Let's get to it:
GIO CALABRO FROM EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, NJ: I read a recent article on Steelers.com and was surprised that Ulysees Gilbert III was still on the team considering the injuries he endured during his first two years with the team, plus the drafting and signing of other players this offseason to compete for the spots at inside linebacker. Do you believe he has a realistic chance of making the team this year, and have you seen anything from him at practice when healthy for fans to believe he could make an impact now or in the future?
ANSWER: Ulysees Gilbert has the kind of speed and athletic ability today's NFL teams covet in inside linebackers, but what has held him back have been injuries that prevented him from practicing, and because Gilbert has not been able to practice consistently that has slowed his development in terms of learning the defense through the kind of on-field repetitions so critical to a young player trying to make the jump the NFL after a college career at Akron. As far as this summer is concerned, Gilbert doesn't have to make an impact, all he has to do is make the team. Gilbert will be 24 in August, and another MAC linebacker named James Harrison didn't really secure a spot until he was 26. I'm not comparing Gilbert to Harrison, but since I believe Gilbert still has practice squad eligibility, giving up on him would be foolish. He will be allowed to determine his own destiny, and I contend the key element to that determination having a happy ending is Gilbert being able to stay on the practice field.
DANIEL RAYMOND FROM WHITE PLAINS, MD: With the depth we have at inside linebacker and with not so much depth at outside linebacker, do we have any ILBs who have the skill-set like Chad Brown to move to OLB if disaster strikes?
ANSWER: To clarify, Chad Brown came to the Steelers as an outside linebacker who was moved to inside linebacker by the Steelers because they had Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd entrenched as the starting outside linebackers. Brown then was moved outside – his more natural position – starting with the second game of the 1996 season after Lloyd tore a patellar tendon in the opener vs. the Jaguars. Anyway, this is another of those questions that has a better chance to be answered once the pads go on and the real football begins to be practiced at training camp. My guess, though, is that the Steelers only would explore having a player switch positions as a last resort.
SEAN LANHAM FROM ELM CITY, NC: If it were up to you, would there be any other jersey numbers officially retired by the Steelers?
ANSWER: There would not. The Steelers have the Hall of Honor as a means of recognizing the great, significant players, coaches, and contributors in franchise history, and I like/respect the exclusivity of not being redundant by also continually retiring jersey numbers. Ernie Stautner arguably was the greatest player in the era of Steelers history I have referred to as "the dark ages," the time when the team won some games and inflicted punishment on opponents even in defeat but never crossed the threshold of competing for, or winning, a championship. Joe Greene was the transformational player of the Steelers renaissance, and it was his talent and leadership and no-nonsense demeanor that was so responsible for the Super Bowls the team began winning in the 1970s. Leave things as they are. That's my opinion on retiring more jersey numbers.
DEREK LAKE FROM BUSHNELL, FL: If you don't offer to pick up the fifth year of a rookie's contract and then he ends up blowing up his final year with a great season, do you give up the right to franchise tag that player? Or do the two things have nothing to do with one another?
ANSWER: The two things are totally unrelated. First of all, the fifth-year option only applies to players drafted in the first round. If a team elects not to exercise the fifth-year option, all that means is the team has control over that player for his first four years in the league. If the team elects to exercise the fifth-year option, all that means is the team has control over that player for his first five years in the league.
JASON PRASTER FROM SAN ANTONIO, TX: Which season did Steelers players start voting for a team MVP, and who has won the team honor the most times?
ANSWER: The Steelers first voted on a team MVP following the 1969 season, and the inaugural winner of the award was wide receiver Roy Jefferson. Antonio Brown won the award four times – following the 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017 seasons.
DENNIS SLEEGER FROM YORK, PA: Love Asked and Answered. I hate the fact that we don't get high draft picks because we do so well year in year out. Since Chuck Noll took over in 1969, what's the highest pick we've had in the draft?
ANSWER: Terry Bradshaw was the first overall pick of the 1970 NFL Draft.
NICHOLAS PELCHAR FROM PURCELLVILLE, VA: Is punting for the coffin corner or punting 45 yards towards the sideline in hopes of no return a lost art, or is it preferable to just get off a long punt because of the rush?
ANSWER: The art of directional punting is often the difference between making an NFL roster or being cut, but it's not as easy to do that well as you make it seem. Last season, there were 30 punters who qualified to have their statistics ranked by the NFL. Of those 30, 19 finished with a net punting average (distance of the punt minus the yards returned) of 40.0 or more, and one of those was Jordan Berry, who often is identified as a weak link of the Steelers special teams. Directional punting is seen as a critical component of good coverage, and a net punting average of 40.0 or more is considered above-the-line in the NFL. Also, of those 30 qualifying punters in 2020, none had more than seven touchbacks. What those net averages indicate is that there is directional punting taking place in the NFL, and while punters now utilize the Aussie style instead of a coffin-corner approach, none of the 30 qualifying punters in 2020 had more than seven touchbacks over the course of the entire regular season.
SANTIAGO DE LEÓN FROM MEXICO CITY, MEXICO: In your opinion, which team will do better in the 2021 season: Cleveland or Baltimore, and why?
ANSWER: I would guess it will be the Ravens, and my reasoning at this stage is that while Baltimore is a been-there, done-that team in the sense it's familiar with being a target for every opponent on its schedule, it's familiar with being in a playoff chase, it's familiar with being in such a chase and being expected to win. The Browns had a magical season in 2020, because it marked the first time since they re-entered the NFL for the 1999 season that they qualified for the playoffs and won a postseason game. It's one thing for a team to raise itself from the bottom and into a spot that qualifies it for the playoffs, but it's a whole other challenge to go from being a playoff contender to being a championship contender. I'm not saying the Browns cannot make that jump in 2021, but they never have been a championship contender since rejoining the NFL for the 1999 NFL season, and until they do show they have what it takes to make that jump they're going to have to prove it to me.
JACOB WESLEY FROM JOHNSON CITY, TN: What's your take on Pittsburgh trading a future fourth-round pick to the Patriots for third-year outside linebacker Chase Winovich?
ANSWER: Maybe you would make that trade, but I sincerely doubt Bill Belichick would.
TERRY HALDEN FROM LETHBRIDGE, ALBERTA, CANADA: With the Steelers letting Alejandro Villanueva go to the dreaded Ravens, I was a little ticked off. Now they have cut David DeCastro and replaced him with a journeyman from the Panthers. Was this a strictly dollars saving reason?
ANSWER: David DeCastro said he is going to need a third surgery to deal with bone spurs in his ankle, and that surgery and the rehabilitation that will accompany the procedure was going to sideline him for months and not weeks. DeCastro also has said he's not certain he is going to be interested in playing anymore following this third surgery, and he's also not sure he'll be able to play anymore following this third surgery.
This is what DeCastro said about his situation in an interview with Jim Wexell in the immediate aftermath of being cut by the Steelers: "I had some painful ankle issues. I'll need it cleaned up for a third time in my career. I had trouble with it last year (2020) and was hoping it would get better. I was holding out hope it would get better, but it never really recovered. Got an MRI on it, and I need to get it cleaned out again. The body doesn't want to cooperate sometimes."
When Wexell followed up by asking DeCastro if he was going to retire, he answered, "I'm not sure. I'm going to talk to the doctor, see how the surgery goes and take it from there. I'm not entirely sure. I just want to take it one step at a time."
As for the "journeyman" the Steelers signed after releasing DeCastro, it's worth noting that Trai Turner, who turned 28 in mid-June, started 80 games in six seasons with Carolina and was voted to the Pro Bowl five times in those six seasons.
DAVID LAVECK FROM ROCHESTER, NY: Since training camp this season will now be held in Pittsburgh, will fans have the same number of opportunities to attend, and will it still be free?
ANSWER: There are plans in the works to make some training camp practices at Heinz Field available to fans, but details on those plans have not yet been released. As soon as plans have been finalized, they will be posted on Steelers.com.
DAVID MARCOU FROM DANVERS, MA: What do you think James Washington's role will be this year, and what is his contract status? Could he be a replacement for JuJu Smith-Schuster should this be JuJu's last year with the Steelers?
ANSWER: I believe the toughness James Washington can bring to the wide receiver position could serve him well with Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator. Washington signed a four-year contract in 2018 after being the team's second-round draft pick that year, and he will carry a cap number of $1.432 million for the 2021 season. Washington's specific role in the offense, as well as JuJu Smith-Schuster's role in the offense, will unfold once training camp begins in late July, and as of right now, both Smith-Schuster and Washington can become unrestricted free agents in March 2022.
NATHAN DAVOLI FROM FORT WAYNE, IN: It seems as though Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger like Dwayne Haskins a lot. It'll be fun to see Haskins in some preseason games. It seems from Haskins' interviews that's he's humbled and hungry to play. Josh Dobbs has always been a decent backup, but is it safe to assume that Haskins will probably get the No. 3 spot? Also, would it be wise to extend his contract for another year to have him and Mason Rudolph under contract for 2022 in case Roethlisberger retires after the 2021 season?
ANSWER: The only thing that's "safe to assume" is that Dwayne Haskins will have to show up at training camp in late July in great physical shape and then do the kinds of things on a daily basis that will earn him the confidence of the coaches, which then will result in a good bit of playing time during the preseason. I can understand some fans are excited by Haskins, but his reality is that he has to make the team. Right now, I would give him a 50-50 chance to be successful at that, because he's competing for one job with one other player: Joshua Dobbs. If Haskins loses sight of that, he will end up like Paxton Lynch, who was another former No. 1 pick trying to earn a spot on the Steelers' 53-man roster. Lynch, by the way, is now trying to make it in the Canadian Football League after signing a contract with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
JC CHUTA FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: Every sports channel I have listened to predicts the Steelers will release Joshua Dobbs and keep Dwayne Haskins. Some even suggest Haskins will be Ben Roethlisberger's backup. What is the media's love affair with Haskins? Was he a real stud quarterback in college? I don't watch college football.
ANSWER: My suggestion to you would be that in the future a better expenditure of your time would be to watch college football – particularly the brand played in the Southeastern Conference – and spend less time watching and/or listening to the "sports channels" to which you refer in your question.
TIM WHEELER FROM MELTON MOWBRAY, UK: Setting aside salary cap constraints, which currently available free agent would you most like to see be a part of the Steelers in 2021?
ANSWER: Since there is no such thing in the NFL as "setting aside salary cap constraints," this has no connection to reality. It would be like me trying to decide whether I would rather look like Brad Pitt or George Clooney.