Why One Big Summer ’17 Steelers Move Fuels Free Agency Excitement in the Spring of 2018

Steelers fans have been groomed to expect the least when it comes to the team’s activity (or lack thereof) in the NFL’s annual free agency frenzy that begins on Wednesday at 4 p.m.

But you know what? Something the Steelers did at the end of last summer has me more excited about the start of free agency than usual. Why’s that? To find out read on young Padawan, but first let’s acknowledge why the start of free agency has generally been a ho-hum affair in Steelers Nation.

  • To say Pittsburgh rarely makes a splash in free agency is an understatement.
  • To say the Steelers don’t wind up on many “winners” lists following the initial stages of the free agent period is a given.

Indeed, you could even argue that when the Steelers have tried to make splash free agency signings, its backfired on them!

And why shouldn’t they? Number one, it’s generally not the “Steelers Way.” In other words, Pittsburgh’s always been an organization that’s keen on improving itself with college prospects seeking to make it at the professional level (in other words, the draft), and not free agents seeking to cash in on that all-important second contract.

Number two, they generally don’t have much room under the cap, that is, unless they “kick the can down the street” as they say and restructure contracts, a practice that, sooner or later, catches up to everyone.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden 1st Steelers Interception, Tyson Alualu, Sean Davis, Steelers vs Bengals

Joe Haden intercepts an Andy Dalton pass. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn Live

I don’t mind the Steelers doing their business this way. After all, the reason they’re often up against it in terms of cap space is because of all the success they’ve enjoyed over the years with improving the team with drafted players.

Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert are all examples of former draft picks who have elevated themselves to the top ranks of their respective positions. And with that comes huge pay raises and second and third contracts. (If the organization can reach an agreement with Bell on a lengthy and lucrative deal, he’ll be the latest homegrown talent to challenge the remarkable talents of executive Omar Khan, whose reputation for massaging the team’s salary cap is quite legendary.)

Besides, as I’ve said many times, when it comes to NFL free agency, it is far from “free,” meaning the cream of the crop very rarely reaches the open market, what with the ironic franchise tag preventing this from happening. So, you’re ultimately left with a pool of players who weren’t even deemed worthy enough to have their free agency restricted by their former teams.

And this circles everything back to this Wednesday, and the start of the 2018 NFL free agency period.

Again, Steeler fans have grown accustomed to not expecting much.

  • However, based on last offseason’s activities, I’m a little more excited about things this year.

I’m not talking about Pittsburgh’s acquisitions last spring that were obviously moves of depth, such as the signing of journeyman cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and veteran defensive end Tyson Alualu.

I’m talking about the Steelers acquisition last summer, when they quickly scooped up veteran cornerback Joe Haden, mere hours after he was released by the Browns.

That’s not chump change.

Sure, it was a perfect storm that brought Joe Haden to the Steelers, as he wasn’t your typical free agent that had the entire month of March to shop his services and decide on the best offer.

But what the Joe Haden deal represented to me was that the Steelers were serious about contending in 2017.

  • They had one gaping hole to fill–the cornerback spot–and they filled it with a high-priced player.
  • Does this necessarily mean the Steelers will be aggressive during the true free agency period  this spring?

That’s hard to say, until it happens.

But as if this writing, I’m feeling pretty confident that if the Steelers feel there is an inside linebacker or a safety who can help them win now, they will do everything they can to bring him into the fold for the 2018 season.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Neither Steelers, Nor Le’Veon Bell Wanted Second Franchise Tag. But Perhaps Its What Both Need

It is official. For the second straight year, the Pittsburgh Steelers have franchised Le’Veon Bell. Unable to shop his services, Le’Veon Bell now must sign the Steelers $14.5 million dollar franchse tender or sit the season out.

  • The Steelers want Le’Veon Bell to retire as a Steeler, Bell says he wants to retire in Pittsburgh too.

So neither Bell nor the Steelers wanted a second franchise tag. But as The Rolling Stones reminded us long ago, “You can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens,

Le’Veon Bell turns corner on Brandon Carr en route to a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Why Franchising Bell Isn’t What Either Side Wants

Last year the Steelers were flush with salary cap space. They could apply the franchise tag to Le’Veon Bell, while signing Antonio Brown, Stephon Tuitt, Alejandro Villanueva, Joe Haden and trade for Vance McDonald.

Of course, thanks in part those hefty checks cut to Antonio Brown, , Alejandro Villanueva, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden and Vance McDonald, plus contracts inked long-ago by Ben Roethlisberger,  David DeCastro and Cam Heyward, salary cap space remains sparse for the 2018 Steelers.

  • They’ve already re-structured David DeCastro and Stephon Tuitt’s contracts just to prepare for tagging Bell.

So to make simple moves like tendering restricted free agent offers to Chris Boswell and Anthony Chickillo, signing their 2018 Draft class or picking up a low-end free agent or two, they’ll need to restructure more contracts and release veterans.

  • A long term deal for Le’Veon Bell would both keep him a Steeler, while providing Pittsburgh with immediate cap relief.

For the average fan, it’s a hard see why Le’Veon finds the franchise tag so distasteful. Last year he cashed a check for 12.12 million dollars. This year, he’ll cash another check for 14.5 million dollars.

  • That’s 26.62 million dollars over two years, far more money than anyone reading this will ever see (unless Stanley Druckenmiller is reading this, and if you are, please RT.)

But this is still less than Bell wants and less than the deal that Bell rejected last season, an offer that would have made Bell the NFL’s highest paid running back, and then some. But Bell wants more.

Bell wants to be paid what he’s worth to the team. What does that mean?

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell statistics, Le'Veon Bell stats, Le'Veon Bell Steelers offense

Le’Veon Bell’s share of the Steelers offense.

Well Le’Veon Bell’s accounted for 29% of the Steelers offense since he arrived. With the NFL salary cap at 177.2 million, Bell would half of 29% would be 25.694. Bell isn’t asking for that. But as Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pointed out, Bell wants a contract with an annual floor of 14.5 million.

  • The next highest paid running back, Devonta Freeman, averages $8,250,000.

So in other words, Le’Veon Bell wants to be paid 75% more than the next highest paid running back. That’s asking a lot….

Why a Second Franchise Tag for is Perhaps Best for Bell & Steelers

No one wants a second franchise tag, but maybe its what both sides need.

For Bell, the benefits of cashing a 14.5 million dollar check are self-evident. The money is fully guaranteed the moment he puts pen to paper. A second tag will give him a chance to put his money where his mouth has been. Bell balked at signing the Steelers deal because he thought he could get more.

  • Given the limited durability of NFL running backs today, that’s a bold proposition.

A second franchise tag virtually guarantees there will be no tag in 2019 and leaves Bell holding all of the cards. If he doesn’t like the Steelers offer, he gets a chance to have someone like Cleveland, who’ll have gobs of salary cap space, offers on the open market.

  • For the Steelers the franchise tag does cause a lot of short-term heartache, as detailed above.
  • But this could be the case of short-term pain for long-term gain.

The offer the Steelers made to Le’Veon Bell a year ago was more than fair, and by Bell’s own account, they’ve improved upon it. The Steelers love for Le’Veon is understandable, after all in breaking the franchise Regular season and playoff single game rushing records just over a year ago Bell did something that neither John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis ever accomplished.

But if there’s any difference between Art Rooney II and the late Dan Rooney, it’s that Art Rooney seems to be a little more willing to throw caution to the wind when it comes to the salary cap.

  • A second franchise tag provides the Steelers with a safety valve against making an unsustainable long-term commitment.

As this site has observed numerous times, since the Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell in 2013, Bell has teased that he has the type of talent to revive the concept of the “Franchise Running back.” Bell clearly wants to be paid as a franchise running back. But the dip in Bell’s rushing average in 2017 undercuts Bell’s argument.

  • It says here that Le’Veon Bell brings a lot to the field that you can’t replace by plugging in players via some Moneyball methodology.

But it also says here that the law of averages and the weight of statistical evidence on the shelf-life of an NFL running back remains pretty convincing, and Bell has yet to show he can buck the trend.

The Pittsburgh Steelers chances of winning Lombardi Number Seven in 2018 improve tremendously by keeping Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant on the field together.

  • A second franchise tag gives the Steelers a “no strings attached” means of accomplishing that, while also giving Bell a 14.5 million dollar check to cash.

That’s not exactly what either side wants, but it perhaps is exactly what each side needs.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers vs Le’Veon Bell: Franchise Running Back on the Right Team, Trapped in the Wrong Era

So  Le’Veon Bell has reported to the South Side and ended his holdout. Surprise, surprise. The Pittsburgh Steelers vs Le’Veon bell was never going to come down the the franchise running back opting to leave 12 million dollars in cash on the table to go while he worked Dairy Queen, was it? No, it wasn’t. Instead Le’Veon Bell signed his franchise tender and allows the Steelers to start the season with the foursome of Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

Le’Veon Bell has of course become a lightning rod for fan criticism. Tony Defeo has already authored this site’s position on Bell’s holdout, Defeo doesn’t care and neither should you. Fair enough. But if I can’t get fired up one way or another about his holdout, Bell’s predicament is truly fascinating for what it tells us about the state of running backs in the modern NFL.

Le'Veon Bell, Brandon Carr, Steelers vs Ravens, Franchise Running back

Does Le’Veon Bell have it in him to revive the concept of “Franchise Running back” in today’s NFL? Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

In today’s NFL, the Franchise running back is a quaint, if not outright antiquated concept.

Yet, long before he broke the Steelers regular season and playoff single game rushing records – something Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris, and Jerome Bettis never did – we suggested that Le’Veon Bell was one player who could potentially revive the franchise running back.

  • Suffice to say, the franchise running back’s resurrection has been put on hold, and the non-revolution was televised.

Per press accounts, the Steelers offered Le’Veon Bell a deal that averaged 12.2 million per year, which called for Bell to get about 30 million in his first two years. Not only would that have made Bell the NFL’s highest paid running back, it was 50% more than the annual averages made by next two highest running backs Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy, if Over the Cap is to be trusted.

  • 12.2 million dollars IS a lot of money, and making 50% more than the guy right below you marks you as the league’s unequivocal leader.

Yet, in Le’Veon Bell’s eyes, it wasn’t enough. Bell pointed to his pass catching numbers, and asked to be paid as a receiver. He’s got a strong argument there, but truthfully if Le’Veon Bell really wanted to be paid what he is worth, he should have asked for a time machine to take him back 20 years or so….

Franchise Running Backs in the Salary Cap Era

So what is a franchise running back? A franchise running back is a running back so talented that a team can build a Super Bowl contender around him. Sound silly? Perhaps it does in 2017, but for most of the NFL’s existence the opposite was true. Everyone remembers Jim Brown and OJ Simpson, but does anyone remember their quarterbacks? Not so much.

In the 1990’s the NFL boasted a several legitimate franchise running backs. I can remember at the end of college, arguing that Barry Foster deserved to be considered as a franchise running back alongside Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk or this rookie in Los Angeles named Jerome Bettis.

Laugh at my love for Foster if you will, (I’ll still argue he had the talent, but lacked desire and durability) but no one would argue with the other four, who own six Super Bowl rings between them.

The 1990’s didn’t just give us four undisputable franchise running backs; it also gave us the salary cap. While making meaningful apples-to apples-comparisons between players from different eras is as fun as it is impossible, the salary cap let us see how much those players respective teams valued their services.

franchise running backs, franchise running backs contracts, franchise running backs salary

A note about methodology to fellow arm-chair NFL salary capologists. Gathering consistent contract numbers isn’t easy. It was actually easier to get salary numbers on players from the early 1990’s than it was to get numbers on LaDainian Tomlinson (until we discovered his was listed on over the cap.)

Let’s also agree that the total contract value numbers along with average annual salaries are terribly relevant to a lot of conversations about player salaries, because even in the 1990’s the last several years of a contract frequently had base salaries that both the team and the agent knew would never find their way into the player’s pocket.

Fair enough. But the average salary figure does give us a decent measure to gauge how much of its precious salary cap resources a team is willing to devote to one player.

  • And these numbers reveal just how dramatically differently the NFL values its running backs today, and just how quickly things have changed.

Barry Sanders got the largest chuck of the pie available to him, with the Lions giving him almost 14% of their cap in 1997. Emmitt Smith wasn’t too far behind, getting almost 12% of the Cowboys cap. The difference there is perhaps explained by the fact that Barry Sanders was the Lone Star on his team, while Smith had to share his Den with two other Hall of Fame bound triplets (pun intended).

Two years later Marshall Faulk got 11% of the Rams cap. Five years later LaDainian Tomlinson was able to get almost 10% of the Chargers cap, and even as late as 2011, the Vikings were still willing to give Adrian Peterson 11% of their cap.

Jerome Bettis’ salary cap percentages seem rather pedestrian by comparison, and that leads me to wonder if the numbers out there are in fact accurate (although Bettis did take less money to stay in Pittsburgh in 1997 and perhaps in 2001 as well.) Still, even in 2001, at age 29, the Steelers were still willing to devote a slightly larger portion of their salary cap towards keeping the Bus parked in Pittsburgh, than they are (or were) to keeping Le’Veon Bell in the Steel City.

Indeed, in this salary cap percentage comparison, Le’Veon Bell barely comes out ahead of Barry Foster (who for the record, was only included this table for comparison’s sake.)

Mitigating Circumstances on Le’Veon Bell’s Contract Situation

While Le’Veon Bell’s contract situation clearly shows how little the NFL values running backs in 2017, there are mitigating circumstances. Clearly, Le’Veon Bell has talent that makes him truly special, but in each and every season he’s missed games either to injury or suspension.

  • If Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell is correct, that’s one reason why the Steelers offer wasn’t more generous.

If press reports are correct and the first two years of Le’Veon Bell’s deal would have paid him 30 million dollars, then he’s left 6 million dollars on the table, assuming the Steelers franchise him again in 2018 (which could be complicated, the capologist assure us), in search of a larger pay day come 2019.

That’s a fairly a large risk, but it’s a gamble Le’Veon Bell has the right to make on himself. If Le’Veon Bell can continue his Hall of Fame level production through 2017 and 2018 while avoiding injury and suspension, more power to him.

But even then, when he’s 27 years old, Le’Veon Bell’s unlikely to find a team willing to offer him a contract that commands the kind of cap space that the Sanders, Smiths and Petersons once commanded.

Fairly or unfairly, Le’Veon Bell is and will likely remain a franchise running back trapped in the wrong era.

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Steelers 2017 Salary Cap is Offensively Lopsided. And That’s a Good Thing.

Steelers 2017 training camp starts in 34 days and perhaps the only bit of football drama that will pass between now and then is whether the franchise comes to a long-term agreement with Le’Veon Bell. But even if they don’t one thing is certain:

  • At 101 million dollars, the Steelers will field the NFL’s most expensive offense.

As Steelers Wire’s Simon Chester details, seven of the Steelers top 10 salary cap hits will come on offense. To the naked eye, spending over 60% of your salary cap on half of your team might seem like an unfavorable imbalance.

  • But its not, and in fact shows that things are, in many respects, going according to plan.
Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Dolphins playoffs, Steelers 2017 salary cap offense

Ben Roethlisberger throws to Le’Veon Bell in Steelers 2016 playoff win vs. Miami. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via Zimbo

The Steelers 2017 salary cap structure follows the franchise’s rebuilding effort that has been in the works since Super Bowl XLV. Salary cap mechanics can get tricky, but you don’t need to be an accounting or math wiz to understand what’s going on here.

All of the Steelers projected starters on offense, outside of Jesse James, Roosevelt Nix, Martavis Bryant, and Alejandro Villanueva are playing on their second or third contracts. And by the time the season starts, Villanueva might have his own long term deal.

  • On defense the difference is stark.

The only projected starters playing on second contracts are James Harrison, Cameron Heyward and Mike Mitchell. William Gay, Coty Sensabaugh and Arthur Moats are also well removed from their rookie contracts, but their contracts are relatively cap friendly.

As soon as the 2011 lockout ended the Steelers giving second (or third) contracts to Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Willie Colon. Management invested heavily in keeping the core of players together who’d brought Pittsburgh into 3 Super Bowls in six years.

  • Unfortunately, the plan failed.

But, for as frustrating as 8-8 seasons might have been, the Steelers invested wisely in building their offensive line to protect Ben Roethlisberger and in populating their skill positions with weapons to complement Antonio Brown. It is safe to say that by 2014, the Steelers had enough championship caliber talent on offense to make them viable contenders.

That’s a question that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler’s boys can only answer on the field – as spreadsheet calculations will never drive Tom Brady into the turf on third and long.

But the key to winning in the salary cap era is to get the most bang for your salary cap buck, and one of the best ways to do that is to draft players who can start delivering that bang while they’re still playing on their rookie contracts. Cam Heyward did that. Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt have done that. Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave showed signs that they can do that. God, willing T.J. Watt and Cam Sutton will do that.

Their ability to keep doing that this season forms the key part of any road map that leads Lombardi Number Seven to Pittsburgh in 2017.

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Jarvis Jones Signs with Cardinals, Highlights Dangers of Drafting for Need

Former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker and first round draft pick Jarvis Jones signed with Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, closing the book on what must be considered as Kevin Colbert’s first failure with a first round draft pick.

Jarvis Jones’ failure as a Steelers first round pick has been official for a while, but to understand why he failed one needs to look back to how he arrived in Pittsburgh.

Jarvis Jones, Steelers vs Chiefs, Mitch Morse, Jarvis Jones Pittsburgh West, Jarvis Jones Interception

Jarvis Jones returning an interception during the Steelers 2016 win over Kansas City as Mitch Morse tries to stop him. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2013 off season with a problem. The 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement had flattened the salary cap for the first several season it was to be in force, and the Steelers had several contracts that they’d negotiated prior to the 2011 CBA.

On top of that, James Harrison’s body appeared to be breaking down, as he missed time in both 2011 and 2012 due to injuries. His play also seemed to be leveling off, although we now know that James Harrison was far from done.

The Steelers needed some extra salary cap room, they asked Harrison to renegotiate but James Harrison declined, so the Steelers cut him.

  • That left the Steelers with a glaring need for an outside linebacker.

Chris Carter had been given chances to show he might be worthy of the job, but experience showed Chris Carter clearly wasn’t the answer. Jason Worilds had flashed, but hadn’t shown he could deliver with the consistency that the Steelers needed at the outside linebacker or “edge rusher” position.

On top of that LaMarr Woodley had seen his last two seasons ruined by hamstring injuries, and members of the Steelers locker room questioned his commitment to staying in shape. All of that meant that the Steelers needed to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a starter-capable outside linebacker. And you generally find those in the first round.

Years later Jim Wexell would comment that Jones got the starting job for “political reasons,” although to be fair to everyone involved, Jarvis Jones actually had a pretty impressive rookie preseason campaign. But we know how the story ended. The Steelers stuck with Jarvis Jones for 3 and a half years as Jones flashed at times but was never consistent, and never could pressure the passer as Pittsburgh needed him to.

Even after Jones’ limitations as a pass rusher became painfully evident, word was he still contributed in other ways. Then came the Steelers loss to the Cowboys:

Yes, we’ve shared this clip on the site 2 times before, but we do it because if ever there was one play for Jarvis Jones to prove his mettle as a run stuffer, it was this it and Jarvis Jones came up short.

  • Steel Curtain Rising neither claims knowledge of the Steelers 2013 Draft Board nor are we privy to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s evaluation process.

It is indeed possible that Jarvis Jones wasn’t just the best pass rusher, but the best player the Steelers had on their board when it came time for the Steelers to select with the 2013 NFL Draft’s 18th pick. Jarvis Jones after all had terrorized opposing quarterbacks during his final two years playing for the Georgia Bulldogs. A recent column by Bob Labriola suggest that the Steelers trusted in what they saw on tape, rather than on the stop watch.

  • Clearly there was an error in the Steelers talent evaluation process with Jarvis Jones.

But in some respects, that doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart at Outside Linebacker all but obligated them to draft an outside linebacker in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Outside linebacker, or “Edge Rusher” is also a chief need for the Steelers entering the 2017 NFL Draft, but contrast their situation in 2013 with their current depth chart which features Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo. Yes, Aurther Moats and Anthony Chickillo start on the left side, but at least theoretically one of them could be moved to the right in a pinch.

  • The Steelers need to get an outside linebacker in the 2017 NFL Draft, but their depth doesn’t dictate that they reach for one.

And that’s a good position to be in. You never want to be forced to draft for need. Because as we’ve long said, “When you draft for need, Troy Edwards happens.” Now we can add “And so does Jarvis Jones.”

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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DeCastro Deal Gets Done: Steelers Resign David DeCastro to 6 Year, 58 Million Dollar Contract

Steelers resign David DeCastro to 6 year 58 Million dollar contract.

Sometimes things just fall into place. And so it was during the 2012 NFL Draft. The Pittsburgh Steelers needed a cornerback – everyone knew that (frankly, when haven’t they needed a cornerback.) But then a player fell. And fell. And continued to fall.

  • When it came time to pick, the Steelers knew they’d be fools to say no.
steelers resign david decastro, david decastro contract

Steelers resign David DeCastro to 6 year 58 million dollar contract. Photo Credit: Jason Bridge, US Presswire

And so the Steelers drafted David DeCastro in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. DeCastro didn’t make an immediate impact as a rookie, a preseason injury cost him the first half of the season. His second season didn’t start so well as he caused Maurkice Pouncey’s injury.

  • With David DeCastro reaching the option year of his rookie contract, everyone expected the Steelers to make a move, and make it fast.

One summer ago, the Steelers started training camp by signing Cameron Heyward to a long-term deal. The Steelres clearly wanted to keep DeCastro in Pittsburgh, and DeCastro wanted to say? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect both parties to follow suit? The Steelers arrived in Latrobe and then broke camp, without a contract. The Steelers cycled through four preseason games. Still no contract.

  • Anxious fans started to figet and fret.

In the end, it was all for naught. The Steelers resigned David DeCastro to a 58 million dollar contract that includes a 16 million dollar signing bonus. David DeCastro’s new contract contains 8 million more in guarantees than the 8 million he was due under his option year. DeCastro’s new deal also makes him the 3rd highest paid offensive tackle in the NFL.

With David DeCastro now under contract, the Pittsburgh Steelers have succeeded in locking down Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, and Marcus Gilbert, or 4/5s of their offensive line to long term contracts.

Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown and everyone else who depends on the line to dominate the a scrimmage will welcome that news.

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Be Prepared Steelers Nation: Lawrence Timmons Steelers Farewell Tour Soon to Start

It sure seemed to be a bit of a shocker when the Steelers announced a new three-year contract for reserve inside linebacker Vince Williams on Tuesday, a deal that will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2018 season.

It wasn’t necessarily surprising that they signed Vince Williams, 26 and a solid reserve and special teams player over the first three years of his career since the Steelers made Williams their sixth round pick out of Florida State in the 2013 NFL Draft, from a business standpoint.

  • It just seemed strange given the financial realities they face with incumbent Lawrence Timmons, the 2007 first round pick who is entering the final year of his contract.
lawrence timmons, lawrence timmons interception, lawrence timmons steelers farewell, steelers vs. browns heinz field 2013

Lawrence Timmons picks off a pass in Steelers 2013 season finale vs. Browns. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

Lawrence Timmons, 30, is in the last year of a five-year contract he signed in 2011 and will earn a base salary of $8.75 million in 2016. Furthermore, thanks to restructures over the years, he’ll count over $15 million against the Steelers salary cap this season.

What’s that going to mean for next season in-terms of inking a third contract with the Steelers?

  • I’d say it can only mean getting used to the idea of seeing Lawrence Timmons in different colors other than Black and Gold.

While it’s true that Lawrence Timmons has been the team’s most consistent linebacker since 2012, and he’s averaged 82 tackles a season since 2010, fact is, he’s starting to slow down as he enters his early-30s. Gone is the explosiveness that was part of his athletic package over the first five years of his career. True, in place of his youthful athleticism is poise and experience, but how much is that worth when it comes to salary negotiations?

It might be worth more for teams that don’t face the prospects of inking multiple Pro Bowl players to new deals, but in the Steelers case, they must deal with three either next season or the season after–guard David DeCastro, running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown.

What would the Steelers’ prospects be for contending if they would lose even two-thirds of that aforementioned trio? It says here, even with Ben Roethlsiberger at full health and playing at the level he’s played under Todd Haley, the prospects of competing wouldn’t be very good.

  • With that in mind, Lawrence Timmons Steelers farewell tour looks to begin soon, while Vince Williams prepares himself for starting duties next fall.

Despite his decline in play, would this mean watching Lawrence Timmons, a player who has participated in two Super Bowls in Pittsburgh, finish out his career with another team?

Most likely, but that’s why they call the NFL a business above all else.

 

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Does Vince Williams 2nd Contract Signal Is Lawrence Timmons Time in Pittsburgh Limited?

The Pittsburgh Steelers extended their first contract of the preseason today, but this latest contract extension didn’t involve the player or the position every expected. The Steelers are reportedly in negotiations for a long-term deal with guard David DeCastro. While that deal has yet to materialized, as Cameron Heyward’s did at the start of training camp 2015, an agreement was expected.

  • Linebacker was another position where the Steelers looked to extend a contract.
vince willliams, vince williams steelers contract, vince williams contract, reggie bush, steelers vs. lions 2013

Vince Williams tackles Reggie Bush at Heinz Field in 2013. Photo credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today; used on StillCurtain

And they did. Except it didn’t involve the player the Steelers were expected to resign. The move saw the Steelers resign Vince Williams to a 3 year contract. While Vince Williams is the type of player the Steelers would typically look to extend, his new contract calls into question Lawrence Timmons time in Pittsburgh.

Vince Williams Heir Apparent at Inside Linebacker?

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Vince Williams in the 6th round of the 2013 NFL Draft with the hope that he would develop into a player capable of replacing veteran Larry Foote. Foote had returned to his starting role in 2012 following James Farrior’s retirement/waiver, and had played well, but he was going into his 12th year and pushing age 33.

  • Vince Williams did replace Larry Foote, albeit a lot sooner than the Steelers expected or wanted.

Larry Foote was injured in the Steelers 2013 opening day debacle vs. Tennessee ending his season on the spot. Vince Williams was in street clothes, leaving Kion Wilson to replace Foote. Wilson only played 9 games for the Steelers before getting cut midseason. By the time Vince Williams was the regular starer.

To say that Vince Williams got a baptism by fire represents an understatement.

The young linebacker struggled in Dick LeBeau’s system. Fans saw the once vaunted Steelers run defense give up yards easily, and often pointed the finger at Steve McLendon who himself was replacing a legend in Casey Hampton. However, more educated analysis pin-pointed the weakness on Vince Williams.

  • Nonetheless, Williams improved, and by the end of the season was making head-turning plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Williams has only made two starts since 2013, but he has played extensively in relief of either Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence and Lawrence Timmons. Williams has improved each and every year, and he is by no means a liability to the Steelers defense when he is in the game.

Terms of the deal were not released, but one would have to expect that Vince Williams would only have agreed to sign a contract now, as opposed to waiting for free agency in 2017, if the Steelers were offering starter money….

Clock Ticking for Lawrence Timmons in Pittsburgh? 

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin made Lawrence Timmons the first pick of the Tomlin era in 2007, when they picked the linebacker in the 2007 NFL Draft. Timmons was originally tagged as an outside linebacker, but injuries kept him off the field for most of his rookie year. The Steelers extend Timmon’s contract in 2011, and while Timmons struggled in 2011, he was easily the Steelers most consistent defensive player in 2012, 2013 and arguably in 2014.

While Timmons has not shown any signs of slowing down, he has turned 30.

Timmons has been healthy as well, having started all 16 games since 2011. Timmons has a cap value of over 15 million dollars due to numerous restructures, and it would seem logical for the Steelers to extend his contract to create salary cap relief.

However, with Ryan Shazier locked in at the other inside linebacker position, Vince Williams resigned for the next three years, and a host of younger players rounding out the Steelers depth chart at inside linebacker, it is hard to see how Timmons fits in – if the Steelers indeed offered Vince Williams starter money.

  • Steelers fans who want to see Timmons stay in Pittsburgh do have a ray of hope.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers extend the contract of a player they project as a long-term starter, they often do it for more than three years. In 2011 Ike Taylor got a four year contract, Willie Colon got a 5 year contract, LaMarr Woodley got a six year contract, and Timmons himself got a six year contract.

Ironically enough, of the group, only Timmons has played his the entire contract. For the moment however, it looks like Timmons’ second contract with the Steelers may be his last.

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Steelers Cut Chris Boswell, Hand Kicking Job to Shaun Suisham

When Steelers place kicker Shaun Suisham became a US citizen a few months ago, he vowed a fight to defend his roster spot. Based on an announcement the Steelers made this morning, Suisham has won the battle without so much as making a single kick.

The most shocking move out of Pittsburgh this off seasons sees the Steelers cut Chris Boswell and anoint Siusham as their place kicker for the 2016 season. While he did not speak to the press, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced the decision in a prepared statement:

First, let’s tip our cap to Chris Boswell. He’s a rookie who stepped into a pressure cooker. He didn’t blink. Obviously, Chris delivered for us as we expected. We acknowledge that. He was continually above the line and he made the critical kicks that were necessary to win games a number of times. We thank him for his efforts, but this decision was about Shaun Suisham’s ability to deliver in similar form and fashion. Shaun simply has a larger body of work on tape and obviously we’re excited to move forward with him as our place kicker.

A torn ACL in the Hall of Fame Game sidelined Shuishm for the year, forcing the Steelers to turn to Garrett Hartley who himself was lost to injury, followed by Josh Scobee whose ineffectiveness led the Steelers to look to Chris Boswell. Rookie Chris Boswell rose to the occasion, kicking game winners in the Steelers victories against the Oakland Raiders and in the playoffs against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Chris Boswell was not available for comment, but through his agent he expressed gratitude toward the Steelers organization and Mike Tomlin for giving him a chance to prove himself in the NFL.

Cutting Chris Boswell a Ripple Effect of Heath Miller’s Retirement?

When the Steelers 2016 off season began, many speculated that Shaun Suisham would be a salary cap casualty, given that Boswell had done so well over the course of the season. Shaun Suisham signed a 4 contract in 2014 and carries a salary cap value of $3,503,000 whereas Chis Boswell would have only counted $525,000.

Yet the Steelers were on the record indicating that they planned for Suisham and Boswell to duel it out the kicking job at St. Vincents. In February When pressed by reporters as to whether NFL salary cap rules regarding waving injured players had tied the Steelers hands when it came to Suisham, Kevin Colbert indicated that while such moves involve an extra complication, they can be done. But Colbert concluded “we should have a great, competitive situation at kicker this summer.”

However, Heath Miller’s sudden retirement has created approximately 4 million dollars in additional salary cap room for the Steelers – room that allows them to comfortably keep Suisham on the roster, and the Steelers cutting Chris Boswell makes it seem like that was their desire all along.

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager did not formally address the press, but reporters caught up with him as he was making his way into the office from his car. Reporters pressed Colbert as to why the Steelers cutting Chris Boswell at this point in the off season..

He declined several times to offer a comment, until Colbert finally cocked his head back and responded with a sly grin, “What better day to announce a move like this than April 1st?”

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Watch Tower: Steelers Press Coverage of Martavis Bryant Suspension, Free Agency & Salary Cap

Easter Sunday 2016 finds the Watch Tower shining its lights on the press coverage of the Steelers two top off season stories thus far Martavis Bryant’s suspension and the Steelers salary cap situation.

http://gty.im/504207878

DK on Pittsburgh Sports Breaks Bryant Suspension

As noted by the Watch Tower a little more than a year ago, a “scoop” might not mean as much in journalist terms – as rival publications and post their own stories rehashing the same information in minutes rather than days or hours that it took in yesteryear.

  • Yet, a reporter who can go out and get the news before his peers is doing good work.

In that case, Watch Tower kudos go to Jason Mackey and Dejan Kovacevic of DK on Pittsburgh Sports for breaking the story. This was huge news that will have a tremendous impact on the Steelers 2016 offense, and the duo out hustled the competition in getting the story.

As mentioned above, in the digital world the benefits of breaking a story are short lived. Jim Wexell had the exclusive on Troy Polamalu’s retirement, yet his story only ranks 6th on a desktop Google search for the keyword “Troy Polamalu retires” despite being the first and still only reporter to speak to Poalmalu about his retirement.

  • Case in point, the desktop Google query “Martavis Bryant suspension” does not return any first page results for DK on Pittsburgh Sports.

Nonetheless, Mackey and Kovacevic have well-earned bragging rights for getting their first.

Steelers Nation Scribes React to Bryant Suspension

Bryant’s suspension drew a mix of scorn and concern from Steelers Nation, and produced more than a few interesting reflective pieces. Among the best was penned by Jon Ledyard on USA Today’s The Steelers Wire. You can read Ledyard’s work for yourself, but his piece helps readers answer the “How can he throw all this away?” question by offering first-hand insight gleamed from helping similar people fight battles with substance abuse.

[Editors note: the original version of this article referred to Jim Wexell as a recovering alcoholic. Mr. Wexell has started on Twitter that was not the case. We apologize for the mistake and are happy to correct.]

Interestingly enough, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, who has publicly abstained from alcohol for the last 18 years, opened his piece by confiding that while he was glad he was spared from having to rip a local high school team for a lackluster effort in a championship loss, he wasn’t so lucky when it came to the Steelers admitting, “I really don’t know the man [Bryant] well enough to do what I think I have to do, which is rip him.”

While Wexell’s disappointment in Bryant the person is clear, his complex piece does show an appreciation for Bryant’s struggle. But where Wexell really earns his Watch Tower kudos is in taking the football loss of Bryant head-on. A Super Bowl window’s opening is tenuous at best and Bryant’s suspension could be what kicks it shut for the Steelers, argues Wexell.

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Joe Starkey admonished readers to not to demonize Bryant, and asked a question that should be asked in connection with these types of off the field incidents more often:

  • Has CTE or some other head trauma an issue contributed to Bryant’s behavior?

Everything we’re learning about CTE suggests that the brain disorder is afflicting football players far earlier in their careers than was at first thought, and questions such as Starkey’s are going to be asked more frequently moving forward.

Kudos to Starkey for being ahead of the curve.

Kaboly Calls It on Kelvin Beachum

Here in 2016 free agency predictions are a dime a dozen. But as Gerry Dulac pointed out in an on-line chat a long time ago, a good journalist doesn’t predict on what will happen, he or she reports on what will transpire.

  • To that end, Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review earns Watch Tower Kudos for his reporting on Kelvin Beachum.

It was Kaboly who got Beachum on the record indicating he would not move to guard, as the Steelers had wanted him to, and he correctly predicted that this meant Beachum would not return to the team. The Steelers did of course attempt to bring Beachum back on a shorter, “prove it” contact to play tackle, but at the end of the day, Beachum departed….

Steelers Salary Cap Situation Clarifies….

How much salary cap space did the Pittsburgh Steelers have going into free agency? Depending on who was talking the number was 3, 6-7, or even 10 million dollars. As noted in the last edition of the Watch Tower, most fan sites pegged the number at a higher total, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette begged to differ.

  • Bouchette cited sources that indicated that the Steelers salary cap number would be lower due to the need to pay backs from earlier seasons shortly after the CBA was approved.

Bouchette doubled down shortly before free agency, writing yet another report arguing that the Steelers had about 3.2 million in salary cap space – far less than popularly thought.

Given that the Steelers have resigned five of their own players and three from other teams, it would seem like the larger amounts cited the likes of Ian Whetstone of Steel City Insider as well as many others, were closer to being correct.

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