4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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Steelers Resign Steven Johnson, Put Cam Sutton on IR & Name Jordan Dangerfield Wavied/Injured

The NFL’s roster cut down day came and went at 4:00 pm on September 2nd, but that milestone didn’t even slow let alone stop Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from making moves.

The Steelers were expected to make two roster moves to make room for J.J. Wilcox and Le’Veon Bell’s return. Yet the Steelers brain trust did everyone one better by making three moves:

And the beauty of all of it, for the arm chair general managers that is, is that the Steelers still must make one more move before they formally activate Le’Veon Bell prior to the 2017 season opener against the Browns at Heinz Field.

Cam Sutton

Like David DeCastro before him, cornerback Cam Sutton will start his rookie year on injured reserve. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The decision to put Cam Sutton on IR came as no surprise because by keeping him on the initial 53 man roster, he’ll be able to return at mid-season. It seems clear that this was putting Sutton on IR and resigning Steven Johnson was what Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert intended all along.

The Steelers decision to cut Jordan Dangerfield amounts to a minor surprise. While it is logical given the trade for J.J. Wilcox, Dangerfield had extensive experience with the Steelers defense having done a two year apprenticeship on the Steelers practice squad and having played last season. However, by designating Dangerfield as “injured/waived” the Steelers will retain his rights if no other team signs him.

In 2015 the Steelers placed Eli Rogers on the wavied/injured list and he returned to start for Pittsburgh in their 2016 season opener against the Redskins. In 2012 the Steelers placed David Johnson on the waived/injured list and he returned to start at tight end for Pittsburgh in the 2013 opening day disaster against the Titans.

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Steelers Trade for Vance McDonald. Does “Varsity” Tight End Mean Trouble for Xavier Grimble?

With the clock ticking on Ben Roethlisberger‘s career and therefore the franchise’s Super Bowl window, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert looked at the team’s tight end depth chart, found it wanting and took action.

  • The Steelers traded a 4th round pick form the 2018 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for tight end Vance McDonald and a 5th round pick in 2018.
Vance McDonald, Vance McDonald Trade, Steelers trade for Vance McDonald

New Steelers tight end Vance McDonald advances the ball for the 49ers against the Broncos. Photo Credit: AP via Yahoo Sports

When asked what led the Steelers to make such an uncharacteristic move so late in the season, Mike Tomlin refused sugar coat his assessment of his Tight Ends:

The guys hadn’t been consistently varsity enough for our comfort. It’s as black and white as that. They’ve had some moments positively and had some moments negatively, and so we were in the market for a guy that was NFL-capable. McDonald is that.

Jesse James ears are burning brightly. When the Steelers drafted James in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft the Pennsylvania native wasn’t regarded as Heath Miller’s heir apparent, a move made clear by the Steelers rapid signing of Ladarius Green to start free agency in 2016.

Nonetheless, James started for most of the 2016 season while Ladarius Green remained injured, and generally played above expectations, including making key catches in the game winning drive of the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. When the Steelers cut Green in June, James WAS the heir apparent, but his performance in training camp and preseason hasn’t been consistent.

  • But if Jesse James ears are burning Xavier Grimble’s  hands are likely the ones to tremble thanks to this move.

Grimble spent parts of 2014 on the Patriots and 49er’s practice squads, and then served a full internship in 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. While Grimble made the final 53 man roster, his performance was inconsistent down the stretch, despite having ample opportunity to prove himself in Green’s absence. Word is that Grimble has been inconsistent for much of the summer, and McDonald’s arrival could signal a visit form the Turk for Grimble.

Mike Tomlin has not commented how Vance McDonald’s arrival impacts the rest of the tight end depth chart, nor would he commit to using McDonald in any specific way, explaining that the Steelers first signed Darrius Heyward-Bey as a wide receiver, not realizing his ability on special teams.

The San Francisco 49ers drafted Vance McDonald 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, taking him six slots after Le’Veon Bell. During his first four season in the NFL, Vance McDonald has started 30 games and appeared in 48, while catching 64 passes for 391 yards for seven touchdowns.

In addition to Grimble, James and McDonald, the Steelers also have veteran David Johnson along with Jake McGee. The Steelers cut hopeful Phazahn Odom shortly after acquiring McDonald.

Welcome to Steelers Nation, Vance McDonald.

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All Eyes on Jesse James as Steelers Cut Ladarius Green

Sometimes, things just don’t work out. Such is the case with Ladarius Green and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers 2016 off season began with the retirement of Heath Miller. Faced with the task of replacing Heath Miller’s legendary dependability in the passing game, the Steelers acted swiftly by signing Ladarius Green on the first day of free agency.

Even after Martavis Bryant’s suspension, Ladarius Green promised to give the Steelers a viable weapon to compensate. Then Green sat out OTA’s due to his ankle. Then he began training camp on the PUP. Then conflicting report arose detailing Ladarius Green’s ongoing concussion symptoms.

Ladarius Green, Steelers cut Ladarius Green, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals

Vontaze Burfict tackles Ladarius Green in what would be his final game with the Steelers. Photo Credit: Kohl, USA Today via Steel City Insider

As fate would have it, Ladarius Green didn’t see the field until mid-season, but he made almost an immediate impact. Then he suffered another concussion against Cincinnati and his season was over. And now we know, so was his career with the Steelers.

Ladarius Green’s Career with the Steelers = “Good While It Lasted”

Ladarius Green’s Pittsburgh Steelers career consisted of 6 games, 2 starts, 18 catches for 304 yards and one touchdown. With Bryant out and Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey ailing, the Steelers offense struggled to find a receiver capable of taking heat off of Antonio Brown.

  • By the time the Steelers late season run was in full swing, it looked like Ladarius Green’s emergence might alter that equation.

18 catches for 304 yards might not sound like much, but in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts, their win over the Giants and their road victory over the Bengals, Ladarius Green proved to be a difference making, flipping the field at critical moments in all three games.

Just when it seemed like the Steelers might have found the vertical threat that neither Eli Rogers, nor Sammie Coates, nor Cobi Hamilton could provide, Ladarius Green suffered another concussion as he went over the middle to make another clutch catch on the road against the Bengals.

Fans speculated that the Steelers might part ways with their tight end. This site suggested that the Steelers day one signing of Davidy Johnson suggested the Steelers were questioning Green’s return.

  • Yet, Kevin Colbert affirmed that Ladarius Green was in the Steelers plans for 2017.

The Steelers deed of not to pick a tight end during the 2017 NFL Draft seemed to confirm their words. Clearly the calculus has changed.

Jesse James’ Baptism by Fire Begins in Earnest

With Ladarius Green gone, all eyes turn towards Jesse James who now becomes the incumbent starter at tight end.

Jesse James, Steelers Jesse James, Steelers vs. Bengals, Jesse James touchdown

Shawn Williams can’t stop Jesse James from catching a touchdown in the Steelers 2016 win over Cincinnati @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive

Jesse James was the Steelers 5th round draft pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and it says here that since picking him, Jesse James has done everything the Steelers have asked him  today. While 2016 certainly didn’t represent a breakout season for James, he did come up with clutch catches on any number of occasions, including the Steelers Christmas Comeback over the Ravens.

Nonetheless, when reviewing the Steelers depth chart at tight end most fans and analysts have tended to couch their critiques of the Steelers Depth Chart at tight end with comments like, “Jesse James had a good second season. But….”

  • Very soon, Steelers Nation will see if Jesse James can erase those “buts.”

Behind James, the Steelers have David Johnson who’ll work in as a number 2 tight end, and Xavier Grimble playing as the number 3. Undrafted rookie free agent Scott Orndoff is also expected to push for a roster spot.

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Pitt Panthers Scott Orndoff Leads Steelers 2017 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class

The value delivered by the Steelers 2017 Draft Class won’t be known until we see whether Ben Roethlisberger stands on the dais hosting a Lombardi before he begins his “Life’s Work,” but character, or human interest stories have driven much of the narrative 2017 NFL Draft for Pittsburgh.

While rocket scientist Joshua Dobbs offers a compelling story this year, he can’t quite compare to Pitt’s James Conners battle with cancer. So perhaps it’s fitting that another Pitt Panther leads the Steelers 2017 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class.

Scott Orndoff, Scott Mr. Wonderful Orndoff, Scott Orndorff, Steelers 2017 undrafted rookie free agent class

Pitt Panther tight end Scott Orndoff leads the Steelers 2017 undrafted rookie free agent class. Photo Credit: LeClaire, USA Today via Steel City Insider

Almost as soon as they stopped announcing names form the podium in Philadelphia, the Steelers 2017 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class was announced.

Scott Orndoff, tight end, Pittsburgh 6’4” 253lbs
Terrish Webb, Safety, Pittsburgh, 5’10” 190 lbs
Nelson Adams, Defensive Tackle from Mississippi State, 6’3”287lbs
Christian Brown, Defensive Tackle, West Virginia, 6’3” 295 lbs
Ethan Cooper, Guard Indiana-Pennsylvania, 6’2” 322 lbs
Francis Kallon, Defensive End, Georgia Tech, 6’5” 295
Keith Kelsey, Linebacker, Louisville, 6’0” 233
Nick Schuessler, Quarterback, Clemson 6’3” 196 lbs
Rushel Shell, Running Back, West Virginia, 5’9” 227 lbs

Going into the 2017 NFL Draft a vocal contingent of Steelers Nation was adamant that the Steelers draft a tight end, citing concerns about Jesse James development and Ladarius Green’s concussion history. It has been rumored that the Browns jumped ahead of the Steelers to draft tight end David Njoku, although no reporting has substantiated that claim.

However, the way the draft evolved, the Steelers couldn’t pick a tight end without reaching, but Jim Wexell sees Scott “Mr. Wonderful” Orndoff, the Steelers undrafted rookie free agent tight end from Pitt, as no less than Pittsburgh’s Ace in the Hole (nod and wink to compatriots who came of age in the 80’s and understand the “Mr. Wonderful” reference.)

  • Per Wexell’s reporting, several scouts rated Orndoff as a legitimate 6th round prospect.

Wexell backs his assertion up with analysis from Kyle Crabbs of NDT Scouting:

He has good spatial awareness and the ability to beat zone coverage consistently. A reliable inline blocker, Orndoff projects favorably as a team’s TE2 where he can influence the game as a red-zone target and be relied upon in game situations to be an effective pass or run blocker.

A potential 6th round pick or not, Scott Orndoff doesn’t have an updated highlights clip on YouTube, although this one from 2015 is pretty impressive:

Assuming Green’s health holds up until opening day and James development continues as is, both are locks to make the final roster. While most fans generally ignored the Steelers decision to resign David Johnson early in free agency, the Craig Wolfley has suggested that bringing David Johnson back could be “Steelers Biggest Little Signing” of the off season because of his blocking ability and ability to supplement Roosevelt Nix at fullback as Le’Veon Bell’s lead blocker in two back formations.

If that is correct, then Xavier Grimble would be the man whom Scott Orndoff must beat to secure a roster spot.

As Always, Seeking the Next FWP, Silverback or Foster

In a lot of cities, the annual signing of the undrafted rookie free agent class is a non-event, slightly above the future-contracts signings that come immediately after a season ends. But Kevin Colbert has an uncanny knack of uncovering championship caliber talent in the NFL’s undrafted rookie free agent pool.

Former Super Bowl starters Willie Parker, Ramon Foster, Darnell Stapleton and of course James Harrison earned roster spots with the Steelers as undrafted rookie free agents.

Whether it’s thanks to Scott Orndoff or someone else, chances are you’ll see at least one of the above names again.

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Steelers Nation Doesn’t Get What it Wants: Law Dog Topped Steelers Free Agent Fan Poll

Would it surprise anyone if the most requested song at WDVE this spring was “You can’t always get what you want” by the Rolling Stones?” It wouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen or participated in Steel Curtain Rising’s 2017 free agency poll.steelers 2017 free agency poll

The Steelers of course have moved on from free agency, per Kevin Colbert’s comments of a few weeks ago, but work responsibilities have kept yours truly from doing much in the way of blogging about it. Hence, our free agency poll remained open.But it is past time to bring the poll to a close and discuss its results.

To some extent, the headline is a bit misleading. The notion of keeping Le’Veon Bell and James Harrison netted the most votes but it is also true that there was no chance either man would play 2017 in another team’s colors.

And heading into February, the conventional wisdom was that there was little chance that Lawrence Timmons would depart either fans wanted to keep him here, and of course Lawrence Timmons departed to the Dolphins. An even greater number of fans voiced support for Ross Cockrell and still remains unsigned, as is DeAngelo Williams who is also unsigned.

In contrast, approximately half as many fans wanted to see Landry Jones and David Johnson resigned, both of whom got new contracts.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks all who voted.

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Steelers Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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David Johnson Signs 2 Year Contract. Are Steelers Signaling Concern about Ladarius Green?

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the 2017 free agency signing period exactly has they began free agency in 2016 – by signing a veteran tight end with ties to the San Diego Chargers. The first move out of Pittsburgh in free agency saw the Steelers resigning David Johnson to a two year contract.

The veteran tight end of course played in Pittsburgh during 2016, but he’d spent 2014 and 2015 playing for the Chargers.

  • Ironically, the Steelers latest opening day tight end free agent signing might signal some buyers remorse regarding their first.
David Johnson, Steelers David Johnson, Presetony Brown, Steelers vs Bills,

David Johnson with the 6th of his 7 2016 receptions as Prestony Brown looks on. Photo Credit: Bill Wippert, AP via Penn Live

Let’s be clear, when the Steelers signed Ladarius Green last year, their plan was to add a dynamic weapon to complement Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. And when healthy, Ladarius Green did just that for the Steelers in 2016. In contrast David Johnson isn’t going to create any miss-matches with opposing secondaries.

  • Potentially, the Steelers decision to resign David Johnson so quickly signals that concern over whether Ladarius Green will return in 2017.

To be certain, Kevin Colbert as well as others on the South Side have clearly indicated that they expect Ladarius Green to be back in 2017. The Steelers have also insisted that Ladarius Green’s slow start to 2016 and his stint on the PUP was caused by complications from his ankle injury and not be concerns about his concussion history.

But, as we reminded readers just yesterday, the Steelers actions speak far louder than their words.

Timing of David Johnson Contract is What Raises Eyebrows

David Johnson gives the Steelers tight end corps a veteran presence and he brings blocking ability to the game that Jesse James and Xavier Grimble cannot yet match. David Johnson is also a fairly reliable pass catcher, even if quarterbacks don’t look his way very often. Those are all reasons why it makes sense to bring him back.

  • But the question is why pull the trigger on a new contract with David Johnson now?

David Johnson will turn thirty just before opening day 2017. He’s never had more than 14 passes thrown his way in a single season and has only scored a single touchdown. While David Johnson hasn’t spent his career as a roster bubble baby, his lease on NFL life has certainly been negotiated on a season-to-season basis.

  • The 2017 NFL Draft is said to be a deep one for tight ends.

The Steelers could presumable wait to see if they could get a tight end of their choice and, if not, David Johnson would have certainly been available afterwards. The fact that the Steelers have offered David Johnson a contract in early March as opposed to late May suggests they don’t wish to take chances.

That in turn at least suggests the Steelers are concerned about Ladarius Green’s concussion issues.

Alternative Explanations Exist

It is important to be fair to Ladarius Green. This writer has no sources on the South Side, so we’re only speculating. While terms of David Johnson’s contract haven’t been made public yet, one would guess that he signed for at or near the veteran minimum.

  • However, the two-year length of the contract would seem to indicate that he’s more or less guaranteed a roster spot.

So if there are other explanations to for the Steelers decision to resign David Johnson so early in free agency, concern about Ladarius Green’s concussions remains the most plausible one.

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Steelers Restricted Free Agent Tender to Chris Hubbard is a Low Risk No Brainer

When talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers group of upcoming free-agents, reserve offensive lineman Chris Hubbard probably doesn’t enter into most discussions among fans and the media.

But that’s the thing about backup offensive linemen in the National Football League:

  • You never know when you’re going to need them.

Such was the case for the Steelers and Hubbard early last season, when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert and veteran backup swing tackle Ryan Harris were both lost in a 43-14 Sunday night victory over the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Chris Hubbard, Chris Hubbard restricted free agent, Chis Hubbard tight end

Chris Hubbard lines up as a tight end in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

Chris Hubbard, a 2013 undrafted rookie free-agent out of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), bounced back and forth between the team’s practice squad and active roster during 2013, 2014 and 2015 before finally finding a permanent job among the final 53 in 2016.

Its a bit ironic when you look back, as Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka “Embernasty” got all the headlines when the Steelers 2013 undrafted rookie free agent class was announced, but four years later, it was Chris Hubbard who was suiting up for the AFC Championship game.

A versatile lineman who can play guard, center and tackle, Hubbard proved his worth against Kansas City in that aforementioned Week 4 match-up, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns.

With Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris both ruled out against the Jets seven days later, Chris Hubbard got his first career start at right tackle. The result: a more than satisfactory performance in a 31-13 Steelers victory over the Jets at Heinz Field.

  • A week later, Chris Hubbard struggled quite a bit in a 30-15 loss at Miami, as Pittsburgh also lost Ben Roethlisberger with a torn meniscus.

Chris Hubbard started two more games at right tackle before Marcus Gilbert finally returned from his ankle injury, and the young lineman would  remain the backup tackle the rest of the year, as Ryan Harris, who suffered a shin injury against the Chiefs, ultimately had to be placed on Injured Reserve.

Chris Hubbard also saw extensive spot-duty as a third tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy” package, helping David Johnson and Jesse James open holes for Le’Veon Bell.

Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Decision to RFA Tender to Chris Hubbard

As the Steelers approach free-agency, Hubbard is of the restricted free agent, meaning the Steelers retain the right of first refusal should any other team offer Chris Hubbard a contract.

  • Will there be any offers for Hubbard, 25? Probably not. Should have tendered him a right of first refusal option (as they have) anyway?

If you were to say linemen of Hubbard’s pedigree are a dime a dozen, you would be correct. If you also were to say that Jerald Hawkins, Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick out of LSU in 2016, is someone the team probably is counting on to make strides in 2017, you are also surely correct.

  • Fact is, the Steelers seem set at both tackle positions for the near-future.

Marcus Gilbert is signed through 2019, while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who only has two years of NFL experience and is an exclusive-rights free-agent, meaning he simply must take whatever offer Pittsburgh gives him.

A year ago Chris Hubbard was a “nice to have” type player to have on your depth chart, now he’s one play away from protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

Obviously, the Steelers could fill the backup tackle void with just about anyone, but why not with a player who has been in their system for some time now and also has had and will continue to have the privilege of being coached my Mike Munchak, perhaps the best in the business at what he does and certainly the most respected assistant coach on Pittsburgh’s staff.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Chis Hubbard

When you see the improvements of the likes of Marcus Gilbert and more notably Alejandro Villanueva in recent years, Chris Hubbard is certainly in good hands, and if any offensive line coach can get max out of his abilities, it’s Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

  • The Steelers have already offered Chris Hubbard a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

Exact figures for 2017’s right of first refusal offers are suggested to be in the 1.85 million dollar range. So its doubtful that another team will try to sign Chris Hubbard away.

Its says here the Steelers made the right move in protecting Chris Hubbard. The Steelers have invested heavily in his development, and the truth is Chris Hubbard will be on someone’s roster in 2017. He he might as well be on the Steelers’ because you just never know when his services will be needed.

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What the Steelers Decision on Free Agent David Johnson Will Reveal about Ladarius Green

So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” Matthew 20:17

Fear not, Steel Curtain Rising isn’t suddenly going religious, but this quote seems applicable to the story of Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson. The Steelers drafted David Johnson with their final pick of the 2009 NFL Draft following Super Bowl XLIII.

If the Steelers 2009 Draft is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of the Colbert-Tomlin era, it is perhaps fitting that David Johnson is the last member of that group to remain with the team.

David Johnson, Xavier Grimble, Steelers vs Chiefs, David Johnson Steelers free agent

David Johnson on a 26 yard reception in the Steelers 2016 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images

Capsule Profile of David Johnson’s Steelers Career

Fits and starts – that’s best description of David Johnson’s Steelers career. Johnson had to settle for the practice squad in 2009, but he earned a roster spot as the team’s 3rd string tight end in 2010 doing double duty that year and in 2011 at fullback. In 2012 Todd Haley announced he was moving David Johnson to fullback full time, but Johnson tore his ACL in preseason.

The Steelers brought Johnson back in 2013, ostensibly as a fullback, but he ended up beginning the season as the Steelers number 1 tight end while Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth were injured. David Johnson’s season was off to a strong start when disaster struck again as he tore an ACL, ending his season.

In May of 2016 the Steelers made a surprise move by resigning David Johnson. The move looked to be little more than an insurance policy, yet with Matt Spaeth headed to waivers and Ladariyus Green to the PUP, David Johnson once again found himself beginning the 2016 season as the Steelers number 1 tight end.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning David Johnson

David Johnson provided vital veteran stability to a tight end corps that lost a collective 20 years of experience and dependability with the departures of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.

David Johnson isn’t going to keep a lot of opposing defensive coordinators up late with worry, but David Johnson will frustrate opposing linebackers who think that running his way will give them a free shot at Ben Roethlisberger or Le’Veon Bell.

  • Jesse James confirmed in 2016 what he’d flashed in 2015 – that he’s a legitimate NFL tight end.

Xavier Grimble had flashes of his own in 2016, but didn’t have the kind of breakout year some were expecting and hoping for. Ladarius Green was a field flipper when he was healthy, but his season only lasted 6 games and one has to wonder if he can, or should, continue to play given his history with concussions.

David Johnson gives the Steelers a valuable, viable insurance policy at tight end who can resigned for the veteran minimum. This is one easy deal Kevin Colbert should get done.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning David Johnson

The conventional wisdom is that the Steelers will draft a tight end fairly early given the uncertainty surrounding Ladarius Green. The Steelers uncharacteristically kept 4 tight ends in 2016, there’s no chance that they’ll keep 5 in 2017.

  • David Johnson would seem to be the odd man out.

The story of a veteran hanging around as an old hand, acting as sort of a mentor, player coach is romantic, but the fact is that every veteran like that is taking up a roster spot for a younger player who has more upside.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and David Johnson

Let’s face it, David Johnson’s impending foray into free agency in 2017 isn’t quite as dramatic as Rod Woodson’s free agent debut in 1997.

Seriously, this writer admits to being somewhat of a homer for David Johnson, but even with that acknowledged, the truth he represents one of Kevin Colbert’s less consequential decisions this spring. David Johnson showed that he still can play and probably remains the Steelers best blocking tight end.

  • Given the Steelers success with the “Big Boy Package” a strong blocking tight end is a must.

But the Steelers also have the luxury of allowing this situation to evolve on its own terms. No NFL team is going to throw money at David Johnson, and the Steelers can go into the draft looking for a tight end, without having to reach for one, because Johnson will still be available afterwards.

Finally, if the decision the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have to make on free agent tight end David Johnson isn’t terribly consequential, it does promise to reveal something important. If Steelers David Johnson before the 2017 NFL Draft, then we’ll know they’re concerned about Ladarius Green’s future, protestations to the contrary.

If they take a wait and see approach, then we’ll know their confidence level in Green’s return is high.

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