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Long-Term Deal Advantageous For Both Villanueva, Steelers

By Mike Ashcraft

The time is now for the Pittsburgh Steelers and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva to agree to terms to a long-term contract, ensuring the blindside protection of the franchise’s most valuable asset — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Villanueva has traveled an interesting and inspiring road to the starting lineup of a solid Steelers’ offensive line.

The son of a Lieutenant Commander in the Spanish Navy, Villanueva started 24 of the 28 games he played in at Army (2006-09). He saw action at left tackle, the defensive line and even wide receiver. After serving three tours in Afghanistan as an active member of the U.S. Army from 2010-13, Villanueva returned to the gridiron in 2014. He joined Pittsburgh’s practice squad after he was signed and released as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Villanueva played in 18 games in 2015 and cracked the starting lineup in 12 of them. He started all 19 games (16 regular season, three postseason) for the Steelers in 2016, helping to guide Pittsburgh to an AFC North Division title and an AFC Championship Game appearance. According to Pro Football Focus, Villanueva graded out as the 24th-best tackle after ranking 49th in 2015. He played in more snaps (1,276) than any other tackle and was fourth in pass block-efficiency from week 12 through the playoffs, surrendering just one sack and 12 pressures.

Now, with the Steelers poised to make a run at a ninth Super Bowl appearance in 2017, Villanueva finds himself without a contract. He chose to decline Pittsburgh’s $615,000 exclusive rights free agent tender and was only able to participate in the Steelers’ organized team activities and minicamp after signing a waiver.

The Steelers have Villanueva in a tough spot. As Bob Labriola of noted, Villanueva stands to make more money by agreeing to a long-term deal. If he chose to play year-to-year, Pittsburgh could potentially slap the franchise tag on him and control his rights for the next three years before he would become an unrestricted free agent. It would be a risk to bet on himself cashing a bigger contract as a then-32-year-old. It absolutely behooves Villanueva and his agent to nail down a long-term contract with the Steelers before training camp opens at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe on July 27.

After being in flux for some of the prime years of Roethlisberger’s career, the Steelers have finally assembled an offensive line worthy of protecting their signal caller. Center Maurkice Pouney and right guard David DeCastro are Pro Bowlers and right tackle Marcus Gilbert is a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Left guard Ramon Foster is extremely solid, and now Villanueva has developed into the type of tackle who can be trusted to keep Roethlisberger upright. The unit allowed just 21 sacks last year — second-best in the NFL. Villanueva is owed for much of that success.

It’s time to reward Villanueva with a long-term contract that will be beneficial to both him, and, most importantly, his quarterback.

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The Steelers’ UDFAs With the Greatest Chance of Making the 53-Man Roster

By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report

Check out this article and other great content on GZ Sports Report

Every year, players slip through the cracks in the NFL Draft and must prove their worth as undrafted free agents. It is not impossible, as great players like Chris Harris Jr., London Fletcher, Arian Foster, Cameron Wake, Wes Welker, Jason Peters, Tony Romo, Jeff Saturday, Antonio Gates, and Kurt Warner were all undrafted players that went on to have greatness in the league. The Steelers are no strangers to finding solid undrafted talent, as they have had their fair share of UDFA’s make an impact in recent years. James Harrison, Ramon Foster, Alejandro Villanueva, Willie Parker, Eli Rogers, and Isaac Redman all were able to make impacts by finding their way into the starting lineup for the Black & Gold. You can make the argument that James Harrison is one of the top UDFA’s of all time in the NFL.

While the odds are stacked against most UDFA’s in the league every year, there is always the possibility that one can find his way into stardom. With a talented, young roster, which Steelers’ UDFA’s will have the best chances of making the 53-man roster this year?

TE Phazahn Odom

There is no denying that Phazahn Odom passes the eyeball test. At 6’8″, 250 lbs., Odom is a huge target that has shown the ability to display athleticism all over the field with ridiculous length and strides that feel like their miles in length. If would-be tacklers try to go low to tackle him, he easily does his best Le’Veon Bell impression and simply steps over them. If they try to go too high on him, it proves to be too little to bring him down. So why did a player with this raw ability and size go undrafted? Odom is an extremely raw blocker that often avoids big contact with defensive players in the run game. While Fordham, Odom was rarely used as an inline blocker and will need to improve greatly in this area to make the final roster. The thing is, Odom reminds me a lot of 2014 UDFA tight end Xavier Grimble; an athletic tight end in the pass game and a near-abysmal blocker. With Odom, the Steelers might be enticed with his potential in the pass game as a pass target which is a large reason why they brought him on board in the first place. With the current question marks at tight end, Odom could prove to be too valuable to stash away on the practice squad out of fear of being snatched away from another team.

TE Scott Orndoff

While Odom is an extremely lengthy tight end, Scott Orndoff is almost the definition of a prototypical NFL tight end. At 6’5″, 253 lbs., Orndoff was asked to do it all while at Pitt. Orndoff showed promise as a freshman in college, but was derailed by injuries that prevented him from making a big impact until his junior year, where he had 5 touchdowns with 18.8 yards per catch. During his senior season, Orndoff added an additional 35 receptions for 579 yards (16.5 yards per catch) and another 5 touchdowns. While his yards per catch numbers are a tad bloated, he still has shown the ability to make difficult catches when needed and was a reliable route runner. Steelers tight ends are needed to also block, and Orndoff has been able to do that effectively. Orndoff was a fringe draft player but after a below average combine performance, he never heard his name called. What stands out to me about Orndoff is his slight resemblance to Steelers’ great Heath Miller in one important aspect: Orndoff never shies away from the blow downfield. Whenever he has the ball in his hands, he is not afraid to lower his shoulder and whenever he is evident that he is going to get laid out immediately following the reception, Orndoff hangs in there tough and makes the reception, sacrificing his body for the sake of the offense. That has “Steeler” written all over it. Orndoff could potentially find his way onto the Steelers roster and develop into a nice piece for the offense.

G Ethan Cooper

Being a Division II player is not always easy whenever you have dreams of making it into the NFL. Ethan Cooper proved himself to be one of the best players in the country in D-II and in a below average offensive line class, it was surprising to see him not hear his name called on Day 3 of the draft. With a stocky, girthy frame, Cooper looks like an old school guard that is built for the NFL. He possesses great strength and under-appreciated agility for a 322 lb. that allows him to be surprisingly effective at pulling, which is important for Steelers’ offensive linemen. Cooper doesn’t always clear out holes as a blocker, but that isn’t due to a lack of effort since he always is moving his feet and running through contact; instead, it’s mainly due to technique that could use serious work. Luckily for Cooper, he has the chance to work with the best offensive line coach in the league in the form of Mike Munchak. The Steelers haven’t shied away from bringing in UDFA offensive lineman to fill out their roster (see Foster, Villanueva, Doug Legursky, Chris Hubbard, and B.J. Finney to name a few) and Cooper could be next in line of developmental depth UDFA’s to make it onto the Steelers roster. If the Steelers see enough potential in him to be a long-term possibility, Cooper could turn himself into a camp standout.

DE Francis Kallon

I know what you’re all thinking, and I agree: there is no room for Francis Kallon on the roster right now, especially after signing Tyson Alualu this offseason. But hear me out. Kallon’s story is one of those stories that you hear every now and then of a player who did not begin playing organized football until his senior year of high school. Even then, he didn’t make his first collegiate start until his senior year at Georgia Tech. Although this would make him a virtually undraftable player, the Steelers still used one of their official pre-draft visits on the inexperienced player. At 6’5″, 295 lbs., Kallon has the size and strength to play as a 5-technique in the Steelers’ defense. However, this is not why Kallon could have a shot to make the team. Kallon could be another defensive end that the Steelers could consider attempting to convert to offensive tackle, NFL Media analyst Gil Brandt pointed out. After moving Alejandro Villanueva and Brian Mihalik from defensive end to offensive tackle, Kallon could follow suit. If not, Kallon will still intrigue the Steelers as a defensive prospect with the potential to turn some heads during the preseason.

LB Keith Kelsey

Three-year starter. 311 career tackles. 24.5 career tackles for a loss. 10.5 career sacks. Undrafted free agent. Many scouts knocked Keith Kelsey for his lack of functional speed and project that he can only be a two-down linebacker in the NFL. However, Kelsey reminds me a lot of two current Steelers: Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich. Both players lack “elite” speed on testing but appear to play faster on the field due to giving 120% effort on every single play and are more than willing, consistent tacklers. Kelsey brings that type of ability, passion, and fire to the Steelers. Kelsey has the stats to backup his Steelers-esqe playing style: a downhill player that is always looking to make a huge impact at the line of scrimmage to stop the play… just like Williams and Matakevich. Kelsey won’t stop pursuing the football until he hears the whistle blow… just like Williams and Matakevich. As previously mentioned, Kelsey did not test well on speed events (he ran a 4.92s 40) but still plays with deceptive quickness on the field to always find his way to the ball. With the Steelers depth at linebacker potentially needing some new talent, Kelsey could be just the guy that they need to provide a boost, especially if he can find a way to contribute on special teams.

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Bryant’s return opens up Steelers offense

By Justin McGonigle

Martavis Bryant hasn’t donned a black and gold uniform in over a year. That all stopped on May 23rd when Bryant returned from his yearlong suspension. Bryant was quickly reinserted into the Steelers top unit, split out wide opposite of All-Pro, Antonio Brown. Bryant who was suspended for the entire 2016 season is a welcome sight to a Steelers offense that struggled at times last season.

“It’s definitely appreciated, but I didn’t expect anything, “Bryant said about running with the first team offense. “I’m here just to be a team player and do what I got to do to help out the team.”

Without Bryant the Steelers faced a lot of adversity at wide receiver last season. Sammie Coates was believed to be the man who would fill the void as a deep threat. After recording 6 receptions for 139 yards against the Jets in the fifth week of the season Coates became non-existent. Injuries and mental short comings doomed Coates and he only recorded two catches the rest of the season.

Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bay also missed much of the season with injuries and the Steelers offense took a step back from 2015. Their points per game dropped from 26.4 to 24.9 and without a reliable receiver next to Brown he often found himself double or triple teamed. Brown went from 136 receptions for 1834 yards to 106 and 1284 respectively.

Bryant was granted a conditional reinstatement by Commissioner Roger Goodell last month. Bryant face league drug testing 2 to 3 times a week, and mandatory trips to a therapist once a week. Any slip up could cost Bryant his NFL career.

“I know it’s my last chance. I put the right people around me. I got the right people, things set up to help me succeed and maintain my sobriety,” Bryant said. “As long as I continue to pass my test and do what I’ve got to do for my family and take care of my business here, everything will be just fine.”

Bryant slipped to the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft even though his size and speed is always coveted in the league. Teams knew of multiple failed drug tests at Clemson but the Steelers figured the risk was worth the reward if Bryant could mature. They quickly were reminded of Bryant’s struggles when he was suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season.

“I developed better habits,” Bryant said. “Also who I hang around. I’m a family man.”

Ben Roethlisberger was critical of Bryant when his latest suspension was announced, saying that he was very disappointed in Bryant and that he felt betrayed. His quarterback had this to say about his return:

“He looks good, “Roethlisberger said after practice. “He came back and it looks like he’s in great shape. I don’t know if we connected on a pass in practice, but before practice we got some work in.

When asked about what Bryant can do to prove he’s changed, Roethlisberger said, “The biggest thing he can prove is that he can stay on the field. We know what he can bring. But who am I to judge him? Only one man can judge him, and that’s the man upstairs. We will accept him with open arms and hope he wants to be here and is happy to be here and gives everything he has to this organization. “

Only time will tell if Bryant has really changed for the best.

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Character prevalent on Steelers draft board

By Justin McGonigle

Many Steelers fans were likely screaming at their televisions late on the opening night of the 2017 NFL Draft. Rueben Foster, once thought of as a consensus top-10 pick, was sitting there still waiting for his name to be called. He could instantly step in beside Ryan Shazier and solidify the middle of the Steelers’ young defense for years to come, but Foster’s stock had plummeted after reports of a failed drug test. There was also concern over a lingering shoulder injury that could require another surgery. With all that said, the Steelers couldn’t possibly pass on such a great talent, though, could they? They did, and surely they had in mind the recent troubles of the talented wide receiver, Martavis Bryant, and star running back, Le’veon Bell, both of whom have dealt with suspensions recently for multiple missed drug tests.

The Steelers selected edge rusher T.J Watt from Wisconsin. Foster went one pick later when the San Francisco 49ers traded back into the first round to select him. Foster may very well go on to be the next Patrick Willis, but it wasn’t a risk the Steelers were willing to take. Watt comes with pedigree and lineage. He comes with no off the field issues, and no failed drug tests. All of those things have been issues the Steelers have ignored in previous years. A few examples:

Martavis Bryant – failed drug tests at Clemson (4th round, 2014)
Mike Adams – failed drug test at the combine (2nd round, 2012)
Alameda Ta-amu –DUI during the middle of his rookie season (4th round, 2012)
Chris Rainey – charged with aggravated stalking at Florida (5th round, 2012)

Watt comes to the Steelers with only one full season of playing defense at Wisconsin, but he could be way ahead of other incoming rookies due to his preparation heading into the draft. With Watt having two brothers already in the NFL, he has been able to get a head start on the preparation that is required at the next level. Watt likely figures to fit into the Steelers defense in pass rush situations during the early part of the season along with spelling James Harrison.

In the second round the Steelers again decided to skip out on some talented but troubled players in Alabama’s Tim Williams and Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis. Instead, the Steelers decided to give their wide receiver corp some insurance with Southern Cal’s JuJu Smith-Schuster. Even with Bryant being reinstated prior to the draft, there is still a wait-and-see mentality with him. Any more suspensions and Bryant possibly could be barred from the NFL.

Next, the Steelers went with cornerback Cameron Sutton from Tennessee. Sutton was a captain for the Volunteers last season and brings plenty of experience as a leader.

“I was voted captain my senior year, but that leadership role is something I embraced over time in my four years in college,” said Sutton. “I am able to talk to guys and get them going in the right direction.”

Shortly after picking Sutton the Steelers came up on the clock again and quite possibly selected the biggest ‘character guy’ in franchise history. James Conner has walked to hell and back in the past two years. After suffering a season-ending torn MCL in the opening game of the 2015 season, Conner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system located in the body’s immune system. Conner fought for his life with an entire city behind him. He won. Conner returned to the field in 2016, and, after a slow start, he began to find his stride midway through the season.

“I was probably at about 60% going into last season. Now, I definitely got stronger and better with each game. But, yeah, that’s just real talk. Sixty percent. If that,” Conner stated in a story for the Players’ Tribune

Regardless of how these players respond at the NFL level you won’t ever have to worry about how they respond when they leave the stadium. They will respond with class. They will respond with dignity. If they never make it to a Pro Bowl or are never named All Pro, at the very least, you can thank them for quietly teaching the people around them how to be better humans.

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Steelers Release Warren, Green

By Mike Ashcraft

The Pittsburgh Steelers made several roster moves last Thursday ahead of the start of the start of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), which will get underway on Tuesday (May 23) at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

The Steelers waived long snapper Greg Warren and tight end Ladarius Green. Both received the designation of Failed Physical as part of the roster moves.

Warren, who spent 12 years with the organization and was one of only three players remaining on the roster from the Super Bowl XL championship team. Warren saw action in 181 career games and provided stability on special teams. Pittsburgh used the 213th overall pick in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft to select Colin Holba out of Louisville.

Green’s release marks the end of his frustratingly abbreviated career wearing the black & gold. Green signed with the Steelers in March of 2016 as the apparent replacement for the retired Heath Miller. After spending his first four seasons in the league with the San Diego Chargers, Green agreed to a four-year, $20 million deal to come to Pittsburgh. Green was coming off ankle surgery when he agreed to terms with the Steelers, however, and was placed on the physically unable to perform list when the team opened training camp. Per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, though, sources indicated that he was also being kept out of action due to headaches, and he was not activated to the active roster until November. He played in six games, catching 18 passes for 304 yards and a touchdown. Green was diagnosed with a concussion after hitting his head off the turf at Paul Brown Stadium in a 24-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 18. It proved to be his last game as a Steeler.

With Green gone, the Steelers are now left with Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, David Johnson, Phazahn Odom and Scott Orndoff at tight end. James caught 39 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns in 2016 while Grimble grabbed 11 receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Pittsburgh did not spend any of its eight 2017 draft picks on a tight end.

In addition to waiving Warren and Green, Pittsburgh also signed running back Terrell Watson. Watson, who went undrafted out of Azusa Pacific, has spent time on the practice squads of the Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles.