Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix + a 1st Round Prediction

Well, well well, the big day is here! Per the clock on Steelers.com in just 10:27: 34 the 2017 NFL Draft will finally kick off (and lucky you, by the time you read this, it will even be closer)!

Since the final gun of Super Bowl LI, Steelers Nation has enjoyed?/experienced?/endured? Hundreds of hours of Mike Maycock and Mel Kipper Jr. clips, read dozens of mock drafts and perhaps even debated “grades” some scribes give to the Steelers performance in so-and-so’s latest mock.

  • Now all that’s left is, well, to pick the players and then bring them to St. Vincents to separate the Sidney Thornton’s from the Sean Davis‘s.
2017 NFL Draft, Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin Kevin Colbert Pre-draft press conference

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert hold their pre-Draft press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

OK, with that bit of cynicism about the excess hype that envelops the NFL Draft out of the way, let’s acknowledge that championships are built and lost on draft day.

  • And for those of you who’re dying to know this sites prediction for the Steelers first round draft pick, staff writer Tony Defeo is predicting it will be Kevin King, the 6’3″ cornerback out of Washington.

And, as we noted when the Steelers 2016 draft class was complete, Pittsburgh is now at a point where the success or failure on draft day will determine whether Ben Roethlisberger can bring home Lombardi Number Seven.

With the urgent of the 2017 NFL Draft in mind, Steel Curtain Rising has taken stock of the needs presented by each area of the Steelers Depth Chart.

Using our “exclusive Steelers Draft needs scale” we’ve determined that the Steelers needs at Quarterback, Defensive Line, and Tight End can be termed as Low-Moderate. The Steelers needs at Offensive line and Safety should be considered Moderate-Low. Inside linebacker clocks in at Moderate. Wide Receiver and Running back come in in at Moderate High. While Outside Linebacker and Cornerback are High Moderate needs for the Steelers in 2017.

Similar to past years, the Steelers draft needs are very tired, with some fairly high urgency needs to fill up top, very little in the middle, and a lot down at the bottom.

How to distinguish between them? Well, that’s where our Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix comes into play.

Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix

The purpose of the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix is to give a baseline between the Steelers areas of need should two players with the same grade become available at the same time.

Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix

How did we arrive at this ranking? Fair question. To be honest, the Steelers needs for an outside linebacker or an “Edge Rusher” should he come in the form of a defensive end and a cornerback are both very high.

Even with James Harrison clocking in at age 39, the duo of Harrison and Bud Dupree arguably give the Steelers more on the field impact than does that of Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell.

  • But both Burns and Cockrell can be expected to start 16 games; James Harrison can’t.

However, anyone who would insist that Cornerback should take priority over Outside Linebacker or “Edge Rusher” wouldn’t get much of an argument for me, the Steelers need to boost their secondary as the AFC Championship so painfully illustrated.

And if Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Art Rooney II have the feeling that the next Dan Marino has dropped to them at 30, then by all means they should take him. But the reality is that isn’t going to happen, and the Steelers aren’t going to find the next Tom Brady in some later round. Given that, its best to focus on giving Ben the players he needs to win Lombardi Number Seven before he begins his “Life’s Work.”

Up until a few days ago, Steel Curtain Rising would have rated wide receiver as a higher need than running back, but Martavis Bryant‘s reinstatement changes that calculation ever so slightly. The Steelers would still be wise to add another reciever to help take heat off of Antonio Brown, but it would be wiser to invest a pick in ensuring they don’t start another playoff game with Fitzgerald Toussaint as Le’Veon Bell‘s top backup.

  • As always, let’s close comments about our Steelers 2017 Draft Needs Matrix with a caveat.

This chart is in no way meant to suggest the Steelers should draft for need. Quite the contrary. When you draft for need Troy Edwards (and perhaps Jarvis Jones) happen.

The Steelers 2014 NFL Draft Class provides the perfect example. Heading into the draft, the Steelers 2014 Draft Needs Matrix had rated Inside Linebacker as Moderate-Low given the quality and depth the Steelers had at the position.

Clearly, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert knew what they were doing.

Let’s hope that three years from now we can say the same thing about the decision the Steelers brain trust makes tonight. Until then let’s celebrate evening that will allow a select few young men to enjoy the movement they’ve dreamed of since they were old enough to hold a nerf football.

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Reinstated Martavis Bryant Can Transform Steelers Offense — If He Stays Clean…

The NFL gave the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 offense a potential octane boost by conditionally reinstating Martavis Bryant who’d sat out the 2016 season serving a suspension for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policies.

While the Steelers January 2016 AFC Divisional Playoff loss to Denver certainly disappointed, Martavis Bryant had been a clear bright spot for Pittsburgh, and Steelers fans were left salivating at the prospect of a Death Star-like offensive attack for 2016.

  • Unfortunately, rebel spies sabotaged those plans before they even got started through a torrent of injuries and suspensions.

Absent Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Markus Wheaton and Ladarius Green for much of the year, and with Sammie Coates’ development stunted by injuries and/or maturity issues, the Steelers offense in 2016 too often consisted of force-feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell.

Martavis Bryant’s return can change all of that in a hurry. But this comes with a catch….

Martavis Bryant, Steelers vs Cardinals, Martavis Bryant Touchdown, NFL Reinstates Martavis Bryant

Martavis Bryant transforms a simple kill the clock possession pass into an 88 yard touchdown vs. the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Martavis Bryant’s Impact IF He Stays Clean

It says here that a healthy Martavis Bryant boosts the Steelers 2017 offense more than Ladarius Green and/or Sammie Coates can. Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green have flashed potential as field flippers – Martavis Bryant is a game flipper.

Just look at his final pass catch in the Cardinals game, and you’ll know what I mean.

  • But of course, for Martavis Bryant must stay clean if he’s to make game-changing plays for the Steelers.

And that of course has been an issue in the past. We now know why Martavis Bryant was drafted in the 4th round and why Mike Tomlin kept him on the bench for the first part of his rookie season. Yet he continued to violate the NFL’s substance abuse policies and sat out the first four weeks of 2015.

  • After that, Martavis Bryant said all of the right things both publicly and to his teammates, including apparently lying to Ben Roethlisberger about his continued use of marijuana.

Now comes the obligatory acknowledgement about how both social and, in some states at least, legal attitudes towards marijuana are quickly changing. Perhaps in a decade or so images of players taking hits from bongs won’t be seen any differently than pictures of John Stallworth or Dwight White smoking cigarettes were in the 70’s.

Let’s chuck in another obligatory acknowledgement that the NFL is guilty of some real hypocrisy regarding his marijuana polices and its free use of painkillers.

Fair enough. As political discussions are verboten here on Steel Curtain Rising, we’ll leave it to others to debate the pro’s and con’s of de-criminalizing, legalizing and/or normalizing pot usage.

But that discussion is also irrelevant for two reasons:

  1. Agree or disagree with the laws and league rules or not, both still remain in force.
  2. Martavis Bryant clearly has a substance abuse issue with marijuana

Some may quibble with the second point above, but as Rebecca Rollett of Going Deep with the Steelers observed:

If there is a substance your employer has forbidden you to use, whether it is marijuana, celery salt, or Dapper Dan’s pomade, and, knowing you can lose your job if you don’t stop, you use it anyhow, you are an addict.

The interesting thing is that Rebecca made that observation in October 2015, right after Bryant’s first suspension ended. In commenting about Le’Veon Bell’s claim to have given up pot Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell observed:

I believed him then because I’ve detected a change in him.
Yeah, I know, you’re thinking, “What do you know about that subject?” But I sense a crispness (as opposed to a crispiness) in Bell that I hadn’t before, and I remember thinking how dopey he was when I interviewed him at his NFL Combine out of college.
No, this guy is sharp. Martavis Bryant? I don’t know if that guy can ever become sharp, but I hadn’t detected any change in him, at least like I did in Bell.

Breaking the cycle of addition is difficult. If you don’t have experience with it yourself, you’ve certainly crossed paths with someone who struggled to quit smoking or quit drinking or even to give up coffee.

  • The NFL wouldn’t have reinstated Martavis Bryant had he not show progress in his struggle.

Let’s hope he continues to come out on the winning side for the sake of Martavis Bryant’s physical and mental well-being in and of itself. And by the way, if Martavis Bryant remains physical and mental health remains strong, big things can happen in Pittsburgh in 2017.

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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 2017 Draft Needs at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line building strategy has seen a sea change during the Mike Tomlin era, perhaps like no other spot on the depth chart.

  • During the first part of the Tomlin era, the Steelers used a “Plug and Patch” approach to building their offensive line.

Whether it was because the Steelers drank their own “Weapons vs. Protection” Koolaid for real or because they won Super Bowl XLIII and went to another with a makeshift offensive line, or because Bruce Arians wasn’t interested in line building as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reported in 2013, the Steelers ignored the offensive line in Mike Tomlin’s first several drafts.

That changed as Ben Roethlisberger started taking more hits, and the question we look at here today is whether the Steelers should continue to focus on the offensive line in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Maurkice Pouncey, B.J. Finney, David DeCastro, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers offensive line, Steelers offensive line draft needs 2017

Maurkice Pouncey flanked by David DeCastro and B.J. Finney on Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking day in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images via lastwordonfootball.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – the Starters

The Maurkice Pouncey anchors the Steelers offensive line having been voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers in each of his non-injury seasons. Marcus Gilbert holds down the right end of the Steelers offensive line, followed by David DeCastro, with Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva playing to Pouency’s left.

While it is fair to say that the Steelers offensive line got off to a slow start in early 2016, the unit gelled as the season progressed. Ben Roethlisberger took fewer sacks than he has in any season and Le’Veon Bell tured out single game performances in both the regular season and playoffs that neither Willie Parker, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis could accomplish.

That only happens of the Steelers offensive line is playing well.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Offensive Line Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Behind their starting front five the Steelers have  and B.J. Finney who can back up at guard and center. Next they have Chris Hubbard who can play both guard and offensive tackle. Ryan Harris retired, leaving 2016’s 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins and Brain Mihalik as the primary backups at offensive tackle.

Both Chris Hubbard and BJ Finney saw action in during 2016, and both men played well, although Finney is stronger at guard than he is at center.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Offensive Line

The Steelers offensive line is as talented and as deep as it has been at any time in during the Mike Tomlin era. The Steelers starters and depth at guard are both strong. Depth at center isn’t quite as strong, but BJ Finney has shown he’s at least serviceable there, and he also possesses the proverbial “Upside.”Steelers 2017 Draft Needs offensive line

  • Depth remains more of a concern at offensive tackle.

Chris Hubbard started four games at tackle and also served as a third tight end as part of the Steelers “Big Boy Package.” In a perfect world Jerald Hawkins would give the Steelers 2 viable backups at offensive tackle, but Hawkins is an untested commodity.

Fate has had a nasty way of reminding Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the old saying “You can never have too many good offensive lineman” during more than one season in recent memory. And that leads one to the temptation to rate offensive line a higher priority, but the Steelers essential need at offensive line is to build depth, and therefore Steelers 2017 draft need at must be considered Moderate/Low.

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Steelers 2017 Draft Needs @ Quarterback – Too Early to Seek Ben Roethlisberger’s Replacment

Since Chuck Noll ushered Pittsburgh into the modern era of pro football, the Pittsburgh Steelers have used 1st round picks on quarterbacks exactly 3 times.

  • Their first came when they drafted Terry Bradshaw with the first overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft.
  • Ten years later they returned to the well, drafting Mark Malone with the last pick of the first round of 1980 NFL Draft.

Steelers Nation would have to wait 24 more years until the 2004 NFL Draft for Pittsburgh to use another first round draft pick on a quarterback, and the decision to pick Ben Roethlisberger only really came at the behest of Dan Rooney who, by his own admission, was haunted by the teams decision not to draft Dan Marino thinking that the Blond Bomber had a few more seasons, instead of just 8 more throws, left in his arm.

Although is return for 2017 is confirmed, since incumbent Steelers signal caller Ben Roethlisberger has publically as uttered the “R” word it is only fair to ask if the Steelers needs justifying picking a quarterback with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2017 draft needs quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger prepares to pass @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via MMQB

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

Closing in on his 15th NFL season Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. The Steelers Killer Bees, Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell give Pittsburgh its strongest concentration of talent at the skill positions since the days Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Franco Harris lined up alongside Bradshaw.

  • To judge solely by his passer rating of 95.4, Ben Roethlisberger 2016 season was almost identical to 2015’s (94.5).

But that shows you how fickle of a measure passer rating can be as his completion percentage dropped by 4 points, but he threw more touchdowns and fewer interceptions and took fewer sacks. And he did it without the services of Heath Miller, Ladarius Green, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey for much or all of the season.

  • If Ben Roethlisberger continued to prove that he was still a championship-caliber franchise quarterback during 2016, his game was not without its flaws.

First, there was a sharp disparity between Ben Roethlisberger’s play on the road and his play at home. Beyond that, in the playoffs with Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton as his number 2 and 3 receivers the Steelers needed Ben Roethlisberger to make them look better than they were.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Quarterback Entering the 2017 NFL Draft – Backups

Steel Curtain Rising has written more in defense of Landry Jones that he probably deserves, but such is the nature when two of a site’s writers style and ideas overlap. So be it. There’s no need to repeat our praise of the embattled backup here as Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert agree with Landry Jones is a viable NFL backup. If Landry looked lost in 2013 and 2014, the showed he belonged in 2015 and in 2016 he proved that the previous season was no mirage.

  • No, the Steelers cannot expect to contend for a Super Bowl if Landry Jones has to start for an extended period.

But you can say almost every other NFL contender can say the same thing about having to start their backup for more than a few games.

Behind Landry Jones the Steelers have Zach Mettenberger, whom they picked up off of waivers. Both fans and columnists would prefer to seen Mettenberger holding down the number two slot and if he proves himself in training camp he may get that opportunity.

When all is said and done, it could be that the Steelers decision to claim Mettenberger off of waivers will grow in importance to Kevin Colbert’s 2002 decision to sign Charlie Batch after the Detroit Lions cut him loose. At the time it looked like Charlie Batch was merely provided a fringe benefit of additional depth behind Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox.

  • Ten years later we know that Charlie Batch grew into one of the best backup quarterbacks the Steelers have ever staffed.

Can Zach Mettenberger follow the same script? At this point it is an unknown.

Steelers 2017 Draft Need at Quarterback

While Ben Roethlisberger might have sent shockwaves through Steelers Nation by admitting he needed to take time to decide whether he would play again in 2017, the fact is that he has made similar statements in private. That’s normal and even healthy thought process for a player to take at this stage of his career.Steelers 2017 Draft Needs quarterback

If statements of Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are any guide the Steelers expect Ben Roethlisberger to finish his contract.

  • There’s a simple but unpleasant reality at work when it comes to the Steelers replacing Roethlisberger.

Replacing one franchise quarterback with another is easier said than done. Sure San Francisco did it with Joe Montana and Steve Young. Green Bay did it with Brett Favre and Aaron Rogers. The Colts did it with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. It is pretty hard to find other success stories.

The difficulty of trying to find your next franchise quarterback while your team still has one ranges somewhere between completing King Authur’s hunt for the Questing Beast and seeing Haley’s Comet – many try but only a few succeed.

Word is that 2017 NFL Draft is a weak one for quarterbacks, and even if it were not, the chances of a franchise quarterback slipping to the Steelers at the 30th pick are non-existent.

If the Steelers can select excellent value at quarterback with their third or 2nd round pick then they might want to consider it, but barring that, focusing on players who help bring home Lombardi Number Seven in 2017 as opposed to trying to lasso a unicorn would represent a far wiser investment of Pittsburgh’s draft capital.

But when all is said and done, Ben’s public utterance of the word “retirement” doesn’t change any of the dynamics at work and the Steelers 2017 draft need at quarterback must be considered Low-Moderate.

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Steelers Nation Doesn’t Get What it Wants: Law Dog Topped Steelers Free Agent Fan Poll

Would it surprise anyone if the most requested song at WDVE this spring was “You can’t always get what you want” by the Rolling Stones?” It wouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen or participated in Steel Curtain Rising’s 2017 free agency poll.steelers 2017 free agency poll

The Steelers of course have moved on from free agency, per Kevin Colbert’s comments of a few weeks ago, but work responsibilities have kept yours truly from doing much in the way of blogging about it. Hence, our free agency poll remained open.But it is past time to bring the poll to a close and discuss its results.

To some extent, the headline is a bit misleading. The notion of keeping Le’Veon Bell and James Harrison netted the most votes but it is also true that there was no chance either man would play 2017 in another team’s colors.

And heading into February, the conventional wisdom was that there was little chance that Lawrence Timmons would depart either fans wanted to keep him here, and of course Lawrence Timmons departed to the Dolphins. An even greater number of fans voiced support for Ross Cockrell and still remains unsigned, as is DeAngelo Williams who is also unsigned.

In contrast, approximately half as many fans wanted to see Landry Jones and David Johnson resigned, both of whom got new contracts.

As always, Steel Curtain Rising thanks all who voted.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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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.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Historical Perspective: The A+ Steelers 1993 Free Agency Effort Didn’t Look that Way at the Time

Free Agency never fails to stir the passions of Steelers Nation and 2017 has been no exception.

That’s fine, but it is always good to apply a health perspective towards how the Steelers manage free agency and to provide that perceptive, we take a look back, way back, at Pittsburgh’s inaugural foray into free agency by grading the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort. So here it goes. In the 1993 off season the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Lost a perennial Pro Bowl inside linebacker,
  • Lost a veteran starter who provided stability during a long rebuilding phase,
  • Lost a former first round pick edge rusher who never met expectations,
  • Rolled the dice by giving a measly third round restricted free agent tender to a key starter

Sounds ominously familiar, right? Seems like the Steelers got schooled by the harsh reality of NFL free agency?

Kevin Greene, Stan Humpheries, 1993 Steelers free agents, 1993 Steelers free agency

Kevin Greene sacks Stan Humpheries in the Steelers 1993 win over the Chargers. Photo Credit: AP, via al.com

That’s what a lot of people, including both Pittsburgh journalists and national ones such as SI’s Peter King, concluded at the time. So how would you grade would the Steelers 1993 Free Agency effort?

  • How about with an A+ ?

Yes, that’s correct, and to be bluntly honest, one doesn’t and/or shouldn’t have needed 20/20 hindsight to realize the Steelers were on to something.Here’s what the Steelers 1993 Free Agent tracker would have looked like:

1993 Steelers Free Agency, 1993 Steelers Free Agents, 1993 Steelers free agent tracker

Steelers 1993 Free Agency Tracker

The restricted free agent in question was none other than Neil O’Donnell who had done an impressive job as the Steelers starting quarterback in 1992 and was a restricted free agent, whom the Steelers lowballed with a 3rd round tender.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers smelled blood in the water, and made an offer to Neil O’Donnell setting off a firestorm in Steelers Nation the likes of which was not seen until September 2014 when the Steelers cut Doran Grant….

So, OK, so the Kevin Greene signing worked out pretty well, but even if you take that into account, how could anyone look at that chart above and grade the 1993 Steelers Free agent effort with an A Plus?

It is easy – by looking at the full range of the Steelers activity during that free agency period.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents: The One’s the Got Away….

While fans looked at Hardy Nickerson’s departure and lambasted Dan Rooney for “being cheap,” the truth is that a year earlier the Steelers had made Nickerson a competitive 3 year offer. Nickerson, knowing free agency’s arrival was imminent, balked and insisted on a one year deal.

  • The Steelers didn’t, and don’t do business that way.

They’d also picked Levon Kirkland in the 1992 NFL Draft. While one could run fiery Nickerson vs. Kirkland debate and you might even conclude that Nickerson was the better linebacker, you cannot claim the Steelers downgraded their defense by starting Levon Kirkland in 1993.

You always want a Tunch Ilkin type player to retire in Black and Gold, but when Green Bay made its 2.2 million dollar offer, Bill Cowher informed Ilkin that if he stayed in Pittsburgh, he’d be backing up Leon Searcy for a lot less. Ilkin took the money.

Aaron Jones’ defection amounted to addition by subtraction. Prior to free agency, the Steelers would have been stuck with Jones, instead they were able to upgrade and move on by drafting Kevin Henry. Jones did “OK” in New England, but in no way was worth the 1.8 million dollar two year contract he got.

Steelers 1993 Free Agents, the Ones that Arrived or Stayed

Jerrol Williams had underachieved under Chuck Noll, but flourished during Bill Cowher’s first season in 1992.

The Steelers wanted to keep him, but the San Diego Chargers made a 1.7 million dollar one year restricted free agent offer for Williams, an exorbitant sum at the time which the Steelers had no intent on matching. So instead, they went out and signed Kevin Greene.

L.C. Greenwood, Jack Lambert, Super Bowl XIV

L.C. Greenwood during the Steelers win in Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Bill Smith, NFL via NFL.com

Although Kevin Greene arrived in Pittsburgh with 72.5 sacks to his name, or one less than then franchise record holder L.C. Greenwood had, he wasn’t well known in the NFL. Time would show that NFL Hall of Famer Kevin Greene represented an upgrade over Jerrol Williams, but few fans or sports writers wanted to concede it in the spring of 1993.

Peter King described the Steelers decision to give Neil O’Donnell a low-ball restricted free agent tender as “unwitting” and he was right. The Steelers had wanted to resign O’Donnell, but badly miscalculated by only tendering him $300,000.

  • But if the Steelers mistake quickly became clear, the franchise also refused to panic.

The team gave a long look at keeping Bubby Brister. The also considered bringing in Jeff Hostetler. But Bill Cowher and Ron Erhardt lobbied for Dan Rooney to match the Tampa Bay’s offer and he did, remaining a Steeler until Super Bowl XXX.

If another Steelers free agent pickup, linebacker Greg Clark, didn’t make it out of training camp, Mike Tomczak provided veteran stability at the backup quarterback position for seven straight years.

1993 Steelers Free Agency Complete Picture

While we haven’t finished painting the Steelers 1993 free agency picture yet, it should already be obvious that Pittsburgh clearly didn’t belong in Peter King’s “They Got Hurt” category.

  • And the moves already discussed might not have even been the most important moves the Steelers made.

Weeks after making Kevin Greene the highest paid defensive player in Steelers history, the Steelers did it again, by resigning linebacker Greg Lloyd to a 3 year contract. What was notable about the move wasn’t the money, however it was the timing.

  • In the spring of 1993, Greg Lloyd still had a full year remaining on his contract.

Resigning in your own players before their contracts expire is now common in the NFL, but it wasn’t in 1993. In fact, fans and commentators attacked the Rooneys for failing to grasp that “the point of free agency is to sign other team’s players, not your own.”

Rod Woodson, Steelers 1994 season

Rod Woodson during the 1994 season. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

And while the move didn’t come until September, the Steelers did it again with Rod Woodson, reupping the Hall of Famer cornerback a year before he became a free agent. The Steelers also resigned Barry Foster, although that move didn’t work out quite as expected (even if it did indirectly open the door to the Jerome Bettis trade.)

So for those who haven’t kept score, the Steelers 1993 free agency effort saw the franchise:

  • Promote two, lower salaried draft picks in favor of retaining more two more costly starters
  • Practice some addition by subtraction by allowing a chronic under achiever to walk
  • Extend the contract of a legendary linebacker
  • Come to terms with two future Hall of Famers

Although the 2017 free agent signing period is far from over, there’s no shortage of people to passing judgment on the Steelers efforts, ominously observing how Patriots are getting stronger while the Steelers are getting weaker.

That might be the case, but before freaking out remember that in 1993 Peter King ranked the Steelers free agency effort at 24th and there were only 28 teams in the league then. While his number 1 team, the Green Bay Packers certainly helped themselves with Reggie White, he also listed the Falcons, Cardinals, Browns, Buccaneers, and Colts as “Leading the Way.”

  • None of those teams sniffed the playoffs that fall. The 1993 Steelers did.

And, as 1993’s lesson applies to today, James Harrison deserves Hall of Fame consideration, Antonio Brown is building a Hall of Fame worthy resume and Le’Veon Bell clearly has Hall of Fame caliber talent.

And the Steelers have taken steps to keep those 3 players in Pittsburgh. Just Say’in….

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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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Better for Le’Veon Bell to have Surgery Now Rather than Later

Everyone was kind of shocked when Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell saw limited action in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots due to a groin injury.

However, the more shocking news came about afterwards, when Le’Veon Bell, himself, admitted during Super Bowl week that he actually suffered the injury in the wild card victory over the Dolphins on January 8.

But maybe even more shocking, still, was Le’Veon Bell’s revelation during a Super Bowl week interview that his groin injury was so severe that he had to seek two medical opinions–one advised surgery; the other advised rest.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs. Chiefs, Steelers Chiefs playoffs, Le'Veon Bell surgery, Steelers playoff rushing record, Le'Veon Bell Steelers playoff game rushing record

Le’Veon Bell rushing in his record breaking playoff performance against the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Kyle Rivas, UPI

Given the choice, most people in Le’Veon Bell’s situation (whether they be professional athletes or ordinary citizens) would probably much rather rest than go under the knife.  It’s easy to forget that surgery, even something that seems non-life-threatening such as a groin repair, is a scary thing to face.

  • Maybe that’s why, sitting around in early-February, Le’Veon Bell may have been leaning towards the rest and rehab prescription.

If you’re a fan of the team, on the other hand, you may have feared Bell putting off the surgery all off season, only to be forced to have the procedure during the regular season and miss a significant amount of time.

After all, something similar happened to James Harrison in 2012. Deebo came into training camp with a nagging knee injury and waited until August to go under the knifey, delaying his start to 2012. And just this last year something similar happened with Bud Dupree. Dupree had a similar injury to Bell’s waited to have surgery, and Bud Dupree starting 2016 on injured reserve because of it.

  • So, would Le’Veon Bell continue to take the wait and see approach, or would he decide that surgery was the best option?

The answer came on March 13, when it was announced that Bell underwent surgery to repair his groin injury and is now in the post-procedure recovery phase of things.

If you ask me, Le’Veon Bell did the right thing by seeking multiple opinions for his injured groin. After all, it’s his life, and if surgery can be avoided, it’s perhaps always best to do so.

However, if there were any doubts as to the rest and rehab process, Le’Veon Bell also did the right thing by having the procedure done in mid-March, thus giving himself plenty of time to rest, recover, rehab and prepare for the 2017 campaign.

In-terms of his financial future in the NFL, 2017 figures to be a huge year for Le’Veon Bell. Pittsburgh slapped the franchise tag on Bell in late-February, which will guarantee the mega-star running back $12 million next season, once he actually gets around to signing (nothing hints at him not sending the tender, at this point).

But even though Bell is guaranteed a huge payday in 2017, he obviously wants an even bigger one, either before the start of the regular season or after it. In other words, Le’Veon Bell is looking for the usual long-term contract and financial security players of his status often seek on the open market.

Of course, that money doesn’t have to come from the open market, if the Steelers and Bell reach an agreement on a long-term deal some time in the very near future.

  • And maybe that’s why Le’Veon Bell elected to eliminate all doubt and just go ahead and have the procedure.

In addition to missing a total of five games due to drug-related suspensions, Le’Veon Bell has also missed eight regular season games, one playoff game, a significant portion of another playoff game and an entire postseason due to injuries since Pittsburgh selected him in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

“Injury prone” is something no player (even a superstar) wants to be labeled as. And when you factor in the off-field issues, it would be easy to see the Steelers seeking other running back options, rather than committing so much money to Le’Veon Bell.

But now that Bell has gone ahead with the surgery–and he’s done so roughly six months before the start of the regular season–there is really nothing stopping him from being 100 percent healthy and ready to go.

Oh, by the way, 2017 figures to be a big year for the Steelers, as well. Coming off an ugly exit in the AFC Championship game, the expectations are going to be through the roof with regards to reaching and winning Super Bowl LII.

Without Le’Veon Bell, who, when healthy carries an overwhelming load in Pittsburgh’s offense, those expectations would be tempered significantly, regardless of whether Martavis Bryant returns to give Ben Roethlisberger another superstar receiver opposite Antonio Brown.

  • Sure, surgery doesn’t guarantee anything, and if he were to run into post-procedure complications, Bell wouldn’t be the first player.

But, in this case, it’s better for all parties involved that Le’Veon Bell elected to be proactive.

His immediate future, and that of the Steelers, depends on it.

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