The Right Decision: Steelers Extend Mike Tomlin’s Contract Despite Playoff Drought

The Steelers extended head coach Mike Tomlin’s contract for three years, keeping him in Pittsburgh through the 2027 season. The news was expected as both Tomlin and Art Rooney II confirmed shortly after the playoff loss to the Bills, that Tomlin would get an extension.

Art Rooney II, Mike Tomlin, Mike Tomlin contract

Art Rooney II and Mike Tomlin Photo Credit: Chuck Cook, USA Today via 93.7 the Fan

However, these clarifications only came after Tomlin’s contract was not extended last summer before training camp when he had two years left on his existing – and for decades franchise policy was to extend the head coach when he had 2 years remaining on his existing contract.

  • During the season there were murmurs the 2023 season would be Tomlin’s last.

Many, if not most of those were poorly sourced. However, on the Steel City Insider podcast legendary Steelers scribe Vic Ketcaum did everything but say a reporter he was close had sources indicating Tomlin would be gone. Ed Bouchette, who joined the podcast, wasn’t as insistent, but also indicated that “one way or another” he expected 2023 to be Tomlin’s last.

  • For the record, podcast host Jim Wexell told listeners to expect Tomlin back. And Wexell was right.

News of the extension was not taken well by many in Steelers Nation.

But now that Art Rooney II has “Gone and done it” let’s unwrap his decision.

The Elephant in the Room: Tomlin’s 7 Year Playoff Victory Drought

While Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now 7 years and counting since Chris Boswell kicked them into the AFC Championship game with a win at Kansas City. To put that in perspective:

That last point strikes hard and seems particularly damning. But it is not. For two reasons.

First, simple math proves that Noll is a better coach than Tomlin. Second, the 80’s saw the AFC suffer an uncanny talent imbalance to the NFC (just look at the decade’s Super Bowl results). That gave an edge to teams with superior coaching.

Stephon Tuitt, Tom Brady, Steelers vs Patriots

Stephon Tuitt bears down on Tom Brady. Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA TODAY, via Steel City Insider

Also remember that the Steelers playoff losing streak started with Le’Veon Bell’s injury in the AFC Championship, when Bell was fresh off breaking the Steelers playoff rushing record in back-to-back games.

At that point Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had overseen a complete rebuild of the roster since Super Bowl XLIII save for two players. For as bad as losing another AFC Championship to the Patriots stung, the franchise’s futures seemed bright.

Then of course the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier, who was budding into an all pro and perhaps a generational-talent. Not too long after that Ben Roethlisberger needed elbow reconstruction surgery.

  • The ripple effects of those two injuries can still be felt today. To quote Jim Wexell, “That’s not an excuse. Its reality.”

It is also reality to acknowledge that those ripples did not reverberate in a vacuum. Since their last playoff win the Steelers swung at air with several personnel moves in a vain effort to reload for a final run with Roethlisberger. Those misses snowballed following Shazier’s injury.

Mike Tomlin deserves his share of the blame for those errors.

But along the way Mike Tomlin has:

  • Gone 8-8 in 2019 while starting Devlin Hodges for almost half the season
  • Won the AFC North in 2020 with a 1 dimensional offense and an injury ravaged defense
  • Made the playoffs in ‘21 with offensive and defensive lines rebuilt with spit, duct tape and bubble gum

It takes quality coaching to coax winning records in situations like that. But you’ll notice the 2023 season isn’t listed above.

There a reason for that.

Tomlin Still Proving the Rooney Rule

When Mike Tomlin beat out insider favorites Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm for the head coaching job, many attributed it to “The Rooney Rule.”

The Rooney Rule may have contributed to Tomlin’s getting hired, but he certainly met the requirements of a Rooney Rule, but not the one you’re thinking of. As retired radio journalist, Steelers blogger and Immaculate Reception witness Mike Silversteen has observed, the real Rooney rule is as follows: Hire the best man for the job and stick by him.

And one of the most important qualities of a coach, as Dan Rooney explained in his autobiography is an ability to lead men. Chuck Noll started his tenure going 1-13, 5-8 and 6-8. But Dan Rooney kept him because Noll always had the locker room.

Bill Cowher’s 1998 Steelers finished an ugly 7-9 and an even uglier 6-10 in 1999. Yet Dan Rooney stood by Cowher, because he felt Cowher had kept the locker room (I disagreed at the time, but yep, Dan knew a little more than me.)

The Steelers opened last December with one of the worst 3 game stretches of the modern era, punctuated by perhaps the Tomlin era’s most appalling 30 minutes of football in 2nd half against the Colts.

  • Everyone, yours truly included, left them for dead.

Yet Tomlin rallied the locker room, brought Mason Rudolph out from the bull pen and pulled guys from the couch to the practice squad and made them starters and brought the Steelers to the playoffs.

17 years later he still proving to be worthy of the Rooney Rule.

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Strengthen the Center: Steelers Sign Keanu Neal, Breiden Fehoko, Sustain Omar Khan’s Free Agency Trend

Strengthen the center.

That’s been Omar Kahn’s singular focus in free agency. It was evident in the Steelers signings of Inside linebackers Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts, and resigning of Damontae Kazee. On the offensive side of the ball the Steelers signed guards Nate Herbig and Isaac Seumalo.

Khan doubled down on the third week of free agency by signing safety Keanu Neal and nose tackle Breiden Fehoko.

Keanu Neal, Zach Gentry, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Keanu Neal celebrates after making a play against his new team. Photo Credit: Buccaneers.com

As Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is reporting, David Cantner the agent for both players, has tweeted that Neal’s contract is for 2 years. Cantner did not tweet a length for Fehoko, which Rutter indicates that this likely means it is a one year deal.

The Atlanta Falcons drafted Keanu Neal with the 17th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Neal played in Atlanta for five seasons. He was their starting free safety for two straight seasons before injuries ruined both his third and 4th seasons.

Neal tore his ACL in the 2018 opener and then his Achilles in 2019. The Falcons extended him a 5 year option but let him walk to the Dallas Cowboys in 2021where Neal played middle linebacker. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Neal in 2022, where appeared in all 17 games, but was limited to 8 starts due to a hip injury.

With Terrell Edmunds gone to Philadelphia and his background as a middle linebacker, Keanu Neal will likely split time with Damontae Kazze at strong safety and function as the “dime linebacker” in the Steelers three safety set.

Jim Wexell has suggested and Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Patrick Peterson could also see sometime at safety, suggesting that Minkah Fitzpatrick could work a little at strong safety.

  • Nose tackle Breiden Fehoko fills an obvious need for the Steelers for depth at defensive line.

Fehoko got his start in the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the San Die… er um, the Los Angeles Chargers. He’s made his bones in the NFL as a backup, appearing in just 19 games over three years with 4 starts.

Although four of those starts came in 2022, the Chargers did not offer him a restricted free agent offer. Breiden Fehoko will likely work in behind Montravius Adams and compete with Isaiahh Loudermilk for playing time, if not a helmet on game days.

Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette retweeted this shot of Fehoko from late last season:

If this is an indication of the level he’s playing at, Karl Dunbar will find a way to get him on the field.

Draft Impact of Neal and Fehoko

While these moves address needs and add depth, they’re impact on the Steelers draft plans is likely minimal. Keanu Neal’s addition makes it less likely that the Steelers will draft a safety on day one or day two of the draft. But his injury history, along with Kazee’s injury history and his age suggest that neither is likely seen as a long-term answer.

So a safety in round 3 or 4 wouldn’t be out of the question.

Breiden Fehoko could be an interesting under the radar pickup for the Steelers. But at this point has to be seen as Tyson Alualu’s replacement. And even if he does turn out to be a free agent steal, that doesn’t change the fact that Cam Heyward isn’t getting any younger.

Defensive line remains a priority for Pittsburgh in the 2023 draft.

“Que Pasa con Gentry?”

Last weekend news broke that the Steelers had resigned Zach Gentry. All of the major outlets went with it. However, the Steelers have yet to announce that they’ve come to terms with their erstwhile number 2 tight end.

The signing could still happen, but it wouldn’t be the first time a NFL Network reporter broke the news of a deal, only for that deal to never appear.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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DeMarvin Leal’s Right. The Steelers 2022 Rookie Class Will Be “Scary.” But Will It Be “Scary Good” or Just Scary?

Steelers.com did a profile on rookie DeMarvin Leal this week where Leal spoke at length about the Steelers 2022 rookie class. Looking to the future Leal made an eye catching comment:

For a rookie class to be thrown into the fire that brings confidence. Looking back at year one, looking at the film, we know what we can do. We know we can do better. Going into year two it feels like it’s going to be scary.

Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, Steelers 2022 Draft class

Kenny Pickett and George Pickens celebrate. Photo Credit: San Diego Union-Tribune

Yes, the future of the Steelers 2022 draft class will be scary. Now, is it “scary good” or just scary? If that sounds like a strange question lets take a quick quiz on some notable past Steelers rookie classes.

To make things fun I’ve scrambled their chronological order. Here goes:

A. By midseason 3 rookies cracked the starting lineup helping spark a rally of a defense that had been struggling. The rally continued until sputtering out in the AFC Championship.

B. 2 rookies were season-long starters, 1 got spot duty, the Steelers activated a 4th late in the season to boost the defense. The defense melt down anyway as the Steelers suffered one of their biggest playoff upsets ever.

C. 4 rookies started from the season’s start, another for 1 half of the season due to injury and four more saw extensive time as this Steelers team “shocked the world” with a Wild Card upset of a rival on the road and was only a bad snap and a dropped pass away from the AFC Championship.

D. This draft class was declared DOA by one of the best in the business. 1 rookie won a starting job due to injury. Another rotated with a decorated veteran. An undrafted rookie earned a sport and started 1 game. Two other rookies did special teams and spot duty on this Steelers Super Bowl team.

So, if you were building a franchise which Steelers rookie class would you pick? You’d probably pick C. If you’d lean into your salary cap savvy and grab “A” thinking there’d be no way you could get all those guys from C to 2nd contracts.

Groups B and D would be a toss up as to which one you wanted less, but maybe you’d lean towards B because at least that group had two full season starters.

And based on how those Steelers draft/rookie classes looked at the end of their respective years, those would be the wise choices. But draft classes do not mature equally.

T.J. Watt strip sack flacco, Steelers vs Ravens, T.J. Watt, Joe Flacco

T.J. Watt strip sacks Joe Flacco. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Just look at Groups A and B. Group A is the Steelers 2016 draft class, Group B is the Steelers 2017 draft class. At the end of their rookie years, Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave looked like solid picks, if not steals given how late the Steelers were drafting them. And while T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster had great rookie years, James Conner had done nothing and Cam Sutton was a question mark.

  • Which draft class would you take today?

Groups C and D are more interesting yet. Group C is the 1989 Steelers draft class and Group D is the 1974 Steelers Draft/rookie class.

At some point, when the 1989 Steelers were shocking the NFL, some TV commentator actually compared their draft class to 1974. Although I’m old enough to remember that, I was too young to understand the comparison at the time.

Even if I had, I’d have agreed, because those rookies clearly contributed to their turn around. But, as I’ve written before, the 1989 draft did deliver some gems, but they came with a lot of fool’s gold. Case in point: That bad snap and that dropped pass that doomed the ’89 Steelers came at the hands of rookies.

John Stallworth, Rod Perry, Super Bowl XIV

John Stallworth catches the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XIV

In 1974 the Steelers authored the greatest draft in history, picking Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert and Mike Webster with Donnie Shell arriving as an undrafted rookie free agent. Yet Lambert was the only full time starter on that Super Bowl team.

The takeaway from this Steelers draft history lesson isn’t to open a can of buzz kill on DeMarvin Leal’s praise for his fellow rookies.

Far from it. Kenny Pickett showed a lot of poise. George Pickens flashed something special. Leal and Mark Robinson came on strong late in the year, but neither came on as strongly as Connor Heyward. Calvin Austin shows potential.

The 2022 Steelers draft class has given us many reasons to be excited. But let’s temper that excitement with the understanding that drafts take time to develop and that rookies only really succeed when they can sustain a strong start.

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Appearances Can Deceive: Steelers Trade Once Promising Chase Claypool to Bears

In a  out-of-character move, the Steelers traded Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears and acquired William Jackson from the Washington Commanders ahead of the NFL’s trading deadline.

In return for Claypool, the Steelers get the Bears 2nd round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and to get Jackson the Steelers sent their 6th round pick in the 2025 NFL Draft while getting the Commander’s 7th in the 2025 NFL Draft.

Wow! What to make of this?

Two quick thoughts that come to mind are:

  1. Appearances can be deceiving
  2. Welcome to the Reign of Khan

Let’s dive into both in more detail.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

“Your Eyes Can Deceive You. Don’t Trust Them” – Obi Wan Kenobi

The day was October 11th, the venue Heinz Field, the opponent for the 4-0 Pittsburgh Steelers was the Philadelphia Eagles and the star of the show was Chase Claypool.

Claypool had joined the Steelers as a 2nd round pick out of Notre Dame in the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the game Claypool had a modest 6 catches, including a touchdown. He’d flashed a bit in the opener vs the Giants, catching Ben Roethlisberger’s only long pass of the night winning Unsung Hero Award honors.

But against the Eagles, Claypool exploded, scoring 4 touchdowns including one on a reverse. Claypool would finish the year with 62 catches and 9 touchdowns in the air, adding another on the ground. He won rookie of the year honors.

  • The Steelers seemed to have found another steal as a second pick wide receiver.

Claypool entered 2021 as a starter and although one would have expected his role to increase even more with JuJu Smith-Schuster’s early season injury, his production declined to 59 catches and a measly 2 touchdowns. Claypool’s 2021 season is best remembered by his decision to showboat after catching a pass at the end of the Minnesota game.

The clock was running and Claypool cost the Steelers at least, if not one snap in a game that expired with Pat Freiermuth coming oh-so close to pulling in a touchdown pass.

  • In 2022 Claypool has been more consistent, and shown a lot of heart after the catch.

Still a second round pick that will likely be early in the second round was too much for the Steelers to turn down.

  • With William Jackson the story differs.

The Steelers wanted William Jackson going in to the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bengals took him a pick before and Pittsburgh settled for Artie Burns. William Jackson went on to start for 59 games in Cincinnati, whereas Artie Burns only played in 58 games in Pittsburgh. Still, the Bengals allowed Jackson to depart in free agency to Washington.

Despite starting 16 games for the Commanders, Washington was clearly ready to move on from Jackson, giving him away at a fire sale price.

  • Mike Tomlin has never shied away from picking up someone else’s discarded cornerback.

The Steelers reportedly wanted Justin Gilbert in the 2014 NFL Draft, and snapped him up when Cleveland was looking to move him in 2016. Alas, Gilbert logged 11 defensive snaps on the year. In contrast, the Steelers snapped Joe Haden up when Cleveland cut him in 2017, and Haden was a 5 year starter and team leader.

Reign of Khan: Be Agressive

When the Steelers tabbed Omar Khan to replace Kevin Colbert, Khan assured the press that he would continue the Steelers Way. And thus far he’s doing that – while making his own mark.

However, under Khan the Steelers Way is becoming more aggressive.

This summer the Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell to contract extensions. The Steelers surely would have targeted the duo for new deals under Kevin Colbert, but for over a decade Colbert’s policy was to wait until the tail end of the summer to get the deals signed.

In contrast, Khan showed no hesitation and got both players resigned as soon as OTAs and Minicamp were over.

The approach to Diontae Johnson showed an even bigger change. Johnson wanted a new contract, but the Steelers clearly weren’t going to sign him to one of the mega deals that wide recievers are getting league wide. Under Colbert, its a fair bet to suggest that the Steelers would have simply let him play out his contract and become a free agent.

Omar Khan’s strategy was to offer Johnson a sort of hybrid contract that fell well-short of the mega deals wide outs are getting, yet was more than a simple “Prove it” deal.

  • The Chase Claypool trade offers another contrast.

When have the Steelers traded away a player during the season? I know that in the 1993 season, Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher sent Tim Worley off to Chicago. But I can’t remember them shipping someone out since then. And certainly not a starter.

Yet under Khan, the Steelers have made the calculation that they’re not going to resign Claypool and that they can get more value for him in the 2023 NFL Draft than they can for the balance of the 2022 season and the entire 2023 season.

That decision leaves Kenny Pickett a bit in a bind, as behind Johnson the Steelers only have George Pickens, Gunner Olszewski, Miles Boykin and Steven Sims.

But the move shows that Khan is playing the long game, which is good to see.

 

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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.

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

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No, the Steelers Should NOT Trade for Aaron Rodgers. Here’s Why

What is it with Green Bay quarterbacks and drama? In the not too distant past, ESPN off season ratings rose and fell on Brett Favre’s latest retirement whim. It seems that his successor, Aaron Rodgers, has taken up the mantel.

If Pro Football Talk”s Mike Florio is to be believed, and folks the operative word here is IF, Aaron Rodgers has decided on 3 teams he’ll play for IF he in fact decides he won’t retire and if decides he wants to play and doesn’t want to play for the Green Bay Packers.

  • Get that? Ok, good. Because those teams are the Broncos, the Titans and the Steelers.

And, if Florio’s reporting is accurate, and folks the operative word here is again IF, “…Rodgers has specific deals lined up with other teams — and those teams have trade compensation lined up with the Packers.”

Devin Bush, Aaron Rodgers, Steelers vs Packers

Devin Bush sacks Aaron Rodgers on 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

[Editorial aside: Hum, this sounds like something an agent would leak to create a buzz around his client, doesn’t it? Just maybe. Hum, did Florio bother to confirm this with either the Packers or the teams involved? Yeah. Maybe he even talked to Art Rooney II himself. Think so? No, neither do I.]

  • It makes it sound so simple doesn’t it?

Ben Roethlisberger retires and instead of rebuilding, the Steelers welcome a reigning NFL MVP to the fold. And who would shy away from adding an NFL MVP and one of the best quarterbacks of his time? What’s not to like?

A lot, actually.

  • The Steelers trading for Aaron Rodgers would be a bad idea for so many reasons.

Start with how the story has evolved. Rodgers doesn’t know if he wants to continue playing, and if he does, he’s not even sure he wants to stay in Green Bay. But he sure knows where he wants to go, if does play and doesn’t want to stay in Green Bay.

  • Boys and girls, men and women of all ages, this is how you spell Drama Queen.

Now add that to Rodgers’ other recent off the field distractions. Is this something you really want to import into Pittsburgh?

Even if these subjective considerations don’t’ concern you, the Steelers trading for Aaron Rodgers would be a bad football decision on many levels. Go back to point one of the 4 Point Roadmap to get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl, published earlier here.

Point One was “Embrace the Suck.” In a nutshell, that means that the Steelers need to begin the post-Roethlisberger era being honest with themselves about where they stand as a football team. And any honest assessment will conclude that this team is not a franchise quarterback away from a Super Bowl.

Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are two of the NFl’s best. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP, Via Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Sure, Stephon Tuitt is indicating he wants to play again and if he does and if Tyson Alualu returns and stays healthy, the Steelers run defense figures to be exponentially better next year, (OK, could it get worse?) And that improvement should come even if Devin Bush doesn’t return to pre-ACL tear form.

  • But there are still too many other holes on this roster.

Bringing in Aaron Rodgers means sacrificing the draft capital and the salary cap space needed to start fixing them. It is easy to Monday Morning Quarterback the personnel decisions that Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have made since, say 2015 with an eye toward “Reloading while we still have Roethlisberger.”

  • Most, if not all of those were probably justified when they were made.

But that mentality led the franchise to make mistakes. The 2016 NFL Draft offers an excellent example. The Steelers went in needing a cornerback. Several got taken before Pittsburgh could pick, including William Jackson, the one who they really wanted.

So the Steelers reached for Artie Burns instead. Now Artie Burns had talent. But he never developed it, and he ended up becoming one of the 2 true Kevin Colbert 1st round busts.

Donte Moncrief, Steelers sign Donte Moncrief, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Colts

Steelers sign Donte Moncief, pictured burning Artie Burns in 2017. Photo Credit: Matt Kryger, Indy Star

But maybe if the Steelers aren’t feeling the frenzy to “Reload for Roethlisberger,” they don’t reach for Artie Burns. Maybe they instead draft Kenny Clark or Chris Jones.

No, I don’t care if either player would have been a good fit for the Steelers system – that’s not the point. The point is that both men went a handful of picks after Burns and together they have 5 Pro Bowl selections, or one more than Burns’ career interception total.

The Steelers are at crossroads in their history where they need, to use Jim Wexell’s term, “foundational pieces.”

They need young players who can infuse the locker room with the mix of talent, work ethic and attitude necessary to build the foundations for a Super Bowl run.

Sending multiple 1st round picks, a few seconds and thirds, and restructuring contracts to free up 40-something million in salary cap space for a 39 year old drama queen short-circuits that process.

  • Let Aaron Rodgers enjoy the buzz on social media his agent has churned up for him.

Let the resident Twitter General Managers in Steelers Nation map out the free agent signings, contract restructures and late round draft picks Kevin Colbert would need to make to position Aaron Rodgers for a run.

They can have all of it. All of it as long as this remains nothing more than noise to those on the South Side whose opinions actually count.

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Soft in the Middle No More? Steelers Trade for Joe Schobert

Sensing weakness, Kevin Colbert has traded for Jaguars inside linebacker Joe Schobert in exachage for a 6th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The importance of this development should not be underestimated. A quick look at history drives this point home.

Joe Schobert. Steelers vs Browns, Mason Rudolph

Joe Schobert sacks Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

The Importance of the Center of the Steelers Defense

Before he left Pittsburgh, former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis told Jim Wexell that the strength of the Steelers 3-4 defense runs through its center. Meaning, that when the nose tackle, inside linebacking and safety must be stout for the rest of the unit to excel.

The first trio solidified the Steelers as contenders in the 1990’s, while the second trio dominated as Champions in the 00’s.

The game has evolved in the last decade to the point where the Steelers are in their “base” defense less and less. But that doesn’t make the center of the unit less important. When Ryan Shazier went down in 2017 with Mike Mitchell already faltering and Javon Hargrave hurt for the playoffs things went south fast (see the Jaguars game).

  • In 2020 history repeated itself.

A lot of things went wrong for the Steelers down the stretch in 2020. Everyone focuses on Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles and while that’s understandable, the defense was struggling just as badly.

By the time of the road loss to the Bengals, the Steelers were down to Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen at inside linebacker, their 4th and 5th string inside linebackers.

  • The Steelers added quantity at inside linebacker in the off season.

But quality took a hit when Vince Williams retired. And there’ve been signs that the plan to go with Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen, rookie Buddy Johnson and “veteran” Ulysees Gilbert III was faltering. As Mark Kabloy in observed in The Athletic that the Steelers have drilled the inside linebackers on covering back and tight ends extensively in camp, concluding, “If it is drilled that much, the Steelers must realize it’s an issue.”

Apparently, the experiment has been replicated enough to convince Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert that the answer lay outside of the Steelers locker room.

The Skinny on Joe Schobert

The Cleveland Browns drafted Joe Schobert in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He led the league in tackles and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2017. He transformed that resume into a handsome payday in 2020 when he signed a 5 year, $53.7 million dollar contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last year for the Jaguars he started 16 games, had 3 interceptions including a pick six, forced 2 fumbles and registered 2.5 sacks.

  • With that production a 6th round pick seems like a pittance to bring him to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are well acquainted with Schobert. He’s suited up against them 8 times for both the Browns and the Jaguars and made Pittsburgh pay, pulling down 2 interceptions, batting away 6 passes, recovered 2 fumbles, recorded a sack while making 64 tackles.

Jim Wexell reminds us that prior to last year’s game against the Jaguars, Mike Tomlin admitted, “He’s gotten after us in the past. He beat us last year, quite frankly, in Cleveland. He was a significant component of that.”

Schobert did a number of the Steelers in infamous Body Bag game in November 2019, as the above photo of him sacking Mason Rudolph can attest. One has to wonder why the Jaguars were so ready to part with such a player so easily.

Schobert Instead of Watt?

In terms of salary cap ramifications, Joe Schobert will make $7 million this season, according to Spotrac.com and he has he has three years and 29.75 million remaining for 2022-24. While that’s not an exorbitant amount of money to pay for a veteran inside linebacker, the Steelers have limited salary cap space, and are still trying to resign T.J. Watt.

One has to wonder if the addition of Schobert today doesn’t signal a franchise tag for Watt next spring. Let’s hope not.

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Steelers 2016 Draft Grades – Disappointments Add Up to a (generous) C-

With nine new players, numerous Pro Day visits, thousands of words of prediction and analysis and countless hours of video, the 2021 Draft is complete.

  • And now we can finally assign draft grades.

We can now finally grade the Steelers 2016 Draft class. Wait, what? Why pray tell, would a Steelers site grade the 2016 draft now?

Tyreek Hill touchdown Steelers, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Steelers vs Chiefs

Tyreek Hill scores as Sean Davis and Artie Burns “watch.” Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

We’ve always harked back to Chuck Noll’s philosophy of waiting 5 years to grade a draft. And while its fun to say “If it was enough for Chuck Noll is good enough for me,” that rings hollow this year. Because after the Steelers 2016 Draft class was announced, I boldly declared:

The Steelers 2016 Draft Class, like the Steelers 2015 and 2014 draft classes will be judged by one criteria: Did the players selected by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin add enough value to allow Ben Roethlisberger to lead the Steelers to a 7th Super Bowl.

Well, Ok now, the Steelers clearly haven’t brought home another Lombardi ergo, there’s nothing new we can learn from the 2016 draft, right?

  • Actually, far from it.

The Steelers 2016 Draft class reinforces a timeless lesson: Time and patience are required to grade a draft class. In that sense, the Steelers 2016 draft is reminiscent of the 1989 Steelers draft: Both looked pretty damn good the following January.

1989 Steelers broke a four year playoff drought, shocked the world with an upset of the Oilers in the Astrodome, and came within a dropped pass and a bad snap from the AFC Championship game.

  • Steelers 1989 draft class was a huge factor in making that happen.

Yet, as time passed, it became clear that the Steelers 1989 draft had far more Fool’s Gold than did did gems. 2016 is similar. The 2016 season ended with a bitter AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, but the 3 Steelers defensive rookies who started that game had played a huge role in getting them there.

  • The “Upside” of those rookies appeared to be limitless.

But appearances can be deceiving. As our grades reveal:

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

First Round: Artie Burns the Burn Out

When the Steelers called Artie Burns‘ name on draft night, the skeptics spoke up. Pitttsburgh desperately needed a cornerback and the top corners had gone off the board in a hurry. William Jackson the player Pittsburgh wanted, went one pick before the Steelers turn to draft.

  • Artie Burns looked and felt like a reach.

As a rookie, Artie Burns defied his critics. He won he starting job from William Gay at mid season, made 3 interceptions and deflected 13 passes. Was he perfect? No. But Burns certainly contributed to the Steelers late season defensive turn around.

  • Unfortunately, Artie Burns burned out after that.

Artie Burns struggled in 2017. Rumors circulated that Cam Sutton might replace him. 2018 saw Burns benched, and he got burned in his lone reapperance in the Steelers win over the Patriots. In 2019 he was purely a backup, although he played well in his start against the Chargers.

Most fans will write Artie Burns off as a bust, but he wasn’t a total loss. Grade: Disappointment

Second Round: Sean Davis Doesn’t Deliver on Rookie Promise

This site has written a lot about Sean Davis recently, reflecting on his career arc both in Tony Defeo’s free agent profile and the piece about his free agent signing with the Colts.

Sean Davis’ rookie of the year honors were well deserved. HE played well, like the rest of the defense, during the first half of 2017, then struggled with everyone else. He moved to free safety in 2018 and did fairly well, and lost his 2019 to injury.

He served as a backup and special teams player during his return in 2020. Might not have been his fault, but Davis never delivered on the promise of his rookie year. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Third Round: Javon Hargrave – The Grave Digger Finds Gold

Former Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell was spare with his praise, but he didn’t hold back when the Steelers took Javon Hargrave in 2016.

And Hargrave delivered. He won the starting job in 2016 as a rookie and neither he nor the Steelers looked back since then. Injuries limited his effectiveness in 2017, but the only question about Hargrave during the rest of his time in Pittsburgh was “Why doesn’t he play more?” Grade: Grand Slam

Fourth Round: Injuries Hobble Jerald Hawkins’ Career before It Starts

Jerald Hawkins was one of first lineman the Steelers had drafted in quite some time. Unfortunately, his rookie season was lost to injury. He saw some action in 2018 but got injured during OTAs in 2018 was lost for the entire season.

The Steelers traded him prior to the 2019 season, but brought him back for 2020 in a bit of waiver wire shopping where Hawkins served as the Steelers 3 tight end. Grade: Disappointment

5th Round: Travis Feeney. Who?

Travis Feeney didn’t make the Steelers 2016 roster and Pittsburgh lost him in a bit of practice squad poaching in December of that year when the New Orleans Saints signed him. Per Pro Football Reference, he never played a down of NFL football, as the Saints cut him the following June. Grade: Bust

7th Round A: Demarcus Ayers Remarkable Start All for Naught

Hollywood doesn’t script better than this. As a 7th round pick On his second week off of practice squad, in the 4th quarter of his first professional game, Demarcus Ayers:

  • Drew a 35 yard pass interference play that moved the Steelers into the Red Zone
  • Threw a key block 2 plays later that set up a touchdown
  • Made a 9 yard catch and got out of bounds with 0:57 left to play

Oh, and did we mention the AFC North was on the line? On Christmas? And against the Ravens?

Ayers went 3-3 targets/catches in against the Dolphins and Chiefs in the playoffs, but he failed to make the 53 man roster the next summer. He famously balked at rejoining the Steelers practice squad, spent a few weeks on the Patriot’s practice squad, was on the Bears 2018 off season roster and then out of football.

  • Could Demarcus Ayers have carved a niche role for himself by staying in Pittsburgh?

Alas, we’ll never know. Neither will he. Grade: Disappointment.

7th Round B: Tyler Matakevich – “Dirty Red” Excels on Special Teams

Tyler Matakevich was supposed to be one of those linebackers like Jerry Olsavsky who lacked measurables but was going to made up for it in preparation, effort and heart.

  • During four years in Pittsburgh Matakevich proved himself to be an excellent special teams player.

However, he never grew into a supporting role at inside linebacker. Coaches gave him a clear, first shot at winning the starting job at St. Vincents in the summer of 2018, but by time the season arrived “Dirty Red” found himself behind both Jon Bostic and L.J. Fort. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

Overall Final Grade for the Steelers 2016 Draft Class

The Steelers 2016 Draft Class delivered 3 Disappointments, 2 Serviceable Pickups, 1 Bust and one Grand Slam. So the Steelers got some value out of this draft class, but the value delivered by their premium picks diminished rapidly. Javon Hargrave keeps this grade in striking distance of respectable, and the final grade might be a bit generous given the stakes. Grade: C-

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Steelers 2021 Draft Class Balances Offensive Yang Against Defensive Yin

Grades for the Steelers 2021 Draft Class will have wait a few years. But there’s already one word that can describe this group of 9 players chosen by Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin: Balanced.

  • The Steelers 2021 Draft class is a group where the defensive yin balances out its defensive yang.
  • The addition of a special teams player at the tail end wraps a bouquet around the balance concept.

Whether they strengthened themselves enough at offensive or boosted their defensive depth sufficently remains to be seen. But the Steelers went all in on their plan. So lets take a glance at exactly who falls on the side of yin and how falls on the side of yang.

Steelers Yin an Yang

Image credit: Sybildeckerdf via Pin Interest

Steelers 2021 Draft Class at a Glance

1st Round: Najee Harris, running back, Alabama
2nd Round: Pat Freiermuth, tight end, Penn State
3rd Round: Kendrick Green, center, Illinois
4th Round A: Dan Moore Jr., offensive tackle, Texas A&M
4th Round B: Buddy Johnson, inside linebacker, Texas A&M
5th Round: Isaiahh Loudermilk, defensive end, Wisconsin
6th Round: Quincy Roche, outside linebacker, Miami
7th Round A: Tre Norwood, cornerback/safety/Swiss Army Knife, Oklahoma
7th Round B: Pressley Harvin, punter, Georgia Tech

Has there ever been a draft when the Steelers have gone down their needs and ticked them off in almost clockwork like fashion? I don’t know, but if there is the Steelers 2021 Draft class will provide immediate competition.

  • For two years, decline has diseased the Steelers offense.

Black and Gold Yin and YangSure, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury and the need to alternative between Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019 exacerbated that condition. But the unit lost its way. The Steelers offense’s MO shifted from sacrificing itself by feeding the ball too much to its feature back, to throwing 50 times per game.

  • Attempts to convert 4th and inches became utter embarrassments.

In Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Kendrick Green the Steelers have three players who could and should start on opening day. If you believe offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, Dan Moore could also be in the mix to start.

After focusing exclusively on their offensive yang, Pittsburgh pivoted to fulfilling their need for defensive yin in the middle of round 4. There they went and addressed four straight defensive positions.

  • Perhaps they didn’t quite come in the ideal order, but each pick addressed a clear area of need.

And unlike the offense, even if these defensive players exceed all expectations, it is very hard to see any of them earning a starting spot or pushing for non-spot duty playing time. An injury or two could change things in a hurry. Think back to the 2013 opening day. But on paper, the defensive players were picked to provide depth and play roles on special teams.

2021 Draft’s Immediate Impact

Going into the 2008 season, Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola reminded readers that improvement would have to come from within, that it would be a mistake to count on the Steelers 2008 Draft class to deliver the difference.

  • Labriola was right. The 2008 Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, and the rookie class contributed nothing.

With that in mind, should we interpret the fact that the Steelers drafted 3 potential starters as an ominous sign? Hard to say. Other than Jack Lambert, other Hall of Famers the Steelers drafted in their legendary 1974 Draft class, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Mike Webster, were role players on the team that won Super Bowl IX.

On the flip side, the 2016 Steelers got immediate contributions from the top three members of their 2016 Draft class, and that season ended with them knocking on heaven’s door in the AFC Championship.

Suffice to say, the Steelers need 2021’s draft class to be more like 2016 than 2008.

 

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Tyler Matakevich’s Contract with the Bills Puts Free Agency into Perspective for Steelers Fans

Tyler Matakevich, admittedly one of the best special teams players in the NFL during his four-year career with the Steelers, quickly became a Bill at the start of free agency on Wednesday, after signing a two-year deal worth approximately $9 million.

  • You know what Tyler Matakevich was never one of the best at during his time in Pittsburgh?

Playing inside linebacker. In fact, he was so ordinary at it that, three years after drafting him out of Temple in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Steelers had to trade up to the 10th spot of the 2019 NFL Draft just to select Devin Bush. And that happened after they signed veteran Mark Barron to a lucrative enough deal last March.

  • Yet, the Bills sought fit to sign him to such a decent contract.

That’s nine million dollars for a depth player and a special teams ace in an era when that part of the game is becoming less and less of a factor in the NFL.

Tyler Matakevich, Steelers vs Bengals

Tyler Matakevich at Heinz Field in the rain. Photo Credit: Pininterest.

Nice work if you can find it.

So why did the Bills offer Tyler Matakevich so much money? Because they could. According to Over The Cap, the Buffalo Bills currently have $32 million in cap space to play with. When you have that kind of social distancing (to kind of bring a little laughter into these tough times) between the amount of money you’ve already spent on players and your salary ceiling, a player like Matakevich is a luxury.

It’s the kind if thing you can do when you have money to play with. Will Tyler Matakevich make a huge difference for the Bills next season? Not unless he does something like block a punt during a critical moment in a key game.

  • And that’s why it’s hard to get that worked up over the annual circus that is NFL free agency.

Anyone can sign players if they have the financial flexibility to do so. Those teams get patted on the back in March and April for their activity. If they’re lucky, they may even get added to the “winners” column of the many “NFL Free Agency Winners and Losers” articles that pop up this time of year.

Some are even more successful. Early in his tenure as owner, Daniel Snyder’s Washington Redskins repeatedly and vigorously completed for “off season Lombardi Trophy.” Indeed, former general manager Vinny Cerrato was the architect of multiple successful “off season Lombardi” runs.

  • But the truly smart organizations make the most intelligent signings. Why? Because they have to.

They’re normally up against the cap thanks to being so consistently competitive; they must be wise with their money, with their decisions in free agency.

I’m not going to sit here and say that Pittsburgh, a team that had to cut several players and restructure the contracts of a few others just to make room under the cap (even after the signing of the new CBA increased the salary cap to over $198 million) is a free agent “winner” simply because it signed Derek Watt, a fullback and special teams demon, formally of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Derek Watt, T.J. Watt,

Derek Watt and T.J. Watt at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Philip G. Pavely, USA Today via BTSC

But Derek Watt, whose contract with the Steelers is reportedly for three years and over $9 million, will likely fill both Matakevich’s spot on special teams and the one previous held by Roosevelt Nix,who was cut on Wednesday after an injury-riddled 2019, as the team’s fullback.

  • He could also do spot duty at tight end in a pinch. 

What does that mean? The Steelers are likely going to expect more from Watt for his money than the Bills, who also had the capital to acquire receiver Stefon Diggs from the Vikings, will expect from Matakevich.

If Matakevich excels as a special teams ace but fails to improve as an inside linebacker, he’ll still be a valuable commodity for the Bills.

But if Derek Watt, yes, he’s the brother of both T.J. Watt and J.J. Watt, comes up short, Pittsburgh will likely be weaker at two positions in 2020.

  • The Steelers simply can’t afford that.

They also can’t afford to do much else in free agency this spring. But look at at this way. At least they didn’t have the “luxury” of spending $9 million on someone who can only excel on special teams.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2020 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2020 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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