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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Will JuJu Smith-Schuster Stay with Steelers? Should He? Its a Tricky Situation

Second contracts separate dollars from cents in today’s NFL. Sure, even undrafted free agent rookies get six figure salaries. But they’re only an injury away from losing it all. Draft picks have more security, but only a little.

  • But manage a second NFL contract wisely, and you’ll have financial security for life.

If you’re smart with your money and lucky enough to stay healthy, you’ve got a shot at integrational wealth. The Steelers are better than any other NFL team at honoring their second contract commitments, particularly for home-grown players.

Yet, when it comes to wide receivers, only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have gotten second contracts.

A year ago, JuJu Smith-Schuster was pleading to join them. He got his wish, sort of, and now both sides need to decide whether to reup for a third dance. Will it happen?

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster stiff arm, Steelers vs Ravens

JuJu Smith-Schuster lays down the law. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Career with the Steelers

When the Steelers drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft, a Twitter fight erupted between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates as to who JuJu was arriving to replace. As it turned out, JuJu pushed both men off of the team (OK, Bryant did himself no favors).

JuJu Smith-Schuster had an electrifying rookie campaign, catching 58 passes for just under 1000 yards and included game changing long catches against the Lions and what should have been a game changer against the Patriots. He followed up with 111 catches for 1426 yards in his second season, wining team MVP honors.

Those honors didn’t sit well with Brown, who threw a tantrum and well, you know the rest.

  • JuJu boldly declared, “I’m Ready.”

Alas, he might have been ready but the rest of the Steelers offense wasn’t. Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign lasted 6 quarters as Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges slogged out an 8-8 campaign with an offensive line in decline and a running game led by a wounded James Conner and rookie Benny Snell.

Smith-Schuster’s production dipped to 42 catches as he missed four games. He bounced back in 2020 to catch 97 passes, but didn’t get much interested in free agency. He returned to Pittsburgh on a one year deal, but got injured 5 games into the season. JuJu returned for the playoffs, but wasn’t a factor.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2021 season only lasted 5 games but the Steelers missed him. As Mark Kaboly reminded before the playoffs, with JuJu the Steelers converted 46% of their third downs.

  • Without JuJu that number dropped by 10 percent.

Go back to 2020 when drops became a chronic issue for the Steelers receiving corps. But not for JuJu, as he easily led wideouts with a 75% catch rate.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a gamer. He brings a physical presence as a run blocker. He is a leader. The fact that he suited up for the playoffs and risked injury tells you all you need to know about his heart.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s story is a compelling one, but the Steelers can’t let sentimentally cloud their judgement. Alongside Antonio Brown, JuJu was lethal. Without him, he’s been good but not great. Second contracts for wide receivers clock in at about 12 million per year or more, often with 8 figures of guarantees.

JuJu Smith-Schuster quite simply hasn’t proven he’s worth that kind of investment.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster

A year ago, JuJu pleaded to stay in Pittsburgh. That seemed impossible. But when Smith-Schuster only got one year deals, he opted to stay with the Steelers via a home town discount and voidable years.

This year the Steelers have the cap space to consider resigning him, yet JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t appear interested, based on his comments about Heinz Field’s locker rooms and some social media posts. But does that mean JuJu’s as good as gone?

  • Much of this will depend on the market.

A year ago, JuJu thought he’d have more interest in his services yet got few takers. Perhaps that will happen again given how injury ravaged his 2021 season.

Realistically, that seems to be the only way he returns as a Steeler in 2022.

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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Did Le’Veon Bell Pave the Way for the Steelers Trade of Melvin Ingram to the Chiefs? Maybe.

Perhaps the best take away out of Stephen King’s On Writing is his argument that compelling stories are never scripted. Instead, they evolve through the actions of their characters.

  • And so it is with Pittsburgh Steelers blogs.

When the Steelers signed Melvin Ingram on July 19th, the article the photo that yours truly picked for the post discussing his signing was one of him tackling Le’Veon Bell in the 2015 game against the Chargers.

Melvin Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Steelers vs Chargers

Melvin Ingram tackles Le’Veon Bell in 2015. Photo Credit: Donald Miralle, Getty Images, via Zimbo

As it turned out, it was quite a fitting photo, because it Le’Veon Bell may have blazed the trail that led the Steelers to trade Melvin Ingram to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 6th round pick after just 6 games in the Black and Gold.

When asked to explain the decision, Mike Tomlin conceded that “I enjoy working with Melvin. It just didn’t work out the way we envisioned, the way he envisioned.” Then he clarified, “And sometimes it happens in free agency and that’s really, you know, culturally, why we build our team primarily through the draft.”

  • Rumors have circulated for weeks that Ingram wanted out.

The Steelers had an offer from the Chiefs, but wanted to send him to the NFC. Ultimately they couldn’t. “What the team needs is first and foremost,” Tomlin insisted, before pivoting “Also, it’s better to have volunteers as opposed to hostages, so that’s good for the team as well.”

If the “hostages” and “volunteers” colocation sounds familiar (OK, it’s not a true collocation, but how many ESL teachers are gonna read this anyway?) it should.

Nearly 3 years ago, almost to the day, Mike Tomlin explained to ESPN’s Dianna Russini “We need volunteers, not hostages,” when asked about whether the Steelers needed Le’Veon Bell to end his holdout.

  • The decision confirms a shift the franchise’s policy and attitude in these situations.

Four summers ago Dale Lolley and Jim Wexell raised eyebrows when they suggested James Harrison was a candidate for the waiver wire. Social media decried the story as “click bait” but Harrison neither played nor practiced at St. Vincents. And when the season started, some Sundays he didn’t get a helmet and he seldom played when he did.

  • Much of this happened outside the public eye but privately James Harrison was furious and did little to hide it when the cameras weren’t rolling.

The Steelers of course cut James Harrison just before Christmas, the Patriots signed him, started him, Harrison got a few sacks on national TV and a trip to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers suffered their worst public relations debacle since Chuck Noll’s “Franco Who?” comment that ended with the ghastly sight of Franco Harris wearing a blue No. 34 Seattle Seahawks jersey.

The Ingram trade depletes the depth behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith leaving the Steelers with only Derrek Tuszka and Taco Charlton was backups. An injury to either Watt or Highsmith could derail the Steelers season just as James Conner’s injury derailed the 2018 season.

But that’s a gamble the Steelers are willing to make in exchange for locker room harmony, which might be the lasting lesson that Le’Veon Bell left to the team.

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Haskins Can’t Handle It & 3 Other Thoughts on Steelers Preseason Loss to Panthers

“It was a junior varsity performance,” concluded Mike Tomlin following the Steelers 34-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers which wrapped up Pittsburgh’s 2021 preseason campaign with a 3-1 mark.
Who can argue?

Going into the game Tomlin had several players for whom he “thought it would be a great platform for them to display varsity skill.”

  • Display those they did not.

Here are four quick takes on this preseason loss.

Dwayne Haskins, Steelers vs Panthers Preseason

Dwyane Haskins had a rough night, to say the least. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review

1. Haskins Humiliated? Not Quite. Humbled? You Bet

By all accounts, Dwayne Haskins has authored a very strong summer from the moment training camp began in July. Prior to the Panther’s game, he did nothing but impress in preseason. In comparison to Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins showed himself to be the far more dynamic player, and he exhibited more poise and comfort than Rudolph.

  • But of course, that’s that way it was supposed to be.

As a former 15th pick overall, Dwayne Haskins was sort of like the kid who gets held back in kindergarten and then is the best in his class the following year. So Haskins earned the right to start.

  • Haskins squandered it.

No, Haskins didn’t have a full complement of starters. Neither did he get a lot of help from his offensive line and from his running backs. But Haskins looked overwhelmed. Against the Cowboys, Eagles and Lions, the offense directed by Haskins has been a virtual touchdown scoring machine.

  • Against the Panthers the Steelers didn’t convert a 3rd down until late in the 3rd quarter.

Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell went as far as to suggest that Haskins performance caused “us to wonder whether it might be more prudent to cut him.”

Frankly, that’s going a bit too far. Haskins did not look good, but the Steelers shouldn’t abandon their reclamation project.

2. Nothing Sexy about Sexton

One of the benefits of the Steelers-Panthers preseason rivalry is that it provides excellent fodder for story lines. Eleven summers ago a small, CFL vet whose speed earned him the name “Joystick” caught the coaches eye’s with a return for a touchdown in preseason. So Mike Tomlin gave him another chance, and he delivered again.

  • Yet he was still on outside looking in going into the preseason finale again.

Stefan Logan got a final chance and he took it to the house, earning himself a roster spot in the process.

  • Matthew Sexton entered the game against the Panthers with a similar opportunity.

But he botched it, badly by muffing two punts. Not even 24 hours have elapsed since the game ended, and Sexton’s butter fingers have earned him a spot on the waiver wire and all but ensure that Ray-Ray McCloud, who had a respectable night receiving, will keep his spot as the Steelers 5th wide out and 1st return man.

3. Can’t Keep Up with the Joneses

Unlike the regular season, during training camp reporters are allow to report on basically everything they see. As camp progresses, you’ll often start hearing a new name mentioned again and again.

  • Jaimr Jones was that player this year.

You started hearing his name in practice. In the Hall of Fame game he had started making noise with a tackle for a loss and a few QB hits. Then he started adding on sacks in preseason games.

He continued the process against the Panthers, leading the team in tackles, getting a sack and logging a few more QB hits for good measure.

That effort has likely earned himself a roster spot, perhaps at the expense of 6th round draft pick Quincy Roche.

4. Enough to Tell with Snell?

If there was any one player on the roster of figured to benefit for the departure of James Conner and the arrival of Najee Harris, it was Benny Snell. Mike Tomlin likes Benny Snell, and while Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to second guess drafting a running back in the first round, he has shown himself to be at least a competent number 2 rusher.

  • Except Snell has been hurt for most of the summer.

And Kalen Ballage has gotten the carries and as recently as last week it looked like he could be pushing Snell off of the roster. Snell got his first work and while 8 carries for 28 yard is hardly gang busters, he didn’t have the best blocking to work with.

Snell certainly didn’t give the Steelers any reason to cut him.

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Doomed? Steelers Cut David DeCastro as Infamous “June Curse” Returns

Just when you thought that the Steelers news cycle was about to grind to a near halt for the next month, the brain trust on the South Side decides to drop a bomb:

The move, while a surprise, does not come as a total shock. David DeCastro was absent from OTAs and only attended one day of the mandatory mini-camp. He watched in street clothes did not participate in any drills.

Mike Tomlin declined to explain why DeCastro was not participating, and when asked if it was because of injury, he issued a quasi non-denial-denial. The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly pointed out that David DeCastro was the only Steelers starter who was not made available to the press via a Zoom call.

Then, as OTAs drew to a close, word leaked that the Steelers had worked out Trai Turner, a five time Pro Bowl player with 89 starts to his name.

When asked about it in his mail bag, The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette responded “You don’t bring in a vet of Turner’s resume — a five-time Pro Bowl guard not yet 30 — just to kick the tires,” after downplaying the likelihood of injury, he continued, “There’s some smoke here, though.”

This is one case where smoke clearly meant fire. The only question now is whether that fire will consume whatever the 2021 Steelers already meager Super Bowl dreams.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Steelers vs Rams

Steelers offensive line quite simply needs to step it up. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Steelers Were Depending on DeCastro. Are They Doomed Now?

For the record, the Steelers waived DeCastro with a non-football injury designation, which frees them of any injury settlement obligations. The Steelers also gain around $8.75 million in salary-cap space, although the extra space is of little consolation

  • Because complete upheaval on the Steelers offensive line has just become official.

Assuming he starts and remains healthy, Zach Banner will be the only starting offensive lineman from the Steelers 2020 opener against the Giants to return in 2021. (OK, Kevin Dotson started in place of DeCastro, so he’ll be back too.) Chuks Okorafo now becomes the “veteran” leader with all of 19 starts to his name.

While David DeCastro has been one of the NFL’s best offensive lineman for much of the last decade. He missed the 2020 opener and his return helped spur James Conner to his first 100 yard game. Still, it is generally acknowledged that his play slipped in 2020, and the entire line suffered because of it.

  • But there is no calculus that results in the Steelers offensive line becoming stronger without DeCastro.

NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo suggests that persistent ankle injuries are an issue and hints that DeCastro is “evaluating his future.” Regardless of whether this was a solely a Steelers decision, it came at DeCastro’s request or it was a mutual choice, this was clearly not in the Steelers plan.

  • To replace DeCastro, the Steelers have indeed reportedly signed Trai Turner.

That’s good. But Turner only played 9 games last year and has not played more than 13 games in a season since 2016.

The Steelers of course drafted Kendrick Green in 3rd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and also brought back B.J. Finney both of whom are potential replacements for DeCastro, although both were seen as contenders to start at center…

And for good measure, the NFL today told the Steelers they could not hold training camp at St. Vincents. Just to keep things interesting.

…Repeat, this was NOT in the plan.

Steelers June Curse Continues

Before the NFL pushed OTAs and mini-camps into June a few years ago, it was the only real period of dead space on the league calendar. News was sparse, as millennials and Generation Zers learned what the NFL off season was like prior to the Freeman McNeil verdict which brought free agency.

  • Yet the month of June has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

While it has been dormant for the past few years, the Steelers June Curse has struck back with a vengeance. Consider:

And of course Chuck Noll died in June of 2014. While only a few days in the month remain, June can’t end fast enough for the Steelers.

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Steelers Draft Najee Harris in First Round of 2021 NFL Draft. Good Things Follow When Pittsburgh Picks RB 1st

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, making Harris the 24th pick overall. Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert described the decision to draft Harris as “Easy.” Kevin Colbert explained why Pittsburgh’s pick was so easy:

Najee is as complete a back as we could hope to get at any point in the draft. Najee has the size, he has the speed, he has the athleticism. He has the run skills to run inside and outside. Also, he can also play in the passing game as a receiver, as a blocker. He’s a three-down NFL back. He played in an NFL system and really his one hidden trait is he finds invisible yards at that second level.

Mike Tomlin similarly beamed about his first round pick:

His picking vision is excellent, in terms of finding holes. He shows patience while doing that. He’s a complete back. He’s very good in the passing game, whether it’s routes out of the backfield or aligning outside the backfield. There’s not a lot of holes in his overall game.

Prior to the draft, on Steel City Insider Matt C. Steel observed, “I love his football character and desire to get better. He’s a unique young man; someone I can comfortably add to help create a championship culture.”

Those are intangibles, but they were on display during draft night, when Harris opted not to join the draft party in Cleveland, and instead watch the draft with family from a homeless shelter where he once lived.

On why he watched the draft from Oakland, Harris explained, “Us, as a family, we went through a lot of stuff. That was actually one of the places I stayed at, in the homeless shelter. I just want to make sure they know that if they need a helping hand, I’m always here.”

For my money, that tells you everything you need to know about Najee Harris character.

Najee Harris, Steelers 2021 First Round Draft Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 1st round pick Najee Harris. Photo Credit: MC NFL

Najee Harris Video Highlights

While the Steelers do make an effort to incorporate character into their draft day decisions (see guys Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt just to name two), ability on the football field is what drives their decisions.

So here’s a quick look at Najee Harris’ video tape:

https://youtu.be/2HhUdHFMGRI

Clearly, there’s a lot to like.

How Najee Harris Fits into Steelers Scheme

The Pittsburgh Steelers once proud tradition as a rushing franchise has deteriorated beyond recognition.

And before the finger wagging can start, this has nothing to do with “But ‘Steelers Football’ must evolve beyond ‘3 Yards and a Cloud of Dust.’” Yes, the game has evolved. But while you may not need to be a top rushing team to win a Super Bowl (although it certainly didn’t hurt Denver in 2015 or Seattle in 2013) you must be able to run the ball effectively when you need to.

  • And the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been able to do that since James Conner‘s injury in 2018.

Sure, there have been spits and starts, times when Benny Snell or even Jaylen Samuels showed tremendous promise. When healthy and with a strong line, James Conner can be a very good NFL running back.

  • But when you’re dead last in rushing, as the Steelers finished in 2021, a “very good” running back isn’t good enough.

The Steelers need to revitalize their running game, and that revitalization begins with the man carrying the ball. Yes, Pittsburgh needs to pick offensive lineman, preferably later tonight, if Harris is to be effective.

Jon Witman, steelers running back jon witman, Jerome Bettis, Steelers vs Jaguars 1990's

Jon Witman blocks for Jerome Bettis. Photo Credit: Statesman Journal

When thinking of the line vs the back debate, remember that Jerome Bettis ran behind some pretty weak offensive lines in 1998 and 1999 as Kordell Stewart’s struggles allowed defenses to crowed 8 men in the box. He still managed 1,000 yard seasons in both years.

Yet last year in the debacle against Washington, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson supposedly stretching the field with Ben Roethlisberger, Snell, Samuels and Anthony McFarland totaled 21 yards rushing.

When Steelers Draft Running Backs 1st, Good Things Happen

The Steelers were expected to draft a running back, although many fans and analysts argue that the value in a running back just isn’t there are 24. Time will answer that question moving forward, but one thing is clear:

  • When the Steelers draft a running back first, good things happen.

Pittsburgh Picked Franco Harris in 1972 and the Immaculate Reception and four Super Bowls followed. And while their contributions were minimal, the Steelers won Super Bowl XIV and Super Bowl XLIII after drafting Greg Hawthorne and Rashard Mendenhall.

And even if they were ultimately disappointments, Walter Abercrombie and Tim Worley were two first round draft picks that helped the Steelers break playoff win droughts as rookies.

So welcome to Steelers Nation Najee.

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The Steelers Must Improve @ Running Back in the 2021 NFL Draft. Period.

Art Rooney II once described the running game as “The foundation of the franchise.” Rooney is right. While they may not hold the record anymore, if memory serves at some point early in the 2nd Super Bowl era, the Steelers lead the rest of the NFL in total yards rushing since the NFL-AFL merger.

  • Yet in 2020 the Steelers reached historic lows in rushing.

Drafting a running back early, perhaps even in the first round, would seem to be logical. Yet, there are no shortage of Pro Football Focus mock drafts that don’t have the Steelers addressing running back until the middle of the draft. Which begs the question, just how badly do the Steelers need to get a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

Steelers Depth Cart at Running Back: The Starters

The Steelers go into the 2021 NFL Draft without a starting running back. James Conner held that position in 2020, but Conner is now an Arizona Cardinal.

  • It says here that when healthy and with a strong line, James Conner was a very good running back.

Perhaps he couldn’t have been a starter in the mold of some of the Hall of Famers such as John Henry Johnson or Jerome Bettis who’ve manned the position for Pittsburgh in the past, but behind a strong line it would have been easy to see [a healthy] Conner emerging as a Steelers number 1 running back in the mold of Merril Hoge.

Alas, that was not to be.

Steelers Running Back Depth Chart: The Backups

Fortunately, the Steelers cupboard at running back is far from empty. The proverbial “Next man up” for Pittsburgh is Benny Snell. The Steelers drafted Benny Snell in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and Snell has looked good and won praise from Mike Tomlin at times.

Still, Snell has done nothing to show that Pittsburgh can count on him developing into a viable number 1 running back.

  • And with the injuries that James Conner suffered in 2019 and 2020, Snell’s had chances.

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

Behind Snell, the Steelers have Anthony McFarland and Jaylen Samuels. Jaylen Samuels was a 5th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, and led the Steelers to victory over the New England Patriots by rushing for 142 yards. However, Samuels hasn’t done much but show he’s a niche back since then, although on Steel City Insider, Craig Wolfley went as far as to suggest he’s the answer for the Steelers at running back.

The Steeler used another 4th round pick on Anthony McFarland during the 2020 NFL Draft. McFarland only played 2 years at the University of Maryland and is seen as both a project and as a change-of-pace back rather than someone to shoulder the full load. As a rookie McFarland looked good at moments, but never looked like an RB number 1 in waiting.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Running Back

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftShould we be so quick to write off those mock drafts that show the Steelers passing on running back in the first round? After all, of the 5 first rounders they’ve used on running backs in the modern era, Franco Harris was a home run, Greg Hawthorne was a bust, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, Tim Worley blew his signing bonus up his nose and Rashard Mendenhall didn’t have the passion to match his talent.

  • Those lessons are important, but another type of history is important here.

Speaking after the 2020 season, Art Rooney II remarked:

We’ve got to be a lot better in running. Certainly we don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.

Art Rooney II doesn’t say a lot. But what he does say, he means.

See Art II’s comments about drafting a quarterback in January 2018 and the Steelers picking Joshua Dobbs in the 2018 NFL Draft. See Chris Boswell having to earn his roster bonus during training camp/preseason in 2019.

For all of the Sound and Fury generated by Ben Roethlisberger’s late season struggles, the astute eye will observe that his Big Ben difficulties began when the running game floundered.

If the Steelers are serious about making a final run with Roethlisberger, they need to beef up their running game, and they need to do it big time. The names of Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, and especially that of Najee Harris have been associated with the Steelers.

Whether one of those will wind up in Pittsburgh or whether it will be someone else, the Steelers Need at running back going into the 2021 NFL Draft can only be described as High.

 

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Offensive Tackle is a Critical Need Steelers Must, er um, Tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft

American football is difficult to comprehend for most outside of North America. Yet, even people from outside of the US, Canada and Mexico can easily understand the role and importance of offensive tackles in football thanks to Sandra Bullock’s intro to On the Blind Side.

“The first check goes for the mortgage, the second to the insurance.”

Offensive tackles are seen as the sentinels that protect the quarterback. While its possible that their value gets overrated, the wise will remember that the 0-4 2013 Steelers fortunes only started improving after Mike Tomlin made change at left tackle.

The Steelers are in a transition at tackle after a period of stability there, but just how great of a priority is tackle for Pittsburgh in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Zach Banner, Steelers vs Giants, Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger comforts Zach Banner after his injury. (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig)

Steelers Depth Cart at Tackle: The Starters

How’s the old cliché go? “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry?” If not, that’s close enough. Rewind back to the Steelers 2018 road loss to the Broncos. Everyone remembers Xavier Grimble’s fumble (but they forget James Conner’s.) They remember Ben Roethlisberger’s interception and the friction with Antonio Brown.

  • But what they forget is that the game was to feature the offensive line to come.

The Steelers started rookie 3rd round pick Chukwuma Okorafor to face off against Von Miller while moving Matt Feiler to right guard. A year later, ahead of the game against the Rams, the Steelers did the same thing. That was supposed to be the offensive line of the future.

And it worked pretty well. Alas, it didn’t signal good times to come. Zach Banner beat out Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job, only to tear his ACL for the season, and Matt Feiler struggled as a guard. Pro Football Focus ratings are overrated, but for what they’re worth, Chuks graded out as 57.5 allowed 3 sacks and was flagged for 5 penalties.

Rumors have said that he could return to the Steelers, but that might happen after the NFL Draft.

Steelers Tackle Depth Chart: The Backups

For the past several seasons, the Steelers have had the luxury of dressing 3 starter capable tackles, with the 3rd tackle working in as a 3rd tight end in the jumbo package. Those days are over. Other than Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor the Steelers have Joe Haeg who brings 67 games worth of experience for the Colts and Buccaneers, Aviante Collins, who last played with the Vikings in 2019, Jarron Jones, Brandon Walton, Anthony Coyle and John Leglue.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Tackle

You can never have enough good offensive lineman, and if you don’t have good tackles even the best interior line play is for naught.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL Draft

The Steelers may have two quality starting tackles in Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Joe Haeg might provide that critical veteran depth. Someone might distinguish himself from the body of players the Steelers have here on futures contracts.

But that’s hardly how you set yourself up for a Super Bowl run, particularly with an aging Ben Roethlisberger’s whose back for one final ride.

While the Steelers are probably in a strong enough position that they don’t have to draft a starter at tackle, it is still possible that a premium pick could come to Pittsburgh and win the starting job. Given that, the Steelers needs at tackle going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High-Moderate.

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James Conner Signs with Cardinals. His Steelers Career is Case of Stars Not Lining Up

Former Steelers running back and proverbial home town hero James Conner made his departure from Pittsburgh official yesterday when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. This move was not as surprise, as all indications were that the Steelers had no interest in offering James Conner a second contract.

  • The move is nonetheless disappointing because Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the beginning of his story better.

The Steelers drafted James Conner in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Although Le’Veon Bell had just broken the Steelers single-game regular season and post-season rushing records – records that neither Hall of Famers John Henry Johnson, nor Franco Harris nor Jerome Bettis nor Super Bowl record holder Fast Willie Parker ever touched – it was clear that the Steelers needed someone to share the load with Bell.

  • James Conner seemed tailor made to fit that role.

James Conner didn’t just hail from Erie and hadn’t just played his college ball at Pitt, but he’d beaten cancer and a ACL injury to log a 1,000 yard season with the Panthers. His injury history allowed him to fall. It seemed like the Steelers were getting a starter-capable running back for a 3rd round compensatory selection.
Nice story, except things rarely work out as scripted.

James Conner, Steelers vs Browns

James Conner delivers a stiff arm in his final 100 yard game. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

James Conner only carried the ball 32 times as a rookie, his blocking ability limiting his ability to serve as a complementary back to Le’Veon Bell (or maybe the coaches just wanted to feed Bell the ball.)

Unfortunately, fate did not smile more kindly on Conner following his rookie year.

The Steelers erred badly by placing the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell, as Le’Veon Bell held out. At first that seemed like a boon for the Steelers. James Conner ran with authority, prompting fans to throw together all sorts of stats that implied that the Steelers were better with Conner.

When it became clear that Bell was going to hold out, coaches started cutting back on Conner’s work load in the interests of preserving his health. When Bell’s hold out became permanent, this site observed that:

Today the Steelers are legitimate Super Bowl contenders; a serious injury to James Conner immediately downgrades them to a team that, with a few breaks, could win perhaps win a playoff game.

The Steelers, fate would have it, struggled and missed the playoffs. The following year James Conner had a shaky start to 2019, as the offense struggled to adjust from the absence of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown while defenses stacked the box daring Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to throw.

  • Injuries was strike Conner down, forcing him to miss five games and parts of several others.

In 2020, just when it seemed like Benny Snell might be eclipsing him in the offense, James Conner responded with 3 one hundred yard games between weeks 2 and 5. But Conner would find himself on the COVID-19 list, then suffered a minor injury. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run blocking regressed to the point where it became downright pathetic.

  • 2021 brought Conner one last chance at capturing glory for his hometown.

Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner, Steelers Browns wild card

Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner after Maurkice Pouency’s high snap. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via The Altoona Times.

The Steelers had a home playoff game against their historic rivals, the Cleveland Browns. It’s the opportunity every kid who, after unwrapping a football under the Christmas tree got admonished, “I don’t want to see yinz throwing that in the house” dreamed of.

For what its worth, James Conner caught the game’s final pass, a two point conversion that followed Chase Claypool’s touchdown. Good for him to end things on a high note. James Conner, giving it has all to the bitter end his who he is.

  • But on balance, James Conner’s Steelers career shows that sometimes the stars just don’t line up.

Steel Curtain Rising thanks James Conner for his 4 years with the Steelers and wishes him nothing but the best in Arizona.

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