Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome back to the mailbag. 90 minutes away until we kick off the first day of Combine testing. Receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks working out at Indy today. As always, we’re here for the next hour to answer anything weighing on your mind.

To your questions!

Brian Tollini: Cutting Vance McDonald seems to be a popular choice to save money, but do you see this as a major risk with no depth behind him and an unspectacular rookie class? I don’t see this as cut and dry as others do.

Alex: Sure, having that void at an important position with limited FA money and draft capital adds up to a risk. Rookie TEs are rarely plug and play. Even really good ones drafted in the first round struggled that first season. Learning how to play in an NFL style offense as opposed to college. Attached more, in a three point stance a much larger percentage of the time, understanding blocking schemes, while still learning how to read complex coverages, make sight adjustments, and deal with the physicality/speed of the game. Can’t ask a rookie to came in and be the savior.

So on that level, those are reasons to keep McDonald around.

My approach, and I’ve said it before, is this. If possible, you obviously can’t reach for someone, draft a TE in the 2nd or 3rd round (if I was GM, I’m trading out of #49 and picking up another mid-rounder if a guy like Trautman/Hopkins isn’t there in the 2nd round). Have him be the #2, split time with McDonald this year, and function as a bigger slot receiver who can help in the middle of the field. Heading into next offseason before 2021, cut ties with McDonald, make that draft pick *the* guy now that he has a year under his belt. That’s the best way to do it. But the team has to take a hard look at making a serious investment in the position, as they did with Heath Miller after failed FA acquisitions like Jay Riemersma and Day Three dart throws like Matt Kranchick.

To me, that point is inarguable.

UK/Steeler Fan since 1969: Hey Alex: If we take a 3 down capable NT with our 2nd Rd. pick, whom might available?
And same question rd.3 for a iOL?

Alex: For a three down player, that list is pretty short. I looked at Ross Blacklock a few weeks ago but he weighed in light at Indy, 290 pounds, and profiles as a true 4-3 under tackle/three tech as opposed to being the anchor in an odd front. Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore is your best bet for that type of player but he may run in the 4.8’s this weekend and I doubt he actually makes it to #49. Beyond that, your options get pretty limited and you’re better off looking at a much traditional plugger like Ohio State’s Davon Hamilton or LSU’s Rashad Lawrence.

iOL is an issue too. Class isn’t great. It rarely is. Matt Hennessy from Temple, Damien Lewis from LSU are two guys who impressed me at the Senior Bowl. Later on, there’s Michigan’s Jon Runyan Jr. who has the bloodlines and versatility the Steelers hold in high regard.

Hope that helps.

@Why_Cliff: Say the Steelers didnt trade for Minkah and we still owned the 18th overall pick, who are you taking? And who do you hope falls to our pick at 49?

Alex: That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about it much, even put myself in that headspace, since it’s been off the table for months and months now. Even if it isn’t a #1 need, it’d be hard to ignore the sheer strength of the WR group. Hard to justify taking an iOL or TE that early. No one is worth it. Even for a RB, although I’m against it in general, wouldn’t make enough sense that early.

It’d be interesting to see what direction they’d go. I truthfully don’t have a great answer.

Marcel Chris Chauvet: Alex, would you consider bringing Marcus Gilbert back on a cheap 1 or 2 year deal? His health has definitely been suspect, but a line with him at RT and Feiler at LG would look awfully good if they could make the field.

Alex: As a starter, like you’re getting out here, no. Just because I don’t trust it to hold up through the whole season and they’ve drafted Okorafor and groomed Banner to try and step into that role. As a backup option, maybe, but tackle isn’t an urgent need. Not the way it will be at iOL assuming Foster/Finney are gone. So that’s where I’d focus my limited cap space on. An interior guy.

Knoxly: Hey Alex, I remember you saying you like to play NCAA what kind of offense do you run?

Alex: Oh man, it’s been awhile since I’ve fired up NCAA 14. I’m not even sure what offense I ran. I think just the default playbook with some tweaking to it. Option offenses were always fun but I was never consistently good enough to make the right decision and always, always fumbled the ball away.

Players deserve the right to be compensated for their likeness but man, I really hope an agreement can be worked out and these games can come back. They were so much fun. Madden has become such an ugly, cash-grab game. I don’t have intentions of ever buying it again. I got it two years ago and was so disappointed with how it played. They’ve had to break the game so much to avoid cheesing and it’s just not fun and doesn’t feel like anything resembling football.

Bill Sechrengost: If the Steelers don’t re-sign TE Nick Vannett, do you think they will sign another veteran TE to come in besides drafting a TE? It’s such a thin position for them, I would be very concerned without any experienced backups behind McDonald.

Alex: The TE market got so hot last year and it’s a really poor class beyond the top-tier guys like Hooper and Henry. So it’s hard to even find that name. They’re going to have one of McDonald and Vannett on the roster, both won’t be gone, but I don’t think they have to find a veteran replacement if Vannett isn’t brought back. I’m sure they expect Gentry to make a jump, even if we weren’t crazy about the pick at the time. Throw in a draft pick and they may consider that good enough, considering a lack of outside options.

Douglas Prostorog: what players are jumping out to you at the combine and btw are you having fun there?

Alex: I’m actually not at the Combine. Just the Senior Bowl for me this year. But can’t wait for things to kick off in less than an hour.

D.j. Reynolds: 

Hey Alex, have you formed your draft crush yet? If so, who?

I don’t yet have one.

Alex: Still working on that. Maybe I’ll be smitten with someone over these next few days. But looking and mapping out this TE class all the more, really think Hopkins is the guy I’d roll with. And I’ve been a big fan of Gallimore, who I mentioned earlier, from the beginning. WR Denzel Mims and James Proche are two guys I like a lot, too.

Mr. Godkat: 

Any chance Gentry makes a James Conner-like jump in Year 2 and drastically improves his weaknesses this offseason?

Conner made some pretty impressive strides as a blocker and receiver that offseason. How much faith do you have in Gentry rising to the occasion and taking the #2 job by force?

Alex: I don’t want to rule anything out, we barely got to see Gentry to make a complete evaluation, and I want to be aware of my biases and acknowledge I’ve been “down” on him since getting drafted. It’s important to point out TE is a difficult position to make the jump, honestly second hardest behind QB (obviously), and Gentry was a raw one at that who left school a year early. So there was plenty working against him. You would expect a player in that situation to progress exponentially, not at a linear rate. How much better can he get? It’s hard to see. I don’t see a great blocker or athlete and can’t figure out where he’s gonna win at the next level. So he will improve but I really doubt it’ll be on a Conner like level.

My faith, clearly, is low.

Douglas Prostorog: when the team drafts a WR as they inevitably will do, who goes from the current crop?

Alex: Hard to say. Kinda a mess behind the top three of JuJu/Johnson/Washington. Cain has a lot of intrigue, Holton has special teams value, and Switzer is still hanging around. Will they keep five? Or six? Really comes down to who plays their way onto the roster. Who performs well in camp and the preseason. So I can’t rule anyone in or out today beyond those top three and the draft pick, should that player be selected in the top four rounds.

Douglas Prostorog: slow day so I’ll throw you another one: rank which is more likely: (1) the team drafts a WR with its 2nd round pick; (2) it takes a RB; (3) it takes a TE; (4) it takes an OL.

Alex: It’s so difficult to try to pin down a position prior to roster cuts, free agency, and just getting a better feel for the class at each position and who they’re showing the most interest in. If I had to rank them now, I’d say:

1. TE
2. WR
3. OL
4. RB

All four are possible but there’s things that work against them. The TE class isn’t great. WR isn’t a dire need. Offensive line isn’t great in terms of talent and generally in Pittsburgh, 1st and 2nd round picks need to play right away. And RB is probably being valued too much as a need by most fans. So we’ll see. Hope to give you a better answer six weeks from now.

Lukesaenz: Let’s say they surprise us and grab a safety in round 2 or 3. Anyone fit the bill?

Alex: I don’t think it’s out of the question. Safety is a quiet need. Don’t have a standout name that fits but Notre Dame’s Jalen Elliott is near the top of my list. Ashtyn Davis from Cal has been hurt in the pre-draft process but I love his tape. Check out what he did vs Oregon and Herbert. Geno Stone isn’t a great athlete and we know that’s where the Steelers focus but he’s a physical, productive player from Iowa and a local product. Not a Day Two kid in all likelihood though.

That’s all for this week. Enjoy the Combine!

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