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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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.

 

 

 

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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.

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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.

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Jarvis Jones Signs with Cardinals, Highlights Dangers of Drafting for Need

Former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker and first round draft pick Jarvis Jones signed with Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, closing the book on what must be considered as Kevin Colbert’s first failure with a first round draft pick.

Jarvis Jones’ failure as a Steelers first round pick has been official for a while, but to understand why he failed one needs to look back to how he arrived in Pittsburgh.

Jarvis Jones, Steelers vs Chiefs, Mitch Morse, Jarvis Jones Pittsburgh West, Jarvis Jones Interception

Jarvis Jones returning an interception during the Steelers 2016 win over Kansas City as Mitch Morse tries to stop him. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2013 off season with a problem. The 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement had flattened the salary cap for the first several season it was to be in force, and the Steelers had several contracts that they’d negotiated prior to the 2011 CBA.

On top of that, James Harrison’s body appeared to be breaking down, as he missed time in both 2011 and 2012 due to injuries. His play also seemed to be leveling off, although we now know that James Harrison was far from done.

The Steelers needed some extra salary cap room, they asked Harrison to renegotiate but James Harrison declined, so the Steelers cut him.

  • That left the Steelers with a glaring need for an outside linebacker.

Chris Carter had been given chances to show he might be worthy of the job, but experience showed Chris Carter clearly wasn’t the answer. Jason Worilds had flashed, but hadn’t shown he could deliver with the consistency that the Steelers needed at the outside linebacker or “edge rusher” position.

On top of that LaMarr Woodley had seen his last two seasons ruined by hamstring injuries, and members of the Steelers locker room questioned his commitment to staying in shape. All of that meant that the Steelers needed to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a starter-capable outside linebacker. And you generally find those in the first round.

Years later Jim Wexell would comment that Jones got the starting job for “political reasons,” although to be fair to everyone involved, Jarvis Jones actually had a pretty impressive rookie preseason campaign. But we know how the story ended. The Steelers stuck with Jarvis Jones for 3 and a half years as Jones flashed at times but was never consistent, and never could pressure the passer as Pittsburgh needed him to.

Even after Jones’ limitations as a pass rusher became painfully evident, word was he still contributed in other ways. Then came the Steelers loss to the Cowboys:

Yes, we’ve shared this clip on the site 2 times before, but we do it because if ever there was one play for Jarvis Jones to prove his mettle as a run stuffer, it was this it and Jarvis Jones came up short.

  • Steel Curtain Rising neither claims knowledge of the Steelers 2013 Draft Board nor are we privy to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s evaluation process.

It is indeed possible that Jarvis Jones wasn’t just the best pass rusher, but the best player the Steelers had on their board when it came time for the Steelers to select with the 2013 NFL Draft’s 18th pick. Jarvis Jones after all had terrorized opposing quarterbacks during his final two years playing for the Georgia Bulldogs. A recent column by Bob Labriola suggest that the Steelers trusted in what they saw on tape, rather than on the stop watch.

  • Clearly there was an error in the Steelers talent evaluation process with Jarvis Jones.

But in some respects, that doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart at Outside Linebacker all but obligated them to draft an outside linebacker in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” is also a chief need for the Steelers entering the 2017 NFL Draft, but contrast their situation in 2013 with their current depth chart which features Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo. Yes, Aurther Moats and Anthony Chickillo start on the left side, but at least theoretically one of them could be moved to the right in a pinch.

  • The Steelers need to get an outside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft, but their depth doesn’t dictate that they reach for one.

And that’s a good position to be in. You never want to be forced to draft for need. Because as we’ve long said, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.” Now we can add “And so does Jarvis Jones.”

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Justifying Steelers Faith in Landry Jones as Backup Quarterback

In case you haven’t been paying attention because you’re a little too busy gnashing your teeth over the Pittsburgh Steelers lack of free-agent activity, Pittsburgh inked backup quarterback Landry Jones to two-year contract that will average $2.2 million annually.

  • If you have been paying attention or are just finding this out, chances are, you’re not very happy with this development.

After all, you may be one of the many fans who consider Landry Jones the worst backup in the NFL. Why do you think this way? In addition to the four interceptions he threw in an exhibition loss to the Eagles at Heinz Field last August, Jones has looked kind of shaky in his 16 career appearances (four starts). He’s completed 85 of 141 passes for 1,071 yards, while throwing seven touchdowns to six interceptions.

Landry Jones, Carson Palmer, Landry Jones Steelers backup quarterback, Steelers vs Cardinals

Landry Jones and Carson Palmer talk after Jones relief win over the Arizona Cardinals in October 2014. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

So why are Landry Jones’ numbers so underwhelming, so blah? Maybe it’s because he’s a backup quarterback, who has occasionally filled in for a franchise-caliber passer in one Ben Roethlisberger.

Good starting quarterbacks are a rare find, and those with the Hall of Fame credentials that Ben Roethlisberger possesses are even rarer. Therefore, when that guy’s backup takes his place for any length of time, the drop-off is going to be noticeable.

  • Back to those simply good starting quarterbacks. Just how rare of a find are they?

They are so rare, Brian Hoyer, a 31-year old journeyman quarterback with 8,600 yards and 31 starts on his resume, just got $10 million in guaranteed money to be the 49ers signal-caller over the next two seasons.

Meanwhile, Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game in the NFL since 2014 and threw for just 75 yards last season, signed a three-year contract with the Bears for $45 million, with $18.5 million of it guaranteed.

  • Will Hoyer and Glennon pan out for their new teams? That remains to be seen, but if either one of them winds up out of a job next season, that wouldn’t be a shocker.

Last season, Brock Osweiler parlayed the seven starts and 1,967 passing yards he accumulated while filling in for the legendary Peyton Manning in 2015 into a four-year, $32 million contract from the Texans.

After a more than forgettable stint in Houston, Osweiler is now a member of the Browns, who acquired him in a trade on Thursday (and word is that the Browns are trying to trade Osweiler to another team or could cut him outright).

What’s my point in all of this? If it’s that hard to find a starting quarterback in the NFL, how can you expect the Steelers to find a better backup than Landry Jones?

  • Are there better backups in the NFL than Jones?

I’m sure there are. Would any of those backups lead the Steelers to a string of victories if Ben Roethlisberger were to suffer a serious injury? Probably not.

Landry Jones, Todd Haley, Steelers vs Cardinals

Todd Haley gives Landry Jones instructions as he heads to the field to face the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images via LA Times

Landry Jones has been in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system since Pittsburgh selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The reason Jones was brought in and groomed to be the backup was because the front office and coaching staff wanted someone who could step in at a moment’s notice and run the offense.

You remember what happened two years ago, when Michael Vick was signed just weeks prior to the start of the season and thrust into action in Week 3, following an MCL sprain suffered by Roethlisberger.

Mike Vick, who had only about six weeks to learn the playbook, was mostly ineffective, as the offense struggled mightily.

  • Does the offense run like a well-oiled machine under Jones? No, but at least the playbook and the system both stay the same.

In the grand-scheme of things, there is nothing less interesting to talk about than a team’s backup quarterback. Unless of course you live in Pittsburgh and the starter is Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart. Then you positively LOVE talking about starting the backup quarterback until reality reveals that David Woodley, Todd Blackledge, and Mike Tomczak really didn’t offer the Steelers a better chance to win….

…But that’s another conversation.

As we close, however, let’s concede that if Landry Jones becomes the Steelers starter for more than a couple of three games, Pittsburgh IS going to suffer for it. But let’s also remember that the same is true for just about any other NFL team, and that the Steelers could do worse at QB Number 2.

  • Therefore, just accept the fact that Landry Jones is the Steelers backup quarterback.

If you’re STILL fretting over that fact, then remember this – having Le’Veon Bell behind him and Antonio Brown in front of him will make Landry Jones a lot better quarterback. And besides, there seriously are more important things to worry about.

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

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.

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!

Can’t Get Enough of a Good Thing. 10th James Harrison Contract with Steelers Signed & Sealed

How many contracts has James Harrison signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers? By this author’s count, if you include practice squad signings, the number comes out to 10. Sometimes, you can’t get enough of a good thing. Yesterday, it happened again:

The Pittsburgh Steelers resigned James Harrison to a 2 year contract that, if Harrison completes it, will keep him on the field for the Black and Gold through his 40th birthday. Can James Harrison continue to play as an impact player through age 40?

James Harrison, James Harrison Darth Vader, Steelers vs Browns, James Harrison contract Steelers

Darth Vader like shot of James Harrison during the Steelers 2016 win at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The odds makers would say no, but then again, would the odds makers have predicted an undrafted rookie free agent from Kent State who got cut 5 times before making his first NFL start winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and authoring the longest play in Super Bowl history during Super Bowl XLIII?

  • No they wouldn’t have, but James Harrison has a way of proving people wrong.

How important was James Harrison to Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016? Well, as this site observed in its free agent profile of James Harrison:

If you’re looking to define 1 decision that defined the Steelers 2016 turn around it was Mike Tomlin’s promotion of James Harrison to full time starter.

That choice by Mike Tomlin was the hinge that the Steelers season turned upon. When James Harrison said he wanted to come back, there was little doubt the Steelers would do what it took to make it happen.

James Harrison’s Impact on the Steelers Plans for 2017

James Harrison is the type of player who helps you win Super Bowls and that alone is sufficient reason to bring him back in 2017. But resigning James Harrison to his 10th contract is the smart move by the Steelers for other reasons.

  • First, it gives the Steelers much needed flexibility heading into the 2017 NFL Draft.

Yes, the Steelers certainly need to draft another outside linebacker or “Edge Rusher” as they call them today and they need to do it early. But without James Harrison the Steelers more or less would have been forced to target that position in the first round at the expense of everything else.

And we know how the Jarvis Jones experiment turned out. Locking James Harrison relives the Steelers of the need to reach in and gives them the freedom to address other needs and perhaps to move up or down as the draft evolves. Theoretically at least, the Steelers would also be free to experiment with moving Arthur Moats and/or Anthony Chickillo to the right outside linebacker.

Beyond that, this 10th and certainly final contract between James Harrison and the Steelers all but ensures that James Harrison’s career with the Steelers will end as it should – on his terms.

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.

Like this? Share it with Steelers Nation!