Sun, 20 Jun 2021

Asked and Answered: May 11

The Steelers
12 May 2021, 06:30 GMT+10

Bob Labriola

Let's get to it:

KEN MAULDIN FROM CLYDE, TX: Can you tell me the process that happens regarding the signing of undrafted prospects? Shakur Brown obviously would have more pursuers than just the Steelers. Is there a moment in time you can sign them after the draft? How do you fight for players you want? Do they tell them before the draft, we will be calling if you are not drafted? Did the Steelers just convince Shakur he has a good chance to make the team, so he chose the Steelers?

ANSWER: Teams start contacting players around the sixth round to gauge their interest in possibly signing as an undrafted free agent, and it's a total free-for-all. Naturally, anything talked about or agreed upon is moot if the player ends up getting drafted, there are situations when one side, or both, has a change of heart and backs out of an "agreement," and nothing can be done, at least officially, until the draft is over.

These signings all have to fit under the team's salary cap, so a team could offer an undrafted rookie a bigger signing bonus than it will end up paying to one of its later-round draft picks as an enticement. And even if an undrafted player and/or his agent agree to a deal with a team, nothing is official until the papers get signed, and so there is a lot of scanning/emailing and/or faxing of contracts to get things signed and made official once the draft ends. Teams often assign specific scouts or assistant coaches to certain undrafted players in an effort to get names on the dotted lines, and the team representatives are given salary/signing bonus parameters in the effort to close the deal.

I have no specific knowledge of how the Steelers got Shakur Brown to sign on the dotted line, but I would imagine there might have been some sweetener in terms of the amount of the signing bonus involved, plus another factor likely was that the Steelers had lost Mike Hilton as an unrestricted free agent and didn't spend any of their nine draft picks on a slot cornerback. And in the Steelers' case, they usually employ a "closer" when necessary, and the word is that Coach Mike Tomlin is especially effective in that role.

After the 1974 NFL Draft, as an example, it was Bill Nunn who spoke to Donnie Shell and promised him that Chuck Noll would give him a legitimate chance to make the team as an undrafted rookie, and Nunn's reputation was so solid with South Carolina State Coach Willie Jeffries that Jeffries helped steer Shell to Pittsburgh.

RUSS PALLONE FROM TRINIDAD, CO: Do you think that there is any chance that Steve Nelson will play for the Steelers in 2021?

ANSWER: No.

KWEKU HAYFORD FROM ROCKVILLE, MD: Now that Alejandro Villanueva has joined the Ravens, will he be teaching them all of our secrets, tendencies, weaknesses, terminology, etc.? We may change the calls but we still have the same playbook.

ANSWER: In this era of unrestricted free agency, players move around the league a lot, and I'm sure there were Ravens fans who were concerned about the same issue when the Steelers acquired Chris Wormley via trade during the 2020 offseason. That espionage stuff is way overblown, in my opinion, especially when it comes to teams that play each other at least twice a season, every season.

TAZA SLAGLE FROM TAYLORS, SC: Now that Alejandro Villanueva has signed with the rival Baltimore Ravens, will the Steelers receive a compensatory pick in next year's draft?

ANSWER: No, because that signing took place after the cut-off date for the transaction to be part of the compensatory draft pick formula.

MICHAEL FANELLI FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: Is it true that Al Villanueva is moving to right tackle with the Ravens, which would create a matchup with T.J. Watt when they play the Steelers?

ANSWER: Yes, that's the Ravens stated plan - to have Alejandro Villanueva move to right tackle, which means in games against the Steelers he would be across the line of scrimmage from T.J. Watt.

LESTER FYSHE FROM DALLAS, TX: I have seen many articles complaining that the Steelers did not draft Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey. But I also heard that Creed has difficulties with shotgun snaps. A talking head on NFL Network went so far as to say he was certain Humphrey could learn that skill with the right coach. How could anyone believe Humphrey was an NFL-ready center if he cannot execute a shotgun snap?

ANSWER: My question would be: how did Creed Humphrey play center at Oklahoma if he had problems executing a shotgun snap, because the Sooners' offense has the quarterback in the shotgun all the time.

CRAIG BROWN FROM STOW, OH: I have been a Steelers fan for over 40 years, and I am sad to say I have never made it to Saint Vincent for training camp. My son is dying to go. When you get some information on how, when, and if fans can attend this year please let us know.

ANSWER: What I can tell you right now is that Art Rooney II has said publicly on a couple of occasions that he is eager to return to Saint Vincent College for training camp this summer, and last week the NFL circulated a memo to all teams granting permission for off-site training camps this year. Last year the NFL prohibited teams from leaving their facilities for training camps. As for the other information pertaining to training camp, all I can tell you is to check Steelers.com regularly, because as soon as those details are ready to be made public, they will appear there first.

CARL SELF FROM TEMPE, AZ: In your opinion, should the Steelers bring tight end Jesse James back on a one-year deal? I liked him, and he's still young, and he still unsigned, right?

ANSWER: As of this writing, Jesse James remains an unrestricted free agent, but in the aftermath of spending a No. 2 pick on Pat Freiermuth, Jesse James would be coming to the team as a No. 3 tight end/injury insurance. At that point, I don't know whether that would be a smart usage of salary cap space, but if James was willing to do a cheap, one-year deal, that could be OK. My other question would be: why hadn't he signed with another team already?

CONNOR SHERIDAN FROM PITTSBURGH, PA: Do you think that it's possible the Steelers start Dwayne Haskins later this season?

ANSWER: If Dwayne Haskins makes the team coming out of training camp, it will be as the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, which means he will be inactive for games unless there is an injury. The scenario where Haskins ends up starting in 2021 would have to include injuries to both Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph.

PAUL FITZPATRICK FROM WILTON, IA: A true/false question for you: One reason for the "huge" salaries players receive is because they pay for their health insurance and the cost of injuries.

ANSWER: False. NFL players receive a comprehensive benefits package that includes health care and pension, among other things.

TIMOTHY PREGANA FROM KAPOLEI, HI: What is your opinion of Zach Gentry and his career as a Steelers tight end heading into the 2021 season?

ANSWER: Zach Gentry will be attending his third NFL training camp this summer, and under normal circumstances he would be expected to show considerable improvement in his development at the position. But Gentry isn't facing normal circumstances, because he injured a knee during the November game against the Jaguars in Jacksonville and landed on injured reserve, and he had to spend time during the offseason rehabilitating that injury. Based on the offseason emphasis on being more physical on offense and improving the running game, I would suspect Gentry will have to improve on the blocking aspects of the position, because so far he has been playing tight end like a quarterback, which he was when he arrived at Michigan.

EUGENE OHORA FROM BALLINA, MAYO, IRELAND: With the Steelers not exercising the fifth-year option on Terrell Edmunds' contract, is this a cap issue, have they decided to move on from Edmunds, or is it to provoke a reaction and get a more productive year from him in 2021?

ANSWER: Terrell Edmunds has improved in each of his seasons in the NFL, he has played 2,866 snaps on defense during that time, and was having his best season in 2020 until a shoulder injury late in the year. The Steelers already are invested in the fifth-year options for both T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, and it's difficult to commit to a third player with that amount of guaranteed money.

CHRIS WELBURN FROM GLASTONBURY, UK: Do you think the Steelers will put a higher priority (preseason snap counts, practice repetitions with the starters) on further developing Mason Rudolph or on evaluating Dwayne Haskins?

ANSWER: I don't know about a higher priority, because Coach Mike Tomlin always has placed a priority on "young guy development." One thing fans should remember is this: every time a veteran is given a day off from practice during training camp or on Wednesdays during the season, it's not just about resting a player but it's also about creating an opportunity for a younger player to get valuable practice repetitions. So instead of complaining about Ben Roethlisberger not throwing on Wednesdays during the season, as an example, fans should be looking at it from the perspective of the younger guys on the depth chart behind him getting opportunities to hone their skills.

TOM FRAZIER FROM CONNEAUT, OH: The Steelers traded for Jerome Bettis and Minka Fitzpatrick. Can you name any other great players the Steelers acquired via trade?

ANSWER: The Steelers once traded quarterback Earl Morrall and two draft picks to Detroit to acquire quarterback Bobby Layne, who had won three NFL Championships with the Lions. Layne posted a 27-19-2 record as a starter with the Steelers, and he ended up inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

KENNETH HAGGERTY FROM REYNOLDSBURG, OH: Do you think the Steelers included Ben Roethlisberger in helping with the draft?

ANSWER: No.

MATTHEW JOHNSON FROM CASHIERS, NC: Don't you believe the Steelers brass have a depth chart going into camp if not one right now?

ANSWER: They have one, certainly, but as Coach Mike Tomlin said on the Monday before the draft, "it's not worth the paper it's written on." The Steelers have a depth chart because there has to be some way for players and coaches to know who is supposed to be on the field at certain times during practice. But the point Tomlin is making is that depth charts at this time of the NFL calendar, and even through the preseason, can and do change from one day to the next.

RICH REYNOLDS FROM BELLEVUE, WA: I was wondering how much salary cap space is usually reserved for signing draft picks? How much space does that leave Pittsburgh, and would Pittsburgh consider signing Richard Sherman?

ANSWER: The NFL establishes each team's rookie pool for signing draft picks based on the number of picks and where those picks were drafted. Example, a team with seven overall picks but with four of them in the top 100 overall would have a larger pool of money than a team with seven draft picks with only three of them in the top 100 overall. And I cannot imagine a realistic scenario in which the Steelers have the salary cap space to sign veteran cornerback Richard Sherman, who seems to be most interested in playing for a team on the West Coast.

DANIEL MAZENKO FROM LITITZ, PA: Who pays the travel expenses for the rookies to get to the OTAs and training camp?

ANSWER: Depending upon how those individuals plan to travel to Pittsburgh, the Steelers either provide an airline ticket or the individual is reimbursed for mileage if he drives.

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