Kickoff and Punt Returns
By Harv Aronson
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By Harv Aronson
As I do every year, I have gone through the entire NFL schedule, week-by-week and picked winners of every game. I then totaled up the wins and losses and picked my playoff winners then the eventual Super Bowl champion.
If there are any non-Steelers fans reading this, I'm sure you are saying, "yea, he's a Pittsburgh fan so of course he has the Steelers winning it all." Truth is, that's just how I see it panning out. The Steelers were a razor's edge away from advancing to the AFC title game last year and may have been better than the Patriots had they found a way to beat Jacksonville. But that's not how it played out so another season is upon us and what follows is my early predictions for the campaign.
By Harv Aronson
The 2018 NFL draft is in the record books and the Pittsburgh Steelers have seven new faces selected from last Thursday through Saturday as well as 13 young men who failed to be drafted in the process.
This year’s overall number one pick is Terrell Edmunds, a 6’2” 220 pound safety from Virginia Tech. In what seems to be a common trend around the NFL now, Edmunds like many others, came out of college a year early as he was a junior draft choice. Edmunds and his brother also made history as the only two brothers picked in the first round of an NFL draft. With the 16th pick overall, Terrell’s brother Tremaine (born May 2, 1998) was chosen by the Buffalo Bills as he like his brother played at Virginia Tech but Terrell (January 20, 1997) is a safety where Tremaine is an inside linebacker. The Steelers version of Edmunds is a bit less that one year older than the Bills version.
With Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden released earlier this year, it was obvious that the Steelers despite signing veteran Morgan Burnett and Nat Berhe would be focusing on the safety position. So with seven picks overall in the draft, Pittsburgh finished on Saturday by selecting two. Including the 13 undrafted free agents signed, it was an even split on how the Steelers directed their attention with 10 new offensive players and 10 defensive.
Breaking down those 20 players, four offensive linemen were chosen or signed and 10 defensive lineman on the other side. With Terrell Edmunds the Steelers get a safety that is a pretty good ball hawk ad has good size for the position. Pittsburgh’s Achilles heal last season was getting picked apart by opposing quarterbacks although they were weak on the run as well. Edmunds will have a difficult time getting past Burnett or Sean Davis into a starting role, but he will certainly be eased into more playing time and should see time on special teams for sure.
Edmunds had some injury concerns last season and was limited to just 10 games but he still had two interceptions, four passes defended, and finished with 61 tackles, 2 ½ for a loss and earned 1 ½ sacks. The year before when he was healthy, he has four interceptions and 101 tackles.
In the second round, the Steelers went after a possible Martavis Bryant replacement and found James Washington available, a 6’0” 205 pound receiver. Washington has very good separation skills and solid hands. He was a primary weapon for the man the Steelers would draft in the next round. Unlike Edmunds, Washington did play all four years at college and finished with 4,472 yards receiving. Last year was his best year of the four that saw him grab 74 passes for 1,548 yards and an excellent 20.9 yards per reception number. Washington also scored 13 times.
He resembles JuJu Smith-Schuster a bit when he lines up in the slot. For sure, he should make this team and will probably keep Eli Rogers from being resigned if Rogers does not sign elsewhere. For the record, Washington won the 2017 Biletnikoff Award which is awarded each year to the nation’s most outstanding receiver as judged by the Tallahassee Quarterback Club Foundation who established the honor in 1994 and has since been the sponsor.
In the third round did the Pittsburgh Steelers find the eventual replacement for Ben Roethlisberger? By drafting Mason Rudolph, it means James Washington will be a teammate again of Rudolph’s as the duo were a force at Oklahoma State the last four years. Rudolph has excellent size at 6’5”, 230 but unlike Landry Jones, he seems to be a bit more composed in the pocket and absolutely has the strongest arm of the three backups on the roster. Rudolph’s selection will almost definitely result in Joshua Dobbs being assigned to the practice squad or cut.
All Rudolph did in 2017 was throw for 37 touchdowns with only nine interceptions and had an amazing rating of 170.6. That’s unheard of in the NFL and his completion percentage of 65.0 is more than solid. His final yardage total was 4,904. While Landry Jones has managed games well in relief, he is in no way the replacement for Big Ben when he decides to call it a day. Dobbs has no chance to move past Rudolph on the depth chart so Steelers Nation should be excited about the potential of this young man. Watch the footage of him and marvel at his arm strength.
Following the selection of a quarterback, Pittsburgh has a second pick in the third round so the Steelers went after an offensive lineman and found one in 6’6” 330 pound Chukwuma Okorafor. Okorafor will be a project and hard pressed to make the final roster but not just the Steelers but all NFL teams try to bring as much depth to training camp as they can for competition purposes as well as possibly finding prospects that can play when an injury occurs or even perform better than an incumbent.
While the Steelers used their first pick in the draft to draft at the safety position, after watching film of all seven picks, I was more impressed with the play of Penn State’s Marcus Allen than the top choice Terrell Edmunds. A few pounds lighter than the top choice but the same height (205 pounds), Allen is a banger. Think Troy Polamalu. He is a solid tackler, a ball hawk himself, and he has excellent closing speed. In my guestimation, he will move past Edmunds on the depth chart if his film work pans out onto the fields of the NFL.
Allen’s body of work in four years at Penn State was impressive. 17 tackles for a loss, three sacks, 10 passes defended, two fumbles recoveries and five forced fumbles, and 320 tackles with his high coming two seasons ago when he was in on 110 tackles. Allen also made 181 solo tackles in four years as a Nittany Lion.
With Le’Veon Bell playing head games again this year as the Franchise Tagged player for the second consecutive season along with not knowing how James Conner will recover from injury, the Steelers used a second fifth round pick to select North Carolina State’s Jaylen Samuels. Listed as a tight end at N.C. State, Samuels can’t play that position in the NFL at only 5’11.” So running back is where the Steelers will try to fit him in. During his four years in college Samuels did carry the ball 182 times and had an impressive per carry average of 7.7. On the receiving side, he caught 75 passes in 2017 for 593 yards while scoring four times.
Samuels does have a nose for the end zone and his is sort of a Kordell Stewart a.k.a. “slash.” Jaylen Samuels has lined up in college at tight end, running back, and as a slot receiver. Aside from Bell and Conner, Stevan Ridley may be the only other threat to Samuels not making the squad. One thing going in the rookie’s favor is that he can return kicks too having been on the receiving side of nine kickoffs in 2017 averaging 23.7 yards per return.
The final pick in the Steelers draft was on defense and could be a sleeper. New Defensive Line Coach Karl Dunbar spent the last two years as the Defensive Line Coach at Alabama, reigning national champions. That was where Pittsburgh found defensive end Joshua Frazier who will compete at nose tackle for the Steelers and try to unseat Daniel McCullers at that spot. Frazier is big at 6’3” and 321, and if he can help the Steelers stuff the run more effectively than they have the last few seasons, the starting position is his for the taking.
So as they do every year, once the draft concludes, almost always the very next day, the Steelers add a handful of players that failed to get drafted to the roster as rookie undrafted free agents. There have been many cases of players in this position that not only made it onto an NFL roster but also had dynamic careers. One that comes to mind in Pittsburgh is Donnie Shell and James Harrison. So don’t think for a minute that the next 13 players may not make the team. It can and has happened.
Parker Cothren, defensive tackle/Penn State.
An honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2017, Cothren was also Penn State’s recipient of their Reid-Robinson award given to the best defensive lineman. He will try to make the Steelers at a position where they are already very deep. He has the size carrying 302 pounds on his 6’4” frame.
Jarvion Franklin, running back/Western Michigan. Another big back in the mix as Franklin comes to Pittsburgh standing six feet even with 225 pounds to run at opponents. Franklin played in all four of his years at Western Michigan and went over 1,000 yards in all but one season. His best mark actually came in his freshman season when he finished with 1,551 yards on the ground and added 163 through the air. His college career per carry mark of 5.2 is a good one and he scored 52 times from 2014-2017. He may open some eyes this summer at Latrobe and don’t be surprised if he make the team.
The Steelers obviously want to be sure their defensive line is a good one so they are bringing in the bodies for competition. In comes undrafted Greg Gilmore from LSU at 308 pounds. He saved his best play for his senior season last year when he stopped 10 opposing players for a loss of yards, had 7 ½ sacks and made 53 tackles. A sleeper?
With the opportunity to call Heinz Field his home field for the last three seasons, Quadree Henderson signed with the Steelers fresh off his career with the University of Pittsburgh. Henderson however is very small standing just 5’8” and 10 pounds under 200. His numbers were not great at Pitt so this is more of a tryout for the young receiver than an opportunity to be seriously looked at this summer.
The Steelers did not draft a cornerback this year so they must be confident in the group they have led by Artie Burns and Joe Haden among others. But just in case, along comes Trey Johnson, a corner from Villanova but on the small side (5’11” 184). The one thing Johnson has going for him is his speed and perhaps that is what caught Mike Tomlin’s eye. Johnson has been timed at 4.32 in the 40.
The Steelers really don’t need help at tight end but they opted to add Pharoah McKever anyway from N.C. State. McKever is way too small for the prototypical tight end position in the NFL (just 227 pounds on a 6’6” frame). He also doesn’t have the offensive numbers to make him any type of threat for the offensive roster.
The next to additions are at the offensive line in Patrick Morris and Ikenna Nwokeji from TCU and little Elon University respectively. The size of the school doesn’t always matter and it’s more about the size and ability of the man. Morris is a 300 pounder whereas Nwokeju goes a bit lighter at 282. However, the Elon product was a converted defensive lineman and in his first season at the position was named his team’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman. He was Third-team All-CAA Football last year and also was named 2015’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player for Elon.
Ryan Shazier will not play this season so the Steelers may be looking for some depth. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi from Toledo signed a rookie contract and will get a chance. He had a breakout year last season with 66 total tackles and an incredible 20 for a loss to go with 8 ½ sacks. He also forced three fumbles and had a fumble recovery as well as one pass defensed. Those numbers obviously caught the attention of Steelers scouts despite playing in the MAC.
Another lineman was added in Chris Schleuger, a guard from the University of Alabama/Birmingham and an additional corner in Jamar Summers from UConn. The last two players signed were Matthew Thomas, linebacker from Florida State but small at 227 pounds and Kendal Vickers, yet another defensive end from Tennessee.
They say it takes several years before knowing the talent of a draft class but from the surface, I’d say this was a pretty solid draft for Pittsburgh where they may have found the next franchise QB, another JuJu Smith-Schuster, and a safety in the fifth round that plays “Steelers-like” football. Coming off a division title and a divisional playoff loss, the Steelers with these additions and some young players from 2017 now with a season under their belt, could be a much improved team in 2018.
By Harv Aronson
The NFL officially released the 2018 schedule on April 19 and for the Pittsburgh Steelers, we already knew the opponents, but now we have the dates.
The season begins with the annual four meaningless preseason scheduled games and the Steelers first taste will be that of the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles in Philadelphia on August 9. A second road trip to Green Bay comes next with the all important preseason game #3 being played on August 25 at Heinz Field with the Tennessee Titans coming to the ‘Burgh. Before the real season begins, the game that seems to have taken place like forever in the preseason happens again in Pittsburgh with a faceoff against the Carolina Panthers.
Without knowing this team will look come opening day on September 9, what follows is my quick thoughts about the 16 games the Pittsburgh Steelers will play this season.
In the coming weeks I will not only make my league wide predictions but also have for your my predictions for all 16 regular season Steelers games.
2018 National Football