Steelers 2022 Draft Needs: Examining Pittsburgh @ Offensive Tackle

The Steelers continue to rebuild an offensive line that was once the envy of the National Football League.

Pittsburgh spent draft picks and free-agent money on the unit last spring to mixed results during the regular season. After dazzling with a couple of free-agent additions along the interior of the line during the onset of the 2022 free agency period, is the rebuilding as complete as it needs to be, or should the Steelers try and address the offensive line in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft, specifically the offensive tackle positions?

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Tackle: The Starters

A third-round pick out of Western Michigan in the 2018 NFL Draft, Chukwuma Okorafor has had an up-and-down Steelers career, thus far (at least in the eyes of the fans and media). After starting three games in his rookie season and another one in 2019, Okorafor lost the training camp battle for the starting right tackle spot to Zach Banner in 2020.

However, Banner was lost for the rest of the year after suffering a torn ACL in a Week 1 victory over the Giants, and Okorafor wound up starting 15 games at right tackle.

Okorafor was again the full-time starting right tackle in 2021, the final year of his rookie deal, and to the surprise of many, quickly agreed to a rather lucrative three-year deal on the first day of unrestricted free agency.

Dan Moore Jr. was a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2022 NFL Draft and seemed to impress the coaches, fans and media the second he stepped onto the Heinz Field grass last summer at training camp. Moore continued to perform well all-throughout training camp and ultimately won the starting left tackle spot. Moore kept his top spot all season and started 16 of 17 games. Did he struggle at times? Sure, but he also acquitted himself quite well, like when protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side while blocking the always menacing Myles Garrett.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Offensive Tackle: The Backups

Joe Haeg is a versatile veteran who the Steelers signed last spring and is capable of playing both guard and tackle. Haeg, 29, has one year remaining on a two-year deal.

Chaz Green was a 2015 third-round pick by the Cowboys. After failing to establish himself in Dallas, Green became the proverbial journey tackle and spent time with the Saints, Raiders, Broncos and Colts before winding up in Pittsburgh last season.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Steelers Draft Needs @ Offensive Tackle

It’s hard to imagine that the Steelers would sign Okorafor to a three-year deal worth up to $29 million and then immediately go searching for his replacement in the draft. And after finding a bit of a diamond in the rough in Dan Moore last year, I can’t see them trying to supplant him by selecting someone with a premium pick.

But that doesn’t mean depth isn’t an issue. Depth is an issue which would make the position’s draft need Moderate

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Steelers 2022 NFL Draft Needs: Examining Pittsburgh @ Wide Receiver

The receiver position has long been considered one the Steelers have excelled at in terms of drafting players, developing them and getting decent-to-great production out of those players.

  • When was the last time the Steelers didn’t have a receiving corps that was considered to be deep and talented?

It might be right now, thanks to so many free-agent defections this spring. But are those defections enough to make the position a high priority heading into the 2022 NFL Draft?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

Chase Claypool converts a 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

With JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington all defecting as free agents this spring, the Steelers currently have two legitimate starters on the roster. Diontae Johnson, the fourth-year man out of Toledo who caught a career-high 107 passes for 1,161 yards and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2021, is one. Chase Claypool, who regressed a bit last season after a rather-spectacular and explosive rookie campaign, is the other. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s going to fill the role of slot receiver in 2022.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

Anthony Miller, a second-round pick by the Bears in 2018, is currently listed as the starting slot receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart. Miller had some promising years in Chicago before being traded to the Texans prior to the 2021 season. After being released by Houston last October, Miller was signed to the Steelers practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in late November. Miller caught just one pass for two yards for Pittsburgh last season and has 140 receptions for nearly 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns during his first four seasons in the NFL.

Cody White, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, showed a flash of promise a season ago. Tyler Vaughns, Steven Sims and Rico Bussey, three totally unproven players, round out the receiver depth chart, while Gunner Olszewski, a free-agent pickup from the Patriots, has just been a return specialist, albeit a relatively successful one, up to this point in his career.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver

With little in proven depth behind both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, the Steelers could certainly use an infusion of talent at the receiver position.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

And let’s not forget that neither Johnson or Claypool has truly established himself as a sure-fire number one receiver in the NFL.

Factor in the conventional wisdom that the 2022 NFL Draft appears to be flush with quality prospects at the receiver position. All things considered, I’d say the Steelers’ draft need at wide receiver is High-Moderate.

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Why the Steelers 1987 Draft Is Still My Favorite

This April marks the 35-year anniversary that I was allowed to stay home from school and watch the 1987 NFL Draft.

Maybe it wasn’t the best parental decision my mom ever made, but considering I am able to encapsulate my feelings about that day so many years later while utilizing my gift of writing, well, maybe it was a smart choice, after all.

Rod Woodson, Steelers vs Oilers, Three Rivers Stadium, 1992 Steelers

Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers

Anyway, 1987 was the last year that the annual draft was held on a weekday — Tuesday–and started at 7 a.m. Exactly one year later, it was held on Sunday, which would be the NFL’s day of choice for the event for many springs after, and it started at noon.

Obviously, the NFL Draft continued to become a sports phenomenon over the years and has grown so much, not only is it now a primetime event that starts on Thursday and dominates an entire weekend, its ratings are superior to actual sports contests held by its rivals — including the NHL and its Stanley Cup Final.

It’s something that I should have a tremendous appetite for at this point in my life, especially with such easy access to all things NFL Draft — thanks to the explosion of both cable and the Internet, there is now round-the-clock coverage, endless mock drafts and the ability for any fan to do all of the research necessary to become an expert on all of the prospects.

  • But, in an ironic twist, it’s just not like that for me in 2022.

Back in the late-’80s, however, when I was about as obsessed with the draft as I’d ever be, I would have given anything to have access to the information that I do right now.

My obsession with the draft truly started in 1988 — the year that would see the Steelers select Aaron Jones in the first round — and began to subside after Bill Cowher took over as head coach in 1992 and soon showed me that winning playoff games and being an annual Super Bowl contender was far-more exciting and satisfying than studying draft prospects and hoping that a “known name” would come to town and rescue the black and gold.

I wasn’t super stoked about the draft in ’87, but I wanted to watch it, and I was more than excited when my mom let me stay home from school. I didn’t know who Rod Woodson was, but I quickly learned that it was quite the coup that Pittsburgh, a team that had drafted ninth a year earlier and selected some guard named John Rienstra, had landed this talented cornerback from Purdue with the 10th pick.

The Browns, the Steelers’ fierce rivals in the old AFC Central Division, had a shot at Woodson with the fifth pick, but, instead, chose Mike Junkin, an inside linebacker from Duke.

Junkin went on to play in 20 games over three seasons before his NFL career went up in smoke.

In Cleveland’s defense, a lot of teams missed out on Rod Woodson, who was the only First-Ballot Hall of Famer from the ’87 draft class. In fact, legendary wide receiver Cris Carter, who was inducted in 2013, was the only other Hall of Fame member to come out of the 1987 NFL Draft.

As I said, it was quite the coup for the Steelers to land a generational talent such as Rod Woodson, and do so after nine other teams had already passed on him in the first round.

Chuck Noll said he was “in love” with Woodson not long after making the selection (you could see why it was love at first sight for the head coach who spent most of his post-Super Bowl years futilely trying to find love in the first round).

Again, I didn’t know anything about Rod Woodson–never even heard of him prior to the draft — but I was excited that so many others were excited about the Steelers landing him.

Greg Lloyd, Rashaan Salaam, Steelers vs Bears 1995

Greg Lloyd closes in on the Bears Rashaan Salaam in the Steelers 1995 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images via the Bleacher Report

All-in-all, the Steelers’ ’87 draft was one of Noll’s finest over his last 15 years or so as head coach of the team. In addition to Woodson, Pittsburgh selected cornerback Delton Hall (round two); safety Thomas Everett (round four); linebacker Hardy Nickerson (round five); linebacker Greg Lloyd (round six); and running back Merril Hoge (round 10). Most would go on to have lengthy and distinguished careers — both with the Steelers and with other teams (Everett was a two-time Super Bowl winner with the Cowboys, for example) — and Woodson, Lloyd and, to a lesser extent, Hoge, went on to become vital members of Cowher’s playoff teams of the 1990s.

While I was super-hyped for the next several drafts–as many tend to do now, I was devouring every morsel of draft coverage I could find weeks and months before the event–none of them lived up to 1987.

To reiterate, the 1987 NFL Draft was the greatest one I ever watched, and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.

Maybe my mom knew what she was doing, after all.

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The Steelers 2022 Free Agent Activity Has Been Splashy But Practical

You can tell Steelers fans aren’t used to their favorite football team being extremely active during the onset of the NFL’s annual free-agent frenzy.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2019 pre draft press conference

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin in 2019.

Why do I say that? Because I think the fans want to elect Kevin Colbert, the team’s long-time general manager, king of Pittsburgh after he finally hangs up his executive badge for good following the 2022 NFL Draft.

What Steelers fans are experiencing so far is your normal free-agent activity that most teams have this time of year. This is what happens with actual cap space, something the Steelers haven’t had this much of since forever–after starting out with just under $30 million last week, they still have over $20.5 million according to Spotrac.

Maybe that’s why the signing of Mitchell Trubisky seemed like such a big deal when the news broke last week that they agreed to a two-year contract with the still fairly young quarterback. Perhaps this is why inking a deal with inside linebacker Myles Jack feels like a bigger coup than it actually is.

Make no mistake, though, while the Steelers have been a bit splashier than usual through one week of free agency, they’ve still been just as practical as ever.

Neither Trubisky or Jack is a perennial All-Pro player, but they’re both good enough that they represent upgrades over what we saw at their respective positions a year ago — sorry to break this news to the truly diehard Ben Roethlisberger fans out there.

I think even the most intense Steelers fan wouldn’t go overboard with the individual signings of guard James Daniels, center Mason Cole and cornerback Levi Wallace, but put them together with the Trubisky and Jack deals, and it feels like a time to celebrate and throw a parade.

But all Colbert did with these moves was make the Steelers better on paper at positions that needed to be upgraded, and he did this without breaking the bank in the process.

No deal that’s been signed so far has made you feel like the Steelers are mortgaging their future. No, they’re just quietly going about rebuilding their roster and reinforcing it with youth by bringing in guys on their second contracts, players who may still have their best football ahead of them.

  • Again, it just seems flashier because you’re not used to the Steelers doing so much.

Will all of these moves pan out? The odds and free-agent history say heck no, but some of them likely will. If it’s Trubisky, for example, wow, will the Steelers be in tremendous shape moving forward. But even if someone like Daniels steps in and becomes the anchor of an improved offensive line, the Steelers should be able to build upon that.

I like what the Steelers are doing. Am I worried about any free-agent grades and someone declaring the Steelers “winners”? Not really. I’m just excited about how these new players can collectively help the team expedite its rebuild.

The real winning is done in October and November, but I must say, it is pretty cool to see the Steelers do a little “winning” in March for a change.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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It’s OK If the Steelers (and Their Fans) Actually Accept Rebuilding

“I’m ready to move on, man, and I’m serious. I wouldn’t be upset if Ben decided to retire after this season and the team sunk to the bottom of the NFL for a year or two.”

That was you for the past few years, and the “Ben” you were referring to was the ever-aging Ben Roethlisberger, the legendary quarterback of the Steelers for many years. Alas, Roethlisberger’s reign in Pittsburgh ended after 18 seasons, and he officially announced his retirement following a blow-out wildcard playoff loss to the Chiefs to close out the 2021 campaign.

Now you, the Steeler fan, get your wish.

  • The Steelers could, in fact, sink to the bottom of the NFL for a year or two.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers training camp, St. Vincents

Mike Tomlin addresses the men at Steelers training camp. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Great, right?

Not according to the fans, at least the ones on social media who can’t seem to shut up about the Steelers and what big moves they’ll make with the new calendar year — along with unrestricted free agency — set to kick off at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

Heck, the fans on social media can’t even handle all of the rumors swirling around without losing it and worrying about the Steelers falling behind every other team in the AFC North, including the Browns, who acquired receiver Amari Cooper from the Cowboys on Saturday.

Why weren’t the Steelers more aggressive in going after Cooper? After all, the haul that Dallas will get back for Cooper is just a couple of late-round picks. Good point, a very good point. Only problem with that logic is that it’s not something a rebuilding team does. No, a rebuilding franchise is the one who trades the player for the draft picks. (Full disclosure: The Cowboys aren’t in a rebuild; they just didn’t want to honor Cooper’s current contract.)

So, why would the Steelers go after a Cooper if they are now in full-rebuild mode following Roethlisberger’s retirement? Also, why would they give up the farm to acquire Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson?

Or, for that matter, why would they go after Carson Wentz or Jimmy Garoppolo to fill their quarterback void?

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Again, you wanted a rebuild, right? You said you were exhausted by all of those seasons that didn’t result in more Super Bowls–as fun as some of those years may have been with Big Ben and the other Killer B’s, including Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, pulling the wagon.

I don’t know how an observer of things can actually be exhausted, but you know who is probably really exhausted after 13 years of trying to reach Seventh Heaven? The Steelers. Seriously, they’re like that young doctor on Day 3 of no sleep. They’re downing caffeine. They’re splashing cold water on their face. They’re doing everything that can to stay sharp, but that knife is now pretty dull.

It’s time for a rest.

The Steelers now have more cap space than they normally know what to do with, and with free agency just on the horizon, I fully expect them to do things to build up their roster. They may even make a splash signing or two.

But would that signify a quick end to the rebuild? No, I think it’s just getting started. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to last forever. A few moves here, a few moves there, and suddenly you’re back to being a serious contender again, one full of fresh legs and quick-twitch muscle fibers.

In the meantime, the Steelers and their fans may have to sit back for a season or two and watch other teams “go for it.”

Will it suck? How can it not? Will it be frustrating to listen to all of those talking heads mock the Steelers for falling behind in the annual off-season Lombardi race? Sure.

  • But those talking heads never seem to grow tired.

Football teams sometimes do.

Let the Steelers get some sleep in 2022. They’ll be awake again to fight another day.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Free Agent Taco Charlton May Be a Failed First Rounder, But He’ll Be a Good “Next Man Up”

Is there a single position that’s more important to the Steelers defense than outside linebacker? It is hard to argue to the contrary. In 2019, Pittsburgh’s defense returned to elite status thanks to the late blooming emergence of Bud Dupree.

And you can pinpoint the moment the unit lost elite status to Dupree tearing an ACL during the 3rd quarter of the December 2nd 2020 “win” over the Ravens.

  • Depth at outside linebacker therefore is critical for the Steelers.

During the latter part of 2021, Taco Charlton served as the “next man up” at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Does his tape warrant him staying in Pittsburgh for another season?

Taco Charlton, Steelers vs Browns

Taco Carlton in Ben Roethlisberger’s Heinz Field Finale. Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USA Today, via BTSC

Capsule Profile of Taco Charlton’s Steelers Career

Taco Charlton was a decorated outside linebacker at Michigan and a prospect often linked to the Steelers in the months prior to the 2017 NFL Draft. Charlton was selected with the 28th overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys, who were drafting just two spots ahead of Pittsburgh.

After two underwhelming seasons in Dallas, Charlton was released early in the 2019 campaign. After playing for the Dolphins and Chiefs in the 2019 and 2020 seasons, respectively, Charlton was signed to the Steelers practice squad early in the 2021 season. Charlton was ultimately promoted to the active roster on November 2. Charlton appeared in 11 games for the Steelers in 2021 and recorded 18 tackles and a half of a sack.

The Case for the Steelers Re-Signing Taco Charlton In 2022

Despite having just 11.5 career sacks to his name, there’s no question Charlton has a great draft pedigree and is quite talented. Depth at outside linebacker was an issue in 2021 and it reared its ugly head multiple times, as both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith missed time. The Steelers paid Charlton $550,000 in 2021, and if they can get him for around that amount in 2022, I see no harm in bringing him back, even for just one more season.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-Signing Taco Charlton in 2022

As a recent first-round pick, Charlton may still have designs on being a starter in the NFL. While certainly not on the same level in terms of accomplishment, do the Steelers want to bring back Charlton and have a repeat of the messy situation that developed with veteran Melvin Ingram, who apparently was unhappy with playing time?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Taco Charlton in 2022

To tell you the truth, I really can’t think of a legit case against bringing back a player like Charlton in 2022. He’s the proverbial low-risk, high-reward player, and if the Steelers can flesh out the talents that made him a first-round pick five years ago, everyone wins.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Its Probably Best for Steelers, James Washington to Part Ways in Free Agency

A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, James Washington arrived in Pittsburgh as someone Steelers fans hoped would continue the team’s tradition of excellence at the receiver position that started with Hines Ward many years earlier.

But while James Washington had to initially bide his time behind the likes of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he could never quite break through as a breakout star, even after Brown was traded in the 2019 offseason and JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the majority of 2021 — the final year of Washington’s rookie deal — on the Injured Reserve list. As James Washington enters free agency for the first time, the question is, should he and the team continue their relationship?

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of James Washington’s Steelers Career

During his rookie preseason, James Washington showed glimpses of the deep-threat and combat-catch receiver the Steelers hoped he would be when they drafted him the previous spring, but, as I alluded to earlier, targets were hard to come by during the regular season, and Washington only caught 16 passes for 217 yards for one touchdown in 2018.

James Washington certainly didn’t endear himself to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin in a late-season loss to the Broncos when he dived and failed to catch a deep pass that, had he stayed on his feet, would have gone for a touchdown. Despite what I said earlier, Washington did seem to initially thrive following Brown’s departure and, believe it or not, he did it while mostly catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019, while Roethlisberger was out with major elbow surgery injury. Washington pulled in 44 passes for a team-high 735 yards and three touchdowns — including a 79-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals in which he displayed both his deep speed as well as his physicality by stiff-arming a Cincinnati defensive back on the way to the end zone.

Unfortunately for James Washington, he couldn’t parlay his 2019 success into greater heights over the next two seasons, as he caught a combined 54 passes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There’s no question that Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are the Steelers’ top two receivers (at least that are currently under contract). With JuJu Smith-Schuster likely set to explore free agency in search of the lucrative multi-year deal he couldn’t find on the open market last offseason, James Washington could finally get his chance to shine as the number-three receiver. He’s not likely to command much once free agency kicks off, and he could probably be retained on the cheap — even on a one-year “prove it” deal.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There were rumblings that James Washington went to his bosses last summer and asked to be traded because he didn’t feel there was room on the roster for him to shine, especially after JuJu Smith-Schuster surprisingly re-signed with the team last March.

James Washington declined to refute those rumors, which probably meant there was likely some truth to them. Also, Washington garnered little playing time over the last 12 regular-season games following the injury to Smith-Schuster. Instead, Ray-Ray McCloud became a bit of a favorite target for Roethlisberger down the stretch.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Washington in 2022

I’d personally keep James Washington around because, again, I believe he could be had on the cheap.

But it’s probably a moot point, considering he likely wants to go somewhere where he can be more of a focal point for an offense. As Mike Tomlin says, “Its free for us, free for them,” and with that in mind it’s probably best for the two parties to go their separate ways.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Why Steelers Shouldn’t Tender Restricted Free Agent Marcus Allen in 2022

A fifth-round pick out of Penn State in the 2018 NFL Draft, Marcus Allen came to the Steelers as a hard-hitting safety who both the coaches and fans hoped would translate as a player at the professional level. With head coach Mike Tomlin now looking for defensive backs capable of playing the all-important dime linebacker role, Allen seemed like a player with the potential to be molded into a valuable member of the defense.

Unfortunately for Marcus Allen, his Steelers career hasn’t quite worked out that way. However, he is a former fifth-round pick, and with depth at a premium at several positions, is Allen worth giving another contract to?

Marcus Allen, Steelers vs Buccaneers preseason

Marcus Allen makes a tackle in the Steelers 2019 preseason game against Tampa. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Capsule Profile of Marcus Allen’s Career with the Steelers

Despite making the team out of training camp, Marcus Allen played very little for the Steelers during his rookie season. He was waived the following training camp before being signed to the practice squad where he remained until being promoted to the active roster during the 2019 campaign.

Marcus Allen was switched to inside linebacker for the 2020 season and saw his most active role in the defense, as he was in on 23 percent of the defensive snaps and recorded 30 tackles. However, Allen was only in on six percent of the defensive snaps in 2021, even though injuries were often a problem on that side of the ball.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing Marcus Allen in 2022

Marcus Allen has seen his special teams duties steadily increase during his time with the Steelers and was in on 65 percent of the special teams snaps in 2021. Marcus Allen might not be a stalwart on defense, but there’s always room on a roster for a player willing to take on the duties of a special teamer.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing Marcus Allen in 2022

Marcus Allen was an exclusive rights free agent a season ago and inked a one-year deal for $850,000. When you consider the fact that a player’s salary increases each year due to time in the league, is Marcus Allen really someone the Steelers want to pay seven figures to just to play special teams and the occasional defensive snap?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Marcus Allen

My advice to the Steelers would be to allow Marcus Allen, who is a restricted free agent, to seek a deal on the open market as an unrestricted free agent. If he can’t find a contract he’s looking for, maybe the Steelers can bring Allen back at the vet minimum in 2022.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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T.J. Watt’s Comments about the Steelers QB Situation Were Perfectly Fine

It seems that the Steelers, the media that covers them, and their fans can’t stop talking about the uncertainty at the quarterback position.

That’s fair. Ben Roethlisberger literally just retired, and the Steelers, the folks that cover them and the fans that support them are in uncharted territory–or at least territory that hasn’t been charted since before Roethlisberger’s rookie season nearly 18 years ago.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

This explains the non-stop speculation and thirst for news regarding a decision that Pittsburgh’s brass really can’t make for at least a month when the NFL’s new calendar year begins along with unrestricted free agency.

But it doesn’t explain the media’s obsession with the words of superstar outside linebacker and newly-minted Defensive Player of the Year recipient, T.J. Watt when he appeared on the AP Pro Football Podcast on the eve of Super Bowl LVI.

Of the many subjects broached was the Steelers uncertainty at quarterback heading into the 2022 offseason and what Watt thought about that. Below is a comment that the media took and spent days trying to mine as much controversy out of as possible:

We’ll see what happens at the quarterback position. I trust the guys upstairs to be able to bring a guy in that can win us some games, and I’m gonna do everything in my power to take care of things on the defensive side of the ball.

You talk about making a mountain out of a molehill, which was also what the media did earlier in the offseason when rookie running back Najee Harris appeared on a podcast and named just about every potential quarterback for the Steelers in 2022 except the ones that were already on the roster–including Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins.

Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

In regards to Mason Rudolph, that’s who the media said t.J. Watt threw under the bus when he said he had hope that the Steelers would bring a quarterback in to help them win next year. This was taken as a disrespectful slight at Rudolph, the 2018 third-round draft pick and the team’s backup quarterback since 2019.

First of all, it’s hard to know for sure what T.J. Watt meant by “bring a guy in.” Watt may actually want his bosses to bring a new passer into the fold, but his comment could have also meant that he trusted the team to find the best possible quarterback — even if that’s Rudolph or Haskins.

  • But even if Watt really was throwing shade at Rudolph, can you blame him?

After all, T.J. Watt is now the reigning DPOY, which means he’s considered to be the very best player in the NFL on the defensive side of the ball — or at least in the conversation with the likes of Aaron Donald. Is it so wild and disrespectful that Watt wouldn’t believe in Rudolph’s abilities at this point? Rudolph has appeared in 17 games as the Steelers quarterback and has done virtually nothing — he’s completed 236 of 384 passes for 2,366 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions — to make anyone but his mom think, “Wow, this is the Steelers future starting quarterback.”

Like any other player in his prime, Watt wants to win now, as do other Steelers greats–including Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick. It’s understandable that there would be concern about the immediate future of their franchise when the franchise quarterback of 18 years just retired.

Speaking of Roethlisberger, this Watt “controversy” takes me back to Roethlisberger’s first year and first start early in the 2004 campaign.

The Steelers were heading into a Week 3 showdown against the Dolphins in Miami and were doing so without Tommy Maddox, their starter the previous two seasons, and Charlie Batch, their primary backup, who were both out with injuries.

The Maddox injury occurred in a Week 2 loss to the Ravens, and with Batch unavailable, Roethlisberger was thrust into action a lot quicker than anyone had anticipated.

Alan Faneca, Tommy Maddox, Steelers vs Ravens

Hall of Fame Guard Alan Faneca was forced to play tackle at times during 2003. Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, AP via the Athletic

Ben Roethlisberger performed well enough that day at M&T Bank Stadium but viewing things in the context of the time, nobody could have envisioned that No. 7 would go on to be perhaps the greatest quarterback in Steelers history while leading them to three Super Bowl appearances and two Lombardi Trophies.

Alan Faneca, a decorated guard in the prime of his career, certainly didn’t think so at the time, and he didn’t mind voicing his opinion to reporters in the days leading up to the game against the Dolphins:

“Exciting?” Faneca said back then in a quote courtesy of 93.7 The Fan.  “No, it’s not exciting.  Do you want to go work with some little young kid who’s just out of college?”

Like Watt and the Steelers, today, Faneca and his veteran teammates probably felt like they were at a crossroads in 2004 in terms of how competitive the organization would be in the coming years. After making it to the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, Pittsburgh sunk to 6-10 in 2003.

Now, thanks to an injury suffered by Maddox, the Steelers would likely have to go with an unknown rookie at quarterback for the foreseeable future.

Obviously, Roethlisberger made history that year by winning all of his starts and leading Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.

  • Looking back on Roethlisberger’s career, it’s easy to laugh at Faneca’s remarks 18 years later, but he was right.

The rookie quarterback had to prove himself to his veteran teammates, which he did in the best way possible.

Of course, I’m not trying to say that Rudolph has the talent to have the same kind of career as Roethlisberger. What I am saying is that he has a lot to prove to not only his coaches and the fans, but to his teammates. He has to earn their trust. He has to prove to them — more than anyone else–that he has what it takes to be their new leader and help them win games and get to where they want to be.

T.J. Watt has earned the right to voice his concerns about the Steelers’ future at quarterback, and if that hurts Mason Rudolph’s psyche, well, he’s just going to have to do something about it and prove himself once and for all.

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Ssh. Diontae Johnson Just Had the Quietest 107-Catch Season In Steelers History

I was shocked when Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson and rookie running back Najee Harris were named to the Pro Bowl in place of receiver Ja’Marr Chase and running back Joe Mixon, two Bengals players who, instead, will have the privilege of participating in Super Bowl XVI a week later.

What was I shocked by?

Johnson, and not because he was actually voted to the Pro Bowl. He’s a nice receiver and someone that I think could be headed for super-stardom, given the right role, quarterback and an ability to shed his reputation as a receiver with poor hands (other than being considered a diva, I can’t think of a worse reputation for a receiver – think of Dwight Hands of Stone.)

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Chargers

Diontae Johnson runs for daylight. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

No, the thing that truly shocked me was Johnson’s 2021 stat line that included 1,161 receiving yards and, get this, 107 receptions! No, I couldn’t believe it, either.

I guess I was so surprised by Johnson’s numbers because of the lack of production of the Steelers offense in 2021, a season in which it finished 23rd in total yards, while the team (mostly, the offense) averaged just 20.2 points per game.

It was really one of the worst Steelers offenses I’ve seen in years (maybe decades), which may explain why Diontae Johnson had to wait until the Bengals reached the Super Bowl in order to get the call to play in the 2022 Pro Bowl. It probably also explains why lots of fans were/are ready to move on from Johnson, even as he was putting up career numbers.

  • But were those numbers really that sexy?
Ben Roethlisberger, Harrison Smith, Steelers vs Vikings

Harrison Smith sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

I mean, Diontae Johnson averaged just 10.9 yards per catch, which doesn’t exactly scream big-play receiver. It’s probably not Johnson’s fault that he hasn’t fully developed into a superstar player after three seasons. No, I blame the absence of an injured Ben Roethlisberger for most of 2019 as well as the absence of Roethlisberger’s great skills in 2020 and 2021. I blame a poor offensive line that “encouraged” Roethlisberger to get rid of the football at a faster clip than he ever had before.

As per Pro Football Reference, Johnson’s advanced stats show that Roethlisberger’s passes only traveled 5.9 yards before reaching the young receiver. I don’t know if you believe in advanced stats, but they do show that Johnson’s drop rate, well, dropped to just three percent in 2021, as he only dropped five passes all year.

Of course, reputations being what they are, Johnson will likely carry the reputation as someone with poor hands much longer than he deserves to. Also, it doesn’t help that a few of his drops occurred late in the season and even into playoffs where he dropped a couple of passes in the blowout loss to the Chiefs.

Still, though, 107 receptions used to be a big deal, but I guess it’s a sign of the times that we barely noticed Johnson’s production in 2021, even if it was inflated by many short passes and one extra regular-season game.

I still think Diontae Johnson has a bright future in the NFL, and if he can find the right combination of coaching, quarterbacking and scheming to help in his development as a receiver, there might be a day when we’re shocked when he doesn’t catch 107 passes.

 

 

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