Sat, 17 Apr 2021

Asked and Answered: April 6

The Steelers
07 Apr 2021, 06:30 GMT+10

Bob Labriola

Let's get to it:

JASON BRECHT FROM ANAMOSA, IA: What am I missing with James Connor? He not long ago was a Pro Bowl running back and defended in many questions by you, to now being kicked to the curb by most. I do understand that the Steelers were last in rushing and am not at all thinking Connor is one of the best feature backs around, but if given a better offensive line and different scheme, couldn't he still be a valuable back?

ANSWER: James Conner was a Pro Bowl running back in 2018, but in the NFL that's a lifetime ago, and since then he hasn't been able to repeat that kind of performance or build upon it. The Steelers need a difference-making feature back, and the best way for them to add one is to draft one. The idea behind this is to address a team weakness, and finishing last in the league in rushing in 2020 screams that the running game is a major weakness. So, the Steelers need to improve their offensive line, get a big-time back to run behind it, and emphasize that aspect of their offense. Too many fans, in my opinion, believe the goal is to find a way to make Conner successful, when the real goal is to make the running attack a weapon capable of complementing a contending team.

JC CHUTA FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: You've made references to the Steelers needing to address their offensive line in the upcoming draft. Was that a hint of your prediction for this year's draft?

ANSWER: No, it was proof that I watched every snap of every regular season game last season.

ROCKY HOUSTON FROM LITTLE ROCK, AR: What are your thoughts on Pittsburgh signing Tyler Eifert?

ANSWER: My thoughts are that his age (31 in September) and his recent injury history would scare me. Here is what ESPN's Katherine Terrell wrote on April 10, 2019: "A shoulder dislocation caused (Eifert) to miss the entire 2014 season. An unexpected ankle injury in the 2016 Pro Bowl derailed his ensuing season. Between the ankle injury and back injuries, he was limited to appearances in just 10 games in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Just when everything was looking up, his ankle snapped (in September 2018), forcing him on IR yet again. It's clear teams have grown wary of his injury history by this point. That's why the Bengals prioritized teammate C.J. Uzomah ahead of him in free agency."

THOMAS KOH FROM LIMA, OH: Do you think that the Steelers need to get a cornerback in the upcoming draft?

ANSWER: I don't know about "need," because Joe Haden and Cam Sutton are the starters, and in sub-packages the team could move Sutton inside and put either Justin Layne or James Pierre at Sutton's outside spot, much as it did with Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden back in the mid-to-late 2000s. It would help their depth in the secondary to add a cornerback, but I would use the word "need" to describe the situation at running back, offensive tackle, and outside linebacker.

ANDREW SCHERBIK FROM CHESAPEAKE, MD: During the draft, say things fall in the Steelers favor and both Najee Harris and Teven Jenkins are available, do you take the massive tackle or the incredibly talented Harris?

ANSWER: If it was my decision, which it is not, I would pick Najee Harris in the first round if he's available.

WILLIE JAMES FROM TIFTON, GA: You make it seem like hell would freeze over before Antonio Brown would come back to Pittsburgh. What's the deal with Antonio Brown? Why wouldn't Pittsburgh want to add a dynamic playmaker to its offense?

ANSWER: To be most accurate, I believe hell would do the freezing over before the Steelers would welcome Antonio Brown back to the team. Remember, he quit on his coaches and teammates during the week leading up to the 2018 regular season finale with a playoff berth on the line. In professional sports, there is no coming back from that.

DEREK HECKATHORN FROM WAMPUM, PA: Do you think Malik Hooker would be a good fit to fill in on our secondary, providing that he's fully healed and a change could help him?

ANSWER: Malik Hooker has spent four seasons in the NFL so far. One of those was ended prematurely by a torn ACL during his rookie season of 2017, and his 2020 season was ended in September by a torn Achilles. Both of those are significant injuries, and they occurred over a short period of time. Too many "ifs" in this scenario for me.

TODD ONINK FROM CLARKSVILLE, TN: Do you know what role the Steelers have asked Marcus Allen to prepare for?

ANSWER: Marcus Allen is listed as a linebacker on the Steelers roster, and I believe that his future with the team is at the hybrid linebacker position.

KURT MCDONALD FROM BURBANK, CA: Do you think if either Kellen Mond or Jamie Newman is available on Day 2 of the upcoming draft that the Steelers would consider selecting either?

ANSWER: In my opinion, there is little that's more overrated than "having a year behind Ben," there are other, more immediate areas of the roster that need to be addressed this year, and there is no real room on the depth chart for a quarterback in 2021. The Steelers aren't going to keep more than three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster: Ben Roethlisberger is the starter, Mason Rudolph is the backup, and Dwayne Haskins is the young, developing player the team added on a no-risk contract. Roethlisberger isn't getting cut, and neither is Rudolph. And if the Steelers were going to spend a premium draft pick on a quarterback in 2021, why would they even have bothered with Haskins, because they haven't had a chance to work with him or see him on the field within their offense. Yes, the Steelers will bring four quarterbacks to training camp, but No. 4 can be an undrafted free agent, not a No. 3 pick. Alex Highsmith was a No. 3 pick.

JOHN GIAMMARCO FROM MCKEES ROCKS, PA: Kellen Mond from Texas A&M intrigues me in the fourth round. Your thoughts?

ANSWER: Not interested in a quarterback in the upcoming draft. Not in the first round. Not in the fourth round. Not in any round.

JORGE VELASCO FROM GUADALAJARA, MEXICO: I know you aren't fan of moving around in the draft or making trades just to make trades, but do you think it's worth it to move up in the draft and pick left tackle Penei Sewell?

ANSWER: The Steelers do not have the draft capital for such a move, and they have too many other issues to address on their roster.

JORGE VAZQUEZ FROM MEXICO CITY, MEXICO: If you were to decide between Najee Harris or Travis Etienne playing for the Steelers, who would you pick?

ANSWER: Najee Harris.

MICHAEL TORSIELLO FROM SUMMIT, NJ: Can you explain how a team can sign a player at a Pro Day when, I assume, this player has the potential to be drafted?

ANSWER: There are times when a college program, or the coach of a college program, will invite/allow a player or players to participate in a Pro Day who are not a part of that particular year's draft class. Maybe the player was eligible for the previous year's draft and wasn't selected, the college and/or the coach might allow that player to work out for an assemblage of NFL scouts who already were going to be on campus to give him a chance to make an impression and possibly get signed to what essentially is a futures contract. There could be other situations at play, but suffice it to say that anyone signed at a Pro Day is no longer draft eligible.

KENNETH WAY FROM BEDFORD, PA: When was the last time the Steelers drafted an offensive player in the first round and who was it?

ANSWER: David DeCastro was the Steelers' first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

STEFAN PISOCKI FROM WILMINGTON, DE: I love that Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster chose to remain in football Nirvana for at least one more year. I assume there is an understanding between him and management that he will be taken care of by way of a more lucrative contract when more cap space comes available next year. Can such an agreement be made in writing, or is it all based on a handshake and a wink?

ANSWER: I believe JuJu Smith-Schuster's decision to return to the Steelers for another season was strictly a business decision, and let me make this clear: I believe it was a smart and the correct business decision. But the reunion is for one year, and I am certain neither side would have ANY interest in committing at this time to anything beyond that. None whatsoever. So enjoy Smith-Schuster in a Steelers uniform for the 2021 season, and worry about next offseason next offseason.

BRANDON BEARER FROM CARROLLTOWN, PA: Do you think the NFL will eventually evolve into an 18-game regular season with two preseason games in the not so distant future?

ANSWER: "Eventually" and "not so distance future" can be interpreted as very different timelines. As Steelers President Art Rooney II said after the 17-game regular season became official, there has been no consensus so far for an 18-game regular season from either ownership or the players association.

RUSSELL BLACKBURN FROM SPOKANE VALLEY, WA: After looking at the roster last night on Steelers.com, I noticed James Conner wasn't on it. He is a free agent, correct? Do you have any inkling that the Steelers will keep him?

ANSWER: James Conner is an unrestricted free agent, and that's why he no longer is listed on the Steelers roster. I have no idea what the Steelers' plans are for him, nor what his feeling is about returning to the team. But in my opinion, the best thing for both sides at this point is to part ways.

BRENNAN ESCHETE FROM BATON ROUGE, LA: Who do you think will be the Steelers starting running back this season? Will they draft a guy early, or roll with Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland?

ANSWER: I believe the Steelers will use a premium pick in the upcoming draft on a running back. It's time to add a premium player at the position.

BRETT BILLEC FROM CAMPBELL, OH: With the preseason being reduced by one game, has the NFL changed the date of the Hall of Fame Game? Will the regular season still begin the Thursday after Labor Day?

ANSWER: The Hall of Fame Game still will be played on Thursday, Aug. 5, and it will pair the Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys. And the regular season will begin on the Thursday after Labor Day. Steelers President Art Rooney II recently explained to me how that is going to work: "There is now an off week in there. What would have been Preseason Week 4 under the old format is now an off week. So there is now essentially a bye week (for everybody) before the season starts, and so that will be an adjustment for coaches and players in terms of how that fits into preparing for the opener. That was part of what we negotiated with the players."

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