Let's get to it:
JOHN PUHALA FROM SPRINGFIELD, VA: Who are the Steelers free agents for 2022? And who do you think may be re-signed?
ANSWER: For the 2022 offseason, the Steelers have 23 players – after signing long-snapper Christian to a one-year contract on Jan. 19 – who will fall into one of the three categories of free agency. They have three exclusive rights free agents, who are players who must accept whatever contract is offered by the team; three restricted free agents, who are players free to negotiate and sign with any team, but their original team can offer them one of various qualifying offers, referred to as tenders, that come with the right of first refusal and/or draft-pick compensation; and 17 unrestricted free agents, who are players free to sign with any NFL team once their contracts expire on the first day of the new league year, which in 2022 begins at 4 p.m. on March 16.
Exclusive rights free agents (3):
CB DeMarkus Acy
DL DeMarcus Christmas
C J.C. Hassenauer
Restricted free agents (3):
ILB Marcus Allen
QB. Dewayne Haskins
ILB Robert Spillane
Unrestricted free agents (17):
DL Montravius Adams
RB Kalen Ballage
OLB Taco Charlton
QB Joshua Dobbs
TE Eric Ebron
SS Terrell Edmunds
C-G B.J. Finney
CB Joe Haden
SS Miles Killebrew
CB Arthur Maulet
WR Ray-Ray McCloud
LT Chuks Okorafor
QB Ben Roethlisberger
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
G Trai Turner
WR James Washington
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Predicting who among this group of unrestricted free agents will be re-signed is such a guessing game, because as Coach Mike Tomlin always says about the process, "It's free for us, and it's free for them." Another thing is that one calendar year ago, looking at this exact same issue, I never would have believed JuJu Smith-Schuster would have been back with the Steelers for the 2021 season, and so my track record regarding guesses as to which of free agents could be back with the Steelers is not a good one. Based strictly on what I believe to be good fits with the Steelers, and without knowing what the players are seeking in new contracts in terms of length and compensation, and without knowing what the market might offer with the salary cap expected to increase to $208.2 million per team (up $25.7 million per team over the 2021 cap), here are a few names from different parts of the financial spectrum: Adams, Edmunds, Witherspoon, Haden (at a reduced salary and a possibly a reduced role), Okorafor, and hope for the best to get lucky with Smith-Schuster again.
GLENN SMITH FROM FAYETTEVILLE, NC: It is my understanding that free agency begins in mid-March. Are teams permitted to discuss (unofficially or officially) contract extensions with their own unrestricted free agents, or are they required to wait until the new league year begins?
ANSWER: Free agency begins with the first day of the new league year, which is March 16, and at 4 p.m. on that day is when players' current contracts expire. In that sense, players are still bound to their original teams, and so those teams are certainly within their rights and within the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement to negotiate with their own soon-to-be free agents.
MICHAEL REYNOLDS FROM MONROE, LA: Would you be able to shed some light on whether Jimmy Garoppolo might be an option for the Steelers in 2022, knowing that the 49ers drafted Trey Lance third overall in the 2021 NFL Draft?
ANSWER: I have to admit I do not understand Steelers' fans infatuation with Jimmy Garoppolo but allow me to lay out some things to try to answer your question. Garoppolo, who will be 31 on Nov. 2, is under contract through the 2022 season with the 49ers and is due to be paid $25.5 million under the terms of that contract for the 2022 season. After that he will be an unrestricted free agent. The 49ers aren't going to cut him, and so they would expect compensation in any potential trade, and I'm not thinking they would be willing to settle for a third-day draft pick. According to the NFL's final quarterback rankings for the 2021 regular season, Garoppolo was ninth in passer rating, sixth in completion percentage, second in average gain per attempt, 13th in touchdown percentage, and 23rd in interception percentage. To translate some of those numbers, Garoppolo completes a high percentage of his attempts and is not a dink-and-dunk guy; he's a bit better than middle of the pack when it comes to touchdown passes per attempt, but he's more than a bit below the middle of the pack when it comes to turning the ball over via interceptions. And a question I would be asking myself is: why would a guy with a reputation for being a top offensive mind like 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan be looking to spend the third overall pick in the draft on a quarterback who played only 19 games at the FCS level (Trey Lance) if he already had Garoppolo on the roster? I get the desire/need for depth at the quarterback position, but drafting a player third overall, as the 49ers did with Lance, isn't to add depth. It's because you expect him to start and be better than what you already have at the position.
GINO CALDERONE FROM HOUSTON, TX: What's the reason for the Steelers' centers doing the head nod thing before snapping the ball? I haven't seen other teams do it, and doesn't it offer an opportunity for the defense to get a jump on the play?
ANSWER: That's all part of the silent count procedure for dealing with crowd noise at venues such as Arrowhead Stadium. The process begins with the quarterback lifting his leg, which alerts a guard to slap the center on the side of the leg. When the center bobs his head, that's a signal to the other offensive players that the silent count has begun. Then the ball is snapped according to whatever the snap count was to be. If the defense jumps at the head bob, and the snap count is "two," then they're jumping offside. If the defense is timing the snap count off the head bob consistently, it would behoove the offense to change the snap count occasionally. When the starting offensive line is made up of players with more NFL experience as well as experience with the Steelers, the head-bob part of the silent count process could be eliminated.
ROBIN SISAK FROM JACKSONVILLE, FL: My Steelers announcers use two terms that I hope you can explain to someone who has never played football. They talk about how good Ben Roethlisberger is at play-action. They also mention RPOs. Can you please explain what these mean?
ANSWER: I will keep this as simple as possible to try to make it easily understandable, because sometimes I can get too wordy and confuse myself. Play-action is when the quarterback takes the snap and appears to hand the ball to the running back before pulling it out and then dropping back to pass. RPO, stands for run-pass option, where the play called in the huddle contains both a run component and a pass component, and it falls on the quarterback once he aligns the offense at the line of scrimmage whether to go with the run component or the pass component. Hope that helps.
JAMES MICHAEL FROM ROCKY RIVER, OH: Is there any word on David DeCastro's rehab, or has he decided to retire? If he still wants to play, in your opinion would the Steelers be interested in him?
ANSWER: Do yourself a favor and stop thinking about a David DeCastro return. I believe with all my heart that he is finished playing professional football, whether there has been, or ever will be, an official retirement announcement. When the Steelers released DeCastro back in June, he was asked by Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette if he wanted to continue his football career. DeCastro said, "Gotta see how the surgery goes. But I'd have no problem calling it a day and moving on with my life." Since there has been absolutely no news about DeCastro's surgery – whether he had it, or how it turned out if he did have it – I'm thinking he has called it a day and moved on with his life.
ERIC SMITH FROM WOODBRIDGE, CT: Do you think it would be a good idea to try to trade for Deshaun Watson? All things considered, as long as it wouldn't cost us more than Dwayne Haskins or Mason Rudolph (preferably Haskins) and No. 1 and No. 2 picks, I think (yes, I know it doesn't mean Houston or Pittsburgh would agree with me) it would be a good and fair trade for both teams.
ANSWER: What is the opposite of a good idea? Allow me to detail that for you. According to a story that appeared on si.com in late October, "The Texans still want at least three first-round draft picks and a package of premium selections and/or high-quality players in exchange for Watson," who also has a no-trade clause in his contract, which means he would have to a waive that or approve any team willing to give up such a boat-load in return for a player, by the way, who, according to The New York Times, is the subject of 22 civil suits filed in March and April that accuse him of coercive and lewd sexual behavior, with two that allege sexual assault." Do you think it's a good idea? If you're not yet convinced of how bad an idea it is, allow me to add that Watson is due – in base salary alone -- $119 million over the next four years. Remember, this is a trade that will be made in the real world, not in a video game or a fantasy league.