Let’s get to it:
MICHAEL MUHAMMAD FROM FAYETTEVILLE, GA: How much do you think the signing of the newest free agents has altered/affected the Steelers’ draft plans?
ANSWER: I don’t believe the signings of Steven Nelson, Donte Moncrief, and Mark Barron will change the Steelers’ draft plans. The team still needs defensive playmakers, a three-down linebacker, a speedy wide receiver, and it’s never really wise to ignore the offensive and defensive lines, either, and none of their signings, even taken as a whole group, changes that. Let’s take a look at each of the three signings in the order in which they were added to the Steelers’ roster:
The Steelers entered this offseason needing reinforcements at cornerback, because besides Joe Haden, which of the other five guys at the position who were on the roster when the 2018 season ended looks like a definite keeper? Just as a refresher, those five guys are Artie Burns, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton, and Brian Allen. Based on what each of those players did over the course of the 2018 season, there doesn’t seem to be a front-line cornerback in the whole group. So even though the numbers at the position are representative for this stage of the NFL calendar, the Steelers’ depth chart at cornerback is weak at the top. That was why signing Steven Nelson made sense and could be characterized as necessary. But even with that signing, the Steelers now have Haden and Nelson, and a bunch of question marks. Because of that, this is still a position to be addressed during the draft, but signing Nelson means it’s no longer absolutely necessary for it to be addressed with multiple players.
With Antonio Brown now in Oakland, the Steelers found themselves in need of a receiver with some speed who could line up on the outside of the formation and threaten opposing defenses. Again, an examination of the after-the-regular-season depth chart illustrates the point. JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington can play on the outside of the formation, but Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer are both slot guys. The Steelers need to do better than Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey at wide receiver, and so a case could be made that without dipping into free agency, this position was very similar to cornerback in that it would have had to be addressed by more than one pick in the draft. Maybe Moncrief was a disappointment to the Jaguars last season based on his production under a one-year contract for $9.6 million, but he wasn’t playing with a Hall of Fame quarterback in 2018, and he will be in 2019.
As for Barron, he could be seen as a similar case to Haden, in that the player fell into the Steelers’ laps when he was released by the Rams right at the start of free agency. The Steelers, like a lot of NFL teams, are looking for a three-down linebacker, and their chances to have a shot at drafting either Devin White or Devin Bush seem to be diminishing by the day. If recent mock drafts are to be given any credence, White is looking like a top-five pick in the first round, and Bush has been ticketed to the Bengals at No. 11 overall ever since the team released Vontaze Burfict some days ago. Barron may look like a do-over for the mistake that was the Morgan Burnett signing, but despite any flaws he might have, or be perceived to have, he instantly becomes the No. 1 candidate for the job next to Vince Williams. In an ideal situation, Barron would start and serve as a mentor for the young guy added in the draft, and with Barron set to become a 30-year-old in October the idea of adding a player to groom isn’t something to be put off indefinitely.
BRAD TARR FROM LOWER BURRELL, PA: Why would a team trade for Morgan Burnett when the Steelers already said that they would release him if they couldn't find a trade? Wouldn't they just save the draft pick and just wait until he's released?
ANSWER: I’m not going to disagree that it’s a long-shot to find a team willing to send even a conditional late-round draft pick in exchange for Morgan Burnett. But if a team likes the contract terms for Burnett for the next couple of years and doesn’t want to have to worry about negotiating for his services on the open market, maybe it makes an offer. I don’t expect that to happen, and I don’t believe for a second that the Steelers do, either. But there’s also no urgency to release him either.
DAN VECCHIONE FROM PHILADELPHIA, PA: I remember some years back that Ben Roethlisberger was wanting bigger receivers, and so, with the aggressiveness of the defensive backs across the NFL, why do the Steelers still prefer to use the little speedy receivers?
ANSWER: The sport is football, not basketball. Are you suggesting that height is a more significant attribute for a receiver than speed? I do not believe the Steelers purposely avoid drafting tall receivers, but often the tall guys turn out to be more Justin Hunter than Julio Jones.
DANIEL ADAMS FROM BUENA PARK, CA: I see the Steelers brought in James O'Shaughnessy, an unrestricted free agent tight end from Jacksonville for a visit, before he re-signed with the Jaguars. Do you think they should bring in tight end Maxx Williams from the Baltimore Ravens for a visit?
ANSWER: Sounds like a good idea, what with Maxx Williams having been a second-round pick (55th overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft. But during his four-year career so far, Williams has missed 22 of a possible 64 games with a concussion, plus knee, ankle, and Achilles injuries.
PAT FLYNN FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: If you were Raiders management, would you entertain a trade with the Steelers in which Pittsburgh would send the No. 20 pick overall in the first round and a third-round pick (83rd overall) for Oakland’s No. 4 overall pick in the first round? Or would that not be enough capital to try to switch first-round spots? Any idea of the cost on the Steelers part to trade up to a spot where Devin White or Devin Bush may still be on the draft board?
ANSWER: There is no way a team could move up 16 spots in the first round simply for the cost of a third-round pick, and a late third-round pick at that. According to some of the latest projections, also known as guesses, LSU’s Devin While could be a top-five pick, and Michigan’s Devin Bush might not get past the Cincinnati Bengals, who have the 11th overall pick in the first round. If that’s the case, I don’t believe the Steelers will be able to have a chance to select either one of those guys, because you also should remember that they have other needs to be filled from this draft. I believe all of that is why they moved so quickly on Mark Barron when he was released by the Rams.
DAVE HORCHAK FROM CLYMER, PA: I just read your article, headlined “Labriola on finding, drafting CBs” about Dick LeBeau’s fire-zone schemes not working any longer because the game changes. He's still in the game. Are his schemes working there? Or did the Steelers drafting offensive players and letting defense suffer cause the schemes to stop working?
ANSWER: Dick LeBeau was not retained as the defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans when the team hired Mike Vrabel to be its head coach in January 2018, and he is currently out of football. What the NFL did in expanding the protections for receivers from the kinds of hits that used to be a common tactic used by the defense to break up passes and intimidate offensive players, plus quarterbacks getting the ball out of their hands so quickly – Tom Brady recently averaged 2.1 seconds from snap-to-release on his passes over an ENTIRE SEASON – and the way offenses have learned to use formations employing multiple receivers to create favorable matchups are the things that neutered the zone-blitz. In a 2017 game against LeBeau’s Titans defense, the Steelers managed only 65 yards rushing (3.1 average per carry) and Ben Roethlisberger was sacked three times. Sounds good. But Roethlisberger also completed 67 percent of his passes for 299 yards, with four touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 40-17 victory. The zone-blitz was a great scheme for many years, and the Steelers won a lot of games and three championships with that scheme and the players who made it so successful. But that time is over.
DAKOTA DOWNS FROM MARSHALL, MO: Jordy Nelson, Michael Crabtree, and Dez Bryant are all good wide receivers available in free agency. Wouldn't it be a good idea to try to pick one up for at least one year to test the waters?
ANSWER: Jordy Nelson will be 34 in May. Michael Crabtree will be 32 in September. Dez Bryant is 30 and still rehabbing a torn Achilles he sustained in November. What waters should be tested? The fountain of youth? Or the grotto in Lourdes?