Steelers 2021 Preview: Roethlisberger’s Last Ride to be a Rough One?

The wait will soon end.

Its been 245 days since the Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff loss to the Browns and a lot has happened since then. Some of it completely predictable, some of it surprising:

Through it all, Kevin Colbert managed once again to perform the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes. Thanks to COVID-19 the Steelers were facing their worst salary cap situation since 2012 and 2013, yet Colbert managed to put together a roster on paper that is far stronger than anyone had a right to expect on the lonely January night when Roethlisberger and Pouncey commiserated on the sidelines.

But the time for measuring roster moves on paper has ended and the time for judgement rendered on the gridiron is about to begin.

So what can we expect?

J.J. Watt, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Texans

J.J. Watt pressures Ben Roethlisberger in 2014. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, USA Today

Roethlisberger’s Final Ride Likely a Rough One

Times like these force oneself to channel their inner Jesse Ventura and “Call it as I see it McMahon.” And the truth is that if this is Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, it looks to be a rough one.

  • That’s not the call I want to make, but the one my eyes tell me I have to make.

Why?

First let’s consider what caused the Steeler once promising 2020 season to end in an unmitigated disaster:

  • Ben Roethlisberger inability to throw the long ball caught up with him.
  • The running game disappeared
  • Injuries ravaged the defense, neutering a dominant group

Word is that Ben Roethlisberger has recovered his long ball, but given his limited action in preseason we’ll simply have to wait to see if that comes true. The Steelers dumped Randy Fichtner and replaced him with Matt Canada, which should help. As for the defense and injuries, well let’s get to that.

When salary cap Armageddon loomed, the chief concerns for the Steelers were:

Can they preserve their pass rush?
Can they field a competitive secondary?
Can they rebuild the offensive line?

Let’s see where the Steelers stand on the eve of the 2021 season.

Pass Rush

So the Steelers lost Bud Dupree, but still have Alex Highsmith, resigned T.J. Watt and added Melvin Ingram. So, on paper that’s perhaps a net positive. However, Stephon Tuitt, who accounted for 11 sacks is beginning the season on injured reserve. And Tyson Alualu is also injured.

The Steelers should field a strong pass rush this year, but its doubtful they can field a better one.

Secondary

After years of being a liability, the Steelers secondary was finally a strength during the 2019 and 2020. Yet going into the 2021 off season, everyone expected a salary cap casualty to come out of the defensive backfield.

  • But few expected that casualty to be Steven Nelson instead of Joe Haden.

The Steelers plan was to go with Haden, Cameron Sutton, and James Pierre with Joe Haden and Antoine Brooks pushing as the 4th corner. Justin Layne got arrested and Brook got hurt. The Steelers sallied on during preseason, mixing and matching various configurations of their cornerbacks. Their final decision? They traded yet another draft pick for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Offensive Line

Let’s say this. No one can accuse the Steelers of standing pat on the offensive line. When the Steelers open against the Bills, Kelvin Dotson will be the only player working in the same place he was last season against the Giants.

  • But does change equal improvement?

That’s the bigger question. What isn’t a question is that this is another situation that did not evolve according to plan. Mike Tomlin’s idea was to start is experienced tackles Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor on the right and left sides. But Banner got hurt and left tackle proved to be too much for Okorafor.

Dan Moore’s performance has elicited nothing but positive commentary since he was drafted in the third round, but rookies starting a left tackle in the NFL are rare.

As it stands, on opening day the Steelers will start 2 rookies on offensive line, one sophomore who literally looks like a “rising sophomore,” a veteran who was unemployed in late June and veteran who is back at right tackle after not being able to cut it on the left side.

It might work. But would you bet your 401(k) balance on it?

Wimp Out Disclaimer

After writing 753 of gloom and doom its now time for the “Wimp Out Disclaimer.”

The red and yellow flag flying above the Steelers offensive line, secondary and pass rush are real but so has Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s reaction to them. When it became clear that Banner’s injury issues weren’t going away and Okorafor struggled, the Steelers started working Dan Moore into the line up.

The first thought here was that Mike Tomlin was planning to use Moore the way he used Kelvin Beachum in 2013, roating him in on both sides to push both starters. But Tomlin didn’t do that. He made the change immediately.

You can see a similar pattern elsewhere, from signing Melvin Ingram, to trading for Joe Schobert, to trading for Witherspoon.

The fact that the Steelers brass felt they needed to make these moves is worrisome, but their willingness to act decisively is encouraging.

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Like Fine Wine, Steelers 2015 Draft Grade of “B” Gets Better with Age

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

“Better late.”

As mentioned before, stories about Vince Williams, Tyson Alualu and JuJu Smith-Schuster leaving Pittsburgh were planned but never published due to time constraints. And that worked out well as all 3 are still Steelers.

This site follows Chuck Noll’s “It takes 5 years to grade a draft” philosophy, but the 2015 grades never got published by virtue of the pandemic-fueled 24/7 digital office.

That too has worked for the better because it proves once again that this is one draft report card that’s gotten better with time.

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

First Round: Budy Dupree the Late Bloomer

Bud Dupree, drafted as a “project,” started his rookie year gang busters, racking up 4 sacks early in the season before hitting the rookie wall. Year two began on injured reserve, but his return helped spark the Steelers late season defensive turn around.

  • Bud Dupree plateaued in years 3 and 4, and that’s being polite.

Then, in year five, under the tutelage of Keith Butler, Bud Dupree exploded for 11.5 sacks. But aside from his numbers popping, Bud Dupree did his damage in critical situations. But had we graded him last year, it would be impossible to know if 2019 was an aberration.

  • In 2020 Bud Dupree proved he was the real deal.

To understand how good Bud Dupree was, just look at how bad the defense got after he got hurt. Like a good bottle of Riglos Gran Corte, Bud Dupree’s draft has only gotten better with time. Grade: Grand Slam

Second Round: Senquezy Golson – The Ever Injured Cornerback

The Steelers desperately needed a corner going into the 2015 NFL Draft. They grabbed one in the 2nd round with Senquez Golson.

  • A torn rotator cuff scuttled his rookie season.
  • Another injury scrapped his second year.
  • His 2017 season consisted of maybe a practice and half before he suffered another injury.

All this for a guy whose college career was basically injury free. All at a time when the Steelers’ secondary screamed for help at cornerback. Grade: Incomplete

3rd Round: Sammie Coates the Strange Cat

Sammie Coates had a quiet rookie regular season but did a respectable job during the playoff loss to the Broncos. Coates started strong in 2016 and seemed to breakout with a 6-catch 136-yard two touchdown performance against the Jets.

Coates cut his hand and/or broke a finger. Or two. His story kept changing. He disappeared from the offense only getting 18 more balls thrown his way; he caught only 2. He was next seen wide open in the first drive of the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

If Coates catches it, he’s still running, Forrest Gump style. Coates did not catch it. The Steelers traded him the next summer and he caught 7 passes over two years with the Browns and Texans. Grade: Bust

4th Round: Dorany Grant – Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

When Pittsburgh drafted Doran Grant as their 2nd corner in the 2015 NFL Draft, Steelers Nation cheered. When they cut him at summer’s end, Steelers Nation called it a crisis. They chilled out when he returned via the practice squad.

The Steelers cut him the following September. Over the next two years he’d do stints with the Bills, Giants, Jaguars, and Bears but played nary a down. Grade: Bust.

5th Round: Jesse James – The Outlaw

 

Jesse James, Jesse James Patriots touchdown

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Pat Freiermuth’s arrival probably means Jesse James’ second act with the Steelers will never happen. That’s a shame. Because he’ll always be remembered for the Jesse James game, and that’s a shame, because as Tony Defeo pointed out, he deserves to be remembered for so much more.

  • In four years, Jesse James never touched Heath Miller’s status as the best tight end in franchise history.

Nor did he put himself into the conversation with Bennie Cunningham or Mark Bruener. But he was, and remains the Steelers most consistent player at this position following Miller’s retirement. And while Jesse James never kept opposing defensive coordinators awake at night, he delivered critical catches when called upon. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

6th Round A: L.T. Walton – Overvalued, Undervalued Elsewhere, Part I

We’ve spilled too much digital “ink” on L.T. Walton. If you’re burning for a deep dive (and you certainly aren’t, but do you REALLY want to get back to work?), click here and here. If not, here’s the skinny:

  • In his first 3 years, L.T. Walton broached becoming a viable 5th lineman in John Mitchell’s system.
  • Under Karl Dunbar, not so much, as he languished behind Daniel McCullers.

Not great for a 6th round pick, but not bad either. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

6th Round B: Anthony Chickillo – Overvalued Here, Undervalued Elsewhere, II

Sure, I overreached a bit when declaring Anthony Chickillo as “starter capable” when reached restricted free agency. Fair enough.

  • But that makes up for the lack of love Chickillo got from the rest of Steelers Nation.

But in 5 years Anthony Chickillo appeared in 65 games for the Steelers and started 9 of them at both outside linebacker spots. While averaging at about 30% of the defensive snaps during his middle 3 years, Chickillo made 7.5 sacks, 3 defensed passes, 3 forced fumbles and had 3 fumble recoveries. Not bad. Grade: Quality Value Pick

7th Round: Gerod Holliman – Unsafe in Any Round

What’s an NFL Draft analyst’s best friend? How about a 404 error? In January 2015, NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah released his mock draft and had the Steelers drafting Louisville Safety Gerod Holliman in the first round.

  • Jeremiah was only off by 6 rounds.

Full disclosure. Both staff writer Tony Defeo and I mused aloud whether Gerod Holliman would be the next Darren Perry. He wasn’t. But hey, those were good articles for an otherwise dead time for Steelers “content.” Holliman played well in Steelers spring practices, but that was his peak. He got cut in training camp. He did some time on Tampa Bay’s 2016 off season roster and was done. Grade: Incomplete

Overall Draft Grade for the Steelers 2015 Draft Class

In Bud Dupree the Steelers got themselves a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker, even if his development was delayed.

At the bottom of their draft class, the Steelers got excellent value out of the Jesse James and Anthony Chickillo picks. While L.T. Walton is hardly a “Sleeper,” he did help steady the ship on the back end of the 2026 season after Cam Heyward went down.

For all of those positives, the Steelers got nothing out of their middle 3 picks, aside from a few tease plays by Sammie Coates. That brings the grade for the Steelers 2015 draft down a bit, but the grade is far, far better than I would have been 3 or 4 or even 5 years after draft. Grade: B

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Adding Depth. Steelers Draft Quincy Roche in 6th Round, Outside Linebacker from Miami

The Steelers remained true to their needs late into the 2021 NFL Draft when they chose Miami outside linebacker Quincy Roche with their 6th round pick.

Roche began his college career at Temple, where he played on defensive line, before transferring to Miami where he played linebacker. He’ll remain at linebacker while in Pittsburgh.

  • Reaction to the pick this pick has generally been positive.

Draft analyst John Ledyard, who has never pulled a punch when he’s disagree with one of Kevin Colbert’s draft decision, said this:

This opinion is shared on the South Side. Steelers defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Keith Butler confessed, “It was a little bit of a surprise, him being there. We rated him around the late third, early fourth, or all the way into the fifth.”

Quincy Roche

Steelers 6th round pick Quincy Roche. Photo Credit: Yahoo Sports

Quincy Roche Video Highlights

A Baltimore native who grew up as a Ravens fan, Quincy Roche started 10 games for Miami in 2020 and registered 14 1/2 tackles for loss. Roche made 4 1/2 sacks and totaled 45 tackles. When he was a sophomore, Roche had six sacks while starting five of 13 games. He also had seven sacks in his redshirt freshman season.

Here’s a look at his highlight reel:

https://youtu.be/BbWCztCAMmk

Looking at that, it is a bit surprising that Roche lasted to the sixth round, but we also said that about Isaiah Buggs a few years back…

How does Quincy Roche Fit In? He Provides Depth

At outside linebacker the Steelers have T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. Behind him they have Cassius Marsh, whom the Steelers added in December after Bud Dupree went down, off season undrafted futures contract free agent addition Jamir Jones.

Put in simple English, Quincy Roche will have to make more effort NOT to land a spot on the 53 man roster than he will to secure one.

Keith Butler seemed unfazed, remarking, “I think we’ll be OK at that position. A lot of stuff can happen, and we’ll wait to see before we get to training camp and how we develop in those situations.”

  • So perhaps the Steelers aren’t done making moves at outside linebacker.

Nonetheless, welcome to Steelers Nation Quincy Roche.

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Steelers 2021 NFL Draft Needs @ Outside Linebackers, Thin Depth Behind Watt & Highsmith

The Steelers boasted one of the best outside-linebacker duos in the NFL over the past two seasons, as both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree combined for 49 quarterback sacks. With But Dupree departing for the Titans as a much-sought-after free agent, where do the Steelers stand at the position in terms of starters and depth heading into the 2021 NFL Draft? Let’s dive in and find out.

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

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

Steelers Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Starters

T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, heads into his fifth season as not only the Steelers best linebacker; he’s their best player and most valuable asset. Furthermore, he’s arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL today, despite coming up short in the Defensive Player of the Year voting each of the past two seasons.

With 49.5 career sacks to his name, Watt is on pace to shatter the Steelers’ all-time mark of 84.5 set by the legendary James Harrison. But Watt’s pass-rush prowess can’t just be measured in sacks; the pressure he puts on opposing linemen and quarterbacks is non-stop game-in and game-out. In fact, some credited Watt’s presence with the sudden career uptick experienced by Bud Dupree starting in 2019. Dupree, a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, struggled with injuries and consistency through four seasons before coming on strong to close out his Steelers’ career.

With that in mind, maybe Alex Highsmith, the Steelers third-round pick out of Charlotte a year ago and the presumed replacement for Dupree as the weak-side starting outside linebacker can also benefit from playing alongside Watt. Alex Highsmith started five games in 2020 and recorded 48 tackles, two sacks and one pass defended. Highsmith also notched a game-changing interception in an important road win vs. the Ravens and M&T Bank Stadium.

Depth Chart at Outside Linebacker: The Backups

To say the Steelers’ depth at outside linebacker is sparse would be an understatement. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi left as a free agent, leaving the newly acquired Cassius Marsh, a 28-year old journeyman originally drafted in the fourth round by the Seahawks back in 2014, as the top backup.

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart is Christian Kuntz, a 2017 undrafted free agent out of nearby Duquesne University.

Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Outside Linebacker

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftI believe there is optimism that Highsmith can continue to improve and make a huge enough leap from his first to his second year that Pittsburgh should have itself a fine replacement for Dupree in 2021.

  • But, again, the lack of depth has to be a major concern heading into the draft.

While it didn’t draw much discussion, in a normal year, the Steelers likely would have found a way to keep Ola Adeniyi, who if nothing else would have secured a proven special teams contributor who was familiar with the Steelers defense. 

As the Steelers depth chart at outside linebackers stands now, one has to wonder if Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin won’t be tempted to hold Invincible like open tryouts just to fill out the roster.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Pittsburgh does need to improve depth and perhaps do it with someone who can develop into a future starter so the priority of outside linebacker for the Steelers heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be: Moderate

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Fretting about Free Agency? The NFL Draft is the Steelers Christmas Tree, Free Agents are Just Stocking Stuffers

If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re likely not all that comfortable with their activity during the first two weeks of the NFL’s unrestricted free-agency period.

But you should have known they weren’t going to do much, right? The salary-cap problems were well-documented, and, besides, the Steelers’ history of making free-agent splashes should have been another clue.

Perhaps the re-signing of Cam Sutton and the surprise re-signings of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu weren’t enough. Also, the outside signings of free agents such as Joe Haeg and Miles Killebrew probably didn’t move the needle on your excitement meter.

  • Do you know what always moves the excitement needle for Steelers fans?

The annual NFL Draft. I mean, my goodness, the talk about the popular event — an event whose television ratings always eclipse those of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — begins the second the Steelers’ season comes to an end and doesn’t stop until well-after their final pick is announced on Day 3 of draft weekend.

There are millions of NFL fans who probably love the draft more than they do an actual football game. I don’t, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Why? Because the draft is the life-blood of the National Football League. It’s actually the life-blood of every professional sports league.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

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

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

Every viable prospect is poked, prodded and interviewed countless times in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. There are few secrets by the time the annual event rolls around every April.

Teams are looking for players to help them win now and in the future. They’re searching for prospects that will lead them to the Promised Land–better known as the Super Bowl.

My point is, we dissect every single Steelers’ draft choice — and even the undrafted free agents — once they arrive and speculate on what they can do for the team now and in the future. Yet, the second unrestricted free agency rolls around every March, we forget about many of those players and want Pittsburgh to go shopping for shiny new toys.

Take cornerback Justin Layne, for example. The Steelers made Justin Layne a third-round draft choice out of Michigan State just two years ago. People were excited about him. Many were of the opinion that he was a great value pick and could wind up being a steal. When a player is selected in the third round, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to at least be competing for a starting job by his third season.

Here we are in 2021, and Layne is heading into his third season. I was as disappointed by the release of Steven Nelson as anyone. The Steelers obviously did this to save money, sure, but maybe Pittsburgh also cut Nelson knowing that Layne was ready to make the jump from backup to starting corner.

Another example is Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle that was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okorafor has already started a number of games–including 15 last year. Heading into his fourth season, perhaps Pittsburgh is confident that he can be the long-term answer at either left or right tackle.

We really don’t know how the Steelers feel about players like Layne and Okorafor, but we might get our answer by how they address both corner and offensive tackle during the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for Alex Highsmith, the outside linebacker taken in the third round last year, we knew right away that the former Charlotte walk-on was selected to be the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, who had designs on making a ton of money as an unrestricted free agent–he did.

After a promising rookie season, Highsmith will now get that chance in 2021. What’s wrong with that plan? What’s wrong with promoting Layne if he’s ready?

This is what the draft is for. Heck, people are tracking the Pro Day visits of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert as if they’re foreign spies.

There’s obviously a lot of time and money that goes into the NFL and these prospects. If you can hit on a class or two, it allows you to remain competitive for years.

Take the Steelers 2017 Draft class, for example. I think T.J. Watt‘s career speaks for itself. You can argue about many aspects of Smith-Schuster’s game and non-football exploits, but you can’t say that he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver. As for Sutton, a third-round pick from Tennessee, he may wind up being more than just the starting slot corner; he may be the number two corner.

The Steelers drafts of 2008 and 2009 produced very little in terms of long-term production (at least for the Steelers), and by the time those Super Bowl veterans from the 2000s were ready to get on with their life’s work, the cupboard was pretty bare; the Steelers didn’t miss the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 by accident.

In conclusion, the Steelers didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but maybe that’s because they believe in their recent draft choices.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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Upset about Steelers Cutting Steven Nelson? Call it Free Agency Reality Therapy

That didn’t take long. Less than a week after giving his agent permission to seek a trade, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut cornerback Steven Nelson. The move comes less than two years after the Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided that Nelson was worthy of the largest free agent contract in franchise history.

So now what?

Has the team that decided to delay the a rehash of Mark Malone, David Woodley and the 1980’s by bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for a another year instead embraced a reboot of the Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh, and Artie Burns?

Maybe. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this shouldn’t be such a shocker.

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Free Agency Proceeding for Pittsburgh as Expected

Thus far free agency has evolved for the Steelers much as it was expected to. The Steelers had planned and projected for a 2021 salary cap of about 220 million dollars. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, they got one of about 183.5 million.

Cap gurus like Omar Khan can use creative accounting to get stretch and squeeze contracts into a tight salary cap.

  • But when the cap comes in a 40 million below your estimate, creativity reaches its limits.

Everyone knew that. So we were told to expect to:

  1. Say goodbye to veterans who’ve played vital roles in keeping the Steelers a contender
  2. Watch the Steelers do little more than bargain basement hunting in free agency
  3. Cut high salaried starters

Things are proceeding on schedule. Veterans like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are gone. So is Tyson Alualu. That was a bit of a surprise, and in a normal year the Steelers probably would have found the extra money to keep him.

The Steelers haven’t done much in free agency. Sure they’ve resigned Zach Banner and Cameron Sutton. But even those deals required using voidable years, as did JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers made 2 piecemeal signings, in addition to resigning Chris Wormley, but really haven’t done much else

And in the last week, we’ve seen the Steelers cut high-salaried starters. First it was Vince Williams, now it is Steven Nelson. Sure, as Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, the timing may be a bit off. Normally you’d expect the Steelers to make these moves before free agency to give their guys a chance to make back their money.

  • But going into free agency, there was talk that the Steelers would have to part ways with one of their cornerbacks.

They’ve just done that. Certainly, most people expected that cornerback to be Joe Haden. Joe Haden doesn’t make as much as Steven Nelson, but he is several years older. Cornerback is a young man’s game. If you’ve got a corner that’s in his mid 30’s and one in his late 20’s going with the younger one seems like a non-brainer.

  • And that’s likely the choice I would make.

But as Bob Labriola pointed out on Asked and Answered, some metrics indicated that Joe Haden had a better year than Steven Nelson. Again, banking too much on those types of metrics is dangerous but it does show that this wasn’t a slam-dunk case. And its also likely that the Steelers didn’t want to cut Nelson, but could come to some other sort of agreement.

As I wrote before, I’m hard pressed to find a way to think of how the Steelers 2021 defense can be better than its 2020 incarnation without Steven Nelson on it. That hasn’t changed.

But this was the reality we expected going into Free Agency. It just took a little longer to set in. Welcome to Steelers Free Agency Reality Therapy.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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The Steven Nelson Trade News was the Type of Surprise Steelers Fans Dread

Going into the free-agency phase of the Steelers offseason, there really wasn’t much that would surprise this fan and writer, someone who had long-since accepted the team’s fate as it pertained to a salary cap purgatory situation that had to be dealt with.

  • Only $6 million under the cap, Pittsburgh’s moves were likely going to be unspectacular.
  • Departures figured to sting anywhere from a little to a lot.
Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Not surprisingly, the first week of free-agency went about as expected — or, should I say the first few days of the first week of free agency? The Steelers lost Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler and even Tyson Alualu fairly quickly. While some may have hurt more than others, only the most optimistic — and naive (let’s be real) — Steelers fans should have been totally taken aback by anyone that departed.

But the news on Friday, however, was quite shocking, and it came at you in one, giant good news/bad news wave. First, the good news: The Steelers signed receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal for $8 million.

Next, the bad news: ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

While you may have been pleasantly surprised to hear about the Steelers re-signing of Smith-Schuster, the news about Nelson had to rock you a little.

After all, even when it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Smith-Schuster would depart after receiving a huge, multi-year deal, the consensus was that Pittsburgh would still be fine at receiver; third-year man, Diontae Johnson and second-year man, Chase Claypool have already shown a ton of potential, as has fourth-year, man James Washington, a youngster who may just simply need a real opportunity to show what he can do. Besides, the Steelers have been fantastic at drafting and developing receivers for over a decade now; therefore, why would it be any different if they decided to take another one in the 2021 NFL Draft?

  • The secondary, on the other hand, may not be so easy for Pittsburgh to restock and reload.
  • There’s no sugar coating it:  The Franchise as struggled for a decade to draft and develop cornerbacks and safeties.

After that mostly didn’t work — and, “mostly” may be kind (anyone remember Cortez Allen or Senquez Golson?) — the Steelers had to go outside of the organization to find major talent, including cornerback Joe Haden, a post-cut free-agent signing in 2017; cornerback Steven Nelson, an unrestricted free agent in 2019; and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a trade acquisition early in the 2019 regular season. Yes, while Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent, who made the team in 2017, can be considered a homegrown talent, same with 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, the Steelers obviously couldn’t rely on their own resources when it came to turning the secondary from a liability into a strength.

Considering how hard it is to find blue-chip defensive backs in the area of the first round where the Steelers normally draft–this year, that area of the first round will be 24th–I doubt they really want to have to try again.

  • With all that in mind, I don’t think the Steelers really want to trade Nelson.

In my opinion, this is mostly a one-sided issue with Nelson and his agent forcing things. Think about it, why would the Steelers want to part with Nelson, who is in the final year of his contract and is slated to make $8.25 million in base salary? The Steelers would be hard-pressed to find another free-agent cornerback who can play the position as well as Nelson has the past two years, and at such a bargain rate. As for the draft? See above.

Ah, but that’s probably where the problem lies. Nelson likely feels that he’s severely underpaid, and when the two parties presumably had talks about a contract extension on the eve of free agency, Nelson was looking for a deal similar to what the top cornerbacks were earning–including a boatload of guaranteed money–and he wanted it asap.

  • You know how the Steelers are about guaranteed money, at least past the first year of a deal.

I don’t know what offers the Steelers will get for a trade involving Nelson. I also don’t know what’s going to happen if they don’t receive any offers that they deem worth it. Short of a contract agreement or trade that really works for Pittsburgh, I’d like to see Nelson stick around for at least one more year.

  • I seriously hope the Steelers don’t simply release the veteran if they can’t trade him.

Can a Steelers’ secondary that really just came into its own in 2019 absorb the losses of both Hilton and Nelson in one offseason? I don’t think so. I know Sutton has been retained and is capable of playing on the outside and in the slot, but he’s only one guy.

In conclusion, the Steelers secondary may again be a liability in 2021, and that is the kind of surprise that could cause a lot of fans to have heart attacks next season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Resign Cam Sutton, Bud Dupree Bolts, Matt Feiler Flies

Free Agency has yet to officially start but with the official negotiating period already underway, things are already beginning to happen for the Steelers.

  • The biggest news of the day was word the the Steelers had resigned Cam Sutton to a 2 year, 9 million dollar contract.

Cam Sutton joined the Steelers as a 3rd round draft pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Sutton began the year on injured reserve but was pressed into action in the Steelers road win over the Cincinnati Bengals, which coincidentally was that same night Ryan Shazier suffered his career ending injury.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception, Steelers vs Bills

Cam Sutton intercepts Josh Allen. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

Sutton played in each of the rest of the Steelers games in 2017, and saw his playing time increase in the coming year where he logged 46% of the defensive snaps, working in behind starters Steven Nelson, Joe Haden and Mike Hilton.

During 2020, Cam Sutton intercepted one pass, defensed eight more passes, forced 3 fumbles and recovered one of those. Per Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Sutton logged a career-high 53% of all defensive snaps. Of the Steelers “signable” free agents, keeping Cam Sutton in Pittsburgh was clearly their biggest priority.

Arguably, the next most important signings for the Steelers would be offensive tackle Zach Banner and nose tackle Tyson Alualu.

Why Only 2 Years for Cam Sutton?

On the face of it, Cam Sutton appears to have taken a “hometown discount,” as 9 million over two years is hardly big payday for a proven NFL cornerback. Obviously, if Sutton and his agent had harder offers from outside of Pittsburgh, they wouldn’t have agreed to a deal so quickly.

  • But what is surprising is the term of the deal.

A one year “prove it” deal wouldn’t have been a surprise, but a two year deal does surprise, given the the Steelers typically sign their players to 3 year second contracts. At the beginning of the off season, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic observed that Steelers most important contracts ran through 2021.

Kaboly’s conclusion was that this was where management had seen the team’s natural window of Super Bowl viability ending.

Could Cam Sutton’s two year deal indicate that the team is now projecting into 2022? At this point its far too early to to tell but it is worth keeping an eye on.

Bud Bolts, Feiler Flies

While the news that Cam Sutton would be staying in Pittsburgh was a positive and perhaps a bit surprising, several free agents announced their decisions to sign elsewhere. Bud Dupree has apparently reached a deal to play with the Tennessee Titans and Matt Feiler will join the San Diego Chargers.

JuJu Smith-Schuter has not annouced his new home, but has informed players that he will be departing, and rumors have tied Mike Hilton to Philadelphia.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Can Steelers Free Agent Jayrone Elliott Provide Depth at OLB in 2021? Don’t Count on It

There’s no question that outside linebacker is a source of concern for the Steelers as they approach free agency. With Bud Dupree almost surely out the door the second the NFL’s new calendar year begins, Alex Highsmith, last year’s third-round pick, will get the first crack at filling the void as the starter opposite T.J. Watt.

  • After that, where’s the depth going to come from?

Can it come from a player like Jayrone Elliott, the proverbial journeyman who hasn’t really made much noise along his NFL journey with various teams? We’re about to find out.

Jayrone Elliot, Steelers vs Bengals

Jayrone Elliot makes a tackle. Photo Credit: SteelersNow.com

Capsule Profile of Jayrone Elliott’s Career with the Steelers

Jayrone Elliott was an undrafted free agent out of Toledo in 2014 and spent his first three years with the Packers. After a season with the Cowboys in 2017, Elliott pinballed around the NFL for a bit before winding up with the Steelers in 2019. Since then, Elliott has bounced between the Steelers practice squad and their active roster and is now a free agent. In 52 games over a six-year career, Elliott has zero starts and has recorded only five sacks.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Jayrone Elliott in 2021

Elliott has obviously been in the NFL for a while. He won’t be expensive to resign, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a veteran around to provide depth at the outside linebacker spot.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Jayrone Elliott in 2021

You can take some of the positives I just used to describe Elliott and spin them into negatives. Elliott has spent six years in the NFL and has barely even made a mark. Besides, he’s 29 years old, and if he hasn’t progressed at this stage of his career, he’s likely never going to.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Jayrone Elliott in 2021

There are plenty of young and eager outside linebackers out there, either still in college or currently floating around the NFL, who would love to come to the Steelers and develop and hone their skills at the outside linebacker position.

I think Pittsburgh would be better off encouraging Jayrone Elliott to get on with his life’s work.

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Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft a Twitter spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

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