Like characters in a story, every NFL player’s career has an arc. Follow a player’s arc and most of the time it reveals a lot about the individual’s talent, dedication and character. Just think of Jerome Bettis‘“face of the franchise” career journey and you’ll see what I mean.
Yet sometimes the opposite happens. Sometimes a player’s career arc reveals more about the team than the player. Such is the case with J.C. Hassenauer who is about to become an Restricted Free Agent.
Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP
Capsule Profile of J.C. Hassenauer’s Career with the Steelers
After watching undrafted rookie free agent J.C. Hassenauer spend 2018 going on an off the Atlanta Falcon’s practice squad, the Steelers signed him in the spring of 2019 and he made the practice squad earning a promotion to the active roster for the season finale against Baltimore.
In 2022 Hassenauer only logged 46 snaps with the offense, but he did log 71 special teams snaps, a slight increase from two years before.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer
The Steelers know what they have in J.C. Hassenauer. He brings position flexibility to the interior of the offensive line.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer
J.C. Hassenauer isn’t going to keep any opposing defensive line coach up at night. Position flexibility is nice, but is it really worth $2.627 million? For a guy that in his third year play 46 snaps? You’re kidding right?
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and J.C. Hassenauer
At first glance the J.C. Hassenauer’s career arch of starting 7 games at two positions in 2020 and 2021 and then failing get on the field in year 3 seems pretty damning. But in reality, this reveals more about the sorry state of those Steelers offensive lines than it does about J.C. Hassenauer.
J.C. Hassenauer has some serviceable skills and an ability to step in and play or even start of a pinch at guard or center. Kind of a modern day Doug Legursky lite.
But even if that is true, is Hassenauer worth $2.627 million restricted free agent tender?
Probably not. Even without thinking about who the Steelers might draft, Kendrick Green brings the same position flexibility at a far lower salary cap hit. The Steelers should most certainly bring Hassenauer to St. Vincents, but they can do so for far less than 2.6 million.
You’ve heard that before? I’m not surprised. It has been a popular refrain over the past two seasons whenever the Steelers and their potential problems are discussed.
Mitch Trubisky at the line of scrimmage. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review.
Of course, there is no use putting the word “potential” in front of the world “problem” when talking about the Steelers’ offensive line. It was a problem in 2020. It was a problem last year.
What about this year? Even though the Steelers have only played two preseason games so far, the offensive line still appears to be quite offensive.
Yes, despite adding free agents James Daniels (right guard) and Mason Cole (center) to the interior of the offensive line in March, the line has struggled through much of training camp and all of the exhibition season.
In spite of the fact that Dan Moore Jr., a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in the 2021 NFL Draft, started 16 games at left tackle as a rookie, he may need a little more seasoning before he’s fully developed.
As for Kendrick Green, a third-round pick out of Illinois in 2021 who played center as a rookie and has been switched over to guard — his more natural position in college — during the 2022 training camp? Yikes.
Let’s just say Green is still incredibly raw and that no amount of seasoning and time in the oven may turn him into a professional offensive lineman.
Having said all that I’ve said up to this point, there’s still time for this line to gel and find some cohesion.
Believe it or not.
I know it’s hard to believe after witnessing two-plus years of the same level of play along the offensive line, but as I alluded to earlier, the guys doing the playing aren’t the same.
The Steelers almost completely overhauled their entire offensive line during the 2021 offseason; gone were left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (a free agent the team decided to move on from); left guard Matt Feiler (a free agent the team couldn’t afford to bring back); center Maurkice Pouncey (retirement); and right guard David DeCastro (released due to injury).
File photo of the 2019 Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
What about Dotson’s sophomore campaign? Dotson didn’t turn as many heads despite winning a starting job in camp. A rumored lack of commitment seemed to sour some Steelers coaches on Dotson during the 2021 offseason, while injuries hindered him in the regular season as he tried to make the transition over to left guard in place of the departed Feiler.
Okorafor and Turner were steady if uninspiring on the right side. Moore had his issues at left tackle, but, again, he did enough to start 16 games as a rookie.
Kendrick Green’s stint at center was an epic failure.
What did this all add up to in 2021? An offensive line that was just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2020.
At least youth was on its side, though, right?
Not if you were Dotson and Green.
Mason Cole was brought in to be an upgrade over Green at center in 2022. James Daniels was a highly-touted free agent who Pittsburgh signed to sort of act as the new anchor of the line at right guard, a la DeCastro.
Green was thrown into a position battle with Dotson during training camp, while Moore and Okorafor remained as the starting tackles.
That’s a lot of upheaval for one unit in a short period of time. It’s kind of unrealistic to expect everything to be going smoothly at this point in time. Should there be individual improvements? Yes, and I’m still excited about DAn Moore despite his struggles during the preseason.
As for the center position? If Cole can simply be steady and reliable, that would be a stark improvement over what even Pouncey gave the unit in his final season.
It’s no secret that James Daniels has struggled a bit at right guard, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt while he finds his bearings with his new coach and co-workers.
And that last part really is the most important, right? These guys have to be given time to gel together and perfect the techniques their new offensive line coach has taught them.
Those in the know in terms of offensive line play say that chemistry, trust and learning to work together are just as important as winning individual battles when it comes to developing an effective offensive line.
Should the Steelers go out and sign a free agent or make a trade? I doubt you’ll find much in terms of quality this late into the offseason.
Many say that the Steelers should have used more premium draft choices to address the line in recent years. Yeah, but in place of whom? Would you rather have an offensive lineman over Najee Harris, a running back the Steelers selected with the 24th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft? How about tight end Pat Freiermuth, selected one round after Harris?
What about the 2022 draft? You’d rather have a tackle over Kenny Pickett, who looks like he could be a more than credible replacement for Ben Roethlisbergerat quarterback? What about George Pickens, a second-round pick in 2022 who might be a superstar receiver the moment he plays in his first regular-season game?
Fact is, the Steelers have been transitioning from a veteran offense to a more youthful one over the past few years, and you’re not going to be able to address every position with premium picks. Focusing on one position means kicking the can down the road on the others.
I’ll admit that I’ve always been adamant that every unit needs at least one stud — a player with a high pedigree — but the Steelers seemed to find that guy in free agency when they signed James Daniels in March.
James Daniels wasn’t a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears, but he was selected in the second round in 2018 and started 48 games in four years.
Seems like a high-pedigreed stud to me.
The Steelers may just have to continue to endure the growing pains along the offensive line until they get it right. It’s not going to happen overnight. Heck, they’re more than a few nights into this rebuild and still in search of some answers.
Finally, the Steelers have a young team, complete with a young offensive line.
There still may be time for that young line to mature into something formidable.
Others, such as Chris Hubbard and Matt Feiler found greener pastures outside of Pittsburgh. B.J. Finney was once considered part of this group. And while he did get a second contract, he found that the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side of the NFL and was back with the Steelers in 2021. Will he remain there in 2022?
B.J. Finney blocks for Le’Veon Bell against the Bills in 2016. Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA Today Sports, via K-State Slate
Capsule Profile of B.J. Finney’s Career with the Steelers
B.J. Finney joined the Steelers as part of their 2015 Undrafted Rookie free agent class and although he did not survive the final cut, returned to the Steelers practice squad in late September of that year. He made the final cut a year later and from 2016 onward, B.J. Finney was a key part of the rotation on the interior line.
After that, he finished the season on Cincinnati’s inactive.
The Steelers haven’t beaten the Bengals since, so maybe they were on to something.
Finney resigned with the Steelers during the 2021 off season, but only saw limited duty, despite a flurry of injures at tackle and later center. Finney did start the Steelers second loss to the Bengals but was injured in the following week’s win against the Ravens and ended the season on injured reserve.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney
B.J. Finney has been with the Steelers organization for over a half decade. He knows the system, the coaches know him. While he might not be “starter capable” as some of Much’s other pupils, he can step in and play either guard or center.
That, given his low price tag makes it a win-win situation for all sides involved.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning B.J. Finney
The interior of the Steelers offensive line was as bad as it has been in a generation this past year. And B.J. Finney was not only not good enough to push any of the 3 starters, he wasn’t even the proverbial “Next man up.”
B.J. Finney is at the “What you see is what you get” point in his career.
His experience gives him and advantage, but he is on the wrong side of 30. Even though the Steelers have a young offensive line, they could still stand to get younger and certainly must get stronger.
You don’t do that with B.J. Finney.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and B.J. Finney
The Steelers have a bit of luxury here. No NFL team is going to wave a lot of money at B.J. Finney. The Steelers can go into free agency looking to add a guard and/or a tackle continue to add to that in the draft, and B.J. Finney will probably still be available in May if they need more depth.
In case you tuned out and are only now starting to tune back in now that Steelers training camp is nearing, the big news out Pittsburgh following OTAs is that Steelers insider Dejan Kovacevic, the founder and editor of DK Pittsburgh Sports, came under fire recently for writing about and then podcasting about the possibility that someone within the Steelers organization was upset with second-year guard Kevin Dotsonfor a supposed lack of conditioning this offseason.
Kevin Dotson as a rookie. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com
With the Steelers offensive line in total rebuild mode thanks to the release of guard David DeCastro last week, this has the potential to be a big story, especially when you consider the fact that Kevin Dotson, who had a tremendous rookie season in spot duty in 2020, was penciled in as the new starting left guard the very second Matt Feiler left via free agency in March.
In fact, according to DK’s source, when Trai Turner was brought in for a visit during the week of mandatory minicamp, it wasn’t in an attempt to find DeCastro’s replacement at right guard; it was to possibly find someone who could play left guard in place of the seemingly undisciplined Dotson. (Turner was ultimately signed to replace DeCastro as the starting right guard for 2021.)
Is Kevin Dotson not taking his opportunity seriously, as DK’s source is apparently asserting?
The funny part was how quickly Steelers fans rallied around Kevin Dotson and took to social media to post pictures and videos of the guard hard at work during the offseason. Not only did the fans take up for Dotson, but his trainer —Duke Mayweather –did as well. Even other local reporters scoffed at Kovacevic’s story and said things simply did not add up.
Just because things don’t add up on the surface, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people within the Steelers’ organization who are upset with Dotson. Dotson could be taking his opportunity to be the next starting left guard very seriously — hitting the gym, hitting the film room, etc.–and yet there still could be at least one person within the Steelers’ organization — a coach, a front-office executive, freaking Art Rooney II–who is unhappy with his desire and dedication.
Think about it, why would Kovacevic, a longtime local sports reporter, want to make his job harder by fabricating a story that’s going to anger the Steelers and possibly cause him to lose access to players and coaches? Heck, Ramon Foster works for DK Pittsburgh Sports. It would be foolish for Kovacevic to make this public if it wasn’t said to him. Mark Madden, the popular and controversial Pittsburgh sports talk radio personality, has had sources within the Steelers’ organization for years. Who were/are they? A good journalist would never reveal such a thing.
Anyway, more often than not, when Madden reports something from his anonymous sources(s), it turns out to be true.
Case in point, Madden was the first person to report that running back Le’Veon Bellwould be suspended at the start of the 2016 season for missing several mandatory drug tests. Nobody wanted to buy it at the time. Bell, who was suspended for the first two games of the 2015 campaign, vehemently denied this rumor.
It turned out to be true.
Again, though, I’m not saying that Dotson is out of shape and/or not taking his job as a professional football player seriously. What I am saying is that at least one person within the Steelers’ organization is probably unhappy with him for one reason or another.
Football people are weird. Coaches can be unusual birds and are often hard to please. General managers can have strange opinions on players. Even owners are susceptible to placing one of their charges in the dog house and never letting him out.
There could be any number of reasons why someone is unhappy with Dotson. Maybe it’s his draft pedigree. After all, he was a fourth-round pick from Louisiana who wasn’t even invited to the 2020 NFL Combine. Perhaps someone feels Pittsburgh could do better at left guard in terms of talent and ability.
It could even be Dotson’s outspoken nature on social media.
I know that sounds crazy, but, again, coaches, executives and owners can be strange birds.
They say all it takes is one person to be your champion in order to succeed at something. The opposite can be true, as well. I think the most famous example may be the disdain former Raiders owner Al Davis continuously had for Marcus Allen, a Hall of Fame running back and one of the greatest players to ever don the silver and black. There’s never been any specific reason given as to why the late Davis had it out for his star running back –everything from Allen’s training camp holdouts to his lack of breakaway speed has been mentioned as possibilities –but there’s no question the feud was very real.
If you’re going to have someone within your organization not believe in you, the last person you’d want it to be is the one who signs your checks.
In conclusion, all the workout pictures and videos in the world aren’t going to change the fact that at least one person within the Steelers’ organization is likely upset with Kevin Dotson. Is it justified? I can’t answer that. I do know that when it comes to Dejan Kovacevic, instead of killing the messenger, you should probably be asking why a promising young guard is seemingly in the doghouse of a prominent member within the Steelers’ organization.
American football is difficult to comprehend for most outside of North America. Yet, even people from outside of the US, Canada and Mexico can easily understand the role and importance of offensive tackles in football thanks to Sandra Bullock’s intro to On the Blind Side.
“The first check goes for the mortgage, the second to the insurance.”
Offensive tackles are seen as the sentinels that protect the quarterback. While its possible that their value gets overrated, the wise will remember that the 0-4 2013 Steelers fortunes only started improving after Mike Tomlin made change at left tackle.
The Steelers are in a transition at tackle after a period of stability there, but just how great of a priority is tackle for Pittsburgh in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Ben Roethlisberger comforts Zach Banner after his injury. (Photo Credit: Seth Wenig)
And it worked pretty well. Alas, it didn’t signal good times to come. Zach Banner beat out Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting job, only to tear his ACL for the season, and Matt Feiler struggled as a guard. Pro Football Focus ratings are overrated, but for what they’re worth, Chuks graded out as 57.5 allowed 3 sacks and was flagged for 5 penalties.
Rumors have said that he could return to the Steelers, but that might happen after the NFL Draft.
Steelers Tackle Depth Chart: The Backups
For the past several seasons, the Steelers have had the luxury of dressing 3 starter capable tackles, with the 3rd tackle working in as a 3rd tight end in the jumbo package. Those days are over. Other than Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor the Steelers have Joe Haeg who brings 67 games worth of experience for the Colts and Buccaneers, Aviante Collins, who last played with the Vikings in 2019, Jarron Jones, Brandon Walton, Anthony Coyle and John Leglue.
The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Tackle
You can never have enough good offensive lineman, and if you don’t have good tackles even the best interior line play is for naught.
The Steelers may have two quality starting tackles in Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor. Joe Haeg might provide that critical veteran depth. Someone might distinguish himself from the body of players the Steelers have here on futures contracts.
But that’s hardly how you set yourself up for a Super Bowl run, particularly with an aging Ben Roethlisberger’s whose back for one final ride.
While the Steelers are probably in a strong enough position that they don’t have to draft a starter at tackle, it is still possible that a premium pick could come to Pittsburgh and win the starting job. Given that, the Steelers needs at tackle going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered High-Moderate.
Look up the word “Guard” in Webster’s on-line dictionary and you’ll see: A person or a body of persons on sentinel duty. Following Webster’s lead, would think that your “Guards” would be more important than any other position on the offensive line.
But conventional wisdom would say that they’re not.
The conventional wisdom is right in this case. Which isn’t to say that guards are unimportant. The Steeler enjoyed solid play at guard for a long time, yet the quality of play slipped in 2020, and it was noticeable. So, does how does or should that impact the Steelers plans for the 2021 NFL Draft?
David DeCastro and Chukwuma Okorafo on the South Side. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Steelers Depth Cart at Guard: The Starters
When he fell to the Steelers during the 2012 NFL Draft, David DeCastro was providing the penultimate piece to an offensive line that would become the NFL’s best for a half decade. Aside from an injury that truncated his rookie season, durability has been one of DeCastro’s calling cards until 2020.
An injury kept DeCastro on the bench for the first 2 games of 2020.
Steel Curtain Rising has no inside information on this front, nor have any sourced reporters confirmed this, but conventional wisdom is that whatever the injury was, it nagged DeCastro all season long. The Steelers other starter at guard, Matt Feilier, departed via free agency, theoretically, leave the left guard slot open.
Steelers Guard Depth Chart: The Backups
Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette once quoted Art Rooney Sr. as saying, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day” (Collier really did. Except Don’t Google it. You won’t find it.) The Chief was right. But sometimes the vibe a player creates is just a little different. Such was the case with Kevin Dotson after the Steelers picked Dotson in the 4th round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why it was said or the way that whoever was saying it was different, but word was, from almost the get go, that Dotson was a keeper.
And they were right. Kevin Dotson filled in for DeCastro early in the season and later started the final two games of the season with some commentators suggesting he should replace Matt Feiler. While we’re treating him as a backup for this analysis simply because the Steelers website doesn’t even list him as a guard, barring injury or some other calamity, Kevin Dotson will be the Steelers left guard on opening day 2021, and the team will be stronger for it.
B.J. Finney might be the Steelers starting center, but if he is not expect him to be the “Next man up” at guard. After that, the Steelers have Rashaad Coward, who brings 3 years of NFL experience with the Chicago Bears that includes 30 games and 15 starts. One would suppose that J.C. Hassenauer could play guard in a pinch.
The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs @ Guard
Guard almost perfectly encapsulates the Steelers situation going into the 2021 NFL Draft and the season as a whole. If David DeCastro returns to form and remains healthy, and if Kevin Dotson builds on his rookie year and remains healthy, and if the Steelers get a starter-capable center in the draft, then Pittsburgh can comfortably ignore guard until late in the afternoon on Day 3.
But, like in so many other position areas, that’s a lot of “Ifs.”
And remember, David DeCastro is both turning 31 and going into the final year of his contract. While he’s certainly a candidate for an extension this summer, he’s also coming off a season in which he struggled.
Given their other needs using a premium pick on a guard is simply a luxury the Steelers don’t have. But the truth is that the Steelers need to boost depth going into 2021 and can’t ignore the need for a potential starter beyond, so their need at guard going into the 2021 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate.
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 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.
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 Johnsonand 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.
Sutton played in each of the rest of the Steelers games in 2017, and saw his playing time increase in the coming year where he logged 46% of the defensive snaps, working in behind starters Steven Nelson, Joe Haden and Mike Hilton.
During 2020, Cam Sutton intercepted one pass, defensed eight more passes, forced 3 fumbles and recovered one of those. Per Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Sutton logged a career-high 53% of all defensive snaps. Of the Steelers “signable” free agents, keeping Cam Sutton in Pittsburgh was clearly their biggest priority.
Arguably, the next most important signings for the Steelers would be offensive tackle Zach Banner and nose tackle Tyson Alualu.
Why Only 2 Years for Cam Sutton?
On the face of it, Cam Sutton appears to have taken a “hometown discount,” as 9 million over two years is hardly big payday for a proven NFL cornerback. Obviously, if Sutton and his agent had harder offers from outside of Pittsburgh, they wouldn’t have agreed to a deal so quickly.
But what is surprising is the term of the deal.
A one year “prove it” deal wouldn’t have been a surprise, but a two year deal does surprise, given the the Steelers typically sign their players to 3 year second contracts. At the beginning of the off season, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic observed that Steelers most important contracts ran through 2021.
Kaboly’s conclusion was that this was where management had seen the team’s natural window of Super Bowl viability ending.
Could Cam Sutton’s two year deal indicate that the team is now projecting into 2022? At this point its far too early to to tell but it is worth keeping an eye on.
Bud Bolts, Feiler Flies
While the news that Cam Sutton would be staying in Pittsburgh was a positive and perhaps a bit surprising, several free agents announced their decisions to sign elsewhere. Bud Dupree has apparently reached a deal to play with the Tennessee Titans and Matt Feiler will join the San Diego Chargers.
JuJu Smith-Schuter has not annouced his new home, but has informed players that he will be departing, and rumors have tied Mike Hilton to Philadelphia.
The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line during most of the Mike Tomlin era has been a study in contrasts. For the better part of the last decade, the Steelers have fielded one of the best, if not the best offensive line in football.
But the route they’ve taken to get their is more circuitous than Glass Run Road
(Sorry, if you’re not from or at least familiar with Pittsburgh then Googling “Glass Run Road” it won’t cut it here. So you’ve just got to trust me on this, or otherwise go to Pittsburgh and drive it on a rainy night on a Learner’s Permit.)
On the one hand, it has featured high-profile draft picks, such as Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve unheralded draft picks and/or undrafted free agents. Matt Feiler is the latest in the latter group, and he’s about to become a free agent.
Will he find his fortune in Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Unnestricted Free Agent Matt Feiler, Photo Credit: Matt Sunday, DK Pittsburgh Sports
Capsule Profile of Matt Feiler’s Career with the Steelers
One year after signing with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent out of Bloomsburg, Matt Feiler latched on with the Steelers in 2015. After spending a few seasons honing his skills under the tutelage of offensive line coach–and position guru– Mike Munchak.
Feiler got his big break in 2018 when he started 10 games at right tackle in place of the injured Marcus Gilbert. How well did Feiler do? So well, Pittsburgh felt more than comfortable trading Gilbert to the Cardinals in the 2019 offseason. Feiler justified the move that regular season by starting all 16 games at right tackle. In 2020, Feiler, who was a versatile backup before becoming a starter, was moved to left guard to take the place of the retired Ramon Foster. Feiler appeared to struggle much more at that position, however, than he did at right tackle.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2021
2020 could have just been an off year for Feiler, 28. Either that, or it was simply a mistake moving him to the guard position, one that could easily be corrected by putting him back at right tackle in 2021. Beyond that, the Steelers, in a word, need offensive lineman.
They need both quality and quantity.
Matt Feiler was part of what was still one of the best offensive lines in football in 2018. He’s a proven commodity at a position the Steelers need to strengthen.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Matt Feiler in 2021
Feiler isn’t an exclusive rights free agent or a restricted free agent. He’s now an unrestricted free agent who is free to shop his services wherever he desires. I personally feel that Feiler’s best position is right tackle and if I’m thinking that, perhaps various NFL general managers are, as well.
And if Feiler wants to really cash in, he’s surely thinking that. What could Feiler command on the open market as a tackle? If it’s anything approaching what other Steelers offensive tackles received in free agency, such as Kelvin Beachum (five years, $45 million from the Jaguars in 2015) and Chris Hubbard (five years, $36.5 million from the Browns in 2018), it will likely be much too much for the salary cap-strapped Steelers.
Besides all of that, the Steelers appear to have their left guard of the very immediate future in Kevin Dotson, last year’s fourth-round pick; Dotson did so well while starting in place of both Feiler and perennial All-Pro David DeCastro, he probably would have been the team’s rookie of the year if not for Chase Claypool.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Matt Feiler
It’s going to take much work for the Steelers to get in cap compliance this offseason. Zach Banner, a fellow free agent, is most likely returning after missing the vast majority of 2020 with a torn ACL. Chukwuma Okorafor, a third-round pick in 2018, is heading into the final year of his rookie deal and took Banner’s place at right tackle last year.
I think the Steelers are going to give those two youngsters every opportunity to win the tackle spots in 2021. As for the left guard position? Dotson appears to have a bright future. Again, I feel that Feiler would be wise to market himself as a tackle in free agency.
I think it’s best for the Steelers to move on.
Given that the Steelers don’t have the flexibility to make luxury signings on the offensive line, expect them to do just that.
2013’s Steelers Free Agent Focus article started with a quote and a clip from the Dark Knight Rises. The Steelers were coming off of an 8-8 finish, their first no-winning effort of the Tomlin years, and Kevin Colbert had committed to change. Moreover, the Steelers were in salary cap purgatory, forcing them to attempt addition by subtraction.
While the context is different this year, the Steelers salary cap situation is actually worse.
So perhaps a stroll down memory lane is in order:
“There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.”
The final number of the 2021 NFL salary cap remains undefined. Its floor is 180 million and some suspect it could go up by 2 or 3 million more. The Steelers need every penny they get, having planned for a salary cap of a about 220 million.
Thanks to Maurkice Pouncey and Vance McDonald’s retirements, Cam Heyward‘s contract restructure, Ben Roethlisberger’s new contract that gives the Steelers an additonal 15 million dollars in salary cap space this year, the Steelers might not need to cut players just to get into compliance.
JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner in September 22, at Levi Stadium. Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
So fortunately, life will not imitate art here: They’ll be no literal blowing up of the Steelers roster to mimic the cinematic destruction of Heinz Field.
But the Steelers have a horrendously long list of free agents, and must say good bye to far too many of them for comfort.
Free agency is almost here and staff writer Tony Defeo and I are doing profiles of each player.
Here is the list of Steelers free agents we’ve yet to profile:
2021 Unrestricted Free Agents
Jerald Hawkins, Offensive Tackle Danny Isidora, Guard Jordan Berry, Punter
With his back against the wall, Kevin Colbert did a respectable job at managing the Steelers free agency situation and put together a decent opening day roster. However, injuries would ravage that roster where it could least afford them, leading to a 2-6.
That 2-6 start however led to a 6-2 finish, which set the franchise up for its second, albeit failed Super Bowl run of the Roethlisberger era. But many of those personnel moves set the team up for its late season comeback.
Can Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert, and Mike Tomlin do something along those lines that allows the Steelers to contend for a Super Bowl in 2021?
The odds are against it, but try they will, and we will cover it as they do.