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Steelers Free Agency Preview: Wide Receivers

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The Pittsburgh Steelers are due to deal receiver Antonio Brown seemingly any day now, and when Brown is officially out of Pittsburgh, a huge hole will be left for whoever replaces him in terms of production on the field.

The top of the Steelers pass-catching depth chart features JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer and James Washington, all at different stages of their career. Smith-Schuster is well on his way to NFL stardom, Switzer looks to settle his feet in as a young slot receiver, and Washington will need to find some sort of progress after what many consider a disappointing rookie season.

Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey may find themselves in new uniforms for 2019, as both are set to hit the open market.

The Steelers have $27.4 million sunk into the wide receiver position, per Spotrac.com. Antonio Brown’s $22.1 million accounts for most of that figure currently, while Smith-Schuster and Washington are the only other rostered receivers to see an annual salary of +$1,000,000.

While Pittsburgh may focus their efforts in the draft to find another young receiver for the depth chart, a veteran presence in the receivers room would pay dividends for the development of a depth chart that has an average age of under 25.

What are some possible fits for the Steelers in free agency? While this class of receivers doesn’t possess true star-power that can match what the Steelers are losing, valuable pass-catches are still within range of Pittsburgh’s grasp.

Golden Tate

Golden Tate is likely the best receiver currently on the open market, but may also cost the most on an annual basis. Tate made $6.2 million in 2018, but will hope to see that figure rise when looking for his next team. Tate saw great numbers as a member of the Detroit Lions, but suffered from a lack of involvement after being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tate, should he find his way to the Steel City, would assume Brown’s role as a number one receiver and make defenses respect him enough to not double Smith-Schuster. Tate has displayed speed to get behind cornerbacks on deep routes, while also being able to make catches in the middle of the field or tip-toe on the sideline. Tate’s game is solid all-around, and would pair well with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s creative play-calling.

Donte Moncrief

Donte Moncrief made $9.6 million in 2018, and will likely see another contract similar to that number, if not a tad lower. Moncrief’s numbers don’t jump off the page with his one year stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars (48 rec, 668 yards, 3 TD) thanks to lack of QB play+run first mentality, but the 26-year-old offers a lot of upside as a speedy route-runner that has showcased his ability to hit the big play any given touch.

While Moncrief may not come in and draw attention away from JuJu, he will provide a respectable option on the opposite side of the field. Moncrief is not a huge name that will get fans excited, but the tools he possesses makes him one of the better free agent wide receivers available.

Tyrell Williams

Tyrell Williams only made $2.9 million in 2018, but is expected to see a huge pay increase when free agency opens. Williams, who caught 41 balls for 653 yards and 5 scores (tied for first among free agent WR’s) will likely the draw one of the larger crowds of teams interested in his services.

His 6’4″ frame would provide the Steelers with another big-bodied receiving option, and his knack for coming down with ridiculous balls downfield would be a welcome sign for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Williams is a straight-up playmaker on the field with athleticism to match his big frame. Williams would find a lot of success in black and gold, but it’s up to the Steelers if they want to fork over some cash to make it happen.

Chris Conley

If Tyrell Williams is option A, Chris Conley is option B. Conley’s big frame closely matches that of Williams, and the touchdown production mirrored each other in 2018. Yet Conley was buried on what was an extremely talented Chiefs roster, not shining quite like Williams did in LA.

Yet Conley still embodies a solidified red-zone target, and would provide a nice complement to Smith-Schuster should the 26-year-old continue to improve his game. He is not as polished as Williams when it comes to route-running and does not have highlight reel catches, yet Conley could make positive contributions to the Steelers if given the opportunity.

Other Free Agent WR’s

These guys, for one reason or another, didn’t make the list of potential Steelers targets. Whether it be an expensive price tag, not fitting in the scheme or just flat-out might not wanting to come to Pittsburgh, these guys are unlikely to see themselves in black and gold.

However, the NFL is a funny business more times than not, and not everything can officially be ruled out. These guys may still find their way to Pittsburgh, even if it’s just for a visit.

  • Demaryius Thomas
  • Randall Cobb
  • Tavon Austin
  • Ryan Grant
  • Kevin White
  • Devin Funchess

In today’s modern-day passing league, the importance of quality receivers continues to become a staple in most offenses. If Roethlisberger plans on throwing another 5,000 yards next season, the Steelers may very well find another piece to that puzzle in free agency.

Steelers

Steelers Sign another from XFL, DE/LB Dewayne Hendrix

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The Steelers have signed former Pitt defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, Steelers Now has confirmed. The news of Hendrix’s signing was first reported by NFL Draft Diamonds.

Hendrix, 24, was most recently with the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL. He also spent time on the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins last season.

In five games with St. Louis, Hendrix made four tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry.

A two-year starter at Pitt after transferring from Tennessee, Hendrix finished his Panthers career with 50 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. He played in 25 games total for Pitt from 2016-18 and made 24 starts.

Hendrix missed the 2016 season with a season-ending ankle injury suffered on the first series of the game. He sat out 2015 at Pitt after playing in seven games with the Volunteers as a true freshman.

At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Hendrix played defensive end at Pitt, but could be more suited to be an outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme. He’s essentially the same height and weight as starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree.

Hendrix is the fifth XFL alum the Steelers have signed, joining long snapper and linebacker Christian Kuntz, defensive end Cavon Walker, tackle Jarron Jones and safety Tyree Kinnel.

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Analysis

What to Expect from a 38-Year-Old Starting Quarterback

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On March 2nd, Ben Roethlisberger turned 38. When the NFL season starts in September, Ben will be 38 years old and entering his 17th year as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at this age, Ben is reaching rarefied air. Since 1969, there have been only 54 quarterbacks that played into their age 38 season. Of those 54, 46 of them started a game and just 22 finished the season with starts in more than half the games that season.

Discounting the fact that Roethlisberger is recovering from elbow surgery, what can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.

From 1969-1999 quarterbacks playing in their age 38 season on average threw for 2,665 yards with 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Not gaudy numbers, but some of that has to do with the eras in which these quarterbacks played. Even more encouraging, they had a 63% winning percentage.

From 1969-1999, five Hall of Fame quarterbacks played to age 38. Some experienced more success than others.

In 1978 Fran Tarkenton threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards but tossed up 32 interceptions and went 8-7-1 on the season. In 1983, Ken Stabler went 7-7 at age 38, but threw 18 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns and fewer than 2,000 yards. Warren Moon went 9-6 in 1994, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18). In 1999, Dan Marino went 5-6 at age 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.

On the positive side, all-time great Joe Montana had 3,283 yards through the air and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio (18-9) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and John Elway won a Super Bowl in his age 38 season. Elway may have been relying on Terrell Davis at that time, but still put up nearly 3,000 yards along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.

As sports science and training regimes have improved, it’s become more commonplace to find quarterbacks 38 and older still having success, or even dominating in the league.

In 2007, Brett Favre at 38 threw for over 4,000 yards and added 28 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions as the Packers went 13-3. Kurt Warner a year after his Super Bowl loss to the Steelers still had plenty in the tank at 38. The veteran quarterback started 15 games, going 10-5 with 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 picks. Even journeyman Josh McCown put up 18 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and 2,900 yards in his age 38 season.

As far as Roethlisberger’s direct contemporaries, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all put together superlative performances at age 38.

Peyton Manning, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT (12-4)
Tom Brady, 4,770 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT (12-4)
Drew Brees, 4,334 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT (11-5)

However, depending on how you view Roethlisberger, a closer proxy may be former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers’ age 38 season was statistically one of his worst as the team went 5-11. Rivers threw for 4,600 yards but threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23).

What will Roethlisberger be like when he comes back? If history offers any clues, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a highly effective player on his return. Quarterbacks at his level in this era– i.e. future Hall of Famers–have historically had success at age 38 and beyond.

It’s impossible to predict when a player will “lose it”. But as long as his elbow is healed and there’s not a significant loss of arm strength, there’s no reason to think that Roethlisberger won’t be able to return to his per-injury, high-level of play.

NFL Quarterbacks at age 38, >7 starts, since 2000

PlayerYearAgeTmGGSCmpAttCmp%YdsTDIntPick6TD%Int%RateSkYdsSk%Y/AAY/AANY/AY/GWLT4QCGWD
Vinny Testaverde200138NYJ161626044158.962752151413.43.1775.3181223.90%6.245.495.01172106055
Rich Gannon200338OAK7712522555.561274642.71.7873.517907.00%5.665.44.6418225012
Brad Johnson200638MIN151427043961.5275091532.13.4272292006.20%6.265.144.39183.368023
Brett Favre200738GNB161635653566.544155281515.22.895.715932.70%7.777.557.18259.7133024
Jeff Garcia200838TAM121124437664.89271212613.21.690.2231005.80%7.217.136.4722665013
Kurt Warner200938ARI151533951366.083753261425.12.7393.2241724.50%7.327.16.46250.2105012
Kerry Collins201038TEN10716027857.551823148152.8882.213914.50%6.566.275.68182.325011
Jon Kitna201038DAL10920931865.7223651612353.7788.9211006.20%7.446.756.03236.545012
Peyton Manning201438DEN161639559766.164727391516.52.51101.5171182.80%7.928.097.68295.4124011
Tom Brady201538NWE161640262464.42477036725.81.12102.2382255.70%7.648.297.48298.1124022
Carson Palmer201738ARI7716426761.4219789713.42.6284.4221507.60%7.416.95.86282.634022
Josh McCown201738NYJ131326739767.2529261894.52.2794.5392648.90%7.377.266225.158012
Drew Brees201738NOR161638653672.01433423814.31.49103.9201453.60%8.098.277.71270.9115022
Philip Rivers201938LAC161639059165.994615232013.93.3888.5342225.40%7.817.066.32288.4511012

All data from Pro Football Reference

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Steelers

What Eric Ebron Can Bring to the Steelers

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When the Steelers signed free agent tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year, $12 million dollar deal, these kinds of performances probably helped convince them to make the offer.

The 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end shows fantastic body control, great feet, and a penchant for making combat catches over multiple defenders. What’s not to like?

Over the past two seasons, the former 1st round pick of the Detroit Lions is 8th in receptions (97) and yards (1125) and first in touchdowns (17) amongst all tight ends.

Now the bad news. The kind of things you don’t see in highlight videos.

Ebron is last in the NFL over the last two seasons in catch percentage at just 59.9% (50 receptions minimum). That’s 10 points lower than Steelers starter Vance McDonald over the same time period. In 2019 with the Colts, Ebron took a major step back–which can be somewhat excused with Andrew Luck’s retirement–starting only two games. Ebron also had his receptions and yards halved from 2018, 66 to 31 and 750 to 375.

Obviously the Steelers are hoping to get the 2018 version of Ebron that racked up 14 touchdowns and 44 first downs and was sixth in the league in receptions and fifth in yards.

If Ebron can rediscover his red zone magic and thrive with a veteran quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger they could have a dynamic pair of tight ends between he and Vance McDonald.

A big if, but a healthy McDonald and a revitalized Ebron would give the Steelers a receiving tight end combination in the top echelon of the league at a cap hit of under $10,000,000 dollars.

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