Every season every player has to prove their worth in the NFL. Nothing is a given in this warrior sport, or any sport, which is part of the survival of the fittest beauty of sports. Earn a spot on your team or move on to your “life’s work” as Chuck Noll used to say, sometimes harshly, as Franco Harris would attest.
Perhaps with the salaries many players make today, the “life’s work” part is more like a well-funded retirement as opposed to the Chuck Noll 1970’s when most players had to find ways to make ends meet in a new career from their 30’s until retirement. Rocky Bleier became an inspirational speaker. Andy Russell had a long 12-year career with the Steelers but still did very well for himself after football in the financial world. In today’s NFL, a successful 12-year linebacker career would certainly leave you set for life, unless you “Mike Tyson” your money down the toilet.
That said, there are certain Steelers that seem to especially be floating on a bubble this season hoping it doesn’t pop and come crashing down. They necessarily seem to need to prove it or their chances come to an end with the Steelers. A recent example of this is Artie Burns a few years ago. The Steelers gave him ample opportunity before pulling the cord on him. Let’s see who may be going down the Artie Burns path or is in a position where question marks about their future put them at a crossroads.
This one is already pretty well documented as a report surfaced he could be on the chopping block. Whether that is news or noise is certainly up for debate, but one thing is for sure – the RB room has become crowded and the promise he showed a few years ago no longer has the same shine on it.
With metrics that make the analytics community tingly, he seemed to have a future that looked bright before last season. You certainly can point to his game versus the Patriots in 2018 as a reason to be excited. Against a good defense, he put on a show. With a good size/speed ratio and soft hands, he seemed to be a future fit as a possible three down back.
Then 2019 happened. Injuries, back up QBs, and poor play when given the chance (2.7 yards per carry). Those tingles from the previous year disappeared. And now, with Mike Tomlin crush, newly slimmed down Benny Snell Jr. in the mix, it seems that Samuels lost his number two role to Snell behind the always injured James Conner. Add to that the buzz you hear about Anthony McFarland Jr., and you start to fear he won’t make it out of camp. Even if he does, his role seems greatly diminished. You have to wonder if his next chance comes with another team.
On the subject of running backs, we may as well hit on the number one guy, for now, in the backfield. It is hard not to love James Conner and what he has overcome, but his main problem has been the injury bug. For him, this may be his running style as I pointed out last season in these columns. The week I wrote that article, he got hurt on the last play of the Miami game.
Was I psychic? Nope. Simply sitting on the couch with a beer on Sundays and watching the games was all it took to see his rumbling, tumbling, reckless style that made his game-time availability something the team can’t count on. So, while videos of him throwing large items over his head is certainly impressive, I’m not sure that will translate into better health when the problem is the contact he takes on. Yes, he was dealing with the same QB void that everyone else was on offense, but this comes down to him being a reliable weekly asset. When healthy, he was fine, so performance wasn’t the issue. It is not hard to see the Steelers moving on next season if he doesn’t prove it in the health department on game days.
The aforementioned Benny Snell Jr. and newcomer Anthony McFarland Jr. are waiting in the wings, as is an extremely deep free agent class and draft in 2021 if the Steelers decide to go that route.
It isn’t often that you’d include the player that led all WRs in yardage as someone who needs to prove it this season. If the fact that he led the team surprises you, you are surely not alone. With 44 receptions and a 16.7 average, he did show flashes, again with that ever-present caveat of Steelers football in 2019 — he had to do this with poor QB play.
So, there is hope here. However, he has been inconsistent to say the least. As a second round pick on a team that recently spent another second rounder on Chase Claypool who seems to have the skills to challenge him as Big Ben’s deep threat, he has to become a reliable option or he could easily be behind Claypool, Dionte Johnson, and Ju Ju Smith-Schuster in the WR pecking order. It’s a crowded WR room. If this happens, you could easily see him moving on in the future ala Emmanuel Sanders, who his situation reminds me of.
Sanders turned out to be a fine receiver, just not with the Steelers.
So, we may as well touch on JuJu because, unfortunately, the NFL gossip on him has certainly been in the headlines. His career start number have been impressive to say the least. He already has ascended to stardom after his first two seasons of play with Ben Roethlisberger. In fact, his play and accomplishments were so special in those first two seasons that it caused Antonio Brown to go haywire.
However, reports are that the Steelers may move on from him next year due to the obvious contract he will demand. As opposed to those impressive first two seasons, injuries and QB play, in my opinion, derailed him in 2019 as he caught only 42 balls and scored 3 TDs. It is fair to wonder, though, if the lack of Antonio Brown opposite him demanding extreme attention was too much to overcome and that his numbers were inflated the first two years due to that freedom he did not enjoy in 2019. Is he a true alpha receiver? It remains to be seen because, frankly, we haven’t seen it yet.
And, as the Steelers continue to use high draft choices on WRs, you also have to wonder if they will hold on to the cheaper options and just let Ju Ju walk in 2021. If Ju Ju puts up a dominant performance once again with Big Ben, it is harder to see the Steelers letting him leave. But, if his numbers are more even with Dionte Johnson, James Washington, and Chase Claypool, it is possible the Steelers decide to let him sign elsewhere like they did with Mike Wallace years ago when he was demanding the highest WR money in free agency. Remember, the Steelers decided to sign Antonio Brown instead, and that worked out great before he lost his mind. Part of this equation is how comfortable the Steelers feel with Washington, Johnson, and Claypool after the 2020 season.
The struggles of Mason Rudolph last season are well documented. As I’ve written above, many of the players who need to prove it this year are linked to poor QB play. And while the Steelers almost made the playoffs last season, it was because of the defense and in spite of overall dreadful QB performances.
The Steelers chose to hold on to Rudolph as their number two QB this season. They are hoping last season was a learning curve for Rudolph, and that injuries to his RBs and WRs and his overcoming challenges from suspension to concussion caused his uneven play. Even if Ben Roethlisberger is near his old self, the season very well comes down to Rudolph having to step in to keep the ship right if he misses games here or there. In the age of Covid-19 and Roethlisberger’s injury history, missed games are probably likely.
This one is simple. Mason Rudolph has to prove it this season or he will no longer be number two next year.
There’s not much to nit-pick on defense. You could go with Daniel McCullers or newly signed Chris Wormley, I suppose, as players who have to prove they can man the nose tackle position with Javon Hargrave gone. But, to me, there is one glaring “prove it” player.
Number one draft picks should be difference makers. If you hit on your number one pick at safety, he should be impactful and show up not only on film, but on the stat sheet. Minkah Fitzpatrick, drafted the same year in the first round as Terrell Edmunds, does that in spades.
Terrell Edmunds does not. 78 tackles, 0 Sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 interceptions in 2019. You don’t draft someone that high for that production. I wouldn’t label him as a bust yet, but his play is the definition of replaceable. Another season like this in 2020, and his roster spot seems far from secure.
These players all have the chance to prove it on the field this season. If they don’t, they very well may find themselves with another team or searching for their life’s work.