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Steelers prepared to sign fewer undrafted rookies than in previous years

General manager Kevin Colbert sees fewer signings based on a smaller pool of players.

NFL: Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In their pre-draft press conference on Monday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert addressed a variety of topics dealing with the 2021 NFL draft and the upcoming season. During his opening remarks, Colbert gave an update of the total number of players currently on the Steelers roster and how that affects them moving forward through the 2021 NFL draft and beyond.

“As we sit here today, our roster is currently at 75 players,” Colbert stated. “It’s probably a little higher number than we anticipate or usually have at this time of the year.”

With only 15 roster spots available at the moment, if the Steelers signed their typical 10 to 15 undrafted rookie free agents along with there eight draft picks, a significant number of players under contract would have to be released. While it isn’t uncommon for the Steelers to have to release players they had signed in the offseason in order to accommodate their rookies, there is a reason behind Colbert’s philosophy this year.

“We did sign more players,” Colbert continued. “The other thing that the — not the pandemic, but the opt-out of the draft issue that the NCAA allowed this year, it probably cut in half the players that will be available to us to sign as free agents after the draft. It’s roughly — I want to say it went from 800 to 400, with that not being the actual numbers.”

The rule Colbert is most likely referring to is the NCAA allowing all student athletes for the 2020-21 season to have an extra year of eligibility. Additionally, the 2020 season does not count as one of these years even if the student athlete played and did not opt out. Here is an explanation from ncsasports.org:

Traditionally, a student-athlete has 5 years to play 4 years of their sport. An extra year means a current college student-athlete would have 6 years to play their 4 years. This means, NCAA student-athletes can compete in all or a portion of the 2020-21 season, but it won’t be counted against their years of eligibility depending on their division level specific eligibility rules.

For example, a D1 freshman athlete, whether they compete in the 2020-21 competition season or not, is eligible for an extra year of competition. Starting their sophomore year, this athlete competes in 100% of the season through senior year. After their senior season, this athlete’s eligibility count is 3 years and they decide to enroll as a fifth-year senior to compete in their fourth collegiate season. Upon the completion of their fourth competition season, this athlete has the option to compete for one final season, a fifth year, because the NCAA D1 had granted all 2020-21 athletes an extra year of eligibility. If this athlete returns for a fifth year, they will have been a member of the team and eligible to receive financial aid for six year, because their first year of competition didn’t count against their years eligibility.

Because of this rule, the overall pool of athletes entering the 2021 NFL draft has been reduced as every player was eligible to return in 2021-22. If players are not likely to be drafted, returning to college for another season in order to improve their chances of catching on with an NFL team seems to be a wise decision.

For this reason, Colbert believes the number of athletes available as viable options for Steelers will be fewer this year then during previous drafts, let alone knowing the total pool of athletes is smaller. Because of this, the Steelers we’re on the lookout for possible players to sign at various pro day workouts who are not currently on an NFL roster.

“But anticipating we would have less guys to sign after the draft, we were conscious of that when we were at pro days, and maybe the one-year vet guy that worked out, we signed five or so players from that venue just to try to keep us as current as we could be in anticipation of not being able to sign as many guys after the draft.”

The Steelers made a number of the signings this offseason from players who are able to participate at various pro days. Signing such as Tyler Simmons, Matthew Sexton, Jarvis Miller, Jamir Jones, and T.J. Carter all came since the start of the league year and are for league-minimum salaries after working out at various pro days. In essence, these players are undrafted free agents but one year later.

While some may believe having less undrafted rookie free agents following the 2021 NFL draft is no big deal, the Steelers have managed to find quality undrafted players over the years. While some undrafted players landed in Pittsburgh after various stops, players such as Ramon Foster, B.J. Finney, and James Pierre were players who went undrafted and signed immediately with the Steelers. Although Finney took a year on the practice squad before landing on the roster, both Foster and Pierre are examples of players that earned their way onto the 53-man roster for their entire rookie season after going undrafted.

Even with a smaller number of players, the Steelers can still find their “diamond in the rough” among the undrafted players from the 2021 NFL draft. Knowing the number of options are less, and already taking this into account over the last month, the Steelers seem to be in prime shape to round out their roster by the end of the weekend.

Stay tune to Behind The Steel Curtain for continued coverage of the upcoming 2021 NFL draft.