Let's get to it:
JAMES HAGY FROM PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FL: The Steelers have fielded some great centers, with Dermontti Dawson, Mike Webster, and Maurkice Pouncey being three of them. Who's the best center you've seen play for the Steelers, and what gives him the edge over the rest?
ANSWER: I would choose Dermontti Dawson, because he combined the strength and power of Mike Webster with a level of athleticism that revolutionized the position. Merril Hoge always told this story of when he left the Steelers and signed with the Chicago Bears: The Bears brought Hoge into a meeting room, sat him down, and cued up a video. They asked Hoge to explain to them how the Steelers were able to run the football so successfully, and they wanted him to explain to them how they could do the same thing. Hoge found a play at the goal line where Dawson pulled from his center position and led the back around the end and threw the key block to allow him to get into the end zone. Seeing that, one of the Bears coaches said, "We don't have a center who can pull at the goal line." And Hoge responded, "Then you can't run the ball like the Pittsburgh Steelers."
JAMES DIBERT FROM FAIRBORN, OH: Typically, what percentage of a player's salary does an agent receive for negotiating a contract?
ANSWER: In many sports, an agent typically earns between 4-to-10 percent of a player's contract, but in the NFL, rules prohibit agents from making more than a 3 percent commission of the player's salary. Agents also can earn up to 10-to-20 percent of endorsement contracts they negotiate for clients as well.
CARLTON MORRIS FROM LAS VEGAS, NV: Am I the only person who believes that Joshua Dobbs always has been a better choice than Mason Rudolph?
ANSWER: I don't know about "only," but you certainly are in the minority.
ROBERT RIDDLE FROM HAMPTON, GA: Do you think there is any way that we can keep our defense intact for years to come, or are there too many excellent players coming up for new contracts?
ANSWER: The Steelers aren't even going to be able to keep their 2020 defense intact for 2021, because there is no realistic scenario in which they are going to be able to keep Bud Dupree, who will become an unrestricted free agent on March 17.
TODD FURST FROM ALLENTOWN, PA: With Maurkice Pouncy retiring and Alejandro Villanueva possibly moving on, can the Steelers fill these spots with their current roster and the draft?
ANSWER: They're going to have to, because there are no other realistic options. I believe the Steelers have a better chance of filling the hole at tackle with players either under contract (Chuks Okorafor) or who could be re-signed (Zach Banner, Matt Feiler) than they can at center. At center, I believe they're going to have to draft a replacement for Maurkice Pouncey.
STEVEN LINDSEY FROM MATTESON, IL: What is your professional opinion on the Steelers quarterback situation at the start of the 2021 season, assuming the same players are in place, namely Ben Roethlisberger, and Mason Rudolph?
ANSWER: Is this a trick question? If Ben Roethlisberger is brought back for 2021, he will be the starter, and Mason Rudolph will be the backup.
AARON BREEZE FROM FRESNO, CA: With the draft coming up, I have been wondering about previous drafts, and if there have been any notable first-round picks that the Steelers passed on for another guy who didn't live up to expectations? Similar to how the Cowboys passed on T.J. Watt and drafted Taco Charlton.
ANSWER: I'm only going to give you one example, but it's significant enough that I believe I only need one example. In 1990, the Steelers traded back in the first round, from 17th overall to 21st overall. The Steelers' trading partner in that instance was Dallas, and the Cowboys used the No. 17 overall selection to pick Emmitt Smith. The Steelers followed at No. 21 overall to pick tight end Eric Green. By making that draft day move, the Steelers simply compounded the mistake Chuck Noll had made in hiring Joe Walton to replace Tom Moore as offensive coordinator following the 1989 season. It was Walton who "had to have" Green for his tight end oriented offense that then went the entire first month of the 1990 season without scoring a touchdown.
WILLIAM PALAICH FROM CLERMONT, FL: My question is about tight ends past. I saw you put Heath Miller as the best to play for the Steelers, but I wondered where you would rank a few I have had the pleasure to watch through the years: Bennie Cunningham, Eric Green, and Mark Bruener.
ANSWER: Each of the three tight ends you mention were first-round draft picks, with Bennie Cunningham coming first chronologically. Cunningham was a first-round pick, 6-foot-5, 254 pounds, and he was athletic enough and had sufficiently reliable hands to be a threat as a receiver. But because he shared the field with two Hall of Fame wide receivers (Lynn Swann and John Stallworth) during an era when most NFL offenses were run-first, his best season (1981) included only 41 receptions. Because he played during the Chuck Noll era, he would not have seen the field unless he was a reliable blocker. As explained in the previous answer, Eric Green was a mistake as a draft pick and then a disappointment as a player. Mark Bruener was the team's first-round pick in the 1995 draft that followed Green's departure during free agency, and his skill-set was a return to what the Steelers typically sought at the position. Bruener was a good enough blocker to be able to handle defensive linemen, and if he wasn't a nifty route-runner or a threat down the field, he caught the balls that were thrown to him.
PAUL KAMMERMEIER FROM BLOOMFIELD, NY: With the ranks of Steelers tight ends thinning, can you give your assessment of Zach Gentry? He didn't get much playing time in 2020, and I'd have to assume there was a reason for that. But do you have a sense of where he needs to improve (catching, route running, blocking, or something else), and where do you put his chances of at least making more of an impact in 2021?
ANSWER: One of the reasons Zach Gentry got very little playing time in 2020 was because he sustained a season-ending knee injury in the Nov. 22 game in Jacksonville against the Jaguars. Leading up to that unfortunate injury, my impression of Gentry was that he played tight end like an ex-quarterback, which is what he was before switching positions toward the end of his first season at Michigan. Not physical enough to succeed at the position at the NFL level. Maybe new tight ends coach Alfredo Roberts can instill some of that in Gentry, but that can't come until after the rehabilitation from that knee injury is completed.
WILLIAM NANOOK FROM BOILING SPRINGS, PA: With the floor of the 2021 salary cap being raised to $180 million, does this give the Steelers and teams over the cap an advantage going into next season?
ANSWER: I don't know if it's an advantage, but it gives all teams an additional $5 million on their salary caps.
LIAM HALL FROM MOUNDSVILLE, WV: With all the different ways to structure contracts, do you think the Steelers should go all out to sign Bud Dupree? A lot more projected cap space starting in 2022 could make this more feasible than people think, or no?
ANSWER: No. A hard no, as a matter of fact. Have you ever heard the saying, you can't squeeze blood from a stone? The Steelers salary cap in 2021 is the stone.
JOSEPH WERNER FROM WEST HENRIETTA, NY: I know that kickers have a much harder path to the Hall of Fame than offensive and defensive players, but why has Gary Anderson never gotten much serious consideration for Canton?
ANSWER: You've come to the wrong place if you're looking for support for kickers and punters to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If I were on the Board of Selectors, which I am not, and had a say in which players, coaches, and contributors are elected to the Hall of Fame, which I do not, I would not vote for a kicker or a punter. Jan Stenerud in the Hall of Fame and L.C. Greenwood is not? And even worse than a placekicker is a punter. Ray Guy? No. If placekickers and punters are in the Hall of Fame, what about holders? Long-snappers? And with all due respect to players such as Steve Tasker, no special teams aces would get my vote, either. That's not what you wanted to read, I'm sure, but it's my opinion.
STEPHEN MIHALOV FROM TAMPA, FL: The deeper we get into the offseason, and the closer we get to the start of free agency, the less I think we'll be able to re-sign players like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Alejandro Villanueva, plus re-structure Ben Roethlisberger. In your professional opinion, who are the most important players we need to prioritize?
ANSWER: I would list the important/realistic options in the category of re-signing unrestricted free agents as follows: Tyson Alualu, Zach Banner, and then maybe Matt Feiler and Cam Sutton. Getting a handle on Ben Roethlisberger's salary cap number is Job 1 in having any shot of getting those things done.
JOHN PUHALA FROM SPRINGFIELD, VA: What would be the cap hit if Ben Roethlisberger gets cut in a week or two (before March 15)? And does that cap hit disappear if he signs with another team?
ANSWER: If Ben Roethlisberger is cut, or retires, before March 15, the hit to the Steelers salary cap is going to be $22.25 million. And the answer to your second question is: No, the cap hit does not disappear if he signs with another team.
DAVID POLLARD FROM WARRINGTON, UK: I can't see the Steelers keeping both Joe Haden and Steven Nelson due to the cap restrictions. Who do you see as the starters and backups in the defensive backfield come the opening day of the 2021 season?
ANSWER: You want me to predict starters AND backups in the secondary before the start of free agency, two full months before the draft, and seven months before the regular season begins? My Magic-8 Ball doesn't see that far into the future. Here's a question back at you: Do the Steelers retain Cam Sutton? Because if they do, I would see him as the guy to get the first chance at an opening at cornerback.
DENIS FERRARA FROM GOOSE CREEK, SC: Who was the last "successful" Ohio State quarterback in the NFL? I have been watching the NFL for 60 years, and in my opinion, there never has been one. Is Dwayne Haskins just a training camp arm?
ANSWER: Well, without doing a deep dive on the history of Ohio State quarterbacks in the NFL, what I can tell you it that it wasn't Mike Tomczak. As for Dwayne Haskins, he will get an opportunity during the offseason, at training camp, and then during the preseason to prove himself and earn a roster spot. All I can tell you for certain at this point is that he won't be labeled a training camp arm. He will get a legitimate shot to show what he can do, and there will be no preconceived notions about him one way or another.