Welcome back to your weekly Pittsburgh Steelers mailbag. As always, we’re here for the next hour to answer whatever is on your mind. And happy Schedule Day to those who celebrate (I, for the record, do not).
To your questions!
stan: “Volunteers, not hostages” sounds good, but it doesn’t work in a contractual environment. I understand that you don’t want a disgruntled player on your team, but at the same time you can’t just grant a release for a player whenever he asks for it. The Steelers had made a choice to keep Maulet and based on their lack of draft and free agent activity, seemed to have the same role for him in mind for 2023, yet now we’re a weaker team because of his release. (I know Maulet isn’t everyone’s favorite player, but this same argument applies to any disgruntled player under contract and at a minimum he was a core special teamer with a fairly cheap contract). Walk me through this in a way that doesn’t make me think a release like this doesn’t hurt the team
Alex: I get that. It’s always a tough call because of the potential consequences of keeping an unhappy player. Obviously they’re not going to dump invaluable players. Maulet is replaceable though I’m with you that the slot position is really a mess.
It’s harder to comment on without knowing the details of even why he wanted out. It’s semi being framed as a contract dispute but…over what? He’s not in-line for an extension. I don’t know what possibly could’ve made him so mad that he wanted to not have a job anymore, though I’m sure he’ll be in a camp come August. So it’s just hard to say without knowing the details behind it all.
Hope you are enjoying your favorite time of year aka the schedule watch party. Are you concerned with the steelers recent draft history of drafting “football players” with out true position fits. Examples, Connor Heyward, Leal and herbig?
Alex: You know me all too well. I’m having a blast over here, lol.
Short answer, not really. College football has sorta blended that way. It’s a little more positionless or as Mike Tomlin flipped it in his post-draft presser, a little more position specific. Having some versatile athletes on the roster is a good thing so long as there’s some sort of a plan for them. You’re trying to maximize your 53 and more importantly, your gameday 45. So the more guys who can wear a lot of hats, the better.
It can create problems and I think you’re seeing that more with Leal (who has a higher pick, the Day Three types don’t both me as much because you’re attempting to increase success rate in the later rounds, guys who can play and stick) and I do have that worry with Herbig, too. There’s going to be a bit more trial and error at it but for a Day Three athlete who can help on special teams and wear a couple of hats on his side of the ball, I like that. Your top picks should have more of a concrete definition and the Steelers have still basically drafted that way.
BananasFoster: What up Alex!! I, like everyone else it seems, loved what the Steelers did in the draft. But last I remember, Mahomes, Burrow, Allen, Herbert, Jackson, Watson and now Rodgers are all in the AFC. Given this draft class and the softer schedule, how much better of a team will they be this year? PFF has 8.6 wins?? That seems ludicrous to me. Could they win 11 or even 12 games? How much better are they actually?
Alex: I don’t get too caught up in win totals right now, even with most of the roster settled. I’ll think about that right before the start of the regular season because so much can and will change from now until then. But you’re right. It’s a really tough AFC. So though Pittsburgh’s gotten better in a lot of different ways, the equation of a brutal AFC and tough AFC North when you don’t have a stud QB (yet?) is a challenge. You have a bunch of teams in the AFC also saying they can at least compete for a Wild Card and the math is there’s only three of those and seven playoff spots.
11-12 wins seems tougher just given the challenge of the North. What I think about is this team could be better than last year and still finish at 9-10 wins and miss the playoffs because of the AFC and the division. That’s a real possibility. And I suppose that’s my biggest concern right now.
James Cowan: What’s your favourite Steelers related book for the summer dead period reading?
Alex: Hmm…good question. Dan Rooney’s autobiography is still my favorite. I also liked Tunch’s book quite a bit too. Still my favorite all-time Steelers’ article is The Ballad of Big Daddy from SI in 1999. I’d encourage anyone to check it out if you have some times.
stan: I’m going to ask another question if you’ll permit me this week. I really like how Khan has used these veteran benefit contracts to build quality depth without getting into long-term cap trouble, but now I’m going to get greedy. We have three more spots on the 90 man roster going into the rookie mini camp. Wouldn’t it make more sense to add three more veterans off the scrap heap at say, nickel, running back and Edge than it would to add three more diamonds in the rough?
Alex: To a degree. But you are also looking for the best 90-man possible. Because what looks strong right now might change with one or two injuries come the middle of August. They’re going to bring in a bunch of guys in minicamp, get eyes, and go from there. They’ll still probably plug some of those things, I imagine the XFL guys have a good shot to get signed which would mean a C, OT, and a WR, with one spot still open. We’ve seen this team add Larry Ogunjobi and Trai Turner post-camp in recent years. So we’ll see what’s out there. Roster is always being examined.
Are we overthinking the slot corner discussion? If the Steelers simply have a deep cornerback room, without a traditional “slot” corner, is that sufficient? Can’t Austin and Tomlin just get their best people onto the field and let cornerbacks cover receivers – regardless of where they line up? Why does it matter so much?
Alex: Hey man! I get your point. But there is a specific skillset needed to play along the inside. It’s sorta like taking a big WR and making him a slot guy. Now, there are big slots in the NFL, JuJu, Cooper Kupp, Chris Godwin, but not everyone can just plug in. Chase Claypool is proof of that. You’re covering different body types, more areas of the field, you’re a larger part of the run fit. Some guys just don’t have the skillset and those that do but haven’t played there before still need reps and time. There is a specialization to it that’s important that makes it a bit different. It’s like saying you’ll put your best five offensive lineman out there. You might have three really good tackles but you probably can’t just make one of them a center.
JR912: Is it possible that the Steelers asked Maulet to take a pay cut and he declined, leading to his release?
Alex: I suppose it’s possible. If there was truly a contract issue, that makes as much sense as anything. But his base salary was low. Not that much over minimum. So I don’t know if Pittsburgh was that hard-cup to clear a couple hundred thousand dollars and have that conversation with the guy. If you’re talking paycuts, it’s usually going to be a couple million to clear real space. Not crumbs.
do we see a decrease in value, i.e. inflation, of the value EDGE players? I recently did some research about the 2024 draft and we are about to see another “historic” EDGE class. Is this a coincidence or are there just more and more guys out there who get molded into that position? Not saying the position loses importance but the more talented guys are out there, the lower their price i.e. draft stock or salary expectations should be, right?
Alex: It’s hard to say. I don’t think about it much because it’s impossible to predict. I agree you are probably seeing more of them as defenses get more multiple and evolve. You’re seeing guys like Cameron Jordan, 4-3 hand-down ends their whole career, begin to stand up and move around a little more. As defenses get smaller and faster you’re feeling that at EDGE rusher, too. I suppose that’ll deflate the market a bit but EDGE rushers still get paid because if you can sack a QB making $50+ million average yearly value, teams are going to back up a money truck for you too.
Gluebucket: Hey Alex!
At this time of year, most news outlets talk about how every draft pick is going to be a great player and revolutionize the team. However, we know that there will actually be some misses. If you had to guess, of the 7 players the Steelers drafted, who will we look back on 2-3 years from now and go “why did we think that was a good pick?”
Alex: That’s a tough one because I am excited about this whole class. There is a risk-profile with all these guys. Broderick Jones is pretty raw. Porter is pretty scheme-specific. I don’t think Benton will be an all-star. Washington has those medical concerns and might be a little too big and awkward for his own good. I suppose I would name Washington just because he is unique and not a super fluid mover than he might just evolve into a blocker who catches 20 passes for year. And even his blocking will need some work, pad level and not getting off balance on contact.
Brian Allen: Alex, if we were to fast-forward a few months from now to Mid-July, what positions on the team do you see as potential holes or needing improvement?
Alex: Slot corner is still the biggest mess to me. EDGE is a concern spot not knowing the team’s plan with DeMarvin Leal and backup center is a little shaky too, though I’m a little less worried there. Inside linebacker depth also isn’t the strongest. Maybe Tae Crowder can have a good summer and round out that room.
Yinz: Alex- We’ve seen several articles from various outlets ranking AFC & AFCN rosters. In your opinion, where would you (as of now) rank the Steelers roster in both categories (AFC & AFCN)?
Alex: I haven’t looked over all the rosters and really sat down and thought about it. Nor do I think it matters a whole lot right now. It really comes down to Kenny Pickett. How good Pickett can be. Because having a better 52 and a worse 53 (QB) can mean you have a worse roster.
I still think the Bengals have the best QB and best overall roster in the AFC North. That defense is super underrated, though losing both starting safeties will be a big change for them. I think you could argue Pittsburgh has the second best roster, competing with Baltimore, but it really just comes down to the jump Kenny Pickett will make. Which we’ll all find out. And Cleveland has a similar conversation with Watson in his first full-year, non-suspended, as a Brown.