General Manager Kevin Colbert took the podium at the Convention Center here earlier today to kick off the 2018 version of the NFL Scouting Combine, and he was uncharacteristically definitive. The whole draft process – evaluating the eligible players and then ranking them and then trying to pick the ones you want before another team does – is built for secrecy and subterfuge, and Colbert plays his cards as close to the vest as anyone.
But sometimes, things just need to be said out loud.
“Ryan Shazier won’t play in 2018,” said Colbert in response to a question. “He knows that, and we know that. We’re going to continue to support him in his recovery. We know that going into this season he won’t play, and he’ll end up on a different type of list once we get a determination from the league as to where he’ll end up. We know that’s a challenge, because we’ll be at 89 players, but fortunately for Ryan he’s covered in that manner, that he will be part of our team officially and also unofficially, because he’s still with us day-to-day as he rehabs. He involves himself with the team and team issues so that he can be a formidable member in 2018.”
Shazier sustained a severe spinal cord injury early in the Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 4, and he subsequently had spinal stabilization surgery. While continuing to make strides that have been described as remarkable, it has become apparent that he won’t be able to play football within the next several months. The Steelers previously had picked up the fifth-year option on the contract Shazier signed as a rookie, and so he will be paid that salary, which falls in the neighborhood of $8.7 million for 2018. And in the meantime, he is working diligently on his rehabilitation while also finding ways to stay involved with the team and the sport he loves.
“Ryan works extremely hard at his rehab,” said Colbert. “So from a physical standpoint he’s continuing to work to overcome this injury, but what we’ve enabled him to do is also be involved with the football part of it because we think it is important for him to still have that in front of him. He’ll come into (the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex), and he’s here on a daily basis. He does some physical workouts in the morning. He either sits in with the coaches, or he’ll sit in with (the scouts). He’s learning some personnel stuff just to keep him involved with us, and then he goes and does his rehab at a rehab facility. But the great thing about it is Ryan does as much for us as we do for him, because the way he works at this and the attitude that he has shown and his rehabilitation, it’s really uplifting. Never once has he said, ‘Why me?’ And I know that’s an uplifting gesture for us and for those who deal with him because he shows us that everyone has problems, but he’s going to work to overcome his as we should work to overcome ours.”
BRYANT ISN’T, AND HASN’T BEEN, TRADE BAIT
One of the recent offseason issues to be burning up cyberspace has been whether the Steelers have been trying to trade Martavis Bryant. After being suspended for the entire 2016 season, Bryant returned to football and gradually worked his way back toward becoming the player he had been before. Under contract to the Steelers for the 2018 season and then potentially able to become a free agent come March 2019, Bryant had been the subject of trade speculation during the 2017 season, and then that speculation ratcheted up in the past few days.
“Martavis was never offered in a trade,” said Colbert. “Teams have inquired about his availability because of media reports, and we’ve quickly dismissed that and said he’s not available. Martavis did a great job of getting back on the field last year. Not many guys have come back from a one-year suspension. He was able to do that, and he did a lot of good things for us last year. And we’re looking forward to him doing it for us in 2018 and continuing to build on his own career as well.”
It took Bryant a while to get himself acclimated to football and the Steelers after he was reinstated following his year-long suspension, and then over the final six weeks of the regular season he caught 27 passes for 297 yards and two of the three touchdowns he scored on the season. In the playoff game vs. the Jaguars, he caught two passes for 78 yards, including one for a 36-yard touchdown.
NEGOTIATIONS ON LE’VEON’S LONG-TERM CONTRACT
The most pressing issue Colbert addressed was the status of a long-term contract for Bell, and it’s the most pressing because of some significant dates on the NFL calendar. March 6 is the final day for teams to utilize the franchise or transition tags, and March 14 is when free agency begins.
“We have (had conversations with Bell’s agent), and we’re going to continue to have negotiations trying to figure out a common ground for a long-term deal,” said Colbert, “and I think that’s not only our goal but their goal as well.”
Bell has balked publicly at being tagged for a second straight year, even to the point of threatening to retire if the Steelers use it again, but Colbert wouldn’t eliminate the possibility of the Steelers using it again.
“We never like talking about the tag, because that’s nobody’s goal,” said Colbert. “That’s not their goal, and that’s not our goal. But we’ll never say the tag is not (in play), because that’s a collectively-bargained item that if need be it’ll be put into use. But that’s nobody’s goal in this process.”
Colbert did say the Steelers won’t need to wait until the NFL determines 2018’s salary cap total per team in order to get a deal done with Bell, but he declined to characterize the current status of the negotiations.
“I can say this: I’m optimistic that we can find common ground,” said Colbert. “Those things are never final until they’re final. Until we can reach an agreement, we don’t have an agreement.”