Having Some Fun with the 2017 Steelers
by Ivan Cole
This means for us cranky old traditionalists that a portion of our annual descent into fake football is coming to an end. We will still have to endure the nonsensical exercise in declaring winners and losers, and I am certain that somewhere out there in cyberspace someone is, as you read these words, gracing us with an Early Bird 2018 Mock Draft. But, otherwise, (it’s a little too early for fantasy) we are in a lull where we can luxuriate in speculating about things that hew somewhat closer to the reality of things.
Obviously, we are still a long way from knowing the exact configuration of the members of the roster and their roles, but a lot of the storylines, challenges and quirk potentials are in play. Here are my first thoughts.
What didn’t and isn’t happening
No linemen. And no one (rightfully so I think) appears to have a problem with that. As Steelers.com’s Bob Labriola has pointed out, the Steelers did not draft one offensive or defensive lineman. Long snapper Colin Holba doesn’t count in my view. There are three interior linemen among the UDFA signings.
What a paradigm shift. With the blanket disclaimer of ‘Barring injury’, we can now say that the foundational pieces of a championship team, their offensive and defensive lines, are already in the building. Depth is always welcome and occasionally necessary, but we have evolved from seeing the interior line as an ongoing source of heartburn, to being islands of comfort in the quest for seven.
No transitional personnel concerns
With the reinstatement of wide receiver Martavis Bryant, the skies above the current collection of players are free of any dark clouds of significant contract, disciplinary or injury concerns. That’s not true very often.
You could say, and there will be some who certainly will, that this team has needs and problems, but it requires a refinement of what these terms mean. Wondering who might eventually replace your franchise quarterback who has shown no signs of significant decline, whether your second-round draft pick at cornerback from two years ago can fully recover from injury and fulfill his promise, or when and how your top running back will come to terms on a contract extension is of a different order than concern over that same player recovering from a season ending injury and facing a four-game suspension, to just cite one example.
Perhaps I am one of the few people in these parts who can say this without it seeming negatively controversial – since Brett Keisel’s retirement, the Steelers have been flirting with being somewhat blandly monochromatic. There is Ben Roethlisberger of course, but after that it has been getting pretty thin.
Chris Boswell and Jordan Berry are interesting characters, but kickers are peripheral participants on a football team. Plus, Boswell’s addition forced a parting of the ways with Shaun Suisham, a great leader, character and community presence.
Jesse James has a great name for sure. Tyler Matakevich, Anthony Chickillo and B. J. Finney both show great promise. But at the end of the day it’s just too much pressure on David DeCastro.
Talent pools for various sports are skewed – think Penguins. So, there is nothing sinister here in terms of the imbalances. It just makes diversity more enriching when it is present. Think Trevor Daley. When you consider that, and the excitement of the proven family football pedigree, the addition of T J Watt satisfies on so many levels.
The quarterback room
Here is an opportunity to view this aspect of the team as a source of fun as opposed to angst. Let’s keep our heads on straight here. Nothing fundamental has changed. It is still a matter of Ben or Hell.
It isn’t like it used to be, but black quarterbacks, particularly ones who happen to also be, literally, rocket scientists, bring a similar stereotype bending presence as the Watt family.
Even if Joshua Dobbs turns out to absolutely suck, it’ll be at least a good two seasons before that will be sorted out for certain. In the meantime, let the Jones/ Dobbs/ Mettenberger controversy begin.
Nerds haven’t had a champion of this caliber since Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle was in camp. And I wait in gleeful anticipation for that interview where the response is “Well, it isn’t rocket science.”
Finally, one might hope that one day Dobbs might turn to Ben and innocently ask, “On that third and one play, why didn’t you just hand the ball off to Le’Veon?”
The wide receiver room
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Martavis’ problems are truly and completely behind him. More, he has matured via this experience and has become better than he was before. Hold that thought.
- Imagine that the drafting of JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t represent some sort of panic reach in response to the risk issues surrounding Bryant. That he has the potential to be really good.
- Imagine too that Eli Rogers and Demarcus Ayers make reasonable second year leaps. Imagine that Sammie Coates is fully recovered from his injury concerns and continues to grow into his promise.
- Imagine that Darrius Heyward-Bey and Cobi Hamilton don’t just sit there and allow themselves to be punked out of their helmets.
- Imagine Antonio Brown continuing to be Antonio Brown.
The defensive secondary room
For things to go completely south for this grouping, most of following needs to happen:
- Both Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen turn out to be bums.
- Artie Burns and Sean Davis fail to make the second-year leap, and regress.
- Senquez Golson turns out to be a complete mirage.
- Ross Cockrell and Robert Golden are exposed as overachievers whose luck has run out.
- Coty Sensabaugh represents an error in judgment and contributes nothing.
- William Gay’s skills fall off a cliff.
- UDFA Terrish Webb’s got nothing.
Though clearly a strength last season, the team added backs via both free agency (Knile Davis) and the draft (James Connor). On the other hand, they did not succumb to the tight end fever that seemed to infect a vocal portion of the fan base.
Translation: the running backs become younger, more versatile and have insurance against Bell’s health concerns. A healthy Ladarius Green and maturation on the part of James and Xavier Grimble automatically upgrades the tight ends.
Despite the loss of Lawrence Timmons, there was no significant investments in inside linebackers. A vote of confidence for Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich? [And/or L.J. Fort and/or Steven Johnson, and don’t forget Akil Blount.
Of the newcomers, who is most likely to start?
Holba may have the best shot. It’s one thing to bring in some random free agent to provide camp competition, drafting someone is another thing. And, in these sort of competitions, a tie goes to the upstart. That’s how Greg Warren got his job.*
While all the conversation going in and coming out of the draft and free agency focused upon upgrading the defense, and they did, the offense and special teams have hardly been neglected. Just to take one example, note of how many of the newcomers have experience as punt and kickoff returners.
While the draft and related activities have dramatically impacted the situation in the defensive secondary and outside linebacker, running back, wide receiver and special teams have improved as well. At least in theory.
The sorting begins soon. It should be fun to watch.
*I found myself wondering if Greg Warren, who has been in the league for 13 years and who has had a couple of knee injuries, told the Steelers this year’s contract would be his last. The Steelers, rather to my surprise, had already signed a free-agent long snapper earlier in the year, so it seems pretty clear the search for Warren’s successor is on, with or without his blessing. I also noted that Jim Wexell of Steel City Outsider is convinced the Steelers are worried about Warren’s durability. – Editor