Steelers Draft Diontae Johnson, Who’ll Be Seen, Fairly or Unfairly, as Antonio Brown’s Replacement

The Steelers opened night two of the 2019 NFL Draft as spectators having traded their second round pick to the Denver Broncos to draft Devin Bush, but used the Raiders 3rd round pick they obtained from the Antonio Brown trade to pick Diontae Johnson, the wide receiver from Toledo.

  • The Steelers were expected to pick a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Diontae Johnson decision is a bit of a surprise.

Both Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler, both of whom had been mocked to the Steelers – in some cases Butler was mocked to the Steelers in the 1st, remained on the board. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell had Diontae Jones mocked to the Steelers, but in the 5th round.

Diontae Johnson, Steelers draft Diontae Johsnon

Diontae Johnson delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: utrockets.com

Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary Steelers scout who helped Pittsburgh discover players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount and John Stallworth always admonished, “Never draft a player higher than you need to.” (Indeed, Chuck Noll wanted to take John Stallworth ahead of Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert in the Steelers famed 1974 Draft but Nunn convinced Noll that Stallworth would sit on the board – he did.)

  • Could the Steelers have waited it out and drafted Dionte Johnson later?

According to Pittsburgh’s wide receiver coach Daryl Drake, the answer is a resounding “No.” Drake expanded:

…there were so many coaches I know who were at that Pro Day, and everybody raved about this kid. So he probably would not be around. I know for a fact that Tampa Bay was going to take him with their next pick, and I got cussed out by the Tampa Bay head coach who called me some names for taking him because that was his guy.

So if Drake did in fact get that tongue lashing from Tampa, it would have come from Bruce Arians, who does know a thing or two about coaching quality wide receivers (although Arians did want to cut Antonio Brown).

Diontae Johnson’s Video Highlights

The knock against Diontae Johnson is that he didn’t have impressive workout numbers from the NFL Scouting Combine. Drake addressed this issue head one declaring, “To me, speed is overrated.”

He then went on to cite a number of wide receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Jerry Rice, and Hines Ward who were “4.5” guys, yet could play football. Here’s Dionte Johnson’s tape:

Those are impressive highlights, although the quality of defenders he’ll face will be exponentially higher in the NFL. Still, the same could have been said about Antonio Brown, who played at Central Michigan, and had a Combine 40 time of 4.56 compared to Dontae Johnson’s 4.53.

Diontae Johnson doesn’t give Ben Roethlisberger the coveted tall target he seeks, and with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Eli Rogers and Donte Moncrief ahead of him, he won’t automatically get playing time due to his status as a 3rd round pick.

However, Diontae Johnson’s arrival in Pittsburgh could very well leave Ryan Switzer looking over his shoulder, as Diontae Johnson has kick return experience.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Diontae Johnson.

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Steelers 2019 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver — Life Without Antonio Brown

The Steelers have boasted one of the most talented and productive receiving corps in the NFL in recent years, especially last season when both Antonio Brown and second-year sensation JuJu Smith-Schuster caught over 100 passes. But as the title of this article implies, Brown will not be on the team in 2019, thanks to his ugly and bitter divorce that ultimately resulted in a trade to the Raiders in exchange for a third and a fifth-round draft choice.

In Smith-Schuster, who already has a Pro Bowl under his belt after also posting 1,426 receiving yards to go along with 111 catches, the question is, can he fill Brown’s very large shoes as the number weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense? Another question revolves around the receiving corps and whether or not Pittsburgh has enough weapons to complement Smith-Schuster.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, M.J. Stewart, Steelers vs Buchaneers, Steelers MNF win Buccaneers

JuJu Smith-Schuster stiff arms M.J. Stewart. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via PennLive.com

Steelers Wide-Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

Lining up alongside Smith-Schuster as the number two receiver in 2019 is expected to be veteran Donte Moncrief, who Pittsburgh signed to a free agent deal in March. In five seasons in the NFL, Moncrief, 25, has 200 receptions for 2,543 yards and 21 touchdowns. Moncrief spent his first four seasons as a member of the Colts before signing a one-year deal with the Jaguars last offseason.

Despite playing in Jacksonville’s anemic passing offense that included Blake Bortles at quarterback, Moncrief managed to catch 48 passes for 668 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. He had his best season in 2014 with Indianapoli, reeling in 64 passes for 733 yards and six touchdowns. This just so happened to be right before Andrew Luck was plagued by the injury bug. Beings that Luck has a quarterback pedigree much more in-line with Ben Roethlisberger, Moncrief may prove to be more productive for the Steelers.

Steelers Wide-Receiver Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Backups

If any receiver figures to challenge Moncrief for the number two spot (at least prior to the draft), it’s second-year man James Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State last year. However, to say Washington’s rookie season was underwhelming is, well, an understatement, as he caught just 16 passes for 217 yards and one touchdown. Late in the season, Eli Rogers made his return from the ACL tear he suffered in the divisional round loss to the Jaguars the previous January, appearing in three games and catching 12 passes for 79 yards.

But it was another young receiver who seemed to find a bit of a niche as a slot in Pittsburgh’s offense. I’m talking about Ryan Switzer, a return specialist that came to the Steelers in a trade with Oakland last summer. Switzer was targeted 44 times, catching 36 passes for 253 yards and a score. Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at receiver are virtual unknowns Ka’Raun White, Tevin Jones and Trey Griffey.

Steelers 2019 Wide-Receiver Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Thanks to the Steelers free agent activity where they addressed needs at cornerback, inside linebacker and receiver, this might be a year where Kevin Colbert’s annual axiom of “Best player available” is the way to go. If that happens to be receiver–and if there’s a player whose value at number 20 exceeds that of linebacker or corner–it wouldn’t be a huge shock if that’s the direction the team goes with pick number one.

After all, Smith-Schuster is really the only proven asset at receiver, and it’s paramount that the Steelers infuse their offense with as many weapons as possible in 2019. Therefore, the draft priority at receiver may accurately be described as Moderate-High

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Steelers Sign Donte Moncrief, Resign Eli Rogers, Lose L.J. Fort

The Steelers most aggressive forays into free agency since 1993 continued as Pittsburgh signed wide receiver Donte Moncrief to a two year deal. The Steelers were expected to bolster their wide receiving corps following the trade of Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, however many expected them to target the position early in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers had sown interest in Donte Moncrief during the 2014 NFL Draft but did not have a 3rd round pick having traded it away a year earlier to get Shamarko Thomas. Clearly that is one transaction which Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert would like have back.

  • Donte Moncrief in fact caught his first touchdown against the Steelers in the 2014 shoot out with the Colts.

As Jim Wexell details, Moncief’s other efforts against the Steelers have been far more pedestrian, but that was also the only time he had the benefit of being on the receiving end of Andrew Luck’s passes. While the Steelers clearly would like for James Washington to start opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief will provide the “sophomore” wide out.

Donte Moncrief, Steelers sign Donte Moncrief, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers sign Donte Moncief, pictured burning Artie Burns in 2017. Photo Credit: Matt Kryger, Indy Star

Rogers Signs for 2 Years, McCullers Back Too?

The Steelers took another step to bolstering depth at wide receiver when they signed Eli Rogers to a two year deal. Like Ryan Shazier, Eli Roger’s contract had tolled, meaning he did not acquire enough seniority to reach free agency this year, but the Steelers move will keep Rogers with the team through 2020.

  • Free agency news in Pittsburgh was not all good, however.

Reserve linebacker L.J. Fort, who had an under the radar performance during 2018, signed a 3 year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. L.J. Fort had been on the Steelers roster since 2015, working almost excursively on special teams.

Injuries to Vince Williams gave L.J. Fort’s first prolonged playing experience, and L.J. Fort played well and by the end of the season he appeared to have surpassed Jon Bostic on the depth chart. The Steelers are expected to target inside linebacker early and perhaps often in the 2019 NFL Draft, so L.J. Fort was not expected to start.

However, L.J. Fort could have been a quality player at a position that is sorely lacking both depth and talent.

While the Eagles are not exactly giving L.J. Fort starter money, it would appear to be above what the Steelers were willing to pay.

Although there does not seem to be official confirmation yet, ESPN is reporting that the Steelers have resigned Daniel McCullers two a two year deal.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

 

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Steelers Anthony Chickillo Is a Good 3rd Outside Linebacker Worthy of a 2nd Contract

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a rich lineage at outside linebacker which they’ve built using premium picks like Jack Ham, Joey Porter or LaMarr Woodley but also players such as Greg Lloyd and James Harrison who entered the league as afterthoughts.

  • Interestingly enough, for as strong as the starters have been, they’ve never really had much in the way of understudies of note.

That’s a bit of a contrast to inside linebacker, where Jerry Olsavsky and later Larry Foote (after his return) forged names for themselves as backups who could step in at a moment’s notice without the unit missing a beat.

Could Anthony Chickillo play that role at outside linebacker? As he reaches free agency we may soon find that out.

Anthony Chickillo, Steelers Browns 2017 opener, Anthony Chickillo Touchdown

Anthony Chickillo recovers a blocked punt for a touchdown in the 2017 season opener at Cleveland. Photo Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA Today via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Anthony Chickillo’s Steelers Career

When the Steelers drafted Anthony Chickillo in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL Draft he was facing a depth chart topped by James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats.

  • Just making the team was going to be a challenge.

But Chickillo made the team playing mostly on special teams where he forced and recovered a fumble. In 2016, Anthony Chickillo started a total of 7 games, both due to injury and a rotation system, where he recorded 2.5 sacks and forced two more fumble. In 2017 Anthony Chickillo only made 2 starts, but recorded 3 more sacks. He also recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in the season opener against Cleveland.

In 2018 didn’t make any starts as the coaches scrapped the rotation system, in part to keep T.J. Watt on the field. Yet Chickillo’s snap count remain relatively constant, as he made 1.5 sacks and recovered two more fumbles.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

In the age of the salary cap, depth can often be a primary difference maker.

If you think that’s just a cliché look at how the Steelers wide receiver corps struggled down the stretch in 2016 where the Steelers tried every possible combination of Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates or Demarcus Ayers and none of them could take heat off of Antonio Brown.

Anthony Chickillo isn’t going to be a prime-time starter at outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he has done everything this team has asked of him. Anthony Chickillo has delivered when called upon. He’s provides a quality backup presence who can play at both sides as well as special teams.

Those are 3 good reasons to keep Anthony Chickillo in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Anthony Chickillo

Outside linebacker isn’t a position of strength for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and bringing Anthony Chickillo back does nothing to change that calculus. Sure, he does well enough in spot duty, but who is to say that Ola Adeniyi and Keion Adams can’t do the same, but for less money?

The Steelers have gotten good value out of Anthony Chickillo considering his status as a 6th round pick but he’s reached his ceiling and it is time to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Anthony Chickillo

Well, unlike Jesse James, there are no reports of other teams rushing to sign Anthony Chickillo away from the Steelers. And that’s not a surprise.

Last year when Anthony Chickillo was a restricted free agent, staff writer Tony Defeo was of the opinion that Anthony Chickillo was perhaps worth tendering, but nothing more. Yours truly labeled him as someone who was “starter capable.”

  • A year later, it seems like the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Anthony Chickillo perhaps isn’t “starter capable” but he’s hardly a roster bubble baby. No, Anthony Chickillo has proven he’s ready to be a number 3 outside linebacker in the NFL, and that makes him valuable to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers should see that in him and they most likely do, and will keep in in Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Would be Right to Resign Eli Rogers

We begin this latest installment of our Steelers 2019 free agent focus by paying homage to the legendary Washington, DC Sports Radio personality, the late Ken Beatrice who often lamented to his listeners:

  • I offer my apologies for not having gone to law school to bring you the sports news.

And this was in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. We bring that up because it is not 100% clear that Eli Rogers as a free agent, as his contract was “tolled.” Whatever that means. But so was Ryan Shazier’s, and at one point word was that Shazier needed a new contract, but now that’s not so clear.

So we’re presuming that Eli Rogers is in fact a free agent that the Steelers must make a decision on.

Eli Rogers, Eli Rogers free agent

Eli Rogers in 2017. Photo Credit: USA Today, via The Cardinal Connect

Capsule Profile of Eli Roger’s Steelers Career

Eli Rogers joined the Steelers as a member of their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class. Fighting his way up a depth chart headed by Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates, Rogers chances of securing a roster spot appeared slim.

  • Yet by late August, USA Today Steelers Wire writer Neal Coolong went as far as to compare Rogers to a young Antonio Brown.

Shortly thereafter, injuries ruined Roger’s rookie season sending him to injured reserve.

In 2016 Eli Rogers vindicated Coolong’s praise by earning the slot receiver job. By the end of the season, Rogers served as Steelers defacto number 2 wide out, and had caught 48 passes, putting him behind only Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

In 2017 JuJu Smith-Schuster’s emergence and Martavis Bryant’s return diminished Eli Rogers offensive role. Although Eli Rogers’ catch percentage dipped in 2017, his performance perked up at the end of the season, and during the playoff loss to the Jaguars he was a perfect 5-5.

  • Unfortunately, Eli Rogers tore his ACL in that game, and began 2018 on the PAP list.

Eli Rogers was activated for the Steelers final 3 games and clearly gave the offense a boost.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Eli Rogers

How does 12 of 14 suit you? Those are Eli Roger’s catch-target numbers for the three games he played in 2019. Pittsburgh’s 2018 offense while potent, was missing something for much of the year.

That missing link was a third wide receiver. James Washington wasn’t quite ready to fill that role, and Justin Hunter was unable. While Ryan Switzer was a quality 4th wide out. It is going to be all hands on deck for the Steelers wide receiving corps as Pittsburgh looks to “replace” Antonio Brown.

Eli Rogers is never got to grow into an Antonio Brown type receiver, but he provides quality depth and has shown he came come up in big games, going 4-4 catching everything Ben Roethlisberger threw his way in his first action in the win over the Patriots.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Eli Rogers

The Steelers are going to bring in another starting-caliber wide receiver, perhaps through the draft or perhaps via free agency – or perhaps using both channels. Assuming those players deliver as promised, does that really leave room for Eli Rogers on the Steelers 2019 roster?

Perhaps more importantly, does that justify investing precious salary cap dollars and signing bonus money in someone you might end up cutting in late August anyway?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eli Rogers

The Steelers clearly like Eli Rogers, having resigned him last summer when they knew he wasn’t going to contribute for most of the year. Rogers delivered as soon as his number was called, picking up right where he left off in the Jaguars debacle.

The Steelers should bring him back, and almost certainly they will.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Has the Steelers Stevan Ridley Reclamation Project Run Its Course?

NFL “Street Free Agents” are just what the name implies. Players who get signed off of the street. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert has a pretty good record when it comes to signing Street Free Agents. Kickers Matt McCrane and Randy Bullock provide to recent examples.

Stevan Ridley is another one of Kevin Colbert’s Street Free Agent signings and his impending free agency provides a good time to assess how well the Stevan Ridley reclamation project has worked.

Stevan Ridley, Steelers vs Patriots

Stevan Ridley rips off a revenge run against the Patriots. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA Today Sports

Capsule Profile of Stevan Ridley Steelers Career

When James Conner got injured in the infamous Steelers 2017 loss to the Patriots, the infamous Jesse James game, Fitzgerald Toussiant was Le’Veon Bell’s only experienced backup. Kevin Colbert wasted little time signing Stevan Ridley who’d been a quality NFL running back before injuries derailed his career in 2014.

Stevan Ridley saw immediate action in the Steelers Christmas win against the Texans and in their season finale against the Browns. The Steelers resigned him in the 2018 off season, and Ridley began the 2018 season as James Conner’s primary backup, ahead of Jaylen Samuels.

Ridley only got 29 carries and saw 3 balls thrown his way, managing a 2.8 yard per carry average. Worse yet, he fumbled twice.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Those statistics don’t paint a pretty picture for Stevan Ridley, and make it hard for build a case for bringing Ridley back to Pittsburgh. On a recent Post-Gazette chat, Gerry Dulac quipped to a reader that Ridley “led the league in 2 yard carries.”

  • It IS true that Stevan Ridley’s ball security are at issue, and that his average is unimpressive.

Yet the sample size is small, and Stevan Ridley also looked good at times, including in the Steelers win over the Patriots. The Steelers need depth at running back, and Stevan Ridley provides an experienced hand behind Conners and Samuels.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Stevan Ridley

Depth in the NFL is about quality not quantity. Stevan Ridley is going to be 30 next season, and 30 year old running backs don’t offer much in the way of “upside.”

It is hard to justify a modest signing bonus and even a roster spot on Stevan Ridley when the Steelers should be looking to fill that role with a young player for the 2019 NFL Draft.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley’s future in Pittsburgh could largely depend on the Steelers overall approach to building their running back depth chart.

For the last several seasons, the Steelers have opted to go with a starter, a competent backup and untested younger player manning the third running back slot with Roosevelt Nix rounding out the group at fullback.

If the Steelers stick to form, and only carry 3 running backs plus a fullback, it would be a mistake to keep Stevan Ridley as that third running back. However, if the Steelers find a good back to complement James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, a 2019 equlivent of 2008’s Mewelde Moore, than Stevan Ridley could be a good candidate to occupy that 4th slot, much as Gary Russell did in 2008.

However, with Antonio Brown set to leave town, the Steelers will need to add extra bodies at wide receiver to supplement JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and possibly Eli Rogers as targets for Ben Roethlisberger.

That being the case, it is likely that the Steelers Stevan Ridley reclamation project has come to an end.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Time for Steelers to Let Justin Hunter Stalk NFL Future Outside of Pittsburgh

Even if it has been repeatedly proven that winning free agency rarely results in winning a Lombardi (ask Daniel Snyder), free agency excites NFL fan bases. Fantasy Football becomes real. Real money changes hands, players switch teams in moves coaches, general managers, the players themselves and agents, especially agents, assure us are win-win.

  • Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers are never big players in free agency.

That disappoints some Steelers fans, (never mind that the Patriots aren’t very active either) who are forced to settle for under the radar signings.

  • Yet, sometimes Kevin Colbert’s bargain hunting pays big dividends.

Ryan Clark arrived as a stopgap signing in 2006 and helped cement a Super Bowl era. Mewelde Moore’s arrival barely merited mention in the press, yet he was 2008’s unsung hero. Brice McCain only stayed for a year, but punched above his weight while in Pittsburgh.

Then you have players like Justin Hunter, who arrived as a free agent and is now approaching his shot at a third contract from the Steelers…..

Justin Hunter, Justin Hunter touchdown, kevin Johnson, Steelers vs Texans

Justin Hunter lone 2017 touchdown catch. Photo Credit: Bob Levey, Getty Images via www.wpxi.com

Capsule Profile of Justin Hunter’s Steelers Career

The Steelers signed Justin Hunter relatively early in free agency in 2017, although it was clear he was only being brought in as a backup. Mike Munchack had drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft and at 6’4” 203 Justin Hunter had all the measurables.

  • The word was he feared contact.

Justin Hunter earned a roster spot, despite the star power of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster and the presence of backups like Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Justin Hunter didn’t dazzle, even in preseason, but word was he was good in practice and, perhaps more importantly, Ben Roethlisberger liked him.

In 2017 Justin Hunter saw action in 7 games and caught 4 passes of 10 thrown his way. The Steelers resigned him in 2018 and Hunter made the team again, although only appeared in 5 games and only managed to catch 3 of 13 passes thrown his way.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

Ooh, this is a toughie. Even a theoretical case for resigning Justin Hunter hardly seems plausible. If Eli Rogers had been healthy at the beginning of the season and/or if James Washington had been ready for prime time, The Turk would have visited Justin Hunter.

But here it goes:

Justin Hunter gives Ben Roethlisberger a tall target. He knows the system and could provide veteran stability for a unit being rocked by losing a Hall of Fame talent…

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Justin Hunter

…The Steelers lose Antonio Brown, and its Justin Hunter to the rescue! Yeah, right.

The Steelers took a flyer on Justin Hunter in 2017 and there’s no shame in that. Their decision to resign him in 2018 was questionable, but understandable – to a point.

But nothing Justin Hunter has done suggests he’s worthy of taking up a training camp roster spot. Nothing.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Justin Hunter

Taking a flyer on Justin Hunter in 2017 made sense. Resigning Justin Hunter last spring was a little puzzling, but more a little understandable given the way the depth chart evolved at wide receiver, although with 20/20 hindsight the extra roster spot should have gone to a running back.

  • The Steelers wide receiver corps is undergoing a seismic shift this off season.

No on really knows what the Steelers 2019 opening day wide receivers depth chart will look like, but it will be very different. And it will be poorer, on paper at least. With that understanding, there is no conceivable way that Justin Hunter’s presence makes Pittsburgh’s 2019 WR’s better.

It is time for Justin Hunter to stalk his NFL future somewhere other than Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2019 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2019 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers 2019 Free Agency Tracker – Change Sweeping Through Pittsburgh

The NFL’s 2019 free agency signing period begins and one thing is already certain: The winds of change will sweep through the Pittsburgh Steelers roster this spring with a force that has not been seen since the 1990’s.

  • The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers roster is a product of the rebuilding effort that started following Super Bowl XLV.

The Steelers 2019 roster will be very different. Antonio Brown is headed to Oakland and Le’Veon Bell will soon be gone to. The Steelers Killer Bees will be no more. Jesse James is reported to be headed to Detroit. Others will follow.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Colts

Happier Times: Antonio Brown & Le’Veon Bell celebrate a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Every NFL team endures change, but true championship teams come to embrace it. Here’s a look at the Steelers 2019 free agents, their free agent pickups as well as losses.

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Signings

3/13/2019 – Steelers sign Steven Nelson, Cornerback from Kansas City to 3 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Anthony Chickillo to 2 year contract.
3/13/2019 – Steelers resign Jordan Berry to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers resign Eli Rogers to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Donte Moncrief to 2 year contract
3/14/2019 – Steelers sign Daniel McCullers to 2 year contract
3/19/2019 – Steelers sign Mark Barron to 2 year contract

Steelers 2019 Free Agent Losses

3/13/2019 – Jesse James signs with Detroit Lions
3/13/2019 – Le’Veon Bell signs with New York Jets (for less money than the Steelers offered. Just say’n)
3/13/2019 – Steelers trade Antonio Brown to Raiders for a $3 Starbucks card and 5 box tops (er, um a 3rd and 5th round pick
3/14/2019 – L.J. Fort signs 3 year contract with Philadelphia Eagles

Steelers 2019 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on the player’s name below for a feature length free agent profile.

Le’Veon Bell
Ramon Foster
Steelers resigned Ramon Foster to 2 year contract 3/8/2019
Tyson Alualu
Steelers resigned Tyson Alualu to 2 year contract 2/22/19
Jordan Berry
Ryan Shazier
Anthony Chickillo
Coty Sensabaugh
Darrius Heyward-Bey
Daniel McCullers
Justin Hunter
Nat Berhe
Stevan Ridley
L.J. Fort
Eli Rogers
Jesse James
L.T. Walton

Steelers 2019 Restricted Free Agents

Xavier Grimble
Steelers offered original round tender to Xavier Grimble, 3/8/2019
B.J. Finney
Steelers offered 2nd round tender to B.J. Finney 3/8/2019

Steelers 2019 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Mike Hilton
Steelers offer ERFA tender to Mike Hilton, 3/8/2019
Matt Feiler
– Steelers offer ERFA tender to Matt Feiler, 3/8/2019
Jake McGee
Keith Kelsey
Malik Golden
Keion Adams

The Steelers have already been busy in free agency, signing Tyson Alualu to a 2 year contract extension and informing Le’Veon Bell that they will not place the transition tag on him.

  • In the coming days Steel Curtain Rising will be publishing profiles of each of the Steelers 2019 free agents, following the same formula that we’ve used for the last several off seasons.

We’ll begin with a capsule summary of the player’s career as a Steeler, the strongest argument one could possibly make in favor of resigning the player, the strongest possible case arguing against resigning the player, followed by our “Curtain’s Call” describing what we think will and should happen.

You’ll be able to access all Steelers 2019 Free Agent profiles by clicking on our Steelers 2019 free agent focus category tag.

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The Steelers Took a Step Back in 2018. Can They Take One Forward in 2019?

As our 2018 Steelers season review concluded, Pittsburgh took a step back last year, today we look at whether the Steelers can take a step forward in 2019. That certainly seems like a strange question to ask here on the weekend of Super Bowl LIII, but consider:

  • Who saw the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII a year earlier after an ugly playoff loss to the Jaguars?
  • How many pundits predicted a 15-1 ’04 season that ended in the AFC Championship after a 6-10 2003?
  • Did anyone think the ’01 Steelers would finish 12-4 following a playoff-less 9-7 finish in ’00?
  • Heck, the 1989 Steelers suffered their 3rd shut out just before Thanksgiving, but finished a fumbled snap away from the AFC Championship

Yet, if the “Steelers can take a step forward in 2019”storyline seemed promising going into the Bengals game, Antonio Brown‘s meltdown and impending trade complicates things, to say the least.

We ask the question nonetheless. Examine the situation below.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Shazier, Steelers vs Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Shazier after the Steelers win. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster, USA Today, via 937TheFan.com

Rejuvenated Running Game?

Le’Veon Bell is on his way out of Pittsburgh. That means that, assuming the Steelers don’t do anything stupid like trying to use the franchise or transition tag on him, you’re going to hear lots of Gloom and Doom stories about the devastation wrought to the Steelers over the loss of one of their best players.

  • Don’t fall for it Steelers Nation.

Yes, it probably would have been better had Le’Veon Bell signed the deal his agent and the Steelers agreed to in the summer of 2017. And as detailed, franchising Le’Veon Bell a second time was a mistake. But what’s done is done.

We’ll say it again here and in the future, the Steelers absolutely must commit to finding a better third running back in 2019. But both men not only showed that they can rush the ball effectively, they’re also double threats.

  • Another thing to ignore is all of the talk of the Steelers resisting the rushing revolution.

Yes, the Steelers did pass at an insane rate in the 2nd half of 2018, but they almost certainly did so by necessity, not by choice, because the Steelers didn’t want to run James Conner into the ground.

Improvements on Defense (No, that’s not a Misprint)

Don’t let the headline lead you to think I’ve gone delusion. The Steelers defense still has a long way to go even to approach its mid-2017 form, let alone progressing beyond that. And the stark truth is that there are roadblocks in the Steelers way that don’t include finding some way to replace Ryan Shazier.

  • The Steelers defense gave up 4th quarter touchdowns with alarming regularity.
  • The pass rush, while overall strong, couldn’t deliver at critical moments.
  • Artie Burns looks like a total loss, and Cameron Sutton did not appear to take a step forward.

Yet, if those warts are real, the 2018 Steelers defense did make some legitimate improvements.

  • Moving Sean Davis to free safety has helped limit the long plays that doomed the ’17 Steelers
  • Tackling and yards allowed after catch/contact dropped dramatically
  • T.J. Watt looks to be budding into a legitimate threat as a defensive playmaker
  • Javon Hargrave also made some noise and the coaches appear to be finding ways to get him in the game
  • Terrell Edmunds revealed tremendous athleticism and flashed potential

Moreover, if “Heinzsight’s” film analysis from 247 Sports Pittsburgh is accurate, the Steelers defense was much more sound schematically this year than in prior years, even if execution continues to be an issue.

Emerging Weapons on Offense

The Steelers offense also offers promise for 2019. Vance McDonald emerged as a legitimate weapon and, equally importantly, was able to stay healthy. Eli Rogers arrived late, but made almost an immediate impact. JuJu Smith-Schuster showed that his rookie season was no fluke. James Washington started slowly, but his work ethic is spectacular and he began flashing late in the season.

The offensive line will undergo changes, without a doubt, as Ramon Foster could be gone, and Marcus Gilbert is likely gone. Losing Mike Munchak is a blow without a doubt, but the Steelers have a strong core, and Shaun Sharret shouldn’t be sold short.

Most importantly, while Ben Roethlisberger‘s play was hardly flawless, he showed few, if any signs of losing a step to father time.

Filling In The Blanks For A Better 2019

The Steelers certainly have some holes to fill before the 2019 season.

And there may be even more holes, if the organization really goes through with its reported desire to trade Antonio  Brown.

As for Brown’s mindset, and whatever it is that has been going on in his life from a personal and professional standpoint since before the start of the 2018 campaign, he also appears to desire a new home in 2019. Will the two sides work things out? Will the Steelers trade their star receiver–a man who has caught over 100 passes for six-straight seasons?

  • The answer to that question will determine just what actions the Steelers will take in order to improve their fortunes for next year.

Let’s face it, if Brown is no longer the focal-point of Pittsburgh’s offense, that would leave the unit without both he and Bell, two of the game’s top play-makers in recent years. As much as fans may want to see those guys gone, it directly contradicts their long-held desire for Super Bowl success. If Brown does join Bell as an ex Steeler, will Smith-Schuster, a man who caught over 100 passes and made his first Pro Bowl in just his second season, be able to carry the torch for Pittsburgh’s offense?

That’s one problem. Another is finding a play-maker for a defense that finished 2018 with just 15 takeaways. Yes, the unit did show signs of improvement at times, but it’s hard to be a truly great defense if you can’t take the football away. Maybe the answer lies in really going for it in free agency and finding a true replacement for Shazier. With more room to work with under the cap during the upcoming free agency period, we may get the answer.

  • Finally, can the Steelers take a step forward in 2019?

If you’re looking for solace, for comfort in the future, just know that the organization will do just about everything in its power to take that step forward. Some organizations are fine with some of the issues Pittsburgh is dealing with right now. The Steelers aren’t one of those organizations.

 

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2018 Steelers Season Review – A Perfect Storm Ruins A Promising Year in Pittsburgh

The NFL divisional playoffs were played over last weekend, and unlike the previous 4 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not only didn’t play, they never even had a chance to get there, despite holding a 7-2-1 record at mid-season.

  • Our Steelers 2018 season review explores why and how a perfect storm ruined a once promising season in Pittsburgh.

Truthfully, our Steelers-Patriots preview has already told the story of the 2018 Steelers as a team that started September morbidly cold, got super heated in October, only to find room temperature as winter arrived. That’s accurate, but doesn’t tell us much about why things played out that way. Today, we dig a deeper.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns, James Conner Fumble

James Conner fumbles late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Browns tie. Photo Credit: Photo credit: Sporting News Canada

Counting on a Bell that Never Tolled

Full disclosure: I endorsed the Steelers second franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell. I was wrong. Franchising Le’Veon Bell was a mistake on two levels:

Travis Kelce, Jon Bostic, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Chiefs

Travis Kelce catches as Jon Bostic & Sean Davis look on. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

First, because Le’Veon Bell never played, the Steelers had 14.5 million salary cap dollars committed to player who wasn’t delivering value. That commitment forced the Steelers to go bargain hunting on defense, leading to the signings of Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett.

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett were upgrades from Sean Spence and Mike Mitchell, but even at their best the duo was never going to return defense to the level it was teasing in mid-2017 before injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier.

  • For a while, it looked like James Conner was going to make Le’Veon Bell “Mr. Irrelevant.”

But, Bell’s hold out meant that an injury to James Conner would downgrade the Steelers from a Super Bowl contender to a team that might make the playoffs.

And of course James Conner did get injured, leading to a rather ironic situation discussed below.

Learning the Right Lesson at the Wrong Time

For several years, the Steelers have failed to field sufficient depth at running back. During the Mike Tomlin era, the Steelers have (almost) never reached December with their top two running backs healthy. Despite that, they’ve neglected the third running back slot.

  • Randy Fichtner took a lot of criticism for passing so much, but people forget that the season started very differently.

In fact, early on Mike Tomlin seemed poised to ride James Conner until the wheels fell off, just had he’d done with Willie Parker, Le’Veon Bell and, to a lesser degree, Rashard Mendenhall.

But as you can see, James Conner’s touch count dropped dramatically, starting with the Panthers game. Before that he was averaging 23.6 touches per game, after that his touch count dipped to an average of 16.2.

James Conner, James Conner 2018 statistics

James Conner’s 2018 statistics

And that 31% decrease occurred just as it became clear that Le’Veon Bell would sit out the season.

Keep in mind that turnovers forced Pittsburgh to play from behind in Jacksonville and at Denver, and that certainly contributed to the decrease, but on 247 Sports Pittsburgh, Jim Wexell has suggested numerous times that the Steelers were trying to avoid running Conner into the ground.

  • This was the right thing to do because Jaylen Samuels was an unknown commodity.

But, it though Ben Roethlisberger‘s interception % was below that of 2017 and below his career average, throwing the ball so much ultimately led to more interceptions, and turnovers or the lack thereof doomed the Steelers.

Keeping Ben Out in Oakland

By Mike Tomlin’s own admission, Ben Roethlisberger could have returned to the game at Oakland 1 series earlier. Having taken Mike Tomlin to task for this decision at the time and the Steelers 2018 Report Card, there is no reason for repetition.

Joshua Dobbs, Steelers vs Raiders

Joshua Dobbs Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

  • Indeed, the counter argument that no one considers is that Tomlin was concerned about his 125 million dollar quarterback puncturing a lung.

Did anyone really want to see the Steelers close out the season with Joshua Dobbs under center? But we don’t live in a hypothetical world. The reality is that Ben delivered as soon as he returned to the game, and suffered no further injury. There’s no reason to think one more series would have changed things.

Tomlin gambled, and lost and it cost the Steelers a whole lot more than one game.

Zebras Put Steelers on Endangered Species List

I don’t like complaining about officiating. Complaining about officiating is what the sore loser Seattle Seahawks did following Super Bowl XL. When a bad call goes against you, it’s on you to deal with it.

Yet, I’ve actively followed the Steelers for 31 years, and I have never seen Pittsburgh suffer from so many chronic bad calls. Consider:

Take away any one of those, and the Steelers could very well be playing this weekend. Yes, championship teams find ways to overcome bad calls. (See the 2005 Steelers following Troy Polamalu’s overturned interception in the divisional playoff win over the Colts.)

The 2018 Steelers clearly lacked what it took to overcome those bad calls, but they had far too many to overcome.

Of Turnovers and Ball Security

What do James Conner, Xaiver Grimble, Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster have in common? They all fumbled at critical moments costing the Steelers wins when they needed them. While Ben Roethlisberger’s interceptions came either in the Red Zone or at critical moments in games.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Saints, JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble doomed the Steelers. Photo Credit: Butch Dill, AP via Tribune Review

Joe Haden would have made a Red Zone interception himself against the Chargers, but Sean Davis leveled him, and the ball, bounced right into Keenan Allen‘s hands with an uncanniness not seen this side of the 1991 Steelers loss to the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.

  • Like Greg Lloyd and James Harrison before him, T.J. Watt not only sacked quarterbacks but stripped the ball while doing it.
  • Yet all too often, the ball failed to bounce the Steelers way.

On the season, the Steelers turned the ball over 26 times and only secured 15 turnovers. You simply can’t win a lot of games like that.

It’s the Talent Stupid

There are no shortage of professional commentators, let alone fans, who’ve spent the balance of 2019 berating Mike Tomlin for failing to deliver with a “super talented team.” 2018 Steelers did underachieve.

  • But is ti accurate or even fair to describe the 2018 Steelers roster as “Super talented?”

On offense, James Conner almost canceled out the loss of Le’Veon Bell, but Bell’s ball security suggests he wouldn’t have fumbled those two balls. Vance McDonald made greater impact in 2018 than in 2017, improving the tight end position.

  • The offensive line’s performance was at least as strong as it had been in 2017.

But at wide receiver the story is different. Antonio Brown started the season slowly. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded in 2018, and gave the Steelers a better number 2 wide out than Martavis Bryant had given them in 2017.

But James Washington didn’t give them a better number 3 option at wide receiver than JuJu had done a year ago. And while Ryan Switzer was a decent number 4 wide receiver, Eli Rogers gave them a better option in 2017.

  • So the talent level of the Steelers 2018 was strong, but slightly lower than it had been a year ago.

On defense, the 2018 Steelers defense improved from the post-Shazier 2017 defense, but was nowhere near the level the defense was approaching in the middle of 2017.

Take this a step further as “MuleFunk” did over on the 247 Pittsburgh’s message board, and compare the 2018 Steelers defense to the 2008 Steelers defense that led Pittsburgh to victory in Super Bowl XLIII. How many of this year’s players could start on the ’08 defense?

Seth Roberts, Terrell Edmunds, Morgan Burnett, Steelers vs Raiders

Seth Roberts smokes Terrell Edmunds & Morgan Burnett. Photo Credit: Tony Avelar, Raiders.com

You’d start Joe Haden over Deshea Townsend, I’d argue you start Cam Heyward over Brett Keisel and probably T.J. Watt over LaMarr Woodley. Neither of those moves is a slam dunk, but you wouldn’t even think to ask the question with any other player on the Steelers 2018 defense.

To the contrary, if Dr. Brown were to show up with his DeLorean, I’d unhesitatingly go back to 2008, snatch Lawrence Timmons off the bench, and start him at either inside linebacker slot in the 2018 Steelers defense.

Finally, while it may not solely be a question of talent, Chris Boswell went from “Mr. Automatic” to “Mr. Cross your Finger and Clutch Your Rosary Beads.” That alone cost the Steelers one game, arguable another and complicated other wins.

Conclusion – A Cloudy Future for Pittsburgh

In the end, a team is its record and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a step back in 2018. But if the Steelers took a step back in 2018, could they take a step forward the way they did after disappointing campaigns in 2003 and 2007?

However, that was before the situation with Antonio Brown became public, and issue which clouds any attempt to predict Pittsburgh’s immediate future.

 

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