Like It or Not: Benny Snell Football Remains in Pittsburgh for One More Year

In a move that shocked anyone heavily invested in the Steelers, Benny Snell Jr., the fourth-year running back out of Kentucky, survived the team’s final round of cuts last Tuesday and will remain on the roster through at least the 2022 campaign.

Wow, right? I guess it could be a surprise if you are so emotionally connected to all things Steelers that you spent the majority of the summer rooting for Snell to leave town once and for all.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ah, the good old days of his rookie year when Benny Snell, who the Steelers picked the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, actually had fans excited. Why? Mainly because of a hugely-productive college career that included 3,873 combined rushing yards and 48 touchdowns.

Kentucky has never been known as a college football powerhouse, especially in the powerful SEC, so for Snell to produce so well–he rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons–was seen as a good sign.

There was even talk that Snell could be a prime candidate to replace James Conner, the third-year running back with a great personal story but a bad habit of always being injured. After battling ailments over his first two seasons, Conner again missed a lot of time in 2019; Snell carried the load in Conner’s absence and nearly finished as the team’s leading rusher with 426 yards on 108 carries.

There was so much hope for Snell heading into 2020, and the goodwill continued for the second-year back after he replaced an injured Conner during the Week 1 showdown against the Giants in New York and rushed for 113 yards.

Then it all came crashing down. James Conner remained the starting running back in 2020 — and he even managed to remain healthy — while Snell only rushed for 326 yards on 111 carries.

  • Benny Snell did not look good behind a quickly aging and deteriorating offensive line.

Snell was an even less productive back in 2021, rushing for 98 yards on just 36 carries, while Najee Harris, the rookie bell-cow running back out of Alabama, tallied 1,200 yards on 307 rushes.

  • Fans had soured on Benny Snell even before the 2021 campaign and started referring to him as “Benny Snail.”

So what has happened to Snell? You can blame it on the offensive line — one that got younger and even worse in 2021. You can blame it on Snell being stuck behind Harris, the team’s first-round pick a year ago.

But if I had to pin the stagnation of Snell’s career on anything, I think the number-one suspect would be his draft stock. That’s right, despite what people like to now say about the position, it’s rare for running backs selected with mid-to-late-round picks to turn into stars.

It’s probably even worse for undrafted free agents, which is why I have a warning for Jaylen Warren, the UDFA running back out of Oklahoma State who became a training camp darling and made the Steelers’ final roster: Run!

  • No, not from defenders. Instead, you better learn to run from the critics and the haters.

They’ll be around soon to voice their opinions on you.

Why do I say that? Because it goes back to what I just mentioned: It’s rare for guys drafted with non-premium picks, or not drafted at all, to make an impact at the NFL level.

Just ask Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018 who, like Snell, showed a lot of promise during his rookie season. Remember his 100 yard performance in the 2018 Steelers upset win over the Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

  • Then, Jaylen Samuels stopped showing much promise at all.

After spending three seasons with the Steelers, and then cups of coffee with both the Texans and Cardinals, Samuels is currently a free agent. Will he ever play again? It seems doubtful.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Back to Snell.

Why is he still on the Steelers’ roster? Because of special teams, that’s why; apparently, Snell is one of those special teams demons. No, he’s not a Pro Bowl-level player, but he’s really good. In fact, Snell’s special teams snaps increased to 326 last year after tallying 198 in 2020.

  • Can’t everyone play special teams? Apparently not, or at least not everyone can play them as well as Snell.

Believe it or not, not every player is there to please the fans and to become a star. Most NFL players stick around because they can do the mundane work, the stuff that doesn’t get the headlines, and do it well.

Benny Snell Football was a style of play the young running back boasted about during his rookie season. Unfortunately, Benny Snell Football has morphed into something way less sexy than we all thought it would be.

But that’s okay.

Benny Snell Jr. has managed to make it to his fourth NFL season. There are few football players on the planet who can make that same claim.

 

 

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Steelers 2022 NFL Draft Needs @ Safety – Is Pittsburgh Primed for Another Shock?

Just days shy of the 2022 NFL Draft find the Pittsburgh Steelers with 3 safeties on their roster who were first round picks.

So, then it must be safe to say that safety is not a priority for Pittsburgh in the draft? Not so fast.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Minkah Fitzpatrick end zone interception

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Lamarr Jackson in the end zone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Safety: The Starters

Shocking.

That single word precisely defines the arrival in Pittsburgh of both the Steelers starting safeties. The Steelers opened the 2018 NFL Draft by shocking the pundit class by picking Terrell Edmunds out of nowhere.

And if it is true that Edmunds hasn’t delivered the level of splash play that you’d expect from a first round pick, he has started for four straight years, missing only one game. Moreover, Edmunds has gotten better with each passing year.

The fact that Edmunds was on the free agent market over a month is a little bit surprising, as is the 2.5 million dollar deal he signed to return – which is less than what Marcus Allen and Robert Spillane are getting.

  • But his having an NFL safety with 60 starts play for you for 2.5 million something to complain about? I think not.

If drafting Terrell Edmunds was a shock in the spring of 2018, then trading 2020’s first round pick – after knowing that Ben Roethlisberger faced major elbow surgery – to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick was a super charged shock.

It didn’t take long to see why Art Rooney II broke from 50 years of franchise tradition in trading away a first round pick, as Minkah Fitzgerald had an interception in his first game as a Steeler. During the 2019 season, Fitzgerald arguably changed the course of 3 if not 4 games in the Steelers favor.

  • Fitzpatrick had another stealer year in 2020, helping seal a number of critical wins.

Critics have said that Minkah Fitzpatrick had an off year in 2021. Its true. His “Splash” play count was down. But the Baltimore Ravens come to Heinz Field and go the length of the field and you have a player who can kill a drive with an end zone interception, are you really going to complain?

What wasn’t captured in Minkah’s stats were things like the critical third down stops he made time-and-time again. If you’re really looking to understand his value to the team, look at his tackle count: It jumped from 79 in 2020 to 214 in 2021.

That’s because in a year of a historically bad run defense, Minkah Fitzpatrick served as the last line of defense time and time again.

Steelers Depth Chart at Safety: The Backups

The other first round pick the Steelers have at safety is Karl Joseph, although he is not the primary backup at the position. Joseph was signed by the Steelers at the end of summer and played on their practice squad for most of 2021.

  • He is returning to Pittsburgh in 2022 on a veteran minimum contract.

The primary backup at safety is Tre Norwood, the player whom the Steelers drafted in the 7th round of the 2021 NFL Draft. That 7th round status didn’t deter Mike Tomlin from labeling him as a “Swiss Army Knife.”

Tomlin was true to his word. Tre Norwood appeared in all 17 games for the Steelers, logging 33% of the defensive snaps, making 1 interception and defending 4 passes during the season. Indeed, it was Tre Norwood who picked off a Minkah Fitzpatrick deflection against the Browns that allowed Ben Roethlisberger to close his career at Heinz Field in the victory formation.

Veteran Miles Killebrew is also technically a safety, but only logged 44 defensive snaps last year, playing mostly on special teams. Donovan Stiner is also on their roster after having signed a futures contract.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Safety

A week ago mock drafts that showed Pittsburgh picking Michigan’s Dax Hill were completely plausible. The Terrell Edmunds signing changes that equation, but only so much.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

The Steelers will certainly target Minkah Fitzpatrick for a mega extension this summer, but what about Edmunds?

  • Terrell Edmunds’ contract is a prove-itdeal if there ever was one.

The critical question is, was a one-year deal Edmunds’ idea, or did the Steelers offer him say, a 2-year deal worth 8 million? Even if the Steelers do remain interested in Edmunds long term, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t end up seeing him leave just as JuJu Smith-Schuster did.

So while we shouldn’t expect the Steelers to use one of their premium picks on a safety, it certainly would be a shock if they did.

With that said, the Steelers need at safety going into the 2022 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate.

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Examining Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback – Has Pittsburgh Done Enough?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to have things locked down at the cornerback position, so to speak. For a short spell, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were good-to-great starters on the outside, while Mike Hilton was one of the best slot corners in the NFL.

  • But free agency, the constraints of the salary cap and age quickly changed that.

Mike Hilton was the first to leave, as he signed a deal with the Bengals at the onset of the 2021 free-agency period. Not long after that, Nelson was released due to the salary cap hell the Steelers found themselves in last spring.

Joe Haden was the only one left from that accomplished trio. But as of this writing, it appears that the Steelers have officially moved on from Haden, 33, who is an unrestricted free agent and has yet to sign with Pittsburgh or anyone else.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

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

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

Late last summer, right before the start of the regular season, the Steelers acquired Ahkello Witherspoon in a trade with the Seahawks. Witherspoon was a third-round pick by the 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Witherspoon started 33 games during his four years in San Francisco before signing a one-year deal with Seattle last spring. Witherspoon was barely a factor for the Steelers for the majority of the 2021 campaign, but he started to earn starting reps down the stretch as a replacement for James Pierre and was arguably the team’s best cornerback at the end of the season.

Ahkello Witherspoon agreed to terms on a two-year deal with the Steelers in March and figures to be one of the starting outside corners in 2022.

Speaking of free agents and two-year contracts, the Steelers signed Levi Wallace, formerly of the Bills, to a two-year deal at the beginning of free agency. Wallace, an undrafted free agent in the 2018 NFL Draft, became a full-time starter in Buffalo by his second season and remained in that role through 2021. Playing opposite the highly-decorated Tre’Davious White, Wallace was a solid number two corner for the Bills and figures best suited for that same role in Pittsburgh.

Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, spent his first four seasons serving many roles in the secondary, playing on the outside, in the slot and even at safety. But Sutton finally got his break and promotion in 2021, in addition to a new contract, and became a full-time starter. Again, Sutton is extremely versatile but perhaps seems destined to start in the slot in 2022, with the re-signing of Witherspoon and the addition of Wallace.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, struggled in 2021 after earning the most significant playing time of his short career.

After being selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Justin Layne has done very little to prove he even has what it takes to be a backup cornerback, let alone a starter.

Veteran Arthur Maulet, an undrafted free agent formerly of the Saints, Colts and Jets, made Pittsburgh’s roster last year and was a steady contributor in the slot.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at cornerback are Linden Stephens and Isaiah Johnson.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

When talking about the Steelers’ three starters, the consensus seems to be that they are all solid number two caliber corners.

That’s a good number, but is that enough, even with a consistent and dominant pass rush? When you factor in the underwhelming depth behind those top 3, I would categorize the Steelers’ draft need at cornerback as Moderate-High

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Back! For Now… Steelers Resign Terrell Edmunds to 1 Year Contract

Less than one week out from the 2022 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers have added another piece to their puzzle with their decision to resign Terrell Edmunds to a reported 1 year 2.5 million dollar contract.

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers shocked draft observers by picking Terrell Edmunds in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Edmunds immediately assumed the starting role and almost never left the field for four straight years. Still, last spring the Steelers opted not to pick up Terrell Edmunds 5th year option, making him a free agent.

  • Free agency hit with a bang in March, with the Steelers making a record number of signings.

Yet, Terrell Edmunds was not one of those. Nor was his phone ringing off the hook, apparently. What followed was what we can only assume was a negotiation stalemate. There were multiple on social media reports, including several with contract terms, that the “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu was about to sign with the Steelers.

The contract never materialized. About a week ago, Bob Labriola confirmed on Steelers.com during “Asked and Answered” that the Steelers were indeed interested in Mathieu, but could not agree on his worth. In parallel to that, both national and Pittsburgh reporters informed readers that the door remained open for Terrell Edmunds.

  • Edumnds has walked through that door.

This is a wise move for both sides. At 2.5 million per year, Terrell Edmunds is clearly signing a “prove it contract” and banking on finding greener pastures inside or outside of Pittsburgh next spring. The Steelers gambled a bit by not offering Edmunds a 5th year tender, and they’ve won that gamble.

  • They get a proven starter back at about the third of the cost.

By signing Edmunds, the Steelers also eliminate a major area of need heading into the draft. They could still target a safety early, but will certainly not have to reach to fill a starting role. Behind Edmunds, the Steelers also have Tre Norwood, Miles Killebrew and Karl Joseph at safety.

Steelers Also Firm up WR Depth Chart with MMyles Boykin Signing

Signing Terrell Edmunds wasn’t the Steelers only move last week. They also made a successful wavier wire claim in Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Miles Boykin. Boykin was Baltimore’s third round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame.

Despite his draft pedigree, Boykin has had a lackluster NFL career, having only made 33 catches in 24 career starts. He has logged 7 touchdowns, however. Wide receiver will still likely be a Steelers priority in the draft, but Boykin does give them some depth behind Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Gunner Olszewski.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Quarterback – Don’t Force Trying to Find a Franchise QB

Quarterback is football’s critical position. This has been true since the modern game abandoned the Single Wing and has only become “more” true in the 21st century.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been blessed by both excellence and stability at the quarterback position for almost two decades.

But while the 2022 off season is still young, the Steelers have been jolted twice with reminders of how fleeting stability at quarterback can be. First, they lost Ben Roethlisberger to retirement. This they expected. Then, tragedy struck, and they lost Dwayne Haskins, to an untimely, horrific death.

Matt Corral, Mike Tomlin, 2022 NFL Draft

Mike Tomlin sizes up Matt Corrall. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Potential Starters

For the first time since the year summer of 2000, the Steelers will host their first quarterback competition at St. Vincents. Going into the 2022 NFL Draft, the two contestants are veteran Mason Rudolph and free agent Mitchell Turbisky.

In Mason Rudolph the Steelers have a veteran quarterback whom they graded as a first rounder and picked in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. In those four years, Mason Rudolph has appeared in 17 games, started 10 of those, and amassed a 5-4-1 record.

  • He’s completed 61.5% of his passes, and thrown 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Mason Rudolph was thrown to the dogs in 2019 when an elbow injury ended Ben Roethlisberger’s season after just 6 quarters.

While he won 5 of his 8 starts, he suffered a concussion, and was the victim of an assault by Myles Garrett on the road  in the infamous “Body Bag Game” against Cleveland. The truth is that Mason looked shaky and tentative – as in Kordell Stewart al la 1999 – after both of those incidents. That led to his benching in favor of Devlin Hodges.

Hodges himself got benched against the New York Jets, and Mason Rudolph looked strong in relief, only to get injured again. He played fairly well in his only start against the Browns at the end of the 2020 season but was only “OK” in the tie against Detroit.

Four years after drafting him, the Steelers still aren’t sold on Mason Rudolph, explaining their decision to sign Mitch Trubisky to a 2 year, prove it deal. The Chicago Bears made Mitch Trubisky the 2nd pick overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • The conventional wisdom on Trubisky is that he’s a bust.

After four years as a starter, including two playoff seasons, no one wanted to give him a second contract, let alone a shot at a starting job (contrast that with the Sam Darnold trade.) Has Trubsiky been that bad? Here are some interesting numbers:

Mitch Trubisky, Ben Roethlisberger,

 

That’s an interesting if not surprising comparison. Ultimately this is a glass-half vs. glass full comparison. Either Trubisky is only a step down from Roethlisberger, or the gulf between a franchise QB and a good QB is truly defined by the margins.

The terms and length of Trubisky’s deal (1 years for about 7 million per year, plus incentives) signal that the Steelers are giving him a chance to prove he’s an NFL starter and nothing else.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers are new territory here. This is a franchise that not only believes in investing in the backup quarterback position, but also in the third string quarterback slot. As we’ve mused before, in many was the Mike Tomlin era has also been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks, with third stringers like Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, Landry Jones and Devlin Hodges getting starts.

Joshua Dobbs signed with the Cleveland Browns the day before Dwyane Haskins died, leaving the depth chart behind the two potential starters bare.

The Steelers 2022 Quarterback Draft Needs

Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, Matt Corral and Desmond Ridder are just a handful of the potential first round picks at quarterback that the Steelers have shown interest in. And for good reason. Both Rudoph and Trubisky have something to prove, and they have no one behind him should both falter.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

  • Should the Steelers target a quarterback in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft?

Who knows? Seriously, I’m wise enough not to know that I don’t know enough to evaluate college players coming out for the NFL draft. I do know that the conventional wisdom of the “draftnics” is that this a weak quarterback class.

And the backflips that teams are doing to secure and/or keep established starting quarterbacks show that the majority of NFL personnel managers agree.

If one of the top quarterbacks is still on the board when the Steelers are on the clock, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be wise to remember point 3 of the 4 Point Road Map to get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl:

But with that said, the focus of this series isn’t on how the Steelers can add, but what their areas of need are. And the Steelers draft needs at quarterback heading into the 2022 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Its Probably Best for Steelers, James Washington to Part Ways in Free Agency

A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, James Washington arrived in Pittsburgh as someone Steelers fans hoped would continue the team’s tradition of excellence at the receiver position that started with Hines Ward many years earlier.

But while James Washington had to initially bide his time behind the likes of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he could never quite break through as a breakout star, even after Brown was traded in the 2019 offseason and JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the majority of 2021 — the final year of Washington’s rookie deal — on the Injured Reserve list. As James Washington enters free agency for the first time, the question is, should he and the team continue their relationship?

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of James Washington’s Steelers Career

During his rookie preseason, James Washington showed glimpses of the deep-threat and combat-catch receiver the Steelers hoped he would be when they drafted him the previous spring, but, as I alluded to earlier, targets were hard to come by during the regular season, and Washington only caught 16 passes for 217 yards for one touchdown in 2018.

James Washington certainly didn’t endear himself to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin in a late-season loss to the Broncos when he dived and failed to catch a deep pass that, had he stayed on his feet, would have gone for a touchdown. Despite what I said earlier, Washington did seem to initially thrive following Brown’s departure and, believe it or not, he did it while mostly catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019, while Roethlisberger was out with major elbow surgery injury. Washington pulled in 44 passes for a team-high 735 yards and three touchdowns — including a 79-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals in which he displayed both his deep speed as well as his physicality by stiff-arming a Cincinnati defensive back on the way to the end zone.

Unfortunately for James Washington, he couldn’t parlay his 2019 success into greater heights over the next two seasons, as he caught a combined 54 passes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There’s no question that Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are the Steelers’ top two receivers (at least that are currently under contract). With JuJu Smith-Schuster likely set to explore free agency in search of the lucrative multi-year deal he couldn’t find on the open market last offseason, James Washington could finally get his chance to shine as the number-three receiver. He’s not likely to command much once free agency kicks off, and he could probably be retained on the cheap — even on a one-year “prove it” deal.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There were rumblings that James Washington went to his bosses last summer and asked to be traded because he didn’t feel there was room on the roster for him to shine, especially after JuJu Smith-Schuster surprisingly re-signed with the team last March.

James Washington declined to refute those rumors, which probably meant there was likely some truth to them. Also, Washington garnered little playing time over the last 12 regular-season games following the injury to Smith-Schuster. Instead, Ray-Ray McCloud became a bit of a favorite target for Roethlisberger down the stretch.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Washington in 2022

I’d personally keep James Washington around because, again, I believe he could be had on the cheap.

But it’s probably a moot point, considering he likely wants to go somewhere where he can be more of a focal point for an offense. As Mike Tomlin says, “Its free for us, free for them,” and with that in mind it’s probably best for the two parties to go their separate ways.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Why Steelers Shouldn’t Tender Restricted Free Agent Marcus Allen in 2022

A fifth-round pick out of Penn State in the 2018 NFL Draft, Marcus Allen came to the Steelers as a hard-hitting safety who both the coaches and fans hoped would translate as a player at the professional level. With head coach Mike Tomlin now looking for defensive backs capable of playing the all-important dime linebacker role, Allen seemed like a player with the potential to be molded into a valuable member of the defense.

Unfortunately for Marcus Allen, his Steelers career hasn’t quite worked out that way. However, he is a former fifth-round pick, and with depth at a premium at several positions, is Allen worth giving another contract to?

Marcus Allen, Steelers vs Buccaneers preseason

Marcus Allen makes a tackle in the Steelers 2019 preseason game against Tampa. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Capsule Profile of Marcus Allen’s Career with the Steelers

Despite making the team out of training camp, Marcus Allen played very little for the Steelers during his rookie season. He was waived the following training camp before being signed to the practice squad where he remained until being promoted to the active roster during the 2019 campaign.

Marcus Allen was switched to inside linebacker for the 2020 season and saw his most active role in the defense, as he was in on 23 percent of the defensive snaps and recorded 30 tackles. However, Allen was only in on six percent of the defensive snaps in 2021, even though injuries were often a problem on that side of the ball.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing Marcus Allen in 2022

Marcus Allen has seen his special teams duties steadily increase during his time with the Steelers and was in on 65 percent of the special teams snaps in 2021. Marcus Allen might not be a stalwart on defense, but there’s always room on a roster for a player willing to take on the duties of a special teamer.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing Marcus Allen in 2022

Marcus Allen was an exclusive rights free agent a season ago and inked a one-year deal for $850,000. When you consider the fact that a player’s salary increases each year due to time in the league, is Marcus Allen really someone the Steelers want to pay seven figures to just to play special teams and the occasional defensive snap?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Marcus Allen

My advice to the Steelers would be to allow Marcus Allen, who is a restricted free agent, to seek a deal on the open market as an unrestricted free agent. If he can’t find a contract he’s looking for, maybe the Steelers can bring Allen back at the vet minimum in 2022.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Safety – Depth Unsafe beyond Minkah, Edmunds

The Steelers spent countless years trying to shore up their secondary. So many years, in fact, it seemed like it would never happen.

  • That all changed in 2019 when the Steelers added the final piece to their complicated puzzle.

Unfortunately, after two seasons of some of the best secondary play the team had seen in a long time, there are now questions at cornerback, following the free-agent departure of Mike Hilton and the seemingly sudden release of Steven Nelson. But what about the safety position? Are there some questions that need to be answered in the form of a premium draft choice or two? We shall find out.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Willie Snead, Justin Tucker, Steelers vs Ravens

Minkah Fitzpatrick knocks the ball away from Wille Snead as Justin Tucker lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images via Fansided.com

 

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Starters

While he was certainly a surprise first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft (28th, overall), that hasn’t kept Terrell Edmunds out of the starting lineup. In-fact, Edmunds has started a total of 43 games at strong safety since his rookie season. While his production and progress haven’t always impressed, he’s been reliable, and it appears that he has steadily improved each and every season.

  • 2020 may have been Edmunds’ finest campaign, as he tallied two interceptions and eight passes defensed.

Maybe Edmunds’ progress can be attributed to the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety. It’s no stretch to say that Fitzpatrick, a former first-round pick who was acquired in a trade with the Dolphins early in the 2019 season, is the Steelers’ most dynamic defensive back since Troy Polamalu. That’s certainly debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Fitzpatrick’s mere presence in the secondary forces opposing offenses to account for him on every play–just like they once did with Polamalu. Fitzpatrick has back-to-back First-Team All-Pro honors under his belt and is heading into his fourth season with the look of a man who will earn a huge payday sooner rather than later.

Steelers Safety Depth Chart Entering the 2021 NFL Draft: The Backups

Veteran Sean Davis recently signed with the Colts, while 2020 special teams captain, Jordan Dangerfield, remains unsigned. Pittsburgh inked a deal with Miles Killebrew, who spent his first five seasons with the Lions. Much like Dangerfield, Killebrew was more special teams contributor than he was safety in Detroit and registered zero defensive snaps in two of his past three seasons — including none a year ago. The Steelers also list Kilebrew as a linebacker.

Antoine Brooks  a sixth-round pick out of Maryland a season ago, only appeared in four games in 2020 and didn’t make much of an impression.

The Steelers 2020 Safety Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftThis one is a bit tricky. Obviously, Edmunds and Fitzpatrick are locked in as starters for 2021. However, both have reached the points of their rookie deals where the Steelers must decide if they will pick up their fifth-year options. It seems likely that Pittsburgh will pick up both — that is almost a certainty with Fitzpatrick — but as of this writing, no announcement has been made about either player. 

  • Again, Fitzpatrick is destined for a huge, multi-year deal, and the Steelers will have a lot of work to do to get one done.

As for Edmunds, he isn’t going to cost them as much, but he’s not going to be cheap, either. I don’t think it’s a done deal that either or both will be Steelers through their second contracts. With Killebrew and Brooks mostly unknowns, and with former Penn State safety Marcus Allen playing more inside linebacker, these days, there could be room on the roster for another young safety. Draft need: Moderate

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The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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Big Ben @ His 11th Hour. But Steelers Won’t Seek His Replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft

“Stability.” “NFL” = not-for-long meaning stability is in short supply. Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s most stable team, and they’ve enjoyed unprecedented stability at the quarterback position, thanks to the presence of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Pittsburgh’s passion once rose and fell on news of Roethlisberger’s health.

This is no exaggeration. During his sophomore season, KDKA interrupted regular programing for updates on a minor Roethlisberger knee injury. When Roethlisberger first uttered the “R” word following the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, he sent Steelers Nation into an anxiety attack.

That’s changed.

The Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns marked a turning point. For the first time management question whether Ben Roethlisberger would be back, while large segments of the press and the fans questions whether Roethlisberger should return.

Ben will be back, but his contract voids after the Super Bowl. Big Ben is rapidly reaching his 11th hour. So how should this impact the Steelers strategy for the 2021 NFL Draft?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger’s story is well known. With Pittsburgh on the clock in the 2004 NFL Draft, Bill Cowher was leaning towards Shawn Andrews, but Dan Rooney cocked his arm back imitating a throwing motion and Paul Tagliabue made it official a few minutes later.

  • It’s rare that a franchise quarterback falls into the lap of team with a championship roster.
  • But when it does the team had better capitalize on it. Fast.

Like Steve Young and the 49ers, Ben Roethlisberger delivered, leading the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But like Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as those Super Bowl veterans aged and retired, the Steelers have struggled to rebuild their roster around Roethlisberger.

  • Many fail to appreciate just how close Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin came to pulling it off.

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Injuries and ego colluded to prevent The Killer Bees from reaching their potential, while Ryan Shazier’s injury ripped a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.

  • In many ways Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 season mirrors that same story arc.

No one knew how Roethlisberger would play following elbow surgery. But in the first months of the season, Ben Roethlisberger played some of his best football ever. His release as lightning quick, his short and medium passes exited with laser-like precision.

He was even in the league MVP conversation.

  • Sure, the long ball was an issue.

But Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington all grew pretty adept at drawing pass interference penalties downfield. But then the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses took away the short pass. Receivers (and tight ends – Eric Ebron) started dropping passes.

  • ACL injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the defense.

As he always did, Roethlisberger’s response was to try to take the team on his shoulders. Something he no longer has the talent to do.

Art Rooney II made it clear he wanted Ben Roethlisberger back, but only at a discount. Ben Roethlisberger agreed, and he took one for the team.

The salary cap has stripped the Steelers of their depth, opening the question of whether Pittsburgh has enough pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but it says here that Ben Roethlisberger showed enough to justify a return in 2021.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Drafted with an extra 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mason Rudolph arrived as a potential successor to Roethlisberger. Since then Mason Rudolph has started nine games and logged snaps in 3 more.

  • Results have been mixed.

At times, like during the first half of the Dolphins game or the 2nd Bengals game, Mason Rudolph looked as lost and clueless as Kordell Stewart did in his lowest moments. At other moments, such has his starts against the Rams in ’19 and the Browns in ’21, he looked like a signal caller who could develop into a Neil O’Donnell like starter.

  • The Steelers brass clearly isn’t hanging its hat on the latter scenario coming to fruition.

Otherwise they wouldn’t have brought Ben Roethlisberger back, nor would they have taken a flyer on Dwayne Haskins, a failed former first rounder out of Washington.

The Steelers 2021 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftIn abstract football terms, the Steelers need for a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft should be Moderate-High. They’re going to need a starter perhaps as early as 2022, and no sane person would commit to that starter being Rudolph or Haskins.

But, with usual “unless someone falls” caveat, the Steelers aren’t finding that starter drafting so late in the first round.

  • And drafting one in the middle rounds would be akin to drafting another Rudolph or Haskins.

The Steelers have two of those. And really, taking another Tee Martin or Dennis Dixon like flyer in the 5th or 6th round would mean using a pick on a player who can’t help in 2021. Therefore the Steelers need at quarterback going into the 2021 draft should be considered as Low.

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