Does a QB Improve a WR? or Does a WR Improve QB? Could Donte Moncrief Answer the Question?

Does a good quarterback make a wide receiver better? Or does a good wide receiver make a quarterback better? Let’s skip the suspenseand concede that Steelers free agent Donte Moncrief won’t settle one of football’s existential questions in 2019.

  • Nonetheless, he seems poised to add to the conversation.

While pundits have praised Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin for their uncharacteristic aggressiveness in bringing Steve Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush to Pittsburgh, reaction to Donte Moncrief’s arrival has been more tepid.

Donte Moncrief,

Steelers wide receiver Donte Moncrief, @ OTAs in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

While no one would call the 3rd round pick from the 2014 NFL Draft a “bust” (he certainly has outperformed Dri Archer, whom the Steelers took 7 picks later) his NFL career to date “lacks the ‘Wow’ factor.” Perhaps more ominously, his catch percentage is trending towards the mid to low 50’s.

  • “Ah, but what about the quarterbacks that have been throwing to him?” Donte Moncrief defenders retort.

During his first three seasons in the NFL, Donte Moncrief was catching passes thrown by Andrew Luck. During 2017 and 2018 it was Jacoby Brissett and Blake Bortles that was tossing him the ball. So logically with Ben Roethlisberger hawking the pigskin his way, Moncrief is going to shine, right?

  • Maybe. Maybe not.

Football is the ultimate team game. Even the best running back needs a good offensive line to excel. (See Jerome Bettis’ dip in productivity in 1998 and 1999 behind some mediocre offensive lines.)

And while the relationship between pass rush and interceptions might be more tenuous than Bob Labriola might have you think, a quarterback under duress is going to make more mistakes than one with has all day to throw. (Go back and watch the tape. James Harrison was closing in on Joe Flacco on Troy Polamalu’s pick-six in the ’08 AFC Championship game.)

  • Ironically, the relationship between the performance of quarterbacks and wide receivers is more directly, yet the impact is harder to define.

It is more direct because a quarterback needs a receiver to catch his passes, and the receiver obviously can’t catch passes that are never thrown. Contrast that with rushing the ball, where great running backs can and do make something out of nothing when blocking breaks down.

  • Quarterbacks can improvise on broken plays, but it means little if the receiver drops the ball.

Recently, Ben Roethlisberger credited Antonio Brown for his success. This was as much about Ben Roethlisberger showing he’s a bigger man than Brown than it is about expressing truth. Yes, during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2017 early season slump, Antonio Brown DID make Ben Roethlisberger look like a better quarterback than his performance really indicated.

All three are quality wide receivers, Hines Ward should but probably won’t get Hall of Fame consideration. But each is far less talented than Antonio Brown.

Moving beyond Antonio Brown, a look at how the other two third of “Young Money” have preformed outside of Pittsburgh further complicates the picture. Mike Wallace has never had a quarterback as good as Ben Roethlisberger throwing his way in Miami, Minnesota or Baltimore, and he’s struggled consistently meet the performance of his Pittsburgh days.

Contrast that with Emmanuel Sanders, whose overall performance in Denver has exceeded that of his time in Pittsburgh. But Sanders’ success has come both with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball as well as Manning’s  successors.

  • So that really doesn’t help us answer the question.

Nor should that surprise Steelers fans, who saw John Stallworth post far better statistical seasons catching balls from Mark Malone and David Woodley than he did when Terry Bradshaw stood under center. But no one in their right mind would choose a Malone-Stallworth or a Woodley-Stallworth tandem over Bradshaw-Stallworth.

  • It is hard to know exactly what role Donte Moncrief will play in the Steelers 2019 offense.

JuJu Smith-Schuster enters the season as the number 1 receiver, and both coaches and journalists tell us that if James Washington is poised to make a leap in his sophomore year. If that happens then the best-case scenario for Donte Moncrief is that he emerges as the number 3 receiver in the Steelers offense.

  • And if Donte Moncrief shines in that role, Ben Roethlisberger will deserve some of the credit.

But it will also be true that opposing defense will have been focusing on covering Smith-Schuster, Washington and Vance McDonald. So I guess Donte Moncrief presence in Pittsburgh might not contribute much to the QB improves WR/WR improves QB quandary.

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Can Sutton Smith Gain the Size Needed to Play Linebacker for The Steelers?

When you look at the frame of edge rusher/outside linebacker Sutton Smith, the Steelers sixth-round pick out of Northern Illinois in the 2019 NFL Draft, you wonder if he’ll have the size to play with the big boys at the professional level.

  • At first glance, Sutton Smith, at 6’1″ and 234 pounds, appears to be light years away from having the ideal size to play outside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s defense.

But maybe that’s because I’m thinking of Dick LeBeau‘s old Steelers defense, and the likes of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who seemed to carry the bulk necessary for their time.

But times are different in 2019. In Keith Butlers defense, Steelers outside linebackers are expected to be more athletic, more agile than they were in the past. In fact, Bud Dupree, who came into the league at around 270 in 2015, dropped 20 pounds by his second year. T.J. Watt, a budding star in the Steelers defense, is listed at 252 pounds.

  • Both players are more lightning than they are thunder. They’re more quiver than they are quake.

What that means is, for a player like Sutton Smith, he may not have very far to go to get to where he needs to be in order to compete in the National Football League.

Sutton Smith, Steelers 2019 6th round pick

Sutton Smith, the Steelers 1st 6th round draft pick from 2019. Photo Credit: Salt Lake City Tribune

If the desire and intensity he displayed in college on his way to 30 quarterback sacks makes its way into the Steelers weight room, there’s no reason Sutton Smith can’t pack on 10 or 15 pounds of muscle. If he does that, he’ll be in the game, he’ll be in the running for a spot on the Steelers roster.

Just take a look at second-year outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi, who is the same height as Smith and listed at 248 pounds. There’s a bit of a buzz surrounding Ola Adeniyi as he enters his sophomore season in the NFL. Who’s to say there won’t be a similar buzz about Sutton Smith this time next season?

  • Who’s to say there won’t be a buzz about Sutton Smith this summer?

Fact is, Sutton Smith has a chance to make it on the Steelers’ roster, even if it’s as an inside linebacker (his current weight would be just about ideal at that position). There’s always room on Pittsburgh’s defense for a guy with the ability to get after the quarterback. There’s always room on the Steelers roster for a player with the kind of intensity Sutton Smith displayed in college.

Sutton Smith may have limitations, but his size, well, that probably isn’t going to be one of them.

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Steelers 2019 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class

Before the the ink of 7th round draft pick Derwin Grey’s draft card had time to dry, the Steelers went right to work in signing their 2019 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

James Harrison, Willie Parker, Steelers 2019 undrafted rookie free agents

James Harrison & Willie Parker arrived at St. Vincent’s as undrafted rookie free agents. They retired with Super Bowl rings. Photo Credit: Getty Images via Zimbo.com

These are the young men who wait in vain by the phone on draft day, only to get a call when it is all over offering their NFL dream a line line.

Here’s a quick look at the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 undrafted rookie free agent class:

Dravon Askew-Henry, Safety, West Virginia
Alexander Myers, Cornerback, Houston
Garrett Brumfield, Guard, LSU
Fred Johnson, Guard, Florida
Travon McMillian, Running Back, Colorado
Jay Hayes, Defensive End, Georgia
Chris Nelson, Defensive Tackle, Texas
Trevor Wood, Tight end/long snapper, Texas A&M
Matthew Wright, Kicker, Central Florida
Ian Berryman, Punter, Western Carolina

As they often do, the Steelers added bodies through the undrafted free agent rookie pool that they were unable to add in the draft. The Steelers did not pick a safety, but added Dravon Askew-Henry. They only added one offensive lineman and one defensive lineman, but added two guards and two defensive lineman undrafted rookie free agents.

  • Interestingly enough, they added Trevor Wood, a tight end with long snapping capabilities.

It is also interesting that they added two specialists, in the form of Ian Berryman, a punter out of Western Carolina, and a place kicker, Matthew Wright.

The Steelers resigned Jordan Berry in free agency, so Berryman could be just an extra leg for training camp, but they could also be bringing Berryman in to provide real competition for Berry. Matthew Wright’s signing is more interesting.

  • The Steelers of course have Chris Boswell under contract for several more years and would take a rather large salary cap hit by cutting him.

But they also have Matthew McCrane under contract to provide training camp competition. It’s been normal for the Steelers to bring two kickers to St. Vincents, but three? Time will tell.

Steelers History of Giving Undrafted Rookie Free Agents a Fair Shot

Undrafted rookie free agents face the longest of odds for realizing their NFL dream. Their the NFL version of Rudy, he of Hollywood fueled Notre Dame folklore glory.

It is a good bet that at least one of the men listed above will not make it to St. Vincents this summer. But Mike Tomlin is fond of saying that when you get to Latrobe, the Steelers stop caring about where you went to school or how you got there, and start focusing on what you do while you’re there.

  • And Mike Tomlin puts his money where his mouth is.

And the Steelers are true to their word. Ramon Foster arrived that way in 2009, and is now on his third (or perhaps 4th) NFL contract. Fellow offensive lineman Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney also arrived as UDFA’s and play pivotal roles on the unit.

And of course there’s Willie Parker and James Harrison, who both arrived in St. Vincents as undrafted rookie free agents and both made dramatic, game changing plays in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

The Pittsburgh Steelers promise to give undrafted rookie free agents a fair shot, and they mean it.

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Steelers 2019 Outside Linebacker Draft Needs – Time to for Another OLB in the 1st?

Since at least the 1980’s the success of the Steelers defense has gone hand and hand with the quality of its linebackers. And within that framework, it is the outside linebackers who’ve been the movers and shakers for Pittsburgh.

  • Since Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have invested significant draft capital in bolstering their outside linebacking corps.

However, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have at least as many misfires as they do hits. With that in mind, is it time for the Steelers to target outside linebacker again in the 2019 NFL Draft?

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

The Steelers 2019 Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starters

The Steelers have used 3 first round draft picks on outside linebacker in this decade alone bringing a mixed bag to Pittsburgh.

But the one crystal clear home run is T.J. Watt whom the Steelers drafted in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. In T.J. Watt the Steelers brought an instant starter to Pittsburgh, as Watt relegated James Harrison to the bench while he racked up 7 sacks and 1 interception as a rookie.

T.J. Watt was only getting warmed up, as he returned in 2018 to make 13 sacks, force 6 fumbles drop 12 defenders behind the line of scrimmage and hit opposing quarterbacks 21 times.

  • T.J. Watt is clearly a keeper.

Playing opposite T.J. Watt the Steelers have Bud Dupree, whom they selected in the 2015 NFL Draft after he unexpectedly fell in the 1st round. At the time, Bud Dupree was seen as a raw athlete in who needed to develop his skills.

  • Both of those attributes have been evident in his time in Pittsburgh.

As a rookie, Bud Dupree ripped off 3 sacks in his first 5 games in four in his first 8. Then his production tapered off. At the time it was said he “hit a rookie wall.” Bud Dupree began 2016 on the injured list, but made an immediate impact when he returned, recording 4.5 sacks in just 7 games.

Unfortunately, Bud Dupree only recorded 6 sacks in 2017, prompting coaches to swap T.J. Watt and Dupree to opposite sides of the defense. In terms of sacks, the move didn’t help Dupree’s production, but he did get more pressure on the quarterback as measured by QB hits and defensed 3 more passes. HE also added a pick six in the Steelers win over Tampa Bay.

Four years into his NFL career, Bud Dupree is playing on his 5th year option and while he clearly isn’t bust in the mold of Jarvis Jones, he’s clearly failing to deliver as a first round draft pick should.

The Steelers 2019 Outside Linebacker Depth Chart Heading into the 2019 NFL Draft: The Back Ups

Backing up both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree is Anthony Chickillo, whom the Steelers added in the same draft as Dupree and recently signed a 2 year contract extension. In four years Anthony Chickillo has done everything the Steelers have asked of him, including starting 7 games as he has seen duty on both side of the defense.

  • If reports are correct, Bill Belichick offered Anthony Chickillo the same or slightly more money to come to New England.

Hate him though we may, Belichick has a keen eye for talent and does not throw around free agent money frivolously. The Steelers aren’t the only ones who’ve looked at Chickillo’s tape and seen someone who borders on being starter capable.

The Steelers also have Olasunkanmi Adeniyi who earned a spot on the Steelers active roster after a strong performance in training camp and preseason. The Steelers will also bring 2018’s 7th round pick Keion Adams back to training camp.

The Steelers 2019 Outside Linebacker Draft Need

Outside linebacker is a tricky area for the Steelers in the 2019 NFL Draft. As Bob Labriola never tires of reminding readers on Asked and Answer, the Steelers NEED defensive playmakers. But their needs at inside linebacker, cornerback and perhaps safety are stronger.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • T.J. Watt is budding into a legitimate difference maker on defense, and while Bud Dupree is a disappointment, the Steelers can win with him.

Could a rookie come in and provide an immediate upgrade over Bud Dupree? Perhaps, but that’s not something to count on. Still, what happens if the Steelers turn comes to draft at 20, the Devins are long gone, and the best player the Steelers have on their board is an outside linebacker?

  • It says here that picking that player might not be the worst decision the Steelers could make.

With that said, if one only takes Pittsburgh’s needs into account, then the Steelers 2019 draft need at outside linebacker must be considered Moderate.

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James Harrison, Emmanuel Sanders Speak Out, Change Their Tunes on Former Team

As the hits keep coming in Pittsburgh former Steelers are not only sound off, but also changing their tunes. Recent comments by Emmanuel Sanders and James Harrison lending insight into the impact that context can have on memory.

  • Surprisingly, Emmanuel Sanders’ comments haven’t gotten much play in Steelers Nation.

But last week the wide receiver that the Steelers took in the 3rd round of the 2010 NFL Draft, joined to national pile on of Pittsburgh, this time taking aim at Kevin Colbert. Speaking on Denver’s 104.3 The Fan, Sanders called out Kevin Colbert for rebuffing his contract claims by asking “‘Who do you think you are, Antonio Brown?’”

  • Sanders claim “…I wanted to say, ‘F-you.’ I’ll never forget that.”

That’s a bit odd, because just before the Steelers infamous loss to the Denver Broncos last fall, Sanders confided in the Tribune-Review’s John Grupp that he’d been in Denver so long that, “I forget about my Pittsburgh days.”

James Harrison, Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers vs Broncos

James Harrison & Emmanuel Sanders at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: USA Today’s Steelers wire

Now, to keep Sanders’ quote in context, he further clarified, “I still remember the days there.” He also confided that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that the team wanted to keep him, but didn’t have the money. Tomlin, Sanders made it clear, wished him well. That’s important to remember.

Because both Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith and Peter King put this into the context of an either/or situation between Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. That makes sense because they were both drafted in the 2010 NFL Draft, but a little bit of research will reveal that the Steelers gave Antonio Brown his 2nd contract in 2012, whereas Emmanuel Sanders didn’t become a free agent until two years later.

If this were a Watch Tower column, and it is not, the we’d now take Smith and King to task for either ignoring context with contradicts Sanders’ claim and/or implying a backstory that doesn’t match the facts.

  • We’d also remark on their failure to question Sanders’ quote from Colbert.

Does anyone really think that Kevin Colbert used those words with Emmanuel Sanders? Tom Donahoe might have, but Kevin Colbert?

The larger point is, that when Sanders first recalled his time in Pittsburgh, the Steelers were riding on a 6 game winning streak. Antonio Brown’s antics had been largely forgotten, and Le’Veon Bell’s hold out had become permanent. And people weren’t piling on Pittsburgh.

  • Now they are. And it seems that Sanders has succumbed to peer pressure to join in.

That might be overly harsh. Perhaps it is. Emanuel Sanders has been an objective voice when asked about issues relating to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. He very well may remember his interaction with Kevin Colbert that way.

But we’ve all been in situation when everyone is coming down on someone else, and we’ve all known how easy it is to join in.

  • If that seems to be the case with Sanders, James Harrison is taking the opposite route.

When asked about Ben Roethlisberger by Colin Cowherd, never one to be confused as a Steelers apologist, James Harrison surprised everyone by praising Ben Roethlisberger: “The people that are saying he’s a bad teammate, that’s their truth. For me, I think Ben is a good teammate and a good leader.”

Wow! What a difference 8 years makes. Back in the summer of 2011, Men’s Journal writer Paul Solotaroff did a feature length article on James Harrison. In the article, James Harrison didn’t mince words about some of his teammates, including Ben Roethlisberger, as Harrison told Solotaroff:

Hey, at least throw a pick on their side of the field instead of asking the D to bail you out again. Or hand the ball off and stop trying to act like Peyton Manning. You ain’t that and you know it, man; you just get paid like he does.

In subsequent radio interviews, implied that those comments were only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Harrison’s feelings about Ben Roethlisberger. Why the change? Who knows? Since 2011 Ben Roethlisberger has, in many ways, taken the team on its back and been the primary person responsible for the 8 non-losing seasons the Steelers have enjoyed since then.

He’s also become a better, more refined quarterback (thanks in no small part to Todd Haley, although commentators and most likely Roethlisberger himself would be loathe to admit it.)

  • Perhaps James Harrison, the ultimate underdog, feels compelled to do one of the things he does best: Swim against the stream.

Could this be a turning point in James Harrison’s relationship with the Steelers? Time will tell. But with everyone piling on Pittsburgh, James Harrison is deciding not to take part. Good for him.

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Steelers Center Maurkice Pouncey Is A Loyal Teammate and a True Leader

Photo credit: Deadspin

As the saying goes, if I was in an alley fight, and I had to pick a Pittsburgh Steeler to have my back, center Maurkice Pouncey would likely be at the top of my list.

  • I’m sure the same goes for many of Maurkice Pouncey’s teammates–at least in a metaphorical sense, if not literal.

It has been known for quite some time that, in addition to ably filling the footsteps of Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings by being the latest in a long line of great Steelers centers (seven Pro Bowls and almost certainly destined for immortality in Canton, Ohio, when his career is finally over), Maurkice Pouncey embodies the word “teammate.”

Steelers 2018 Offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouency

Maurkice Pouncey is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews

It’s also no secret he’s one of the true leaders of the Steelers locker room, a player that just about every teammate who has known him during his career has respected and admired.

  • There’s also no question how much Maurkice Pouncey appreciates being a Pittsburgh Steeler.

While not as vocal about it as other Steeler greats such as Mean Joe Greene and Hines Ward, there’s no doubt Pouncey has always cared about the Steeler shield–the brand–and makes sure others show the same respect and love for the organization that he does.

At the tail-end of the 2017 season, shortly after legendary outside linebacker and fan-favorite James Harrison was released from the team, Maurkice Pouncey was quick to set the record straight on the sentiment that James Harrison was a victim and treated unfairly.

In fact, Maurkice  Pouncey was the first to speak up and bring to light Harrison’s unprofessional behavior throughout the season–behavior that was spurred on by his frustration over a lack of playing time–that ultimately forced head coach Mike Tomlin to get rid of him.

Harrison quickly signed a deal with the Patriots, Pittsburgh’s nemesis for many years. This action seemed to really irk Harrison’s old teammates, especially Maurkice Pouncey, who said Harrison ‘erased‘ his Steelers legacy.

It’s important to point out that Pouncey later clarified his statement and softened his stance on Harrison’s ultimate legacy in Pittsburgh. But there the Steelers were, in a PR alley fight with James Harrison, the media and the fans, and who was the first person to come to the rescue? Maurkice Pouncey.

Maybe that’s why I’m not surprised Pouncey was really aggressive just last week when his Steelers–specifically quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — were being dragged through the mud by two recent former teammates —Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, both of whom accused Roethlisberger of being the real problem in the Steelers locker room.

“I’ve been with Ben going on 10yr,” Pouncey said on Wednesday via his Instragram page. ” I swear on my kids he is a true leader!! sucks to see players who leave and are mad at the organization now try and point fingers like they are perfect! But this is the world we live in now!”

  • Spoken like a loyal Pittsburgh Steeler and a true team leader.

Will anyone grant Maurkice Pouncey, who, again, has quite the career resume, a national interview to get his positive take on Roethlisberger’s leadership qualities and Pittsburgh’s locker room situation?

Not likely, not when it’s become oh so chic to bash the Steelers on a national level. Not when people take as gospel the words of an All-Pro receiver but not those of an All-Pro center who has been hiking the ball to Roethlisberger for years.

No doubt Pouncey had some issues earlier in his career involving the law and immaturity. He also seemed to alienate the fan base a bit after suffering two season-ending injuries (as if that were his fault). However, Pouncey has not only put to rest his reputation for being injury prone. Much like Rod Woodson, who had some brushes with the law in the early portion of his Steelers career, Maurkice Pouncey has grown into a mature person and, by all accounts, a model citizen.

Fans have always demanded loyalty from their players, which is why the disdain for those who would rather hold out of training camp for more money or go play for another while trashing their previous one is so palpable.

But if you’re looking for loyalty — if you’re looking for someone who is pretty darn proud to be a Pittsburgh Steeler — look no further than Maurkice Pouncey.

 

 

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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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L.J. Fort Played Well for Steelers in 2018. Can He Cash in Free Agency?

Inside linebacker has been a position of need for the Pittsburgh Steelers since December 4th 2018 when Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion against the Cincinnati Bengals. The injury sent the Steelers scrambling to fill a gaping hole in the middle of their defense. In short order the Steelers have tried:

L.J. Fort was a beneficiary of all of these misfires, because they earned him his first real playing time. How well did he take advantage of that opportunity? The bottom line will reveal itself soon as L.J. Fort reaches free agency.

L.J. Fort, L.J. Fort free agency, Matt Ryan, Steelers vs Falcons

L.J. Fort rushes Matt Ryan. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, via Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of  L.J. Fort’s Steelers Career

L.J. Fort was an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa in 2012 and worked his way through several NFL teams–including the Browns, Broncos, Seahawks, Bengals and Patriots — before finding a more secure home with Pittsburgh in 2015.

After being used mostly as a special teams player during his first few seasons while dealing with a loaded depth chart at inside linebacker — Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams ate up the majority of snaps in 2016 and 2017 — L.J. Fort began to see more playing time near the end of 2017 in the wake of the tragic spinal injury suffered by Shazier in early December.

2018 was a minor watershed year for L.J. Fort on defense as he saw his playing time increase as the season went along and the Steelers tried desperately to find some way to replace the other-worldly athleticism Shazier once brought to the inside linebacker spot. Appearing in 15 games and starting two, L.J. Fort had his most productive season by far in 2018, recording 48 tackles, a sack and a touchdown in the Steelers win over Atlanta.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort did turn pro in 2012 and did bounce around the NFL before arriving in Pittsburgh, he only appeared in 18 games prior to 2015. Therefore, despite being 29 years old, Fort likely doesn’t have the wear and tear on his body that another player his age might.

Also, as already alluded to, of all the inside linebackers currently on the Steelers roster, L.J. Fort’s athleticism comes closest to matching that of Shazier’s prior to his injury. Jon Bostic, Tyler Matakevich and Williams certainly don’t possess L.J. Fort’s speed and quickness. In-fact, if L.J. Fort was on another team, and that team was preparing to play the Steelers during Shazier’s prime, L.J. Fort would likely be the guy pegged to emulate him in practice.

And given Fort’s age and limited tape, it’s not likely teams will be lining up for his services. In other words, the Steelers could and probably should resign him at a very team friendly price.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning L.J. Fort

While L.J. Fort does possess potential, the fact that it still has yet to be realized at this stage of his career may be quite telling. Besides, it’s not all that uncommon for an NFL player to look pretty good in limited playing time, before getting exposed as a starter. Fact is, the Steelers thought so little of L.J. Fort’s abilities after Shazier’s injury in late 2017, they signed Sean Spence off the streets and started him in the disastrous divisional round playoff game against the Jaguars.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and L.J. Fort

In reality, it is highly unlikely at this point of his career that L.J. Fort is still some diamond in the rough who will suddenly morph into a dominant linebacker in his 30s a la James Harrison.

  • But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a very good depth player–not to mention a great special teams player.

Even if the Steelers go out and sign one of the prime free agent inside linebackers or draft one in the first round, there should still be room on the depth chart for L.J. Fort. And, again, considering the price it would likely take to keep him, I think it’s a no-brainer that L.J. Fort stays with the Steelers in 2019.

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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He’s Steelers Success Story, But Should Ramon Foster Seek a Home Outside Pittsburgh?

Everyone loves a “Rags to Riches” undrafted rookie free agent does good story. Kevin Colbert’s a knack for finding undrafted rookie free agents played a big part in adding Lombardi’s Number Five and Six to the trophy case. Think I’m exaggerating? 

The sad thing about undrafted rookie free agent success stories is that they have to end at some point. Which brings us to veteran left guard Ramon Foster. Could it be time for his story in Pittsburgh to end? Let’s take a look.

Ramon  Foster, Steelers vs Jaguars

Ramon Foster lines up against Jaguars in 2017. Photo Credit: PennLive.com

Capsule Profile of Ramon Foster’s Steelers Career

As an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, Foster signed with the Steelers in 2009. He started four games during his rookie campaign including Super Bowl XLV and another eight in his second season. And in 2011, Foster started 14 games at left guard and since has become a permanent fixture at the position.

The process was not seamless, however. When the Steelers drafted David DeCastro in the 2012 NFL Draft and moved Willie Colon from tackle to guard, it appeared that the Steelers were trying to replace Ramon Foster. However, Ramon Foster continued to start in the face of injured to both Colon and DeCastro, and Ramon Foster has started 14 games or more in every season since.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ramon Foster

Ramon Foster not only survived the influx of offensive line talent, starting with the drafting of perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey in the 2010 NFL Draft, he has emerged as one of the most consistent and durable members of the unit. Furthermore, Ramon Foster has established himself as a team leader and a calming presence in a Steelers locker room that sorely needs such things as of late.

He’s also a popular player as far as offensive linemen go and a bit of a pillar in the Pittsburgh community.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ramon Foster

B.J. Finney. A year ago Foster’s fellow undrafted rookie free agent signed a one-year contract extension with the Steelers. Now B.J. Finney is reaching restricted free agency. But while B.J. Finney has spent the majority of his time with the Steelers playing the role of utility lineman (he’s started games at guard and center), he’s shown more than enough potential to be promoted to the role of starter.

Furthermore, B.J. Finney, 27, is six years younger than Ramon Foster, who will be 33 by the time he plays in his next NFL game of consequence. And let’s not forget Foster, who has never really cashed in on a big deal, has gone on record to say that if the Steelers want to keep him around for a few more years, they’re going to have to pay him.

  • What that tells me is that he’s willing and eager to shop his services on the open market.

In other words, no “Home Team Discount” for Ramon Foster. Given the alternatives, the Steelers best course of action would be to lock B.J. Finney down to a long-term deal, and allow Ramon Foster to walk. 

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ramon Foster

With so many needs at so many other positions–including at wide receiver (in case you haven’t heard, Antonio Brown is headed out of town….), inside linebacker and, as always, in the secondary — keeping a player like Ramon Foster around — as consistent as he is — just seems like a luxury at this point.

That’s especially the case for an offensive line that has been able to find and then develop so many undrafted and lower round prospects into productive offensive linemen under the tutelage of the legendary Mike Munchak and his successor, Shaun Sarrett.

Therefore, I think it’s time for the Steelers to thank Ramon Foster for a wonderful 10 seasons and wish him well on his future endeavors.

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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Should the Steelers Gamble by Not Giving Xavier Grimble a Restricted Free Agent Tender?

For every NFL rookie that gets a dreaded visit from The Turk, a practice squad slot equals a lifeline to their NFL dream.

  • What they make of that lifeline varies greatly from player to player.

In the case of Pittsburgh Steelers practice squanders, on the one end of the spectrum you have James Harrison who worked his way to NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

On the other hand, you have many more players like Shakim Phillips, who made the Steelers 2015 practice squad, got in invitation back to St. Vincents the next summer where his NFL dream ended. In between you get players like:

  • Ramon Foster, who matured into a solid starter,
  • Isaac Redman the cult-hero who developed into a decent number 2 back before falling to injury
  • Chris Hoke who became an invaluable understudy
  • Justin Brown who shined in practice in 2013 but disappointed on the active roster in 2014

Xavier Grimble is a player who cut his teeth on the Steelers practice squad, an experience which he parlayed into an active roster spot. Now that he’s reached restricted free agent status, his spot on the continuum above will come into clearer focus.

Xavier Grimble, Xavier Grimble fumble, Jack Dempsey, Steelers vs Broncos

Xavier Grimble thinks he has a touchdown, but Will Parks is about to force a fumble. Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey, AP via Tribune-Reivew

Capsule Profile of Xavier Grimble’s Steelers Career

After spending time with the Patriots and the 49ers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2014, Xavier Grimble joined the Steelers practice squad in 2015. In 2016 Xavier Grimble earned a slot on the Steelers active roster behind Jesse James and David Johnson while Ladarius Green sat out in the PAP list.

  • Say what you want about back up Steelers tight ends, they may not catch many passes but when they do, they catch touchdowns.

That was true of Matt Spaeth. Entering the 2015 off season, Matt Spaeth had only caught 53 passes, but 10 of those, or just under 20% went for touchdowns. Xavier Grimble is on a similar path as he has caught 22 passes but three of those have been for touchdowns.

  • Yes, that’s only a 13% touchdown catch rate, but he’s been the number 3 tight end whereas Spaeth was TE number 2.

In three years on the Steelers active roster, Xavier Grimble has appeared in 44 games and made 6 starts, including a touchdown against Cincinnati in 2016, a touchdown in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens, and a touchdown against the Packers in 2017.

Of course the play that most fans are going to remember is the goal line fumble against Denver where Grimble initiated contact unnecessarily (while holding the ball incorrectly) which cost the Steelers the game, if not the playoffs.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Xavier Grimble

The Steelers have invested a lot Xavier Grimble’s development. After four years, Xavier Grimble clearly won’t morph into the 2nd coming of Bennie Cunningham, let alone Heath Miller.

But arguably,  Xavier Grimble has already contributed more than Preston Gothard did as starting tight end for some mediocre teams in the 80’s.

  • The point is that Xavier Grimble is a serviceable player who provides valuable depth at tight end.

Is Xavier Grimble worth the 2 million plus it would take to offer him a restricted free agent tender? Well, if Jesse James is playing elsewhere in 2019, then the answer might be yes. Even if Jesse James is back, the Steelers would be wise to keep keep this valuable backup in Pittsburgh.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Xavier Grimble

Practice squad to regular season roster stories may warm the soul, but don’t spontaneously sprout Lombardi Trophies. Sure, Xaiver Grimble is a decent number 3 tight end, but at age 27 he’s reaching the “What you’ve seen is what you’re going to get” phase of his career.

With the Steelers facing the loss of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger is going to need dynamic targets to take heat off of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald.

  • Is Xavier Grimble going to be that person?

No. Even if Grimble makes it to training camp, there’s no assurance he’ll beat out Jake McGee for a roster spot. The Steelers would be better off parting ways with Grimble and bringing in a younger player who offers more promise.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Xavier Grimble

Jesse James’ free agent profile has yet to be published, but I’m going to go ahead and scoop myself and say that the Steelers should resign Jesse James and provide a solid number 2 behind Vance McDonald.

Under that scenario, with Jesse James locked up for 3-4 years, the idea of spending the 2 million plus to put a qualifying restricted free agent tender on Xavier Grimble sounds like salary cap insanity.

  • Moreover, the Steelers certainly could gamble that Xavier Grimble will still be available to be brought back at the veteran minimum if they decline to tender him.

However, Kevin Colbert’s comments at the NFL Scouting Combine indicate that the Steelers will probably let Jesse James test free agency. That makes Xavier Grimble a more valuable commodity to the Steelers, but perhaps not valuable enough to warrant a restricted free agent tender.

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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