INDIANAPOLIS — There’s plenty that’s different about the 2020 version of the NFL Combine.
With a new schedule set to provide primetime television coverage of the most popular fan events, every team is dealing with a new approach to the process from a timeline standpoint.
For the Pittsburgh Steelers and general manager Kevin Colbert and his staff, it’s even more different.
For the first time ever, the Steelers brass is attending the combine without a first-round draft pick to scout for.
The Steelers, of course, traded their 2020 first-round pick to Miami in the fall for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. That choice ended up being the No. 18 overall selection, one of four picks in the top 40 selections for the Dolphins. The Steelers won’t have any, with their first pick not coming until No. 49 in the second round.
But that doesn’t mean the Steelers are approaching this week’s combine or free agency any differently.
“We’re always going to look at every position in free agency and the draft and players getting cut,” Colbert said on Tuesday at the combine. “We’re never going to stop evaluating a position. The evaluation part really doesn’t change. What we end up doing in a draft or in a free agency period may change. But not the evaluation. We’re still going to evaluate player No. 1 the same way we do 256. That has always been the same. That always will be.”
The trade of a first-round draft pick was extremely unusual for the Steelers, which had not done so since 1967.
Colbert said the opportunity to acquire Fitzpatrick was mostly about a strange combination of the Steelers wanting to show they were not giving up on the 2019 season and the Dolphins actively looking to amass draft picks at the expense of talented players. But he also didn’t rule out doing it again in the future.
“It was an unusual decision because a player like that is never usually available for a pick,” Colbert said. “In our situation, it was very interesting and obviously in Miami’s situation, getting another first-round pick was very interesting to them. So it’s not that we don’t look for those types of things or those types of opportunities, but it presented itself and it wasn’t hard to make those types of decisions because Minkah was a very good player. He was a young player. He still had four years left on his deal. So we always equated that to a first-round pick.
“Was it an instant, overnight-type decision? Of course not. Because we had to make sure that we talked through what might be available. We didn’t know where we were picking. We didn’t know what might be available at that pick. We were never going to give up on 2019 because we lost our quarterback. So part of that trade was trying to do the best that we could to have a good 2019.”
Of course, just because the Steelers traded their first-round pick doesn’t mean they won’t be active on the draft’s first night. After all, Colbert said that they still intend on going through the draft process the usual way and evaluating each and every prospect, starting at the very top.
Could they make a move up from No. 49 to get back into the first round?
“Stay tuned,” Colbert said.
NBC’s Mike Florio Predicts Dim Outlook for JuJu Smith-Schuster in Free Agency
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is not so sure Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to get the pay day he believes he deserves.
Florio joined The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan on Friday, and painted a dim picture of Smith-Schuster’s free agency prospects.
“If Juju wants to be paid like a No. 1 wide receiver, he’s going to be waiting a long, long time,” Florio said.
Smith-Schuster has expressed a desire to remain in Pittsburgh, but their dire salary cap situation had a made a continuation seemingly impossible.
Now that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has signed a new contract and provided the club additional financial flexibility, there may be a path for Smith-Schuster to return. Still, there will not be enough money available to pay him like one of the league’s elite wideouts.
If that is what Smith-Schuster wants in Pittsburgh, he may be in for a rude awakening as Florio predicts.
Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 97 receptions in 2020, while also tallying 831 yards and nine touchdowns.
Selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Southern California, Smith-Schuster has 293 receptions, 3,565 yards and 24 touchdowns as a Steeler. He was selected to his first and only Pro Bowl in 2018.
Steelers Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada on Run Game, Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada has spoken publicly for the first time since his promotion in late January.
Canada joined the latest edition of The Standard, the Steelers’ behind-the-scenes web series, and discussed a number of topics, including fixing the run game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his offensive philosophy.
There is no denying Pittsburgh produced the least successful rushing attack in football a season ago, averaging just 84.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt.
Canada recognizes the Steelers need to improve significantly on the ground, a mandate he implied came down from Team President Art Rooney II.
“He’s made it very clear that that’s got to get better,” Canada said. “When all of us realized that we didn’t get it done we wanted to with our running game and all of who are here are part of that. And we’ve got to improve upon it in a multitude of ways and we’re certainly focused on it. We’re globally studying who’s running the ball well. We’ve always believed in running the football anywhere that I’ve been. You win up front. I believe that. We believe that. I know Coach Tomlin believes that.”
Not only will the Steelers have to better impose their will in the trenches, but Canada knows they will also have to remove the predictability that plagued them last season, especially in the passing game.
“You have to be able to run the football when they know you’re going to run it,” Canada added. “And you have to be able to throw the football when they know you’re going to throw it.”
Canada also gushed over Roethlisberger, who the Steelers announced will be returning for the 2021 season on a one-year contract Thursday.
“He’s such a great competitor. He competes at everything he does and his competitive drive is so strong and so awesome to be around no matter what we’re doing,” Canada said of Roethlisberger.
He also praised the 39-year-old’s accuracy, which he believes sets Roethlisberger apart from his peers.
“And then just his accuracy. And I’ve said this to one of my buddies who’s a quarterback coach somewhere else. Young quarterbacks, I wish there was some way for them to be here and watch how he practices putting the ball in certain spots. It’s such a unique talent that he’s able to do it.”
While Roethlisberger’s new deal has provided the Steelers some much needed financial flexibility, they will still undoubtedly have some tough departures once free agency begins in earnest.
Regardless which players do or do not remain in Pittsburgh heading into the 2021 season, Canada insists his offense will be multi-dimensional and cater to whatever personnel the Steelers have on the offensive side.
“We are going through and looking at the foundation of our offense. And building an offense that will be conducive to whatever talent that we have,” Canada said. “I don’t believe you have a certain system that works and this is all we’re going to do and we have to have the players for that. We have the players we have each year. Our job is to score more points than the team we play on each Sunday.”
Steelers Sign Center J.C. Hassenauer on One-Year Deal
The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed center J.C. Hassenauer to a one-year deal, first reported by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Steelers sign center J.C. Hassenauer, an exclusive rights free agent, to a one-year deal, per source.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) March 4, 2021
An exclusive right free agent, Hassenauer was almost a lock to return to Pittsburgh in 2021. His new deal with the Steelers is worth $780,000.
Hassenauer proved a vital piece along the Steelers’ offensive line a season ago, seeing action in 15 games and making four starts. He was on the field for 23% of the team’s offensive stats, while also appearing on 50 special teams plays.
Prior to Pittsburgh, Hassenauer signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2018, spending the first seven weeks of the season on their practice squad.
He played for the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football in 2019.
Hassenauer played his college ball at Alabama. He made just three career starts for the Crimson Tide, with his final coming in the 2018 College Football Playoff national championship game, a 26-23 overtime win over Georgia.
Hassenauer’s agent Blake Baratz confirmed the signing on Twitter on Thursday.