Bryant & Coates Beware: Steelers Draft JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2nd Round of 2017 NFL Draft

Day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round, and Pittsburgh’s pick of the USC wide receiver helps prove that reality does really unfold at its own pace in the draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers needed a cornerback (or a safety) and figured to get one after several prime candidates were left on the board following their pick of TJ Watt in the 1st round. However, no less than one dozen defensive backs were taken, or just under half of the 2nd round selections to that point, before the Steelers turn to pick at the 30th slot.

Steelers draft Juju Smith-Schuster 2nd round, Juju Smith-Schuster

Steelers 2nd round draft pick Juju Smith-Schuster in action for USC. Photo Credit: AP, via PennLive.com

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley explained the Pittsburgh’s pick of Smith-Schuster in the following terms:

He is a good-sized receiver. He was very productive out there at USC. He is a really do-it-all guy. He can play inside, outside. If you had to say what he excelled at, I’d say his ability to catch the ball in combative situations, 50/50 balls as we call them, and he usually comes down with them. He’s a really exciting guy and we are excited to get him here to work on.

As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell detailed, as soon as reporters started asking Todd Haley if the Steelers picking JuJu Smith-Schuster amounted to an insurance policy on Bryant and Coates, Haley refuted the question, and then the Steelers PR team promptly terminated the interview….

Looking at his highlight reel, there’s reason to conclude that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert did draft on his own merits:

Highlight reels can be deceiving, but JuJu Smith-Schuster stands at 6-1 1/2, weighs in at 215-pounder and brings the Steelers 4.54 speed after catching 70 passes for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns last season for the USC Trojans.

Following the pick, Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates exchanged pleasantries on Twitter as to whose roster spot the Steelers may have jeopardized by the exchange. Mike Tomlin’s response was clear:

It would seem that Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates were intent on showing the world just why the Steelers felt they needed to draft a wide receiver so high.

On paper at least, the move gives Ben Roethlisberger another tallish target to throw to, and someone who can potentially help take the heat off of Antonio Brown in ways that Eli Rogers or Cobi Hamilton can’t, and that Darrius Heyward-Bey hasn’t proved he do consistently.

Clearly the Steelers can carry Brown, Bryant, Coates, Smith-Schuster or their roster, with room for 1 or 2 more wide outs, but it is also safe to say that every Steelers wide receiver not named “Brown” should be looking over his shoulder.

Competition brings out the best in athletes, so with that we say “Welcome to Steelers Nation” to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver – Moderate High

My quickly things change. A year ago, even when taking Maratvis Bryant’s latest suspension into account, the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart looked to be flush at wide receiver.

As fate would have it, Ben Roethlisberger spent the majority of the season having his number 5 and number 6 wide receivers playing for his number 2 and number 3 receivers. While the Steelers have made some free agent moves to shore up their wide receiving corps those having done much to impact the priority status of wide receiver in the impending 2017 NFL Draft.

Steelers 2017 draft needs wide receiver, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant

Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant high five in 2015. Photo Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP Photo via New Pittsburgh Courier

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

The subheading you see is no misprint, because as it stands the Steelers only have one proven starter at wide receiver and his name is Antonio Brown.

  • Next time someone tries to tell you a six round pick is a wasted pick, remind them of Antonio Brown.

The Steelers of course took Brown in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft and haven’t looked back. Brown was proverbial one of two dogs fighting for the same bone as a rookie, but he came down with the biggest catch in the Divisional Playoff win over the Ravens and again a week later in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

  • Since then Antonio Brown has established himself as nothing less than the best wide receiver in the NFL.

You can look up all sorts of numbers to justify this claim, but Antonio Brown’s game winner against Baltimore on Christmas Day reveals his greatness in ways numbers could never do justice to.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Wide Receiver Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

The problem is that the Steelers entered the 2016 playoffs without a viable number 2 wide receiver alongside Brown. Sammie Coates was supposed to occupy that role and looked he might, but then he got hurt. So did Markus Wheaton, who is now in Chicago. Darrius Heyward-Bey got promoted to starter at midseason, and then he got hurt.

All three men played well at critical stretches during the regular season, and they also had their moments in the post season, but ultimately they weren’t quite ready for the bright lights of the AFC Championship matchup against New England.

  • During the off season the Steelers signed Justin Hunter a journeyman wide receiver who has had a solid career, but has never lived up to his status as a 34 overall pick.

The Steelers also have the lingering question about Martavis Bryant. Bryant has served his suspension and applied for reinstatement, but the NFL has not yet cleared him to play for 2017.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Wide Receiver

If the Steelers knew that Martavis Bryant would be back AND would keep himself clean and if they Steelers were comfortable that Sammie Coates struggles were solely due to injury, then the priority status of wide receiver for 2017 would probably fall into the category of a luxury pick.Steelers 2016 Draft Needs wide receiver

  • But the Steelers can’t be sure of either of those two things.

And while Eli Rogers made impressive strides, he is still considered more of a slot receiver. The Darrius Heyward-Bey career revival story is a heartening one, but he has yet to produce consistently as a first-line wide receiver.

It is true that Steelers wide receivers, outside of Louis Lipps, Santonio Holmes and Troy Edwards, don’t typically produce much as rookies, but the Steelers need to think beyond the short term and therefore the Steelers 2017 draft need at wide receiver must be considered Moderate-High.

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Steelers Sign Justin Hunter, Whose Roster Spot is in His Sights?

Pittsburgh’s first successful free agent foray outside the confines of the South Side saw the Steelers sign Justin Hunter, a wide receiver drafted by Mike Munchak with the 2nd pick of the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Justin Hunter played three years for the Tennessee Titans before getting cut at the end of training camp in 2016. From there Hunter spent time with the Miami Dolphins but got cut before the end of September, before landing with the Buffalo Bills.

Justin Hunter, James Harrison, Steelers vs. Titans, Steelers sign Justin Hill

James Harrison looks on as Justin Hunter catches one of 2 pass in the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. Photo Credit: McPeak, USA Today, via SCI

Finding/establishing a viable number two wide receiver to play alongside Antonio Brown has been a priority for the Steelers during 2017 off season that took on greater urgency after Markusy Wheaton walked.

  • However, even though Justin Hunter was drafted a round and a half ahead of Markus Wheaton, the Steelers clearly don’t see him as a replacement.

For comparison’s sake, despite seeing both his rookie and “senior” seasons marred by injuries, Markus Wheaton left Pittsburgh with 107 catches and 8 touchdowns, whereas Justin Hunter only has 78 grabs, although 12 of those were for touchdowns.

Whose Roster Spots Does Justin Hunter Have in His Sights?

Assuming he gets reinstated by the NFL and assuming he avoids further suspensions, Martavis Bryant looks to compete with Antonio Brown for Ben Roethlisberger’s attention down the field. Eli Rogers impressed during his rookie season and the coaches see him as a natural slot receiver, although Darrius Heyward-Bey has also shown he’s a competent number 3 wide out.

The Steelers had hoped that Sammie Coates would blossom into a viable number 2 wide receiver but Coates arguably dropped more passes than he caught in 2016.

  • Injuries played a factor, but there have also been rumblings about his worth ethic and practice habits.

At the bottom of the roster the Steelers have Cobi Hamilton, who performed extremely well for a training camp injury replacement 6th string wide receiver, and Demarcus Ayers who also delivered when pressed into action late in the season.

On paper, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers are the two players that Justin Hunter will likely place his bulls eye on, although neither Darriuss Heyward-Bey nor Sammie Coates should get too comfortable.

With that said, while terms haven’t been released yet, the Justin Hill’s one year contract with the Steelers suggests that this is at or near a veteran minimum signing which, if correct, would not even ensure his roster spot.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Wise to Let Markus Wheaton Walk in Free Agency. (Yes, You Read that Right)

While the Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2017 free agency period by resigning two of their own, David Johnson and Landry Jones, before the sun set on the first day Pittsburgh lost one of their own when wide receiver Markus Wheaton came to terms with the Chicago Bears.

  • It says here the Steelers were wise to let Markus Wheaton walk.

Woah! Wait a minute! Run that by me again….

Yes, you read that correctly. And yes I don’t blame those of you who are sitting there saying “Hypocrite!” or Spanish speakers who’re crying ¡Double discurso!

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton contract, Martavis Bryant

Markus Wheaton’s defection to the Chicago Bears highlights Steelers need for Martavis Bryant. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Just a week or so ago, yours truly did author an article headline “Why the Steelers would be wise to resign Markus Wheaton.” Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. But, if you’ll allow me a little attitude, I was sincere then just as I’m sincere now.

The argument that the Steelers should consider breaking franchise prescient and resign Markus Wheaton to a second contract was predicated on Steelers ability either to come to terms with Wheaton at a very low rate one year “Prove it” contract, or a longer medium tier contract. As free agency approached, rumblings got louder that this wasn’t terribly likely.

Which is fine, because it’s an agent’s job to make both the press and personnel offices think that all 31 teams are absolutely dying to sign their client.

  • Sometimes that interest is real, sometimes it’s nothing more than hot air. This time it was real.

Terms of Markus Wheaton’s deal with the Bears aren’t public yet, but the biggest money typically gets thrown around on day one of free agency. Which is to say that if the Bears were offering enough to get Wheaton, who was also being courted by at least the Eagles, locked down on day one, they well into territory that the Steelers had no desire to enter.

So be it. The Steelers don’t overpay in free agency, and they especially don’t over pay for wide receivers. Hines Ward and Antonio Brown will remain the only two wide outs to get offered second contracts after their rookie deals were complete.

Losing Markus Wheaton Still Impacts Steelers

Losing Markus Wheaton to the Bears does come with its consequences, even if the Steelers made the right move. The absence of someone to take consistent heat off of Antonio Brown hurt the Steelers last season. During much of the Steelers 9 game winning streak the Steelers compensated by force-feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell.

The Steelers have quantity at the number two WR spot – Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton, but Wheaton had shown far more consistency as a number two target for Ben Roethlisberger than any of these men.

Now the Steelers will have to replace that consistency either in house, free agency or in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Why Steelers Would be Wise to Resign Free Agent Markus Wheaton

In the 24 years since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted 29 wide receivers. 27 of those wide receivers have gone on to play in at least one NFL football game, and 24 of those 27 have suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Clearly, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have an eye for drafting receivers.

But if the Steelers have excelled in finding and drafting wide receivers who’re good enough to make the field and play, Pittsburgh rarely picks ones that stay. Of those 24 wide receivers the Steelers have drafted since 1993, only two of them*, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers sat and watched as first round picks Charles Johnson, Troy Edwards, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes left in free agency (or were traded). They did the same with Antwaan Randle El after he authored a game-changing play in Super Bowl XL. If you count Yancey Thigpen, who was essentialy a waiver-wire pickup, the Steelers let their then single-season reception record holder walk in free agency.

IN a week when Antonio Brown signed his third contract in Pittsburgh, we turn our attention to whether Steelers free agent Markus Wheaton can break precedent and secure his second contract.

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton free agent, Steelers vs Seahawks, Markus Wheaton Seahawks

Markus Wheaton in his 9 catch 201 yard game in 2015 vs. the Seahawks. Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP via ESPN.com

Capsule Profile of Markus Wheaton’s Steelers Career

Although the Steelers “Young Money” phenomenon never quite lived up to its hype, Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh having made his mark on the Steelers wide receiving records. Markus Wheaton, whom the Steelers had drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, ostensibly came to Pittsburgh to replace Wallace.

Not that there was any pressure or anything.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola’s tweet from training camp indicate, the Steelers had high expectations for Markus Wheaton:

Unfortunately, injuries ruined Markus Wheaton’s rookie season. While he officially appeared in 12 games, Ben Roethlisberger only targeted him 13 times, of which Wheaton came down with the ball on 6 occasions.

Things looked better for Markus Wheaton going into 2014, as he earned the starting role alongside Antonio Brown. Wheaton had a strong game in the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Browns, but they struggled for the next several weeks. At mid-season he was all but forgotten in the excitement generated by Martavis Bryant’s debut.

  • Nonetheless, Markus Wheaton closed 2014 playing an unsung role by consistently making critical 3rd down conversions.

Markus Wheaton’s 2015 campaign closely mirrored 2014. He got off to an inconsistent start, but stepped up his play during the latter half of the season proving he could be a viable number 2 NFL wide out (although he did have an ugly drop in the playoffs vs. Denver.)

Markus Wheaton injured his shoulder in the Steelers preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, and only appeared in 3 games for the Steelers in 2016 before going on injured reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

One year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to field one of NFL’s deepest wide receiving corps in 2016. Instead the Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Richard Mann struggled to find someone who could occupy the number 2 spot opposite Antonio Brown.

  • The Steelers never really found that number 2 wide out.

To the team’s collective credit, the Steelers compensated effectively by leaning more heavily on Le’Veon Bell and by using quantity to make up for a lack of quality. That formula failed the Steelers in the playoffs, as evidence by the need for 6 Chris Boswell field goals in Kansas City and the disaster that was the AFC Championship.

Markus Wheaton might not give the Steelers a modern day “Swann-Stallworth” type combo alongside Antonio Brown, but he’s a reliable receiver and a legitimate number 2 that has proven he can make defenses pay should they decide to ignore him.

  • Markus Wheaton can also move into the slot, should Martavis Bryant prove he deserves and can be trusted with a starting job.

Better yet, because he spent most of his contract year injured, Markus Wheaton isn’t in a position to command a lot of interest or money on the free agent market. That makes the Steelers resigning Markus Wheaton a no brainer.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

Here are 6 simple reason why the Steelers need not think twice about resigning Markus Wheaton:

In a best case scenario, the Steelers will have the services of all six men on a full time basis next year. While Steelers know there’s no certainty that both Bryant and Green, either man offers Pittsburgh’s offense a far more dangerous weapon than Wheaton does.

Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers got pressed into service far earlier than anyone expected them two, and while Rogers and Hamilton had suffered their growing pains in the AFC Championship, these player did in fact grow up fast.

  • The Steelers will probably keep 5 wide receivers next year with 6 being the absolute maximum.

Bringing Markus Wheaton back, even on a “Prove It” contract, would mean risking exposing losing Rogers, Hamilton or Ayers, guys who have longer-term prospects in Pittsburgh. Given that, the case for investing salary cap dollars and a roster spot in Markus Wheaton seems rather weak.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Markus Wheaton

In a number of albeit imperfect ways, Markus Wheaton’s development to this point in his career reminds me of Jason Gildon’s. Gildon was fortunate enough to do an apprenticeship behind Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, but by the end of Gildon’s sophomore season, Greene pronounced him as ready to start.

  • Jason Gildon did start in 1996 and 1997, but started off slow in both seasons but was playing fairly good football by the end of each.

That worked out well for the Steelers, because by the time he became a free agent, he didn’t have the type of numbers to command a big contract and the Steelers resigned Jason Gildon at a relative bargain.

  • A similar dynamic could be a work for the Steelers and Markus Wheaton.

It says here that, at the right price, the Steelers would wise to bring back Markus Wheaton for at least 2017 as he offers a known commodity in the face of several other “ifs” and unknowns. If some other team wants to get an outlandish offer to Wheaton, so be it, but otherwise the he should remain in Pittsburgh.

*Technically speaking, the Steelers did bring back Will Blackwell for one season after his rookie contract that injury limited to two games.

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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.

Anthony Chickillo, Dak Prescott, Anthony Chickillo strip sack dak prescott, Steelers 2017 exclusive rights free agents, steelers vs cowboys

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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Watch Tower: Steelers Press Coverage on Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown Tension, AFC Championship Aftermath & More

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 season came to an abrupt and ugly end in New England and the Watch Tower focuses its lights on the aftermath of that game, including coverage of tensions between Ben and Brown, coverage of the post-AFC Championship blame game and the Justin Gilbert story.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown pouting, Ben Roethlisberger Antonio Brown tension

Ben Roethlisberger embraces Antonio Brown at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

Aditi Kinkhabwala has the Press Corps Pouting Again…

The end to the Steelers season often times signals the beginning of some of most interesting stories about the team. This is a well-established tendency. Think of how stories of Bill Cowher banishing Kordell Stewart from QB meetings or getting into shouting matches with Tommy Maddox only broke after the games stopped.

In recent seasons, a new twist has accompanied the trend:

  • Namely that if you really want a story to get everyone’s attention, filter it through NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala.

After all, it was Aditi Kinkhabwala who’d implied that she’d somehow predicted/foreseen Jack Bicknell’s dismissal after 2013, sparking a social media firestorm with Dejan Kovacevic. In 2014 she managed to get Steelers Nation talking about the groin injury Mike Mitchell had played through during the entire season, despite the fact that Allan Robinson had broken the Mitchell injury story in late October of 2014.

And now of course Aditi Kinkhabwala started the Steelers 2017 season by dropping this bomb buy suggesting Antonio Brown hung his head and “pouted” after DeAngelo Williams scored his first touchdown.

The substance of the story was immediately debunked by video evidence – Brown had in fact blocked on the play and was seen raising his arms in celebration after the score. But Kinkhabwala story had its impact as a quick Google search for “Antonio Brown pouting” confirms.

Interestingly enough, while one of Kinkhabwala’s reports remains available on the NFL Network’s site, the other displays other videos, such as this one of Tyler Matakevich’s NFL Combine workout:

Aditi Kinkhabwala Antonio Brown, NFL Network Antonio Brown, Tyler Matakevich NFL Combine

The url would lead you to think that this would be on Aditi Kinkhabwala’s story about Antonio Brown, but it doesn’t….

A later check of the link displayed highlights of one Le’Veon Bell’s more impressive rushing efforts against the Giants. While could be due to a technical glitch, taken at face value it does not speak well to NFL Networks confidence in the veracity of the story.

And the story might have died there, but this one had legs….

Of Ben and Ron, Antonio and Dale

The impact that the relationship reporters has with his or her subject and the coverage that person receives has long been one of the Watch Tower’s pet interest in an effort to find evidence that supports or disputes the groundbreaking work Elliot King and Michael Schudson did on the subject in the 1980’s.

  • And to that end, we can perhaps learn from the apparent tension between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.

The story begins with the fallout from Antonio Brown’s infamous Facebook Live post following the Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff win against the Chiefs, in discussing Brown’s contrition following the incident the Observer Standard’s Dale Lolley confided:

I like Brown. I’ve gotten to know him as well as a member of the media can know a player in these days of million-dollar contracts and internet stars. I’ve been a host of his radio show the past three years.
We’ve had talks about things other than football. About his family. About my family.

While Lolley certainly did not excuse Brown’s video, he did invite readers to see things from Brown’s perspective, which is understandable given the relationship between the two. The role that the relationship between Brown and Lolley became all the more interesting after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook made the case for trading the Steelers Antonio Brown by dropping this bomb:

The distractions are a real problem. Brown’s three excessive celebrations penalties early in the season were bad enough. But there was the incident in the first Miami game when he jogged back to the line of scrimmage, delaying his teammates from running their 2-minute offense. In more than one game, when he wasn’t happy with how he was being used, he frequently ran the wrong patterns, either because of a lack of focus or — worse — intentionally. It happened a week ago in the AFC championship. That’s inexcusable.

The enormity of Ron Cook’s report did not go unnoticed.

Nor was the fact that he didn’t source his information. Clearly Cook wasn’t going to break confidentiality and out the player or the coach who spilled the beans on someone else. But he also failed to provide any anonymous credit by attributing the report to “A league source” (generally a code word for an agent) or “a member of the locker room” or “someone inside the Steelers organization” (a coach or front office staffer.)

Antonio Brown, Byron Maxwell, Steelers vs Dolphins, Ron Cook Antonio Brown

Antonio Brown’s effort in the Steelers 2016 loss to Miami recently came under fire. Photo Credit: Lynne Sladky, AP via wsoctv.com

The same day Cook’s article ran, Dale Lolley countered the argument in favor of trading Brown by reminding everyone that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t always the ideal teammate, or citizen, and cited several verifiable facts to refute the argument that Brown is somehow a bad teammate.

A few days later, Lolley took things a step further observing:

Then, it was Roethlisberger, through his personal mouthpiece, taking shots at Brown, suggesting that Brown ran the wrong routes on purpose to sabotage the team. Please. Might there be times when Brown runs the wrong route? Sure. He probably does it just like every other receiver in the game. Might there also be times when Roethlisberger calls the wrong play? Absolutely. [emphasis added]

To the naked eye, it might seem as if Lolley is making a jump by assuming that Ben Roethlisberger is Ron Cook’s source. By Ron Cook hosts Roethlisberger’s radio show, and the two are known to have a close relationship.

Indeed, long before this story was born, a credentialed member of the Steelers press corps shared with the Watch Tower that, to the chagrin of other reporters, Ron Cook frequently gets exclusive access to Ben Roethlisberger after games.

  • What to make of all of this?

From a media analysis standpoint, on the surface it looks like Ben and Brown are conducting a surrogate war of words using journalists as proxies, although to be to Dale Lolley, his suggestion that Roethlisberger perhaps calls the wrong play at times is presented as just that a suggestion.

There’s of course nothing wrong with reporters relying on relationships and exclusive access to write compelling stories – in fact, that’s their job. But the Watch Tower hasn’t seen such great contrasts in a major Steelers story since perhaps Stanley Druckenmiller’s attempt to buy out the Rooney brothers.

Fans care the most about the football angle of the story as they should. Art Rooney II has made clear the team isn’t interested in parting ways with Brown, which means that Mike Tomlin must find a way to keep 2 of his 3 Killer Bees happy.

AFC Championship Game Aftermath

Steelers Nation took the Steelers (latest) AFC Championship loss to the Patriots like a sucker punch to the get. The beating was thorough with the Steelers not so much as failing to get on Mike Tomlin’s moving train as being hit by it.

  • Logically, there was a lot of Monday Morning Quarterbacking that followed.

Most of the coverage centered on the ease with which Tom Brady tore up the Steelers zone defense followed by venting on the Steelers unwillingness and/or inability to counter by playing man defense.

Troy Polamalu, Wes Welker, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers Patriots 2011, Steelers Patriots man defense

Troy Polamalu brings down Wes Welker in Steelers 2011 win over Patriots. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images via NY Times

Fair enough. Only a fool would argue that the Steelers defense has done anything but get embarrassed by Brady. Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola offered a counter view. While conceding that the Steelers defense earned its share of rightful criticism, Labriola added another element to the equation:

Because defeating the Patriots doesn’t happen with defense, as the Houston Texans learned in the Divisional Round. Sack Brady, harass Brady, intercept Brady, but if you don’t have the offense to score and possess the ball and compete in time of possession, eventually Tom Brady will get enough done to beat you….

Any vision of the Steelers winning this game had them showing themselves capable of taking a punch from the Patriots, but then also gathering themselves and hitting back.

Labriola then pointed out any number of areas where the Steelers offense fell short, from Sammie Coates dropping his first pass, while also highlighting the failings of Cobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers. A few days later, Labriola also reminded the Twitter defensive coordinators in Steelers Nation that Tom Brady actually had a pretty good game in 2011 when the Steelers surprised him by playing man defense, arguing that the key to the win was the offense’s production.

  • It’s true that “Rooney” is the name that is stamped in the signature block of Bob Labrolia’s pay check, he also offered a perspective that needed to be offered.

Over on Steel City Insider, Jim Wexell offered his readers something unique as well. Three days after that game, in his State of the Steelers he offered readers about as close to a fly on the wall review of what had happened in Steelers practices the week before the as a beat reporter can without risking his credentials.

The Watch Tower won’t steal Wexell’s thunder, but he offered enough insight to make both the optimism going into the game, and the ultimate disappointment understandable. He also detailed some unorthodox, albeit, unsuccessful plans to pressure Brady.

Avoiding the Salary Cap Charge for Gilbert

As everyone knows, the Steelers cut Justin Gilbert just months after trading a 6th round pick to acquire his services. One silver lining is that the Steelers would not be on the hook for the remainder of Justin Gilbert’s contract, which would have been guaranteed due to his draft status.

  • The question is why?

Simon Chester, resident salary capoligist at The Steelers Wire, sprung into action and wrote a piece that seemed to indicate that Gilbert had been suspended by the Browns, thus voiding the guarantee on his deal.

That seemed to make sense, but a day later Jeff Hartman and Flip Fisher of Behind the Steel Curtain got Ray Fittipaldo on the record, who broke the story for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, on the record explaining that the Steelers had ensured that they would not be responsible for any guarantees beyond the 2016 season. Cleveland, it would seem, had agreed to pick up the rest of his contract.

BTSC earns Watch Tower kudos for going the extra mile to add extra clarity to the top story of the week.

Going Deep Down Shifts

A week or so after the AFC Championship an ominous “Farewell Cruel World” headline appeared on Rebecca Rollet’s Going Deep: An Introspective Steelers Site. Now in the interests of full disclosure, yours truly is a part-time contributor to the site, but had gotten no heads up about this, but the headline’s implication appeared to be unmistakable.

However, clicking on the link didn’t announce that the site was closing its doors, but rather that:

…Going Deep is Going to Stop producing daily posts for a while, probably for most of the off-season. Much as we enjoy writing about and thinking about the Steelers, it’s just too difficult to come up with content of substance when nothing much is happening. And since the whole point of this site was to provide content of substance, it leaves us in a bit of a bind.

From the perspective of someone who has blogged about the Steelers since 2008, sometimes it is actually easier to find things to write about during the off season (an observation BTSC founder Michael Bean once expressed) the truth is that there isn’t much going on at this point.

Let’s be honest. When Rebecca launched the site in 2015 with the aim of publishing something everyday without chasing headlines (i.e. no articles about a former Steelers practice squad player’s Instagram tirade) yours truly was skeptical she could pull it off.

  • But she did it, largely by herself and kept it going for a year and a half. That’s enough to earn her Watch Tower Kudos.

She also earns Watch Tower kudos for deciding to shift things down to keep her focus on quality and not quantity. In a Steelers blogesphere that is littered with sites that can be known to publish articles that debate the grades the Steelers get in someone’s mock draft, its refreshing for the Watch Tower to shine its lights on someone moving in the opposite direction.

 

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Think Steelers Should Trade Antonio Brown? Then Follow Le’Veon Bell’s Example and Stop Smoking

Antonio Brown, the Steelers superstar receiver and social media celebrity, has come under fire recently for putting too much emphasis on his superstar status and for, well, being on social media too much.

Among Antonio Brown‘s many follies recently was his Facebook Live post in the Steelers’ locker room shortly after an exciting 18-16 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoffs on January 15.

I can go on and on about Antonio Brown’s various transgressions that include your usual diva-like receiver tendencies of whining and complaining about not getting enough passes thrown his way, but if you’re reading this article, you probably know it all by now.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Browns

Antonio Brown leads Le’Veon Bell at Heinz Field in Steelers 2014 opener. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

As is often the case in the Internet Age, fans have been quick to call for the Steelers to trade Antonio Brown to another team. Not all of the fans, mind you,  but, relative to his status as perhaps the game’s top wide-out, enough to make it noticeable.

  • “Trade him for two number one draft picks!” some fans have written or screamed in recent days.

Fans are just crazy about the NFL Draft and draft picks. And any scenario that could involve Pittsburgh having multiple first rounders in this spring’s draft would be akin to counting down the days until Christmas morning for so many out there.

But if you think Antonio Brown, who has one year left on his current contract, would garner two first round picks in a trade, you are crazy. Given Antonio Brown’s lame-duck status, fetching even one first rounder might be little more than a pipe-dream.

However, that begs an even bigger question: even if you can garner two first round picks for Antonio Brown, why would you want to?

Why Antonio Brown is Worth More than 2 First Round Picks

First of all, contrary to what you always think every February, March and most of April, first round picks don’t always pan out.

Secondly, how can a first round pick (or even two) possibly best what Antonio Brown has and will probably continue to produce on the football field week in and week out?

I know what you’re going to say. Yes, Antonio Brown’s stats declined last year. He made 30 fewer receptions in 2016 than he did the previous year (106) for 550 fewer yards (1,284).

  • But to point that out as a criticism of Antonio Brown while not also mentioning the probable reason is rather disingenuous.

Given that the Steelers were missing Martavis Bryant for all of 2016, Markus Wheaton for all but three games and tight end Ladarius Green for all but six, it makes perfect sense that Antonio Brown’s numbers would see a swift decline from the year before.

Remember that offense that everyone envisioned, the NFL’s equivalent of the Death Star, complete with a plethora of aerial weapons for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to pick and choose how to obliterate opposing defenses? That kind of went up in smoke (pun intended) when Martavis Bryant was suspended for testing positive for marijuana for the second time in as many seasons.

Sammie Coates, Sammie Coates drop, steelers trade antonio brown

Sammie Coates drops a pass in the Steelers 2016 win over the Jets. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

You throw in the aforementioned injuries to some other targets–Green was supposed to be the downfield threat at tight end that would compensate for Bryant’s absence as the number two receiver–as well as Sammie Coates swift decline following a promising start to his second year, and Antonio Brown was destined to produce less in 2016.

Let’s face it, when you have Demarcus AyersCobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers (no offense to those men as they appear to be developing into a fine NFL receivers) as complementary targets, who do you think defensive coordinators are going to focus on stopping, them or Antonio Brown?

  • This is why No. 84 often dealt with double and triple teams in 2016.

This might also explain why Antonio Brown’s yards after catch (YAC) dropped from 587 in 2015 to 387 last year. Sure, it only makes sense that Brown’s YAC would decrease along with his overall yards, but it also illustrates the lack of room he had to work in after making most of his 106 receptions.

And even if Antonio Brown had benefited from being complemented quite nicely by Martavis Bryant, Marcus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green in  2016, this does not mean his statistics wouldn’t have taken a dip. After all, Antonio Brown averaged 125 receptions a season between 2013-2015, a pretty historic run of productivity for a receiver from any generation–even one playing in the current era of pass-happy football.

Still Want Steelers to Trade Antonio Brown? Careful for What you Wish….

Again, fans are often quick to want to cut a player loose these days, even if his talents are all-world and his transgressions aren’t of the legal nature.

  • But, whether the fantasy football mentality or something else fuels this – careful what you wish for.

Let’s not forget, Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback hinted at retirement mere hours after the Steelers 36-17 loss to New England in the AFC Championship game. It is believed that Ben Roethlisberger’s hints were mostly out of frustration, that he was tired of the likes of Antonio Brown and his antics.

However, despite an apparent friction between No. 7 and Antonio Brown, does anyone really think that the best way to entice Ben Roethlisberger into playing longer would be to eliminate his number one target, arguably the very best in the game at his position?

Yes, Antonio Brown is apparently a high maintenance member of the locker room and maybe a little more self-centered than most receivers (and that’s saying something), but this is the man who essentially saved the Steelers season, when, despite three defenders vehemently trying to prevent him from doing so, extended his arm over the goal line with nine seconds left to give the Steelers a pulsating 31-27 victory over the Ravens on Christmas Day, which clinched the AFC North title.

Brown is also the same man who had the presence of mind to keep running across the field late in the divisional round against the Chiefs, got himself open and clinched the victory by reeling in Roethlisberger’s pass on third and three.

Steelers young money crew, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace

Steelers “Young Money” Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Tribune Review Blog

Fans have also been quick to point out that since Pittsburgh has produced a seemingly endless string of receivers in recent years–let’s not forget Antonio Brown was once part of the Young  Money trio that included Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders–he could be replaced, if not totally, then approximately.

But with 632 receptions in just seven seasons–including four-straight with 100 or more– Antonio Brown is quickly ascending up the record books of Steelers receivers  and could quite literally ellipse all of the records set by Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward while he’s still in his early-30s.

  • Despite what you think of him, and despite his apparent need to grow up just a tad, there is only one Antonio Brown.

Part ways with Antonio Brown, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are a lesser football team.

I don’t think anyone is ready for that.

 

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Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who saw his students make some impressive strides during the past year, but nonetheless sees that they’re still not ready to weather the pass-fail nature of a full NFL playoff run, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2016 Season.

Le'Veon Bell, Ben Roetlisberger, Steelers vs Bills, Steelers regular season rushing record

Le’Veon Bell in his record setting performance vs. the Bills. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
By any measure, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played a fine season in 2016. Statistically speaking, Ben Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating was a one point above what it had been a year ago. But Big Ben’s 2016 campaign is not without fault. Ben Roethlisberger ‘s struggles on the road have become alarming, and his play in the later two rounds of the playoffs, while not bad, fell well short of outstanding. To be fair, Roethlisberger spent most of the season playing with a depleted wide receiver crops. Landry Jones played respectably in relief of Roethlisberger, and impressed with his overtime win. Grade: B+steelers, report card, steelers grades, coaching, special teams, unsung heroes, steelers 2016 season

Running Backs
While this conversation doesn’t begin and end with Le’Veon Bell, it perhaps should. In playing just 13 games, Le’Veon Bell affirmed his status as one of the game’s best two way threats, broke both the Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing record and teased at reviving the concept of “franchise running back.” DeAngelo Williams played well in relief of Bell, although he did miss most of the second half of the season due to injury. Fitzgerald Toussaint Only got 14 carries, but looked respectable. Roosevelt Nix role in paving the way for Bell is under appreciated outside of Pittsburgh. Grade: A+

Tight Ends
This was an interesting year for Steelers tight ends. When he finally got on the field, Ladarius Green showed that he had “field flipping” capability, even if his advertised the straight away speed was slower than advertised. Unfortunately, Green only made it into 6 games. In his absence, the sum of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and David Johnson performance in a “tight end by committee” situation was greater than the whole of its parts. Grade: B

Wide Receivers
How good is Antonio Brown? How about this? You take away any hint of a legitimate number 2 wide receiver, as well as a must respect dependable tight end and he still makes over 100 catches and brings in two more touchdowns than he did a year ago. Oh, yeah, and he consummated one of the most dramatic comebacks in franchise history on Christmas with a truly incredible play.

Unfortunately, Antonio Brown didn’t get a lot of help from his fellow wide outs. “Disappointment” is the only way to classify Sammie Coates second season. Coates was supposed to make us forget about Martavis Bryant, but instead reminded us of Limas Sweed.

Eli Rogers performed extremely well, although his fumble in the AFC Championship hurt the team. Ditto Cobi Hamilton. The former practice squad barnstormer came up with several clutch catches during the year, and Demarcus Ayers did the same when he finally saw action late in the year.

This improvement is both impressive and promising with an eye towards the future. However the Report Card grades on performance and results, and the Steelers didn’t have a Super Bowl caliber wide receiving corps this year. Grade: C+

Limas Sweed, Evan Oglesby, Steelers vs Ravens, Steelers Ravens AFC Championship, Limas Sweed drop

Limas Sweeds drops the ball during the 2008 Steeler AFC Championship game against Baltimore. Photo Credit: Keith Spakocic, AP via NY Daily News

Offensive Line
After years of plug and patch the Steelers cemented their 4th lineman to a long term deal when they inked David DeCastro to his new contract. The Steelers 2016 offensive line did an excellent job in what is its most important task at this point in the Tomlin era – to protect Ben Roethlisberger. And the synergy between Le’Veon Bell waiting for holes to open and the line opening them was something special to behold. Still, there were times when the line struggled to open running lanes, namely on the road vs. Baltimore and of course at the goal line in the AFC Championship and their grade must reflect that. Grade: A-

Defensive Line
Let’s begin by ordering some crow with a side of humble pie. When Cameron Heyward went on injured reserve, this site declared, “Game Over.” Fortunately, that’s not what happened. Instead, led by Stephon Tuitt, everyone on the defensive line stepped up their play a notch. Nine games into the season, the Steelers defensive line looked incapable of stopping anyone. By the season’s end, the Steelers were holding feature backs to negative yardage for entire halves.

The Steelers defensive line didn’t put up a lot of sexy statistics, but they delivered time and time again by making the types of plays that don’t show up on stat sheets, but win games. Grade: B

James Harrison, Art Rooney II

Art Rooney II and James Harrison share a post-game handsake. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Linebackers
In 2016 the Steelers linebackers returned to their status as the strength of the defense. This resurgence was fueled by strong second halves by Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, who seemed to make splash play after splash play. Bud Dupree got a late start to 2016 thanks to an injury, but Dupree came in second on the team in sacks despite only playing in 7 games and starting in four.

  • James Harrison of course came off the bench to start the Steelers final 7 games, and the improvement of the Steelers defense with Harrison in the lineup full time is by no means coincidental.

If Harrison did provide a spark to the pass rush, and made smothering tackles in run defense, his days of covering receivers downfield should be at an end.

Vince Williams, Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats all provided valuable support as backups, but the unit was clearly better when all four starters played together. And that’s not something that’s been true of the linebacking corps for a long time. While this group made a lot of progress in 2016, their struggles in the AFC Championship game show they still have another leap yet to make. Grade: B+

Secondary
The secondary was the Steelers weak link in 2015 and arguably has been a weak link for some time before. Management gambled and essentially re-wrote the depth chart, taking a huge gamble in the process. Artie Burns and Sean Davis were both at the center of this gamble. While Sean Davis was the more consistent player who was playing like an absolute stud by year’s end, Artie Burns also made impressive strides as they year went on.

Ross Cockrell likewise vindicated the faith that the coaches and front office showed in making him a starter, and Mike Mitchell didn’t provide as many splash plays as he did in 2016, but provided veteran leadership and stability. William Gay offered steady play, but it is fair to ask whether he’s losing a step.

The Steelers secondary was no longer a liability in 2016, but they remain powerless to prevent Tom Brady from having his way with them, and until that changes they must continue to improve. Grade: C+

Special Teams
Special teams coach Danny Smith is everyone’s favorite scapegoat in Steelers Nation. While the Steelers special teams did leave a lot to be desired at times, all of the blame doesn’t necessarily fall on Danny Smith’s shoulders.

Chris Boswell provided another solid year of place kicking. Whether it was kicking field goals in the snow at Buffalo or in windy Cincinnati or on the road in Kansas City, Boswell was Mr. reliable and arguably the MVP on two of those 3 contests. His counterpart Jordan Berry had a solid year, but failed to do anything to stand out.

  • The Steelers kicking and kick coverage units were the bigger area of concern.

While the NFL is trying to eliminate kick returns, the Steelers kick returners routinely trade 15 yard returns for 25 yard touchbacks. And while the Steelers avoided getting burned by a punt or a kickoff returned for a touchdown returned long return this season, there were too many close calls.

  • On the positive side, the Steelers special teams defended several on-sides kick attempts; however, 2007 remains the last time the Steelers executed an on sides kick of their own.
  • The Steelers also got caught on two fake punts.

In all fairness, the Steelers special teams rose to the occasion in the playoffs against the Chiefs, but overall their play during the course of the season was too inconsistent, and rarely “special.” Grade: C-

Coaching
One of the things that frequently gets lost in the shuffle is that Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley had far fewer weapons to work with in 2016 than he had at his disposal in 2015. Nonetheless, the Steelers offense still finished in the top ten in terms of both scoring and yards.

Todd Haley drew fire for not relying on Le’Veon Bell enough against Miami in the regular season and the perhaps for trying to rely too heavily on him in the first matchup against the Ravens.

  • But the Steelers offensive found the right balance during the second half of the season.

On defense, Keith Butler’s second full season did not start well, as the Steelers struggled at times, and at the season’s mid-point, Butler’s defense was drawing unfavorable comparisons to Tony Dungy’s 1988 Steelers defensive squad, which set franchise records for futility.

  • But during the second half of the season, the Steelers defense began playing a new tune.

And if the inserting of James Harrison and Bud Dupree helped improve performance, the absence of Cam Heyward can hardly be considered a plus. The bigger change was that Butler got his players to focus on doing their job and, equally importantly, he got production out of his 3 rookies. By the season’s end the Steelers defense was one of the best at sacking the quarterback, and also improved in creating turnovers.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers locker room

Mike Tomlin addresses the Steelers. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

By his own admission, Mike Tomlin won’t be considered a success until his team raises Lombardi Number 7. Fair enough. It is also fair to criticize Tomlin for the team’s lackluster performance in Philadelphia and also for the loss at Miami.

Those are the types of losses that can sink a season. But Mike Tomlin kept his team from riding the emotional rollercoaster, and they went on a 9 game winning streak, with the team seemingly getting stronger with each win.

Trying to stack two Super Bowl eras on top of each other is very hard to do, and the Steelers still have a ways to go before they accomplish that goal. But the Steelers took another step closer in 2016. Grade: B

Unsung Hero Award
Losing a player like Heath Miller is never easy, and it becomes all the more difficult if the high profile free agent you sign to replace him only manages to play 6 games.

But the Steelers transition away from the Heath Miller era at tight end was largely successful, and Jesse James was a big reason for that. James’ blocking improved as the season wore on, and he found himself making several critical catches for the team during December and January, and for that Jesse James wins the Unsung Hero Award for the 2016 season.

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