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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Steelers 2019 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to for Another OLB in the 1st?

Since at least the 1980’s the success of the Steelers defense has gone hand and hand with the quality of its linebackers. And within that framework, it is the outside linebackers who’ve been the movers and shakers for Pittsburgh.

  • Since Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have invested significant draft capital in bolstering their outside linebacking corps.

However, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have at least as many misfires as they do hits. With that in mind, is it time for the Steelers to target outside linebacker again in the 2019 NFL Draft?

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

The Steelers 2019 Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers have used 3 first round draft picks on outside linebacker in this decade alone bringing a mixed bag to Pittsburgh.

But the one crystal clear home run is T.J. Watt whom the Steelers drafted in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. In T.J. Watt the Steelers brought an instant starter to Pittsburgh, as Watt relegated James Harrison to the bench while he racked up 7 sacks and 1 interception as a rookie.

T.J. Watt was only getting warmed up, as he returned in 2018 to make 13 sacks, force 6 fumbles drop 12 defenders behind the line of scrimmage and hit opposing quarterbacks 21 times.

  • T.J. Watt is clearly a keeper.

Playing opposite T.J. Watt the Steelers have Bud Dupree, whom they selected in the 2015 NFL Draft after he unexpectedly fell in the 1st round. At the time, Bud Dupree was seen as a raw athlete in who needed to develop his skills.

  • Both of those attributes have been evident in his time in Pittsburgh.

As a rookie, Bud Dupree ripped off 3 sacks in his first 5 games in four in his first 8. Then his production tapered off. At the time it was said he “hit a rookie wall.” Bud Dupree began 2016 on the injured list, but made an immediate impact when he returned, recording 4.5 sacks in just 7 games.

Unfortunately, Bud Dupree only recorded 6 sacks in 2017, prompting coaches to swap T.J. Watt and Dupree to opposite sides of the defense. In terms of sacks, the move didn’t help Dupree’s production, but he did get more pressure on the quarterback as measured by QB hits and defensed 3 more passes. HE also added a pick six in the Steelers win over Tampa Bay.

Four years into his NFL career, Bud Dupree is playing on his 5th year option and while he clearly isn’t bust in the mold of Jarvis Jones, he’s clearly failing to deliver as a first round draft pick should.

The Steelers 2019 Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Backing up both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree is Anthony Chickillo, whom the Steelers added in the same draft as Dupree and recently signed a 2 year contract extension. In four years Anthony Chickillo has done everything the Steelers have asked of him, including starting 7 games as he has seen duty on both side of the defense.

  • If reports are correct, Bill Belichick offered Anthony Chickillo the same or slightly more money to come to New England.

Hate him though we may, Belichick has a keen eye for talent and does not throw around free agent money frivolously. The Steelers aren’t the only ones who’ve looked at Chickillo’s tape and seen someone who borders on being starter capable.

The Steelers also have Olasunkanmi Adeniyi who earned a spot on the Steelers active roster after a strong performance in training camp and preseason. The Steelers will also bring 2018’s 7th round pick Keion Adams back to training camp.

The Steelers 2019 Outside Linebacker Draft Need

Outside linebacker is a tricky area for the Steelers in the 2019 NFL Draft. As Bob Labriola never tires of reminding readers on Asked and Answer, the Steelers NEED defensive playmakers. But their needs at inside linebacker, cornerback and perhaps safety are stronger.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • T.J. Watt is budding into a legitimate difference maker on defense, and while Bud Dupree is a disappointment, the Steelers can win with him.

Could a rookie come in and provide an immediate upgrade over Bud Dupree? Perhaps, but that’s not something to count on. Still, what happens if the Steelers turn comes to draft at 20, the Devins are long gone, and the best player the Steelers have on their board is an outside linebacker?

  • It says here that picking that player might not be the worst decision the Steelers could make.

With that said, if one only takes Pittsburgh’s needs into account, then the Steelers 2019 draft need at outside linebacker must be considered Moderate.

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Is the Steeler 2019 Draft Need @ Running Back Stronger than Conventional Wisdom Indicates?

Ask a fan, a journalist or even a team employee what the Steelers top needs are entering the 2019 NFL Draft and they’ll tell you inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver – probably in that order.

  • Few would, or should argue.

But after those positions, there’s little agreement over what comes next. Some would argue for edge rusher, others tight end while still others will insist that the Steelers add another safety. Those arguments all have their merits.

Few, however, think of, let alone mention running back – is this a mistake? Let’s find out.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Home town hero and cancer survivor James Conner became an immediate fan favorite when the Steelers picked the former Pitt Panther in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. James Conner saw little action in his rookie season which unfortunately ended in the December showdown against the New England Patriots.

  • James Conner’s body of work was so scant that the Steelers did not seriously consider him as an alternative to Le’Veon Bell.

Nonetheless, with Le’Veon Bell made good on threats to hold out/backed away of his stated intention to report and play in the franchise tag (Bell made both), James Conner became the Steelers starting running back.

James Conner proved to be up to the task as a quick look at his performance reveals.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

James Conner not only proved to be a capable replacement to Le’Veon Bell, by some measures, he was an improvement to Le’ Veon Bell. (One of those, unfortunately, was not ball security.) James Conner of course got hurt in the Steelers loss to the Chargers, but his return in week 17 should do nothing to dissuade fans that Conner is a championship caliber NFL running back.

  • The other Steelers starter at running back would be Roosevelt Nix, their fullback.

While Roosevelt Nix continued to play well when called upon by the Steelers, but in Randy Fichtner’s offense, Roosevelt Nix’s role decrease, as his 2018 snap count dropped to 9.86%, down from 16.37% in 2017.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart Going into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

Behind James Conner the Steelers have Jaylen Samuels who was thrust into the starting role after Conner’s injury despite never having worked as a starting running back in his NFL life.

Given his lack of experience, the rookie Jaylen Samuels did incredibly well, rushing for 256 yards on 56 carries and catching another 26 passes for 29 yards which included 3 through the air.

Behind Samuels, the Steelers also have Trey Edmunds, brother of Terrell Edmunds, who got activated from the practice squad when Conner got injured, and remains an unknown commodity.

For those of you taking notes at home, the Steelers also have running backs Malik Williams and Ralph Webb on their roster.

Steelers Need @ Running Back Going into the 2019 NFL Draft

Although he only has a year of starting experience under his belt, James Conner already shares something in common with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, Isaac Redman and DeAngelo Williams.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • What might that be?

James Conner, like his Tomlin-era predecessors, suffered a late season injury that complicated “December football” for the Steelers because there was little proven depth behind him.

To be fair to the coaching staff, as soon as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell’s holdout would become permanent, the Steelers dramatically cut down on his workload as the table above indicates.

Perhaps that’s a sign that Mike Tomlin is learning that he shouldn’t take his credo of rushing a running back until his wheels start to fall off too literally.

  • However, the Steelers made no apparent attempt to target a running back during free agency.

And that leaves a bare cupboard behind James Conner and Jaylen Samuels. Steel Curtain Rising is already on record saying that beefing up running back depth is one of the under appreciated Steelers 2019 off season priorities. And with that in mind, the Steelers need at running back going into the 2019 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate High.

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Steelers 2019 Quarterback Draft Needs: Time for Pittsburgh to Stand Pat?

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL. In Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers have their franchise quarterback. Yet, they looked to quarterback when the picked Joshua Dobbs in the 2017 NFL Draft and Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Could or should the Steelers look to draft another quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger will be 37 on opening day 2019 and has been the Steelers signal caller since the 2nd game of the 2004 season. While it took him a long time to get the respect he deserves, Ben Roethlisberger is finally seen as one of the NFL’s best.

  • However, Father Time is undefeated in his races with even gifted athletes.

The question of a player losing a step to the Old Man is one of “when” and not “if.” Is Ben Roethlisberger losing a step? The record is mixed. Ben Roethlisberger had an awful start to the 2017 and while the lull wasn’t as pronounced in 2018, he still started slow.

  • It is also tempting to look at his 16 interceptions and claim that as evidence the Big Ben is nearing his 11th hour.

But such claims are exaggerated. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger’s slow starts are a concern, but his 2018 interception percentage was actually lower than the year before and below his career average. He also threw 458 passes, far more than he’d ever thrown before.

He took a few more sacks but he’s not absorbing anywhere near the punishment he was absorbing earlier in his career. More importantly, he seems to be playing with much more harmony under Randy Fichtner than he did under Todd Haley.

  • The Steelers Red Zone percentage in 2018 soared to 73% well above the middling 53% mark they attained in 2017.

Could Ben Roethlisberger be one of those players who “gets old fast” the way say, Hines Ward did? It is a possibility, but also one that is impossible to anticipate, and the Steelers shouldn’t “Live in their fears” as far as that is concerned in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The BackUps

2018 marked a radical change in the Steelers bullpen philosophy. Dating back to the 1989 season when Chuck Noll had Todd Blackledge and Rick Strom backing up Bubby Brister, the Steelers practice has been to staff an experienced veteran behind their starter, followed by a young player who offer some sort of “upside” if not more.

  • The practice continued under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

That changed the moment the Steelers cut Landry Jones and decided go with Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph behind Ben Roethlisberger. For the first time in over a generation, the Steelers had two men backing up their starting NFL quarterback who had never thrown and NFL pass.

  • Joshua Dobbs won the backup job with a stellar preseason underpinned by an unwavering work ethic.

He was called into action twice in the 2018 season, first against the Ravens where Dobbs audibled out of a running play and completed a critical 3rd and long while planting in the Steelers end zone. The poise and decisiveness of Dobbs’ execution was breathtaking.

  • The second time came in the 2nd half at Oakland. The truth is that Joshua Dobbs was far more tentative that day and looked out of rhythm with his receivers.

Mason Rudolph is an unknown at this point. If reports are to be believed, at least one of the key members of the Steelers brain trust had a 1st round grade on him going into the 2018 NFL Draft. The Steelers drafted him with their extra third round pick, giving up a 7th rounder to move ahead of the Bengals who were said to be targeting Rudolph.

  • By all accounts Mason Rudolph looked solid in preseason, but he wasn’t strong enough to beat out Dobbs.

That shouldn’t be to big of a knock of Mason Rudolph. Suffice to say, many NFL teams would love to have had a 3rd string quarterback of his pedigree.

The Steelers 2019 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftThe idea of the Steelers drafting a quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft is almost an academic question. Clearly, with Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph the Steelers don’t need to add quarterback depth in the draft.

  • What about finding Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement in the 2019 NFL Draft?

All pre-draft projections indicate that the franchise-capable quarterbacks will be long gone by the time the Steelers pick at 20th. Even if they’re not, the possibility of a strike or lockout in 2021 is very, very real.

That being the case, the Steelers really need to focus their draft capital on trying to win a Super Bowl before Ben Roethlisberger begins his “Life’s Work.”

Of course, if the Steelers found themselves in the same situation the Packers were in in the 2005 NFL Draft when Aaron Rodgers dropped in their laps the should consider pulling the trigger, but the chances of that happening are remote.

The Steelers quarterback needs in at quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft must be considered Low.

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Eli Rogers Practices. Should Justin Hunter or James Washington Look Over Their Shoulders?

The Eli Rogers returns to practice this week for the Steelers, which gives Pittsburgh 21 days to either activate him or put him on season ending IR. As it currently stands, if the Steelers do activate Eli Rogers that will mean that someone’s roster spot is in jeopardy. Which begs the question:

Currently the Steelers have wide receivers Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, James Washington, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Justin Hunter on their roster. That gives them 6 wide outs which about brings them to their ceiling.

Eli Rogers

Eli Rogers returns to practice with the Steelers. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Obviously, barring an injury in the next 21 says Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ryan Switzer are staying put. Darrius Heyward-Bey only has one target this year, but because of his role on special teams his job is likely safe too.

  • But Justin Hunter and James Washington are no so lucky.

Although he was a four year veteran when the Steelers signed Justin Hunter as a free agent in the spring of 2017, Pittsburgh liked him then more for his potential rather than past performance. And two years later potential remains Justin Hunter’s calling card in the Steelers offense. Hunter only has 7 catches on 20 targets.

The Steelers drafted James Washington in the 2nd round of the 2018 NFL Draft, a move which drew immediate comparisons to JuJu Smith-Schuster, their 2nd round pick of the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Washington was close to a non-stop highlight reel in the 2018 preseason, despite Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger’s attempts to quell expectations. 11 games into the season, it is easy to understand why they were so quick to curb everyone’s enthusiasm. James Washington has 8 catches on 25 targets.

Steelers 2018 Offense Needs a Legit 3rd Wide Receiver

To revert to Tomlin speak the 2018 Steelers are still “writing their story.” But with 11 chapters on paper, Randy Fichtner’s offense is proving to be an upgrade from Todd Haley’s. Red Zone performance is up and at 45.71% third down conversions are higher than they ever were during the Todd Haley era.

Look across the depth chart, and its hard to find any one area that’s under performing or has a glaring deficiency. (Well, OK, a James Conner injury will change that in a hurry.)

  • But 11 games into 2018, the Steelers offense still doesn’t have a legit 3rd wide receiver.

Ryan Switzer has done everything this offense has asked of him and last week the kid certainly proved he can take a hit, but being a legit 4th wide receiver isn’t the same as being a third wide out.

  • He may not be the weapon that Antwaan Randle El, was, but Eli Rogers has already proven he’s a legitimate 3rd wide receiver in the Steelers offense.

Rogers of course injured his ACL in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars and his knee must be tested. However, if Eli Rogers is healthy and ready to go, he’d provide an immediate upgrade from either James Washington or Justin Hunter.

  • In such a situation look for Justin Hunter to get a visit from the The Turk.

The Steelers aren’t going to cut James Washington, and putting him on injured reserve would end his season, whereas no team is going to be in a rush to ink Justin Hunter to a new deal should Pittsburgh cut him loose.

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Steelers Trade for Ryan Switzer, Kicker Returner WR Acquired from Raiders for 5th Rounder

The Pittsburgh has a new kick returner, as the Steelers traded for Ryan Switzer from the Oakland Raiders, acquiring the return specialist for a 5th round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Steelers also get the Raider’s 6th round pick as part of the deal.

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Mike Tomlin plans to immediately insert Ryan Switzer into the Steelers lineup and hopes to play him in the Steelers preseason finale on Thursday evening against the Carolina Panthers.

Mike Tomlin explained how Ryan Switzer fits in with the Steelers:

We’ll put him in the mix with these guys and hopefully get him ready to go Thursday night and just continue to build our football team in trying to be strong in all areas.

To make room for Switzer, the Steelers waived Justin Thomas, who’d hopped to make the team as a returner or slot receiver.

Ryan Switzer, Steelers trade for Ryan Switzer

New Steelers kick returner Ryan Switzer celebrating touchdown with Cowboys. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via 24/7 Sports

Originally drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 3th Round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Ryan Switzer averaged 25 yards on 24 kickoff returns in 2017. While he didn’t take one to the house, he did have a long return of 61 yards. Switzer also returned 29 punts for an 8.8 yard average and including one 83 yard punt return for a touchdown.

  • The Cowboys seldom threw to Switzer, who caught 6 passes for 41 yards.

During preseason, Switzer caught 1 touchdown for yards and returned 3 punts for -0.5 yards.

Bad News for Quadree Henderson?

Ryan Switzer’s arrival is bad news for any number of hopeful undrafted rookies and 2nd year players hoping to make the team. Pitt standout Quadree Henderson was signed as a rookie free agent with an eye towards using him as a returner, but he has not impressed thus far as a return specialist.

The Steelers have also used cornerback Cam Sutton as a punt returner and last year they used Eli Rogers in that capacity, but Eli Rogers remains on the PUP list and would serve a 1 game suspension for substance abuse anyway.

  • Ryan Switzer can also play as a slot receiver.

That decreases Markus Tucker and Trey Griffey chances of making the final roster, as well as those of Damoun Patterson. Current Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington are locks to make the Steelers roster at wide receiver. Ryan Switzer would figure to be the 4th.

Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey is primarily in the mix, although his value to the team is more on special teams than as a wide out.

Colbert’s Luck with Trades

For a long time, even into the Mike Tomlin era, it was rare for the Steelers to acquire players by trade. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did trade to acquire kick returner Allen Rossum in 2007.

  • But starting in 2013 summer trades became more comment for the Steelers.

The Steelers traded Adrian Robinson for Felix Jones in 2013, traded for Levi Brown during the regular season, traded for Brandon Boykin in 2015, Justin Gilbert in 2016, and J.J. Wilcox and Vance McDonald in 2017. Of the sextet of players acquired by trade, only Vance McDonald has delivered anything of value on the field, and his 2017 season was limited by injury (and he’s been injured during the entire summer.)

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