Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs – Time for Pittsburgh Reinforce Depth

You can criticize Billy Cowher’s drafting record with both Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert on many grounds. However, no one can fault The Chin for failing to take offensive line seriously in the NFL draft.

  • Almost without exception, throughout his tenure, Bill Cowher invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman.

He didn’t do that in his final draft, and neither did Mike Tomlin in his first 3 drafts (well, OK they did take Kraig Urbik with one of their 3rds in the 2009 NFL Draft.) Then, when the consequences of playing “Plug and Patch” on the offensive line began to take their toll on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers invested two firsts and 2 second round picks on offensive line between 2010 and 2012.

The 2012 NFL Draft was five years ago, and the Steelers haven’t drafted an offensive lineman higher than Jerald Hawkins in the 4th since then. Should Steelers change their approach to offensive line in the 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s see.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs

David DeCastro blocks for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starters

One of the reasons why the Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman since 2012 is because they haven’t had to. Yes, other positions have beckoned, but each of the Steelers starting offensive lineman is working on his second contract, and that is no accident.

The Steelers offensive line rebuild began with Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and each and every year that he’s been health since then he’s been Pro Bowler. Marcus Gilbert came next and is regarded in the franchise as one of the best at his positions. David DeCastro fell to the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft, and David DeCastro is a legitimate Pro Bowl guard who adds the necessary streak of nasty to the line.

  • While these high-pedigree draft picks have delivered, they’ve got good company by men overlooked on draft day.

Ramon Foster joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was starting in the Super Bowl a year later. The Steelers looked to replace Foster in a number of ways, but Foster continues to hold his own. Starting next to Foster is Alejandro Villanueva, the former US Army Ranger and West Point graduate that the Steelers picked up after the Eagles dropped him from their practice squad.

The man standing the curtain is Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who might be the best position coach of any type in the NFL.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

The Steelers offensive line depth took a hit when Chris Hubbard signed with the Cleveland Browns this spring as a free agent, but franchise still has solid backups it can count on. Leading the pack is B.J. Finney, who has started at both center and guard and acquitted himself well.

At tackle the Steelers have Jerald Hawkins. Hawkins missed his rookie year due to injury, and struggled through his second training camp. However, he saw action in 2017 as a 3rd tight end. Finally, the Steelers bring back Matt Feiler, and exclusive rights free agent who has seen action in 6 NFL games.

Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it? Is that how the old adage goes?

The truth is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best if not the best offensive lines in the NFL. And, after all the years of offensive line turmoil the characterized the early part of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, it a bit ironic that Steelers Nation has come to take quality offensive line play for granted.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Complacency can cripple a contenders quest to transform itself into a champion.

To understand how that applies here, perform this little exercise. How old is the Steelers offensive line? You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Oh, we have a young offensive line, that’s one of the thing that’s so exciting about it.” Well, that was true for several seasons, today, not so much.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell draws out this point:

The average age of the Steelers’ starting offensive line on opening day will be 29.8. That’s quite older than the much respected 2005 championship line that averaged 27.6 years of age and fell apart soon thereafter.

Ramon Foster might be the only lineman above 30 now, but Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva turn 30 this year. Sometimes, father time imposes his will quickly.

No one really pegged the 2001 Steelers secondary as old when they fell short in the AFC Championship, yet Bill Belichick saw enough to know he could throw the ball throughout the entire 2nd half the 2002 opener, and there was nothing Pittsburgh could do to stop him.

That doesn’t mean there are ominous storm clouds hanging above the Steelers offensive line in the immediate future. But the Steelers would be very wise to add to their pipeline of offensive line talent, and therefore the Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs must be considered Moderate.

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Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs Hinge on Vance McDonald & Jesse James Future in Pittsburgh

While the Pittsburgh Steelers perhaps can’t boast of the same type of legacy of excellence at tight end that they do at other position areas, the services of Mark Bruener and Heath Miller did allow the franchise to enjoy (almost) two straight decades of high-level stability at tight end.

Whilethe Steelers tight ends ended 2017 on an up note, Pittsburgh has seen false starts at tight end in the last two years. In looking at the 2018 NFL Draft, the question the Steelers need to answer for themselves is, was the success they experienced at the end of 2017 is sustainable or just another Sisyphean attempt to replace Heath Miller’s legendary dependability.

Vance McDonald, Jesse James

Vance McDonald with Jesse James. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starter

The Steelers have been full of suprises at tight end of late. Last spring, after passing on drafting a tight end in a draft that was said to be deep at the position, the Steelers cut Ladarius Green a few weeks later.

Vance McDonald took time to work his way into the Steelers offense, and injuries sidelined him for six games during various points in the season. But, by the year’s end, Vance McDonald was the undisputed starter. Early on word was the McDonald dropped too many passes in practice.

However, during the later half of the year, Vance McDonald and Ben Roethlisberger developed a strong rapport, and McDonald started coming up with the ball at critical times, including making 10 catches on 16 targets in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jaguars.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

By all accounts, the Vance McDonald trade was prompted by Jesse James’ lack luster training camp and preseason performance. Nonetheless, Jesse James had as strong 2017 campaign. He caught 68% of the passes thrown his way, and came up especially big (along with McDonald) in the Steelers last second win against the Ravens.

  • Jesse James blocking still must improve, but he’s delivering solid value as a 2nd tight end.

Behind Jesse James, the Steelers have Xavier Grimble, who completed his second year on the active roster after 2015 on the Steelers practice squad. In those two years Grimble has show himself to be a competent 3rd tight end, and an able receiver although he his blocking has not stood out.

Steelers 2018 Tight End Draft Needs

The Steelers have a solid starter at tight end, an excellent number 2 tight end and a serviceable number 3 tight end, so Pittsburgh set at the position heading into the 2018 NFL Draft right?

Not so fast.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Vance McDonald’s strong finish to 2017 was no mirage, but there’s a “but.” First, Vance McDonald’s injures cannot be ignored. In five years in the NFL, he has never appeared in 16 games. He’s also in the final year of his contract and will be free agent come March 2019.

  • Jesse James doesn’t have the injury history, but he too will be a free agent next spring.

If Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are confident that they can commit the cap space to ensure that McDonald and James stay in Pittsburgh for the next several seasons, there’s no real need to target tight end with a premium pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

The Steelers can certainly upgrade from Xavier Grimble for the third tight end slot, but a late round pick would arguably be better spent on adding depth elsewhere.

The Steelers are an organization that likes to promote from within and the thinking here is that the team prefers and likely plans to keep McDonald and James in Black and Gold. Therefore the Steelers 2018 tight end draft needs should be considered Moderate-Low.

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Kudos to Kevin Colbert for Bringing in Two Free Agents Who Can Start for Steelers

I don’t know much about the NFL’s salary cap, and chances are, neither do you.

I do know the Steelers need help at both inside linebacker and safety–or at least they did–and I was wondering how they were going to find two competent pieces in free agency.

And if they did that, would they have enough money to pay star running back Le’Veon Bell $14.5 million in 2018 (unless the two sides can reach an agreement, which seems remote at this point).

Turns out, Pittsburgh was able to address both inside linebacker and safety last week, thanks to the signing of veteran linebacker Jon Bostic on Sunday, followed by the signing of veteran safety Morgan Burnett on Tuesday.

Morgan Burnett, Alejandro Villanueva, Steelers vs Packers

Morgan Burnett late in the Steelers 2017 win over the Packers. Photo Credit: Evan Seigle, via Packers.com

According to several pieces I’ve read as well as the site, spotrac.com, Burnett’s salary will eat up just  under $2.5 million in cap space this season. Considering the Morgan Burnett’s contract is worth a reported $14.3 million over three years, that’s kind of amazing–or at least means the money is back-loaded and will account for over $5 million in cap space in 2020 (the final season of Morgan Burnett’s deal).

Morgan Burnett is a consistent veteran and was one of the best pieces on the Packers’ defense the past several seasons, so much credit has to go to the Steelers for being able to bring him to town.

As for Jon Bostic, considering his contract is for $4 million over two seasons, no extensive research is needed to know he won’t eat up much cap space this year or next.

  • But who really cares about cap space, prorated bonuses and contacts? I know I prefer to focus on football.

I do know both Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett are capable of starting for the Steelers in 2018 and, at least on paper, will make the defense stronger than it was when it was getting manhandled by the Jaguars in 45-42 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs on January 14 at Heinz Field.

They just have to make fans forget how easily the likes of Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette tore through the defense with ease at Heinz Field in the regular season and then again in the playoffs (don’t look now, but the Jacksonville Jaguars playoff record in Pittsburgh is 2-0).

If Burnett can be a steadying back-end presence in the secondary and that always crucial last line of defense in 2018, he will be an instant upgrade over Mike Mitchell, who all too often wasn’t either of those things in 2017.

Massaging the salary cap is never an easy thing for the Steelers this time of year, but they managed to bring relief to their aching defense, and do so without wrecking the future–or so it would seem.

Maybe Burnett’s $5 million cap hit will hurt the Steelers in 2020. But, then again, maybe quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be getting on with his life’s work by then (hopefully, with at least one more Super Bowl on his career resume), and the organization will find salary cap relief organically.

  • But I’m not worried about that right now.

I just feel like giving props to the Steelers front office–namely Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan–for finding a way to get the right pieces for its defense (at least on paper) and doing so at a reasonable price.

Not an easy thing, and this is why they make the big bucks.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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April Fools Arrives Early? Nope. Steelers Resign Daniel McCullers to 1 Year Contract. Seriously

Sometimes you really must take care with what you wish for. Three years ago yours truly had the idea to do a “Steelers Resign Clifton Geathers” article as an April Fools joke. Instead we went with the faux Steelers trade Lawrence Timmons to Miami one that did so well that a credentialed press member actually called the Steelers to verify the nonexistent trade.

  • Which turned out to be a wise choice, because the Steelers actually DID resign Clifton Geathers on April 1st.

That was then, this is now. While I wasn’t planning on doing it, it occurred to me that a Daniel McCullers resigning might be good April Fools fodder (didn’t do an April Fools article last year, and probably won’t this year. Or will I…..?_)

  • Well, good thing that wasn’t this year’s plan, because it would be back to the drawing board:

The day’s news saw the Pittsburgh Steelers resign Daniel McCullers to a one year contract. One can only assume that it is for a veteran minimum which would guarantee McCullers nothing, but at this point in his career one has to wonder why the Steelers would even devote one of their 90 off season roster spots Daniel McCullers.

Daniel McCullers, David Andrews, Steelers vs Patriots

In a rare action shot, Daniel McCullers holds off David Andrews. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

As our free agent focus profile of Daniel McCullers pointed out, “Big D = Disappointment.” At 6’7″ and 350 plus pounds, Daniel McCullers is every defensive coordinator’s fantasy. Yet measurable don’t always mean much in the NFL, and Daniel McCullers did make some progress from his rookie to sophomore years, but has seen scant little since then.

  • In fact McCullers snap counts went from 9% and change in 2015, to 17% and change in 2016, to 1.33% in 2017.

That’s decidedly the wrong direction.

Too Early to Declare a “Dunbar Effect?”

In looking the prospects of the Steelers resigning Daniel McCullers, about the only plausible scenario involved new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar coming in, reviewing film, and seeing something he feels he could salvage.

  • Perhaps Karly Dunbar has done just that.

Because really, even with Justin Hargrave not making a lot of growth between his first and second year, and even with L.T. Walton perhaps hitting a plateau, Daniel McCullers body after four years in the NFL offers scant justification for a second NFL contract, even at the veteran minimum.

The Steelers declined to activate Daniel McCullers for all but six games in 2017, including the AFC divisional playoff loss the the Jaguars, despite knowing that both Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt were less than 100% going into the game.

  • Perhaps McCullers had an undisclosed injury. That would explain a lot.

Whatever the reasons is, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, John Mitchell and Karl Dunbar are far more qualified to make that judgment that me. But this resigning is a real head scratcher.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Its Official: Steelers Sign Morgan Burnett, Safety from Green Bay Packers

The second move of free agency saw the Pittsburgh Steelers sign Morgan Burnett, a safety from the Green Bay Packers. Morgan Burnett signed a 3 year contract with the Steelers, although dollar terms of the deal have not been announced.

Morgan Burnett offers the Steelers position flexibility, as he has played both free safety and strong safety for the Packers, although Burnett is more of a strong safety.

Morgan Burnett also offers the Steelers secondary something it is lacking: Experience.

Morgan Burenett, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Packers, Steelers sign Morgan Burnett

Steelers free agent signee Morgan Burnett watches on as Antonio Brown catches deep. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

A recent Steelers salary cap purge saw Pittsburgh cut veteran cornerback William Gay and veteran safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden. Even if there were legitimate football reasons for cutting the trio of defensive backs (there were), the Steelers eliminated over 250 games worth of experience form their secondary.

  • Morgan Burnett has started 102 games for the Packers.

It is believed that the Steelers are planning to start Morgan Burnett at free safety, which would allow Sean Davis to remain at his strong safety slot and would not require the Steelers to move Cam Sutton to safety. The move also puts J.J. Wilcox on notice that he will have to fight for both playing time and perhaps even a roster spot this summer at St. Vincents.

Morgan Burrnett has played his entire NFL career for the Green Bay, after the Packer traded up fifteen slots to pick him in the 2010 NFL Draft. For comparison’s sake, the Steelers drafted Emmanuel Sanders 10 slots later.

During his 102 starts for the Green Bay Packers, Morgan Burnett recorded 9 interceptions, forced 8 fumbles, recovered 10 fumbles and sacked the quarterback seven and a half times. Last season Burnett had 68 tackles, including 9 during the Steelers win over the Packers at Heinz Field, where Burnett forced a Le’Veon Bell fumble.

  • Not surprisingly, this second free agent signing by the Steelers addresses another area of urgent need.

Over the weekend the Steelers signed Jon Bostic, an inside linebacker who most recently played with the Indianapolis Colts. While safety and inside linebacker figure to remain high priorities for the Steelers in the 2018 NFL Draft, signing Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic frees Kevin Colbert from the trap of reaching or drafting purely for need to fill either positions during the early rounds.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Success of John Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel & Smith

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but Johnny Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving Johnny Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked Johnny Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

Johnny Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, Johnny Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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Success of Johnny Mitchell’s Steelers Coaching Career Defined by Names Like Tuitt, Keisel, Smith & Steed

You have to feel for Karl Dunbar, the new Steelers defensive line coach who returns to Pittsburgh finding very shoes to fill. So just how big are John Mitchell’s shoes? How long of a shadow does John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career cast? Well consider this:

  • The Steelers drafted Karl Dunbar in the 8th round of the 1990 NFL Draft, and the position coach he failed to impress that summer at St. Vincents was none other than Mean Joe Greene.

And in the 28 years since, Steve Furness is the only other man besides John Mitchell to hold the title “Steelers defensive line coach.” To put that in perspective, Mike Tomlin has employed four different offensive line coaches since 2007.

But longevity doesn’t define John Mitchell’s Steelers coaching career. John Mitchell defined his coaching career with the men he mentored and molded as defensive line coach.

John Mitchell, Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, John Mitchell's Steelers coaching career

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell at his best – teaching in the trenches. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Defensive Line Goes from “Boom” to “Bust” as 70’s Become 80’s

In the ‘70’s, Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Ernie Holmes set the NFL diamond standard for defensive line excellence.

In the ‘80’s changed things fast. The Steelers drafted Keith Gary, Gabe Rivera, Darryl Sims and Aaron Jones all first round picks, yet undrafted rookie free agent Keith Willis and 1986 2nd round pick Gerald Williams were Pittsburgh’s best two defensive lineman during the decade.

The 90’s failed to bring better times. In the 1990 NFL Draft, in addition to drafting Dunbar, the Steelers took defensive lineman Kenny Davidson and Craig Veasey in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. When neither man was delivering during the 1991 season, a reader asked Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola what the problem was.

  • A resigned Labriola responded that success in the draft involved a certain amount of luck, and suggest that perhaps the Steelers luck with drafting defensive lineman had run dry.

Sometimes, when luck runs out, its best to blow everything up and start from zero.

The 90’s — John Mitchell’s First Act with the Steelers

NFL position coaches don different hats. Sometimes they strategize. Other times they motivate and manage egos. They scout and evaluate talent. And they teach. John Mitchell excelled at teaching and you can see it in the methodical way Mitchell revived the Steelers defensive line.

As a defensive line coach, John Mitchell was known for taking you defensive lineman, stripping away everything they’d been taught in college, and building their skill sets up from zero. It would make a nice story to say that is what he did when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1994, but that’s not quite accurate.

Its true that Bill Cowher had fired Steve Furness, a firing which Furness never understood or got over, after a 1993 campaign with a defensive line that featured Kenny Davidson and Donald Evans at defensive end (recognize those names? No, well there’s no reason to.)

  • But the Steelers had picked Joel Steed in the 3rd round of the 1992 NFL Draft, and Steed was already a starter.

The Steelers had already drafted Kevin Henry in the 1993 NFL Draft, and Henry had already worked his way into the lineup. Steed’s emergence allowed the Steelers to move Gerald Williams to defensive end, and the Steelers signed Ray Seals in free agency. So Mitchell didn’t have to start from zero with the group of players he inherited.

  • But one fact stands out from that period of Mitchell’s early tenure.

Brentson Buckner made it into the starting lineup as a rookie, thanks to injuries suffered by Williams, and other than Buckner in 1994 and Casey Hampton in 2001, no rookie became a regular starter on Johnny Mitchell’s defensive line until Stephon Tuitt in late 2014.

Still, the Steelers defensive line was an undisputed position of strength of the 1994 Blitzburgh defense and remained that way for the 1995 squad that went to Super Bowl XXX.

  • The truth is that the, while never a weakness, the Steelers defensive line wasn’t as strong during the rest of the 1990’s.

To be sure, Joel Steed emerged as a Pro Bowler by 1997, but his knees started giving out on him, and those injuries certainly played a part in the late season collapses of the 1998 and 1999 Steelers. And while Orpheus Roye’s emergence in the late 1990’s was a bright spot for the Steelers and Mitchell, the end of the decade didn’t leave a lot to smile about.

But those dark days did set the stage for John Mitchell’s best work.

The Year 2000 – Kevin Colbert Arrives and John Mitchell Excels

Dan Rooney made changes after the Steelers 7-9 and 6-10 1998 and 1999 campaigns, both of which featured late season melt downs. Rooney fired Tom Donahoe and hired Kevin Colbert.

  • Its hard to know whether Kevin Colbert’s arrival directly or indirectly impacted him, but Johnny Mitchell’s coaching brilliance quickly became evident in the 21st century.

One of Kevin Colbert’s first moves as Director of Football Operations was to sign Kimo von Oelhoffen to replace Joel Steed. After six years in Cincinnati, von Oelhoffen could charitably be described as a journeyman. Under Mitchell’s tutelage, Kimo von Oelhoffen became a fixture on the Steelers defensive line, starting 94 games and ending his tenure in Super Bowl XL.

The summer of 2000 at St. Vincents yielded another surprise for the Steelers defensive line. A young, 6th round pick from the 1999 NFL Draft came out of nowhere to win the Steelers starting job at defensive end.

The 2001 NFL Draft brought Casey Hampton to the Steelers, giving Johnny Mitchell a nose tackle that could effectively eliminate the middle of the field from the opposing team’s running game. Casey Hampton was of course a first round pick, and its easy to credit Hampton’s talent over Mitchell’s coaching, but Hampton succeeded where so many Steelers 1st round defensive lineman had failed.

  • But if Casey Hampton was “supposed” to succeed, the same cannot be said of the Steelers next two defensive line acquisitions.

After drafting Hampton in 2001, the Steelers brought in an undrafted rookie free agent name Chris Hoke and a year later they took Brett Keisel with their 7th round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.

Chris Hoke didn’t develop into a superstar under John Mitchell and didn’t even appear in a game until 20014. But over the next 8 seasons Hoke appeared in 114 games and started 18 of them and never let the Steelers defensive line down.

Brett Keisel’s story is well known. He quietly worked his way into the line up during 2002 and 2003, because a regular part of the rotation in 2004 and essentailly pushed out von Oelhoffen to become the starter in 2006.

  • Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel gave the Steelers their defensive line trio of the 3-4 era.

When reporters asked Johnny Mitchell what he would do when Smith, Hampton and Keisel retired Mitchell said he’d join them. He wasn’t entirely joking. But fortunately he didn’t have to.

Johnny Mitchell Supervises Defensive Line Rebuild

Fortunately, for the Steelers, Mitchell stuck around for the rebuild of the defensive line. Although far from a “bust,” Ziggy Hood didn’t work out as planned. But the Steelers hit a grand-slam home run in the 2011 NFL Draft when they picked Cam Heyward.

  • Three years later they did it again by taking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

For a while they were joined by another young man who’d come to Pittsburgh as part of the 2009 undrafted free agent class. He saw his first action in the 2010 Steelers win over the Titans, and while Steve McLendon wasn’t a superstar, he did turn into a pretty solid nose tackle.

McLendon’s departure paved the way for the Steelers to draft Javon Hargrave, who like Casey Hampton before him won the starting job out of the gate. Hargrave had a spectacular rookie year, and if he suffered some growing pains in his second year, the arrow is still pointed up on the nose tackle from South Carolina.

In a word, Johnny Mitchell has left Karl Dunbar with the tools he needs to do his job. And then some.

John Mitchell Transitions to True Assistant Head Coach Role

One of Mike Tomlin’s first moves after getting hired as Steelers head coach in 2007 was to add the title “Assistant Head Coach” to John Mitchell’s title. But as Bob Labriola implied, that was mainly a ceremonial title that carried few responsibilities.

  • One of the surprises of the Steelers 2018 off season was that John Mitchell would be stepping aside as defensive line coach and assuming the role as Assistant Head Coach full time.

Part of Mitchell’s role will be to take administrative tasks off Tomlin’s shoulders. He’s also going to help outreach efforts with former players from the Tomlin era. And word is part of his job is to give everyone “Tough Love” be it a player, an assistant coach or even Mike Tomlin himself when he sees something amiss.

  • That’s a new role for John Mitchell, and a new role for the Steelers.

But if Mitchell can reproduce the results he delivered as defensive line coach, then this might just be the change that pushes Pittsburgh’s quest for Lombardi Number Seven over the hump.

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Watch Tower: NFL Scouting Combine, Draft Stories Coming Too Early for One Steelers Scribe

The NFL’s free agency signing period is less than a week away and to be sure Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers franchising Le’Veon Bell is universally the top story in Steelers Nation. But scan major Steelers sites and you’ll find that, almost without exception, all of the coverage is on the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Forgive me, but this is one Steelers fan who finds this intense focus on the NFL Combine and the draft as coming a little too early.

And to be clear, I’m speaking with voice as a Steelers fan, not as a Steelers blogger. As readers know, I don’t pretend to know enough about college football to wade into the pre-Draft analysis and I won’t do you the disservice trying to fake it.

Antonio Brown, Antonio Brown scouting combine,

Steelers Antonio Brown at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The NFL Combine is an important event, and in many ways is the unofficial beginning of the NFL off season. We hear a lot about how the NFL’s popularity is in decline, and over exposure is part of that equation. But the appetite for 24/7/365 football news is real, and you can’t blame the NFL for milking the combine for what its worth.

  • Still, if Mike Tomlin is correct in writing off OTA’s as “Football in shorts,” then what does that make the NFL Combine?

Kevin Colbert seemed to acknowledge that as much when he clarified that the Steelers value one-on-ones and medical information than data points that come out of the track meet.

  • Let’s also be clear about something, the Watch Tower isn’t criticizing the pros or our fellow bloggers for Combine stories.

Revenue generating sites come with page-view quotas, and that requires copy. And stories about prospects the Steelers meet with at the NFL Scouting Combine are much more relevant than Throw-Back-Thursday types strolls down memory lane.

There’s also the fact that Steelers.com is pushing the combine heavily. While the Watch Tower has yet to take an in-depth look, the fact is that the Steelers website at least indirectly dictates the story lines that so many other sites must follow.

  • How does this work, you ask?

The dynamic is pretty simple. If Steelers.com writes an article on Antonio Brown or Ryan Shazier’s NFL Combine workout, then Google searches for “Antonio Brown NFL Combine” and “Ryan Shazier NFL Combine” are sure to follow.

That’s fine. And the truth is that there are a lot of good stories being written on the NFL Scouting Combine with the benefit of a lot of first-hand journalism. Jim Wexell and Jon Ledyard work over at Steel City Insider provide to excellent examples. Steel City Blitz has also published a lot of quality draft-combine related stories over the last week. Kudos for them, and apologies to the dozens of other writers doing good work not mentioned.

  • But it’s simply too early for this Steelers fan to focus on the draft.

Can’t get my head around the fact that the Steelers draft decisions, as will every NFL team’s, will be driven by the fallout from free agency.

Seeing the words “NFL Combine” can’t help but remind me of my first memory of the event, which involved hear WMAL’s Ken Beatrice describe the Indianapolis Colts sending the Atlanta Falcons the store because they were blow away by Jeff George’s workout at the Combine (gee, that worked out well, didn’t it?) Also can’t help but remember that an early mock drafts had the Steelers picking Gerod Holiman in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

  • Beyond that it seems like the sheer volume of NFL Combine and draft stories is much heavier here in early March than in year’s past.

As most sites lack chronological archives it is hard to be sure. But either way all of this coverage on the 2018 NFL Draft is coming just a little too soon for this Steelers fan.

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Celebrate Chris Hubbard as a Steelers Success Before He Leaves Pittsburgh as a Free Agent

Times have changed. As NFL free agency turns 25, Steelers fans who remember the 1990’s will recall when Steelers routinely developed young talent only to see it leave in free agency.

  • The Rooneys kept their word when Heinz Field opened, and the Steelers have been much more competitive in retaining home-grown players.

But sometimes tough choices mean that a budding star will seek greener pastures. The conventional wisdom that Steelers free agent tackle Chris Hubbard is all but certain play 2018 somewhere other than Pittsburgh. Today our Steelers 2018 Free Agent Focus looks at whether that should and will happen.

Chris Hubbard, Steelers vs Colts

Chris Hubbard in the Steelers 2016 Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

In about five months or so we’ll be flooded with blog posts, tweets, Facebook comments and full-blown articles bemoaning preseason football that call for sharply curtailing it or perhaps eliminating it altogether.

  • When you see such rants next August remember Chris Hubbard’s story.

The Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class was heavy on offensive lineman, and included the much ballyhood Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka Nik Embernasty. No one paid any attention to Chris Hubbard.

And when Steelers Nation got its first look at the undrafted rookie free agent out of Alabama-Birmingham, it seemed like on one should pay attention to him. As Steel City Insider reader “Heinzsight” observed:

Hubbard was a good lesson/reminder for me. I remember his first preseason game against the Giants at LG. I thought he was so irredeemably awful that they should do everyone a favor, including Hubbard, and cut bait and not waste any more of anyone’s time on him. He really was that bad. His pass pro was nonexistent, and spent most of the run game on the ground, getting shrugged, jerked, or ragdolled. No center, always getting out over his hands, and tossed/discarded. Look at him now. Obviously wasn’t irredeemable.

Non-Steel City Insider subscribes will have to accept this author’s assurances that “Heinzsight” knows more about the fundamentals football than 90% of bloggers, including this one, will ever forget.

Chris Hubbard made the Steelers practice squad in 2013 and returned in 2014 to make the active roster. He saw his first professional action in the Steelers 2014 win at Carolina, one of the first truly impressive “scary good” performances of the offensive line of the entire Tomlin era.

Hubbard would see action in 7 games in 2015, saw action in 15 games in 2016 including four starts. Chris Hubbard started 10 games and appeared in 16 regular season games for the Steelers in 2017, proving himself to be that all-so-invaluable 3rd starting swing tackle charged with opening holes for Le’Veon Bell and protecting Ben Roethlisberger.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

You can never have too many good offensive lineman? How many times during has fate taught that lesson to the Steelers during the Mike Tomlin era?

Chris Hubbard is the real deal. He’s a legitimate, quality starting tackle in league that puts a premium on this position. On top of that, he’s another guy like his counterpart Alejandro Villanueva or Kelvin Beachum who the rest of the NFL looked over, and said, “No Thanks” to. The Steelers were smarter, invested the time and effort into developing him. Why shouldn’t he stay in Pittsburgh?

  • Sentimentally doesn’t and shouldn’t drive free agent decisions.

The truth is that the will turn 27 this year, while Marcus Gilbert will turn 30, and Gilbert has more than his share of injuries on his frame having missed significant time in 2017 to injuries. The smart salary cap money says cut Gilbert, who’ll get signed in a snap, and resign Hubbard.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Chris Hubbard

It’d be easy to say that cutting Marcus Gilbert in favor of Chris Hubbard isn’t part of “The Steelers Way.” And it would give Steelers fan a warm and fuzzy feeling inside if we said it.

  • Unfortunately its not true.

The Steelers cut veterans before the end of their contracts, and during the early portion of the Tomlin era this was standard operating procedure especially on offensive line (just ask Justin Hartwig, Willie Colon, Kendall Simmons, Max Starks and Chris Kemoeatu.)

But the truth is the if the Steelers cut Marcus Gilbert, they’d take close to a 5 million dollar dead money salary cap hit, and this is the game that needs to get every bit of football out of its salary cap dollars as it can. And given that the Steelers extended Gilbert in 2014, Hubbard would certainly command a higher salary cap number.

You’d like to keep a guy like Chris Hubbard, but the numbers just don’t add up.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Chris Hubbard

Kevin Colbert is a wiz a plucking gems from the undrafted rookie free agent pool, and Mike Tomlin is a coach whose dedicated to giving those young men a fair shot. You know their names. Roosevelt Nix, Ramon Foster, Willie Parker, and James Harrison. To name a few.

  • In another year, with a healthier cap situation, the Steelers might take a shot at keeping Hubbard.

But the Steelers salary cap situation simply doesn’t afford them that luxury. The Steelers gave Chris Hubbard an opportunity, he took full advantage of it, and he deserves to cash in. It won’t be in Pittsburgh, but that’s simply the way things work out.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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The Pro’s and Con’s of the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Every NFL personnel decision carries its own pro’s and con’s, and each choice a team makes comes with its own opportunity costs, especially in the salary cap era.

  • But the pro’s and con’s of the Steelers resigning Le’Veon Bell are perhaps a little more complex than others.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that the Pittsburgh Steelers have never faced a bigger, more consequential free agent decision than one that the now face with Le’Veon Bell. What will the Steelers do? What should they do? How will Bell react if the Steelers try to franchise him? Let’s take a look.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell 1st touchdown, Le'Veon Bell touchdown, pro's and con's of Steelers resigning Le'Veon Bell

Le’Veon Bell score his first touchdown in London, 2013. Photo Credit: Jamie McDonald, Getty Images, via CBS Local

Capsule Profile of Le’Veon Bell’s Steelers Career

Have the Steelers made a more ballyhood second round pick? Merril Hoge anointed Le’Veon Bell the best running back the draft as soon as Pittsburgh picked him. Later, Ed Bouchette labeled Le’Veon Bell’s first preseason game as “one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

To keep that in context, Bouchette had watched the preseason debuts of Steelers first round running backs Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie, Tim Worley and Rashard Mendenhall. This was hardly his first rodeo with a highly hyped rookie. Yet, Bouchette seemed to be going a little too far over the top.

  • Five years later, it is clear everyone should have listened more to Hoge and Bouchette and snickered less.

What’s all the more amazing even if this is true, it has NOT been all smooth sailing since then.

Le’Veon Bell suffered a lisfranc injury in the summer of 2013. Injuries kept Le’Veon Bell from 2014 post-season. Both 2015 and 2016 began with substance abuse suspensions, and he missed most of the rest of 2015 with another injury.

  • Then, in 2016 Bell dominated the NFL at a level the league has not seen in a generation.

In 2017 Le’Veon Bell logged his first injury and suspension free season, and while his production dipped, he clearly remains the NFL’s best running back.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

Just how important is Le’Veon Bell to the Pittsburgh Steelers offense? Number don’t lie:

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell rushing averages, Le'Veon Bell touches, Le'Veon Bell receptions

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

No disrespect to Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, but the Steelers offense really does revolve around Le’Veon’Bell. In contrast to 2016, in 2017 Ben Roethlisberger had weapons like Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald at his disposal, Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense still increased.

The number crunchers can make all of the arguments that they want about running backs, their declining productivity and lack of durability, but all of those meta statistics, while valid to a certain extent, miss a fundamental point:

  • Le’Veon Bell is a championship caliber player.

This is a man who broke the Steelers regular season in 2016 and then a few weeks later broke the post-season record in his first playoff experience, accomplishing something that John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis, Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, never did.

Player like this do not come along often. When you find one, you keep him.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Le’Veon Bell

By all accounts, the Steelers gave Le’Veon Bell an offer that would have paid him considerably more than the next highest paid running back and guaranteed close to 30 to 32 million dollars over its first 3 years.

  • Bell balked, leaving the Steelers (and his agent) at the altar.

Art Rooney II wants Le’Veon Bell to retire as a Steeler, but would he really go so far as to sweeten the pot beyond what the Steelers were offering a year ago? That’s simply not sound football sense.

Bell’s yards-per-carry dropped from 4.9 to just over 4.0 from 2016 to 2017. His longest run was only 27 yards, calling into question his ability to go the length of the field. He’s a year older and has another 400 touches – and hits – on his frame.

The Steelers could franchise Le’Veon Bell again, but that would wreak havoc with their salary cap, and there’s a real risk that Bell might sit out the season, acting as a martyr for his fellow running backs.

  • Aside from his injury history, Bell is one bong hit away from another suspension.

While James Conner isn’t, and shouldn’t be considered as a replacement, the Steelers could likely replace Bell with some combination of Conners, Stevan Ridley, a moderately priced free agent and a draft pick.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell

This is a tough call because the Steelers are to some degree into uncharted territory. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly franchise running backs appear to be a thing of the past in the NFL. This site has suggested that Le’Veon Bell might change that, and Bell demands he be paid like a franchise running back.

  • Yet, Bell’s decline in production from 2016 to 2017 undercuts his own argument.

Even if that’s true, Le’Veon Bell remains a championship caliber player by any measure. The types of plays he delivers game-in and game-out, are not the type of plays you can simply make up with a “Moneyball” type approach to building your running backs depth chart. The tweet below offers only one example of that:

Franching Le’Veon Bell for another year might a wise option in the abstract, but that would complicate the already tight salary cap position the Steelers already face.

One way or another, it seems like Le’Veon Bell will be with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, but this is one time when yours truly doesn’t envy the decision that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have to make.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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