Why Steelers Free Agent Damontae Kazee Reminds Me of Dave Moquin, My Old Wrestling Coach

When I think of Damontae Kazee reaching free agency, I can’t help but remember my old wrestling coach the late Dave Moquin.

Moquin is an amateur wrestling Hall of Famer who coached for 42 years at Wheaton High School in Maryland. To understand why Kazee’s rendezvous with free agency reminds me of Moquin, let’s jump right into his time with the Steelers are the case for keeping him in Pittsburgh.

Damontae Kazee, Steelers vs Saints

Damontae Kazee intercepts Andy Dalton, Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP

Capsule Profile of Damontae Kazee’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers signed Damontae Kazee last spring shortly after the 2022 NFL Draft. Injuries limited him to 9 games with the Steelers.

It is safe to say that no player with such a thin Steelers resume has reached free agency and generated the type of attention that Kazee has. And that’s where Mr. Moquin comes in.

One of the things that made Moquin a Hall of Famer is that he was open to letting anyone come out for the team. Whether you were a senior who’d never wrestled, a late season transfer, a kid coming off the ineligible list, or just curious, Moquin would give you a shot at any point in the season. We’ll explain how this ties to Kazee in a moment.

Dave Moquin, David Moquin, Dave Moquin wrestling Hall of fame, Dave Moquin coach Wheaton High School

Dave Moquin getting inducted into the Wheaton High Hall of Fame. Photo Credit: The Patch

Steelers coaches took a liking to Kazee during training camp, and devised a 3 safety scheme that featured Kazee, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds on the field at the same time.

  • Unfortunately, a late summer injury cost him the first 8 games of the season.

Analysis of the Steelers 2022 season generally breaks down along the “Before the Bye and After the Bye” storylines and then builds the narrative around T.J. Watt’s return to the lineup and Kenny Pickett’s improvement. And those storylines are by and large correct.

  • But they overlook Damontae Kazee’s contributions.

In Kazee’s first game, he played 100% of the snaps against the New Orleans Saints and intercepted Andy Dalton in the 4th quarter, setting up an insurance touchdown drive. In the third quarter of the season finale against the Browns, Kazee intercepted Deshaun Watson with the Steelers holding a 13-3, setting up Najee Harris’ touchdown.

During the last nine games of 2022, Kazee defensed two passes, and made 20 tackles while playing 54% of the defensive snaps.

The Dave Moquin Case for the Steelers Resigning Damontae Kazee

The problem with Dave Moquin and the short-timers on the Wheaton wrestling team was that liked to tell fish stories about them. No, he LOVED to tell fish stories about them. Take “CJ” as an example.

CJ was a junior who’d joined the team in the 2nd week of January. He’d transferred from Oxen Hill where he’d wrestled, but had little experience. He wrestled about 8 JV matches for Wheaton in dual meets, winning a couple of those and won a match or two in the JV tournament. His senior year he was ineligible until February. He won one JV match, lost one on varsity, and then lost cleanly in the County tournament to the kid who went on to be a Regional champion.

But this is how Moquin told it:

CJ came two us in the last 2 weeks of the season his junior year. He’d never wrestled before but won both of the match we put him in . Then almost placed in the JV tournament. The next year he couldn’t wrestle until February, but he won both of his matches and almost upset the kid who went on to become the Regional Champion.

So if Moquin were to make the case for the Steelers resigning Damontae Kazee it would go like this:

We signed Kazee after the draft. Thanks to injuries he barely practiced in training camp. But stepped in for Minkah against the Saints and we didn’t miss a beat. He made a crucial, momentum shifting interception in that game, another in the season finale and played a critical role in subbing for Fitzpatrick again in the Christmas Eve win over the Raiders.

Or something like that.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Damontae Kazee

It would be a mistake to minimize Kazee’s contributions to the Steelers turnaround in the 2nd half of the season. But it would also be wrong to over-emphasize them.

Kazee’s ball-hawking ability is welcome and stands in stark contrast Terrell Edmunds’ lack of “Splash Plays” But Edmunds has been stabilizing influence on the defense. Edmunds is also only 27 whereas Kazee has just turned the big 3-0.

Kazee is a “nice to have” befitting from and off season of salary cap surplus. Like 2022’s salary cap surplus, the Steelers are in a different place in 2023.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Damontae Kazee

The Steelers situation with Damontae Kazee is similar to Benny Snell’s (see Snell’s free agent profile if you’re scratching your head.)

  • Whereas Snell provides depth, Kazee delivers a lot more.

Whether it’s been cycling in “the big safety,” linebacker Terence Garvin in on third downs back in ‘13, drafting Ryan Shazier in ‘14, signing Morgan Burnett in ’18 or trying to convert Marcus Allen from a safety to an inside linebacker, Mike Tomlin has coveted a player who can play the middle like a linebacker while covering deep like a defensive back.

  • Together Fitzpatrick, Edmunds and Kazee give Mike Tomin that versatility.

In a perfect world, the Steelers would resign both Damontae Kazee and Terrell Edmunds. But unless one of them accepts a very generous home team discount, salary cap realities mean that won’t happening.

Dave Moquin, Dave Moquin National Wrestling Hall of Fame

Dave Moquin

  • So which safety to sign?

Well Moquin was also a football coach, and I’d love to pick his brain on this one. Alas, he’s no longer around.

So I’ll just go with my gut and say the Steelers should stick with Edmunds and let Kazee walk – even as I smile to myself thinking that if Mr. Moquin were telling the story, Kazee would have earned a spot in the Steelers Hall of Honor after just nine games.

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Careful for What You Wish For: Steelers Free Agent Benny Snell Likely to Leave Pittsburgh

Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. disdained, “Putting on the dog.” In 21st century terms, “putting on the dog” might translate to “strutting your stuff” or doing anything that wasn’t modest.

He expected his sons to follow suit, instructing them “Don’t drive a Cadillac, drive a Buick.” When Art Sr. went to Philadelphia to visit John Rooney (or perhaps it was Pat), his son tried to steer his father around the house in a way that made sure his father didn’t see that he’d had a pool installed. His father found the pool. The Chief was not pleased.

Most Steelers fans have probably never heard the expression “putting on the dog,” but they’ve absorbed The Chief’s philosophy all the same – We don’t like it when players show boat.

So when the Steelers drafted Benny Snell Jr. in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft and Snell arrived in Pittsburgh talking about “Benny Snell Football” it left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans. A taste that still lingers for many, if not most.

Now that Benny Snell is about to become a free agent, are Steelers fans about to get their pallets clean?

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Benny Snell’s Career with the Steelers

Benny Snell got it backwards. Players who live at the bottom of depth charts are supposed to do well in spot duty but struggle when they get a full audition.

  • Snell’s done the opposite.

In 2019 he got 75 yards in his first extensive action in the Steelers win over the Chargers, 98 in his first start against the Bengals and over 100 in the season finale against the Ravens. He clocked in over 100 in relief of James Conner in the 2020 opener, and ran well in extensive action in wins against the Ravens and losses to the Bengals.

Injuries limited him to spot duty in 2021, and he was as he’s always been when his carries have been limited – uninspiring. In 2022 Snell mostly played special teams, but he did get 60 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Colts.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Benny Snell

That win over the Colts will always be Kenny Pickett’s first come from behind win. But Benny Snell’s rushing laid the foundation that made that win possible. Snell might not be a starting caliber running back, but he’s done enough to show he can be a good number two back and most teams would beg for a number 3 back of his talents.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Benny Snell

The Steelers don’t have a lot of salary cap space. They’re not in dire straits, but Omar Khan is going to need to make moves even if the Steelers are to take a conservative approach to free agency.

Benny Snell is simply a luxury the Steelers cannot afford.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Benny Snell

The NFL might be quarterback driven, pass happy league. Well, there’s no “might” about it. But I remain an unapologetic believer that your running back depth chart must be at least three players deep. As I asked rhetorically after the Colts win, “Does anyone think the Steelers win that game if the 2022 equivalents of Stevan Ridley and/or Fitzgerald Toussaint are playing instead of Benny Snell?”

Point made.

And if Mike Tomlin may be warming to staffing better depth at running back, doing so with a veteran on a second contract may be a different question altogether. And the Steelers have already signed Anthony McFarland to a “Futures Contract” so Anthony McFarland’s name may already be penciled into that role.

Moreover, Steelers top two running back slots are held by Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, and they’ve earned their status on merit.

So you have to ask, would Benny Snell be interested in coming back to Pittsburgh as a third stringer? Probably not.

At the end of the day, while keeping Benny Snell in the Black and Gold is ideal, expect him to take “Benny Snell football” to one of the NFL’s other 31 teams.

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Watt’s a Fullback Worth? Ideally, the Steelers Would Resign Derek Watt. But the World Ain’t Ideal

Believe it or not, but the fullback was once the lifeblood of the Steelers offense. Franchise greats such as Franco Harris and Merril Hoge as well as disappointments such as Walter Abercrombie all played fullback in Chuck Noll and Tom Moore’s offense.

Ron Erhardt’s offense sharply curtailed the fullback’s carries and shifted his focus to blocking. And that’s where it remained for the balance of the 90’s. During the 21st century the role of the fullback faded both in Pittsburgh and the rest of the NFL.

Yet the Steelers went back to their roots in 2020 when they signed Derek Watt to a 3 year contract. That contract is up and he’s now about to be a free agent again. Should the Steelers keep in in Pittsburgh?

Derek Watt, Steelers vs Eagles

Derek Watt catches a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Derek Watt Career with the Steelers

Here’s a good test. True or False: “In 2022, Matt Canada greatly expanded Derek Watt’s role in the Steelers offense.” Raise your hand if you answer “True.” I raised my hand.

  • But I shouldn’t have.

The Steelers brought Derek Watt to Pittsburgh in the spring of 2020 and then proceeded to play Watt in 52 or 6% of offensive snaps. The transition from Randy Fitchner to Matt Canada only increased Watt’s snap percentage by 1%. And Watt’s snap count remained at 7% in 2022.

What did change was that in 2022 Derek Watt actually started getting the ball. No, Watt’s carry count didn’t break double digits, but his 9 carries is the highest number of carries by a Steelers fullback since Tim Lester’s 8 carry season in 1996. (As Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala did line up as a fullback at times, you could argue the point.)

  • And while 9 carries might seem insignificant 8 of those carries converted a 3rd or a 4th down.

Perhaps more importantly, Derek Watt has been a vital part of the Steelers special teams throughout his time in Pittsburgh, logging almost 2/3s of special team snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Derek Watt

For all the focus on passing and building up Fantasy Football stats, in the NFL games are still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. In Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, and a growing offensive line, the Steelers have the foundation for a winning rushing attack.

Derek Watt gives you the physicality to push that rushing attack over the top. He also provides special teams consistency.

Oh, and to those who argue that his short yardage success is just a “nice to have,” the Steelers were 7-1 in games when Derek Watt got a carry. Just Sayin….

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Derek Watt

Fullbacks have authored some of the most glorious moments of the Steelers past. Fullbacks form a fundamental part of the franchise’s legacy.

And that’s the point. They’re part of the franchise’s legacy, not its future. Yes, there still is a place for fullbacks in NFL – for now – but the Steelers have paid Derek Watt just under 10 million dollars over the last three years to touch the ball 19 times and make 28 special teams tackles.

Surely Omar Khan can find some combination of veteran minimum salary players and/or undrafted rookie free agents to do the same for a faction of the salary cap space. Can’t he?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Derek Watt

This is a tough nut to crack. The old school Generation X Steelers fan in me screams, “Bring him back! You never appreciate what a fullback can do until you don’t have one!”

Watt Bowl, Steelers vs Texans

T.J. and Derek prevailed over JJ in the Watt Bowl

And even if you can’t make sentimental personnel decisions, Mike Tomlin is right when he says “You can never have enough Watts.” Which is a way of saying that Derek Watt brings a lot more value to the team than his numbers suggest.

But does that value justify 3.3 million in salary cap space per year?

  • The change in front office is another factor to consider.

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert worked extremely well together. In business terms you’d say, “Coaching achieved alignment with the Front Office.” But there are times when the two were been out of step. See Max Starks‘ career arc for an example.

  • Its been suggested that Derek Watt this could be another example of this.

If it is, then will Omar Khan back Derek Watt the way Kevin Colbert backed Max Starks? Or will he be differential to the coaching staff?

At the end of the day, Derek Watt is a good player. He isn’t as dynamic as T.J. Watt is on the field, but like his brother his brings the kind of character to locker rooms that helps you win Super Bowls. The Steelers should keep in Pittsburgh, but only at the right price.

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The Curious Case of the Steelers, Terrell Edmunds and Free Agency….

NFL first round draft picks are products of hope. Picking someone in the first round means you think he’s in the top 5% of eligible rookies. Yet, each team and every first round draft pick eventually reach a cross roads – either the player is living up to the hope the team invested in him (and wants to stay) and gets a second contract or he’s gone.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers and Terrell Edmunds arrived that cross roads last year until they didn’t.

Terrell Edmunds reached free agency. The Steelers either didn’t make him an offer or made one that Edmunds thought he could better on the free market. He found no takers. He took a “Prove It” deal to stay in Pittsburgh. Now he’s a free agent again and we’ll look at what should happen.

Terrell Edmunds, Steelers vs Jaguars

Terrell Edmunds nets his 2nd interception in a game. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Terrell Edmunds’ Career with the Steelers

The Steelers shocked everyone when they drafted Terrell Edmunds in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Few had Edmunds projected as a first round pick, and no one had the Steelers taking him.

  • Yet Edmunds quickly established himself as the Steelers starting strong safety and he’s remained there ever since.

In five years in the NFL Terrell Edmunds has only missed 3 games and started in 75 of the 79 of those contests.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Terrell Edmunds

After five years, the Pittsburgh Steelers know what they have in Terrell Edmunds: A durable, reliable steady player who can be a stabilizing influence on the field for the entire defense. That much was evident in 2022 when the Steelers, sans T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, upset Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

  • Edmunds quarterbacked the defense, getting players lined up correctly and making adjustments.

Moreover, although Edmunds (again) proved his reliably on his one year deal, nothing in his performance suggests that rest of the NFL is going to throw money at him.

The Steelers should be able to sign him to an affordable, long-term deal that’s a win-win for all involved.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Terrell Edmunds

Starting 75 out of 79 might sound good but here are two numbers that do not: 5 and 5. That’s five interceptions on and 5 sacks.

In other words, Edmunds averages 2 splash plays per year. Heck, Will Allen had 4 sacks in his final year in Pittsburgh and he was 33. Damontae Kazee only appeared in 9 games this season and had 2 interceptions.

Last spring the Steelers had salary cap space to spare, yet had no interest in using a meaningful portion of that space to resign Terrell Edmunds. This year they don’t have that luxury and there’s no reason to make room for Edmunds.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Terrell Edmunds

How much does or should a player’s draft position impact the perception of his development?

Terrell Edmunds, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Chargers

Terrell Edmunds sacks Philip Rivers in Steelers 2018 loss to Chargers. Photo Credit: Charles LeClarie, USA Today via MSN.com

With Terrell Edmunds, this isn’t so abstract. Had he been, say, a third round pick fans at least would have been screaming for him to get a second contract last spring. But because he was a first round pick, his value was perceived differently.

But perhaps that door swings both ways. Perhaps last spring Edmunds overvalued his services based on his draft pedigree. It is impossible to be sure.

One thing is certain. Terrell Edmunds has never been and will likely never bit a super star for the Steelers defense. But he’s always been a solid player who improves year-on-year. The Steelers would be wise to keep him in Pittsburgh, and I suspect they will.

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Cost, Benefit: Steelers Can’t Afford to Lose or Overpay Larry Ogunjobi in Free Agency

Street free agents are the NFL’s bottom feeders. As the name implies, they’re literally NFL veterans that teams sign off of the streets because no one else wants them.

Street free agents were Kevin Colbert’s secret weapon. Time and time again, an emergency would create a need for a starter and he’d find guys like Fernando Velasco or Flozell Adams stepped in and immediately began contributing.

Larry Ogunjobi was Omar Khan’s first street free agent signing, arriving in Pittsburgh by virtue of Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. There’s no question that Larry Ogunjobi gave the Steelers defense a shot in the arm. Was that shot effective enough to keep him in Pittsburgh?

Larry Ogunjobi, Leonard Fournette, Steelers vs Bucaneers

Larry Ogunjobi stuffs Leonard Fournette. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Larry Ogunjobi’s Career with the Steelers

Sometimes statistics are simply insufficient to measure a player’s performance. Case in point Larry Ogunjobi’s 2022 campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He made 48 tackles, 7 of which were for losses and registered 1.5 sacks. In 2021 while playing for the Cincinnati Bengals he made 49 tackles, had 7 sacks and 10 tackles for losses.

  • In both season Larry Ogunjobi started 16 games. Seems pretty ominous, doesn’t it?

Now consider this. In 2021 the Steelers defense ranked 32 against the run. Beyond being dead last in the NFL, you have go back to the 1940’s to find a worse Steelers run defense. Larry Ogunjobi isn’t the sole reason for that change, having Myles Jack behind him and Brian Flores wearing the coaching headset helped, but Ogunjobi played a big part.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Larry Ogunjobi

In Cam Heyward the Steelers have an All Pro defensive lineman who, quite frankly should probably get Hall of Fame consideration (but probably won’t.) And we saw in 2021 that Cam can’t do it alone.

With Larry Ogunjobi in the line up, Heyward continued to dominate AND the line was an asset to a defense on the rise instead being a glaring liability. Although defensive lineman come at a premium in free agency, Ogunjobi lack of “splash” plays should make him affordable.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Larry Ogunjobi

Last year when Larry Ogunjobi became a free agent the Chicago Bears wasted little time in offering him a 40 million dollars over 3 years. But Chicago backed out of that deal just as quickly when Ogunjobi failed a physical.

  • While Ogunjobi only missed one game for the Steelers, his name was a permeant fixture on the injury report.

While its unlikely that any team will offer him the type of money that the Bears did last year, resigning Larry Ogunjobi will require several million dollars in guarantees and an average salary that’s likely trending towards 8 figures.

Meanwhile, the Steelers have DeMarvin Leal on a rookie deal, will likely draft a defensive lineman with one of their top three picks and can add  a “veteran whose ideal to be the first guy off the bench” defensive lineman similar to what they did in 2017 when they signed Tyson Alualu.

They can do all of that for less than what it would likely take to resign Larry Ogunjobi.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Larry Ogunjobi

What happens with Larry Ogunjobi will be one of the more interesting off season questions. Even if the Steelers projects DeMarvin Leal as starter going into 2023 depth on the defensive line is perilously thin.

That means that letting Larry Ogunjobi walk all but commits the Steelers to using one of their top three picks on a defensive lineman – they may want to do this anyway, but his absence could force them to reach.

Despite his injury history, the Steelers still had to pay him 8,000,000 dollars last year. If he’s willing to come back for something in that range, the it make sense to do that deal. If he’s looking for the kind of payday Chicago offered them then the Steelers should take a pass.

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Time for a Clean Slate: Steelers QB Mason Rudolph Reaches Free Agency

Who is the most popular player on the Steelers roster? Well, for 20 years the answer never changed – it was always the backup quarterback. Whether it was David Woodley, Jim Miller or Pete Gonzalez, Steelers fans were always convinced themselves that QB Number 2 was the next Terry Bradshaw.

Mason Rudolph never enjoyed such a honeymoon. Now that he’s about to hit free agency, it is time to take a look at whether he should or will stay in Pittsburgh.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted Mason Rudolph in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the pick they obtained from trading Martavis Bryant to the Oakland Raiders. The decision was described as a “compromise pick” as we learned that the front office had put a “first round grade” on Rudolph.

That was all academic for a year as Mason Rudolph held the third string QB’s clipboard during all of 2018. In 2019 Josh Dobbs departed and Mason ascended to the backup role where everyone figured he’d stay, after all it had been 2 years since Ben Roethlisberger missed a full game right?

Wrong. Six quarters into the season against the Seattle Seahawks, Roethlisberger left the game with a season ending elbow injury, and Mason Rudolph’s roller coaster ride began.

To the naked eye, Rudolph played well enough in losses to the Seahawks and 49ers, but perhaps its telling that coaches had to install a Wild Cat offense for his first home start and win against the Bengals. A week later without the Wild Cat, Rudolph was authoring his best game ever against the Ravens when Earl Thomas knocked him from the game with a concussion.

The roller coaster ride began anew. Rudolph shifted from shaky to stable in his return against Miami, steady against Indy, strong against the Rams – and then Myles Garrett assaulted him with his own helmet in the infamous Body Bag Game.

Mason Rudolph, Myles Garrett, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro

Even prior to this pivotal moment, Mason Rudolph had shown alot of fight in 2019.

The incident shook Rudolph, whose play was shaky prompting Mike Tomlin to bench him for Devlin Hodges week later. Rudolph did look better coming off the bench against the Jets, but got injured and was done for the year. Rudolph started the season finale in 2020 and lost while looking good, and looked “OK” in starting in the overtime tie to the Lions.

In 2022 Mason Rudolph entered training camp as the back up to Mitch Trubisky, but got beat out by Kenny Pickett and outside of Carolina Panthers game, Mason Rudolph spent last season the way he spent his first – holding a clipboard in street clothes.

After 5 years in Pittsburgh, Mason Rudolph appeared in 17 games, holds a 5-4-1 record as a starter, threw 384 passes for 2,366 yards with a 61.5% completion rate and 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Every championship team needs a strong backup quarterback.

Just look at how Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch stepped in in 2005 and 2008. Mason Rudolph’s body of work isn’t that extensive. While he hasn’t shown himself to be worthy of a starter’s slot, he does project as a competent backup.

He knows the Steelers culture and system. He was never embraced or mentored or seemingly even befriended by Ben Roethlisberger. He was benched for a guy name “Duck.” He didn’t get his fair share of reps in the summer that was to be his one real shot at the starting job.

Yet, through all of it, Mason Rudolph has never complained. He’s been a loyal teammate and a positive force in the locker room – just what you’d want in a backup.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Steelers had a “first round grade” on Rudolph, yet picked him with an extra third round choice in a decision that was termed a “compromise.”

Consider these names:

Those are all quarterbacks that the Steelers brought to Pittsburgh after seeing Mason Rudolph’s 10 game audition in 2019. Now stir in the fact that in the summer of 2022, Rudolph neither got a fair shot at the starting job nor did he get a shot at QB No. 2.

That should tell you that Mike Tomlin was never sold on drafting Mason Rudolph and Rudolph hasn’t changes his opinion since arriving in Pittsburgh. The Steelers already have Trubisky under contract for 2023, has Mason given them any reason to tear that contract up, eat the dead money and offer him a deal to stay?

No. He has not.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

has said the Steelers have left the door open for Rudolph’s return, which is the smart move. But let’s close this conversation by turning it on its head: Is there any reason why Mason Rudolph would want to stay in Pittsburgh?

The fans never gave him a chance, even if his numbers, arguably, were better than Pickett’s. His head coach clearly doesn’t see him as starter material and didn’t even give him a shot as a backup. No NFL team is going to throw starter money at Mason Rudolph.

But Rudolph has done enough to earn both a competitive backup deal and something else more highly prized: A clean slate.

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Good Enough? Does Zach Gentry Deserve a 2nd Contract from the Steelers?

The Steelers struggle to replace Heath Miller has been well-known. Fortunately, with Pat Freiermuth’s arrival in Pittsburgh the Steelers have found their TE No. 1.

However, they’ve also been searching legit new TE No. 2 since Matt Spaeth was let go in 2016.

During 2021 Zach Gentry looked like he could be that man. However, he’s played 17 more games since then and he’s about to become a free agent. Has he done enough to earn a second contract?

Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Chiefs, Steelers vs Chiefs 2021 Wild Card, Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger last pass

Zach Gentry catching one of Ben Roethlisberger’s last passes. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Zach Gentry Career with the Steelers

The Steelers drafted Zach Gentry in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft out of University of Michigan after beginning with the Wolverines as a quarterback before converting to tight end.

Gentry’s developmental status and injuries limited him to six games and 69 snaps over his first two years in Pittsburgh (he had 13 special teams snaps, if you really need to know.) In his third year Gentry appeared in all 17 games and formally started 12 as the number 2 tight end.

Gentry’s 19 catches on 25 targets didn’t provoke any Fantasy Football bidding wars, but 11 of those did go for 1st downs and he 76% catch rate. However, Gentry didn’t make the proverbial “second year leap” in 2022. He made 19 catches on another 25 targets, which boosted his catch rate but the number of first downs he earned were nearly cut in half.

And while I don’t presume to have analyzed his blocking skills, both Steel City Insider’s Matt C. Steel and Pro Football Reference have and their evaluation has not been positive.

If nothing else, Zach Gentry will always be the player who caught Ben Roethlisberger’s last pass in the 21′ Steelers playoff loss to the Chiefs.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Zach Gentry

The Steelers drafted Zach Gentry as a project. Both Gentry and the Steelers stuck with the project through a series of injuries. While he may not have made much of a leap in his second year as a starter, he’s a 6’8” tight end.

The Steelers should be able easily keep him in Pittsburgh at a very cap-friendly cost.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Zach Gentry

Who would you rather have as your TE number 2? Connor Heyward? Or Zach Gentry? Enough said.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Zach Gentry

Zach Gentry’s future in Pittsburgh likely comes down to how the draft and the rest of free agency pans out. The Steelers have needs on both lines, the secondary, at linebacker and arguably receiver that are far more urgent than tight end.

On top of that, the Steelers have neither a 5th nor a 6th round pick, which is where you’d normally draft a backup tight end. It is possible that when the dust settles, the Steelers will decide to bring Zach Gentry back in Pittsburgh, but don’t expect to see him at the podium with Omar Khan any time soon.

But if the Steelers have a chance to upgrade the position, they should by all means take it.

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Will the Return Man Return? Expect Steelers to Offer an RFA Tender to Steven Sims

Final roster cuts end the NFL dreams of hundreds of players each September. But getting a visit from the Turk doesn’t always spell doom. Sometimes it simply opens another opportunity.

Steven Simms played for two years in Washington, before he got cut loose. Then the Buffalo Bills gave him a shot. Six days later the Bills cut him, only for the Steelers to sign him to their practice squad two days later.

Now Steven Sims is a restricted free agent – will he cash in?

Steven Sims, Steelers vs Bucanneers

Steve Simms breaks open a punt return. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Steven Sims Career with the Steelers

Steven Sims got activated for the Steelers mid-season tie to the Detroit Lions, (so perhaps he has Ben Roethlisberger’s bout with COVID-19 to thank for his break in Pittsburgh.) But that the extent of Sims 2021 campaign.

Steven Sims made the Steelers final regular season roster but started out behind Gunner Olszewski on the return team and was also buried pretty deeply on the wide receiver depth chart. As a result, he was inactive for all but 2 of the Steelers first 7 games.

  • But in the NFL one man’s misfortune equals another’s opportunity.

Gunner Olszewski brought his fumbling problems with him from New England, and Mike Tomlin and Omar Khan used Chase Claypool to swindle the 32nd pick in the 2023 NFL Draft away from Chicago. That opened the door for Steven Sims on both fronts and Sims took advantage.

Stevens came in gave an immediate boost to the return game helping power the upset over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. During the season he added 14 catches for 104 yards as a wide receiver. He also added 70 yards on 13 rushes via Jet Sweeps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Steven Sims

The Steelers have no third wide receiver to speak of, unless you’re counting on Calvin Austin. Nor do they have anyone who is capable of handing return duties, assuming they let Gunner Olszewski go. 2.6 million, the lowest tender possible, isn’t a high price to pay for a little stability at wide receiver.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Steven Sims

The Steelers need a true third wide receiver and a return man who won’t fumble. Steven’s production as a receiver as dropped ever year he’s been in the NFL. His kick returns are pretty solid, but he mishandled to punts. The Steelers owe it to themselves to see if they can do better at wide out than Steven Sims.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Steven Sims

Is Steven Sims a true number 3 NFL wide receiver? I have my doubts.

But that’s fine: The Steelers don’t necessarily need him to be one. Omar Khan as much confirmed this when explained, “We wouldn’t have traded Chase (Claypool) if we didn’t feel good about the depth in that [wide receivers] room and didn’t feel good about the guys that we have there.”

To that end, Steven Sims provides depth and serviceable skills both at wide out and as a returner and he’s certainly worth a restricted free agent offer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton Career with the Steelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton

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

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

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

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

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton

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

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

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

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Cam Sutton

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

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

  • The only real question mark here is Omar Khan.

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

So let’s see if Khan follows suit.

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Steelers Should Keep RFA James Pierre in Pittsburgh

Every summer diligent beat writers breathe life into the names rookies that even the most educated Steelers fans have never heard of. More often than not, the NFL life is sucked out of those names before the second preseason game.

  • Then there are those that stick around, the ones that get a second wind, so to speak.

James Pierre is (sort of) one of those unheralded undrafted rookie free agents who found his second wind and transformed it into a 3 year career. Has he done enough to earn himself a restricted free agent tender from the Steelers?

James Pierre, Cortland Sutton, Steelers vs Broncos

James Pierre seals the win by intercepting a pass to Cortland Sutton. Photo Credit: Justin Aller, AP via BTSC

Capsule Profile of James Pierre’s Career with the Steelers

You can’t call James Pierre a rookie training camp sensation because the Steelers didn’t have training camp, so to speak in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. In fact, it took an attentive eye to spot his name as a standout on those censored, pool reports from the camp held at Heinz Field.

But Pierre caught Mike Tomlin’s eye, and while only logged 27 snaps on defense as a rookie, he was active on special teams. Pierre worked his way into the rotation in his second year and was one of the risings stars on the Steelers defense – until he wasn’t.

Pierre struggled early on against Denver, but then closed the game with an end zone interception. A week later against the Seahawks, Pierre forced D.K. Metcalf that forced Seattle to settle for tying field goal rather than a game-winning touchdown in a game the Steelers eventually won (thanks to T.J. Watt.) A few weeks later in the tie vs. Detroit, Pierre was one of the defenders who made some exceptional plays in overtime.

Tee Higgins, James Pierre, Steelers vs Bengals

Tee Higgins burns James Pierre for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

When Joe Haden got hurt, Pierre stepped right in as a replacement. He did well on the road against the Chargers, but a week later in Cincinnati Joe Burrow used him and abused him so badly that he never saw another defensive snap for the rest of the year.

2022 saw James Pierre quietly revive his career. In week 6 he got his first start and, if he author any splash plays, he was one of the backups who helped beat Tom Brady. Pierre also helped get the Steelers off on the right foot with a game opening interception of Matt Ryan in the road win over the Colts.

From there on out, James Pierre only saw about a quarter of snaps with the Steelers defense, but that number also reflects game planning to stop rush-heavy offenses and an injury that kept him out for much of the road win vs the Ravens.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Pierre

James Pierre isn’t “the answer” for the Steelers at cornerback. He might not project as a starter. But he has shown he’s good enough to be at least a backup, first cornerback off the bench and you need players like that to win in the NFL.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Pierre

Of course the Steelers need cornerbacks, but they need cornerbacks whose play is consistent. This mentality of “he’s not great, but he’s knows the system, we know him and he’s better than some guy off the street” is how the Steelers sabotaged their secondary in the middle of the teens.

Do you really want to use precious salary cap space to keep the next Antwon Blake in Pittsburgh?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Pierre

Cam Sutton might be leaving. Levi Wallace is skilled but a step slow. Ahkello Witherspoon only played in four games and got benched in Philly in favor of Pierre. Outside of that, there’s no one else in the pipeline (no offense to Arthur Maulet, but he’s got a role, but not one as a front-line, four down starter.)

James Pierre is a restricted free agent. The Steelers have the chance to keep him in Pittsburgh. They must take advantage of the opportunity.

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