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Steelers, Le’Veon Bell May be Headed Toward Holdout

In February, the Steelers Le’Veon Bell was hit with the franchise tag. That meant two things. First, Bell, who was paid $1.13 million in 2016 is getting a 1200% pay raise next season. It also meant the Steelers are able to keep their running back, and one of the best offensive players in the NFL, around for another season.

Franchise tags, however, also have negative impacts for both the team and the player. For the Steelers they are stuck with a $12 million cap hit for 2017. As for Bell, he wants a long-term deal. Many pro sports players only get a chance at one big contract. This, as Bell has shown his importance to the Steelers offense, is his chance.

As of right now Bell has not shown up to any of the Steelers off-season activities. He, likely, will try to avoid the field until he is under a new contract.

Why Le’Veon Bell Wants to Sign an Extension

Le’Veon Bell wants to get locked into a long-term deal with lots of guaranteed money. Who wouldn’t want that? Also, you have to factor in Bell’s injury history so far during his NFL career. Another knee injury or other major injury in 2017 could have a massive impact on a contract for Bell next off-season.

Of course, that is the worst case scenario, but when it comes down to millions of dollars you have to look at the worst case scenarios. Bell wants to be locked in before stepping back on the field and it is hard to blame him.

Fans often get angry with players who are holding out. I can remember when Mike Wallace was in the middle of his holdout and Steelers fans wanted to run him out of town, but put yourself in that situation. I would want my money also and wouldn’t want to risk losing the amount of money that Bell could risk losing by joining the Steelers for minicamp and training camp.

Why the Steelers Want an Extension Done

When the Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell he was supposed to be the new franchise running back. I don’t think anyone really expected him to become the kind of weapon he has become. At this point in his career Bell is one of the top players not only on the Steelers, but in the NFL.

Therefore, the Steelers would be dumb not to want to sign him to an extension. When you can lock-up a duo of offensive threats like Bell and Antonio Brown, and do so for the next four years, you kind of have to do it.

Another reason for the Steelers to get this deal done is to spread out Bell’s cap hits over the course of a contract. As things stand currently Bell will be the highest paid running back in 2017 by a margin of $4 million.

Why the Steelers May be Hesitant

Running backs are not as highly valued as they used to be. In fact, running backs are being drafted lower on average in the NFL Draft and are not making as much money in free agency. One of the reasons for this change is the move to more passing in NFL offenses. Another reason is that running backs don’t last as long as players at other positions.

There is a lot of wear and tear on NFL running backs. That leads to teams moving on from running backs, for the most part, around their 30th birthday. A positive to this situation is that Bell just turned 25. So, a four or five year deal would still allow the Steelers to avoid the dreaded highly-paid thirty-year-old running back.

Why Le’Veon Bell Could be Hesitant

The Steelers do not overpay. And they will try not to overpay Bell with a new deal. Another team, however, may be willing to overpay for Bell if he were to hit free agency. One drawback is that the Steelers could choose to franchise tag Bell again next off-season.

That, however, would require a 120% pay increase. A pay increase of 120% would bring Bell’s contract to $14.4 million. The Steelers are unlikely to go to that number, but they could use a second franchise tag to give them another chance to sing Bell to a long-term deal and that would put Bell in the position of playing out another year and risking injury.

Since a second franchise tag is unlikely that would mean Bell would hit free agency. In that scenario, there are plenty of teams with a lot of salary cap room that may be willing to sign Bell to a large deal. Any team would be excited to have Bell. He is the type of player that could excite a fan-base and ignite a franchise.

Expected Outcome

The Steelers do not negotiate during the season. That gives Bell and the Steelers about two months to get a deal done. Another reason to expect a deal to get done is the Steelers cap situation. They have $12 million to work with as Bell’s current contract on the franchise tag. They also have another $16 million of cap space to add to the scenario.

That gives them all the money they need to get a deal done. The only question now is whether the two sides can agree to terms. Bell previously talked about wanting $15 million a year, but those demands seem to be a past issue. The Steelers are probably looking in the range of $8 million, that is the same as LeSean McCoy, the second-highest paid running back currently behind Bell. If the sides have a difference of $4-7 million that could cause some major issues in negotiations.

I do expect some issues in these negotiations, but I also expect it to get done. It would surprise me if the Steelers and Bell were in a long hold-out situation this off-season. Instead, I think a four or five year deal will be signed sometime in July to keep Bell from spending too much time away from the team.

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With the Salary Cap Cleaned Up, The Steelers Have Options

For some reason the Steelers salary cap situation has always been one of my favorite things to look into. During the mid-2000’s the team was constantly restructuring contracts to keep their salary cap in line. Now, they have seen many of those large veteran contracts come off of the books and they are in a very good position with the cap. In fact, the Steelers currently sit over $16 million under the cap. That gives them plenty of options as they enter the final months of the off-season.

The Steelers, typically speaking, do not have negotiations during the season. They try to get all of their contracts finalized before the start of the regular season. That gives the team, and any players in the position of signing an extension, only about two more months to get things done. With a $16 million free on the books for the upcoming season the Steelers will definitely sign a couple of players to extensions before the end of the pre-season.

Lock-Up Key Players

There are three players I expect to have new contracts before the start of the 2017 season. The first is Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt was drafted to give the Steelers defensive line a boost and he has done just that. Actually, Tuitt has been so good that it will be hard to sign him to a cap friendly deal. Even so, keeping Tuitt and Cameron Heyward together makes a lot of sense for the Steelers. They give the team a very solid defensive front and should make life a lot easier on the Steelers young outside linebackers.

Next, I expect the team to focus on corner Ross Cockrell. Cockrell has been a solid corner for the Steelers since coming over from Buffalo. One of the biggest factors in keeping Cockrell around is, despite having three years of NFL experience, he is only 25. It is hard to find It is hard to find good young corners, but the Steelers seem to have one in Cockrell. Locking him in on a team friendly deal would be a smart move this off-season.

Finally, I think that the Steelers will try and come to terms with Le’Veon Bell on a long-term contract. There has been a lot of talk about what the team should do with Bell. Running backs aren’t valued as much as they used to be. There is also the fact that Bell has dealt with suspensions. One more issue and Bell would face a year-long suspension. Then, there is the fact that Bell may be the most dynamic offensive player in the NFL. Keeping a player of his ability around is something the Steelers would like to do. The only question is how much money is Bell looking for.

Front-Loaded Contract Extension

Depending on who the Steelers decide to sign to extensions will determine what they can do with the cap. If they only choose to sign one or two players to extensions they could look to front-load a deal. For example, if they wanted to sign Bell to a four-year deal worth say $48 million, which would be $12 million annually, they could give him $20 million in year one. He already is counting $12 million against the cap so that would still leave the team with $8 million in cap space. It would also mean that Bell’s final three years would only count an average of $9.3 million against the cap saving the team some money in those next three years for other spots.

Front-loading a contract is something that teams will do when they have excess cap space, similar to the position the Steelers are in now. Front-loading and back-loading contracts, however, both come with concerns. Back-loading can cause a team to be paying too much for a player later in their career. While with front-loading, there is always the concern that a player may become “lazy” following the big payday.

Many players have seen their production fall off after receiving their first big contract. That could be age, other teams focusing on stopping them, but most believe that it has to do with work ethics dipping. Players work hard to get a big contact, but once they are being paid big money what is the motivation? If they struggle to answer that question the contract could turn into a problem.

Salary Cap Carryover

NFL teams are also allowed to carryover a salary cap surplus. That means if the Steelers are unable to agree to terms on any extensions they would be given $16 million extra on top of next year’s salary cap number. That also gives them plenty of options. They could use that surplus to give negotiations one more try. Or, they could use that money to go after replacements for impending free agents that they don’t think they will be able to retain.

Estimated Value of The Steelers Impending Free Agents

Le’Veon Bell:

Le’Veon Bell is currently on the franchise tag, which will pay him $12 million for the 2017 season. That will also make him the highest paid running back by over $4 million. The Steelers will be using the biggest running back contracts on the market to set Bell’s value. LeSean McCoy is the second highest paid running back at $8 million a year. That is where the Steelers will want this contract to be.

Bell is the most valuable running back in the NFL. That will make him the highest paid as well. I see something in the five-year $55-60 million range, which makes me happy he will be around, but worries me as running back contracts rarely end well.

Stephon Tuitt:

Estimating value for a 3-4 defensive end is difficult. They often get listed with all defensive ends, but a 3-4 end is much different than a 4-3 end. For example, JJ Watt and Tuitt have different roles on their teams. Even so, Tuitt will be looking for a big pay day. Cameron Heyward signed a five-year $59 million contract in 2015. That will probably be around what Tuitt will be asking for, but the Steelers will need to try and get him on a deal in the average annual range of $7-8 million rather than $10 million.

Something around four-years $32-36 million is what I would expect.

Ross Cockrell:

Yes, Cockrell has been a starter for the Steelers, but he won’t be getting starting corner money. Instead I expect the Steelers to look in the range of what they are paying William Gay. A contract that averages $2.5-3 million. The Steelers can hope to lock up Cockrell now and hope he continues to improve. If they can lock him up now they may end up getting good value in the final years of the contract.

Three-years at $8-9 million would be a great deal for both sides.

Image result for alejandro villanuevaAlejandro Villanueva –

Villanueva has played well for the Steelers, but I’m still not sure if I would give him an extension this summer. The Steelers still hold his rights for another year and can wait to sign him until next summer. The left-tackle position is tough. Food for thought: Kelvin Beachum is getting paid $8 million per year. So, if you want Villanueva on an extension that will be the starting point.

If they choose to do it I would expect the max to be $8 million a year. Maybe three-years at $24 million. I’m not sure I would go any higher or longer than that until Villanueva has played more.

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Bud Dupree is Poised For Breakout Season in Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Steelers have always been known for their defense. A big part of that defense, especially during the Steelers Super Bowl runs in 2006, 2008 and 2010, was the team’s pass-rush. They like to get after the quarterback, which, in turn, makes life easier for everyone else on the defensive unit. During those runs the Steelers relied on guys like Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, Harrison is still around, but the Steelers are now ready to turn to a new face, Bud Dupree.

Dupree, the Steelers first-round pick in 2015, looks like he is ready to follow in the footsteps of those before him. Although he missed the first half of the 2016 season with an injury, he was able to return and play a key role in the Steelers seven game sin streak down the stretch. Playing in only seven games Dupree totaled 24 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Now, Dupree will be looked at to take on a full-time starting job at outside linebacker in year three.

Double-Digit Sack Numbers

Image result for bud dupreeDupree, while sharing time at outside linebacker, racked up 4.5 sacks in only seven games. If he can stay healthy in 2017 and earn a full-time starter job there is no reason to think that he can’t put up double-digit sack numbers this season. In fact, Dupree looks like a player who is truly ready to breakout. Watching him play down the stretch he looked very good and he should continue to improve, especially with another off-season under his belt.

Dupree, and the team’s other young outside linebackers like TJ Watt and Keion Adams, also have a great mentor in James Harrison. Harrison, although only a step away from turning 40, is still one of the leagues best pass-rushers. He also has a work ethic that would be hard for anyone to match. For players just starting their careers he is a great role model to show them what it takes to be successful in the NFL.

Potential Impact on the 2017 Season

Just for fun let’s say that Bud Dupree has a similar season to LaMarr Woodley’s third year in the league. During the 2009 season Woodley had 13.5 sacks and 62 tackles. That also, unfortunately, happened to be Woodley’s best season as a pro. Now, if Dupree can put up numbers similar to those it would have a huge impact on the defense as a whole. Early in Woodley’s career he was a force to be reckoned with and constantly put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

After his career was derailed with injuries, however, the Steelers have been looking for a replacement to play opposite Harrison. Jarvis Jones was drafted to be that guy, but that never worked out. Now, the Steelers are turning to Bud Dupree and TJ Watt to be the next outside linebacker duo in Pittsburgh to wreck havoc on the league. Watt may need a year or two to get to that level, but Dupree should be ready to go.

Another huge impact that Dupree could have this season is making life easier on the secondary. The Steelers secondary struggled in 2016, especially in the AFC Championship game, but if the Steelers can put more pressure on the quarterback this season it will cause two things. First, quarterbacks will have to make quicker decisions resulting in more opportunities for interceptions and knockdowns. Second, it will result in more hits on the quarterback, which are shown to have a major impact as a game wears on.

Preparing for Year Three

Dupree knows that he has to improve to become the player he wants to be. During the off-season he has used boxing as a way to work on speed, footwork and it should help with that quick punch to get around the edge.

Dupree, as well as the other young Steelers defenders, are also using their loss in the AFC Championship as motivation. They know they need to get better if they want to reach their ultimate goal. They also know that they continued to grow during the 2016 season and should only get better as time moves on.

“We’re going to be a way more mature defense,” Dupree said of Pittsburgh’s defense. “We’re just going to continue to blossom. It’s going to be something to watch next year.”

 

 

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Steelers May Have Found More Impact Rookies in the 2017 Draft

The running line in Pittsburgh for years has been that the Steelers don’t play rookies much, if at all, making their number of impact rookies low from year to year. They let them learn and when they are ready they are inserted into the lineup. That is a product of being a successful organization. When the Steelers draft a player, typically, they don’t need that player to step in to fill a hole or turn things around for the team. That is also one of the reasons why the Steelers have more successful drafts than other teams.

Image result for browns draft pick failsThe Browns are the perfect example to show what I am talking about. When the Browns are consistently drafting in the top 5 of the NFL Draft they have to look for a player to turn things around. They have drafted multiple quarterbacks and most have failed to bring any success to Cleveland. That, however, is not because all of those players didn’t have the skills to be NFL players. Instead, they are brought in as rookies and looked at to be saviors. The fan base rejoices at the sight of the new player and hopes they can turn it all around. That, unfortunately for teams like the Browns, is too much pressure to put on a young player. And, as we have seen for years, is not a good way to welcome a young player into the NFL.

Now, looking back at the Steelers, it is easy to see how their draft picks find more success. Players are drafted and allowed to learn the nuiances of the NFL before being thrown into the fire. Players aren’t drafted to change the fortunes. Rather the Steelers draft players to be replacements. They are given time and, when they are ready, they step in to fill a hole or to replace a veteran. That is the recipe for success, but it has also led to some criticism. Fans often complain that the Steelers need to find better impact rookies. The fact is, though, that they probably have had many players that could have been impact rookies, but they were given time to develop first.

The 2016 Rookie Class

Then, in 2017, the Steelers broke their mold a bit. In need of help in the secondary the Steelers turned to rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis to help. Burns started the year as a rotational player, but eventually became a full-time stater and looks like he can become a very good outside corner. As for Davis, the Steelers 2016 second round pick, had an excellent rookie season. Davis looks like he can be an All-Pro level safety.

Perhaps he will never reach the level of Troy Polamalu, but Davis should help to alleviate the hole left by the future Hall of Famer.

 The Next Impact Rookies:

Now, the Steelers are preparing to enter training camp for the 2017 season. After a successful 2016 season the team will look to build on what they did a season ago. Part of that will be bringing along another draft class and, once again, looking for a couple of impact rookies to make a difference on defense.

Typically teams turn to their first round pick to be an impact player. For the Steelers, however, it may be their second and third round picks that will have the real impact in 2017.

Juju Smith-Schuster

When the Steelers saw Juju Smith-Schuster on the board in the second round they had to pull the trigger. Wide receiver wasn’t a need for the Steelers, but a player of Smith-Schuster’s ability is hard to pass up at the end of the second round. Smith-Schuster also adds a new component to the Steelers offense. He is a big-bodied receiver who can make catches in the middle of the field. He should find plenty of open room with teams focusing on Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

Smith- Schuster’s ability to play in the middle of the field should also help to replace the departed Ladarius Green. Another key to Smith-Schuster’s game is his willingness to block. He is not afriad of contact and will help to block down-field and spring big plays. Just look at this hit, he kind of looks like a young Hines Ward:

Cameron Sutton

Image result for cameron sutton steelersThe Steelers are also looking to third round pick Cameron Sutton to help solidify their secondary. Sutton has, during OTAs, opened a few eyes with his play. According to reports he gets his hands on the ball a lot. Sutton can play inside and out as a corner and could be another mid-round find for the Steelers.

Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter said:

“I’m really liking what I’m seeing from rookie cornerback Cameron Sutton.He had a nice interception this week, leaping high to come down with a pass. The young corner has shown good aggression in jumping routes and making plays on the football. He gets his hands on the ball – a lot.

I think Steelers fans are going to be very happy with him, as well. He looks like a player.”

TJ Watt

Watt also has the ability to make an impact early in his career, but the Steelers have typically been slower to develop their pass-rusher. He will likely only be used as a situational pass-rusher, similar to how the Steelers used Bud Dupree, Jarvis Jones and LaMarr Woodley during their rookie seasons. That, however, still gives Watt a chance to have an impact and show what he can do moving forward.

As a rookie, in limited time, Woodley had 4.5 sacks and showed the Steelers that they had a player who could take a starting hob in his second season. Hopefully Watt can have a similar, if not better, rookie season and come back ready to play full-time in his sophomore season.

 

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The Steelers Extra Second Round Pick, Senquez Golson, is Ready

Senquez Golson was drafted in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft to help bolster the Steelers secondary. He was looked at as a player that could step in right away and help in the slot and in the nickle defense. Then, a shoulder injury derailed his rookie season before it ever really starter. When year two rolled around, Golson again lost his season, this time to a foot injury.

“This,’’ Golson told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “is my third ‘first’ year.”

Golson is one of the lucky ones, though, despite missing his first two seasons with injury he still has a roster spot and he is still competing for a job in Pittsburgh. It is said all of the time that the NFL is a business and that is the truth. Talking with a friend the other day he told me about a story of a friend of his that was in training camp with an NFL team. On his first day of off-season activities the coach said “We aren’t your family. Your family won’t cut you and never look back, but we will if you don’t show us what we are looking for.” That is the reality of pro sports.

Every team is looking to get better at all times. Only the true star players are really safe at any given time. And sometimes even those players aren’t safe due to their large cap numbers and salaries. Just look at what Kevin Colbert, the Steelers GM, said regarding Golson earlier this year:

“Through no fault of his own, he has been injured two years in a row,’’ Colbert said. “And in all honesty, I worry about a defensive back coming off of a foot injury because you don’t know what he’s going to be like and we won’t know until we get into the OTAs and mini-camps, and things of that nature.”

Basically, Colbert was saying that Golson will be given a chance to show what he can do, but they aren’t relying on him or expecting anything from him. That means anything Golson can do will be an addition to the team, but again the NFL is a business first. If Golson doesn’t show anything during this training camp, or if the injury bug hits again it could be the end.

Image result for senquez golsonAn Extra Second Round Pick with “Experience”

Now, lets look at this situation in a positive light and hope Golson comes into camp healthy and stays that way. He still has second-round talent. He is only 23 years old (he will turn 24 on July 7th) and he feels as though his previous injuries have not changed him as a player.

Senquez Golson also has one advantage over the incoming players and rookies in the secondary. Although he hasn’t gotten the on-field experience in his first two years, he has been in the meeting room with the other defensive backs. He has had two full years of learning the playbook and those two things give him a lot of experience. Even if it isn’t on-field experience.

“At this point, the only thing I’m missing is in-game experience,” he said. “I pretty much have the basics down. I don’t feel any hitch, no falloff, nothing like that.”

A New Battle

Battling through injuries is a new battle for Senquez Golson. To make it to the NFL a player has to be the best player in High School and one of, if not the best, player at their respective college. Most of these players have also avoided major injuries that could have derailed their path to the NFL at any time. Now, imagine being injury free, making it to the NFL, and then the injuries you have avoided your whole life finally show up. That has been reality for Golson.

“Never in my life — ever — never missed a season, never missed time, never had an injury, never had surgery,” he said. “This is all new to me, but it’s kind of gotten familiar.”

Hopefully for Senquez Golson, and the Steelers who could use the depth in the secondary, this is the beginning and end of injury problems for Golson. If he can stay healthy he could be another solid addition to the Steelers secondary. The team added rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis a season ago. Now, they have Cameron Sutton who is already looking like he could be a player during OTAs. Adding a healthy Golson to the mix would just be the icing on top.

Golson will have that chance and he is ready.

I’m still the same guy they drafted,” Golson said.

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The Potentially Huge Steelers Addition That No One is, Or Will, Talk About

Two years ago the Steelers had defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt playing an unprecedented number of snaps. To help shoulder that load the team added Ricardo Matthews in free agency. During the 2016 season the Steelers were still relying heavily on Heyward and Tuitt as Matthews battled some injuries. After Heyward, himself, suffered a season-ending injury the Steelers were forced to turn to LT Walton and Johnny Maxey.

Image result for tyson alualuDuring this off-season, however, the Steelers went for a more proven player to join the mix. Tyson Alualu was never meant to be drafted as high as he was. Perhaps that stigma stuck with him during his career in Jacksonville, I can’t say for sure. Now that he is in Pittsburgh, however, I can say that the Steelers signed him to be exactly who he is. Which is a solid defensive lineman who can play at the tackle position in a four-man front and at the end position in a three-man front.

Alualu also comes with a lot of experience, something that Walton and Maxey, who are also still on the roster, do not have. Walton and Maxey are players that can add depth on the roster. They can also step in for reps when needed, but Alualu gives the Steelers something they have been missing. He is a player that can step in and the team won’t miss a beat. He is the type of player that can start in place of Heyward and Tuitt and no one has to worry about what they might get out of him.

The Former Top-Ten Pick

Alualu was projected as a late-first, or early second round pick in 2010. Then, the Jacksonville Jaguars surprised everyone by drafting him with the tenth overall pick. Alualu had his most productive season a year ago and now joins the Steelers defense with a chance of being a big-time contributor.

The defensive ends in the Steelers defense serve a vital role, but they don’t always get the credit that they deserve. Aaron Smith, who played for the Steelers for 13 years, was a huge part of the Steelers defense, but I don’t think he is always remembered alongside players like Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter and James Harrison. Brett Keisel was more well-known, but a lot of that probably came from the beard.

In football there are some positions that, at times, get overlooked. When a quarterback hits a receiver for a 70 yard touchdown we look at the receivers and quarterback stats, but we often overlook the offensive line that gave them the time to get the play off. Defensive ends play a similar role on defense. They take up blockers and open lanes so that the linebackers can get to the quarterback. When the linebacker is celebrating the sack, however, we don’t always pay attention to the defensive lineman that made the play possible.

Improved Pass Rush in 2017

Image result for cameron heyward steelersThe development of Bud Dupree and TJ Watt will be important to improving the pass rush in 2017, but the play of the defensive line will also be vital. Javon Hargrave, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu should see a lot of snaps this season. It will be their job to open lanes and take on blockers to help give the linebackers lanes to the quarterbacks. They are also working towards the same goal, tackling the running backs or sacking the quarterbacks, but many times they play a thankless role.

When the Steelers defense was putting up big sack numbers in the mid 2000’s guys like James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans got much of the credit. They all were benefitted greatly, though, from playing alongside guys like Aaron Smith, Kemo von Oelhoffen, and Brett Keisel. Now, the Steelers have a new era of solid defensive lineman and those players should be able to make life easier for guys like Dupree, Watt, Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams.

If Hargrave, Heyward, Tuitt and Alualu can open gaps and take up blockers the Steelers pass-rush should be more potent during the upcoming season. To do so that group will need to stay healthy. The addition of Alualu should help with that as he can take up snaps and keep Heyward and Tuitt from wearing down.

Defensive Line Depth Chart for 2017

Javon Hargrave will be the top Nose Tackle. He will also be the first lineman brought in for sub packages. The Steelers top defensive ends will be Heyward and Tuitt. Behind them will be Tyson Alualu as the primary back-up and then some combination of L.T.Walton, Johnny Maxey, or some other players brought into compete during camp.

As for the back-up nose tackle, that job currently belongs to Daniel McCullers, but there are a decent number of young players, who will be in camp, that can take that job for themselves if McCullers doesn’t show improvement in year three.

 

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Steelers Add Stafford; Is There Something We Don’t Know About the Steelers Safeties?

Steelers Sign Free Agent Daimion Stafford

Image result for daimion staffordThe Pittsburgh Steelers have signed free agent safety Daimion Stafford. Stafford started his NFL career in 2013 as a seventh-round pick of the Tennessee Titans. He has played for the Titans in, mainly, a back-up role. Since entering the league Stafford has played in 62 games and has made eight starts.

Stafford, who was an unrestricted free agent, should be looked at as mainly a depth piece for the Steelers. There has been a lot of talk about the Steelers secondary this off-season and this is another move to bring competition into training camp.

Safety Depth Chart

Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell are still atop the safety depth chart at this time. Davis, who played very well as a rookie a season ago, will likely hold his spot for many years to come. As for Mitchell, there has been some talk this off-season about how much longer he will last in Pittsburgh. Mitchell does carry a decently sized cap number and the Steelers could look to move to a cheaper option. Perhaps not this off-season, but at the end of the season it is a real possibility.

Behind Mitchell and Davis the Steelers have a few veteran back-ups. Jordan Dangerfield, who has been with the Steelers since 2014, and Robert Golden, who is entering his sixth season with the team, will both be in the mix. Also on the roster are first-year player Jacob Hagen and undrafted rookie free agent Terrish Webb. Daimion Stafford will now join that group as they battle it out for the back-up spots behind Davis and Mitchell.

Is There Something We Don’t Know

Image result for sean davis steelersTime for the conspiracy theory. Sean Davis had off-season shoulder surgery and is currently sitting out of OTAs, which is, admittedly, not a big deal. If, however, it takes him longer than expected to return from surgery this could become a big headline in Pittsburgh. As for his counterpart, Mike Mitchell, there were reports that Mitchell was drug tested after working out with James Harrison earlier this off-season.

Now, if anything was to come from that drug test we would probably already know about it. As we all know, though, sometimes things get a little weird in the NFL and anything could happen. Now, assuming the signing of Stafford was in response to other news would also assume that the Steelers know something we don’t, which is not impossible. If it is true we would probably hear something official soon.

Let’s hope this move was just a lack of faith in Golden and Dangerfield and not anything else, but with Davis sidelined there has to be a little fear. As for the other option Golden has had five years to show what he can do. As for Dangerfield, he is a good special teams player, but the team hasn’t shown much faith in using him in the secondary. A guy like Stafford, who comes with experience, could be a replacement over either of those two players.

Other Roster Moves Today

The Steelers also re-signed long-snapper Kameron Canaday. Canaday will be brought in to compete with sixth-round pick Colin Holba. The NFL is all about competition and bringing Canaday back assures that Holba will have to win his job during camp rather than have it handed to him.

To make room on the roster the Steelers released punter A.J. Hughes.

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Will The Steelers Ever Get Past Tom Brady on Their Own?

One of the biggest questions for the Steelers is whether or not they can get past Tom Brady and New England Patriots. Three times the Steelers have faced Tom Brady in that game, 2002, 2005 and 2017, and three times they have lost. Since 2002 the Steelers have also made it to the Super Bowl three times, but they have never had to go through Brady and the Patriots to get there. Begging the question can the Steelers beat Tom Brady when it counts?

The 2006 Playoffs

The Steelers were a team of destiny during the 2005-2006 season. They were on a mission to win a championship for Jerome Bettis. That season the playoffs started early for the Steelers. Not only would they have to win three playoffs games just to get to the Super Bowl, but they also had to win their final found regular season games just to make it into the playoffs.

After beating the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round the Patriots just had to beat Denver. If they had the Steelers would have traveled to New England once again for the AFC Championship game.

The Patriots were driving in the third quarter of that divisional game. Tom Brady was looking for the go-ahead score:

Champ Bailey’s interceptions return resulted in a one-yard touchdown run by Mike Anderson. The Broncos went on to win and the Steelers avoided Brady and the Patriots. Perhaps the Steelers would have beat anyone that next week, but this was the first time the Steelers were able to avoid Brady in the playoffs and they made it to the Super Bowl.

First Quarter of Week 1 2008

In 2006 the Steelers failed to make the playoffs. A year later they lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round. Then came the 2008 season.

Brady went down with a knee injury on that first drive and missed the entire season. With the Patriots out of the way the Steelers once again were able to make their way to the Super Bowl. They beat the Chargers and Ravens in the playoffs and won, one of the greatest games of all-time, Super Bowl 43.

The 2011 Playoffs

Again in 2011 it looked like the Steelers would be running into the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. New England was the top seed in the AFC and Pittsburgh was the second seed. Then, the sixth-seeded New York Jets upset the Patriots. The Jets scored 14 fourth-quarter points and won 28-21.

The Steelers, again with the Patriots out of the way, were able to make the Super Bowl. That game didn’t go as well as 2006 and 2009, but it was the only other time during the Ben Roethlisberger era that the Steelers have made it to the big game.

The Time is Almost Up

Teams with mediocre quarterbacks rarely make a run at a Super Bowl. That is one of the reasons that quarterback is considered one of the most important positions of all the major sports. Right now the Steelers have a great quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, but that time is almost up. Roethlisberger may play one or two more years and that gives the Steelers one or two more legitimate shots at winning it all.

When Roethlisberger retires the Steelers will have to find another quarterback to lead them where they want to go. Perhaps it will be Joshua Dobbs, but perhaps not. Just remember the quarterback carousel in Pittsburgh before Roethlisberger. That is something that no one wants to see again, but it is also a common problem for teams lacking a franchise quarterback.

Can the Steelers Beat Tom Brady When it Counts

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady seem to have the Steelers’ number. Their quick passing game is hard to cover and makes it hard to put pressure on the quarterback. The best way to beat them is with great man-coverage corners. That is one of the reasons so many fans have argued for the team to focus on corner in the past.

Right now the Steelers have a very young defense that has the ability to be very good. Artie Burns looks like he will be a very good corner. Ross Cockrell has played very well for the Steelers as well. Senquez Golson, Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen are also young corners in the mix and the hope is that these young players will help to alleviate issues in the secondary.

The real test, however, will come against the New England Patriots. The Steelers will face the Patriots on December 17. They also, given that both teams are expected to be very good during the upcoming season, could see the Patriots again in the playoffs. The real question is: can they finally get past Brady when it counts?

One thing is for sure, they have the high-powered offense to outscore the Patriots, but can the defense do enough to win the game. It wasn’t enough in the AFC Championship, but the Steelers may get another shot in early 2018, we will see if that young defense is up to the task if they get a second shot.

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Marcus Gilbert is Out of Headlines and That is Big Deal

Some players are always in the headlines. Antonio Brown will fill up headlines for the rest of his career. As will guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell. Other players, guys like Johnny Manziel, make headlines for the wrong reasons. Then, you have the players that never want to see their names in the headlines. That includes guys like Colin Holba, Alejandro Villanueva, Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry and Marcus Gilbert.

Special Team Aces Avoid Headlines

Kickers, punters and long-snappers want to avoid headlines. Long-snappers only make the headlines if they have a bad snap that causes a missed kick or a lost game. Punters and kickers only make headlines when they miss a kick or have a bad kick. Every once in a while a kicker makes a headline for a big-time game-winning kick, but those times are rare and they would probably rather stay out of the headlines altogether.

Offensive Lineman are in the Same Boat

Offensive Lineman also would, likely, rather stay out of the headlines. When Le’Veon Bell runs for 150 yards the stories don’t talk about the blocking up front, but if Ben Roethlisberger gets sacked 10 times you better believe they will talk about those guys, and they would rather avoid that.

Guys like Marcus Gilbert staying out of the headlines is a good thing. When you hear too much about lineman it isn’t good and Marcus Gilbert has finally gotten out of the headlines.

Gilbert’s Early Years

Gilbert moved between right and left tackle. He battled with guys like Mike Adams year-in and year-out for a job. Injuries plagued his early career and fans called for him to be released time and time again, but now, a few years later Gilbert is the only one of them still around and there are no longer questions about whether or not he belongs.

In fact, Gilbert now finds himself as the for-sure starting right tackle. And is part of an offensive line that should rank somewhere in the top five of the entire NFL.

Becoming a Leader

It is hard to believe that Marcus Gilbert is already entering the seventh year of his career. He has finally locked up a starting job and has taken on a leadership role with guys like Al Villanueva, but he is also very competitive. When Myles Garrett, the Browns first round pick, said he most wants to sack Ben Roethlisberger, Gilbert took it as a challenge.

“Of course I saw it,” Gilbert said last Thursday. “It was on every news outlet. To us, we look at it as a challenge. Who wouldn’t want to go up against a future Hall of Fame quarterback? When you look at our division, Ben stands out alone. I can see why he would say that. But then again, that was a challenge. He wrote a check. Whoever challenges one of our guys, or our team, we’re going to step in and be ready for the battle.”

Although Gilbert has finally found his role with the Steelers, he is still looking for something else. He used to want Pro Bowl honors, but now it is all about winning it all.

“At this point of my career winning a Super Bowl is most important,” he said. “Adding one Pro Bowl to your resume? OK. But I’m going into my seventh year. It’s time.”

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William Gay, the Odd Man Out, and Camp Hasn’t Even Started Yet

There are a lot of signs pointing to the end of William Gay’s career in Pittsburgh. First, he did not have a good day at the office during the AFC Championship. Tom Brady and Julian Edelman picked on Gay all day and that is enough for many to want him gone. Next, you can factor in the signing of Coty Sensabaugh. Sensabaugh fits into the Steelers defense as a slot corner, the position Gay plays, he is also the Steelers only major free agent signing.

A Move to Safety

There have been rumors that Gay could move to safety. Perhaps the signing of Sensabaugh and the drafting of Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen was to shore up the cornerback position and to replace Gay. Replacing him could be in terms of a move to safety, though, rather than Gay being cut.

The problem, however, is that Gay is not going to be replacing Sean Davis at safety. Davis played very well as a rookie and should only continue to improve year-by-year. Free safety, a spot currently taken by Mike Mitchell, would be a better fit for Gay, but again Mitchell doesn’t seem likely to be replaced.

Mitchell has also been in the rumor mill this off-season. Questions about whether he will complete his 5-year deal in Pittsburgh have been posed. Cutting Mitchell in favor of Gay, though, seems like an odd choice to make. Gay would be a newcomer at safety and Mitchell has played well in that spot, although not great.

Gay Still Standing Strong at OTAs

During the Steelers first round of off-season activities William Gay was playing with the starting defense. He is currently playing as the team’s third corner. Gay plays in the slot while Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell play outside. That is the same set-up that the Steelers used last season. Perhaps fans aren’t too excited to hear that as the secondary struggled last year.

We do, also, have to remember that this was the start of OTAs. The team isn’t going to put a free agent signing or rookie into the mix right off the bat. Someone is going to have to take that spot from Gay. Whether it is Senquez Golson, Cameron Sutton, or Coty Sensabaugh, that player is going to have to earn the spot and take it from Gay. The Steelers aren’t going to be handing out any starting jobs this summer.

PFF Praises Gay for His Play in 2017

First, PFF praised Gay for his stats as a slot corner. This stat sheet proves something we already knew. Gay is not a great outside corner, but he does stack up well as a slot corner.

Next, we have these stats marking William Gay as the top coverage corner in the AFC North last season.

Now, take these, and any other stats from PFF, with a grain of salt. There is a lot to look into with these stats. For instance, Gay being the best AFC North corner is ranking the players on stats based on coverage snaps. The problem with this data is that the wide receivers outside are usually more dangerous, and receive more targets than the wide receivers in the slot.

That means that Gay’s yards-per-coverage-snap stats would be skewed by the position he plays. Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell, who play against the better wide receivers, should have worse stats in this area. Just think about the Bengals. They throw the ball to AJ Green a lot more than anyone else. That means that every snap Gay plays where the ball goes to Green counts as a positive for Gay.

So, even though some of the stats look nice, they don’t tell the whole picture. Even so, Gay probably gets more heat than he really deserves.

Better Pass-Rush = Better Secondary

Whether or not William Gay makes the Steelers 53-man roster in 2017 they do have to fix the secondary. One of the most important things they can do to help is increase pressure on the quarterback. I am under the impression that pressure on the quarterback makes everything easier for the defense.

A better pass-rush up front will make things easier for all of the corners and safeties. That, in turn, will make the defense better. James Harrison, Bud Dupree and TJ Watt will be called upon to improve that pass-rush and make the defense better.