Let's get to it:
KEN WALDROP FROM ONTONAGON, MI: Does the change of heart by Tyson Alualu change the draft strategy for the Steelers and how much of Tyson changing his mind do you think was influenced by teammates?
ANSWER: I would imagine that Tyson Alualu's decision to change his mind about signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars and instead re-sign with the Steelers for two more years significantly lessens the urgency to add a defensive lineman during the upcoming draft. Not that the Steelers are going to ignore the position totally, but with Alualu back in the fold, the Steelers will have seven defensive linemen on the roster with NFL regular season experience on their roster. As for the influence Alualu's teammates may have had on his final decision, I will offer you this snippet from a story written by Brooke Pryor on March 27 that appeared on ESPN.com: "Alualu was swayed to stay in Pittsburgh by teammate Cam Heyward and other defensive line members, who told him how badly they wanted him to stay, a source told ESPN. The Steelers didn't have to re-recruit Alualu to convince the nose tackle to stay. Instead, he accepted the team's original offer, which was slightly less than the one Jacksonville offered, a source told ESPN."
LENNY VANCE FROM RIDGEVILLE, OH: What are your thoughts on the Steelers trading for Zach Ertz?
ANSWER: The Eagles reportedly are seeking a third-round pick in exchange for Zach Ertz, who spent time on injured reserve last season because of an ankle injury, has over 6,000 NFL snaps on his body, and is due to earn $8.5 million in salary for the 2021 season. He also will be 31 years old in early November. For those reasons – recent injury history, coupled with his age and wear-and-tear and what the Eagles want in terms of draft-pick compensation, I would not be interested in a trade based on those terms. If the Eagles cut him, and his price comes way down, that would be another matter.
HALL MCMILLAN FROM NEW YORK, NY: Do you believe that we grossly overpaid Zach Banner? He is effectively being paid $5 million per year with a $3 million signing bonus. Given that he has not materialized to any degree as a starting offensive tackle in the NFL yet, doesn't this seem like a big risk? I think general consensus is that he would have signed for much less in a "prove it" deal than what he is slated to be paid.
ANSWER: I do not believe Zach Banner is "grossly overpaid." Banner's two year deal, according to overthecap.com, is for $9.5 million, a total that includes a $3.25 million signing bonus. His charges to the Steelers' salary cap will be $2.975 million in 2021 and $6.625 million in 2022, and it's worth noting that Banner won the one-on-one competition with Chuks Okorafor to be the starting right tackle. In today's market at the offensive tackle position, that is not a big risk for a starting-caliber player, and Banner deserves to be referred to as that because he was a starter at the time of his injury. Also, the contract contains an easy-out for the team, because if the Steelers cut Banner this year, he would count just $3.25 million in dead money on their 2021 cap, and if they cut him after the upcoming season he would count only $1.625 million in dead money on their 2022 cap. And whoever this "general consensus" includes should understand that it doesn't get much lower than a $2.95 million cap charge on a one-year "prove it" deal for an offensive tackle in today's NFL. And if Banner then went out and "proved it," you wouldn't get anywhere close to signing him for a $6.625 million cap charge in 2022.
ROGER GARDNER FROM TREBUR, GERMANY: With the 17-game regular season coming, how is it determined who gets the ninth home game?
ANSWER: The extra home game will be awarded on an every-other-year rotating basis based on conference. One year, all of the NFC teams will play the extra game at home, and then the next year all of the AFC teams will play the extra game at home. And so on.
TOM DUNN FROM BELLEAIR BLUFFS, FL: In a 17-game regular season, how will the 17th opponent be determined?
ANSWER: The four teams in one division will play the four teams in a division in the other conference, and the matchups will be based on the order in which the teams finished in those respective divisions. The division winners will play each other, the second-place teams will play each other, etc. My understanding is that in 2021, if there is a 17-game schedule, the AFC North will pair with the NFC West, with the AFC North getting the home games. That will have Seattle coming to Heinz Field.
DAVID KITLAK FROM UHRICHSVILLE, OH: When will the 2021 schedule be released?
ANSWER: It's believed the 2021 NFL schedule will be released between May 10-14.
MIKE MASSIE FROM WAYNESVILLE, NC: Don't know why everyone is down on Joe Haden. So anyway, Steven Nelson's contract is terminated. If he can't find another team, can he come back on a cheaper contract and compete with Cam Sutton for a starting cornerback job, or do the Steelers wash their hands of him and draft a cornerback?
ANSWER: Why everyone is down on Joe Haden, in my opinion, is a result of those people's own unrealistic expectations. I remember when Steelers fans used to complain about Rod Woodson, apparently unable to believe that cornerbacks occasionally are going to give up completions. That's why it always has been said that one of the most significant attributes an NFL cornerback can have is a short memory. I believe some team will realize Steven Nelson's value and sign him. Maybe it will take a while, but it will happen.
BRAD BUNTY FROM HANOVER, PA: Why did the Steelers terminate the contract of Vince Williams? I thought he played well.
ANSWER: A very wise man once told me that whenever the question is "why?" the answer is "money." That is especially true in this case.
CHARLES WADE FROM CLAIRTON, PA: I'm tired of hearing about the winners of free agency. For me it doesn't mean anything, How many times have the so-called winners of free agency won the Super Bowl?
BRIAN JENKINS FROM CULPEPER, VA: I saw that the Steelers signed Miles Killebrew, and someone who did not seem like a fan of the signing made a comment: "Great, a special teams player who will never start." That made me try to think former special teamers who became star defensive players for the Steelers. Joey Porter and James Harrison came to mind. Could you name some other players who would fit this description?
ANSWER: Well, let's start with a guy who only made the roster because of special teams and will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a few months: Donnie Shell. Brett Keisel is another notable one. At the time of Super Bowl XL at the end of the 2005 season, special teams coach Kevin Spencer told me that he knew Seattle's special teams coach personally, and that in friendly conversation he told Spencer that some Seahawks players were a bit intimidated by a man Keisel's size – (6-foot-5, 290 pounds) – who could run that fast and was that athletic who covered kickoffs so well. And Keisel actually was following in the footsteps of another Steelers defensive lineman who was a terror in kickoff coverage – Orpheus Roye. There are many other examples as well.
FABIAN KOBALD FROM INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA: In 2018, T.J. Watt had six forced fumbles; in 2019 he had eight forced fumbles, and at that time he was praised as one of the best strip sackers in the NFL. How would you describe the 2020 season? I mean he had only two forced fumbles with a similar number of sacks.
ANSWER: This is how it most likely worked with respect to the 2020 season: Whenever a team was preparing to play the Steelers, the opposing coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterbacks coach all were in the quarterback's ear all week about protecting the football because T.J. Watt was "one of the best strip sackers in the NFL." As a result, that quarterback was extra vigilant about that specific aspect of his play. Every single element of an NFL game isn't necessarily someone's fault. Sometimes the other guys are paying attention and working to minimize an opponent's strength. Remember, they're getting paid, too.
JOE WERNER FROM WEST HENRIETTA, NY: I noticed that in the 1970s, the Steelers issued very few single-digit jersey numbers, and even fewer numbers in the 90s. In fact, in the case of the 90s numbers, many of those numbers were never issued by the team until the 1980s. Is this just a coincidence?
ANSWER: To start, you should understand that the jersey number process usually begins with a player requesting, or asking, if a particular number is available. It's possible/likely that single-digit numbers and numbers in the 90s weren't popular with players in the 1970s, just as it was in baseball, hockey, and basketball that the preferred numbers on jerseys were typically all lower than No. 50. Another factor was the NFL roster size. In the 1970s, roster limits in the 1970s fluctuated from 40 to 47 to 43, and so there was no need to issue numbers in the 90s.
BRAD SHERWOOD FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: Why was James Conner released early but not JuJu Smith-Schuster or Bud Dupree?
ANSWER: Each of the players you reference: James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Bud Dupree became unrestricted free agents at 4 p.m. EST on Wednesday, March 17. None of them were released. Their contracts expired. There is a difference.
ANGELO MORELLA FROM POLAND, OH: ESPN had a report that quotes NFL executives saying that the asking price for quarterback Sam Darnold is a late third-round draft pick. Would GM Labriola trade Mason Rudolph and a 2022 fourth-round pick for Darnold?
ANSWER: While the draft pick compensation you reference doesn't seem to be a deal-breaker, there is also this: Any team acquiring a player in a trade also must assume that player's current contract. What that would mean for the Steelers is they would owe Sam Darnold $4.605 million in salary and roster bonus for 2021, and that amount is guaranteed. Then on or before May 3, 2021, the Steelers would have to make a decision on whether to exercise the fifth-year option on Darnold's rookie contract or allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in March 2022. Since Ben Roethlisberger will be back for the 2021 season, and he isn't being brought back to do anything except start, the Steelers would be making a decision on Darnold without ever having seen him play in their offensive system with their offensive players. And the fifth-year option on Darnold's contract is for $18.8 million in fully-guaranteed money. Now that you have all of the pertinent facts, do you think it would be a good move to make that trade? Me neither.
JACKSON MCFARLANE FROM VIRGINIA BEACH, VA: What are the chances of the Steelers signing Jadeveon Clowney? We sort of need a rusher since Bud Dupree left.
ANSWER: Are you referring to the same Jadaveon Clowney who was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft? The one who counted $12.7 million on the Tennessee Titans' salary cap in 2020 and finished the season with no sacks? The guy who never has had a double-digit sack season in the NFL? The one who has a combined 12 sacks total over the last three seasons while earning a combined $25.55 million from three different teams? The guy who has been healthy enough to play in every game of a regular season just once in his seven NFL seasons? That Jadeveon Clowney?
LEROY OSWALT FROM CANTON, OH: What's your take on the Steelers possibly trading T.J. Watt for a first-round pick so they can double-down on halfbacks and take both Najee Harris and Travis Etienne?
ANSWER: My take is that I'm sure I've heard more hare-brained suggestions, but none immediately come to mind.