Fretting about Free Agency? The NFL Draft is the Steelers Christmas Tree, Free Agents are Just Stocking Stuffers

If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re likely not all that comfortable with their activity during the first two weeks of the NFL’s unrestricted free-agency period.

But you should have known they weren’t going to do much, right? The salary-cap problems were well-documented, and, besides, the Steelers’ history of making free-agent splashes should have been another clue.

Perhaps the re-signing of Cam Sutton and the surprise re-signings of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu weren’t enough. Also, the outside signings of free agents such as Joe Haeg and Miles Killebrew probably didn’t move the needle on your excitement meter.

  • Do you know what always moves the excitement needle for Steelers fans?

The annual NFL Draft. I mean, my goodness, the talk about the popular event — an event whose television ratings always eclipse those of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — begins the second the Steelers’ season comes to an end and doesn’t stop until well-after their final pick is announced on Day 3 of draft weekend.

There are millions of NFL fans who probably love the draft more than they do an actual football game. I don’t, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Why? Because the draft is the life-blood of the National Football League. It’s actually the life-blood of every professional sports league.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

Every viable prospect is poked, prodded and interviewed countless times in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. There are few secrets by the time the annual event rolls around every April.

Teams are looking for players to help them win now and in the future. They’re searching for prospects that will lead them to the Promised Land–better known as the Super Bowl.

My point is, we dissect every single Steelers’ draft choice — and even the undrafted free agents — once they arrive and speculate on what they can do for the team now and in the future. Yet, the second unrestricted free agency rolls around every March, we forget about many of those players and want Pittsburgh to go shopping for shiny new toys.

Take cornerback Justin Layne, for example. The Steelers made Justin Layne a third-round draft choice out of Michigan State just two years ago. People were excited about him. Many were of the opinion that he was a great value pick and could wind up being a steal. When a player is selected in the third round, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to at least be competing for a starting job by his third season.

Here we are in 2021, and Layne is heading into his third season. I was as disappointed by the release of Steven Nelson as anyone. The Steelers obviously did this to save money, sure, but maybe Pittsburgh also cut Nelson knowing that Layne was ready to make the jump from backup to starting corner.

Another example is Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle that was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okorafor has already started a number of games–including 15 last year. Heading into his fourth season, perhaps Pittsburgh is confident that he can be the long-term answer at either left or right tackle.

We really don’t know how the Steelers feel about players like Layne and Okorafor, but we might get our answer by how they address both corner and offensive tackle during the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for Alex Highsmith, the outside linebacker taken in the third round last year, we knew right away that the former Charlotte walk-on was selected to be the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, who had designs on making a ton of money as an unrestricted free agent–he did.

After a promising rookie season, Highsmith will now get that chance in 2021. What’s wrong with that plan? What’s wrong with promoting Layne if he’s ready?

This is what the draft is for. Heck, people are tracking the Pro Day visits of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert as if they’re foreign spies.

There’s obviously a lot of time and money that goes into the NFL and these prospects. If you can hit on a class or two, it allows you to remain competitive for years.

Take the Steelers 2017 Draft class, for example. I think T.J. Watt‘s career speaks for itself. You can argue about many aspects of Smith-Schuster’s game and non-football exploits, but you can’t say that he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver. As for Sutton, a third-round pick from Tennessee, he may wind up being more than just the starting slot corner; he may be the number two corner.

The Steelers drafts of 2008 and 2009 produced very little in terms of long-term production (at least for the Steelers), and by the time those Super Bowl veterans from the 2000s were ready to get on with their life’s work, the cupboard was pretty bare; the Steelers didn’t miss the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 by accident.

In conclusion, the Steelers didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but maybe that’s because they believe in their recent draft choices.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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Can Steelers Free Agent Zach Banner Lead an Offensive Line Rebuild?

The general consensus among most Steelers media members and fans is that the team needs to rebuild an offensive line that used to be the envy of the NFL.

  • But where do they start? What avenues do they explore?

Shortly after the 2020 season came to a close, Pittsburgh moved on from offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and promoted assistant Adrian Klemm to the position. With KIemm now in place, will the Steelers give him new prospects to work with from the 2021 NFL Draft? Will they look outside the organization and sign a more proven veteran in free agency? Speaking of free agents, how about the ones currently in-house, namely, tackle Zach Banner? Is he someone worth resigning following an unfortunate ACL tear in Week 1 of the 2020 season? We’re about to find out.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

 

Capsule Profile of Zach Banner’s Career with the Steelers

Zach Banner was a fourth-round pick by the Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite coming from a high-profile college, the USC product was waived by Indianapolis and finished out his rookie season with the Browns. After his release by Cleveland the following offseason, Banner briefly spent time in the Panthers organization before finding his way to Pittsburgh.

Banner didn’t appear in any games for the Steelers in 2018, but he began to make a name for himself the following season (at least as a cult-like fan-favorite) as an eligible receiver in the team’s jumbo packages. Banner bet on himself last offseason and signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal to stay with the Steelers.

He soon found himself in a close training-camp battle with Chukwuma Okorafor for the team’s starting right tackle spot. Banner won the competition and started the first game of his career in Week 1 against the Giants. Unfortunately for Banner, his 2020 season was cut way too short when he sustained a torn ACL and was soon placed on Injured Reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

Banner appears to still have some room for growth, at least in terms of his play. In terms of his physique, Banner has already displayed more than enough dedication to his craft by dropping from 400 pounds right out of college to his current weight of around 335.

With the Steelers looking to get younger along the line, maybe they can convince Banner to sign yet another “prove it” team-friendly deal for 2021 and allow him to compete for one of the two starting tackle spots. The opinion of some scouts is that Okorafor is a better left tackle than right tackle. With veteran left tackle Alejandro Villanueva also a free agent, and someone whose play is no longer on par with what it would cost to retain his services, bringing Banner back for 2021 may actually be critical.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

It’s hard to judge Banner’s career because he really hasn’t had much of one up until now. Sure, he won the starting right tackle spot last summer, but his season was cut short long before we could find out if he was the real deal. How much are the Steelers willing to pay an unproven 27-year old tackle coming off a major knee injury? The team might view even a slight raise as too much of a gamble.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Zach Banner

As I alluded to already, I think Banner’s potential is intriguing. The Steelers should try to retain his services for at least one more year. He could wind up being one of the key building blocks for a struggling offensive line.

  • Now, can Pittsburgh pull this off given their salary cap constraints?

Ah, the answer question my friends, remains to be seen.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Keeping Cam Sutton in Free Agency is a Challenge Steelers Must Meet

The “story” on the Pittsburgh Steelers since they lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV has been, “Can Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin rebuild the defense while Ben Roethlisberger remains in his prime?”

  • And no position has been more challenging for the Steelers than cornerback.

Keenan Lewis developed slowly and by the time he got good, he was gone. The Steelers thought they had “the answer” in Cortez Allen, until injuries and mystery conspired to sabotage his career. Joe Haden‘s arrival in 2017 changed things at cornerback for the better, but then fate dealt a mortal blow to the Steelers defensive rebuild:  Ryan Shazier suffered a career ending injury.

But on of the unmentioned ironies accompanying Ryan Shazier’s tragic injury is that the night also marked the NFL debut of another promising cornerback for Pittsburgh, Cam Sutton who is in the spot light today.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton’s Career with the Steelers in 2021

As part of such a high-profile Steelers 2017 draft class that included T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee, was a bit of a forgot man, even if he did play a position — cornerback — that was still considered to be problematic for Pittsburgh.

Perhaps it would have been different had the Steelers not signed Joe Haden that summer. Furthermore, Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss, came out of nowhere that same year and took the Steelers secondary by storm as a very productive slot corner. Sutton spent his first few seasons increasing his position flexibility at the corner position, the slot corner position and even at safety.

However, it was in 2020 that Sutton finally had a bit of a breakthrough, appearing in 16 games and starting six at cornerback. Sutton recorded one interception, eight passes defended and 30 tackles a season ago. That he did this in the final year of his rookie deal certainly makes him much more attractive in free agency.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021

Again, Sutton has position flexibility, something that has always been a valuable commodity to head coach Mike Tomlin. Of course, the position the Steelers would likely need Sutton to fill in 2021 is slot corner, and that is because it seems highly unlikely that they’ll be able to retain the services of Hilton, who is considered one of the best in the business.

Mike Hilton is going to command big money on the open market. Sutton will certainly get a raise, but if the Steelers can retain him at a reasonable price, he could fill a huge void in 2021.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021

Honestly, the only negative would be the fact that Sutton put himself on the map in 2020 and could really cash in on the open market. Life is all about timing, and if some team presents Cam Sutton with an offer that he simply can’t refuse, the Steelers probably wouldn’t have the cap space to compete.

Curtain’s Call on Cam Sutton in 2021

I think the Steelers should do whatever they can within reason to retain Sutton. They spent years trying to rebuild their secondary, and I can’t imagine how much weaker it could be if their top two slot corners from a year ago exited via free agency.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: James Conner – Expect the “Hometown” Hero to Leave Pittsburgh

The “Hometown Hero” and the “Underdog” are two staples of the modern sports narrative. Even though you’ve seen it multiple times, who can resist stopping and watching Hooisers when you spy Gene Hackman’s mug while sapping?

  • I can’t either. And neither can you or else you wouldn’t be reading this now, would you?

The Pittsburgh Steelers got a two-for-one deal worthy of Giant Eagle when they brought James Conner into the fold back in 2017. Conner is from Western Pennsylvania, he played his college ball at Pitt where he had twin, 1000 yard seasons and scored 52 touchdowns despite battling an ACL tear.

  • Oh, and did we mention he’s also a cancer survivor too?  

Now after four years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, James Conner is about to become an unrestricted free agent. Will we see him in Black and Gold again? Let’s take a look.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Capsule Profile of James Conner’s Career with the Steelers 2021

The Steelers made James Conner third-round pick out of Pitt in the 2017 NFL Draft. Conner was mostly a special teams contributor in his rookie season, as the running back reps behind then superstar Le’Veon Bell were few and far between.

  • Conner appeared in 14 games before suffering a season-ending torn MCL down the stretch.

Le’Veon Bell‘s 2018 hold out paved the way for Conner to have a breakout sophomore season. As the starter, Conner appeared to pick up right where Bell left off and was on pace to tally 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for Conner, the injury bug bit him again late in the year and he wound up with 973 rushing yards to go along with 497 through the air, numbers that were still good enough to win him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Injuries proved to be troublesome for Conner again in 2019, as he missed six games with various ailments and only rushed for 464 yards. Conner appeared to return to his 2018 form at the beginning of 2020 while getting off to a hot start. Unfortunately, the ground game fizzled behind a struggling offensive line and a quarterback and coordinator perhaps too stubborn to commit to it.

James Conner finished up with 721 rushing yards in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Conner in 2021

Talent has never been an issue for James Conner. He has it and can be a productive running back when healthy. He’s a much better athlete than people give him credit for and probably the only running back currently on the Steelers roster capable of being the type of weapon Le’Veon Bell was in his prime.

And remember, Le’Veon Bell broke Steelers single game regular and playoff rushing records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis ever touched.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Conner 2021

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “when healthy.”

That’s always been an issue for James Conner, who also suffered a torn ACL in college. The shelf life for most running backs is pretty short to begin with. Do the Steelers really want to give Conner a raise in free agency if they can’t really trust that he’ll be healthy enough to play a full 16 game season, let alone fulfill his new deal?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Conner in 2021

As a college hero who battled and defeated cancer while attending the University of Pittsburgh, Conner’s story is a great and inspirational one. He’s not a hometown hero strictly speaking, having grown up in Erie, Pa, but I think the native Pittsburghers now consider him one of their own.

  • Everyone knows Conner’s story and most root for him to succeed.

Having said all that, I think it’s in Conner’s best interest to go somewhere where he’s not James Conner the hometown college hero and not James Conner the cancer survivor. He needs to go somewhere where he’s just James Conner the running back. As for the Steelers, I think it’s best they move on and look to upgrade at the position either through free agency or the draft.

Expect that to happen.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors: T.J. Watt – Giving Thanks that He Wears Black and Gold!

Thanksgiving 2020 has arrived and it is unlike any previous Thanksgiving. Not even the juggernaut that is the NFL is immune, with the Steelers-Ravens Thanksgiving game postponed with a scan 36 hours of notice.

Thanksgiving should be a time that brings together friends and family of all colors and creeds. At the very least, COVID-19 has made that far more complicated this year, upending traditions from coast-to-coast.

Fortunately, one tradition that COVID-19 can’t touch here in Steelers Nation is Steelers Thanksgiving Honors.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors, Explained

The “Steelers Thanksgiving Honors” tradition was born here on Steel Curtain Rising in 2009. The Super Bowl hung over Steelers were in the middle of 5 game losing streak that was every bit as brutal as it sounds.

Yet Rashard Mendenhall had emerged as a quality player that season and that effort, on top of the heart he showed in running to prevent a 94 yard interception return by Andy Studebaker from becoming a pick six was a true bright spot and reason to give thanks.

Steelers Thanksgiving Honors was born.

Steelers 2020 Thanksgiving Honors Winner: T.J. Watt

Both rightly and wrongly, the Pittsburgh Steelers identity is defined by defense.

In the 1970s Joe Greene’s arrival signaled the franchise’s pivot from perennial loser to champion, while Mel Blount dominated so thoroughly, the NFL literally changed the game because of him. Two generations later, Aaron Smith epitomized the “defend every blade of grass” personality of the Steelers defense, while Troy Polamalu dazzled even the most casual fans.

  • But it’s the men in the middle, the linebackers, who capture the imaginations of Steelers Nation.

Think the toothless Jack Lambert on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Think of Greg Lloyd, James Harrison or Ryan Shazier pulverizing the quarterback or picking off a pass at precisely the moment Pittsburgh needs them to.

  • And today you can add T.J. Watt to that list.

T.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers beat Patriots

T.J. Watt antagonizes Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft with the 30th pick. Four years later, the only question is, “What were the other 29 teams thinking?” T.J. Watt, like Cam Heyward before him, goes to show that while favorable draft position is a plus, you can still pick studs late in the first round.

The rebuild of the Steelers defense was already underway before T.J. Watt arrived, but Watt immediately upgraded the Steelers at outside linebacker.

  • His talent was evident as a rookie, where he logged 7 sacks, batted away 7 passes and forced one fumble.

T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Bengals

T.J. Watt strip sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

And, so many other special players do, he made a tremendous leap between his rookie and sophomore year. He almost doubled his sack total while incorporating the strip-sack into the game. The trend continued in 2019, as he bettered his 2018 numbers across the board.

And, with six games remaining in 2020, T.J. Watt already has 9 sacks, 1 interception, 14 tackles for a loss and 36 quarterback hits.

  • But numbers only tell one dimension of T.J. Watt’s story.

Truly great players don’t compile stats, they change games. And that is what T.J. Watt is does. Whether it is a sack, a tackle for a loss, a tipped pass or an interception, T.J. Watt has reached the point in his career that when the game is on the line, you almost instinctively expect him to make a play.

Those aren’t Watt’s only contributions; he also brings his infectious enthusiasm to the team, along with the requisite attitude (see the “Welcoming rookie quarterbacks to the AFC North) that an ass kicking Steelers linebacker must display.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

Shortly before he was drafted, Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel mused over whether “This guy might be the unicorn they’re looking for at outside linebacker.”

I don’t know if T.J. Watt is a unicorn, but I do know that he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler, and that’s reason a plenty for Steelers Nation to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

This year, more than any other year, we offer our Steelers Thanksgiving Honors with this critical caveat: We trust and hope that all of you, have many things that have nothing to do with footballl to be thankful for.

Our sincere hope is that everyone reading this is able to enjoy Thanksgiving in a way that allows you to share it healthy with family and friends.

Click here to read stories of past Steelers Thanksgiving Honors winners

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Debate Ended: Steelers Should Start Benny Snell Jr. at Running Back

If you’re a Steelers fan, you have to admire all that running back James Conner has had to overcome to even be in the NFL.

A star running back at the University of Pittsburgh, Conner suffered a season-ending ACL tear in 2015, an injury that actually led to doctors discovering that he had cancer. Conner battled through all of that adversity to not only defeat cancer and the injury but to become a third-round pick by the Steelers in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • James Conner’s story is a great one, truly inspirational, something that should warm the hearts of even the most cynical.

But even such a heartwarming story only has so much traction in the very cynical world of sports, and Conner has said himself that he doesn’t want to be defined by his battle with cancer. He wants to be defined as an NFL running back.

Much like a lot of things about James Conner, I can respect that. But if he is sincere in that sentiment, he must respect the opinions of folks –many of whom are admirers of his — who no longer think he should be the Steelers starting running back.

Benny Snell, Darnay Holmes, Steelers vs Giants

Benny Snell smokes Darnay Holmes in the Steelers win over the Giants. Photo Credit: AP via the Tribune Review

That should be Benny Snell Jr., and that should be as soon as this Sunday’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field.

Conner looked timid and unsure of himself in the early moments of Pittsburgh’s 26-16 Week 1 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Monday Night Football. After gaining just nine yards on six carries, Conner was removed from the game and never returned. It was later revealed that he suffered an ankle injury.

In his place, Snell, a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft, rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries.

Back to Conner.

  • When you really get to the heart of James Conner’s professional story, his problems with injuries are at the forefront.

Conner suffered an MCL tear late in his rookie season. OK, fine, Le’Veon Bell was the bell cow running back in those days, and Conner barely saw the field on offense prior to his injury. But in 2018, after the Steelers had grown used to Conner’s tremendous production in the wake of Bell’s season-long contract holdout, the Pro Bowl-bound second-year back missed several games down the stretch due to a concussion and an ankle problem.

James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Browns

JuJu Smith-Schuster watches as James Conner scores. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker, USA Today, via SB Nation

And in 2019, when the Steelers really needed to lean on a workhorse running back following the season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Conner once again proved to be unreliable, as he battled a myriad of injuries and missed a total of six games.

  • As per Triblive.com reporter Chris Adamski, Conner has either been injured in or missed 17 of his past 21 games with the Steelers.

If you’re the Steelers, how can you work with that?

Conner did lead the Steelers in rushing yards a year ago with 464. But Snell finished with 424 yards and didn’t start to see an increased workload until late in the season.

Snell built on that late-season momentum by losing 12 pounds this past offseason and looked fast, quick and explosive during most of his 19 carries on Monday night. The sentiment held by many in the local Pittsburgh sports media is that Snell really is the best running back the Steelers currently have, but that Conner will get the starting nod this Sunday, provided he’s healthy.

  • That’s a mistake.

If you’re the head coach, it’s your job to put the best players on the field in-order to give your team the greatest chance to win. I don’t know how Tomlin can possibly say Conner is his best running back at the moment.

It’s so obvious that it’s Snell.

  • Benny Snell Jr. should be the starter this Sunday and for the foreseeable future.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Many Happy Returns? Steelers Resign Sean Davis, Joshua Dobbs. Will Perhaps Add Colquitt Too

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin did anything but stand pat after cutting the Steelers initial 2020 roster down to the NFL mandated 53 man limit. As anticipated, the Steelers made changes to their roster, but they did so unexpected ways.

Everyone expected the Steelers to bring in an inside linebacker to replace either Ulysees Gilbert and Robert Spillane behind Devin Bush Jr.  and Vince Williams; instead, the Steelers brought back Sean Davis and Joshua Dobbs – two players who were on their 2019 opening day roster.

  • As a consequence, the Steelers waived safety Curtis Riley and quarterback Devlin Hodges.

Curtis Riley has already returned via the practice squad, but thus far the Steelers have not moved to add Devlin Hodges, although they are expected to do so, per Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Josha Dobbs, Jesse James, Josha Dobbs 1st NFL pass, Jesse James. Steelers vs Ravens

Joshua Dobbs prepares to fire off a pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Sean Simmers, PennLive

Dobbs Return a Surprise. Davis? Not So Much

The Steelers decision to bring back Joshua Dobbs, whom they traded to Jacksonville in week 2 of the 2019 season, counts as a major surprise.

The Steelers drafted Dobbs in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft and while Dobbs didn’t do much, word was the quarterback who moonlighted as a rocket scientist did all he could. A year later the Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft, yet Joshua Dobbs did enough in training camp to cause Pittsburgh to part ways with Landry Jones.

  • This wasn’t a trivial decision as Joshua Dobbs saw action twice that season.

First in Baltimore where he looked decisive in converting a 3rd down pass deep in Steelers territory, and then in Oakland, where he looked tentative while Ben Roethlisberger stood on the sideline. That was followed by a 2019 preseason effort where Dobbs’ development seemingly stalled, leading to the trade.

What is surprising is that Joshua Dobbs didn’t see any time in Jacksonville, where as Delvin Hodges, won his first 3 starts and added another victory in relief of Rudolph.

  • Sean Davis’ return is less surprising.

While the Steelers are set with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds as their starters, they only have Jordan Dangerfield and Marcus Allen behind them. Dangerfield is a special teamer who can play defense in a pinch, Marcus Allen drew raves in training camp but remains an unknown.

While many fans will take issue with this statement, but Sean Davis’ time in Pittsburgh was book ended by a strong rookie year in 2016 and a solid year at free safety in 2018. The fact that Washington would cut Sean Davis after paying him a 2 million dollar signing bonus is a bit disturbing, but these types of erratic personnel decision are hardly abnormal under Daniel Snyder.

Even if Sean Davis isn’t quite the starter capable level player Steel Curtain Rising projected him to be, he delivers and immediate injection of depth at safety.

Colquitt to Replace Berry?

There could be more moves to come in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are bringing in punter Dustin Colquitt to for a try out which puts Jordan Berry’s job in jeopardy. Jordan Berry had a respectable start to 2019 but his performance tapered off.

Dustin Colquitt has punted for the Kansas City Chiefs since 2005 and has a 44.8 punting average, which is .6 yards better than Berry’s. He’s also the son of Craig Colquitt who punted for the Steelers from 1978 through 1984 and earned rings while putting for Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV.

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Is Cam Sutton Really Challenging Mike Hilton for the Starting Slot Corner Position?

As the Steelers unique Heinz Field training camp begins to ramp up this week, complete with padded practices, there aren’t many starting jobs up for grabs.

There’s the battle for the starting right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, along with…….that’s really about it.

  • Seriously, try naming another starting position that’s up for grabs, as the Steelers, a team that’s missed the playoffs the previous two years, prepare for the 2020 regular season.

There is still intrigue–including the continued progress of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following major elbow surgery that snuffed out his 2019 campaign; the development of second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush, a talent that could take an already explosive defense to a whole new level in 2020; the overall abilities of a rookie class that includes receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, guard Kevin Dotson and running back Anthony McFarland; and, oh yes, the progress of third-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, just one season after he turned in mixed results–at best–while filling in for an injured Roethlisberger.

  • But, to reiterate, starting jobs?

Not much news there, not unless you’re talking about the starting slot corner position that has been occupied the past three seasons by Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent — a diamond in the rough, if you will — who Kevin Colbert plucked out of nowhere in 2017 (the Patriots practice squad, actually) to make the Steelers roster and fill the void at a position that had been seriously neglected for many years.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Not only did Hilton instantly fill a void, he became one of the better slot corners in the entire NFL, as the product from Ole Miss — or the same school that failed and oft-injured second-round pick (and believed to be slot-corner extraordinaire) Senquez Golson hailed from two years earlier–finished his rookie campaign with two interceptions, six passes-defensed and a whopping four sacks — including three in a blow-out victory over the Texans on Christmas Day.

  • Hilton has remained the Steelers starting slot corner–and one of the better ones in the league–ever since.

So who is supposedly coming for his job? How about Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s right, Sutton is believed to be a serious contender for the slot corner role, this summer.

And far be it for me to contradict “they” two summers in a row, but if you think about it, why would you take a player like Hilton, again, someone who is considered to be one of the better slot corners in the NFL, and bench him in his fourth season? That was a rhetorical question, because you wouldn’t.

And the Steelers won’t, either. This is just my theory (my conspiracy theory, if you will), but I think Pittsburgh is hoping Sutton makes the competition for the supposed open slot corner position close at training camp, but not close enough that he wins.

  • Why? Because both Hilton and Sutton are unrestricted free agents, next spring.

There’s already so much tape on Hilton that, even if he loses his starting job in 2020, interested teams will know enough about him to offer him a fat contract in 2021. As for Sutton, the only way he will truly be on anyone’s radar is if he starts in 2020–and excels.

If you’re the Steelers, why would you risk it? They already know what they have in Hilton. They thought enough of his abilities to tender him and pay him $3.2 million for the 2020 season. However, the whole tender thing won’t work for Hilton, next season. He’ll be able to shop his services to the highest bidder–and the highest bidder is likely to pay him much more money than the Steelers and their ongoing salary cap restrictions (restrictions that are about to get worse due to the revenue-shrinking pandemic)–would ever seriously consider.

With that in mind, you let Hilton start one more year at slot corner. In the meantime, you can keep Sutton in the same versatile role he’s been in since his rookie season.

Starting next season, the Steelers let Hilton walk and offer Sutton a team-friendly multi-year contract and hope that he settles for an annual salary on par with the $3.2 million Hilton is making in 2020.

  • But if Sutton becomes the starting slot corner this season, chances are, Pittsburgh won’t be able to afford to retain either him or Hilton in 2021.

Sound logical? I think so. The Steelers have a good thing going on defense, especially in a secondary that has seemingly found all the right parts after many years of struggle.

  • No sense in upsetting the apple-cart now, not when the unit looks poised to have another dominant season.

Let Hilton do his thing for one more season. After that, give the starting slot corner job to Sutton.

That’s my plan.

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Steelers Nation’s Lack of Love for James Washington is Puzzling

Steelers receiver James Washington appears to have all the tools necessary to become an elite receiver in the league, save for height.

But height has never kept a Steelers receiver from achieving greatness, as the likes of Lynn Swann, Louis Lipps and Antonio Brown all will attest.

Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in the 2018 NFL Draft, is physical, he’s fast, he’s capable of making those tough combat catches, etc., etc. All of these attributes were on display during Washington’s sophomore season with the Steelers, when he led the team in receiving yards with 735.

James Washington, Micah Hyde, Steelers vs Bills

James Washington catches a pass in front of Micah Hyde. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

The fact that James Washington did this after a rather forgettable rookie season in-which he posted a miserable 217 receiving yards on an equally miserable 16 receptions was all the more remarkable considering he didn’t have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for all but six quarters of the 2019 season.

That’s right, without Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a major elbow injury that would require invasive surgery to repair, the Steelers quarterback play, well, it left a lot to be desired a season ago. Mason Rudolph had his moments, as did Devlin Hodges, but both also turned in moments that weren’t so great.

  • So why not much excitement for Washington?

Maybe because the Steelers just keep drafting receivers with high picks. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a second-round selection out of USC in the 2017 NFL Draft, is now one of the stars of the team, a leader, someone Pittsburgh is counting on to rebound after a 2019 in which he struggled both in terms of production and with his health. Then there’s Diontae Johnson, a third-round pick out of Toledo in the 2019 NFL Draft, a player that came into the pros being compared to Antonio Brown, a comparison that seemed rather apt after a rookie campaign in which Johnson pulled in 59 receptions for 680 yards.

And let’s not forget about Chase Claypool, the Notre Dame receiver the Steelers just selected in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Claypool is big, fast and strong–they haven’t dubbed the native Canadian “Mapletron” for nothing.

  • Big things are expected from Smith-Schuster, Johnson and even Claypool in 2020.

Why has James Washington gotten lost in the shuffle? Why aren’t bigger things expected of him. How come he’s not expected to make an even bigger leap in 2020 thanks to the return of Roethlisberger?

I wish I had the answer to these questions, but he has just as much of a chance to make an impact on the Steelers offense in 2020 as any other member of their receiving corps.

As the saying goes, I wouldn’t sleep on James Washington if I were you.

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Steelers Name T.J. Watt MVP for 2019, Highlighting Balance of Power Shift from Offense to Defense

Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers closed the year by voting T.J. Watt as the MVP for the 2019 season, a move that was widely expected and an honor that is richly deserved.

Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, Steel City Insider writer Matt C. Steel described T.J. Watt as a “unicorn” in terms of his ability to be the type of outside linebacker who could both pressure the passer and work in coverage.

At the time, the Steelers were coming off of the 2016 season, which had been saved, in part by Mike Tomlin’s decision to bench Jarvis Jones and start James Harrison in his place.

James Harrison made an immediate impact in terms of pressuring the passer and setting the edge, but his limited ability to cover receivers down the field became brutally apparent in the Steelers loss to the Patriots in the 2016 AFC Championship game. (To be fair, James Harrison was far from the only player who had his limitations exposed that day.)

OK, to be objective a look at the 29 players taken ahead of T.J. Watt in the 2017 NFL Draft does reveal some players who were picked ahead of him, but it is also safe to say the number of General Managers who’d like that draft pick is probably measured in the 20’s.

T.J. Watt made an immediate impact as a rookie, logging 7 sacks and making 1 interception. In his second season he exploded for 13 sacks and added 6 forced fumbles. With one game to play in the 2019 season, T.J. Watt already has 14 sacks, 2 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles, and 34 hits to the quarterback.

Those statistics are excellent, but they fail to capture the true value that T.J. Watt brings to the Steelers defense.

T.J. Watt, Sam Darnold, Steelers vs Jets, T.J. Watt 2019 Steelers MVP, Steelers 2019 MVP

Plays like this strip-sack of Sam Daronold are why T.J. Watt is the Steelers 2019 MVP. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Great defensive players don’t simply make great plays. They change games by making them at critical moments. Think:

T.J. Watt has delivered this level of playmaking to the Steelers throughout 2019. To see a recent example, look no further back than last week against the Jets. Mason Rudolph had just come off the bench for Devlin Hodges and gotten the Steelers on the board near with 1:22 left to play.

The Jets remained aggressive, and got to midfield with 0:36 when T.J. Watt hit Sam Daronold with one of his patented strip-sacks. 5 plays later and Mason Rudolph was hooking up with Diontae Johnson to tie the game.

There’s no better example of T.J. Watt’s timely playmaking, a tendency which was on display throughout the season.

T.J. Watt MVP Selection Highlights Shift in Balance of Power of Steelers Roster

T.J. Watt’s selection as Steelers MVP should surprise no one. While the Steelers don’t reveal the vote tally, it is likely that Watt’s closest competition was Minkah Fitzpatrick.

And assuming that’s the case, this highlights a dramatic shift in the balance of power within the Steelers roster. The Steelers are an organization that prides themselves on defense, but T.J. Watt’s 2019 MVP selection marks the first time a defensive player has earned those honors since Troy Polamlau won it in 2010.

The winners through the rest of the decade alternated between Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, with Heath Miller winning in 2012 and JuJu Smith-Schuster winning last year. While Cam Heyward would have been a worthy winner in 2017, the Steelers MVP choices accurately reflect a decade dominated by offense and book-ended by stout defense.

Congratulations to T.J. Watt for being the Steelers 2019 MVP.

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