Wither Ahkello? Yep. Steelers Cut Ahkello Witherspoon, Sign XFL “Stars”

An unexpected trade. Disappearance on the bench. An interception machine. Getting burned in Philly. Injury. And finally post draft dismissal.

Those 16 words sum up Ahkello Witherspoon’s career as a Pittsburgh Steeler, who cut him yesterday and gained 4 million dollars in salary cap space.

A.J. Brown, Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Eagles

A.J. Brown scores a touchdown over Ahkello Witherspoon. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Witherspoon’s waver marks the second post-draft disruption on the Steelers cornerback depth chart, with Arthur Maulet having requested and been granted his release. Prior to the draft, the Steelers lost cornerback Cam Sutton but replaced him with veteran Patrick Peterson.

During the 2023 NFL Draft the Steelers added Joey Porter Jr. in the 2nd round and Cory Trice in the seventh round.

So it appears that the decision to part ways with Witherspoon is as much numbers game as anything else.

By the time Kevin Colbert brought him to Pittsburgh, Witherspoon the former 3rd round pick was on his third team. He languished on the bench until week ten, before exploding with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defensed during the latter part of the season.

That was enough to earn Witherspoon a 2nd contract in Pittsburgh, but his second year did not go so smoothly. He started the first three games and even continued his ballhawking ways against Joe Burrow in the 2022 season-opening upset of the Bengals. Injuries kept him out through week’s four and 7 but he returned against the Eagles where A.J. Brown promptly burned him for one of Philly’s three touchdown passes.

Mike Tomlin benched him at half time during that game and Witherspoon never saw the field again for the Steelers.

  • And now he apparently never will.

In addition to Peterson and Porter, the Steelers will return veteran cornerbacks Levi Wallace and James Pierre. They also signed Minnesota veteran Chandon Sullivan during the draft.

Steelers Claim Jones, Sign XFL “Stars” Butler and Luq-Barcoo

Some of the money the Steelers are saving by cutting Witherspoon will go to the trio of players Pittsburgh picked up here in mid-May. First the claimed Manny Jones off of waviers after the Arizona Cardinals cut him.

  • Jones landed in Phoenix as an undrafted rookie free agent and appeared in 4 games in 2022.

The Steelers also signed XFL “stand outs” cornerback Luq Barcoo and wide receiver Hakeem Butler. Barco played for the XFL’s San Antonio Brahmas where had 1 interception and 31 tackles, which was enough for Pro Football Focus to grade him as the 2nd best tackle in the league.

Hakeem Butler comes from the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks, who posted 51 catches for 599 yards and eight touchdowns and his name will be familiar to Steelers fans with long memories. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert took a long look at Butler prior to the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers interest was so strong that pre-draft analyst Matt Williamson suggested the Steelers take Butler if Devin Bush was unavailable and Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell echoed similar sentiments.

Alas, Butler lasted until the Cardinals took him in the fourth round, but injuries wrecked his NFL career, limiting him to two appearances, both with the Eagles in 2020. Butler did have one catch for the CFL’s Edmonton Elks during 2022.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Running Back – Does Pittsburgh Have the Picks to Add Depth?

2022 was a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. For the first time since 2007, Mike Tomlin ran Willie Parker “Until the wheels fell off,” the Steelers rushed for over 2,000 yards.

That’s a dramatic improvement for a franchise that has struggled to run the ball consistently ever since James Conner got injured in the middle of the 2018 season.

Do the Steelers need to address running back in the 2023 NFL Draft to sustain that improvement? Let’s find out.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starter

In his rookie season Najee Harris became the first Steelers running back to crack the 1000 yard mark since Le’Veon Bell in 2017. In his sophomore season, Najee Harris became the first Steelers back to have back-to-back 1000 yard seasons since Bell’s ’17 campaign.

  • It wasn’t easy.

As a rookie, Harris ran behind a weak offensive line, but succeeded in running strong and, at times, making it look easy. Harris suffered a foot injury in training camp and the offensive line’s run blocking was subpar during the first half of the season.

Harris struggled through the first 8 weeks of the season. Many of his critics pounced, arguing that his mediocre rushing averages proved that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had erred in investing a first round pick in him in 2021.

But if his stat line failed to impress, for my money, Harris continued to pass the “eye test” early in the season. The fight was there, even if the blocking wasn’t, and it seemed obvious he was nursing an injury.

Like they did with nearly everyone else on the team, Steelers Nation saw a different Najee Harris after the bye week. Harris began running with authority and power, 6 of his seven touchdown, and logging 3 90 yard plus games, including 111 yard effort in the road win over the Ravens.

Perhaps most impressively, Harris earned his second straight 1000 yard season while playing nearly 20% fewer snaps than he had in 2021.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

The emergence of Jaylen Warren is the reason why Najee Harris was able to remain on the sidelines for close over 200 more snaps than he had has a rookie. Warren made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent, first earning a roster spot and then carving out a role as their third down back.

As a rookie, Jaylen Warren played in 31% of the Steelers offensive snaps, both on third downs and rotating in with Harris. He only ran for 379 yards with a season-high effort of 76 against the Ravens, but he proved himself to be a true number 2 running back.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Beyond Warren on the depth chart is Anthony McFarland. McFarland returns to the Steelers on a futures contract, after spending 2022 on the practice squad, save for his activation against the Colts. McFarland only ran for 30 yards in that game and caught 2 passes for 11 yards, but for the first time since the Steelers drafted him in 2020, he looked like he belonged in the NFL.

The Steelers also have Jason Huntley and Master Teague on their roster.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Running Back

As of this writing, both Derek Watt and Benny Snell remain unsigned. The Steelers may have seen enough from McFarland to pencil him in as the third string running back, but there’s no one on the roster remotely capable of taking Watt’s spot.

Ah, remember the good ole days of 2000, when the Steelers opened the season with fullbacks Jon Witman and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala on the active roster and Dan Kreider on the practice squad? Yeah, times change.

The Steelers need to beef up their depth at running back this off season, but lacking a 5th and 6th round pick, they’ll be hard-pressed to do it in the draft. Which is a shame because their need at running back going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Fair.

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What’s Going On? Steelers Sign of Armon Watts, Cut Jamir Jones Raising Questions about Depth

Most of the Steelers moves in free agency under Omar Khan thus far have been pretty easy to understand thus far. But this week has brought some head-scratchers.

Jamir Jones,

Jamir Jones in 2021. Photo Credit: USA Today via the Rams Wire.

Although it hasn’t been confirmed, the Steelers signed free agent defensive tackle Armon Watts. A few days later the Steelers announced that they had cut outside linebacker Jamir Jones, just a few weeks after extending an restricted free agent offer.

The Watts’ signing is a bit of a surprise, given that the Steelers have already signed Breiden Fehoko who is also a fellow defensive tackle. As Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, points out, this double dip on the part of the Steelers is understandable given that they’re basically replacing Chris Wormley and Tyson Alualu two free agents who won’t be back.

  • What’s more puzzling is the decision to cut Jamir Jones.

Jamir Jones was the only experienced outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. And if it’s true the Jones coming in to spell Watt and/or Highsmith for an extended period would have left opposing offensive coordinators licking their chops, he did play nearly 60% of special teams snaps.

  • Are the Steelers signaling that another free agent signing at outside linebacker is imminent?

Perhaps Pittsburgh’s about to come to terms with Bud Dupree? Time will tell.

Thus far Omar Khan has basically followed the path Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin blazed in free agency of shoring up depth in key areas to avoid a situation where they need to reach to fill a need.

He’s done this at cornerback by bringing in Patrick Peterson, at inside linebacker by signing Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts and at guard (and center) by signing Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig.

  • Moreover, these signings have come positions which can be cost-effectively addressed in free agency.

Still, it is a little peculiar that Omar Khan would sign two guards and two interior defensive lineman while leaving the cupboard bear behind the Steelers starters at outside linebacker and offensive tackle – even if those positions expensive to fill via free agency.

With that said, with experience playing for the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, Armon Watts has experience in 57 games, has made 22 starts in which he’s logged 8 sacks and forced 3 fumbles. Assuming he’s arriving in Pittsburgh at or near the veteran minimum he could be a good value signing.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Quarterback – Does Pittsburgh Pick a 3rd String QB?

Last year the Pittsburgh Steelers bucked the conventional wisdom that dominate the rest of the NFL: Namely that there were no first round worthy quarterbacks in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Looking no further than their own back yard, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin begged to differ and the Steelers used a first round pick on a quarterback for the first time since the 2004 NFL Draft.

The draft is almost upon us again – should the Steelers use one of their seven picks on a quarterback in 2023? Let’s take a look.

Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky, Steelers vs Seahawks

Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky during preseason. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

Quarterback was a clear need for the Steelers entering the 2022 NFL Draft. Yet, if you take Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their word, they never expected to get the one they wanted.

  • When Kenny Pickett fell to them at the 20th pick, they wasted little time in calling his name.

Yes, the franchise that passed on the chance to replace Terry Bradshaw with Pitt-star Dan Marino easily went all in on replacing Ben Roethlisberger with Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.

At first glance, Pickett’s rookie statistics appear quite pedestrian. His record as a starter was 7-5. One of those wins was the upset against the Buccaneers and one of those losses was against the Ravens at home. Both were games where Pickett couldn’t finish due to concussions.

During 2022 Pickett threw 389 passes, completed 245 of them for a 63% completion rate, while throwing 7 touchdowns an 9 interceptions.

  • Yes, those numbers look pedestrian indeed.

But there are also truths that aren’t self-evident in these stats. Only one of those 8 interceptions came before the bye week. And even during that pre-bye week stretch of starts, Pickett’s poise was always present in his play. As Craig Wolfey commented after the loss to the Dolphins, Pickett may have thrown two interceptions in the 4th quarter, but the game never looked too big for him.

And twice, late in the season playing under harsh AFC North winter conditions, Kenny Pickett rallied this team for victory in the 4th quarter, and he looked natural doing it.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backup

One of the Steelers first moves in free agency in the spring of 2022 was to sign Mitch Trubisky to a 2-year contract. As Mike Tomlin later explained, they moved to sign Trubsky to “prevent us from doing something stupid in the draft.”

(That’s a sound strategy, because when you reach, Jarvis Jones or Artie Burns happen.)

  • Extreme highs and extreme lows defined Trubisky’s tenure in 2022.

He looked “OK” in the season-opening upset of the Bengals, but couldn’t rally the team to a victory in a very winnable game against the Patriots. The offense struggled against the Browns and the Jets, which led to his benching, in favor of Pickett.

Yet Trubisky played exceptionally well against the Buccaneers, after Pickett got hurt. But Trubisky was horrible in relief against the Ravens.

But against the Carolina Panthers, with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren running strong, Trubisky did an exceptional job, completing 17 of 22 passes for an economic 179 yards and one touchdown. The kind of performance you’d like and expect to see out of your backup.

The Steelers 2023 Quarterback Draft Needs

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Much of the rest of the NFL might consider it quaint, but the Pittsburgh Steelers believe in carrying 3 quarterbacks. And the Mike Tomlin era has seen the Golden Age of Steelers third string quarterbacks, with Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, Landry Jones, Devlin Hodges all beginning seasons as third stringers, only to start meaningful games during the year.

Thus far Mason Rudolph remains unsigned and even if the Steelers are open to bringing him back, would he really wanted to serve as a third string quarterback?

We probably won’t know until after the draft.

The Steelers neither have a 5th nor 6th round pick and they are certainly not drafting a quarterback on day one or day two. Could the Steelers find a viable 3rd string quarterback with one of their 2 7th round picks.

  • Stranger things have happened.

With that said, the Steelers need at quarterback going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Fair.

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Khan Wins First Gamble: James Pierre Resigns with Steelers

Free agency isn’t quite (officially) a week old, yet Steelers General Manager Omar Khan has already won one of his gambles. Well, at least half of one.

Omar Khan moved the franchise out of its comfort zone a bit when he opted not to offer restricted free agent tenders to Steven Sims, James Pierre, J.C. Hassenauer and Jeremy McNichols. Under Kevin Colbert, Steelers policy was to tender their restricted free agents. Sure, there were cases like Stevenson Sylvester, but they were the exception, not the rule.

James Pierre, Donavan Peoples-Jones, Steelers vs Browns

James Peirre goes after a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

By opting not to offer them tenders all four men became unrestricted free agents, and were able to sign with any NFL team.

  • James Pierre drew no interest and signed with the Steelers yesterday.

Terms of James Pierre’s contract have not yet been released, but he figures to have signed for something at or close to the NFL veteran minimum, which would be $1.010 for someone of his level of experience.

$1.010 million dollars a year is a lot of money for anybody who is reading this, but it’s a lot less than $2.627 million that a right of first refusal free agent tender would have cost the Steelers.

The Steelers lost Cam Sutton on the first day of free agency but quickly moved to replace him with Patrick Peterson. At the moment Levi Wallace is the other starting cornerback for the Steelers. Ahkello Witherspoon is also on the roster and would seem to be Pierre’s competition for a playing time if not a roster spot itself.

Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood round out the Steelers cornerbacks, with Norwood functioning as a “Swiss Army Knife” like member of the secondary.

The Steelers are expected to use one of their premium picks in the 2023 NFL Draft to get a cornerback and Pierre’s return won’t change that. His presence could allow them to look comfortably elsewhere in later rounds.

Sims Watch is On

Khan’s gamble that he could make James Pierre an unrestricted free agent and get him back was a low-risk one, but a gable nonetheless. As mentioned earlier, the signings of Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo, probably mean that J.C. Hassenauer’s time in Pittsburgh has come to an end.

However, given the thinness of the Steelers depth cart at wide receiver behind Diontae Johnson and George Pickens, you would have to figure that the Steelers want Steven Sims back. We’ll see if Khan wins that gamble too.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Solution or Stopgap? Steelers Signings of Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts Symptoms of Struggles @ Inside Linebacker

One of the core achievements of the 2022 Steelers season was the improvement of the run defense. Just how bad was the Steelers run defense in 2021?

Consider this: The 2021 Steelers were 32nd against the run and that’s not even the most damning stat against them – you have to go back 1946 when Jock Sutherland’s team had a worse yards-per carry allowed average (it was 5.8 if you’re curious.)

In 2022 the Steelers run defense improved to 9th overall in the NFL and allowed 4.2 yards per carry as opposed to 5.0 yards per carry.

So of course one of Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin’s first personnel moves was to obliterate the Steelers inside linebacker depth chart up and start over.

In the course of two days the Steelers signed Cole Holcomb from Washington Elandon Roberts from Miami. As those gentleman were walking through the indoor, Robert Spillane and Devin Bush were taking their leave through the outdoor, while the Steelers shoved Myles Jack out the backdoor.

This is actually like one of those scenes in a sitcom where someone gets caught cheating on their spouse and says, “Oh, but this isn’t what it looks like.” And in a certain sense that’s correct, because upheaval at inside linebacker has become par for the course in Pittsburgh.

Najee Harris, Elandon Roberts, Steelers vs Dolphins.

Elandon Roberts (No. 52) lies on the turf as Najee Harris runs. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Ripple Effect from Shazier’s Injury Continues

Sometimes the truth hides in plain sight. In this case the Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo helped bring it to light.

Actually, he’s not going far enough. In addition to signing Myles Jack, Mark Barron and Jon Bostic in free agency, they also traded up to get Devin Bush, traded for Avery Williamson in addition to trading for Joe Schobert during preseason.

And, on some level at least, saying this amounts to apologizing for failure, but the blunt truth is that each of this moves counts a ripple stemming from the need to replace Ryan Shazier. So the question is, are Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts long term answers or are they just additional stopgaps?

The Steelers were expected to sign an inside linebacker in free agency. However, many of the top prospects came off of the board. The idea of the Steelers signing Tremaine Edmunds and getting Terrell Edmunds back on a package deal seems quaint in light of Termaine’s 72 million dollar contract.

It also stands to reason that the Steelers did hope to resign Robert Spillane. Spillaine after all was playing 100% of the snaps by year’s end and could have been a force for stability. But it is easy to see Omar Khan balking at guaranteeing 4 million dollars for Spillane the way the Raiders did.

  • So the Steelers turned to Cole Holcomb.

Cole Holcomb has played 4 years in Washington, appearing in 50 games and starting 48. His best year was 2021 when he made 142 tackles, registered 1 sack and had 2 interceptions. Stylistically, he’s been compared to Vince Williams, although Jim Wexell pointed out that Holcomb’s 40 time was 4.51 compared to Williams’ 4.76.

That quarter of a second difference can be a big deal when covering opposing running backs and tight ends, particularly close to the line of scrimmage.

Jon Bostic’s 40 time was 4.61 and the knock on him was that he was too slow to cover and therefore a liability on third down.

The Steelers signed Holcomb to a 3 year $18,000,000 with a 4.92 million dollar signing bonus as the only portion of the contract that is fully guaranteed. So in other words the Steelers can get out of this deal fairly easily if he doesn’t work out – just as they did with Myles Jack.

If the Steelers weren’t expecting Robert Spillane to leave, the decision to move on from Myles Jack wasn’t surprising. They’re replacing him with Elandon Roberts, a seven year veteran with 107 games under his belt including 76 starts.

He started as a 6th round draft pick for the New England Patriots in 2016, when Brian Flores was their linebackers coach. Flores brought him to Miami in 2019. Roberts is known as a “thumper” who excels in playing against the run.

Elandon Roberts signed a 2-year 7 million dollar contract with 2.33 million fully guaranteed. So its possible that Mark Robinson pushes him for playing time and certainly a deal the Steelers can walk away from next spring.

So are Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts the answer for the Steelers at inside linebacker or just two more stop gaps?

  • Looking at their pedigree and their contracts, the smart money would say they’re stop gaps.

But you never know. In the 2006 off season, coming off Super Bowl XL, Kevin Colbert signed as free agent safety and then invested a 2nd round pick in Anthony Smith in the 2006 NFL Draft. Clearly the free agent was brought to Pittsburgh as a bridge player.

Except he wasn’t.

By the time he left Pittsburgh in the spring of 2014, he’d made 11 interceptions in the regular season while forcing 2 fumbles and logging another interception in the post season. If you’ve forgotten him, his name was Ryan Clark.

So while its unlikely that neither Cole Holcomb nor Elandon Roberts is the next Ryan Shazier, if one of them turns out to be the next Ryan Clark it will have been a very produtive week in franchise history.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

 

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No Beating Around the Bush: Steelers, Devin Bush to Part Ways via Free Agency

When it comes to free agency, Mike Tomlin has as saying: “Its free for them and its free for us.”

The saying has many take aways, but one of those is that free agency is as much about giving players a chance to search for better opportunities as it is about teams searching for better players. It also gives teams chance to clean their slates, so to speak.

When it comes to Devin Bush reaching free agency, both of those factors will be in play.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Happier Times: Rookie Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Devin Bush’s Career with the Steelers

Desperate to fill the hole created by Ryan Shazier’s injury, Devin Bush arrived in Pittsburgh as Kevin Colbert traded up to get him with the 10th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

  • As a rookie, Devin Bush delivered.

He was a dynamic, explosive player who played 82% of the defensive snaps, while making 1 interception, 2 sacks, forcing 1 fumble, recovering 4 fumbles including one returned for a touchdown. But Bush didn’t just make those “Splash Plays.” He showed a knack for making them at opportune times.

Devin Bush started his sophomore season in similar fashion, splitting two sacks with other defenders and batting away 4 passes before tearing his ACL in the Steelers home win over the Browns.

Although his 2021 snap count clocked in at just below 80%, the splash plays disappeared. Moreover, his tackle count dropped from 109 as a rookie to 70. Bush’s play stabilized under Brian Flores, but by the end of the season he was playing behind not only Robert Spillane but also rookie Mark Robinson.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Devin Bush

Devin Bush knows the system and his failure to live up to his ballyhooed draft position actually works for the Steelers here. No one is going to throw money at Devin Bush so the Steelers can extend him an offer more or less at their leisure and keep a known commodity in Pittsburgh

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Devin Bush

The rational for paying such a heavy price to get Devin Bush was that he was the type of player who could replace Shazier and shore up the defense sufficiently to give the Steelers one final shot at a Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger.

Whether it’s because of his injuries or because his rookie year was just a flash in the pan, Devin Bush didn’t deliver.

It is time for the Steelers to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Devin Bush

This is where, “Its free for us and free for them” kicks in. Two generations ago a team would draft a player like Bush, a player whose career fell somewhere on the continuum between “Total Bust” and “Clear disappointment ” and be stuck with him for the better part of a decade.

That’s not true anymore. Devin Bush is a bust and the Steelers can move on from Bush and clean their slate, and Bush can seek a new beginning. Expect both sides to do exactly that.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Watt’s a Fullback Worth? Ideally, the Steelers Would Resign Derek Watt. But the World Ain’t Ideal

Believe it or not, but the fullback was once the lifeblood of the Steelers offense. Franchise greats such as Franco Harris and Merril Hoge as well as disappointments such as Walter Abercrombie all played fullback in Chuck Noll and Tom Moore’s offense.

Ron Erhardt’s offense sharply curtailed the fullback’s carries and shifted his focus to blocking. And that’s where it remained for the balance of the 90’s. During the 21st century the role of the fullback faded both in Pittsburgh and the rest of the NFL.

Yet the Steelers went back to their roots in 2020 when they signed Derek Watt to a 3 year contract. That contract is up and he’s now about to be a free agent again. Should the Steelers keep in in Pittsburgh?

Derek Watt, Steelers vs Eagles

Derek Watt catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Derek Watt Career with the Steelers

Here’s a good test. True or False: “In 2022, Matt Canada greatly expanded Derek Watt’s role in the Steelers offense.” Raise your hand if you answer “True.” I raised my hand.

  • But I shouldn’t have.

The Steelers brought Derek Watt to Pittsburgh in the spring of 2020 and then proceeded to play Watt in 52 or 6% of offensive snaps. The transition from Randy Fitchner to Matt Canada only increased Watt’s snap percentage by 1%. And Watt’s snap count remained at 7% in 2022.

What did change was that in 2022 Derek Watt actually started getting the ball. No, Watt’s carry count didn’t break double digits, but his 9 carries is the highest number of carries by a Steelers fullback since Tim Lester’s 8 carry season in 1996. (As Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala did line up as a fullback at times, you could argue the point.)

  • And while 9 carries might seem insignificant 8 of those carries converted a 3rd or a 4th down.

Perhaps more importantly, Derek Watt has been a vital part of the Steelers special teams throughout his time in Pittsburgh, logging almost 2/3s of special team snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Derek Watt

For all the focus on passing and building up Fantasy Football stats, in the NFL games are still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. In Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, and a growing offensive line, the Steelers have the foundation for a winning rushing attack.

Derek Watt gives you the physicality to push that rushing attack over the top. He also provides special teams consistency.

Oh, and to those who argue that his short yardage success is just a “nice to have,” the Steelers were 7-1 in games when Derek Watt got a carry. Just Sayin….

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Derek Watt

Fullbacks have authored some of the most glorious moments of the Steelers past. Fullbacks form a fundamental part of the franchise’s legacy.

And that’s the point. They’re part of the franchise’s legacy, not its future. Yes, there still is a place for fullbacks in NFL – for now – but the Steelers have paid Derek Watt just under 10 million dollars over the last three years to touch the ball 19 times and make 28 special teams tackles.

Surely Omar Khan can find some combination of veteran minimum salary players and/or undrafted rookie free agents to do the same for a faction of the salary cap space. Can’t he?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Derek Watt

This is a tough nut to crack. The old school Generation X Steelers fan in me screams, “Bring him back! You never appreciate what a fullback can do until you don’t have one!”

Watt Bowl, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. and Derek prevailed over JJ in the Watt Bowl

And even if you can’t make sentimental personnel decisions, Mike Tomlin is right when he says “You can never have enough Watts.” Which is a way of saying that Derek Watt brings a lot more value to the team than his numbers suggest.

But does that value justify 3.3 million in salary cap space per year?

  • The change in front office is another factor to consider.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert worked extremely well together. In business terms you’d say, “Coaching achieved alignment with the Front Office.” But there are times when the two were been out of step. See Max Starks‘ career arc for an example.

  • Its been suggested that Derek Watt this could be another example of this.

If it is, then will Omar Khan back Derek Watt the way Kevin Colbert backed Max Starks? Or will he be differential to the coaching staff?

At the end of the day, Derek Watt is a good player. He isn’t as dynamic as T.J. Watt is on the field, but like his brother his brings the kind of character to locker rooms that helps you win Super Bowls. The Steelers should keep in Pittsburgh, but only at the right price.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Cost, Benefit: Steelers Can’t Afford to Lose or Overpay Larry Ogunjobi in Free Agency

Street free agents are the NFL’s bottom feeders. As the name implies, they’re literally NFL veterans that teams sign off of the streets because no one else wants them.

Street free agents were Kevin Colbert’s secret weapon. Time and time again, an emergency would create a need for a starter and he’d find guys like Fernando Velasco or Flozell Adams stepped in and immediately began contributing.

Larry Ogunjobi was Omar Khan’s first street free agent signing, arriving in Pittsburgh by virtue of Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. There’s no question that Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defense a shot in the arm. Was that shot effective enough to keep him in Pittsburgh?

Larry Ogunjobi, Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Bucaneers

Larry Ogunjobi stuffs Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Larry Ogunjobi’s Career with the Steelers

Sometimes statistics are simply insufficient to measure a player’s performance. Case in point Larry Ogunjobi’s 2022 campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He made 48 tackles, 7 of which were for losses and registered 1.5 sacks. In 2021 while playing for the Cincinnati Bengals he made 49 tackles, had 7 sacks and 10 tackles for losses.

  • In both season Larry Ogunjobi started 16 games. Seems pretty ominous, doesn’t it?

Now consider this. In 2021 the Steelers defense ranked 32 against the run. Beyond being dead last in the NFL, you have go back to the 1940’s to find a worse Steelers run defense. Larry Ogunjobi isn’t the sole reason for that change, having Myles Jack behind him and Brian Flores wearing the coaching headset helped, but Ogunjobi played a big part.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Larry Ogunjobi

In Cam Heyward the Steelers have an All Pro defensive lineman who, quite frankly should probably get Hall of Fame consideration (but probably won’t.) And we saw in 2021 that Cam can’t do it alone.

With Larry Ogunjobi in the line up, Heyward continued to dominate AND the line was an asset to a defense on the rise instead being a glaring liability. Although defensive lineman come at a premium in free agency, Ogunjobi lack of “splash” plays should make him affordable.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Larry Ogunjobi

Last year when Larry Ogunjobi became a free agent the Chicago Bears wasted little time in offering him a 40 million dollars over 3 years. But Chicago backed out of that deal just as quickly when Ogunjobi failed a physical.

  • While Ogunjobi only missed one game for the Steelers, his name was a permeant fixture on the injury report.

While its unlikely that any team will offer him the type of money that the Bears did last year, resigning Larry Ogunjobi will require several million dollars in guarantees and an average salary that’s likely trending towards 8 figures.

Meanwhile, the Steelers have DeMarvin Leal on a rookie deal, will likely draft a defensive lineman with one of their top three picks and can add  a “veteran whose ideal to be the first guy off the bench” defensive lineman similar to what they did in 2017 when they signed Tyson Alualu.

They can do all of that for less than what it would likely take to resign Larry Ogunjobi.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Larry Ogunjobi

What happens with Larry Ogunjobi will be one of the more interesting off season questions. Even if the Steelers projects DeMarvin Leal as starter going into 2023 depth on the defensive line is perilously thin.

That means that letting Larry Ogunjobi walk all but commits the Steelers to using one of their top three picks on a defensive lineman – they may want to do this anyway, but his absence could force them to reach.

Despite his injury history, the Steelers still had to pay him 8,000,000 dollars last year. If he’s willing to come back for something in that range, the it make sense to do that deal. If he’s looking for the kind of payday Chicago offered them then the Steelers should take a pass.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Time for a Clean Slate: Steelers QB Mason Rudolph Reaches Free Agency

Who is the most popular player on the Steelers roster? Well, for 20 years the answer never changed – it was always the backup quarterback. Whether it was David Woodley, Jim Miller or Pete Gonzalez, Steelers fans were always convinced themselves that QB Number 2 was the next Terry Bradshaw.

Mason Rudolph never enjoyed such a honeymoon. Now that he’s about to hit free agency, it is time to take a look at whether he should or will stay in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the pick they obtained from trading Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders. The decision was described as a “compromise pick” as we learned that the front office had put a “first round grade” on Rudolph.

That was all academic for a year as Mason Rudolph held the third string QB’s clipboard during all of 2018. In 2019 Josh Dobbs departed and Mason ascended to the backup role where everyone figured he’d stay, after all it had been 2 years since Ben Roethlisberger missed a full game right?

Wrong. Six quarters into the season against the Seattle Seahawks, Roethlisberger left the game with a season ending elbow injury, and Mason Rudolph’s roller coaster ride began.

To the naked eye, Rudolph played well enough in losses to the Seahawks and 49ers, but perhaps its telling that coaches had to install a Wild Cat offense for his first home start and win against the Bengals. A week later without the Wild Cat, Rudolph was authoring his best game ever against the Ravens when Earl Thomas knocked him from the game with a concussion.

The roller coaster ride began anew. Rudolph shifted from shaky to stable in his return against Miami, steady against Indy, strong against the Rams – and then Myles Garrett assaulted him with his own helmet in the infamous Body Bag Game.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro

Even prior to this pivotal moment, Mason Rudolph had shown alot of fight in 2019.

The incident shook Rudolph, whose play was shaky prompting Mike Tomlin to bench him for Devlin Hodges week later. Rudolph did look better coming off the bench against the Jets, but got injured and was done for the year. Rudolph started the season finale in 2020 and lost while looking good, and looked “OK” in starting in the overtime tie to the Lions.

In 2022 Mason Rudolph entered training camp as the back up to Mitch Trubisky, but got beat out by Kenny Pickett and outside of Carolina Panthers game, Mason Rudolph spent last season the way he spent his first – holding a clipboard in street clothes.

After 5 years in Pittsburgh, Mason Rudolph appeared in 17 games, holds a 5-4-1 record as a starter, threw 384 passes for 2,366 yards with a 61.5% completion rate and 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Every championship team needs a strong backup quarterback.

Just look at how Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch stepped in in 2005 and 2008. Mason Rudolph’s body of work isn’t that extensive. While he hasn’t shown himself to be worthy of a starter’s slot, he does project as a competent backup.

He knows the Steelers culture and system. He was never embraced or mentored or seemingly even befriended by Ben Roethlisberger. He was benched for a guy name “Duck.” He didn’t get his fair share of reps in the summer that was to be his one real shot at the starting job.

Yet, through all of it, Mason Rudolph has never complained. He’s been a loyal teammate and a positive force in the locker room – just what you’d want in a backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Steelers had a “first round grade” on Rudolph, yet picked him with an extra third round choice in a decision that was termed a “compromise.”

Consider these names:

Those are all quarterbacks that the Steelers brought to Pittsburgh after seeing Mason Rudolph’s 10 game audition in 2019. Now stir in the fact that in the summer of 2022, Rudolph neither got a fair shot at the starting job nor did he get a shot at QB No. 2.

That should tell you that Mike Tomlin was never sold on drafting Mason Rudolph and Rudolph hasn’t changes his opinion since arriving in Pittsburgh. The Steelers already have Trubisky under contract for 2023, has Mason given them any reason to tear that contract up, eat the dead money and offer him a deal to stay?

No. He has not.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

has said the Steelers have left the door open for Rudolph’s return, which is the smart move. But let’s close this conversation by turning it on its head: Is there any reason why Mason Rudolph would want to stay in Pittsburgh?

The fans never gave him a chance, even if his numbers, arguably, were better than Pickett’s. His head coach clearly doesn’t see him as starter material and didn’t even give him a shot as a backup. No NFL team is going to throw starter money at Mason Rudolph.

But Rudolph has done enough to earn both a competitive backup deal and something else more highly prized: A clean slate.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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