Let’s get to it:
TOM RENWICK FROM MONROE, LA: You have posted many times over the years that you do not/would not change a player from one position to play another. During the draft they took two players who were involved with position switches – Justin Layne from wide receiver to cornerback, and Zach Gentry from quarterback to tight end. Were you surprised at these picks due to their position changes and the players’ lack of experience at the drafted positions?
ANSWER: First, allow me to clarify my stance on position switches. I am opposed to doing what so many fans have suggested so regularly over the past several years, such as moving Ryan Shazier from inside linebacker to safety because of his listed weight; or Jesse James from tight end to safety, because of his height and background catching the football; or Bud Dupree from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, because of an injury; or T.J. Watt from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, for a variety of reasons. I believe it would be foolish to draft a player to play one position and then switch him to another position after he has reached the professional level, because asking someone to learn a completely different position at the highest level of the sport isn’t giving the guy his best chance to succeed, and if that guy happens to be a high draft choice, it makes even less sense.
There is another category of player, which would include Antwaan Randle El, Al Villanueva, and Rosie Nix, where a position switch is the guy’s only chance at an NFL career. And then the third category – to which Justin Layne and Zach Gentry belong – where a player made the switch early in his college career and has had a chance to establish himself at his new position before entering the NFL.
Yes, Justin Layne played wide receiver and switched to cornerback, but he only played in one college game at wide receiver before switching to cornerback, and that happened during his freshman season. By the end of his freshman season, Layne had started five of the last seven games, all at cornerback. In his next two college seasons, Layne was primarily a cornerback, and he finished at Michigan State with 26 starts, all at cornerback, and of the 34 games in which he appeared, 33 of those were as a cornerback.
Zach Gentry arrived at Michigan as a quarterback, but he didn’t see the field as a freshman in 2015, and by the time he did get onto the field the following season he already had made the switch to tight end. He saw action in seven games as a tight end in 2016; in 2017 he played in all 13 games, with 11 starts, all at tight end; and he was a full-time starter in 2018 at tight end.
These are examples of the kinds of position switches that can work, because the move is made early enough to give the player a realistic chance to adapt before trying to make a living as a professional.
JOHN DAVID ROY FROM HOOKSTOWN, PA: Was D.K. Metcalf on the Steelers’ draft board? Would they have taken him with the 66th overall pick if he were available?
ANSWER: D.K. Metcalf was picked by Seattle in the second round, with the 64th overall selection, which means he was gone by the time the Steelers picked Diontae Johnson.
ROBERT BRACY FROM FRENCH CAMP, CA: I was shocked the Steelers took Diontae Johnson with Hakeem Butler still available. Butler is 6-foot-6 and ran a sub-4.4 in the 40-yard dash compared to Johnson being 5-10 and running a 4.53 in the 40. A lot of other teams passed on Butler as well.
ANSWER: You are correct. A lot of other NFL teams passed on Hakeen Butler, because he ended up being a fourth-round pick, the 103rd overall selection by the Arizona Cardinals. Butler ended up being the 14th receiver drafted, which indicates that it’s more than just height and timed speed in the 40-yard dash that excites NFL teams.
CHARLES GOLLMAR FROM KENNESAW, GA: I'm reading articles about how D.K. Metcalf and other rookies are dazzling their new teams at minicamp, but the Steelers haven't even started theirs yet. Is there a league-mandated window when minicamps have to occur, and in your opinion, is there any benefit to teams that hold them earlier or later?
ANSWER: Yes, the CBA allows for teams with returning coaching staffs to hold one rookie minicamp either on the weekend after the draft, or the second weekend after the draft. As for the timing of rookie minicamp, it’s all about a particular team’s preference. I can tell you that Coach Mike Tomlin chooses the second weekend after the draft, because that allows him to keep the rookies in town straight through the end of the three-day veteran minicamp, which concludes the offseason program in mid-June. Tomlin believes there is a better chance for the players to retain what’s being taught if there are no breaks in the teaching.
ISRAEL PICKHOLTZ FROM JERUSALEM, ISRAEL: I just read that when the Steelers traded Frank Lewis to Buffalo for tight end Paul Seymour, he failed the physical and was sent back. So what did the Steelers actually get for Lewis?
ANSWER: The trade you reference happened in 1978, and the Steelers sent wide receiver Frank Lewis, a former No. 1 pick, to Buffalo for blocking tight end Paul Seymour. When Seymour arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers learned he had recently had surgery on the arches on his feet. Seymour was returned to the Bills, who also were permitted by the league to keep Lewis. The Steelers ended up with nothing in the “trade.”
CHRIS MILLER FROM LOS ANGELES, CA: On draft day, as the Steelers were searching for a first-round trade partner, before Denver agreed to trade pick No. 10, what if the Raiders agreed to trade pick No. 4 to the Steelers instead? What would the Steelers have done with suddenly having the option of drafting inside linebacker Devin White or inside linebacker Devin Bush? Did the Steelers not scout White as hard as Bush because they figured at pick No. 20, White would be long gone?
ANSWER: The Steelers ended up with the inside linebacker they wanted, with the top inside linebacker on their board, and the only way they were able to come to the conclusion that Devin Bush was the inside linebacker they wanted was by scouting and evaluating all of the players at the position thoroughly.
SETH FIRESTONE FROM ASHBURN, VA: The trade of Marcus Gilbert to the Cardinals brought an interesting trend to my attention. Ever since Bryant McFadden went to the Cardinals, I've noticed a lot of other Steelers players going there. William Gay, LaMarr Woodley, Jonathan Dwyer, Larry Foote. Those are the first few who come to mind. Is there a specific reason why this happens?
ANSWER: It’s really not that complicated. In the case of some of those players, it likely had to do with Ken Whisenhunt and then Bruce Arians being the Arizona coach, and new coaches often feel more comfortable adding players to their locker room who are least somewhat familiar to them. In the case of Marcus Gilbert, I can tell you that in 2018 the Cardinals were ranked 27th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass attempt. Gilbert is a quality right tackle, and a very good pass blocker.
CREE ICKES FROM AVENEL, NJ: How do the Steelers approach the signings of their draft picks? I know part of it is based on the position in the draft where they are picked, but do they base it off quality of college play or what they expect them to do over the course of their rookie contract?
ANSWER: NFL rookies are signed based on a slotting system, where the only factor that matters is where they were drafted.
RICHARD FABER FROM JACKSON, MI: Can you explain why the Steelers passed on Mack Wilson in the fifth round? I read a lot of good comments about him prior to the draft.
ANSWER: Why? Because the Steelers traded up in the first round and selected Devin Bush, a guy they believe was the best inside linebacker prospect in the draft. By the time the draft had gotten to the fifth round, the Steelers had moved onto other positions.
ZACH RAVES FROM SCOTTSDALE, AZ: How uncommon is it for a drafted rookie to not receive a contract after training camp? What is the earliest draft pick to whom the Steelers have not offered a contract?
ANSWER: The entire scenario you are proposing is impossible. Players are not permitted to attend training camp without a signed contract. Therefore, if a player attends training camp, he already has been offered, and has signed, a contract.
SCOTT PROFITT FROM MEDINA OH: What is our salary cap situation? Can we make enough room to sign any more free agents? Being very thin at tight end and safety depth, there are a couple players who would definitely help.
ANSWER: In terms of free agency, I believe the Steelers are finished shopping in that area, unless they would find themselves in a desperate situation because of a rash of injuries at a particular position, or if someone special would suddenly come onto the market because of a dumb mistake by another team, as was the case with the Browns cutting Joe Haden in August 2017.