´ Steel Curtain Rising: March 2014

Who gets the game ball for the Steelers win over the Texans?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Door Opening for Brett Kesiel's Return to Steelers in 2014?

It has been a busy three weeks for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation. LaMarr Woodley has been cut and now replaced Black and Gold with the Silver and Black. Jason Worilds is the Steelers 10 million dollar transition man.
They also brought back Guy Whimper, Greg Warren, and Michael Palmer.

AT this point they remain at or just a smidge below the NFL’s salary cap. And with that the franchise will apparently turn its attention to the coming 2014 NFL Draft.

Thus far the Steelers still have lost more than they’ve gained, but the losses of Jonathan Dwyer, Jerricho Cotchery, and Emmanuel Sanders have been mitigated with what on paper appear to be more cost-effective options.
  • Depth on the defensive line remains thin, however. 
Word is that Cam Thomas was brought into to provide depth at defensive end, indicating that Steve McLendon will stay at nose tackle, and that someone else will start at opposite Cameron Heyward on the defensive line.

But who?

The Steelers will almost certainly draft a defensive lineman. But rookies don’t often start in Dick LeBeau’s system, and when they do, such as in 2013, the results leave a lot to be desired. And there are not many if any starter-capable free agent defensive lineman still waiting for the phone to ring.

The Steelers do have Brian Arnfelt, who had a good preseason, but its doubtful Dick LeBeau and Johnny Mitchell have him penciled in as a starter.
Kesiel has said that he does not want to finish his career outside of Pittsburgh, but feels he has something left in the tank and will if he has to.  Keisel’s phone has been quiet too, if press reports are any indication.
  • Going into free agency the words “not expected back” cropped up along side Kesiel’s name. 
That may be changing. Dale Lolley reported that with Alex Carrington signing with St. Louis, the Steelers would be more open to bringing back Keisel. Whether he’s simply reading the tea leaves or is reporting from what a source has told him is unknown.

Salary could be an issue. Kesiel’s agent has said he will not play for the league minimum. At 36, he doesn’t have but one more NFL payday coming to him, and his desire to make it count financially makes a lot of sense.
  • Still he’s got to be realistic about what the market will be for a lineman with his mileage. 
Given that the Steelers could make him some sort of offer that is above the league minimum yet one that does not hamstring the team’s salary cap flexibility for the balance of 2014. As was said here before, Brett Keisel doesn’t have a lot left in the tank, but that thank isn’t empty if his 2013 performance is any indicator.

Nothing will happen until June 1st, but bringing Keisel is a good idea.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Steelers Sign LeGarrette Blount, Bloster Depth at Running Back... and Kick Returner?

The Pittsburgh Steelers salary cap space might be sparse, but Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert continue to ensure that the depth chart cupboard isn’t bare, as the team signed free agent running back LeGarrette Blount.

According to press reports, Blount signed a 2 year 3.85 million dollar contract, which included a $950,000 signing bonus. While Blount’s primary role will be to back up Le'Veon Bell, his role could expand as suggested by Steelers Digest editor Bob Labrolia:
During his four year NFL career, Blount has only returned kicks for New England, where he played last year.  But as Labrolia suggests, his numbers do prompt an eye brow raise:

  • Blount out performed the Steelers. 
Yes, 17 returns is a low number to draw a comparison upon, but it is just shy of 40% of the Steelers total. IF you take out Blount’s long run of 83 yards and remove the Steelers low returns by Cameron Heyward and Michael Palmer, the Steelers average improves to 23 yards per return, but Blount still bests them at 25.7 yards per carry.

No Word on Salary Cap Moves

The Steelers entered the day with just over 1 million dollars remaining under the NFL’s Salary Cap. It was assumed that they would need to make another move, either signing transition player Jason Worilds to a long term deal or restructuring the contract of Lawrence Timmons to gain extra space.
  • Thus far there is no word of any such salary cap move by the Steelers.
Given the terms of Bount’s contract, it is possible that they did not make one. His contract averages out at 1.95 million per year, and the Steelers could have back loaded it to stay under the cap.

Steelers Still Need More Depth at Running Back

LeGarrette Blount entered the NFL in 2010 as an undrafted free agent rookie in Tampa, and rushed for over 1000 yards as a rookie in seven starts. He doubled that start count in 2011, but rushed for only 781 yards, but still posted a decent average of 4.2 yards a carry. Blount rode the bench in 2011, only carrying 41 times for 151 yards. From there he went to New England, where he started 7 games and rushed for 772 yards.
  • In a word, he gives the Steelers a reliable veteran presence in the back field which they do not have.
Still, the Steelers need to add depth. Expect them to pick a running back in the 2014 NFL Draft, but Blount’s presence means that they need not reach to fill the position. Resigning Felix Jones and/or LaRod Stephens-Howling is also a possibility.

Still Reason for Redman’s Return

That of course begs the question of Isaac Redman. The question no one else is asking in Steelers Nation, but one suggested here, namely that the Steelers should give Redman a second chance.
  • That was true before they signed Blount, and remains true.
In fact, any wise persons would take Blount over Redman. But decision to cut LaMarr Woodley will give the Steelers 8 million dollars in salary cap money to spend after June 1st. Approximately 5 million of that will go to the Steelers 2014 Draft Class.

That will leave plenty of money to sign Redman to a veteran minimum contract with no signing bonus, which will be a no risk proposition for the Steelers.
  • This probably won’t happen, but if it does, you read it here first.
But today is Blount’s day. Welcome to Steelers Nation LeGarrette Blount.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Solution to Steelers Running Back Woes? - Give Isaac Redman a 2nd Chance

LeGarrette Blount will visit Pittsburgh today, a trip delay so he could meet with Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and Art Rooney II. Meanwhile, Behind the Steel Curtain reports that Maurice Jones-Drew will visit Oakland.
The smart money would say that those franchises awash in cash, such as the Raiders, will have a better shot at the likes of Blount and  Jones-Drew, just as they did with Al Woods and Jerricho Cotchery.

Absent a long-term deal with transition player Jason Worilds or an extension of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers face a dilemma.  Put all of their faith in filling needs in the 2014 NFL Draft – a dubious proposition or restructure contracts to gain cap space.
  • But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Steelers have a viable option at running back.
The Steelers can sign a running back who has shown he can make tough yards. One who has 100 yard regular season and post-season games on his resume. This player has no serious injury history. He  already knows their offensive system. Perhaps best yet, the Steelers can sign this running back for the veteran minimum, with little or no signing bonus.
  • Who is this overlooked four leave clover?
None other than Isaac Redman.
  • Yes, Redman, the same player who went from Steelers Nation cult hero to “what have you done for me lately.” 
When last seen, Redman was of course fumbling away the Steelers chance to take the lead vs. the Tennessee Titans. He struggled mightily the rest of the way amassing all of 12 yards in 10 carries. He admitted to lying his way through a concussion test.

Jim Wexell reported “Even at practice last week Redman stumbled in the open field and fell down proving that he's clearly not the runner he was two years ago.”

Well, no, Jim, that doesn’t prove that Redman wasn’t the runner he was two years ago. The “two year” reference is the fact that Redman could not seize the starting job down the stretch in 2012. No he did not. But that misses the point. Not to beat a dead horse, but....
  • The 2012 Steelers running game went the way of Willie Colon.
When Colon got settled into at guard, the Steelers ran well. When he got hurt, they began to falter. When they lost him the running game flat out faltered.
  • If Redman can be let off the hook for 2012, he was clearly in a funk in 2013.
Fair enough. It is also beyond fair to say that Redman isn’t and won’t be an NFL feature back. But before you write this off as some sort of “Return Redzone Redman Return!” romanticism, take a look below:

issac redman stats rushing receiving stats 2010 2012
Redzone "Reliable Redman" 
Number don’t lie.

And these numbers reveal a quality NFL back up running back, not too dissimilar for those of James Starks, a player the Steelers considered signing (or at least player whose agent convinced the Pittsburgh press crops that the Steelers were interested in.)
  • A superficial analysis of the graphic above might conclude that Redman’s only extended time as a starter revealed his limits as rusher.
That’s partially true, but it’s also true he was hurt at the beginning of that run, and lacked a line after it. It also shows that Redman proved himself as an able pass catcher, something often over looked.

But even if Redman’s stats from 2012 paint more accurate rendering of his rushing ability, consider how they stack up against these numbers:  381 and 127. Those would be the rushing and receiving totals of Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones from 2013.
  • That’s the combined total of both players.
Isaac Redman is never going to grow into the type of unheralded, overlooked Steelers running back turned star a la Rocky Bleier-Merril Hoge-Willie Parker that Steelers Nation dreamed of in his Redzone Redman days.

But his past performance more than suggests that he’s worthy of a veteran minimum deal. The Steelers owe it to themselves to give Isaac Redman a second chance.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

With an RB Signing in Sight, Steelers Salary Cap Space Getting Tight....

As the NFL’s most active free agent signing period is coming to an end, the Pittsburgh Steelers are finishing things in similar fashion to how they began – short on salary cap space.

Before free agency began only the Dallas Cowboys were more salary cap strapped than the Pittsburgh Steelers. The release of LaMarr Woodley, contract extensions of Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller, and a pay cut for Ike Taylor gave the Steelers some breathing space.
Mike Mitchell stands as Pittsburgh biggest “big money” free agent signing since Kevin Colbert signed Jeff Hartings from Detroit in 2000.

The Steelers have also signed defensive tackle Cam Thomas, wide receiver Lance Moore, and linebacker Arthur Moats.
  • They’d also like to sign a veteran running back, but there’s one hitch – they lack the cap space.
The Steelers have met with free agent running back Maurice Jones-Drew whose outward asking price of 3.5 million per season is more than the Steelers will pay. The Steelers insist he’s still a viable option and if that’s true then Jone-Drew’s sticker price is little more than a ruse.

The Steelers also plan to meet with  LeGarrette Blount, although another team that can give him more carries and more dollars is lurking out there.

Need to Clear Space

Either way the Pittsburgh Steelers will need to clear salary cap space to sign additional players. A contract restructure for Ben Roethlisberger is not in the offing at this point. Nor is a long-term deal with transition player Jason Worilds, imminent.
  • That likely means another contract restructure, with the prime candidate this time being Lawrence Timmons.
Aggressive contract restructures in 2011, 2012, and 2013 are what caused the Steelers salary cap problems in the first place. However, the Steelers have restructured less and less each year, and the cap is set to increase.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Steelers Signing of Moats Doesn’t Flood, but Does Boost Linebacker Depth

The NFL owners meetings are in full swing, but the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to make moves in free agency. Their latest came at linebacker, as the team came to terms with Buffalo Bills linebacker Arthur Moats.
Moats entered the NFL as a 6th round pick for the Buffalo Bills in 2010. As a rookie he started 4 games and amassed 2.5 sacks. HE didn’t get a start in his sophomore season, but did notch 2.5 more sacks. He didn’t start a game in his third season, but did make 11 starts at weakside linebacker for the Bills in 2013.
  • The Steelers signed him to a one year deal with $795,000 with a $65,000 signing bonus.
That might sound like a low amount of money for a 26 year old linebacker with 19 starts to his name, but Moats stat sheet reveals little in the a of splash plays.

The Steelers are reporting that Moats will back up at outside linebacker, although he is also capable of playing on the inside.

Debo Rumors Dead Plus Depth...?

Moats signing immediately calls into question the rumors that the Steelers were set to resign James Harrison. Some in the media have suggested this move end’s Harrison’s chances of a return.
That may well be the case, as the pro’s and con’s of resigning Harrison are real. But the Steelers were not likely to bring back Harrison before June first anyway.
  • What Moats signing does do is provide an injection of depth at linebacker.
Given his ability to play on the inside as well as the outside, Moats addition arguably makes inside linebacker one of the Steelers deepest position. The Steelers of course have Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams. There’s also Terence Garvin and, if the injury optimists are right, Sean Spence could be a factor.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Can Debo Do for Steelers What Jerome Bettis Did?

Ten springs ago Jerome Bettis faced a decision. The Steelers had just signed Duce Staley. Pittsburgh had no problem platooning the two, but could not afford two high-priced veterans in the backfield. Bettis could either retire, play outside of Pittsburgh, or take a pay cut.
  • Bettis opted to take less money, and 1309 yards 22 touchdowns and one Lombardi Trophy later, the Bus parked at Super Bowl XL
Last summer James Harrison faced a similar choice. The Steelers wanted him back, but not at an 8 figure cap it. The Steelers were willing to put their money where their mouth was. The salary cut gave Harrison the chance to earn it all back with incentives.
However, Harrison found the free agent market to be soft for a 35 year old linebacker coming off of multiple surgeries and declining production.
  • At one point, Harrison gave signaled he’d be open to returning to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers however, said thanks but no thanks, we’re moving on. And seemingly that, combined with the decision to draft Jarvis Jones in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft ended the story.

Steelers Harrison, Ending, Alternative B

Once upon a time, thanks to Hollywood, our stories ended in a neat bow-tied package. By happenstance, the world of sports followed this model
  • Franco Harris finished his last year in Seattle, and that was it – no scholarship year or even Three Rivers Stadium retirement press conference
  • Terry Bradshaw had his surgery and skipped town, not even to return for Art Rooney Sr.’s funeral
But times change.

The rise of digital technology has once again made the shape of our stories malleable, just as they were in the age of Homer (the ancient Greek poet that is, not Simpson.)

You no longer have to travel to Japan to see Glen Close commit suicide to end Fatal Attraction – you just press a button on your DVD. Greedo, not Han Solo, fires first. If actors of an orginal franchise get too old or die, well just do a reboot.
  • And something similar is happening in sports, at least with the Steelers. 
Rapid roster turnover and player movement became the norm 1990’s with the Freeman McNeil trial and the rise of free agency. The Steelers 20th and 21st century approaches here could not be more different. When a player either left or ask to leave:
  • Tom Donahoe’s response was “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out”
  • Kevin Colbert’s is, “You can come home again.”
Donahoe turned a cold shoulder to the likes of Jerry Olsavsky and Rod Woodson when they wished to return. Colbert has kept the welcome mat out.

Yet as recently as two years ago, Colbert espoused a different philosophy when it came to players the Steelers had released, when he all but ruled out a return of James Farrior and/or Hines Ward during  the 2012 off season.
Now it seems like James Harrison would like to follow in their foot steps.

The Case for and Against Harrison’s Return

The case against bringing Harrison back would seem to be self evident. This is a defense in need of youth and renewal. While the process has been underway for two years, it is picking up steam with the departures of Ryan Clark and LaMarr Woodley.
  • Why take a step back with a 36 year old linebacker?
The case for bringing Harrison back is more muddled. He played very little in 2013, and while strong against the run he wasn’t much of a force in pass rushing.
  • Nonetheless, an objective, cold-hard numbers case for Harrison can be made.
The James Harrison of 2014 won’t be the James Harrison of 2012 let alone 2010 or 2008. But the James Harrison of 2014 is better than Chris Carter or any other body the Steelers might bring in to back up at outside linebacker. Moreover, this James Harrison will add more value than is revealed on the stat sheet.

Harrison’s workout regime and game preparation are legendary. And in that right, he can set an example for a young defense, much the way that Hines Ward mentored Plaxico Burress and Bettis mentored Ben Roethlisberger.

Assuming that Harrison will take the veteran minimum, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would be wise to take him up on his offer to return.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Steelers Sign Lance Moore; How do Moore and Cotchery Stack Up Side-by-Side?

Jerricho Cotchery’s seat in Pittsburgh didn’t have much time to cool. Less than 24 hours after Cotchery cu and ran for Carolina, the Pittsburgh Steelers moved to replace him with Lance Moore, free agent wide out from New Orleans.

When Cotchery left, Steel Curtain Rising indicated that Pittsburgh was losing more than your average 3rd NFL wide receiver.
  • It appears that they might have replaced him with someone who is at least above average at the position.
Lance Moore broke into the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 2006. He didn’t make the team, but New Orleans picked him up. He had one reception in his rookie year, but steadily worked his way into a significant part of one of the NFL’s most potent offenses.

Moore comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers with 346 catches to his name for 4281 yards and 38 touchdowns. He also worked as an accomplished punt returner in 2010, although at age 31 those days would figure to be behind him.

But Moore also figures to bring something else to Pittsburgh beyond  the numbers, as Jack Finn of Behind the Steel Curtain observes:
His experience playing in a prolific offense with a Hall of Fame level quarterback should be of great use to the Steelers, not only on game days but in helping develop second year receivers Justin Brown and Marcus Wheaton, as well as third year receiver Derek Moye. A proven veteran in the film room and on the practice field can do a lot for the development of young players in terms of teaching and leadership.
As Neal Coolong, also of BTSC pointed out, Moore’s 2013 season in New Orleans was ruined by injuries and he found himself overlooked by Drew Brees when he got on the field, seeing his production drop by 60%.

But the Steeler s need both experience and depth at wide receiver, and Moore brings both.

Moore and Cotchery Compared

So how do Jerricho Cotchery and Lance Moore match up, side by side. Well, here’s a look:

cotchery moore career statistics receptions touchdowns yards
Jerricho Cotchery and Lance Moore Side by Side

In pure quantitative terms, Cotchery has the edge. But Cotchery also has two more seasons of experience on Moore and 43 more starts. In qualitative terms the comparison gets more interesting. Moore’s career yards per catch is 12.4 a hair lower that Cotchery’s who clocks in at 12.7. Moore has average 3.4 catches per game and 42.4 yards per game, which edges out Cotchery’s 3.0 catches per game and 38.3.

And, for some armature saber metrics.
  • Lance Moore has scored a touchdown in 37% of his games and 10% of his catches have been for TD’s
  • Jerricho Cotchery has scored a touchdown in 20% of his games and 7% of his catches have been for TD’s
These numbers don’t carry the depth that Pro Football Focus’s does, but then again, those guys get paid to do what they do.

So what do they really mean? Well, Cotchery’s role for the Steelers in 2013 was as “The guy who scores touchdowns.” Perhaps these numbers suggest that Moore is uniquely suited to take his place.

Ben Roethlisberger is said to covet another tall wide receiver. Another Plaxico Burress. Moore only stands 5'9" so he doesn't fit the bill.

But here's betting that Ben will be happy with someone who comes up with it in the end zone.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Steelers Resign Palmer, Chris Owens, Legarrette Blount Visit South Side

In the same week that they resigned Guy Whimper, the Pittsburgh Steelers made another seemingly ho-hum free agent resigning when they inked Michael Palmer to a one year deal.

The Steelers brought Palmer to Pittsburgh during 2013 training camp with Heath Miller still recovering from his ACL injury, and after Matt Spaeth injured his Lisfranc.
  • Michael Palmer is listed as having appeared in all 16 games last season for the Steelers, but he only made 1 catch.
Palmer at this point provides depth that was depleted with David Johnson’s departure to San Diego. And Palmer is by no means assured a roster spot. At this point he looks to compete with David Paulson for the third tight end slot, although the Steelers could select a rookie in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Owens, Blount Visit South Side

The Steelers also entertained two more visitors on the South Side last week. Veteran defensive back Chris Owens was in for a work out. Ownens entered the league as a third round draft pick by Atlanta, being taken in the same draft as Keenan Lewis, and has also played with the Dolphins and Browns.
LeGarrette Blount also worked out with the Steelers. As Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain points out, Blount while a good player is not a good fit for the Steelers both because the Steelers are only looking for a back up for Le’Veon Bell, and because he has a well-defined role in New England.

Still, Pittsburgh didn’t get a shot at James Starks, Maurice Jones-Drew’s asking price is too high, and the Steelers need a depth in the backfield.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why Jerricho Cotchery in Carolina Cuts so Deep in Pittsburgh

After some back and forth, news broke today that veteran free agent wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery is leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Carolina Panthers.
  • Cotchery is hardly the first player to defect, but his departure will hurt more than all the others thus far.
That’s not to devalue the potential contributions that the others could have made. Ziggy Hood knows the defensive system. Al Woods is just now growing into a legit NFL defensive end/nose tackle. David Johnson looked sharp before his injury. Jonathan Dwyer ran every carry as if it were his last. Emmanuel Sanders has shown he’s a quality number 2 NFL receiver, if not more.
  • But the Steelers can more easily replace what those men take with them.
What did Jerricho Cotchery do? To paraphrase what Buddy Ryan once said about Cris Carter “All he did was catch touchdowns."

Cotchery and the Steelers, By the Numbers

There are two types of lies. Outright falsehoods and dam statistics. But in Cotchery’s numbers reveal a telling truth for the Steelers:
  • 13 – Cotchery is one of only 13 NFL 2013 receivers who broke double digits in TD’s
  • 5% -- That’s puts him in the top 5% of NFL's 2013 pass catchers in 2013
  • 24% -- Cotchery’s share of the Steelers 2013 TD production
  • 13% -- There’s that lucky numeral again, this time as his portion of Steelers 2013 receptions
  • 8 – Total number of receptions  by fullback Will Johnson in 2013
  • 8 –of Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye’s combined 2013 reception total
The Steelers plan is to replace Emmanuel Sanders with Markus Wheaton, and the plan might work. But the 1998 Steelers tried that with Will Blackwell. Memories of how that worked out (click here) likely colored their plans to keep Cotchery around as insurance.
  • Double digit touchdown figures in the NFL don’t happen by accident.
In 2004, a lot of Steelers fans took umbrage at Jerome Bettis stealing Duce Staley’s thunder by going in at goal line situations to score touchdowns. There’s a reason why it worked. Getting into the end zone is not easy, and Bill Cowher knew what he was doing in riding The Bus into the paint.
  • Cotchery’s 10 TD haul in 2013 arguably more impressive. 
Unless your name is Rodney Carter (see the 1989 Steelers), no one makes a career in the NFL out of “Going out and getting open.” Cotchery’s ability to come down with the ball 10 times in the end zone shows at a point in his career where he can combined ability with veteran savvy.
  • That veteran savvy will be missed elsewhere.
By all accounts the Steelers 2012 wide receiver room was a mess, absent Hines Ward. That’s the likely reason why Mike Tomlin replaced inexperienced Scotty Montgomery with Richard Mann, someone who exudes “Been there, done that.”
  • Even before Cotchery’s departure the Steelers were likely to take a wide out early in the 2014 NFL Draft. 
Cotchery could have severed as the perfect mentor. Antonio  Brown can serve that role to an extent, but he still has some maturing to do, as evidenced by his benching vs. New England and his reaction to not getting more throws from Ben Roethlisberger in the season finale vs. Cleveland.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers have of course weathered far worse losses than Jerricho Cotchery in their history.
They’ll weather this one too. But this is very much a team of younger players who are in the midst of delicate process that is known as “learning how to win.” And Jerricho Cotchery was a perfect mentor on that path. He will be missed.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Maurice Jones-Drew Visits Steelers; Cotchery Undecided; Silverback to Return?

There’s one thing you’ve gotta love about the NFL off season:  The unpredictable rhythm of the news cycle. This is a sharp contrast to the regular season or even training camp, where they news cycle is defined by:
  • post game interviews
  • game debriefings
  • press conferences
  • injury reports
  • in-locker room visits
  • conference calls with out of town press
  • sit down chats with the TV crews
Then finally, there’s the game itself.

No such template exists for the NFL off season. It’s the wild west, where every agent is a bounty hunter, every player a claims speculator, every reporter a saloon keeper, and every general manger a would-be county sherriff desperate to instill order.

Such it was that James Starks never made the vist that was “promised” to Pittsburgh, Jerricho Cotchery left the Steelers cruise in search of a contract with Carolina and not the South Side, Lance Moore arrived for his Tuesday visit on Wednesday and Maurice Jones-Drew showed up “unannounced at the South Side.” Jones-Drew would give the Steelers the veteran back up they’ve been seeking for Le'Veon Bell in the wake of Jonathan Dwyer’s departure.

He and Moore also left the South Side without contract offers, if reports are to be believed. And as of 11:00 pm eastern on March 19th, Jerricho Cotchery had still not made up his mind between competing offers from Carolina and Pittsburgh.
  • And the biggest news didn’t even involve any of the above.
Last week James Harrison was cut by the Bengals. Later this week he was interviewed and asked where he’d like to finish his career.
  • Debo wants to finish his career with the Steelers 
And he’s not talking about one of the one day contract signings that are now in vogue. Harrison wants to play, and reports are that the Steelers are seriously considering welcoming him back.

This amounts to a very large turn about for the franchise, who cut Harrison a year ago, and then said “thanks but no thanks” when Harrison indicated he wanted back on the team after  finding little interest on the free agent market.

Suffice to say, Steel Curtain Rising will be monitoring this story as it develops.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Packers Beat Steelers to Punch on Starks; Cotchery Staying in Carolina....?

Veteran depth for the Steelers at the skill positions, namely wide receiver and running back, continues to run thin. So do Pittsburgh’s options for handling it. Word broke over the weekend that Pittsburgh would host New Orleans Saints wide out Lance Moore and Green Bay Packers running back James Starks.

Green Bay at least packed more of a punch than Pittsburgh:
That was only the beginning of the bad news. Jerricho Cotchery figured large in the Steelers plans even before Emmanuel Sanders departure. However, the story that Cotchery was on a Steelers sponsored cruise was quickly followed by indications that the wide out was headed to receiver starved Carolina.

Unfortunately for Steelers Nation, things are apparently going well there for Cotchery:

In fact, ESPN reporter David Newton predicted that the Panthers would not let the Steelers leave without a contract.

The Steelers options for adding veteran depth at running back and wide receiver are getting sparse. James Jones had had interest in signing with Pittsburgh, but opted for Oakland instead, taking another available option off of the market.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Steelers have 2.4 Million in Salary Cap Room After Signing Whimper

After resigning Guy Whimper, the Steelers now have 2.4 million dollars available under the salary cap. That means that the Steelers oculd likely still reach an agreement with Jerricho Cotchery, Lance Moore or James Starks, who will also visit, but most likely only 1 out of the 3.
That money will likely to go signing the players the Steelers pick in the 2014 NFL Draft (with the NFL’s new rookie salary cap, signing a rookie class takes around 5 million dollars.)
  • Signing transition player designee Jason Worilds to a long term deal would free up cap space, which would be the healthiest move the Steelers could make.
They could extend Ben Roethlisberger’s contract or restructure it yet again, the former move which the Steelers want to do but not now, the later move which they wish to avoid. Or another veteran such as Lawrence Timmons could restructure his contract, a move which the Steelers likely wish to avoid.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Steelers Free Agent Focus: Guy Whimper Re-Ups with Pittsburgh

After a week which saw them lose Jonathan Dwyer, David Johnson, Al Woods, Ziggy Hood and Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers began week 2 of NFL Free Agency by resigning one of their own.
  • Except it wasn’t the one Steelers Nation was hoping for.
When word broke that Jerricho Cotchery would end his Steelers cruise by going to Carolina Steelers fans feared the worst. And yes, the worst may indeed come to pass. The Steelers acknowledge as much with their decision to entertain Lance Moore of the New Orleans Saints.

The player that the Steelers resigned is none other than Guy Whimper, the offensive lineman that Steelers Nation spent the 2013 off season dreading seeing in action. As fate would have it, Whimper did see action in the regular season. He wasn’t spectacular.

Perhaps “solid” would be too strong a word. His performance was serviceable and that was enough for the Steelers to give him a shot at a roster spot in 2014.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Jerricho Cotchery - The Catalyst in Assessing Impact of Emmanuel Sanders Departure

The loss of Emmanuel Sanders was not unexpected. To that end, Ed Bouchette’s tweet says it all:
  • You can't retain someone you never make an offer to.
But “Expected” doesn’t mean “without consequences” as Emmanuel Sanders departure leaves the Steelers with almost zero experienced depth at wide receiver behind Antonio Brown. Big things are expected of Markus Wheaton. That’s all well and good.
Entering the 1997 NFL Draft Tom Donahoe had Yancey Thigpen’s impending free agency in mind. He drafted Blackwell in the second round with an eye toward replacing Thigpen with Blackwell in 1998. Blackwell had 23 receptions for 149 yards and no touchdowns in 14 games as the 4th wide receiver in 1997.
  • For comparison’s sake, Wheaton had 6 catches for 64 yards in 12 games.
As expected, Yancey Thigpen departed to as the Tennessee Titans took their turn at overpaying departing Steelers free agents.  So far, so good. However, come summer at St. Vincents things did not go according to plan. Will Blackwell failed to win the starting job in training camp.

(Editorial aside - Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower has been a frequent critic of Bob Smizik, yet to his credit he sounded the alarm bell on Blackwell early.)
  • In fact, during 5 years with the Steelers Will Blackwell only started  two games.
None of this of course means that Markus Wheaton is doomed to failure. Far from it. But it does underline that precarious nature of counting on players to make a significant jump from their rookie to sophomore seasons.

In the case of Will Blackwell, the Steelers had a backstop of sorts, in the from of Courtney Hawkins.
  • Hawkins had been brought in as a third wide receiver but did a serviceable job as a starter.
And with Jerricho Cotchery in the fold, the 2014 Steelers would have (had?) a far sturdier backstop than the 1998 Steelers had in Hawkins. Emmanuel Sanders could have served that role as well, although Sanders final deal with Denver shows that he clearly was expecting and getting offered the kind of money that you don’t pay a third wide receiver.

Should the Steelers lose Cotchery, a very realistic possibility, they essentially leave themselves with a budding super start at wide out, an unknown second year player, Derek Moye who only dressed for eight games. The Steelers are said to be planning to draft Ben Roethlisberger a tall wide out early in the 2014 NFL Draft, but counting on a rookie is less advisable than a second year man.

Steel Curtain Rising entered the 2013 off season saying that the Steelers should lock down Sanders to a long-term deal while he was cheap.
  • This faith in Sanders was justified by his play as a rookie and his play during the first half of 2012, when he in many ways looked like a young Hines Ward.
While Sanders play in 2013 in his first year as a starter was solid, he did nothing to conjure images of Ward. In that light letting the Denver Broncos pay him 6 million dollars a year looks like a wise decision on the part of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.

But if Jerricho Cotchery bolts to Carolina, the cost of losing Sanders increases significantly.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Conscious of Cotchery's Carolina Visit, Steelers to Host Lace Moore and James Starks

Already having lost Jonathan Dwyer and facing the impending defection of Jerricho Cotchery to Carolina, the Pittsburgh Steelers are planning visits of Green Bay running back James Starks and New Orleans wide receiver Lance Moore.

Jonathan Dwyer's free agent status in Pittsburgh was an unknown when the signing period began, and he was not expected to attract a lot of attention. He most certainly didn’t, but Dwyer did accept an offer to rejoin Bruce Arians in Pittsburgh West, aka Arizona.

In contrast, Jerricho Cotchery was expected to resign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the Carolina Pathers receiving corps has been ravaged. They recently cut Steve Smith, and the contact Smith signed with the Baltimore Ravens is likely driving up Cotchery’s value.
  • Cotchery will be 32 by opening day, and knows full well his next contract could be his last.
While Cotchery has played in Pittsburgh for a minimal salary during the last two years, he's understandably looking for a bigger pay day and Carolina will likely offer more than Pittsburgh.

Cotchery’s Carolina visit is undoubtedly driving the Steelers interest in Moore, but as Behind the Steel Curtain Editor Neal Coolong observes, Moore has many unwelcome attributes of recent Steelers wide receivers – namely age above 30, injury history and lack of height (ever since Plaxico Burress left in 2004, Ben Roethlisberger has been on record saying he wants a "tall receiver.")

James Starks is a more enticing prospect. He’s a career backup who, after a glance at his numbers, fits the Mewelde Moore mold. At age 28 he’s played in 35 NFL games but only started 2, but has averaged 4.4 yards a carry, including 47 yards in 10 carries in the Steelers 2013 defeat of the Packers.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Steelers Say "So Long" to Sanders; Jerricho Cotchery Next?

What a long strange trip it’s been. Departed and would be free agents have given the scribes in Steelers Nation more than their share of story material since 1993.
One year ago he was a restricted free agent and, like Jerroll Williams before him, he got a seemingly artificially high one-year contract. Then followed the conclusion over whether the offer was on the table. When it finally materialized, the Steelers weren’t going to match it, then they did.

Following that Sanders began the season as a starter, something which had been envisioned for him since the Steelers drafted him in third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
  • Sanders had his best season as a pro. He made a lot of good catches. 
But he was nothing spectacular. The Steelers were not going to commit big money to him and allowed Sanders to test the market. He did that. And then some.

Sanders visited with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He then visited with the Kansas City Chiefs. And then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He arranged a visit with the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Unbeknownst to Tampa Bay and San Francisco, Sanders had verbally accepted an offer from the Chiefs, which he and his agent Steve Weinberg  used to shop around with other NFL teams.
Word was that Sanders injury history was a sticking point. ESPN's Scott Brown even suggested a possible return to Pittsburgh. Perhaps that was the case but so was his wheeling and dealing.

Sanders ultimately signed a 3 year 18 million dollar deal with the Denver Broncos.

Sanders Only the Steelers First WR Loss?

News that Sanders had finally signed no sooner broke than did word that Jerricho Cotchery was going to visit the Carolina Panthers.

Jerrhico Cotchery’s return to Pittsburgh had almost been a given. Most expected it to happen before the free agent signing period started. It didn’t. After it started, word was the Steelers had opened talks with the wide out. Still, no deal materialized.
  • Then Dale Lolley pointed out that Cotchery had been on the Steelers sponsored cruise. 
The news reassured some, but Lolly’s logic that Cotchery couldn’t get a contract while on a cruise seemed flawed given the age we live in. The Steelers appear to be bracing for another loss, or at least doing their due diligence, because New Orleans Lance Moore is scheduled to visit the South Side on Tuesday.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

In Pittsburgh 1 "Cam" on Defensive Line Isn't Enough, Steelers Sign Cam Thomas, NT/DE from San Diego

While the free agent defections of Ziggy Hood and Al Woods may not have sent shock waves through Steelers Nation, they certainly got some of the natives restless.
  • Some of this is understandable.
It’s been close to a generation since free agent defections were a rite of spring for the Steelers. This isn’t to minimize 2 of your top five defensive lineman while a third (Brett Keisel) remains unsigned. That’s news.
And Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are not sitting around ideally either. Alex Carrington of the Buffalo Bills visted with them on Thursday and Cam Thomas today.

One Cam on the Defensive Line Isn’t Enough

While Carrington’s visit went well the Steelers apparently decided that one Cam (Cameron Heyward) on the defensive line isn’t enough, as they signed Camaron Thomas to a two year 4 million dollar contract.

Thomas is a big defensive lineman in the mold of Casey Hampton, weighing 330 pounds and standing 6’3”. For those of you who are into saber metrics, he graded out 49th of 64 NFL defensive tackles according to Pro Football Focus. ESPN’s Bill Polian graded Thomas at a “D” while grading Al Woods at a “C” however, Thomas signed for 1 million less.

Some in the press have been quick to suggest that Thomas’ arrival might push Steve McLendon to defensive end, but Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola pour cold water on that:
It should be noted that Thomas started 11 games in 2013 only to be benched late in the season. While that’s obviously a concern , Thomas provides and immediate boost of depth.

Steel Curtain Rising Logs First Interaction with Thomas?

Social media sites such as Twitter have erased the barrier between fans and players, and Steel Curtain Rising’s experience today was a prime example.
Apologies were rendered in a subsequent Tweet.

Welcome to Steelers Nation Camaron Thomas.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2014 Free Agent Focus.