Since returning to Behind the Steel Curtain back in July of 2018, of the 865 articles I have written about the Pittsburgh Steelers over the last 13 months, only a handful contained what I would consider my unfiltered opinion about the team and the league at large. For my last article as Deputy Editor of BTSC, I offer up some thoughts about the Steelers’ future.
As much as the 2018 season was enjoyable on a professional level thanks to an unexpected offer from site editor Jeff Hartman to rejoin the first U.S. based site I had ever worked for, the action on the field was unquestionably disappointing. A season that will be forever remembered as the year Le’Veon Bell held out and Antonio Brown acted like a petulant child was another wasted opportunity in a seemingly endless stream of blown chances as of late. But despite my inherent English cynicism, I remain uncharacteristically optimistic about 2019.
Life after Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell
While it may seem naive to be willing to buy into the notion of improvement by subtraction, the departure of two of the largest egos on the roster will ultimately prove to be a blessing in 2019. Taking away a wide receiver that Ben Roethlisberger fixated on will be beneficial to his interception ratio as well.
Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert
Like many Pittsburgh fans of a certain age, I am old enough to have lived through the eras of Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and can vividly remember years of failure during the 1980’s and the down years under Cowher. But while there are many within Steeler Nation who would prefer a different coach, news of an extension for Tomlin last week was cause for celebration. Acknowledging some of the more notable flaws that his critics have called him out for such as clock management and challenge record, the questions that surround his management style have often seemed absurd to me. Give me Tomlin over Cowher every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Kevin Colbert is another name who has seen far too much criticism this offseason and one who is unfairly targeted at times by fans. Complaints about his ability to draft cornerbacks may have some validity to them, but he receives far too little praise for his success at other positions. His management of the salary cap has been nothing short of phenomenal given the star names he has been forced to accommodate and I can only think of a handful of bad contracts he has given out over the years. Colbert’s desire to go year-to-year on a contract going forward should be a concern for all fans and he will be sorely missed when he leaves.
How are Jordan Berry and Danny Smith still employed?
While special teams coach Danny Smith somehow remains a favorite among certain sections of the local media, his continued employment in Pittsburgh has always baffled me. Long before he joined the Steelers, Smith was a disaster in the same role with the Washington Redskins.
The return game remains non-existent and the coverage teams are patchy at best. The only time the unit has graded even vaguely well overall is when the kicker has been successful, with the group receiving very little help from punter Jordan Berry or those that came before him.
Berry was one of those bad contracts mentioned above in 2017 when the front office insanely tendered him as a restricted free agent on a deal worth $1.907 million before re-signing him to two-year contract this offseason worth $3.7 million. In four years in Pittsburgh, Berry has only once had a net average over 40, finishing 27th and 25th in the league respectively in 2018 and 2017.
Breakout candidates of the year
Wide receiver James Washington is understandably among the more popular names when breakout candidates are discussed, but the two players I am tipping for stardom in 2019 are defensive lineman Javon Hargraves and outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi. Although expected to have limited opportunities to impress early on, I have a feeling both will be making their mark this year, with Adeniyi showing enough to claim the starting role by mid-season.
I was perhaps overly optimistic about the edge rushers chances as a rookie after a promising preseason, but I remain confident he will live up to this prediction a second time around.
Hargrave will perhaps struggle to see enough snaps to make the NFL sit up and take notice, but the regard he is held in around the league will become apparent during free agency when he signs a sizeable contract elsewhere.
The 2017 draft class is going to cost a fortune to re-sign
When the new CBA finally takes effect, the Steelers should be one of the big spenders of this new era with several notable names potentially due an extension in 2021. Not only are T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner all set to hit free agency that year, but so are Cameron Heyward, Alejandro Villanueva and Ramon Foster. And with all three lineman in the 32-35 age range, it should be obvious which group the front office will opt to spend their money on first.
Watt will undoubtedly have his fifth-year option exercised nearer the time, but Smith-Schuster and Conner are the next in line for a huge payday in Pittsburgh. Re-signing them a year ahead of schedule should be a priority, even if CBA negotiations have yet to be settled.
The Steelers will win at least 10 this season, a figure that should be good enough for them to win the division. Expecting some improvement on defense, I am perhaps less convinced about the talent in the secondary than others and believe this will remain the team’s achilles heel in 2019. Mason Rudolph will win the backup role and Donte Moncrief will be the clear No.2 receiver on the roster once the year is over. Justin Layne will win the backup role at cornerback and will also win team rookie of the year honors. Devin Bush turns out to be a late bloomer who comes on strong over the second half of the season.
Contrary to the hype, the Cleveland Browns will fail to record a winning season and the Baltimore Ravens will finish second in the division, but out of the playoffs. The Cincinnati Bengals will be irrelevant as always.
The last 13 months with BTSC has been one of the most enjoyable writing experiences of my life. I am thankful to Jeff for giving me the opportunity and grateful to the readers who suffered through my ramblings.
Having recently accepted a full-time role as an analyst with Pro Football Focus, I will not have the time to contribute to BTSC in a way that the site and the audience deserves, but will remain an avid reader in the future. Hopefully, I will catch up with most of you again in the comments section throughout the season.