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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • With JuJu Smith-Schuster, that was never an issue.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Patriots, JuJu Smith-Schuster 69 yard pass Patriots, Eric Rowe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Be Gone: Time for Steelers to Move On from Free Agent Tight End Eric Ebron

Since February 19th, 2016 the Pittsburgh Steelers have pursued a single goal at tight end: Replace Heath Miller. They’ve signed big-ticket free agents (Ladarius Green.) They’ve let home grown talent develop (Jesse James.) They’ve made both late off season and in-season trades (Vance McDonald, Nick Vannett).

  • Some of them have worked out better than others.
  • All have had their moments of praise-worth play.

But none of them have proven themselves to be even remotely worthy of the title “Heath Miller’s replacement.”

That changed in 2021. That’s bad news for Eric Ebron.

Eric Ebron, Saivion Smith, Steelers vs Cowboys

Eric Ebron leaps over Saivion Smith for six. Photo Credit: Ronald Martinez, Getty Images via Arizona Sports

Capsule Profile of Eric Ebron’s Career with the Steelers

In minds many, the narrative on Eric Ebron is that he’s a failed free agent. His record is more complex.

Mike Tomlin likes exceptional athletes and never hesitates to bring one to Pittsburgh, even if he has some baggage (think Mike Vick). Eric Ebron fit the bill, as a 6’4” 253 tight end.

  • Both of those tendencies were in display during 2020.

Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards including 5 touchdowns. And if even at his best he wasn’t a transformational player, he was effective in the Red Zone where he caught all 5 of his touchdown passes in addition to a 2-point conversion.

  • Yet despite his 61.5% catch rate, he had a 7.7% drop rate and is a unmitigated liability as a blocker.

When Vance McDonald retired, the Steelers opted to bring Eric Ebron back in 2021. Eric Ebron generally did what the Steelers asked of him – he caught another Red Zone touchdown, but his role decreased and he then missed 9 games due to injury.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Eric Ebron

The Steelers offense is young and can use a veteran presence and that will be true even if JuJu Smith-Schuster makes another surprise return. Ebron’s athletic talent is real, and he’s a stud the Red Zone. At age 29, this former first round draft pick has already made 3 stops in the NFL and isn’t likely to have many suitors – It won’t break the bank to bring him back.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Eric Ebron

The Steelers can get the post-Ben Roethlisberger era off to the right start by establishing a physical presence on offense. You don’t do that with Eric Ebron. Moreover, if there was one spot on the depth chart that finished 2021 on a decided up note, it was tight end.

Eric Ebron’s athletic talents are real, but they’re a luxury that the Steelers neither need nor should want.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Eric Ebron

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Muuuth! The cry is now spontaneous anytime number 88 Pat Freiermuth makes a catch. Its easiest to hear at Heinz Field, but also audible on the road. The Steelers of course picked Pat Freiermuth in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft and the rookie quickly established himself as the starting tight end.

In addition, 2021 was also the year where the team’s investment in Zach Gentry began to pay off, as Gentry proved to be a capable number 2 tight end. Fantasy football owners won’t soon get into fights over who has the rights to draft Number 3 tight end Kevin Rader, but Radar’s shown he’s a good blocker.

Suffice to say, the Steelers in good shape at tight end, and while they can certainly get stronger there, bringing back Eric Ebron isn’t one of the ways that happens.

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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Like Fine Wine, Steelers 2015 Draft Grade of “B” Gets Better with Age

Bud Dupree, Ryan Finley, Steelers vs Bengals

Bud Dupree strip sacks Ryan Finley. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

“Better late.”

As mentioned before, stories about Vince Williams, Tyson Alualu and JuJu Smith-Schuster leaving Pittsburgh were planned but never published due to time constraints. And that worked out well as all 3 are still Steelers.

This site follows Chuck Noll’s “It takes 5 years to grade a draft” philosophy, but the 2015 grades never got published by virtue of the pandemic-fueled 24/7 digital office.

That too has worked for the better because it proves once again that this is one draft report card that’s gotten better with time.

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

First Round: Budy Dupree the Late Bloomer

Bud Dupree, drafted as a “project,” started his rookie year gang busters, racking up 4 sacks early in the season before hitting the rookie wall. Year two began on injured reserve, but his return helped spark the Steelers late season defensive turn around.

  • Bud Dupree plateaued in years 3 and 4, and that’s being polite.

Then, in year five, under the tutelage of Keith Butler, Bud Dupree exploded for 11.5 sacks. But aside from his numbers popping, Bud Dupree did his damage in critical situations. But had we graded him last year, it would be impossible to know if 2019 was an aberration.

  • In 2020 Bud Dupree proved he was the real deal.

To understand how good Bud Dupree was, just look at how bad the defense got after he got hurt. Like a good bottle of Riglos Gran Corte, Bud Dupree’s draft has only gotten better with time. Grade: Grand Slam

Second Round: Senquezy Golson – The Ever Injured Cornerback

The Steelers desperately needed a corner going into the 2015 NFL Draft. They grabbed one in the 2nd round with Senquez Golson.

  • A torn rotator cuff scuttled his rookie season.
  • Another injury scrapped his second year.
  • His 2017 season consisted of maybe a practice and half before he suffered another injury.

All this for a guy whose college career was basically injury free. All at a time when the Steelers’ secondary screamed for help at cornerback. Grade: Incomplete

3rd Round: Sammie Coates the Strange Cat

Sammie Coates had a quiet rookie regular season but did a respectable job during the playoff loss to the Broncos. Coates started strong in 2016 and seemed to breakout with a 6-catch 136-yard two touchdown performance against the Jets.

Coates cut his hand and/or broke a finger. Or two. His story kept changing. He disappeared from the offense only getting 18 more balls thrown his way; he caught only 2. He was next seen wide open in the first drive of the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

If Coates catches it, he’s still running, Forrest Gump style. Coates did not catch it. The Steelers traded him the next summer and he caught 7 passes over two years with the Browns and Texans. Grade: Bust

4th Round: Dorany Grant – Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

When Pittsburgh drafted Doran Grant as their 2nd corner in the 2015 NFL Draft, Steelers Nation cheered. When they cut him at summer’s end, Steelers Nation called it a crisis. They chilled out when he returned via the practice squad.

The Steelers cut him the following September. Over the next two years he’d do stints with the Bills, Giants, Jaguars, and Bears but played nary a down. Grade: Bust.

5th Round: Jesse James – The Outlaw

 

Jesse James, Jesse James Patriots touchdown

Jesse James touchdown that wasn’t vs Patriots. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Pat Freiermuth’s arrival probably means Jesse James’ second act with the Steelers will never happen. That’s a shame. Because he’ll always be remembered for the Jesse James game, and that’s a shame, because as Tony Defeo pointed out, he deserves to be remembered for so much more.

  • In four years, Jesse James never touched Heath Miller’s status as the best tight end in franchise history.

Nor did he put himself into the conversation with Bennie Cunningham or Mark Bruener. But he was, and remains the Steelers most consistent player at this position following Miller’s retirement. And while Jesse James never kept opposing defensive coordinators awake at night, he delivered critical catches when called upon. Grade: Quality Value Pickup

6th Round A: L.T. Walton – Overvalued, Undervalued Elsewhere, Part I

We’ve spilled too much digital “ink” on L.T. Walton. If you’re burning for a deep dive (and you certainly aren’t, but do you REALLY want to get back to work?), click here and here. If not, here’s the skinny:

  • In his first 3 years, L.T. Walton broached becoming a viable 5th lineman in John Mitchell’s system.
  • Under Karl Dunbar, not so much, as he languished behind Daniel McCullers.

Not great for a 6th round pick, but not bad either. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

6th Round B: Anthony Chickillo – Overvalued Here, Undervalued Elsewhere, II

Sure, I overreached a bit when declaring Anthony Chickillo as “starter capable” when reached restricted free agency. Fair enough.

  • But that makes up for the lack of love Chickillo got from the rest of Steelers Nation.

But in 5 years Anthony Chickillo appeared in 65 games for the Steelers and started 9 of them at both outside linebacker spots. While averaging at about 30% of the defensive snaps during his middle 3 years, Chickillo made 7.5 sacks, 3 defensed passes, 3 forced fumbles and had 3 fumble recoveries. Not bad. Grade: Quality Value Pick

7th Round: Gerod Holliman – Unsafe in Any Round

What’s an NFL Draft analyst’s best friend? How about a 404 error? In January 2015, NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah released his mock draft and had the Steelers drafting Louisville Safety Gerod Holliman in the first round.

  • Jeremiah was only off by 6 rounds.

Full disclosure. Both staff writer Tony Defeo and I mused aloud whether Gerod Holliman would be the next Darren Perry. He wasn’t. But hey, those were good articles for an otherwise dead time for Steelers “content.” Holliman played well in Steelers spring practices, but that was his peak. He got cut in training camp. He did some time on Tampa Bay’s 2016 off season roster and was done. Grade: Incomplete

Overall Draft Grade for the Steelers 2015 Draft Class

In Bud Dupree the Steelers got themselves a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker, even if his development was delayed.

At the bottom of their draft class, the Steelers got excellent value out of the Jesse James and Anthony Chickillo picks. While L.T. Walton is hardly a “Sleeper,” he did help steady the ship on the back end of the 2026 season after Cam Heyward went down.

For all of those positives, the Steelers got nothing out of their middle 3 picks, aside from a few tease plays by Sammie Coates. That brings the grade for the Steelers 2015 draft down a bit, but the grade is far, far better than I would have been 3 or 4 or even 5 years after draft. Grade: B

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Like Past Steelers Wide Receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster to Find Fortune Outside Pittsburgh

Since the arrival of free agency to the NFL in 1993, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given second contracts to just two wide receivers: Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.

  • Everyone else has had to find their fortune elsewhere.

That includes Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes. That includes Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El. That includes John Stallworth record breaker Yancey Thigpen. That includes first round picks like Charles Johnson and Plaxico Burress.

When the Steelers brought JuJu Smith-Schuster to Pittsburgh, they already had Antonio Brown locked down to a long-term contract, and with questions about some of their other wide outs, they hoped they were drafting the next Hines Ward. JuJu Smith-Schuster has filled that role, in many respects. But has he done enough to earn a second contract? Today we find out.

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 spat started between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates over who JuJu was coming to replace. As it turns out, he replaced both of them.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, A.J. Bouye, Steelers vs Jaguars

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

  • JuJu Smith Schuster installed himself almost as an instant weapon in the Steelers offense as a rookie.

During his first season he caught 58 of 79 passes thrown his way for 917 yards, including a 97 yarder against the Lions and a critical 69 yarder that set up the infamous Jesse James play in the loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field. Ju-Ju Smith Schuster followed that up with a 111 catch, 1426 yard, 7 touchdown sophomore season that included another 97 yard touchdown pass.

However, with Ben Roethlisberger injured, an absent running game, inconsistency efforts by Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges and his own injuries, JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled in 2019 catching just 42 passes for 552 yards.

JuJu bounced back in 2020, recording 97 catches. Critics might charge that his “Yards per catch” dropped. It did. That’s because JuJu Smith-Schuster became the go-to man when touch catches were called for.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

With all of those accolades, you’d think that the Steelers would have inked JuJu Smith-Schuster to a new deal a long time ago. JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger would like him back. There’s a reason why JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage was 15 points higher than that of Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron or James Washington:

  • He was the best receiver on the field for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was a men among boys. He put his heart and soul into the game. When others dropped passes, JuJu pulled them down. JuJu was physical. He yielded no quarter to any other player on the field.

You win championships with players like JuJu Smith-Schuster. If the Steelers are serious about making a final run at Lombardi number 7 with Roethlisberger, then they must keep JuJu in Pittsburgh.

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

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

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

Ah. If only it were about the X’s and O’s. Alas, It is not. A quick look at Over the Cap reveals that a wide receiver of JuJu’s pedigree could easily make 15 to 16 million per year. The Steelers have, at best 3 million under the cap.

Sure, they could free 16 million for JuJu. And JuJu wants to stay in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he’ll give “home town discount.” The stars seem aligned.

  • But it isn’t that simple. Those contracts have 40 or 50 million dollars guaranteed.

You really think JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to leave 30 or 35 million dollars guaranteed on the table to sign a one year “prove it” contract ? In a perfect world, JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a Steeler for life. But the world is far from perfect, and if JuJu has shown he’s a good, a very good wide receiver, he’s not yet shown he’s a great receiver and hence not deserving of a second contract from the Steelers.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2021

This one hurts. A lot. Because absent some injuries and other personnel issues, JuJu Smith-Schuster should have, could have likely would have played a key role in bring home Lombardi Number 7 during his time in Pittsburgh.

  • And in an normal year, its possible the Steelers might have found the money to keep JuJu in Black and Gold.

Although in a normal year, that money likely goes to Bud Dupree first. And there’s a simple reason why, as former Steelers scribe and Current USA Today Wire Editor Neal Coolong explains:

This, in a nutshell is why the Steelers so seldom give 2nd contracts to wide receivers. Does JuJu Smith-Schuster , like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, bring intangibles to the table that statistics fail to capture? Absolutely. But, Ward had a Hall of Fame worth career and Antonio Brown had GOAT like talent.

JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t shown he’s in that level yet, and that’s why the Curtain’s Call is that he’ll find his fortune outside the Steel City.

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

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NFL Repeals Pass Interference Replay Rule: Goodbye and Good Riddance

Of all the news to come out of the recent virtual NFL owners’ meetings, the least surprising was the use of the replay challenge system for plays involving possible pass interference — or a lack thereof — going away without much of a fight.

Terrell Edmunds,  Tyler Lockett

Terrell Edmunds pass interference call against Tyler Lockett in 2019. Photo Credit: Justin Berl, Getty Images via The Athletic

No fight, really, and isn’t that sort of fitting? Much like March, this rule roared into existence last spring on the heels of a very controversial non-call on a pass-play near the end of the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and Rams.

Sean Payton, the head coach of the Saints, the screwees in the title game, was adamant that something had to be done so as to prevent the screwers, the officials in the NFC title match-up, from ever again so directly determining who could and could not go on to become Super Bowl champions.

Perhaps the NFL acted a bit too hasty–although, it may have been hard to blame league officials for that. After all, the Saints were the second high-profile team in as many seasons to be prevented from possible championship success due to the incompetence of game-day officials in a very high-profile match-up.

Just one year earlier, in the waning moments of a very important game late in the 2017 regular season, Steelers tight end Jesse James was screwed out of a touchdown that likely would have given Pittsburgh a pivotal victory over the Patriots at Heinz Field.

Instead, New England won, the Steelers had to settle for the number two seed in the AFC, and they ultimately lost in the divisional round to a Jaguars team that had run all over them at Heinz Field during the regular season.

Why do I say James was screwed out of a touchdown? Because the very thing that prevented him from being awarded one — the convoluted Catch Rule — was augmented the following year to allow the officials to use their best judgment when determining what an actual catch was.

  • To quote a friend of mine: “The mere fact that they changed the rule is all the evidence you need that the officials blew the call.”

So with the controversy surrounding the Catch Rule acting as a backdrop, perhaps the officials thought they had to do something about pass interference.

They did. On paper, it kind of made sense. I’m not going to lie, as a fan, one who witnessed cornerback Joe Haden get a raw deal on two defensive pass interference penalties in a critical 2018 Week 16 loss to the Saints, ironically enough — a game that prevented the Steelers from reaching the postseason — you better believe I wanted a pound of a flesh.

It seemed so simple; all the league did was add pass interference to its existing replay review system: NFL coaches could throw a challenge flag to review a play in-which pass interference was or was not called. And inside of two minutes of the half or game, such plays were subject to automatic reviews.

  • Simple in theory. Not so simple in application.

In fact, after trying to apply this new pass interference challenge rule over the first two or three weeks, league officials seemingly put it on Injured Reserve for the reminder of the season. That’s right, time and time again, NFL coaches would throw challenge flags on plays that had to do with pass interference, and time and time again, those challenges were wasted.

Why? I guess, at the end of the day, it was a little hard to reverse calls involving pass interference than it was to determine what a catch looked like.

The Steelers didn’t get away unscathed, sadly. Midway through the fourth quarter of a Week 2 game vs. the Seahawks at Heinz Field, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll challenged a non-call on safety Terrell Edmunds on a second and 20 play. After further review, it was determined that Edmunds had, indeed, interfered on the play.

  • Pittsburgh, who was trailing by two points at the time, ultimately gave up a touchdown on the drive and went on to lose, 28-26.

In real time, the play didn’t look like much. On review, I guess you could have made a case for interference. But the caveat the NFL initially threw in when creating the rule was that there had to be “clear and obvious” evidence to overturn a play involving pass interference.

  • There didn’t seem like there was.

As you know, the Seahawks game was the one in-which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury. Despite that, however, Pittsburgh managed to hang in the playoff race until the very end, missing out by a mere game.

Therefore, a rule that may have helped the Steelers make the playoffs had it existed in 2018 helped in preventing them from making the postseason in 2019.

Too bad the new rule was still roaring quite loudly in Week 2. Had it gone sheepishly into the night a bit sooner, Pittsburgh may have made the playoffs in 2019.

  • At least it won’t be around for the 2020 season.

The NFL, its players and its fans are all much better off.

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Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs — Does Eric Ebron Change Priorities for Pittsburgh?

It wasn’t long ago that the Steelers appeared to be severely lacking at the tight end position. That seemed to change with the free agent acquisition of Eric Ebron in March. But was Eric Ebron enough of an addition to make tight end less of a priority for the 2020 NFL Draft? We’re about to answer that question.

Eric Ebron, Colts

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron, with the Colts in 2019. Photo Credit: CBS Sports.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters

It’s fairly accurate to make the word starters plural when discussing the tight end position in the Steelers offense. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, it was mostly a singular term in 2019–and that may have even been a stretch.

After coming off an exceptional and breakout season in 2018, veteran Vance McDonald seemed to disappear a year ago, catching just 38 passes for 273 yards and three scores. In fairness to McDonald, however, he, like every other receiving target, may have been severely limited due to the mostly season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

As for others stepping up to fill the void left by Jesse James, who inked a free agent deal with the Lions? Xavier Grimble, a veteran who was looking to move up the depth chart following James’ departure, was injured and then waived. Nick Vannett, a four-year veteran Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the Seahawks early in the year, contributed just 13 receptions for 166 yards in the number two role.

  • So you can see why the concern was there to add another viable weapon at tight end.

And viable, Ebron is. Yes, like McDonald, Ebron, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018, fell off a season ago, catching just 31 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. But just like McDonald, Ebron was hit with the sudden loss of his franchise quarterback, thanks to the surprising retirement of Andrew Luck right before the start of the regular season. And while it is true that Jacoby Brissett, the young Colts quarterback who stepped in to take Luck’s place, was much further along in experience and development than both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges a season ago, his performance wasn’t quite on the level of Luck’s.

And we would be remiss without mentioning Ebron’s ankle injury that forced Indianapolis to place him on Injured Reserve late in the 2019 season.

Steelers Tight End Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Backups

Coming into his rookie season as a fifth-round pick out of Michigan, Zach Gentry, a converted quarterback who caught 49 passes in his college career, was expected to be a bit of a developmental project at the tight end spot. Gentry didn’t disappoint in that regard, as he appeared in just four games and caught one pass.

Rounding out Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the tight end spot is Christian Scotland-Williamson, a native of Waltham Forest, England and a former rugby player. Scotland-Williamson spent the previous two seasons on Pittsburgh’s practice squad and was signed to a reserve/future contract following the 2019 season.

The Steelers 2020 Tight End Draft Needs

Again, what looked like a position of great need heading into free agency now seems to be one of strength, thanks to the addition of Ebron. If he can return to his Pro Bowl form under Ben Roethlisberger, he could be a dangerous weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL Draft

Ebron has a history of decent production playing with high-caliber quarterbacks — his first quarterback was Matthew Stafford after the Lions picked him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft— and he has 283 receptions for just under 3200 yards in his six-year career.

Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron should complement each other quite nicely moving forward.

As for adding depth behind the top two tight ends? It should be a priority, but only a Moderate-Low one.

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Tight Spot. Eric Ebron Signing Shows Steelers Still Struggle to Replace Heath Miller

As the dust is settling on the first phase of free agency, reaction is generally positive to the Steelers signing of Eric Ebron, a former first round draft pick at tight end who most recently played for the Colts. If reports are correct, the Steelers have signed Eric Ebron to a 2 year 12 million dollar contract.

Eric Ebron, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Terrell Edmunds

New Steelers tight end Eric Ebron gets gang tackled in 2019. Photo Credit: 937thefan.radio.com

The move comes as a mild surprise, given that Vance McDonald had been slotted as a possible salary cap casualty (and likely would have been gone had the NFLPA not ratified the CBA.)

So instead of jettisoning one high-priced tight end, and going with a bargain-basement renewal of Nick Vannett’s contract, untested rising sophomore Zach Gentry and an unknown draft pick, the Steelers will field two veteran tight ends.

  • That makes sense, as the Steelers clearly need to beef up their production at tight end.

As mentioned above, Eric Ebron’s arrival in Pittsburgh has been met with qualified praise. The key is “qualified.” At the Tribune-Review, Tim Benz conceded that we should be “concerned” and “skeptical” about Eric Ebron’s attitude issues, but argued the Steelers were better for “giving him a shot.”

At The Athletic, Mark Kaboly praised Ebron’s athletic prowess, while warning of his “poor blocking, bad hands and a reputation as a diva….” Over at Steel City Inside, Matt C. Steel admits to having “questions about Ebron as a person and a player.” Yet, Steel is excited about Ebron’s arrival because of his athletic talent and because of the deeper significance that the signing suggests about the evolution of the Steelers offense.

The fact that commentators need to couch their analysis with qualifiers underlines one simple truth:

  • Four years after his retirement, the Steelers are still struggling to replace Heath Miller.

Can Eric Ebron change that? Perhaps. But history suggests fans should be skeptical.

Dependability is Hard to Replace

If you had to name 1 unsung hero of the Steelers 2nd Super Bowl era, you’d be wise to name Heath Miller. No, Heath Miller didn’t toil in obscurity in the shadow of multiple Lombardis the way, say Larry Brown did. Those spontaneous cheer’s of “Heath!” every time he caught the ball offer sufficient proof.

Jesse James.

Jesse James scores against the Panthers.

But if you had to make a list of the 4 most essential players of the Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII teams, you’d like name Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward on offense and Troy Polamalu and James Farrior on defense.

Sure, you wouldn’t have to expand the size of the list too much to get to Heath Miller’s name, but several other names would probably make it before Miller.

Heath Miller didn’t bring a lot of star power to the offense, instead he delivered something that is almost intangible: Dependability.

The Steelers drafted Jesse James in 2015, Miller’s last year, and to be honest, Jesse James did deliver some of that dependability in the passing game, albeit on a smaller scale. Knowing that James really wasn’t a viable replacement for Miller, the Steelers made a splash free agent signing of Ladarius Green.

  • Like Ebron, Green had the speed an athleticism to stretch the field and, on paper, revolutionize the Steelers offense.

The truth is, during his stint as a Steeler, Ladarius Green delivered “field flipping” capability to the Steelers offense. Unfortunately, Ladarius Green’s Steelers career lasted all of 6 games. Fast forward to the tail end of the 2017 preseason where the Steelers did the (then) uncharacteristic and traded for Vance McDonald.

But injuries kept McDonald on the sideline for much of the 2017 regular season, and he virtually disappeared in 2019. The Steelers (as well as yours truly) thought they’d developed a Xavier Grimble as a legit number 2 tight end going into 2019. They hadn’t and Kevin Colbert had to spend precious draft capital to trade for Nick Vannett.

Vannett did well given the circumstances, but clearly, he wasn’t the answer.

  • Will Eric Ebron be any different?

Maybe. But the Steelers best options at tight end since Miller’s retirement have been James and McDonald. More athletic players like Ladarius Green have struggled. Eric Ebron would fit the latter category, but as Mike Tomlin would insist, “He is writing is own story.”

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Steelers Need to Beef Up at Tight End, But Expect Free Agent Nick Vannett to Depart Pittsburgh

One can debate whether quality tight end play is an essential ingredient to a Steelers Super Bowl season, but Heath Miller’s dependability sure did contribute to wins in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Since Heath Miller retired, the Steelers have struggled to play consistently well at tight end.

One move they made to remedy that in 2019 was to bring in Nick Vannett. At 6’6″ and 261 lbs, Nick Vannett certainly looks the part. However, is he productive enough to be a part of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2020 and beyond? That’s what we’re about to discuss.

Nick Vannett, Steelers vs Benglas

Nick Vannett in his first game as a Steeler. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports

Capsule Profile of Nick Vannett’s Career with the Steelers

Nick Vannett spent his first three full seasons as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, who selected him out of Ohio State in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. But with the likes of Jimmy Graham taking most of the reps as the starting tight end, Nick Vannett could never break through the glass ceiling in Seattle, as he started just 16 games and caught 67 passes through the 2019 season, before being traded to Pittsburgh last September in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick.

As the number two tight end behind Vance McDonald, however, Vannett caught only 13 passes for 128 yards over the final 13 weeks. He did step in and start his first game for the Steelers, making a critical third down conversion catch in helping the Steelers beat the Bengals for their first win of 2019.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Nick Vannett in 2020

Yes, Nick Vannett’s productivity was lacking a season ago, but with the Steelers quarterback situation so compromised with the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the final 14 games, very few skill position players showed out.

Again, Nick Vannett looks the part and could certainly benefit from catching passes from a healthy Roethlisberger in 2020. Would he surpass Vance McDonald in terms of productivity? Not likely. However, he could be the number two tight end the offense has been missing since Jesse James left via free agency following the 2018 season.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Nick Vannett in 2020

Vannett’s rookie contract averaged just over $760,000 per year, according to Spotrac. While his productivity certainly wouldn’t warrant the type of contract that Jesse James signed with the Lions last year, for example (James inked a four-year deal worth $25 million and included $11 million in guaranteed money — and caught just 16 passes last year), he’s likely to get a raise in free agency.

With the Steelers again up against the cap — even with an increased ceiling after the NFLPA voted to approve the new Collective Bargaining Agreement on Sunday — paying an unproductive number two tight end $1 million-plus may not be a luxury the team can afford.

Besides, Zach Gentry, a fifth-round pick out of Michigan a year ago, is looking to make a leap in his sophomore year. And while his productivity was basically non-existent in his rookie season, he’s a much younger and much cheaper alternative as the number two tight end. And even if Gentry is destined to be a number three tight end, this doesn’t mean the Steelers won’t look to the early rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft to address the position with someone with more upside than Vannett.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Nick Vannett

I think this is an easy call for the Steelers. Vance McDonald, whose salary will eat up over $7 million in cap space next season, appears to be sticking around.

The team needs to save money anywhere it can, and there’s no point in paying two tight ends seven-figure salaries. Therefore, the Steelers will move on from Nick Vannett, hope for improvements from Zach Gentry in his second season, and fortify the position in the upcoming draft.

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Why Steelers Should Keep Sean Davis in Pittsburgh, but Won’t

How critical of a role does safety play in the Steelers defense? Its hard to say. You can find times when the Steelers defense has struggled despite quality safety play.

  • In contrast, the Steelers defense has never excelled absent strong safety play.

The Steelers history at safety is a minor study in contractions. Hall of Famers Troy Polamalu and Donnie Shell entered the league as first round draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents. On the flip side, premium picks like Shamarko Thomas and Anthony Smith floundered, while late rounders like Darren Perry soared.

With that backdrop, we come to Sean Davis, who played safety for the Steelers for four years and is about to become a free agent.

Sean Davis, Coty Sensabaugh,

Sean Davis intercepts Drew Brees in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Sean Davis’ Career with the Steelers

By the end of 2015, it was clear that the Shamarko Thomas experiment had failed and the Steelers responded by drafting Sean Davis in the 2nd round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

As a rookie, Sean Davis looked like a steal, earning a starting spot and rookie of the year honors. Davis excelled in run support, hauled in an interception and recorded a sack. In the playoffs he atoned for a costly mistake with a key pass defense in the end zone to help seal the win against Kansas City.

  • Conventional wisdom holds that Sean Davis struggled in his sophomore year.

The truth is that Davis played reasonably well early in the season. Yet, the entire defense slipped following injuries to Joe Haden and Ryan Shazier and Sean Davis slipped with them, taking bad angles at critical moments and by getting abused by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowkski in the Steelers 2017 loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.

The Steelers moved Davis from strong safety to free safety in 2018, where Davis’ steady presences helped the Steelers limit long gains which had plagued them the previous season. Unfortunately, Davis’ most memorable play of 2018 was when he KOed Joe Haden, transforming an certain end zone interception into a touchdown in the loss to the Chargers.

Sean Davis got injured during training camp in 2019, missed the season opener. He played in the home opening loss to the Seahawks, aggravated his injury and was out for the season.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2020

If Terrell Edmunds or Minkah Fitzpatrick gets hurt in 2020, who do you want as your “Next man up?” Sean Davis, Jordan Dangerfield or Marcus Allen?

  • That my friends, is a black and white question.

Sean Davis isn’t going to supplant either starter, but he’s clearly a starter-capable backup and superior to any player the Steelers could find in the 2020 NFL Draft or as a veteran minimum free agent.

Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already signed him…?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Sean Davis in 2020

….The Steelers haven’t signed him because with 3 seasons of starts under his belt, Sean Davis isn’t going sign for a veteran minimum contract, nor does he have any incentive to sign any sort of “home town” discount deal. A “prove it” contract has no point because with both starting safety slots locked down, Davis figures to have little chance to prove anything.

The Steelers got good value out of Sean Davis on his rookie deal, but really, there’s no room for him in Pittsburgh now that he’s a free agent. It is time for both sides to move on.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Sean Davis

While this won’t be popular with a lot of fans, the truth is in pure football terms the Steelers resigning Sean Davis makes a lot of sense. Aside from the depth he’d deliver, the prospect of Sean Davis pushing Terrell Edmunds for playing time isn’t so far fetched.

  • Steelers lack of safety depth isn’t trivial.

Pittsburgh perhaps has less depth at safety than it does salary cap space. The disadvantage they face is great. As Bob Labriola pointed out on a recent “Asked and Answered,” if Jesse James can get 22.5 million dollar contract to catch 16 passes as a backup tight end, another NFL teams will certainly give Sean Davis a 7 figure signing bonus to play safety.

  • Sean Davis knows this, and reportedly cleaned out his locker a long time ago.

It would be great to see Sean Davis stay in Pittsburgh, but that’s simply not going to happen.

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Steelers 2019 Season Summary: Focus on “Team” Concept Sharpens in Pittsburgh

The emotional roller coaster ride that was the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season has ended, and two weeks of playoff upsets have left Steelers Nation asking “What IF” as they’ve enjoyed a second year of home couch advantage throughout the playoffs. Clearly, this was not the outcome we had hoped for.

One of the things has gotten lost in all of these Steelers 2019 postmortems is the last two season have been almost identical. Both seasons:

  • Started with a horrible “September stench,”
  • Saw midseason winning streaks that left fans feeling anything was possible
  • Ended with late season implosions that kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs

But if deep disappointment set in immediately following both seasons, there’s a distinctly different feel to the way 2020 is beginning. To explain how and why this is possible, and the lesson it perhaps provides, perhaps its best to take a step back.

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

Looking Back for Roots of a Lesson to Take Forward

The 2019 endeared themselves to Steelers Nation the way few others have. The 2019 Steelers have drawn comparisons to the 1989 Steelers from both fans and authorities such as Ed Bouchette. While the 1989 Steelers are very near and dear to this site, they’re not the team that provides the lesson we’re looking for.

  • Instead, we go back to late 1994 and to the pages of the Steelers Digest.

Greg Lloyd, Greg Lloyd Steelers Career

Greg Lloyd during the Steelers 1995 playoff win over Browns. Photo Credit: Getty Images, via Zimbo.com

The NFL was different. Two years earlier the Freeman-McNeil verdict that brought free agency to the NFL, and the league was in transition. For the first time players could sign with new teams when their contracts expired, and for the first time teams could go on off season shopping sprees – if they kept themselves under the salary cap.

By November ‘94 the Steelers had clearly established themselves as the cream of the AFC. It was equally obvious that the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC’s best. The Steelers had gotten there by taking a conservative approach to free agency that focused on resigning their own players. The 49ers had taken the opposite approach, by lavishly throwing money at players.*

  • In the Steelers Digest, editor Bob Labriola noted this contrast in a late season lead article.

Labriola lauded the Steelers for taking a “team” approach to building during the salary cap era contrasting it with other teams (he never mentioned the 49er’s by name) who took a “star” approach. He went on to muse about a possible test of the two concepts in a Super Bowl match up that never materialized thanks to Alfred Pupunu.

If that sounds familiar it should. Mike Tomlin led his press conferences after wins over the Chargers and the Bengals by crediting it to “a victory for team.” And therein lies the difference between the feeling fueling this off season vs. the last year.

Why Things Feel Different This Year

Take a look at any Steelers-focused site, and stories of the last two weeks will generally fall along these lines:

  • Will Ben Roethlisberger recover and return to franchise quarterback form?
  • If he does, will that be enough to return the offense to championship form?
  • Who must the Steelers cut to reach their stated goal of keeping Bud Dupree?

My, what a difference a year and really two years make. At this point during the ’18 and ’19 off seasons the primary story lines circulating about the Steelers focused on whether:

  • Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown were at fault for the late season melt down
  • Le’Veon Bell’s tardiness prior to the implosion vs the Jaguars signaled deeper discord
  • Mike Tomlin had “lost control of the locker room” following 2 seasons of “team turmoil”

As some Pittsburgh-based beat writers pointed out at the time, the whole “Team Turmoil” story line was oversold in the national media. With a little bit of distance, we can see that indeed, many although not all of those story lines were tied to a few individuals.

  • But, in many ways, attention on the field, off the field and in the Steelers salary cap focused on the stars or the “Killer Bees.”

So even if it is incorrect to say, that 2019’s lesson is that “the Steelers rediscovered the concept of ‘team,'” the focus on “team” as opposed to individual stars go much sharper for the Steelers this past season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Lammons, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

JuJu Smith-Schuster out duels Chris Lammons for the go ahead touchdown. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

JuJu Smith-Schuster only suited up for twelve games. James Conner only appeared in 10. Mason Rudoph assumed the starting role 6 quarters into the season. Players like Devlin Hodges, Kerrith Whyte and Deon Cain, who’d started the season on practice squads suddenly found themselves dressing or even starting in prime time games.

The departure of Antonio Brown was supposed to be enough to hamstring the Steelers offense. But by any conventional measure, losses of Roethlisberger, Conner, Smith-Schuster and Maurkice Pouncey should have doomed the Steelers. Yet, they didn’t and instead:

A 1-4 start became a 5-4 start. That 5-4 start slipped to a 5-5 start, but the Steelers rebounded from their own “Body Bag Game” to improve to 8-5. The Steelers 8th win of the season came over the Arizona Cardinals and featured another game in which Pittsburgh had found a new way to win.

  • The fact that the Cardinals game was the final win of the season for the Steelers is part of the lesson.

Football is a team game, and it is teams and not “stars” that win games. No Steelers fan will ever forget Antonio Browns “Immaculate Extension” that pulled Pittsburgh over the top in the Steelers Christmas win over the Ravens. But who remembers that Jesse James, Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers caught 5 of the 7 receptions that formed that touchdown drive?

  • But teams also need talent to win.
  • And the 2019 Steelers didn’t have much talent on the field.

Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner deserve credit for milking as much as they possibly could out of the talent at their disposal in 2019. 2020 is a new year and the Steelers will field a new team next fall.

Benny Snell, Steelers offensive line

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

But if Mike Tomlin can succeed carrying 2019’s renewed focus on “team” and combining a few key upgrades in offensive talent then 2020 can be a big year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

*While it was never proven, some suspected that the ’94 San Francisco 49ers were cheating on the salary cap. The 90’s ended with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark paying million dollar fines for salary cap violations, although none were tied to the ’94 season. Nonetheless, one regular reader of this site and die-hard Cowboy fan still refers to them as “The ILLEGAL 1994 San Francisco 49ers team!”

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