Coty Sensabaugh’s First Start Can Validate the Steelers Free Agency Strategy

If you’re a long-time (or even short-time) Steelers fan, you no doubt are well-aware of their tradition of not making huge splash signings during the heart of the free agency frenzy every March.

While the acquisition of highly-accomplished cornerback Joe Haden may have been a departure from how Pittsburgh had conducted its business in the past, that signing was a little fluky, as it occurred just before the start of the season, and was only made possible after Haden was released by the Browns.

  • The unusual Haden signing, aside, it was business as usual for the Steelers last spring, as they set out to underwhelm their fans by not “winning” in free agency.

The outside free agents Pittsburgh inked last spring included receiver Justin Hunter, defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, running back/return specialist Knile Davis and journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh

  • Instead of difference-makers, these players were brought in as a means to fortify the roster and add quality depth.

But who cares about depth during free agency, right? As a fan, you want the adrenaline rush of that buzz-worthy deal that becomes the headline story on Sportscenter.

Coty Sensabaugh, Coty Sensabaughs first start, Marion Mack, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Titans,

Marion Mack tries to leap over Coty Sensabaugh in Steelers win over Colts. Photo Credit: AP, Sharon Herald

You want Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith (no matter how much you might loathe both) loudly proclaiming that your team will be next February’s Super Bowl champion based on what it just did this March.

Again, while other teams made moves that captured the headlines and drew bold proclamations from the national talking heads, the Steelers had their own, quiet little vision in-mind.

  • Here we are, nine games into the 2017 season, and Tyson Alualu, for example, has already made a huge impact on the team.

Tyson Alualu has not only been a regular part of the Steelers defensive line rotation, and a noticeable upgrade over the likes of former reserves, Cam Thomas and Ricardo Mathews, he’s had to start four games so far due to multiple injuries suffered by budding star Stephon Tuitt.

  • In-fact, Tyson Alualu was launched to the top of the depth chart almost immediately, when Tuitt tore his biceps just two plays into Pittsburgh’s Week 1 match-up against the Browns.

While Alualu hasn’t posted impressive numbers in the eight games he’s played in 2017 (14 tackles and two sacks), he’s been far from a weak-link–and he did sack Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on a critical fourth and goal play late in the Steelers exciting 20-15 victory in Week 8.

  • This brings us to Coty Sensabaugh, and the immediate future of the Steelers secondary, now that Joe Haden will be out indefinitely with a fractured fibula he sustained in Sunday’s 20-17 victory over the Colts.

People may forget that, before the unusual splash-worthy signing of Joe Haden last summer, Coty Sensabaugh was not only being considered for the slot corner role, he had acquitted himself well-enough that he was challenging former corner, Ross Cockrell, for the top spot, opposite Artie Burns, late in the preseason.

Of course, the Haden acquisition changed everything–including Cockrell’s spot on the roster. And with youngster Mike Hilton exploding on the scene this past summer and clamping down that slot corner spot, Sensabaugh quickly became a forgotten man in the Steelers defensive backfield.

Until now.

There is no discounting the impact Joe Haden has made on the Steelers secondary in 2017; a two-time Pro Bowl player and a veteran, Haden has been the glue to a young unit that has gone from the bottom of the league in passing yards two years ago, to near the top in 2017.

  • No matter how you slice it, or how you may try to rationalize it away, Joe Haden will be greatly missed.

The “next man up” mantra head coach Mike Tomlin likes to preach every time a top player gets injured is headline-worthy, and it perhaps galvanizes his troops in troubled times.

  • But starters are starters for a reason, and backup are backups.
  • But that doesn’t mean Sensabaugh can’t come in and provide adequate depth.

A six-year veteran, Coty Sensabaugh, 29, was on three different rosters the previous two seasons–including two in 2016–before winding up with Pittsburgh.

Coty Sensabaugh is a journeyman, no question, but his career resume (29 career starts–including 15 two years ago as a member of the Titans) suggests that he can step in and be an asset for the Steelers over the next few weeks. Who knows? Maybe Coty Sensabaugh can be the same type of free agent acquisition at cornerback as Will Allen was at safety.

If you’ll remember, Will Allen was “the other guy” the Steelers signed in their Get the Band Back Together” free agency spree in March 2010, when they welcomed Larry Foote and Antwaan Randle El. Allen didn’t do much until 2012, but he provided stability at safety from 2012 onwards, (not that anyone would confuse him with Troy Polamalu).

In the same light, Coty Sensabaugh doesn’t have to be Joe Haden. He just has to get Pittsburgh through the next several games without the defense suffering major blows because of his presence on the field.

Depth players prove their true worth, not when they come in and spell a starter during the course of a game, but when they have to take a starter’s place over the course of a few weeks.

If Coty Sensabaugh can do that in Joe Haden’s absence and not become a liability in the secondary, the Steelers will truly be free agent “winners” in 2017.

 

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

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

  • The elephant in the room has been unmasked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Ben Roethlisberger‘s Career Come Full Circle?

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

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

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

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Why Pitt Standout James Conner’s Impact with Steelers Could Come Sooner than You Think….

“I’ve seen him play. You’ve seen him play. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be good.”

That quote was from me to my brother last week, shortly after the Steelers selected Pitt running back James Conner with their compensatory third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

James Conner, Steelers 2017 3rd round draft pick

James Conner rushing for Pitt @ Heinz Field. Photo credit: PennLive.com

Obviously, being from Pittsburgh and a huge fan of the University of Pittsburgh, my opinion about James Conner may be partially due to homerism. After all, leading up to the draft, how many football fans expressed a desire for their favorite pro team to draft a player from their favorite college team?

This happens all the time.

But I wasn’t the only one who reacted joyfully to the news that Conner’s college home stadium–Heinz Field–would turn into his professional home stadium.

  • First, who doesn’t love everything about James Conner?

After rushing for 1,759 yards in his sophomore year of 2014, Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year.

  • But just when it appeared that Conner was headed for greatness, he received a double punch to the gut.

The first punch was a torn MCL, which he sustained in the 2015 season opener. The second, more devastating strike occurred many months later, when Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer  that was discovered by doctors while he was undergoing rehab for his injured knee.

You know the story by now: Conner absorbed both punches and kept on fighting. By May of 2016, he was declared cancer-free; and in his final season at Pitt, he rushed for 1,092 yards on 216 attempts.

  • Obviously, less than a year after the physical toll that chemo and the MCL tear took on his body, the burst and explosiveness weren’t quite the same.

It’s impossible to know where James Conner would have been drafted without those setbacks, but he was selected high enough that he’ll be given much more than a puncher’s chance to have a decent career with the Steelers.

  • And why does it have to be just decent?

I realize Le’Veon Bell, and his current status as the NFL’s best running back is one reason James Conner may never get to truly make his mark at the professional level. Another reason is obviously the knee injury.

But when James Conner lines up in the offensive backfield this season, he won’t be the only Steelers running back who suffered a torn MCL at Heinz Field in 2015. Le’Veon Bell sustained that very same injury in Week 8 against the Bengals and was done for the year.

  • Which brings me back to the chance James Conner might get to make a difference for the Steelers sooner than people think.

For anyone to examine the Steelers top four picks, which also include linebacker T.J. Watt, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Cameron Sutton and wonder if they will be able to help them in their rookie seasons may have forgotten about the depth issues the team has faced in recent years.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Bengals

Le’Veon Bell before he was injured against the Bengals. Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS.com

And that’s especially been the case at the running back spot, where Le’Veon Bell, despite his all-world talents and tremendous production, has missed a total of 17 games due to either injuries or suspensions over his first four seasons.

As for the postseason, the 2016 edition was the first Le’Veon Bell was actually healthy at the start of. And while he did set franchise records by rushing for a combined 337 yards in back-to-back victories over the Dolphins and Chiefs, he was limited in the AFC title game versus the Patriots after aggravating a groin injury he reportedly had been nursing for a couple of weeks.

Unlike the torn MCL Le’Veon Bell suffered in 2015 or the hyper-extended knee he sustained at the end of the 2014 season (both occurring after questionable tackles in games against the Bengals), it could be argued that an injured groin for a running back is a symptom of overuse.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the one thing that is certain is that Pittsburgh has been limited at the running back spot in each of the past three postseasons.

  • You know what they say about not learning from history.

Therefore, while it would be foolish to think James Conner is going to get any greater workload than what LeGarrette Blount and DeAngelo Williams both received while playing behind a healthy Le’Veon Bell in the past, it would also be foolish to assume he won’t be called upon to help the Steelers in 2017.

If the Steelers truly believe Bell’s injury, which required surgical repair in March, was caused by overuse, they might already be thinking about lightening the star running back’s load–even if it’s just a few less carries a game.

If the Steelers are forced to turn to James Conner for one reason or another, what kind of running back will they be getting? That’s hard to predict. Obviously, like every other draft prospect, Conner has his weaknesses, which, according to his NFL.com draft profile, include average lateral movement and a lack of elite speed. But then again, those were some of the same criticisms Bell had to overcome coming out of college–and that was before he suffered a torn MCL. 

James Conner, Steelers, Le'Veon Bell backup, Steelers backup running back

Soon former Pitt running back James Conners will be delivering stiff arms while wearning the Black and Gold. Photo Credit: Julia Rendleman, Post-Gazette

Despite his maturity issues that have led to two drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell is a hard worker and has certainly gotten the most out of his abilities. If there was a do-over of the 2013 NFL Draft, instead of lasting until the second round, No. 26 would be a top-10 selection.

Will James Conner have a chance to get the most out of his abilities in Pittsburgh? There’s no doubt he’s a hard worker, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. As per Kevin Colbert in his post-draft media appearances, Conner has a great opportunity to make a name for himself on special teams.

As for moving up the running back depth chart, James Conner obviously has to develop an all-around game that includes being a reviving target for Ben Roethlisberger out of the backfield and picking up the blitz (two things Bell also excels at, which is why he never comes off the field).

The sooner James Conner improves in areas besides just running the ball, the quicker he’ll distance himself from the likes of Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, which shouldn’t pose too great a challenge.

  • What about the very top of the running back depth chart?

As it stands right now, why would anyone want to mess with what Le’Veon Bell is doing? The answer is, nobody would.

But in addition to his injury history and suspension issues, there could be contractual issues with Le’Veon Bell. Unless the two sides come to an agreement, Le’Veon Bell will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag. Sure, he will get paid rather handsomely, but he’s eventually going to want a multi-year deal that will annually pay him at least the $12 million he’ll earn next season.

  • What happens if the two sides never agree on Le’Veon Bell’s worth?

In a perfect world, Le’Veon Bell will ink a new deal and go on to have a Hall of Fame career, while James Conner develops as a player and bides his time in Pittsburgh for four years, before signing with another team looking for a featured running back.

But this is not a perfect world, and that’s why James Conner’s impact with the Steelers could come a lot sooner than people think.

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Hometown Hero Homecoming: Steelers Draft James Conner in 3rd Round, RB Pitt

The close of day two of the 2017 NFL Draft saw the Steelers draft James Conner running back from Pitt with their third round compensatory selection.

  • Fans will remember that the Steelers made a similar move with their 3rd round compensatory selection in the 2014 NFL Draft when they took Dri Archer.

Dir Archer turned out to be a veritable head case, but the Steelers can rest assured that James Conner won’t follow in his footsteps. It remains to be seen if Conner can deliver in the NFL, but the man’s character and work ethic are above reproach, as he bounced back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015 to lead the Pitt Panthers rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016.

Steelers draft James Conner, James Conner, 2017 NFL Draft

Steelers 3rd round draft pick James Conner rushed for 3,733 yards and 52 TD’s at Pitt. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today

Steelers running backs coach James Saxon insisted that Conner wasn’t a sentimental or character pick and James Connor’s highlight reel from Pitt backs him up:

Hearing his name called by the Pittsburgh Steelers is a dream come true for Connor, who in addition to being a standout for Pitt, is an Erie native who played at McDowell High School.

James Connor will provide an immediate boost to a running back depth chart that has struggled to keep two starting caliber running backs healthy since the 2011 season. Le’Veon Bell will remain the uncontested starter, but after Bell the Steelers only have Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis behind him, a duo whose collective yards-per-carry average is 3.15.

James Conner described getting drafted by his hometown team as:

It’s a dream come true. I’m forever grateful to them for giving me the opportunity after everything I’ve been through. I know a lot of teams were scared, but they gave me the opportunity of a lifetime, and they are going to get a great person and a great football player, and I’ll give it my all for them.

The Steelers were expected to go for a running back early in the 2017 NFL Draft and Conner’s third round selection all but confirms what has been obvious for a while, DeAngelo Williams is not in Pittsburgh’s plans for 2017.

  • By drafting James Conner on the third round the Steelers revived what had once been a robust franchise tradition: Giving Pitt Panthers the possibility to play in the NFL.

The Steelers have drafted over 46 players from the University of Pittsburgh, but have not taken a Panther in the NFL Draft since choosing Hank Poteat in the 2000 NFL Draft.

That’s a far cry from the 1980’s, when the Steelers took 6 Pitt Players in the draft, including 3 in the 1989 NFL Draft in the form of Tom Ricketts, Jerry Olsavsky and Carlton Haselrig who was a Pitt-Johnstown graduate.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Need @ Running Back: Moderate High

While it may be difficult to believe here in 2017, NFL teams once looked to the running back position to provide a foundation for their championship dreams.

  • Does that sound funny to you?

Then let’s try a test. You’ve undoubtedly heard the names Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, and O.J. Simpson. Now, can you tell me who the quarterbacks where that handed off to them? OK, you get my point.

As the game of football has evolved through the 21st century the role of the running back and indeed the larger running game has declined, so much that the concept of a “franchise running back” seems quaint.

As Steel Curtain Rising has observed on more than one occasion, Le’Veon Bell has the potential to revive the concept – if he can show he’s blessed with the longevity of the great backs from yesteryear. How the Steelers view Le’Veon Bell’s long term potential will go a long way to determining the priority status of running back heading into the 2017 NFL Draft.

steelers 2017 draft needs running back, le'veon bell, le'veon bell steelers record bills, jesse james

Le’Veon Bell breaks the Steeelers single game rushing record vs the Bills. (Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via FiveThirtyEight

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starter

It is almost comical to see the way the debates about the Steelers wisdom in picking Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft has evolved. Pittsburgh of course passed on EddieLacy and by the end of the 2013 season, the talking head were quick to pronounce the move a mistake.

Pittsburgh scribe John Steigerwald spent much of the 2013 season critiquing Le’Veon Bell, while Jim Wexell wisely kept a running comparison between Bell’s rookie performance and that of Walter Payton.

  • We now know Jim Wexell was on to something: Le’Veon Bell does have Walter Payton like talent.

That much was apparent in the 2014 season, when Le’Veon Bell was virtually unstoppable – when teams crowded the box to takeaway the run, Ben Roethlisberger hooked up with Bell to burn them in the passing game. All told, Bell accounted for 34% of the Steelers offense in his sophomore season.

Injuries and suspensions limited Le’Veon Bell to 6 games in 2015, leading to questions about his durability, but in 2016 Le’Veon Bell proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a special talent. In 2016 Le’Veon Bell compiled for over 1900 yards from scrimmage and broke both the Steelers regular season single game rushing record and the Steelers playoff single game rushing record – twice.

In other words, Le’Veon Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis – the Steelers 3 Hall of Fame running backs, could ever do.

Sharing the title of “starter” in the Steelers offensive backfield is Roosevelt Nix, who serves as the team’s fullback. Roosevelt Nix played well as a lead blocker when called upon, but he participated in just over 9% of the Steelers snaps.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind the Le’Veon Bell the Steelers cupboard at running back is pretty thin. That might seem like a hypocritical assessment for a site that has sung the praises of Fitzgerald Toussaint, but my assessment is that Fitzgerald Toussaint is a quality number 3 NFL running back who has yet to prove, or even show, that he can be a number 2 NFL running back.

The Steelers of course have signed free agent running back Knile Davis to provide depth, but Knile Davis’ history rushing the ball doesn’t suggest he can be much of an upgrade over Fitzgerald Toussaint and indeed the word is that the Steelers are looking at Knile Davis as more of a kick returner than anything else.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Brandon Brown-Dukes – a 2016 practice squader, Dreamius Smith, Gus Johnson and Trey Williams under contract.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Running Back

One doesn’t need to be a homer to look at the Steelers running back depth chart and wonder why DeAngelo Williams remains unsigned. While injured for much of the second half of the Steelers 2016 season, DeAngelo Williams ran well when given the opportunity.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs running back

But whether you’re talking about Willie Parker, Isaac Redman, Barry Foster or even Franco Harris the Steelers tend have a very good knack for knowing when the tread has worn on a running back’s tires.

  • That means the Steelers must look to the 2017 NFL Draft to find Le’Veon Bell’s understudy.

There’s also the ugly reality that NFL running backs have short shelf life. Le’Veon Bell showed no signs of a drop off in his play despite suffering a serious injury in 2015 against the Bengals, but neither was Willie Parker when the Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the now infamous 2008 NFL Draft.

Given those realities, the Steelers 2017 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate-High.

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Steelers Free Agent Signings of Hunter, Davis Sensabaugh & Tyson Alualu Offer Insurance

Ever notice how a certain album produces a few hit singles, while another just sort of hits you with one nice song after another, until you look up in February and realize it was just nominated for a Grammy?

When it comes to the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy, the Pittsburgh Steelers never have any hit singles, let alone a few. This year was no exception, as big-time name after big-time name went off the proverbial “big board,” while Pittsburgh just sat back and made its entire fan base feel unfilled. (The re-signings of backup quarterback Landry Jones and journeyman tight end David Johnson did nothing to satiate anyone’s appetite.)

Nearly a week past, before Pittsburgh made news again (kind of), by agreeing to terms with both cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and running back/return specialist Knile Davis. 

Saving the best for last, the Steelers came to terms with veteran defensive lineman Tyson Alualu on a two-year deal for $6 million.

Senquez Golson, Senquez Golson injury, cotty sensabaugh

The Steelers signed free agent Cotty Sensabaugh as insurance that Senquez Golson can’t provide. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Actually, the addition of Tyson Alualu to an already talented defensive line was seen as a sound move by Pittsburgh, a signing that could pay huge dividends this season, as Alualu will no doubt be an upgrade over the likes of Ricardo Mathews and Cam Thomas, two free-agent signings who provided depth along the defensive line to varying degrees of success in recent years.

  • With Tyson Alualu acting as the cherry on top of the cake, Pittsburgh’s current free-agent crop now doesn’t look so bad, and you kind of get an idea of what the organization’s goal was from the start.

The 2017 free-agency period wasn’t about the splash move (even if Dont’a Hightower was wined and dined before he decided to stay with the Patriots); it wasn’t even necessarily about finding a veteran who may have not been seen as very splashy, but one would have started at a position of need.

  • No, if these four signings are any indication, the Steelers were driven by providing insurance in a few key areas.

Despite losing star defensive end Cameron Heyward to a season-ending injury on November 13, Keith Butler‘s young and often struggling defense showed great improvement over the last seven games and into the playoffs. But how much better off would the unit have been had it been able to plug in a defensive lineman of Tyson Alualu’s pedigree down-the-stretch?

The 10th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, Alualu started 88 games during his seven seasons in Jacksonville. While he hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft-status, he is clearly a talent upgrade over the likes of Mathews and Thomas and should strengthen Pittsburgh’s defensive line rotation. And in the likely scenario that Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave or Heyward has to miss time due to injuries next season, the gap from from starter to reserve shouldn’t be as great as it was in 2016.

After the Tennessee Titans made him the 34th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Hunter, 25, has bounced around the league.

  • Justin Hunter averaged just over 22 receptions a season, before catching 10 in 2016.

With 78 career receptions for just over 1,300 yards, Hunter has fallen well short of his lofty pre-draft potential that included a 6’4″, 200-pound frame and 4.4 speed. But if we’re going to speak of pedigree, however, fairness demands that we acknowledge that Justin Hunter has never had a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger‘s skill-set throwing to him; maybe if he had, his potential would have been fleshed out just a bit more.

Martavis Bryant,

Martavis Bryant reviews a play on a tablet during the 2015 season. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today via stillcurtain.com

Four of Hunter’s 10 catches went for touchdowns in 2016, so maybe he could benefit from now finding himself on a roster with not only Roethlisberger but some of the NFL’s best offensive weapons in Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

In a worst-case scenario, if Martavis Bryant, if he doesn’t find himself back on a football field next year, and Sammie Coates can’t recover from the finger ailments that derailed what started out as a promising sophomore season in 2016, Hunter should be a much more talented alternative than the likes of Cobi Hamilton

As for Knile Davis and Coty Sensabaugh, while the Steelers would obviously be in a bad way if either had to start many games at their respective positions in 2017, they should also provide some decent insurance,

Knile Davis, for example, may never be more than competition for Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if he does win the job as the team’s third running back, this will open the door to providing his real value as a kickoff returner.

With 1,960 career return yards on his resume, Knile Davis should be a significant upgrade over Toussaint, who averaged just 21.3 yards per kickoff return last season.

Finally, Coty Sensabaugh may not have been the veteran cornerback Steelers fans were hoping for–far from it–but he did start 15 games for the Titans two years ago.

  • Besides, the Steelers secondary may not need a splashy free-agent signing to see an upgrade.

If Artie Burns and Sean Davis improve over their already rather impressive  rookie seasons, and if Senquez Golson finally sees a football field in 2017 and ultimately performs like his 2015 second round pedigree, Coty Sensabaugh will act as the best insurance policy: one you never need to cash in on.

No, the Steelers didn’t make any big-time signings, but their free-agent class seems a bit more impressive when you examine it for it what really is.

Some nice insurance.

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Return on Investment? Steelers Sign Knile Davis to as Kick Returner, Backup Running Back

Bargain hunting continued on Pittsburgh’s South Side Monday as the Steelers signed Knile Davis, a free agent running back who most recently played for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Knile Davis is listed as a running back, but the Steelers are eyeing him primarily as a kick returner, a specialist position which the franchise has struggled to fill for most of the Mike Tomlin Era.

Knile Davis, Sean Spence, Jarvis Jones, Steelers vs Chiefs

Sean Spence tackles Knile Davis as Jarvis Jones arrives a second too late. Photo Credit: USA Today’s Steelers Wire

To put the matter into perspective, the last time the Steelers had a kickoff returned for a touchdown as in the 2010’s game against the Tennessee Titans, when Antonio Brown took a reverse and ran it all the way in.

The only Steelers kick returners who’ve returned more than 10 kicks during Mike Tomlin’s tenure to remotely approach an average of 25 yards per return are Stephan Logan, Markus Wheaton, Chris Rainey, Emmanuel Sanders and Brown.

  • In just four seasons, Knile Daivs has already returned 73 kicks for a total of 1920 yards, for a 26.8 yard average for two touchdowns.

Given that a touchback now results in the ball being spotted at the 25 yard line, having a kick returner who can routinely better that marks a welcome addition to the return team. (For the record Stefan Logan and Chris Rainey were the only returners during the Tomlin era to average more than 25 yards.)

Now Knile Davis Impacts the Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back

Le’Veon Bell remains the uncontested Alpha Male atop the Steelers running back depth chart, and the unsigned status of DeAngelo Williams might suggest that the he’s been replaced by Knile Davis. Davis would certainly like coaches to see it that way as indicated by his statement to reporters:

I feel like they are confident I can (complement Bell). I’ve had to fill in before. I’ve had 100-yard games in this league. I’ve done well in this league, and I’m prepared for whatever comes in the future.

That’s a little bold, but healthy nonetheless or the new arrival. However, if press reports are any indication, the Steelers primarily interest in Knile Davis is as a kick returner, not as a running back. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald Toussaint has been put on notice that he will need to defend his roster spot at St. Vincents next summer.

The Steelers tried to work Toussaint in at kick returner last year, but without much effect. And while Knile Davis’ 3.2 rushing average isn’t much to write home about it is better that Fitzgerald Toussaint’s career average of 2.9.

  • The Kansas City Chiefs drafted Knile Davis in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

He played in Kansas City for three seasons until the Chiefs traded him to Green Bay for a seventh-round draft pick in October 2016. But Davis didn’t remain a Cheesehead for long, as the Packers cut him after two games. He spent one day on the New York Jets’ roster before re-signing with Kansas City.

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Steelers 2017 Free Agent Tracker

The month of March is here which means that Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 off season is set to spring to life NFL Free Agency begins.  In 2017 the Pittsburgh Steelers have a total of 27 players who will be (or would have been) either Exclusive Rights, Restricted or Unrestricted Free Agents.

Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Steelers 2017 free agency, Steelers 2017 free agents, steelers vs giants

Last season Lawrence Timmons & James Harrison closed in on Eli Manning together. Now they’re both closing in on free agency (Photo Credit: Steelers.com)

Here is our Steelers 2017 Free Agency tracker, which we’ll update as events occur.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 Unrestricted Free Agents

Click on a player’s name for a full-length free agent profile of each player, including the pro’s and con’s of resigning the player or letting him walk.

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Resignings

Le’Veon Bell, running back
2/27/17 – Steelers place Exclusive Rights Franchise Player tag on Le’Veon Bell, ensuring his return in 2017
James Harrison, linebacker
3/1/17Steelers resign James Harrison to two year contract
Landry Jones, quarterback
3/9/17 – Steelers resign Landry Jones to two year contract
David Johnson, tight end
3/9/17 – Steelers resign David Johnson to two year contract.
Greg Warren, long snapper
2/2/17 – Steelers resign Greg Warren to 1 year deal
Steven Johnson, linebacker/special teams
2/15/17 – Steelers resign Steven Johnson

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Pickups

Justin Hunter, wide reciever
3/15/17 — Steelers sign Justin Hunter from Miami to 1 year contract
Coty Sensabaugh, cornerback
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Coty Sensabaugh from the New York Giants to two year contract
Knile Davis, kick returner/running back
3/19/17 — Steelers sign Knile Davis from Kansas City to one year contract
Tyson Alualu, defensive lineman
3/20/17 — Steelers Sign Tyson Alualu from Jacksonville to two year contract

Steelers 2017 Free Agent Losses

Markus Wheaton, wide receiver
3/9/17 – Chicago Bears sign Markus Wheaton to a contract
Lawrence Timmons, inside linebacker
3/10/17 – Miami Dolphins sign Lawrence Timmons to 2 year contract
Jarvis Jones, outside linebacker
3/14/17 – Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals sign Jarvis Jones

Steelers 2017 Free Agents Who Remain Unsigned

DeAngelo Williams, running back
Cody Wallace, center/guard
Shamarko Thomas, special teams/safety
Ricardo Mathews, defensive end

Steelers 2017 Restricted Free Agents

Ross Cockrell, cornerback
3/2/17 – Steelers offer original round tender to Ross Cockrell
4/17/17 – Ross Cockrell signs restricted free agent tender
Chris Hubbard, offensive tackle
3/2/17 – Steelers offer right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard

Click on either player’s name for a full-length restricted free agent profile.

By giving extending both Cockrell and Hubbard restricted free agent tenders, the Steelers retain the right to match any offer a team might make them. In addition, the Steelers would get a 4th round pick should they decline to match an offer for Ross Cockrell.

Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agents

Alejandro Villanueva, offensive tackleRoosevelt Nix, fullback
Resigned with Steelers
Cobi Hamilton, wide receiver
Resigned with Steelers
Anthony Chickillo, linebacker
Resigned with Steelers
Chris Boswell, place kicker
Resigned with Steelers
Fitzgerald Toussaint, running back
Resigned with Steelers
Jordan Dangerfield, safety
Resigned with Steelers
Xavier Grimble, tight end
Resigned with Steelers
B.J. Finney, guard/center

Additional Steelers Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, guard/center
Cole Manhart, center
Kevin Anderson, linebacker

The Steelers can bring back any Exclusive Rights Free Agent by simply making them a qualified offer. For an in-depth discussion of the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights Free Agent class and its larger significance, click here.

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