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Asked and Answered

Asked and Answered: May 21

Let's get to it:

TY PAUL FROM DAYTON, OH: We got a little more insight this year into how teams conduct the draft, but I'm still curious about signing undrafted rookies. Do teams talk to players they expect may be available after the draft ahead of time, or do phones blow up the moment Mr. Irrelevant is announced? On a related note, has Donnie Shell ever talked about why he chose Pittsburgh?
ANSWER: Once a draft gets into the mid-to-late sixth round, teams might begin contacting agents of players yet to be drafted and inquire about possible interest if the guy doesn't end up getting picked. There are rules about what can and cannot be discussed/negotiated before the end of the draft, and whether any of those rules are bent is beyond me. Because those communications are informational, nothing said is binding, but teams and agents develop a mutual respect where honoring their word is good for future business. But minds do change, both ways. Anyway, once the draft is over team representatives charged with signing these undrafted rookies hit the ground running, and it's every man/team for himself/itself. And Donnie Shell signed with the Steelers after the 1974 draft because he and his head coach, Willie Jeffries, believed he would get a fair chance to make the team. And Shell and Jeffries believed he'd get a fair chance with the Steelers because they trusted Bill Nunn.

JOSHUA OSTEN FROM MECHANICSBURG, PA: Does Mason Rudolph still have that potential to be the next guy after Ben Roethlisberger retires? Seemed good at his best, but the injuries and media concerns probably got in his head.
ANSWER: Or maybe being concussed by a helmet-to-helmet hit from Earl Thomas, then being battered by Myles Garrett, and then having his shoulder driven to the ground by the Jets on a play that would've been unnecessary roughness if that had happened to Tom Brady, plus the inexperience that comes along with seeing his first playing time in an NFL regular season, caused some of his inconsistency. I can guarantee you that nobody who has an opinion that matters is thinking at all right now about whether Mason Rudolph have what it will take to be a starting quarterback in the NFL a few years down the road. Right now the focus is on Rudolph improving his fundamentals, and his understanding of the position and opposing defenses so that he can be the best backup to Roethlisberger he can be. That other stuff is too far into the future to worry about now, and I believe Rudolph is savvy enough to understand that.

DAVID LUCE FROM HENDERSON, KY: I can understand the Steelers saying that Mason Rudolph is the backup at this time, but what do you think Paxton Lynch's chances are of taking that position away? After a couple of years learning the position in the NFL, I think he should really add some real competition for the backup position.
ANSWER: Just as I described how it's most important for Mason Rudolph to keep his eye on his immediate future, the same goes for Paxton Lynch. And Lynch's job this offseason is do enough to become the No. 3 quarterback on the Steelers' depth chart because to this point he has not been capable of holding onto an NFL job. Just because Lynch was a first-round pick doesn't mean he's a lock for a roster spot, and if he's looking at taking Rudolph's job instead of working on his craft to be able to beat out Devlin Hodges and J.T. Barrett then he'll be looking to hook on with his fourth NFL team at the end of the summer.

DAVID ZIPPARO FROM ROCHELLE, IL: Whatever happened to L.J. Fort, who was quick and great on special teams. Is he still in the league?
ANSWER: On March 14, 2019, L.J. Fort left the Steelers for a three-year, $5.5 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he was cut at the end of his first training camp with that team. Fort then signed with the Ravens on Sept. 30, 2019 and finished the season there. Fort played in 12 games for the Ravens and started eight as an inside linebacker, and he finished with two sacks and one pass defensed. His future as a starter on the Ravens defense undoubtedly will be impacted by the team's decision to use its No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen.

BURTON HARRIS FROM GREENSBURG, PA: With the NFL not knowing whether there will be a season or not , with offseason practices being shortened and/or eliminated, and with the status of preseason games up in the air, how will the Steelers know enough about the players to tell who to keep and who to cut?
ANSWER: That's a question with no answers at this time, but since it's not only a Steelers problem but a problem for every team in the NFL, it's fair.

CAL SABO FROM AKRON, OH: When will the rookies come to Pittsburgh?
ANSWER: At this point, nobody knows.

JOEL HIGGINS FROM VANCOUVER, WA: I loved the way Marcus Allen played in college and I believe he can be a contributor at the NFL level. I was wondering if you think Marcus has a chance to fill Mark Barron's role as a hybrid linebacker on this year's squad? If not Marcus, who would you envision in that role?
ANSWER: In a previous answer about Paxton Lynch, I made the point that his job at this point is to find a way to earn a roster spot and the most realistic path to that goal is by winning the No. 3 quarterback job. The same approach applies to Marcus Allen. During his two seasons with the team, Allen was inactive for all but two games as a rookie in 2018; and in 2019 he was waived at the end of the preseason, was signed to the practice squad, and then added to the active roster for the final two games of the regular season. This is not the resume of a player who should be thinking about anything except finding a way to earn a roster spot, which is what I'm certain is Allen's top priority. As for the spot alongside Devin Bush, I don't believe even the Steelers envision anyone in that role right now. It's too early, and envisioning someone at this stage only could lead to overlooking a better candidate because you're envisioning instead of letting the competition play out on the practice field.

CHIP BENNETT FROM TAMPA, FL: Is there a cap on salary for the practice squad? I know there is a minimum salary, but I don't know what that number is. Also, can a team pay anything they want to a player on a practice squad? I can see teams really liking a developmental quarterback and paying him more to make it less likely someone poaches him.
ANSWER: The minimum salary for a practice squad player in 2020 is $8,400 per week, and while teams can pay more than that, all salaries for players on the active roster, injured reserve, physically unable to perform, and the practice squad must fit under the salary cap, which is $198.2 million per team in 2020. One thing to remember is that players on the practice squad weren't good enough to make the 53-man roster, and if a team "really likes" a player it would be smart to keep that individual on the 53-man roster. Another factor to consider is that the weekly pay for a rookie earning the minimum in the NFL in 2020 will be $35,882, which is significantly more than any team would be willing to pay for a guy who couldn't make the active roster. Also, only the players on the active roster are earning time toward their pensions and free agency. Then on top of all that, a team signing a player off another team's practice squad is required to keep that player on its active roster for at least three weeks. So if you're a guy on a practice squad and another team wants to sign you to its active roster, you're either going or you're a fool.

SCOTT RECTOR FROM MARTINS FERRY, OH: Do you know if they plan on doing the social distancing once the season starts?
ANSWER: No, and no one else knows either.

RONALD CONNELL FROM BAKERSFIELD, CA: In the May 19 edition of Asked and Answered, while talking about Jamie Newman, the Wake Forest quarterback who will be a graduate transfer at Georgia in 2020, you pointed out that he averaged less than 8 yards per attempt in his only season as a college starter and therefore didn't show an ability to push the ball down the field. In 2019, Mason Rudolph's yards per pass attempt was 7.9, which ranked 30th among qualifying NFL quarterbacks.
ANSWER: Your original submission was longer than this, and just like the edited version that appears above, it was an opinion that did not include a question. Typically, those go right in the trash, but I chose to respond to this anyway. Jamie Newman's sub-8 yards per pass attempt was recorded at Wake Forest against a schedule that included such defensive powerhouses as Elon, Rice, North Carolina, Louisville, Boston College, Syracuse, Duke, etc. Comparing statistics against that group with statistics compiled against NFL secondaries is ridiculous, and just to make a point, while the Big 12 Conference contains no defensive powerhouses either, at least Mason Rudolph's yards per pass attempt in his final season at Oklahoma State was 10.0. Also, the question had to do with whether the Steelers should consider Newman with their first-round pick in 2021, and Rudolph was a third-round pick in 2018.

MARK CZO FROM METUCHEN, NJ: Please help me understand why the duo of Mason Rudolph to James Washington never took off last year after an incredible run in college together?
ANSWER: Because there just aren't enough Big-12 defensive backs starting in NFL secondaries.