Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent Class Heavy on Defensive Backs

Mere hours after making Presley Harvin III their final pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Steelers announced that they’d come to terms with their 2021 Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class.

Shakur Brown, cornerback, Michigan State
Mark Gilbert, cornerback, Duke
Calvin Bundage, outside linebacker, Oklahoma State
Jamar Watson, outside linebacker, Kentucky
Donovan Stiner, safety, Florida
Lamont Wade, safety, Penn State
Rico Bussey, wide receiver, Hawaii
Isaiah McKoy, wide receiver, Kent State

Donnie Shell, Donnie Shell Hall of Fame, Steelers vs Dophins, 1984 AFC Championship

Like Donnie Shell before them, Mark Gilbert and Lamont Wade will try to make the Steelers as undrafted rookie free agents. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.

As they always do, the Steelers undrafted rookie free agent class closely mirrors the positions that Pittsburgh didn’t pick, or picked late in the preceding draft.

The Steelers needs on defense at outside linebacker and cornerback were arguably greater than inside linebacker or defensive line. The Steeler addressed the latter two in the 4th and 5th rounds with their picks of Buddy Johnson and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk.

  • So its little surprise that Steelers swiftly moved to bring two cornerbacks, two outside linebacker and two safeties to St. Vincents.

Mark Gilbert brings strong ties to the NFL and to Pittsburgh football, as he is the cousin of former Pitt and Washington stand out Sean Gilbert and the nephew of Pitt’s Darrelle Revis.

While that makes for a great story, remember that those bloodlines will mean nothing to Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler when he goes out and tries intercept Ben Roethlisberger while covering cover JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool this summer at St. Vincents.

Mike Golic Jr. headlined the Steelers 2013 Undrafted Rookie Free Agent class and while he spent some time on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, he never played a down in the NFL.

  • If that sounds harsh, it should not. It is in fact the exact opposite.

Once you set foot on the campus of St. Vincents, the Pittsburgh Steelers stop caring about where you came from or how you got to Latrobe and only focus on what you can do to help the team win.

  • This mentality began with Chuck Noll and has engrained itself in DNA of the Steelers culture.

Its what allowed 10th round pick L.C. Greenwood to take his place alongside Joe Greene. Its what allowed Donnie Shell to earn a roster spot and ultimately force out two-time Super Bowl starter Glen Edwards en route to the Hall of Fame.

Dwight Stone, Dwight Stone Steelers career

Dwight Stone’s Steelers career ran from 1987 to 1994. Photo Credit: Amazon

Its what allowed Dwight Stone to earn a roster spot and get snaps at the expense of 3rd round pick Charles Lockett. It paved the way for Ramon Foster earn a practice squad slot, followed by a regular season roster spot, which he transformed into a decade long-career as a starter.

And looking back at that 2013 Steelers Undrafted Free Agent Rookie class, Mike Golic and Nik Embernate may have generated all of the buzz, but it was unheralded Chris Hubbard that used his opportunity to build an NFL career.

Time will tell if any of the Steelers 2021 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents set Super Bowl records like that of Fast Willie Parker in Super Bowl XL or that of James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII.

But those men can come to St. Vincents secure in the knowledge that they will judged on what they can do, not where they come from.

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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:

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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Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix – Who to Pick If Need Must Drive Decision

The 2021 NFL Draft is here. The Pittsburgh Steelers have 8 picks to fill enough holes with just enough talent to give themselves an shot at making what will, perhaps, be one final Super Bowl run with Ben Roethlisberger.

steelers press conference,

Steelers in Far Stronger Shape than Expected

When the Steelers 2020 season ended in flames with the playoff loss to the Browns, things looked bleak. Pittsburgh faced salary cap Armageddon thanks to COVID-19. But they’re far stronger than expected, thanks  to Ben Roethlisberger taking one for the team with a 5 million dollar pay cut.

Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert also stepped step outside their comfort zone with voidable year contracts that kept JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Sutton and Eric Ebron in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have also done some free agent bargain bin hunting, to give themselves depth at offensive line, cornerback, tackle, defensive line and a few other spots. Make no mistake about it:

  • The Steelers roster is weaker than the one that got beaten badly the Browns in the playoffs.

The Steelers have real needs they must fill in the 2021 NFL Draft. So what are those needs?

Steelers Needs Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft

Over the last few weeks, with the help of Tony Defeo, we’ve reviewed each part of the Steelers depth chat, classifying steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftPittsburgh’s need using the following scale.

  • The Steelers needs tier pretty quickly into three categories: Serious needs, almost serious needs, and  “Nice to Haves.”

The Steelers serious needs come at running back, tackle, center, and tight end. Note, Tony Defeo classified tight end as “High” but for the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix, I’m classifying that is “High-Moderate.”

What that means in plain English is that the Steelers could draft tonight or tomorrow night who could win the starting job in training camp.

Below that we have “almost serious needs” where we place Cornerback as High-Moderate, Inside Linebacker as Moderate-High, Outside linebacker as Moderate (although that could easily go Moderate High). Those are followed by Safety, Defensive line an guard which are both “Moderate.”

  • In simple terms, its is less likely that the Steelers could draft a starter here, but possible.

And even if that player isn’t a starter, he could end up providing critical depth at the position. Guard might be the outliner there, particularly depending on what happens at center.

  • Finally, you have our “Nice to Haves” which are wide receiver and quarterback.

With Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins AND Joshua Dobbs under contract, the Steelers really don’t have room for a quarterback, unless a 1983 type situation unfolds and it won’t. Likewise, with JuJu back, and Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson still having plenty of “upside” using a premium pick on a wide out is a luxury the Steelers don’t have in 2021.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

So how do you determine the Steelers pecking order in terms of needs? Well, for that we give you the Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Draft Needs Matrix

Running back gets the nod over offensive tackle because the Steelers have two starters, albeit unproven ones, at tackle, whereas they do not have a legitimate number 1 NFL running back. Tackle gets preference over center because you need field two tackles an only one center. Center gets the nod over tight end because Eric Ebron is a better tight end than either B.J. Finney or J.C. Hassenauer is a center.

  • And there’s a chance that Kevin Radar can be a legit number 1 NFL tight end, at least in terms of blocking.

Tight end beats cornerback because the Steelers have two starter-capable players there, and cornerback trumps inside linebacker because someone could come in and beat out either Robert Spillane or Vince Williams.

But the Steelers have no one behind them, so outside linebacker trumps safety, where the Steelers do have some younger depth. But the depth at safety is even more untested than it is at defensive line so that gets the next nod. Guard comes in next because the Steelers should be OK there, but it is clearly a higher need that wide receiver or quarterback.

As always we offer our caveat, the Steelers Draft Needs Matrix does not suggest that Steelers should reach to fill needs.

But the needs matrix is intended to act as a sort of tie breaker for when and if the Steelers turn comes to pick and two men have the same draft grade (not that Mike Tomlin or Kevin Colbert will ever read this – nor should they.)

Finally, while more hype and hoopla surrounds the draft than their needs to be, but let’s keep in mind Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr.’s words, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” While the The Chief’s words were more of a compliant than an aspiration, the truth is that the NFL draft is the day a dream comes true for 250 or so young men.

Let’s give them there day, hope they enjoy it and, in turn, let their enthusiasm fuel our own hopes for the Steelers 2021 season and beyond.

 

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Steelers are Deep @ Wide Receiver. So is 2021 NFL Draft. What Happens Next?

Everyone knows the Pittsburgh Steelers are great at drafting wide receivers. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Martavis Bryant are just some of the names Pittsburgh has drafted and developed over the past decade-plus.

The Steelers seemingly take a receiver in either the second or third round each year, but now that they head into the upcoming season with four recently-drafted youngsters still on the roster, do they need to address the position in the 2021 NFL Draft?

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Colts

Diontae Johnson catches a 39 yard bullet for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Starters

The unexpected re-signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster at the end of the first week of unrestricted free agency means that the Steelers are getting back an all-around receiver who can make the tough catches, block and is a much better big-play threat than people give him credit for. After exploding onto the scene during his first two seasons — including catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards in his sophomore campaign–Smith-Schuster’s production slipped a bit over his next two years. There were a few contributing factors, of course, namely injuries and the near season-long absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2019.

When Diontae Johnson was selected in the third round out of Toledo in 2019, it surprised a few folks. But watching him on tape, there was no question that he shared a lot of the same physical traits as one Antonio Brown, who the Steelers had recently traded in a very public and very messy divorce.

Despite Pittsburgh’s subpar quarterback play, Johnson turned in an impressive rookie season, catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns. Johnson’s production predictably increased in 2020 with the return of Roethlisberger, as the former caught 88 passes for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnson has struggled with ball-security issues over his first two seasons, including a high drop-rate — he led the NFL in that category in 2020.

However, Johnson is a youngster and, more importantly, his pluses appear to outweigh his minuses.

Steelers Depth Chart at Wide Receiver: The Backups

With the Steelers running so many three and four-receiver sets these days, it’s hard to say who’s number one, number two, number three, etc. on the depth chart. Chase Claypool, the team’s second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame last spring, certainly didn’t seem like a backup, as he burst onto the scene in a Randy Moss-like fashion.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles, Steelers rookie touchdown record

Rookie Chase Claypool scores the first of four touchdowns vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

At 6’4′ and 238 pounds, and blessed with 4.4 speed, the Canadian product quickly proved to be a matchup problem for both defensive backs and linebackers, alike. Claypool caught 62 passes for 873 yards and nine touchdowns, while also adding two more scores on the ground. Claypool became the first rookie in franchise history to score four touchdowns in one game in a victory over the Eagles on October 11 at Heinz Field.

James Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, has always seemed like the odd man out in the Steelers receivers’ room.

After a rather forgettable rookie campaign that saw him catch just 16 passes for 217 yards, Washington rebounded rather nicely in 2019, leading the team in receiving yards with 735. Washington’s production dipped again in 2020–30 receptions for 392 yards and five touchdowns–but I think this was more a result of Claypool’s emergence than an indictment of Washington’s abilities.

Ray-Ray McCloud, a sixth-round pick by the Bills in 2018, was signed by the Steelers last summer and made the team as a punt returner. McCloud excelled enough in that role that Pittsburgh brought him back for 2021.

Rounding out the receivers’ depth chart are unknowns Anthony Johnson, Tyler Simmons, Cody White and Mathew Sexton.

The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Wide Receiver

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2021 NFL DraftEven when it was assumed that Smith-Schuster would quickly exit as a free agent, the Steelers still seemed to be in good shape at receiver. His return makes it arguably the deepest and most talented position on the team in 2021.

  • However, Smith-Schuster only signed a one-year deal and will likely test the free-agent waters again next year.

James Washington is also heading into the final year of his rookie deal and might soon want to go somewhere where he can start. Lying beneath all of that is the fact that the 2021 NFL Draft is said to be incredibly deep at wide receiver.

Given that the Steelers needs at wide receiver heading into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Low-Moderate.

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Big Ben @ His 11th Hour. But Steelers Won’t Seek His Replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft

“Stability.” “NFL” = not-for-long meaning stability is in short supply. Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s most stable team, and they’ve enjoyed unprecedented stability at the quarterback position, thanks to the presence of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Pittsburgh’s passion once rose and fell on news of Roethlisberger’s health.

This is no exaggeration. During his sophomore season, KDKA interrupted regular programing for updates on a minor Roethlisberger knee injury. When Roethlisberger first uttered the “R” word following the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, he sent Steelers Nation into an anxiety attack.

That’s changed.

The Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns marked a turning point. For the first time management question whether Ben Roethlisberger would be back, while large segments of the press and the fans questions whether Roethlisberger should return.

Ben will be back, but his contract voids after the Super Bowl. Big Ben is rapidly reaching his 11th hour. So how should this impact the Steelers strategy for the 2021 NFL Draft?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger’s story is well known. With Pittsburgh on the clock in the 2004 NFL Draft, Bill Cowher was leaning towards Shawn Andrews, but Dan Rooney cocked his arm back imitating a throwing motion and Paul Tagliabue made it official a few minutes later.

  • It’s rare that a franchise quarterback falls into the lap of team with a championship roster.
  • But when it does the team had better capitalize on it. Fast.

Like Steve Young and the 49ers, Ben Roethlisberger delivered, leading the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But like Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as those Super Bowl veterans aged and retired, the Steelers have struggled to rebuild their roster around Roethlisberger.

  • Many fail to appreciate just how close Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin came to pulling it off.

Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Injuries and ego colluded to prevent The Killer Bees from reaching their potential, while Ryan Shazier’s injury ripped a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.

  • In many ways Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 season mirrors that same story arc.

No one knew how Roethlisberger would play following elbow surgery. But in the first months of the season, Ben Roethlisberger played some of his best football ever. His release as lightning quick, his short and medium passes exited with laser-like precision.

He was even in the league MVP conversation.

  • Sure, the long ball was an issue.

But Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington all grew pretty adept at drawing pass interference penalties downfield. But then the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses took away the short pass. Receivers (and tight ends – Eric Ebron) started dropping passes.

  • ACL injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the defense.

As he always did, Roethlisberger’s response was to try to take the team on his shoulders. Something he no longer has the talent to do.

Art Rooney II made it clear he wanted Ben Roethlisberger back, but only at a discount. Ben Roethlisberger agreed, and he took one for the team.

The salary cap has stripped the Steelers of their depth, opening the question of whether Pittsburgh has enough pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but it says here that Ben Roethlisberger showed enough to justify a return in 2021.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

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

Drafted with an extra 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mason Rudolph arrived as a potential successor to Roethlisberger. Since then Mason Rudolph has started nine games and logged snaps in 3 more.

  • Results have been mixed.

At times, like during the first half of the Dolphins game or the 2nd Bengals game, Mason Rudolph looked as lost and clueless as Kordell Stewart did in his lowest moments. At other moments, such has his starts against the Rams in ’19 and the Browns in ’21, he looked like a signal caller who could develop into a Neil O’Donnell like starter.

  • The Steelers brass clearly isn’t hanging its hat on the latter scenario coming to fruition.

Otherwise they wouldn’t have brought Ben Roethlisberger back, nor would they have taken a flyer on Dwayne Haskins, a failed former first rounder out of Washington.

The Steelers 2021 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftIn abstract football terms, the Steelers need for a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft should be Moderate-High. They’re going to need a starter perhaps as early as 2022, and no sane person would commit to that starter being Rudolph or Haskins.

But, with usual “unless someone falls” caveat, the Steelers aren’t finding that starter drafting so late in the first round.

  • And drafting one in the middle rounds would be akin to drafting another Rudolph or Haskins.

The Steelers have two of those. And really, taking another Tee Martin or Dennis Dixon like flyer in the 5th or 6th round would mean using a pick on a player who can’t help in 2021. Therefore the Steelers need at quarterback going into the 2021 draft should be considered as Low.

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Sean Davis Signs with Colts: Steelers Depth Takes Hit, with Ironic, Bilingual Play on Words

Pittsburgh Steelers reserve free agent safety Sean Davis has signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Davis’ defection unites him with fellow University of Maryland alumni Frank Reich, and deals the Steelers an unsurprising, if slightly disappointing blow.

  • The move also leads us to a rather ironic, bilingual play on words.

Sean Davis, Ezekiel Elliot, Steelers vs Cowboys

Sean Davis can’t stop Ezekiel Elliot. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images via The Steelers Wire.

More on the play on words in a minute. In football terms, With Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds entrenched as starters, Sean Davis had no shot at earning a spot on the first string. As staff writer Tony Defeo argued, Sean Davis could theoretically work a bit in the slot, has he did as a rookie. Perhaps he could have even carved a role for himself as the “Dime Linebacker.”

  • Those roles were hypothetical.
  • There was nothing hypothetical about his real value to the Steelers: Depth.

And that’s where the bilingual play on words comes in.

The Spanish equivalents for American football terms represent a strange breed. Some, such as “Esquinero” for cornerback are quite literal. Others, like “Ala cerrada” for tight end are less obvious. “Ala” is wing in Spanish and “cerrada” means closed. Then there’s quarterback, which is termed “Mariscal de Campo” in Spanish.
The literal translation of Mariscal de campo” is Field Marshal.

There’s one case where you could argue that Spanish term expresses the concept behind the role of quarterback more precisely than the English one.

  • So at this point you’re saying:  “Ok, that’s interesting. But what the hell does it have to do with Sean Davis?”

Well, Sean Davis plays safety. The Spanish term for an American football safety is “Profundo.” And the literal meaning for “Profundo” is depth. And that’s where the irony comes in. Sean Davis’ free agent defection to the Colts tells the Steelers story thus far this off season: Free agency is ravaging this team’s depth.

While the franchise has question marks on the offensive line, tight end and running back, on paper the team is setting itself up to field a quality starting lineup. But outside of quarterback, wide receiver, arguably defensive line, and perhaps running back, the Steelers have no depth. None.

The answer to all of the above is “Marcus Allen.” And that’s not a good place to be.

Marcus Allen, Steelers vs Buccaneers preseason

Marcus Allen makes a tackle in the Steelers 2019 preseason game against Tampa. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

Credit Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan, through Ben Roethlisberger’s restructuring, and the use of “Voidable years” for players like Cam Sutton and JuJu Smith-Schuster, for helping the Steelers avoid Salary Cap Armageddon.

Things could look a lot worse. And while the Steelers can shore themselves up a bit in the 2021 NFL Draft, in a lot of areas on the depth chart the franchise will be walking a tightrope without a net.

  • The last time that really happened was 2013, and we know how that year turned out….

Sean Davis was never going to be a show stopper for the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. But he could have provided depth at a critical position. However, that is not to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

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

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Reverse! Tyson Alualu Resigns with Steelers & Sometimes Its Good to Lag Behind the News Cycle

Nose tackle Tyson Alualu has reversed course and resigned with the Steelers for two years. Just 12 days ago, word broke that Tyson Alualu was returning to Jacksonville, the team that had drafted him, on a two year deal.

  • Not only was this a surprise, but it also amounted to majorish blow to the Steelers depth chart.

This was a done deal. The Steelers responded by resigning Chris Wormley to a two year deal, a move they otherwise may not have made. On “Asked and Answered,” Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola rationalized the Wormley resigning and tried to put Alualu’s departure in context.

  • But apparently a failed COVID-19 test and the quarantine that followed forced Alualu to reconsider his decision.

Teammates Cam Heyward and Joe Haden lobbied Alualu to stay and ultimately swayed the nose tackle. Thus the Steelers have their third major surprise of the off season, the first being JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return the second being Steven Nelson’s departure.

The move helps the Steelers, but it also reveals a hidden benefit to lagging a step (or several) behind the 24/7 Steelers News cycle.

Tyson Alualu, Andy Dalton, Steelers vs Bengals, Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton

Tyson Alualu sacks Andy Dalton. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

A Day Late, But This Time Not a Dollar Short

The conventional wisdom driving sports-focused sites is to publish “Content” immediately after news breaks. That wisdom isn’t lost on this site and in some form or fashion we try to do that. When possible.

  • But the realities of the digital workplace and the 12 hour plus days that come with it, are not conducive to timely blogging.

Usually this hurts the site. Being late to the punch means not getting on social media when a topic is hot and being absent on Google when search volumes spike. But sometimes there’s an upside. James Harrison’s messy divorce with the Steelers was one of them. This is another.

  • When news broke of Tyson Alualu’s departure, the mental outlines of an article titled “Soft in the Middle” immediately formed.

The argument that the strength of the Steelers defense is measured up the middle, from nose tackle, to inside linebacker, to safety came to fore. Those arguments gelled with memories of Alualu anticipating his first playoff game against the Jaguar.

  • The situation seemed too ironic to be true.

Alualu and the Steelers playoff implosion against the Jaguars came in large part because the middle of their defense was soft. Yet no one could argue that since then Tyson Alualu has strengthened the center of the Steelers defense.

The 2020 season offered no better example. The Steelers defense had started the season rock-solid against the run. It remained stout after losing Devin Bush, but faltered when Alualu went down. The question was going to be, could Alualu’s departure defy conventional wisdom and transform itself into addition by subtraction?

Woulda been an interesting article. Might have generated lots of clicks. Alas, there was no time.

  • But no fuss, no muss. That storyline is now moot.

Alualu is back, and that’s a good thing – if taken in context.

Alaualu’s Return Delivers Depth and Flexibility

In Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt the Steelers have two spectacular defensive ends. Tyson Alualu showed last year he’s more than capable of manning the middle. With that said, let’s keep in mind that Alualu turns 34 next month.

  • Players can quickly lose a step to Father Time at that age.

The Steelers have high hopes for Carlos Davis. Isaiah Buggs struggled more than he flashed, but he did have his moments. Lamarr Jackson concurs. Henry Mondeaux also showed some moxie in his limited work last season.

Isaiah Buggs, Lamarr Jackson, Robert Spliane, Steelers vs Ravens

Isaiah Buggs stops Lamarr Jackson at the goal line on 4th down. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

The best-case scenario for the Steelers on defensive line would be for Buggs or Davis to step forward and claim the starting nose tackle role. That would allow Alualu to become the 4th defensive lineman, the role he was brought to Pittsburgh to play. Whether that happens or not will be determined on the fields at St. Vincents (hopefully) or during preseason games.

  • Today the idea that defense line could be a position of stability, if not strength in Pittsburgh is plausible.

Two days ago, this was fantasy. The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette opined the Steelers were an injury away from ” a problem” on defensive line. He was right, and the only thing Pittsburgh could have done to change that was invest a premium pick in a nose tackle or defensive end during the 2021 NFL Draft – picks that the Steelers must use on offensive line, running back and/or cornerback.

Now they don’t need to do so. And that’s a good thing.

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Upset about Steelers Cutting Steven Nelson? Call it Free Agency Reality Therapy

That didn’t take long. Less than a week after giving his agent permission to seek a trade, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut cornerback Steven Nelson. The move comes less than two years after the Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin decided that Nelson was worthy of the largest free agent contract in franchise history.

So now what?

Has the team that decided to delay the a rehash of Mark Malone, David Woodley and the 1980’s by bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for a another year instead embraced a reboot of the Brice McCain, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell, Coty Sensabaugh, and Artie Burns?

Maybe. But if we’re honest with ourselves, this shouldn’t be such a shocker.

Josh Brown, Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson can’t prevent Josh Brown from catching a pass for a first down. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Free Agency Proceeding for Pittsburgh as Expected

Thus far free agency has evolved for the Steelers much as it was expected to. The Steelers had planned and projected for a 2021 salary cap of about 220 million dollars. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, they got one of about 183.5 million.

Cap gurus like Omar Khan can use creative accounting to get stretch and squeeze contracts into a tight salary cap.

  • But when the cap comes in a 40 million below your estimate, creativity reaches its limits.

Everyone knew that. So we were told to expect to:

  1. Say goodbye to veterans who’ve played vital roles in keeping the Steelers a contender
  2. Watch the Steelers do little more than bargain basement hunting in free agency
  3. Cut high salaried starters

Things are proceeding on schedule. Veterans like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are gone. So is Tyson Alualu. That was a bit of a surprise, and in a normal year the Steelers probably would have found the extra money to keep him.

The Steelers haven’t done much in free agency. Sure they’ve resigned Zach Banner and Cameron Sutton. But even those deals required using voidable years, as did JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers made 2 piecemeal signings, in addition to resigning Chris Wormley, but really haven’t done much else

And in the last week, we’ve seen the Steelers cut high-salaried starters. First it was Vince Williams, now it is Steven Nelson. Sure, as Ed Bouchette pointed out in The Athletic, the timing may be a bit off. Normally you’d expect the Steelers to make these moves before free agency to give their guys a chance to make back their money.

  • But going into free agency, there was talk that the Steelers would have to part ways with one of their cornerbacks.

They’ve just done that. Certainly, most people expected that cornerback to be Joe Haden. Joe Haden doesn’t make as much as Steven Nelson, but he is several years older. Cornerback is a young man’s game. If you’ve got a corner that’s in his mid 30’s and one in his late 20’s going with the younger one seems like a non-brainer.

  • And that’s likely the choice I would make.

But as Bob Labriola pointed out on Asked and Answered, some metrics indicated that Joe Haden had a better year than Steven Nelson. Again, banking too much on those types of metrics is dangerous but it does show that this wasn’t a slam-dunk case. And its also likely that the Steelers didn’t want to cut Nelson, but could come to some other sort of agreement.

As I wrote before, I’m hard pressed to find a way to think of how the Steelers 2021 defense can be better than its 2020 incarnation without Steven Nelson on it. That hasn’t changed.

But this was the reality we expected going into Free Agency. It just took a little longer to set in. Welcome to Steelers Free Agency Reality Therapy.

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The Steven Nelson Trade News was the Type of Surprise Steelers Fans Dread

Going into the free-agency phase of the Steelers offseason, there really wasn’t much that would surprise this fan and writer, someone who had long-since accepted the team’s fate as it pertained to a salary cap purgatory situation that had to be dealt with.

  • Only $6 million under the cap, Pittsburgh’s moves were likely going to be unspectacular.
  • Departures figured to sting anywhere from a little to a lot.
Steven Nelson, Steelers vs Bills

Steven Nelson returns an interception against the Bills. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.come

Not surprisingly, the first week of free-agency went about as expected — or, should I say the first few days of the first week of free agency? The Steelers lost Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton, Matt Feiler and even Tyson Alualu fairly quickly. While some may have hurt more than others, only the most optimistic — and naive (let’s be real) — Steelers fans should have been totally taken aback by anyone that departed.

But the news on Friday, however, was quite shocking, and it came at you in one, giant good news/bad news wave. First, the good news: The Steelers signed receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal for $8 million.

Next, the bad news: ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Steelers had granted cornerback Steven Nelson permission to seek a trade.

While you may have been pleasantly surprised to hear about the Steelers re-signing of Smith-Schuster, the news about Nelson had to rock you a little.

After all, even when it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Smith-Schuster would depart after receiving a huge, multi-year deal, the consensus was that Pittsburgh would still be fine at receiver; third-year man, Diontae Johnson and second-year man, Chase Claypool have already shown a ton of potential, as has fourth-year, man James Washington, a youngster who may just simply need a real opportunity to show what he can do. Besides, the Steelers have been fantastic at drafting and developing receivers for over a decade now; therefore, why would it be any different if they decided to take another one in the 2021 NFL Draft?

  • The secondary, on the other hand, may not be so easy for Pittsburgh to restock and reload.
  • There’s no sugar coating it:  The Franchise as struggled for a decade to draft and develop cornerbacks and safeties.

After that mostly didn’t work — and, “mostly” may be kind (anyone remember Cortez Allen or Senquez Golson?) — the Steelers had to go outside of the organization to find major talent, including cornerback Joe Haden, a post-cut free-agent signing in 2017; cornerback Steven Nelson, an unrestricted free agent in 2019; and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a trade acquisition early in the 2019 regular season. Yes, while Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent, who made the team in 2017, can be considered a homegrown talent, same with 2017 third-round pick, Cam Sutton, the Steelers obviously couldn’t rely on their own resources when it came to turning the secondary from a liability into a strength.

Considering how hard it is to find blue-chip defensive backs in the area of the first round where the Steelers normally draft–this year, that area of the first round will be 24th–I doubt they really want to have to try again.

  • With all that in mind, I don’t think the Steelers really want to trade Nelson.

In my opinion, this is mostly a one-sided issue with Nelson and his agent forcing things. Think about it, why would the Steelers want to part with Nelson, who is in the final year of his contract and is slated to make $8.25 million in base salary? The Steelers would be hard-pressed to find another free-agent cornerback who can play the position as well as Nelson has the past two years, and at such a bargain rate. As for the draft? See above.

Ah, but that’s probably where the problem lies. Nelson likely feels that he’s severely underpaid, and when the two parties presumably had talks about a contract extension on the eve of free agency, Nelson was looking for a deal similar to what the top cornerbacks were earning–including a boatload of guaranteed money–and he wanted it asap.

  • You know how the Steelers are about guaranteed money, at least past the first year of a deal.

I don’t know what offers the Steelers will get for a trade involving Nelson. I also don’t know what’s going to happen if they don’t receive any offers that they deem worth it. Short of a contract agreement or trade that really works for Pittsburgh, I’d like to see Nelson stick around for at least one more year.

  • I seriously hope the Steelers don’t simply release the veteran if they can’t trade him.

Can a Steelers’ secondary that really just came into its own in 2019 absorb the losses of both Hilton and Nelson in one offseason? I don’t think so. I know Sutton has been retained and is capable of playing on the outside and in the slot, but he’s only one guy.

In conclusion, the Steelers secondary may again be a liability in 2021, and that is the kind of surprise that could cause a lot of fans to have heart attacks next season.

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