Why Steelers Chukwuma Okorafor is Probably Pittsburgh’s Most Important 3rd Round Pick in 2018

If you’re like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans, you’re surely super-excited about what quarterback Mason Rudolph, their third-round pick out of Oklahoma State, will look like all throughout training camp and during the preseason action that kicks off next Thursday evening in Philadelphia against the Super Bowl champion Eagles.

But while Mason Rudolph might be the most watched Steelers third string quarterback in history (can Mason Rudolph be a true heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger?), it’s that the Steelers other third round pick–offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan–who people should probably be paying attention to this summer, as his early development could save the Steelers bacon in 2018.

After the departure of super-swing tackle Chris Hubbard, who left as a free agent after saving the Steelers bacon the previous two seasons while filling in for the injured/suspended Marcus Gilbert, Pittsburgh’s tackle depth seemed especially thin behind Gilbert at right tackle and Alejandro Villanueva over on the left side.

And when 2016 fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins suffered a season-threatening torn quadriceps during offseason OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and was placed on Injured Reserve, the uncertainty was palpable.

  • After all, injuries happen in the NFL, and the offensive line is certainly not immune to it.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see Chukwuma Okorafor getting so many first-team reps in-place of an injured Villanueva early on at training camp, and when you get first-team reps on a line as accomplished as Pittsburgh’s, rookie or not, you better make the most of it.

“When you are playing with such a good unit, raise your game up a little bit more,” Okorafor revealed to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski.

One of the questions some scouts reportedly had about Chukwuma Okorafor coming out of college was that he lacked a mean-streak. And this is why it was so impressive to hear about the scuffle he had with reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo on the first day in shoulders pads last weekend.

  • If it’s toughness people are questioning, maybe they shouldn’t question it anymore?

But mean and tough or nice, but can Chukwuma Okorafor take his raw potential that includes a 6’6″ and 320 pound frame and hone it into a good to great NFL offensive lineman?

“He’ll be fun to watch,” said Mike Munchak, the legendary Houston Oilers offensive lineman who may actually have an even greater reputation as an offensive line coach. “He can improve in so many areas because he hasn’t been exposed to a lot of things we do. So far, so good. He’s got the demeanor, the size, long arms.”

  • And in Mike Munchak, Chukwuma Okorafor will have the very best in the business teaching him the finer points of offensive tackle play at the professional level.

With Mike Munchak as his teacher and a decorated group of offensive lineman also showing him the way, Okorafor could be the Steelers 2018 draft pick that has the biggest impact on their success.

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Watch Tower: Gabe Rivera-Ryan Shazier Connection, 2018 & 2003 Draft, OLB Swap & More

The Pittsburgh Steelers true 2018 off season is here. Now’s when millennials in Steelers Nation get a feel for what January to July used to be like every year until free agency arrived in 1993.

Barring an off the field trouble, they’ll be no Steelers news until late July, so the Watch Tower turns its lights Steelers stories including the 2018 NFL Draft, draft room stories from both today and yesteryear finally seeing the light, the mystery that is Mike Tomlin the OLB shift and much more.

But first let’s turn to a story that’s sat there patiently waiting to be told for close to six months.

Gabe Rivera, Gabriel Rivera, Steelers 1983 draft

Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Rivera watching Steelers practice in 1983. Photo Credit: John Heller, Pittsburgh Press via Post-Gazette.com

Of Rivera and Shazier – Bouchette Delivers

Ryan Shazier has been the biggest Steelers story since December. The image of Ryan Shazier’s spinal contusion is seared in our collective memory, and nearly every story written about the Steelers has a link, direct or indirect, to that fateful night.

  • And of course Shazier’s story draws inevitable comparisons to Gabe Rivera.

Gabe Rivera is the defensive lineman Chuck Noll drafted while passing on Dan Marino, assuming that he could get his next Terry Bradshaw later in hopes of getting his next Joe Greene in 1983. Not only did Pittsburgh have to wait until Ben Roethlisberger’s arrival 20 years later for its next franchise quarterback, but Gabe Rivera’s NFL career lasted 6 games, after a car accident left Rivera paralyzed.

  • However, if Steelers fans hear a lot about Gabe Rivera, they hear very little from Gabe Rivera.

Steelers Digest did do a profile on Rivera in the early 1990’s. But you don’t see photos of him at Steelers alumni events, you don’t see him at Steelers training camp as an example of why players need to make wise choices (Rivera had been driving while intoxicated) and you don’t see reporters calling him for quotes.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette changed that this May, by reaching out to Gabe Rivera, to ask him about Shazier, find out how he doing and shed light as to why Steelers fan never hear from him. The Watch Tower doesn’t steal other writer’s thunder, but highly recommends Bouchtte’s article.

The story may have been sitting there in plain sight, but Bouchette went out and told it and for that he wins Watch Tower Kudos.

Who Is Mike Tomlin?

Just who is “Mike Tomin?” Undefeated writer Tom Junod sought an answer reminding readers that “The Steelers head coach has been celebrated and derided but rarely understood.”

Like all NFL coaches, Mike Tomlin has a private side, a side remains hidden when the cameras are running (Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live feed notwithstanding.)

  • But Mike Tomlin takes it to another level.

In the spring after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, a Pittsburgh journalist privately told the Watch Tower, something on order of, “I think Mike Tomlin’s a selling himself short as a football coach. He’s such a great leader, he should be a Senator or the President of a company or something like that….”

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin, December 2017. Photo Credit: Andrew Rush, Post-Gazette

Certainly, there was a lot of love for Tomlin that spring, but that’s not something even the most diehard Tomlin homer would have said. The difference? This journalist had seen Tomlin without the camera’s rolling.

  • Yet Tomlin’s on-the-record interaction with the public remains sparse, by design.

During the season Tomlin speaks with the press less than his contemporaries; even Bill Belichick interacts with the media more frequently. He doesn’t talk to reporters in the off season, except when required. Ed Bouchette shared that he once asked Tomlin to do a non-required press conference earning the retort, “It doesn’t get ME anything.”

  • Tom Junod set out lift the veil surrounding Mike Tomlin in a 6,000 plus word essay.

Junod traveled to Pittsburgh three times and was with the team training prior to the Pro Bowl. During that time Junod talked to, or at least secured quotes from strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont, Pittsburgh pastor Ed Glover, former Tomlin coach Bill Stewart, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, Tony Dungy, Joe Haden, Le’Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, Mike Mitchell, Cam Heyward and Ryan Clark.

  • Yet, for all his efforts, Tom Junod couldn’t convince Tomlin to give an interview, let alone a quote aside from “I got nothing for you.”

Despite that, Junod’s writing is certainly worth reading. While he may have failed to unravel the mystery (or non-mystery as those who work with him daily insist) that is Mike Tomlin, Jundo certainly validates the premise that there is much more to Mike Tomlin than what the public sees and that Tomlin wants it that way.

Insight into Steelers Draft War Room, Past and Present

Is ESPN’s Jermey Fowler a Watch Tower reader? The odds are against it, but he has nonetheless been answering our pleas. Three years ago, the Watch Tower lamented the dearth of stories that provided insight into the Steelers draft process, drawing a contrast with the rich narrative that surrounds the Steelers drafts of the 70’s.

Troy Polamalu, touchdown, AFC Championship, pick six, touchdown

Troy Polamalu’s AFC Championship Touchdown

This year Fowler delivered again with an article on the Troy Polamalu trade. As with his article on Brown, Fowler didn’t have much luck getting current Steelers employees to discuss the trade, but he still shed new light on one of the most consequential draft-day trades in Steelers history.

  • Once again, Fowler wins Watch Tower kudos.

Fast forwarding today, the Steelers 2018 draft class was conspicuous for its lack of an inside linebacker. This move came as a surprise to many, and is still being debated. However, readers of Pittsburgh Steelers 24/7 were probably less surprised, thanks to Jim Wexell’s analysis.

Wexell reminded readers “Steelers GM Kevin Colbert doesn’t say much to reporters, but when he does he tells the truth,” and then pointed to Colbert’s comments to Steelers Nation Radio which clearly indicated the General Manager’s low opinion of the inside linebacker depth in the past draft.

So when the Steelers failed to trade up in the first round, the fact that they focused the rest of their draft elsewhere falls into place. Perhaps other reporters behind paywalls that the Watch Tower isn’t privy to made similar observations, but Wexell’s was right on the money, nearly 6 weeks before the draft.

Split on OLB Shift Story

The decision to swap Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt from right to left OLB is the few bits of true news to come out of Steelers OTAs. Dale Lolley had Jim Wexell had indicated to their readers that this move was coming early in the off season, and addition reporting by Wexell during OTA’s suggests the move is permanent.

  • Ed Bouchette’s reporting, however, takes the story in a different direction, indicating that the two players may shift to different sides of the line during the season, depending on circumstances.

Either way the Watch Tower will be looking to see who is right and award its kudos accordingly.

Wrap Up: World Cup, Bryant Trade and Running Back by Committee

In light of Martavis Bryant facing yet another suspension, Ron Cook of the Post Gazette stepped forward and issued a mea cupla, saying he was wrong to criticize the trade. Reporters do that less than they should, so Cook gets some kudos for his honestly.

  • As mentioned at the top of this article, trying to find real Steelers news to print at this time of year is a challenge.

Sure, you can “re-package” things like taking a Bob Labriola answer to a question about alternatives the Steeles didn’t consider for their 2018 throwbacks and turn it into an article, but is that really offering value to eaders?

Or you can do a deep dive into just how complicated it is to execute running back by committee as Tim Benz of the Tribune-Review did. Or you can likewise try to find a local, Steelers link to World Cup mania by publishing an article on the passing of Matt Bahr‘s father, Walter Bahr, who played on the 1950 US World Cup team that upset England.

Providing value at this time of the year can be hard, yet Benz and an unnamed AP writer did just that, and earn Watch Tower kudos.

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Steelers Jerald Hawkins Tears Quad in OTA’s, Could Miss Season

Sometimes, life is simply unfair. An so it is for the Steelers Jerald Hawkins who tore a quad in non-contact drills during Steelers OTA’s and the offensive tackle could miss the 2018 season if reports of ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler are correct.

  • IF this report turns out to be true, it would be the second bit of bad luck for Hawkins.

The Steelers drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. By all accounts, Hawkins was having a strong training camp and looked solid in preseason. And the door was open for Hawkins to earn a real shot at playing time, with Kelvin Beachum having departed in free agency, and the Steelers having little proven depth behind Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle.

Jerald Hawkins, Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick

Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins

But in an otherwise sterling outing for the Steelers against the New Orleans Saints in preseason, Hawkins got injured and spent his rookie season on IR.

Hawkins had a more difficult time during his second summer in Latrobe, and never mounted serious challenge to unseat Chris Hubbard as the Steelers swing tackle behind Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. However, as the season wore on, Hawkins saw spot duty as an extra tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy Package.”

The Steelers saw enough in Hawkins to let Chris Hubbard depart in free agency, although it is doubtful that Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation would have allowed them to make a serious play to keep Hubbard in the Steel City.

Anyone Still Wonder Why Steelers Drafted Chukwuma Okorafor?

With all five starters playing on their second NFL contracts, and B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler having proven themselves as compotent backups, the Steelers offensive line was not considered a prime need heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Yet, as the old adage goes, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

The Steelers have learned that lesson the hard way more than once in the Mike Tomlin era, but it appears it is a lesson Pittsburgh’s brain trust has taken to heart. In spite of, a need to upgrade their defense and despite having drafted James Washington and Mason Rudolph in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, the Steelers opted to draft Chukwuma Okorafor, and offensive tackle out of West Michigan with their second 3rd round pick.

In reporting on the Jerald Hawkins injury, 24/7 Sports Jim Wexell shared the observation by Marcus Gilbert that Chukwuma Okorafor is “….learning real fast. He’s probably the most ready rookie that we’ve had, talent-wise.”

Let’s hope that Chukwuma Okorafor remains a quick learner.

OTA Injuries Rare, But Not Unheard Of

OTA’s are, as Mike Tomlin loves to remind us, “Football in shorts.” Guys wear helmets but no pads and are not supposed to make contact. Yet injuries occur.

In May of 1998, Chad Scott was coming off his rookie year and while attempt to defend a Mike Tomczak pass, landed on Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf and tore his ACL, costing him the season and forcing Carnell Lake to play cornerback in his final season in Pittsburgh.

Two years ago news of Senquez Golson’s MRI caused a stir, although it was not on Golson’s previously injured shoulder, only a “lower body soft tissue injury.” No one ever linked that to the Lisfranc injury that ended the Steelers 2015 2nd round draft pick’s sophomore season, but it certainly served as a harbinger for things to come.

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Steelers (Again) Prioritize Character with Terrell Edmunds & Other 2018 Draft Picks

The Pittsburgh Steelers may not draft in their fears, as pointed out in a recent article, but as it pertains to their recent draft classes, they sure do seem to be steering clear of those prospects with character/off-the-field issues (those proverbial “red flags”).

Two years ago, it was Artie Burns, the responsible new father and a surrogate dad to his little brother, following his mom’s untimely death; Sean Davis, the bilingual safety out of Maryland; and Javon Hargrave, the big nose tackle known as The Gravedigger who likes to give back by hosting youth football camps. 

Last season, it was T.J. Watt, the outside linebacker out of Wisconsin with a penchant for learning fast and a motor that never stops, the little brother of J.J. Watt, the Texans’ legendary defensive end who raised $37 million last season for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, the absolute breath of fresh air of a receiver whose biggest off-the-field issues in 2017 had to do with someone stealing his bicycle and Alejandro Villanueva teaching him how to drive because JuJu came to the NFL without a drivers’ license; James Conner, the University of Pittsburgh running back who battled both a major knee injury and cancer during his college career; and Cam Sutton, the Tennessee cornerback who was known for his intelligence and his ability to be a locker room leader.

Entering the 2018 NFL Draft, one wondered if Pittsburgh would stray from its recent trend of high-character guys by perhaps selecting someone with a more checkered past.

Terrell Edmunds, Ryan Shazier, Roger Goodell, 2018 NFL Draft Steelers

Terrell Edmunds with Ryan Shazier and Roger Goodell. Photo Credit: Tom Pennington, Getty Images via Full Press Coverage

Nope.

While other, higher-value prospects were still on the board at 28–including LSU running back Derrius Guice who was said to have had some maturity issues and unsubstantiated off-field problems in college–the Steelers selected Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds.

A player labeled as a major reach by the vast-majority of  experts and fans, Edmunds comes from a close-knit family and has two brothers who are also in the NFL–older brother, Trey, who plays for the Saints; and younger brother, Tremaine, who the Bills selected 12 spots ahead of Terrell in the most-recent draft.

  • Furthermore, Ferrell Edmunds, their father, played seven seasons as a tight end for both the Dolphins and Seahawks.

You may have scratched your head with the selection of Terrell Edmunds, but as soon as you saw him on stage on draft night, and then touring the Pittsburgh community last week, you just wanted to root for him.

In the second  round, the Steelers selected Oklahoma State receiver James Washington, whose biggest off-field problem at college seemed to be trying to find a peaceful spot to fish. 

There were certainly no reported off-field issues with Washington’s college teammate, quarterback Mason Rudolph, Pittsburgh’s first of two third-round selections.

As for that second third-round pick, Chukwuma Okorafor, the big left tackle from Western Michigan, his worst college attribute seemed to be that he was “too nice.”

  • Perhaps the best part of the Steelers recent draft philosophy is that they’ve managed to not only find players of high-character, but ones who are actually very good football players.

Smith-Schuster and Washington don’t have the blazing speed of a Martavis Bryant, the team’s fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but judging by their histories and overall character, it’s highly-unlikely either will face long-term suspensions for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

And if Smith-Schuster’s rookie season was any indication–58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns–he could be in-line to be the Steelers next great receiver.

Okorafor may not have quite as much potential as Mike Adams, the team’s 2012 second-round pick out of Ohio State, but he obviously didn’t fail a drug test at the NFL Combine, and he’ll get a chance to develop his skills under  the best offensive line coach around, Mike Munchak.

Perhaps Hargrave wouldn’t be the Steelers starting nose tackle right now (or a Steeler at all) if Alameda Ta’amu, Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick out of Washington in the 2012 NFL Draft, hadn’t been charged with a felony DUI during his rookie season, after striking several cars with his vehicle while fleeing from police. 

James Conner may not have the explosiveness of Chris Rainey, a running back Pittsburgh selected in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but he’s currently a Steeler with a chance to make an NFL career for himself, while Rainey, who was released in January of 2013 after he was arrested for battery following a cellphone dispute with a woman, is currently playing in the CFL (come to think of it, 2012 was a bad draft for character guys).

  • The organization was slowly gaining a reputation that strayed from its regal, if mythical, moniker of “The Steeler Way.”

But if they keep focusing on talented football players who are also really great young men, the Steelers reputation could soon become one based in reality.

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Watch Tower: Did Munchack Help Push Haley Out? Journalistic Freudian Slip on Le’Veon Bell & More

It is mid-April. Free has worked itself out. The NFL draft is almost here as the Steelers 2018 off season reaches its critical mass, leaving the Watch Tower with plenty of material to shine its lights on.

With that, we take a look at new insights into Todd Haley’s departure and the Steelers ownership situation, some extra detail behind an unusual free agent signing while awarding kudos for adding primary details to the story on the Steelers secondary.

Todd Haley, Mike Munchak

Todd Haley and Mike Munchak at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

Did Munchak Help Push Todd Haley Out?

The off season’s first piece of news was the departure of Todd Haley, a move which Steelers Nation greeted with adulation. The last edition of the Watch Tower recognized the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette for breaking the story and awarded kudos accordingly.

The conventional wisdom, which falls in line with Bouchette’s story is that hat the Steelers parted ways with Todd Haley keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. That almost certainly factored into the decision. But it seems like that wasn’t the Steelers only motive, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct:

The Steelers, in fact, hold Munchak in such high regard that some in the organization believe he, not Ben Roethlisberger, forced the departure of offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
On the same day Mike Tomlin announced Haley wouldn’t be brought back, Munchak turned down a second interview to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. [Emphasis added.]

True to his style, Wexell casually weaved that scoop into the text of an article detailing Steelers offensive line prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. While the Watch Tower can’t see behind (enough) paywalls to be certain that Wexell is the only reporter to come up with the Mike Munchak angle in Haley’s departure, some quick Googling appears to confirm this.

Yet again, Wexell earns Watch Tower kudos for his keen reporting.

Reading Between the Lines on Le’Veon Bell

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler made curious comment while surmising the situation between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell:

The Steelers would prefer players not divulge negotiations through the media. They also understand Bell can say what he wants; he’s not under contract. The fact they haven’t leaked any negative press about him over the past few months can be perceived as a good sign. [Emphasis added]

Fowler might not have intended this, but the implication behind his words is that Seelers HAVE leaked negative information about Bell. The Steelers leaking information about a player isn’t earth shattering. When news broke that Bell had been late for a walk through, a reader on Steel City Insider suggested that Steelers management had leaked the information, saying he knew an agent that and seen that tactic used against him.

A veteran reporter like Fowler isn’t going to “break Kayfabe” (pro wrestling term, Google it if need be) over something like this, but the Watch Tower wonders if this wasn’t the journalistic equivalent of a Freudian slip….

Zeroing in on the Steelers Secondary

The Steelers have cleaned house in their secondary this off season, from changing secondary coaches (the Watch Tower still isn’t 100% convinced that Carnell Lake‘s departure was 100% voluntary, but let’s not get side tracked, to cutting two former starters and a key backup in the form of Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden.

  • And they’ve of course made moves in free agency to replace both.

While many of these moves were anticipated, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided some of the first real insight into the change, as he correctly reported that Steelers would cut Mike Mitchell, although his report also indicated J.J. Wilcox would probably go as well, and Wilcox is still with the team.

In doing so, Gerry Dulac also provided some detailed reporting on how the Steelers see Sean Davis, their rookie standout from 2016 who appeared to struggle in 2017. While there might not have been anything overly earthshaking about Dulac’s insights, he was clearly getting his information from someone well-versed in the team’s thinking, and he deserves credit for delivering that to his readers.

About those Steelers Minority Owners…..

The last edition of the Watch Tower also awarded kudos to Ed Bouchette for his reporting on the apparent (since denied) unrest amoug the Steelers minority owners. The real news nugget that earned Bouchette praise was the insight he offered into the stake that minority owners hold in the Steelers.

Here’s the quote in question from Bouchette:

But, again if true, it’s the audacity that a couple of the Steelers’ 18 listed limited partners think they can have an influence on the coach by ringing up Rooney. Collectively, these guys might own 5 percent of the team — or less. They sound like college boosters.

Until that point, very little information on who owned how much of the Steelers had entered the public eye, save for the knowledge that the Rooney family (and/or the Rooney family and the McGinley family) maintained control.

However, a report by ESPN on Steelers minority owner David Tepper’s quest to by the Carolina Panthers appears to contradict Bouchette’s reporting. In writing about Tepper’s bid ESPN’s Darren Rovell, David Newton offered:

Tepper, the founder of the global hedge fund firm Appaloosa Management, has a net worth of $11 billion, according to Forbes. He currently owns 5 percent of the Steelers.

So which is it? Do the Steelers minority owners own less than 5% of the team or does Tepper, one of 13 non-Rooney, non-McGinley owners listed own 5% by himself? Or, are the equity advisers supporting Tepper’s acquisition puffing up his stake in the Steelers in order to make their client look more attractive?

  • It is impossible for the Watch Tower to know for sure….

…But this is what the Watch Tower thinks. Look closely at Bouchette’s quote. While his words are (in all likelihood intentionally) vague, it seems like Bouchette only referring to the specific minority owners who made noises about pressuring Art Rooney II to fire Mike Tomlin, not the entire group.

And if that is the case, then it would follow that Bouchette knew the identities of the minority owners in question or that he was at least told by someone inside the organization – “Hey, these guys don’t even own 5% of the team.”

Finally, it suggests that, despite Art Rooney II’s protestations that “he never got the letter,” some of the minority owners did push for Tomlin’s ouster.

An Interesting Detail to an Unusual Free Agent Signing

The Steelers opening salvo in free agency involved a rare move with a low profile player, namely punter Jordan Berry. The Steelers resigned Jordan Berry between the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl.

  • The Steelers bringing back Jordan Berry is no surprise.

But everything else about the deal was a little off rhythm. The Steelers announced the signing, long before it was time to tender restricted free agents and more over the contract was below the minimum tender. The Steelers have offered long term-deals to exclusive rights and restricted free agents before, see Willie Parker, James Harrison, Alejandro Villanueva or even Roosevelt Nix this year.

  • But those were all long term contracts for well above the minimum tender amounts.

As it turns out, the Jordan Berry needed a contract to keep his work visa valid, and the Steelers moved quickly to accommodate him, and even structured the contract so he’d earn at the level of a restricted free agent.

Now, when Steelers fans gather to watch the 2018 NFL Draft, it is safe to say that they’re not going to be talking about Jordan Berry’s contract, but that was an important detail missing from a story that ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler filled, and for that he wins Watch Tower kudos.

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Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs – Time for Pittsburgh Reinforce Depth

You can criticize Billy Cowher’s drafting record with both Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert on many grounds. However, no one can fault The Chin for failing to take offensive line seriously in the NFL draft.

  • Almost without exception, throughout his tenure, Bill Cowher invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman.

He didn’t do that in his final draft, and neither did Mike Tomlin in his first 3 drafts (well, OK they did take Kraig Urbik with one of their 3rds in the 2009 NFL Draft.) Then, when the consequences of playing “Plug and Patch” on the offensive line began to take their toll on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers invested two firsts and 2 second round picks on offensive line between 2010 and 2012.

The 2012 NFL Draft was five years ago, and the Steelers haven’t drafted an offensive lineman higher than Jerald Hawkins in the 4th since then. Should Steelers change their approach to offensive line in the 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s see.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs

David DeCastro blocks for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starters

One of the reasons why the Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman since 2012 is because they haven’t had to. Yes, other positions have beckoned, but each of the Steelers starting offensive lineman is working on his second contract, and that is no accident.

The Steelers offensive line rebuild began with Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and each and every year that he’s been health since then he’s been Pro Bowler. Marcus Gilbert came next and is regarded in the franchise as one of the best at his positions. David DeCastro fell to the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft, and David DeCastro is a legitimate Pro Bowl guard who adds the necessary streak of nasty to the line.

  • While these high-pedigree draft picks have delivered, they’ve got good company by men overlooked on draft day.

Ramon Foster joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was starting in the Super Bowl a year later. The Steelers looked to replace Foster in a number of ways, but Foster continues to hold his own. Starting next to Foster is Alejandro Villanueva, the former US Army Ranger and West Point graduate that the Steelers picked up after the Eagles dropped him from their practice squad.

The man standing the curtain is Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who might be the best position coach of any type in the NFL.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

The Steelers offensive line depth took a hit when Chris Hubbard signed with the Cleveland Browns this spring as a free agent, but franchise still has solid backups it can count on. Leading the pack is B.J. Finney, who has started at both center and guard and acquitted himself well.

At tackle the Steelers have Jerald Hawkins. Hawkins missed his rookie year due to injury, and struggled through his second training camp. However, he saw action in 2017 as a 3rd tight end. Finally, the Steelers bring back Matt Feiler, and exclusive rights free agent who has seen action in 6 NFL games.

Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it? Is that how the old adage goes?

The truth is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best if not the best offensive lines in the NFL. And, after all the years of offensive line turmoil the characterized the early part of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, it a bit ironic that Steelers Nation has come to take quality offensive line play for granted.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Complacency can cripple a contenders quest to transform itself into a champion.

To understand how that applies here, perform this little exercise. How old is the Steelers offensive line? You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Oh, we have a young offensive line, that’s one of the thing that’s so exciting about it.” Well, that was true for several seasons, today, not so much.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell draws out this point:

The average age of the Steelers’ starting offensive line on opening day will be 29.8. That’s quite older than the much respected 2005 championship line that averaged 27.6 years of age and fell apart soon thereafter.

Ramon Foster might be the only lineman above 30 now, but Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva turn 30 this year. Sometimes, father time imposes his will quickly.

No one really pegged the 2001 Steelers secondary as old when they fell short in the AFC Championship, yet Bill Belichick saw enough to know he could throw the ball throughout the entire 2nd half the 2002 opener, and there was nothing Pittsburgh could do to stop him.

That doesn’t mean there are ominous storm clouds hanging above the Steelers offensive line in the immediate future. But the Steelers would be very wise to add to their pipeline of offensive line talent, and therefore the Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs must be considered Moderate.

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Steelers 2018 Losses in Free Agency – Chris Hubbard Might Be Pittsburgh’s Only Defection

NFL Free Agency isn’t a week old yet, but hundreds of millions, if not billions of contracts have been thrown around. Yet, as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers are concerned, its been (almost) All Quiet on the South Side Front.

The loss of Chris Hubbard as a free agent, while unfortunate, was completely expected. And as far as Steelers 2018 Free agency, are concerned, Chris Hubbard’s the only free agent defection the Pittsburgh suffers.

  • Now, is that a good thing, a bad thing or is it simply a neutral factoid?
Chris Hubbard, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers 2018 Free Agency losses

Chris Hubbard might well be only free agent defection the Steelers suffer in 2018. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

On the surface it seems like a bad thing. It is harsh, but fair to look at Steelers remaining unrestricted free agents, Justin Hunter, Eli Rogers Greg Ducre, Daniel McCullers, Arthur Moats, Sean Spence and Stevan Ridley and simply say, “Why would any other team be interested?” The only ones who offer much of a track record is Arthur Moats and Eli Rogers, and Rogers is injured.

  • Kevin Colbert pulled Sean Spence and Stevan Ridley off the couch as injury replacements last December.

Ridley did fairly well, Spence struggled for a couple of games, looked good in the last two regular season contests, but during the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars he did nothing to make Ryan Shazier’s absence less noticeable. But players like these typically don’t get signed until after the draft.

Daniel McCullers   phone will stay quiet unless some team suffers a series of injuries on their defensive line during preseason.

Its unlikely that any team will be willing to give up a 2nd round pick to get Chris Boswell. Anthony Chickillo might be a little more appealing because he would only cost a team a 6th round pick, but NFL general managers seem to value draft picks more than players. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers traded a 6th round pick to get J.J. Wilcox, and J.J. Wilcox had 39 starts under his belt to Chickillo’s 9.

  • The fact that the Steelers most appealing free agents are their restricted free agents speaks well of Pittsburgh’s personnel policies.

Since free agency arrived in the NFL the franchise’s focus has always been to resign players before they hit the open market. You can see that at work in two names that don’t appear above, Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt. Last summer the Steelers inked new contracts for Alejandro Villanueva and Stephon Tuitt who otherwise would be free to sign with any other NFL team at this moment.

  • With so much going on in the rest of the NFL, it can understandably be a little frustrating to see the Steelers standing pat.

But this spring at least, the reason why the Steelers have so few free agents worthy of attracting attention from the rest of the NFL is because they’ve wise personnel decisions, not foolish ones. Ditto the reason why the Steelers salary cap situation doesn’t allow them to go on any shopping sprees.

Love it or hate it, what we’re seeing this spring is the Steelers Way in action.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Neither Steelers, Nor Le’Veon Bell Wanted Second Franchise Tag. But Perhaps Its What Both Need

It is official. For the second straight year, the Pittsburgh Steelers have franchised Le’Veon Bell. Unable to shop his services, Le’Veon Bell now must sign the Steelers $14.5 million dollar franchse tender or sit the season out.

  • The Steelers want Le’Veon Bell to retire as a Steeler, Bell says he wants to retire in Pittsburgh too.

So neither Bell nor the Steelers wanted a second franchise tag. But as The Rolling Stones reminded us long ago, “You can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens,

Le’Veon Bell turns corner on Brandon Carr en route to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Why Franchising Bell Isn’t What Either Side Wants

Last year the Steelers were flush with salary cap space. They could apply the franchise tag to Le’Veon Bell, while signing Antonio Brown, Stephon Tuitt, Alejandro Villanueva, Joe Haden and trade for Vance McDonald.

Of course, thanks in part those hefty checks cut to Antonio Brown, , Alejandro Villanueva, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and Vance McDonald, plus contracts inked long-ago by Ben Roethlisberger,  David DeCastro and Cam Heyward, salary cap space remains sparse for the 2018 Steelers.

  • They’ve already re-structured David DeCastro and Stephon Tuitt’s contracts just to prepare for tagging Bell.

So to make simple moves like tendering restricted free agent offers to Chris Boswell and Anthony Chickillo, signing their 2018 Draft class or picking up a low-end free agent or two, they’ll need to restructure more contracts and release veterans.

  • A long term deal for Le’Veon Bell would both keep him a Steeler, while providing Pittsburgh with immediate cap relief.

For the average fan, it’s a hard see why Le’Veon finds the franchise tag so distasteful. Last year he cashed a check for 12.12 million dollars. This year, he’ll cash another check for 14.5 million dollars.

  • That’s 26.62 million dollars over two years, far more money than anyone reading this will ever see (unless Stanley Druckenmiller is reading this, and if you are, please RT.)

But this is still less than Bell wants and less than the deal that Bell rejected last season, an offer that would have made Bell the NFL’s highest paid running back, and then some. But Bell wants more.

Bell wants to be paid what he’s worth to the team. What does that mean?

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

Well Le’Veon Bell’s accounted for 29% of the Steelers offense since he arrived. With the NFL salary cap at 177.2 million, Bell would half of 29% would be 25.694. Bell isn’t asking for that. But as Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pointed out, Bell wants a contract with an annual floor of 14.5 million.

  • The next highest paid running back, Devonta Freeman, averages $8,250,000.

So in other words, Le’Veon Bell wants to be paid 75% more than the next highest paid running back. That’s asking a lot….

Why a Second Franchise Tag for is Perhaps Best for Bell & Steelers

No one wants a second franchise tag, but maybe its what both sides need.

For Bell, the benefits of cashing a 14.5 million dollar check are self-evident. The money is fully guaranteed the moment he puts pen to paper. A second tag will give him a chance to put his money where his mouth has been. Bell balked at signing the Steelers deal because he thought he could get more.

  • Given the limited durability of NFL running backs today, that’s a bold proposition.

A second franchise tag virtually guarantees there will be no tag in 2019 and leaves Bell holding all of the cards. If he doesn’t like the Steelers offer, he gets a chance to have someone like Cleveland, who’ll have gobs of salary cap space, offers on the open market.

  • For the Steelers the franchise tag does cause a lot of short-term heartache, as detailed above.
  • But this could be the case of short-term pain for long-term gain.

The offer the Steelers made to Le’Veon Bell a year ago was more than fair, and by Bell’s own account, they’ve improved upon it. The Steelers love for Le’Veon is understandable, after all in breaking the franchise Regular season and playoff single game rushing records just over a year ago Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis ever accomplished.

But if there’s any difference between Art Rooney II and the late Dan Rooney, it’s that Art Rooney seems to be a little more willing to throw caution to the wind when it comes to the salary cap.

  • A second franchise tag provides the Steelers with a safety valve against making an unsustainable long-term commitment.

As this site has observed numerous times, since the Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell in 2013, Bell has teased that he has the type of talent to revive the concept of the “Franchise Running back.” Bell clearly wants to be paid as a franchise running back. But the dip in Bell’s rushing average in 2017 undercuts Bell’s argument.

  • It says here that Le’Veon Bell brings a lot to the field that you can’t replace by plugging in players via some Moneyball methodology.

But it also says here that the law of averages and the weight of statistical evidence on the shelf-life of an NFL running back remains pretty convincing, and Bell has yet to show he can buck the trend.

The Pittsburgh Steelers chances of winning Lombardi Number Seven in 2018 improve tremendously by keeping Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant on the field together.

  • A second franchise tag gives the Steelers a “no strings attached” means of accomplishing that, while also giving Bell a 14.5 million dollar check to cash.

That’s not exactly what either side wants, but it perhaps is exactly what each side needs.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Sign Jordan Berry and Matt Feiler to One Year Contracts

The Steelers made two moves ahead of free agency this past week when they signed offensive tackle Matt Feiler and punter Jordan Berry to one year contract extensions.

  • The Jordan Berry signing comes as a bit of a surprise.

Jordan Berry signed with the Steelers in 2015 and beat out fellow Australian Brad Wing during training camp. With three years of service in the league, Berry was due to become a restricted free agent, and could have held out for a restricted-free agent tender from the Steelers.

  • Berry however, chose to skip the process and sign with the Steelers now.

Jordan Berry’s gross punting average of 43.2 yards per punt ranks him last 32nd among NFL punters. However, Berry’s net average of 39.8 is good enough to get him out of the basement, and ranks him as 24th.

Jordan Berry, Steelers Jordan Berry

Jordan Berry punting during the 2015 preseason. Photo Credit: John Heller, Post-Gazette

However, as Chris Adamski of the Tribune-Review points out, “Only two of Berry’s 64 punts were touchbacks; 26 pinned a team inside its 20-yard line.”

That’s an indication of some pretty good directional punting, which can be far more valuable than sheer distance in today’s NFL.While you obviously want to have as good a punter as you can, but if there’s one position that you don’t want to overrate, it is that of the punter. Numbers don’t lie:

Steelers Punters, Steelers punting averages

Quality punting hasn’t correlated very strongly with Super Bowl wins for the Steelers. And, as you can see, Harry Newsome’s punting average in 1988 was almost 5 yards above the NFL average, yet it didn’t help the Steelers avoid their worst season since 1970.

Feiler Returns to Back up Gilbert and Villanueva

The Matt Feiler signing is largely an academic exercise. Feiler was set to become an exclusive rights free agent this march, which essentially means he would have had to sign with the Steelers provided they made him a veteran minimum offer.

Feiler has been in the league since 2014, when he latched on with the Houston Texans as an undrafted rookie free agent. He spent 2014 on Houston’s practice squad, but got cut before the start of the season, where he joined the Steelers 2015 practice squad.

The Steelers kept Felier on the practice squad throughout 2015 and he started 2016 on the practice squad where he was activated in October, although he did not see action. In 2017, Felier made the Steelers 53 man roster and appeared in 5 games, including a start in the season finale against the Browns.

  • The move was expected given that the Steelers are facing the impending departure of Chris Hubbard.

Pittsburgh also has Jerald Hawkins signed as a reserve offensive tackle behind Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva, so unless things very awry, don’t expect to see Matt Feiler protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side or opening holes for Le’Veon Bell (or might it be James Conner….)

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Mike Tomlin Leads AFC to 24-23 Pro Bowl Win over NFC, Raises Steelers Pro Bowl Coaching Record to 8-1

Mike Tomlin once assured reporters, “As long as they keep score, I’m trying to win.” The Pro Bowl may have “evolved” to a point where it is only a step more intense than contact flag football, but Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff can sleep soundly at night knowing they led the AFC to a 24-23 victory over NFC in the 2018 Pro Bowl.

And there were plenty of Black and Gold helmets in the huddle at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Cam Heyward and Chris Boswell represented the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • If, Roethlisberger to Brown in Pittsburgh proved to be one of the league’s most potent combinations, that magic didn’t translate to Orlando.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pro Bowl 2018

Ben Roethlisberger @ 2018 Pro Bowl. Photo Credit: Yahoo.com.ca

Ben Roethlisberger went 7 of 13 for 50 yards and one pick, while Antonio Brown had one catch for 3 yards. Le’Veon Bell only had two carries, or the same as Roosevelt Nix, and together the two men gained 7 yards. That’s not much of a surprise, given that contact with a defender more or less equates to forward progress dulling the impact of a running game.

  • That’s a far cry from the 1995 Pro Bowl were, under Bill Cowher’s direction, Marshall Faulk ran for 180 yards with Chris Warren adding 127.

So be it. This was the first time Steelers Nation got to see a Randy Fichtner coordinated offense in action. And in  the eyes of NFL.com’s Jeremy Bergman things did not go well:

It was especially sad to watch Randy Fichtner ring in his first game as Steelers offensive coordinator in the Pro Bowl, calling double reverses for Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown and simple routes for Ben Roethlisberger to underthrow.
It’s fair to wonder how much will change next season in the Steel City. Will Bell leave in free agency? Will Roethlisberger hint at retirement again? Will Fichtner force Big Ben to run a sneak? On Sunday, we got an answer to at least one of these quandaries. On third-and-1 from the NFC 39 with Roethlisberger under center, Fichtner called … a dive to Roosevelt Nix. Some things don’t change.

Time will tell whether this is a sign of things to come or whether Fichtner was just having fun.

While Cam Heyward was the lone Steelers defender on the AFC’s Pro Bowl squad (Ryan Shazier was voted in, but obviously could not play) he did come up with a big play:

With the 24 to 23 victory in hand, Mike Tomlin improves the overall record of Steelers coaches in the Pro Bowl to 8-1 and his “undefeated in the Pro Bowl streak” elevates him alongside Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll who were also undefeated in the Pro Bowl.

And by beating Sean Payton, the Steelers head coaches in the Pro Bowl now have another win over Super Bowl winning opponents, with Chuck Noll defeating Tom Landry and Mike Ditka and Bill Cowher defeating Barry Switzer.

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