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James Conner Likes Pitt vs. Penn State, But Nothing on the Line This Year

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PITTSBURGH — Of course, James Conner likes the Panthers.

The Steelers running back, and former Pitt star, said he thinks his alma mater will prevail in this Saturday’s matchup between Pennsylvania rivals Pitt and Penn State at Beaver Stadium.

“I’m gonna take my Panthers every time,” Conner said Monday. “We got a win last week, so let’s keep it going.”

But unlike years past, Conner isn’t putting any stakes on the game. In 2018, he made — and lost — a wager with the Penn State alumni in the Steelers’ locker room that saw him forced to wear a Penn State hat and jacket in the locker room, much to the pleasure of Nittany Lions alumni such as Marcus Allen and Malik Golden.

This year, Conner is just going to stick to hoping the Panthers get a win, even though he has more support than he has had in previous years. Golden and tight end Jesse James have moved on, while new defensive assistant Teryl Austin is a fellow Pitt alum, joining inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky as Panthers on the Pitt coaching staff. Defensive backs coach Tom Bradley went to Penn State.

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Mike Tomlin: Hall of Fame Class of 2021 Incomplete without Steelers Scout Bill Nunn

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Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t get a vote when it comes to who enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he made his opinions known on who he thinks should be a part of the Hall’s Class of 2021, making a public plea on Monday for former Steelers scout Bill Nunn to be included.

“There is no way the Class of 2021 can be complete without the legend, Bill Nunn, being a part of it,” Tomlin wrote.

Nunn, who died in 2014, was selected as the lone finalist recommended by the nine-member contributor committee in August. He, senior committee finalist Drew Pearson, coaches committee finalist Tom Flores and 15 modern-era finalists, including former Steelers guard Alan Faneca, will all be on the ballot when the voters meet before the Super Bowl.

Nunn, a Homewood native and Westinghouse alum, was a key figure in the Steelers’ success in the 1970s and helped revolutionize the scouting process for players at historically black colleges and universities, that had been previously underrepresented in the NFL after having worked as a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Courier.

“Bill’s contributions to the Steelers were extraordinary over the 46 years he was part of the organization,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a press release in August. “He was a special person that was a close friend and mentor before his passing in 2014. His lessons and stories are still evident in our everyday work. 

“I look forward to hopefully celebrating his induction next year at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His legacy and career deserve to be recognized with the greatest individual honor in football, and we are excited he was chosen by the contributor committee as a finalist.”

Tomlin also wished luck to three players that he coached: former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive backs Ronde Barber and John Lynch and Faneca.

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Steelers

Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt Named to PFWA All-NFL Team

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For the second season in a row, Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and outside linebacker T.J. Watt have been named to the Pro Football Writers of American All-AFC and All-NFL teams for the second consecutive season.

Fitzpatrick was also named an Associated Press All-Pro this season for the second straight year. In 2020, Fitzpatrick had 79 total tackles, eleven passes defended and a team-high four interceptions, one of which he returned for a 37-yard touchdown.

The other All-NFL and All-AFC safety was Tyrann Mathieu of the Kansas City Chiefs.

during a regular season game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020 in Pittsburgh, PA. (192119000006#1 / Pittsburgh Steelers)

Watt was also named a first-team AP All-Pro after leading the NFL in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits. His 15 sacks were one off a franchise record and he racked them up while playing in only 15 games.

Watt was named the FOX Sports NFL Defensive Player of the Year and remains the favorite to win the prestigious AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year award at the postseason NFL Honors banquet.

Watt was also named the Steelers’ team MVP for the second straight season after finishing with 53 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 41 quarterbacks hits, two forced fumbles and an interception this season.

The other All-NFL outside linebacker was Khalil Mack of the Chicago Bears, while Bradley Chubb of the Cleveland Browns was the other All-AFC outside linebacker.

Both players were also selected to the 2021 NFL Pro Bowl team. The Pro Bowl will not be played. Instead, the Pro Bowl events will be led virtually and the game will be streamed via Madden NFL 21.

Only the Steelers and Los Angeles Rams had two All-NFL players on defense, tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The Green Bay Packers had the most players selected with three, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, tackle David Bakhitiari and wide receiver Davante Adams.

Full All-NFL team:

2020 PFWA ALL-NFL TEAM
Offense
QB – Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
RB – Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings; Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans*
WR – Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers; Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills
TE – Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
C – Corey Linsley, Green Bay Packers
G – Joel Bitonio, Cleveland Browns; Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts#
T – David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers; Jack Conklin, Cleveland Browns

Defense
DE – Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns; Trey Hendrickson, New Orleans Saints
DT – DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts; Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams^
OLB – Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears; T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers*
MLB – Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
CB – Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins; Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
S – Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers*; Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs

Special Teams
PK – Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens#
P – Jake Bailey, New England Patriots
KR – Cordarrelle Patterson, Chicago Bears*
PR – Gunner Olszewski, New England Patriots
ST – George Odum, Indianapolis Colts

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Steelers

What Would Salary Cap Impacts of Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster Returns Be?

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Ben Roethlisberger is expected to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2021 season, NFL Network reported on Saturday, and furthermore, he reportedly wants JuJu Smith-Schuster to return along with him.

With the Steelers already over the expected 2021 salary cap, that could be a very difficult to work for the Pittsburgh front office.

Roethlisberger is scheduled to count $41 million against the Steelers’ salary cap, while Smith-Schuster has an estimated market value north of $15 million.

It’s possible that one or both players would take an extremely team-friendly deal in order to facilitate their combined return, but if not, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the rest of the 2021 season.

As Steelers Now analyst Flip Fisher broke down last week, if the salary cap comes in at the baseline figure of $175 million, the Steelers will need to clear nearly $40 million from their existing 2021 payroll obligations.

If Roethlisberger plays at his full cap hit, and Smith-Schuster signs for $15 million, that would mean that $65 million would need to be cut elsewhere.

The Steelers will almost certainly restructure the contracts of defensive linemen Cam Heyward (saving $7 million), Stephon Tuitt (saving $4 million) and Chris Boswell (saving $1 million), no matter what.

But that won’t get them even close. To fit Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster in, that would also mean releasing Joe Haden ($12.6 million), David DeCastro ($8.75 million), Steven Nelson ($8.25 million), Maurkice Pouncey ($8 million), Eric Ebron ($6 million), Vance McDonald ($5.2 million), Vince Williams ($4 million), and Derek Watt ($1.6 million).

Obviously, that’s not tenable.

But even if Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster were to sign extremely team-friendly deals, the situation looks bleak.

If Roethlisberger plays for the veteran minimum of $1.05 million and forgoes the entire rest of his $19 million salary, he’ll still carry another $22 million in cap hit from deferred signing bonus that can’t be moved. That would reduce the cap overage by just over $18 million, saving Pouncey and DeCastro, Haden and Willams, or however else you want to divide it up.

Even if Roethlisberger plays for the minimum and Smith-Schuster signs an extremely team-friendly deal, say for $5 million instead of $15 million, that’s still not even half the total overage.

Now, the cap could come in at a higher figure than the bottom-line $175 million, but figure won’t be know for sure until March. But the cap is expected to decrease from its current $198.2 million, thanks to the significant revenue loss around the NFL due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the bottom line is that if Roethlisberger wants to come back and he wants a talented team full of weapons around him, that’s going to necessitate playing for a bare minimum salary in 2021.

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