Offseason excitement is a finite, quickly-exhaustible resource in the NFL. The draft is neat. So, too, are the first and second waves of free agency, training camp, and the league’s police blotter. The free agency period has likely reached its nadir—that is to say, most of the major, paradigm-shifting transactions that will occur have already occurred—so we’re left looking ahead to the draft next month. Thus, since the dust has settled a bit, let’s do a brief inventory check:
Le’Veon Bell: Stock up in the air
We’ll keep this particular entry short in an effort to preempt the weaponized dead horse gifs and fussy I can’t believe they’re making us read more Bell stuff comments. General manager Kevin Colbert said over the weekend that the Steelers were putting contract negotiations with Bell on ice, at least until after the draft. This was not an especially surprising development in and of itself—attempting to successfully navigate the complex labyrinths involved in player scouting whilst simultaneously finalizing the most lucrative running back contract in league history is a tall order for any front office. What was somewhat surprising, though, was this quote from Colbert: “The draft can change things on both sides.” Kinda foreboding, no?
Of course, there seems to be a noticeable surfeit of talented running backs who have made themselves available for the 2018 Draft. Even if the Steelers don’t get a crack at a perceived blue-chip, franchise-altering backfield talent like Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, they could very well be in position to pull the trigger on a second-tier runner like LSU’s Derrius Guice, Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, or Georgia’s Nick Chubb or Sony Michel. If they do, it will speak volumes about their confidence in retaining Bell beyond the 2018-19 season. Or it could mean nothing. I’m not a GM. Regardless of what the Steelers actually do with their draft picks, they and Bell will almost certainly find themselves in the same, weird, Mexican-standoff-ish position on the morning of April 29th that they’ve maintained since March of last year. What this means, then, is that without any positive developments in the contract proceedings, Bell will probably (read: definitely) skip OTAs, minicamp, training camp, and the preseason—just like he did last season—much to the chagrin of Colbert, head coach Mike Tomlin, and whichever veteran members of the Steelers feel like speaking out.
Or, both sides could come to terms on a long-term agreement on April 30th and you, kind reader, will never have to see another article like this ever again.
Patching defensive holes: Stock up
The Steelers, much like rap icon and future President of the Universe Cardi B, made a series of prudent money moves this offseason, restructuring some mammoth superstar contracts, shedding a handful of bad veteran contracts, and, perhaps most significantly, recruiting a pair of solid defensive stopgaps in safety Morgan Burnett and inside linebacker Jon Bostic. Inside linebacker and safety are by far Pittsburgh’s most glaring positions of need, so by adding Bostic and Burnett, the Steelers have jammed their fingers in the proverbial leaking dyke.
Leighton Vander Esch: Stock up
Vander Esch, who is the physical embodiment of Thad Castle (this is actually pretty inaccurate, since Vander Esch was his high school’s co-valedictorian), has been inextricably linked to the Steelers since the nascent stages of the pre-draft process; mostly because the Steelers are in desperate need of a long-term solution at middle linebacker, but also because “Vander Esch” is the kind of name that’s designed to festoon a Steelers jersey. Having the opportunity to select Vander Esch at no. 28 overall would represent somewhat of a best-case circumstance for the Steelers, as Vander Esch seems ready to play right now but not ready enough to assume a primary role, certainly not as the de facto quarterback of the defense. A rotation of Vince Williams, Jon Bostic, and Leighton Vander Esch looks good enough on paper to keep Pittsburgh’s defense from becoming a total liability.
Bud Dupree: Stock down
That the Steelers have yet to exercise Dupree’s fifth-year option, for now, is not a major issue—the deadline for doing so isn’t until May 3, after all. So, let’s speculate in the meantime: Dupree, over the course of his career thus far, has averaged roughly one sack every third game. While his 14.5 career sacks UTTERLY DWARFS Jarvis Jones’ career output, Dupree isn’t putting up the kinds of numbers befitting of a top-tier pass rusher. Obviously, this sort of downplays the general significance of Dupree’s contributions in other, difficult-to-quantify areas (he’s a reasonably adept run defender and the team frequently calls upon him to drop back in coverage) and fails to consider that Dupree has, for parts of his career, been at the mercy of injuries and coaching decisions. As it stands, however, the Steelers have not expressed directly how Dupree fits into their long-term plans.
Pittsburgh’s options with Dupree are as follows: they can exercise Dupree’s fifth-year option, which is essentially a one-year extension that would pay Dupree nine million American dollars in 2019, or they could withhold the option, allowing Dupree to test free agency after the 2018 season. To me, this seems like a no-brainer; Dupree is still only 25 and posted six sacks in his first season as a full-time starter in 2017, a season in which he played more defensive snaps than any member of Pittsburgh’s front seven. It remains to be seen where Pittsburgh’s brass stands on Dupree, but that Colbert is saying things like Dupree “is just scratching the surface” (which, alternatively, could mean “he isn’t playing up to his potential) is sending mixed signals.