Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sportswriter Ed Bouchette holds a weekly chat in which he takes questions from the general public. If you’re unfamiliar with Bouchette, he’s definitely an interesting character. He’s known for breaking important Steelers news and also for his snarky and colorful comments. This week’s full chat-session can be read here.
Most of Bouchette’s answers to fans are one-liners. It’s hard to glean useful information from that, so I expanded on the questions he takes with answers of my own. The chat lasts around a half-hour, so I cherry-picked some of the questions. For a bit of fun with this, if you put BTSC at the end of your nickname there — and your questions get answered — I’ll include your questions in next week’s article. Better make it good — don’t want to be chided by the BTSC faithful.
Question: Barring injury, is Vance McDonald a lock to be the starting TE ?
Bouchette: I think so, yes, but the Steelers often deploy two at a time, so I’m not sure how much it matters.
Flip: First and foremost, McDonald needs to show he can stay healthy. If he can stay on the field, his athleticism will earn him more snaps than the comparatively plodding Jessie James. Will McDonald’s high drop-rate draw the ire of the coaching staff and lead Ben Roethlisberger to look for other reliable targets? It’s hard to fathom that a healthy McDonald with a $4.3 million salary would take second fiddle to the unathletic James.
Randy Fichtner has his hands full with his stable of weapons in 2018. On paper, 2-tight end sets seem amazing in terms of mismatches with McDonald and James. But who isn’t on the field when this occurs? Is Fichtner going to leave that shiny new second-rounder riding the pine? Pitt could take Le’Veon Bell out and employ an empty set — defenses salivate at that thought with an aging and less-mobile quarterback who tends to hold onto the ball for an eternity. Pro Bowl fullback Roosevelt Nix was on the field 16 percent of the 2017 snaps, so 2-tight end sets could erode this limited playing time and forestall any repeat appearance at the Pro Bowl.
Around the league, NFL teams incorporated 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) an average of 19 percent of the time. The Steelers were tied at thirtieth with 11%. Barring injury, Fichtner is unlikely to deviate much from last season.
The recent signing of Eli Rogers only muddies this possibility more.
Question: Any chance Chickillo or someone else can unseat DuPree as the starter?
Bouchette: There’s always that chance, but he did not do it last season when Dupree was not at his best.
Flip: Bud Dupree has been much maligned due to his 2015 first-round pedigree and high expectations from fans compared to the mediocre stat sheet. The Steelers exercised Bud Dupree’s fifth-year option, which should mean they’ll give him every opportunity to live up to his billing this season. Anthony Chickillo has shown situational flashes, but they’ve been limited. During his seven starts in 2016, Chickillo amassed two and a half sacks — not a tally that would push Dupree to the wayside.
In 2017, outside linebacker, Keion Adams was selected in the seventh round, but a shoulder injury derailed his inaugural season. He is viewed as depth if he makes the 53-man roster and no threat to replace Dupree. Only an injury to Dupree would cause him to be out of the starting lineup.
Question: Any prayer for Jarvion Franklin, or are they simply set at RB with Bell/Conner/Ridley?
Bouchette: I would not include Ridley in that equation. I think Jaylen Samuels will be there.
Flip: With Ridley’s inability to play special teams and 27 career receptions spanning seven seasons it’s very hard to see him latching on with the team coming out of preseason. Under the scenario of him making the team, he would have to make James Conner expendable. In all reality, that will not happen.
Rookie undrafted free agent, Jarvion Franklin, offers a skill set similar to Conner and Ridley. A big, bruising running back who lacks wiggle and has limited ability as a receiver, his upside seems scant.
Veteran Fitzgerald Toussaint and fifth-round pick, Jaylen Samuels, offer special-teams value to go along with third-down capabilities. Barring something unforeseen, those two will be duking it out for the No. 3 running-back gig. The likelihood of Pittsburgh carrying four running backs is slim.
Question: In which instances would Hilton come off of the field for Edmunds?
Bouchette: I don’t know if that will happen.
Flip: This was one of my questions that sneaked its way into Bouchette’s weekly chat. I read a lot of comments on the BTSC boards about the impact Terrell Edmunds might make in 2018. I’m trying to wrap my head around these opinions.
If Edmunds isn’t going to push 2017 sensation, Mike Hilton, off of the field in nickel situations, then his time would be limited to dime situations. During each of the past two seasons, the Steelers have run dime packages 5.5% of the time, or about 55 plays — that’s not a lot of opportunity to shine.
Could Edmunds push former second-round pick Sean Davis to the sidelines? I have a tough time seeing that occur, as many experts viewed Edmunds as a reach in the first round. Davis was raw coming out of Maryland in 2015 and will be adjusting to his new free-safety position — which is a better fit for him. Free-agent acquisition, Morgan Burnett, is entrenched at the other safety position.
Edmunds, the former Virginia Tech Hokie, brings versatility to the defense, and fans have been chattering up the possibility of him being utilized at linebacker. At 217 pounds, though, he would be giving up a considerable amount of weight to opposing offensive players in the run game. To be viable at the position, he would have to be able to avoid becoming entangled with linemen or fullbacks and also have the strength and technique to bring down larger running backs.
Question: Does Sutton have a realistic chance to beat out Burns?
Bouchette: I would not think so.
Flip: The simple answer is no. While Cameron Sutton didn’t embarrass himself starting last season against New England and Tom Brady, he didn’t have any “wow” moments either. Brady didn’t test the rookie very often in the 2017 tilt, but he completed all three passes thrown at Sutton, including one for a score.
Burns, 23, coming off of his sophomore season, was a mixed bag performance-wise. Unfortunately for Burns, fans remember one long pass given up in the playoffs that had them forgetting his hot start to the season. Through the first four weeks, Burns allowed 11 catches for 61 yards and a touchdown on 22 passes tossed his way. Later in the season, he had solid games against Cincinnati and Houston. In those two games, Burns combined for two receptions and 25 yards on eight pass attempts. Fans mainly remember the big plays and the flags he picked up in between. But Burns is too young and talented to be losing time to Sutton.
Sutton does have a future with the Steelers, but where? According to Pro Football Focus, cornerback Joe Haden was an average player in 2017 with a position rank of 51 (This includes slot corners.) while missing five games due to a broken fibula.
I suspect Sutton will cut his teeth learning and filling in but not snaring a starting role in 2018. The 2019 season could be his chance in the sun, depending on the seasons that an expensive Haden (ninth highest-paid cornerback) and a maligned Burns have.
Tuesday’s chat came with a major disappointment — no noteworthy, snarky comments. Bouchette’s 5-week hiatus must have done his disposition some good.
While Bouchette has covered the Steelers going on 45 years, fans would appreciate more valued information during these sessions. At the same time, fans need to remember that these answers are all off-the-cuff, which is a tougher style to undertake since the pundit has no time to prepare or gather information. So that 45 years of experience should prepare him for this simple task, right? Do you read or participate in the chat sessions? What is your opinion of the sessions?