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Analysis

Four Players to Watch at NFL Combine

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The NFL Combine in Indianapolis is underway this week in Indianapolis. As hopeful prospects undergo testing and interviews, the week will see the rise and fall of multiple prospects. Essentially, it means the entire landscape of what we think could happen will be changing. But for some of those draft hopefuls, this week is more important to them than other prospects. The consensus best player in the draft, Chase Young, has already decided to sit out of drills. But for some, that is just not possible with the implications it has for them. Here are 5 of those guys that could sink or swim by the end of this week.

LSU TE THADDEUS MOSS

Thaddeus Moss came on strong late in the season with two strong games against Oklahoma and Clemson. It surged enough to gain buzz and bolted for the NFL after the Tigers’ National Championship victory. For Steelers fans, he has long been at the forefront of the tight end discussion. Views on his draft stock have gone all the way from the middle of the second-round to the middle of day three. Right now, no one really knows where he is going to fall on that spectrum.

However, it was clear that Moss was lacking a little bit of juice on tape. His testing is going to be big to really get a gauge on how athletic he really is. The 40 yard dash, broad jump, and vertical are all going to be big to get a sense of his long speed and explosiveness. He will need to test well in order to creep up into the discussion for a day two draft pick. His weigh-in already showed that he was only 6-foot-1, so if he also bombs testing, Moss could experience a free fall in his draft stock. In addition to that, he has to pass medicals for the troubling foot injury that he suffered last year. This week is incredibly important for him.

MINNESOTA S ANTOINE WINFIELD JR.

Antoine Winfield Jr has been nothing but a playmaker over this past year. Seven

Seven interceptions is a number that will catch the eye of anyone. At Minnesota, he was a huge part of a season that saw the Golden Gophers surge to an unexpectedly Top-25 finish. He was the crux of the defense and moved around the entire field. They would use him as a slot defender, down near the line, and play him deep in a free safety role. So, the question, with his great year, would be why is his stock not even higher?

The answer lies in the questions about his athleticism. See, Winfield Jr. is clearly a playmaker and has the wherewithal for the football, but it is anything but certain that he has legitimate NFL range and athleticism. There were times on tape where Winfield Jr. seemed a step slow behind everyone. Too often his speed just was not enough to make the splash play. Those athleticism questions are going to be answered this week. But even more so, he has to answer for multiple injuries he has suffered in college, too. The testing and medicals will be indicative of if Winfield is in the second-round wheelhouse or more of an early day three guy.

FLORIDA STATE RB CAM AKERS

The Steelers are fighting a little bit of a battle with the running back position here. Do they really need one or do they not? If they choose to be on the side of drafting one, they have a ton of running backs that fit their standard. Florida State running back Cam Akers is just one of those guys that fits what they would look for in a running back. After a down Sophomore season, Akers came back for a rebound Junior campaign that saw his draft stock bounce right back up into the day two discussion.

Akers will likely test well, but in such a tight-knit class with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D’Andre Swift, JK Dobbins, and Jonathan Taylor in it, Akers will need to steal the show to be the talk of the week and swing his stock up. So, for him, it is more of an issue of how impressive can his numbers really be. Any 40-yard dash that hits the 4.4s is a big win for him. In interviews, he will also need to answer the questions about why his production dipped suddenly last year. Those two aspects are going to determine if Akers rises to join the upper echelon of the class or if he is just a big fish in a small pond in the second tier.

BOISE STATE EDGE CURTIS WEAVER

Another guy for Steelers fans to watch closely in case Bud Dupree walks in Curtis Weaver. If Dupree walks, Weaver will be smack dab in the middle of mock drafts and buzz in Pittsburgh as a potential replacement. However, he has significant questions athletically and with his flexibility. All of this week for Weaver is going to determine if he is actually going to be there when the Steelers pick. With a good week, he probably is a fringe first-rounder, but with a bad week, he is a mid-second round pick.

The new figure-eight drill that was added to test flexibility for pass rushers will be key for him. He looked stiff in his ankles and hips and lacked bend. If he can show off some bend and fluidity, it would be incredibly encouraging. And as for his athleticism, he at times was just unimpressive. His explosiveness was okay, but nothing great, and his movement skills in space were nothing to write home about. Weaver needs to show he can be an explosive and fluid athlete in order to be crowned as one of the winners of the combine.

Analysis

Film Study: James Pierre’s Size, Strength Provide Upside at Cornerback

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Coming into training camp, some undrafted free agents were on the radar to possibly make the Steelers at defensive back, where the team did not directly replaced departed veterans Artie Burns and Sean Davis.

A popular choice to make the team was undrafted slot corner Trajan Bandy, who ended up on the Steelers practice squad. The cornerback that came out of nowhere to make the roster was Florida Atlantic alum James Pierre. A near afterthought even after the Steelers signed him, Pierre showed up on the pool report every day against guys like James Washington and Chase Claypool. Pierre made plays on them, too. It was a healthy competition.

So, now that Pierre is on the roster, what are the Steelers really getting in this guy? Most importantly, what does his future outlook look like since he is likely buried on the bench?

Pierre’s Upside

Pierre mentioned in his press conference that he had one speed and that one speed was full speed. Pierre is 6-foot-2 and has great length. So, the physical fit is already rather striking right off the bat. Similar to Justin Layne, Pierre has the tools, and even though he bombed the combine, on tape, Pierre is a decent athlete. He is not a ‘wow’ player in terms of his athleticism, but it is sufficient, especially with how he plays the game.

The first thing that jumped out on his tape was his feistiness and willingness to do things that a lot of cornerbacks do not do: run support, tackling, and special teams. Pierre reaffirmed that, mentioning he wanted to help the Steelers anywhere they could, and it passes the eye test. Here on a cornerback blitz against Ohio State, Pierre is quite literally setting the edge on a read-option. That is a rare responsibility for a boundary corner, even one to the short side of the field. However, he does a fantastic job here to bring down Justin Fields with relative ease as well. Pierre can really tackle and is a physical player at the point of contact. It makes sense that the Steelers were drawn to Pierre for this reason. They expect their cornerbacks to be scrappy and help out in run defense and Pierre fits the bill.

This is where his size and strength come into play. UCF plays with weird wide receiver splits and this X-receiver has almost no room to work with on the sideline. Even still, Pierre does a fantastic job of using his hands to direct this route and control it. Even as the receiver swipes overhead, watch out how that speed turn is by Pierre. If that is thrown out of that break, Pierre has a chance to intercept that pass as he is in the hip pocket. He does almost surrender a catch on the scramble drill, but the initial stab and punch to the outside shoulder to divert any momentum from the receiver is what Pierre’s game is all about.

There are some issues with Pierre’s game. This is honestly not a bad rep by Pierre under all circumstances. It’s fine, he gets his hand knocked down while he has inside leverage and gets behind by a slight step. However, Pierre recovers quite well with a by marking his hand on that inside shoulder and staying in phase. He is in a position to make a play on this ball, but it is all a timing issue. Pierre actually jumps too early, misses a play on the ball, and as such this is caught. It would be nice to see Pierre get his head around even though he is in recovery mode. That comes down to composure and ball skills, which are two things Pierre needs to improve on. He dropped a few interceptions at training camp as well.

However, this is what it comes back to right here. The feistiness, the grit, and the passion Pierre plays with. It is going to land in the good graces of Mike Tomlin and the Steelers staff as long as he can do things like this on special teams and in practice. Pierre blows up a tight end here to make the tackle. Not many cornerbacks play with that strength or physicality but he does.

Pierre’s Outlook With the Steelers

It is a bit hard to frame what Pierre is going to be in his career. It all really comes back how he evolves in zone coverages and his composure in tough situations. There is a bit of a panic mechanic that Pierre induces when he gets beat off the line, even if he often recovers to be in a position to make the play. If he listens, learns, and works relentlessly to improve with these veterans in the room, however, Pierre has a chance to be a real gem of a find for the Steelers.

For right now, expect him to be a feisty special teamer that defines what it means to be a Steelers cornerback going back to the Steel Curtain days. The inconsistencies on the boundary will hopefully begin to work themselves out as he gets more and more coaching time with Teryl Austin and Tom Bradley.

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Analysis

Jaguars Release RB Leonard Fournette, Steelers again Speculated as Destination

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The Jacksonville Jaguars released veteran running back Leonard Fournette on Monday, reigniting speculation that the Pittsburgh Steelers could be interested in the former No. 4 overall NFL Draft selection.

Fournette rushed for 2,631 yards in his three seasons with the Jaguars, including a 1,152-yard season in 15 games in 2019. But the LSU product also grew dissatisfied with his situation in Jacksonville, requesting a trade over the offseason.

That trade, in which the Steelers were frequently suggested a partner, never materialized, and Fournette was waived on Monday.

Though the Steelers were a repeatedly rumored destination for Fournette in a trade, the circumstances are much different now.

The Steelers used one of their 2020 NFL Draft selections on running back Anthony McFarland, Jr. from Maryland, and he impressed through the first two weeks of his first training camp.

The Steelers have also already gone through their cycle of restructuring their contracts to get salary cap compliant for the 2020 season. Fournette is owed $4.2 million in salary for 2020 that would have to be absorbed if the Steelers or another team claimed him on waivers. The Steelers do not have that amount of cap space available, meaning they would have to begin the process of renegotiating a contract in order to make space very quickly.

There also isn’t a player in the Steelers running backs room that they could release in order to realize any cap savings if they landed Fournette, as their entire running backs room consists of players on their rookie contracts or for near the veteran minimum.

The combination of factors makes it seem unlikely that Fournette will end up with the Steelers, especially considering the fact that they likely could have acquired him for very little earlier this offseason and chose not to. But until he lands elsewhere, it seems likely that the speculation will continue and it’s a situation worth monitoring.

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Analysis

Training Camp Takeaways: Eric Ebron Continues to Impress

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Eric Ebron is standing out in a very good way at training camp thus far. James Daniel noted on Tuesday that Ebron “had made a few splash plays” already in camp, and he continued that on Wednesday, not even a day after being called the “missing link” to the offense by fellow tight end Vance McDonald.

On Wednesday, Ebron skied over All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to make an impressive contested catch. Later in the team sessions, Ebron laid out to make a fantastic diving catch for a touchdown. Those were the key two plays Ebron flashed in the passing game. Daniel praised Ebron’s receiving skillset.

“Ebron’s calling card for the time he’s been in the League is pass-catching ability, and he’s got some quickness, some speed, route-running stuff that a lot of guys don’t have,” Daniel said.

With the team raving about the energy he brings to the table as well, Ebron’s stock is shooting through the roof.

Ryan Switzer is Turning Heads at Camp

After much criticism throughout a lackluster 2019, Ryan Switzer showed up to training camp looked more shredded than ever before. He was battling for a roster spot, and showing up in the best shape of his life is a good way to impress the coaches. Even with his close relationship with Ben Roethlisberger, Switzer had to prove himself. As the only pure slot on the roster, Switzer has a unique skill set, which Tomlin acknowledged on Wednesday.

“He’s a guy that understands that’s a niche for him,” Tomlin said. “He embraces the detail required to be successful in there. He will continue to carve out his role in this process like everybody else is, but he does bring that unique experience to that position specifically.” 

Switzer made a leaping grab over Mike Hilton on Tuesday for a touchdown, and caught yet another touchdown Wednesday in the two-minute team session along the sideline. It was a broken play by Roethlisberger, and Switzer worked the scramble drill with him to connect for the touchdown. Switzer also caught a key pass on a 3rd and 12 play to convert for a first down in the same two-minute drill session. Truth be told, it seems Switzer is on a mission.

“I have to prove No. 7 (Ben Roethlisberger) right. I have to prove a lot of people right,” Switzer said. That’s what I’ve been focused on. I haven’t focused on the people I’m trying to prove wrong. I’m trying to prove Coach Tomlin and Mr. Colbert and Mr. Rooney right.”

It seems Switzer is making a very strong case to make the 53-man roster at this point as the slot specific receiver on the team.

Inside backers flash in coverage

It was a big day on Wednesday for the inside linebackers, as all of the big three made plays that stood out. Devin Bush made a fantastic play on Anthony McFarland. Bush kept pace with McFarland all the way down the field on a deep pass and made a play in the end zone to bat the ball away. In the team sessions, Bush batted yet another ball away from McFarland.

Vince Williams had a standout rep, as he stayed patient and knocked the ball away from Kerrith Whyte in the linebacker-running back coverage drill. Ulysees GIlbert III continues to delight in camp as he registered a few pass breakups on the day both in the drills and in the team session.

For a unit with some depth concerns, the flashes from all three linebackers atop the depth chart are promising.

Mason Rudolph Struggles

While Roethlisberger continues to get lots of praise at training camp, his backup, Mason Rudolph, struggled on Wednesday. In the no-huddle drill, Rudolph did not complete a single pass. After that, he switched to the two-minute drill, where errant passes and a drop hurt the drive from even getting off the ground.

Rudolph should have been intercepted on a few passes but was not due to bad hands from defenders or good defense from the wide receivers to prevent the interceptions.

Rudolph did throw a nice pass to Deon Cain, but Cain fell before catching it. Rudolph also connected with Chase Claypool for a touchdown on the day. Regardless, it would be better if there were rave reviews coming out of camp about Rudolph, not ones that report he is struggling.

Zach Banner is Making His Case

Banner is in fierce competition with Chuks Okorafor for the starting right tackle spot. While Okorafor saw the first-team reps on Wednesday, Banner has shown out the past two days in an effort to prove he is worthy.

On Tuesday, Banner faced Bud Dupree twice and they split the reps against each other, with Banner impressing coaches. In the one-on-one pass-rush drills, everyone that Banner faced was stymied, including seventh-round rookie Carlos Davis. It was an impressive showing for Banner.

On Wednesday, Banner was light on his feet and looked quick. After transforming his body over the past two years, Banner is in better shape than ever before. Banner even got some work in on the Juggs machine prior to practice.

As the competition develops, if Banner continues to impress, he may force himself into the starting spot.

Snell Down 12

Since reporting to Pittsburgh, it has been noticeable that Benny Snell appeared far slimmer than the 2019 season. On Wednesday, Snell confirmed that he had shed weight. In 2019, Snell weighed 224 pounds but said he has now lost 12 pounds and weighs 212 pounds.

Despite that, Snell did it all on his own, which earned the praise of Mike Tomlin. Snell clarified the reasons as to why he and the coaching staff decided he follow the same route that Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, and Jaylen Samuels took.

“The Steelers gave me a plan,” Snell said. “I stuck to it, and I feel like it will help me a ton going into this year with my lateral quickness, my speed, me taking care of my body, the hits I can take, etc.”

Snell is looking to showcase his new athletic skills to become a more dynamic runner. Last year, he was used as a between the tackles, short-yardage power back. In 2020, he will want to prove he has the explosiveness to win outside the tackles, thus earning him more snaps as a scheme diverse runner.

Punters Hard to Evaluate

Special teams are often overlooked but are a key part of the team. Nothing has been truer for the under the radar punter competition between Jordan Berry and newcomer Corliss Waitman out of South Alabama. Despite the tough challenges, Mike Tomlin and Danny Smith both seem comfortable they will be able to sort it out and create a competitive environment for the competition.

“There’s a lot of those battles in terms of the division of labor that’s worrisome in this environment,” Tomlin said. “We will push through it. We will create a competitive environment.”

Waitman comes off a college career of averaging 42.7 yards per punt. Berry is the incumbent and experienced veteran, however. Still, Smith says the Steelers will forge ahead.

“We have time,” Smith said. “We put them in different situations. I’m going to tell you the truth, and I think it’s going to happen a lot throughout our league, when we all open up and there are 16 games being played the first week of the NFL season there are going to be guys out there on every team that we are all going to see what they can do under pressure for the first time in this environment that we’re in.”

How the punting competition works out will be anyone’s guess given the current conditions, but Berry, with experience, would likely be the favorite at this point.

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