A Steelers Fan Looks at 50: If You’ve Watched the Blonde Bomber and Big Ben Play, You’re Old

I just turned 50 not long ago, and I don’t know if you know anything about math and age, but that’s getting up there in both categories.

Yes, 50 is the new 40, but try telling that to the 38-year-old at the bar who thinks you’re ancient while watching you try to look hip as you bust out a tune on Karaoke Night. (For the record, I don’t blame that 38-year-old one bit, because that’s what I thought about 50-year-olds 12 years ago.)

Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw

Image Credit: 274 Sports Pittsburgh

Anyway, as it pertains to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I have been watching this team play football since January of 1980 when I was just seven. That’s a long time to watch any sports franchise do anything. Fortunately for yours truly, the great memories far outweigh the bad ones. My first memory — Super Bowl XIV between the Steelers and Rams –showcased quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the MVP of the Big Game for the second year in a row, and his awesome talents. My most recent Steelers memory, a blowout loss to the Chiefs in a wildcard playoff game this past January, was the last hurrah for legendary quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after 18 glorious seasons.

Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of great things as a Steelers fan over the years. Even the seasons in between The Blond Bomber and Big Ben weren’t all that bad in terms of success on the football field.

Yes, the 1980s were kind of meh after the incredible success of the previous decade. However, there were still some great moments to cherish, like the upset of the Broncos in the divisional round of the 1984 playoffs, as well as the thrilling overtime wildcard road win over the hated Oilers to close out the decade.

What about the 1990s under new head coach, Bill Cowher, who had the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Chuck Noll on the sidelines of old Three Rivers Stadium? The Chin sure had TRS rocking again like the Super ’70s, right? And while the Steelers never brought home One For The Thumb in Cowher’s initial postseason run when he took Pittsburgh to the playoffs during his first six seasons, in many ways, it was the most fun I’ve ever had watching my favorite football team.

Obviously, the decade of the 2000s saw Cowher finally bring his hometown team a fifth Lombardi Trophy with a win in Super Bowl XL. Not long after that, Mike Tomlin, who took over for Cowher as head coach in 2007, gave us “Got Six?” following a thrilling victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

As far as post-Super Bowl decades go, the 2010s weren’t nearly as meh as the 1980s. In fact, the Steelers’ 2000s run bled over into the 10s when they advanced to Super Bowl XLV before losing a heartbreaker to the Packers down in Dallas.

While the second Super Bowl era officially ended in an overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos in a wildcard playoff game following the 2011 regular season, it didn’t take long for Pittsburgh to overhaul its roster and become a bona fide contender again by the mid-10s.

Holy smokes, I just realized we’re only months away from witnessing the Steelers’ third regular-season campaign of the 2020s. That means that the 2000s are like the ’70s to someone in their early-20s. Yikes. Not only have they grown up only knowing Roethlisberger as the Steelers quarterback, they probably have no clue who Bradshaw even is, or if they do, he’s like who Johnny Unitas was to me as a kid — someone who played in the Before Time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

  • What about those little kids out there right now who barely even know about Roethlisberger?

Man, I’m getting up there. I’ve seen both Joe Greene and Cam Heyward. I’ve been around for both Jack Ham and T.J. Watt.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, Three Rivers Stadium,

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

Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Louis Lipps, Yancey Thigpen, Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and George Pickens.

I remember where I was when the Steelers cut Franco Harris. I know exactly where I was standing when I learned that the Steelers had traded for Jerome Bettis. I can still recall the sick feeling that I had in the pit of my stomach when Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee on the eve of the 2014 postseason. I still have the text from my brother, who has a source within the Steelers organization, that informed me before just about anyone else that Pittsburgh was going to select Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Again, I’ve seen a lot. I know this because younger people I argue with on Twitter now say things to me like, “I’m not wasting my time trying to reason with some old dude who probably has low testosterone.” Yes, while it’s true that my t-levels are probably lower at the age of 50 than they were at the age of 25, what does that have to do with my opinion on the Steelers’ backup running back situation?

Anyway, even though I’m now officially old (if I already wasn’t in my 40s), I still love the game of football as much now as I ever did. I respect its evolution. I don’t yearn for the days of Yesteryear when Smashmouth football was all the rage and “Defense Wins Championships” was a mantra that everyone actually believed to be true.

I’m a football purist, but only in the sense that I think the game is a pure joy to watch. I still get those butterflies in my stomach when the calendar turns to July and I know that we’re right on the doorstep of another Steelers training camp.

My only concern is what my response will be to the next Steelers title. Will it feel as magical to me as an older fan as the march to

Super Bowl XL
Bill Cowher, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Super Bowl XL, Steelers vs Seahawks, One for the Thumb, Lombardi Trophy

Bill Cowher hands Dan Rooney the Lombardi Trophy. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

 did when I was 33? I often think back to that two-month period from December of 2005 to February of 2006 when the Steelers went on their historic run and never stopped winning until they finally added a fifth Lombardi to their trophy case.

  • I may have been approaching my mid-30s, but I felt like a little kid during that eight-game winning streak.

Will I ever have that feeling again? How do older sports fans, especially ones who have already witnessed a few championships, respond to a team winning it all? Is it just as fulfilling as it was in your youth?

As the Steelers begin a new era with a new quarterback–it’s either going to be Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph or Kenny Pickett who gets the first crack at replacing Big Ben–I sure can’t wait to find out.

 

 

 

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Steelers 2017 Draft Grades – An A+ for Drafting T.J., JuJu, Sutton & Conner

The 2022 NFL Draft is now history. In Kevin Colbert’s finale, the Pittsburgh Steelers bucked the conventional wisdom and drafted Kenny Pickett in the first round. They also addressed wide receiver and defensive line with their premium picks.

So now time to get down to grades – grades for the Steelers 2017 Draft Class.

Yes, Chuck Noll always said it took five years to grade an NFL Draft class, and if it was good enough for The Emperor, its good enough for me.

T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Steelers 2019 draft needs at outside linebacker

Steelers outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DKPS

First Round: T.J. Watt – Striking Gold

29 teams drafted before the Pittsburgh Steelers that day. The Kanas City Chiefs picked Patrick Mahomes. The other 28 wished they’d picked T.J. Watt instead.

In 5 years T.J. Watt has put himself on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He’s a playmaker and possibly a generational talent. It is conceivable that during his 6th year he’ll break the Steelers All Time sack record. Grade: Grand Slam

Second Round: JuJu Smith-Schuster — A True Steelers from the Get Go

JuJu Smith-Schuster landed in Pittsburgh and eventually pushed not one, but two players off of the team. He had a phenomenal rookie year and followed it up with a team MVP performance. His 3rd year was marred by injuries, poor quarterback performance and an imploding offense.

Even if his numbers never bounced back in year’s four and five, JuJu Smith-Schuster was still a factor on the team, still a player who gave his all on every play. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Third Round A: Cam Sutton – The Late Bloomer

Cam Sutton is the second to last defensive back drafted during Carnell Lake’s tenure as secondary coach, and he’s probably the best. Sutton got onto the field in late 2017, played more in 2018, and began making plays at a steady pace through 2019 and 2020. Facing salary cap Armageddon in the 2020 Off Season the Steelers targeted Sutton for an extension and he delivered in 2021. Grade: Quality Value Pick

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

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Third Round B: James Conner – The Home Town Hero

In minds of many, James Conner’s Steelers career is measured by what it wasn’t, rather than what it was. As Tony Defeo pointed out in his free agent profile, that’s not fair to Conner. At all.

James Conner’s body of work with the Pittsburgh Steelers reveals him as a good running back. Not a great one, but a good one. The injuries aren’t Conner’s fault. Nor is the fact that a once great offensive line slipped into deep decline just when he needed him the most. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Fourth Round: Joshua Dobbs – The Rocket Scientist

Joshua Dobbs was a bit of a surprise pick and became the type of player that just kept sticking on.

His body of work with the Steelers is limited. His first pass was, well, like a rocket converting a third down on the road deep in Baltimore territory in spot duty. He looked good in his limited action in the 2020 finale. And the Rocket Scientist turned backup QB was a constant fixture along side Ben Roethlisberger reviewing plays on tablets. All that’s good, but you still expect a bit more from a 4th rounder. Grade: Serviceable Pickup

Fifth Round: Brian Allen – Another Dud @ DB

The Steelers drafted Brian Allen as a project. Allen had only switched to cornerback for his final two years at Utah. But at 6’3” and 215 pounds and with long arms, and with a 4.48 40 time he had all of the measurables.

Brian Allen saw action on special teams in 16 games over two years with the Steelers and then was waived/injured at the end of training camp in 2019. He latched on to a number of practice squads in 2019, played 24 defensive snaps for the 49ers in 2020 appearing on one game, and appeared in 3 games on special teams for the Browns in 2021. Grade: Bust

Sixth Round: Colin Holba – The Luxury Long Snapper

My immediate reaction to the Steelers decision to use a draft pick on a long snapper was, “Colbert and Tomlin are getting cocky.” It just seemed like a waste of a pick. And it sort of was. Colin Holba didn’t make the team, but got pick up by the Jaguars, who spanked the Steelers in the playoffs. He also played for the 49ers and Giants in the next three seasons. Grade: Farm Team

Seventh Round:  – The Unsung Linebacker that Never Was

With the depth chart ahead of him it didn’t seem like Keion Adams stood a chance at making the team when they drafted him in 2017. However, his story reminded this scribe of Carlos Emmons, another 7th round linebacker who faced a stacked depth chart to make the team and eventually work himself into a serviceable starter.

Alas, Adams would not follow in Carlos Emmon’s footsteps. He spent 2017 on IR, got cut at the end of summer in 2018, spent a day on the practice squad, spent some time with the Giants and was done.

Final Grade for the Steelers 2017 Draft Class

One Grand Slam, 3 Quality Value Picks, 1 Serviceable Pickup, 1 Bust and 1 Farm Team Pick. Moreover, the first 4 picks became starters, all four got second contracts, 2 with the Steelers. And of course the first rounder is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Grade: A+

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Another “Pick.” Steelers Draft George Pickens in 2nd Round of 2022 NFL Draft, WR from Georgia

Pittsburghers are loyal, and the Steelers remain true to their traditions. This was the case in the 2022 NFL Draft when the Steelers picked wide receiver George Pickens in the second round. The junior from Georgia is the latest in a line of 2nd round wide receives that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have taken starting with:

Although he came in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Diontae Johnson was in fact their second pick.

George Pickens brings an interesting resume to the Steelers. At 6’3” 200 pounds and a 4.47 time in the 40. However, a torn ACL in the spring of 2022 cost him all but four games of his Junior season, but that was enough for him to catch a 52 yard touchdown that helped the Bulldogs win a National Championship.

George Pickens, Steelers 2022 2nd round draft pick

George Pickens, National Championship game. Photo Credit: Robert Scheer, Indy Times.

ickens has had discipline issues, getting suspended by the team and sitting out a half for fighting. He was also cited after being in an accident without a seat belt.

Still, his talent is event. During his first two seasons Pickens had 85 catches for over 1200 yards and 14 touchdowns. Speaking on Steelers.com, draft analyst Matt Williamson suggested he could be the best wide receiver in the draft.

Speaking to reporters, Steelers offensive coordinator described Pickens as “explosive” multiple times, and confirmed that the Steelers could either split him wide or work him in the slot.

George Pickens Highlights

Early in his college career, Pickens was seen as a potential number 5 pick. So its no surprise that he has highlight reel to show, which we share via the magic of YouTube:

George Pickens knows how to catch and he knows how to score touchdowns.

First round draft pick Kenny Pickett now has another target to throw to in addition to Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Miles Boykin and Gunner Olszewski.

Welcome to Steelers Nation George Pickens.

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Steelers 2022 NFL Draft Needs @ Safety – Is Pittsburgh Primed for Another Shock?

Just days shy of the 2022 NFL Draft find the Pittsburgh Steelers with 3 safeties on their roster who were first round picks.

So, then it must be safe to say that safety is not a priority for Pittsburgh in the draft? Not so fast.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Minkah Fitzpatrick end zone interception

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Lamarr Jackson in the end zone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Steelers Depth Cart at Safety: The Starters

Shocking.

That single word precisely defines the arrival in Pittsburgh of both the Steelers starting safeties. The Steelers opened the 2018 NFL Draft by shocking the pundit class by picking Terrell Edmunds out of nowhere.

And if it is true that Edmunds hasn’t delivered the level of splash play that you’d expect from a first round pick, he has started for four straight years, missing only one game. Moreover, Edmunds has gotten better with each passing year.

The fact that Edmunds was on the free agent market over a month is a little bit surprising, as is the 2.5 million dollar deal he signed to return – which is less than what Marcus Allen and Robert Spillane are getting.

  • But his having an NFL safety with 60 starts play for you for 2.5 million something to complain about? I think not.

If drafting Terrell Edmunds was a shock in the spring of 2018, then trading 2020’s first round pick – after knowing that Ben Roethlisberger faced major elbow surgery – to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick was a super charged shock.

It didn’t take long to see why Art Rooney II broke from 50 years of franchise tradition in trading away a first round pick, as Minkah Fitzgerald had an interception in his first game as a Steeler. During the 2019 season, Fitzgerald arguably changed the course of 3 if not 4 games in the Steelers favor.

  • Fitzpatrick had another stealer year in 2020, helping seal a number of critical wins.

Critics have said that Minkah Fitzpatrick had an off year in 2021. Its true. His “Splash” play count was down. But the Baltimore Ravens come to Heinz Field and go the length of the field and you have a player who can kill a drive with an end zone interception, are you really going to complain?

What wasn’t captured in Minkah’s stats were things like the critical third down stops he made time-and-time again. If you’re really looking to understand his value to the team, look at his tackle count: It jumped from 79 in 2020 to 214 in 2021.

That’s because in a year of a historically bad run defense, Minkah Fitzpatrick served as the last line of defense time and time again.

Steelers Depth Chart at Safety: The Backups

The other first round pick the Steelers have at safety is Karl Joseph, although he is not the primary backup at the position. Joseph was signed by the Steelers at the end of summer and played on their practice squad for most of 2021.

  • He is returning to Pittsburgh in 2022 on a veteran minimum contract.

The primary backup at safety is Tre Norwood, the player whom the Steelers drafted in the 7th round of the 2021 NFL Draft. That 7th round status didn’t deter Mike Tomlin from labeling him as a “Swiss Army Knife.”

Tomlin was true to his word. Tre Norwood appeared in all 17 games for the Steelers, logging 33% of the defensive snaps, making 1 interception and defending 4 passes during the season. Indeed, it was Tre Norwood who picked off a Minkah Fitzpatrick deflection against the Browns that allowed Ben Roethlisberger to close his career at Heinz Field in the victory formation.

Veteran Miles Killebrew is also technically a safety, but only logged 44 defensive snaps last year, playing mostly on special teams. Donovan Stiner is also on their roster after having signed a futures contract.

The Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Safety

A week ago mock drafts that showed Pittsburgh picking Michigan’s Dax Hill were completely plausible. The Terrell Edmunds signing changes that equation, but only so much.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

The Steelers will certainly target Minkah Fitzpatrick for a mega extension this summer, but what about Edmunds?

  • Terrell Edmunds’ contract is a prove-itdeal if there ever was one.

The critical question is, was a one-year deal Edmunds’ idea, or did the Steelers offer him say, a 2-year deal worth 8 million? Even if the Steelers do remain interested in Edmunds long term, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t end up seeing him leave just as JuJu Smith-Schuster did.

So while we shouldn’t expect the Steelers to use one of their premium picks on a safety, it certainly would be a shock if they did.

With that said, the Steelers need at safety going into the 2022 NFL Draft should be considered as Moderate.

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Steelers 2022 NFL Draft Needs: Examining Pittsburgh @ Wide Receiver

The receiver position has long been considered one the Steelers have excelled at in terms of drafting players, developing them and getting decent-to-great production out of those players.

  • When was the last time the Steelers didn’t have a receiving corps that was considered to be deep and talented?

It might be right now, thanks to so many free-agent defections this spring. But are those defections enough to make the position a high priority heading into the 2022 NFL Draft?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

Chase Claypool converts a 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

With JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington all defecting as free agents this spring, the Steelers currently have two legitimate starters on the roster. Diontae Johnson, the fourth-year man out of Toledo who caught a career-high 107 passes for 1,161 yards and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2021, is one. Chase Claypool, who regressed a bit last season after a rather-spectacular and explosive rookie campaign, is the other. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s going to fill the role of slot receiver in 2022.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

Anthony Miller, a second-round pick by the Bears in 2018, is currently listed as the starting slot receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart. Miller had some promising years in Chicago before being traded to the Texans prior to the 2021 season. After being released by Houston last October, Miller was signed to the Steelers practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in late November. Miller caught just one pass for two yards for Pittsburgh last season and has 140 receptions for nearly 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns during his first four seasons in the NFL.

Cody White, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, showed a flash of promise a season ago. Tyler Vaughns, Steven Sims and Rico Bussey, three totally unproven players, round out the receiver depth chart, while Gunner Olszewski, a free-agent pickup from the Patriots, has just been a return specialist, albeit a relatively successful one, up to this point in his career.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver

With little in proven depth behind both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, the Steelers could certainly use an infusion of talent at the receiver position.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

And let’s not forget that neither Johnson or Claypool has truly established himself as a sure-fire number one receiver in the NFL.

Factor in the conventional wisdom that the 2022 NFL Draft appears to be flush with quality prospects at the receiver position. All things considered, I’d say the Steelers’ draft need at wide receiver is High-Moderate.

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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.

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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Hold the Line! Steelers Sign Chuks Okorafor, Mason Cole and James Daniels to 3 Year Contracts

Say this about the Steelers brain trust here in 2022, they’re not trying to sweep their weaknesses under the rung. After opening free agency by signing Mitchell Trubisky, the Steelers moved quickly to protect him.

First they came to terms with center/guard Mason Cole, who most recently played for the Minnesota Vikings. Then word came that they resigned tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, for 3 years. And now they’ve added Chicago Bears center/guard James Daniels.

Chukwuma Okorafor, Chuks Okorafor, Steelers 2022 Free Agent

Chucks Okorafor in the Steelers 2021 win over the Bears. Photo Credit: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images via StillCurtain.com

The moves address what was a chronic and historically bad for the Steelers in 2022, and they also put Kendrick Green and Kevin Dotson on notice that they’ll need to fight for playing time, if not their roster spots.

The decision to bring back Chuck Okafor, and to do so as a priority in free agency must count as a bit of a surprise. Okafor does bring the Steelers 35 starts, but terms of his contract suggest that his deal is structured as more of a “prove it” contract.

According to Aaron Wilson of the NFL network, Okafor’s 3 year contract three years, will give him a 9.25 million dollar signing bonus, with base salaries of 1.25 Million, 6 million and 4.75 million. It also calls for 4 million dollar roster bonuses to be paid on the 5th day of the league year in 2023 and 2024.

  • For those readers not fluent in salary cap speak, this is a deal the Steelers can easily bail on this time next year.

According to internet reports, James Daniels contract is for 3 years and 26.5 million dollars. Mason Cole is said to have signed a 3 year contract, the terms of which have not yet been leaked.

Too Quiet for Comfort on the South Side?

If news of newcomers to Pittsburgh has been prolific, word on who might be staying on the South Side has become a little worrisome.

The Steelers confirmed that they extended tenders to Dwayne Haskins and J.C. Hassenauer. Montravius Adams has also been resigned.

But there’s been no word of Robert Spillane. Nor has there been any news about the Steelers top three free agents, Terrell Edmunds, JuJu Smith-Schuster or Ahkello Witherspoon.

The glass half full way to look at this is that none of these three has come to an agreement with another team. But the glass half empty conclusion is that had any of these three players been a priority for Pittsburgh, the Steelers already would have resigned them.

Word has leaked that the Steelers have come to terms with cornerback Levi Wallace, which we’ll have more to say about later.

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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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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Its Probably Best for Steelers, James Washington to Part Ways in Free Agency

A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, James Washington arrived in Pittsburgh as someone Steelers fans hoped would continue the team’s tradition of excellence at the receiver position that started with Hines Ward many years earlier.

But while James Washington had to initially bide his time behind the likes of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he could never quite break through as a breakout star, even after Brown was traded in the 2019 offseason and JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the majority of 2021 — the final year of Washington’s rookie deal — on the Injured Reserve list. As James Washington enters free agency for the first time, the question is, should he and the team continue their relationship?

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of James Washington’s Steelers Career

During his rookie preseason, James Washington showed glimpses of the deep-threat and combat-catch receiver the Steelers hoped he would be when they drafted him the previous spring, but, as I alluded to earlier, targets were hard to come by during the regular season, and Washington only caught 16 passes for 217 yards for one touchdown in 2018.

James Washington certainly didn’t endear himself to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin in a late-season loss to the Broncos when he dived and failed to catch a deep pass that, had he stayed on his feet, would have gone for a touchdown. Despite what I said earlier, Washington did seem to initially thrive following Brown’s departure and, believe it or not, he did it while mostly catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019, while Roethlisberger was out with major elbow surgery injury. Washington pulled in 44 passes for a team-high 735 yards and three touchdowns — including a 79-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals in which he displayed both his deep speed as well as his physicality by stiff-arming a Cincinnati defensive back on the way to the end zone.

Unfortunately for James Washington, he couldn’t parlay his 2019 success into greater heights over the next two seasons, as he caught a combined 54 passes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There’s no question that Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are the Steelers’ top two receivers (at least that are currently under contract). With JuJu Smith-Schuster likely set to explore free agency in search of the lucrative multi-year deal he couldn’t find on the open market last offseason, James Washington could finally get his chance to shine as the number-three receiver. He’s not likely to command much once free agency kicks off, and he could probably be retained on the cheap — even on a one-year “prove it” deal.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There were rumblings that James Washington went to his bosses last summer and asked to be traded because he didn’t feel there was room on the roster for him to shine, especially after JuJu Smith-Schuster surprisingly re-signed with the team last March.

James Washington declined to refute those rumors, which probably meant there was likely some truth to them. Also, Washington garnered little playing time over the last 12 regular-season games following the injury to Smith-Schuster. Instead, Ray-Ray McCloud became a bit of a favorite target for Roethlisberger down the stretch.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Washington in 2022

I’d personally keep James Washington around because, again, I believe he could be had on the cheap.

But it’s probably a moot point, considering he likely wants to go somewhere where he can be more of a focal point for an offense. As Mike Tomlin says, “Its free for us, free for them,” and with that in mind it’s probably best for the two parties to go their separate ways.

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What’s Next for Steelers Free Agent Joshua Dobbs? Another 3rd String Stint or Rocket Science?

Third string quarterbacks are the NFL’s Mr. Anonymous. Rick Strom was the Steelers third string quarterback from 1989 to 1993, yet even the most rabid, plugged in, season-ticket holding fan from that era would struggle to remember, let alone recognize him.

Yes, some Super Bowl quarterbacks like Joe Theismann, Mark Rypien, Jeff Hostetler, Stan Humphries and Rich Gannon cut their teeth toiling as third stringers for several seasons, but they’re exceptions.

Which brings us to Joshua Dobbs, the Steelers free agent quarterback whose role, if he were to stay in Pittsburgh, would be as a 3rd string quarterback. Will that happen?

Joshua Dobbs, Jacob Philips, Steelers vs Browns

Joshua Dobbs throws a pass. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Joshua Dobbs’ Career with the Steelers

The Steeler surprised many when they drafted Joshua Dobbs in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Dobbs earned the 3rd string role and while he never suited up, word was he took his preparation and film study seriously.

To the surprise of many, Dobbs’ strong preseason play a year later forced Landry Jones from the team, Mason Rudolph to the virtual reality room as he earned the job of backing up Ben Roethlisberger.

Dobbs saw action twice that year. First in spot duty in Baltimore, where Dobbs audibled out of a play and threw a laser like strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster to convert a 3rd down. He also got the call in the 2nd half in Oakland’s Black Hole against the Raiders and did not look comfortable nor did he play with the same decisiveness.

The Steelers traded him to Jacksonville after their 2019 opening loss to the Patriots, only to see Roethlisberger injured the following week against Seattle. They brought Dobbs back in 2020 where he became the third string quarterback.

  • Dobbs saw action in a wildcatish package role in the Steelers closer against the Browns.

The Steelers resigned him in 2021, but Dobbs got injured in the preseason finale and he spent the season on IR, although he was visible on the sidelines talking with Roethlisberger after each series.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Joshua Dobbs

Joshua Dobbs by all accounts is a positive presence in the locker room. He knows the Steelers system and, while the sample size is limited, he brought a new dynamism to the offense during his limited action in 2020. Moreover, that package was likely the brainchild of Matt Canada. Having him around would allow Canada explore his potential more.

Better yet, Dobbs provides a veteran presence at the 3rd string quarterback position for the veteran minimum. Sounds like a win-win for everyone.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Joshua Dobbs

Joshua Dobbs is a class act. His rocket-scientist turned NFL quarterback is the type of story that Hollywood movies are made of. But none of that earns him a roster spot.

By virtue of playing in the Hall of Fame game, the Steelers had 4 preseason games last year. Joshua Dobbs saw plenty of action, and while he didn’t play poorly, he never passed for more than 40 yards.

  • The Rocket Scientist has found his ceiling, and that is as a 3rd string quarterback.

The Steelers should use his roster spot and salary cap space on someone with more upside.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Joshua Dobbs

Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

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

A year ago the pro’s and con’s of resigning Joshua Dobbs were largely the same. Yet, there was an intangible that tipped the scale in Joshua Dobbs favor. The Steelers began the 2021 off season by signing Dwayne Haskins.

In word and deed the Steelers make it clear to Haskins that they weren’t handing the former first round pick anything other than a second chance.

  • By bringing Joshua Dobbs back, the Steelers put their money where their mouth was.

That dynamic doesn’t exist today. The conventional wisdom is that the Steelers will either sign a veteran free agent or draft a quarterback to compete with Mason Rudolph for the starting job next summer at St. Vincents. In that context, Dobbs likely role would be as a 4th arm for training camp.

You could do a lot worse than Josha Dobbs for a 4th training camp arm, but the guess here is that Steelers will let Dobbs either follow his NFL dream elsewhere or otherwise being his “Life’s work” as a rocket scientist.

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