The Pittsburgh Steelers' 2017 training camp is just two weeks away, and the days leading up to it seem to be the calm before the storm. However, there are rumors of note and news to keep in mind, especially when it comes to their potential impact on the start of Pittsburgh's camp. Here is a roundup of the latest buzz surrounding the Steelers as training camp rapidly approaches.Begin Slide...
The Pittsburgh Steelers' 2017 training camp is just two weeks away, and the days leading up to it seem to be the calm before the storm. However, there are rumors of note and news to keep in mind, especially when it comes to their potential impact on the start of Pittsburgh's camp.
Here is a roundup of the latest buzz surrounding the Steelers as training camp rapidly approaches.
The Steelers and running back Le'Veon Bell have until July 17 to come to an agreement on a long-term deal or Bell will have to play the 2017 season under the franchise tag, which is worth $12.12 million. And as the deadline draws nearer, it doesn't look like a new contract will be coming for the Steelers' top rusher (and second-leading receiver in 2016).
PennLive's Jacob Klinger wrote on Monday that "it would be a sizable surprise if Bell didn't play this year on the tag," citing Bell's history of injuries and suspensions that puts the majority of the leverage in negotiations in the Steelers' corner.
Klinger also noted that regardless of whether the Steelers use the tag on Bell again in 2018—which would amount to 120 percent of what he's set to earn this year—or want to lock him up for the long term after the season, the average per-year value would likely be equivalent. Thus, the Steelers can play out the season, see how well Bell handles yet another year with a heavy rushing and receiving workload and then revisit the discussion.
Bell's importance to the Steelers offense cannot be overstated, but the business of football—and of paying running backs in particular—doesn't always care about that part of the equation. Though it's not out of the question that Bell's side and the Steelers will get a last-minute deal done, it's looking like that won't be the case.
Steelers second-year cornerback Artie Burns was arrested in Miami at the end of June for multiple vehicle violations; WINZ's Andy Slater reported that Burns was charged with driving with a suspended license and for driving with an expired license plate tag. Burns was also reportedly driving 130 miles per hour in a 60 mile-per-hour zone, had missed a mandatory court appearance and had over $1,000 in unpaid traffic tickets.
Even though these are violations of the law, they are not of the type that should result in Burns seeing disciplinary action by the NFL and maybe not from the Steelers, either. But, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook wrote, Burns' arrest and what he was arrested for might be just the latest example of "the nauseating sense of entitlement that so many pro athletes have. ... Either that or a bad case of immaturity. Or maybe a lack of discipline."
Burns' arrest is certainly not a good look, but the good news is that the Steelers won't have to plan for game days without him to start the regular season. However, Burns needs to learn, and learn quickly, from this latest mistake and not let this become the beginning of a pattern of behavior. The more things like this pile up the less likely Burns remains with the Steelers beyond his rookie contract.
The Steelers have 11 wide receivers on their current roster but aren't expected to keep more than six of them when they whittle the numbers down to 53 players. That means some very talented players are going to be headed for free agency. The biggest summertime battle at the position will be between those who can play in the slot.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo was asked about the receivers in this week's Steelers Chat, particularly about Demarcus Ayers, the team's seventh-round draft pick from 2016. Head coach Mike Tomlin has praised Ayers, per Steelers.com (h/t 247sports), and Ayers has his sights set on a starting job (and as the team's primary punt returner), according to the Times (h/t 247sports). However, Fittipaldo isn't as convinced.
Fittipaldo wrote that he believes it "will be tough" for Ayers to make the 53-man roster this year, as he plays the same position as Eli Rogers and the sheer numbers at the position. He also cited Ayers' inexperience as a notch against him. Last year, Ayers spent most of the season on the practice squad and caught six passes on 13 targets for 55 yards and a touchdown late in the year.
The one thing to keep in mind, though, is that Ayers has his eyes on the ultimate prize of being a featured and valued member of Pittsburgh's offense via the work he puts in during training camp. That level of dedication, combined with it being translated to on-field production, could push him up the depth chart and force Rogers off of it.
Steven Ruiz of USA Today's For the Win broke down the most overpaid players in the NFL and determined that safety Mike Mitchell is one of the top 15.
Mitchell, signed by the Steelers as a free agent to a five-year, $25 million deal in 2014, has been one of the team's top tacklers over the last three seasons and has started all 48 games he's appeared in. Mitchell is certainly one of the most experienced players on the Pittsburgh defense and also the leader of the secondary. But his $8,135,416 salary cap hit for the 2017 is certainly eye-opening, especially as it makes him the third-highest paid safety in the league this year.
Mitchell's contract is back-loaded, which means the higher cap hits on the deal come in its final years. Indeed, he's set to make over $8 million again in 2018. And for a player who, for all of his leadership value, has had only four interceptions and 21 passes defensed in three years and who Pro Football Focus ranked 38th out of 86 safeties for 2016, it makes little sense.
On the one hand, the Steelers have no better option to take over for Mitchell either this year or the next. And the team can certainly reduce Mitchell's cap hit a year from now by restructuring his deal; though that would likely keep him in Pittsburgh for at least two or three additional seasons, it also would be a way for Mitchell to get compensation that greater reflects the quality of his contributions. But on the other hand, there is a strong argument to be made that Mitchell is the Steelers' most-overpaid player on the roster.
Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson was tasked with identifying the "secret superstar" of each NFL team for the upcoming season. For the Steelers, it's cornerback Ross Cockrell, whom the team signed as a free agent in 2015 after he spent two training camps with the Buffalo Bills.
Cockrell became a starter for the Steelers a season ago, and though he had only one interception on the year, he was the team's leader in passes defensed, with 14. And, as Monson pointed out, his contributions went even further than that: Cockrell only allowed two touchdowns in 93 passes thrown his way (including the playoffs) and even managed to limit Cincinnati Bengals wideout A.J. Green to just two passes for 38 yards in Week 2.
This year, Cockrell will remain a starter on the outside alongside Artie Burns, all while earning just $1.797 million on a restricted-free-agent tender. If he can keep up the pace he established for himself a season ago, that could mean the 2018 unrestricted free agent will be in line for a major payday, whether from the Steelers or some other team.
Since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took over the starting job in 2004, his team has reached the playoffs nine times. Three of those postseason runs resulted in Super Bowl appearances, with two wins. But the Steelers have not appeared in the ultimate contest since 2010, even though last year they came close before falling to the New England Patriots, who went on to win the Super Bowl themselves.
Steelers Depot's Matthew Marczi has a solution to the Steelers' Super Bowl drought, one that is easier said than achieved: Win enough games to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC to possess home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Marczi noted that the last time the Steelers were the conference's top seed was in 2004, and the last time they had full home-field advantage was in 2010 (when the top-seeded Patriots fell to the New York Jets). But this home-field advantage has become even more crucial to Pittsburgh's chances to earn another Lombardi Trophy in recent years.
One has only to look to last year as a prime example—the Steelers were dominant against the Miami Dolphins in the wild-card round, which took place in Pittsburgh. But on the road the following week, their win over the Kansas City Chiefs was a result of six field goals' worth of points and no touchdowns. And then in heading to Foxborough to face the Patriots, Pittsburgh was dismantled, scoring 17 points to New England's 36. Further, Roethlisberger-led Steelers teams have a 70-22 record at home (including playoffs) versus 54-39 on the road.
It appears as though the Steelers won't just have to be good to reach the Super Bowl this season, but dominant. Because a path to another NFL championship will be far easier to navigate when in Pittsburgh than on the road.