Don’t Look Now: Steelers Put Pat Freiermuth on IR, Activate Diontae Johnson, Cut Gunner Olszewski

It was too good to be true. Coming out of the bye week the Steelers had reached full health with a clean injury to prove it. Then T.J. Watt’s name popped on to with a heel injury. (Breath easy, Watt will play vs. the Rams.)

But Pat Freiermuth wasn’t so lucky. On Thursday he reinjured his hamstring injury. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell described it this way “…when he re-injured it, he cussed loudly and walked off the field and you knew what happened had to be the hamstring.”

Pat Freiermuth, Steelers vs. Browns,

Focused Pat Freiermuth scores the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers ruled him out for the Rams game on Friday and on Saturday morning they put him in injured reserve meaning Freriermuth will miss at least the next four games.

  • That’s bad news for the Steelers.

Pat Freiermuth’s been a reliable receiver with a knack for catching with clutch balls. He’s had a slow start to 2023 (but what player not named Jaylen Warren hasn’t for the Steelers offense) but by the end of 2022 he was developing similar rapport with Kenny Pickett to the one he enjoyed with Ben Roethlisberger in 2021.

  • The hope was that he’d continue that starting with the Rams game. His hamstring had other ideas.

Hamstring injures can be tricky. A non-athlete reading, “He pulled his hamstring” sounds mundane. I mean, who hasn’t pulled a muscle and gone about their day as usual? But hamstrings don’t work that way.

In 1995 Yancey Thigpen exploded to break John Stallworth’s single-season reception record with 85 catches (yes, it was different era.) Yet in 1996, a hamstring injury limited him to 6 games and 12 catches. 2 of those catches were for touchdowns, showing just how much the ’96 Steelers missed Thigpen. A few years later, a hamstring injury suffered in the 1999 Pro Bowl limited Dermontti Dawson to 7 games in 1999 and 9 games in 2000, ultimately forcing his retirement.

Hopefully Pat Freiermuth will fare better.

But his re-injury and trip to injured reserve reminds us that hamstrings heal on their own time and on their own terms.

Hot Rod Next Man Up, Gunner, King Gone, Rush Arrives

One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity in the NFL. With Freiermuth on injured reserve rookie Darnell Washington will get an extended look at tight end.

Friermuth’s misfortune is means that Rodney Williams roster spot is safe. Williams is a reserve tight end who transformed and impressive preseason into a practice squad spot. Against the Ravens, in his first game on the active roster he almost recovered Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt. But what came next was more impressive, as Williams willed himself to make a tackle and save a touchdown following Gunner Olszewski’s fumbled punt return.

The punt was ultimately the last straw for the Steelers on Olszewski, whose fumbling problems with the Patriots have followed him to Pittsburgh.

The extra roster spot does clear the way for the Steelers to activate Diontae Johnson, who is believed to have fully recovered from a hamstring he suffered in the opening day loss to the 49ers.

  • The Steelers also made one under the radar move on defense.

While Steelers Nation clamors for Joey Porter Jr. to start over Levi Wallace (or Patrick Peterson or perhaps both!), the Steelers parted ways with Desmond King, the former Houston Texans cornerback whom they signed following cut down day.

King came to Pittsburgh with almost 50 starts and the pickup was hailed as another “Khan Artist Coup.” Yet, he only appeared in 3 games returning 4 kicks in 15 special teams plays and logging a single defensive snap.

  • To replace King the Steelers signed Darius Rush from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad.

Rush was a highly rated cornerback prospect going into the 2023 NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts took him in the 5th round but cut him at the end of summer. The Chiefs picked him up, put him on the active roster for a few games, but then put him back on the practice squad.

Now he’s with the Steelers and must remain on the active roster for at least 3 games.

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Sometimes Lady Luck Ain’t Fair: Cory Trice’s Injury Begins the Winnowing of the ’23 Steelers Draft Class

It only took the first day of padded practices. The injury was actually contactless. Yet the winnowing of the Steelers 2023 draft class has begun.

And its first victim is 7th round draft pick Cory Trice.

Cory Trice is a 6’3” cornerback who played in 30 games for Perdue making 5 interceptions. Trice tore an ACL in his left leg 2021, but he rebounded to post a strong season for the Boiler Makers in 2022.

Cory Trice, Cory Trice injury

Steelers 7th round pick Cory Trice is carted from the field. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Despite his injury history, Dane Brugler of The Athletic rated him as the 14th best corner in the draft and the 88th best player overall. NFL scouts felt differently. Trice didn’t go a 88, but 153 picks later. Still, when the Steelers drafted him at 241 in the 7th round, drafnics immediately pronounced him as “steal.”

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell took stock of Trice’s medical history and draft pedigree to conclude: “They HAD to take this cornerback.”

Maybe they did. And maybe couple of 3 years from now we’ll say that Corey Trice was to Lombardi Number 7 what Deshea Townsend was to Lombardi Number 5 and Lombardi Number 6. Let’s hope so.

But today the story on Corey Trice is something different and cautionary, if not darker:

  • Lady Luck plays as big of a role in successful NFL drafting as does science and art.

Normally when you think of Lady Luck’s role in the draft you think of the players you could or couldn’t take. Think of missing out on William Jackson and getting Artie Burns instead. Or not getting O.J. Simpson and having to “settle” for drafting Joe Greene.

  • But Lady Luck continues playing her role long after a pick reaches the podium.

All reports on Corey Trice from OTA’s, Minicamp and non-padded practices were positive. This kid looked like a keeper. Yet, on Tuesday August 1st, Kwon Alexander tackled Jordan Byrd. Corey Trice didn’t touch either man or anyone else during the play, but as soon as it was over he stood in in pain favoring his left side, having sustained an injury to his right leg.

“That’s just unfortunate,” Mike Tomlin explained, “but that’s football and life.”

Tomlin is right. Sometimes Lady Luck just ain’t fair.

In 2011 running back Baron Batch started off at St. Vincents looking like a late round steal, only to tear his ACL. Further back, 6th round pickc ornerback Barron Miles was having a very strong camp until suffering a knee injury in the 1995 Steelers preseason game against the Bills, and was lost for the year.

Batch returned in 2012 to earn 49 yards on 25 carries, but Barron Miles never played down in the NFL, (although he was quite successful in the CFL.)

Those two fared better than Senquez Golson, the Steelers 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Golson missed his rookie training camp with a torn rotator cuff, suffered a Lisfranc injury in his second summer at St. Vincents, got injured again in ’17 and after being cut he spent a few days on Tampa Bay’s practice squad and was done.

That’s three NFL careers – two would-be steals and one premium pick – all ended in the blink of Lady Luck’s eye.

  • Corey Trice should remain hopeful. Lady Luck sometimes grants second chances.
Greg Lloyd, Rashaan Salaam, Steelers vs Bears 1995

Greg Lloyd closes in on the Bears Rashaan Salaam in the Steelers 1995 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

Ahead of the Steelers 1987 draft Tom Donahoe spied a dominating outside linebacker in some grainy footage from Ft. Valley State. The Steelers picked Greg Lloyd in the 6th round that spring, but Lloyd tore an ACL in preseason against Washington and spent his rookie year on IR. Lloyd got injured again in the summer of 1988 and spent the first seven games in IR.

But Lloyd appeared in the final nine games of 1988 including four starts.

Here’s where things get a bit uncanny. Where did Lloyd make his first start? On November 13th 1988 at Philadelphia. Where was his last start for the Steelers? November 23rd, 1997 where he injured himself on the turf at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium during the 1997 Steelers loss to the Eagles.

It would seem that even when she grants second chances, Lady Luck certainly lacks no sense of irony.

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Grading Omar Khan’s First Year as Steelers General Manager – A Khan Artist? Or Just a Risk Taker?

Omar Khan’s first year as Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager has drawn praise from through out Steelers Nation. He’s been called a “Khan” artist. Some of the Black and Gold Faithful are already fitting him for a Gold Hall of Fame Blazer.

Khan addressed the media at St. Vincents, in Latrobe as Mike Tomlin and his staff began their first practices with the team.

With that in mind, it’s time to take an objective look at Khan’s first year on the job and ask, is Omar really a “Khan Artist?”

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

A Subtle, but Important Shift on Contract Extension Timing

The under Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney, Steelers were pioneers in targeting key players for contract extensions before they hit the free agent market. Kevin Colbert continued Donahoe’s policy.

  • However, Colbert was a bit more cautious, particularly in the Tomlin era.
Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Colbert typically waited to finalized contract negotiations shortly before the regular season began. James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were all players who inked deals at the tail end of summer.
While this injected some “will so-and-so get his deal” uncertainty into the summer, it did allowed the Steelers to hedge against injury.

  • Omar Khan hasn’t hedged when it comes to contracts.

Last year the Steelers signed Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson to extensions early or before training camp. This year they got Alex Highsmith’s name on a long-term contract.

Injuries can and do happen during training camp and preseason (think Senquez Golson and/or Sean Spence) so Khan’s approach does carry a bit of extra risk. But it also provide certainty and helps ensure roster continuity.

Taking the Steelers Out of Their Comfort Zone on Free Agents

The Steelers were aggressive players in free agency during the spring of 2023, but that continued a trend Kevin Colbert started during the spring of 2022. And that new found aggressiveness is probably due to the fact that the team both doesn’t have a franchise quarterback’s contract to carry and didn’t have a lot of veterans to resign.

  • But under Khan, the Steelers did slide a bit out of their free agent comfort zone.

Entering the off season, resigning Cam Sutton seemed like almost a no brainer. Sutton wanted to stay, the Steelers said they wanted up. Yet, they were never able to get a deal done. The happened a few times under Kevin Colbert.

  • What makes Khan unique is the way he reacted.

The Steelers replaced Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 this year. Giving a major free agent contract to such an old player was almost unheard of under Kevin Colbert.

Khan also moved out of his comfort zone when it came to injuries, making major signings with Cole Holcomb and Keanu Neal who were either coming off of injuries or had significant injury history.

Khanning Others with Trades?

What’s really earned Khan his title of “Kahn Artist” is his work with trades.

First he traded Chase Claypool for the 32nd pick in the 2023 NFL draft and then watch from afar as Claypool make 14 catches for 140 yards over the last 7 games of the season. Today, trading Chase Claypool for Joey Porter Jr. looks like a very, lopsided deal.

Next he swapped 7th round picks to bring veteran receiver Allen Robinson to Pittsburgh from the Los Angeles Rams – with LA agreeing to pay 10 million of the 15 million he’s owed during the final year of his contract.

He also traded up to get Brodrick Jones in the 2023 NFL Draft, and then swapped 3rd round picks with the Panthers and got Carolina’s 4th round pick, getting them back into that critical depth round.

Even if we accept the obvious caveat that every trade carries risk, Khan has shown incredible negotiating savvy with these moves.

  • But credit for Khan’s savvy here doesn’t come as the result of comparisons to Colbert.

Kevin Colbert’s first major trade brought Troy Polamalu to Pittsburgh. His next major trade bagged Santinio Holmes, who was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. He also suckered a 3rd round pick out of the then Oakland Raiders for Martavis Bryant (after declaring that he wasn’t available for trade). And Colbert committed highway robbery by getting a 3rd and a 5th for Antonio Brown.

Conclusion? Not a “Khan Artist” but Rather a Risk Taker

In his first year as Steelers General Manger, Omar Khan has shown himself as someone who can both live by the “Steelers Way” while acting as his own man.

And in that respect, he shown himself to be more of a risk taker, than a “Khan Artist.”

During these next three weeks on the fields at St. Vincents we’ll start see if those risks pay off.

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Wither Ahkello? Yep. Steelers Cut Ahkello Witherspoon, Sign XFL “Stars”

An unexpected trade. Disappearance on the bench. An interception machine. Getting burned in Philly. Injury. And finally post draft dismissal.

Those 16 words sum up Ahkello Witherspoon’s career as a Pittsburgh Steeler, who cut him yesterday and gained 4 million dollars in salary cap space.

A.J. Brown, Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Eagles

A.J. Brown scores a touchdown over Ahkello Witherspoon. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Witherspoon’s waver marks the second post-draft disruption on the Steelers cornerback depth chart, with Arthur Maulet having requested and been granted his release. Prior to the draft, the Steelers lost cornerback Cam Sutton but replaced him with veteran Patrick Peterson.

During the 2023 NFL Draft the Steelers added Joey Porter Jr. in the 2nd round and Cory Trice in the seventh round.

So it appears that the decision to part ways with Witherspoon is as much numbers game as anything else.

By the time Kevin Colbert brought him to Pittsburgh, Witherspoon the former 3rd round pick was on his third team. He languished on the bench until week ten, before exploding with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defensed during the latter part of the season.

That was enough to earn Witherspoon a 2nd contract in Pittsburgh, but his second year did not go so smoothly. He started the first three games and even continued his ballhawking ways against Joe Burrow in the 2022 season-opening upset of the Bengals. Injuries kept him out through week’s four and 7 but he returned against the Eagles where A.J. Brown promptly burned him for one of Philly’s three touchdown passes.

Mike Tomlin benched him at half time during that game and Witherspoon never saw the field again for the Steelers.

  • And now he apparently never will.

In addition to Peterson and Porter, the Steelers will return veteran cornerbacks Levi Wallace and James Pierre. They also signed Minnesota veteran Chandon Sullivan during the draft.

Steelers Claim Jones, Sign XFL “Stars” Butler and Luq-Barcoo

Some of the money the Steelers are saving by cutting Witherspoon will go to the trio of players Pittsburgh picked up here in mid-May. First the claimed Manny Jones off of waviers after the Arizona Cardinals cut him.

  • Jones landed in Phoenix as an undrafted rookie free agent and appeared in 4 games in 2022.

The Steelers also signed XFL “stand outs” cornerback Luq Barcoo and wide receiver Hakeem Butler. Barco played for the XFL’s San Antonio Brahmas where had 1 interception and 31 tackles, which was enough for Pro Football Focus to grade him as the 2nd best tackle in the league.

Hakeem Butler comes from the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks, who posted 51 catches for 599 yards and eight touchdowns and his name will be familiar to Steelers fans with long memories. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert took a long look at Butler prior to the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers interest was so strong that pre-draft analyst Matt Williamson suggested the Steelers take Butler if Devin Bush was unavailable and Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell echoed similar sentiments.

Alas, Butler lasted until the Cardinals took him in the fourth round, but injuries wrecked his NFL career, limiting him to two appearances, both with the Eagles in 2020. Butler did have one catch for the CFL’s Edmonton Elks during 2022.

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Steelers Draft Needs @ Safety – Pittsburgh Has Luxury of Being Strategic

Safety has been one of the most intriguing areas on the depth chart during this off season. The Steelers said goodbye to a former first round draft pick in the form of Terrell Edmunds, resigned an older veteran, brought in one free agent and made a trade that could someday impact the position.

So how does all of this impact their approach to the 2023 NFL Draft? Let’s find out.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Bengals, Steelers 2022 Opening Day,

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Joe Burrow’s first pass. Photo Credit: NFL.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Safety: The Starters

In Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers have a safety who is already adding to the legacy left by the likes of Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu.

By any measure, Minkah Fitzpatrick is a play maker. In just four years he has 17 interceptions, including three pick sixes. And as true playmakers do, he makes them at timely moments in games. Just ask Joe Burrow who threw right to Fitzpatrick on the second play of the 2022 season.

Fitzpatrick is far more than a ball hawk. He comes away with deflections with the game is on the line, manages to make tackles in bounds when the clock is running, and is on the field wherever the action is.

Starting opposite Fitzpatrick is Damontae Kazee. Kazee is new to Pittsburgh but he had 2 interceptions in 9 games for the Steelers last year, and he made those at critical moments of the game. Kazee’s durability is an issue, however.

Steelers  Depth Chart at Safety: The Backups

The Steelers have also signed Keanu Neal. Like Kazee, Neal has durability issues, but he also brings 80 games and 61 starts of experience to the Steelers. With his resume, Neal could conceivably push Kazee for the starting job, but his contract suggests the Steelers are not projecting him as a starter.

The Steelers also have Tre Norwood the proverbial “Swiss Army” knife. Norwood arrived in Pittsburgh as a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and appeared in 17 games as a rookie. While his snap count dropped from 33% of defensive snaps to 26%, he’s still an asset.

The Steelers also have Miles Killebrew who mainly plays special teams, but did has played 50 defensive snaps over the last two seasons.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Finally, the Steelers have Patrick Peterson. Peterson arrived in Pittsburgh as a cornerback, but its been suggested and perhaps even implied by Mike Tomlin that he could play safety.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Safety

The Steelers have positioned themselves well at safety. While neither Kazee nor Neal project as long term starters at the strong safety position, both are viable options for Pittsburgh in 2023.

So the Steelers could strength the position in the draft, should do so if they get the opportunity, but do not need to reach to fill a need.

In other words, they have the luxury of being strategic.

When all is said and done, the Steelers need at safety going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate.

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Set up for Success? Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

The Steelers offer a study of contrasts at cornerback. They’ve sent Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson to the Hall of Fame. They’ve had to other excellent corners in Dwayne Woodruff and Ike Taylor.

Yet, in the 21st century they’ve struggled to draft good cornerbacks.

And cornerbacks are very expensive to find on the free agent market. Worse yet, they’ve just lost a “home grown” cornerback Cam Sutton. So how does this impact their plans for the 2023 NFL Draft.

Samaje Perine, Levi Wallace, Steelers vs Bengals

Samaje Perine scores one of his 3 touchdowns. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Cornerback: The Starters

Omar Khan wasted little time in replacing Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, a veteran corner most recently out of Minnesota. Peterson is into his 30s, which is a danger sign for a cornerback, but he has continued to play at a high level.

Opposite Peterson, the Steelers top corner is Levi Wallace, a free agent they signed one year ago. Levi Wallace started 9 games for the Steelers and proved himself to be a bit of a ball hawk, pulling in 4 interceptions including key picks in the wins against the Saints and Browns.

Peterson at his age clearly isn’t a long term answer at corner back and Wallace while “good” and someone who can help the Steelers win doesn’t look like a long term starter

Steelers Cornerback Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind their starters, the Steelers have Ahkello Witherspoon, a player they traded for just before the 2021 season. Ahkello Witherspoon sat on the bench for the first part of 2021 and fans wondered why the Steelers wasted a pick on him.

They he saw action in the second part of the year and in just nine games he picked off 3 passes and deflected 13 others. Witherspoon started 2022 with a bang, picking off Joe Burrow in the season-opening upset of the Bengals, but got injured in the third game of the season, saw action and got burned against Philadelphia and did not play for the rest of the season.

The Steelers also have Arthur Maulet, a bargain basement free agent signing they made in 2020. Maulet is sort of like Mike Hilton lite. He’s not a superstar, but he’s shown the ability to make plays at critical moments while playing in the slot.

Finally, the Steelers have James Pierre, a restricted free agent who they decided to keep in Pittsburgh. Pierre looked like rising star in early 2021, found himself on the bench after suffering a couple of costly breakdowns but made a comeback in 2022, helping spark the Steelers midseason turn around with an interception to start the Colts game.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

The Steelers 2023  Draft Needs @ Cornerback

As they’ve done at every area on the depth chat, except for outside linebacker, the Steelers have positioned themselves well for the draft.

They don’t need to draft someone who can win the starting job on opening day, but they sure could boost their short and long term fortunes if they do find one in the form of say, Joey Porter Jr.

Ditto the backups. Unlike outside linebacker, the Steelers don’t need to find a corner who can step in as an injury replacement, but picking one who can do just that would provide both long and short term benefits.

So in other words, the Steelers really need to come out of the draft having picked either a projected long term number 1 cornerback or someone who projects as a number 2 or number 3 corner, they’ have done OK.

Therefore the Steelers need at cornerback going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Inside Linebacker – More Questions than Answers

Perhaps its fitting: It was in a win against Cincinnati in December 2013 that Vince Williams stood out enough to signal that stability was returning to the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker. Four years later Ryan Shazier’s injury at Paul Brown Stadium would destabilize that spot on the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker and the franchise is still shuffling to regain its footing.

Might they find that footing in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Mark Robinson, Gus Edwards, Steelers vs Ravens M&T Bank Stadium

Mark Robinson stops Gus Edwards. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Inside Linebacker: The (Presumed) Starters

Everyone expected the Steelers to move on from Devin Bush. And they did, without a second thought.

Who expected Robert Spillane to bolt? But bolt he did. But that didn’t stop Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin from cutting Myles Jack, the Steelers other starter from 2022 and to look outside the franchise’s comfort zone and sign not one but two inside linebackers in the form of Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts.

Holcomb brings four years and 48 games of starting experience from Washington. Elandon Roberts brings seven years of experience and 76 starts from seasons with the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins.

The Steelers once unexpectedly lost a free agent inside linebacker (Earl Holmes) and reacted by signing James Farrior, one of their best free agent pickups ever. They also reacted the the loss of Shazier by signing Jon Bostic who was pretty good on first and 2nd downs, but had to leave the field after that and hence had to leave town.

Are Holcomb and Roberts Farriors or Bostics? Today there’s no way to know.

Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backup

In contrast, there are a few things we know about the Steelers lone backup at inside linebacker. While conceding that he wasn’t comfortable giving rookie Mark Robinson a leading role in late season contests against the Ravens and Browns, Mike Tomlin doled out rare praise complementing the rookie:

He’s a guy that likes physical confrontation. That’s the one component of his game that has never been in question, growth and development and all other areas due to youth and lack of experience is.

The Steelers drafted Mark Robinson in the 7th round of the 2022 NFL Draft as a project. Robinson played for three schools during his college career and only moved to linebacker as a senior, spending time at running back during one of his colligate stints.

Robinson was inactive for most of 2022, only seeing his first action against Carolina, but he still played 50% of the defensive snaps against the Ravens, helping shut down a running attack that had embarrassed the Steelers just 3 weeks earlier.

The Steelers also have Tanner Muse who played safety and then “linebacker” for the Seattle Seahawks. Muse is seen mainly as a special teams signing, but Pittsburgh is listing him as a linebacker.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Inside Linebacker

The Steelers are thin at inside linebacker. Yes, they appear to used free agency to bring one legitimate starter and one starter capable linebacker in free agency and they have a solid up and coming rookie. But is that enough to be comfortable?

Not by a longshot. The Steelers started 2020 with Devin Bush, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane as their top three linebackers, and by December their starting duo in the middle was Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen.

Everyone remembers Ben Roethlisberger‘s horrible performance in 2020 disaster at Cincinnati, but check the running stats to see how well the Allen-Williamson duo worked out. (Yes, there’s that Cincinnati-Inside Linebacker-Steelers axis rotating again.)

Taking that into account, the Steelers need at inside linebacker going 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker – Watt’s the Depth Behind T.J. & Highsmith?

Since the days of the Super Steelers ended there is no one position that has captured the imaginations of Steelers Nation the way outside linebackers have. Whether its been Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, James Harrison or Bud Dupree there’s nothing the ignites the passions of the Black and Gold faithful as an outside linebacker making a “Splash Play.”

In 2023 the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded their best tandem of outside linebackers since the days when James Harrison and (a healthy) LaMarr Woodley played together. But does that mean Pittsburgh should or even forgo a blue chip outside linebacker should he fall to them in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Alex Highsmith, T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Ravens

Alex Highsmith after intercepting LaMarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP.

Steelers Depth Cart at Outside Linebacker: The Starters

Just how good is T.J. Watt? Well, he only registered 5.5 sacks in 2023 after missing seven games due to injury, but with him in the line up the Steelers were able to upset the defending AFC Champions at home. Without him they struggled and lost to teams like the Jets and the Browns.

Even if T.J. Watt took a good 4 or 5 games to regain his form after returning from his injury, he still forced other teams to account for him.

And thanks to that, Alex Highsmith registered 11 of his career high 13 sacks in games that T.J. Watt played. Highsmith didn’t simply improve his pass rushing, but he also did a better job of setting the edge and helping stuff the run.

Steelers Outside Linebacker Depth Chart: The Backups

Behind the T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith the Steelers have… no one?

That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but on their own website they list Chapelle Russell, Emeke Egbule and Tae Crowder. All of whom are listed as “Linebacker.” Presumptively, at least one of those guys can move outside. Right?

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker

If press reports are correct, the Steelers offered Bud Dupree a one year deal and Bud said, “Thanks but no thanks” and took a two year deal from Atlanta. So its not much of a stretch to conclude that Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin were counting on Bud Dupree’s return to Pittsburgh.

That hasn’t happened.

So as a consequence the Steelers now have a player bordering on being a generational talent and a player on the verge of being a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker backed up by… Guys who will be lucky to make practice squad come September.

In a nutshell, the Steelers certainly don’t need to draft an immediate starter, but they do need to find someone who can play quickly if injury should strike.

So, the Steelers need at outside linebacker heading into the into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Extreme.

 

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Defensive Line: Time to Find Cam’s Replacement?

Playing defensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers isn’t just about helping the team win games, its also about maintaining a legacy.

In 2021, the Steelers defensive line was a glaring liability. Looking back at the 2022 season it is safe to say that the Steelers defensive line once again helped Pittsburgh win football games.

In the 2023 NFL Draft it is time for the Steelers to start looking for defensive lineman who can defend its legacy.

Cam Heyward, Cam Heyward Franco Harris Number 32, Steelers vs Raiders

Paying homage to Franco, Cam Heyward leads Steelers out of tunnel. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Defensive Line: The Starters

Cameron Heyward hasn’t lived up to the Steelers legacy at defensive line. Yes, you read that right. You can’t say Cam has lived up to the legacy because he has added to it. In 2022, Cameron Heyward logged 10.5 sacks, batted away 4 passes, forced one fumble and dropped 14 players behind the line of scrimmage.

And he did it at age 33.

When Stephon Tuitt announced his retirement in June of 2022, things looked bleak. Absent Tuitt, Cam Heyward had looked like a future Hall of Famer playing along side NAIA second stringers. However, Omar Khan went out and signed Larry Ogunjobi.

Larry Ogunjobi’s 1.5 sacks and 7 tackles for a loss might look pedestrian, but with Ogunjobi in the line up, the Steelers field the 8th best defense against the run instead of the 32nd best defense against the run in 2022.

The Steelers signed Montravius Adams off of the New Orelans practice squad in November 30 and he improved the defense. He started 17 games in 2022 contributing to the turn around against the run.

Steelers Defensive Line  Depth Chart: The Backups

Quantity. That’s the best way to describe the Steelers depth chart behind their starters on defensive line. Leading the way is DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers whom the Steelers drafted with their third round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Leal didn’t see much action as a rookie, but tellingly when the Steelers run defense came up soft against the run at home against the Ravens, Mike Tomlin responded by getting Leal into the line up, and the run defense improved.

The Steelers also have Isaiahh Loudermilk whom they traded up to get in the 2021 NFL Draft. As a rookie Loudermilk saw playing time on a horrible defensive line but still managed to flash. His second season was a disappointment, with Loudermilk not even suit up for the first four games and only seeing 18% of the snaps after that – down from 29% as a rookie.

Omar Khan has been aggressive in adding to the defensive line in free agency signing Breiden Fehoko and Amon Watts who look like good value signings.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Defensive Line Draft Needs

The Steelers are basically in the same place they were a year ago on defensive line. They’ve got starters on defensive line, one of whom is aging, and they’re OK in the middle. Behind that they’ve got a lot of names.

“Ah, but DeMarvin Leal!” you counter? Yes he looked good in limited action as a rookie, you could have said the same thing about Loudermilk this time a year ago. While Loudermilk’s draft status will likely earn him another season, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say he’s 2023’s version of Henry Mondeaux

“Ah, but the free agency signings” you protest? Breiden Fehoko and Amon Watts do offer a lot of potential and “Upside” but they’re basically replacements for Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley.

Put that all together and the Steelers need at defensive line going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as High.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Tight End – Can the Depth Chart be Beefed Up?

Tight ends in threes. The Steelers have carried three tight ends, no more or no less, on their roster seemingly forever.

As the 2023 NFL Draft approaches, the Steelers have 3 tight ends under contract for coming season. Yet, this draft is said to be deep at tight end. Does that mean the Steelers can ignore the position?

Pat Freiermuth, Connor Heyward

Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry at Acrisure Stadium. Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via Bestodds.com

 

Steelers Depth Cart at: The Starter

How do you know where the Steelers stand at Tight End? How about this: Moouth!

That’s the sound that Steelers fans have been waiting to chat and hear since Heath Miller retired. Watching Pat Freiermuth’s play over the first two years of his it is easy to see why.

Pat Freiermuth immediately established himself as a starter, a reliable “Go To” target in the over the middle and a leader on the field. Thus far he’s caught 123 passes on 177 targets for a 69.5% catch rate, while hauling in 9 touchdowns. If his catch percentage dropped, his yards per reception (or target) and his first down catches increased.

You can’t quite say “Pat Freiermuth is unquestionability the Steelers long-term answer at tight end” however, because he has had 3 concussions in two years. Freiermuth insists he’s not worried about it, but the Steelers would be foolish not to be concerned.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers drafted Zach Gentry as a project with their fifth pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Injuries and his learning curve kept him from doing much in 2019 and 2020, but in 2021 Gentry emerged with a respectable season, showing signs that he could be a legitimate number 2 NFL tight end.

He really didn’t do much to build on that in 2022 but the Steelers still resigned him, although that second contract comes with a bit “but” (see below.)

The Steelers added Connor Heyward to the mix with their 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Mike Tomlin’s love for NFL blood lines doesn’t always work out (see Devin Bush, and to a lesser extent Terrell Edmunds), but Connor Heyward’s rookie year vindicates Tomlin’s family fetish.

Heyward only touched the ball 14 times, but he made those count, delivering big plays that helped break open the games against the Buccaneers, Falcons and Browns and helping seal the win over the Raiders.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Steelers Draft Needs Scale 2023

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Tight End

The 2023 NFL Draft is said to be deep in tight ends. But the Steelers really don’t have the luxury of drafting a tight end early.

But be clear about one thing, everything about Zach Gentry’s contract, from its one year length, its meager $152,000 signing bonus and the fact that it’s a hair over the veteran minimum salary, says “You can be cut at St. Vincents without a second thought.”

However, the Steelers don’t have a 5th or a 6th round pick, which is where you’d typically find a backup tight end.

But just because Pittsburgh’s draft capital might not allow them to draft a tight end, doesn’t change the fact that going in to the 2023 NFL Draft the Steelers need at tight end must be considered as Moderate.

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