Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome to another edition of your Pittsburgh Steelers’ mailbag. As always, we’re here for the next hour answering anything and everything that’s on your mind.

To your questions!

Spencer Krick: 

Hey Alex,

Right now, what would you say is this team’s biggest weakness?

Alex: Hey Spencer! Good question. I think there’s some areas of depth that remain a concern, especially still at EDGE and some in the secondary. But I think there’s just a total unknown along the offensive line. In some ways, that may be a good thing and intentional because this team wanted a total overhaul of their approach to the run game. And they were successful – they’ve changed practically everything the past two years. Four of the five starting offensive linemen will be new compared to 2019 (DeCastro the only holdover), a new OC, a new head o-line coach, a new assistant o-line coach, a new starting RB.

That’s such a big change from the typical steady offensive lines of the mid-2010s. Where you just knew the guys you had and that they’d play well. Now? Lot of guys in new spots or pretty unproven overall. As the line goes, so will this offense, and this team.

Douglas Prostorog: Which players are facing a “make the roster or you’re gone” summer? my candidates: Samuels, Gentry, Layne. Anybody else?

Alex: Pretty solid list. Agree with those four. Dwayne Haskins needs to prove a lot. He’s new and they don’t have anything invested in him besides a roster spot but hopefully he’s showing better practice and work habits than what happened in Washington. If not, he’s probably one-and-done.

I’d also add in Isaiah Buggs. The talent isn’t a question. But his weight and consistency have been. Feel like every time they talked about him last year, they were talking about getting his weight to the right place. And he’s shown some assignment lapses too. With them drafting Loudermilk and Mondeaux/Davis on the 53, Buggs needs to turn the corner this year.

Same with Ulysees Gilbert III. Stay healthy and showcase that talent. But he has no margin for error.


Hi Alex,

From Belfast, Northern Ireland. You do great work!

What is the outlook for next year’s salary cap?


Alex: Hello Paddy! Great to hear from you.

We don’t know exactly what the 2022 salary cap will be. Probably in the $200 million range but without a solid feel for where that figure will come in, it’s a little difficult to gauge where this team is at. You’ve probably seen a graphic projecting them to have the most cap space next year. Something like over $70 million. And they should have a lot of space. But they also won’t have many players under contract and things like TJ Watt’s mega-extension this summer and Minkah Fitzpatrick’s for next summer need to be accounted for. So the cap space situation doesn’t look quite as strong when you factor those elements in.

Still, they should have a good deal of room. Certainly more than 2021. That’s why I compared them loosely to the Patriots from 2020 to 2021. That transitional phase between QBs but having cap space to start taking big swings if they want to.

BurghInPhilly: Hi Alex, there has been a lot of talk about zone blocking this year with Canada’s system and the selections of Green and Moore. Two part question 1. Do you feel like the Steelers have the personnel to run zone blocking well in 2021 and 2. Even if they did, how long would it take for a group to gel and play well in that system – especially given that there is a new OC and a new O-line coach? Thanks!

Alex: Yeah, I think on a baseline level, they have the personnel. Guys like Green and Moore were drafted with that in mind. Fluid, plus athletes. Dotson and Okorafor moves well and if DeCastro is healthy, he should too. Banner is more of a wildcard and conventionally, he’s more of a power/man blocker but we’ll see. His size and length can help drive linemen down the line.

To the second question, I don’t think anyone can answer that. There isn’t a magic number of “after five weeks, this group is good.” It just depends on coaching, on personnel, on how quickly young guys pick things up, on how healthy and more many practice reps guys take, etc. It’s not a black-and-white answer. But it will take some time not just because of any new system but the overhaul in new faces in general, no matter what the scheme was. The good news is this team will have that additional preseason game to get as many reps as possible.

stan: Dulac reported that the Steelers are still expecting three compensatory picks next year, which emboldened them to trade next year’s fourth for a fifth this year. I see the Over the Cap has the Steelers receiving only two because the Haeg deal would cancel out one of the contracts that the team would otherwise get for the loss of DuPree, Feiler and Hilton.
Assuming Dulac is wrong, would the Steelers be able to drop Haeg part way through the year and still get that pick if Haeg isn’t getting regular playing time?

Alex: I believe Nick Korte of OTC said there was still a chance they could get a third comp pick though you’re right, he’s currently not projecting it.

Here’s what he wrote earlier this month.

“One such case I am looking at in this regard involves the Steelers signing Joe Haeg to a $2.3 million APY contract. As it stands right now, this signing cancels out a 6th round comp pick for the departure of Mike Hilton. However, this also assumes that Haeg will sustain his four year snap average of 36.7%. If Haeg ends up just being a backup that sees little to no action in Pittsburgh, that might be enough to nudge his contract out of qualifying as a CFA and reopen up that 6th rounder.”

If everyone in front of him stays healthy, there’s a good chance Haeg comes in well under that 36.7% mark. As a reference point, tackle-eligible Jerald Hawkins played just 6.9% of the snaps last season. JC Hassenauer was at 27.6% and heck, Kevin Dotson was even under the one-third mark. So while I think Haeg plays more than Hawkins, there’s a good chance he comes in around the ~15-20% range. Which may change the calculation, as Korte points out.

But to your question. you’re asking about the “Donte Moncrief” loophole. That if you release a player before Week 10 (maybe now Week 11? don’t know how the extra game factors in, if at all) then that player won’t be factored into the comp formula equation. I believe that loophole still exists. Not 100% sure, not positive if the new CBA addressed it, tried to look it up and couldn’t find any immediate information, but I think it’s still there. So my understanding is yes, they could, though you’d have to weigh if receiving a late 6th round pick is worth releasing an offensive linemen you might need for the stretch run in case of injury or if Haeg is just playing well in his tackle-eligible role. To the Steelers, that calculation probably wouldn’t be worth it for a team trying to make the playoffs unless the season has gone sideways and their odds of making it by that point are slim. Especially knowing even keeping Haeg and just not playing him much could get that 6th rounder still.

ChefBoyerD: Hi Alex, now that you’ve had a chance to watch some more tape on the draft class, has anything stood out better or worse on any of these guys?

Alex: Buddy Johnson impressed me. I didn’t have a ton of knowledge about his game pre-draft so I don’t know if I had my mind changed better or worse. But he has a well-rounded game. Tre Norwood…meh, I know he had five INTs but several weren’t high-quality and he just seems light and not that athletic. Nothing really standing out. Know he’s a 7th round pick and expectations can only be so high. But he’s not a great tackler and if you can’t tackle in Pittsburgh, you’re probably not going to last long.

Reg Sayhitodabadguy Hunt: Hey alex do you expect the team to draft a qb next year or get one through FA and if you were GM what would you do as far as QBs are concerned moving fwd would you stand pat with Mason after this season from what I hear the 2022 draft qbs aren’t that impressive and the the free agency QB market may be expensive

Alex: I do. At least, I hope so. Or else my fears they view Mason Rudolph as the heir will come true. They could sign a vet bridge guy but a lot of teams still go out and draft a rookie. Look at the last couple years. Andy Dalton and Justin Fields. Fitzpatrick and Tua, Taylor and Herbert (vets were brought in a year ahead but those teams were of course still looking for the future).

The 2022 class doesn’t sound elite but there’s a lot of talent there. 6-7 names who could be in the first round conversation. Some of these guys will step up and have big years. Joe Burrow wasn’t a first round pick until his final season. Same with Zach Wilson. There will be guys who emerge once the season gets underway.


Is this year’s schedule THAT much hard than lasts? 9 of the games are repeats.
If you assume they can go 6-3 again in their 9 repeat games

(W) 1-15 JAX, 5-11 DET (W)
(W) 4-12 HOU, 7-9 MIN (W)
(W) 4-12 PHI, 7-9 LAC (W)
(W) 6-10 NYG, 8-8 CHI (W)
(W) 6-10 DAL, 8-8 LVR (W)
(L) 7-9 WAS, 13-3 GNB (L)
(W) 11-5 IND, 14-2 KC (L)
None, 12-4 SEA (L)

I have them dropping from 6-1 to 5-3 on their remaining games. Puts them at 11-6. Maybe they drop to 10-7. Unless injuries hit some key guys, I have a hard time seeing them only winning 8 or 9 games. Secondary took a step back for sure, but really what else is significantly worse? OL? Didn’t everyone think it was horrible last year anyway?

Alex: Hi Falcon! You’re right, overall, it’s probably the same (and I’m not one to get too caught up in SOS because so much changes year-to-year once the season starts). But there are ebbs and flows. Lighter start to the year, four of the first six at home, then it gets tougher at the end. And I doubt teams like the Ravens/Chiefs/Browns are going to be fading this year unless there are critical injury.

But I think the point is this team did take a step back in a couple different areas, even if it wasn’t quite as bad as I feared (and point taken about the o-line, I made that point above) while the rest of the division got stronger. A division that was already highly competitive. So I think that factored in with still statistically the strongest schedule in football doesn’t do this team favors for 2021. But they’ll still be in the mix and those AFCN games at the end of the year will probably determine who finishes where.

Guy Breton: Hi Alex. Could we think that in week 1 the OL will have Finney at Center and Green will be the starting Center around mid-season? And could we think that if DeCastro doesn’t come back next year that we could see Green and Dotson as the guards?

Alex: Yes to the first question. That’s possible. Ideally, Green wins the job out of camp but he could get the nod after say, the Week 7 bye. Would be a good time to make the switch.

I don’t view Green as playing a lot of guard. He’s going to be a center for this team. So even if DeCastro is gone, Green should be the starting center for 2022. So then they’ll have to go find a new RG.

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