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DB’s Steelers Mailbag: Justin Fields Package, Calvin Austin Hype, Nick Herbig’s Role (+)

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Pittsburgh Steelers QB Justin Fields
Pittsburgh Steelers QB Justin Fields

We’re officially entering the “dead period” of the NFL offseason, with mandatory minicamp in the books as we await the teams arrival in Latrobe for training camp. It’s that time of the month where I take questions from Steelers fans on X and this round brought forth several interesting talking points around topics such as Justin Fields, Calvin Austin III and Nick Herbig. Without further ado, here we go!

Q: Could you see them building a package for Fields as a “5-minute drill offense” to close out a game in the 4th with a lead?

A: Using Justin Fields as the closer in that sort of package is an interesting idea but may be too extreme to ever fully blossom. However, I feel very strongly that the Steelers would be doing the sport a disservice to not implement a handful of packaged plays for one of the most athletically gifted runners that we’ve ever seen. In the past, Arthur Smith’s offense leaned into the quarterback run game element mostly in short yardage and near the red zone. Fields has rare acceleration and top end speed but the fact that he’s so explosive while also being around 230 pounds is what makes him extremely unique. Of course, he’s going to take significant strides as a passer if he wants to become a full time starting in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. In the meantime, it would be foolish to not take advantage of his talents, so long as it’s not causing any internal friction or disrupting the rhythm of the offense.

Q: Will the Calvin Austin hype let us down again?

A: The discourse around Calvin Austin III is extremely flawed for a multitude of reasons. Yes, he was one of the least productive NFL receivers on a yards per route run basis and his tape was rough at times, but 2023 was essentially his rookie year. The more important but heavily glossed over context was that he was working back from a lisfranc injury that isn’t a minor injury by any means. It’s been encouraging to hear him talk openly about improving the deceleration phase of his route running which was something that needed to be improved upon. So, do I think that Austin is the Steelers solution at wide receiver? No, most teams don’t intend for fourth-round selections to fill that role. There’s opportunity for him to carve out an auxiliary role in 2024 though.

Q: What are your thoughts on Nick Herbig? Will he always be OLB3 or do you think he’s someone that can take the place of Alex Highsmith down the road?

I’m on record as to saying that Nick Herbig should be given every chance to stamp his OLB3 status during the final stages of the off-season. Not only that but it would be wise for the Steelers to find better ways to utilize his burst and athleticism off the edge. Because of his coverage background at Wisconsin, you can do a lot with him on passing downs; whether that’s creative 5-0 fronts with him as a rusher or using him as a dropped in simulated pressure looks. Regardless, his playing time should increase in year two and hopefully help lessen the load on T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. He does have starting caliber upside in this scheme but there’s a pretty hard cap on that right now with two established veterans on big contracts listed ahead of him on the depth chart.

Q: Have your feelings on Cam Heyward changed? Do you still feel he’s worth a three-year extension? At 35, do you feel he’s worth what he’s probably asking for?

A: Any time negotiations between an all-time great and the franchise start to stall and become public, there’s an unsettling feeling surrounding the club. Cam Heyward’s situation is tricky because his pass rush production has dipped in recent seasons and ultimately, that’s what yields big contracts on the defensive line. Personally, I don’t see much harm in allowing him to play out the final year of his deal and see what he looks like at 100% from a health perspective. His presence as a run stopper is still insanely valuable. So, it really comes down to what type of deal he’s asking for. An extension is certainly risky for the Steelers in my eyes, but I have a feeling that something will probably get worked out before the week one opener.

Q: How do you see the Steelers coming out of the gauntlet that is the final stretch of the schedule?

A: Pittsburgh’s schedule is certainly uncommon for a variety of reasons, specifically the fact that they won’t see a single AFC North foe until week 11 when they host the Baltimore Ravens. In some ways, this could be a blessing. They’re installing a brand-new offense with a new quarterback and an extremely young offensive line, among other evolving variables at play. It’ll be important for them to start somewhat fast to give themselves a bit of a cushion down the stretch, but the final two months will give us an idea on what caliber of team this is. Is this the same Steelers team that sneaks into the postseason or one that can truly compete with the better teams of the conference? I’m cautiously optimistic that they’ll be more competitive but there’s quite a bit of unknown to the team, especially on offense, as we sit here today. At least we’ll have Hard Knocks to make things even more interesting.