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Steelers Offseason Notes, Anecdotes

SteelCityInsider's Jim Wexell shares insight on Justin Gilbert, Senquez Golson, Markus Wheaton, the draft and much more.

Justin Gilbert certainly looked the part. From the first few steps of his first ladder drill in Pittsburgh, anyone could tell the guy was trained to be an athlete.

And then he ran with Antonio Brown down the field, and had him covered. But didn't go up to compete for the ball. 

On more than one occasion.

Gilbert simply turns and jogs confidently back as if to say, "Oh, I'll get that in the game."

If you're Rod Woodson, you get away with that in practice. But I don't remember Woodson every playing it THAT cool.

The problem, of course, is that Gilbert never got much of a chance to show in a game that he actually would compete for the ball.

Now take this for what it is: a sportswriter standing on the sideline judging a look-team player without knowing what his coaches are asking of him. 

But take THIS for what it is: The Pittsburgh Steelers cut Gilbert last week.

Gilbert's a high-pedigreed athlete who looks the part, acts the part and for all I can tell can do the part -- if he wants to. And that was some of the criticism heaped on him from former Cleveland teammate Joe Thomas, that Gilbert really doesn't love the game. 

Others piled on Gilbert, and it seemed easy to do, because here was a guy perceived to have thrown it all away after getting paid.

But when I inquired as to the Steelers' specific reason for cutting Gilbert this past week, I was told it was all about saving money. Gilbert has an impending roster bonus due and as someone who played in 12 games as a deep reserve, made only one tackle and didn't get a hand on a forward pass, they felt it was too much to pay. But I was also told that the Steelers still like him and wouldn't mind bringing him back at a lower salary. 

So there goes my "Joe Cool" theory, even if he does cause me raise an eyebrow or two in practice. But we'll see if Thomas' "doesn't love the game" theory comes to pass if Gilbert decides he'd rather count his millions without the game or continue to battle the Steelers' depth chart at a workingman's wage.


My colleague and friend Gerry Dulac created a dust-up on our message boards this past week by proclaiming that the Steelers will not be drafting a cornerback in this draft.

Everyone has an opinion, but Gerry has great sources, so his following statement in a recent online chat was a bit unsettling to a legion of fans whose last memories of the 2016 season are of a Steelers secondary being set on fire by Tom Brady:

"They are not addressing CB in the draft."

Gerry later stated what I've heard, that the team has confidence in Senquez Golson

Now, fans may look at that as a crazier notion than playing a soft zone against Brady, but I'm also not buying that two separate injuries constitute the tag "injury prone."

Last year at this time, GM Kevin Colbert was viewing Golson as an additional second-round draft choice, which Golson had been in 2015 prior to injuring his shoulder in the spring. It cost Golson his rookie season. So it was understandable that when Colbert drafted Artie Burns first in 2016, Colbert could concentrate on the safety position next because he already had that "second-round draft choice" for the slot corner.

So why should this season -- after a Golson foot injury cost him his second season -- be any different?

The Steelers should still consider Golson as that R2 slot cornerback and therefore someone to compete with Will Gay at that position. If Golson had endured the same injury a second time, then I might be more concerned, but the guy who thought he would return last October has proven to the team that his foot will be fine.

As for Gay, he turned 32 this past New Years Day and looked every bit that age against the Patriots. A smart, tough zone slot player, Gay was scorched whenever asked to play man coverage that day. 

Was he hurt? Only the staff knows. 

Can he still help them as a reserve slot corner or even a backup safety in the Will Allen mode? Probably. And his leadership in the locker room is appreciated.

The Steelers also re-acquired 6-2, 200-pound cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz, whom they had lost in a roster shuffle on Dec. 3. Shabazz was a first-year player they liked enough to re-acquire when the Houston Texans made a similar roster shuffle three weeks later. The Steelers then promoted Shabazz to the active roster for a third time last season, so obviously they like him enough.

With starters Burns and Ross Cockrell, that gives the Steelers five cornerbacks, and thus Dulac's statement about not needing any others. The fact he said that with such assuredness conveys that he learned it from someone within the organization.

Yes, the confidence in Golson is real. But my confidence in Gay, or even Shabazz, isn't as rock solid. Therefore, I would look for a cornerback, and probably draft one in the top three rounds. 

It's a deep crop of corners, and one with man skills, such as Quincy Wilson, would be an extremely difficult pass for me at pick 30. Young corners who can play zone and man give the coaching staff the flexibility they say they desire, even if they want to remain a predominantly zone team.

And there's also this to consider: Those making the draft day decisions -- Colbert and Mike Tomlin -- aren't anywhere close to making such proclamations, and those are the only real sources of draft information all spring. 

Yes, others eventually learn what those two want to do, and are often sources of leaks, but I can assure you there's nothing to be learned from either Colbert or Tomlin at this point, and any proclamations are merely strong opinions.


Some of the feelings from the decision-makers have been trickling down concerning free agency, so let's touch on a couple of interesting guys:

* Markus Wheaton -- a guy they like and would like to bring him back at the right price. That makes sense after watching the young WR corps fail miserably in New England, and, really, in Kansas City. Wheaton-Brown-Martavis Bryant, with Eli Rogers in reserve, is a much, MUCH stronger group of weapons than anything they've had since Wheaton caught nine passes for 201 yards in Seattle in 2015. 

That was Wheaton's last great game, and of course injuries wrecked his contract season in 2016. But such a group of receivers lessens the draft importance at tight end -- even if Ladarius Green can't continue playing -- as well as at wide receiver.

* Lawrence Timmons -- a guy they would like to get back at a much cheaper salary than the $8.75 million he made last season. He'll turn 31 in May and played much better in the second half of last season than in the first. Timmons also talked about his weight loss and compared it to James Farrior's late-career weight loss, how added experience helps overcome the need for bulk at the punishing buck ILB position.

Farrior signed a five-year contract in 2008 for $18.25 million at the age of 33. That averaged out to $3.65 million per year. Considering the NFL market, that number, nine years later, inflates to $5.4 million. Throw just a bit more onto that since Timmons is two years younger than Farrior at the same point and I think we have an agreeable number. And it's unlikely -- from my perspective anyway -- that the humble Timmons would be a greedy negotiator after raking in some $60 million already in Pittsburgh.


Jon Ledyard's great work this young draft season is helping us work through the deep crop of edge rushers available in this draft. 

From the Senior Bowl, here are a smattering of the different types available. Some fit the Steelers and some don't, but let's spin the dial a bit.

1. Haason Reddick showed the ability to play inside linebacker as well as outside in a 3-4. But at 237 pounds, Reddick, in my opinion, won't be able to play end in the nickel. It's my opinion that 265-pound James Harrison gave the Steelers the rare flexibility of being able to stop the run and drop into the flat for coverage responsibilities. While Reddick could play ILB on early downs and the edge on obvious long-yardage pass downs, he would have to be drafted too early. Even if the Steelers lose Timmons, Vince Williams would step in and play the buck ILB spot better than any rookie could, so the first-round need just isn't there.

2. Isaac Rochell is a 282-pound DE/DT who met with Kevin Colbert in Mobile and would appear to be the classic 5-tech the Steelers have scouted and drafted since making the change to a 3-4 in the early 1980s. But the Steelers already have two ideal 5-techs in Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, as well as an improving backup in 2015 draft pick L.T. Walton. The Steelers also play very little actual 3-4 anymore. The nickel employs only two D-linemen and the Steelers have a nose tackle in 2016 rookie Javon Hargrave who showed potential as a nickel tackle as well. The Steelers did sprinkle in a 4-3 look with one of the edges dropping off the ball and one of the 5-techs sliding further outside. With Heyward back, they might use that look more often and thus might wish to develop a third-rounder such as Rochell. But, at this point, I can't see the need for another highly drafted 5-tech unless they're just knocked over by the value such a player presents.

3. Dawuane Smoot at 6-3, 255 is getting closer to fitting the Steelers' specific need, but since he dropped into coverage only twice last season at Illinois, he's not going to be their 3-4 prototype. If that even matters anymore. Smoot is more of a 4-3 end but does appear to have more potential to slip back into the flat than, say, 265-pound Derek Barnett, a prototypical 4-3 end. Since it's a deep crop, there's also the possibility that Smoot could last until the bottom of the second round, and that might be enticing.

4. Derek Rivers is closer to the ideal and met extensively with the Steelers in Mobile. He's a 6-4, 255-pounder with the look of the prototypical 3-4 OLB and also the run-stopping skills of a 4-3 defensive end. Rivers would seem to be an ideal fit at pick 30, and could be, if the Steelers can wrap their minds around taking someone from a Division 1-AA school (Youngstown State) in the first round. Colbert never has. 

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