Steelers running back James Conner and special teams coordinator Danny Smith have tested positive for COVID-19, according to reports by Adam Schefter of ESPN, Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL Network and Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette.
Conner, the Steelers’ starting running back, is a cancer survivor. Smith, 67 is in his eighth season with the Steelers and 25th as an NFL coach.
James Conner is the #Steelers player who tested positive for #COVID, multiple sources tell me. He is awaiting a second test tomorrow to confirm these results. Contact tracing continues. And as w/ every positive case in the #NFL and country… here’s to recoveries and good health.
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) November 28, 2020
Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith tested positive for the Covid-19 virus, per sources
— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) November 28, 2020
The news comes on the heels of the team placing three players — defensive linemen Isaiah Buggs and Stephon Tuitt and tackle Jerald Hawkins — on the COVID-19 reserve list on Friday.
Tracing for close contacts is underway. Schefter reported that Conner has multiple close contacts that will have to be isolated from the team.
More positives in Pittsburgh: One coach and one player tested positive with multiple contacts in Pittsburgh, per sources.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 28, 2020
With the Steelers scheduled to play the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on Tuesday, Conner, the three players placed on the COVID-19 list on Friday and all additional positive cases and close contacts will miss the game.
Conner will likely be replaced by second-year backup Benny Snell. Chris Wormley and Henry Mondeaux will fill in for Tuitt and Buggs on the defensive line, if available. Derwin Gray will be elevated to the top backup at tackle without Hawkins.
The Steelers did not practice on Friday and are not scheduled to practice on Saturday. They are scheduled to return to practice on Sunday.
The Steelers previously had guard Kevin Dotson on the COVID-19 reserve list, while tight end Vance McDonald came off the list this week after missing one game.
Steelers’ Vance McDonald Reflects on Stiff Arm Moment, Relationship with Ben Roethlisberger
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald spoke to the media after officially announcing his retirement from the NFL. McDonald responded to a question about the play he’s most synonymous with by saying he embraces the famous stiff arm moment. He also detailed his interaction with Ben Roethlisberger when he told his quarterback he was planning to retire.
Steelers TE Kevin Rader Aced Week 17 Audition, More Coming in 2021?
The Steelers have an opening in their tight ends room, as four-year starter Vance McDonald retired on Friday.
That leaves Eric Ebron as the team’s projected starter for 2021, and that won’t be a big change, as Ebron out-snapped McDonald and started nine games to McDonald’s 12. Without another veteran option, it’s likely the Steelers will use fewer two-tight end sets, but the issue of backups will need to be addressed.
Michigan product and former fifth-round pick Zach Gentry has yet to be a factor through two seasons and missed most of 2020 with an injury, but as he’s under contract and the team is facing a salary cup crunch, he seems likely to hold onto that job.
The Steelers have options for a third tight end, securing the services of Dax Raymond and Charles Jones on reserve/future contracts for the 2021 season on Thursday. But the man that seems most likely to step up into that role is third-year pro Kevin Rader.
Rader, a Pine-Richland and Youngstown State alum spent his second season with the Steelers in 2020, but got his first taste of action in Week 17 at Cleveland with the Steelers choosing to rest starters.
He made the most of the opportunity, particularly on special teams, where he played in nearly half of the team’s snaps, made three tackles and drew praise from head coach Mike Tomlin.
“Guys like Kevin Rader had an opportunity to step up and play,” Tomlin said. “I think he had three tackles on kickoff. For an offensive player to have that type of contribution in net, in a coverage unit I think was impressive. That’s good for him. That’s good for us as we move forward.”
Rader is also on a reserve/future contract, with no guaranteed money for 2021, but if he can continue to show the ability to contribute on special teams and help as a blocker, where McDonald excelled and Ebron does not, it seems that he can certainly carve himself out a role in Pittsburgh in 2021.
Steelers to Host ex-Vikings OT Aviante Collins for Visit
The Steelers will host free agent tackle Aviante Collins for a visit, according to the NFL transactions page for Thursday.
Collins, 27, spent the last four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings after joining the team as an undrafted free agent out of TCU in 2017.
Collins played in three games in 2017 and two in 2019 for the Vikings, and spent all of the 2020 season on the practice squad, except for a one-week elevation in Week 11, in which he did not play.
The 6-foot-4, 292-pound tackle its a free agent after the Vikings decided to allow his practice squad contract to expire at the end of the season.
The Steelers have several free agents at the tackle position, including longtime starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, 2019 starting right tackle Matt Feiler and 2020 starting right tackle Zach Banner, who are unrestricted free agents, and backup Jerald Hawkins, who is a restricted free agent.
The Steelers have Chukwuma Okorafor under contract and Anthony Coyle, Jarron Jones, John Leglue and Brandon Walton signed to futures contract.