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April 7, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Running tally of Steelers pre-draft visits

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AShawn

A’Shawn Robinson is one of the best in what is a bumper crop for defensive linemen this year.

 

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Vonn Bell of Ohio State has elite coverage skills for a safety.

 

 

The entrance and lobby area to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex are undergoing extensive renovations this spring. That hasn’t meant the (temporary side) doors haven’t been open to NFL draft prospects.

 

Through Thursday, the Steelers have hosted 14 players for pre-draft official visits. That’s almost half of the 30 they are permitted. Whom the team chooses to meet with can, in some ways, provide a glimpse into what players – or what kind of players and at what positions – the Steelers are investigating drafting.

 

As our Mark Kaboly has noted, predraft visitors have been a strong indication recently of whom the Steelers are targeting. Over the past three years, 15 of the Steelers’ 26 draft picks were predraft visitors, including four last year with Senquez Golson, Doran Grant, Jesse James (unofficial – as a local native visits such as James do not count toward the 30 limit) and Sammie Coates. Also, three predraft visitors last year ended up as undrafted free agents: Tyler Murphy, Cam Clear and Devin Gardner.

 

Of course, these visitors are not the lone indicator of Steelers’ interest. Teams are allotted 60 interviews with prospects (15 minutes each) at the combine in Indianapolis in February. Coaches and personnel executives also can meet with prospects at, during or after their respective “Pro Day” workouts on campus. These actually can often provide the most one-on-one time (coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert took a couple high-end prospects in the state of Texas out to dinner in University of Houston CB William Jackson III and Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings, for example).

 

Predraft visits to the team facility also usually include breaking bread with a position coach or coordinator. Not unlike the rest of us, it’s a “job interview” on-site at the place of possible future employment.

 

 

Here is a list of the visitors, broken down by date and including school, position, size and projected round they’ll be selected in (via NFLdraftscout.com via CBS Sports). Click on the player’s name for the NFL’s official draft profile of the player and on the date of the visit for a recap of that day’s visits.

 

 

Friday April 1: (4)

S Deon Bush (Miami), 7th rd/undrafted free agent

S Jeremy Cash (Duke), 2nd rd

OL Jerald Hawkins (LSU), 2nd-3rd rd

CB David (D.J.) White (Georgia Tech), 3rd-4th rd

 

Saturday-Monday April 2-4:
NONE

 

Tuesday April 5: (1)

DT A’Shawn Robinson (Alabama), 1st rd

 

Wednesday April 6: (4)

OT Caleb Benenoch (UCLA), 7th rd/UDFA

S Keanu Neal (Florida), 2nd rd

S Darian Thompson (Boise State), 4th-5th rd

CB Tavon Young (Temple), 5th rd

 

Thursday April 7: (5)

S Vonn Bell (Ohio State), 2nd rd

LB Jatavis Brown (Akron), 4th-5th rd (HIS APPEARANCE INTERVIEWED ON TRIBLIVE RADIO)

S T.J. Green (Clemson), 3rd rd

CB Jonathan Jones (Auburn), 4th rd

CB Ryan Smith (NC Central), 7th rd/UDFA

 

Friday April 8: (4)

DE Quinton Jefferson (Maryland), 7th rd/UDFA (**Woodland Hills HS alum**)

DT Javon Hargrave (South Carolina State), 3rd rd

DE Dean Lowry (Northwestern), 7th rd-UDFA

S Trae Elston (Ole Miss), 7th-UDFA

 

Monday, April 11: (8)

WR Pharoh Cooper (South Carolina), 2nd rd

CB Ken Crawley (Colorado), 5th-6th rd

S Sean Davis (Maryland), 5th rd 

CB Cyrus Jones (Alabama), 3rd-4th rd

S Karl Joseph (West Virginia), 2nd-3rd rd 

LB Dadi Nicholas (Virginia Tech), 6th rd

DE Robert Nkemdeche (Mississippi), 1st rd 

S Justin Simmons (Boston College), 6th  rd

 

Tuesday, April 12: (1)

WR Sterling Shepard (Oklahoma), 2nd-3rd rd

 

Tuesday, April 19: (3)

RB Devontae Booker (Utah), 2nd rd

CB Brandon Williams (Texas A&M), 7th rd-UDFA

S  Jarrod Wilson (Michigan), unrated

 

Unofficial visit, week of March 28-April 1: (1)

WR Tyler Boyd (Pitt), 2nd rd (HIS APPEARANCE ON TRIBLIVE RADIO)

 

Official reported visit, unknown exact date: (1)

S Jayron Kearse (Clemson), 6th rd

 

 

Running tally of *official* visits by position (updated 4/19/16):

  • 12 safeties
  • 7 cornerbacks
  • 2 offensive tackles
  • 2 defensive tackles
  • 2 defensive ends
  • 2 wide receivers
  • 2 linebackers
  • 1 running back

(25 defensive players; five offensive players)

 

 

(**Note: players who are local natives or go to a local college can meet with the Steelers and not count toward their allotment limit of 30).

 

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April 1, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: 99 minutes of April Fool’s Day, Le’Veon Bell style

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Screenshot_2016-04-01-15-30-42-1

Poor Josh Lever. (Courtesy @L_Bell26 Twitter account)

 

 

Le’Veon Bell’s name made the rounds at all the national outlet NFL websites Friday. Apparently, some of their writers were compelled to do some digging. Some fans were startled. Even his agent, Adisa Bakari, apparently was concerned.

 

But alas, it was merely a simple, almost-comically clichéd April Fool’s prank:

 

The star athlete “announces” he’ll no longer be playing for Team X. Some momentary panic ensues. Then people look at the calendar.

 

Well, “momentary” isn’t the best way of putting the 99 minutes that Bell waited between his initial tweet and the one that, officially, told of the April 1 joke.

 

 

The above got, within its first six hours public, more than 3,800 retweets (and 3,500 “likes” – although no breakdown is available of how many people “liked” the joke and how many “liked” the fact he was “moving on” from the Steelers).

 

Sure enough, by 11:03 Friday morning Bell at last relented on his torture of those out there who take their Steelers fandom much more seriously than their grasp of the obvious:

 

https://twitter.com/L_Bell26/status/715917557845389312

 

Some 20 retweets of fans that had reacted to Bell’s news were posted on his timeline. Followed by one final Bell basking in it all:

 

 

Personally, Bell “announcing” a contract extension – now THAT would have gotten me. It would have been quite plausible (though I’m not sure how funny).

 

Simply put, there really wasn’t any way he would leave the Steelers, being under contract and all. And there was no way the team would cut a player considered to be one of the best in the league at his position who is scheduled to make a mere $966,900 this year with a cap hit of about $1.3 million.

 

Oh well, it wouldn’t be April 1 without such stories.

 

In the meantime, check out Friday’s TribLive Radio podcast of Josh Taylor, Guy Junker and I discussing the Steelers (and some Penguins, too).

 

Also in the Trib’s Steelers coverage Friday:

The team welcomed its first four official draft visitors to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side

Additionally, the team announced its spring schedule for rookie camp, offseason training activities and minicamp.  This makes Mark Kaboly unreasonably happy.

 

 

Enjoy the weekend.

 

 

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March 24, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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TribLive Radio Steelers Roundtable offseason episode: Martavis absence impact, who’ll play CB?

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TLR

 

We’re not weekly during the offseason on the Steelers Roundtable, the show Mark Kaboly contends is the most-downloaded show in TribLive Radio history. So Thursday’s show was the first time we have convened since four days post-Super Bowl.

 

During this episode, Ralph Paulk hosts while he, Chris Adamski and Kaboly (fresh back just hours earlier from the NFL annual meetings in Boca Raton, Fla.) discuss such wide-ranging Steelers topics as:

 

  • The impact on the offense of Martavis Bryant’s yearlong suspension
  • Who will man cornerback once the regular season starts in September?
  • Should the Steelers consider drafting a quarterback next month?
  • Was it a mistake to let Kelvin Beachum and/or Steve McLendon walk in free agency?
  • What will Ladarius Green’s impact be? And what is Jesse James’ future here now?
  • What are the chances Will Allen ends up back with the team at some point?
  • Will Kaboly ever stop complaining?

 

 

Give it a listen by with one click by clicking right here.

 

The next episode will preview the draft on Day One of the event April 28 (that means that draft is only about a month away!).

 

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March 20, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Shakim Phillips, as it stands now, is the proverbial “next man up” at receiver

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Shakim

Can Shakim Phillips step up and seize a possible opportunity? (AP photo)

 

 

Now that the well-chronicled loss of Martavis Bryant for the season is behind us, the cold, football-related question concerns where the Steelers go from here.

 

Veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey was re-signed. Most agree Sammie Coates’ time has come to fill a bigger role (as he did during the playoff loss in Denver). Though a tight end, Ladarius Green has a Martavis-like skillset and receiving profile that should help pick up the slack.

 

But there’s still a trickle-down effect – one that leads to… Shakim Phillips?

 

As the offseason roster stands at the moment, Phillips would likely fill the “No. 5” spot on the Steelers’ depth chart at wide receiver. The Steelers typically keep five wide receivers on the 53-man roster, so…

 

But there are other signs that point to Phillips maybe having a future with the Steelers. He was the only undrafted rookie from last season to spend the entire 10 months since as an active part of the organization – sure, it was on the practice squad only throughout the regular season, but it still says something that the team held onto him (and he stayed healthy) all the way through rookie camp, organized team activities, minicamp, training camp, the 19-week season and getting re-upped through a reserve/future contract in January.

 

The affable Phillips was grateful for what his first year as a professional brought him.

 

“I feel like everyone has different paths: I came into the league different, an undrafted guy, and I came in and I learned a lot more than what I was expecting,” he told me after the season ended. “I learned how to be a professional, how to take care of my body, how to do things the right way. So I feel like it was a great learning experience for me.”

 

Look, no one is declaring Phillips is necessarily a future star or that he will make a big impact this coming season – or even that he will so much as appear in a regular-season game for the Steelers in 2016. He still has a lot of work to do just to make the 53-man roster – and it’s very possible (some might say likely) the Steelers draft a receiver, which then bumps Phillips down another spot. Maybe they even sign a veteran free agent – almost certainly, they’ll bring in at least an undrafted rookie… and then there’s the likes of Eli Rogers (who showed promise before a training camp injury – enough so that the Steelers kept him around all year) on the roster to contend with.

 

That all said, Phillips is somewhat intriguing. He’s big (listed at 6-2, 204). He’s fast (his reported 4.45-second 40-yard dash at his Boston College pro day last year would have been competitive with the best receivers at the Combine this year). He has pedigree (Phillips was a four-star recruit with offers from some big-name programs coming out of high school six years ago).

 

He on occasion made plays and turned heads at St. Vincent College during training camp. Phillips is also, by all accounts and appearances, is well-liked and respected in the locker room and has earned a reputation as a hard worker.

 

“Everything happens for a reason, so I am here in this position for a reason and I feel like just by being here and learning was my reason for being here: learning how to be a professional,” Phillips said.

 

I asked Phillips what he wanted to work on or fine-tune over this offseason in his effort to become an NFL player.

 

EVERYTHING!” he said. “Everything. You can’t just work on one thing – I mean it’s like a different level. You could just go back from going from high school to college, and then it’s another transition from college to the pros, and then it’s another transition from pro to All Pro. It’s just different now, transitioning and you have to kind of catch that learning curve as early as possible.”

 

Phillips was coy about goals he’s setting for himself in 2016. The next step in his professional career arc is to make a 53-man roster. Then comes “earning a hat” to be active on gamedays. But through an unfortunate circumstance this month, Phillips has more of an opportunity than he had before.

 

 

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March 11, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Compensating via compensatory picks a Steelers strategy

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Hines

 

 

The NFL on Friday announced its annual list of compensatory picks that have been awarded to teams for next month’s draft. As usual, the Steelers received one – it’s the fifth consecutive season, seventh time in the past eight drafts, ninth among the past 11 and 15th time in the 23 drafts since the system was adopted overall that the Steelers are making extra picks.

 

The Steelers extra choice this season – at No. 220 overall at the bottom of the sixth round – is the 31st such compensatory pick the team has gotten since unrestricted free agency began in 1994. Only four teams have received more than the Steelers – Baltimore, Dallas, Green Bay and New England.

 

Counting the Steelers, those five franchises have won 11 of the 22 Super Bowls of the free agency era. The bottom five teams in terms of compensatory picks received (Cleveland, New Orleans, Washington, Houston, New York Jets) have combined to win one Super Bowl in that time.

 

That is not a coincidence – asset management is a critical part of building a strong organization, and it’s clear that the good teams are doing so and the (oftentimes) bad teams aren’t. It’s simple, albeit the compensatory draft picks are just one small way in which this is manifested.

 

It makes sense the Steelers are near the top of the list of picks awarded because they are not huge players in free agency. Picks are given to teams that lost more players and talent on the UFA market than they gain. Furthermore, the good teams, knowing this, “game” the system for themselves by using the knowledge of extra picks when letting free agents walk.

 

Put it this way: The Steelers have had 21 extra draft picks to deal with over the past 20 years than the New Orleans Saints. The Baltimore Ravens have had 36 extra draft picks than the Cleveland Browns since the Browns re-entered the league in 1999. Thirty-six!

 

It shows–

  • Baltimore in that time: 157-115 with four division titles, 10 playoff appearances and two Super Bowl titles.
  • Cleveland in that time: 87-185 with zero division titles, one playoff appearance and – forget Super Bowls – just two winning seasons.

 

Compensatory picks range from the third to seventh rounds, and are always tacked on at the end of the rounds. That doesn’t make them the most valuable picks of any draft – but that still represents valuable assets. Remember, Antonio Brown was a sixth-round pick, and there are countless other examples of All Pro level players taken in Rounds 3-7, of course. Once the draft board is set, those picks are the same as any other (with the notable exception that they cannot be traded – although that will change beginning in 2017).

 

The best player the Steelers have taken with a compensatory selections was Hines Ward. Others of note include, as the great Steelers PR wiz Dom Rinelli points out, Mike Vrabel, Willie Colon, William Gay and Kelvin Beachum.

 

 

Here is the complete list:

 

 

2015: LB Antony Chickillo (6th round)

2014: RB Dri Archer (3rd), OL Wesley Johnson (5th), DT Dan McCullers (6th)

2013: LB Vince Williams (6th)

2012: TE David Paulsen (7th), CB Terrence Frederick (7th), OT Kelvin Beachum (7th)

2011: None.

2010: CB Crezdon Butler (5th), LB Stevenson Sylvester (5th), DE Doug Worthington (7th)

2009: RB Frank Summers (5th)

2008: None.

2007: DT Ryan McBean (4th), CB William Gay (5th)

2006: OT Willie Colon (4th), DT Orien Harris (4th), TE Charles Davis (5th)

2005: None.

2004: None.

2003: None.

2002: None.

2001: None.

2000: QB Tee Martin (5th), TE Jason Gavadza (6th)

1999: RB Amos Zeroue (3rd), WR Malcolm Johnson (5th)

1998: WR Hines Ward (3rd), RB Carlos King (4th), DT Ryan Olsen (6th), DT Angel Rubio (7th)

1997: LB Mike Vrabel (3rd), DE Rod Manuel (6th)

1996: WR Jahine Arnold (4th), QB Spencer Fisher (6th)

1995: K Cole Ford (7th)

1994: None.

 

 

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March 4, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: “Of course” Gradkowski would welcome return as Steelers backup QB

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Bruce Gradkowski: “I love it here. This is my home”/Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review photo

 

 

Bruce Gradkowski’s playing career, through no fault of his own, in a manner of speaking has come to somewhat of a screeching halt in Pittsburgh.

 

Screenshot_2016-03-04-13-42-31-1

Gradkowski’s career playing time (courtesy NFL.com)

 

That doesn’t mean he’s eager to continue it anywhere else.

 

 

Entering the final weekend of his contract with the Steelers, Gradkowski told me after the season ended that he would welcome re-signing with his hometown team.

 

 

“Of course,” the Green Tree native and Seton-LaSalle alum said. “I love it here. This is my home.

 

 

“And of course the Rooneys and this organization; I mean, it’s the best in the league. And I have been around and I have seen it all, but this locker room and the coaches (don’t compare). It’s been an enjoyable three years for me, and I think there’s special things ahead.”

 

 

The Steelers’ face some decisions at quarterback – but they’re the kind of decisions (re: at backup) the vast majority of teams in the league would gladly trade for. Of course, they’re set at starter with Ben Roethlisberger. Yet with Big Ben having turned 34 this week, the organization has to at least be generally aware that, perhaps, his durability might not be what it once was. This is not an indictment on Roethlisberger – just an acknowledgement of the aging process of human beings, as well as of the four separate injuries that caused Roethlisberger to miss time (of varying lengths) last season.

 

 

So, what to do? Two of the three men on the roster behind Big Ben on the Steelers’ QB depth chart in 2015 are unrestricted free agents: Gradkowski and Mike Vick. Landry Jones (himself entering the final year of his contract) and Dustin Vaughan (a second-year player from West Texas A&M signed to a reserve/future contract in January) are the other quarterbacks on the roster currently.

 

 

Gradkowski, at the present time, would seem to have the best “backup” resume of the group. He has 20 NFL starts to his credit, more than half of which coming as a rookie in 2006 with Tampa Bay. He also started at least one game during stops with Cleveland and Oakland, and he at least got to throw 29 regular-season passes playing the 2011 and ’12 seasons in Cincinnati.

 

 

Then he came to Pittsburgh in 2013 on a three-year contract to serve as the top backup to Roethlisberger…  only to sit idly while Big Ben had the two most healthy concurrent seasons of his career.

 

 

Then, this past season, with Roethlisberger under siege because of a myriad of ailments, Gradkowski himself could only offer support from the sidelines, as he spent all of the 2015 regular season on injured reserve.

 

 

“It was tough – of course I want to be out there physically playing, and that was tough this year because there’s nothing like being out there on the field with the guys,” Gradkowski said.

 

 

“But I tried to help Landry out as much as I could because it was his first opportunity to play and I have been in that position before so I wanted to help him as much as I could. Same with Mike, coming in with a different system and having to play real quick when he just got here. So anything I could help contribute to those guys, I tried to do.”

 

 

It’s far from certain that a player on IR will be visible around the Steelers facility throughout the season, or on the practice field or traveling with the team on road games. Gradkowski was all of those things in 2015. It was a common sight during games to see him as much a part of an in-game sideline strategy session with Roethlisberger as offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner.

 

 

“I just think you continue to build that relationship, that happens,” Gradkowski said when asked about the apparent confidence, comfort level and respect the coaching staff and Roethlisberger had for Gradkowski’s input. “Todd, Randy and Ben, we all collaborate, and I have learned a lot from Ben over the years. The guy has so much poise and composure during games and in the locker room and he’s been a great leader for us. It’s great to see it – he’s the best in the league and to be able to learn from someone and to help him in any way I can on a day-in and day-out basis, it’s been an honor.”

 

 

Gradkowski is just roughly 13 months younger than Roethlisberger (even if he has 149 fewer NFL starts). That doesn’t mean, he said, he still isn’t learning. Recognizing that the reality is that he’s closer to his playing career’s end than its beginning, Gradkowski admitted he “definitely enjoys” the coaching aspect and didn’t deny it could be part of his future.

 

 

“Going through (a year on IR), I got to see everything from a coach’s side, and I have enjoyed that,” he said. “I got to learn a lot and it also still kept me to be part of the group, because it’s tough not being able to contribute on the field physically. To be off the field trying to contribute mentally kept me in the game this year and I loved it and had a ball because I love these guys in the locker room. And to see all the adversity we have overcome this year and to make it to the divisional round – and of course we were short of our  goal and what our expectations are – but I’m proud of the guys for what they have accomplished this year because it’s just a fun group, great coaches, great locker room.”

 

 

One that Gradkowski perhaps will remain part of in 2016 and beyond.

 

 

 

 

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February 26, 2016
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Penn State’s Hackenberg explains ‘diss’ of Franklin

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INDIANAPOLIS — Christian Hackenberg thanked Bill O’Brien.

The Penn State quarterback then went on to thank his quarterback coach; the former offensive coordinator; the strength and conditioning staff; the trainers; video guy; the communications guy; and the fans.

It may have been an honest mistake, but Hackenberg left out his current coach James Franklin when handing out thanks after he declared for the NFL Draft following the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 1.
Hackenberg, who is one of the top quarterbacks at the NFL Combine this week, finally got to explain his ‘diss’ of Franklin.

“It was one of those times where it was really emotional,” Hackenberg said “I didn’t have anything written out. What came to mind were the people who had spent a lot of time with me, the people who had brought me to Penn State. Coach franklin and I had a conversation. I thanked him in person. I thought that was best for our relationship. Thanking him in person on a personal level.”

That explanation doesn’t necessarily fit the narrative.

Hackenberg had solid freshman season under O’Brien’s pro-style offense. When O’Brien left for the NFL and was replaced by Franklin, Hackenberg’s numbers suffered in the new coach’s spread-style offense.

“We’re fine,” Hackenberg said.  “No hard feelings there. He’s doing a great job up there in terms of recruiting and getting the program headed in the right direction.”

Here is the full transcript of Hackenberg at the Combine

(How much did you learn from O’Brien?)
“Coming in, I had an accelerated learning curve. I didn’t get to early-enroll. Had a great bunch of guys around him. Guys who had been in the system. They definitely helped bring me along. It was a great experience overall for me.”

(Playing for O’Brien).
“The system fit great and I had a great opportunity to come in and play and throw to a guy like Allen Robinson. I had a lot of people around me who made it a good transition for me and allowed me to grow and own the offense.”

(Trained with Jordan Palmer, brother of Carson)
“Just going back and watching my film was a big step. Seeing where I could improve. We wanted to work on improving my consistency and my base. That will lead to consistency in everything else. Accuracy and being able to deliver the ball. Being able to focus on it for 6 to 8 weeks consistently has been awesome. I’ve made a lot of strides there.

(Would you like to play for Houston and O’Brien?)
“I think it would be a great opportunity. But at the end of the day, I’m here just trying to be the best prospect I can be and impress as many football teams as I can.

(2nd and 3rd years at Penn State)
“The big progression for me was just maturity and just being able to grow into a leadership role. That within itself was something I took a lot of pride in. Was elected a team captain two years in a row my sophomore and junior year. I took a lot of pride in that. I was able to work through adversity. I think adversity really shapes who you are. Success is easy to roll with. But how you respond to adversity is really huge.”

(The struggles the last two years and the doubters)
“My biggest fear is not being able to reach my full potential. Just being able to work on my game for the last eight weeks with Jordan and really improve and make strides in that area and see where my ceiling is and where my potential can take me is really exciting. I just want to be the best player I can be, and whatever I have to do, whatever sacrifices I need to make to get there I’m willing to do it.”

(What do you bring to the table?)
“I’ve dealt with a lot of NFL-type situations as far as adversity. Handling a lot of things. Handling a shorter deck. We were playing with 43 guys on scholarship my freshman year. I played in a pro system my freshman year. Understood it really well and picked it up quickly and was able to roll with it.”

(The poor pass protection the last couple of years and impact on your fundamentals and footwork and decision-making)
“I don’t think it has to be retooled. It’s just a matter of being consistent in things. At times you can lose consistency. Being able to finally focus on that the last six weeks getting ready for combine, I feel I’ve made great strides there and that’s been huge.”

(Your confidence level)
“Always embracing the challenge. Always looking at it as a new opportunity. An opportunity to get better and win games. That’s what it’s all about.

(How helpful playing for O’Brien for a year has been)
“Having that base, playing in that system was huge. Just talking terminology-wise, the tape that I watched, things that I had access to. He had just gotten done coaching Tom Brady, who is one of the best that every played. Having that at 18, having all of those tools available and being able to tap those resources really helped me develop a good base in terms of football knowledge, defensive knowledge. Having to change systems was huge for me as well. Being able to pick that up and translate things and see what crosses over. Overall, the entire experience was a huge positive for me. There was a ton of adversity. But it was stuff you’re going to deal with at this level. You see it year in and year out. Changing systems. New coaches. New personnel. So it was a great experience for me. having the opportunity to do that at 18-19 years old, it’s only prepared me for the rest of my career.”

(The film study with Jordan Palmer)
“The first week we kind of broke down my film to kind of get an idea of what we wanted to work on on the field. Then we broke it up into two three-week segments. First three weeks we followed the Cardinals to the playoffs. So we broke down Green Bay and Carolina and Denver defensively. He sent me home with a lot of homework. I’d draw up blitzes and pressures. Anything I didn’t know we would just talk about. It was a good way to accelerate the learning curve in terms of the terminology that NFL teams use. The last three weeks, we broke down Carson Palmer and Blake Bortles. And then we’re going to break down Andrew Luck when I get back. Just to do a little bit of quarterback study. Comparison to see if we can pick a few things out.”

(What’s biggest thing you want teams to know about you?)
“The most important thing is that I’m trustworthy. I’ve been through adversity. I’m battle-tested. And I’ve handled it and haven’t flinched and am still willing to work and not hurt from it. I can continue to get better. I think my potential is here and I think I’m on the right path to reach it.”

(Things you need to get better at)
“It goes back to inconsistency. My footwork was the biggest thing for me. It was mostly the base. Having tO move around so much, I got over-extended in the pocket and that led to accuracy issues. Being able to fix that and be super-consistent in it, has made me more comfortable with my accuracy in terms of delivering the football.”

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February 20, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: An ode to the least-fitting nickname in NFL history and the man who held it (Heath Miller)

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HEATH

 

 

The first time I asked Heath Miller about his nickname was more than eight years ago. The last time was this past summer.

 

Each inquiry, he gave a sheepish, almost-embarrassed smile but politely answered it. After all, “Big Money” hardly describes Miller’s laid-back, unassuming and quiet persona.

 

“I don’t think it’s my nickname anymore,” Miller said with a chuckle back in November 2007. “Some people called me that in college, I think, because of my personality more just kind of a just a sarcastic name. And it kind of stuck.”

 

When I asked him in Latrobe during 2015 training camp, he was even less expansive. But he was just as polite.

 

Classic Heath Miller. He had no need for any attention heaped on him – in fact, he almost uncomfortable that he deserved ANY, as if to say, Just because I perform an athletic skill, why does that make me important? or, I’m just one small part of what we do around here; feel free to talk to any of my teammates who deserve it.

 

With that said, almost counter-intuitively, he still somehow managed to make himself one of the more approachable figures in the Steelers locker room. No matter the topic, no matter the time, no matter the situation, Miller was accommodating and respectful to any questions. (And believe me, he’s heard some dumb ones).

 

Like his game on the field, Miller’s personal style wasn’t loud and bombastic. It was almost boring. Take his typical choice of footwear spotted on him in the locker room? Regular old New Balance sneakers (the only reason I happened to notice this is that these always stood out to me for the sole reason of because they’re pretty much what this particular boring sportswriter wears – albeit Miller’s were always newer and cleaner).

 

It’s just one tiny, insignificant detail in Heath Miller’s life – but it seems perfectly fitting for the muted and low-key Super Steeler Pro Bowler.

 

“Certainly, that’s kind of the way I am,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any hiding going on.”

 

True to form, how do you think Miller proposed to his wife of more than eight years, Katie? Of course, it was anything but over-the-top or extravagant.

 

“I surprised her and just took her to this place that had a few of our friends over,” Miller said during that chat not long after his wedding eight years ago.

 

What, you were expecting an airplane carrying a banner or a flashy, public to-do?

 

That’s not Heath Miller.

 

Quiet – but commanding utmost respect. Humble, yet carrying an almost regal quality about him.

 

So, how in the world did Miller not only get a nickname like, “Big Money”… but get a candy bar named after that, too – complete with Miller’s face standing as the centerpiece of a piece of paper currency (83 “dollars,” of course)?

 

“My agent thought it would be pretty funny and sarcastic,” Miller said of the chocolate, toffee and crisped rice concoction that was sold in the Pittsburgh area in the year after the team won Super Bowl XL.

 

There’s nothing funny or sarcastic about calling Miller the best at his position in the history of one of the NFL’s marquee franchises.

 

 

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February 19, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: Roosevelt Nix- “It’s just a blessing to be part of something great like (the Steelers)”

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Nix

 

 

 

Late in the afternoon of Jan. 9, 2015 – five days after their 2014 season ended with a disappointing home playoff loss to the rival Baltimore Ravens – the Steelers announced the signings of six players.

 

The only rostered player was LB Terence Garvin, a special teams standout entering his third season. The other five were those “reserve/future” contracts that you hear so much about this time of year.

 

Translation: Most likely mere training camp bodies who will never sniff the team’s 53-man roster.

 

To wit, just by looking at what happened to the players who signed that day:

 

  • –WR Brelan Chancellor didn’t even make it to OTA’s in May before being released
  • –TE Michael Egnew was cut a week into training camp, the Steelers’ first outright release in Latrobe last summer
  • –DE Matt Conrath and S Alden Darby made it to the final cut of the preseason… but still were out of football by Labor Day.

 

But there was one other player signed that day. A first-year former college defensive end from Kent State by the name of Roosevelt Nix.

 

Of the eight players brought in from outside the organization and signed to reserve/future deals last winter, Nix is the only one to make the team. In fact, of the 15 players overall signed to such contracts, he was one of only two to make the team (OT Alejandro Villanueva was signed four days before Nix, along with six others who’d finished the 2014 season on the Steelers’ practice squad).

 

The point being: A player signed by a team to a reserve/future contract in January typically has little chance of making the team.

 

In Nix’s case, that was particularly true considering he was undersized (5 feet 11) at the position he knew best (defensive line) – and at the time of his signing, he was listed as a “linebacker.”

 

Nix ended up being a fullback of all things.

 

All part of the wild ride that was Nix’s 2015 in Pittsburgh.

 

“I definitely recognize that it’s been a blessing to be part of something great like this,” Nix told me the day after the Steelers’ 2015 season ended with their playoff loss in Denver.

 

As Nix spoke, he was standing in crutches, his right foot in a boot after a metatarsal injury sustained in the penultimate game of the regular season in Baltimore on Dec. 27.

 

“The recovery is going fine,” Nix said. “I’m just listening to the trainers; I should be back to normal training, no problem, here in a little bit.”

 

That’s good news for Nix, who’d endeared himself to teammates and coach Mike Tomlin over his improbable first NFL season.

 

He won the No. 1 fullback job and was often used as a lead blocker. He even caught two passes. Mostly, though, he became a valuable special teams contributor.

 

“Individually there are still some things I can work on,” he said. “I’m just ready to take some time, assess the season and get back to work.”

 

With Will Johnson about to become an unrestricted free agent, it would seem that Nix is secure in being the top fullback for the Steelers in 2016. True, on the surface that’s not worth too much in an offense (and in a league) that doesn’t utilize a fullback too often. But Nix managed to play 151 snaps in his 15 games – more than 10 per game. That’s 14 percent of the offense’s total for the season; factoring in when he was injured, that represents that Nix played roughly one-sixth of the Steelers’ offensive plays.

 

That’s likely more than Johnson played last season (Johnson has taken reps at tight end since 2014, so at least a portion of the 206 offensive snaps he took in 2014 were not at fullback – 206 would be 18.5% of the Steelers’ offensive snaps). That’s an indication Nix had the trust of the Steelers’ offensive coaches.

 

Of course, Nix’s more obvious impact was on special teams – he had nine tackles and a forced fumble. Most tellingly, though, he fit in seamlessly and proved he belonged in the NFL. He not only made the 53-man roster, he was activated for every game in which he was healthy. The Steelers would go on cut more established players (Ross Ventrone, for example) in lieu of losing Nix.

 

Not bad for an undersized defensive end from Kent State who’d been cut a week into his previous training camp (with the Falcons in 2014) and initially had about as much of a chance to make the Steelers as, well, a now-forgotten guy named Brelan Chancellor did.

 

Nix vows he’s not merely satisfied with that. He claims he’ll be much better in Year 2 in his new life as a fullback.

 

“Oh, by far,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is ever going to be great after one year of anything. There’s a lot of things that I still need to work on – things that I have gotten better at and things I can still improve, and I’m 100 percent willing to fix all of those and be the best player I can be.”

 

 

 

 

Listen to The Kaboly Show, Trib Steelers writer Mark Kaboly’s weekly program on TribLive Radio Click here to hear Mark discuss the Steelers offseason, with guest Adam Crowley of Steelers Nation Radio.

 

 

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February 12, 2016
by Chris Adamski


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Adamski: It’s a *big* offseason for BIG Dan McCullers

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As always, here’s the weekly post prologue urging you to listen to quality, informative audio entertainment in the form of the Steelers Roundtable show on TribLive Radio. Mark Kaboly, Ralph Paulk and I discuss how the Broncos defense’s dominating performance in the Super Bowl relates to the Steelers’ immediate future. We also delve some into the team’s free agency priorities. It’s the final show for six weeks, so click here to listen now while you have the chance!

 

While you’re at it, check out Monday’s episode of The Kaboly Show – although it continues year-round, because Mark is special.

 

 

 

 

The 2015 season began with a degree of promise for Daniel McCullers. Coming off a rookie season in which he gradually went from “project” to “usable rotational defensive lineman” as a 22-year-old sixth-round pick, it was looking as if the Steelers might have found something in the former Tennessee Volunteer who stands 6 feet 7 and weights, oh, somewhere in the neighborhood of between 350-400 pounds.

 

McCullers played 35 snaps during the first two games of this past season, and one school of thought was that he was being groomed to take over as the top nose tackle with Steve McLendon scheduled to become in unrestricted free agent in March.

 

But then a knee injury struck McCullers, and he missed the next three games. He’d end up playing just 70 snaps over the final 11 games of the season – 26 of which coming Nov. 1 against Cincinnati when end Stephon Tuitt was out because of injury. In Seattle four weeks later, McCullers didn’t play at all. He played just 12 snaps over the final five games (counting playoffs).

 

It was clear that McCullers didn’t do enough to earn the coaches’ trust. On a team with a thin defensive line and one in which one of the stellar ends (Cameron Heyward) said after the season that he and Tuitt would prefer not to carry so heavy a load, McCullers wasn’t able to get on the field too much.

 

McCullers played about as much over the final 10 games of 2015 as he did in 2014, and he was mostly (barring an injury to someone else) just a subpackage, situational, specialized player.

 

Still, the big guy insists he was “most definitely” a better player in ’15 than he was as a rookie.

 

“I learned a lot being with the Steelers and with this D-line, being with Cam, Tuitt, all the guys, you learn so much,” McCullers told me last month. “And I’m gonna take it all in. I feel like I am progressing a lot and getting better each and every week.”

 

When McCullers was drafted, keeping his weight down was the concern that jumped out. It likely will always be something he has to keep in check, as his stated priorities for the offseason exhibit:

 

“My plan is just to stay in the best shape I can possible,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing, don’t lose my shape, don’t get out of shape and come back ready to go. And continue to work on my fundamentals and my technique.”

 

McCullers said the defensive line corps under coach John Mitchell are “close,” and his feelings toward McLendon – the 30-year-old, six-year vet ahead of him on the depth chart – prove that. If McLendon does leave as a free agent, especially considering fellow veteran Cam Thomas is also a UFA and not expected back, McCullers’ role might figure to expand.

 

“That’s up for the coaches do decide; that’s their job,” McCullers said. “But Steve is a great player; he helped us a lot this year and however it goes for him, I hope the best for him.”

 

While the importance of a nose tackle seems to dwindle every year in the increasingly pass-happy NFL, the Steelers still would likely think twice about letting McLendon walk. And even if he does, they’d likely bring in another veteran to replace him. Plus, there’s plenty of speculation they’ll be targeting d-line help in the draft.

 

There’s no shortage of moving pieces on the Steelers’ defensive line, but no matter how it plays out, the 2016 offseason and training camp could prove to be a big opportunity for “Big Dan” McCullers.

 

 

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