Asked and Answered: July 21 – Steelers.com

Steelers.com
Let’s get to it:
MICHAEL VELLUCCI FROM ATCO, NJ: I was a huge Carnell Lake fan. Was he ever in serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame? If he was not, what would be the reason?
ANSWER: I have a lot of respect for Carnell Lake, and his selflessness in moving from safety to cornerback helped save the Steelers in both the 1995 and 1997 seasons. He was elected to the team’s Hall of Honor in 2021, and that recognition is well-deserved and appropriate for the contributions he made to the Steelers franchise. But Lake was not a Hall of Fame caliber player, not in terms of accumulated statistics or in his standing among players at his position during the era in which he played.
MEMET SRATT FROM NEW YORK, NY: With the explosion in salaries for wide receivers and the number of good receivers who come out of the college ranks each year, does it make more sense to draft one or two receivers every year and let free agent receivers walk? There are exceptions of course for a handful of players like Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and DeAndre Hopkins, who are worth taking up all the cap space. But more than $20 million a season for a decent receiver like Diontae Johnson seems like a stretch despite his market value.
ANSWER: This sounds like something disciples of analytics would promote, and then they cover their butts with the “handful of players” exception. I just don’t like the idea of absolutes. “Never draft a running back in the first round” is another one of those analytics absolutes, but then the people who advocate something like that then play the CYA game by including the “handful of players” exception to account for the instances when the rule has been shown to be stupid – Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, Jim Brown. Have you ever been to a casino? Played blackjack? Roulette? Craps? One of the ways the house always comes out on top is by keeping people at the tables to play one more hand, or spin the wheel one more time, or throw the dice again. That same principle applies to the NFL Draft, which is in itself a different kind of high stakes guessing game. You make it sound so easy to “draft one or two receivers every year” and still be able to maintain an NFL-caliber passing attack. But the reality is that there are a lot of busts in every draft, and the more times a team rolls the dice on a college wide receiver the better the odds that team will find a bust. The way to approach this explosion in salaries for wide receivers is to view every case individually and make a decision. Just because a team is willing to pay X-amount of dollars for a player doesn’t mean he’s worth it, and just because a guy plays a particular position that appears to be in abundant supply doesn’t mean everyone at said position is created equal. What the analytics sheep want to do is take the “Bill Nunn artistry” out of scouting and dumb it down to numbers and arithmetic, because they lack the trained eye to distinguish difference-making talent from those players who can be categorized as a JAG, i.e., just a guy. Since you use Diontae Johnson as an example, maybe he isn’t worth $20 million a year, but players of his caliber don’t grow on trees, either.
JUSTIN COLVIN FROM NEW OXFORD, PA: Is there anything stopping a company like, Kraft Heinz for example, from offering a substantial sponsorship to a player like, Dionte Johnson for example, to take a hometown discount to stay in Pittsburgh? Say the player is seeking a contract worth $15 million a year, and the Steelers are willing to offer that player a contract worth $5 million a year. Could a business offer the player a $10 million dollar sponsorship deal, so the Steelers stay under the cap and the player remains in Pittsburgh?
ANSWER: The scenario you propose is one that seems totally unrealistic to me. I cannot imagine a scenario where a publicly traded company would allocate money to helping keep a particular athlete in a particular city by effectively underwriting a significant portion of that individual’s contract. What would be the benefit to the company? The CEO of such a corporation wouldn’t remain the CEO of said corporation for very long doing that kind of business. What would the stockholders think? The corporate accountants? The employees? This is something from fantasyland.
RON WILLIAMS FROM ASTORIA, OR: With training camp beginning soon, one area that is very interesting to me is the tight end position. Do you think the team will carry three tight ends? The tight end/fullback position with the drafting of Conner Heyward will most likely change how the team views that room if he can add value. I see some decisions coming before the start of the regular season that some fans won’t appreciate, and possibly a mother and a brother.
ANSWER: While both Derek Watt and Conner Heyward will have to show their value during the training camp/preseason process, I believe it would be a mistake to assume that they are competing against each other for the same roster spot. Heyward is a tight end, and Watt is a fullback. They are not interchangeable. That’s not the same position. Some of the skills from one of those positions can be transferable to the other position, but there also are unique aspects to each position as well. The Steelers will keep three tight ends, and Heyward is competing for a spot there along with Kevin Rader and Jace Sternberger, because as of this writing I am going to assume Zach Gentry and Pat Freiermuth will make the team as the top two tight ends. Is Watt a bad player, or have the Steelers simply not made good use of his abilities as a fullback? If offensive coordinator Matt Canada plans to deploy multiple tight ends frequently, keeping three tight ends is a must, and if he plans to utilize a fullback, it’s premature to assume that anyone can be plugged into that spot and be effective there. And special teams is another factor, because if both Watt and Heyward establish themselves as core special teams players, I believe there is plenty of room on the 53-man roster for both of them.
DAVE KITLAK FROM UHRICHSVILLE, OH: I ran into Calvin Austin III over the weekend and asked him what name he was going to get on the back of his jersey, “AUSTIN” or “AUSTIN III”? He said he would like AUSTIN III, but it would probably just be AUSTIN, because he thinks the Steelers do not do suffixes on jerseys such as III or Jr. Is that true?
ANSWER: I don’t know whether that’s a team rule, but I do know there are no current players with suffixes on the backs of their jerseys.
MIKE HOLMES FROM LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND: I’ve been reading some info on undrafted rookie running back Mataeo Durant. Apparently, he signed one of biggest undrafted rookie contracts given out and his college stats are amazing. I know he has a lot of hard work ahead of him as an undrafted rookie, but does he have a chance to make the final roster, and is he a player to keep an eye on?
ANSWER: Mataeo Durant certainly is an interesting prospect, a player with good size, speed, and production throughout his college career at Duke. Just to clarify an item about his contract, he reportedly received the largest signing bonus the Steelers ever have paid to an undrafted rookie running back. But with all of the potential excitement surrounding Durant, there also has to be a reason why he wasn’t drafted, why he wasn’t one of the 23 running backs, or one of the 262 players picked back in April. One of the issues that followed Durant during the pre-draft process was ball security. What NFL coaches will not tolerate is a running back who fumbles and then develops a reputation as a fumbler, because once that happens every opponent on the schedule will target that “characteristic,” which then can exacerbate the problem. The Steelers are looking for quality depth behind Najee Harris, and ball security will be something to monitor with Durant this summer.
FREDERICK MYERS FROM MORGANTOWN, WV: I saw some improvement in pass defense in 2021, but a big falloff in run defense when the unit ranked last in the NFL. In your opinion, do you think the Steelers addressed the issue of run defense adequately or could they have done more through the draft and free agency?
ANSWER: During each NFL offseason, everything boils down to a give-and-take, because there is a limited amount of both salary cap space and draft capital to address issues. Could the Steelers have done more to address positions that are responsible for run defense? Yes, but then maybe the Steelers don’t get Kenny Pickett or George Pickens in the draft, or maybe they are unable to sign James Daniels or Levi Wallace during free agency.
DAN TANNACITO FROM KEIZER, OR: Can the Steelers use the franchise tag on wide receiver Diontae Johnson, and if so, when?
ANSWER: If he is not signed to a contract extension before the start of the 2022 regular season, the Steelers could put the franchise tag on Diontae Johnson following the 2022 season.
DAVID BRANEKY FROM WALLINGFORD, PA: When asked about who you thought was the Steelers’ best offensive coordinator in the July 5 installment of Asked and Answered, you wrote that the team didn’t have an offensive coordinator before 1983. I was surprised by this fact. Who was responsible for calling the plays and other responsibilities of an offensive coordinator before 1983? Did most teams not employ an offensive or defensive coordinator before 1983?
ANSWER: Younger fans might find this incredible, but NFL quarterbacks used to call their own plays and NFL coaching staffs didn’t have coordinators. When Chuck Noll was hired in 1969, he served as his own offensive coordinator, and Noll allowed his quarterbacks to call their own plays. What this means is that through the 1970s when the Steelers won four Super Bowls over a span of six seasons, Terry Bradshaw called all of the team’s plays and the coach with whom he worked closest during the week when it came down to formulating the game plan was Noll. The calling-the-plays aspect is one of the factors I believe should be considered when any list of all-time great quarterbacks is compiled because Bradshaw being 4-0 in Super Bowls when he called all of the plays deserves to be weighed as a significant positive for him. I cannot speak for when “most teams” began employing an offensive coordinator, but I do know the Steelers didn’t have one until Noll gave Tom Moore that title.
BRYAN CLARK FROM BETHLEHEM, PA: Any chance that one of these four quarterbacks gets traded during the preseason? I would think that getting something in return for the player is better than getting nothing or incurring a salary cap hit for cutting somebody.
ANSWER: I don’t believe there is any chance Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett get traded this summer, and since I also don’t believe a team would offer anything for a rookie seventh-round draft pick, what you’re asking is whether there is a chance a team makes an offer for Mason Rudolph. And just so you’re aware, any salary cap hit a team absorbs as a result of releasing a player is no different than the salary cap hit the team must absorb as the result of trading a player.
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Christopher Jones
Christopher Jones
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