Steelers 2017 Training Camp: 4 Question Pittsburgh Must Answer “Yes” to Bag Lombardi Number 7

As the Pittsburgh Steelers assemble for their 52nd training camp at St. Vincents in Latrobe, the franchise gathers with an unusual urgency. Everyone knows why. While smarting for yet another AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger uttered the dreaded “R” word last January.

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

Super Bowl windows are notoriously hard to pry open and are wont to slam shut without warning. In the modern NFL, having a franchise quarterback forms a necessary, yet insufficient element to bringing home a Lombardi.

  • A quarterback can’t do it alone, even if his last name is Marnio, Elway, Brady and yes Roethlisberger.

Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have known this and made their personnel choices accordingly since the Steelers rebuild began in earnest after 2012. The franchise returned to the playoffs in 2014, got a playoff win in 2015, and knocked on heaven’s door in 2016 only to be turned away.

Here are 4 Steelers 2017 Training Camp Questions whose answers will determine whether  Pittsburgh can bring home Lombardi Number 7 in 2017.

Beny Roethlisberger, Beny Roethlisberger St. Vincents, Steelers 2017 training camp

Can Ben Roethlisberger help Steelers bag Lombardi Number 7? Time will tell. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

1. Can Burns, Davis and Hargrave Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump?

My, how times have changed. When decline of the Steelers defense became indisputable in 2013 commentators rightly pegged the dip to the to the 1,279 snaps logged by rookies during Dick LeBeau’s second to last year as defensive coordinator.

  • Three years later, it looked like rookies would write a similar story for Keith Butler’s second year as defensive coordinator.

People forget, but as Steelers scribe Carlos Ortega pointed out, at the middle of the 2016 the Steelers defense was on pace to match the 1988 Steelers defense’s records for futility. The turnaround of the Steelers defense on the back end of the 2016 is certainly one of the under-reported stories and it happened in large part because Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.

  • On paper, all three men will pick up right where they left off.

Think about it. Who were the only two Steelers to touch Tom Brady during the AFC Championship game? Davis and Hargrave. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler need these men to grow in their second years. And while that’s a reasonable expectation, it is far from a given.

Troy Edwards won the Steelers 1999 rookie of the year, and returned to training camp defended his lax training regimen by complaining that he couldn’t race air. Kendrell Bell looked like a Chad Brown, James Farrior, Ryan Shazier composite as a rookie 2001, but injuries and an unwillingness to learn coverage schemes surfaced at St. Vincents in the summer of 2002.

A sophomore slump by any of these stud 2016 rookies could have catastrophic consequences for the Steelers defense in 2017.

2. Can T.J. Watt (or perhaps Chickillo) Become Starter Capable at Outside Linebacker?

The emergence Burns, Davis and Hargrave only partially explains the Steelers 2016 defensive turnaround. The rest of the turn around was fueled by Bud Dupree’s return to the lineup and James Harrison’s promotion to starter.

  • James Harrison is, by definition, a living legend.

And if the 2016’s James Harrison wasn’t the same as the 2008 version of Harrison that won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, he was still better than any other outside linebacker the Steelers had.

But it would be foolish for anyone to expect James Harrison to remain a 16 game 3 down, four quarter starter in 2017.

If the Steelers are to seriously contend for Lombardi number 7 in 2017, someone else must step up. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert drafted TJ Watt to be that man, and if OTAs are any indication, the linebacker clearly has the athletic skills. The Steelers need to use training camp to get him ready to contribute early and often.

The other alternative would be to see if Anthony Chickillo can contribute on the right side. That’s not something that Steelers coaches seem to be considering, but we suggested it last year and will do so again.

3. Can Senquez, Sensabaugh or Sutton Turn the Corner?

The narrative on Pittsburgh’s defense since getting torched by Aaron Rogers in Super Bowl XLV has been that the Steelers need to get better at cornerback. This narrative has played for so long that William Gay, one of the “culprits” in 2010, has gone from scapegoat to “Big Play Willie Gay” to a player whose skills are seen as being on the decline.

  • Keenan Lewis looked ready to break out in 2012, yet the Steelers let him go, gambling on Cortez Allen offering more “upside.”

Ike Taylor failed in his footrace with father time. Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin and Justin Gilbert came and went. If Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell give the Steelers two solid options as starting cornerbacks, the AFC Championship revealed their limits. But the depth behind him is simply unproven, save for William Gay whom many pundits argue should be gone.

The good news is that with Coty Sensabaugh, Senquez Golson, Cam Sutton and Brian Allen, the Steelers for the first time in a long time, bring some real quantity to training camp with them. If the Steelers are going to make a serious Super Bowl run, Carnell Lake must find a way to coax come quality out of that unit over the next few weeks on the grass of Chuck Noll Field.

4. Can the Steelers Build Viable Depth at Running Back Behind Bell?

It says here that any running back sets both regular season and playoff rushing single game rushing records that neither Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis could touch is special. But the self-life of NFL running backs is precariously short.

It also says here that the process of trying to extend Le’Veon Bell’s shelf life by limiting his carries a simple exercise on paper but a horrendously complicated endeavor when you try to do it in the heat of a game.

  • Did anyone really want to see Tomlin spell Le’Veon Bell with Fitzgerald Toussaint in his record setting performance over the Bills?

I don’t think so either. Regardless of whether he had a choice or not, Todd Haley over used Le’Veon Bell down the stretch in 2016. Yes, lack of a number two wide receiver to complement Antonio Brown had a lot to do with that, but the fact is the Steelers cupboard was bare at running back.

On paper, the Steelers have given themselves better options for improving running back depth in 2016, by saying goodbye to DeAngelo Williams, drafting James Conner, and signing Knile Davis. And Fitzgerald Toussiant will be back as well.

The days when the Steelers RB depth chart would read Bettis, Huntley, Zereoue, Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Witman, with some guy named on Kreider on the practice squad have ended and will never return. But the Steelers have rolled the dice for several seasons by going with an offensive backfield that was 2 or at and a half players deep.

  • And they’ve paid for it in the post season, in three straight years.

Even if Le’Veon Bell can stay completely healthy for a 19 straight games (yes, that’s counting on a 1st round playoff bye) Steelers running backs coach James Saxon needs to use his time at St. Vincents to establish solid depth behind his starter.

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

As a rookie, injuries forced Ben Roethlisberger into the lineup where he lead team that had finished 6-10 the season before to a 15-1 finish an a playoff run that ended with a AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

The loss was devastating to Jerome Bettis, who’d planned to retire and felt he’d lost his shot at a championship. On the sidelines, rookie Ben Roethlisberger implored “The Bus” to return, promising he’d get him his ring. Roethlisberger delivered as the Steelers triumphed in Super Bowl XL.

Now, as Roethlisberger contemplates parking his own bus, the question remains as to whether his teammates can deliver as he did for Bettis 12 years ago.

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3rd Time the Charm? Steelers Draft Cam Sutton in 3rd Round, Cornerback from Tennessee

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Cam Sutton in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, adding the cornerback from Tennessee to a secondary desperate need of depth at corner.

  • Cornerback has been at the top of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix seemingly every season since the Steelers loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

Slow development and salary cap miscalculations (see letting Keenan Lewis walk in favor of counting on Cortez Allen) attempts to get by with waiver wire pickups (see Antwon Blake), late draft picks (see Trent Hawthorne) and just plain bad luck (Senquez Golson) have created this seemingly chronic need at cornerback.

Cam Sutton, Steelers draft Cam Sutton, Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 3rd round pick Cam Sutton

While Steelers 1st round pick from the 2016 draft Artie Burns did have a strong second half to his rookie year, the Steelers still need help at corner.

According to Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake, Cam Sutton brings Pittsburgh:

Cameron is a press corner and plays close to the line of scrimmage but can also play off. He does a good job of mirroring the receiver. He stays close, and that shows in his productivity as a corner for Tennessee over the years in his career. He has led his team and is the all-time leader in passes defensed for Tennessee. He knows how to cover, he stays close, and that is something that we’ve been looking for in the draft. In the third round, he was available and that’s why we took him.

Cam Sutton stands at 5-11 1/4, weighs 188 pounds, but has short 30-inch arms and a 4.52 40 time, which explains why he stayed on the bard so long. At the NFL Combine he only benched only 11 times but did post Combine workouts saw him post decent numbers in the vertical jump (34), broad jump (10-0) and 3-cone (6.81). His shuttle time of 4.23 is acceptable.

Here is what his highlight tape tells us:

As you can see, he also has experience returning punts, so perhaps the Steelers can finally send someone other than Antonio Brown out there.

Cam Sutton brings the Steelers a wealth of experience, having started for four straight seasons for the Tennessee Volunteers, playing as their team captain during his senior year. Leadership is another asset which he can potentially bring to the Steelers secondary, as indicated by his response to the question of whether he sees himself as a coach on the field:

Most definitely. I was voted captain my senior year, but that leadership role is something I embraced over time in my four years in college. Usually when I first start off in a new area or team, I kind of want to sit back and observe the guys that are around me and kind of get a feel for the personalities. But I am a guy that seeks out those guys, and I have a different way of talking to people. Not every player you’re able to talk to the same way. I’m able to decipher those guys. Some you can harp on, some you have to pull to the side. I’m able to do that. Whatever gets the guys going the right direction helps us all be successful.

By picking Cam Sutton in the third round the Steelers have set themselves up for a traning camp competition at cornerback. Artie Burn and Ross Cockrell will open camp as starters, with William Gay probably penciled in as their slot corner, assuming the Steelers do not move Gay to safety.

Sutton will have a shot to compete with Senquez Golson and Coty Sensabaugh for right to challenge Gay for the nickleback position.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Cam Sutton.

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Ryan Shazier Wins Steelers Thanksgiving Honors for 2016 – Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Thanksgiving has arrived!. Today may mark the 15th straight Thanksgiving that I have celebrated in Buenos Aires, for the first 21 years of my life, Thanksgiving either meant a trip to Pittsburgh or a visit from relatives in Pittsburgh.

  • Pennsylvania Turnpike notwithstanding, either event was a welcome occurrence, and truth be told, something I’ve missed as an adult.

During high school those Thanksgiving trips gave me the chance to read a week’s worth of accumulated Pittsburgh Press and Post Gazette coverage of the Steelers. In those pre-internet days, that was like Christmas come early.

The days of having to rely in imported printed copies Ed Bouchette to follow the Steelers are long over. For 7 years running now Steel Curtain Rising has been publishing an annual column highlighting reasons for Steelers Nation to give thanks. Here is how our Steelers Thanksgiving honors series has gone so far:

2009 – Saw Rashard Mendenhall win Steelers Thanksgiving honors
2010Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, and Al Everest shared the honors
2011 Antonio Brown won Steelers Thanksgiving honors hands down
2012 – Attention turned to the emergence of Keenan Lewis
2013 – Stud in the making Cameron Heyward earned recognition
2014 – Honors went to Le’Veon Bell for his emergence as an All-Pro running back
2015 Steelers understudies earned Thanksgiving honors

Its also satisfying that even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight there’s no reason to regret any of our“ Steelers Thanksgiving honors” shout outs. Sure, Rashard Mendenhall might not have blossomed into the “franchise” running back he was picked to become, but Mendenhall played a huge role in getting the Steelers to the Super Bowl a year later.

Maurkice Pouncey has won Pro Bowl honors for each year he’s been healthy, Emmanuel Sanders is a first rate NFL wide out, and most fans would exchange Al Everest for Danny Smith as Steelers special teams coach. Antonio Brown is simply the best there is. Keenan Lewis did depart in free agency but honestly, have the Steelers had better play at cornerback since Keenan Lewis left?

Cameron Heyward has grown into the dominant player and leader on and off the field everyone thought he would be back at Thanksgiving 2013, and Le’Veon Bell is probably the most complete back in the NFL. And one year later, the 2015 contributions of DeAngelo Williams, Will Allen, Alejandro Villanueva and Cody Wallace look no less important to what the team accomplished a year ago.

With that in mind, we now turn our attention to this years Steelers Thanksgiving honors award.

Ryan Shazier Wins 2016 Steelers Thanksgiving Honors

It’s become cliché, but when the 2014 NFL Draft arrived the only question about the Steelers top choice was “Which cornerback will Pittsburgh take?” Of course the Steelers wanted Justin Gilbert (perhaps its good they didn’t get him), but when he wasn’t there, they shocked everyone (except Jim Wexell) by picking Ryan Shazier.

Given that the Steelers had Lawrence Timmons, and rising youngsters Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin, the moved struck many as a head scratcher.

  • Two and a half seasons later, no one who understands football should question the move.
ryan shazier, gary barnidge, steelers thanksgiving honors, steelers vs. browns

Gary Barnidge can’t hold on as Ryan Shazier lays in the wood. Photo Credit: Karen Schiely, AP via Akron Beacon Journal

Josh McCown of the Cleveland Browns certainly understands why Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau called Shazier’s number in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Sure Shazier has spent more time than you’d like to see on the trainer’s table, but football is a violent sport. Sure Shazier might trail C.J. Mosley, who the Ravens took 2 picks later, in terms of sacks an interceptions.

But in addition to his uncanny athleticism, Ryan Shazier has shown that uncanny playmaking ability that paves the way for greatness:

While a lot of fans are down on Shazier, the simple fact is that he’s only broaching the beginnings of what he can do. This kid still has plenty of upside.

So for 2016, Steel Curtain Rising awards its Steelers Thanksgiving honors to Ryan Shazier, as he give Steelers Nation reason to give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Of course Thanksgiving is never been about football (although I do painfully remember the Thanksgiving day Massacre of 1983). It’s about things that are far more fundamentally important for life. Family, friends and faith.

  • Our sincere hope here at Steel Curtain Rising is anyone and everyone who reads this has reasons to give thanks that have nothing to do with either football or the Steelers.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in Steelers Nation.

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Panthers Bouncing Brandon Boykin Reinforces Fundamental Fact: Kevin Colbert Makes Good Decisions

Steelers OTA’s will bring a week of fresh news to Steelers Nation, as last week’s biggest “Steelers story” was the Carolina Panthers cutting Brandon Boykin less than two months after signing him to a one year $840,000 contract in favor of Shaquille Richardson.

  • Someday a college professor somewhere will write a paper about the role that the internet and social media play in sustaining Steelers Nation.

In the early ‘90’s a story like the Boykins, outside of Pittsburgh, would have merited maybe a line at two the “Transactions” column crammed at the back of a sports page. Don’t believe me? That’s how the Boston Globe treated the Panther’s decision to cut Barry Foster after the Steelers had traded him.

  • Today every Steelers site dutifully wrote their “Panthers cut former Steeler Brandon Boykin”  post
  • Steelers Nation simultaneously debated the decision on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.

So be it. This isn’t a Watch Tower post, but rather one that shows how the Boykin story illustrates a basic point:

  • Kevin Colbert usually makes good personnel decisions.

Ah you say, but what about Dri Archer and Shamarko Thomas to name two recent, high profile draft day disappointments?

Fair enough. Kevin Colbert doubtlessly would like to have both draft picks back. But NFL drafting success is part art, part science and part blind luck. But when it comes to evaluating the talent on the Steelers roster, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are pretty good decision makers.

When Brandon Boykin signed with the Panthers, large swaths of Steelers Nation reacted as if the Steelers had just lost Rod Blount Boykin, to use a phrase coined by Dale Lolley. A case could be made for keeping Boykin, but he was no Rod Woodson or Mel Blount. Nor was he an Ike Taylor or even a Deshea Townsend.

  • Pittsburgh’s decision to go all in on Senquez Golson, Doran Grant and an unnamed draft pick (now Artie Burns) certainly carries risk for Steelers 2016 title hopes.

But now Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman, two guys who just took their team to the Super Bowl, have made decided to trust in Shaquille Richardson over Brandon Boykin. Richardson, if you’ll remember, was the Steelers 2014 5th round draft pick who got cut in training camp and has yet to play a down of NFL football.

  • None of this should suggest that Kevin Colbert remains immune from making personnel mistakes.

That is hardly the case. The Steelers let Ryan Mundy go in 2013 and if his stat sheet is any guide, he’s had two solid seasons in New York and Chicago. That same off season, the Steelers gave up on Willie Colon due to his injury history and opted not to renew Doug Legursky’s contract. You’d better believe that when Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year and Mike Adams couldn’t cut it at right tackle, Mike Tomlin wished he’d had either Colon or Legursky at his disposal

  • Keenan Lewis is another player the Steelers let get away in the 2013 off season that they wish they could have back.

But the decisions to let Mundy, Colon, Lewis and to some extent Legursky walk were as much or almost as much the result of salary cap restrictions as they were results of talent evaluations. That doesn’t exempt Colbert from criticism, because a general manager has to make those choices.

  • But outside of Lewis, Colon and Mundy, you’d be hard pressed to find someone the Steelers cut who thrived elsewhere.

What about Kraig Urbik?

Urbik is certainly one of the “ Ones that got away” from the Steelers 2009 draft class, but the Steelers wanted to keep Urbik, but were forced to expose him to the wavier wire because Byron Leftwich’s injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster during Ben Roethlisberger’s 2010 suspension. Urbik’s started 57 games for the Bills over the last six seasons, but the Steelers decision to keep Batch looked pretty smart when Dennis Dixon went down in week 2.

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin may miss on draft picks. They might overestimate the development potential of a player, such as Cortez Allen. They might trade for guys who disappoint, such as Levi Brown, Felix Jones or…. Brandon Boykin.

But when the Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin let a guy go, its not too often you’ll see the guy make a name for himself elsewhere.

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Steelers Release Cortez Allen

The experiment that was Cortez Allen as a starting cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers has officially come to an end.

As reported by various outlets–including the team’s official website–Allen, 27, was released on Friday after five seasons. According to UPI.com, Allen, who was scheduled to make $4.4 million in 2016, was let go after refusing to take a pay-cut.

Cortez Allen was the team’s fourth round pick out of The Citadel in the 2011 NFL Draft, and after showing a lot of promise near the end of the 2012 season–including two interceptions and a fumble recovery–and emerging as a starter in 2013, the front-office decided to reward him with a five-year contract extension prior to the 2014 season.

After watching Keenan Lewis, a third round pick in 2009, develop into perhaps the team’s best cornerback in 2012 and then leave via free-agency that offseason, Pittsburgh didn’t want to make the same mistake with Allen. Unfortunately, injuries and ineffective play stymied Allen’s 2014 season, and by the time the Steelers were marching towards the playoffs and their first AFC North crown in four years,  he had been surpassed on the cornerback depth chart by journeymen Antwon Blake and Brice McCain and was pretty much a non-factor.

  • The 2015 season would not prove to be a resurgence for Allen, as injuries reduced his season to just one game.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pointedly refused to give Allen a vote of confidence in his season-ending press conference following the loss to the Broncos in the divisional round. And after months to think things over, Tomlin again hinted that Allen’s time with the team had pretty much come to an end when he addressed the media in March while in Boca Raton, Florida, for the annual owners’ meetings.

With Allen’s release following the free-agent departures of Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin, at the very least the Steelers will have to address their cornerback depth in the 2016 NFL Draft, which kicks off on April 28.

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Are the Steelers Pinning Too Much Hope on Senquez Golson? Kris Farris Offers Cautionary Tale

NFL owners meetings bring big news to Steelers Nation simply because they’re the only off season moment when Mike Tomlin talks to the press. At a recent meeting in Boca Raton, Tomlin offered unqualified praise for cornerback Senquez Golson:

We are excited about getting Senquez Golson back in the mix. I think oftentimes he is forgotten about. We were excited about him a year ago when we drafted him. I still share that same level of excitement. I can’t wait to get him on the grass.

Mike Tomlin’s embrace of Senquez Golson is both revealing and alarming. The 2015 Steelers weak spot was cornerback and it remains so a month into free agency with Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin departing.

However, last spring plays like the one below prompted the Pittsburgh Steelers to pick Senquez Golson with their 2nd round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

The athleticism, tracking ability and discipline Golson reveals in the play would leave any coach licking his chops. But Golson unfortunately course injured his shoulder in Steelers OTA’s last year, sat out training camp on the PUP list, and lost his rookie season to shoulder surgery.

  • The headline, “Rookie season lost to injury” sounds ominous, but should it?

Starting your career on injured reserve is hardly ideal, but several Seelers have bounced such setbacks.

sean spence, injury, 2012 preseason, steelers, carolina panthers

Sean Spence is injured during the 2012 preseason

Sean Spence lost his first two years to injury, yet Spence was starting for the injured Ryan Shazier by week 4 of 2014. Keenan Lewis suited up for a handful of games in 2009, but his rookie season was marred by injury. Lewis didn’t do much in 2010 either. He flashed little in 2011, and by 2012 he’d improved so much he became the guy the Steelers couldn’t afford to keep.

A torn ACL cost the legendary Greg Lloyd his rookie season, and another knee injury cost him the first half of his second season. Yet by the end of 1988, Lloyd was pushing for starting time, and going into 1989 NFL Draft, Greg Lloyd had made the reigning single season sack leader Mike Merriweather expendable.

Mike Tomlin’s faith in Golson is hardly unprecedented. However, placing too much hope in a rookie’s ability to bounce back from injury is generally a mistake, and the case of Kris Farris reveals why.

The Cautionary Case of Outland Trophy Winner Kris Farris

The Steelers offensive line needed help in 1999. Badly. When Jerome Bettis had arrived via trade in 1996, he proclaimed that running behind the Steelers offensive line was “Like running down hill.” But by 1999, the line had lost Leon Searcy, John Jackson, Justin Strzelczyk, Will Wolford to free agency, injury and retirement.

Worse yet, Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe had swung and missed badly in attempting to replace them by drafting Jamain Stephens, Paul Wiggins and Chris Conrad.

  • Drafting the 1999 Outland Trophy winner would appear to be a sure bet to snap that streak, if only the Steelers got the chance.

The Steelers got that chance in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft, taking the Outland Trophy winner Kris Farris the middle of their trio of 3rd round picks that year.

But during rookie workouts Farris’ foot began to get sore. At first he’d be OK after a few minutes, but each day it took longer to feel normal. Farris aggravated the injury on Memorial Day, sat out veteran mini-camp, and took it easy, hoping the rest would ready him for St. Vincents.

Kris Farris, not wanting to beg off of Bill Cowher’s annual run test, told the Steelers he was 90 to 95%. Farris gave it his all, but when it was all over a concerned Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis approached him because he looked so pale.

  • Farris tried to make a go of it in the first full pads practice of Camp Cowher 1999, but could not finish.

Subsequent MRI’s reveal cracks and then a full hairline fracture in his foot. The Steelers put Kris Farris on season-ending injured reserve, and hoped for the best.

During the 1999 season, the Steelers offensive line’s decline accelerated as as coaches alternated between Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad to see who would was “less worse.” In bars throughout Steelers Nation, fans shook their heads asking, “If only we had Kris Farris…..”

Kris Farris returned to St. Vincents with the Steelers in the summer of 2000, but earned reputation for “being soft” and Steelers cut Farris  trimmed their roster to 70.

The Bengals picked him up, but he was unable hold a roster spot in Cincinnati. Tom Donahoe brought Farris to Buffalo in 2001, did manage to play 3 games in 2001 but, in an cruelly ironic moment, Farris broke his leg in a 20-3 loss to the Steelers. Sadly, Farris never played football again.

  • The moral of the story isn’t that the Steelers can’t improve at cornerback from 2015 to 2016.

Despite that disappointment, the 2000 Steelers were far stronger at right tackle with rookie Marvel Smith, 1999’s third stringer Shar Pourdanesh and Larry Tharpe been out of football in 1999, but whom Kevin Colbert knew from his Detroit days.

But Kris Farris’ story also should serve as a caution against the Steelers pinning too many of their hopes for improving at cornerback on Senquez Golsen.

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Is 2016 the Year the Steelers Make a Splash in Free Agency?

Is 2016 the year the Pittsburgh Steelers make a splash in free agency?

  • ….Probably not. The Steelers never make a significant splash in free-agency, but this doesn’t mean they can’t make some moves that fans will feel good about.

Two years ago, the signings of safety Mike Mitchell and reserve running back LeGarrette Blount were met with great enthusiasm, especially after a few off seasons of financial blood-lettings that included the departure of promising corner Keenan Lewis and the release of veteran linebacker James Harrison in 2013.

All those years of cap massaging finally left Pittsburgh with no space at all, and the 2013 offseason was certainly a depressing time, complete with the inevitability that the upcoming regular season was going to be a bit of a downer, which it was–at least the 2-6 first half.

Obviously, Mitchell, who was injured, didn’t do much in 2014 but draw the ire of fans for his underwhelming play; Blount ultimately drew the wrath of teammates, coaches and, of course, the fans for his actions that included smoking a joint with Le’Veon Bell the day before an exhibition game in August and walking off the field moments ahead of the rest of his team near the end of the Steelers Monday night win over the Tennessee Titans.

But while the moves didn’t do much to help the 2014 team, they were good in-theory, and Pittsburgh’s 2015 free-agent running back do-over that was the signing of long-time Panthers’ veteran (and good guy) DeAngelo Williams more than made up for the gamble on Blount.

Due to a suspension and season-ending knee injury, Bell wound up only playing in six regular season games. In his place, Williams, who responded to a challenge by head coach Mike Tomlin and came to training camp in the best shape in years, started 10 games and rushed for 907 yards (the third-highest total of his already accomplished career).

As for Mitchell’s 2015 regular season, it was significantly better and the kind of upgrade over the retired Ryan Clark that everyone initially envisioned when he came on board the year before.

According to to the website Over the Cap, the Steelers have approximately $11.3 million of cap space, heading into free-agency.

  • That’s a fair amount, but certainly not enough to go after one significant player. But that’s okay, because football is a team sport.

While fans and the media like to fall all over themselves this time of year, after downtrodden organizations with a lot of room like the Buccaneers and Jaguars sign big names, the fact is, the smart moves can often make the biggest difference.

For the Steelers, maybe those smart moves will simply be re-signing guard Ramon Foster and/or cornerback William Gay. Maybe it’s going out and finding a dependable, veteran tight end who, if he doesn’t start in place of the young Jesse James, could be an upgrade over Matt Spaeth. How about finding a reserve defensive lineman that is an improvement over Cam Thomas?

None of these moves would get the Steelers added to any list of free-agent “winners,” but championships are won in January and February, not March and April.

A small ripple doesn’t have the same kind of initial impact as a big splash, but, in the long run, it can often be more effective.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Big Play Willie Gay to Stay! Steelers Resign William Gay to 3 Year Contract

With the start of free agency less than 24 hours away, the Pittsburgh Steelers have left zero ambiguity over what their priorities are. The Steelers have resigned 3 of their own players. First came safety Robert Golden. Then wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

  • And now they’ve signed cornerback William Gay to a 3 year contract.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but William Gay communicated the word via his Instagram account and his agent confirmed it to members of the press.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BCstanIjBUs/

  • The Steelers also confirmed the report on their website.

By resigning William Gay and Robert Golden, the Pittsburgh Steelers have locked down two of potential starters from their secondary before they even hit the free agent market. That still leaves the Steelers needing help at both safety and cornerback.

Veteran safety Will Allen could retire and Shamarko Thomas has little more than disappoint since the Steelers traded up to get him in the 2013 NFL Draft. At cornerback, Cortez Allen has been an even bigger disappointment while Brandon Boykin and Antwon Blake are both free agents. Behind them the Steelers have rookies Senquez Golsen and Doran Grant, neither of whom played a down in 2015.

In William Gay, the Steelers have battle tested veteran, who owns a Super Bowl ring and can command respect on and off the field.

What a Difference 4 Years Makes

Both William Gay and the Steelers have been here before. In 2011 following the NFL lockout, the Steelers offered Gay a second contract, but at the time Gay was a number 3 corner who’d struggled as a starter and essentially got a “prove it” contract.

Gay’s play improved tremendously in 2011, yet the Steelers let him walk because of promising development of Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen.

Keenan Lewis developed as promised, but the Steelers had limited salary cap space and let Lewis go, banking heavily on on Cortez Allen surpassing Keenan Lewis.

The Arizona Cardinals cut William Gay after one season, and the Steelers almost immediately resigned him. Although Gay was only getting 1.5 million per year, far below starter money for the Steelers, William Gay has been a veritable big play machine since returning five interceptions for touchdowns, which ties Rod Woodson‘s  career total with the Steelers.

  • There is some risk in signing a 31 year old cornerback to a 3 year contract.

But skeptical fans should keep in mind that Rod Woodson intercepted 15 passes in the three seasons following his 31st birthday. Unfortunately, only six of those were with the Steelers as Tom Donahoe allowed him to depart as a free agent. To this day, Dan Rooney publicly regrets letting go of Rod Woodson.

While no one here is predicting a Hall of Fame career for William Gay, the Steelers have made sure he won’t follow Rod Woodson’s footsteps by playing some of his best ball in another uniform.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Shoulder Surgery May Jeopardize Senquez Golson Rookie Season

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that Pittsburgh Steelers second round pick Senquez Golson could be facing shoulder surgery which would end his rookie season before it even begins.

The Steelers picked Golson in the 2015 NFL draft due to his tremendous ball-hawking skills, Golson nabbed 10 interceptions last year while playing for the Old Miss, despite his 5’9” size. While no one was projecting or expecting that Senquez Golson would push for a starting job, the Steelers had planed to use him in the slot.

  • Golson participated in all of the Steelers OTA’s and mini-camps without incident, but later informed coaches that he felt he injured his shoulder during those sessions.

Golson was one of 5 Steelers to begin training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, and has not suited up for practice.

Concern about the availability of Golson apparently contributed to the Steelers decision to trade for Brandon Boykin over the weekend. Brandon Boykin, like Golson, is another short cornerback who has a knack for coming down with the ball.

Golson to Continue Recent Steelers Rookie Tradition?

If Senquez Golson’s rookie season is lost to shoulder surgery it starts, he will be following in the footsteps of a number of prominent rookies during the Mike Tomlin era. In 2012, David DeCastro and Sean Spence both began the season on IR, although DeCastro returned late in the season. A year before Baron Batch’s rookie season ended on the fields of St. Vincents. Prior to that, Chris Scott, a 5th round draft pick from 2010, injured himself weight lifting in June of that year and was lost for the season.

Lawrence Timmons, Keenan Lewis, Frank “The Tank” Summers, Ryan Shazier and Markus Wheaton all saw their rookie seasons seriously curtailed by injuries.

Rookies losing valuable time to injuries is not “tradition” that anyone would wish to emulate, but unfortunately it does seem like it will continue in 2015 at the very least.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers Third Round Draft History Under Kevin Colbert

Steel Curtain Rising’s annual installment of the Colbert Record began this morning with our evaluation of Kevin Colbert’s performance in the the Steelers 2010 Draft.

Now that the Steelers have drafted Bud Dupree with their first pick, focus shifts to day two of the 2015 NFL Draft which brings us to the third round. Accordingly, Steel Curtain Rising shines a light on Kevin Colbert’s draft record with third round picks.

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Tom Donahoe Leaves Kevin Colbert Tough Third Round Act to Follow

The NFL Draft’s third round is often called “the value round” as that is the spot in the draft where you still have a high probability of finding and impact player, yet the risk associated with missing on a third rounder is lower than the first and second rounds.

  • The NFL Draft’s third round was the Steelers money round during Tom Donahoe’s tenure.

Colbert’s predecessor simply excelled in the third round drafting Joey Porter, Hines Ward, Amos Zereoue, Mike Vrable, Jon Witman, Brenden Stai, Jason Gildon, Bam Morris, Andre Hastings, and.

Donahoe and Bill Cowher’s Steelers did draft a few busts in the third round – Kris Farris, Chris Conrad, Steven Conley and Paul Wiggins all come to mind, but looking look across the 8 Donahoe-Cowher drafts  and you’ll literally cannot find a year in which the third round was a total loss for the Steelers.

How well has Kevin Colbert done by comparison? Time to find out.

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Steelers 2000 3rd Round Draft Picks – Kendrick Clancy and Hank Poeat

Joel Steed remains an overlooked key to the 90’s Blitzburgh defenses, but his abrupt in January 2000 left newly arrived Kevin Colbert with a gaping hole to fill in the Steelers defense. First Colbert’s signed Kimo von Oelhoffen and second he drafted Kendrick Clancy in the third round of the 2000 NFL Draft.

Clancy played in nine games as a rookie. In 2001 he actually kept Casey Hampton on the bench – for three games, before yielding the starting spot. Clancy never started another game in Pittsburgh, but he played in 15 games in 2000 and 17 games in 2002 and 2003. The Steelers cut him in 2004, but brought him back after Hampton torn his ACL. Clancy went on to play – and start, for the Giants, Cardinals, and Saints, playing all the way until 2009.

It’s hard to call a guy a “bust” because he couldn’t beat out Casey Hampton and Kendrick Clancy certainly wasn’t a bad pick. But still you expect more from a third rounder. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Kevin Colbert used his second third round pick in 2000 on Hank Poeat, a cornerback from Pitt. Yet Poeat’s primary contribution in Pittsburgh was as a kick returner, where he excelled as a rookie, returning a punt for a touchdown in the Steelers final game at Three Rivers Stadium.

But Poeat’s fortunes as a return man declined after 2000, and he never made an impact as a corner. The Steelers let him go after 2003, but Poteat played for Tampa Bay, New England, the New York Jets, and the Cleveland Browns until retiring in 2009. Grade: Disappointment

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Steelers 2001 3rd Round Draft Pick – Forfeited

When the Steelers signed Will Wolford to play guard in 1996 his contract contained a stipulating that Wolford got an extra $500,000 if he got switched to tackle. The page of paper that that clause was typed on (yes, typed) got lost, but Dan Rooney remembered it, and the Steelers honored their word to Wolford.

Unfortunately, paying that extra $500,000 resulted in a salary cap violation, which the Steelers turned themselves in for. As a result, they lost their third round pick in 2001.

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Steelers 2002 3rd Round Draft Pick – Chris Hope

The Steelers drafted Chris Hope in 2002 with an eye towards replacing Bret Alexander, who was turning 31. Hope neither started as a rookie nor as a sophomore, but earned a starting slot by his 3rd year, which was 2004 the year the Steelers went 15-1 and had the NFL’s number 1 defense.

Hope returned to start 16 regular season games in 2005 and started throughout the playoffs, playing his last game for the Steelers in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers never really felt that Hope was a long-term answer at safety – and Ryan Clark represented an upgrade there – but he did what a third round pick should do – develop into a reliable starter. Grade: Quality Value Pick

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Steelers 2003 3rd Round Draft Pick – Traded to Kansas City

The Steelers didn’t have a third round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft because Kevin Colbert traded it to Kansas City, as part of moving up to take Troy Polamalu….

…That was perhaps his wisest draft day decision.

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Steelers 2004 3rd Round Draft Pick – Max Starks

Kevin Colbert’s third round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Max Starks, has perhaps the most colorful history of any in the group.

Max Starks gets knocked around a lot. He even had doubters on both Bill Cowher’s final coaching staff in 2006, which carried over to Mike Tomlin’s initial staff in 2007. The Steelers front office disagreed, making Starks their transition player in 2008. The coaching staff was unmoved, starting the season with Starks on the bench in 2008, and even giving Trai Essex the initial nod when Marvel Smith went down in the critical Steelers 2008 road win over Jacksonville.

It says here that Max Starks saved the Steelers season in 2008. Arguably, he did it again in 2011 and one can shudder to think of what would have happened had the Steelers not brought him back in 2012. Max Starks started 2 in Super Bowl XL and again in Super Bowl XLIII. Can you really ask more of a third round pick? Grade: Quality Value Pick

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Steelers 2005 3rd Round Draft Pick – Trai Essex

Kevin Colbert again went the tackle round in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, this time picking Trai Essex.

 

Essex never developed into a full time starter at tackle, nor could he hold down the starting job at guard. But Trai Essex became a valuable 6th lineman who was able to back up at all five positions on the line. While that’s commendable, you do expect a third round pick to become a starter. Essex never quite fit that bill. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2006 3rd Round Draft Picks — Anthony Smith, Willie Reid

Bill Cowher’s last draft left a lot to be desired particularly in the third round. First the Steelers drafted Anthony Smith. Smith was a hard hitter.

But he was an even bigger prima donna, showboating after a big play in 2006, and then moronically guaranteeing victory prior to the Steelers game vs. New England in 2007, only to have Tom Brady torch him with relish. He also injured a player in during the 2008 training camp, drawing Mike Tomlin’s ire. There’s a word for players like this. Grade: Bust

Willie Reid, the Steelers second 3rd round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, didn’t generate the ink that Anthony Smith did, but he was just as disappointing. He appeared in 1 game as a rookie returning 1 kick and 1 punt in a loss vs. San Diego. He returned six more kicks in 2007 and caught 4 passes in that season then was done. Grade: Bust

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Steelers 2007 3rd Round Draft Pick – Matt Spaeth

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin surprised a lot of people when they picked Matt Spaeth in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft. And since that time it has become clear that the Steelers picked Matt Spaeth too early. That’s not a knock on Spaeth per se. It’s not his fault he was drafted so early. But he really never delivered value commensurate with his status as a third round pick.

Certainly, the Steelers have a quality second tight end in Matt Spaeth. His blocking has been a critical element to Le’Veon Bell’s success. And he’s far underutilized in the passing game. But third round picks should perform at a higher level. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2008 3rd Round Draft Pick – Bruce Davis

During training camp 2008, Jim Wexell reported in Steelers Digest that Mike Tomlin would pit Tony Hills and Bruce Davis together in one-on-ones while yelling, “I’m going to make a player out of one of you, I just don’t know which one yet.” The infamous Steelers 2008 Draft Class will go down as Colbert’s worst, with perhaps Bruce Davis serving as the poster boy.

  • As it turns out, Tomlin failed to make a player out of either man.

The Steelers drafted Bruce Davis as an outside linebacker, but he only played in 5 games on special teams, and he couldn’t cut it there. The Steelers wasted little time in cutting him in training camp the next summer. Davis resurfaced with the Raiders in 2010 and 2011 were he recorded 4 tackles in 10 games, and then Cincinnati in 2012 although he never played for the Bengals. Grade: Bust

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Steelers 2009 3rd Round Draft Picks – Kraig Urbik, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis

As a rookie Kraig Urbik didn’t play a down, but the Steelers had high hopes for him as they saw great progress in his second summer at St. Vincents. Word was that Urbik, a guard, skills as a back up center were part of what sent Justin Hartwig to the waiver wire. Alas, Byron Leftwich’s preseason injury forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch on the roster, and that meant Urbik had to go.

The Steelers wanted to sneak him onto the practice squad, but the Buffalo Bills had other ideas. Urbik has started 53 of 69 games for them since then…. Grade: Farm Team

The Steelers knew Hines Ward’s time was coming to an end by 2009, and drafted Mike Wallace with the second of their 3 third round picks. While the decision not to offer Mike Wallace a long-term deal was controversial at the time, the Steelers wisdom in choosing Antoinio Brown instead has been vindicated.

But that doesn’t alter the evaluation of Mike Wallace as a draft pick, because he it was an excellent pick. Wallace made an immediate impact as a rookie, posted in inhuman yards-per-catch average in his first season as starter, and was a legit home run threat on every play. The drop off in his play during his second two years does impact his overall grade, but clearly Colbert made the right pick here. Grade: Over Performer

With their final 3rd round pick in 2009 NFL Draft the Steelers picked Keenan Lewis. Lewis was a late bloomer, as injuries ruined and Joe Burnett kept him off the field. 2010 was little better, as Lewis disappointed. Carnell Lake personally oversaw his rehabilitation, and Lewis began to work himself into a quality corner in 2011 and established himself as the starter by 2012.

 

The Steelers did get some value out of Lewis before he left via free agency, but just a little short of what you’d expect and need as a third round pick. Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, his grade would be higher, but this draft evaluation only covers performance of players as Steelers. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

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Steelers 2010 3rd Round Draft Pick – Emmanuel Sanders

The third round pick in 2010 of Emmanuel Sanders got covered in our analysis of the Steelers 2010 NFL Draft. Emmanuel Sanders impressed coaches as a rookie, even keeping Antonio Brown on the bench early in the season, with Mike Tomlin invoking the “Two dogs one bone” metaphor. Sanders got hurt in Super Bowl XLV, and injury that Bruce Arians said hurt the team’s game plan.

Injuries limited Sanders in 2011 and then again in 2012, but he emerged as a full time starter in 2013 and made the most of his opportunity. The Steelers optned not to resign him, but Sanders was still a quality third round pickup. Grade: Quality Value Pick+

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Steelers 2011 3rd Round Draft Pick – Curtis Brown

Super Bowl XLV made it glaringly clear that the Steelers needed to improve at cornerback, and Kevin Colbert addressed the position in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft by picking Curtis Brown….

…And he undoubtedly regrets the pick to this very day.

As a rookie, Brown forced a fumble during an ugly Steelers loss vs. Houston. He apparently played well on special teams, but it was Cortez Allen who saw action at corner. Brown never started a game, but saw a lot of action as a nickel back vs. San Diego in 2012, which was one of the most horrific performances by the Steelers of the Tomlin era. Brown only played in 7 games in 2013 and the Steelers gave up on him after that. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2012 3rd Round Draft Pick – Sean Spence

The Steelers had already parted ways with James Farrior and were looking to groom a replacement for Larry Foote by the time the 2012 NFL Draft arrived. Kevin Colbert picked Sean Spence out of Miami. Early in preseason, Spence looked like a stud in the making. Then disaster struck, costing Spence not only his rookie year, but also his sophomore year.

Nonetheless, Spence returned for his third season, and started nine games splitting time with Vince Williams after Ryan Shazier’s injury. Spence helped force a fumble in the Steelers 2nd quarter explosion vs. Houston, and recorded a sack vs. Cincinnati. Any formal grade on Spence will need to wait, but he looks like a solid pick up on Colbert’s part. Grade: Too Early To Tell

Steelers 2013 3rd Round Draft Pick – Markus Wheaton

Kevin Colbert drafted Markus Wheaton in the 2013 NFL Draft with an eye towards replacing Mike Wallace and the soon to depart Emmanuel Sanders. Wheaton did next to nothing as a rookie, but he did earn the starting nod in 2014 and turned in a solid season.

 

Wheaton might not have gotten the ink that Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant get, but he made a lot of key catches. Again, one season as a starter is NOT enough to evaluate a player, but right now he has the look of a quality value pick, if not more. Grade: Too Early to Tell

Steelers 2014 3rd Round Draft Pick – Dri Archer

The Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get Shamarko Thomas in 2013, but got a compensatory pick for losing Mike Wallace. They used it on Dri Archer, who was the fastest man in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Steelers idea was to use Archer as a kick returner and utility back/wide receiver in the mold of Eric Metcalf (yes, I just dated myself!)….

It’s way, way too early to write off Dri Archer, but his rookie year can only be described as disappointing. Grade: Too Early to Tell

Conclusion – Kevin Colbert’s Checkered Third Round Record

The NFL Draft’s third round has not been as kind to Kevin Colbert as it was Tom Donahoe. Which is OK, as Colbert’s money round has been the first round of the NFL Draft.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin discuss the Steelers Draft

Still, Colbert is charged with making the right pick in each round, and the record shows that he’s done it several times for the Steelers, most notably with Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Hope, Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis.

However, Colbert has had his share of under performing third round picks, and he’s picked more than one outright bust with both Cowher and Tomlin (see Willie Reid Davis and Curtis Brown.)

While its too early to tell on some of his later picks, the arrow does appear to be trending up for Colbert’s third round record, but for now his grade must reflect a balance between his 3rd round successes and 3rd round failures. Grade: C+

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