Definition of “At a Crossroads” The Steelers Mason Rudolph and Free Agency

What difference does 365 days make? For Mason Rudolph, everything.

Last year when Mason Rudolph reached free agency, I debated over whether it was worth the time to do a free agent profile on him or not. Omar Khan’s comment about “keeping the door open for Mason” nudged the scales in his favor.

  • But felt like an academic exercise.

But of course Mason Rudolph returned to Pittsburgh. He authored another strong preseason. Yet he remained nothing more than a clipboard holder until, wait for it, the eve of Christmas Eve when Rudolph began leading the franchise to the playoffs.

Now Mason Rudolph is a free agent again, and this time he’s the one holding… well at least some of the cards. Let’s take a look at how this could play out.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Capsule Profile of Mason Rudolph’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers and Mason Rudolph have reached a cross roads. And they took a unique route to get here. So instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of Mason Rudolph’s journey with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we’ll instead focus on how that journey started.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Early in the 2018 off season Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell was working into his pre-draft profiles and devoted some time to Oklahoma’s Mason Rudolph, mentioning that Tomlin and Colbert had shown real interest.

In the comment’s section a reader shared a picture noting “Went to the osu game at Heinz Field. Colbert was never more than 5 feet away from him entire pregame.”

Yet, when the 2018 NFL Draft came the Steelers passed on Lamar Jackson and took Terrell Edmunds in the first round and then picked James Washington in the 2nd round (ouch!). But Kevin Colbert also robbed er um traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders for a third round pick. And with that extra pic, the Steelers took Mason Rudolph.

Then two interesting factoid’s leaked: 1. The Steelers had a first round grade on Rudolph; 2. Rudolph was described as a “compromise pick.”

While Steel Curtain Rising has no access to sources on the South Side, the translation of the above into simple English is this: Kevin Colbert was Mason Rudolph’s champion.

  • If this is true then Rudolph’s career arc with the Steelers becomes easier to understand.
Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

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

It easier to see why Mason Rudolph became the first quarterback of the Tomlin era to get benched for performance. The same can be said for Tomlin’s decision to bring back Joshua Dobbs, sign Dwayne Haskins, Mitch Trubisky and draft Kenny Pickett. Likewise, Tomlin’s decision to look past Rudolph’s strong performances during the 2022 and 2023 preseasons take on a different light.

  • That doesn’t necessarily mean that Tomlin mishandled Rudolph’s development.

In a non-football context you’d say, “the business drivers” of each of those decisions were strong. And in both 2022 and 2023, Rudolph only had one year remaining on his contract. Pickett and Trubisky had multiple years so it made perfect sense to focus precious practice and preseason snaps on that duo.

Now Mason Rudolph’s contract is about to expire. Mike Tomlin, Omar Khan and Art Rooney II all say they want him back.

But just how badly do they want him?

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

The Tomlin era has seen the Golden Age of Steelers third string quarterbacks. So when Rudolph resigned last spring, he seemed destined to get a start. He got four, including one in the playoffs.

  • And Mason Rudolph was undisputed best quarterback on the roster.

The Steelers fielded a different, more dynamic offense with number 2 at the helm. George Pickens exploded. Diontae Johnson did his damage. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren had some of their best games. The defense, freed from the obligation of carrying the team, also played some of its best ball despite being critically short-handed.

The only question is, what is Omar Khan waiting for?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mason Rudolph

Yes, Mason Rudolph looked good. He elevated the team. Everything about his four game audition, complete with the way he maintained his poise after the interception vs Buffalo says the Steelers would be insane to let him walk.

Yet, before cutting a check, the Steelers brass would be wise to remember a few names: Brock Osweiler, Matt Flynn, Rob Johnson and Scott Mitchell.

These are four NFL quarterbacks who parlayed varied amounts of success in a limited number of starts into mammoth free agent contracts to be starters elsewhere.

  • For those four, the grass truly was greener on the other side.

But none of these quarterbacks proved be worthy of their fortune, fame or salary cap space for the teams that signed them.

The only thing worse for the Steelers than losing Mason Rudolph would winning a bidding war to keep him. Mason Rudolph has shown he’s worth of an NFL starter’s contract, but light years away from earning a franchise quarterback deal.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mason Rudolph

Everyone wants Rudolph back and Rudolph seems open to it.

  • But there are three “but’s” at work here.
Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett, Steelers 2022 Training Camp, Steelers St. Vincents 2022

Mason Rudolph and Kenny Pickett in 2022 at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On the numbers side, you can take it at face value that the Steelers want to keep Rudolph in Pittsburgh. But you can also be sure that the Steelers have a number in mind and won’t go much beyond that (see Cam Sutton last spring.)

Then there’s a trust issue. Mike Tomlin has confirmed that Kenny Pickett will arrive at St. Vincents as the number 1 quarterback but assures that “He’ll have competition.” And Tomlin sounded serious. But he also sounded great to Melvin Ingram, Morgan Burnett and LeGarrette Blount who came to Pittsburgh as free agents and left disgruntled feeling that Tomlin promised them something he didn’t deliver.

  • This phenomenon isn’t limited to outsiders. Just ask James Harrison.

Finally, there’s Russell Wilson. The conventional wisdom has been that the Steelers would bring Mason Rudolph back to Pittsburgh to provide “competition” and if they couldn’t, they’d fall back to a veteran free agent such as Ryan Tannehill or Jacoby Brissett. But Russell Wilson has already visited the Steel City and talked with the Steelers brass.

  • Maybe this Russell Wilson flirtation is Omar Khan and company pressuring Rudolph to sign…
  • …but maybe it’s a signal that Tomlin doesn’t see Rudolph as a long-term starter and never will.

Mason Rudolph is good guy to have in the locker room. His teammates love him. He takes his preparation seriously. He puts the team first. He will elevate any quarterback room he joins.

In an ideal world for the Steelers, Rudolph would elevate the quarterback room in Pittsburgh. But if Russell Wilson’s visit to the Steelers is anything more than a “kick the tire” due diligence exercise, then that’s a clear signal that in Rudolph’s ideal world his NFL career will continue elsewhere.

Keep up with Steelers Free Agency. Click here for all of Steelers 2024 coverage.

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Grading Omar Khan’s First Year as Steelers General Manager – A Khan Artist? Or Just a Risk Taker?

Omar Khan’s first year as Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager has drawn praise from through out Steelers Nation. He’s been called a “Khan” artist. Some of the Black and Gold Faithful are already fitting him for a Gold Hall of Fame Blazer.

Khan addressed the media at St. Vincents, in Latrobe as Mike Tomlin and his staff began their first practices with the team.

With that in mind, it’s time to take an objective look at Khan’s first year on the job and ask, is Omar really a “Khan Artist?”

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

A Subtle, but Important Shift on Contract Extension Timing

The under Tom Donahoe and Dan Rooney, Steelers were pioneers in targeting key players for contract extensions before they hit the free agent market. Kevin Colbert continued Donahoe’s policy.

  • However, Colbert was a bit more cautious, particularly in the Tomlin era.
Troy Polamalu, Troy Polamalu Interception Ravens, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship Game, Troy Polamalu pick six AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s pick six vs Ravens the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Colbert typically waited to finalized contract negotiations shortly before the regular season began. James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were all players who inked deals at the tail end of summer.
While this injected some “will so-and-so get his deal” uncertainty into the summer, it did allowed the Steelers to hedge against injury.

  • Omar Khan hasn’t hedged when it comes to contracts.

Last year the Steelers signed Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson to extensions early or before training camp. This year they got Alex Highsmith’s name on a long-term contract.

Injuries can and do happen during training camp and preseason (think Senquez Golson and/or Sean Spence) so Khan’s approach does carry a bit of extra risk. But it also provide certainty and helps ensure roster continuity.

Taking the Steelers Out of Their Comfort Zone on Free Agents

The Steelers were aggressive players in free agency during the spring of 2023, but that continued a trend Kevin Colbert started during the spring of 2022. And that new found aggressiveness is probably due to the fact that the team both doesn’t have a franchise quarterback’s contract to carry and didn’t have a lot of veterans to resign.

  • But under Khan, the Steelers did slide a bit out of their free agent comfort zone.

Entering the off season, resigning Cam Sutton seemed like almost a no brainer. Sutton wanted to stay, the Steelers said they wanted up. Yet, they were never able to get a deal done. The happened a few times under Kevin Colbert.

  • What makes Khan unique is the way he reacted.

The Steelers replaced Cam Sutton by signing Patrick Peterson, who will be 33 this year. Giving a major free agent contract to such an old player was almost unheard of under Kevin Colbert.

Khan also moved out of his comfort zone when it came to injuries, making major signings with Cole Holcomb and Keanu Neal who were either coming off of injuries or had significant injury history.

Khanning Others with Trades?

What’s really earned Khan his title of “Kahn Artist” is his work with trades.

First he traded Chase Claypool for the 32nd pick in the 2023 NFL draft and then watch from afar as Claypool make 14 catches for 140 yards over the last 7 games of the season. Today, trading Chase Claypool for Joey Porter Jr. looks like a very, lopsided deal.

Next he swapped 7th round picks to bring veteran receiver Allen Robinson to Pittsburgh from the Los Angeles Rams – with LA agreeing to pay 10 million of the 15 million he’s owed during the final year of his contract.

He also traded up to get Brodrick Jones in the 2023 NFL Draft, and then swapped 3rd round picks with the Panthers and got Carolina’s 4th round pick, getting them back into that critical depth round.

Even if we accept the obvious caveat that every trade carries risk, Khan has shown incredible negotiating savvy with these moves.

  • But credit for Khan’s savvy here doesn’t come as the result of comparisons to Colbert.

Kevin Colbert’s first major trade brought Troy Polamalu to Pittsburgh. His next major trade bagged Santinio Holmes, who was MVP of Super Bowl XLIII. He also suckered a 3rd round pick out of the then Oakland Raiders for Martavis Bryant (after declaring that he wasn’t available for trade). And Colbert committed highway robbery by getting a 3rd and a 5th for Antonio Brown.

Conclusion? Not a “Khan Artist” but Rather a Risk Taker

In his first year as Steelers General Manger, Omar Khan has shown himself as someone who can both live by the “Steelers Way” while acting as his own man.

And in that respect, he shown himself to be more of a risk taker, than a “Khan Artist.”

During these next three weeks on the fields at St. Vincents we’ll start see if those risks pay off.

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Wither Ahkello? Yep. Steelers Cut Ahkello Witherspoon, Sign XFL “Stars”

An unexpected trade. Disappearance on the bench. An interception machine. Getting burned in Philly. Injury. And finally post draft dismissal.

Those 16 words sum up Ahkello Witherspoon’s career as a Pittsburgh Steeler, who cut him yesterday and gained 4 million dollars in salary cap space.

A.J. Brown, Ahkello Witherspoon, Steelers vs Eagles

A.J. Brown scores a touchdown over Ahkello Witherspoon. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Witherspoon’s waver marks the second post-draft disruption on the Steelers cornerback depth chart, with Arthur Maulet having requested and been granted his release. Prior to the draft, the Steelers lost cornerback Cam Sutton but replaced him with veteran Patrick Peterson.

During the 2023 NFL Draft the Steelers added Joey Porter Jr. in the 2nd round and Cory Trice in the seventh round.

So it appears that the decision to part ways with Witherspoon is as much numbers game as anything else.

By the time Kevin Colbert brought him to Pittsburgh, Witherspoon the former 3rd round pick was on his third team. He languished on the bench until week ten, before exploding with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defensed during the latter part of the season.

That was enough to earn Witherspoon a 2nd contract in Pittsburgh, but his second year did not go so smoothly. He started the first three games and even continued his ballhawking ways against Joe Burrow in the 2022 season-opening upset of the Bengals. Injuries kept him out through week’s four and 7 but he returned against the Eagles where A.J. Brown promptly burned him for one of Philly’s three touchdown passes.

Mike Tomlin benched him at half time during that game and Witherspoon never saw the field again for the Steelers.

  • And now he apparently never will.

In addition to Peterson and Porter, the Steelers will return veteran cornerbacks Levi Wallace and James Pierre. They also signed Minnesota veteran Chandon Sullivan during the draft.

Steelers Claim Jones, Sign XFL “Stars” Butler and Luq-Barcoo

Some of the money the Steelers are saving by cutting Witherspoon will go to the trio of players Pittsburgh picked up here in mid-May. First the claimed Manny Jones off of waviers after the Arizona Cardinals cut him.

  • Jones landed in Phoenix as an undrafted rookie free agent and appeared in 4 games in 2022.

The Steelers also signed XFL “stand outs” cornerback Luq Barcoo and wide receiver Hakeem Butler. Barco played for the XFL’s San Antonio Brahmas where had 1 interception and 31 tackles, which was enough for Pro Football Focus to grade him as the 2nd best tackle in the league.

Hakeem Butler comes from the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks, who posted 51 catches for 599 yards and eight touchdowns and his name will be familiar to Steelers fans with long memories. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert took a long look at Butler prior to the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Steelers interest was so strong that pre-draft analyst Matt Williamson suggested the Steelers take Butler if Devin Bush was unavailable and Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell echoed similar sentiments.

Alas, Butler lasted until the Cardinals took him in the fourth round, but injuries wrecked his NFL career, limiting him to two appearances, both with the Eagles in 2020. Butler did have one catch for the CFL’s Edmonton Elks during 2022.

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Wedil Paints a Pickett Fence: Steelers Sign Isaac Seumalo, Guard, from the Eagles

Wow. Woke up this morning to see the Steelers signed guard Isaac Seumalo from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Talk about a blogger falling asleep at the switch. Due to personal/family reasons had kept me from writing about any of the Steelers free agent moves save for the loss of Cam Sutton and signing of Patrick Peterson.

  • And of course they came in rapid succession after that.
Isaac Seumalo, Steelers vs Eagles

Isaac Seumalo lines up against the Steelers. Photo Credit: Indianapolis Star

Saturday was the first day I was able to pick up my pen, so I wrote about Nate Herbig signing as an indication of Andy Wedil’s influence. Figured that as free agent news is typically slow on the weekend, I could run the Herbig story on Sunday morning, use Sunday to write about the inside linebacker situation with the signings of Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb and that would be that.

  • But Omar Khan and Andy Wedil are marching to their own drummer, aren’t they?

And there can be no doubt that Andy Wedil is deliberately leaving his finger prints on the Steelers roster. Isaac Seumalo is a 6-foot-4, 303-pounder whom Pro Football Focus rated as the NFL’s ninth-best guard in 2022. At age 29 Seumalo only gave up one sack and started all 20 games for the Eagles.

How does he fit in?

Well, to quote Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, that’s “…a mystery to team sources not named Mike Tomlin and OL coach Pat Meyer.” Herbig’s arrival signaled that Kevin Dotson’s starting job was likely on the line. The arrival of Herbig and Seumalo mans that Dotson will have to fight for a roster spot.

Kendrick Green’s chances of making the team just got very, very complicated. And it is also very unlikely that J.C. Hassenauer, whom the Steelers made an unrestricted free agent, will get a chance to return to Pittsburgh.

In an exchange with readers Jim Wexell shared, “Someone called it building a Pickett Fence. I love it.” The metaphor is apt. Pickett fences are white, and white is an official alternative color to the Steelers Black and Gold.

But this white Pickett fence has a definite hue of green.

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Weidl Effect? Steelers Signing Nate Herbig, a Road Grading Guard, May be Sign of Andy Weidl’s Influence

So far everything the Steelers have done in free agency has been by the book. Well, ok “by the book” if you channel your Ben Kenobi and agree that its “by the book from a certain point of view.” Which is to say that by signing 33 year old cornerback in the form of Patrick Peterson is not something the Steelers typically do.

But all things consider equally, the Steelers would have preferred to keep Cameron Sutton. When Cam Sutton signed with the Lions the Steelers needed a starting corner and turned to Patrick Peterson.

Ditto the signings of Elandon Roberts and Cole Holcomb – personnel moves at inside linebacker have been a staple of Steelers off seasons for the last 5 seasons. (More on that in a day or so.)

  • But the Steelers decision to sign Nate Herbig is an outlier.
Nate Herbig

Steelers newest guard Nate Herbig. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

While it’s a given that the Steelers need depth at offensive line, those conversations had typically focused on tackle. Behind Mason Cole, James Daniels and Kevin Dotson the Steelers had J.C. Hassenauer and Kendrick Green. Guard wasn’t considered an area of need.

Yet the Steelers wasted little time in signing Nate Herbig for 2 years at 8 million dollars with Herbig getting 3 million of that in guarantees. That’s not crazy money for an NFL guard – James Daniels is going to have a cap number $11,166,666 this year, but there are certainly starting guards that make less in today’s NFL.

  • That means that heading into his contract year Kevin Dotson is going to need to fight for his starting job.

The move is also the first sign of Assistant General Manager Andy Weidl’s influence. Herbig came out early from Stanford and that probably cost him getting drafted. But the Philadelphia Eagles signed him. When Joe Douglas left Philadelphia for the New York Jets he signed Herbig. And now he’s followed Weidl to Pittsburgh.

During his time in Philadelphia, Weidl developed a reputation as a personnel man who bought into the idea that football games are still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. (See the Eagle in people moving mode on short down situations in the Super Bowl.)

At 6’4” and 335 pounds, Herbig is in the 93rd percentile of offensive guards. By all accounts he’s a road grader in the run game even if his pass pro skills remain a work in progress. When asked about where he would play, Herbig quipped he’d play punter if the Steelers asked him to.

Just the attitude you’d like to see in an offensive lineman.

Cutting Them Loose – Steelers Don’t Tender RFAs

The Steelers also made another uncharacteristic, if under the radar move: They didn’t tender any of their four Restricted Free agents.

The Steelers had until 4:00 pm on Wednesday to offer tenders to J.C. Hassenauer, James Pierre, Jeremy McNichols and Steven Sims.

Most people probably don’t know who Jermey NcNicols was so that’s no surprise. Hassenauer has some starting experience, but he wasn’t much of a surprise. But Sims is their de facto 3rd wide out and James Peirre was their starting cornerback at year’s end.

So it is a bit of a surpise that Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin opted to let those guys reach the free market.

All remained unsigned at this point, so they could still remain in Pittsburgh.

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Lose a CB, Gain a CB: Steelers Sign Patrick Peterson, Lose Cam Sutton in Free Agency

NFL Free agency hasn’t even officially started and the Steelers cornerback depth chart has undergone a major change.

Just over 1 week ago at the NFL Scouting Combine Omar Khan affirmed that resigning Cam Sutton would be a priority for the Steelers in free agency. Priorities have their limits for Pittsburgh, as the Detroit Lions have agreed to a 3 year deal with Cam Sutton totaling $33 million and with $22.5 million in guarantees.

That 11 million dollar average is high, but still only puts Sutton in the top 15 or 16 corners in the league.

  • That however was too high for the Steelers.
Antonio Brown, Patrick Peterson, Steelers vs Cardinals

Patrick Peterson knocks a pass away from Antonio Brown. Photo Credit: Sports 247

Omar Khan responded by signing Minnesota Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson to a 2 year contract. Terms of Peterson’s deal haven’t leaked yet, but last season he earned 4 million dollars – just under what Cam Sutton earned, and he had 5 interceptions and 15 passes defensed.

  • In contrast, Sutton only had 3 interceptions, although he also defended 15 passes.

Patrick Peterson was originally drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2011 NFL Draft. While in Phoenix he made 8 straight Pro Bowls and was named All Pro twice. He’s played the last two seasons for the Minnesota Vikings where he started all 30 games that he has participated in.

Omar Follows Colbert Template, Takes Risk Nonetheless

Let’s not mince words – cornerback is a young man’s game in the NFL. The idea of replacing a 29 year old corner who is just budding into his prime with a 33 year old seems questionable to say the least.

Free agent cornerbacks come at a premium. And the Steelers have made these sorts of “Dollar Ball” trade offs with corners before, as they did in the 2013 off season when they let Keenan Lewis go but brought William Gay back.

But this isn’t just a cost-benefit move.

Peterson made plenty of “Splash Plays” in 2022. And the 2023 NFL Draft is said to be deep at cornerback. Even had the Steelers resigned Sutton they were likely to draft a corner. By signing Peterson the team gives itself some breathing room and avoids finding itself in the same situation it was in in 2016, when they had to reach for Artie Burns.

Doubling up on a key position in free agency and the draft was a move Kevin Colbert made many times. It seems like Omar Khan has learned the lesson.

In addition to Patrick Peterson, who cannot officially sign until Wednesday, the Steelers also have veterans Levi Wallace, Ahkello Witherspoon and Arthur Maulet under contract. James Pierre is a restricted free agent, whom the Steelers still must decide to tender or not.

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Steelers Should Keep RFA James Pierre in Pittsburgh

Every summer diligent beat writers breathe life into the names rookies that even the most educated Steelers fans have never heard of. More often than not, the NFL life is sucked out of those names before the second preseason game.

  • Then there are those that stick around, the ones that get a second wind, so to speak.

James Pierre is (sort of) one of those unheralded undrafted rookie free agents who found his second wind and transformed it into a 3 year career. Has he done enough to earn himself a restricted free agent tender from the Steelers?

James Pierre, Cortland Sutton, Steelers vs Broncos

James Pierre seals the win by intercepting a pass to Cortland Sutton. Photo Credit: Justin Aller, AP via BTSC

Capsule Profile of James Pierre’s Career with the Steelers

You can’t call James Pierre a rookie training camp sensation because the Steelers didn’t have training camp, so to speak in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. In fact, it took an attentive eye to spot his name as a standout on those censored, pool reports from the camp held at Heinz Field.

But Pierre caught Mike Tomlin’s eye, and while only logged 27 snaps on defense as a rookie, he was active on special teams. Pierre worked his way into the rotation in his second year and was one of the risings stars on the Steelers defense – until he wasn’t.

Pierre struggled early on against Denver, but then closed the game with an end zone interception. A week later against the Seahawks, Pierre forced D.K. Metcalf that forced Seattle to settle for tying field goal rather than a game-winning touchdown in a game the Steelers eventually won (thanks to T.J. Watt.) A few weeks later in the tie vs. Detroit, Pierre was one of the defenders who made some exceptional plays in overtime.

Tee Higgins, James Pierre, Steelers vs Bengals

Tee Higgins burns James Pierre for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

When Joe Haden got hurt, Pierre stepped right in as a replacement. He did well on the road against the Chargers, but a week later in Cincinnati Joe Burrow used him and abused him so badly that he never saw another defensive snap for the rest of the year.

2022 saw James Pierre quietly revive his career. In week 6 he got his first start and, if he author any splash plays, he was one of the backups who helped beat Tom Brady. Pierre also helped get the Steelers off on the right foot with a game opening interception of Matt Ryan in the road win over the Colts.

From there on out, James Pierre only saw about a quarter of snaps with the Steelers defense, but that number also reflects game planning to stop rush-heavy offenses and an injury that kept him out for much of the road win vs the Ravens.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning James Pierre

James Pierre isn’t “the answer” for the Steelers at cornerback. He might not project as a starter. But he has shown he’s good enough to be at least a backup, first cornerback off the bench and you need players like that to win in the NFL.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning James Pierre

Of course the Steelers need cornerbacks, but they need cornerbacks whose play is consistent. This mentality of “he’s not great, but he’s knows the system, we know him and he’s better than some guy off the street” is how the Steelers sabotaged their secondary in the middle of the teens.

Do you really want to use precious salary cap space to keep the next Antwon Blake in Pittsburgh?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Pierre

Cam Sutton might be leaving. Levi Wallace is skilled but a step slow. Ahkello Witherspoon only played in four games and got benched in Philly in favor of Pierre. Outside of that, there’s no one else in the pipeline (no offense to Arthur Maulet, but he’s got a role, but not one as a front-line, four down starter.)

James Pierre is a restricted free agent. The Steelers have the chance to keep him in Pittsburgh. They must take advantage of the opportunity.

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Steelers 2023 Free Agent Tracker

The Steelers 2023 off season is about to kick into high gear. The Scouting Combine is this week and free agency is only a few weeks away.

And this will be the first time Mike Tomlin has navigated the free agent waters without Kevin Colbert. General Manager Omar Khan and Assistant General Manager Andy Weidl will now work with Tomlin to guide the Steelers through the first off season of the Kenny Pickett Era.

Omar Khan, Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan

Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan, Photo Credit: Nola.com

Although the Steelers salary cap situation is generally considered to be healthy, Omar Khan will certainly need to make moves to allow the Steelers to maneuver.

And maneuver they will need to do, as Pittsburgh has 23 free agents to make decisions on this spring.

Here is a look at the lay of the land before the chess pieces begin to move.

Click on the highlighted names for a full profile of each Steelers free agent.

Steelers 2023 Free Agent Signings

Christian Kuntz, long snapper
Signed 1 year exclusive rights free agent tender 2/23/2023
Jamir Jones, Outside linebacker
As an exclusive rights free agent, signed one year deal on 2/27/2023
Patrick Patterson, Cornerback
Signs 2 year 14 million dollar contract with $5.85 million in guarantees on 3/13/2023
Larry Ogunjobi, Defensive Tackle
Signs 3 year 28 million dollar contract on 3/14/2023
Damontae Kazee, Safety
Signs 2 year contract on 3/14/2023
Nate Herbig, Guard
Signs 2 year contract on 3/14/2023
Cole Holcomb, Inside Linebacker
Signs 3 year contract on 3/15/2023
Elandon Roberts, Inside Linebacker
Signs 2 year contract on 3/16/2023
Isaac Seumalo, Guard
Signs 3 year contract on 3/18/2023
James Pierre, Cornerback
Signs 1 year contract on 3/22/2023
Le’Raven Clark, Offensive Tackle
Signs 1 year contract on 3/24/2023
Zach Gentry, Tight End
Resigns with Steelers on 3/25/2023 — signing not confirmed 1 week later
Keanu Neal, Strong Safety
Signs 2 year contract with Steeles on 3/30/2023
Breiden Fehoko, Nose Tackle
Signs 1 year contract on 3/30/2023

Steelers 2023 Free Agent Losses

Cam Sutton, Cornerback
Signs 3 year contract with the Detroit Lions, for 33 million dollars in change and 22 million in guarantees
Robert Spillane, Inside Linebacker
Signs 2 year contract with Las Vegas Raiders
Devin Bush, Inside Linebacker
Signs 1 year contract with Seattle Seahawks
Malik Reed, Outside Linebacker
Signs 1 year contract with the Miami Dolphins
Terrell Edmunds, Strong Safety
Signs 1 year contract with Philadelphia Eagles
Trent Scott, Right Tackle
Signs 1 year contract with Washington Commanders
Steven Sims, Wide Receiver
Signs 1 year contract with Houston Texans
J.C. Hassenauer, Center/Guard
Signs 1 year contract with New York Giants

Restricted Free Agents

Jeremy McNichols, Running Back

Unrestricted Free Agents

Mason Rudolph, Quarterback,
Derek Watt, Fullback
Benny Snell Jr., Running Back

Chris Wormley, Defensive End
Miles Boykin, Wide Receiver
Tyson Alualu, Nose Tackle
Karl Joseph, Safety
Marcus Allen, Inside Linebacker

Yeah, Omar Khan certainly has his work cut out for him. Steel Curtain Rising will be here to cover it all, adding capsule profiles as they’re ready and updating signings as they occur.

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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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Teacher’s Late! (Again): Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 Season Report Card

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who waited until the last day before summer to get his grades in, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2022 season.

Cameron Heyward, Deshaun Watson

Cameron Heyward after sacking Deshaun Watson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
Kenny Pickett went 7-5 completed 63% of his passes 2404 yards for 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. Pickett progressed following the bye, getting stronger each week and leading 3 come from behind wins. Taken alone his work was “Good.” However, Mitch Trubisky performed poorly as a starter early in the season and, although he did well in relief against Tampa Bay and Carolina, his interceptions against Baltimore cost the Steelers both the game and the playoffs. This brings the grade down. Grade: B-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Running Backs
2022 marks a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. Najee Harris worked through early injuries to earn 1054 yards. Jaylen Warren’s 379 yards might seem pedestrian, but his role as a third down and rotational back saved Harris 71 touches. Beyond the numbers, the duo ran both harder, smarter and with more authority as the year progressed, forcing piles forward. Derek Watt got into the act with 8 first down runs. Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland delivered when their number was called. Grade: A

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth continued to build on his role as a “go to” target in critical moments. Zach Gentry was steady as a number 2 tight end. Connor Heyward only had his number called a handful of times, but he answered each of them. Grade: B

Wide Receivers

Diontae Johnson lead the unit with 86 catches followed by rookie George Pickens by 52. After that there’s a steep drop to Chase Claypool who wasn’t even on the team for the last nine games. Steven Sims functioned as the 3rd wide receiver  Gunner Olszewski making cameo appearances. Much has been made of the lack of explosive plays and dearth of touchdowns from this group, but that’s largely not their fault. They executed well in the ball-control focused offense during the season’s 2nd half, and answered with clutch plays time-and-time again on game winning drives. Grade: B

George Pickens, Steelers vs Ravens

George Pickens makes a clutch catch. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Offensive Line
The offensive line turned a corner in 2022. By the end of 2019 it was a liability and it struggled for the next two seasons. It started slowly in 2022 but improved as the season progressed. Pass protection must continue to improve, but run blocking was an asset late in the year. Grade: B-

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward had another monster year and is the team’s undisputed leader on and off the field. Larry Ogunjobi’s stat sheet won’t make Fantasy Football owners salivate, but he was a tremendous asset in stopping the run. Montravius Adams was solid in the middle. Grade: A-

Linebackers
The evolution of Alex Highsmith has a pass-rushing, edge-setting outside linebacker was the biggest story of the year. Highsmith had 14.5 sacks and 12 tackles for losses. Myles Jack stabilized the center of the field leading the team in sacks. Devin Bush’s play was stable at the beginning of the year, but fell out of favor due to rookie Mark Robinson’s development. T.J. Watt missed half of the year and took time get back to full strength, but his return boosted the entire defense. Grade: B+

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Falcons

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts the final Falcons pass. Photo Credit: USA Today SteelersWire

Secondary
Ball Hawking. That was the Steelers secondary’s calling card in 2022. Minkah Fitzpatrick led the unit with 6 interceptions, followed by Levi Wallace’s 4, Cam Sutton’s 3, Damontae Kazee’s 2, while Ahkello Witherspoon, Arthur Maulet and James Pierre all had 1. Overall, the defense was 16th on third down efficiency and struggled when matched with high power passing offenses like the Bengals, Bills and Eagles. Grade: B+

Special Teams
Danny Smith’s special teams had an up and down year. Chris Boswell was solid, until suffering an injury and then had his difficulties. Matthew Wright was excellent in relief. Steven Simms added dynamism to the kick return game, but he did fumble three times. The Steelers coverage teams also began giving up long returns late in the year. Pressley Harvin was a bit erratic early in the year, but settled down as time wore on and did a good job of pinning teams down inside the 20. Grade: B-

Coaching
Have Steelers fans vilified any other offensive coordinator more than Matt Canada? Probably Joe Walton, if you control for the absence of social media. But at least Joe Walton deserved it. Matt Canada? Not so much.

The Steelers offense began 2022 worse than it was in 2021 thanks to the absence of a franchise quarterback and overall lack of experience. Execution errors rather than schemes or play calling strategies drove many, if not most, of the Steelers early offensive woes.

  • As the offense gained experience they eliminated the errors and victories followed.

Yes, the Steelers still need a more aggressive, effective downfield passing game – but that’s largely not a product of play calling. The Steelers certainly do need to execute better in the Red Zone. But as games against Carolina and Cleveland confirmed, Canada’s cocktail of long, ball-controlling drives that end with touchdowns is lethal.

Teryl Austin, with a strong assist from  the recently departed Brian Flores turned a Steelers defense around that was headed in the wrong direction. True, the defense was a different unit with T.J. Watt in the line up. But Dick LeBeau’s defenses were far superior when Troy Polamalu was playing. While the Steelers defense wasn’t tested against an elite passer following the bye week, they were stout against the run down the stretch.

  • That brings us to Mike Tomlin.

For the second time since his arrival in 2007, his team opened the season 2-6. And as he did in 2013, Mike Tomlin turned it around and had his team in the hunt for a playoff spot until the waning moments if their final game.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, Steelers 2022 Draft Class, Kevin Colbert last draft

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin at their final press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

In terms of X’s and O’s Tomlin accomplished this by refusing to given into knee jerk reactions or drop into coaching by crisis mode. In terms of managing people, Tomlin convinced his locker room to believe in the Steelers Way and ultimately themselves. Grade: A

Front Office
In his final spring on the job Kevin Colbert enjoyed record amounts of salary cap space and succeeded in using it to bolster the Steelers offensive lines an interior defense. It is way, way too early to evaluate Kevin Colbert’s final NFL Draft class, but the early returns are extremely positive.

Omar Khan took over the helm in June and Kahn’s first act was to sign Larry Ogunjobi in response to Stephon Tuitt’s retirement. Kahn’s next moves were to ink extensions for Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chris Boswell and Diontae Johnson, moves he made early in the summer, eliminating potential distractions. And Khan moved Chase Claypool for a 2nd round pick, a move that looks like an absolute coup today. Grade: A-

Robert Spillane, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Saints

Robert Spillane stops Andy Dalton cold on 4th down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Unsung Hero Award
He started out 2019 as a Tennessee Titan cast off who’d bounce on and off the roster and practice squad multiple times. He began 2020 as the one player the Steelers could absolutely NOT afford to see play. Then injuries forced him in and although he delivered, during the summer of 2021 the Steelers still made a trade to shore up his position. So he began 2022 as a rotational starter, playing roughly 1/3 of the snaps.

That snap percentage jumped to 80% during the seven-game winning streak the Steelers authored to close the 2022 season and leapt to a perfect 100% in the final four games, which saw the Steelers get better week-by-week. Coincidence? I don’t think so either which is why Robert Spillane wins the Unsung Hero Award honors for  Steelers 2022 season.

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