Ask Alex: Steelers Mailbag

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Welcome back to your weekly Pittsburgh Steelers’ mailbag. As always, here to answer whatever is on your mind, the first mailbag since last weekend’s draft.

Do want to apologize in advance I may be a little late in responding to your questions. Have an errand to run and may not be at my computer right at 2:30. But I’ll be sure to answer everything in the comments.

To your questions!

Sorry again for the delay! Answering now for you guys. Appreciate your patience.


Hey Alex,

Was drafting Pickens and Austin III writing on the wall for Diontae not getting an extension?

Alex: I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s an insurance policy, a Plan B. Pickens moreso than Austin since Pickens is an X and Austin is going to play more of the F (slot) here, even though he was primarily outside in college. But you can never have enough receivers and receivers depth and without Ben Roethlisberger, the focus needs to be on giving your young and new QBs as many weapons as possible. And the value of Pickens and Austin was too good to ignore.

Mackintosh: Hey Alex!
Now that the draft is over and its time for the GM hunt who are you partial to? Anyone in particular or are you just letting it play out?

Alex: I know the internal candidates the best so I would be most comfortable with Hunt or Khan. The transition of staying in-house would be smoother after such an important offseason, too. But Colbert has dropped hints it could be an outside candidate and Colbert himself was an outside hire. Of that group, I can’t say I know a ton about them. They virtually all have impressive resumes. I wouldn’t want to hire a former GM like Jerry Reese or Rick Spielman but I can’t offer a lot of insight into who these guys are. Once they have a name, hopefully I can try to study that person’s record and philosophy a bit closer.

Nick Vallo: Which of the four brother pairs do you expect to still be associated with the team by the end of this year and in 5 years time.

Alex: Well five years from now, I expect the pairings to all be broken up. The only sibling who might still be on the roster by then is TJ Watt. The rest: Cam/Connor, Terrell/Trey, and Derek could and probably won’t be on the team. Connor might have the second best chance. But Cam will be retired, Edmunds doesn’t have a long-term future with the team, Trey may not make it out of camp this year and Derek won’t be 34 and still playing in the league.

By the end of the year, we’ll see. If we are talking just the 53 and not practice squad, the Heywards and Watts obviously have the best chance. Could both Connor and Derek make it? Sure. Just one of them? Also possible. We’ll need to see Connor in a Steelers’ uniform and take it from there. But his skillset is different than Watt, though his offensive value is a bit nerfed because he’s not going to see many touches in this offense.

Daniel Moon: Hey Alex, Kudos to KC for his illustrious career. It seems like KC was going to draft a 1st round QB no matter what. I do not see a higher upside for Pickett than what the Steelers already have in Trubisky. I think the Steelers should have traded up to get Jordan Davis or should have picked DL Wyatt. As bad as the Steelers’ run defense was last season, it is alarming that the Steelers will rely on Alualu (35 years old) and Tuitt (whose heart might not be in football). Thanks for your comments.

Alex: Not seeing much of a question here but I respect your opinion and stance. I would argue Pickett has more upside than Trubisky. Pickett has shown to be a good decision-maker and I think just does everything a bit better than Trubisky, at least trying to compare his college tape to Trubisky’s NFL resume. I do understand your concern of Pickett’s upside but I wouldn’t frame it so much relative to Trubisky. Pickett is also going to be in a better situation. He’s more experience than Trubisky was coming out. Trubisky was a one-year starter, couldn’t even beat out Marquise Williams, who went undrafted. Pickett has a better foundation coming out of college, is coming to be a better and more stable environment than Trubisky had in Chicago, so hopefully that improves the odds of long-term success.

I liked Jordan Davis a lot too but obviously, the positional value at QB is much greater. You can find that next plugging NT easier than you can a QB. And Aluau shouldn’t be so easily dismissed considering how well he played before getting hurt. We’ve all talked about him finding the fountain of youth. So I’m not tossing him aside. I expect him to play and play well.

Tangitau Attack: Yo, I finally made it. Anyways, I noticed you got a lot of hate(unrightfully so) for stating that Pickett was your fourth ranked quarterback. I just watched his film and he seems to go through his reads really fast and is extremely mobile and seems to lead his receivers very well. But I am curious as to why you had him ranked at 4th? What did the other quarterbacks do better than him?

Alex: Glad you’re here. I apologize for being so late answering you. You can look back on my QB rankings and read the thinks I liked/didn’t like about each. Here was my book on Pickett. Will I be right? Who knows. This QB class was an outlier, that’s for sure. I think the things you talked about I highlighted as positives.

What I Like: Football IQ. Ability to go through all his reads, find his checkdown. “Take a profit” QB who takes what defense offers him. Coming from pro-style offense from a former NFL QBs Coach as his OC (Mark Whipple). Saw more time under center than any QB on this list. Used to shifts, motions, things he’ll do in the NFL. Good accuracy when moving to his right, made his most impressive plays rolling that way for touchdowns. Eyes/feet always connected to improve accuracy. Competitive, tough player willing to fight for yards. Enough mobility to keep play going, does well to keep his eyes downfield when on the move and look for big plays as opposed to tucking and running. Got healthy and broke out in 2021 for a big season. Good demeanor and personality. Helped turn Pitt program around, first 11-win season since Dan Marino-led 1981 squad. Great red zone/third down and overall situational football production.

What I Don’t Like: Lacks any elite physical traits or even any standout part of his game. Average arm and won’t be able to make all the throws. Doesn’t have the talent to make cross-body/cross-field throws. Drifts and gets too much depth in the pocket once he hits the top of his drop. Won’t have physical tools to bail him out and invites more pressure than he should. Lots of fumbles in college (38 total, 26 lost). Hand size (8 1/2 inches) is a concern but carriage of the football is worse. Ball drops and swings as he runs or tries to navigate pocket, fumbled a lot that way. Struggles identifying post-snap rotations. Older prospect (24 years in June) and may be close to being maxed out. Didn’t look great in rain environments (end of game vs UNC, Senior Bowl practices).

Final Thoughts: Due to the system he’s coming from, Pickett is arguably the most Day One-ready quarterback. But he also might be the one closest to his ceiling and doesn’t have the tools of the elite quarterbacks. Pickett has said he fits best in a West Coast system, similar to Jimmy Garoppolo, who also has a similar playing style to Pickett’s. His carriage of the football scares me more than his hand size.”

David Rudin: Alex, happy post draft! Done with the dreaded mocks!! Been dying to ask you this two parter:
1st: Colbert claims not to pay attention to what other teams are doing, not doing mocks etc… yet he needs to know when to trade up to avoid a player being snapped up before the Steelers can pick. To the extant that you can, can you peel back the curtain on how he gets his intel on when to pull the trigger on trading up or down for that matter?
2nd: When did Tomlin become such a rockstar amongst pro coaches that he gets these 1:1 dinners with draft prospects and has guys like Malik Willis with his jaw dropping that the great man eats chicken wings like the rest of us? Till this year, never realized Tomlin has such status. What gives?

Alex: He means that in the sense of “we’re not wasting all the time trying to do a mock draft of the 19 picks ahead of us because none of us really know what’s going to happen.” He has pro scouts like Brandon Hunt and Dan Colbert who are able to provide insight on team needs and what they could do. So it’s a broader sense of “New Orleans may be in the market for an OT” or “here are the teams who could potentially take a QB.” They’re just not going to try to mock out, “who is Washington taking at #11” because that’s really not helpful and a time waste.

Ha, I’m not sure on Tomlin. Probably for awhile. Probably once you win a Super Bowl and you can bust out a ring to show prospects. Tomlin’s just the coolest dude and has a presence and energy around him. We’ve just never seen him hold court with the QBs because he’s never had to before.

BurghInPhilly: Hi Alex, thank you for your great work. What do you hope the next GM brings to the Steelers that Colbert didn’t? And, is it actually possible to bring that with Tomlin in the room?

Alex: I’ll have to think about that some more. It’s hard to poke a lot of holes in Colbert’s incredible resume. Really what’s most important is to have a great relationship with Mike Tomlin. The HC and GM need to be perfect for each other. No tension, no pulling rank, no “I’m smarter than you.” They can have different personalities and styles, Colbert and Tomlin certainly did, but they have to work together better than any other two people in the building. That’s how things ended with Cowher and Donahoe. Relationship went south and one had to go. Obviously was Donahoe.

More to your question of what Colbert could do differently, it’s really analytics. Colbert acknowledged its existence and that’s about it. They have an analytics guy (though have gone through several over the years), and I’m sure they have a good deal of data. But I’m guessing Colbert isn’t looking at it too much. Some basic stuff, sure. He mentioned Pickett’s fumble rate so you have some of those figures that’s useful. But stuff like what the Browns are doing? Nah.

Now, I’m a bit of an old-school guy myself so I’m not really yearning this team to take that path. But Colbert himself has admitted he’s lagged behind here, in part because he’s an older, old-school dude.

As you mention, will Tomlin embrace it? Ehh, we’ll see. But I imagine analytics will have a larger focus under the new GM, whoever it is.

falconsaftey43: How many Special Teams Only players can a team really afford to carry? Right now it looks like Derek Watt (perhaps his role increases in “new” offense), Killebrew, Marcus Allen, Gilbert, Layne all seem to have passed to point in their careers where there is optimism about them developing into offensive/defensive contributors. Is that too many of those guys to keep in lieu of younger options who still have “potential” to be more down the road?

Alex: We may find out that limit, ha. And you didn’t even mention Benny Snell, who fits that bill too. It’s why I didn’t love their Day Three of Heyward and Robinson. Two guys whose upsides are probably special teams guys with limited value on their side of the ball (Heyward does have more than Robinson, though).

But there is a limit where it’s too many. You want to have a couple, I’d say 2-3 guys where that’s their “thing” but more can be overkill. But we’ll see. Guys get hurt, guys don’t pan out, other players emerge, etc. So we’ll see what the actual 53 looks like and evaluate from there.

fasterwilly: Would you feel different about Pickett and Pickens if we had taken George at 20 and Kenny at 52. I mean in terms of your outlook.

Alex: Maybe a little worse. It would’ve been weirder. Pickens at 20 felt a touch strong and a QB in the second…it doesn’t scream “this is our guy.” What I almost like the most about the actual selection of Pickett is, we know that’s the Steelers’ guy. Their #1 QB and they were all-in. Doesn’t mean they’ll be correct but I respect the courage of their convictions.

The Chin: Do you foresee a veteran OL added to the mix? Or do you think they’re happy with what they have? Same goes for RB, do you think they’ll add or stand pat.

Alex: We’ll see. They could probably add a veteran somewhere. I’d pick up a RB, at the least. I like Jonathan’s suggestion of Darrel Williams. As Dave Bryan has pointed out over the years, the way the 90-man looks coming out of the draft usually isn’t how it looks heading into camp. Some adds/deletions.

Vance Mac: Favorite draft pick, most surprising pick?

Alex: Taking the two receivers was the best part of the draft. Pickens and Austin. Good value, good talent, guys who can help right away. The only surprising pick was Austin in the 4th. Everything else, as I wrote about this morning, hardly raised an eyebrow. Obviously, I thought they had Malik Willis as their #1 QB but I knew they could’ve taken any of the top QBs.

Andy N: Hi Alex. I saw the article about Ingram and Houston getting an unrestricted tender. How come more teams don’t use it, especially if it factors into comp picks?

Alex: Good question. I don’t know all the parameters, if any, that surround the rarely-used UFA tender. Other than it has to be a UFA and they’ve had to be a free agent for awhile (I think, at least, or even if not, putting a tender on a sure-to-be-signed FA is pointless).

I think it just looks bad. It’s kind of a scummy move of “your rights become exclusive with us after ‘X’ date.” It’s not exactly how you build a healthy relationship with the player. So that’s one reason why it isn’t used. Plus, it does mean a player has to be a free agent for months. And usually you don’t get fair talent that lasts that long unless that guy is just waiting around for the right chance. Personally, I think the union should’ve gotten rid of it long away. It’s a crappy mechanisms that is unfair to the players. Unrestricted free agents who aren’t truly free.

stan: I’m looking at the lack of usage of Derek Watt and the complete lack of a fullback in any Matt Canada offense and thinking that if Conner Heyward wasn’t Craig Heyward’s brother than we’d never have drafted him. Please tell me that I’m wrong.

Alex: That has a bit more to do with Watt than Canada. Watt isn’t a weapon in the pass game. He’s a sparkler to a Roman Candle contest. Watt caught 30 passes in his entire Wisconsin career. Guys who don’t run well and don’t touch the ball for their college team don’t tend to become big-time weapons once you play against the 0.1% talent in the world.

Heyward is more athletic, has better hands, and is more versatile.

How much will Canada use him? We’ll see. It still won’t be a lot. He isn’t Roger Craig or Larry Centers or even John L. Williams and we’re in a different era. But I still wouldn’t make a 1:1 comparison.

ThinAir11: If Tuitt decides to never play again when would he be released and what would be the potential cap savings? The bereavement period has to end at some point.

Alex: I’d point you in the direction of what Dave recently wrote.

“Tuitt, who will turn 29 on May 23, is now essentially in the final year of his contract as the three additional years of his deal are all voidable ones. He is scheduled to earn $9,048,560 in 2022. Should Tuitt decide he no longer wants to play, or should the Steelers deem him worthy of being cut, such a transaction might not happen until after June 1 so that the organization can defer some of the dead money associated with his contract to the 2023 league year.”

I don’t know when they would make a decision. Personally, I’d put him on the Reserve/Retired list to keep his rights should he change his mind.

James Cowan: 

Hi Alex,

You said on the podcast that you don’t trust jump ball, contested catch college WRs, does that not describe Pickens a bit?

Alex: Hi James!

It describes him…to a degree. I want my receivers to be that alpha who can win that way. But I don’t want that to be the only way they can. And the Treadwell’s and Mims and Hakeem Butler’s of the world only one that way. Pickens is a very fluid player for his size. To change directions, create space at the breakpoint, to show nuance in his route tree. That makes him someone who can get open and jump over guys. But not just the latter, which is where you run into issues.

Mr. Goodkat: 

Redraft! But you still gotta go QB still in Rd 1 per Rooney…

Stick it with Pickett or grudgingly take one of the guys you liked better who would otherwise ultimately go in/after the 3rd?

Alex: Well Malik Willis was my #1 QB so I have to stick by my rankings until they fit the field. So I would’ve taken him. Obviously surprised he fell, like the rest of this QB class sans Pickett, as far as they did.

412Bern: Hey Alex! Do you foresee Myles Jack potentially taking playing time away from Devin Bush, or was Jack signed to fill the Buck ILB role?

Alex: He’ll play next to Bush. Not to replace him, though we’ll see what happens on third downs and dime packages.

ironkett: The Steelers have made a lot of decisions lately aimed at fitting offensive personnel into Matt Canada’s offense. However, have we ever stopped to think about whether or not that is the “right” offense? I would be curious to hear your thoughts on that, Alex. Can a team win with that type of offense? Is it worth it, in general, to making a multi-year investment into making such a massive switch? Personally, I believe that coaches should make up a game plan that best fits the talent they actually have instead of trying to shoehorn people into roles they may not be good at doing.

Alex: An understandable point to make but what is the alternative? Canada is the OC, right or wrong. The only thing worse than building players around a “wrong” offense is not building players around a “wrong” offense. He’s their choice and they have to allow him to build it how he thinks is best. If it turns out wrong, they fire him and find someone else. And I speak to that on a broader, roster-building level, that will grow the longer he is OC and part of that process.

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