There are always numerous tough decisions to be made in any rebuilding situation.
Personnel decisions involving both the players and the coaching staff are seldom simple. Inevitably, some personnel are simply not a good fit for the franchise's rebuilding vision. It takes honest assessment and evaluations to identify the moves needing to be made in order to put the best product on the field.
This article will highlight some potentially tough decisions.
An underrated quality for any individual is the ability to recognize your own limitations. That allows the individual to focus on maximizing their strengths, and minimizing their weaknesses. That valuable touch of reality creates fertile ground for personal and professional growth. Najee Harris needs a dose of self enlightenment.
Najee Harris will never be a Derrick Henry type running back. The Steelers can only hope his career trajectory doesn't resemble former NFL running back Trent Richardson. Harris is often compared to both players because they all played collegiality for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Harris shares a similar physique and powerful running style to Henry, but lacks the top end speed and extra gear. Due to those limitations, Harris needs to adhere to an aggressive, north-south running style. He losses effectiveness when he tries to jump cut, start/stop, or bounce runs to the outside. He also lacks ideal vision and instincts.
Harris has to commit to quickly taking what is being given by opposing defenses. Rapidly locate a running lane, then explode downhill without hesitation. This will help avoid negative yardage plays. Harris doesn't have the read and react instincts of a Le’Veon Bell, or the amazingly smooth footwork of a Jerome Bettis.
Harris is not an ideal fit for the Steelers new outside zone blocking concepts. This puts his long-term future with the Black and Gold in doubt. Everybody loves Harris, especially Mike Tomlin, but one has to wonder if he wouldn't be a better fit in another offensive system. An eventual trade could benefit all parties involved.
Johnson is the epitome of a volume receiver. That's a great quality to have in a PPR fantasy league, but not so much for the Steelers current offensive attack. He consistently gains easy separation against coverage, so he appears to be perpetually open. Problem is he doesn't haul in an efficient amount of his abnormally high number of targets, nor does he showcase any run after the catch abilities to speak of.
That's why I was completely against signing him to an extension last offseason, when he was loitering around training camp during his hold-in negotiations. Rumors were floating around that he wanted 20+ million per season, which would have been unrealistic.
Plenty of community members argued his inflated statistics as proof of his WR1 status, while I vehemently disagreed, calling him a glorified WR2. He isn't clutch, or a difference maker, or dominant in any way.
I can't tell you how many times I heard "the stats don't lie." Thankfully he ended his hold-in, and signed for a reasonable amount. He has definitely missed Ben Roethlisberger force feeding him the rock, and this season has been a struggle thus far. Johnson's yards after the catch numbers are nonexistent. Not surprisingly, I seldom hear the peanut gallery singing his praises these days.
Johnson has a doable contract, and the reputation of a Pro Bowl caliber player, based on the comments made about him during every live broadcast. His value may never be higher for the rebuilding Steelers, especially if George Pickens lives up to all that WR1 potential. If the price is right, the Steelers should at least entertain offers.
Similar to Najee Harris, Dotson isn't an ideal fit for the Steelers current blocking schemes. Dotson is a powerful force at either offensive guard position, a player who does his best work in a phone booth. That simply means he prefers to do battle in close quarters, where his lack of mobility is less noticeable. Dotson moves other large individuals in directions they don't necessarily want to go, against their will if you know what I mean. He has a grandparents type mentality when it comes to blocking, "Don't you make me chase you!"
Therein lies the problem. Dotson is surrounded by far more nimble, shield and turn type blockers. His linemates are classic zone blocking types, which makes Dotson the odd ball of the group. The Steelers realized the issue prior to training camp, so they promptly announced a left guard competition between Dotson and Kendrick Green, who they were unsuccessfully trying to move to guard. Green had the mobility that the Steelers coveted at guard, but no other NFL caliber qualities at the position. The failed experiment negatively impacted the progress of the offensive line.
Dotson played his best game of the season against the Dolphins on Sunday. Hopefully that is a positive sign that Dotson is becoming comfortable with his responsibilities, and gaining chemistry with his fellow linemen. The Steelers offensive line has shown steady improvement this season, particularly in pass protection, but the run blocking is very much a work in progress. It would be optimal if Dotson can become at least functional in the new system, plus give the Steelers a reliable dominant force to run behind when they absolutely have to convert a third and one. If he is unable to prove capable, the Steelers will be forced to go a different direction this upcoming offseason.
Speaking of tough decisions, not all of these decisions are because of fit or function. Sometimes it's a decision made out of respect for the individual, for the benefit of the player. Like when the team releases a player early in the cut down process, to give them more precious time to find another more favorable situation. That can also be true with a rebuilding team when it comes to aging standouts. Let me try to clarify.
Cam Heyward is one of the best defensive linemen in Steelers history. He is recognized around the NFL as one of the strongest defenders in the league, a five time Pro Bowler, and four time All Pro. He is working on a professional resume worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, but one thing is still missing. A Super Bowl championship.
Most of the best players from Tomlin's tenure were fortunate enough to appear in, and win a Lombardi. However, that success was early in Tomlin's career. Recently we have seen top performers like Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro retire without even getting the opportunity to experience the pinnacle of NFL success. Nobody wants that for Heyward.
Cameron Heyward is still a defensive stalwart for the Steelers, but is starting to show the debilitating effects of 12 years battling other behemoths in the trenches. At 33 years of age, his best years are most likely in the rearview mirror, and a slow decline is inevitable. While his leadership will remain invaluable, his salary will be akin to an albatross for a rebuilding team. The end doesn't justify the means, for any of the parties involved.
If the Steelers return to contender status takes longer than any of us are hoping for, there is the very real chance that Heyward is the next Steelers great who retires from the game without a championship opportunity. The alternative is hard to imagine, but needs to be considered. Heyward could request a trade to a contending team. He wouldn't be the first Steelers legend who had to go elsewhere to win a title. Hopefully it doesn't come to that, and Cameron Heyward can win his Lombardi right here in Pittsburgh.
That's why it's so important that the Steelers make these tough rebuilding decisions prudently.