by sacking Tyrod Taylor in the win over the Bills, Tyrod Taylor, played a key role in the goal line stand against the Colts on Thanksgiving, and broke up two passes against the Ravens on Christmas night. And, in the AFC Divisional playoff game, Sean Davis broke up Kansas City’s 2 point conversion attempt.

Not a bad resume, for a rookie.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Safety Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

On paper, Robert Golden would appear to be the “Next man up” on the Steelers depth chart at safety, as he has the most experience and split time with Sean Davis early in 2016. But by the end of the season, Jordan Dangerfield and found his way into various sub-packages and is even listed by the Steelers as having started 2 games.

Depending on how things play out, a third name could find himself on the Steelers depth chart at safety. William Gay is losing a step at cornerback, but rumor has it the team may consider a move to safety, which would suit his ball hawking abilities.

The Steelers also have Jacob Hagen under contract at safety.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Safety

It took time, it took a little trial and error, and it took a little bit of patience, but the Steelers have renewed their depth chart at safety almost completely Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu played their final game together in 2013.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs safety

The plan to turn things over to Shamarko Thomas never came to fruition and the Steelers certainly relied longer than they had planned to, but that page is now turned.

Like any NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers need as many good safeties as they can find, but right now the Steelers have two quality starters and two serviceable backups. If William Gay does move to safety, he’ll provide an immediate talent boost to the lower part of the depth chart.

But taking all of the variables into account, the Steelers 2017 draft need at safety must be considered Moderate-Low.

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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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Steelers Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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Return on Investment? Steelers Sign Knile Davis to as Kick Returner, Backup Running Back

Bargain hunting continued on Pittsburgh’s South Side Monday as the Steelers signed Knile Davis, a free agent running back who most recently played for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Knile Davis is listed as a running back, but the Steelers are eyeing him primarily as a kick returner, a specialist position which the franchise has struggled to fill for most of the Mike Tomlin Era.

Knile Davis, Sean Spence, Jarvis Jones, Steelers vs Chiefs

Sean Spence tackles Knile Davis as Jarvis Jones arrives a second too late. Photo Credit: USA Today’s Steelers Wire

To put the matter into perspective, the last time the Steelers had a kickoff returned for a touchdown as in the 2010’s game against the Tennessee Titans, when Antonio Brown took a reverse and ran it all the way in.

The only Steelers kick returners who’ve returned more than 10 kicks during Mike Tomlin’s tenure to remotely approach an average of 25 yards per return are Stephan Logan, Markus Wheaton, Chris Rainey, Emmanuel Sanders and Brown.

  • In just four seasons, Knile Daivs has already returned 73 kicks for a total of 1920 yards, for a 26.8 yard average for two touchdowns.

Given that a touchback now results in the ball being spotted at the 25 yard line, having a kick returner who can routinely better that marks a welcome addition to the return team. (For the record Stefan Logan and Chris Rainey were the only returners during the Tomlin era to average more than 25 yards.)

Now Knile Davis Impacts the Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back

Le’Veon Bell remains the uncontested Alpha Male atop the Steelers running back depth chart, and the unsigned status of DeAngelo Williams might suggest that the he’s been replaced by Knile Davis. Davis would certainly like coaches to see it that way as indicated by his statement to reporters:

I feel like they are confident I can (complement Bell). I’ve had to fill in before. I’ve had 100-yard games in this league. I’ve done well in this league, and I’m prepared for whatever comes in the future.

That’s a little bold, but healthy nonetheless or the new arrival. However, if press reports are any indication, the Steelers primarily interest in Knile Davis is as a kick returner, not as a running back. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald Toussaint has been put on notice that he will need to defend his roster spot at St. Vincents next summer.

The Steelers tried to work Toussaint in at kick returner last year, but without much effect. And while Knile Davis’ 3.2 rushing average isn’t much to write home about it is better that Fitzgerald Toussaint’s career average of 2.9.

  • The Kansas City Chiefs drafted Knile Davis in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

He played in Kansas City for three seasons until the Chiefs traded him to Green Bay for a seventh-round draft pick in October 2016. But Davis didn’t remain a Cheesehead for long, as the Packers cut him after two games. He spent one day on the New York Jets’ roster before re-signing with Kansas City.

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Better for Le’Veon Bell to have Surgery Now Rather than Later

Everyone was kind of shocked when Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell saw limited action in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots due to a groin injury.

However, the more shocking news came about afterwards, when Le’Veon Bell, himself, admitted during Super Bowl week that he actually suffered the injury in the wild card victory over the Dolphins on January 8.

But maybe even more shocking, still, was Le’Veon Bell’s revelation during a Super Bowl week interview that his groin injury was so severe that he had to seek two medical opinions–one advised surgery; the other advised rest.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs. Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs playoffs, Le'Veon Bell surgery, Steelers playoff rushing record, Le'Veon Bell Steelers playoff game rushing record

Le’Veon Bell rushing in his record breaking playoff performance against the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Kyle Rivas, UPI

Given the choice, most people in Le’Veon Bell’s situation (whether they be professional athletes or ordinary citizens) would probably much rather rest than go under the knife.  It’s easy to forget that surgery, even something that seems non-life-threatening such as a groin repair, is a scary thing to face.

  • Maybe that’s why, sitting around in early-February, Le’Veon Bell may have been leaning towards the rest and rehab prescription.

If you’re a fan of the team, on the other hand, you may have feared Bell putting off the surgery all off season, only to be forced to have the procedure during the regular season and miss a significant amount of time.

After all, something similar happened to James Harrison in 2012. Deebo came into training camp with a nagging knee injury and waited until August to go under the knifey, delaying his start to 2012. And just this last year something similar happened with Bud Dupree. Dupree had a similar injury to Bell’s waited to have surgery, and Bud Dupree starting 2016 on injured reserve because of it.

  • So, would Le’Veon Bell continue to take the wait and see approach, or would he decide that surgery was the best option?

The answer came on March 13, when it was announced that Bell underwent surgery to repair his groin injury and is now in the post-procedure recovery phase of things.

If you ask me, Le’Veon Bell did the right thing by seeking multiple opinions for his injured groin. After all, it’s his life, and if surgery can be avoided, it’s perhaps always best to do so.

However, if there were any doubts as to the rest and rehab process, Le’Veon Bell also did the right thing by having the procedure done in mid-March, thus giving himself plenty of time to rest, recover, rehab and prepare for the 2017 campaign.

In-terms of his financial future in the NFL, 2017 figures to be a huge year for Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh slapped the franchise tag on Bell in late-February, which will guarantee the mega-star running back $12 million next season, once he actually gets around to signing (nothing hints at him not sending the tender, at this point).

But even though Bell is guaranteed a huge payday in 2017, he obviously wants an even bigger one, either before the start of the regular season or after it. In other words, Le’Veon Bell is looking for the usual long-term contract and financial security players of his status often seek on the open market.

Of course, that money doesn’t have to come from the open market, if the Steelers and Bell reach an agreement on a long-term deal some time in the very near future.

  • And maybe that’s why Le’Veon Bell elected to eliminate all doubt and just go ahead and have the procedure.

In addition to missing a total of five games due to drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell has also missed eight regular season games, one playoff game, a significant portion of another playoff game and an entire postseason due to injuries since Pittsburgh selected him in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

“Injury prone” is something no player (even a superstar) wants to be labeled as. And when you factor in the off-field issues, it would be easy to see the Steelers seeking other running back options, rather than committing so much money to Le’Veon Bell.

But now that Bell has gone ahead with the surgery–and he’s done so roughly six months before the start of the regular season–there is really nothing stopping him from being 100 percent healthy and ready to go.

Oh, by the way, 2017 figures to be a big year for the Steelers, as well. Coming off an ugly exit in the AFC Championship game, the expectations are going to be through the roof with regards to reaching and winning Super Bowl LII.

Without Le’Veon Bell, who, when healthy carries an overwhelming load in Pittsburgh’s offense, those expectations would be tempered significantly, regardless of whether Martavis Bryant returns to give Ben Roethlisberger another superstar receiver opposite Antonio Brown.

  • Sure, surgery doesn’t guarantee anything, and if he were to run into post-procedure complications, Bell wouldn’t be the first player.

But, in this case, it’s better for all parties involved that Le’Veon Bell elected to be proactive.

His immediate future, and that of the Steelers, depends on it.

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