Summer is over. Gone are the days of dutifully and painstakingly scouring the internet for vaguely newsworthy content or reveling in the Oakland Raiders’ schadenfreude. The Steelers will play football that matters this weekend, against a team they beat last season but against a quarterback whose home turf they’ve yet to conquer under his stewardship.
But we’re not here to talk about the game, at least not yet. As the weather cools down, the narratives heat up, and I am here to hand-deliver some artisanal, farm-to-table takes. Stock report!
Quarterbacks: No movement
Mason Rudolph handily defeated Joshua Dobbs in what was genuinely an engaging and spirited competition for the backup quarterback role. Indeed, it was a battle that injected some much-needed intrigue into an otherwise tedious and anodyne preseason. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Rudolph and Dobbs, magnifying their faults, championing their merits, and luxuriating in the conjecture of the proceedings.
It goes without saying, of course, that for Rudolph or Dobbs to play any meaningful snaps during the regular season would mean that things elsewhere have gone seriously, catastrophically awry. But unlike in previous seasons, there is evidence to suggest that things could maybe, just possibly be salvageable in the event that Ben vaporizes his knee cartilage or is subject to a sudden and precipitous fall-off a la Eli or Peyton Manning. Rudolph looked like a straight-up baller sans chaser this preseason—albeit against scrubs and the scrubs’s scrubs, but nonetheless veritable NFL talent—and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a general “Roethlisberger issue” could accelerate his presumed assumption of franchise quarterback duties and that, upon taking this role, he’ll be totally fine. Patrick Mahomes was backing up Alex Smith the season before he threw 50 touchdowns, for goshsakes. Roethlisberger himself was thrust into the starting quarterback role much earlier than he and the Steelers probably anticipated and went ahead and won 13 games anyway. The very next season, he piloted the Steelers to a Super Bowl and 15 years later he’s a probable Hall of Famer. What I’m saying is that Mason Rudolph could be the next Tom Brady.
I’m just gonna hope and pray that Roethlisberger’s bones and/or organs remain intact for the duration of the season, that way we can revamp these Rudolph discussions in a year or so.
Running backs: Trending up
I think James Conner is gonna lead the AFC in rushing this season. This isn’t as much of a hot take as it is exercising the process of elimination: Melvin Gordon is currently staging a holdout that he nor the Chargers apparently have any plans to resolve and many of the remaining teams in the AFC utilize a running back-by-committee approach. Among the remaining high-volume backs in the AFC—Le’Veon Bell, Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon, and presumably Josh Jacobs—Conner seems like a good bet to have the most prolific season.
Let’s narrow the scope to this Sunday, though. The Steelers demonstrated last season that the Patriots can be rushed upon with great effectiveness, as then-rookie Jaylen Samuels gashed New England for 142 yards on a meaty 7.5 yards per carry. It doesn’t take an X’s and O’s wizard to understand that gaining significant chunks of yardage on most running plays, thereby lengthening times of possession, thereby keeping Tom Brady and the Patriots offense on the sideline, thereby preventing this outfit from settling into itself, tips the win/loss calculus in your favor. Conner should touch the football 35 times this Sunday, and Samuels ought to have his number called a few times, too.
Receivers: Trending up
Pittsburgh, which is not a major media market by any metric, has in JuJu Smith-Schuster what is surely among the most marketable professional athletes in North America. If I helmed the ad department of a multinational company and needed to create immediate demand for, I don’t know, pumpkin spice hemorrhoid cream, the first call I’d make would be to Smith-Schuster’s agent.
The Steelers are gonna have to start thinking about getting ahold of Smith-Schuster’s agent, too. The four-year contract that Smith-Schuster signed his rookie year and since vastly outperformed expires at the end of next season, though it is a virtual certainty that both sides will try to come to terms on an extension following the 2019 season. JuJu’s still among the youngest players in the NFL, so another big season is gonna enable him to seek at least a market value contract for a top-flight no. 1 receiver, probably something in the ballpark of $17 million per year, though I would not be shocked for him to use Michael Thomas’s five-year, $100 million contract as a starting point. And I hope he does get $100 million. He’s worth every penny.
I cannot overstate how excited I am to see how well James Washington performs against first-team defenders in a game that counts. A big night by Washington against the Patriots could be his launch-point to superstardom.
Offensive/Defensive line: No movement
The starters along both lines (save for Matt Feiler, who to his credit had a great preseason) have remained unchanged for the past three seasons. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, you know?
Naturally, the foremost question pertaining to the offensive and defensive lines involves the number of clones of yourself it would take to beat Cameron Heyward in a fight. I think it would take five of me.
The second-most important question involves Javon Hargrave, who did not come to terms on a contract extension with the Steelers and could be poised to join Steve McLendon as promising-but-under-utilized nose tackles who bolted from Pittsburgh in free agency in search of greener pastures. Hargrave is a nose tackle by definition only and less of a standard run-stopper than he is functionally an interior pass rusher. There is a certainly a big market for those, so someone’s gonna hand Hargrave a big check this offseason, whether that be the Steelers or another team (probably the Jets, given their affinity for ex-Steelers and defensive linemen).
Linebackers: Trending up
I didn’t intend for this article to focus so heavily on speculating about future contracts, but can someone smarter than me run the cap math if Smith-Schuster and T.J. Watt both secure $100 million contracts, which, given the expanding salary cap and high-value placed on receivers and pass rushers, is entirely plausible? Thanks in advance.
The linebacker corps represents the position group that I’m most excited about this season. On the edge, Watt is a veritable franchise cornerstone and Bud Dupree is playing for a contract, and on the inside we have a very intriguing triumvirate that includes the 10th overall pick in the latest draft, a converted safety, and Vince Williams, who will tackle anything that moves. There are definitely worse depth options than Anthony Chickillo and Tyler Matakevich out there, and Ulysees Gilbert, Ola Adeniyi, and Tuzar Skipper are lumps of molding clay with unlimited athletic upside.
Secondary: No movement
Kam Kelly and Artie Burns could both log a considerable volume of snaps against the Patriots, which is a sentence that, posited several weeks ago, would’ve sent chills down your spine and made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Car alarms would’ve blared in the distance, dogs would’ve started barking incessantly, and a cavernous aperture would’ve formed in the earth’s crust, swallowing entire cities whole. Now—perhaps not so much. Kelly played well enough to make his way onto the 53-man roster, which is a thing that sounded impossible at the onset of camp but is itself an acknowledgement of Kelly’s professional capacity and the trust the Steelers have in him. Burns had a decent preseason, too, though he’s almost certainly going to have to play his way into a longer-term job with the Steelers. The urgency of the circumstance could spark within Burns a fire (pin absolutely intended) that precipitates a career revival.