Steelers Sign Justin Hunter, Whose Roster Spot is in His Sights?

Pittsburgh’s first successful free agent foray outside the confines of the South Side saw the Steelers sign Justin Hunter, a wide receiver drafted by Mike Munchak with the 2nd pick of the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Justin Hunter played three years for the Tennessee Titans before getting cut at the end of training camp in 2016. From there Hunter spent time with the Miami Dolphins but got cut before the end of September, before landing with the Buffalo Bills.

Finding/establishing a viable number two wide receiver to play alongside Antonio Brown has been a priority for the Steelers during 2017 off season that took on greater urgency after Markusy Wheaton walked.

  • However, even though Justin Hunter was drafted a round and a half ahead of Markus Wheaton, the Steelers clearly don’t see him as a replacement.

For comparison’s sake, despite seeing both his rookie and “senior” seasons marred by injuries, Markus Wheaton left Pittsburgh with 107 catches and 8 touchdowns, whereas Justin Hunter only has 78 grabs, although 12 of those were for touchdowns.

Whose Roster Spots Does Justin Hunter Have in His Sights?

Assuming he gets reinstated by the NFL and assuming he avoids further suspensions, Martavis Bryant looks to compete with Antonio Brown for Ben Roethlisberger’s attention down the field. Eli Rogers impressed during his rookie season and the coaches see him as a natural slot receiver, although Darrius Heyward-Bey has also shown he’s a competent number 3 wide out.

The Steelers had hoped that Sammie Coates would blossom into a viable number 2 wide receiver but Coates arguably dropped more passes than he caught in 2016.

  • Injuries played a factor, but there have also been rumblings about his worth ethic and practice habits.

At the bottom of the roster the Steelers have Cobi Hamilton, who performed extremely well for a training camp injury replacement 6th string wide receiver, and Demarcus Ayers who also delivered when pressed into action late in the season.

On paper, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers are the two players that Justin Hunter will likely place his bulls eye on, although neither Darriuss Heyward-Bey nor Sammie Coates should get too comfortable.

With that said, while terms haven’t been released yet, the Justin Hill’s one year contract with the Steelers suggests that this is at or near a veteran minimum signing which, if correct, would not even ensure his roster spot.

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 Wise to Let Markus Wheaton Walk in Free Agency. (Yes, You Read that Right)

While the Pittsburgh Steelers opened the 2017 free agency period by resigning two of their own, David Johnson and Landry Jones, before the sun set on the first day Pittsburgh lost one of their own when wide receiver Markus Wheaton came to terms with the Chicago Bears.

  • It says here the Steelers were wise to let Markus Wheaton walk.

Woah! Wait a minute! Run that by me again….

Yes, you read that correctly. And yes I don’t blame those of you who are sitting there saying “Hypocrite!” or Spanish speakers who’re crying ¡Double discurso!

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton contract, Martavis Bryant

Markus Wheaton’s defection to the Chicago Bears highlights Steelers need for Martavis Bryant. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via ESPN.com

Just a week or so ago, yours truly did author an article headline “Why the Steelers would be wise to resign Markus Wheaton.” Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. But, if you’ll allow me a little attitude, I was sincere then just as I’m sincere now.

The argument that the Steelers should consider breaking franchise prescient and resign Markus Wheaton to a second contract was predicated on Steelers ability either to come to terms with Wheaton at a very low rate one year “Prove it” contract, or a longer medium tier contract. As free agency approached, rumblings got louder that this wasn’t terribly likely.

Which is fine, because it’s an agent’s job to make both the press and personnel offices think that all 31 teams are absolutely dying to sign their client.

  • Sometimes that interest is real, sometimes it’s nothing more than hot air. This time it was real.

Terms of Markus Wheaton’s deal with the Bears aren’t public yet, but the biggest money typically gets thrown around on day one of free agency. Which is to say that if the Bears were offering enough to get Wheaton, who was also being courted by at least the Eagles, locked down on day one, they well into territory that the Steelers had no desire to enter.

So be it. The Steelers don’t overpay in free agency, and they especially don’t over pay for wide receivers. Hines Ward and Antonio Brown will remain the only two wide outs to get offered second contracts after their rookie deals were complete.

Losing Markus Wheaton Still Impacts Steelers

Losing Markus Wheaton to the Bears does come with its consequences, even if the Steelers made the right move. The absence of someone to take consistent heat off of Antonio Brown hurt the Steelers last season. During much of the Steelers 9 game winning streak the Steelers compensated by force-feeding the ball to Le’Veon Bell.

The Steelers have quantity at the number two WR spot – Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton, but Wheaton had shown far more consistency as a number two target for Ben Roethlisberger than any of these men.

Now the Steelers will have to replace that consistency either in house, free agency or in the 2017 NFL Draft.

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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4 Survival Tips for Steelers Nation for the Start of Free Agency

In just a few hours the NFL’s 2017 free agency period will start. We’ve seen this movie before of course, but commentators still insist on trying to spice things up with a dose of extra drama.

  • Steelers Nation is not exempt.

In the course the course of just a handful of days, we’re told that Ross Cockrell, Lawrence Timmons and most likely Markus Wheaton are on the verge of selling their homes in Pittsburgh, while the Steelres signing Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Marshall and Dre Kirkpatrick is merely a formality.

  • Or something like that.

Its inevitable I guess, but at this time of year a certain segment of Steelers Nation seems to forget all history since 1993. So what is a good blogger to do? Offer Steelers Nation advice on surviving free agency.

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Steelers 2017 free agency

Mike Tomlin & Kevin Colbert during Steelers 2015 off season. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP

1. Any Steelers Free Agent Splash Likely Involves a Name You’re Not Hearing

You don’t need a long memory for this one folks. Think back to the week before free agency started in 2014. Steelers Nation was abuzz with anticipation of the Mike Mitchell signing. Behind the Steel Curtain had a full 7 or 8 articles analyzing how Mitichell’s arrival would impact Shamarko Thomas’ development, Troy Polamalu’s retirement and the Steelers salary cap….

…Except it didn’t.

If memory serves, there was little – if any – connection made between Mike Mitchell and the Steelers until the Steelers surprised everyone by signing Mike Mitchell. Ditto last year’s signing of Ladarius Green.

Unlike other teams, the Steelers aren’t concerned about winning the off season Lombardi, they’re focused on winning a real Lombardi. They’ve never telegraphed their moves before. No one in Steelers Nation should expect them to start now.

2. Watch Confluence of Steelers Words & Actions

Might the Steelers lose Lawrence Timmons? You bet. Kevin Colbert has said a number of times that he thinks Lawrence Timmons might test the free agent market. The Steelers anticipated this over a year ago when they resigned Vince Williams.

  • The Steelers want Lawrence Timmons back, but Omar Khan isn’t cutting him a blank check.

Ditto Ross Cockrell. This site perhaps underestimated the Steelers desire to bring Cockrell back in our free agent profile of the restricted free agent corner. But the low tender, combined with Jim Wexell’s reporting that the Steelers are going target cornerback in free agency shows that their some fire behind that smoke.

The door swings both ways, as the case of Antonio Brown illustrates. The Steelers just resigned Antoino Brown agreeing to pay him an average of 17 million for the next five years. Do you relly think they’re going to plunk down 12 million a year for Terrelle Pryor?

If you do, you don’t understand how the Pittsburgh Steelers work.

3. Don’t Panic. The Brain Trust in Pittsburgh Won’t

This isn’t the first rodeo for Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert or Mike Tomlin, nor is it for 3 or 4 score of other people employed at the South Side. As an organization, the Steelers have the institutional wisdom to both know to expect the unexpected and that smart decisions in free agency are never made out of panic.

  • A little thought exercise brings this to light.

Who is the Steelers best free agent signing ever? The answer can only be Kevin Greene. No offense to Jeff Hartings, Ryan Clark or James Farrior, but Kevin Greene is a Hall of Famer. But the Steelers didn’t enter the 1993 off season targeting Kevin Greene.

  • Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe thought the Steelers outside linebacking tandem was set with Greg Lloyd and Jerrol Williams.

Then San Diego came along and made Jerrol Williams a 1.7 million one year contract offer, in what was then an exorbitant amount for any player, let alone a 1 year contract. The Steelers really wanted to keep Williams in Pittsburgh, but there was no way they were going to pay that money.

  • So they went out and signed a future Hall of Famer instead.

During the 1997 off season, the Steelers saw their top three cornerbacks, Rod Woodson, Willie Williams and Deon Figures all walk in free agency. When dust settled, two Kordell Stewart interceptions at the goal line in the AFC Championship where essentially all that separated the Steelers from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It doesn’t always work out so neatly, of course. After the 1997 trip to the AFC Championship, the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans grossly overpaid for the services of John Jackson and Yancey Thigpen. If the Pittsburgh was right to stick to its bottom lines, the Steelers most certainly suffered as the team struggled to find replacements for both players.

The Steelers understand that winning free agent bidding wars won’t doesn’t win Super Bowls.

4. Relax and Remember: Reality Unfolds at its Own Pace

Reading all of this “do or die” talk about free agents either coming or going reminds me of a conversation I had while in college the night before free agency began for the first time in 1993.

A friend of mine, I diehard Washington Redskins fan, called me and told me:

“Tomorrow morning at 10:00 am Reggie White’s agent is going to get a call with a big, fat contract from Redskins Park, and I predict by tomorrow afternoon he’ll be a Washington Redskin.”

To hear my friend tell it, Lombardi number 4 should already have been pressed, minted and shipped to Asburn, Virginia. To be fair, Reggie White hadn’t been happy in Philadelphia, and his name had been frequently tied to the Redskins. And Jake Kent Cooke and spent lavishly on players in the days before free agency.

  • But of course Reggie White never made it to Washington.

He got ticker tape parades and city keys at just about every team he visited. In the end the team that deliberately took a minimalist, football centric approach, the Green Bay Packers, landed Reggie White.

Could this afternoon bring news that the Steelers have made another day-one free agent signing? Yes it might? Could we see Lawrence Timmons announce his reunion with Dick LeBeau or Bruce Arians. Perhaps. Both are plausible possibilities.

Its also just as possible that Timmons shops his services around, makes a couple of visits, and decides to stay in Pittsburgh, just as Ryan Clark did in 2010. The Steelers could make a splash, but the could also let the initial frenzy pass, and then do that they’ve traditionally done best – bargain hunt.

At the end of the day, “Reality unfolds at its own pace,” if we’re allowed recycle a 40 year old quote from Jerry Brown.

And perhaps free agency is the best time to keep that in mind.

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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Why Steelers Would be Wise to Resign Free Agent Markus Wheaton

In the 24 years since the Freeman McNeil verdict brought free agency to the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers have drafted 29 wide receivers. 27 of those wide receivers have gone on to play in at least one NFL football game, and 24 of those 27 have suited up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Clearly, Tom Donahoe, Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have an eye for drafting receivers.

But if the Steelers have excelled in finding and drafting wide receivers who’re good enough to make the field and play, Pittsburgh rarely picks ones that stay. Of those 24 wide receivers the Steelers have drafted since 1993, only two of them*, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers sat and watched as first round picks Charles Johnson, Troy Edwards, Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes left in free agency (or were traded). They did the same with Antwaan Randle El after he authored a game-changing play in Super Bowl XL. If you count Yancey Thigpen, who was essentialy a waiver-wire pickup, the Steelers let their then single-season reception record holder walk in free agency.

IN a week when Antonio Brown signed his third contract in Pittsburgh, we turn our attention to whether Steelers free agent Markus Wheaton can break precedent and secure his second contract.

Markus Wheaton, Markus Wheaton free agent, Steelers vs Seahawks, Markus Wheaton Seahawks

Markus Wheaton in his 9 catch 201 yard game in 2015 vs. the Seahawks. Photo Credit: John Froschauer, AP via ESPN.com

Capsule Profile of Markus Wheaton’s Steelers Career

Although the Steelers “Young Money” phenomenon never quite lived up to its hype, Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh having made his mark on the Steelers wide receiving records. Markus Wheaton, whom the Steelers had drafted in the 3rd round of the 2013 NFL Draft, ostensibly came to Pittsburgh to replace Wallace.

Not that there was any pressure or anything.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola’s tweet from training camp indicate, the Steelers had high expectations for Markus Wheaton:

Unfortunately, injuries ruined Markus Wheaton’s rookie season. While he officially appeared in 12 games, Ben Roethlisberger only targeted him 13 times, of which Wheaton came down with the ball on 6 occasions.

Things looked better for Markus Wheaton going into 2014, as he earned the starting role alongside Antonio Brown. Wheaton had a strong game in the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Browns, but they struggled for the next several weeks. At mid-season he was all but forgotten in the excitement generated by Martavis Bryant’s debut.

  • Nonetheless, Markus Wheaton closed 2014 playing an unsung role by consistently making critical 3rd down conversions.

Markus Wheaton’s 2015 campaign closely mirrored 2014. He got off to an inconsistent start, but stepped up his play during the latter half of the season proving he could be a viable number 2 NFL wide out (although he did have an ugly drop in the playoffs vs. Denver.)

Markus Wheaton injured his shoulder in the Steelers preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, and only appeared in 3 games for the Steelers in 2016 before going on injured reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

One year ago the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to field one of NFL’s deepest wide receiving corps in 2016. Instead the Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and Richard Mann struggled to find someone who could occupy the number 2 spot opposite Antonio Brown.

  • The Steelers never really found that number 2 wide out.

To the team’s collective credit, the Steelers compensated effectively by leaning more heavily on Le’Veon Bell and by using quantity to make up for a lack of quality. That formula failed the Steelers in the playoffs, as evidence by the need for 6 Chris Boswell field goals in Kansas City and the disaster that was the AFC Championship.

Markus Wheaton might not give the Steelers a modern day “Swann-Stallworth” type combo alongside Antonio Brown, but he’s a reliable receiver and a legitimate number 2 that has proven he can make defenses pay should they decide to ignore him.

  • Markus Wheaton can also move into the slot, should Martavis Bryant prove he deserves and can be trusted with a starting job.

Better yet, because he spent most of his contract year injured, Markus Wheaton isn’t in a position to command a lot of interest or money on the free agent market. That makes the Steelers resigning Markus Wheaton a no brainer.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Markus Wheaton

Here are 6 simple reason why the Steelers need not think twice about resigning Markus Wheaton:

In a best case scenario, the Steelers will have the services of all six men on a full time basis next year. While Steelers know there’s no certainty that both Bryant and Green, either man offers Pittsburgh’s offense a far more dangerous weapon than Wheaton does.

Eli Rogers, Cobi Hamilton and Demarcus Ayers got pressed into service far earlier than anyone expected them two, and while Rogers and Hamilton had suffered their growing pains in the AFC Championship, these player did in fact grow up fast.

  • The Steelers will probably keep 5 wide receivers next year with 6 being the absolute maximum.

Bringing Markus Wheaton back, even on a “Prove It” contract, would mean risking exposing losing Rogers, Hamilton or Ayers, guys who have longer-term prospects in Pittsburgh. Given that, the case for investing salary cap dollars and a roster spot in Markus Wheaton seems rather weak.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Markus Wheaton

In a number of albeit imperfect ways, Markus Wheaton’s development to this point in his career reminds me of Jason Gildon’s. Gildon was fortunate enough to do an apprenticeship behind Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, but by the end of Gildon’s sophomore season, Greene pronounced him as ready to start.

  • Jason Gildon did start in 1996 and 1997, but started off slow in both seasons but was playing fairly good football by the end of each.

That worked out well for the Steelers, because by the time he became a free agent, he didn’t have the type of numbers to command a big contract and the Steelers resigned Jason Gildon at a relative bargain.

  • A similar dynamic could be a work for the Steelers and Markus Wheaton.

It says here that, at the right price, the Steelers would wise to bring back Markus Wheaton for at least 2017 as he offers a known commodity in the face of several other “ifs” and unknowns. If some other team wants to get an outlandish offer to Wheaton, so be it, but otherwise the he should remain in Pittsburgh.

*Technically speaking, the Steelers did bring back Will Blackwell for one season after his rookie contract that injury limited to two games.

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 Focus: Shamarko Thomas – 4 Years Later Thomas Fails to Disprove Doubters

The Pittsburgh Steelers do not like to trade future draft picks. The franchise went down that road too many times in the Pre-Noll era and paid the price repeatedly. Nonetheless Noll did it in the summer of 1973 when he traded the Steelers 1974 3rd round pick to the Raiders to acquire Glen Ray Hines.

Because of that trade, Chuck Noll, Art Rooney Jr., Dick Haley and Bill Nunn were forced to sit on their hands after drafting Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert during the Steelers 1974 Draft in hopes that no one took John Stallworth in the 3rd round.

Neither did Tom Donahoe or Bill Cowher, and neither did Kevin Colbert until the 2013 NFL Draft when the Steelers traded their 2014 third round pick to get the Cleveland Browns 2013 4th round pick to grab Shamarko Thomas in the 4th round, and four years later Shamarko Thomas enters free agency have failed to disprove the doubters.

Shamarko Thomas, Markus Wheaton, Steelers 2013 training camp, Shamarko Thomas free agent, Shamarko Thomas rookie

Shamarko Thomas & Markus Wheaton as rookies in 2013 at Latrobe. Photo Credit: Ryan Wilson, CBSSports.com

Capsule Profile of Shamarkoy Thomas’ Steelers Career

Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake explained Pittsburgh’s break from character by arguing that if Shamarko Thomas, who stands at 5’10”, were two inches taller, he’d have been a first round pick.

  • In a word, Pittsburgh as hot on Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers immediately worked Shamarko Thomas into the defense, a rarity for a rookie in Dick LeBeau’s system. The Steelers goal was to groom Shamarko Thomas as Troy Polamalu’s successor, and the first step in that process was to get Shamarko on the field covering slot receivers as a nickel back.

Most of those came at the beginning of the season, before he got injured forcing the Steelers to bring back Will Allen. While Allen remained “The next man up” when Shamarko Thomas got healthy, Thomas still got some work with the defense, although that ended after the Steelers 2013 debacle against the Patriots.

Shamarko Thomas, Shamarko Thomas workout

Shamarko Thomas working out during the 2014 off season

The Steelers 2014 OTA’s brought the first sign that the Steelers might be having second thoughts about Shamarko’s ability to succeed Troy Polamalu. Will Allen was the number 2 safety on the depth chart, and Shamarko Thomas suffered an injury early in the season. When he returned, his action came exclusively on special teams.

  • Mike Tomlin explained away the move by suggesting that Thomas was simply struggling to board a “Moving Train” as would any player would.

Rookie defensive coordinator Keith Butler gave Shamarko Thomas his first extended shot at earning the starting strong safety job during the summer of 2015. The Steelers started Shamarko Thomas throughout preseason, but Thomas continued to make mistake after mistake. Shortly before the season opener, the Steelers benched Shamarko Thomas in favor of Will Allen.

For the record, Shamarko Thomas played 20 snaps with the Steelers defense in 2015 and 5 snaps in 2016…

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

In 2016, whenever the Steelers needed help at safety, the Steelers looked to Jordan Dangerfield, signaling the definitive end to the Shamarko Thomas experiment.

  • But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a case for the Steelers resigning Shamarko Thomas.

If Shamarko Thomas has been a brutal disappointment at safety, he’s been a quality often times standout special teams player. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but he’s arguably been the Steelers best gunner for the past several years.

Clearly, if Shamarko Thomas has a future in the NFL it is on special teams. Clearly on one will pay him much more the than the veteran minimum, if even that. If Shamarko Thomas is bound to be racing downfield to stop kick and punt returners, doesn’t it make sense for him to be doing it in Pittsburgh?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Shamarko Thomas

When things don’t pan out with a high-profile draft pick (think Jarvis Jones), often times it is in the best interests of both parties to go their separate ways. Yes, Shamarko Thomas is a quality special teams player and, to be brutally frank, Danny Smith’s special teams don’t have the luxury of cavalierly showing good players to the door.

Fair enough. But the truth is even if the Steelers bring Shamarko Thomas back on a veteran minimum salary to play special teams, that means that he’ll be taking a roster spot that could be occupied by another young player who can both do Shamarko’s job on special teams, and potentially contribute something, either now or in a future season, to the offense or defense.

  • Shamarko Thomas isn’t going to contribute anything to the Steelers defense.

That’s simply the reality. As early as 2015 people were already labeling the 2013 NFL Draft as one of the worst in history. If that’s true, then the Steelers came out of that draft with Le’Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Markus Wheaton and Vince Williams, giving them a pretty successful haul.

But the Steelers missed on Jarvis Jones and missed on Shamarko Thomas, and it is time for them to move on from both mistakes.

Curtain’s Call on Shamarko Thomas and the Steelers

The Shamarko Thomas situation promises to be one of the more interesting, albeit low-profile decisions the Steelers make during the 2017 off season. Reading the tea leaves from reporters such as Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell, there are some signs that the Steelers have some interest in bring Thomas back.

  • But he won’t be a priority, which means he’ll get a chance to test the market.

If the Steelers can bring him back at or near the veteran minimum, he’d be a good addition to their special teams. If someone wants to offer him more than that, then Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin will wisely thank him for his service and send him on his way.

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 2017 Fan Poll – Who Stays? Who Goes? You Decide Steelers Nation

You’ve got to love technology. The original plan was to include this poll in yesterday’s Steelers 2017 free agent tracker post and begin with our Steelers 2017 free agent profiles today. It worked perfectly, except the short code for the poll wouldn’t embed to the right, making for a LONG post with a lot of scrolling.

Le'Veon Bell, Landry Jones, Steelers 2017 free agents

Landry Jones hands off to Le’Veon Bell. Both Steelers are free agents. (Photo Credit: Shelley Lipton, UPI via UPI top news)

So we go to Plan B and include the poll in a separate post, which you can vote on below:

[yop_poll id=”50″]

Please note that we’ve left the Steelers 2017 Exclusive Rights free agents off of the poll because those guys aren’t going anywhere and it would make the poll too long. Also note that you can vote for as many players as you like.

The Steelers are expected to tender restricted free agents Ross Cockrell and Chris Hubbard with the possibility that they’ll seek a long term deal with Cockrell – here’s your chance to sound off.

Conventional wisdom also indicates that the Steelers biggest three unrestricted free agents are Le’Veon Bell, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons. Management wants all three back, all three men want to stay in Pittsburgh.

  • Perhaps you’re a contrarian and have a different idea, well now is the time to make your voice heard.

Both Landry Jones lovers and haters can express their view of Ben Roethlisberger’s backup. Conventional wisdom has both Jarvis Jones and DeAngelo Williams headed out of Pittsburgh on a fast boat down the Ohio. Maybe you think there’s a way either man still fits in. Excellent, then cast your vote accordingly.

Then there are the guys on the margins, the ones that no one ever talks about, you don’t see articles written about, and depending on when things happen, the newspapers might not write about if they leave Pittsburgh (think Mewelde Moore in 2012 and Doug Legursky in 2013).

This year Cody Wallace, Shamarko Thomas, David Johnson and Ricardo Mathews are four lower profile free agents that no one seems to care about, except for perhaps you. So if you think they belong in Pittsburgh or think its time for them to move on, vote accordingly.

There’s also Markus Wheaton. The Steelers don’t normally give wide receivers not named Antonio Brown or Hines Ward second contracts, but some people think he deserves to be an exception particularly if he’s affordable. Again, your opinion is what counts here.

Finally, we’ve included long snapper Greg Warren and linebacker/special teamer Steven Johnson in our poll. The Steelers have already resigned both men, but you can endorse that wisdom or express your outrage as you see fit.

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 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.

Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent focus articles.

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Think Steelers Should Trade Antonio Brown? Then Follow Le’Veon Bell’s Example and Stop Smoking

Antonio Brown, the Steelers superstar receiver and social media celebrity, has come under fire recently for putting too much emphasis on his superstar status and for, well, being on social media too much.

Among Antonio Brown‘s many follies recently was his Facebook Live post in the Steelers’ locker room shortly after an exciting 18-16 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC divisional playoffs on January 15.

I can go on and on about Antonio Brown’s various transgressions that include your usual diva-like receiver tendencies of whining and complaining about not getting enough passes thrown his way, but if you’re reading this article, you probably know it all by now.

Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Browns

Antonio Brown leads Le’Veon Bell at Heinz Field in Steelers 2014 opener. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via PennLive.com

As is often the case in the Internet Age, fans have been quick to call for the Steelers to trade Antonio Brown to another team. Not all of the fans, mind you,  but, relative to his status as perhaps the game’s top wide-out, enough to make it noticeable.

  • “Trade him for two number one draft picks!” some fans have written or screamed in recent days.

Fans are just crazy about the NFL Draft and draft picks. And any scenario that could involve Pittsburgh having multiple first rounders in this spring’s draft would be akin to counting down the days until Christmas morning for so many out there.

But if you think Antonio Brown, who has one year left on his current contract, would garner two first round picks in a trade, you are crazy. Given Antonio Brown’s lame-duck status, fetching even one first rounder might be little more than a pipe-dream.

However, that begs an even bigger question: even if you can garner two first round picks for Antonio Brown, why would you want to?

Why Antonio Brown is Worth More than 2 First Round Picks

First of all, contrary to what you always think every February, March and most of April, first round picks don’t always pan out.

Secondly, how can a first round pick (or even two) possibly best what Antonio Brown has and will probably continue to produce on the football field week in and week out?

I know what you’re going to say. Yes, Antonio Brown’s stats declined last year. He made 30 fewer receptions in 2016 than he did the previous year (106) for 550 fewer yards (1,284).

  • But to point that out as a criticism of Antonio Brown while not also mentioning the probable reason is rather disingenuous.

Given that the Steelers were missing Martavis Bryant for all of 2016, Markus Wheaton for all but three games and tight end Ladarius Green for all but six, it makes perfect sense that Antonio Brown’s numbers would see a swift decline from the year before.

Remember that offense that everyone envisioned, the NFL’s equivalent of the Death Star, complete with a plethora of aerial weapons for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to pick and choose how to obliterate opposing defenses? That kind of went up in smoke (pun intended) when Martavis Bryant was suspended for testing positive for marijuana for the second time in as many seasons.

Sammie Coates, Sammie Coates drop, steelers trade antonio brown

Sammie Coates drops a pass in the Steelers 2016 win over the Jets. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

You throw in the aforementioned injuries to some other targets–Green was supposed to be the downfield threat at tight end that would compensate for Bryant’s absence as the number two receiver–as well as Sammie Coates swift decline following a promising start to his second year, and Antonio Brown was destined to produce less in 2016.

Let’s face it, when you have Demarcus AyersCobi Hamilton and Eli Rogers (no offense to those men as they appear to be developing into a fine NFL receivers) as complementary targets, who do you think defensive coordinators are going to focus on stopping, them or Antonio Brown?

  • This is why No. 84 often dealt with double and triple teams in 2016.

This might also explain why Antonio Brown’s yards after catch (YAC) dropped from 587 in 2015 to 387 last year. Sure, it only makes sense that Brown’s YAC would decrease along with his overall yards, but it also illustrates the lack of room he had to work in after making most of his 106 receptions.

And even if Antonio Brown had benefited from being complemented quite nicely by Martavis Bryant, Marcus Wheaton, Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green in  2016, this does not mean his statistics wouldn’t have taken a dip. After all, Antonio Brown averaged 125 receptions a season between 2013-2015, a pretty historic run of productivity for a receiver from any generation–even one playing in the current era of pass-happy football.

Still Want Steelers to Trade Antonio Brown? Careful for What you Wish….

Again, fans are often quick to want to cut a player loose these days, even if his talents are all-world and his transgressions aren’t of the legal nature.

  • But, whether the fantasy football mentality or something else fuels this – careful what you wish for.

Let’s not forget, Pittsburgh’s franchise quarterback hinted at retirement mere hours after the Steelers 36-17 loss to New England in the AFC Championship game. It is believed that Ben Roethlisberger’s hints were mostly out of frustration, that he was tired of the likes of Antonio Brown and his antics.

However, despite an apparent friction between No. 7 and Antonio Brown, does anyone really think that the best way to entice Ben Roethlisberger into playing longer would be to eliminate his number one target, arguably the very best in the game at his position?

Yes, Antonio Brown is apparently a high maintenance member of the locker room and maybe a little more self-centered than most receivers (and that’s saying something), but this is the man who essentially saved the Steelers season, when, despite three defenders vehemently trying to prevent him from doing so, extended his arm over the goal line with nine seconds left to give the Steelers a pulsating 31-27 victory over the Ravens on Christmas Day, which clinched the AFC North title.

Brown is also the same man who had the presence of mind to keep running across the field late in the divisional round against the Chiefs, got himself open and clinched the victory by reeling in Roethlisberger’s pass on third and three.

Steelers young money crew, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace

Steelers “Young Money” Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Tribune Review Blog

Fans have also been quick to point out that since Pittsburgh has produced a seemingly endless string of receivers in recent years–let’s not forget Antonio Brown was once part of the Young  Money trio that included Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders–he could be replaced, if not totally, then approximately.

But with 632 receptions in just seven seasons–including four-straight with 100 or more– Antonio Brown is quickly ascending up the record books of Steelers receivers  and could quite literally ellipse all of the records set by Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Hines Ward while he’s still in his early-30s.

  • Despite what you think of him, and despite his apparent need to grow up just a tad, there is only one Antonio Brown.

Part ways with Antonio Brown, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are a lesser football team.

I don’t think anyone is ready for that.

 

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Kevin Colbert & Mike Tomlin Cut Losses Quickly: Steelers Cut Justin Gilbert

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin believe in cutting their loses quickly as the Steelers cut cornerback Justin Gilbert just months after trading a 2018 6th round pick to acquire Gilbert’s services from the Cleveland Browns.

Going into the 2014 NFL Draft, cornerback was the Steelers most urgent area of need, and by all accounts Justin Gilbert was the player Pittsburgh’s brain trust was targeting. But the Cleveland Browns got him first, picking him 7th and making him the first defensive back drafted that year.

Justin Gilbert, Tyreek Hill, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers cut Justin Gilbert

The Steelers Justin Gilbert tries in vain to tackle Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh 247 Sports.

3 months later Justin Gilbert got infamously burned in a couple of Ben Roethlisberger to Markus Wheaton hook ups the Steelers 2014 season opener against the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, that’s probably the most anyone in Pittsburgh has seen of Justin Gilbert since then.

By Pro Football Reference’s count, Justin Gilbert participated in a just 1.05% of the Steelers defensive snaps this season, suiting up in the secondary during the Steelers regular season win over the Kansas City Chiefs and their regular season loss against the New England Patriots. Theoretically, Gilbert should have given the Steelers kick return game some juice, but Gilbert only 3 kicks during the regular season with those attempts coming against the Chiefs and Patriots.

Gilbert did run for long returns of 32 yards in the regular season and 26 yards during the post season, but clearly Steelers Special Teams coach Danny Smith didn’t see enough of a spark to lobby Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert into keeping him on the roster.

Impact of the Steelers Cutting Justin Gilbert

On the face of it, Justin Gilbert’s release is a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Keith Butler’s defense struggled early during the 2016 season, but you can trace the unit’s turn around to increased playing time by Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Javon Hargrave and James Harrison. Justin Gilbert remained a spectator through it all. When the Steelers needed to add a 6th defensive back, Robert Golden and/or Jordan Dangerfield got the call as opposed to Gilbert.

  • Nonetheless, the Steelers decision to cut Justin Gilbert thins out an already sparse spot on their depth chart.

Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell will return to training camp as their starting cornerbacks, with William Gay penciled in as their slot cornerback. While William Gay had a solid season in 2016, he will be 32 next season and cornerback in the NFL is a young man’s game. Senquez Golson will arrive in Latrobe with a shot at the Steelers slot corner position but, given injury history that 2015’s 2nd round pick has had, it would be a mistake to bank on contributions.

  • The Steelers also have reserve cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz who spent time on both their active rosters and practice squad in 2016.

In a nutshell, cornerback was already a Steelers priority for the 2017 NFL Draft and its priority status just got a bump.

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Steelers 2016 Season Highlights Living Example of Mike Tomlin’s “Moving Train” Metaphor

Crafting a compelling, yet honest, Steelers 2016 annual review presents a challenge, but Steelers President Art Rooney II is on the right track. While Rooney’s take aways from 2016 are by and large positive, he underscored the need for more “consistency” several times.

  • Head coach Mike Tomlin offers an even better metaphor for summing up the Steelers 2016 season – the moving train.

The “Moving train” metaphor is a Tomlinism that popped into the Steelers Nation’s vernacular in 2014 when Tomlin used it to explain Shamarko Thomas and Lance Moore’s inability to get back into the lineup after an injury. This year he applied it to Ladarius Green.

The truth is that Steelers 2016 season highlights Mike Tomlin’s “Moving train” metaphor perfectly – When the Steelers were on it, they got where they wanted to go; When the Steelers failed to get on it, they stranded themselves.

Steelers 2016 highlights, DeAngelo Williams

Steelers 2016 season highlights: DeAngelo Williams dives forward at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

2016 Steelers Forge Moving Train Identify Early

Like his predecessor Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin has oft asserted that an NFL team finds its identity in the first 4 to 6 weeks of the season and that was certainly true of the Steelers in 2016.

The Steelers entered the 2016 off season as Super Bowl contenders, and despite some radical personnel disruptions on offense, the Steelers 38-16 opening a day win over the Washington Redskins confirmed their status as potential champions.

Steelers 2016 highlights, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Redskins, Antonio Brown Redskins touchdown

Steelers 2016 Season Highlight: Antonio Brown scores a touchdown on opening night against Redskins. Photo Credit: Washington Post

History will forget that the Redskins actually forced a turnover to start the game and then quickly leapt to a 6-0 lead before the 2nd quarter began because the Steelers, like a moving train, never appeared to lose control. The story was the same a week later in Cincinnati. The Steelers didn’t dominate their rivals, but also never trailed during a 24-16 win.

  • In Philadelphia, the Steelers found the nasty flipside to the identity they were forging.

The Steelers opened by advancing to the Eagle’s 18 in a drive that consumed 6 minutes of clock, only to have Markus Wheaton drop a touchdown pass and Chris Boswell miss a field goal. And in the blink of an eye, the Steelers were off the train as they never contested the Eagles dominance after that point.

  • And so went the entire season.

At Miami, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury knocked the Steelers off the moving train and struggled to get back on the locomotive for the next 3 weeks. The only exception to the “moving train” metaphor came in the loss to Cowboys. Yes, the loss was dramatic, and potentially devastating precisely because the Steelers contested that game until the bitter end.

  • Undaunted by such drama, Mike Tomlin pulled the Steelers back on to the moving train for Steelers for 9 straight wins.

While the Steelers certainly didn’t dominate in each of those contests, Pittsburgh never let any of those games get out of control. Even in the come from behind win over the Bengals, and even on Christmas, when the Ravens re-took the lead with 1:18 remaining, the Steelers on the field demeanor never suggested that they couldn’t regain control.

  • Contrast that with the AFC Championship game.
Steelers 2016 season highlights, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Patriots, Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, Steelers Patriots AFC Championship

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Le’Veon Bell’s record breaking season stopped short in New England. Photo Credit: 247 Sports

The Patriots easily advanced to Pittsburgh’s 18 on their first drive, but the Steelers defense forced a in the Red Zone. However the Steelers offense answered with two strong runs by Le’Veon Bell followed Sammie Coates dropping well-placed bomb on third down. Javon Hargrave ended the Patriot’s next possession by sacking Tom Brady on 3rd down, but the Steelers offense responded with a 3 and out, the Steelers effectively out of the game at that point.

As a consequence, the 2016 Steelers were forced to watch the moving train continue to Super Bowl LI.

Why Did Mike Tomlin’s Moving Train Suddenly Stop and Start?

If Mike Tomlin’s moving train metaphor explains how the Steelers 2016 season unfolded, it does little to explain why things worked out that way. But objectively speaking, there’s no mysterious X-Factor behind Pittsburgh’s hot and cold performances of the 2016 season.

Steelers 2016 season highlights, Art Rooney II,

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Art Rooney II talks consistency. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Pro Football Talk

Art Rooney II hit the nail on the head in asserting that the Steelers need to be more consistent in establish a pass rush, covering in the secondary and scoring touchdowns in the Red Zone.

  • A football genius shouldn’t need to tell you if you can’t execute in these three areas, you won’t win much.

The good news is the Steelers pass rush and pass coverage improved during the latter half of the season. The Steelers Red Zone efficiency continued to be an issue, as evidenced by twin Chris Boswell 6 field goal games in December and January.

Although it may not feel that way now that New England has unequivocally asserted its dominance as the AFC’s alpha male, the Steelers did end 2016 with the arrow pointed up, and can potentially take some lessons from that experience into 2017.

A Year Later, Steelers Still Mastering Art of Learning How to Win…

The original theme for this article was to be “Struggling to Grow, Learning to Win.” It’s catchy, there’s a lot of truth to support such a sexy narrative. Unfortunately, the title of this site’s Steelers 2015 season review was “Learning to win by Overcoming Adversity.” Beyond being repetitive, it also invites the question “When are the Steelers going to stop ‘Learning to win’ and actually go about winning a Super Bowl?”

That’s a fair point, but the art of learning how to win and/or unlearning how to lose is very real process that champions must master. There’s no better example of two teams heading in different directions along this continuum than the Steelers and Bengals during the 2015 Wild Card game.

Steelers 2016 season highlights, Lawrence Timmons, Philip Dorsett, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Lawrence Timmons slams Colts Phillip Dorsett in Steelers goaline stand. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers goal line stands against the Colts and the Giants, Eli Roger’s and Ladarius Green’s key catches against the Bengals, Ryan Shazier’s and Lawrence Timmons fill in the blanks splash plays, Bud Dupree’s sacks vs. the Bill and all of the plays that culminated in Antonio Brown’s Christmas Day stretch count as part of the process of learning to win.

Lessons Steelers Must Take from 2016 to 2017

But those aren’t the lessons the Steelers need to take with them into 2017, instead here are 3 quick hits on what those lessons should be:

1. Expect the unexpected

To Mike Tomlin’s credit, he started preaching this the morning after Super Bowl XLIII and has reminded the team of this since. But contrast the names on the stat sheet from last year’s loss to Denver against those from the Patriots game or track the changes in the Steelers depth chart from the beginning of training camp to December 1st, and you see what Tomlin is talking about.

Sure, having Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton or Cameron Heyward would have helped the Steelers against the Patriots, but had they been available, its just as likely that someone else would have been out.

2. Toll the Bell, Just not Too Much

No one can accuse Todd Haley of being too pass happy during the second half of the season. 3 record breaking performances by Le’Veon Bell say that the Steelers executing the strategy that gave them the best chance to win.

  • But without Bell the Steelers were rudderless against the Patriots.

And, while more needs to be seen, it also seems like an over-reliance on Bell may be adding some rustiness to Roethlisberger’s game. Le’Veon Bell has Hall of Fame caliber talent, but the Steelers would be wise to remember that they had to do more than feed the ball to Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis to win their first 5 Super Bowls (well, OK, perhaps that’s not the case with Super Bowl X.)

3. Killer Bees + 1 = Steelers Success

Assuming that the Steelers can keep the trio together without busting their salary cap, and assuming that the sniping between Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown doesn’t turn toxic, the Killer Bees give the Steelers a Super Bowl caliber trio along the lines of Aikman, Irvin and Emmitt.

steelers 2016 season highlights, steelers killer bees, le'veon bell, ben roethlisberger, antonio brown

Steelers 2016 season highlights: Killer Bees led to a lot of Steelers success. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But just as those Dallas teams also needed their Alvin Harpers, Jay Novacks, Charles Haleys and Thomas Everetts (yeah, that hurt), the Steelers Killer Bees can’t do it on their own. The loss to Dallas brought that to light and, quite frankly, even had Bell not gotten hurt, the Patriots probably would have provided Pittsburgh with another reminder.

  • While the Steelers would do wise to keep Ben, Brown and Bell together as long as they can, they also must be mindful the the 3 of them can’t do it alone.

The Steelers 2016 season is now history. The 2017 off season will bring new challenges and new faces while some familiar names will depart for greener pastures or otherwise begin their Life’s Work. If the Steelers 2016 season highlights a living example of Mike Tomlin’s “Moving Train” then the reality is that train could deliver Pittsburgh’s return to the Super Bowl, but it did move them a step closer.

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