Let's get to it:
RICKY THOMAS FROM SAN ANTONIO, TX: I know everyone is still high on quarterback Mason Rudolph, but I want to know your thoughts on Paxton Lynch. Will the Steelers give him a chance at competing with Rudolph for the backup job, and can he beat out Devlin Hodges for the third-string job to stay on the roster?
ANSWER: Paxton Lynch is a former first-round draft pick in 2016, and he is now with his third different team since then. And when the Steelers added him when they learned last September that Ben Roethlisberger's right elbow needed season-ending surgery, they admitted to doing so at least in part because he still had practice squad eligibility. And based on the rules for practice squad eligibility, that Lynch still had it three years after being a No. 1 draft pick speaks to him not having earned any significant playing time. Based on his reality, Lynch should be approaching this opportunity as maybe his last best chance to carve out a spot for himself as an NFL quarterback, and so his No. 1 priority has to be proving to the Steelers he is serious about his business and then show them he has figured out how important it is to complement his physical skills with the proper approach to his craft. Unless there is some significant setback to Roethlisberger's rehabilitation or an equally significant drop-off in Mason Rudolph's approach and performance – both of which can be described as long-shots – there is one opening on the roster for a quarterback. Under the assumption that the Steelers take five quarterbacks into the training camp/preseason process, there will be three players – Devlin Hodges, Lynch, and J.T. Barrett – competing for one spot on the active roster.
GREGOR HACKMACK FROM KARLSRUHE, GERMANY: When does the expansion of the regular season roster, from 53 to 55 spots, go into effect? Is it for the 2020 season, for 2021, or has it yet to be determined just like the expansion of the regular season to 17 games?
ANSWER: Here is the explanation of the increases to the size of the active roster and to the practice squad, per Judy Battista of NFL.com: "The active roster on game day will go from 46 to 48 players, and one of the extra players has to be an offensive lineman. Practice squads will also expand, to 12 players in 2020 and 2021, and to 14 starting in 2022. Two practice-squad players each week can be elevated to the team's active roster, meaning that the roster during the week will effectively be 55. That, the league hopes, will help spread out the wear and tear players incur from the 17th game." To reiterate, the game day roster expansion begins with the 2020 season, and the additions to the active roster will be tied to the practice squad and also begin in 2020.
MATHEW TORRES FROM PANORAMA CITY, CA: When a player retires before his contract is up, does that become dead cap money like the Antonio Brown situation, or does that mean it gets added to the team's current salary cap?
ANSWER: Actually, the answer to both ends of your either-or question is, yes. If a player retires, there can be dead money attached to the team's salary cap, and if that is the case that dead money charge is applied to the salary cap immediately.
KEVIN SIMONSON FROM CADIZ, OH: Regarding running backs and wide receivers on the 53-man roster, is it more likely they keep four running backs and five wide receivers, or three running backs and six wide receivers?
ANSWER: In answering this question, I am counting Derek Watt as a running back, even though he's officially listed as a fullback. If you want my guess right now, here it is: five running backs and five wide receivers. Again, that's a guess, and it's made without having seen any of the new acquisitions.
DAVID HAYES FROM HARTSELLE, AL: How much influence do the assistant coaches have in getting their choice of players drafted and when they are drafted? Also, are the undrafted free agents who sign contracts after the draft determined by Coach Mike Tomlin? By General Manager Kevin Colbert? Do position coaches each get an allotment on how many players can be signed?
ANSWER: Most of this is settled during the draft preparation process. When the Steelers gather – and this year, they gathered remotely because of the global pandemic – to review and then grade all of the prospects for a particular draft, they do it by position, and the corresponding assistant coach is present for that process and contributes to it. As an example, when the Steelers were evaluating and grading the wide receiver prospects, the coaches involved were Mike Tomlin, Randy Fichtner, Ike Hilliard, and probably Danny Smith for the individual's potential contributions on special teams. That's when the assistant coaches get to have their say. When the team is on the clock to make a draft pick, the significant opinions at that point belong to President Art Rooney II, General Manager Kevin Colbert, and Tomlin. As for the undrafted rookies, there is a certain number of players at each position the Steelers want to have on their 90-man roster, and so they pick from the pool of players they have evaluated and graded who haven't been drafted, to reach those numbers. And it's very much a free-for-all. Scouts and assistant coaches do most of the contacting of potential signees and try to get agreements on contracts, and sometimes Tomlin and/or Colbert will be asked to get on the phone with a particular guy to close the deal. Imagine the floor of the stock exchange during regular trading hours, with the commodity being football players.
TOM RENWICK FROM MONROE, MI: Is it uncommon for a player like Kevin Dotson, having not been invited to the NFL Combine, to be drafted as high as he was? Or even, how often is a non-invitee drafted?
ANSWER: First of all, let's begin with an explanation of how players are invited to participate in the NFL Scouting Combine. To explain that, the following is taken from nflcombine.net: "All 32 NFL teams are invited to provide input on draft-eligible players, which is used by the Player Selection Committee to select each year's participants. The Directors of both National and BLESTO scouting services, which combined represent 28 NFL teams, are joined by members of various NFL player personnel departments to form the committee. The participating NFL executives can rotate on a yearly basis, and remain anonymous. ALL eligible players are reviewed and voted on by the committee members. Each athlete receiving the necessary number of votes, by position, is then extended an invitation. While it is not a perfect science, the goal of the committee is to invite every player who will be drafted in the ensuing NFL Draft."
The committee makes mistakes every year, and clearly Kevin Dotson represented one of those mistakes in 2020. And with Dotson specifically, I really cannot understand how he was overlooked, because he played next to tackle Robert Hunt, who was a second-round pick (39th overall by Miami) and so watching Hunt on video had to being exposure to Dotson as well. Also, Dotson started 52 games, was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded run-blocking guard in the NFL Draft, and after the 2019 season he was voted first-team All-America by the Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and Pro Football Focus. Dotson was a big-time omission, but if that helped the Steelers be in position to draft him in the fourth round, all's well that ends well.
PATRICK HAGER FROM MORGANTOWN, WV: Do the Steelers get the fifth-year option on Minkah Fitzpatrick's rookie contract, or is that only for the team that drafts the player?
ANSWER: The fifth-year option made the trip from Miami to Pittsburgh along with Minkah Fitzpatrick when the Steelers completed the trade for him last September. Since Fitzpatrick is going into his third NFL season, that means the Steelers will have him under contract through the 2021 season with the potential of the fifth-year option in 2022, which they certainly will exercise.
JOE KILBURG FROM CLARK, NJ: I was just talking football with another Steelers fan. He said that Minkah Fitzpatrick is already talking about leaving Pittsburgh. Is there any truth to that?
ANSWER: That's a hard no.