Let’s get to it:
JERRY AVERS FROM LANCASTER, PA: Is the running back position going to be an open competition since we added possibly a better one in the draft?
ANSWER: I don’t understand why you have such a low opinion of James Conner, but allow me to refresh your memory with some statistics: In 2018, his second NFL season, Conner rushed for 973 yards and averaged 4.5 per carry doing it; he also caught passes for another 497 yards, which gave him 1,470 yards from scrimmage; and in addition he scored 13 touchdowns. To put this into further perspective, this is a list of the NFL running backs who finished with more yards from scrimmage in 2018 than Conner: Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, and Alvin Kamara. The one negative that can be associated with Conner’s performance in 2018 was his four fumbles, and if that continues to be an issue for him, well, suffice it to say he would discover that Coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t have a bottomless well of patience for running backs who cannot hold onto the football. But as of right now, James Conner is entering his third NFL season, and he has improved consistently over that time. If Benny Snell Jr. can find a way to carve out a complementary role as a rookie, the Steelers backfield – Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Snell, and fullback Rosie Nix – could be a real force during the 2019 season.
TYLER SEAMSTER FROM NEW HOPE, VA: With Joe Haden approaching his final year of his deal, has there been any talks of an extension?
ANSWER: I don’t believe the Steelers have sufficient salary cap space left to do an extension for Joe Haden this summer, but I also believe the team values him for his play on the field and for the calming influence and leadership he contributes to a secondary made up of mostly younger players. I also believe this: Haden came into the league as a top 10 pick and as a result has been paid top dollar throughout his NFL career, and so at this point the most important thing to him is the winning and annually competing for a championship. Not that the Steelers would suddenly offer him nothing but the veteran minimum, nor would Haden give up fair compensation to stay here, but this seems to be the kind of arrangement that both sides are interested in maintaining. Maybe I’m delusional, but I wouldn’t be really worried if there was no extension for Haden this summer, because the Steelers value him and he likes playing here. As long as that remains the case, the other stuff will get worked out.
BRIAN FIORE FROM MARINETTE, WI: My question regards position switches like the one mentioned for Sutton Smith. How does switching Sutton Smith from college defensive end to NFL linebacker fit into what you stated in the May 7 installment of Asked and Answered? Are the positions so similar that there are only subtle nuances to be learned?
ANSWER: In many instances, it’s best to focus more on the job description of the respective positions than the names of the positions when trying to determine if a “position switch” is realistic for a player going from college to the NFL. In the case of Sutton Smith, one of his primary assignments at Northern Illinois was rushing the passer, and he finished his three seasons as a player there with 30 sacks and 58 tackles for loss. After the Steelers picked him, defensive coordinator Keith Butler immediately referred to Smith’s ability as a pass-rusher and how the Steelers will utilize him there as they’re in the process of finding out what else he can do well. What is being discussed with Sutton Smith, in my mind, is less of a position switch and more of a defining of a role.
VAILLARD ULISEE FROM MEXICO CITY, MEXICO: When the team declines the fifth-year option on a player, as happened with Artie Burns, is a further drop in performance expected during the player’s last year with team? And is the decision not to extend the contract final?
ANSWER: The act of declining the fifth-year option happens when the team perceives the player’s performance through his first four seasons in the NFL as not reflective of the amount of money that player would be guaranteed by exercising the fifth-year option. As an example, Bud Dupree’s fifth-year option will pay him $9.232 million in 2019, and that amount now is guaranteed. The Steelers still are trying to turn Burns around, find some way to make him the kind of player they envisioned when they made him a No. 1 pick. If that doesn’t happen, Burns can become an unrestricted free agent in March 2020. If Burns has a turnaround season in 2019, the Steelers would be able to try to negotiate something long-term with him after the season ends.
ELBERT BEATTY FROM CLEAR BROOK, VA: I wanted to schedule some days off from work to come to training camp, but I want to be there when they’re in pads and hitting. Any idea?
ANSWER: I’m going to take a shot at guessing for you, but I do so with a warning that I’m guessing. Teams are permitted to open their training camps 15 days before their preseason openers, and since the Steelers preseason opener is on Friday, Aug. 9, my prediction would be that players will report to Saint Vincent College on Thursday, Aug. 25. Then the CBA also mandates two acclimation days, which call for padless practices. If that scenario holds true, the first day in pads for the Steelers this summer would be Sunday, July 28. Based on that, my suggestion would be for you to look at dates starting with Wednesday, July 31 and going through Sunday, Aug. 4, with the understanding that Friday, Aug. 2 could be Friday Night Lights, which is the annual night practice at Latrobe Stadium. Or, you could play it safe and wait for the training camp schedule to be released, which will be in early July, on Steelers.com.
MIKE FEDERICO FROM MEMPHIS, TN: Steelers President Art Rooney II stated that the 2018 Steelers lacked even an average kicking game. With that being the case, how and when do you think the team will address that weakness?
ANSWER: Your assumption seems to be that the only way to address that issue is by changing the personnel, which isn’t the way I see the Steelers perceiving the issue. In 2017, Chris Boswell converted 92.1 percent of his field goals, including 4-for-4 from 50-plus yards out, on the way to scoring 142 points and winning several games for the team with clutch kicks in the final seconds. So, you’re just cutting him now? I see the more prescient course of action being to have him compete through training camp and the preseason and see if he gets his stroke back. If not, then a change might be necessary, and based on what Matt McCrane did in the regular season finale against the Bengals, I believe the Steelers think he can provide that competition and then be a representative replacement should Boswell falter during the competition.
JOSIAH ROMAN FROM CHICAGO, IL: What are the odds that the Steelers go out and trade for a big-name talent to fill a need at positions like safety and tight end?
ANSWER: First of all, it’s your assessment that the Steelers have needs to fill at safety and tight end, because as the draft ended Coach Mike Tomlin said this when asked about the numbers at safety: “We're comfortable with the number of people that we have working. We're also comfortable with the versatility of some of the corners. You've seen Cam Sutton play some safety. You've seen Mike Hilton play safety on our football team in the past. I'm sure there are others who are capable as well. So, we're comfortable, not only with our numbers, but with the flexibility of others who may not be ‘safeties.’” So, what are the odds the Steelers make a trade for a safety or a tight end? The odds are better that I am elected Pope.
JOE WERNER FROM WEST HENRIETTA, NY: Since the start of the Chuck Noll era, who would be the highest-drafted rookie to fail to make the team after training camp?
ANSWER: There are two players, both second-round draft picks, who failed to make the roster coming out of their rookie training camps since Chuck Noll was hired in 1969. The first was a defensive back from Mississippi State named Ken Phares, who was a No. 2 pick, the 50th overall, in 1973; and Grambling State defensive end Bob Barber, who was a No. 2 pick, the 51st overall, in 1975. Of course, rookies who were injured and landed on injured reserve don’t count.