Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Outside Linebacker: High-Moderate

The narrative of the Steelers history at outside linebacker since Chuck Noll made the switch to the 3-4 in the early 1980’s might begin:

  • Many are called, few fail, but when they do the fail mightily.

For over two generations, the men who have manned the Steelers outside linebacker slots have inspired the imagination as the likes of Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, and Joey Porter have terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

To Dick Haley, Chuck Noll, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s credit, the Steelers have had far more successes at outside linebacker than frustrations.

  • But when the Steelers have wiffed on an OLB pick, they’ve wiffed badly.

Think Alonzo Jackson and Jarvis Jones. They’ve been very few “Tweeners” in this group, save perhaps for Carlos Emmons and perhaps Jason Worilds.

Entering the 2017 NFL Draft, it is no secret the Steelers are looking to add an edge rushing outside linebacker to their team, the only question is how soon will they do it.

James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Outside Linebacker

James Harrison and Bud Dupree at Steelers OTAs. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports via Stillcurtain

Steelers Depth Chart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

At this point in his career, the only question about James Harrison is how long he can stay a step ahead of Father Time. James Harrison was supposed to be done in after 2012. He went as far as to retire in 2014, only to be suiting up again less than a month later. That was supposed to be his swan song, but Harrison was back in 2015 and again in 2016.

After the Steelers demoralizing loss the Dallas Cowboys, Mike Tomlin reinserted James Harrison into the starting lineup.

  • The Steelers didn’t lose another game until the AFC Championship, and those two facts most certainly are not coincidental.

Another player who perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the Steelers strong finish to 2016 is the man starting opposite James Harrison, Bud Dupree. The Steelers of course drafted Bud Dupree in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Dupree started strong, but finished slow, and then missed the first half of 2016 with a groin injury.

Dupree got his first start of the season against the Bills, and registered 2.5 sacks. He followed that effort up with a sack on Christmas against Baltimore, and another in the season closer against Cleveland. He also split a sack with James Harrison in the AFC divisional playoff win over the Dolphins.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Outside Linebacker Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind James Harrison and Bud Dupree the Steelers have Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo who split time in Dupree’s absence as starters in 2016.

When the Steelers signed Arthur Moats in 2014 he looked to be little more than a player the Steelers were taking a flyer on but, by the Steelers count, Moats has started 25 games over the past few years, and recorded 11 and half sacks.

  • Those clearly aren’t the types of numbers that get you to the Pro Bowl, let alone Canton, but they’re more than respectable given his pedigree.

The Steelers took Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft and Chickillo has already exceeded the expectations for someone picked so late. The Steelers list Chickillo as starting 7 games in 2016 during which he recorded 2.5 sacks, which is more than Jarvis Jones ever accomplished in a single season.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Outside Linebacker

The Steelers face two problems at outside linebacker.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs outside linebacker

Remember that Mike Tomlin explained his decision to start James Harrison by asking, “What are we saving him for?” While the move signaled the Steelers decision to officially call the Jarvis Jones experiment a failure, it also implied that James Harrison needed to be saved.

And he does.

James Harrison has shown that he can continue to play dominating football, but it is also clear that he can’t do it four quarters a game for 16 games. And unfortunately, both Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo play on the opposite side of James Harrison.

So the Steelers need to find and outside linebacker who they can not only bring along for the future, but they also need someone who can play well enough to get significant snaps starting on opening day.

Given that reality, the Steelers 2017 draft need at outside linebacker must be considered High-Moderate.

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Jarvis Jones Signs with Cardinals, Highlights Dangers of Drafting for Need

Former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker and first round draft pick Jarvis Jones signed with Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, closing the book on what must be considered as Kevin Colbert’s first failure with a first round draft pick.

Jarvis Jones’ failure as a Steelers first round pick has been official for a while, but to understand why he failed one needs to look back to how he arrived in Pittsburgh.

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Jarvis Jones returning an interception during the Steelers 2016 win over Kansas City as Mitch Morse tries to stop him. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2013 off season with a problem. The 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement had flattened the salary cap for the first several season it was to be in force, and the Steelers had several contracts that they’d negotiated prior to the 2011 CBA.

On top of that, James Harrison’s body appeared to be breaking down, as he missed time in both 2011 and 2012 due to injuries. His play also seemed to be leveling off, although we now know that James Harrison was far from done.

The Steelers needed some extra salary cap room, they asked Harrison to renegotiate but James Harrison declined, so the Steelers cut him.

  • That left the Steelers with a glaring need for an outside linebacker.

Chris Carter had been given chances to show he might be worthy of the job, but experience showed Chris Carter clearly wasn’t the answer. Jason Worilds had flashed, but hadn’t shown he could deliver with the consistency that the Steelers needed at the outside linebacker or “edge rusher” position.

On top of that LaMarr Woodley had seen his last two seasons ruined by hamstring injuries, and members of the Steelers locker room questioned his commitment to staying in shape. All of that meant that the Steelers needed to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a starter-capable outside linebacker. And you generally find those in the first round.

Years later Jim Wexell would comment that Jones got the starting job for “political reasons,” although to be fair to everyone involved, Jarvis Jones actually had a pretty impressive rookie preseason campaign. But we know how the story ended. The Steelers stuck with Jarvis Jones for 3 and a half years as Jones flashed at times but was never consistent, and never could pressure the passer as Pittsburgh needed him to.

Even after Jones’ limitations as a pass rusher became painfully evident, word was he still contributed in other ways. Then came the Steelers loss to the Cowboys:

Yes, we’ve shared this clip on the site 2 times before, but we do it because if ever there was one play for Jarvis Jones to prove his mettle as a run stuffer, it was this it and Jarvis Jones came up short.

  • Steel Curtain Rising neither claims knowledge of the Steelers 2013 Draft Board nor are we privy to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s evaluation process.

It is indeed possible that Jarvis Jones wasn’t just the best pass rusher, but the best player the Steelers had on their board when it came time for the Steelers to select with the 2013 NFL Draft’s 18th pick. Jarvis Jones after all had terrorized opposing quarterbacks during his final two years playing for the Georgia Bulldogs. A recent column by Bob Labriola suggest that the Steelers trusted in what they saw on tape, rather than on the stop watch.

  • Clearly there was an error in the Steelers talent evaluation process with Jarvis Jones.

But in some respects, that doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart at Outside Linebacker all but obligated them to draft an outside linebacker in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” is also a chief need for the Steelers entering the 2017 NFL Draft, but contrast their situation in 2013 with their current depth chart which features Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo. Yes, Aurther Moats and Anthony Chickillo start on the left side, but at least theoretically one of them could be moved to the right in a pinch.

  • The Steelers need to get an outside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft, but their depth doesn’t dictate that they reach for one.

And that’s a good position to be in. You never want to be forced to draft for need. Because as we’ve long said, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.” Now we can add “And so does Jarvis Jones.”

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Can’t Get Enough of a Good Thing. 10th James Harrison Contract with Steelers Signed & Sealed

How many contracts has James Harrison signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers? By this author’s count, if you include practice squad signings, the number comes out to 10. Sometimes, you can’t get enough of a good thing. Yesterday, it happened again:

The Pittsburgh Steelers resigned James Harrison to a 2 year contract that, if Harrison completes it, will keep him on the field for the Black and Gold through his 40th birthday. Can James Harrison continue to play as an impact player through age 40?

James Harrison, James Harrison Darth Vader, Steelers vs Browns, James Harrison contract Steelers

Darth Vader like shot of James Harrison during the Steelers 2016 win at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The odds makers would say no, but then again, would the odds makers have predicted an undrafted rookie free agent from Kent State who got cut 5 times before making his first NFL start winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and authoring the longest play in Super Bowl history during Super Bowl XLIII?

  • No they wouldn’t have, but James Harrison has a way of proving people wrong.

How important was James Harrison to Pittsburgh Steelers in 2016? Well, as this site observed in its free agent profile of James Harrison:

If you’re looking to define 1 decision that defined the Steelers 2016 turn around it was Mike Tomlin’s promotion of James Harrison to full time starter.

That choice by Mike Tomlin was the hinge that the Steelers season turned upon. When James Harrison said he wanted to come back, there was little doubt the Steelers would do what it took to make it happen.

James Harrison’s Impact on the Steelers Plans for 2017

James Harrison is the type of player who helps you win Super Bowls and that alone is sufficient reason to bring him back in 2017. But resigning James Harrison to his 10th contract is the smart move by the Steelers for other reasons.

  • First, it gives the Steelers much needed flexibility heading into the 2017 NFL Draft.

Yes, the Steelers certainly need to draft another outside linebacker or “Edge Rusher” as they call them today and they need to do it early. But without James Harrison the Steelers more or less would have been forced to target that position in the first round at the expense of everything else.

And we know how the Jarvis Jones experiment turned out. Locking James Harrison relives the Steelers of the need to reach in and gives them the freedom to address other needs and perhaps to move up or down as the draft evolves. Theoretically at least, the Steelers would also be free to experiment with moving Arthur Moats and/or Anthony Chickillo to the right outside linebacker.

Beyond that, this 10th and certainly final contract between James Harrison and the Steelers all but ensures that James Harrison’s career with the Steelers will end as it should – on his terms.

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If Steelers Free Agent Jarvis Jones has an NFL Future, It Won’t Be in Pittsburgh

One of the most unfair things you can ask any athlete to do is to follow a legend. Last spring, Tony Defeo chronicled the Steelers careers of David Little and Walter Abercromie, two unfortunate souls brought into the NFL with the humble request that they replace Hall of Famers Jack Lambert and Franco Harris.

Which brings us to the case of Jarvis Jones, the man the Steelers turned to in the 2013 NFL Draft after they cut James Harrison with the expectation that he would fill the legend’s shoes.

Jarvis Jones, Brock Osweiler Steelers, Jarvis Jones free agent, steelers vs broncos

Jarvis Jones helps finish off Brock Osweiler in Steelers 2015 win over Broncos. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Capsule Profile of Jarvis Jones Steelers Career

Jarvisy Jones first move in Pittsburgh was to request jersey number 95, or the number that Greg Lloyd had donned. That was a bold statement made by the man the Steelers asked to replace James Harrison.

In the early going, it looked like Jarvis Jones’ actions on the field might live up to his request. People forget, but Jones authored what then BTSC editor Neal Coolong described as “an electrifying preseason campaign” in 2013. On opening day, Jarvis Jones dramatic, behind the line of scrimmage tackle of Chris Johnson was perhaps the only positive Pittsburgh took out of their disastrous loss to the Titans.

  • Things didn’t go so smoothly after that.

Jarvis Jones held down the starting spot until mid season, but the Steelers eventually decided that shifting Jason Worilds over to the left side and starting LaMarr Woodley on right gave them their best chance to win. 2014 started off strong for Jones has he recorded sacks in the season opener and the Steelers third game against Carolina.

In 2015 Jarvis Jones reclaimed his starting role, but split time with James Harrison. While Jones didn’t seem to be struggling, he certainly didn’t show signs that he could pressure the passer Pittsburgh needed him to. Nonetheless, the Steelers coaching staff and/or its public relationships team continued to feed journalists stories of how Jones continued to make gains in the running game, a trend that continued into 2016.

Ironically enough, it was Jarvis Jones failure against the run in the Steelers loss to the Cowboys ended his team as a starter as this tweet from Steel City Blitz’s @Steeldad makes painfully clear:

Within 48 hours Mike Tomlin was benching Jarvis Jones and starting James Harrison. The Steelers won their next 9 games, and as explained in our free agent profile of James Harrison, that is no coincidence.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jarvis Jones

So, with all of that said, is there a case to be made, however theoretical, in favor of the Steelers resigning Jarvis Jones? Yes, in fact there is.

Think back to the Steelers 2015 playoff win over the Bengals. Everyone remembers Ryan Shazier strip of Jeremy Hill and Ross Cockrell’s recovery, but people forget that it was Jarvis Jones who cut across the field to tackle Hill. Jones also had a sack in the game, and made several key stops.

  • Likewise, Jarvis Jones played very strong goal line defense in the season finale vs. the Browns.

To simply label Jarvis Jones as a “bust” and write off his time in Pittsburgh would be a mistake. He has shown flashes, even if he hasn’t been consistent. He might not be a starting caliber linebacker in the Steelers system, but he still has some playmaking talent and Jarvis Jones could still serve as a valuable backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jarvis Jones

Anthony Chickillo has 2.5 sacks in 7 career starts. Arthur Moats has 11.5 sacks in 20 starts in Pittsburgh. Bud Dupree has 8.5 sacks in 9 starts. James Harrison got 5 sacks starting just 7 games this past year. How has Jarvis Jones done?

  • Jarvis Jones has a mere six sacks in 35 career starts.

In watching Jarvis Jones this year the words of Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys famed personnel guru repeated echoed back. Looking at Jarvis Jones’ 40 time, Brandt concluded:

I think he’s one of those guys that when you’re rushing the passer, he’s going to almost get there, but not quite.

Jarvis Jones validated Gil Brandt’s prediction over and over again during the 2016 season. The experiment has been replicated, repeatedly. And there’s only one possible conclusion: The Jarvis Jones experiment has failed.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jarvis Jones

There’s no suspense and no mystery behind this Steelers 2017 free agent decision. The Steelers Christmas show down with the Ravens was the franchise’s biggest regular season game since 2010 and Mike Tomlin deactivated Jarvis Jones.

  • Mike Tomlin’s actions speak volumes.

Jarvis Jones has flashed enough to show that he does belong in the NFL. Perhaps in another system he can carve out a role as a starter or as a key role player. Teams don’t draft guys with the 17th pick to be mere role players. Jarvis Jones has had his chances in Pittsburgh to show he can do more, and he simply can’t.

It is time for both the Steelers and Jarvis Jones to move on.

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Cody Wallace – Does B.J. Finney’s Rise Mean Wallace’s “Life’s Work?” has Arrived?

In the modern, salary-cap era of the NFL, getting a pink slip on cut down day doesn’t necessarily spell doom. Current Steelers Fitzgerald Toussaint, Anthony Chickillo and James Harrison have been cut only to see another NFL Day.

  • But when The Turk came knocking down in Tampa in September 2013, Cody Wallace had to fear The End had arrived.

After all, Cody Wallace had bounced around between the 49ers, Lions, Texans, and Jets rosters and practice squads from 2008 to 2011 and landed a spot duty position with Tampa in 2012. When you’re a 28 year old NFL offensive lineman who has been with 5 teams in 5 years and you get cut, “Life’s Work” is usually comes next.

But even then, Cody Wallace appeared to be an insurance pickup. Maurkice Pouncey was continuing the Steelers tradition of stability at center that runs (almost) unbroken from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson to Jeff Hartings. Little did they know, the Steelers would need Wallace’s services and need them soon.

That was four years ago and now the Steelers must decide if free agent Cody Walllace’s services are still worth it.

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Cody Wallace starting at center in the Steelers 2013 game against Green Bay at Lambeau Field. Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch, USA TODAY Sports

Capsule Profile of Cody Wallace’s Steelers Career

When Maurkice Pouncey went down on opening day 2013 against the Titans, Cody Wallace was in street clothes. The Steeler signed Fernando Velasco who started the next 11 games until he too got injured in the Steelers Thanksgiving loss to the Ravens.

It was Cody Wallace’s turn to be the next man up, and Wallace finished that game and started the final four games of the Steelers 2013 season. In 2014 Cody Wallace appeared in 15 games and gave two solid performances starting at guard.

When Maurkice Pouncey went down for the count in 2015, Cody Wallace started all 16 of the Steelers regular season games and both playoff games at center. Going into 2015 the Steelers had a pretty good record when Cody Wallace started, and during 2015 Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed solid protection the entire time, and Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams had solid run blocking.

Cody Wallace only appeared in one game during 2016 and was put on injured reserve just before the Steelers game road game against the Ravens.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cody Wallace

Cody Wallace gives the Steelers veteran depth at the offensive line and the ability to step in and start at not one but two positions. While the NFL injury gods haven’t tortured the Steelers in recent years the as badly as they did at the beginning of the decade, the Steelers have learned the lesson that you can never have too many good offensive lineman.

Cody Wallace knows Mike Munchak’s system. He’s a quality player who has shown the ability to deliver when called upon time and time again.

The Cast Against the Steelers Signing Cody Wallace

B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard. Both are younger lineman benefited from Wallace’s injury and absence in 2016. While both players offer the rare combination of experience and youth. They’re known commodities.

  • In contrast, Cody Wallace will turn 33 this year and he’s coming off of an injury.

The Steelers also have 2016’s 3rd round pick Jerald Hawkins coming back in 2017. While Hawkins plays tackle he’s another younger lineman that the Steelers will need reserve a roster spot for. Given that, Cody Wallace isn’t worth even a minimal signing bonus. The Steelers can get the same depth with younger, cheaper players.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Cody Wallace

If this were simply and X’s and O’s decision, and if my medical staff assured me Cody Wallace’s injury wasn’t long-term, then this arm-chair general manager would bring him back. It is true that B.J. Finney did an exceptional job as a guard.

On the Steelers first several 3rd downs ended in sacks as, the Browns ran right at Landry Jones and on came Jordan Berry. That was fine for a meaningless game against the Browns, but if you’re Mike Tomlin, do you really want to roll the dice with letting that happen to Ben Roethlisberger?

But of course personnel decisions in today’s NFL don’t simply come down to the X’s and O’s, they’re just as much about the bang for your salary cap dollar.

  • And in that analysis, the argument for letting Cody Wallace walk gets a lot stronger.

And at the end of the day, the Steelers will almost certainly hold off on making any sort of an offer to Cody Wallace, see who they can pick up in the 2017 NFL Draft, and only then seriously consider bringing him back.

In all likelihood, while the door isn’t completely closed, the Steelers look set to move on from Cody Wallace.
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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Tracker

The month of March is here which means that Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 off season is set to spring to life NFL Free Agency begins.  In 2017 the Pittsburgh Steelers have a total of 27 players who will be (or would have been) either Exclusive Rights, Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agents.

Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers 2017 free agency, Steelers 2017 free agents, steelers vs giants

Last season Lawrence Timmons & James Harrison closed in on Eli Manning together. Now they’re both closing in on free agency (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

Here is our Steelers 2017 Free Agency tracker, which we’ll update as events occur.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on a player’s name for a full-length free agent profile of each player, including the pro’s and con’s of resigning the player or letting him walk.

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Resignings

Le’Veon Bell, running back
2/27/17 – Steelers place Exclusive Rights Franchise Player tag on Le’Veon Bell, ensuring his return in 2017
James Harrison, linebacker
3/1/17Steelers resign James Harrison to two year contract
Landry Jones, quarterback
3/9/17 – Steelers resign Landry Jones to two year contract
David Johnson, tight end
3/9/17 – Steelers resign David Johnson to two year contract.
Greg Warren, long snapper
2/2/17 – Steelers resign Greg Warren to 1 year deal
Steven Johnson, linebacker/special teams
2/15/17 – Steelers resign Steven Johnson

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Pickups

Justin Hunter, wide reciever
3/15/17 — Steelers sign Justin Hunter from Miami to 1 year contract
Coty Sensabaugh, cornerback
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Coty Sensabaugh from the New York Giants to two year contract
Knile Davis, kick returner/running back
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Knile Davis from Kansas City to one year contract
Tyson Alualu, defensive lineman
3/20/17 — Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu from Jacksonville to two year contract

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Losses

Markus Wheaton, wide receiver
3/9/17 – Chicago Bears sign Markus Wheaton to a contract
Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
3/10/17 – Miami Dolphins sign Lawrence Timmons to 2 year contract
Jarvis Jones, outside linebacker
3/14/17 – Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals sign Jarvis Jones

Steelers 2017 Free Agents Who Remain Unsigned

DeAngelo Williams, running back
Cody Wallace, center/guard
Shamarko Thomas, special teams/safety
Ricardo Mathews, defensive end

Steelers 2017 Restricted Free Agents

Ross Cockrell, cornerback
3/2/17 – Steelers offer original round tender to Ross Cockrell
4/17/17 – Ross Cockrell signs restricted free agent tender
Chris Hubbard, offensive tackle
3/2/17 – Steelers offer right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard

Click on either player’s name for a full-length restricted free agent profile.

By giving extending both Cockrell and Hubbard restricted free agent tenders, the Steelers retain the right to match any offer a team might make them. In addition, the Steelers would get a 4th round pick should they decline to match an offer for Ross Cockrell.

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Alejandro Villanueva, offensive tackleRoosevelt Nix, fullback
Resigned with Steelers
Cobi Hamilton, wide receiver
Resigned with Steelers
Anthony Chickillo, linebacker
Resigned with Steelers
Chris Boswell, place kicker
Resigned with Steelers
Fitzgerald Toussaint, running back
Resigned with Steelers
Jordan Dangerfield, safety
Resigned with Steelers
Xavier Grimble, tight end
Resigned with Steelers
B.J. Finney, guard/center

Additional Steelers Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, guard/center
Cole Manhart, center
Kevin Anderson, linebacker

The Steelers can bring back any Exclusive Rights Free Agent by simply making them a qualified offer. For an in-depth discussion of the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and its larger significance, click here.

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Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents Validate Mike Tomlin’s “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

The Steelers 2017 off season is already off to a little bit of a different start. Free agency remains a way away, yet there’s been a steady stream of news out of the South Side regarding Steelers free agent signings.

Instead, Kevin Colbert has been busy resigning the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agent class. What’s that? The term “Exclusive rights free agent” isn’t one you hear a lot either inside or outside of Pittsburgh. The first time I remember seeing it, in fact, was when the Steelers resigned Willie Parker after the 2005 season.

  • An NFL Exclusive Rights Free Agent is a player with less than two years of accrued seniority who doesn’t have a contract.

You could look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and call them, “The fringe roster players who fueled the 9 game winning streak.” Take a little longer group, and you’ll see that the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agency is a testament to Mike Tomlin’s “No loose stone unturned philosophy” of personnel acquisition.

Here is a look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free agent class, how they got to Pittsburgh, and what they’ve contributed.

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Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Anthony Chickillo strip sacks Dak Prescott. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent Class

Fitzgerald Toussaint
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked Fitzgerald Toussaint up as a practice squad addition after the Ravens cut him before opening day. There he stayed until late in the season when the Steelers activated him. At the time it appeared they were protecting him from practice squad poaching.
What he’s contributed: In just six week, Fitzgerald Toussaint went from practice squader to being the Steelers starting running back for their 2015 playoff win over the Bengals.

When it comes to backing up Le’Veon Bell, no one will confuse Fitzgerald Toussaint with being in DeAngelo Williams’ category, but he’s proven to be a reliable number 3 back.

Roosevelt Nix
How he got to Pittsburgh: Roosevelt Nix played defensive line in college, but Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and James Saxon saw something they liked, took a flyer on him a fullback and he made the 53 roster.
What he’s contributed: In 2015 Roosevelt Nix distinguished himself on special teams while working capably as a fullback. In 2016, Roosevelt Nix showed himself to be an accomplished run blocking fullback.

In less than a year, Roosevelt Nix went from being a guy the Steelers Nation’s Twitter General Manager griped about being a “wasted roster spot” to someone they questioned coaches for not playing more.

Chris Boswell
How he came to Pittsburgh: Every General Manager has a list of emergency players on it should injuries strike. But the Steelers went through not one, but two kickers when Shaun Suisham went down, making Chris Boswell their third choice.
What he’s contributed: Do we really need to ask this? Chris Boswell kicked the Steelers into the playoffs with his six kicks and shoe string tackle against the Bengals, and did it again in the playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Chris Boswell has shown himself to be a reliable kicker who can make long kicks in the wind, in the rain and with playoff games on the line. Can’t ask for more than that.

Alejandro Villanueva
How he came to Pittsburgh: This site already recounted the Steelers decision to pick up Alejandro Villanueva from the Eagles in 2014 as one of the 16 Defining Moments of the Steelers 2016 season.
What he’s contributed: It is harder to measure offensive lineman’s contributions, but going into 2016 the Steelers hedged their bets on Villanueva with Ryan Harris.

By the end of the season Alejandro Villanueva had erased all of those doubts.

Alejandro Villanueva, Roosevelt Nix, Dee Ford, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents

Alejandro Villanueva in his first start as Roosevelt Nix behind him. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Pittsburgh Steelers, via Pittsburgh Magazine

Xavier Grimble
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Xavier Grimble in September 15 after the 49ers cut him and added him to the practice squad where he stayed until making the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was big on Xavier Grimble going into 2016, labeling him the Steelers X-Factor after Heath Miller retired he did so long before we know Matt Spaeth would get cut or Ladarius Green would have health issues.

Xavier Grimble might not have lived up to the hype in 2016, but he did come down with critical touchdowns against Cincinnati and Baltimore.

Anthony Chickillo
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Because he was cut and resigned to a shorter contract, he’s an Exclusive Rights Free Agent.
What he’s contributed: Anthony Chickillo split time as a starter with Arthur Moats while Bud Dupree was recovering. During that time he had 2.5 sacks.

This might be a pipe dream, but if the Steelers haven’t explored moving Anthony Chickillo to right outside linebacker under the tutelage of James Harrison, they should.

Cobi Hamilton, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Steelers vs browns, Cobi Hamilton overtime touchdown Browns, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents

Cobi Hamilton ends the Steelers 2016 regular season with an overtime touchdown catch. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

Cobi Hamilton
How he got to Pittsburgh: The Steelers picked up Hamilton in early August in what looked to be little more than move to fill out the training camp roster.
What he’s contributed: The AFC Championship loss might have reveled Cobi Hamilton as not quite ready for prime time, at least in the post season context, but Hamilton made 17 catches during the year, and he showed a penchant for coming down with the ball when the Steelers needed him to.

B.J. Finney
How he got to Pittsburgh: B.J. Finney was part of the Steelers 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. He didn’t make the final roster, but did hold down a practice squad spot for the entire year.
What he’s contributed: B.J. Finney started 3 games for the Steelers this year, including two starts in place of Ramon Foster. He also started the season finale in place of Maurkice Pouncey.

This is probably just idle internet chatter, but there’s talk that the Steelers might (or “should”) consider saving on the salary cap by letting Ramon Foster go an starting B.J. Finney. Not likely to happen, but the fact that it’s a rumor should tell you something.

Jordan Dangerfield
How he got to Pittsburgh: After he failed to catch on as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Bills in 2013, the Steelers signed Jordan Dangerfield to a “Futures Contract” in January 2014. He made the practice squad in 2014 and 2015 and broke the 53 man roster in 2016.
What he’s contributed: Jordan Dangerfield’s stat sheet might not impress, but he did make two starts in 2016 and was the “Next man up” in the secondary ahead of Robert Golden and the 2013 Draft classes signature wash out, Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers remaining Exclusive Rights Free agents are guard Cole Manhart, center Valerian Ume-Ezeoke and linebacker Kevin Anderson all of whom finished the year on injured reserve.

Mike Tomlin True to “No Loose Stone Unturned” Philosophy

It might not be accurate to label an NFL Exclusive Rights Free agent as “a player no one else wanted” but they are certainly players that someone else overlooked. When the Steelers 2007 season ended, Mike Tomlin promised to leave “No loose stone unturned” in his quest to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh.

If you look at the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class, some players made larger contributions than other, but it clear that without their collective efforts, the 2016 Steelers never would have knocked on the door to Super Bowl LI.

That’s a testament to Kevin Colbert’s commitment to seeking quality talent from where ever may find it and to Mike Tomlin and his staff’s commitment to give every player a fair shot regardless of what his pedigree is.

All NFL General Managers and Head Coaches certainly pay lip service to this ideal, but the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class proves they mean it in Pittsburgh.

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Anthony Chickillo ROLB Anyone? Why Steelers Should Try Chickillo @ Right Outside Linebacker vs Browns

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has done the right thing in sitting Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey for the season finale against the Cleveland Browns.

  • But those moves, while wise, are preventative. There’s another proactive move that Tomlin also must make.

Mike Tomlin should sit starting outside linebacker James Harrison and use the opportunity to give second year player Anthony Chickillo some live-fire snaps at on the right side.

Anthony Chickillo, Jarvis Jones, Dak Prescott, Anthony Chickillo ROLB

Anthony Chickillo strip sacks Dak Prescott as Jarvis Jones watches. Photo Credit: New York Times

The Case for Playing Anthony Chickillo at ROLB vs. Cleveland

The Steelers tucked a minor, if not terribly surprising, bombshell into their inactive list prior to the Steelers Christmas comeback against the Ravens.

Given the Steelers injuries and player development issues, there’s nothing attention catching about 6 of those 7 inactives. But the decision deactivate Jarvis Jones speaks volumes.

The Steelers have stuck with Jones through injuries and growing pains, but following the Steelers loss to the Cowboys, Mike Tomlin ended the Steelers linebacker rotation. Since then Jarvis Jones snap count dropped from 56.9% to 50% vs. Cleveland, to 41.3% vs. the Colts, to 20% vs. the Giants, to 0.0% vs. the Bills and 0% vs. the Bengals.

Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola might try to argue differently on “Asked & Answered,” but the Steelers deactivating Jarvis Jones going into their biggest regular season game since 2010 signals loud and clear that Jones no longer holds a place in Pittsburgh’s plans.

  • While James Harrison has indicated he’d consider returning in 2017, Silverback clearly isn’t the long-term answer.

That means the Steelers need to find a new starting right outside linebacker. Tomlin, Keith Butler and Joey Porter would be wise to consider grooming Anthony Chickillo for that role.

Anthony Chickillo earned a starting role at left outside linebacker over Arthur Moats while Bud Dupree was recovering on injured reserve. Since his first start in Miami, Chickillo has managed two and a half sacks while splitting time with Moats.

Bud Dupree, Tyrod Taylor, Steelers vs. Bills

Bud Dupree closes in on Tyrod Taylor in the Steelers victory over the Bills. Photo Credit: Brett Carlsen, Getty Images via ESPN.com

Bud Dupree looks like a keeper on the left side, which is encouraging, but does nothing to plug the impending hole on the right side except potentially free Anthony Chickillo to move to the opposite end of the line.

  • If you think that switching from one side to the other is simple, try eating with your left hand instead of your right and then only look at your plate using a mirror.

That’s why coaches tend to wait until the off season to make moves like that. Fair enough. But the Steelers have nothing to gain or lose in their season finale vs. the Browns, and by giving Anthony Chickillo significant snaps at right outside linebacker, they’ve got a unique chance to see how the young defender performs under live-fire conditions.

  • Think of it as the defensive equivalent to telling a receiver or a running back to “go out and get open.”

Moving Anthony Chickillo to ROLB for all or part of the Browns game is a no-lose proposition for both the Steelers and Chickillo himself. Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff would be wise to take advantage.

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Not the Turkey this Thanksgiving: Steelers Report Card for Win Over Colts

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who has seen his pupils accomplish a lot in a short amount of time, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the Thanksgiving Day win over the Colts.

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Joe Reitz is forced to hold Ryan Shazier during the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger went 14 of 20 for 221 with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. The truth is that when Ben Roethlisberger can connect with Antonio Brown, there is little that can stop the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s 6 misses did contain a few ugly passes, which nudges is grade down, if however slightly. Landry Jones threw one incompletion during mop up time. Grade: A-

Running Backs
Le’Veon Bell and another 100 yard plus game and added 22 more from the air with four catches. The truth is that the way things were going, Bell probably could have rushed for 100 more if it would have been necessary. Fitzgerald Toussaint saw his first action in a while, gaining a respectable 28 yards on 6 carries. Todd Haley also had Roosevelt Nix in there blocking, and he made a difference. Grade: Asteelers, report card, steelers grades, steelers vs. colts, coaching, special teams, unsung heros, steelers colts thanksgiving

Tight Ends
This is the Ladarius Green that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin thought they were getting when they signed him last march. Ladarius Green still may not have recovered his break away speed, but he did show his ability to stretch the defense, making two “field flipping” plays both of which set up Steelers scores. Jesse James had one pass thrown his way which may or may not have been catchable, but no other tight ends were targeted in the running game, but they did contribute to the blocking. Grade: A

Wide Receivers
Antonio Brown scored 3 touchdowns and made it look easy on both. He also helped break up a would-be interception in the end zone, and likely did the same on another play down field that cost him a pass interference penalty. Eli Rogers was quiet for much of the game, but did set up Le’Veon Bell’s first touchdown with his 30 yard grab. Cobi Hamilton had 1 catch on 1 target. The Steelers tried to get the ball to Sammie Coates deep 3 times, each time in vain. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
The Colts not only couldn’t sack Ben Roethlisberger, they only managed to hit him once and the Steelers averaged 5.1 yards per carry rushing on a night where the longest individual run from scrimmage was 16 yards. You can’t ask for much more than that from your offensive line. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Steelers defensive line coach Johnny Mitchell rarely gushes about rookies, but he did so when the Steelers drafted Javon Hargrave. For a while it seemed hard to fathom why, but Javon Hargave took up permanent residency in the Colts backfield, taking down 3 people behind the line of scrimmage and registering a sack. Stephon Tuitt had 3 quarterback hits and Ricardo Mathews had one tackle. The fact is that Steelers totally shut down the Colt’s running game and that starts with the defensive line. Grade: A

Linebackers
Lawrence Timmons again led the Steelers in tackles, and was generally flying around the field. Ryan Shazier was next for the linebackers, helping Stephon Tuitt drop someone behind the line of scrimmage and getting some pressure on the quarterback. Mike Tomlin rhetorically asked, “What are we saving James for?” Plays like James Harrison’s sack of Scott Tolzien show why he is starting ahead of Jarvis Jones. Bud Dupree saw his first expensive action, and while he lacked any “Splash plays” he looked good. Anthony Chickillo quietly logged 4 tackles. Grade: A

Secondary
Splash plays from William Gay bookended the evening for the Steelers secondary, as Gay strip sacked Tolzien early in the game, and then intercepted his pass late in the 4th quarter. Gay was good, but he also got beaten on a long play that could have done more damage. Ross Cockrell also got beaten on a deep pattern. The biggest plays came from the safeties. Both Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell stoned Scott Tolzien on separate occasions when he tried to run the ball into the end zone. Mitchell also broke up a would-be touchdown pass, and picked off a pass in the 4th quarter that effectively ended the game. Grade: A-

mike mitchell, T.Y. Hilton, Steelers colts thanksgiving

Mike Mitchell makes a grab for the ball in the Steelers Thanksgiving victory over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Special Teams
Let’s acknowledge that often times assistant coaches get unfairly scapegoated by, well everyone, the fans, the press, head coaches and the front offices when in truth they just don’t have the players to work with. As Dick Hoak famously concluded on the day he retired, “You’re hired to be fired.”

  • Danny Smith has taken a lot of heat from the fans, and it is hard to defend him.

The Colts averaged 35.5 yards on kickoff returns. Those kinds of averages will lose you games against quality offenses. Danny Smith’s special teams also got caught with their pants down on a fake punt. Fake punts are hard to predict precisely because they are so rare. But Smith’s special teams were completely flat-footed after it was clear the play was a fake.

Chris Boswell’s 4 for 4 on PAT’s and Jordan Berry’s solid punting pull the grade for the unit up, but special teams must improve. Grade: D

Coaching
Todd Haley designed a solid game plan that saw the Steelers score 3 touchdowns on their opening 3 possessions. And if the offense did leave some plays on the field in the second half, part of that is probably due to attempts to get Sammie Coates worked back into the offense. Honestly, the Steelers were wise to attempt this with a 21 point lead.

  • Finally, the Steelers offense also converted turnovers into touchdowns.

Feel free to add whatever qualifications regarding the quality of opposition when evaluating Keith Butler’s defense, but Butler’s boys have now turned in two dominating performances in a row.

  • Some of the overall statistics might be inflated, but the Steelers defense defended their goal line twice against an offense committed playing on all four downs.

That’s impressive regardless of the opposition.

Playing well on the road and playing well on Thursdays has been an issue for the Steelers recently, regardless of opposition. None of those troubles were apparent vs. the Colts. The Steelers are playing more focused football, and executing the fundamentals on both offense and defense better, and the score board reflects that and Mike Tomlin deserves credit. Special teams is more worrisome which brings the overall grade down. Grade: B

Unsung Hero
His stat line might only read 5 tackles, but that hardly communicates the value of Sean Davis contributions to the Steelers win. Sean Davis had a hand on the Steelers goal line stops of Frank Gore, and the rookie made a veteran play in correctly reading Scott Tolzien attempt to rush it in at the goal line, and for that Sean Davis wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers win vs. the Colts.

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Speak Out Steelers Nation: Vote Steelers Game Ball Winners for the Colts Game

Wow, winning feels good doesn’t it? After going 42 days without winning a football game, the Pittsburgh Steelers have now won 2 games in the last 5 with their 28-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

As we do after every Steelers victory, we invite this corner of Steelers Nation to vote Steelers Game Ball winners. Steelers earning a ballot slot for their efforts to crack the Steelers Thanksgiving Curse are:

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 11-25-2016 11:49:35
end_date 12-03-2016 12:02:12
Poll Results:
Who deserves to win a game ball for the Steelers win over the Colts (votes for multiple players permitted)

For the second straight week Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell earn ballot slots for the offense, but this time they’re joined by Ladarius Green, who saw his first serious action in the passing game and he made, as Mike Tomlin described them, “two field flipping plays.”

  • The Steelers offensive line also merits consideration. They have no ballot slot, but feel free to write them in.
antonio brown, steelers colts thanksgiving 2016, steelers game ball winners colts

Antonio Brown scores the first of his Thanksgiving touchdowns vs. the Colts. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On defense, Lawrence Timmons was once again all over the field, making 10 total tackles and defending a pass. Mike Mitchell came up with a HUGE goal line stop, broke up a couple of passes, and came down with the game clinching interception. Ryan Shazier was next in tackles, and notched half a tackle for a loss. Javon Hargrave notched his second sack in as many weeks, and had a hand in downing 3 Colts behind the line of scrimmage.

William Gay, who has been quiet for much of the season, opened the game with a strip sack, and added another interception late in the game. Sean Davis also earns a ballot slot, based on his strong play and goal line stop. James Harrison added to his Steelers sack total, and also downed the a runner behind the line of scrimmage.

This is Your Poll – Feel Free to Write in Steelers Game Ball Winners

Please remember, you are not limited to the choices we’ve outlined above, this is your poll. Perhaps you feel that Ross Cockrell, Anthony Chickillo and/or Stephon Tuitt deserve game balls – write their names in. Better yet, write their names in and leave a comment stating your case. (Bogus choices, such as “Kordell Stewart” will get deleted.)

Click here for Steel Curtain Rising’s full analysis of the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts

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