Hello Harris, Bye Bye Beachum – Steelers Sign Ryan Harris, Lose Kelvin Beachum to Jaguars

How does the song go, “I don’t know why you’re saying goodbye I’m saying hello?” One can imagine bars of that classic Lennon and McCartney ditty are being hummed by Mike Munchak and Todd Haley on the South Side on an active day in free agency that saw the Steelers sign Ryan Harris while losing Kelvin Beachum to the Jaguars.

As a rookie, Harris appeared in 11 games for the Broncos, but never started. That changed in his second year, where he started 16 games in 2008 and 8 games in 2009 before getting injured. From there Harris started 10 of 11 games in 2010, but he left as a free agent for the Houston Texans.

Ryan Harris played in 32 games over two years for the Texans, but only made five starts in Houston, but Andy Reid made him a starter for a year in 2014 with the Kansas City Chiefs. In 2015 Harris returned to the Mile High City, where he would split his time between left and right tackle, starting in 15 of 16 games.

Ryan Harris will be 31 this year and the Steelers reportedly signed the offensive tackle to a two year 3.9 million dollar contract.

Bye, Bye Beachum

One of the bigger questions the Steelers faced heading into free agency was the fate of free agent offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum. The Steelers liked Beachum and wanted to resign him last summer, but the two sides failed to reach an agreement. Initally, it looked like Beachum’s decision not to test the market might cost him, as he tore his ACL at mid season.

  • However, the Jacksonville Jaguars literally have salary cap space to burn, and clearly were ready to offer more than Pittsburgh.

The Steelers did want Beachum back, but they did not want to pay him premium left tackle starter money to Beachum, instead hoping to sign him to a one year deal. That didn’t happen which reveals something important about how the Steelers see their offensive line.

Starting Left Tackle is Villanueva’s Job to Loose

The Steelers telegraphed their hand early in free agency when they opted to prioritize resigning  as opposed to offering a competitive deal to Beachum. Guards make less than tackles, and Ramon Foster is healthy so there was no surprise there, but until it happened there was a chance it would not.

Word leaked that the Steelers wanted to bring Beachum back on a “Prove it” deal, but at the same time the Steelers worked out Seattle’s Russell Okung and San Diego’s Chris Hairston. Okung was wowed by the Steelers Lombardi collection and the Steelers made him an offer, but it was not strong enough for him to accept it. What to make of this?

Villanueva took over the role in mid-2015 when Bechum got hurt, and while his game had flaws, he played well. The Steelers interest in bringing Beachum back fueled speculation that Mike Tomlin and/or Mike Munchak didn’t think that Villuenva was ready to become the full time starter.

Ryan Harris’ contract averages at just below 2 million per year, which puts him on the fringe of starting left tackle money, indicating that the Steelers see Harris as an insurance policy, not as a starter.

The Steelers are comfortable going into 2016 with Alejandro Villanueva as their starter. Mike Adams will also return to provide depth at offensive tackle.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Why the Steelers Must Resign William Gay

As the Pittsburgh Steelers look towards their 2016 free agent class, very few of those soon to be Steelers free agents fall into the category of “Steelers must resign him.” Then there is cornerback William Gay.

William Gay is one free agent whom the Steelers must absolutely resign.

[Editors Note: The Steelers resigned William Gay on March 8th. Click here for more.]

Capsule Profile of William Gay’s Career with the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted William Gay in the 7th round of the 2007 NFL Draft, making him the first defensive back picked of the Mike Tomlin era. Gay saw spot duty in the Steelers secondary as a rookie while playing on special teams. In 2008 William Gay started 4 games and effectively split time with co-starters Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden.

  • William Gay’s play in 2008 was strong enough for the Steelers to let Bryant McFadden go to Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals.

That decision led to some buyer’s remorse on the part of the Steelers, as William Gay, along with the rest of the Steelers secondary, struggled in the absence of Troy Polamalu who was injured for much of the season. During the 2010 NFL Draft, the Steelers got Bryant McFadden back who reclaimed the starting role.

  • Gay however saw extensive work in the slot, where he began to make a name for himself.

William Gay led the Steelers in passes defensed, showed he could sack the quarterback on occasion, and scooped up a forced fumble during the AFC Championship game vs. the Jets, which turned out to be the final points the Steelers scored in the game.

William Gay effectively took over the starting role in 2011, but the emergence of Keenan Lewis led to Gay’s departure for Pittsburgh West.

William Gay didn’t stay in Arizona long. The Cardinals cut him in 2013, and the Steelers almost immediately resigned William Gay, and they’ve seen a lot of this since then:

William Gay has returned 5 of his six interceptions for touchdowns, and found otherwise to justify the moniker of “Big Play Willie Gay.”

The Case for Steelers Keeping William Gay

2015 was the year of the Steelers accidental secondary. William Gay should serve as a lesson to anyone who argues “There’s a reason why no one else wanted him.” The Steelers signed Gay for a song, and he’s given them an orchestra worth of plays.

  • The Steelers secondary is their glaring weak link heading into the 2016 offense, and William Gay is their only proven cornerback.

The Steelers not only need to resign William Gay, they should do so before he hits the free agent market.

The Case Against Steelers Keeping William Gay

Making the case against a third contract for William Gay is a tough task, but there are merits to the argument.

One would be that William Gay is turning 31 this year, the same age that Ike Taylor was when he signed his third contract with the Steelers. Taylor performed well during the first two years of the deal, then performance dropped precipitously.

Curtain’s Call on Steelers and William Gay

It is not a case of the Pittsburgh Steelers wanting to resign William Gay it is a case of the Steelers needing to resign William Gay. 2015 second round pick Senquez Golson might turn out to be a star. Or he could be like Kris Farris, who missed his rookie year like Golson and didn’t even make the team his rookie year.

  • Likewise, there’s talk that the Steelers might give Cortez Allen another shot.

If they do, so be it but all signs indicate that the Cortez Allen reclamation project has failed. Antwon Blake still has some upside, but is perhaps a 3rd or 4th corner instead of a reliable starter.

In contrast, William Gay is a proven playmaker, and Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin must find a way to keep him in Pittsburgh.

Free agency go your head spinning? Check out our Steelers 2016 free agent tracker and/or click here to read all articles on our Steelers 2016 Free Agent Focus section. 

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Steelers vs Best NFL Draft Classes of Last 25 Years

NFL.com’s Jim Reineking has taken the trouble to rank the NFL’s best and worst draft classes of the last 25 years. Steel Curtain Rising has reviewed at the Steelers performance in the worst draft classes of the last 25 years and concluded that the Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, Tom Donahoe and Mike Tomlin ended up picking pretty well out of what Reineking picks as a bad crop.

But how have the Steelers done when the pickings have been good? Click below to check out specific drafts, or just scroll down for the full analysis.

Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Steelers 2015 draft class

Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert after the 2015 NFL Draft

Steelers 2001 Draft Class

Reineking ranks the 2001 NFL Draft as the best in the last 25 years, counting 3 certain Hall of Famers (LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Drew Brees for those taking notes) plus other stars such as Reggie Wayne and Michael Vick. He also notes 34 overall Pro Bowl selections, plus 17 first rounders making the Pro Bowl.

In the 2001 NFL Draft, the Steelers traded down and pick Casey Hampton who anchored the center of a defense that dominated the NFL for the next decade. Next, the Steelers picked Kendrell Bell. Had the 2001 draft’s story been written in January 2002, the Steelers would have gotten an A based on Bell’s and Hampton’s performances of that year.

  • But legitimate draft evaluation takes 4-5 years for a good reason.

Kendrell Bell missed the first four games of his second season due to injury, and only reached is rookie season form during the middle of 2002. After that, he faded. Aside from Bell, 6th round pick Rodney Bailey and 4th round pick Chukky Okobi were the only 2001 draftees to get any real time, and both of them essentially saw spot duty.

  • Any draft that delivers a Casey Hampton is hard to knock as “bad.”

But if the 2001 NFL draft class was the best of its generation as Reinking suggests, then Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher certainly should have done better.

Steelers 2007 Draft Class

Steel Curtain Rising has praised the Steelers 2007 draft class at length, and Reineking ranks the 2007 NFL Draft class as the second best.

The 2007 NFL Draft was Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s first effort together, and is one of their best. If their first choice, Lawrence Timmons, took a little longer to develop than desired, “Law Dog” has been the Steelers best and most consistent defender for three consecutive years.

Fans remember LaMarr Woodley for his second contract flame out, but who (other than BTSC’s Michael Bean) saw that coming? From opening day in 2008 until he injured his hamstring in the Steelers 2011 upset of New England, LaMarr Woodley sacked the quarterback 44 times in 55 games.

In 2007 Colbert and Tomlin also picked Matt Spaeth, Daniel Sepulveda, and William Gay in the 3rd 4th and 5th rounds. Both Spaeth and Sepulveda were “reaches” but Spaeth’s provides immeasurable value to the running game, and he’s greatly underrated as a pass catcher.

After a strong 2008, William Gay drew the fans ire in 2009 and 2010, only to score 4 touchdowns since his return from a sabbatical season in Pittsburgh West aka Arizona Cardinals.

If Reineking’s 2nd best ranking of the 2007 NFL Draft class is right, then Pittsburgh came away with 3-4 quality football players who helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XLIII.

Steelers 1996 Draft Class

The 1996 NFL Draft is the only draft manned by Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher to make Reineking’s list. The biggest move of the draft was shipping the Steeler’s second round pick to St. Louis for Jerome Bettis.

But you measure drafts for the picks you take rather than the trades you make, and that gives Steelers 1996 draft class a paradoxical quality. At the top, Jamain Stephens is the worst Steelers first round bust this side of Huey Richardson and the 3rd round pick linebacker Steve Conley washed out after two seasons.

In the middle, Penn State fullback Jon Witman gave the Steelers solid, but far from spectacular, value as a 4th round pick, while 5th round pick Earl Holmes famously congratulated Bill Cowher for “picking the best linebacker in the draft.” While James Farrior quickly made Steelers Nation forget Earl Holmes, Holmes did start 79 games in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh picked fellow 4th rounder Jahine Arnold to replace Ernie Mills, but Arnold was a bust.

  • The Steelers arguably got the best value out of their 6th and 7th round picks in 1996, in the form of Orpheus Roye and Carlos Emmons.

Roye impressed as a rookie on specials teams, and was starting by his third year. Bill Cowher wanted to keep him, but Cleveland threw 30 million dollars at Roye, whon only had 4.5 sacks at the time.

Carlos Emmons was the classic case of a 7th round pick who simply seized the opportunities present late in the 3rd and 4th quarters of early preseason games. Emmons wasn’t a 7th round pick-turned stud the way Brett Keisel was, but he developed into a respectable starter.

Overall, the 1996 draft was fairly characteristic of the drafts during of later part of Tom Donahoe’s tenure, which saw the Steelers misfire on early picks, but do reasonably well after that.

Steelers 2004 Draft Class

Reineking ranks the 2004 NFL Draft class as 4th and that’s the draft where the Steelers passed on Marcus Turner for Nathaniel Adibi, a linebacker who never donned a regular season uniform. They also whiffed on offensive tackle Bo Lacy, center Drew Caylor, and defensive end Eric Taylor. Tight end Matt Kranchick, a 6th round pick from Penn State, made the 2004 roster and appeared in two games. He hung on until November of 2005 where he caught one pass for 6 yards while appearing in four games before getting cut.

Second round pick Ricardo Colclough held down a roster spot for 4 years with the Steelers, and was given multiple chances to contribute. But he failed to make an impact as either a return man or a corner.

2004’s third round pick Max Starks journey with the Steelers has been well chronicled here and parts elsewhere. Any way you measure it, Max Starks delivered excellent value as a third round pick.

  • 1 out of 7 players analyzed thus far that Pittsburgh picked in 2004 developed into a viable NFL player.

Sounds pretty bleak, especially when you consider the Steelers were drafting early in each round. But they used that low draft position to take a young man out of Miami Ohio, whose name is Ben Roethlisberger and that pick by itself makes the entire 2004 NFL Draft a smashing success for the Steelers.

Steelers 2011 Draft Class

For Reineking, the 2011 Draft Class is the NFL’s 5th best. An even though 4 years is sufficient to offer some solid draft analysis, the 2011 draft could still end up being either a boom or a bust for the Steelers.

6th round pick Keith Williams never made the team. 7th round pick Baron Batch was creating a buzz at St. Vincents until an injury ended his rookie season before it started, and he was never the same. Gerry Dulac once said that 5th round pick Chris Carter could be the steal of the draft, and Carter got chances but ultimately failed to prove Dulac right. 3rd round corner Curtis Brown was a bust.

Second round pick Marcus Gilbert’s development was shaky, as he was alternating with Kelven Beachum in early 2013, but his development has been solid enough since then that he got a second contract.

First round pick Cameron Heyward, for some unknown reason, found himself trapped below Ziggy Hood on the Steelers depth chart, but when the coaches finally rectified that, Cameron Heyward exploded into the stud he was supposed to be when the Steelers picked him first in 2011.

  • While Gilbert and Heyward add a lot of value to the Steelers 2011 draft class, alone they can’t prevent it from being a disappointment.

The honor falls to 2011’s third round pick, Cortez Allen. Cortez Allen flashed as a rookie, finished incredibly strong as a sophomore, struggled then stabilized in his third season, saw the Steelers extend his contract prior to his fourth season where he promptly imploded. Carnell Lake has a major Cortez Allen Reclamation project on his hands, and the success of that will determine whether the arrow on the Steelers 2011 draft class points up or down.

Symmetrical Quality for Steelers in Reinking’s Top 5

Reineking’s top 5 NFL Draft classes of the last 25 years have a symmetrical quality for them for Steelers fans. 2001 and 2004 were Kevin Colbert-Bill Cowher drafts, 1996 was a Tom Donahoe-Bill Cowher draft, while 2007 and 2011 were Kevin Colbert-Mike Tomlin drafts.

While the sample size is small, the duo of Colbert-Tomlin has been the most consistent, while the Colbert-Cowher hit very high on a couple of picks, but they missed almost completely on the rest. And, as mentioned, Donahoe did poorly early on but uncannily got better as draft position degraded.

This raises some interesting questions, which Steel Curtain Rising will discuss next week when mini-camp ends and the NFL’s true off season begins.

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Lawrence Timmons Willing to Renegotiate Contract to Stay in Pittsburgh

During Steelers OTA’s it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff as far as discerning what “real news” is out there, but ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler landed a legit story when he reported that Lawrence Timmons is willing to renegotiate his contract to stay in Pittsburgh.

Lawrence Timmons was the first draft pick of the Mike Tomlin era, whom the Steelers initially selected as an outside linebacker in the 2007 NFL Draft. Injuries limited Timmons playing time as a rookie, and in his second year he’d moved inside but failed to unseat starter Larry Foote.

The Steelers nonetheless were projecting Timmons as a starter heading into 2009, prompting Larry Foote to seek his release. Timmons did start in 2009, but drew mixed results and even split time with Keyaron Fox. Timmons bounced back in 2010, and was easily the team’s best defender during the first half of a season which saw Troy Polamalu win defensive player of the year honors.

In 2011, the Timmons signed a $47,795,750 dollar 6 year contract with the Steelers. Two years remain on that contract, and according to the site Over the Cap, Timmons cap values for 2015 and 2016 are $12,566,250 and $11,816,250. Only Ben Roethlisberger has a higher cap value for 2015 and only Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown have higher numbers for 2016.

Is Timmons Time in Pittsburgh Almost Up?

If Lawrence Timmons development was perhaps a little slow, he has unquestionably been the Steelers most consistent defender since 2012. Since that sesason, Timmons has hauled down 5 interceptions, recorded 11 quarterback sacks, forced 2 fumbles and recovered two, while leading the team in tackling.

  • While the Steelers have been not overly sentimental about keeping aging players, they’re also not shy about paying productive veterans.

And Timmons has little or history with major injuries, so on the face of it, his future in Pittsburgh would be a no-brainer. But there are two X-Factors which complicate the picture.

The first is Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract. Roethlisberger’s new deal, while generally cap friendly, has a cap value that spikes to almost 24 million in 2016, a number that almost demands the Steelers made room elsewhere.

The second X factor is the depth chart behind Timmons. The Steelers drafted Ryan Shazier in 2014 and he is projected as Timmon’s co-starter. However, the Steelers also have Sean Spence and Vince Williams, both of whom made impressive strides in 2014, and both of whom still have “upside.”

  • Success in the salary cap era is all about getting the most bang for your buck.

And while teams can get that bang for their salary cap buck in a number of ways, the easiest way is to get production out of draft picks while they’re still working on their rookie contracts. Sean Spence is entering his fourth year, so he’ll be looking at a second contract in 2016, but Vince Williams will still be playing on his rookie contract as will Ryan Shazier. Even if Spence can expect a salary bump, he’ll come more cheaply than Timmons due to his limited playing time.

Since the Freeman-McNeil verdict brought free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Steelers formula for success has been to build through the draft and target productive players with extensions before they hit the free agent market. Lawrence Timmons would seem to fit that bill.

Yet USA Today Steelers Wire editor Neal Coolong argues “It’s tough to see the Steelers looking to tack on more years when they’ve spent the last three seasons developing Sean Spence, Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier.”

Timmons has a close relationship with new defensive coordinator Keith Butler and explained his feelings to Fowler this way: “I’ve been here for nine years, I’ve got a house here, I’d like to keep that house. I’ve got a family here that loves it.”

Timmons confirms that he hasn’t heard any talk of renegotiations, which is no surprise, the Steelers have a long-standing policy of not extending player’s contract until they enter their final year. The first sign of the Steelers intentions towards Timmons will come from how they deal with Sean Spence.

Should the Steelers decide to extend Spence’s contract this summer at St. Vincents, Timmons may want to hold back on adding an extra bedroom to his house.

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