Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: April 28

Let's get to it:

BUDDY POWELL FROM FT. MYERS, FL: That was a brilliantly executed draft by the Steelers. I think they filled a lot of needs for the future. But can you tell me more about Anthony McFarland Jr.? Is he more of a speed burner or a thumper? Does he have any special teams qualities?
ANSWER: Here's some of what I wrote after the Steelers selected Anthony McFarland Jr. with their first pick of the fourth round: "During the second day of this 2020 NFL Draft, a number of Steelers fans were upset when the Steelers didn't use their second-round draft choice on a running back from Ohio State. So maybe some of them were placated when the Steelers used their first of two fourth-round picks on a running back who rushed for 298 yards in a 2018 game against Ohio State. Even though Maryland lost, 52-51, to the Buckeyes that day, Anthony McFarland Jr. carried 21 times for 298 yards, and before the first quarter was over, he had an 81-yard run for a touchdown and then a 75-yard run for a touchdown on an afternoon when he averaged 14.2 yards per carry. That game was the highlight of a 2018 season for McFarland in which he averaged 7.9 yards per attempt in rushing for 1,034. And during his two seasons with the Terrapins, he had 12 rushing touchdowns, including scores of 81, 80, and 75 yards." McFarland has the strength and power to break a tackle near the line of scrimmage to get himself into the open field, and then the speed to run away from any linebackers or defensive backs who get involved in the chase. As for special teams, McFarland said he returned kickoffs in college.

STEVEN LINDSEY FROM MATTESON, IL: So we selected another receiver for Ben Roethlisberger and allowed the Ravens to select running back J.K. Dobbins. I do not believe the current group of running backs can balance the offense effectively. Championship teams have a feature back, and I still believe Dobbins (or D'Andre Swift, or Jonathan Taylor) could have been that for the Steelers.
ANSWER: This is not a question, but rather your opinion, and while I make it a point to ignore these kinds of submissions – the feature is called Asked and Answered, after all – I am making an exception in this case. You write, "Championship teams have a feature back …" Let me ask you, who was that feature back for the 2019 Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs? Was it Damien Williams or LeSean McCoy, neither of whom rushed for even 500 yards on the season? Who was the feature back for New England during their three most recent championship seasons? Was it Sony Michel in 2018, LeGarrette Blount in 2016, Shane Vereen in 2014? Those were the Patriots' leading rushers in each of those seasons. And while Michel rushed for 931 yards and scored six touchdowns in 2018, James Conner rushed for 973 yards and scored 12 rushing touchdowns that same season.

JESSE BRIGGS FROM OSKALOOSA, IA: In the second round, with the 49th overall pick, we select a wide receiver, which will provide a nice big body for Ben Roethlisberger, but in your opinion why didn't we select running back J.K. Dobbins or quarterback Jalen Hurts? Dobbins was projected as one of the top running backs in this draft, and I know both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert said they trust the backup quarterbacks we have now, but passing up Hurts?
ANSWER: You can add Steelers President Art Rooney II to General Manager Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin to the list of those who said publicly they were comfortable with Mason Rudolph as the backup quarterback. Did you not believe them? Based on what the three of them said, I had written repeatedly that the Steelers were not going to draft a quarterback, and they didn't. The Steelers have been getting good reports consistently on Ben Roethlisberger's rehabilitation, and I believe one of the goals of this draft was to provide him with as many offensive weapons as realistically possible. I think Chase Claypool does that more than J.K. Dobbins, and a story I'll be writing to appear on Friday on Steelers.com will explain why.

TIM GAYDOSH FROM MOUNT AIRY, MD: Readiness for the NFL is always a factor when selecting players in the draft, I would think. How much more important than "usual" do you think it was this year due to the anticipated shortening of offseason programs?
ANSWER: A prospect's degree of NFL readiness always is a factor, as you mentioned, but I believe it falls to the team that drafts the player to do much of the heavy lifting in that regard. Take for example the 2004 NFL Draft, which included three quarterback prospects – Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger – who were consensus top-of-the-first-round picks. During the run-up to the draft, Manning was portrayed as being most NFL ready, while Roethlisberger supposedly was the guy who would need the most seasoning before being ready to play. As it turned out, Manning didn't start a game until Week 7, didn't become a full-time starter until week 10, and he finished his rookie season completing 48.2 percent of his passes and had a 55.4 rating. Rivers didn't start until 2006, and in his first two NFL seasons he appeared in four games total.

Granted, Roethlisberger benefitted from injuries to players above him on the depth chart, the first being a knee injury to Charlie Batch early in camp that allowed the rookie to get more repetitions in practices with the front-line players on the roster, and then the elbow injury to Tommy Maddox in Week 2 that made him the starter. But it was what Roethlisberger did with the playing time that stamped him as NFL ready, in my opinion. He completed 66.4 percent, with 17 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, a rating of 98.1, and a 13-0 record as a starter.

My point is the Steelers did a good job of getting Roethlisberger ready to play, and then he took care of the rest.

RONALD MITCHELL FROM TALLMADGE, OH: The grades for the Steelers' draft that I've seen suggest it was a B-range performance. Some of the discussion suggested none of the players would end up starting this year. How might the draft grade change if they included Minkah Fitzpatrick in the mix who is a definite starter?
ANSWER: I break this out a couple of times a year, and especially at this time when I get questions about draft grades that are given out by various media outlets/individuals immediately after the picking is completed. To put what I'm about to share in context, the 1974 NFL Draft was a two-day affair, in which the first five rounds were conducted on the first day and the final 12 rounds happened on the second day. Also, the Steelers' 1974 draft class is considered the greatest in the history of the exercise, with the team picking four Hall of Fame players within the first five rounds – Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster – and then adding a fifth Hall of Fame player as an undrafted rookie – Donnie Shell. The following "assessment" of the top of their class was authored by a sports columnist and appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the morning after the first five rounds of the 1974 NFL Draft were conducted:

"The Steelers seem to have come out of the first five rounds of the draft appreciably strengthened at wide receiver but nowhere else. They didn't get a tight end, and the ones remaining are more suspect than prospect. They didn't get a punter, although none of the nation's best collegiate punters went in the first five rounds. They didn't get an offensive tackle who might've shored up what could well become a weakness. What they did get was Swann, who seems to be a sure-pop to help; Lambert, who figures to be the No. 5 linebacker if he pans out; and three question marks."

From this day forward, every time you read an instant analysis of any team's draft class that ends with the assignment of a letter grade, read the above paragraph and enjoy a good laugh. That's what I do.

CHUCK KIRBY FROM MT. GRENTA, PA: Big Penn State and Steelers fan. In your opinion, if K.J. Hamler was available when we picked, would we have still taken Chase Claypool or picked K.J.?
ANSWER: I would have picked Chase Claypool. K.J. Hamler chose not to run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, and so he found himself in a tough spot when Pro Days were cancelled because of the global pandemic. He did get a 40-time via GPS at the EXOS training facility in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and that came out as a 4.36. Maybe Hamler would've posted a better time at the Penn State Pro Day, but we'll never know. Hamler was measured and weighed in Indianapolis at 5-foot-9, 178 pounds. Chase Claypool was weighed and measured in Indianapolis at 6-4, 238 pounds, and the Steelers had his 40-time at 4.39. I'm taking the bigger, more physical player, and even as a Penn State fan I believe you would do the same.

WILLIAM DOWDELL FROM COCOA BEACH, FL: What is the plan going forward for all of the men the Steelers added during the three days of the NFL Draft? What will the Steelers ask them to do in order to be ready for OTAs, rookie camp, training camp, and how is that going to be different from a non-pandemic year?
ANSWER: The Steelers virtual offseason program began yesterday, and Coach Mike Tomlin referred to that when he and General Manager Kevin Colbert did their final video-conference with the media at the end of the draft. Tomlin said, "We're excited about the young men we were able to acquire, and now it's our job as a coaching staff to get these guys assimilated into the program, and not only them but all of our guys as we get into the virtual offseason starting on Monday, and we're excited about that." I would imagine that Phase I and Phase II of the virtual offseason program can be relatively identical to Phase I and Phase II of what the offseason program would be if all of the individuals were gathered at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, because on-field football-related drills are prohibited by the CBA at that time. There will be some differences created by not being in the same room, but the information will be transferred from coach to player, and then the players will be given a workout program that can do on their own to prepare themselves physically for whenever the sport re-opens. It will be different and it will be a challenge, but as Tomlin always says, since it's the same for everybody, it's fair.

KEN GLEASON FROM SPRINGBORO, OH: Much has been made of the impact that Minkah Fitzpatrick has had on the Steelers, and rightfully so. Before Fitzpatrick came to the team Devin Bush was the most highly anticipated acquisition. What are your thoughts about his first year and his future?
ANSWER: Ryan Shazier was a great player and still was ascending at the time of his catastrophic injury, and he was a clutch and difference-maker in the playoffs. In six career playoff games, Shazier personally had a hand in four takeaways, with two interceptions, and two forced fumbles, one of which he recovered himself, and he also finished with 42 tackles. I mention Shazier because Devin Bush was drafted to replace him, and really stands out to me is a comparison of their rookie seasons.

In 2019, Bush played in all 16 games and started 15 of those. He finished with 109 tackles, including nine for loss, one sack, two interceptions, four passes defensed, one forced fumble, four fumble recoveries, and a defensive touchdowns. Bush played 889 defensive snaps and another 57 snaps on special teams. By comparison, Shazier played in nine games as a rookie, with five of them starts, and his statistics that season were quite pedestrian. In his career, Shazier never finished a regular season with 100 tackles, and he never played as many as 889 defensive snaps over the course of a regular season.

Bush had some issues in coverage as a rookie, which is understandable, and improvement in that area should come as he gains experience in coverage and develops a better understanding of how offenses are looking to attack him in that phase. I'm not going to predict that Bush eventually will become a better player than Shazier, but if we never had seen Shazier play a snap beyond his rookie season, there would be little argument that Bush is a better player.

STEVE TRAUTMAN FROM SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN, CANADA: Assuming he makes the team, would Chase Claypool be the first Canadian to play for the Steelers?
ANSWER: He would not. Placekicker Shaun Suisham was born in Wallaceburg, Ontario; punter Mitch Berger was born in Kamloops, British Columbia; and placekicker Roy Gerela was born in Sarrail, Alberta. There may have been more, but this is the best I could do.

DARREN HOEM FROM LANGLEY, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA: What happened to the Steelers' original third-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft? I see we had a compensatory pick in the third round, but where did the regular pick get traded?
ANSWER: In order to move up from 20th overall to 10th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft to pick Devin Bush, the Steelers sent their first and second-round picks in 2019 (20th overall and 52nd overall) plus their third-round pick in the 2020 draft to the Denver Broncos.

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