Steelers 2017 Draft Grades – An A+ for Drafting T.J., JuJu, Sutton & Conner

The 2022 NFL Draft is now history. In Kevin Colbert’s finale, the Pittsburgh Steelers bucked the conventional wisdom and drafted Kenny Pickett in the first round. They also addressed wide receiver and defensive line with their premium picks.

So now time to get down to grades – grades for the Steelers 2017 Draft Class.

Yes, Chuck Noll always said it took five years to grade an NFL Draft class, and if it was good enough for The Emperor, its good enough for me.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

First Round: T.J. Watt – Striking Gold

29 teams drafted before the Pittsburgh Steelers that day. The Kanas City Chiefs picked Patrick Mahomes. The other 28 wished they’d picked T.J. Watt instead.

In 5 years T.J. Watt has put himself on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He’s a playmaker and possibly a generational talent. It is conceivable that during his 6th year he’ll break the Steelers All Time sack record. Grade: Grand Slam

Second Round: JuJu Smith-Schuster — A True Steelers from the Get Go

JuJu Smith-Schuster landed in Pittsburgh and eventually pushed not one, but two players off of the team. He had a phenomenal rookie year and followed it up with a team MVP performance. His 3rd year was marred by injuries, poor quarterback performance and an imploding offense.

Even if his numbers never bounced back in year’s four and five, JuJu Smith-Schuster was still a factor on the team, still a player who gave his all on every play. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Third Round A: Cam Sutton – The Late Bloomer

Cam Sutton is the second to last defensive back drafted during Carnell Lake’s tenure as secondary coach, and he’s probably the best. Sutton got onto the field in late 2017, played more in 2018, and began making plays at a steady pace through 2019 and 2020. Facing salary cap Armageddon in the 2020 Off Season the Steelers targeted Sutton for an extension and he delivered in 2021. Grade: Quality Value Pick

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Third Round B: James Conner – The Home Town Hero

In minds of many, James Conner’s Steelers career is measured by what it wasn’t, rather than what it was. As Tony Defeo pointed out in his free agent profile, that’s not fair to Conner. At all.

James Conner’s body of work with the Pittsburgh Steelers reveals him as a good running back. Not a great one, but a good one. The injuries aren’t Conner’s fault. Nor is the fact that a once great offensive line slipped into deep decline just when he needed him the most. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Fourth Round: Joshua Dobbs – The Rocket Scientist

Joshua Dobbs was a bit of a surprise pick and became the type of player that just kept sticking on.

His body of work with the Steelers is limited. His first pass was, well, like a rocket converting a third down on the road deep in Baltimore territory in spot duty. He looked good in his limited action in the 2020 finale. And the Rocket Scientist turned backup QB was a constant fixture along side Ben Roethlisberger reviewing plays on tablets. All that’s good, but you still expect a bit more from a 4th rounder. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Fifth Round: Brian Allen – Another Dud @ DB

The Steelers drafted Brian Allen as a project. Allen had only switched to cornerback for his final two years at Utah. But at 6’3” and 215 pounds and with long arms, and with a 4.48 40 time he had all of the measurables.

Brian Allen saw action on special teams in 16 games over two years with the Steelers and then was waived/injured at the end of training camp in 2019. He latched on to a number of practice squads in 2019, played 24 defensive snaps for the 49ers in 2020 appearing on one game, and appeared in 3 games on special teams for the Browns in 2021. Grade: Bust

Sixth Round: Colin Holba – The Luxury Long Snapper

My immediate reaction to the Steelers decision to use a draft pick on a long snapper was, “Colbert and Tomlin are getting cocky.” It just seemed like a waste of a pick. And it sort of was. Colin Holba didn’t make the team, but got pick up by the Jaguars, who spanked the Steelers in the playoffs. He also played for the 49ers and Giants in the next three seasons. Grade: Farm Team

Seventh Round:  – The Unsung Linebacker that Never Was

With the depth chart ahead of him it didn’t seem like Keion Adams stood a chance at making the team when they drafted him in 2017. However, his story reminded this scribe of Carlos Emmons, another 7th round linebacker who faced a stacked depth chart to make the team and eventually work himself into a serviceable starter.

Alas, Adams would not follow in Carlos Emmon’s footsteps. He spent 2017 on IR, got cut at the end of summer in 2018, spent a day on the practice squad, spent some time with the Giants and was done.

Final Grade for the Steelers 2017 Draft Class

One Grand Slam, 3 Quality Value Picks, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Bust and 1 Farm Team Pick. Moreover, the first 4 picks became starters, all four got second contracts, 2 with the Steelers. And of course the first rounder is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Grade: A+

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Examining Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback – Has Pittsburgh Done Enough?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to have things locked down at the cornerback position, so to speak. For a short spell, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were good-to-great starters on the outside, while Mike Hilton was one of the best slot corners in the NFL.

  • But free agency, the constraints of the salary cap and age quickly changed that.

Mike Hilton was the first to leave, as he signed a deal with the Bengals at the onset of the 2021 free-agency period. Not long after that, Nelson was released due to the salary cap hell the Steelers found themselves in last spring.

Joe Haden was the only one left from that accomplished trio. But as of this writing, it appears that the Steelers have officially moved on from Haden, 33, who is an unrestricted free agent and has yet to sign with Pittsburgh or anyone else.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

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

Late last summer, right before the start of the regular season, the Steelers acquired Ahkello Witherspoon in a trade with the Seahawks. Witherspoon was a third-round pick by the 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Witherspoon started 33 games during his four years in San Francisco before signing a one-year deal with Seattle last spring. Witherspoon was barely a factor for the Steelers for the majority of the 2021 campaign, but he started to earn starting reps down the stretch as a replacement for James Pierre and was arguably the team’s best cornerback at the end of the season.

Ahkello Witherspoon agreed to terms on a two-year deal with the Steelers in March and figures to be one of the starting outside corners in 2022.

Speaking of free agents and two-year contracts, the Steelers signed Levi Wallace, formerly of the Bills, to a two-year deal at the beginning of free agency. Wallace, an undrafted free agent in the 2018 NFL Draft, became a full-time starter in Buffalo by his second season and remained in that role through 2021. Playing opposite the highly-decorated Tre’Davious White, Wallace was a solid number two corner for the Bills and figures best suited for that same role in Pittsburgh.

Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft, spent his first four seasons serving many roles in the secondary, playing on the outside, in the slot and even at safety. But Sutton finally got his break and promotion in 2021, in addition to a new contract, and became a full-time starter. Again, Sutton is extremely versatile but perhaps seems destined to start in the slot in 2022, with the re-signing of Witherspoon and the addition of Wallace.

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

James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, struggled in 2021 after earning the most significant playing time of his short career.

After being selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Justin Layne has done very little to prove he even has what it takes to be a backup cornerback, let alone a starter.

Veteran Arthur Maulet, an undrafted free agent formerly of the Saints, Colts and Jets, made Pittsburgh’s roster last year and was a steady contributor in the slot.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

Rounding out the Steelers depth chart at cornerback are Linden Stephens and Isaiah Johnson.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Cornerback

When talking about the Steelers’ three starters, the consensus seems to be that they are all solid number two caliber corners.

That’s a good number, but is that enough, even with a consistent and dominant pass rush? When you factor in the underwhelming depth behind those top 3, I would categorize the Steelers’ draft need at cornerback as Moderate-High

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Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Quarterback – Don’t Force Trying to Find a Franchise QB

Quarterback is football’s critical position. This has been true since the modern game abandoned the Single Wing and has only become “more” true in the 21st century.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been blessed by both excellence and stability at the quarterback position for almost two decades.

But while the 2022 off season is still young, the Steelers have been jolted twice with reminders of how fleeting stability at quarterback can be. First, they lost Ben Roethlisberger to retirement. This they expected. Then, tragedy struck, and they lost Dwayne Haskins, to an untimely, horrific death.

Matt Corral, Mike Tomlin, 2022 NFL Draft

Mike Tomlin sizes up Matt Corrall. Photo Credit: Tribune-Review

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Potential Starters

For the first time since the year summer of 2000, the Steelers will host their first quarterback competition at St. Vincents. Going into the 2022 NFL Draft, the two contestants are veteran Mason Rudolph and free agent Mitchell Turbisky.

In Mason Rudolph the Steelers have a veteran quarterback whom they graded as a first rounder and picked in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. In those four years, Mason Rudolph has appeared in 17 games, started 10 of those, and amassed a 5-4-1 record.

  • He’s completed 61.5% of his passes, and thrown 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Mason Rudolph was thrown to the dogs in 2019 when an elbow injury ended Ben Roethlisberger’s season after just 6 quarters.

While he won 5 of his 8 starts, he suffered a concussion, and was the victim of an assault by Myles Garrett on the road  in the infamous “Body Bag Game” against Cleveland. The truth is that Mason looked shaky and tentative – as in Kordell Stewart al la 1999 – after both of those incidents. That led to his benching in favor of Devlin Hodges.

Hodges himself got benched against the New York Jets, and Mason Rudolph looked strong in relief, only to get injured again. He played fairly well in his only start against the Browns at the end of the 2020 season but was only “OK” in the tie against Detroit.

Four years after drafting him, the Steelers still aren’t sold on Mason Rudolph, explaining their decision to sign Mitch Trubisky to a 2 year, prove it deal. The Chicago Bears made Mitch Trubisky the 2nd pick overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

  • The conventional wisdom on Trubisky is that he’s a bust.

After four years as a starter, including two playoff seasons, no one wanted to give him a second contract, let alone a shot at a starting job (contrast that with the Sam Darnold trade.) Has Trubsiky been that bad? Here are some interesting numbers:

Mitch Trubisky, Ben Roethlisberger,

 

That’s an interesting if not surprising comparison. Ultimately this is a glass-half vs. glass full comparison. Either Trubisky is only a step down from Roethlisberger, or the gulf between a franchise QB and a good QB is truly defined by the margins.

The terms and length of Trubisky’s deal (1 years for about 7 million per year, plus incentives) signal that the Steelers are giving him a chance to prove he’s an NFL starter and nothing else.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

The Steelers are new territory here. This is a franchise that not only believes in investing in the backup quarterback position, but also in the third string quarterback slot. As we’ve mused before, in many was the Mike Tomlin era has also been the Golden Age of Steelers 3rd string quarterbacks, with third stringers like Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, Landry Jones and Devlin Hodges getting starts.

Joshua Dobbs signed with the Cleveland Browns the day before Dwyane Haskins died, leaving the depth chart behind the two potential starters bare.

The Steelers 2022 Quarterback Draft Needs

Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, Matt Corral and Desmond Ridder are just a handful of the potential first round picks at quarterback that the Steelers have shown interest in. And for good reason. Both Rudoph and Trubisky have something to prove, and they have no one behind him should both falter.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

  • Should the Steelers target a quarterback in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft?

Who knows? Seriously, I’m wise enough not to know that I don’t know enough to evaluate college players coming out for the NFL draft. I do know that the conventional wisdom of the “draftnics” is that this a weak quarterback class.

And the backflips that teams are doing to secure and/or keep established starting quarterbacks show that the majority of NFL personnel managers agree.

If one of the top quarterbacks is still on the board when the Steelers are on the clock, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be wise to remember point 3 of the 4 Point Road Map to get the Steelers back to the Super Bowl:

But with that said, the focus of this series isn’t on how the Steelers can add, but what their areas of need are. And the Steelers draft needs at quarterback heading into the 2022 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.

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Thank You JuJu. Smith-Schuster Signs with Chiefs, Ending Time with Steelers

And so it ends. A year ago JuJu Smith-Schuster shocked everyone by returning to the Steelers. Alas, history will not repeat itself, as he agreed to a one year 10.5 million dollar contract with the Kansas City Chiefs.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is certainly taking the high road on his way out of Pittsburgh, posting on Twitter:

To that we can only say, “Thank you JuJu.”

JuJu Smith-Schuster joined the Pittsburgh Steelers via the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Wide Receivers are a curious breed. There’s no question that the league’s popularity has grown hand-in-hand with the explosion of the passing game.

  • And wide receivers are usually the ones catching the passes on those highlight clips.

While that’s a good thing, receivers perhaps more than any other player have Diva tendencies. That is what it is, unless it interferes with the game.

  • With JuJu Smith-Schuster, that was never an issue.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

JuJu Smith-Schuster romps for 69 yards. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, Penn-Live.com

Yes, spare me the TikiToi video controversy. As Mike Tomlin would say, it was nothing more than “Pop Corn.” It might have generated some social media tension, but it never got in the way of the JuJu’s game.

And when it came to the way he play the game, JuJu Smith-Schuster was a Steeler from day one. He was a Steelers wide receiver in the mold of Hines Ward and, although he lacks their level of talent, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

That’s because JuJu always a physical, put the team first, make the play necessary to win wide receiver.

Think of his first big play with the Steelers. You know, the one that set up the Jesse James play. (Alas, thanks to Roger Goodell’s YouTube police, you can’t watch the video here):

That was a simple crossing route, one designed to give the Steelers some positive yards, get out of bounds and stop the clock. JuJu could have done that easily, but instead took the ball 69 yards and flipped the field.

And if you’ll remember, Antonio Brown wasn’t drawing double coverage because he’d left the game injured.

JuJu Smith-Schuster made this play as a rookie, doing it weeks after laying in the wood on Vontaze Burfict. Before that he took it to the house for over 90 yards against the Lions.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vontaze Burfict, Steelers vs Bengals, JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension

JuJu Smith-Schuster stands over Vontaze Burfict. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

It took talent for JuJu to make these plays, but what they really reveal is something you touch but you can’t measure – his heart. JuJu Smith-Schuster left it all on the field for the Steelers.

There’s a reason why he led the Steelers wide outs in catch percentage during the offensive slogs that were the 2019 and 2020 seasons. On the play that he got injured on in 2021, JuJu Smith-Schuster was running the ball, at full speed.

  • Perhaps it is fitting that JuJu Smith-Schuster is landing in Kansas City.

During the week before the playoff game against the Chiefs, JuJu Smith-Schuster surprised everyone by showing up for practice. This wasn’t a work. He intended on playing and he suited up and played.

  • Never mind that he was exposing himself to further injury, and thereby risking millions on the free agent market.

JuJu Smith-Schuster wanted to play because he wanted to win.

Thank you JuJu Smith-Schuster for your time with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Best of luck to you – except when you’re playing the Black and Gold.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Fretting about Free Agency? The NFL Draft is the Steelers Christmas Tree, Free Agents are Just Stocking Stuffers

If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re likely not all that comfortable with their activity during the first two weeks of the NFL’s unrestricted free-agency period.

But you should have known they weren’t going to do much, right? The salary-cap problems were well-documented, and, besides, the Steelers’ history of making free-agent splashes should have been another clue.

Perhaps the re-signing of Cam Sutton and the surprise re-signings of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu weren’t enough. Also, the outside signings of free agents such as Joe Haeg and Miles Killebrew probably didn’t move the needle on your excitement meter.

  • Do you know what always moves the excitement needle for Steelers fans?

The annual NFL Draft. I mean, my goodness, the talk about the popular event — an event whose television ratings always eclipse those of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — begins the second the Steelers’ season comes to an end and doesn’t stop until well-after their final pick is announced on Day 3 of draft weekend.

There are millions of NFL fans who probably love the draft more than they do an actual football game. I don’t, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Why? Because the draft is the life-blood of the National Football League. It’s actually the life-blood of every professional sports league.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

Every viable prospect is poked, prodded and interviewed countless times in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. There are few secrets by the time the annual event rolls around every April.

Teams are looking for players to help them win now and in the future. They’re searching for prospects that will lead them to the Promised Land–better known as the Super Bowl.

My point is, we dissect every single Steelers’ draft choice — and even the undrafted free agents — once they arrive and speculate on what they can do for the team now and in the future. Yet, the second unrestricted free agency rolls around every March, we forget about many of those players and want Pittsburgh to go shopping for shiny new toys.

Take cornerback Justin Layne, for example. The Steelers made Justin Layne a third-round draft choice out of Michigan State just two years ago. People were excited about him. Many were of the opinion that he was a great value pick and could wind up being a steal. When a player is selected in the third round, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to at least be competing for a starting job by his third season.

Here we are in 2021, and Layne is heading into his third season. I was as disappointed by the release of Steven Nelson as anyone. The Steelers obviously did this to save money, sure, but maybe Pittsburgh also cut Nelson knowing that Layne was ready to make the jump from backup to starting corner.

Another example is Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle that was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okorafor has already started a number of games–including 15 last year. Heading into his fourth season, perhaps Pittsburgh is confident that he can be the long-term answer at either left or right tackle.

We really don’t know how the Steelers feel about players like Layne and Okorafor, but we might get our answer by how they address both corner and offensive tackle during the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for Alex Highsmith, the outside linebacker taken in the third round last year, we knew right away that the former Charlotte walk-on was selected to be the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, who had designs on making a ton of money as an unrestricted free agent–he did.

After a promising rookie season, Highsmith will now get that chance in 2021. What’s wrong with that plan? What’s wrong with promoting Layne if he’s ready?

This is what the draft is for. Heck, people are tracking the Pro Day visits of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert as if they’re foreign spies.

There’s obviously a lot of time and money that goes into the NFL and these prospects. If you can hit on a class or two, it allows you to remain competitive for years.

Take the Steelers 2017 Draft class, for example. I think T.J. Watt‘s career speaks for itself. You can argue about many aspects of Smith-Schuster’s game and non-football exploits, but you can’t say that he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver. As for Sutton, a third-round pick from Tennessee, he may wind up being more than just the starting slot corner; he may be the number two corner.

The Steelers drafts of 2008 and 2009 produced very little in terms of long-term production (at least for the Steelers), and by the time those Super Bowl veterans from the 2000s were ready to get on with their life’s work, the cupboard was pretty bare; the Steelers didn’t miss the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 by accident.

In conclusion, the Steelers didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but maybe that’s because they believe in their recent draft choices.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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Can Steelers Free Agent Zach Banner Lead an Offensive Line Rebuild?

The general consensus among most Steelers media members and fans is that the team needs to rebuild an offensive line that used to be the envy of the NFL.

  • But where do they start? What avenues do they explore?

Shortly after the 2020 season came to a close, Pittsburgh moved on from offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and promoted assistant Adrian Klemm to the position. With KIemm now in place, will the Steelers give him new prospects to work with from the 2021 NFL Draft? Will they look outside the organization and sign a more proven veteran in free agency? Speaking of free agents, how about the ones currently in-house, namely, tackle Zach Banner? Is he someone worth resigning following an unfortunate ACL tear in Week 1 of the 2020 season? We’re about to find out.

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

 

Capsule Profile of Zach Banner’s Career with the Steelers

Zach Banner was a fourth-round pick by the Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. Despite coming from a high-profile college, the USC product was waived by Indianapolis and finished out his rookie season with the Browns. After his release by Cleveland the following offseason, Banner briefly spent time in the Panthers organization before finding his way to Pittsburgh.

Banner didn’t appear in any games for the Steelers in 2018, but he began to make a name for himself the following season (at least as a cult-like fan-favorite) as an eligible receiver in the team’s jumbo packages. Banner bet on himself last offseason and signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal to stay with the Steelers.

He soon found himself in a close training-camp battle with Chukwuma Okorafor for the team’s starting right tackle spot. Banner won the competition and started the first game of his career in Week 1 against the Giants. Unfortunately for Banner, his 2020 season was cut way too short when he sustained a torn ACL and was soon placed on Injured Reserve.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

Banner appears to still have some room for growth, at least in terms of his play. In terms of his physique, Banner has already displayed more than enough dedication to his craft by dropping from 400 pounds right out of college to his current weight of around 335.

With the Steelers looking to get younger along the line, maybe they can convince Banner to sign yet another “prove it” team-friendly deal for 2021 and allow him to compete for one of the two starting tackle spots. The opinion of some scouts is that Okorafor is a better left tackle than right tackle. With veteran left tackle Alejandro Villanueva also a free agent, and someone whose play is no longer on par with what it would cost to retain his services, bringing Banner back for 2021 may actually be critical.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Zach Banner

It’s hard to judge Banner’s career because he really hasn’t had much of one up until now. Sure, he won the starting right tackle spot last summer, but his season was cut short long before we could find out if he was the real deal. How much are the Steelers willing to pay an unproven 27-year old tackle coming off a major knee injury? The team might view even a slight raise as too much of a gamble.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Zach Banner

As I alluded to already, I think Banner’s potential is intriguing. The Steelers should try to retain his services for at least one more year. He could wind up being one of the key building blocks for a struggling offensive line.

  • Now, can Pittsburgh pull this off given their salary cap constraints?

Ah, the answer question my friends, remains to be seen.

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Keeping Cam Sutton in Free Agency is a Challenge Steelers Must Meet

The “story” on the Pittsburgh Steelers since they lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV has been, “Can Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin rebuild the defense while Ben Roethlisberger remains in his prime?”

  • And no position has been more challenging for the Steelers than cornerback.

Keenan Lewis developed slowly and by the time he got good, he was gone. The Steelers thought they had “the answer” in Cortez Allen, until injuries and mystery conspired to sabotage his career. Joe Haden‘s arrival in 2017 changed things at cornerback for the better, but then fate dealt a mortal blow to the Steelers defensive rebuild:  Ryan Shazier suffered a career ending injury.

But on of the unmentioned ironies accompanying Ryan Shazier’s tragic injury is that the night also marked the NFL debut of another promising cornerback for Pittsburgh, Cam Sutton who is in the spot light today.

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton onsides kick recovery, Steelers vs Chargers

Cameron Sutton recovers the onside. Photo Credit: Jake Roth, USA Today

Capsule Profile of Cam Sutton’s Career with the Steelers in 2021

As part of such a high-profile Steelers 2017 draft class that included T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, Cam Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee, was a bit of a forgot man, even if he did play a position — cornerback — that was still considered to be problematic for Pittsburgh.

Perhaps it would have been different had the Steelers not signed Joe Haden that summer. Furthermore, Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss, came out of nowhere that same year and took the Steelers secondary by storm as a very productive slot corner. Sutton spent his first few seasons increasing his position flexibility at the corner position, the slot corner position and even at safety.

However, it was in 2020 that Sutton finally had a bit of a breakthrough, appearing in 16 games and starting six at cornerback. Sutton recorded one interception, eight passes defended and 30 tackles a season ago. That he did this in the final year of his rookie deal certainly makes him much more attractive in free agency.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021

Again, Sutton has position flexibility, something that has always been a valuable commodity to head coach Mike Tomlin. Of course, the position the Steelers would likely need Sutton to fill in 2021 is slot corner, and that is because it seems highly unlikely that they’ll be able to retain the services of Hilton, who is considered one of the best in the business.

Mike Hilton is going to command big money on the open market. Sutton will certainly get a raise, but if the Steelers can retain him at a reasonable price, he could fill a huge void in 2021.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Cam Sutton in 2021

Honestly, the only negative would be the fact that Sutton put himself on the map in 2020 and could really cash in on the open market. Life is all about timing, and if some team presents Cam Sutton with an offer that he simply can’t refuse, the Steelers probably wouldn’t have the cap space to compete.

Curtain’s Call on Cam Sutton in 2021

I think the Steelers should do whatever they can within reason to retain Sutton. They spent years trying to rebuild their secondary, and I can’t imagine how much weaker it could be if their top two slot corners from a year ago exited via free agency.

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Steelers 2021 Free Agent Focus: James Conner – Expect the “Hometown” Hero to Leave Pittsburgh

The “Hometown Hero” and the “Underdog” are two staples of the modern sports narrative. Even though you’ve seen it multiple times, who can resist stopping and watching Hooisers when you spy Gene Hackman’s mug while sapping?

  • I can’t either. And neither can you or else you wouldn’t be reading this now, would you?

The Pittsburgh Steelers got a two-for-one deal worthy of Giant Eagle when they brought James Conner into the fold back in 2017. Conner is from Western Pennsylvania, he played his college ball at Pitt where he had twin, 1000 yard seasons and scored 52 touchdowns despite battling an ACL tear.

  • Oh, and did we mention he’s also a cancer survivor too?  

Now after four years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, James Conner is about to become an unrestricted free agent. Will we see him in Black and Gold again? Let’s take a look.

James Conner, Steelers vs Chargers, Denzel Perryman

James Conner stiff arms Denzel Perryman. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier, LA Times

Capsule Profile of James Conner’s Career with the Steelers 2021

The Steelers made James Conner third-round pick out of Pitt in the 2017 NFL Draft. Conner was mostly a special teams contributor in his rookie season, as the running back reps behind then superstar Le’Veon Bell were few and far between.

  • Conner appeared in 14 games before suffering a season-ending torn MCL down the stretch.

Le’Veon Bell‘s 2018 hold out paved the way for Conner to have a breakout sophomore season. As the starter, Conner appeared to pick up right where Bell left off and was on pace to tally 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for Conner, the injury bug bit him again late in the year and he wound up with 973 rushing yards to go along with 497 through the air, numbers that were still good enough to win him a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Injuries proved to be troublesome for Conner again in 2019, as he missed six games with various ailments and only rushed for 464 yards. Conner appeared to return to his 2018 form at the beginning of 2020 while getting off to a hot start. Unfortunately, the ground game fizzled behind a struggling offensive line and a quarterback and coordinator perhaps too stubborn to commit to it.

James Conner finished up with 721 rushing yards in 2020.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Conner in 2021

Talent has never been an issue for James Conner. He has it and can be a productive running back when healthy. He’s a much better athlete than people give him credit for and probably the only running back currently on the Steelers roster capable of being the type of weapon Le’Veon Bell was in his prime.

And remember, Le’Veon Bell broke Steelers single game regular and playoff rushing records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis ever touched.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Conner 2021

The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “when healthy.”

That’s always been an issue for James Conner, who also suffered a torn ACL in college. The shelf life for most running backs is pretty short to begin with. Do the Steelers really want to give Conner a raise in free agency if they can’t really trust that he’ll be healthy enough to play a full 16 game season, let alone fulfill his new deal?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Conner in 2021

As a college hero who battled and defeated cancer while attending the University of Pittsburgh, Conner’s story is a great and inspirational one. He’s not a hometown hero strictly speaking, having grown up in Erie, Pa, but I think the native Pittsburghers now consider him one of their own.

  • Everyone knows Conner’s story and most root for him to succeed.

Having said all that, I think it’s in Conner’s best interest to go somewhere where he’s not James Conner the hometown college hero and not James Conner the cancer survivor. He needs to go somewhere where he’s just James Conner the running back. As for the Steelers, I think it’s best they move on and look to upgrade at the position either through free agency or the draft.

Expect that to happen.

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