Let's get to it:
TY PAUL FROM DAYTON, OH: We got a little more insight this year into how teams conduct the draft, but I'm still curious about signing undrafted rookies. Do teams talk to players they expect may be available after the draft ahead of time, or do phones blow up the moment Mr. Irrelevant is announced? On a related note, has Donnie Shell ever talked about why he chose Pittsburgh?
ANSWER: Once a draft gets into the mid-to-late sixth round, teams might begin contacting agents of players yet to be drafted and inquire about possible interest if the guy doesn't end up getting picked. There are rules about what can and cannot be discussed/negotiated before the end of the draft, and whether any of those rules are bent is beyond me. Because those communications are informational, nothing said is binding, but teams and agents develop a mutual respect where honoring their word is good for future business. But minds do change, both ways. Anyway, once the draft is over team representatives charged with signing these undrafted rookies hit the ground running, and it's every man/team for himself/itself. And Donnie Shell signed with the Steelers after the 1974 draft because he and his head coach, Willie Jeffries, believed he would get a fair chance to make the team. And Shell and Jeffries believed he'd get a fair chance with the Steelers because they trusted Bill Nunn.
JOSHUA OSTEN FROM MECHANICSBURG, PA: Does Mason Rudolph still have that potential to be the next guy after Ben Roethlisberger retires? Seemed good at his best, but the injuries and media concerns probably got in his head.
ANSWER: Or maybe being concussed by a helmet-to-helmet hit from Earl Thomas, then being battered by Myles Garrett, and then having his shoulder driven to the ground by the Jets on a play that would've been unnecessary roughness if that had happened to Tom Brady, plus the inexperience that comes along with seeing his first playing time in an NFL regular season, caused some of his inconsistency. I can guarantee you that nobody who has an opinion that matters is thinking at all right now about whether Mason Rudolph have what it will take to be a starting quarterback in the NFL a few years down the road. Right now the focus is on Rudolph improving his fundamentals, and his understanding of the position and opposing defenses so that he can be the best backup to Roethlisberger he can be. That other stuff is too far into the future to worry about now, and I believe Rudolph is savvy enough to understand that.
DAVID LUCE FROM HENDERSON, KY: I can understand the Steelers saying that Mason Rudolph is the backup at this time, but what do you think Paxton Lynch's chances are of taking that position away? After a couple of years learning the position in the NFL, I think he should really add some real competition for the backup position.
ANSWER: Just as I described how it's most important for Mason Rudolph to keep his eye on his immediate future, the same goes for Paxton Lynch. And Lynch's job this offseason is do enough to become the No. 3 quarterback on the Steelers' depth chart because to this point he has not been capable of holding onto an NFL job. Just because Lynch was a first-round pick doesn't mean he's a lock for a roster spot, and if he's looking at taking Rudolph's job instead of working on his craft to be able to beat out Devlin Hodges and J.T. Barrett then he'll be looking to hook on with his fourth NFL team at the end of the summer.
DAVID ZIPPARO FROM ROCHELLE, IL: Whatever happened to L.J. Fort, who was quick and great on special teams. Is he still in the league?
ANSWER: On March 14, 2019, L.J. Fort left the Steelers for a three-year, $5.5 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he was cut at the end of his first training camp with that team. Fort then signed with the Ravens on Sept. 30, 2019 and finished the season there. Fort played in 12 games for the Ravens and started eight as an inside linebacker, and he finished with two sacks and one pass defensed. His future as a starter on the Ravens defense undoubtedly will be impacted by the team's decision to use its No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen.
BURTON HARRIS FROM GREENSBURG, PA: With the NFL not knowing whether there will be a season or not , with offseason practices being shortened and/or eliminated, and with the status of preseason games up in the air, how will the Steelers know enough about the players to tell who to keep and who to cut?
ANSWER: That's a question with no answers at this time, but since it's not only a Steelers problem but a problem for every team in the NFL, it's fair.
CAL SABO FROM AKRON, OH: When will the rookies come to Pittsburgh?
ANSWER: At this point, nobody knows.
JOEL HIGGINS FROM VANCOUVER, WA: I loved the way Marcus Allen played in college and I believe he can be a contributor at the NFL level. I was wondering if you think Marcus has a chance to fill Mark Barron's role as a hybrid linebacker on this year's squad? If not Marcus, who would you envision in that role?
ANSWER: In a previous answer about Paxton Lynch, I made the point that his job at this point is to find a way to earn a roster spot and the most realistic path to that goal is by winning the No. 3 quarterback job. The same approach applies to Marcus Allen. During his two seasons with the team, Allen was inactive for all but two games as a rookie in 2018; and in 2019 he was waived at the end of the preseason, was signed to the practice squad, and then added to the active roster for the final two games of the regular season. This is not the resume of a player who should be thinking about anything except finding a way to earn a roster spot, which is what I'm certain is Allen's top priority. As for the spot alongside Devin Bush, I don't believe even the Steelers envision anyone in that role right now. It's too early, and envisioning someone at this stage only could lead to overlooking a better candidate because you're envisioning instead of letting the competition play out on the practice field.
CHIP BENNETT FROM TAMPA, FL: Is there a cap on salary for the practice squad? I know there is a minimum salary, but I don't know what that number is. Also, can a team pay anything they want to a player on a practice squad? I can see teams really liking a developmental quarterback and paying him more to make it less likely someone poaches him.
ANSWER: The minimum salary for a practice squad player in 2020 is $8,400 per week, and while teams can pay more than that, all salaries for players on the active roster, injured reserve, physically unable to perform, and the practice squad must fit under the salary cap, which is $198.2 million per team in 2020. One thing to remember is that players on the practice squad weren't good enough to make the 53-man roster, and if a team "really likes" a player it would be smart to keep that individual on the 53-man roster. Another factor to consider is that the weekly pay for a rookie earning the minimum in the NFL in 2020 will be $35,882, which is significantly more than any team would be willing to pay for a guy who couldn't make the active roster. Also, only the players on the active roster are earning time toward their pensions and free agency. Then on top of all that, a team signing a player off another team's practice squad is required to keep that player on its active roster for at least three weeks. So if you're a guy on a practice squad and another team wants to sign you to its active roster, you're either going or you're a fool.
SCOTT RECTOR FROM MARTINS FERRY, OH: Do you know if they plan on doing the social distancing once the season starts?
ANSWER: No, and no one else knows either.
RONALD CONNELL FROM BAKERSFIELD, CA: In the May 19 edition of Asked and Answered, while talking about Jamie Newman, the Wake Forest quarterback who will be a graduate transfer at Georgia in 2020, you pointed out that he averaged less than 8 yards per attempt in his only season as a college starter and therefore didn't show an ability to push the ball down the field. In 2019, Mason Rudolph's yards per pass attempt was 7.9, which ranked 30th among qualifying NFL quarterbacks.
ANSWER: Your original submission was longer than this, and just like the edited version that appears above, it was an opinion that did not include a question. Typically, those go right in the trash, but I chose to respond to this anyway. Jamie Newman's sub-8 yards per pass attempt was recorded at Wake Forest against a schedule that included such defensive powerhouses as Elon, Rice, North Carolina, Louisville, Boston College, Syracuse, Duke, etc. Comparing statistics against that group with statistics compiled against NFL secondaries is ridiculous, and just to make a point, while the Big 12 Conference contains no defensive powerhouses either, at least Mason Rudolph's yards per pass attempt in his final season at Oklahoma State was 10.0. Also, the question had to do with whether the Steelers should consider Newman with their first-round pick in 2021, and Rudolph was a third-round pick in 2018.
MARK CZO FROM METUCHEN, NJ: Please help me understand why the duo of Mason Rudolph to James Washington never took off last year after an incredible run in college together?
ANSWER: Because there just aren't enough Big-12 defensive backs starting in NFL secondaries.
JEFF DEATON FROM LAFAYETTE, IN: Do you believe the era of the pocket passing quarterback in the NFL is a thing of the past? And also could the stiffer rules on how a player can sack the quarterback or hit the quarterback be paving the way for Slash style quarterbacks in today's game?
ANSWER: I do not believe pocket passers are on the endangered species list in the NFL, and one of the reasons I believe they are not is something you referenced in your question. The stiffer rules to which you refer regarding sacking and hitting quarterbacks only apply to a quarterback in the pocket. Once the quarterback leaves the pocket, he no longer is afforded those protections, and in many instances he is viewed as a runner and not a passer. Once he crosses over into that territory, he is fair game for the defense. The athletes on NFL defenses are too fast and too physical, and if a quarterback leaves the protective cocoon of the pocket he eventually is going to be broken into pieces. Not through a dirty hit, but just by clean, physical football. One of the reasons for the devaluation of running backs in the NFL is their short career-span, which often is the result of the pounding they take when doing their jobs, and I believe quarterbacks are even less able to withstand continued pounding from an NFL defense. Certainly there will be exceptions, but those exceptions will be for Michael Vick-type talents, not for guys like Jalen Hurts, as an example. For those players, a career in the NFL ultimately will come down to their ability to operate and make throws within the pocket, where their offensive linemen and the rules can protect them.
STEVE LINDSEY FROM MATTESON, IL: Do you have any information on when the NFL preseason and/or regular season will start? I am of the opinion that every game, preseason included, is important for various, even minute reasons like competition for roster spots. Do you agree with that thinking?
ANSWER: The only thing I can tell you, which I'm certain you already know, is that the NFL preseason is scheduled to open on Thursday, Aug. 6 when the Steelers face Dallas in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, and the regular season is scheduled to open on Thursday, Sept. 10 when Kansas City hosts the Houston Texans. Outside of that, there is no definitive information, and there might not be any definitive information for some time. The NFL's plan is to consult with medical and scientific professionals and work to come up with the safest, fairest way to begin the process of conducting its 2020 season. Anything you might be hearing now is just a guess, and I'm not about to add my uninformed voice to that chorus.
DAVID ZIPPARO FROM ROCHELLE, IL: I may be mistaken, but I keep hearing that Ulysees Gilbert is a former undrafted rookie. I can swear we drafted him.
ANSWER: Ulysees Gilbert was drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He was the third of three players the Steelers picked in that round, with the others being Sutton Smith and Isaiah Buggs. Gilbert was the 35th pick in that round, and the 207th overall selection.
FRANK O'NEILL FROM MILFORD, CT: What do you think of the 2020 undrafted rookie signings? And players who can really help the team from this group and earn a roster spot?
ANSWER: My belief is that it's going to be very difficult for an undrafted rookie to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, even more difficult than usual, because the offseason program has to be virtual and there will be no OTAs or minicamp for these players to attract the eye of the coaching staff. And then, if training camps have to be shortened that would allow them even less time to make the level of an impression necessary to bounce a veteran off the roster. Certainly, a rash of injuries could be a factor in opening up a spot, but I just see it as a very long shot. Donnie Shell, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2020, has to be considered the best undrafted rookie signing in Steelers history during the Super Bowl era, and what really helped him as a rookie was the players' strike during training camp in 1974 that kept most veterans on the picket line for several weeks, which allowed players like Shell extra repetitions in practice and more playing time in the early preseason games to attract the coaches' attention. This group not only won't have that advantage, but it's fair to describe their situation as a disadvantage. Just to pick one name, I would go with Mississippi State punter Corliss Waitman, because he only has one guy to beat out and specialists don't have a system to learn.
EVAN STEIKER FROM BOSTON, MA: Possibility of trading for Josh Rosen? Would the Steelers ever trade for him?
ANSWER: What's the possibility of this segment of Steelers fans getting it through their heads that the team is happy with Mason Rudolph at this time? And based on what set of factors is Josh Rosen better than Rudolph? Is it that Rosen was a first-round draft pick? Akili Smith, Christian Ponder, Johnny Manziel, and Brandon Weeden all were first-round draft picks, too. In two NFL seasons, Rosen has a 3-13 record as a starter, and his career totals are 54.8 completions percentage, 12 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, and a rating of 63.8. Rudolph's career numbers are 5-3 as a starter, 62.2 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and a rating of 82.0.
MATTHEW RICHARDSON FROM MOODY, AL: Given the Steelers did not opt to draft a quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft, should we keep an eye on someone like Jamie Newman from the University of Georgia? Predicting we have a pretty good season and land among the final 10 picks in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, I could see him as the best available quarterback who could be left on the board at that stage. Do you see the Steelers going for a quarterback in 2021 to begin grooming for when Ben Roethlisberger retires?
ANSWER: This question requires many, many outright guesses, and some of the guesses are 11 months away. Jamie Newman has interesting size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds), and he had an interesting season in 2019 for Wake Forest, where he began as a backup and ended up his only year as a starter by completing 60.9 percent for 2,868 yards, with 26 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and what would've been a 97.3 rating if calculated by the metric the NFL uses. But Newman averaged fewer than 8 yards per attempt, which indicated he didn't or couldn't push the ball down the field, and with the exception of Clemson, the ACC was a collection of teams struggling to attain mediocrity last season. Newman will play a season as a graduate transfer with Georgia in 2020, but we are left to guess at this point what kind of a college season it's going to be, and then guess as to how he might make the transition to the Bulldogs' system/personnel and then fare against the much tougher competition in the SEC. As a comparison, Jake Fromm, in 43 SEC games for Georgia, completed 63.3 percent for 8,236 yards, with 78 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, and what would've been a 119.3 rating in the NFL, and he was a fifth-round draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The other significant part of this is how Ben Roethlisberger plays in 2020 and how he feels doing it. I'm of the mind that the Steelers absolutely should not be looking for an heir apparent until they are absolutely sure Roethlisberger is going to be finished playing within one year of the draft when they should be selecting a candidate to be his replacement. This grooming garbage that many fans seem to believe is so important is in fact counter-productive. What recently has been revealed as a key to success in the NFL (Kansas City, Baltimore, Buffalo, Philadelphia, just to name a few teams) is to take advantage of the time a quarterback is on his rookie contract and therefore a bargain salary cap-wise by fortifying the roster all around him and making a run at a championship or two. It's not smart to have a highly-drafted quarterback sit behind a well-paid veteran for a couple or three seasons "learning" because by the time he gets onto the field he'll be toward the end of his rookie deal, and the team that drafted him will have squandered its chance at cheap quarterback labor and then will have to make a decision whether to shell out big money to the youngster or cut ties and start all over.
Besides, let's pretend Roethlisberger has a very good, Pro Bowl caliber 2020 and feels good doing it. Let's pretend he doesn't go into 2021 feeling like he's at the end of his career. In my opinion, the better use of draft picks in that situation would be to fortify other areas of the roster and keep going for it.
In other words, it's way too soon to decide whether the Steelers will or should be in the market for an heir apparent in the 2021 NFL Draft, and way too soon on steroids to decide whether that heir apparent should be Jamie Newman.