Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: March 5

Let's get to it:

NICK MORRIS FROM MARIETTA, GA: If the Steelers decide to cut Ramon Foster, could Matt Feiler be moved to left guard and Zach Banner become the starting right tackle? That way the Steelers don't have to spend any of their picks in the draft on offensive linemen.
ANSWER: There are many options along the offensive line for the Steelers, and I believe they have the personnel in-house to fulfill all of them. Let's pretend the Steelers cut Ramon Foster and re-sign B.J. Finney, who can become an unrestricted free agent, and also re-sign Matt Feiler, who will be a restricted free agent. Under that scenario, they could plug Finney in at left guard and keep Feiler at right tackle. But if they decide to cut Foster and Finney leaves as an unrestricted free agent, the Steelers could move Feiler to left guard, and then I would expect there to be a competition between Zach Banner and Chuks Okorafor for the job as the starting right tackle. Even though the Steelers have the personnel on hand to fill holes, I still believe using a pick to reinforce the offensive line with young, up-and-coming talent would be the wise thing to do. It's always better to do a remake of a unit gradually over time, as opposed to being in a situation where changes have to be made drastically.

MIKE CELETTI FROM RALEIGH, NC: How are the Steelers so tight against the salary cap this year? With the Antonio Brown contract coming off the books and other big-ticket players not signing extensions, where has all our cap space gone?
ANSWER: Where the salary cap space goes is to players who have existing multi-year contracts that call for raises from one year to the next, or more accurately, to account for an increase in a player's cap number because of the way already-paid bonuses are accounted for. But here is a brief explanation of "where has all our cap space gone." If you take the four starting offensive linemen from last season who are under contract right now for 2020, plus the three starting defensive linemen (assuming Tyson Alualu replaces Javon Hargrave, for simplicity's sake), plus the starting quarterback, plus the two starting cornerbacks, their combined salary cap hits for 2020 come to a total of $124.7 million. And that's only for 10 players, with an NFL roster being made up of 53 players. You said no big-ticket players signed extensions, but last year at this time the Steelers re-signed Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, and Joe Haden. I would describe all of them as big-ticket players. Also, if you're a Steelers fan who pays attention to how the team has done business for decades, you would understand the franchise prefers spending its money on its own good players rather than use it to sign other teams' players during free agency. That's where the Steelers salary cap space goes, and it has gone there every year since free agency began in 1993.

MICHAEL TORSIELLO FROM SUMMIT, NJ: After a promising rookie season, Artie Burns regressed year after year. Was it really a loss of confidence, or a matter of the Steelers selecting a player who was a better athlete than a football player? From what I've read about him he's a great guy, a great family man.
ANSWER: Artie Burns is an example of the difficulty in trying to project college talent into the NFL, and how there can be things unrelated to the actual sport that can be responsible for derailing a player's career. As a 21-year-old rookie, Burns started nine games at cornerback, and he finished with three interceptions and 13 passes defensed. But from that point forward, in his next three seasons with the Steelers, Burns started 23 games and recorded only one more interception and 14 more passes defensed. So, what happened to Burns from the end of his rookie season to the end of 2019 when he was a healthy inactive for the last six games of the regular season?

Maybe it had something to do with his unstable family life, a situation where his mother died of a heart attack in 2015, which left Burns to raise his two teenage brothers because their father was serving a 25-year sentence in a South Carolina prison for cocaine trafficking. One year before Burns entered the NFL as a No. 1 draft pick, he found himself parenting teenagers before he himself was 21 years old.

At a luncheon recognizing Burns as the Steelers' winner of the 2017 Ed Block Courage Award, Coach Mike Tomlin took the podium and said, "This is a (24-year-old) guy who's parenting teenagers. I have teenagers. I'm (47). We share conversations about the parenting of these teenagers. This is a guy who embraces this responsibility."

Maybe the pressures of real life got in the way of Burns' football career, distracted him in ways most of us never will be able to understand. For people on the outside, it's impossible to know for sure.

JACK HAMMERS FROM ASHTABULA, OH: What do you think the quarterback depth chart will be next year?
ANSWER: Barring injury of course: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, and either Paxton Lynch or J.T. Barrett.

ROBERT BOUTWELL FROM RICHMOND, VA: How far along are the Steelers with re-signing Bud Dupree?
ANSWER: Not far along at all. In fact, I doubt that there even have been any substantive talks toward a long-term contract. What I believe will happen is the Steelers will use the franchise tag on Bud Dupree, and then between the tagging and July 15, they will try to work out a long-term contract. And because of the uncertain status of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, even the tagging process is being delayed. But rest assured, Dupree will be under contract to the Steelers in 2020, because he has said he will sign the franchise tender and not pull a Le'Veon Bell.

CHARLIE GOLLMAR FROM KENNESAW, GA: What's your opinion of using the franchise tag on Bud Dupree? We've all seen players who were contract-year heroes. As the Steelers are reportedly thinking about tagging him at what I'm reading would be around $16 million, I'm interested in whether you think that's what happened with Dupree last season, or if you think he's truly turned a corner in his play.
ANSWER: First of all, it doesn't matter what I think, and any answer I would attempt to give you would be a guess. I don't believe it's fair for me to imply that Bud Dupree was a "contract-year hero," because that carries the implication that he somehow was not giving his all in his previous seasons on the team. I believe playing outside linebacker for the Steelers is a complex assignment, both from mental and physical standpoints, and the possibility that he just needed time to grow and develop should not be discounted. But the real issue is this one: if the Steelers do not keep Dupree, who then steps in to play right outside linebacker in 2020? Because I'm absolutely not willing to break up a unit that last year began showing real signs of being dominant.

RICHARD FABER FROM JACKSON, MI: In the March 3 installment of Asked and Answered, you gave a good explanation for the compensation parameters for a restricted free agent who entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie, a la Mike Hilton. Would you provide the same for Bud Dupree?
ANSWER: Bud Dupree can become an unrestricted free agent, and if the Steelers don't re-sign him before March 18, or use a tag on him to protect their rights to him, he can leave for another team and the Steelers would get no compensation. If they use the transition tag on him, that gives them only the right to match any offer he might get from another team. If the Steelers choose the transition tag, and Dupree would present the Steelers with an offer sheet they declined to match, Dupree would be gone and the Steelers would get no compensation. Now, there are two levels of the franchise tag – exclusive and non-exclusive. If the Steelers put the exclusive franchise tag on Dupree, he cannot negotiate with anyone else, and then he either plays for the Steelers in 2020 or he plays for nobody. Under the non-exclusive franchise tag, if Dupree would present an offer sheet from another team to the Steelers, the Steelers have the right to match the offer and keep him, or let him go to the other team and accept two first-round picks from that team as compensation.