Silverback Returns! Steelers Resign James Harrison

The Pittsburgh Steelers plan at outside linebacker going into the 2015 off season was remarkably similar to their plan on defensive line for the 2014 off season:

  • Allow unrestricted free agents to test the market
  • Do bargain hunting for veteran free agents as needed
  • Address the position via the draft and existing youth
  • Resign an stalwart veteran as a contingency measure

A year ago on defensive line the Steelers let Ziggy Hood and Al Woods hit the market, and declined to overpay for either of their services (assuming their was ever entertained bringing Ziggy Hood back). When both Hood and Al Woods found greener pastures, they signed Cam Thomas. They also drafted Stephon Tuitt on second round and Daniel McCullers in the 6th round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

This year at outside linebacker the Steelers were content to let Jason Worilds test the market, but they did keep Arthur Moats off the open market. Presumably, the Steelers at least looked and perhaps talked to some free agent outside linebackers, although none visited the South Side. It is no secret the Steelers are looking to outside linebacker in the 2015 NFL Draft.

The case for the Steelers resigning James Harrison was strong. Like Keisel, Harrison indicated he still wanted to play. Here things turned tricky. Brett Keisel didn’t have a suitor in waiting outside of Pittsburgh. Bruce Arians waited until deep into August even to call Kesiel. The Steelers saw the move, and Keisel never made it to Pittsburgh West.

LeBeau made no secret for of his love for his players, and James Harrison was almost moved to tears when asked about LeBeau.

So James Harrison wanted to play, the only question was were, in Pittsburgh on in Tennessee. The Steelers were interested in bringing Harrison back, but wanted to wait until August. And as of Friday, the conventional wisdom was that Harrison would get the Keisel treatment from the Steelers.

Silverback Forces Steelers Hand

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin do not make personnel decisions scared. But they do make smart ones. Yesterday James Harrison (again) made it known that he would only play for the Steelers or for the Titans. What’s more, he let it be known that his kids were divided as to where he should go.

It can be no coincidence that his Instagram post saw the Steelers resign James Harrison Harrison in less than 48 hours.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell concurs:

Outside of that nothing else has changed. The Steelers will still give Howard Jones, Jordan Zumwalt and Shawn Lemon a chance to earn roster spots. They will seek a young outside linebacker early in the 2015 NFL Draft. But they have also ensured that James Harrison will be on their depth chart.

The Steelers are simply making a proactive personnel move, very similar to the one they made when Green Bay worked out Steve McLendon when McLendon was a restricted free agent in 2013. In doing so, they give themselves important breathing space in the 2015 NFL Draft.

There’s a big difference between entering the NFL Draft wanting to get a top cornerback and a top outside linebacker early on and needing to take both a corner and an outside linebacker early on.

Realism Must Accompany Harrison’s Return to Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers resigned James Harrison for all the right reasons. He proved that he still has something left in the tank, he still has the desire to play, and he can serve as an excellent role model in the locker room.

  • But neither the Silverback of 2008 nor Deebo of 2010 will is returning to Pittsburgh.

Indeed, Harrison’s own agent has said as much, declaring that Harrison will be in a “supporting role”

And that’s fitting. James Harrison raised hell vs. the Baltimore Ravens at midseason, but was held in check in the Steelers playoff loss to Baltimore. To mix sports metaphors, Harrison certainly won’t be Willie Mays final stint with the Mets, but will rather likely be more like Michael Jordan’s final seasons with the Washington Wizards – as a player who can still perform at a high level, but only sporadically.

And by itself, that should be enough to help the Steelers in 2015.

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Stephon Tuitt Fights Steelers 2nd Round DL History, Fighting Irish Pedigree in Pittsburgh…

While picking Stephon Tuitt in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft, helps the Pittsburgh Steelers plug what was a glaring hole at defensive line, Tuitt’s arrival doesn’t so much signal the filling of a void, but rather a fight against precedent on both a symbolic an real level.

Mitchell to Make Changes?

One of the reasons why no one expected the Steelers to draft a defensive lineman early comes down to simple math.

  • Rookies do not start for John Mitchell.

Yours truly plans to write about this in depth for Behind the Steel Curtain soon, but the only rookie to get any significant starting time since John Mitchell’s arrival in Pittsburgh in 1994 was Casey Hampton. Mithcell’s M.O. is to take players strip them of all of the habits and technique that they’ve learned in college, and start from zero.

  • The problem is, the Steelers situation at defensive line might not allow them the luxry of a 2-3 year apprenticeship that Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward enjoyed.

One option that would give the Steelers some leeway would be to bring Brett Kesiel back for a final year, although that would do little to help Tuitt overcome some of the history he’s facing….

Tuitt vs. Steelers Second Round History on Defensive line Picks

The last time the Steelers took a defensive lineman in the second round of the draft it was when Tom Donahoe traded up to pick Jeremy Staat in 1998. Staat became known for his battle against dsyleixa and exotic hairstyles, but started two games in 3 years for the Steelers.

They had slightly better luck with 1994’s second round pick Brentson Buckner, who started five games as an injury replacement for Gerald Williams. While Buckner played well as a rookie, he lacked the commitment a focus necessary to be a starter, something which he admitted later in his career.

  • The Steelers also took Kenny Davidson in the second round of the 1990 draft, who was decidedly average in his two seasons as a starter.

To find an unqualified second round defensive line success you have to go back to Gerald Williams, taken in 1986. Williams was no stud, but he was a solid nose tackle for six years, before Joel Steed’s arrival allowed him to move to defensive end in 1993.

Tuitt vs. History of Fighting Irish in Pittsburgh

Notre Dame might be one of the most storied college football programs in history, but the Steelers have not had much luck drafting players from the Fighting Irish of late (“late” = since the late 1980’s or so.)

The last player the Steelers drafted from Notre Dame was wide receiver Malcolm Johnson whom they picked in the 6th round of the 1999 draft. Johnson played in two games as a rookie, catching two passes for 26 yards. He opened the Steelers 2000 1st preseason game, but got cut during the season, only playing in 4 games.

  • In 1991 the Steelers drafted Andre Johnson in the 6th round and Johnson who fittingly played 6 games and then was done.

With Mike Webster aging, the Steelers thought so much Notre Dame center Chuck Lanza that they drafted him in the third round of the 1988 draft. Of course they drafted Dermontti Dawson as a guard a round ahead of him, and Dawson became Webster’s heir.

However, Lanza stuck with the team and has the ignominious distinction of authoring the errant snap to Bubby Brister, which ended the 1989 Steelers shot at upsetting the Denver Broncos in the AFC Divisonal Playoffs at Mile High.

  • Going even further back and into even more ominous history Willie Fry was a defensive end drafted out of Notre Dame 1978 who failed to make the team…

…However, the most recent Notre Dame defensive lineman drafted by the Steelers came in 1995 when they took the Fighting Irish’s Oliver Gibson in the 4th round of the 1995 draft. Gibson was a nose tackle who saw plenty of time at end, including as a rookie, where he played in 12 games.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 NFL Draft Needs: Defensive Line

Anyone in Steelers Nation who can register a pulse knows that defensive back (specifically cornerback) and wide receivers are areas of high interest for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Steelers have had at least 7 cornerbacks and/or safeties and at least 4 wide receivers into the South Side for pre-draft visits.

  • That’s a curious selection, as neither wide receiver nor cornerback is the Steelers greatest area of need.

This is not to minimize the Steelers needs those two positions. The Steelers need both depth and quality at both wide out and corner. But neither area of the depth chart offers the gapping hole that one finds when looking at the state of the Steelers defensive line.

Leading the Steelers defensive line of course is 2011 first round pick Cameron Heyward, who appears to be, what Chuck Noll once described as a “Championship Caliber Player.”

Next to Heyward the Steelers have Steve McLendon, who will return for a second stint at nose tackle. The Steelers also bolstered their depth at nose tackle with the free agent acquisition of Cam Thomas.

Al Woods is in Tennessee and Ziggy Hood is in Jacksonville. Neither loss is critical, but together they rob the Steelers of two serviceable veterans who knew Dick LeBeau and John Mitchell’s systems.  That means the Steelers cupboard at defensive line is as thin as it is bare.

After the two Cam’s and Steve McLendon the Steelers have Nicholas Williams, Hebron Fangupo and Brian Arnfelt. William got injured in training camp and spent the entire 2013 season on IR, losing a rookie year is never a plus, but the Steelers drafted Williams the 7th round of 2013 as a project.

  • The good news is that Fanbupo and Arnfelt both got on to the Steelers active roster in late 2013 and therefore have some NFL experience.

The bad news is that if their combined 2013 snap total can hardly top 2 dozen, if even that.

Resigning Brett Keisel remains an option. Steel Curtain Rising is on record calling for Kesiel’s return, but even if the Steelers bring him back, that is hardly a long term solution.

No, the Steelers need quality and quantity on the defensive line, and they need it now. Therefore the priority of the defensive line in for the Steelers in 2014 must be rated as High.

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The Colbert Record: 0 for 0 – Steelers 2008 vs. 2009 Draft – Do Numbers Lie?

Numbers never lie. But sometimes they fail to tell the full story.

That bit of dictum has been thrown around a lot here on Steel Curtain Rising. And the conventional wisdom on the Steelers 2008 and 2009 drafts reveals why it is so relevant.  Exhibit A:

John Steigerwald’s logic seems irrefutable. The 2014 Steelers will field exactly ZERO members from either of their 2008 and 2009 drafts, ergo Pittsburgh has done a petty pathetic job of picking players. Steigerwald is known for his bare knuckles, semi-sensationalistic style, but he’s got company.

  • Traditional meat and potatoes beat writer Ed Bouchette, but began a recent column declaring the Steelers had laid two eggs in these drafts.

The ghosts of the 2008 draft and 2009 draft haunted the Steelers during their twin 8-8 seasons and arguably in their ’11 season too. Steelers Nation might hear echoes of those ghosts in 2014 too.

But even if we do, there’s a stark difference in the quality of those two drafts. Mark Kabloy gets it.

@Steigerworld Actually, 2009 draft was great. 7 are still in league; 4 are starters; 2 are making a ton of money … just not with steelers
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) March 13, 2014

An more accurate description of the two drafts might be “The Wash and the One That Got Away.”

’08 Draft Puts Pittsburgh Behind Eight Ball

Little more need be said here about the Steelers 2008 Draft. With Ryan Mundy and Rashard Mendenhall’s departure’s last year, the 2008 draft’s status shifted from disappointing to “Loss.”

Outside of those two, neither the Steelers nor the NFL got anything. Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, and Tony Hills were unmitigated busts.

Steelers 2009 Draft, the One that Got Away

The record reflects that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, despite the handicap of picking last in each round, picked some pretty good players in 2009. The Steelers even got some value out of them. The problem is the rest of the NFL is getting more.

  • It might be unfair, but one player can and sometimes does define a draft. 

Look no further than 2004 when the Steelers got Ben Roethlisberger. That pick alone makes the draft an unqualified success, even if Max Starks was the only other player of consequence taken then.

First round picks don’t necessarily define a draft, 2002 was Kevin Colbert’s best all around but Kendall Simmons was far from the most valuable player taken. So it’s unfair to heap disappointment on Ziggy Hood, but it happens nonetheless. Had Hood grow into the player he teased he might have been in late 2010, perceptions would be different.

  • Alas, Hood’s late 2010 surge was a flash instead of a sustainable stride.

Ziggy Hood wasn’t a bust. He just wasn’t good enough for a first round pick. And in that sense Hood does set the tone for the value the Steelers realized from the 2009 draft – Too little or too late or too little shelf life.

Too Short of a Shelf Life

Mike Wallace falls into the too little shelf life category. For all his faults, Wallace is a legit home run threat, and delivered great value as a third round pick.

  • Mike Wallace was a fantasy owners wet dream. 

But fantasy stats don’t show things like refusing to contest underthrown balls that instead get intercepted.  Knowing that, the Steelers were happy to let Miami overpay. It was a smart move, but it is also requiring them to look to the draft for more receivers.

David Johnson was another with too short a shelf life. A versatile player, he was working himself into a model “late round pick makes good” story until injuries ruined his 2012 and 2013 seasons. Now he’s in San Diego.

A.Q. Shipley falls into this category by default. A Penn State player with local ties, Kevin Colbert justified the pick of someone short on measurable saying you couldn’t measure a man’s heart. He stayed on the Steelers 2009 practice squad, but declined a futures contract when his coach Larry Zierlin left. He’s now starting in Baltimore….

Too Late….

Keenan Lewis’ rookie year was marred by injuries. During his second year he was most notable famous for smashing a sign in Denver. By 2011, according to Rebecca Rollet’s report at Behind the Steel Curtain, the coaches had given up.

  • However, new arrival Carnell Lake wasn’t hearing any of it. 

Took him under his wing. Lewis contributed as a nickel and dime back in 2011 and established himself as a pass defense demon in 2012. Alas, the Steelers were caught short in salary cap space and had to let him walk without an offer. If only the Steelers had gotten something out of him sooner….

Kraig Urbik’s story shifted from “just in time” to “too late” in the matter of 1 game, thanks to Byron Leftwich’s sprained knee. The move forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch, cutting Urbik instead. That was a shame, because Urbik had made the second year leap, having shown something at guard and knocked Justin Hartwig down to third on the depth chart at center.

The Steelers thought they could sneak Urbik on to the practice squad, but Dough Waley knew better and now Urbik is starting for Buffalo.

Too Little…

Frank “The Tank” Summers was the draft pick with the catchy name in 2009. His lone moment as a Steeler was a very poor block in the backfield followed by “back surgery.” He got beaten out in camp in 2010, hung around on practice squads, and now he is the Bills fullback.

Joe Burnett looked good in camp in 2009 and got into the line up late in the year, but was famous more for dropped interception than anything else. Couldn’t make the final roster in 2010 and had no practice squad eligibility.

When the Steelers cut Sunny Harris at the end of camp, and Ed Bouchette compared him Dwaine Board (although he denied it later). Harris got picked up by Carolina, resigned by Pittsburgh, spent time on the Steelers practice squad in 2010, and was cut in 2011 but picked up by Houston. Low expectations await 6th round picks, but Harris ultimately fell short of those.

Steelers Loss is NFL’s Gain

At its core, the story of the Steelers 2009 reveals the complex, non-scientific, nature of personnel decision making in the NFL, and proves that timing and “luck” are often the ultimate trump cards.

  • 7 players still in the NFL, at least 4 starting and two playing on big 2nd contracts say that the Steelers made pretty good picks in 2009.

The problem is the rest of the NFL can attest to the fact from 1st hand experience.

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Off the Market: Cameron Heyward to Stay in Pittsburgh in ’15, Steelers Pickup 5th Year Option

During the last two off seasons Steelers Nation has renewed its acquaintance with the phenomena of free agent defections. Keenan Lewis blossomed into a star and was gone. The Steelers investment in training and development of Al Woods went up on smoke. Jerricho Cotchery bolted for Carolina.

  • But the Black and Gold faithful can lay their minds at ease that Cameron Heyward’s name will not be in play next year.

As expected, the Pittsburgh Steelers have exercised their 5th year option on 2011’s first round draft pick, Cam Heyward. The option will pay Heyward 6.969 million dollars and is guaranteed.

Heyward’s development was slow, although it’s a legitimate question as to why he was not pushing Ziggy Hood for more playing time if not the starting role in 2012. Nonetheless, he remained a backup until the Steelers 0-4 start, which saw Mike Tomlin promote him to the starting role. And indeed, Heyward gave Steelers Nation something to be thankful for last fall, as he seized the reigns and making splash play after splash play.

As a high schooler, I desperately wanted the Steelers to draft Pitt’s “Iron Head” Craig Heyward, Cam’s father, but the Steelers passed on him, taking Aaron Jones instead. (Think Chuck Noll and Dick Haley would have liked to have had that one back.) “Iron Head” never got to play in Pittsburgh, but his son will remain there for another year.

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Darqueze Dennard, Stephon Tuitt Pay Pre-Draft Visits to Steelers

While the ink was yet to dry on free agent wide receiver’s Darrius Heyward-Bey’s contract, the Steelers moved on with their NFL pre draft visits.

This is hardly the first time either Stephon Tuitt and Darqueze Dennard names have been mentioned in association with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Dennard is an obvious first rounder and has been listed as one of the players the Steelers will not pass on if available at 15 during the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft.

The Steelers need for a cornerback is well-documented, with Ike Taylor pushing 34, and William Gay and Cortez Allen both heading into their contract years. With the washout that was Courtney Brown, the Steelers have no up and comer waiting in the wings.

  • The Steelers need on defensive line is equally well documented. 

With Al Woods in Tennessee and Ziggy Hood in Jacksonville, the Steelers have no starting defensive end opposite Cameron Heyward. Cam Thomas has of course been signed, but the early word is that Thomas has been brought on for depth behind both Heyward and Steve McLendon, not to start.

Stephon Tuitt at one point had been projected as a first round pick, but has draft stock has dropped due to a foot injury.

As Dale Lolley pointed out, the Steelers could benefit from this in the same way the benefitted from a sports hernia that limited Heath Miller’s activity prior to the 2005 NFL Draft – where Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert selected Miller with the 30th overall pick.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Guy Whimper Re-Ups with Pittsburgh

After a week which saw them lose Jonathan Dwyer, David Johnson, Al Woods, Ziggy Hood and Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers began week 2 of NFL Free Agency by resigning one of their own.

  • Except it wasn’t the one Steelers Nation was hoping for.

When word broke that Jerricho Cotchery would end his Steelers cruise by going to Carolina Steelers fans feared the worst. And yes, the worst may indeed come to pass. The Steelers acknowledge as much with their decision to entertain Lance Moore of the New Orleans Saints.

The player that the Steelers resigned is none other than Guy Whimper, the offensive lineman that Steelers Nation spent the 2013 off season dreading seeing in action. As fate would have it, Whimper did see action in the regular season. He wasn’t spectacular.

Perhaps “solid” would be too strong a word. His performance was serviceable and that was enough for the Steelers to give him a shot at a roster spot in 2014.

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In Pittsburgh 1 “Cam” on Defensive Line Isn’t Enough, Steelers Sign Cam Thomas, NT/DE from San Diego

While the free agent defections of Ziggy Hood and Al Woodsmay not have sent shock waves through Steelers Nation, they certainly got some of the natives restless.
  • Some of this is understandable.

It’s been close to a generation since free agent defections were a rite of spring for the Steelers. This isn’t to minimize 2 of your top five defensive lineman while a third (Brett Keisel) remains unsigned. That’s news.

And Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are not sitting around ideally either. Alex Carrington of the Buffalo Bills visted with them on Thursday and Cam Thomastoday.

One Cam on the Defensive Line Isn’t Enough

While Carrington’s visit went well the Steelers apparently decided that one Cam (Cameron Heyward) on the defensive line isn’t enough, as they signed Camaron Thomasto a two year 4 million dollar contract.

Thomas is a big defensive lineman in the mold of Casey Hampton, weighing 330 pounds and standing 6’3”. For those of you who are into saber metrics, he graded out 49th of 64 NFL defensive tackles according to Pro Football Focus. ESPN’s Bill Polian graded Thomas at a “D” while grading Al Woods at a “C” however, Thomas signed for 1 million less.

Some in the press have been quick to suggest that Thomas’ arrival might push Steve McLendon to defensive end, but Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola pour cold water on that:

It should be noted that Thomas started 11 games in 2013 only to be benched late in the season. While that’s obviously a concern , Thomas provides and immediate boost of depth.

Steel Curtain Rising Logs First Interaction with Thomas?

Social media sites such as Twitter have erased the barrier between fans and players, and Steel Curtain Rising’s experience today was a prime example.

Apologies were rendered in a subsequent Tweet.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Camaron Thomas.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Ziggy Hood Bolts to Jacksonville

And then their were none.

David Johnson was the first Pittsburgh Steeler to defect in free agency. He also happened to be their sixth round pick of the 2009 NFL Draft and the second to last member of that draft class on their roster.

My early story: Steelers lose 2009 first-round draft pick Ziggy Hood to Jaguars via @pittsburghpg
— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) March 13, 2014

In less than 24 hours Ziggy Hood followed suit, signing on with Jacksonville Jaguars.  Hood, who was the Steelers first round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft leaves that draft class unrepresented on the Steelers.

Hood’s signing, coupled with Al Woods departure for Tennessee, also leaves the Steelers situation at defensive line precariously thin. Brett Keisel’s name has not been heard, either inside or outside Pittsburgh, and Steel Curtain Rising is on record rooting for Keisel’s return.

  • The Steelers have also had Alex Carrington, a defensive lineman from the Bills, visit Pittsburgh and today will reportedly work out Cam Thomas of the San Diego Chargers.

Thomas is listed has having position flexibility, something the Steelers both value and need. Carrington had a strong 2012 for the Bills, but was asked to move out of position when the team switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 alignment. He also injured his quadriceps early in the year, which means his contract will be cap friendly.

Either way the Steelers are not taking their situation at defensive line lightly.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Investment in Al Woods Goes Up in Smoke….

While Mike Mitchell’s arrival might have signaled the rejuvenation of the Steelers secondary, Al Woods departure to the Tennessee Titans confirms that Pittsburgh has a problem on defensive line.

  • Let’s get one things straight. Al Woods was no world beater. His absence certainly shouldn’t doesn’t doom the Steelers chances for 2014

But Wood’s defection is troubling for a number of reasons nonetheless.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Now and Issue

The first involves the question of depth of the Steelers defensive line. Cam Heyward is budding star. Steve McLendon didn’t make anyone forget he wasn’t Casey Hampton, but his play is probably more solid than many outsiders give him credit.

  • After that the Steelers have no depth on defensive line.


In the short term the loss of Woods can bring a positive in the return of Brett Keisel. But Keisel is 36 and has a year left in him at most. Ziggy Hood also remains an option. However, Hood is visiting with other NFL teams, and was not expected back prior to free agency.

Regardless, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a hole to fill on defensive line. The Steelers could draft a lineman, but Hampton is the only defensive lineman to start and contribute as a rookie since Bill Cowher’s arrival in 1993.

The Steelers have had somewhat better luck with free agent defensive lineman during John Mitchell’s tenure, in the form of Ray Seals and Nolan Harrison. But the free agent market on defensive lineman is thin – hence the interest in Woods and Hood.

Long Term Issue

The other troubling aspect to Wood’s departure is for what it represents in the long term. The Steelers picked up Woods in 2010 after he was cut by Tampa Bay. The process repeated itself in 2011. Woods didn’t hold down a regular roster spot in 2012, and only then got spot duty. Finally, in 2013 he became part of the rotation.

Woods was listed as starting two games last year. He saw regular action at both defensive end and nose tackle and recorded two sacks and defensed two passes.

  • At the very worst, Woods was developing into a viable 4th defensive lineman in a 3-4 scheme.
  • At best, he was clawing his way towards a starting role.

In short, the Steelers invested a lot of time in developing and training Woods and now Tennessee will benefit from that.

Make no mistake about it, Steel Curtain Rising is not crying victim here. Al Woods should get whatever money he can get. And at 2.5 million dollars a year, he likely got in Nashville what he couldn’t get in Pittsburgh.

But coming on the heels of Keenan Lewis last year, this is the second time in two years the Steelers have acted as a veritable farm system for other NFL teams. This was common in the 1990’s of course, but ended with the opening of Heinz Field.

  • Now the Steelers salary cap situation has them repeating history. And not for the better.

To some degree or another this was unavoidable. It’s easy to say the Steelers should have gotten Woods under contract before letting him test the market. Woods agent knew full well what the market would bear and advised his client accordingly.

Regardless, its frustrating to see the Steelers invest Woods to see it all go up in smoke.

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