Steelers Shuffle @ Strong Safety Continues as Eagles Sign Terrell Edmunds

The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost free agent Terrell Edmunds to the Eagles, as their 2018 first round draft pick signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia.

Given that the Steelers and Andy Weidl have signed Guard Isaac Seumalo and tackle Le’Raven Clark away from the Eagles and as well as Nate Herbig, who is also a former Eagle, the tempting headline might be, “Eagles claw back, sign Terrell Edmunds from the Steelers.”

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

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

While that might be accurate and attention catching, the real story here behind Terrell Edmunds departure is that the Steelers shuffle at strong safety continues. Sure, the Steelers resigned Damontae Kazee. But Kazee’s 2-year, team-friendly deal shows that neither Omar Khan nor Mike Tomlin think he’s the long term answer at strong safety.

No one has been for the last ten years when the Steelers quest to fill this critical position began.

  • In 2013 the Steelers traded up for Shamarko Thomas, hopping he was Troy Poamalu’s successor – Thomas started 2 games
  • Will Allen served as the stopgap safety in 2015, following Polamlau’s retirement
  • In 2016 the Steelers drafted Sean Davis, who started for two years
  • In 2018 the Steelers signed Morgan Burnett and drafted Terrell Edmunds. Burnett was one and done.

The short hand version of this story would read, “The Steelers had suffered a succession of busts at strong safety since Troy Polamalu retired.” That’s the superficial conclusion, the quick conclusion but also the wrong one.

Yes, Shamarko Thomas was a bust. The Steelers smashed franchise precedent in trading up to get him, and he was a disaster.* Will Allen was probably one of the unsung free agent signings of the Colbert-Tomlin era, and played pretty well for a 33 year old safety in 2015.

Sean Davis had a spectacular rookie year, and he really played well during the first half of his second year. Of course the second half was a different story, but whose play didn’t decline after the injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier?

Morgan Burnett, like the rest of the 2018 Steelers defense started to come on at the end of the year – it was Burnett who batted away Tom Brady’s final pass in the Steelers upset of the Patriots. But Burnett couldn’t beat out the rookie first round pick Edmunds, and wanted out of Pittsburgh so Mike Tomlin let him go.

  • And of course, many fans will always consider Terrell Edmunds “A bust.”

That’s simply wrong. Terrell Edmunds started 75 of the 79 games he appeared in. And if he was never a superstar in a defense that was on the rebound, he was always a force for stability. Yet in those five seasons, only picked off 5 passes, sacked the quarterback 5 times, recovered 1 fumble but never forced one. That’s 11 “Splash plays” out of 4,897 snaps on defense.

So his “Splash Play Percentage” was a mere 0.22%.

Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

As Jim Wexell, (who compiled those numbers above – although the “Splash Play Percentage” is my own creation) observed, “He’s the strong safety. Should we review the playmaking numbers of the strong safeties who’ve played in Super Bowls for the Steelers? … you can look up the numbers for Mike Wagner, Donnie Shell, Carnell Lake and Troy Polamalu.”

Well, I have.

  • Mike Wagner had 36 interceptions and 4 sacks in 116 starts for the Steelers
  • Donnie Shell had 51 interceptions and 9.5 sacks in 162 starts for the Steelers
  • Carnell Lake had 16 interceptions, 21.5 sacks and 15 forced fumbles in 154 sacks for the Steelers
  • Troy Polamalu had 32 interceptions, 12 sacks, 14 forced fumbles in 142 starts for the Steelers

In that light, Terrell Edmunds’ stats look similar to those of Lee Flowers, who had 4 interceptions in 75 starts with the Steelers. But even Lee Flowers, who didn’t have Edmunds’ athletic ability, had 12 sacks, 8 forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries. in 75 starts with the Steelers had 4 interceptions and 12 sacks.

In 2022 as well as in 2023 I wrote free agent profiles on Terrell Edmunds arguing that while, he wasn’t a superstar, he was “good enough” to deserve a second contract.

  • Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan obviously disagree.

After comparing Edmunds’ stats to his predecessors, I don’t know that I can disagree with them.

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

*Here’s morsel for Steelers trivia buffs: After the Steelers drafted him, Carnell Lake commented that had Thomas been 2 inches taller, he might have been a first rounder. When Lake said the same thing 2 years later after they drafted Senquez Golson, I almost wonder if he was dooming the kid. Maybe he did….

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Omar Khan’s Right: Steelers Must Resign Cam Sutton. But Can They Keep the Cornerback in Pittsburgh?

I was fortunate enough to be in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1989 when Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My mom happened to be walking through the room when they were finishing a news segment on the ceremonies and asked, “What? Were Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount BOTH quarterbacks?”

“No mom, Terry Bradshaw was the ‘quarterback,’ Mel Blount was a ‘cornerback’” I explained.

It is easy to see how the casual listener could confuse “quarterback” and “cornerback.” And while “cornerback” might not be as hard to play as “quarterback,” good cornerbacks can be pretty damn hard to find.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t had a lot of success in finding cornerbacks via the NFL Draft.

They found one in Cam Sutton who is now set to become a free agent for the second time. Has he done enough for the Steelers to give him a third contract?

Cam Sutton, Mark Andrews, Steelers vs Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger final regular season game

Cam Sutton intercepts a pass to Mark Andrews. Photo Credit: Ravens.com

Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton Career with the Steelers

Some players simply take time to develop. Cam Sutton is one of them as the Steelers drafted him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft yet didn’t see him become a full time starter until 2021.

  • But if you’re thinking that Cam Sutton looked like a disappointment in that interregnum you’re wrong.

The Steelers activated Sutton going into the 2017 road game against Cincinnati to bolster a secondary that was reeling without Joe Haden and with Artie Burns struggling. How much Sutton contributed is open to question as the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier that night, sending the defense into an total tailspin.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

For the next three seasons, Cam Sutton appeared in all but one game, playing extensively on special teams and working in as a slot cornerback.

  • At a glance, Sutton’s numbers from those three years fail to impress.

However, Sutton showed and ability to make plays at pivotal such as his interception which stopped a Browns drive and forced overtime in the ’18 opener. Or his on-sides kick recovery AND interception all within 37 seconds to  end a Charger’s rally in 2019 or his interception that helped the Steelers go up 24 to zero against the Browns in 2020.

When the Steelers entered salary cap hell thanks to COVID, one of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s first moves was to cut Steven Nelson and resign Cam Sutton, and he’s started 31 of a possible 34 games since then.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton

The Steelers have invested heavily in Cam Sutton’s development who has made steady improvement since his rookie year. In 2022 he made 3 interceptions and defended a record 15 passes. Is this some guy you want to let walk? The Steelers have struggled to draft and develop cornerbacks but Cam Sutton is a success story here.

10 years ago the Steelers saw Keenan Lewis develop slowly until finally establishing himself as a starter. But the Steelers let Lewis walk due salary cap complications and because they believed that they had Cortez Allen waiting in the wings.

  • Lewis walked and Allen floundered settling the franchise back immeasurably.

Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan must not make the same mistake with Sutton.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton

Yes, Cam Sutton is a good cornerback. But is he a great one? More importantly, does he deserve to be paid like one? According to Over the Cap Cam Sutton’s annual salary ranked him as 48th in the NFL last year.

A third contract will almost certainly need to put him in the top 32. They average about 7 million dollars a year in salary, 31 million in contract guarantees and 24 million in total guaranteed money.

Are you really ready to double Cam Sutton’s salary and guarantee him an 8 figure sum?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Cam Sutton

Omar Khan said “We love and think very highly of Cam,” and indicated that negotiations have already started. Good. Because resigning Cam Sutton should be the Pittsburgh Steelers number one free agent priority in 2023. Sutton’s not a super star. He’s not a “shut down corner.” He’ll never be one. But he is a solid number 2 cornerback.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell compared him to Deshea Townsend. Townsend was another mid-round cornerback who took 4 or 5 season to work himself into a starting job as the number two corner. From there he helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • The only real question mark here is Omar Khan.

Khan was decisive in getting extensions inked with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell last summer and then got creative with Diontae Johnson. He could have done the same with Sutton, but declined. He says he wants him back, and when Kevin Colbert made similar statements the player returned.

So let’s see if Khan follows suit.

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 Free Agent Tracker

The Steelers 2023 off season is about to kick into high gear. The Scouting Combine is this week and free agency is only a few weeks away.

And this will be the first time Mike Tomlin has navigated the free agent waters without Kevin Colbert. General Manager Omar Khan and Assistant General Manager Andy Weidl will now work with Tomlin to guide the Steelers through the first off season of the Kenny Pickett Era.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

Although the Steelers salary cap situation is generally considered to be healthy, Omar Khan will certainly need to make moves to allow the Steelers to maneuver.

And maneuver they will need to do, as Pittsburgh has 23 free agents to make decisions on this spring.

Here is a look at the lay of the land before the chess pieces begin to move.

Click on the highlighted names for a full profile of each Steelers free agent.

Steelers 2023 Free Agent Signings

Christian Kuntz, long snapper
Signed 1 year exclusive rights free agent tender 2/23/2023
Jamir Jones, Outside linebacker
As an exclusive rights free agent, signed one year deal on 2/27/2023
Patrick Patterson, Cornerback
Signs 2 year 14 million dollar contract with $5.85 million in guarantees on 3/13/2023
Larry Ogunjobi, Defensive Tackle
Signs 3 year 28 million dollar contract on 3/14/2023
Damontae Kazee, Safety
Signs 2 year contract on 3/14/2023
Nate Herbig, Guard
Signs 2 year contract on 3/14/2023
Cole Holcomb, Inside Linebacker
Signs 3 year contract on 3/15/2023
Elandon Roberts, Inside Linebacker
Signs 2 year contract on 3/16/2023
Isaac Seumalo, Guard
Signs 3 year contract on 3/18/2023
James Pierre, Cornerback
Signs 1 year contract on 3/22/2023
Le’Raven Clark, Offensive Tackle
Signs 1 year contract on 3/24/2023
Zach Gentry, Tight End
Resigns with Steelers on 3/25/2023 — signing not confirmed 1 week later
Keanu Neal, Strong Safety
Signs 2 year contract with Steeles on 3/30/2023
Breiden Fehoko, Nose Tackle
Signs 1 year contract on 3/30/2023

Steelers 2023 Free Agent Losses

Cam Sutton, Cornerback
Signs 3 year contract with the Detroit Lions, for 33 million dollars in change and 22 million in guarantees
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker
Signs 2 year contract with Las Vegas Raiders
Devin Bush, Inside Linebacker
Signs 1 year contract with Seattle Seahawks
Malik Reed, Outside Linebacker
Signs 1 year contract with the Miami Dolphins
Terrell Edmunds, Strong Safety
Signs 1 year contract with Philadelphia Eagles
Trent Scott, Right Tackle
Signs 1 year contract with Washington Commanders
Steven Sims, Wide Receiver
Signs 1 year contract with Houston Texans
J.C. Hassenauer, Center/Guard
Signs 1 year contract with New York Giants

Restricted Free Agents

Jeremy McNichols, Running Back

Unrestricted Free Agents

Mason Rudolph, Quarterback,
Derek Watt, Fullback
Benny Snell Jr., Running Back

Chris Wormley, Defensive End
Miles Boykin, Wide Receiver
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle
Karl Joseph, Safety
Marcus Allen, Inside Linebacker

Yeah, Omar Khan certainly has his work cut out for him. Steel Curtain Rising will be here to cover it all, adding capsule profiles as they’re ready and updating signings as they occur.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Teacher’s Late! (Again): Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Season Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who waited until the last day before summer to get his grades in, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 season.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 7-5 completed 63% of his passes 2404 yards for 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Pickett progressed following the bye, getting stronger each week and leading 3 come from behind wins. Taken alone his work was “Good.” However, Mitch Trubisky performed poorly as a starter early in the season and, although he did well in relief against Tampa Bay and Carolina, his interceptions against Baltimore cost the Steelers both the game and the playoffs. This brings the grade down. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
2022 marks a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. Najee Harris worked through early injuries to earn 1054 yards. Jaylen Warren’s 379 yards might seem pedestrian, but his role as a third down and rotational back saved Harris 71 touches. Beyond the numbers, the duo ran both harder, smarter and with more authority as the year progressed, forcing piles forward. Derek Watt got into the act with 8 first down runs. Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland delivered when their number was called. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth continued to build on his role as a “go to” target in critical moments. Zach Gentry was steady as a number 2 tight end. Connor Heyward only had his number called a handful of times, but he answered each of them. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

Diontae Johnson lead the unit with 86 catches followed by rookie George Pickens by 52. After that there’s a steep drop to Chase Claypool who wasn’t even on the team for the last nine games. Steven Sims functioned as the 3rd wide receiver  Gunner Olszewski making cameo appearances. Much has been made of the lack of explosive plays and dearth of touchdowns from this group, but that’s largely not their fault. They executed well in the ball-control focused offense during the season’s 2nd half, and answered with clutch plays time-and-time again on game winning drives. Grade: B

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The offensive line turned a corner in 2022. By the end of 2019 it was a liability and it struggled for the next two seasons. It started slowly in 2022 but improved as the season progressed. Pass protection must continue to improve, but run blocking was an asset late in the year. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had another monster year and is the team’s undisputed leader on and off the field. Larry Ogunjobi’s stat sheet won’t make Fantasy Football owners salivate, but he was a tremendous asset in stopping the run. Montravius Adams was solid in the middle. Grade: A-

Linebackers
The evolution of Alex Highsmith has a pass-rushing, edge-setting outside linebacker was the biggest story of the year. Highsmith had 14.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses. Myles Jack stabilized the center of the field leading the team in sacks. Devin Bush’s play was stable at the beginning of the year, but fell out of favor due to rookie Mark Robinson’s development. T.J. Watt missed half of the year and took time get back to full strength, but his return boosted the entire defense. Grade: B+

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Secondary
Ball Hawking. That was the Steelers secondary’s calling card in 2022. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit with 6 interceptions, followed by Levi Wallace’s 4, Cam Sutton’s 3, Damontae Kazee’s 2, while Ahkello Witherspoon, Arthur Maulet and James Pierre all had 1. Overall, the defense was 16th on third down efficiency and struggled when matched with high power passing offenses like the Bengals, Bills and Eagles. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Danny Smith’s special teams had an up and down year. Chris Boswell was solid, until suffering an injury and then had his difficulties. Matthew Wright was excellent in relief. Steven Simms added dynamism to the kick return game, but he did fumble three times. The Steelers coverage teams also began giving up long returns late in the year. Pressley Harvin was a bit erratic early in the year, but settled down as time wore on and did a good job of pinning teams down inside the 20. Grade: B-

Coaching
Have Steelers fans vilified any other offensive coordinator more than Matt Canada? Probably Joe Walton, if you control for the absence of social media. But at least Joe Walton deserved it. Matt Canada? Not so much.

The Steelers offense began 2022 worse than it was in 2021 thanks to the absence of a franchise quarterback and overall lack of experience. Execution errors rather than schemes or play calling strategies drove many, if not most, of the Steelers early offensive woes.

  • As the offense gained experience they eliminated the errors and victories followed.

Yes, the Steelers still need a more aggressive, effective downfield passing game – but that’s largely not a product of play calling. The Steelers certainly do need to execute better in the Red Zone. But as games against Carolina and Cleveland confirmed, Canada’s cocktail of long, ball-controlling drives that end with touchdowns is lethal.

Teryl Austin, with a strong assist from  the recently departed Brian Flores turned a Steelers defense around that was headed in the wrong direction. True, the defense was a different unit with T.J. Watt in the line up. But Dick LeBeau’s defenses were far superior when Troy Polamalu was playing. While the Steelers defense wasn’t tested against an elite passer following the bye week, they were stout against the run down the stretch.

  • That brings us to Mike Tomlin.

For the second time since his arrival in 2007, his team opened the season 2-6. And as he did in 2013, Mike Tomlin turned it around and had his team in the hunt for a playoff spot until the waning moments if their final game.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

In terms of X’s and O’s Tomlin accomplished this by refusing to given into knee jerk reactions or drop into coaching by crisis mode. In terms of managing people, Tomlin convinced his locker room to believe in the Steelers Way and ultimately themselves. Grade: A

Front Office
In his final spring on the job Kevin Colbert enjoyed record amounts of salary cap space and succeeded in using it to bolster the Steelers offensive lines an interior defense. It is way, way too early to evaluate Kevin Colbert’s final NFL Draft class, but the early returns are extremely positive.

Omar Khan took over the helm in June and Kahn’s first act was to sign Larry Ogunjobi in response to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. Kahn’s next moves were to ink extensions for Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson, moves he made early in the summer, eliminating potential distractions. And Khan moved Chase Claypool for a 2nd round pick, a move that looks like an absolute coup today. Grade: A-

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
He started out 2019 as a Tennessee Titan cast off who’d bounce on and off the roster and practice squad multiple times. He began 2020 as the one player the Steelers could absolutely NOT afford to see play. Then injuries forced him in and although he delivered, during the summer of 2021 the Steelers still made a trade to shore up his position. So he began 2022 as a rotational starter, playing roughly 1/3 of the snaps.

That snap percentage jumped to 80% during the seven-game winning streak the Steelers authored to close the 2022 season and leapt to a perfect 100% in the final four games, which saw the Steelers get better week-by-week. Coincidence? I don’t think so either which is why Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award honors for  Steelers 2022 season.

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