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Mike Tomlin Tuesday: The competitor in all of us is a little bit pissed off

Behind the Steel Curtain - Tue, 02/25/2020 - 2:05pm
Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

With no more press conferences from Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin in the foreseeable future, we’ll look back at some of interesting quotes from the 2019 season

Once again, it doesn’t seem like a Tuesday unless we are graced with words from Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin from his weekly press conference. Even though we got a surprise appearance on ESPN’s First Take last Monday which provided plenty of quotes, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting quotes Tomlin has given us this past season.

We’ve experienced several “Throwback Tomlin Tuesday” quotes so far this off-season. So far we have re-lived the following:

A nose guard is like Blockbuster video
We weren’t ready for prime time tonight
So that’s how you lay an egg
We’ve got to make plays
I’m not a doctor
We’re excited infusing him into the fold
You have to work in concert as a football team

As we continue trough the 2019 season, let’s go back to the weekly press conference leading up to the Steelers Week 4 game on Monday Night Football against the Cincinnati Bengals. During his opening statement, coach Tomlin talked about the teams frustrations with not being able to finish off games.

“We’ve lost two close ball games here the last two weeks,” Tomlin explained, “and we’ve had our opportunity. There’s a certain response that to comes with that. We recognize football is our game and our business is winning. We haven’t been handling business.”

After starting the season 0-3, the Steelers were in desperate need of a win going into Week 4. In the previous two losses, the Steelers had a lead in the second half each game and were within one score as the clock ticked down. With the Steelers playing at home on Monday night against the 0-3 Bengals, it was a good opportunity to get things right.

“We’ve got AFC North ball,” Tomlin said about the Steelers next matchup. “We’ve got Monday night ball. We’ve got a lot of things that naturally get you excited. But just an opportunity to get this group back into a stadium and continue to work on things that we need to work on in order to change our outcome. I think the competitor and all of us is a little bit excited about that. I also think the competitor in all of us is a little bit pissed off and appropriately so.”

It was good to hear that the head coach felt the team was extremely frustrated with their inability to finish off games to secure the victory. Obviously, the fans were feeling the same way. With Ben Roethlisberger out for the year and the Steelers newest quarterback already 0-1, it was important for the rest of the team to come out with a chip on their shoulder in order to finally get their first victory of the season.

“Again, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to close ball games out and to get ball games started faster. Obviously the start doesn’t define games but we’re really putting ourselves behind the eight ball with our inability to win some position downs and some really manageable possession downs.”

Unfortunately, having another slow start was still a problem for the Steelers’ offense as the defense held the Bengals on their opening possession only to fumble the ball right back to them on their second offensive play. Digging deep, the defense stepped up and held the Bengals to a field goal even though they started their possession in the red zone. From that point on, the Steelers scored 27 straight points for their first win of the season.

Steelers 2020 NFL Draft Scenario: With Bud Dupree gone, who would you take?

Behind the Steel Curtain - Tue, 02/25/2020 - 12:29pm
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Taking a look at what the Steelers might do with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have a first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and to say it feels weird is an understatement. In fact, the Steelers only have one pick in the top 100. That sounds bad, but looking at overall draft picks they still have four in the top 120, if they get that 3rd round compensatory pick for Le’Veon Bell.

I am reminded by Drop The Hammer in his signature mock that the Black and Gold still have Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush on the roster.

On to what this is about.

I’m going give you 7 prospects at varying positions who could be available at Pick 49. I will also give some scenarios that involve the team losing potential free agents and some possible cuts. I will do my best to give prospects that fall within that pick range, but understand this is for draft discussion and not who is right and who is wrong. There will be a poll at the end of each article for voting but use the comment section to explain your vote.

This Week’s Scenario:

Bud Dupree is now a Free Agent.

Ramon Foster is cut.

Nick Vannett is retained.

Matt Feiler is retained.

Zach Banner is retained.

Mike Hilton no longer on the team.

This Week’s Prospects

J.K. Dobbins - RB Ohio State

The running back room is full, but the elephant in the room is the durability of James Conner. Dobbins has the goods - vision, patience and can catch the football out the backfield. It’s been a while since they have drafted a player from Buckeye Land.

Bradlee Anae - Edge Utah

T.J. Watt is a beast but that leaves Anthony Chickillo, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, and Tuzar Skipper to fight for the rights to start opposite the All-Pro. Anae doesn’t have the length that one would like, but he came to play at the Senior Bowl. Nice use of hands which matches his intensity.

Antoine Winfield - Jr. Safety Minnesota

The starting safeties are in place with two former first rounders in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. The depth at the position is sketchy at best, especially if an injury happens. Winfield Jr. understands the term splash play. Can line up in a number of positions - SS, FS and Nickel Corner. Solid Tackler too.

Terrell Lewis - Edge Alabama

No need to repeat the scenario at OLB. Lewis reminds me a lot of Bud Dupree, take that for what it’s worth. There is some burst, and length to free himself, but he is a project nonetheless.

K.J. Hamler - WR Penn State

The wide receiver room is also a little crowded, but there is an element to the group that is missing — and that’s speed. Small, but the guy has some wiggle in his game. Can get in and out of breaks with the best of them, will need scheming to get separation.

Cesar Ruiz - Center/Guard Michigan

There are two voids left by the departures of Foster and Finney. There is no left guard and no backup center. The possibility of Matt Feiler moving to the left guard spot is in play, but leaves a void at the right tackle spot. Ruiz is mobile for a big guy and has versatility all across the inside. Will get dinged for lack of length, but he versed in the run and pass.

There is a need for building for the future. Big Alejandro Villanueva is getting older and will be 32-33 by the end of his contract. Jones is a project but one that may be worth the investment with the right coaching and patience. Has great mobility size and length.

Kevin Colbert on Ben Roethlisberger’s rehab: “This could be a better Ben Roethlisberger”

Behind the Steel Curtain - Tue, 02/25/2020 - 10:55am
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Speaking at the NFL Scouting Combine, Steelers’ General Manager Kevin Colbert addressed the team’s optimism for Ben Roethlisberger’s return for the 2020 season

Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert spoke to the media on Tuesday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. To no one’s surprise, The first several questions he faced had to do with Ben Roethlisberger‘s recovery from his elbow surgery which ended his season last September.

“He posted that video which was very encouraging,” Colbert stated in regards to the video released over the weekend of Roethlisberger throwing a football. “But what we reemphasized is we loved the progress but we don’t play until September. So we’ll continue to follow the doctors and we’ll continue to encourage Ben. But the thing that’s exciting about it is we might have a better Ben Roethlisberger coming out of the surgery. He sat for this year and didn’t have the wear and tear on his body for a year. Sure, he had a significant surgery but we’re optimistic he might be better.”

The point Colbert brought up has been something speculated by others who see the Roethlisberger situation as “glass half full.” Not having to take a hit since September, Roethlisberger’s body could have had some significant recovery as well as the surgery fixing a problem which may have been lingering for quite some time. As for the timeline for Roethlisberger‘s return, Colbert reminded everyone the ultimate goal is for Ben to play at the beginning of the 2020 season.

“The timeline is always going to be we want Ben to be ready for game number one whenever that is. Again, we’ll follow the doctor‘s orders to a ‘T’.”

Colbert also stated it is important to make sure that Roethlisberger is not pushing himself too far in order to return which will ultimately hinder his rehabilitation.

“I think with a guy like Ben you have to be careful to hold him back a little bit if he maybe progresses a little bit too aggressively because we have to make sure that he’s there for September or whenever the first game is.”

Although the goal is for Roethlisberger to be under center in Week 1 of the 2020 season, Colbert did acknowledge that any work he can get with the team in the off-season is only going to make for better results this coming year.

“Everybody understands it’s game days that are most important,” Colbert reiterated. “But participating in mini camp, OTA‘s, whatever he can, will be part of his ability to have a great season. But again, I’m not worried about the surgery because it might be a better result.”

While the Steelers are optimistic Roethlisberger can return to form if not even better, they must also acknowledge that there is a potential Roethlisberger may never get back to where he was prior to the injury.

“I think the possibility is real that he could be a better football player coming out of this surgery, just as much as he might be a more regressed football player. So I think we have to give that the nod. So again, I’m encouraged and excited where he can go.”

The overwhelming theme to all of Colbert’s statements at the combine in regards to Ben Roethlisberger was that of optimism. While understanding nothing is certain in the NFL, the Steelers continue to hope Roethlisberger will be a renewed player for 2020.

“Again, I think it’s unique to each and every player because each player’s anatomy is different, each player’s surgery different, each players ability— mentally— to get through something is different. So I think in all those regards we are very optimistic that this could be a better Ben Roethlisberger.”

Given the choice, should the Steelers keep Mark Barron or Vance McDonald?

Behind the Steel Curtain - Tue, 02/25/2020 - 9:30am
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

If you were the Steelers GM for a day and could only keep one player, which one would it be for 2020?

There are so many questions as to how the Steelers are going to conduct business when the league year kicks off for 2020 on March 18. Will they be operating under the final year of the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, or will there be a new CBA in order to help to business? Will restructures be on the table, or will the Steelers only be able to save money under the salary cap by releasing players? Who do the Steelers prepare to move on from and what players do they value highly in order to retain? Will the Steelers use the franchise or transition tag this season, and will it be on Bud Dupree?

The list of questions could go on and on. But right now, all we can go by are the situations which are presented to the Steelers at the moment. Unfortunately, the team is up against the salary cap where even the increase in value for 2020 will probably be just enough for the team to sign their draft class and possibly offer a restricted free agent tender or two.

But if the Steelers needed to save some money, who do they let go? While a couple popular names are Ramon Foster ($4 million in savings) and Anthony Chickillo ($5 million in savings), two other names which have been floated around are Vance McDonald and Mark Barron.

In the discussion I was having with BTSC editor Jeff Hartman, we each saw the choice differently. In order to settle the dispute, we thought we would lay the case out to the users here at Behind The Steel Curtain and let you all decide! So here are the rules: One of the players will be kept and one will be released. Take everything into account including salary, playing time, ease of replacement, or anything else you can think of. I’ll lay out the case for each player below and make sure you vote in the poll at the conclusion of the article.

Vance McDonald

Currently waiting to see if the Steelers are going to exercise their 2020 club option, Vance McDonald is set to count just over $7 million against the salary cap in 2020 according to overthecap.com. If the Steelers do not exercise their option on McDonald, The dead money hit is under $1.5 million and would therefore save the Steelers almost $5.7 million toward the salary cap.

McDonald played in 14 games in 2019 and logged 684 of the offensive snaps which equated to 68.54%. McDonald played the sixth most offensive snaps in 2019 only behind the five starting offensive lineman. He caught 38 passes on 55 targets for 273 yards and three touchdowns.

If McDonald is not retained for 2020, the only other tight end from the 2019 53-man roster who would be under contract would be Zach Gentry who had one reception for 4 yards in 2019. Nick Vannett could possibly be a cheaper option than McDonald if re-signed, but is currently an unrestricted free agent.

Mark Barron

Last off-season, linebacker Mark Barron signed a two-year $12 million contract with the Steelers. With a 2020 salary cap hit of over $8 million, the Steelers could save $5.25 million if Baron is released.

In his lone season with the Steelers in 2019, Mark Barron played in 15 games and logged 750 snaps which equated to 69.19% of the plays on defense. Although he played more than 100 snaps fewer than fellow inside linebacker rookie Devin Bush, Barron logged almost twice as many snaps as Vince Williams. He finished 2019 with three passes defensed, one interception, one fumble recovery, three sacks, and 82 tackles.

With the emergence of rookie Devin Bush, Mark Barron would probably be a situational player for the Steelers in 2020 as he would share the linebacker responsibilities with Vince Williams. Beyond those three, the only other player on the Steelers roster from 2019 would be Ulysees Gilbert III as Tyler Matakevich is an unrestricted free agent.

So which player is more necessary for the 2020 season? I know some will be tempted to say either both or neither, but for this exercise you must choose one to keep. Could Mark Barron come into his own with the Steelers even more now that he has a season under his belt? Could Vance McDonald have a bounce-back season with Ben Roethlisberger hopefully under center for 16 games? Does their on field ability trump depth at the position? Make sure you vote in the poll and leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Might the Steelers be contemplating a Jalen Hurts-Matt Canada offense in the post-Ben Roethlisberger era?

Behind the Steel Curtain - Tue, 02/25/2020 - 7:45am
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Steelers preparing themselves for life after Ben Roethlisberger?

I had the pleasure of attending the Glazier Football Clinic in Atlantic City last week. The Glazier Clinic is a three-day conference featuring coaches from the high school, college and professional levels presenting on a wide array of topics — from broad issues like program-building and establishing a great locker room culture to specific things such as defending RPOs and the fundamentals of pass protection.

The presentation I enjoyed the most was by Tim Salem, who coaches tight ends at the University of Pittsburgh. Coach Salem is a high-energy individual who had me so fired up by the end of his talk I was ready to put the pads back on. Then I stood up after sitting in an uncomfortable conference room chair for an hour and my body reminded me I’m 50. Still, Coach Salem was a great speaker and he caught my attention both as a coach interested in his topic (zone-read option concepts) and as a writer here at BTSC.

What did the latter have to do with Tim Salem? In discussing the various ways Pitt has implemented the zone-read over the years, Coach Salem talked extensively about the game-plan the Panthers utilized in 2016 to upset then-2nd ranked Clemson in Death Valley. Pitt scored 43 points and rolled up nearly 500 yards of offense on the eventual national champs, who were loaded on defense with future pros like Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Ben Boulware. They did it by implementing a game-plan Salem described as the best he’d seen in his thirty-plus years as a college coach. “Clemson had no idea what we were doing,” Salem told the packed room. “And sometimes I didn’t, either.”

According to Coach Salem, the key to Pitt’s success on offense that day was two-fold: first, they used a variety of shifts, motions and formations that kept the Tigers from drawing a bead on how Pitt intended to attack them. And second, they had a quarterback (Nathan Peterman) who was able to run the ball just enough to force Clemson to account for him. That opened things up for running back James Conner, who rushed for 132 yards, and forced Clemson to bring a safety into the box to defend the run, allowing Peterson to throw for 308 yards. Peterson ran for just 18 yards on six carries but the combination of the read-option scheme with the passing attack Pitt employed presented a problem Clemson never solved.

The architect of that game-plan was Pitt’s offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, whose addition to the Steelers’ staff in January I chronicled in this piece. Canada has been widely hailed as one of the brightest offensive minds in college football over the past decade. He has succeeded with a variety of styles - from 22 personnel ground-and-pound at Wisconsin to an air-it-out attack at NC State to his read-option approach at Pitt. Of all of his offenses, the one at Pitt was the most prolific. That offense broke school records for points per game (42.3) while finishing sixth nationally in total offense.

Fast forward to this past Saturday. While watching my seven year-old son play recreational basketball (highlight of the game: a first-grader projectile-vomiting near mid-court), I was scrolling through BTSC when I came across this article about the possibility of the Steelers drafting Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts has been a player who has intrigued me these past few years with his blend of mental toughness, leadership traits and athleticism. I remembered how much respect I had for Hurts when he gracefully accepted losing his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama in 2018 then came off the bench for an injured Tua to lead the Tide to a come-from-behind win in the SEC championship game over Georgia. The fact he was immediately selected as a captain by his new teammates when he transferred to Oklahoma the following season told me all I needed to know about Hurts. The 32 touchdowns, 3,851 yards passing and 1,298 yards rushing while leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff in his lone season at Oklahoma was impressive, too.

Given Coach Salem’s comments at the clinic about Matt Canada and the speculation that the Steelers might have an interest in Hurts, let’s play a game, then. Call it a visualization exercise. Imagine the very real possibility that the Steelers have an interest in Hurts. Now imagine two years down the road, with 40 year-old Ben Roethlisberger having retired and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, whose employment status in Pittsburgh is often thought to be tied to Roethlisberger, having been shown the door. Might the Steelers be planning for a future where Matt Canada runs an offense that features Jalen Hurts at quarterback? And, if so, what might that offense look like? Taking into consideration what both Canada and Hurts do well, here are some thoughts on the potential offense we could see in Pittsburgh in the not-so-distant future.

To begin, it’s important to understand who Jalen Hurts is not. He’s not Ben Roethlisberger, obviously, nor anyone in Roethlisberger’s mold. Hurts is 6’2, which doesn’t disqualify him as a pocket passer, but he is best suited to make quick, single-read throws from the pocket (as opposed to Roethlisberger’s preferred full-field progressions) and to move the pocket via play-action, bootlegs and sprint-outs. Under Fichtner, the Steelers are a pocket-heavy passing attack with quarterbacks suited to play that way. With Hurts, this would have to change.

But change how? Hurts isn’t Roethlisberger but he isn’t Lamar Jackson, either. The Steelers would not attempt to build a run-heavy attack like Baltimore’s if they drafted Hurts. He is neither as fast nor explosive as Jackson and, to imitate Baltimore, the Steelers would have to build their entire offense around Hurts. This means an investment in tight ends and speed receivers as well as a backup quarterback who could play a similar style. This is not the direction in which the Steelers would likely head.

The best comparison I can think of for Hurts is Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Before you blast me in the comments, I’m not saying Hurts is as good as Wilson (although, who knows? Wilson lasted until the third round because of the same concerns about his size and accuracy that are currently dogging Hurts). I’m simply saying Hurts and Wilson are physically and stylistically comparable. Hurts is taller (6’2 versus 5’11) but both are thickly-built at 215-220 pounds. Wilson is a more accurate passer and is more adept from the pocket but both are excellent at moving the pocket and at improvising once a play breaks down. As we see below, defenses must maintain discipline in their pass rush lanes or both Hurts and Wilson will take advantage of the opportunity to pull the football and go.

Here’s Wilson stepping into an open rush lane created when an undisciplined edge player gets too far up-field:

Now watch Hurts in virtually the same scenario:

The interesting thing about the GIF with Hurts is, if you watch the routes develop in front of him, you can see this is a Mesh concept, where two underneath receivers cross at the linebacker level while additional routes create a vertical stretch on the defense. This is one of the most common concepts run by the Steelers. Hurts has an open crosser moving from right to left but elects to tuck the ball and go instead. It’s a smart choice, given the fact a completion to the crosser would have yielded an eight or ten yard gain while Hurts was able to scramble for a touchdown. Learning when to throw and when to run will be part of the maturation process for Hurts as a pro quarterback. It’s something Wilson has mastered that has helped elevate him from a great athlete playing quarterback to a great quarterback, period.

A more interesting clip of Hurts as a potential quarterback in Pittsburgh is the next one. Watch it first and then we’ll break it down:

This is a play-action pass off of one of those read-option concepts Tim Salem discussed during his clinic talk. This concept, and others like it, are the ones Matt Canada was so fond of during his time at Pitt. The read-option here is an inverted zone where the quarterback keys the defensive end, who is unblocked. On traditional zone read, the running back would run inside with the quarterback a threat to pull the football and run to the edge. On inverted zone-read, the QB and RB switch roles with the RB taking a sweep path to the edge and the QB running inside. Tim Salem showed us this exact concept at the Glazier Clinic. Here it is as drawn in my notebook:

Notice the second back in the backfield serving as a lead blocker. This is particularly important because, on the complimentary play-action pass, that second back converts his blocking assignment into a seam route, where, as you see in the GIF, he is wide open. Matt Canada loves play packages like this, where variations off of core plays are constructed to take advantage of how defenses react to the core play itself. In this particular package, the edge player is manipulated by the core play (inverted zone-read) while the alley player, who must defend the sweep action, is manipulated by the play-action pass should he pursue the sweep too aggressively. Because the core play and the variations look almost identical (the only difference here is the pulling guard, which is needed to block the edge in pass protection), it’s almost impossible for a defense to get a good feel for what the offense will run, even after the ball is snapped.

Hurts was sensational at Oklahoma running these concepts. Canada employed them with great success at Pitt. Maybe the Steelers’ purported interest in Hurts is coincidental. Or maybe, looking at the post-Roethlisberger future, Mike Tomlin envisions a very different offense for his football team, one that is built more on what Seattle does with the mobile Wilson and that uses Canada’s expertise in variation and play-disguise over the far more traditional Roethlisberger/Fichtner scheme. Lacking a Roethlisberger protégée who can successfully execute such a pocket-heavy scheme, the alternative may be to ride the wave of offenses built around mobile quarterbacks and multiplicity.

Of course, the fancy play designs and deception will only get you so far. A team has to be able to execute basic plays as well, especially in the passing game. What makes Wilson such a great quarterback is that, in addition to his athleticism, ability to improvise and how Seattle’s scheme is tailored to his strengths, the man can flat-out throw the football. Wilson is a great passer whereas Hurts, at the moment, must improve in that area. He can be wild at times and his willingness to run sometimes keeps him from staying in the pocket and working through his read progressions.

Hurts is not a poor passer, however. Most scouts seem to feel he is further along at this point than Jackson was when he left Louisville. The fact he can make plays like the one below, where he perfectly places the ball on a difficult back-shoulder fade up the seam, suggests an ability to make high-level throws (the back-shoulder up the seam is much harder than its more common counterpart up the sideline because, on the sideline throw, the boundary serves as a landmark. When throwing back-shoulder in the middle of the field, there is no such landmark).

The Steelers would not need Hurts to start right away, so he would have time to grow as a passer. Being with the right coaching staff can make a world of difference in that regard. Jackson has benefited from Greg Roman’s tutelage in Baltimore. It stands to reason that Hurts would have a coach perfectly tailored for his development here in Matt Canada.

Perhaps this conversation is a bunch of nothing and the Steelers have little real interest in Hurts. Perhaps their draft needs at other positions will dissuade them from investing a high pick in a guy who isn’t likely to take the field right away. Or, perhaps, having a player like J.T. Barrett on the roster has given the Steelers a glimpse into what an offense constructed around this type of quarterback might look like. Hurts is a much better player than Barrett but their size (Barrett is 6’2-225) and skill sets are similar. Maybe Barrett has piqued their interest and they see Hurts as the upgrade they’d need to make such an offense work. It’s hard to know what the Steelers are thinking as far as their post-Roethlisberger plans are concerned. But, given Canada’s presence, and the league-wide trend towards athleticism at the position, drafting Hurts doesn’t seem an impossibility.

I won’t be shocked if it happens. There’s a reason the Steelers signed Barrett, who is a vastly different type of quarterback than the others on the roster. If the only reason they signed him was to run the Ravens’ offense in practice for last year’s season-finale, as has been suggested, why is he still on the roster? Barrett is not the answer going forward but it’s quite possible they believe a better version of him could be. There’s no telling how long Roethlisberger will remain healthy and it seems clear the team is not yet sold on Mason Rudolph as the heir apparent. Drafting Hurts would allow the Steelers to begin preparing for a different sort of life after Roethlisberger. With Rudolph still on the roster, they could bring Hurts along slowly without having to throw him into the fire and endure the type of season Rudolph just suffered. They could put Hurts into various packages designed to his strengths and get him game experience in managed situations. Then, when the time is right, they could roll out the “new” offense with Hurts (and likely Canada) at the helm. Just like Baltimore did when Jackson replaced Joe Flacco. Or like Seattle did when they transitioned to Wilson from Matt Hasselbeck.

What this really comes down to is the following: what is the best path forward once Roethlisberger retires? Is it the status quo on offense, with Rudolph or some other traditional pocket-passer at quarterback? Or is it an overhaul built around Canada’s creativity and a player like Hurts whose versatility is perfectly suited for an outside-the-box approach? I wish I was a fly on the wall in the Steelers’ off-season meeting rooms so I could hear the conversations unfolding around this topic. With the draft still two months away, it seems unfair for us to have to wait and wonder.

Step one of Ben Roethlisberger’s return to the Steelers is complete

Behind the Steel Curtain - Tue, 02/25/2020 - 6:30am
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took a huge step on Saturday when he threw a football, presumably for the first time since suffering a season-ending elbow injury last September. There are many more important steps between now and the start of the 2020 regular season. But none of them would happen without that first one.

You might actually think step one for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was when he suffered his traumatic elbow injury midway through a Week 2 game against the Seahawks last year at Heinz Field.

But anyone can suffer an elbow injury—I do it all the time at 47 and nine months old.

OK, maybe it makes far more sense to say that step one was when Roethlisberger had surgery to repair said traumatic elbow injury, a procedure that included the reattachment of several tendons.

But anyone can have surgery—I’m sure I will have several surgeries down the road when I’m much older than 47 and nine months.

However, few people out there—including me—are ever counted on to bounce back from a traumatic injury that requires invasive surgery and lift their professional football team up to the rarefied air of championship contention.

Roethlisberger is one of those people. The team, the city, the fans, everyone who works and/or roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers is counting on him to put them all on his right elbow and carry them to a seventh Super Bowl trophy. And that’s why it was so encouraging to see a five-second video clip, posted by the Steelers themselves on Saturday, of Roethlisberger throwing a football at some gym.

That this video came just one day after Roethlisberger was supposed to get a medical update on his surgically repaired elbow was especially encouraging. Obviously, if there had been any sort of setback, there is no way No. 7 would have thrown even one football.

And Steeler Nation would have taken several steps back as it pertained to the hope it would have been allowed to cling to for the 2020 season.

With no Ben, there would be no hope for 2020—at least not for doing anything more than contending for the last wildcard spot once again.

If you watched the video—and it’s safe to assume everyone who has a stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, whether it be financially or emotionally, took at least one quick glance at that quick clip—you saw an about-to-be 38-year old quarterback who looked a bit out of shape, a lot out of razors and understandably cautious with his throwing motion.

I think all of that was to be expected—even the razor part if you’ve been paying attention to Street Clothes Ben since the end of the 2019 season.

I really don’t care about the razor part of the equation. And the out of shape part is one that he hopefully started working to correct the second his post-surgical elbow apparatus was removed some time after the season.

As for the cautious throwing part? That’s the next step in the equation. Will Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired elbow ever be strong enough to get him back to being close to the elite passer he was in previous years?

We won’t begin to find out the answer to that question until perhaps the start of OTAs. If he takes that step without stumbling, then it’s on to mini-camp and then training camp, where he’ll likely get tested with enough reps to leave little doubt.

If Roethlisberger can step into the regular season as the Steelers fully-functioning starting quarterback, I believe a championship run is quite possible.

There are many steps for Roethlisberger to take between now and Week 1 of the 2020 regular season.

But Big Ben threw a football on Saturday, and that was a giant first step.

Podcast: If the Steelers can’t keep Bud Dupree, what’s the plan at OLB?

Behind the Steel Curtain - Tue, 02/25/2020 - 5:28am

In the latest episode of “Steelers Q&A” show, we break down all the news you need to know surrounding the Black-and-Gold.

Steeler Nation enjoyed a defensive resurgence in 2019 that evoked memories of the famed Steel Curtain and Blitzburgh units. A lot of that is due to the career year of one Alvin “Bud” Dupree. However, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in salary cap peril and It’s hard to imagine finding enough money under the salary cap to accommodate the $16 million it would take to retain the Outside Linebacker. If Bud leaves, what could the Steelers Plan B to fill the void?

Take a look at the rundown for the latest episode of the BTSC podcast The Steelers Q&A Show. On this show Bryan Anthony Davis and Tony Defeo break down all things Steelers!

Check out the rundown of the show:

  • News and Notes
  • Suggestions for a possible life after Bud.
  • Week in Review
  • Steelers Q&A
  • and MUCH MORE!

Bryan Davis and Tony Defeo, of BTSC, walk you through everything you need to know regarding the Black-and-gold.

If you haven’t heard, we have a YouTube channel, and the main reason for this is to increase the sound quality on our shows. But if you’re a visual learner you can watch the show below. Be sure to subscribe to our channel!

If you missed the live show, be sure to check out all episodes on the following platforms:

Apple Users: CLICK HERE
Spotify: CLICK HERE
Google Play: CLICK HERE

If you’re old-school and just want the audio, you can listen to it in the player below.

Black and Gold Links: At the Scouting Combine the Steelers will see a very deep receiving class

Behind the Steel Curtain - Tue, 02/25/2020 - 4:27am
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Time to check on the latest news surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season is officially over. After finishing the year 8-8, the Steelers, and their vast fan base, has another long offseason awaiting them. Just because the games are done doesn’t mean we stop providing you with features, commentary and opinions to tide you over throughout the offseason!

Today in the black-and-gold links article we take a look at how the Steelers will have a very good wide receiver draft class to watch at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine this week.

Let’s get to the news:

  • The Steelers need wide receiver help, and it looks as if they will see plenty of that in a very deep receiving class at the combine.

Steelers will encounter deep wide receiver class at NFL Scouting Combine

By: Joe Rutter, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

After a three-year run of using a high-round pick on a wide receiver, the Pittsburgh Steelers entered another offseason in which a talented pass catcher may be too good to pass up early in the NFL Draft.

When general manager Kevin Colbert, coach Mike Tomlin and their staffs head to Indianapolis this week for the annual NFL Scouting Combine, they will encounter a group of wide receivers that features quantity as well as quality.

Draft experts are near unanimous in their belief the deepest group of players among the skill positions – if not the entire class – is at wide receiver.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. projects 25 receivers will be drafted in the first three-and-a-half rounds, with perhaps 14 of them going in the first and second rounds.

“It may be historic,” Kiper said.

To read the full article, click HERE (Free)

  • The NFL Scouting Combine is going to prime time television.

Combine is going primetime

By: Teresa Varley, Steelers.com

Who will stand out this year? Who will make a sudden impression? And what will we learn when the NFL Scouting Combine descends upon Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Feb. 23-March 1?

Over 300 players will take part in what is football’s biggest job interview, participating in an array of activities, including on-field workouts, medical testing, interviews with teams, and media interviews.

This year the Combine is going primetime for the first time ever, with all of the drills on NFL Network from Feb. 27-March 1.

2020 NFL Scouting Combine television schedule:

• Thursday, February 27th (4-11 p.m. ET on NFL Network) - Tight Ends, Quarterback, Receivers

To read the full article, click HERE (Free)

  • Who the Steelers should be targeting in the combine this week.

Going on the offensive: Who should the Steelers scout at the NFL combine?

By: ESPN Staff Writers

With a tight cap situation and $33.5 million tied up in Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 salary, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have to acquire most of their talent for the upcoming season through the draft.

Adding to the difficulty of that task is the lack of a first-round pick, traded away to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

It was a smart trade for the Steelers, grabbing a Pro Bowl safety in exchange for the No. 18 overall pick, but, barring a trade back into the first round, it means things in Pittsburgh will likely be pretty quiet on the first day of the draft.

Assuming they stand pat, the Steelers aren’t slated to make their first selection until the second day with the No. 49 overall pick, coming midway through the second round.

That means the first wave of ultra-talented prospects will be off the board by the time the Steelers make their first selection. Pittsburgh has had recent success with mid-round picks, adding players like receivers Antonio Brown (No. 195 overall) JuJu Smith-Schuster (No. 62) and Emmanuel Sanders (No. 82), defensive lineman Javon Hargrave (No. 89), and running back James Conner (No. 105).

The defense was stout last season, meaning much of the early draft should be focused on the offense.

To read the full article, click HERE (Free)

  • Social Media Madness

Before he wore #️⃣3️⃣8️⃣ in Black & Gold, @JaySam1k was TE12 at the #NFLCombine.

: 2020 #NFLCombine starts February 27 on @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/J6uG1sLPXE

— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) February 24, 2020

Bradshaw 10-16-86-1-1@francoharrishof 29-136-1 @RockyBleier 12-42
Swann 1-7-1#Steelers qualify for the playoffs with a 21-17 win in NE.
The #Steelers would not lose another game in 1974 pic.twitter.com/oVrakGP7eh

— Old Time Football (@Ol_TimeFootball) February 24, 2020

Happy birthday Jack Ham
Jack with his first career TD, a pick 6 vs Jim Plunkett and the #Patriots #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/MfDKJbZLfP

— Old Time Football (@Ol_TimeFootball) February 24, 2020

As it pertains to regular and postseason expansion, NFL owners will always get their way

Behind the Steel Curtain - Mon, 02/24/2020 - 2:13pm
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Fight as they might, the players will never prevent NFL owners from expanding the schedule. This newest proposal—one that includes a 17th regular season game and two more playoff teams—is proof of that. Even if the players don’t accept it, they will eventually accept some form of schedule expansion.

As of this writing, the NFLPA is mulling over the proposed new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) that has been negotiated and agreed upon by NFL owners.

There are many things in this proposed new CBA which aims to prevent a work-stoppage after the 2020 season, but for the purposes of this article, let’s talk about the sexy stuff: An expanded regular season and postseason.

If the owners get their way, the expanded regular season will include a 17th game, while the postseason will add one more team per conference.

If I had to rank these expansion proposals (and I’m not sure if it’s legal for a sports site to rank less than five things), I would place the idea of expanding the postseason as a clear number one in my book.

I just love this idea. For one, it keeps more teams in the mix through the end of the regular season, which obviously keeps more fan bases emotionally invested until the bitter end.

It might seem unfortunate that this proposed postseason expansion would eliminate a bye for the number two seeds—a logistical certainty given the math—and it likely is. But the NFL once rotated where its conference championship games were played regardless of win-loss records. Also, there was a time when byes were perhaps a little too easy to obtain. Starting in 1978, when the NFL expanded from eight playoff teams to 10, through 1989, all division winners—even the mediocre ones—earned a week off after the regular season, while the fourth seed battled the fifth seed on Wildcard Weekend. That all changed in 1990, when the NFL expanded its playoff field to 12 teams, which logistically punted the division winner with the third best record in each conference into the wildcard round. That postseason system—save for some slight tweaking which added a fourth division to each conference in 2002 thanks to realignment—has been in place for three decades.

Now we might have this new system that eliminates byes for number two seeds.

Basically, byes have been under siege since the end of the 1980’s, and it’s probably only a matter of time before we see a 16-team playoff field and no byes (Wikipedia the 1982 postseason “Super Bowl Tournament” that was the result of the nine-game strike-shortened regular season, and you’ll see the likely blueprint for the not-so-distant postseason future of the NFL).

Again, is it fair to a number two seed—one that likely wins 12 or more games—to have to play an extra week just to reach the Super Bowl? I don’t know, is it fair that wildcard teams with double-digit wins often have to go on the road to play division winners with significantly less victories? These things tend to even out over time, and guess what? If the number two seed wins its game, its reward is a second-straight home game in the divisional round. How many teams that play on Wildcard Weekend have been able to say that? None up until now and this new proposal. And what happens if five, six and seven all win their wildcard games? That’s right, a fifth seed (a non-division winner) vs. a sixth seed (a non-division winner) in the divisional round. Try explaining that to your friends who know absolutely nothing about football.

You might say that adding more participants will dilute the playoff field, but only if you don’t think the two or three teams that fight for the sixth seed every year are playoff caliber. How often does the race for the final wildcard spot come down to a tiebreaker? Often enough that it keeps a decent team out.

Moving on.

The proposal I’m really not crazy about is the 17-game regular season. And it’s not because I don’t want more actual football. It’s because it just seems pointless. From what I understand, the 17th game will be of the inter-conference variety—perhaps an annual “rival” for each team (for instance, the Steelers vs. those dirty Philly birds—the Eagles). Cool, but match-ups like that offer little in the way of value as far as postseason tiebreakers are concerned. Besides, where will this 17th game be played, and who decides which teams miss out on one week of gate and concession revenue each season?

To me, that’s a half-ass way of expanding your regular season schedule, but this is what happens when players are hellbent on not playing extra regular season games and owners are hellbent on getting their way, one way or another.

I wonder if an 18-game regular season would have kept the postseason field the same.

I guess we may never know.

Finally, doing it this way probably isn’t ideal for the owners--a 17th regular season game and two more playoff teams as opposed to an 18-game regular season--but at least an expanded postseason field adds some additional value to their TV contracts by providing the networks with two more highly-rated television programs to air the first weekend after the holidays.

The owners are going to get an expanded schedule one way or another. It’s up to the players to agree on this proposal or a future one that includes more actual games.

Either way, expansion is the future of the NFL—it always has been.

Steelers 2020 Free Agent Market Watch: The Guards

Behind the Steel Curtain - Mon, 02/24/2020 - 12:35pm
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

BTSC takes a look at the top free agents at each position whether or not they are in the Steelers price range. Here are the interior linemen known as the guards.

Disclaimer: The author realizes that the team is burning in Salary Cap Hell and can’t pony up much money for free agents. However, you never know what they have planned and it’s the author’s responsibility to highlight the free agent options. It’s like the lyric in the Howard Jones song, “No One Is To Blame”...You can look at the menu, but you just can’t eat.

The Steelers have an issue with an offensive line getting much older. Ramon Foster may be a cap casualty, while free agents Matt Feiler and B.J. Finney are free agents. The Steelers would like to sign their own, but that might be tough with the cap.If they do add, here is the list of available free agents should a Steel City Money Miracle occur.

Joe Thuney - New England Patriots Age 27 - 6’5”/308 lbs. 2019 Stats No. 5 PFF Ranking: 77.4 Overall Grade, 87.4 Pass Blocking, 66.7 Run Blocking Games - 16, Offensive Stats Played - 1140, Sacks Allowed - 1, Penalties - 0

The loss of a pass protector of this caliber could be devastating for the New England Patriots. Thuney is one of the best in the league at his craft, but critics say that his run blocking Could stand improvement. Nonetheless, it’s a shame that the Steelers can’t afford Thuney, who’s going to come in a lot of cash on the open market.

Brandon Scherff - Washington Redskins Age 26 - 6’5”/315 lbs. 2019 Stats No. 10 PFF Ranking: 75.0 Overall Grade, 72.0 Pass Blocking, 76.3 Run Blocking Games - 11, Offensive Stats Played - 643, Sacks Allowed - 1, Penalties - 9

Scherff would be a high reward signing, but he’s missed 13 games over the last two seasons. So that means there’s a lot of risk involved too. The Washington Redskin is equally talented at both blocking and running.

Graham Glasgow - Detroit Lions Age 27 - 6’6”/310 lbs. 2019 Stats No. 12 PFF Ranking: 74.1 Overall Grade, 69.0 Pass Blocking, 74.2 Run Blocking Games - 15, Offensive Stats Played - 832, Sacks Allowed - 0, Penalties - 3

A very reliable and versatile blocker for the Lions, the center/guard really increased his worth on the open market in 2019. He’s very much in the mold of a BJ Finney, so the Steelers would go with their own player if they were going to spend the money at this position.

Greg Van Roten - Carolina Panthers Age 29 - 6’3”/305 lbs. 2019 Stats No. 23 PFF Ranking: 65.6 Overall Grade, 74.3 Pass Blocking, 57.3 Run Blocking Games - 11, Offensive Stats Played - 704, Sacks Allowed - 1, Penalties - 2

Van Roten is a very talented player and had a solid 2019 campaign. However, a toe injury put him on the shelf in November for the remainder of the season. Carolina faltered without the talented pass blocker, that should be a consideration when teams consider tendering him a free agent deal.

Stefan Wisniewski - Kansas City Chiefs Age 30 - 6’3”/313 lbs. 2019 Stats No.16 PFF Ranking: 68.2 Overall Grade, 80.5 Pass Blocking, 59.9 Run Blocking Games - 11, Offensive Stats Played - 211, Sacks Allowed - 0, Penalties - 9

Wisniewski would be a great free agent addition for any team. He helped the Eagles and Chiefs win rings in two of the last three seasons. He signed with KC in October and is a great veteran presence. I’d love to see the Steelers find money for this player.

Other Notable Free Agent Guards

Quinton Spain - Buffalo Bills

Mike Iupati - Seattle Seahawks

Alex Lewis - New York Jets

Ereck Flowers - Washington Redskins

Andrus Peat - New Orleans Saints

Denzelle Good - Oakland Raiders

Could Bud Dupree be a tag-and-trade candidate for the Steelers?

Behind the Steel Curtain - Mon, 02/24/2020 - 11:34am
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a third, but risky, option when it comes to Bud Dupree heading into 2020.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers fan base talks about the future of Bud Dupree with the organization, it usually focuses on one of three potential options:

  • Sign Dupree to a new, long-term contract.
  • Franchise tag Dupree to ensure he provides the same production in 2020 as the did in 2019.
  • Let him walk and hit free agency.

Those three options are the most common when it pertains to a player like Dupree, but what if there was a fourth option? An option which could be risky, if the Steelers have no interest in bringing Dupree back, but could see them get something other than a compensatory pick for losing Dupree’s skill set.

This fourth option would be the tag-and-trade option. In other words, the Steelers would place the franchise tag on Dupree, only to then try and trade his rights away to an organization who will want to sign him to a long-term deal.

Sound far-fetched? Not really. In fact, it has become more popular in the past few seasons.

As ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio points out, “Last year, a pair of elite pass rushers were tagged then traded, with the Chiefs shipping Dee Ford to the 49ers for a 2020 second-round pick and the Chiefs then acquiring Frank Clark from the 49ers, for a first-round pick in 2019, a second-round pick in 2020, and a swap of 2019 third-rounders.

Ford signed a five-year, $85 million deal in San Francisco, and Clark signed a five-year, $104 million deal.”

There are plenty of logistics to discuss when throwing Dupree into the mix for a tag-and-trade player. First, Dupree has to be considered the caliber of player who is worthy of making such a trade. Second, the Steelers would have to face the fact they could potentially have to bite the bullet on Dupree for 2020 if they don’t find a trade partner.

For this to take place, the Steelers would still have to clear roughly $16 million in salary cap space to place the franchise tag on Dupree. If Dupree is traded, that space would become cap space for the Steelers they could use on their own accord. But if there isn’t a trade, like Ford and Clark last year, the Steelers would have Dupree’s services for the 2020 season, and let’s not pretend having that would be the end of the world.

The benefit to this tag-and-trade would be the Steelers could potentially rack up more capital than just a compensatory pick for watching Dupree walk via free agency. Just look at what Ford and Clark were able to bring for teams who traded them away. Talk about draft stock!

Is this an option for the Steelers? Absolutely it is, but how realistic it is comes down to how other teams view Dupree as a player. Is he a one-year wonder with his 11.5 sacks in 2019? Or is this the new Dupree fans are just getting a glimpse of? Pass rushers who put up double-digit sacks don’t grow on trees, so the Steelers would be wise to listen if a team calls inquiring about Dupree’s services in 2020.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black-and-gold as they prepare for another lengthy offseason.

Mock Draft Monday: The Steelers look to add an athletic edge rusher with their top pick

Behind the Steel Curtain - Mon, 02/24/2020 - 9:30am
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

According to nfl.com the Steelers should take the risk on a large yet quick pass rusher who struggled with injuries in years past

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ season has now been over for almost two months, so we’ve had plenty of time to get into the off-season mindset. Although free agency comes first on the calendar before the 2020 NFL Draft, the NFL Combine will occurs this week. With that said, it might be nice to have an idea as to some of the names associated with the Steelers in the second round. The Steelers’ first round pick has already been named an All-Pro player as Minkah Fitzpatrick can be thought of as the Steelers’ choice. So let’s look at prospects who may be available at the 49th selection and see what they could bring the the Steelers in 2020.

When talking about mock drafts or NFL free agency, you have to first identify the team’s main needs for the off-season. Hare are some of the projected positions of need for the Steelers in no particular order:

Wide Receiver
Running Back
Offensive Line
EDGE Rusher
Tight End

There could be other positions added to the list, but when it comes to what position the team will target with their first pick, it is certainly up for debate.

In the latest three-round mock draft by nfl.com, they have the Steelers addressing the outside linebacker position before anything else. While the future of Bud Dupree will weigh heavily on the Steelers thought process in the draft, it is important to look at all the possibilities presented by various mock draft outlets.

Check out the pick:

49. Pittsburgh Steelers | Terrell Lewis| EDGE | ALABAMA | JR |

As many players are declaring their eligibility and preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine, there are plenty of players most fans have not seen play in 2019. Since this is the case, here is a breakdown of Lewis according to thedraftnetwork.com:

First Step Explosiveness - He’s got a pretty sudden coil and when he’s shooting up field he’ll challenge OTs early into reps. His long strides are paired with good power to drive out of his stance and against heavier footed OTs he’ll have the chance to take the edge with speed — something he didn’t do often on film at the college level.

Hand Technique/Length - Two gap and stacking skills are pretty solid but he really wins with his length. He’s got great extension and disruptiveness in his wingspan to put off bodies and bench himself clear of traffic. Sudden disengage to transition into pursuit of the football — should excel in setting the edge.

Pass Rush Counters - Work in progress here. Too many reps are taken with head up angles and his counters are too slow to kick into action. Flashed an inside spin but his bread and butter is am arm over/chop move to slip the first punch and gain ground at first contact. Gives up on the corner too easily and loses leverage.

Flexibility - High hipped and lean frame but he’s got more slipperiness and fluidity than you’d expect. He’s definitely got some tilt to his frame and torso is able to rotate open and get skinny through the chest and shoulders as a presses up the field or ducks/dips into an interior gap on stunts. Surprising mobility through the frame.

Run Defending - Handled a few too many times against blocking TEs to ignore but he’s also had reps where he’s really effective to press, extend and lock out before locating the football. Would like to see a bit more effort on the back side of run plays to work into the action as a rally defender, too.

Competitive Toughness - Has loafed behind outside runs going the other way — a minor gripe but something to note. His functional strength is pretty solid and his reps losing the POA tend to come more from poor placement or eager eyes to peek and lose his run fit. Needs more power rushes in his toolbox.

Tackling - Tackle radius is notable and gives him a big influence as a tackler while still engaged with blockers or when looking to keep the edge when isolated in space. His wingspan is notable and if he’s closing down from the edge he’s nearly impossible to get outside of unless he’s late to step down and fill into the mesh point.

Lateral Mobility - Fairly effective here. He moves well for his size and his base is a lot more dynamic than you’d expect so he can drive on an outside angle with a bit of juice and work into the play. His shallow slips inside on stunts are effective and fluid, he’s not clunky looking to dip the inside shoulder and run through gaps.

Stand Up Ability - Even though he brings athletic ability to the position, there’s not a lot of instinct here that should warrant reps, at least early on. He’s got some developmental upside in zone drops but by and large he’s not going to be effective manning up on TEs or sinking to hook/curl any time soon.

Football IQ - Understandably raw given lack of starts due to injury. He’s got ample potential but needs to build out his pass rush counters to provide more versatility and more quickness in recruiting them based on pass sets. Doesn’t show a great deal of feel for navigating the pocket or crowded messes to find the ball, either.

---

Best Trait - Length

Worst Trait - Durability

Best Film - Tennessee (2019)

Worst Film - Auburn (2019)

Red Flags - 2017 elbow INJ, 2018 ACL INJ

Player Summary - Terrell Lewis is an enticing ball of clay that NFL defensive coordinators will be eager to get their hands on. Injuries have bogged down Lewis’ development and kept him off the field but his blend of first step quickness, length and flashes of penetration provide promise of what can be with more development and reps. Lewis will be a somewhat high risk investment given his injury history and raw skills — best off working into reps slowly while his hand usage and counters are developed.

For all you who are preparing yourself for the draft, what do you think of the selection? Would you be on board with the Steelers taking Lewis with their first pick, albeit in the second round? Or do you feel he will not be available when the Steelers pick in the 49th position? Are the injuries which caused him to miss most of his first two season a concern, or is his health last year enough of a bounce back? Does his decision not to play in Alabama’s bowl game affect your perception in any way? Let us know in the comment section below, and remember these mock drafts are merely speculation and caused to create discussion among the fan base.

Breaking Down Diontae Johnson’s Rookie Season, Part 3: End of season, and beyond

Behind the Steel Curtain - Mon, 02/24/2020 - 7:45am
Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Looking at Diontae Johnson’s progress and what we should expect for him in 2020.

In the first part of this series I covered the stats from Diontae Johnson’s rookie season and where he ranks among his peers and in history. In the second part I covered film from the first half of his rookie season, the potential, as well as the weaknesses he showed in those games. Now it is time to move on to the second half of the season and look at Johnson’s growth as a player.

Diontae Johnson was not a deep threat in the first half of the season, only catching two passes that were 15 or more yards downfield, with both of those being based on defensive mistakes. Diontae Johnson was productive in the first half of the season, but it was very dependent on the Steelers short passing game. As the Steelers entered the second half of the season they would start to use Diontae Johnson’s agility and change of direction to open him up for deeper targets.

The In’s and Out’s

Week 10, 1st quarter, 4:21, 1st and 10, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the top of the screen.

A nice 15 yard in-route here, Johnson’s cut leaves him open, but they fail to complete the catch here. As the fame below shows, this wasn’t an easy catch to make, but he got hands on it and you have to make those catches.

This frame shows is just how much space Johnson creates with his sharp cuts, there is no defender in position to challenge this catch. It also shows the ball was in a tough spot to get a catch. One of the factors that affect catch rate a lot is the chemistry between a QB and WR. Diontae Johnson and Mason Rudolph struggled quite a bit developing that chemistry.

Week 10, 1st quarter, 3:39, 3-7, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the top of the screen again.

After the above incomplete pass and a 3 yard run on second down it’s third and 7, and the Rams are ready for that in route, undercutting the route with safety help bracketing him, Diontae Johnson is effectively shut down. Except that it isn’t an in route, and a quick change of direction leaves Diontae Johnson wide open for a 30 yard gain. This is a great move by Diontae Johnson to sell the in route and then stop on a dime and leave the defense in the dust. This play shows the Steelers investing in Johnson’s elite change of direction ability.

Week 10, 4th quarter, 15:00, 2nd and 7, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the top of the screen.

This play is another incomplete pass and another drop for Diontae Johnson. But that’s not what we are looking at. Watch how the Safety is cheating up from the start, and bites on Johnson’s in cut as soon as Mason looks to throw that way. The Rams were focusing on Diontae Johnson, they were adapting the defense to stop him. Now look at the WR to the bottom of the screen, James Washington is wide open as soon as the Safety takes a step toward Johnson. A QB like Ben Roethlisberger would pump fake that throw to Johnson and rifle a ball to James Washington, and if it connects, it’s a TD. With JuJu slowed, Diontae Johnson had the Rams cheating toward his side, unfortunately Mason Rudolph wasn’t the kind of QB that was going to exploit that in 2019.

12-15 yard in and out routes were a staple of the offense with Devlin Hodges and Diontae Johnson, along with the drags and hook routes they ran earlier in the season.

Becoming a play-maker

The last 4 weeks of the season were Diontae Johnson’s breakout games. He led the team in receiving by a good margin, but also led the team in deep pass completions and yards, catching 5 of 6 targets 15 or more yard downfield for 114 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT. The rest of the team recorded 3 catches for 88 yards, 0 TDs and 4 INTs on 14 deep passes in those 4 games.

Week 14, 4th quarter, 2:14, 3rd and 13, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

This is a great job of finding the gap in the defense as Devlin Hodges extends the play. This conversion set the Steelers up for a shorter field goal, but it also let them kill time and Arizona’s final 2 time outs. It’s not a TD, but this ad-lib set the defense up with a far easier situation for the final Arizona drive in the Steelers 6 point win.

Week 16, 4th quarter, 11:28, 2nd and 7, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

I love this route by Diontae Johnson. The stagger-step at the release and driving sprint out of it really sells that he’s going deep and outside, and then he just stops and turns. The defensive back turns his hips to run with a WR who is clearly trying to get outside of him deep, and then has to spin around to find Johnson. Evading the tackle for an extra 5 yards is icing on the cake. This is a phenomenal job of a WR breaking down and defeating the CB tasked with covering him. A simple route executed at a high level.

The next week he would pull off an even better one.

Week 17, 1st quarter, 0:21, 3rd and 7, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

Here he navigates a tricky release and runs a nice crossing route for the only Steelers play to gain 20+ yards in week 17.

The beauty in this route is toward the end of the route. Take a better look.

Diontae Johnson has a lead on Marcus Peters, but he’s running out of field and Peters is gaining. When Johnson slows and comes slightly back toward the ball the CB thinks he has a legit shot at breaking up the pass and commits, only to see Johnson fade back effortlessly and record the reception with a beautiful toe-tap.

This is a phenomenal job by Diontae Johnson, understanding the situation, the trajectory of the ball and the space and time he has remaining. On the broadcast they only remarked in surprise that Peters undercut the ball, missing what a beautiful route modification Diontae Johnson threw down.

Diontae Johnson would end this game with 54 of the Steelers 95 receiving yards, the only player to even gain 20 yards through the air.

Conclusion and predictions

One negative that held over from the first half of the season to the second half was ball security. Diontae Johnson still struggled with keeping the ball secured as he made catches and tried to gain extra yards, I just didn’t have room to show that and cover the things I felt needed to be covered. Just know that the ball security problems covered in the previous post of this series weren’t solved in 2019.

Overall Diontae Johnson had a phenomenal rookie season, surpassing almost all expectations, and with the QB play he had, I think he had an incredible year. More than just stats though, the improvement and ability to produce when the rest of the offense was falling apart really stands out as being something special.

Diontae Johnson’s biggest strengths are in his 1v1 game. If you line up a CB across from Diontae Johnson and expect that you have him under control, you are going to be in trouble. Johnson is really strong in his releases, has sharp cuts and sets up his cuts with smart route running. But he even goes beyond that and shows the ability to be creative and fake out defenders to create space where the play design, and his route running don’t.

Next season a lot will ride on Ben Roethlisberger’s health and play, but Diontae Johnson was showing by the end of the season that he has the ability to be a really solid #2 WR, and quite possibly more than that. If JuJu Smith-Schuster is able to bounce back from his injuries and the QB play is league average or better, Diontae Johnson will push JuJu Smith-Schuster for the lead in targets. I’ve compared JuJu Smith-Schuster to Adam Thielen, and Diontae Johnson could very well become the Stephon Diggs to Smith Schuster’s Thielen. Diggs is more of a speed guy where Johnson is a route runner, but they both show creativity and use their agility very well.

My final take away from Diontae Johnson’s rookie year is that as nice as the stats were, and as good as he looked in some metrics, the reality is even better. Diontae Johnson still isn’t likely to be a star receiver, but he’s a real good one, I would be surprised if he doesn’t end up as successful as Emmanuel Sanders, another really good but not great WR who needed someone else to keep the defense from focusing on him to really excel.

With NFL/NFLPA CBA discussions in trouble, is a work stoppage on the horizon?

Behind the Steel Curtain - Mon, 02/24/2020 - 6:32am

Could the NFL and the NFLPA be staring at another lockout?

The NFL owners and players have been in negotiations with a new CBA and it appears the negotiations are coming to a head. The owners have stated they will not negotiate once the new league year starts on March 18th. So the clock is ticking.

On February 20th, the NFL owners agreed to the CBA in its proposed form. The acceptance is not a surprise that they passed it by better than a three-fourths majority, as it is the proposal that the owners formulated. (It was not a surprise that accepting the proposal was not unanimous.)

The NFLPA’s executive council voted 6-5 to reject the proposal in its current form when it is voted on by the full NFLPA membership later this week. Over 2,100 players are eligible to cast their votes — a simple majority of players is needed to either accept or reject the offer. Pittsburgh Steelers T.J. Watt’s older brother J.J. Watt chimed in on Twitter with his opinion on the current proposal.

Hard no on that proposed CBA.

— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) February 21, 2020

Here is a list of some of the proposals.

  • Eliminate suspension for testing positive for marijuana. The league would not test all players.
  • The league would move to a 17 game regular season schedule. Such an expansion could net $1 billion dollars for the added week. (The expansion would not take any sooner than 2021.)
  • Players would receive a larger slice of the $16 billion annual pie. The players receive 47 percent — the proposal would increase to 48 percent.
  • Game day active rosters would expand from 46 to 48 and the 53-man roster would expand to 55.
  • Practice squads would increase from 10 players to 12 in 2020 and up to 14 in 2022. Two of the practice squad slots could be used for players, no matter how many accrued seasons they have. (The cap is two years.)
  • Designated players to return from injured reserve would increase from two to three.
  • Players would receive a portion of gambling revenue brought in by the league.
  • Training camp would be limited to 16 padded practices and four joint practices.
  • The preseason would be reduced to three games.
  • Commissioner Roger Goodell’s power will be curtailed especially for suspensions and fines.
  • All first round rookies will have their contracts fully guaranteed. When the fifth year option is picked up, it will also become fully guaranteed, not just for injury.
  • Postseason teams would expand by one per conference. (The second seed would no longer get a bye.)
  • Varying other aspects that I read different conflicting reports.

This is a lot to digest for even the most rabid NFL fans. Both sides are anticipating the outcome of the NFLPA vote. Shooting down the agreement could stall any negotiations until after the 2020 season. Such a delay could lead to a work stoppage. Neither side wants a work stoppage with so much at stake, especially when the league will negotiate new TV deals in 2022.

The NFL players would like a better deal than what they received in 2011 in the 301 page document. How much will they give up to get some items they really want? How much are the owners willing to concede? March 18th is quickly approaching. Can the two sides agree before the clock hits zero?

Podcast: The Steelers only hope, Big Ben, is back

Behind the Steel Curtain - Mon, 02/24/2020 - 5:32am

In the latest episode of “Home and Hater” show, we break down all the news you need to know surrounding the Black-and-Gold.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season is officially over, and the Steelers lost their final game by losing to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17, ending their record at 8-8.

Take a look at the rundown for the latest episode of the BTSC podcast The Home and Hater Show. On this show Jeff Hartman and Lance Williams break down all things Steelers!

Check out the rundown of the show:

  • News and Notes
  • Big Ben Roethlisberger, and his bionic arm, are back!
  • Week in Review
  • Steelers Q&A
  • and MUCH MORE!

Jeff Hartman, editor of BTSC, and Lance Williams walk you through everything you need to know regarding the Black-and-gold.

If you haven’t heard, we have a YouTube channel, and the main reason for this is to increase the sound quality on our shows. But if you’re a visual learner you can watch the show below. Be sure to subscribe to our channel!

If you missed the live show, be sure to check out all episodes on the following platforms:

Apple Users: CLICK HERE
Spotify: CLICK HERE
Google Play: CLICK HERE

If you’re old-school and just want the audio, you can listen to it in the player below.

Black and Gold Links: Why the Steelers are “very comfortable” without a top pick in the upcoming draft

Behind the Steel Curtain - Mon, 02/24/2020 - 4:35am
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Time to check on the latest news surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 season is officially over. After finishing the year 8-8, the Steelers, and their vast fan base, has another long offseason awaiting them. Just because the games are done doesn’t mean we stop providing you with features, commentary and opinions to tide you over throughout the offseason!

Today in the black-and-gold links article we take a look at why the Steelers claim they are extremely confident with not having a top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Let’s get to the news:

  • Not having a first round pick is tough, but the Steelers seem to have come to grips with the fact they won’t be picking until Round 2 in the upcoming selection process.

Steelers head to NFL Combine ‘very comfortable’ with no 1st-round pick

By: Joe Rutter, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

For the first time since the NFL Combine took up residence in Indianapolis in 1987, the Pittsburgh Steelers will head to the event without a first-round pick.

In fact, you’d have to go back 20 more years — long before NFL execs decided to gather in one location to evaluate talent — to find a draft where the Steelers didn’t hold a first-round selection.

Still, it will be business as usual for general manager Kevin Colbert and his staff this week as they evaluate the college talent at the combine that will fortify their roster later in the offseason.

“We’re very comfortable with where we are in that regard,” Colbert said earlier this month.

To read the full article, click HERE (Free)

  • How the Steelers should approach the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine...

Williamson’s Combine rewind

By: Matt Williamson, Steelers.com

The 2020 NFL Scouting Combine is right around the corner and we are now well into draft season. Of course, free agency has yet to open and that is a critical piece of the team building puzzle, but we are going to concentrate on the college evaluation side of things for the sake of this piece. And the crux of this conversation is going to center around what do college scouts do once the Combine is completed? Here is how I would handle it if I ever had the opportunity to do all again.

First off, let’s take a small step backwards before we get to the plan of attack post-Combine. There is a theory in scouting circles that evaluators should “Put the pen down” after the Senior Bowl. The logic is that there no longer is competitive football to watch and evaluate. Everything from the Senior Bowl on are drills, interviews, testing, etc. Obviously for prospects that didn’t participate in post season all-star games like the Senior Bowl their football tape ended with their final college game. All the padded football has been played.

To read the full article, click HERE (Free)

  • Three months. That is the time frame for Ben Roethlisberger’s return. Ready for training camp...

Roethlisberger says he’s making progress, will be cleared in three months

By: Michael David Smith

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is throwing footballs again after elbow surgery, and he says his doctor believes he’s on pace to be cleared to full activities before training camp.

Roethlisberger told Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his medical report was positive.

“It was a good report. I got to bypass the tennis ball throwing for a month and go right to the football. Still going to be about 2.5-3 months until I get total clearance from doc but we are doing good,” Roethlisberger said. “It felt amazing to throw. It was hard to hold the smile in. Two more throwing sessions while I’m out here in California and then headed back to the Burgh.”

To read the full article, click HERE (Free)

  • Social Media Madness

The O-Line at the Combine #NFLCombine@MaurkicePouncey | @RamonFoster | @ZBNFL | @BigFei72 | @catcenter66 | @Chuks__76 | @Teamgrayy pic.twitter.com/w4xN3U8uVg

— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) February 23, 2020

3️⃣0️⃣ @JamesConner_ pic.twitter.com/KrOgGSTlBA

— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) February 24, 2020

This thread is glorious... #Steelers https://t.co/wzS0zmgDmd

— BTSC Steelers (@btsteelcurtain) February 23, 2020

Ben Roethlisberger on the results of his doctors appointment: “It was amazing to throw”

Behind the Steel Curtain - Sun, 02/23/2020 - 12:42pm

Roethlisberger will spend the weekend for workouts with doctors before returning to Pittsburgh

Steelers fans waited patiently all day on Friday in hopes of a good report from Ben Roethlisberger‘s doctors visit in Los Angeles. Hoping Roethlisberger could begin throwing light objects once given permission from his doctors, it was above and beyond fans expectations when a video was released by the Steelers on Saturday showing Roethlisberger throwing a football. With no other information other than the short video, Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered a couple quotes from Roethlisberger on Twitter. The first quote from Cook was how Roethlisberger felt after being able to throw.

Ben Roethlisberger on throwing a football Saturday for the first time since his elbow surgery: "It felt amazing to throw. It was hard to hold the smile in. 2 more throwing sessions while I’m out here in California and then headed back to the burgh."

— Ron Cook (@RonCookPG) February 23, 2020

Giving some small details about the process, Roethlisberger said he would be in Los Angeles through the weekend in order to do more activities before returning home. Roethlisberger also discussed his joy from his good report where he could bypass throwing the tennis ball and go straight to throwing a football.

Ben Roethlisberger on doctor visit Friday: "It was a good report. I got to bypass the tennis ball throwing for a month and go right to the football. Still going to be about 2.5-3 months until I get total clearance from doc but we are doing good!

— Ron Cook (@RonCookPG) February 23, 2020

One of the most notable things from Cook’s quote of Roethlisberger is the timeline in which he is hoping to be totally cleared. While at first glance, fans might be concerned with a projected clearance in May. Although it is already after the NFL draft and right around the time teams are starting their OTA‘s, this was the timeline for Roethlisberger to receive total clearance. One can assume total clearance means no inhibitions in activities with his elbow.

At this point, it’s difficult to say that “Ben is back.” There’s still a lot of rehab and recovery to take place before Roethlisberger is totally cleared to resume all aspects of playing football. But for being the last week of February, Roethlisberger appears to be further ahead than what many expected. So although we can’t say that Ben is back quite yet, he appears to be well on the road to recovery.

B.J. Finney on his impending free agency: We’d love to stay in Pittsburgh

Behind the Steel Curtain - Sun, 02/23/2020 - 11:25am
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In an interview with Steelers team reporter Missi Mathews, Finney stated his desire for his family to stay in the Steel City

In an interview with Steelers reporter Missi Matthews, Steelers unrestricted free agent B.J. Finney talked about his upcoming free agency and the “next man up” mentality of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“We truly embodied Coach Tomlin’s ‘next man up’ mentality with the amount of injuries we had to go through and the amount of guys who saw playing time,” Finney explained. “We never quit and we fought to relevancy of getting into the playoffs. So I was extremely happy that we did that.”

Finney was then asked what kind of emotions he was going through when thinking about the 2020 season and if he could be in Pittsburgh or playing somewhere else.

“It’s hard.”

Finney went on to explain that it isn’t bitter-sweet thinking about his time in Pittsburgh.

“Being a child hood fan of this franchise and then getting an opportunity to play for them, you can’t saw anything bitter about— it’s just sweet.”

When Missi Matthews asked Finney if he would like to stay in Pittsburgh, he did not hesitate with his response.

“Absolutely we’d love to stay,” he exclaimed. “My wife and I love it here. The amount of people we’ve got to meet, the city— we love the city— and the people in the organization, we just really love it.”

When asked about his embodiment of the “next man up” philosophy and his evolution in his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Finney had a simple answer.

“That’s my job.”

Finney went on to discuss how his former and current coaches as well as his teammates helped to teach him his importance to the team in his role to step in when needed.

“You’ve got to be ready at the drop of a hat. I don’t know anything else. That’s just been my job and to embody it just to make sure we don’t slow the unit down. That was my greatest pride point was making sure I wasn’t a hindrance. To be that person to make sure it doesn’t happen is huge for me.”

As much as both sides would like to keep Finney in Pittsburgh, it’s unclear if the Steelers can find enough money under the salary cap to offer him a fair deal. With the opportunity to take over a starting position due to the Steelers’ aging offensive line, Finney could very easily find himself with and increased role with the Steelers if the two sides can find an agreement. With his family’s support to stay with the Steelers, it would do both parties well to find a way to make it happen.

The entire released segment of Finney’s interview with Missi Matthews can be seen below.

"We truly embody Coach's next man up mentality."@missi_matthews sits down with B.J. Finney to talk about the next man up mentality, his desire to stay in Pittsburgh and more. pic.twitter.com/ZgGx773xfF

— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) February 22, 2020

A Letter From the Editor: Video showed Ben Roethlisberger throwing one football, and I’m pumped

Behind the Steel Curtain - Sun, 02/23/2020 - 9:45am
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ franchise quarterback is on the mend, and this editor is here for it.

February 21st, 2020 was a date many Pittsburgh Steelers fans had circled on their calendars. Okay, maybe not every fan did, but this editor certainly did. That was the date Ben Roethlisberger had his follow up appointment to see if he was far enough in his rehabilitation to start throwing.

The 21st came and went with no update.

Then in the afternoon on the 22nd, the Steelers released this video on social media:

pic.twitter.com/aH3IAbTEnr

— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) February 22, 2020

It was just one pass, but it got me absolutely fired up.

Roethlisberger likely has a long way to go before he is deemed capable of returning to the field of play, but that one pass absolutely made my day, week and offseason. We, as fans, might not see another glimpse of Roethlisberger throwing a football until minicamp, Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA, but it doesn’t matter to me.

Don’t think this wasn’t planned. Don’t think the organization, and the quarterback, didn’t hear the rumors of him being done. The rumors of him mailing it in last season. The rumors of the team paying him too much after he is unable to return to his usual form.

It was only one pass, but it was so much more than that. To me, it was hope in the visual form. It was the quarterback who has been under center for the majority of my adult life showing he still is capable of one, or two, final years under the sun before it is all over and done with.

Some might call me a homer, and I am definitely guilty as charged with this title. However, I am also someone who realizes the only chance the Steelers have of winning a Super Bowl in the next few seasons is if Roethlisberger is under center.

This was the first step in the process of Roethlisberger’s return, and fans should be excited.

Be cautious, setbacks can occur, but for the time being, be ecstatic. After suffering through the Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges experiments, hope seems to be on the horizon. The gun slinger is shining his side arm and ready for at least one more battle before he holsters his weapon for good.

Enough analogies.

Ben Roethlisberger is back, for now, and fans should be pumped up!

HERE WE GO STEELERS!

Report: The NFL franchise tag period has been pushed back to aid in CBA negotiations

Behind the Steel Curtain - Sun, 02/23/2020 - 8:30am
Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Originally slated to begin Tuesday February 25th, the first day to designate players under the franchise or transition tag will now be Thursday, February 27.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the NFL management council and the NFL players Association have agreed to push back the period for teams to designate players with either the franchise or transition tags for the 2020 season.

NFLPA and NFL Mgmt Council have pushed back the start of the franchise designation period from Tuesday Feb 25 to Thursday Feb 27, and period now will end March 12 instead of March 10, per source. Absent of a new CBA agreement, each team can use a franchise and transition tag.

— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 23, 2020

It seems as if this date was a point where the NFL owners needed to know under what rules they were operating for the 2020 season. If business was being conducted under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, the available options to some teams to reduce players salaries in order to utilize the franchise and transition tags would be much more limited. If a team is up against the salary cap, much like the Steelers are, rather than deal with the difficulty of restructuring players contracts in the final year of a CBA, the only option to free up space to use the franchise or transition tags would be to release players. If a new CBA is agreed-upon by both sides, then teams would have multiple options to reduce their salary cap numbers. In order for teams to conduct business fairly, they need to know under which set of rules they will be operating. Additionally, teams can use both a transition and franchise tag for 2020 if a new CBA is not implemented.

Last Friday the NFLPA team representatives met via conference call for several hours to discuss the proposal given to them by the owners. Rather than vote on the proposal, they decided to table the discussion and to meet with NFL representatives to discuss some of the issues. Whether or not the players are wanting to renegotiate any of the deal or to just get further clarification on some of the issues is not fully known at this time.

Agreeing to push back the starting date to designate players with either of the tags can be seen as a positive situation in hopes of reaching a new agreement. If the owners were not interested in meeting with the players or if the players knew they were going to reject the proposal, there would be no reason to push back the date. Giving both sides two more days to iron things out could help get a new deal in place in time for the 2020 season.

With not all of the owners voting in favor of the current CBA proposal, it can be inferred that some feel they are giving up too much for the players. With some players already being vocal about their feeling against the proposal, going to a vote of the players would be a positive sign and a new deal being excepted. With over half of the league playing at a minimum salary, the significant increase in pay for the league minimum would be very attractive to the majority of players.

When looking at the overview of the proposal, it appears the only real asking point on the owner’s side is the 17-game schedule. As for concessions for the players, they will see an increased amount of the revenue, higher minimum salaries, less penalties for positive drug tests, discipline actions determined by a neutral arbitrator, and less contact in practices to name a few.

As for using the franchise tag in 2020, the Steelers’ most likely candidate would be outside linebacker Bud Dupree. The Steelers have not indicated if they are willing to use the tag on Dupree, but have stated that signing him is a top priority of the off-season. In order to use the tag, the Steelers would need to clear about $16 million of salary cap space in order to use he designation.

With the new time schedule, the last day for teams to designate players under the franchise or transition tag will be Thursday, March 12.

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