Why Steelers Chukwuma Okorafor is Probably Pittsburgh’s Most Important 3rd Round Pick in 2018

If you’re like most Pittsburgh Steelers fans, you’re surely super-excited about what quarterback Mason Rudolph, their third-round pick out of Oklahoma State, will look like all throughout training camp and during the preseason action that kicks off next Thursday evening in Philadelphia against the Super Bowl champion Eagles.

But while Mason Rudolph might be the most watched Steelers third string quarterback in history (can Mason Rudolph be a true heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger?), it’s that the Steelers other third round pick–offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan–who people should probably be paying attention to this summer, as his early development could save the Steelers bacon in 2018.

After the departure of super-swing tackle Chris Hubbard, who left as a free agent after saving the Steelers bacon the previous two seasons while filling in for the injured/suspended Marcus Gilbert, Pittsburgh’s tackle depth seemed especially thin behind Gilbert at right tackle and Alejandro Villanueva over on the left side.

And when 2016 fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins suffered a season-threatening torn quadriceps during offseason OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and was placed on Injured Reserve, the uncertainty was palpable.

  • After all, injuries happen in the NFL, and the offensive line is certainly not immune to it.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see Chukwuma Okorafor getting so many first-team reps in-place of an injured Villanueva early on at training camp, and when you get first-team reps on a line as accomplished as Pittsburgh’s, rookie or not, you better make the most of it.

“When you are playing with such a good unit, raise your game up a little bit more,” Okorafor revealed to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski.

One of the questions some scouts reportedly had about Chukwuma Okorafor coming out of college was that he lacked a mean-streak. And this is why it was so impressive to hear about the scuffle he had with reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo on the first day in shoulders pads last weekend.

  • If it’s toughness people are questioning, maybe they shouldn’t question it anymore?

But mean and tough or nice, but can Chukwuma Okorafor take his raw potential that includes a 6’6″ and 320 pound frame and hone it into a good to great NFL offensive lineman?

“He’ll be fun to watch,” said Mike Munchak, the legendary Houston Oilers offensive lineman who may actually have an even greater reputation as an offensive line coach. “He can improve in so many areas because he hasn’t been exposed to a lot of things we do. So far, so good. He’s got the demeanor, the size, long arms.”

  • And in Mike Munchak, Chukwuma Okorafor will have the very best in the business teaching him the finer points of offensive tackle play at the professional level.

With Mike Munchak as his teacher and a decorated group of offensive lineman also showing him the way, Okorafor could be the Steelers 2018 draft pick that has the biggest impact on their success.

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Steelers Sign Ryan Malleck and Bryce Harris to Replace Jake McGree and Jerald Hawkins

Steelers OTAs have been costly as both reserve offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins and backup tight end Jake McGee were lost to season ending injuries. Kevin Colbert moved swiftly to fill the void by signing offensive tackle Bryce Harris and tight end Ryan Malleck.

  • It is of minor note that the Steelers turned to NFL veterans to replace Jerald Hawkins and Jake McGree’s places.

While the Steelers would have been expected to sign replacements, Kevin Colbert could have just as easily filled both spots with undrafted rookie free agents. However, Bryce Harris has been bouncing around the NFC South since 2012, when he made the New Orleans roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.

  • Per Pro Football Reference, Bryce Harris has appeared in 37 games with both the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, and is even listed as having started 4 games.

Ryan Malleck returns to Pittsburgh after spending 3 months on the Steelers 2017 off season roster from February to May. After getting cut by the Steelers, Malleck spent time with the Ravens, and earned a spot on the Houston Texas active roster, where he saw action in two games, including catching one pass against the Steelers in Pittsburgh’s Christmas night win over the Texans.

Ryan Malleck, steelers sign ryan malleck, steelers vs texans

Ryan Malleck catches his lone NFL pass vs. Steelers. Photo Credit: Michael Wyke, AP via PennLive

The Steelers penciled in Jerald Hawkins as their 3rd/swing offensive tackle and heir apparent to Chris Hubbard. Third round draft pick Chukwuma Okorafor will get first shot at that job, but the Steelers have given Mike Munchak a bit of an insurance policy should Chukwuma Okorafor falter.

Jake McGee spent 2017 on the Steelers practice squad, where he drew rave reviews from Steelers 24/7 reporter Jim Wexell. The Steelers had expected Jake McGee to give Xavier Grimble a run at the third tight end position behind Vance McDonald and Jesse James.

The Steelers have another week of OTA’s remaining, followed by mandatory mini-camp. After that, the real off season begins until convening for training camp in July at St. Vincents in Latrobe.

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Steelers Jerald Hawkins Tears Quad in OTA’s, Could Miss Season

Sometimes, life is simply unfair. An so it is for the Steelers Jerald Hawkins who tore a quad in non-contact drills during Steelers OTA’s and the offensive tackle could miss the 2018 season if reports of ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler are correct.

  • IF this report turns out to be true, it would be the second bit of bad luck for Hawkins.

The Steelers drafted Jerald Hawkins in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. By all accounts, Hawkins was having a strong training camp and looked solid in preseason. And the door was open for Hawkins to earn a real shot at playing time, with Kelvin Beachum having departed in free agency, and the Steelers having little proven depth behind Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle.

Jerald Hawkins, Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick

Steelers 2016 4th round draft pick Jerald Hawkins

But in an otherwise sterling outing for the Steelers against the New Orleans Saints in preseason, Hawkins got injured and spent his rookie season on IR.

Hawkins had a more difficult time during his second summer in Latrobe, and never mounted serious challenge to unseat Chris Hubbard as the Steelers swing tackle behind Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert. However, as the season wore on, Hawkins saw spot duty as an extra tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy Package.”

The Steelers saw enough in Hawkins to let Chris Hubbard depart in free agency, although it is doubtful that Pittsburgh’s salary cap situation would have allowed them to make a serious play to keep Hubbard in the Steel City.

Anyone Still Wonder Why Steelers Drafted Chukwuma Okorafor?

With all five starters playing on their second NFL contracts, and B.J. Finney and Matt Feiler having proven themselves as compotent backups, the Steelers offensive line was not considered a prime need heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • Yet, as the old adage goes, you can never have enough good offensive lineman.

The Steelers have learned that lesson the hard way more than once in the Mike Tomlin era, but it appears it is a lesson Pittsburgh’s brain trust has taken to heart. In spite of, a need to upgrade their defense and despite having drafted James Washington and Mason Rudolph in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, the Steelers opted to draft Chukwuma Okorafor, and offensive tackle out of West Michigan with their second 3rd round pick.

In reporting on the Jerald Hawkins injury, 24/7 Sports Jim Wexell shared the observation by Marcus Gilbert that Chukwuma Okorafor is “….learning real fast. He’s probably the most ready rookie that we’ve had, talent-wise.”

Let’s hope that Chukwuma Okorafor remains a quick learner.

OTA Injuries Rare, But Not Unheard Of

OTA’s are, as Mike Tomlin loves to remind us, “Football in shorts.” Guys wear helmets but no pads and are not supposed to make contact. Yet injuries occur.

In May of 1998, Chad Scott was coming off his rookie year and while attempt to defend a Mike Tomczak pass, landed on Three Rivers Stadium’s Tartan Turf and tore his ACL, costing him the season and forcing Carnell Lake to play cornerback in his final season in Pittsburgh.

Two years ago news of Senquez Golson’s MRI caused a stir, although it was not on Golson’s previously injured shoulder, only a “lower body soft tissue injury.” No one ever linked that to the Lisfranc injury that ended the Steelers 2015 2nd round draft pick’s sophomore season, but it certainly served as a harbinger for things to come.

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Watch Tower: Did Munchack Help Push Haley Out? Journalistic Freudian Slip on Le’Veon Bell & More

It is mid-April. Free has worked itself out. The NFL draft is almost here as the Steelers 2018 off season reaches its critical mass, leaving the Watch Tower with plenty of material to shine its lights on.

With that, we take a look at new insights into Todd Haley’s departure and the Steelers ownership situation, some extra detail behind an unusual free agent signing while awarding kudos for adding primary details to the story on the Steelers secondary.

Todd Haley, Mike Munchak

Todd Haley and Mike Munchak at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com

Did Munchak Help Push Todd Haley Out?

The off season’s first piece of news was the departure of Todd Haley, a move which Steelers Nation greeted with adulation. The last edition of the Watch Tower recognized the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette for breaking the story and awarded kudos accordingly.

The conventional wisdom, which falls in line with Bouchette’s story is that hat the Steelers parted ways with Todd Haley keep Ben Roethlisberger happy. That almost certainly factored into the decision. But it seems like that wasn’t the Steelers only motive, if Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct:

The Steelers, in fact, hold Munchak in such high regard that some in the organization believe he, not Ben Roethlisberger, forced the departure of offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
On the same day Mike Tomlin announced Haley wouldn’t be brought back, Munchak turned down a second interview to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. [Emphasis added.]

True to his style, Wexell casually weaved that scoop into the text of an article detailing Steelers offensive line prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. While the Watch Tower can’t see behind (enough) paywalls to be certain that Wexell is the only reporter to come up with the Mike Munchak angle in Haley’s departure, some quick Googling appears to confirm this.

Yet again, Wexell earns Watch Tower kudos for his keen reporting.

Reading Between the Lines on Le’Veon Bell

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler made curious comment while surmising the situation between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell:

The Steelers would prefer players not divulge negotiations through the media. They also understand Bell can say what he wants; he’s not under contract. The fact they haven’t leaked any negative press about him over the past few months can be perceived as a good sign. [Emphasis added]

Fowler might not have intended this, but the implication behind his words is that Seelers HAVE leaked negative information about Bell. The Steelers leaking information about a player isn’t earth shattering. When news broke that Bell had been late for a walk through, a reader on Steel City Insider suggested that Steelers management had leaked the information, saying he knew an agent that and seen that tactic used against him.

A veteran reporter like Fowler isn’t going to “break Kayfabe” (pro wrestling term, Google it if need be) over something like this, but the Watch Tower wonders if this wasn’t the journalistic equivalent of a Freudian slip….

Zeroing in on the Steelers Secondary

The Steelers have cleaned house in their secondary this off season, from changing secondary coaches (the Watch Tower still isn’t 100% convinced that Carnell Lake‘s departure was 100% voluntary, but let’s not get side tracked, to cutting two former starters and a key backup in the form of Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden.

  • And they’ve of course made moves in free agency to replace both.

While many of these moves were anticipated, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided some of the first real insight into the change, as he correctly reported that Steelers would cut Mike Mitchell, although his report also indicated J.J. Wilcox would probably go as well, and Wilcox is still with the team.

In doing so, Gerry Dulac also provided some detailed reporting on how the Steelers see Sean Davis, their rookie standout from 2016 who appeared to struggle in 2017. While there might not have been anything overly earthshaking about Dulac’s insights, he was clearly getting his information from someone well-versed in the team’s thinking, and he deserves credit for delivering that to his readers.

About those Steelers Minority Owners…..

The last edition of the Watch Tower also awarded kudos to Ed Bouchette for his reporting on the apparent (since denied) unrest amoug the Steelers minority owners. The real news nugget that earned Bouchette praise was the insight he offered into the stake that minority owners hold in the Steelers.

Here’s the quote in question from Bouchette:

But, again if true, it’s the audacity that a couple of the Steelers’ 18 listed limited partners think they can have an influence on the coach by ringing up Rooney. Collectively, these guys might own 5 percent of the team — or less. They sound like college boosters.

Until that point, very little information on who owned how much of the Steelers had entered the public eye, save for the knowledge that the Rooney family (and/or the Rooney family and the McGinley family) maintained control.

However, a report by ESPN on Steelers minority owner David Tepper’s quest to by the Carolina Panthers appears to contradict Bouchette’s reporting. In writing about Tepper’s bid ESPN’s Darren Rovell, David Newton offered:

Tepper, the founder of the global hedge fund firm Appaloosa Management, has a net worth of $11 billion, according to Forbes. He currently owns 5 percent of the Steelers.

So which is it? Do the Steelers minority owners own less than 5% of the team or does Tepper, one of 13 non-Rooney, non-McGinley owners listed own 5% by himself? Or, are the equity advisers supporting Tepper’s acquisition puffing up his stake in the Steelers in order to make their client look more attractive?

  • It is impossible for the Watch Tower to know for sure….

…But this is what the Watch Tower thinks. Look closely at Bouchette’s quote. While his words are (in all likelihood intentionally) vague, it seems like Bouchette only referring to the specific minority owners who made noises about pressuring Art Rooney II to fire Mike Tomlin, not the entire group.

And if that is the case, then it would follow that Bouchette knew the identities of the minority owners in question or that he was at least told by someone inside the organization – “Hey, these guys don’t even own 5% of the team.”

Finally, it suggests that, despite Art Rooney II’s protestations that “he never got the letter,” some of the minority owners did push for Tomlin’s ouster.

An Interesting Detail to an Unusual Free Agent Signing

The Steelers opening salvo in free agency involved a rare move with a low profile player, namely punter Jordan Berry. The Steelers resigned Jordan Berry between the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl.

  • The Steelers bringing back Jordan Berry is no surprise.

But everything else about the deal was a little off rhythm. The Steelers announced the signing, long before it was time to tender restricted free agents and more over the contract was below the minimum tender. The Steelers have offered long term-deals to exclusive rights and restricted free agents before, see Willie Parker, James Harrison, Alejandro Villanueva or even Roosevelt Nix this year.

  • But those were all long term contracts for well above the minimum tender amounts.

As it turns out, the Jordan Berry needed a contract to keep his work visa valid, and the Steelers moved quickly to accommodate him, and even structured the contract so he’d earn at the level of a restricted free agent.

Now, when Steelers fans gather to watch the 2018 NFL Draft, it is safe to say that they’re not going to be talking about Jordan Berry’s contract, but that was an important detail missing from a story that ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler filled, and for that he wins Watch Tower kudos.

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Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs – Time for Pittsburgh Reinforce Depth

You can criticize Billy Cowher’s drafting record with both Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert on many grounds. However, no one can fault The Chin for failing to take offensive line seriously in the NFL draft.

  • Almost without exception, throughout his tenure, Bill Cowher invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman.

He didn’t do that in his final draft, and neither did Mike Tomlin in his first 3 drafts (well, OK they did take Kraig Urbik with one of their 3rds in the 2009 NFL Draft.) Then, when the consequences of playing “Plug and Patch” on the offensive line began to take their toll on Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers invested two firsts and 2 second round picks on offensive line between 2010 and 2012.

The 2012 NFL Draft was five years ago, and the Steelers haven’t drafted an offensive lineman higher than Jerald Hawkins in the 4th since then. Should Steelers change their approach to offensive line in the 2018 NFL Draft? Let’s see.

David DeCastro, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs

David DeCastro blocks for Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via kickoff coverage.com

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Starters

One of the reasons why the Steelers haven’t invested a premium pick on an offensive lineman since 2012 is because they haven’t had to. Yes, other positions have beckoned, but each of the Steelers starting offensive lineman is working on his second contract, and that is no accident.

The Steelers offensive line rebuild began with Maurkice Pouncey in 2010 and each and every year that he’s been health since then he’s been Pro Bowler. Marcus Gilbert came next and is regarded in the franchise as one of the best at his positions. David DeCastro fell to the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft, and David DeCastro is a legitimate Pro Bowl guard who adds the necessary streak of nasty to the line.

  • While these high-pedigree draft picks have delivered, they’ve got good company by men overlooked on draft day.

Ramon Foster joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009, and was starting in the Super Bowl a year later. The Steelers looked to replace Foster in a number of ways, but Foster continues to hold his own. Starting next to Foster is Alejandro Villanueva, the former US Army Ranger and West Point graduate that the Steelers picked up after the Eagles dropped him from their practice squad.

The man standing the curtain is Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who might be the best position coach of any type in the NFL.

Steelers Offensive Line Depth Chart Entering the 2018 NFL Draft – the Backups

The Steelers offensive line depth took a hit when Chris Hubbard signed with the Cleveland Browns this spring as a free agent, but franchise still has solid backups it can count on. Leading the pack is B.J. Finney, who has started at both center and guard and acquitted himself well.

At tackle the Steelers have Jerald Hawkins. Hawkins missed his rookie year due to injury, and struggled through his second training camp. However, he saw action in 2017 as a 3rd tight end. Finally, the Steelers bring back Matt Feiler, and exclusive rights free agent who has seen action in 6 NFL games.

Steelers 2018 Offensive Line Draft Needs

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it? Is that how the old adage goes?

The truth is that the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best if not the best offensive lines in the NFL. And, after all the years of offensive line turmoil the characterized the early part of Mike Tomlin’s tenure, it a bit ironic that Steelers Nation has come to take quality offensive line play for granted.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

  • Complacency can cripple a contenders quest to transform itself into a champion.

To understand how that applies here, perform this little exercise. How old is the Steelers offensive line? You’re probably sitting there thinking, “Oh, we have a young offensive line, that’s one of the thing that’s so exciting about it.” Well, that was true for several seasons, today, not so much.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell draws out this point:

The average age of the Steelers’ starting offensive line on opening day will be 29.8. That’s quite older than the much respected 2005 championship line that averaged 27.6 years of age and fell apart soon thereafter.

Ramon Foster might be the only lineman above 30 now, but Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva turn 30 this year. Sometimes, father time imposes his will quickly.

No one really pegged the 2001 Steelers secondary as old when they fell short in the AFC Championship, yet Bill Belichick saw enough to know he could throw the ball throughout the entire 2nd half the 2002 opener, and there was nothing Pittsburgh could do to stop him.

That doesn’t mean there are ominous storm clouds hanging above the Steelers offensive line in the immediate future. But the Steelers would be very wise to add to their pipeline of offensive line talent, and therefore the Steelers 2018 offensive line draft needs must be considered Moderate.

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Steelers Fire Todd Haley, Randy Fichtner Seen as Front Runner to Be Replacement

In a move that will draw wild applause from large sectors of Steelers Nation, saw the Steelers fire Todd Haley, who has served as offensive coordinator since 2012. The NFL Network reported the news, and it has since been confirmed by the Tribune-Review and Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

  • No word exists on a replacement, although Randy Fichtner, the Steelers quarterbacks coach is generally regarded as the front runner to replace Haley.

News that Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak had withdrawn his name as a candidate to be the Arizona Cardinals head coach has led to speculation that Mike Munchak could be in line to be the offensive coordinator. However, Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette is insisting that Munchak very much remains in the running for the Arizona job:

At the very least, it seems that the sound and fury generated by Todd Haley’s departure from Pittsburgh will mirror his time in the Steel City.

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley

Not as iconic as Terry Bradshaw & Chuck Noll, but Haley & Roethlisberger never saw eye to eye. Photo Credit: Karl Walter, Getty Images via BTSC

In the End, Its Almost Certainly about Haley and Ben

Todd Haley arrived in Pittsburgh after Art Rooney II pulled rank on Mike Tomlin, forcing him to fire Bruce Arians after the Steelers head coach had already announced Arians’ return. Although Arians had coached the Steelers to a title in Super Bowl XLIII, Arians refused to push Ben Roethlisberger to alter his game, and management was concerned for the signal caller’s health.

  • Enter Todd Haley.

The relationship between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley did not start well, by a source no less authoritative than Bob Labriola, and even if only half of the reports are correct, always remained tense.

Indeed, if reports are correct, the Mike Tomlin moved quarterback’s coach Randy Fichtner to the sidelines in the middle of the season a Ben Roethlisberger’s request to provide a buffer between him and Haley, and Roethlisberger’s play improved accordingly.

Yet, for all the tension, numbers reveal that Todd Haley succeeded in designing an offense which allowed Ben Roethlisberger to be himself, while not getting himself killed.

ben roethlisberger, passing statistics, todd haley, bruce arians, haley vs. arians, ken whisenhunt, roethlisberger offensive coordinator

Ben Roethlisberger’s performance under different offensive coordinators through 2015

The numbers above only go through the 2015 season, but the trends have largely sustained themselves since then.

In all fairness, under Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger has benefited from superior talent at running back and wide receiver in the from of Le’Veon Bell Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster (no offense to Hines Ward, Willie Parker and the aging Jerome Bettis.)

Nonetheless, fancy statistics do not win football games let alone championships. Stories of Ben and Haley not being on the same page, of Roethlisberger needlessly burning time outs because he didn’t understand or agree with the play call, were staples of the Haley era.

  • It is indeed possible that this disconnect and on the field consequences and perhaps contributed to the confusion that doomed the final play from scrimmage against the Patriots.

Undoubtedly, keeping Ben Roethlisberger happy is also fueling this move. A year ago Roethlisberger openly mused about retirement, and Ed Bouchette reported that this talk was likely prompted by an acrimonious exchange with Todd Haley following the AFC Championship loss to New England.

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4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

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Third Times Charm for Pittsburgh @ Cornerback. Steelers Sign Coty Sensabaugh to 2 Year Contract

Word was the Steelers were planning to open free agency making a play on a starting cornerback. Whether the Steelers did have the Bengals Dre Kirkpatrick in their sights or not, the deal never materialized.

Then the Steelers wined and dined Davon House who became the NFL equivalent of a date who ignores you and instead dances with all of the other guys at the party – he signed with the Green Bay Packers while he was visiting with the Steelers.

  • The third time was the charm for Pittsburgh in their quest to add a cornerback in free agency as the Steelers signed Coty Sensabaugh.
Coty Sensabaugh, Steelers slot cornerbacks, Steelers free agency 2017

Coty Sensabaugh has 194 career tackles 2 picks in 72 career games. Photo Credit: Samuel Stringer, Icon Sportswire

The Tennessee Titans picks Coty Sensabaugh in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft and he played in Nashville for four years, making 27 starts and recording 2 interceptions, including a pick six on Jameis Winston‘s first career pass.

A year ago Coty Sensabaugh was inking a three-year, $15 million contract with the Los Angeles Rams only to see the Rams cut him in October. However, Sensabaugh didn’t stay unemployed for long, and was signed by the New York Giants where he remained for the rest of the season.

Coty Sensabaugh’s Impact on the Steelers Depth Chart @ Cornerback

The Steelers are projecting Coty Sensabaugh as a nickel/slot back. William Gay occupied that role for much of 2016, but the veteran is showing signs of slowing and the Steelers would like to replace him. Artie Burns is set to return as the Steelers starter at cornerback, and opposite him the Steelers had restricted free agent Ross Cockrell in 2016, who could still return to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers will also bring Al-Hajj Shabazz to training camp as well as 2015’s 2nd round pick Senquez Golson whose NFL career consists of 2 and a half training camp practices. The Steelers are also expected to draft a cornerback in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Sensabaugh declared “I came here to help these guys get two games better,” while affirming that the Keith Butler’s defensive system is similar to that of Dick LeBeau’s whom he played with down in Tennessee.

Like Justin Hunter, the free agent wide receiver the Steelers signed last week, Coty Sensabaugh also has a relationship with Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchack.

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 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.

Justin Hunter, James Harrison, Steelers vs. Titans, Steelers sign Justin Hill

James Harrison looks on as Justin Hunter catches one of 2 pass in the Steelers 2014 win over the Titans. Photo Credit: McPeak, USA Today, via SCI

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 Restricted Free Agent Tender to Chris Hubbard is a Low Risk No Brainer

When talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers group of upcoming free-agents, reserve offensive lineman Chris Hubbard probably doesn’t enter into most discussions among fans and the media.

But that’s the thing about backup offensive linemen in the National Football League:

  • You never know when you’re going to need them.

Such was the case for the Steelers and Hubbard early last season, when starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert and veteran backup swing tackle Ryan Harris were both lost in a 43-14 Sunday night victory over the Chiefs at Heinz Field.

Chris Hubbard, Chris Hubbard restricted free agent, Chis Hubbard tight end

Chris Hubbard lines up as a tight end in the Steelers Thanksgiving win over the Colts. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Chris Hubbard’s Steelers Career

Chris Hubbard, a 2013 undrafted rookie free-agent out of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), bounced back and forth between the team’s practice squad and active roster during 2013, 2014 and 2015 before finally finding a permanent job among the final 53 in 2016.

Its a bit ironic when you look back, as Mike Golic Jr. and Nik Embernate aka “Embernasty” got all the headlines when the Steelers 2013 undrafted rookie free agent class was announced, but four years later, it was Chris Hubbard who was suiting up for the AFC Championship game.

A versatile lineman who can play guard, center and tackle, Hubbard proved his worth against Kansas City in that aforementioned Week 4 match-up, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns.

With Marcus Gilbert and Ryan Harris both ruled out against the Jets seven days later, Chris Hubbard got his first career start at right tackle. The result: a more than satisfactory performance in a 31-13 Steelers victory over the Jets at Heinz Field.

  • A week later, Chris Hubbard struggled quite a bit in a 30-15 loss at Miami, as Pittsburgh also lost Ben Roethlisberger with a torn meniscus.

Chris Hubbard started two more games at right tackle before Marcus Gilbert finally returned from his ankle injury, and the young lineman would  remain the backup tackle the rest of the year, as Ryan Harris, who suffered a shin injury against the Chiefs, ultimately had to be placed on Injured Reserve.

Chris Hubbard also saw extensive spot-duty as a third tight end in the Steelers “Big Boy” package, helping David Johnson and Jesse James open holes for Le’Veon Bell.

Pro’s & Con’s of Steelers Decision to RFA Tender to Chris Hubbard

As the Steelers approach free-agency, Hubbard is of the restricted free agent, meaning the Steelers retain the right of first refusal should any other team offer Chris Hubbard a contract.

  • Will there be any offers for Hubbard, 25? Probably not. Should have tendered him a right of first refusal option (as they have) anyway?

If you were to say linemen of Hubbard’s pedigree are a dime a dozen, you would be correct. If you also were to say that Jerald Hawkins, Pittsburgh’s fourth round pick out of LSU in 2016, is someone the team probably is counting on to make strides in 2017, you are also surely correct.

  • Fact is, the Steelers seem set at both tackle positions for the near-future.

Marcus Gilbert is signed through 2019, while left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who only has two years of NFL experience and is an exclusive-rights free-agent, meaning he simply must take whatever offer Pittsburgh gives him.

A year ago Chris Hubbard was a “nice to have” type player to have on your depth chart, now he’s one play away from protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside.

Obviously, the Steelers could fill the backup tackle void with just about anyone, but why not with a player who has been in their system for some time now and also has had and will continue to have the privilege of being coached my Mike Munchak, perhaps the best in the business at what he does and certainly the most respected assistant coach on Pittsburgh’s staff.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and Chis Hubbard

When you see the improvements of the likes of Marcus Gilbert and more notably Alejandro Villanueva in recent years, Chris Hubbard is certainly in good hands, and if any offensive line coach can get max out of his abilities, it’s Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.

  • The Steelers have already offered Chris Hubbard a right of first refusal tender to Chris Hubbard.

Exact figures for 2017’s right of first refusal offers are suggested to be in the 1.85 million dollar range. So its doubtful that another team will try to sign Chris Hubbard away.

Its says here the Steelers made the right move in protecting Chris Hubbard. The Steelers have invested heavily in his development, and the truth is Chris Hubbard will be on someone’s roster in 2017. He he might as well be on the Steelers’ because you just never know when his services will be needed.

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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