To quote perhaps the best show of my childhood in Blues Clues: It's mail time!
Thankfully, Noah took the tough questions in his most recent mailbag. However, we have had quite a few things happen since our last Q&A, including the induction of three Steelers into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
With nothing but time until the NFL Combine, let's dive into our reader-submitted questions:
QUESTION- Donnie, what was most impressive about the XFL in their first weekend?
Donnie- I'm going to be really honest... I don't think the actual product of the XFL is enough to sustain longevity. In short, I just don't think there's enough talent to satsify you or myself when we're used to watching the best of the best every Sunday.
But I was very impressed with a few things that I saw over opening weekend. For one, I appreciated the point spread and over/under listed on the television ticker for those who like to wager. I thought that was pretty neat.
I was a really big fan of hearing the radio communication from coach to player, and for replay review as well. We don't get any of that during an NFL game, so my nerdy-self was giddy hearing the play-calls from the coordinators.
I think the XFL did a great job of getting more access for viewers and even commentators. It makes their job easier understanding what's going on during a review, and it's more enjoyable as fans getting behind the scenes stuff we normally don't see.
QUESTION- How many cap casualties do you think is a realistic number for the Steelers to meet their financial needs?
Donnie- I wrote a piece a few months detailing precisely this issue. Lots of players the team would like to re-sign, and not enough dollar bills to accomplish it.
A hot topic around the team right now is the status of Vance McDonald, who could potentially be cut to save $5.6 million this off-season. Mark Barron is another name people expect to be gone, which would clear another $5.2 million in cap space. To keep the $5 million figure going, Anthony Chickillo could potentially be sent packing in order to clear another $5 million as well.
That would make about $17 million in cap space per Over The Cap, yet that wouldn't be enough to successfully retain the likes of Bud Dupree and a handful of other pieces the team would deem important.
The biggest number that sticks out is Ben Roethlisberger's $33.5 million cap hit. I'm going to be very blunt and suggest that if Roethlisberger wishes for another run at a Super Bowl, he might want to find a way to restructure that deal in the last year of the current CBA if possible.
Doing so would allow the Steelers more freedom to retain players they value while also potentially exploring options in free agency. I'd say the 3-4 moves I suggest should at least get them out of the financial burden they're currently in.
QUESTION- What's the update on Ben? How long before the Steelers need to create a backup plan if he can't play?
Donnie- According to all accounts, Big Ben is on schedule with his rehab. What that schedule is, we haven't had a clue. Supposedly he's supposed to start throwing tennis balls soon, which is a step in the right direction although it appears small at face-value. Barring a setback, it appears Roethlisberger is on schedule to return for the start of the season (that's an optimistic view, via Kevin Colbert).
As for the backup plan, it's already in place. His name is Mason Rudolph.
I know that a lot of people resent both Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, but realistically, the Steelers front office (as well as Mike Tomlin) is confident in Rudolph for the time being. Whether that stays true come time for the 2020 NFL Draft may be another story, yet as we sit here now, the backup plan will be the same as it was last season, for better or worse.
QUESTION- What are the Steelers options if Bud Dupree doesn't return to Pittsburgh?
Donnie- This is a solid question. We're all under the assumption that if the Steelers do pay a player this off-season, it will be Dupree. Yet why are we all assuming Dupree stays? It's very plausible he leaves.
If his stint in Pittsburgh does stop in 2019, there are essentially three options that come to mind, at least with the team's current financial state. With limited cap space, the team may very well look to the services of Anthony Chickillo or Ola Adeniyi. Fans have been clamoring for Ola's chance to hit the field, and Chickillo is a player that's very familiar with Keith Butler's defense, which could bode well for his chances against signing a newcomer.
And, of course, there's the 2020 NFL Draft. First picking at pick #49, the options aren't necessarily ideal to secure the league's next great pass rusher. A few names to watch that could be around where the Steelers will pick: Utah's Bradlee Anae, Michigan's Josh Uche and Wisconsin's Zack Baun.
All are formidable in their own rights, but I believe Baun would be a stellar fit across from T.J. Watt.
If the Steelers are able to find a veteran in free agency, I believe these veterans may be possible options with cheap contracts: Bruce Irvin, Jamie Collins, Carl Nassib and Nick Vigil.
QUESTION- What's the biggest misconception people seem to have about the Steelers offseason right now?
Donnie- Without a doubt the biggest misconception is Pittsburgh has cap space to do anything. You'll see tweets, articles, whatever it may be discussing how the team should sign player X, Y or Z.
As it stands, the Steelers don't even have enough to fully fund their 2020 draft class.
Of course, with moves like I highlighted above, the team could find a small amount of cap to reach around $17 million, jumping six teams without others manipulating their salaries as well. Yet if the team gives Bud Dupree or Javon Hargrave the money they're seeking, the team will be right back to their current predicament.
There's also a misconception that the team could/should go after a quarterback in the likes of Teddy Bridgewater, Philip Rivers, Jameis Winston or Cam Newton.
None of those players are coming to Pittsburgh, let alone to play second-fiddle to Roethlisberger.
Many are also harping on Kevin Colbert's comments about potentially looking at wide receivers and running backs in free agency. Admittedly so, the team does need assistance in both areas. However, the amount of times I've seen Amari Cooper or David Johnson or even Le'Veon Bell to the Steelers just makes my head shake.
It's not in the Steelers DNA to make splash signings. It's also not in their current wallets to achieve this either.
QUESTION- Does Antonio Brown's change in behavior make you think he'll be on a team in 2020?
Donnie- So I'll say this right now: Antonio Brown isn't coming back to Pittsburgh. 2019's team, even without a franchise quarterback, made strides on and off the field. It's well documented that the Steelers locker room culture is much healthier without a select few players.
However, one thing the NFL cannot deny is talent, no matter what you've done in the past. As long as you're still able to produce at a high level, you'll always come around to your next opportunity (cc: Josh Gordon). We can say whatever about Antonio Brown's personality, but we can not doubt he was the best receiver in the game at his height. Even in the small amount of games he played in 2019, Brown still managed to produce on minimal snaps.
I'm not buying his change in behavior, but if he can manage to keep himself on a clean slate, I'm certain there a handful of teams that would love to have his talents on their roster in 2020.
That's a big if, however.
QUESTION- Who needs to have the more improved season from 2019, JuJu Smith-Schuster or Diontae Johnson?
Donnie- I mean, if both could improve next season that would help tremendously.
All joking aside, while I don't want to place importance on one receiver over the other, Smith-Schuster needs to rebound next season. I'm not trashing nor slighting him for 2019 given the circumstances, but we saw drastic changes when there wasn't a WR1 on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Using that train of thinking will have some answering with Johnson. That's acceptable, as having Johnson transform into another level of receiver would pay endless dividends for the offense, including Smith-Schuster.
However, if JuJu is able to improve on himself (he's beefing up according to his workout videos), there won't necessarily be an immediate need for Johnson or James Washington or whomever to establish themselves purely to take pressure off Smith-Schuster.