Back to the Drawing Board: Steelers Cut Mason Cole, Will Seek Center in 2024 NFL Draft

The NFL’s 2024 off season isn’t quite in full swing but Omar Khan made another decisive move as the Steelers cut starting center Mason Cole. The Steelers signed Mason Cole in 2022 after Kendrick Green’s one year starting stint ended in disaster.

Mitch Trubisky, James Daniel, Mason Cole, Steelers 2022 Offensive Line

Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.

Although sources from inside the South Side expressed skepticism to Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell that Cole was up to the task, Cole’s play was solid during his first year in Pittsburgh. 2023 told a different tale. Whether Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph stood under center, one of the first things that fans looked for was an errant or low snap.

Fortunately there were no signature disaster moments such as Maurkice Pouncey opening the 2020 playoff loss to the Browns by hiking the ball so far above Ben Roethlisberger‘s head that neither Ben nor James Conner could recover it before the Browns Karl Joseph did in the end zone.

But Cole’s low snaps were a disruption for an offense line that didn’t find its footing until about Halloween and an offense that literally struggled with the basics until Christmas.

Ironically or perhaps not so ironically, Omar Khan made his move on the day when the NFL officially increased the salary cap 30 million for 2024. Prior to cutting Cole, the Steelers were estimated to be about 8.5 million under the cap.

By releasing Mason Cole, the Steelers will gain about 4.75 million dollars in salary cap space, although they will add to their 1.5 million in dead money.

Who Has the Next Shot?

Although Cole does not have an heir apparent in Pittsburgh, the Steelers do have options at center already on their roster. Reserve guard Nate Herbig can also play center as can starting guard James Daniels. The Steelers also began the off season by signing Ryan McCollom to a reserve/futures contract.

But the 2024 NFL Draft is said to be deep in interior lineman, and the Steelers have already been linked to several top centers.

The franchise’s lineage at the position is second to none, having proceeded seamlessly from Ray Mansfield, to Mike Webster, to Dermontti Dawson, to Jeff Hartings. And while the Sean MahanJustin Hartwig interregnum disappointed, the Steelers responded by drafting Maurkiece Pouncey.

So perhaps the 2024 NFL Draft will deliver Pittsburgh its next worthy successor.

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Ugly Afternoon @ Acrisure as Steelers Choke, Losing 24-10 to the Cardinals

After an ugly afternoon of football at Acrisure Stadium the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped a 24-10 decision to the Arizona Cardinals.

  • After the game Mike Tomlin declared “That was a horrible day at the office.”

Tomlin hit the nail on the head. The Cardinals arrived in Pittsburgh as a 2-10 team that hadn’t won on the road in close to a year. The Steelers were 7-4 and in the thick of the AFC North race.

Yet the Steelers suffered an ugly loss because they failed to heed the lessons that carried them through several ugly wins this season: Win the weighty downs, don’t turn over the ball and above all else, don’t lose the game.

Kenny Pickett, Johnathan Ledbetter

Kenny Pickett scrambles for the end zone in vain. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

What Went Right (no, that’s not a misprint)

With the New England Patriots coming to town in just four days, the Steelers don’t have the luxury of self-pity. (They also may not have the luxury of letting injuries heal, but we’ll get to that later.) Nor should they seek comfort in silver linings.

But if that’s true, its also true that the Steelers started the game by doing a lot of things right.

In just three plays the Steelers were at the Arizona 11, and then there came a big “BUT.” But before we get to that “BUT” let’s move on to other things that went right.

T.J. Watt and Larry Ogunjobi opened by stuffing James Conner for no gain, setting up a quick three and out. On Arizona’s next possession it fell to Watt and Keeanu Benton to stuff Conner for no gain in a drive that saw the Cardianls settle for 51 yard field goal.

Arizona’s next possession ended with a three and out in large part to Alex Highsmith’s sack of Kyler Murray. After a Steelers three and out, it fell to Nick Herbig to stuff Connor and T.J. Watt to drop Murray for a loss.

The Steelers got the ball back and went on a 12 play, 79 yard drive that consumed nearly 8 minutes of clock time. In truth this drive contained much of what had been missing on Matt Canada’s watch.

  • The Steelers made 4 first downs.
  • Both Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ripped of double-digit runs
  • They also made shorter runs to set up manageable 3rd downs
  • Pat Freiermuth converted one of those with George Pickens picking up another through the air.

The Arizona Cardinals 1 yards line lie at the end of those 79 yards, where the next big “BUT” reared its ugly head.

About Those “BUTS”

The success of the Steelers first three plays was almost uncanny. In the blink of an eye, Kenny Pickett and company was just 16 yards away from an opening drive touchdown. Once there Najee Harris ran for 5 only to see Pickett fail to connect on his next two passes, bring up a Chris Boswell field goal.

On that second, picture perfect drive, the Steelers tried four times to punch starting from the Arizona 7, but couldn’t make it into the end zone.

  • Pittsburgh left 11 points on the field on those two drives along.
  • Chris Boswell missed a field goal in the second half.
  • Make that 14 points the Steelers left on the field.

It is tempting to conclude “You can’t leave points on the field like that and expect to win in the National Football League.” Which is generally true. But we’ve seen the Steelers win in spite of their offense for most of the season. But against the Cardinals, something else was different.

Back to Ball Security

The Steelers defense opened the second half down 10 to 3 after having given up a 99 yard touchdown drive to close the first half. The Black and Gold’s response was to force an Arizona three and out.

Pittsburgh’s rebound was short-lived as 7 plays later Mason Cole wobbled a snap to Mitch Trubisky’s shoe laces and the Cardinals recovered. Unlike Pittsburgh, Arizona was able to convert in the Red Zone and put the Cardinals up 17 to 3.

Giving up that touchdown might not have ended it for the Steelers, but Boswell’s missed field goal came on Pittsburgh’s next possession and his miss effectively ended things.

Another Twist in a Long, Strange Season

Two weeks ago the Steelers loss of a winnable game in Cleveland carried ominous overtones. Mike Tomlin reacted by firing Matt Canada, and last week it felt like the team had turned a corner in Cincinnati. Instead they dropped a game, at home to one of the league’s worst teams.

What to make of it? Well, there are a couple of things:

  • This Steelers team really has no margin for error as it lacks the talent to overcome mistakes.
  • Injuries may not be an excuse, but they are an explanation.

Seriously.

The Steelers did everything they could give this game to the Cardinals, including 2 illegal formation penalties that negated first downs, a pass interference penalty in the end zone on a 3rd and 8 incompletion, in addition to twin personal fouls on punt returns and a too many men on the field — after a time out.

The Steelers defense started the game shutting down the Cardinals in stunning fashion but ended up unable to stop them at critical points. But by that point an inside linebacking corps that had lost Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander had also lost the services of Elandon Roberts, who’d arguably been the defense’s MVP over the last several games.

And on offense the Steelers lost Kenny Pickett and Isaac Seumalo just before half time. And Minkah Fitzpatrick broke his hand during the first half (but was able to return).

  • Yet, for all of that, had the Steelers not left 14 points on the field they’d have scored enough to tie the game.

This reality excuses nothing. But it reminds us that the Steelers stole a couple of wins early in the season by taking advantage of other teams’ mistakes. Now they’ve had one stolen from them in the same fashion.

Mike Tomlin and company have 3 days to figure out how to prevent the Patriots and Bill Belichick to be the next to benefit from the law of averages. They have their work cut out for them.

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Le’Veon Bell Should Apologize to the Man in the Mirror. Not to Steelers Fans

Reinforcing the digital age truth that, “Old storylines don’t die. They just fade away. And then they return,” Le’Veon Bell made the news by offering an apology to Steelers fans for his 2018 holdout.

The response in much if not most of Steelers Nation is, “It’s about time.”

  • Here the thinking differs: The only one that Le’Veon Bell truly owes and apology to is himself.

Let’s concede that this isn’t a black and white issue. Bell may owe his teammates an apology. We’ll talk about that a moment. But Bell neither owes the Steelers organization nor their fans an apology. The only person he needs to say “I’m sorry” to his the person staring at him in the mirror.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell free agent,

Le’Veon Bell departing the gridiron at Heinz Field. Photo Credit: EPA, via the New York Post

Why Bell Owes No Apology to Steelers Fans

Full disclosure. When the Steelers slapped the 2nd franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, I said it wasn’t what either side wanted, but probably what both needed. I was wrong.

And when Bell failed to show up on the first day of practice before the opener, I like many other was upset. Later, as the deadline to report loomed, I opined that Mike Tomlin should call Bell and convince him to report.

The only thing separating the Steelers from the playoffs, if not more, was an injury to James Conner. And, almost as if on cue, Conner got hurt. Would Le’Veon Bell have helped those 2018 Steelers down the stretch? Maybe even enough to get them into the playoffs or more?

Perhaps.

But Bell wouldn’t have helped them at inside linebacker. Nor is it logical to think his presence would have defused Antonio Brown’s meltdown.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II knew there were risks in franchising Bell. They accepted those as well as the opportunity costs of not using that money to shore up the middle of their defense and/or deepening their backfield.

That’s simply not Bell’s fault.

Why Bell Might Owe His Teammates and Apology

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 Rosner, Steelers.com

Bell provoked and uproar in the Steelers locker room when he failed to show for the first day of regular season practice. Maurkice Pouncey called him out. As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell asserted, “Losing Pouncey? That’s analogous to Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite.”

NFL players have a code.

Unlike fans, they understand deep down in their bones that this is a business and that their teammates need to make contract decisions based the own self-interest. With that understood, Bell had provided his teammates with assurances that he’d play on his franchise tender.

  • And when he went back on his word, Bell broke the code.

Time heals all wounds. Has enough time pass for Le’Veon and the rest of his former teammates? That’s not for me to say. But let’s acknowledge that its possible an apology is due there.

The Man in the Mirror

When Le’Veon Bell declined the Steelers (second) long term contract offer in the hopes of “resetting the market” for running backs, he was betting on himself.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Given his play declined in 2019 and then dropped off like a rock after that, the notion seems laughable today.

But hindsight is 20/20. When Le’Veon Bell held out he was one season removed from breaking the Pittsburgh Steelers single game regular season and playoff rushing records. That’s something neither John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris, nor Jerome Bettis – all Hall of Famers – ever did.

  • In one sense, I admire the man for putting his money where his mouth was.

The cold hard, football reality is that he did Pittsburgh a favor by refusing to sign a long-term contract.

The cold, hard, financial reality is that Bell would have been far off had he signed the deal his agent reached with the Steelers in 2017 or the one they offered in 2018. Instead, Bell left money on the table – a lot of money.

And that’s a decision he’s got to explain to the man in the mirror.

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Should We Believe? Steelers Talk of Pairing Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren in Split Backfield

The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly came out with something interesting at the end of the first week of Steelers 2023 OTAs: Namely that Steelers coaches are exploring ways to get Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren.

Credit Kaboly for delivering one of juiciest nuggets of come out of what are normally nearly newsless Organized Team Work Outs.

  • Or did he deliver a nugget?

Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. You are wise don your Doubting Thomas cap on this one. But before we delve into the nuances of the question, let’s look at the facts.

Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren

Could we see Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren paired in the same backfield? Photo Credit: Jordan Schofield via SteelerNation.com

First, Kaboly doesn’t simply acknowledge that fans have a right to be skeptical, he gives them reasons to reinforce their skepticism. He points out that the combos of Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, and Harris and Warren have been on the field a total of 24 times.

However, he gets Jaylen Warren on the record explaining, “They have said they are planning to find ways to get us both on the field at the same time and just do different things with me.”

Kaboly goes further to point out that Matt Canada has been tinkering with a two-back offense and cites the success the Steelers had last year when they had two backs on the field. (Fun Fact: While its clear the Steelers won’t bring Derek Watt back, they were 7-1 in games where Watt got a carry. Just say’in…)

All of this is encouraging news to us Generation X Steelers fans who still pine nostalgically for  a return tothe old Pro Set offensive backfield (cue the “If it was good enough for Franco and Rocky why isn’t it good enough for The Bus and FWP?” quotes), but encouraging only to a point.

  • We have heard stories like this come out of OTAs before.

In fact in 2019 Jim Wexell got confirmation from Jaylen Samuels that the Steelers were experimenting with putting him in the same backfield as James Conner. By Kaboly’s count, that happened 11 times in 2019.

And of course they’ve been other rumblings at other points in the 21st century about the two back offense returning to Pittsburgh, just as stories about “this year the Steelers will give the fullback a few carries each game” and “we’re gonna throw to the tight end more” were training camp staples during the 1990’s. That never happened.

  • But why then, might this time be different?

Well, let’s just say that Kaboly has established some credibility here.

Last year, on June 7th to be precise, Kaboly got Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner on the record discussing his plans to reduce Najee Harris’ snap count. At the time, I read the story with great interest but finished with a big mental “Yeah, right.”

But in 2022, Najee Harris had 313 touches of the ball as opposed to 381 in 2021. Moreover, his snap count dropped further, from 980 offensive snaps to 763 offensive snaps.

One of the reasons why the Steelers were able to but reduce Harris’ workload and get him off the field more often is that Jaylen Warren essentially forced coaches to find ways to get him on the field.

Maybe, just maybe Harris and Warren will find ways to force coaches to put them out together….

 

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Steelers 2023 Draft Needs @ Running Back – Does Pittsburgh Have the Picks to Add Depth?

2022 was a banner year for the Steelers rushing attack. For the first time since 2007, Mike Tomlin ran Willie Parker “Until the wheels fell off,” the Steelers rushed for over 2,000 yards.

That’s a dramatic improvement for a franchise that has struggled to run the ball consistently ever since James Conner got injured in the middle of the 2018 season.

Do the Steelers need to address running back in the 2023 NFL Draft to sustain that improvement? Let’s find out.

Jaylen Warren, Derek Watt, Tyrann Mathieu, Steelers vs Saints

Derek Watt blocks for Jaylen Warren. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starter

In his rookie season Najee Harris became the first Steelers running back to crack the 1000 yard mark since Le’Veon Bell in 2017. In his sophomore season, Najee Harris became the first Steelers back to have back-to-back 1000 yard seasons since Bell’s ’17 campaign.

  • It wasn’t easy.

As a rookie, Harris ran behind a weak offensive line, but succeeded in running strong and, at times, making it look easy. Harris suffered a foot injury in training camp and the offensive line’s run blocking was subpar during the first half of the season.

Harris struggled through the first 8 weeks of the season. Many of his critics pounced, arguing that his mediocre rushing averages proved that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert had erred in investing a first round pick in him in 2021.

But if his stat line failed to impress, for my money, Harris continued to pass the “eye test” early in the season. The fight was there, even if the blocking wasn’t, and it seemed obvious he was nursing an injury.

Like they did with nearly everyone else on the team, Steelers Nation saw a different Najee Harris after the bye week. Harris began running with authority and power, 6 of his seven touchdown, and logging 3 90 yard plus games, including 111 yard effort in the road win over the Ravens.

Perhaps most impressively, Harris earned his second straight 1000 yard season while playing nearly 20% fewer snaps than he had in 2021.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

The emergence of Jaylen Warren is the reason why Najee Harris was able to remain on the sidelines for close over 200 more snaps than he had has a rookie. Warren made the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent, first earning a roster spot and then carving out a role as their third down back.

As a rookie, Jaylen Warren played in 31% of the Steelers offensive snaps, both on third downs and rotating in with Harris. He only ran for 379 yards with a season-high effort of 76 against the Ravens, but he proved himself to be a true number 2 running back.

Steelers Draft, Steelers Draft Needs scale

Beyond Warren on the depth chart is Anthony McFarland. McFarland returns to the Steelers on a futures contract, after spending 2022 on the practice squad, save for his activation against the Colts. McFarland only ran for 30 yards in that game and caught 2 passes for 11 yards, but for the first time since the Steelers drafted him in 2020, he looked like he belonged in the NFL.

The Steelers also have Jason Huntley and Master Teague on their roster.

The Steelers 2023 Draft Needs at Running Back

As of this writing, both Derek Watt and Benny Snell remain unsigned. The Steelers may have seen enough from McFarland to pencil him in as the third string running back, but there’s no one on the roster remotely capable of taking Watt’s spot.

Ah, remember the good ole days of 2000, when the Steelers opened the season with fullbacks Jon Witman and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala on the active roster and Dan Kreider on the practice squad? Yeah, times change.

The Steelers need to beef up their depth at running back this off season, but lacking a 5th and 6th round pick, they’ll be hard-pressed to do it in the draft. Which is a shame because their need at running back going into the 2023 NFL Draft should be considered as Fair.

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Careful for What You Wish For: Steelers Free Agent Benny Snell Likely to Leave Pittsburgh

Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. disdained, “Putting on the dog.” In 21st century terms, “putting on the dog” might translate to “strutting your stuff” or doing anything that wasn’t modest.

He expected his sons to follow suit, instructing them “Don’t drive a Cadillac, drive a Buick.” When Art Sr. went to Philadelphia to visit John Rooney (or perhaps it was Pat), his son tried to steer his father around the house in a way that made sure his father didn’t see that he’d had a pool installed. His father found the pool. The Chief was not pleased.

Most Steelers fans have probably never heard the expression “putting on the dog,” but they’ve absorbed The Chief’s philosophy all the same – We don’t like it when players show boat.

So when the Steelers drafted Benny Snell Jr. in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft and Snell arrived in Pittsburgh talking about “Benny Snell Football” it left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans. A taste that still lingers for many, if not most.

Now that Benny Snell is about to become a free agent, are Steelers fans about to get their pallets clean?

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Benny Snell’s Career with the Steelers

Benny Snell got it backwards. Players who live at the bottom of depth charts are supposed to do well in spot duty but struggle when they get a full audition.

  • Snell’s done the opposite.

In 2019 he got 75 yards in his first extensive action in the Steelers win over the Chargers, 98 in his first start against the Bengals and over 100 in the season finale against the Ravens. He clocked in over 100 in relief of James Conner in the 2020 opener, and ran well in extensive action in wins against the Ravens and losses to the Bengals.

Injuries limited him to spot duty in 2021, and he was as he’s always been when his carries have been limited – uninspiring. In 2022 Snell mostly played special teams, but he did get 60 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Colts.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Benny Snell

That win over the Colts will always be Kenny Pickett’s first come from behind win. But Benny Snell’s rushing laid the foundation that made that win possible. Snell might not be a starting caliber running back, but he’s done enough to show he can be a good number two back and most teams would beg for a number 3 back of his talents.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Benny Snell

The Steelers don’t have a lot of salary cap space. They’re not in dire straits, but Omar Khan is going to need to make moves even if the Steelers are to take a conservative approach to free agency.

Benny Snell is simply a luxury the Steelers cannot afford.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Benny Snell

The NFL might be quarterback driven, pass happy league. Well, there’s no “might” about it. But I remain an unapologetic believer that your running back depth chart must be at least three players deep. As I asked rhetorically after the Colts win, “Does anyone think the Steelers win that game if the 2022 equivalents of Stevan Ridley and/or Fitzgerald Toussaint are playing instead of Benny Snell?”

Point made.

And if Mike Tomlin may be warming to staffing better depth at running back, doing so with a veteran on a second contract may be a different question altogether. And the Steelers have already signed Anthony McFarland to a “Futures Contract” so Anthony McFarland’s name may already be penciled into that role.

Moreover, Steelers top two running back slots are held by Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, and they’ve earned their status on merit.

So you have to ask, would Benny Snell be interested in coming back to Pittsburgh as a third stringer? Probably not.

At the end of the day, while keeping Benny Snell in the Black and Gold is ideal, expect him to take “Benny Snell football” to one of the NFL’s other 31 teams.

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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Like It or Not: “Benny Snell Football” Was Vital to Steelers Win Over Colts

There was a lot of hype and hope surrounding running back Benny Snell after the Steelers selected him in the fourth round out of Kentucky in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Why so much hype for a fourth-round pick? For starters, Snell had a very productive collegiate career, rushing for 3,873 yards in three seasons, while eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in each one.

  • Also, Snell had a cool personality, a cool nickname — Benny Snell Football — and an infectious smile.

Lastly, Snell was drafted during the height of social media, and the bells and whistles that accompany draft choices on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, etc. in this day and age make every single one seem like a future Hall of Famer.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts 2022

Benny Snell celebrates after scoring the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: AJ Mast,. AP via The San Diego Tribune.

Snell actually did show a lot of promise during his rookie season, rushing for 426 yards on 108 carries while filling in for the oft-injured James Conner.

Snell’s sophomore season got off to an incredible start when he rushed for 113 yards on 19 carries in a Week 1 win over the Giants. Snell came into the game for Conner, who was, you guessed it, injured, and the calls for him to become the Steelers’ new starting running back were quite audible.

Unfortunately for Snell, he never did overtake James Conner as the Steelers’ starting running back and would only carry the football 92 more times for an uninspiring 255 yards over the final 15 games of the 2020 campaign.

James Conner left as a free agent after 2020, and the Steelers decided to make Najee Harris their 2021 first-round pick, as well as their bell-cow running back.

  • Just how much of a bell-cow back was Harris in 2021? Such a bell-cow, that Snell had just 36 carries for 98 yards.
Najee Harris, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger last game Heinz Field

Najee Harris en route to 188 yards. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.come

As is usually the case with underperforming mid-level draft picks, the attitude of the fans toward Snell had totally soured by Year 3. Heck, it was going downhill even after 2020, as the faithful began to refer to the former Kentucky workhorse as Benny Snail.

It didn’t matter that Snell had turned himself into a valuable special teams player, the fans simply wanted him gone at the conclusion of the Steelers 2022 training camp.

  • Why did the fans turn on Snell?

He just didn’t live up to the social media hype. Also, that’s mostly how fans are. They’re a lot like college head coaches. They’ll kiss a player’s butt and charm him during the recruiting phase of the relationship, but they have no problem chewing him out and tearing him down the moment he screws up on the football field.

Snell survived the final cut in training camp, but he was dropped to third on the depth chart behind Harris and rookie Jaylen Warren.

  • Snell came into Monday night’s game against the Colts without a single carry in 2022.

Warren missed Monday’s game with a hamstring injury, but the Steelers seemed intent on using Anthony McFarland, a third-year back out of Maryland who was just signed from the practice squad, as the primary backup to Harris.

But then Harris had to leave the Colts game with an abdominal injury, and that forced Snell to be the next man up in the backfield.

Sure, McFarland had a decent night for himself in limited action, tallying 30 yards on five carries, but it was Snell who became the primary back and the workhorse to close out the game. All-in-all, Snell had 12 carries for 62 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

  • Snell looked decisive and strong during most of his 12 carries on Monday night.

What happened? Did he suddenly feel inspired? Did he feel motivated to prove the “haters” wrong?

Or, perhaps, his skills could finally shine thanks to an offensive line that has seemingly figured out a way to open holes in the running game on a consistent basis.

  • It’s critical to remember that Benny Snell came to the Steelers right as the offense was going from a strength to a weakness.
Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

Bell Snell rushing through the holes opened by the Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier

The offense has been in a rebuilding phase since 2019, complete with a total overhaul on the offensive line, as well as everywhere else, including at quarterback and offensive coordinator.

The Steelers offense has been a chaotic and controversial mess during Snell’s entire career in Pittsburgh. It’s hard enough for a first-round pick to thrive in such an environment–just ask Harris–let alone a fourth-rounder.

Does Monday’s performance mean that Snell should get a bigger role in Pittsburgh’s offense? Not necessarily. I believe Warren has what it takes to be an effective backup behind Harris.

  • I am suggesting that perhaps Snell was never as bad as you think.
  • Maybe he was just a victim of circumstance.

Maybe calling him Benny Snail was a bit unfair and uncalled for.

 

 

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Like It or Not: Benny Snell Football Remains in Pittsburgh for One More Year

In a move that shocked anyone heavily invested in the Steelers, Benny Snell Jr., the fourth-year running back out of Kentucky, survived the team’s final round of cuts last Tuesday and will remain on the roster through at least the 2022 campaign.

Wow, right? I guess it could be a surprise if you are so emotionally connected to all things Steelers that you spent the majority of the summer rooting for Snell to leave town once and for all.

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Ravens

Benny Snell delivers for Steelers in 4th quarter. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Ah, the good old days of his rookie year when Benny Snell, who the Steelers picked the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, actually had fans excited. Why? Mainly because of a hugely-productive college career that included 3,873 combined rushing yards and 48 touchdowns.

Kentucky has never been known as a college football powerhouse, especially in the powerful SEC, so for Snell to produce so well–he rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons–was seen as a good sign.

There was even talk that Snell could be a prime candidate to replace James Conner, the third-year running back with a great personal story but a bad habit of always being injured. After battling ailments over his first two seasons, Conner again missed a lot of time in 2019; Snell carried the load in Conner’s absence and nearly finished as the team’s leading rusher with 426 yards on 108 carries.

There was so much hope for Snell heading into 2020, and the goodwill continued for the second-year back after he replaced an injured Conner during the Week 1 showdown against the Giants in New York and rushed for 113 yards.

Then it all came crashing down. James Conner remained the starting running back in 2020 — and he even managed to remain healthy — while Snell only rushed for 326 yards on 111 carries.

  • Benny Snell did not look good behind a quickly aging and deteriorating offensive line.

Snell was an even less productive back in 2021, rushing for 98 yards on just 36 carries, while Najee Harris, the rookie bell-cow running back out of Alabama, tallied 1,200 yards on 307 rushes.

  • Fans had soured on Benny Snell even before the 2021 campaign and started referring to him as “Benny Snail.”

So what has happened to Snell? You can blame it on the offensive line — one that got younger and even worse in 2021. You can blame it on Snell being stuck behind Harris, the team’s first-round pick a year ago.

But if I had to pin the stagnation of Snell’s career on anything, I think the number-one suspect would be his draft stock. That’s right, despite what people like to now say about the position, it’s rare for running backs selected with mid-to-late-round picks to turn into stars.

It’s probably even worse for undrafted free agents, which is why I have a warning for Jaylen Warren, the UDFA running back out of Oklahoma State who became a training camp darling and made the Steelers’ final roster: Run!

  • No, not from defenders. Instead, you better learn to run from the critics and the haters.

They’ll be around soon to voice their opinions on you.

Why do I say that? Because it goes back to what I just mentioned: It’s rare for guys drafted with non-premium picks, or not drafted at all, to make an impact at the NFL level.

Just ask Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of NC State in 2018 who, like Snell, showed a lot of promise during his rookie season. Remember his 100 yard performance in the 2018 Steelers upset win over the Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

  • Then, Jaylen Samuels stopped showing much promise at all.

After spending three seasons with the Steelers, and then cups of coffee with both the Texans and Cardinals, Samuels is currently a free agent. Will he ever play again? It seems doubtful.

Jaylen Samuels, Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Patriots

Jaylen Samuels rips off a long 1st quarter run with Antonio Brown blocking. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, via PennLive.com

Back to Snell.

Why is he still on the Steelers’ roster? Because of special teams, that’s why; apparently, Snell is one of those special teams demons. No, he’s not a Pro Bowl-level player, but he’s really good. In fact, Snell’s special teams snaps increased to 326 last year after tallying 198 in 2020.

  • Can’t everyone play special teams? Apparently not, or at least not everyone can play them as well as Snell.

Believe it or not, not every player is there to please the fans and to become a star. Most NFL players stick around because they can do the mundane work, the stuff that doesn’t get the headlines, and do it well.

Benny Snell Football was a style of play the young running back boasted about during his rookie season. Unfortunately, Benny Snell Football has morphed into something way less sexy than we all thought it would be.

But that’s okay.

Benny Snell Jr. has managed to make it to his fourth NFL season. There are few football players on the planet who can make that same claim.

 

 

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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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