Cost-Benefit Analysis: Steelers Sign Gunner Olszewski to Replace Ray-Ray McCloud

What price can you put on special teams ball security? I don’t have the answer. But the Pittsburgh Steelers decision to let Ray-Ray McCloud walk to San Francisco while replacing him with Gunner Olszewski will come to the difference between 0.25% and $6,200,000.

  • That might sound complicated, but it’s not.

Success in the salary cap era comes down to getting the biggest bang for your salary cap buck. Ray-Ray McCloud handled the Steelers return duties for the last two years. Ray-Ray did a good job, but he wasn’t going to remind Boomers and Generation Xers of the return men of yore.

Gunner Olszewski, Steelers vs Patriots, Steelers vs Patriots 2019, Gunner Olszewski first game

Gunner Olszewski’s first was against the Steelers in 2019. Photo Credit: David Butler II, USA Today, via Bemidji Pioneer

Think of guys like Mel Gray, or to keep this Steelers centric, Rod Woodson or Dwight Stone. Actually, Stone’s return numbers with the Steelers weren’t that great, but as Tony Defeo reminded us, he deserves to be remembered for more than his “Hands of Stone.”

Actually, stony hands or lack thereof is what the Steelers decision between Ray-Ray McCloud and Gunner Olszewski comes down to.

  • If you look at their career kick and punting return averages, McCloud and Olszewski are pretty similar.

Ray-Ray McCloud has more reps in both categories, so his sample size is larger. McCloud has a 22.6 kickoff return average and a 9.5 yard punt return average. That ranks him well among his peers.

Gunner Olszewski, who began his career against the Steelers 2019 season-opening loss to the Patriots, has a 23.2 yard kick return average and an 12.6 yard punt return average. He also has more a touchdown on one his punt returns, something McCloud hasn’t been able to do.

The San Francisco 49ers signed McCloud to a 2 year, 10.6-million dollar contract (good for you Ray-Ray, mange it wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life, even if you only play for one season.) The Steelers deal Olszewski with is also for 2 years, but for only 4.2 million dollars.

Taken at face value, Kevin Colbert appears to have gotten the same thing for 6.4 million less.

  • But there’s one number that just might make that 6.2 million worth it.

And that’s 0.25%. During his 2 years with the Steelers, Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled 6 times on 130 returns. That gives him a fumble rate of 4.6%. In three years with the Patriots, Gunner Olszewski fumbled the ball 5 times on 107 returns, giving him a 4.85% fumble rate.

So the Steelers calculation is that 0.25% greater chance of a fumble is worth the 6.4 million dollars in salary cap savings. (This ignores Ray-Ray McCloud’s serviceable skills as a backup wide out – something that Gunner Olszewski has yet to prove.)

  • For my money that’s a prudent calculation for Pittsburgh.

However, when you factor in that but 3 of Gunner Olszewski’s fumbles came in 2021, should Gunner Olszewski fumble a return the 4th quarter fumble of a close game, that 6.4 million could seem like a bargain.

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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.

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Strengthening the Center: Steelers Sign Myles Jack, Inside Linebacker to 2 Year Contract

Free agency officially began for the NFL as Pittsburgh continued its prolific free agent spending spree that saw the Steelers sign inside linebacker Myles Jack from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

These moves carried costs, as the Steelers parted ways with Zach Banner and Myles Jack’s arrival almost certainly means that Joe Schobert will be released.

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Jack had been cut by the Jaguars, and reported signed a two year, $16 million dollar contract. Jacksonville drafted Jack in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and Jack went on to start 82 games for the Jaguars.

During that time with the Jaguars, he has 6 sacks, 3 interceptions, 15 passes defensed and 19 tackles for losses. That interception count doesn’t include one that Steelers fans would doubtlessly like to forget, as he picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the 2017 Heinz Field playoff loss to the Jaguars, setting up an easy score for Jacksonville and allowing them to go up 14-0. Despite being in the NFL for 6 years, Jack is only 26.

In 2021 the Steelers defense was, in a word “soft in the middle.”

While much of this weakness ties directly to the losses/absence of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, Devin Bush struggled in his return from his ACL, and Joe Schobert had a tough time against the run. Hopefully, Myles Jack will strengthen the center.

Tender Moments

The first official day of free agency brought some other news regarding the team’s restricted free agents. First, Dwayne Haskins signed his original round restricted free agent tender — this was proforma, as no team was going to give up a first round pick for Haskins.

The Steelers also issued restricted free agent tenders to Robert Spillane as expected, but surprisingly issued one to Marcus Allen. While he struggles in pass protection (see the Myles Jack signing), Spillane has been stout against the run. In contrast, Marcus Allen is a converted safety playing inside linebacker and has not been very effective in that role.

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Trubisky Time? Steelers Sign Mitch Trubisky, Giving Another 1st Round Quarterback a 2nd Chance

Although they can’t make it official until Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Steelers will sign Mitchell Trubisky to a two year contract. Trubisky joins a quarterback room with Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins and will challenge Mason Rudolph for the starting quarterback position this summer at St. Vincents.

The Chicago Bears made Mitch Trubisky the 2nd overall pick during the 2017 NFL Draft. Trubisky started 50 games for the Bears and appeared in 51. Mitchell Trubisky’s record as a starter is 29-21 in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoff losses to the Eagles (2018) and the Saints (2020.)

According to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic, Mitch Trubisky’s 2 year contract with the Steelers is valued at 14 million dollars but can climb to 27 million based on incentives.

Mitch Trubisky

The Steelers have signed Mitch Trubisky to a 2 year deal. Photo Credit: AAdrian Kraus, AP, via NJ.com

Trubisky Time! …We’ll See

With a contract that averages nearly 7 million a year, Mitchell Trubisky is making almost twice as much as Mason Rudolph. While that doesn’t assure him a starting job, it clearly indicates where the Steelers are leaning.

  • The question is, this the right decision?

Looking at the numbers, Mitch Trubisky has authored a respectable career, albeit, one that fails to live up to his draft status.

Overall, Trubisky boasts a career completion rate of 64.1% which is a hair below Ben Roethlisberger’s 64.4%. He’s also got a 64 touchdown passes to 37 interceptions, giving him a pick rate of 2.4% which is a hair below Roethlisberger’s 2.5% His career passer rating is 87, which is a full 5 points below Big Ben’s.

And numbers can be deceiving – Walter Abercrombie has a higher yards-per-carry average than Jerome Bettis – Anyone prefer him to The Bus? Last year, the Bears opted not to pick up his fifth year option, and  Trubisky couldn’t get a wiff of a starting job, instead spent 2021 backing up Josh Allen for the Buffalo Bills.

Mitchell Trubisky does offer the Steelers mobility, and in that sense is a better fit for Matt Canada’s offense.

Trubisky, the Latest First Round Pick to Get a 2nd Chance in Pittsburgh

Mitch Trubisky’s arrival all but rules out the Steelers using a first round pick on Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral, Malik Willis or any of the other QB prospects in the 2022 NFL Draft.

If the Steelers don’t often draft a quarterback in the first round, having only done it 3 times since the Nixon Administration, they’ve given several former first rounder’s a 2nd chance, with mixed results.

Dwayne Haskins is one of those, and he’s still writing his story. Paxton Lynch was another, but he wrote footnote instead of a story.

Fresh off of XFL glory, Steelers took a flyer Tommy Maddox in 2001. He was only ever supposed to be a backup, but Tommy Gun unseating team MVP Kordell Stewart was the story of the Steelers 2002 season.

Bubby Brister

Bubby Brister cerca 1988. Photo Credit: Brian Smale, SI Vault.com

Back in 1988, the Steelers traded for Todd Blackledge whom Kansas City had taken 20 slots ahead of Dan Marino the 1983 NFL Draft.

Unlike Maddox, the Steelers brought in Blackledge to compete with Bubby Brister. Yet, Bubby started training camp proclaiming, “I’m your man!” Brister not only claimed the starting job, but when he got injured that year, Steve Bono pushed Todd Blackledge playing time, and by mid-1989, Rick Strom had relegated Blacklege to the 3rd string.

  • So what’s the moral of these men’s stories?

Mitch Trubisky would be wise to take nothing for granted.

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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.

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Resigning B.J. Finney Should Not Be a Steelers Priority in Free Agency

Munch’s Millionaires is what they called them. These were unheralded players that Mike Munchak mentored and molded into quality starting NFL lineman who cashed in on that coveted second contract.

Others, such as Chris Hubbard and Matt Feiler found greener pastures outside of Pittsburgh. B.J. Finney was once considered part of this group. And while he did get a second contract, he found that the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side of the NFL and was back with the Steelers in 2021. Will he remain there in 2022?

B.J. Finney, Le'Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, steelers vs bills

B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate

Capsule Profile of B.J. Finney’s Career with the Steelers

B.J. Finney joined the Steelers as part of their 2015 Undrafted Rookie free agent class and although he did not survive the final cut, returned to the Steelers practice squad in late September of that year. He made the final cut a year later and from 2016 onward, B.J. Finney was a key part of the rotation on the interior line.

Over the next four seasons, Finney would start 13 games while appearing in a total of 59 contests, including the 2016 road game win over the Buffalo Bills where the Le’Veon Bell set the franchise single game rushing record.

The Steelers did not offer Finney a second contract during the 2020 off season, and he instead signed with Seattle, where he mainly played on special teams before getting traded to the Bengals. Ironically, his one game with the Bengals came in their 2020 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field.

  • After that, he finished the season on Cincinnati’s inactive.
  • The Steelers haven’t beaten the Bengals since, so maybe they were on to something.

Finney resigned with the Steelers during the 2021 off season, but only saw limited duty, despite a flurry of injures at tackle and later center. Finney did start the Steelers second loss to the Bengals but was injured in the following week’s win against the Ravens and ended the season on injured reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

B.J. Finney has been with the Steelers organization for over a half decade. He knows the system, the coaches know him. While he might not be “starter capable” as some of Much’s other pupils, he can step in and play either guard or center.

That, given his low price tag makes it a win-win situation for all sides involved.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney

The interior of the Steelers offensive line was as bad as it has been in a generation this past year. And B.J. Finney was not only not good enough to push any of the 3 starters, he wasn’t even the proverbial “Next man up.”

  • B.J. Finney is at the “What you see is what you get” point in his career.

His experience gives him and advantage, but he is on the wrong side of 30. Even though the Steelers have a young offensive line, they could still stand to get younger and certainly must get stronger.

You don’t do that with B.J. Finney.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and B.J. Finney

The Steelers have a bit of luxury here. No NFL team is going to wave a lot of money at B.J. Finney. The Steelers can go into free agency looking to add a guard and/or a tackle continue to add to that in the draft, and B.J. Finney will probably still be available in May if they need more depth.

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Be Gone: Time for Steelers to Move On from Free Agent Tight End Eric Ebron

Since February 19th, 2016 the Pittsburgh Steelers have pursued a single goal at tight end: Replace Heath Miller. They’ve signed big-ticket free agents (Ladarius Green.) They’ve let home grown talent develop (Jesse James.) They’ve made both late off season and in-season trades (Vance McDonald, Nick Vannett).

  • Some of them have worked out better than others.
  • All have had their moments of praise-worth play.

But none of them have proven themselves to be even remotely worthy of the title “Heath Miller’s replacement.”

That changed in 2021. That’s bad news for Eric Ebron.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Capsule Profile of Eric Ebron’s Career with the Steelers

In minds many, the narrative on Eric Ebron is that he’s a failed free agent. His record is more complex.

Mike Tomlin likes exceptional athletes and never hesitates to bring one to Pittsburgh, even if he has some baggage (think Mike Vick). Eric Ebron fit the bill, as a 6’4” 253 tight end.

  • Both of those tendencies were in display during 2020.

Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards including 5 touchdowns. And if even at his best he wasn’t a transformational player, he was effective in the Red Zone where he caught all 5 of his touchdown passes in addition to a 2-point conversion.

  • Yet despite his 61.5% catch rate, he had a 7.7% drop rate and is a unmitigated liability as a blocker.

When Vance McDonald retired, the Steelers opted to bring Eric Ebron back in 2021. Eric Ebron generally did what the Steelers asked of him – he caught another Red Zone touchdown, but his role decreased and he then missed 9 games due to injury.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Eric Ebron

The Steelers offense is young and can use a veteran presence and that will be true even if JuJu Smith-Schuster makes another surprise return. Ebron’s athletic talent is real, and he’s a stud the Red Zone. At age 29, this former first round draft pick has already made 3 stops in the NFL and isn’t likely to have many suitors – It won’t break the bank to bring him back.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Eric Ebron

The Steelers can get the post-Ben Roethlisberger era off to the right start by establishing a physical presence on offense. You don’t do that with Eric Ebron. Moreover, if there was one spot on the depth chart that finished 2021 on a decided up note, it was tight end.

Eric Ebron’s athletic talents are real, but they’re a luxury that the Steelers neither need nor should want.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eric Ebron

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Muuuth! The cry is now spontaneous anytime number 88 Pat Freiermuth makes a catch. Its easiest to hear at Heinz Field, but also audible on the road. The Steelers of course picked Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and the rookie quickly established himself as the starting tight end.

In addition, 2021 was also the year where the team’s investment in Zach Gentry began to pay off, as Gentry proved to be a capable number 2 tight end. Fantasy football owners won’t soon get into fights over who has the rights to draft Number 3 tight end Kevin Rader, but Radar’s shown he’s a good blocker.

Suffice to say, the Steelers in good shape at tight end, and while they can certainly get stronger there, bringing back Eric Ebron isn’t one of the ways that happens.

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What’s Next for Steelers Free Agent Joshua Dobbs? Another 3rd String Stint or Rocket Science?

Third string quarterbacks are the NFL’s Mr. Anonymous. Rick Strom was the Steelers third string quarterback from 1989 to 1993, yet even the most rabid, plugged in, season-ticket holding fan from that era would struggle to remember, let alone recognize him.

Yes, some Super Bowl quarterbacks like Joe Theismann, Mark Rypien, Jeff Hostetler, Stan Humphries and Rich Gannon cut their teeth toiling as third stringers for several seasons, but they’re exceptions.

Which brings us to Joshua Dobbs, the Steelers free agent quarterback whose role, if he were to stay in Pittsburgh, would be as a 3rd string quarterback. Will that happen?

Joshua Dobbs, Jacob Philips, Steelers vs Browns

Joshua Dobbs throws a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Joshua Dobbs’ Career with the Steelers

The Steeler surprised many when they drafted Joshua Dobbs in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Dobbs earned the 3rd string role and while he never suited up, word was he took his preparation and film study seriously.

To the surprise of many, Dobbs’ strong preseason play a year later forced Landry Jones from the team, Mason Rudolph to the virtual reality room as he earned the job of backing up Ben Roethlisberger.

Dobbs saw action twice that year. First in spot duty in Baltimore, where Dobbs audibled out of a play and threw a laser like strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster to convert a 3rd down. He also got the call in the 2nd half in Oakland’s Black Hole against the Raiders and did not look comfortable nor did he play with the same decisiveness.

The Steelers traded him to Jacksonville after their 2019 opening loss to the Patriots, only to see Roethlisberger injured the following week against Seattle. They brought Dobbs back in 2020 where he became the third string quarterback.

  • Dobbs saw action in a wildcatish package role in the Steelers closer against the Browns.

The Steelers resigned him in 2021, but Dobbs got injured in the preseason finale and he spent the season on IR, although he was visible on the sidelines talking with Roethlisberger after each series.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Joshua Dobbs

Joshua Dobbs by all accounts is a positive presence in the locker room. He knows the Steelers system and, while the sample size is limited, he brought a new dynamism to the offense during his limited action in 2020. Moreover, that package was likely the brainchild of Matt Canada. Having him around would allow Canada explore his potential more.

Better yet, Dobbs provides a veteran presence at the 3rd string quarterback position for the veteran minimum. Sounds like a win-win for everyone.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Joshua Dobbs

Joshua Dobbs is a class act. His rocket-scientist turned NFL quarterback is the type of story that Hollywood movies are made of. But none of that earns him a roster spot.

By virtue of playing in the Hall of Fame game, the Steelers had 4 preseason games last year. Joshua Dobbs saw plenty of action, and while he didn’t play poorly, he never passed for more than 40 yards.

  • The Rocket Scientist has found his ceiling, and that is as a 3rd string quarterback.

The Steelers should use his roster spot and salary cap space on someone with more upside.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Joshua Dobbs

Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

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

A year ago the pro’s and con’s of resigning Joshua Dobbs were largely the same. Yet, there was an intangible that tipped the scale in Joshua Dobbs favor. The Steelers began the 2021 off season by signing Dwayne Haskins.

In word and deed the Steelers make it clear to Haskins that they weren’t handing the former first round pick anything other than a second chance.

  • By bringing Joshua Dobbs back, the Steelers put their money where their mouth was.

That dynamic doesn’t exist today. The conventional wisdom is that the Steelers will either sign a veteran free agent or draft a quarterback to compete with Mason Rudolph for the starting job next summer at St. Vincents. In that context, Dobbs likely role would be as a 4th arm for training camp.

You could do a lot worse than Josha Dobbs for a 4th training camp arm, but the guess here is that Steelers will let Dobbs either follow his NFL dream elsewhere or otherwise being his “Life’s work” as a rocket scientist.

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Fallback Guy – Steelers Free Agent Returner Ray-Ray McCloud Only as Last Resort

“You can’t hope to stop him, you can ONLY hope to contain him,” went ESPN’s Tom Jackson innumerable times on ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime before introducing highlights of players like Mel Gray, Mike Nelms, Clarence Verdin or Vai Sikahema.

These guys may have had WR, RB or even CB listed besides their names, but make no mistake about it:

  • They forged their NFL careers as return men.

Ray-Ray McCloud arrived too late for that era, but maybe he’s lucky. His return skills are good but not great, but they were enough to earn him both a roster spot and reps at wide receiver with the Steelers. Has he done enough to extend his stay in Pittsburgh?

Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud (almost) takes it to the house. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Ray-Ray McCloud’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers signed Ray-Ray McCloud in 2020 after fumbling issues led both the Bills and the Panthers to part ways with him. McCloud got off to a strong start for the Steelers as both a punt and kick returner, while adding a spark on offense fueled in part by a 58 yard Jet sweep that helped cement the Steelers lead over the Eagles.

Yet after fumbling against the Ravens and then against Washington, his punt return average sunk, as he appeared tentative. In 2021, Ray-Ray McCloud returned to the team as the primary returner and 4th down wide receiver.

Although he did fumble twice, losing one of those, his return average remained steady, and his role in the offense grew, as he logged 39 catches over 20 from the year before.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud will never be a star. But he’s shown himself to be an above average punt returner, a competent kick returner and a serviceable 4th wide receiver. The Steelers are going to want some experience behind Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, and Ray-Ray McCloud will provide that – at a very reasonable cap number.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

With quarterback a big question mark going into 2022, the Steelers need dynamic players elsewhere in their offense. Ray-Ray McCloud isn’t dynamic and never will be.

So why bring him back?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ray-Ray McCloud

The Steelers are going to need to upgrade at wide receiver.

Ray-Ray McCloud might provide decent depth against a rash of injuries at the position, but he’s not someone you want to have penciled in as your number 4 wide out for 3rd and long situations going into the season. And while the Steelers have struggled to find a solid returner for the past several seasons, that’s a role that younger players with legitimate upside can play.

If the Steelers can’t manage to find that in free agency or the draft, then Ray-Ray McCloud could be a fallback option, but only that.

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Keeping Steelers Free Agent Ahkello Witherspoon in Pittsburgh is a Priority

Long before digital media and Fantasy Football made everyone their own general manager, sports fans have loved trades. Just think back to that episode of Seinfeld, where George thinks he’s going to be promoted to Assistant General Manager of the New York Yankees.

  • George and Jerry immediately begin mapping out trades.

The Steelers made a few trades in 2021 and for awhile the Ahkello Witherspoon trade puzzled. Then Witherspoon answered the doubters. But as he becomes a free agent the question is, will he stay a Steeler?

Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers 2022 free agent priorities

Ahkello Witherspoon’s intercepts a pass. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Capsule Profile of Ahkello Witherspoon’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers traded for Ahkello Witherspoon on September 3rd for a 5th round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Seahawks jettisoned Witherspoon just months after signing him to a 1 year 4 million dollar deal. Yet instead of playing him, the Steelers kept Ahkello Witherspoon inactive for 8 of the season’s first 9 weeks.

  • Everyone wondered, “Why did they trade for this guy?”

That answer became apparent as started to work his way into the lineup in the Steelers loss to the Chargers. He didn’t to much of note that night, but in his next two starts he began  defending passes making a tackles losses. In his 4th start his two interceptions helped spark a furious second half rally against the Vikings that fell just short.

Four weeks later, he brought down the interception that allowed Ben Roethlisberger to end his career at Heinz Field in the victory formation. Ahkello Witherspoon finished the season with 9 passes defensed, 3 interceptions and 15 tackles. Despite missing 8 games, he played in 57% of the defensive snaps.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ahkello Witherspoon

Despite only playing in 9 games and making 3 starts, Ahkello Witherspoon led the team in interceptions and tied Cam Heyward for passes defensed.

  • What isn’t there to like about the guy?

Ahkello Witherspoon struggled to find his way in San Francisco and clearly Seattle found him expendable. Yet with the Steelers Witherspoon has found a home. Free agent cornerbacks don’t come cheap in this league, but the Steelers have the money to make the investment.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ahkello Witherspoon

Sure, Ahkello Witherspoon had his moments in 2021 with the Steelers and those interception numbers are nice, but let’s be honest, they all came in garbage time. A quick look at his game log in Pro Football Reference reveals that, although he’s only missed 2 games due to injury, he was in active in several others despite showing status a at least a part time starter.

  • What was it about him that the 49ers didn’t feel they could trust?
  • And why did the Seahawks part with him at a fire sale price?

That’s just too much risk and too much salary cap space for a player with too many yellow flags.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ahkello Witherspoon

The Steelers have not only struggled at cornerback over the last dozen years, they’ve struggled to draft and develop their own. (Anyone remember Cortez Allen?) When they’ve had success, its been by bringing in outsiders, such as Joe Haden.

  • Sometimes players struggle to fit into a certain team and/or a certain scheme.

But Ahkello Witherspoon has shown he fits in in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers should making keeping him in the Steel City a priority.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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