Tight End Improvement; Steelers Acquire Vance McDonald

Vance McDonald was traded to the Steelers from the 49ers on Tuesday. The trade sent McDonald and a 5th round pick to Pittsburgh, while the Steelers sent back a 4th round pick. It’s a win-win for both sides. The Steelers strengthen a weak position and get a 5th round pick, meanwhile only giving up a 4th round pick. All in all, its a low-cost risk for the Steelers. Here are his stats from his time in San Francisco with the 49ers:

His stats don’t show much, but he is a reliable target to add into this team. But remember, that he played with average quarterbacks at best. Players like Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick. Neither of the two are franchise quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger. His stats should continue to rise as he enters into this explosive offense. As for his blocking, it could use some work. He isn’t the strongest blocker (like Jesse James), but he can grow into it. He is strong at the point of attack and just has to work on his leverage. He is still young and maybe he will be Ben’s new Ferrari.

McDonald is the next man up when it comes to finding a suitable replacement to Heath Miller. Heath has been retired for years now and thus far the Steelers haven’t found an answer. We shall see if McDonald is the answer, but he provides a vertical threat to the already productive offense. He will have to learn a lot of the scheme in little time to be productive.

Only time will tell if McDonald is the answer at tight end. He comes at a cap hit at around $3 million. If he plays well and is effective, then it’s worth it. But asserted before, only time will tell if he is. If he isn’t, then the saga continues for finding a new tight end, which will probably be on top of the Steelers draft list. McDonald does, however, has a chance in front of him, so he better take it.


Steelers Sign Haden; Get Excited, Don’t Expect a Savior

The Steelers have signed former Cleveland first round pick Joe Haden to a 3-year contract worth $27 million, $7 million guaranteed in 2017. There’s been a lot of hype around Haden since trade rumors swirled when the Browns were trying to get something in return for the Pro Bowl corner, and the Steelers have been in the mix since then. Now with him added to the secondary, it might look on the surface that the Steelers’ secondary issues might be fixed. 

Take a look again. 

Understand that the Browns straight up cut Haden. This is a guy who was once known as one of the premier cornerbacks in the league. The Browns have made many bad moves over the years, but no one is that stupid. There’s a reason they were first trying to trade him, then when no offers would suffice, they cut him. They’re eating $4 million. There’s a reason, if not a few reasons, Haden was cut.

Haden’s had a number of health issues over the past two seasons, including tearing both groin muscles last season. With his health being a constant issue, the Browns were having over $11 million of their team not playing consistently. They have younger guys they want to have a crack at playing time that they believe in, and Haden’s eating a lot of their payroll without being on the field more times than not. 

Haden’s production, and overall play for that matter, has fallen off a cliff. After being a back to back Pro Bowl corner in 2013-2014, his play has suffered significantly. Here’s a look at how Pro Football Focus has ranked him over the years:

Haden’s value couldn’t be any lower. He’s dropped off at an alarming rate and it isn’t a wonder why offers didn’t come pouring in when the Browns put him on the trade block.

So, why take the risk? Why pay him almost $30 million when he’s been so bad recently? Haven’t the Steelers already tried the Browns leftovers with Justin Gilbert?

First, to compare Haden to Gilbert is an insult. Gilbert has never been elite. Haden has. Second, he’s shown what he can do when healthy. He’s a premier corner. Now, most likely, his best days are behind him. The explosiveness isn’t there like it was and he’s never been a blazing fast guy. The Steelers don’t need Haden to be who he was. If the Steelers believe in Artie Burns, he should still be number one on the depth chart. Haden can slot in nicely across from him as the number two corner. When healthy, Haden is better than Ross Cockrell or Coty Sensabaugh. The Steelers’ zone coverage schemes might also benefit Haden more, since he won’t be asked to do as much man-to-man press coverage. It might keep him healthy, make him more durable and more productive. And who knows, maybe he could find a shade of his former self and give the Steelers at least one year of quasi-elite cornerback play.

There’s reason to be excited about Haden coming to Pittsburgh. He can contribute nicely and definitely gives the secondary more depth, which they drastically needed. He’s not a savior, though. Don’t expect him to be. Haden is a nice fit and should definitely contribute to the secondary’s success.

Cornerback Conundrum

For the Steelers, finding some sort of solidification in the secondary has been a problem since guys like Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Ryan Clark graced their defensive backfield. Now, there is no indication of who will even be amongst the cornerback group when the season opens in Cleveland in less than two weeks.

The safeties are pre-determined. Mike Mitchell is the team’s free safety, assuming he returns from injury in time. He has never missed a game in his Steelers tenure. Opposite of him, Sean Davis, entering his sophomore season in the league, will be the team’s strong safety. This was the tandem last year and it was a solid one that helped lead Pittsburgh to an AFC Championship game.

Outside of Artie Burns, the cornerback situation isn’t so prepared.

With every training camp, there are young guys and veterans who battle for spots in the starting eleven on defense. In Steelers camp this season, it’s been the younger guys stepping up at the cornerback position while some long tenured veterans may lose their starting job and, quite possibly, their roster spot.

Ross Cockrell has had a horrific camp and has looked outmatched in the Steelers’ three preseason games to date. He was burned on a sure touchdown so he committed a defensive pass interference to try and prevent it. He was later beat on a downfield sideline pass. He looks very ill-composed and doesn’t have the foot speed necessary to stick with the athletic wide receivers of today’s NFL.

Another Steelers cornerback, William Gay, could soon find his roster spot taken from beneath him. Gay, 32, was the team’s slot cornerback last season and was the number one guy until Burns’ emergence in his rookie season last year. Now, Gay is battling offseason acquisition Coty Sensabaugh for that spot. Sensabaugh seems to be winning the battle.

The Steelers decided to use two of their draft picks in the spring on cornerbacks to try and add some meaningful depth with a guy like Gay beginning to age and this league quickly transitioning to a passing league. The receivers are getting better so the defense must continue to produce cornerbacks who can cover these athletic freaks.

They chose Cameron Sutton in the third round, a 5’11” corner out of Tennessee. Sutton was a starter as a true freshman and had been part of the defense at Tennessee ever since. He was drafted along with his roommate at Tennessee, quarterback Josh Dobbs.

Brian Allen, the Steelers’ fifth round selection, is a tall 6’3″ and played his college ball at Utah. His college career actually marked the beginning of his transition from a wide receiver to a cornerback. He has issues with tackling but is quick for his size and could be a practice squad candidate as he learns more about how to be a cornerback.

A longshot to make the team when camp started, Mike Hilton has impressed in camp and may have done enough to take a job. If not, Hilton has been on his third team since signing with Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He may get another chance somewhere after his solid contributions thus far. Or, he’ll have the chance to impress for the Steelers and make a name for himself.

While there are many questions to be answered before week one, it seems that the Steelers may have some depth at cornerback. They made it to the AFC Championship game last year with an average secondary. The Steelers have advanced one round further than the previous year the past three seasons. If you believe in liner progression, this group of cornerbacks will see you in the Super Bowl.


Three Steelers To Watch In 2017

Public Traning Camp practices have wrapped up for the Steelers and they will finish the rest of camp at their South Side facility with three more games to play in the preseason.

They’ll open in Cleveland on September 10 and the starters, who see limited time in preseason, are chomping at the bit to be able to finally play.

Everyone has high expectations for the Ben Roethlisberger‘s and Antonio Brown‘s of the world (and Le’Veon Bell if he decides to show up). But what about some specific role players who may have a big impact, positive or negative, based on the way they play?

The Steelers have one of the most tenured offensive lines in football. They’ve played together for a few seasons now. They’ve got a secondary corps that, while they still may have some growing pains, spent the majority of last season together and are familiar with each other. Their linebackimg core, one of the strengths of this franchise for almost its entire existence, has a few new faces that could make an impact.

Here are three players, all of which come from one of these positions mentioned above, that you should keep an eye on in 2017.

OT Alejandro Villanueva

Military veteran Alejandro Villanueva spent some time playing some tight end and on the defensive line while in the Army. He was cut from the Eagles upon his start in the NFL. The Steelers saw something they liked and decided to take a chance on the big guy.

They noticed him during a preseason game against the Eagles in 2014, a game in which Villanueva was waived two days later. The Steelers signed him eight days after he was waived and stashed him on the practice squad.

In 2015, former Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum went down with a torn ACL. The next man up mentality kicked in for Villanueva who never looked back. In fact, he caused the Steelers to let Beachum walk in free agency and move ahead with him as the starter. He was fantastic to finish the 2015 season and was even better last year.

His play earned him a lucrative 4-year, $24 million deal on the day that Training Camp opened. He would’ve had to play on a $600,000 restricted free agent tender had the deal not been signed.

Villanueva struggled early last season when he allowed 5 sacks in the first 6 games of the year. Keeping in mind that the Steelers almost set a record for the lowest amount of sacks an offensive line has allowed in a single season, Villanueva was responsible for a majority of the early ones. So, what made him worthy of the contract?

His play late in the season and into the playoffs. He ranked as the 23rd best offensive tackle in the league last year but his play was so solid heading into the playoffs that it seems he’s really come into his own.

If the Steelers get playoff Villanueva, then the contract was well worth it. If they get early season Villanueva for all 16 games, there may not be much hope for the playoffs if Roethlisberger gets battered around.

Keep an eye on how Villanueva plays this upcoming year.

CB Ross Cockrell

Count me amongst the crowd who’s been tough on Ross Cockrell during his Steelers tenure.

Head coach Mike Tomlin was high on Cockrell as far back as the 2014 draft when he was coming out of Duke. The Steelers had planned on taking him but the Buffalo Bills had other plans.

It just so happened that some underwhelming performances in Buffalo had him cut a week before the season started in 2015. The Steelers signed him five days prior to the beginning of the season.

He routinely sat out the first game but received some heavy playing time after that. He’s been starting for the team ever since.

With last year’s emergence of Artie Burns and the Steelers going with Cameron Sutton in the draft this season along with signing Coty Sensabaugh, Cockrell’s playing time has a real chance of being cut down if he doesn’t perform.

The Steelers brought Cockrell back for this coming season after his 8 tackles against Miami in the Wild Card round last year in his first career playoffs start impresses some people.

With some more depth at corner and Cockrell not having his best camp thus far, what role will he play when the Steelers arrive in Cleveland in three weeks?

OLB Keion Adams

When picking a seventh round selection, you’re looking for a real diamond in the rough. It’s likely you won’t find the next Tom Brady, although that’s happened before. But finding an impact player is something you’d like.

Maybe a special teams returner or, in the Steelers case, a quick linebacker to add to their already scary pass rush.

Keion Adams played at a smaller Western Michigan University and got his name known by being a solid pass rusher. He had 12 sacks and 28 tackles for loss over his final two seasons at WMU.

At 6’2″, 245 lbs, Adams is light on his feet and makes it tough for linemen to be able to hop out of their stance quick enough to cover him, at least at the college level.

His small size for an NFL pass rusher may cost him in the end. He will easily be pushed around by some of the league’s bigger linemen and he will need to find some more counter moves to get around them.

NFL scouts compared him to Arthur Moats as he entered the league. Ironically, he is battling Moats for the final outside linebacker spot. The trouble is, Adams’ shoulder injury caused him to miss the first preseason game, one in which Moats looked really strong.

If Adams winds up making the team, he could be a sneaky weapon for Keith Butler‘s defense. If not, another NFL team might find a solid depth linebacker to place on their practice squad, assuming the Steelers wouldn’t place him on theirs.

COLUMN: Dishing On CTE

Chronic Telepathic Encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE, is probably a bigger topic than how many Super Bowl’s Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will end up with. It’s the most widely talked about topic in football, and possibly sports in general, right now.

In a recent study, 110 out of 111 deceased football players’ brains were found to have some form of CTE. That’s one brain that didn’t show signs of the disease.

There are currently so many theories out there on what CTE really even is, whether football actually causes it, or whether it’s something that can be detected before someone dies.

As of now, CTE can only be detected through brain studies after a patient has passed. There is Alzheimer’s disease, which is being linked to early on-set CTE but it can’t be confirmed at this time.

A lot of the CTE research and physical traits are science. But, to me, there is a lot of common sense that comes with CTE as well.

Anyone who thinks football doesn’t cause CTE is beyond idiotic. In many players cases, and lineman especially, their heads are banging off of one another on every play. While the helmets players wear are padded and well-prospective, it’s not even close to an end-all-be-all innovation to protect someone from head injuries.

How often have you seen head to head collisions result in people being concussed and literally knocked unconscious? I’ve seen it a ton.

One of my biggest problems, though, are the people who cry for football to be eliminated completely or changed to flag football.

Look, people. That’ll never happen.

Football is one of the biggest sporting draws in all of US sporting events. The Super Bowl contends to be one of the most watched television programs in a calendar year and it happens 11 months before the calendar even turns to a new year. People’s Sundays revolve around football. Some people skip Sunday Mass for football. Others will watch it over their wife’s television programming. It’s even aired on Thanksgiving and last season had a few games on Christmas Saturday.

The players love for the sport runs deep. It shows by the passion and the will to play through injuries every Sunday (or Monday or Thursday) even if they shouldn’t be.

The biggest thing is, these players know the risks they face playing such a high-speed and dangerous sport. They sign the contract full-knowing that one bad headshot could end a career. More importantly, it can impact your life after football, which many fans seem to forget that players still have.

Here’s an interesting soundbite from former quarterback Boomer Esiason on his belief that he has CTE:


As he says, he thinks all players have some form of it due to the head shots they often give and take. He also mentions that players get paid much better and have better benefits than those who played maybe 20 or 30 years ago and obviously further back.

Ask yourself, if those players knew what the current generation of players know now, does the older generation of players still play football?

Likely, the would’ve. But as we see some players like Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, and Brandon Albert retiring at the physical prime of their careers, it makes you wonder what truly would’ve impacted those players. Now, they’ll suffer the consequences.

Consider Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Big Ben has had his fair share of injuries, including concussions, over the years and went so far as almost hanging it up because he wants to be a dad for his kids and now a vegetable. That’s just one case.

That’s why the NFL has a lawsuit against it now with all the individuals who suffered life-altering injuries due to football and the league’s lack of protectiveness for their players.

Many parents are restricting their kids from playing football now because of the dangers and all the studies coming out. If that trend continues, their won’t be anyone to continue to fill out rosters. That shouldn’t be a problem for multiple generations but if large groups begin to quit at a time then eventually there won’t be football anymore.

Can you blame them for blocking their kids from doing it? There are many alternatives out there.

While no sport is really much safer than another, football is very dangerous.

Will that stop anyone from watching? No, including myself.

But do you feel for these families that have to watch their husband, son, father, grandfather, uncle, etc. suffer because he played football? Of course.

CTE is not going away any time soon. It’s going to continue to effect players’ decisions for decades to come. The research will only get more extensive by the day until a cure, or even a way to detect it pre-death, comes out.

COLUMN: Signing Tomlin A Winning Move

Say what you will about Mike Tomlin. All the dude does in win. In fact, in his ten seasons as the head coach in the organization, Tomlin has never had a losing season. He has had two 8-8 seasons and one 9-7 season. All seven others have been 10 or more. That is the definition of success.

Personally, I can say that I have stood by Tomlin for as long as he has been here. I did, however, turn against him during the losing skid last year. I had wanted him fired for the sole reason that, in a year where the Steelers were built to contend, they had fallen to 4-5 and seemingly had their playoff hopes crushed. Obviously, they did not lose a game the rest of the way.

Friday afternoon, the Steelers announced that they had given Tomlin an extension through the 2020 season.

As the news emerged, fans began voicing their opinion on the move throughout the social media waves. Many were in favor of the move. Others were mildly disgusted.

Tomlin can easily be ranked as one of the top five most polarizing figures in Pittsburgh sports today. Not that that’s something sports figures enjoy, but Tomlin isn’t one to listen to the outside noise. That is something that separates Tomlin from other coaches and players around the league.

Tomlin was well aware of his team’s first half underachieving in 2016. He didn’t need to check his Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook to know it. He surely wasn’t going to take it from the media members.

He had lost Cameron Heyward very early on due to injury. He was without Ben Roethlisberger for one of the most important regular season games of the year against New England. He had to take a 4-5 team and right the ship and somehow carry his team to the playoffs. He had to trust his quarterback to find the right player to stretch a touchdown across the goal line in some crazy Christmas miracle.

He took this 4-5 team and turned it into a team that headed back to New England for the AFC Championship and simply got outcoached by one of the best to ever wear a headset.

Despite this, people forget that Tomlin was not only the youngest head coach to reach the Super Bowl, but also the youngest to win it. He is also only the eighth head coach to reach 100 wins in his first ten seasons. That means only seven other coaches in NFL history had averaged 10 wins in their first ten seasons. The Steelers are the only franchise to have three.

But people still want more, right?

One argument I’ve seen used over the years is that Tomlin has underachieved. He’s always had a Hall of Fame quarterback. He’s always had a very good running game to complement. While the defense hasn’t always been spectacular, the offense could’ve made up for it. So, is that on Tomlin?

I’ve always thought that Tomlin was good at in-game adjustments and had always risen to the occasion when the Steelers needed a big win. Whether regular season or a long playoff run, the Steelers’ head coach since 2007 has always stepped up.

Another knock on Tomlin, though, are his unimpressive numbers against sub-.500 opponents. He is well below the .500 mark in those. It’s said that he doesn’t get his team up for these games and always overlooks opponents.

Last season, they were shredded by a rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz, against Philadelphia in week three. He put up 34 points. They lost to the Miami Dolphins in week six by a 30-15 score. They allowed 422 yards, including an ungodly 204 yards to running back Jay Ajayi, which were the highest numbers allowed all season in both overall and rushing yards allowed.

How did Tomlin respond to his critics? By burying the Dolphins in the AFC Wild Card round. By beating the Kansas City Chiefs relying on Chris Boswell to nail six field goals in an 18-16 victory and losing to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game like previously mentioned.

Which brings me to my next point.

Belichick and Brady might be the league’s best quarterback-coach tandem in NFL history. Both have won five Super Bowl’s in their Patriots tenure. How can one possibly argue against someone who has constantly fallen to the two guys who make a case to be the best EVER at their respective jobs?

The Steelers are the best franchise in NFL history and that is backed up by the fact that they have won more Super Bowls than any other franchise in league history while putting themselves in a position to win another every year. They didn’t do it by hiring bad head coaches. Ask the Steelers what they thought about Chuck Noll (four Super Bowl’s) and Bill Cowher (one Super Bowl) and compare Tomlin likewise. It’s not even close. Mike Tomlin is an elite active NFL coach.

Daily Thoughts: Camp Edition

Noticed at camp

Justin Hunter is a solid depth player for the Steelers. He has been strong all camp and today was no different. He’s tall and uses it to his advantage. Hunter has showed great abilities even against first string talent. So we shall see where he goes from here but I’m very impressed.

Artie Burns also stood out to me. He matched up against Antonio Brown all day. He not only handled himself but took each rep as a new memory was implanted into his head. He had good coverage on close to every snap he played.

Senquez Golson is the Beau Benett of the Steelers. He again was carted off the fields of Latrobe and that’s never a good sign. Hopefully it’s nothing major but we all know he doesn’t drink his milk. James Conner got his shoulder banged up during practice today. He was pictured with a sling post practice. Hopefully it’s just a minor injury and he can come back very soon.

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