Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger

Here is the latest Pittsburgh Steelers' mailbag. If you have a question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #mail.

@ScottBrown_ESPN Yep, Hines Ward can attest that having the status of franchise icon was not enough to spare the Steelers from releasing him three years ago. The biggest difference between the former Super Bowl MVP and Polamalu is that when the Steelers released Ward they were in the process of clearing room under the salary cap. The Steelers can afford to give Polamalu time because they don't have any pressing issues with the salary cap. That does not mean they can wait forever for the eight-time Pro Bowler to decide if he wants to play in 2015 --and if that is the case the Steelers will release Polamalu -- or retire. Here is what Steelers president Art Rooney II said at the conclusion of the NFL owners meetings earlier this week on a decision regarding Polamalu: "We haven't put any drop date on it. Still more to come."

@ScottBrown_ESPN I will defer to new Chicago Bears coach John Fox, who knows a heck of a lot more about defense than I do. Fox, at the NFL owners meetings, said, "The best pass defense in the world is the pass rush." Unfortunately for the Steelers, they have issues as far as getting after getting after the cornerback and covering receivers. Even more unfortunate for them is there is no quick fix for either. That is why the Steelers have to draft well this year since they will presumably focus on defense and also hope cornerback Cortez Allen bounces back after a disastrous 2014 season and Jarvis Jones stays healthy and emerges as a force in 2015. A lot has to go right for the defense to make significant improvement next season. Fortunately for the Steelers they should have the offensive firepower to help cover for a defense that is still in transition.

@ScottBrown_ESPN All signs point to no, especially considering how tight-lipped the Steelers have been publicly about Troy Polamalu. I think the only thing that can save him --and this is only if the eight-time Pro Bowler is agreeable to a massive pay cut and a reduced role in 2015 -- is if Dan Rooney or Art Rooney II intervenes on his behalf. I don't see that happening since the Steelers rarely, if ever, let sentiment guide football and business decisions. It forces them to make hard decisions sometimes and could very well lead to the release of one of the most beloved players in franchise history. I think that happens, unfortunately, if Polamalu wants to play in 2015.

@ScottBrown_ESPN Defensive end Cameron Heyward is next in line. And I look at it the way I did with Ben Roethlisberger before he signed his five-year contract earlier this month. It is a question of when and not if as far as signing Heyward to a long-term contract. He is a cornerstone of the defense and has emerged as one of the Steelers' leaders. Heyward is due to make $6.96 million this season and the Steelers will lower his salary-cap hit in 2015 when they sign him to a multi-year contract. There is no urgency to get anything done and the Steelers will wait until after the draft before serious negotiations commence. I could see them signing Heyward in June as they did with center Maurkice Pouncey last year and getting a deal done with left tackle Kelvin Beachum after that, though maybe not until training camp.

@ScottBrown_ESPN I think they will sign a cornerback with the hopes of getting the same return on a low-risk signing as they did last year with Brice McCain. They may also sign a defensive end to provide depth behind Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, though if Cam Thomas has survived this long maybe they are content with him as a player who can swing between defensive end and nose tackle. The Steelers have made it clear that significant additions at cornerback and outside linebacker will come through the draft, so don't expect much from any free-agent signings they make moving forward.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were given a 'C' on the free-agency report card that ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando put together more than two weeks into the signing period.

Sando culled opinions from ESPN NFL analysts Bill Polian, Louis Riddick, Matt Williamson and Field Yates and drew on his own to grade every team.

Polian lauded the Steelers' one signing of an outside free agent, saying running back DeAngelo Williams is a perfect fit for Pittsburgh at this stage of his career. Williamson liked the re-signing of James Harrison given the need the Steelers had -- and still have -- at outside linebacker.

The grade sounds about right simply because the Steelers haven't done a whole lot and lost cornerbacks instead of adding to the position.

The Steelers may still sign a cornerback -- and hope to find a bargain like they did last season when they signed Brice McCain to a veteran minimum contract almost a month after the signing period.

But they have made it clear that significant additions at cornerback will come through the NFL draft.

The Steelers' relative inactivity during free agency has been a source of frustration to fans but they have quietly done solid work over last couple of weeks.

Signing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a five-year contract headed off any questions about the future of the most important position in any sport. Williams provides a proven veteran to back up Le'Veon Bell and the Steelers have done well in re-signing their own free agents.

Questions remain at outside linebacker and cornerback. But the Steelers have made it clear they weren't going to overpay at either position even though they did make inquiries about Darrelle Revis before he signed a five-year, $70 million contract with the New York Jets.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's new five-year contract could be worth as much as $108 million and includes a $31 million signing bonus and $64 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Running back DeAngelo Williams, meanwhile, signed a two-year, $4 million contract last Friday that includes a signing bonus of $1.13 million.

Here is a closer look at each deal:

Roethlisberger contract: The Steelers front-loaded Roethlisberger’s new deal but managed to lower his salary-cap hit in 2015 from $18.395 million to $17.245 million. His cap hit jumps to $23.95 million in 2016 and is $18.2 million in 2017 and $23.2 million in 2018 and 2019. What Roethlisberger called a “very fair” deal last Friday is also the going rate for an elite quarterback. The Steelers don’t have any significant dead money in 2016 right now -- more than $8 million of former outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley’s contract counts against this year’s cap -- and if the spending ceiling keeps increasing Roethlisberger’s contract should not put too much strain on their cap moving forward. This looks like a fair deal for both sides, especially given the leverage that quarterbacks of Roethlisberger's caliber possess because of simple supply and demand.

Williams’ contract: The former Carolina Panther does not have any guarantees beyond his signing bonus and is slated to make base salaries of $870,000 in 2015 and $2 million in 2016. The Steelers actually gave Williams a little bit more than LeGarrette Blount, whom they signed to a two-year, $3.85 million contract last year. What is significant is the Steelers can easily part ways with Williams after one season if he is not effective backing up Le’Veon Bell or if a young back emerges as the No. 2 running back. If the Steelers release Williams, who turns 32 in April, after next season only $565,000 of his deal would count against their salary cap in 2016.

Draft rewind: Unlucky No. 22

March, 18, 2015
Mar 18
1:00
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This is part of series that will run periodically leading up to the 2015 NFL draft. It looks on past drafts and draft picks with a Pittsburgh Steelers angle.

The Steelers don't have to worry about looking for an eventual successor to Ben Roethlisberger in the foreseeable future after signing the veteran quarterback to a five-year contract last Friday that could be worth up to $108 million.

It is especially fortuitous for the Steelers that they are not in the market for a future starter this year and not just because it is considered a weak draft class at quarterback.

The Steelers own the 22nd overall pick in the draft and that has not been a good place to take a quarterback.

The five quarterbacks who have been taken 22nd overall since 1960 are Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Brady Quinn, J.P. Losman and Rex Grossman.

Only Manziel has a chance of the five of becoming a successful NFL quarterback. And Johnny Football he has a long way to go after struggling with his adjustment to the NFL last season both on and off the field.

The Browns have tried to fix the quarterbacks problems that have plagued them since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999 three times with the 22nd overall pick since 2007.

Meanwhile, Losman was drafted 22nd by the Buffalo Bills the same year that the Steelers took Roethlisberger No. 11 overall.

The five quarterbacks drafted at No. 22 have combined for 123 NFL starts with 127 touchdown passes, 141 interceptions and 25,140 career passing yards.

Roethlisberger has started 158 regular-season games with 251 touchdown passes, 131 interceptions and 39,057 passing yards.

Here is the second part of the mailbag. If you have a question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #mail.
@ScottBrown_ESPN In fairness this question was sent before the Pittsburgh Steelers signed running back DeAngelo Williams and re-signed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. I know locking up Roethlisberger for the next five seasons isn’t a free agency move but it is huge nonetheless. It sends an unmistakable message that the Steelers are all-in as far as maximizing Roethlisberger’s remaining seasons as an elite quarterback and, oh yeah, winning. As I wrote, it is much easier to build around a franchise quarterback than to build and then try and find a quarterback. Getting Roethlisberger’s deal done provides a huge lift to the organization. Team president Art Rooney II said the Steelers were “very happy” with how the first week of free agency went for the Steelers because they took care of what had been their top priority. Now other pieces will fall into place as the Steelers try to build on winning the AFC North last season.
@ScottBrown_ESPN I think the odds got a lot better when the Tennessee Titans re-signed Derrick Morgan and added another outside linebacker (Brian Orakpo) through free agency. Do the Titans have room for James Harrison with those two on the team? And as loyal as Harrison is to Titans assistant head coach/defense Dick LeBeau would he be willing to relocate to play for a team that won two games last season and one on which he would clearly be a backup? The Steelers can offer a better opportunity if they want to bring Harrison back for another season and Pittsburgh is home for the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. That is not small consideration for Harrison, who has said he would not have come out of retirement last season had his two young sons had a problem with it.
@ScottBrown_ESPN Nothing appears to imminent as Troy Polamalu continues to train while also contemplating retirement. The Steelers plan to move on from the iconic safety but they are also being very respectful of Polamalu, giving the 12th-year veteran the time he needs to figure out what is next for him. I have heard that the Steelers wanting Polamalu to retire actually lit a fire under him. What Polamalu needs to decide is whether there is a situation that is right for him if he decides to play in 2015. At some point Polamalu has to make a decision about his future. Maybe it will come this week.
@ScottBrown_ESPN He has to be in the discussion and the Steelers are certainly interested as coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Keith Butler and outside linebackers coach Joey Porter attended Kentucky's pro day last week. Bud Dupree is an explosive athlete and has the size the Steelers look for in outside linebackers. There are questions about his instincts and whether he consistently plays with the intensity that will needed at the next level. What intrigues me about Dupree is his potential and what he could develop into with coaching. Sounds like he would be a perfect pupil for Porter, who is as high-motor a coach as he was a player.
@ScottBrown_ESPN Not good if the Steelers’ history under Kevin Colbert is any indication. The Steelers have traded down just once in the first round -- 2001 when they dropped three spots to draft nose tackle Casey Hampton -- since Colbert joined the organization in 2000. The Steelers, picking at No. 22, are in a spot where teams that need a quarterback but didn’t take one with their first pick, try to trade back into the first round. Unfortunately for the Steelers, if they are looking to move down to collect more picks, the quarterback class is such a weak one that it is unlikely a team will be interested into moving where the Steelers are to take one.
@ScottBrown_ESPN I guess it starts today with cornerback Patrick Robinson visiting the Steelers. I’d be a little surprised if he leaves Pittsburgh with a contract as Williams did last Friday. A handful of teams are interested in Robinson, who could certainly help the Steelers, and he seems intent on seeing what is out there and could also return to the New Orleans Saints. I think the Steelers jump -- make that wade -- into free agency now that the first wave has passed. Re-signing Harrison, who might be their best option at outside linebacker, is a possibility and the Steelers will try to find some bargains as they add pieces on defense. Remember the Steelers’ best two free-agent signings last year, cornerback Brice McCain and linebacker Arthur Moats, came later in free agency and didn’t cause a ripple outside of Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger share the same goal: Having the quarterback play his entire career in black and gold.

Did they accomplish that Friday when Roethlisberger signed a five-year contract, of which the details are being guarded as if they were a state secret?

Roethlisberger will be 38 if he plays the entire length of the contract and will have played 16 NFL seasons. That should be about the time that Roethlisberger is ready to call it a career.

Then again, Roethlisberger has gotten better with age and Tom Brady won a Super Bowl at the age of 37 and is still going strong. Peyton Manning, who overcame a career-threatening neck injury two years ago, is 38 and will play at least one more season.

And Drew Brees has talked about playing into his 40s.

Roethlisberger did not say Friday whether he believes he has signed his last NFL contract, preferring to stay in the moment.

“People ask me how long I want to play,” Roethlisberger said. “If I look to the end then I am missing out on right now. And right here, right now, it’s a great day to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. I am just excited for this right now.”

There might be a time when the Steelers have to part ways with Roethlisberger, something that happened with wide receiver Hines Ward in 2012.

And that's something that will happen with Troy Polamalu if the veteran safety does not retire.

But the Steelers don’t have to worry about that scenario for years with Roethlisberger.

Here are some other takes from Roethlisberger after signing his new deal:
  • On why it is so important for him to stay in Pittsburgh: “As much as my wife and kids are family, so is the Rooney family and my team and coaches. I love this place. I love raising my family here. This means that I can stay here with them and raise them in such a great environment and a great city that we love so much.”
  • On playing every game and all but a handful of snaps the last two seasons: “It’s a great thing to feel healthy. And I feel healthy right now. And I am excited. When you go into an offseason healthy and ready to get yourself in the best possible shape and in the best position to win football games, [that] is great for everybody. That is where I am at now. And I look forward to trying to get better.”
  • On his growth from his rookie season in 2004: “It’s amazing how much you mature and leadership is about responsibility. Every day I try and embrace the responsibility and the leadership that comes with being a father, a husband, a Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback, a teammate, all those things. And I embrace it and try and be the best that I can be. I think this day just is another step of me doing everything I can to try and be the best leader, teammate, quarterback, everything I can be for this organization.”
  • On a report during the 2013 season that he wanted the Steelers to trade him: “I said at that time we didn’t know where those rumors came from. It wasn’t coming from me. Mr. Rooney said it wasn’t coming from the team. A lot of you guys have been here a long time. I have always said this is where I want to be. I am just happy that I can be here.”
PITTSBURGH -- A wild week when it comes to generating news, even by NFL standards, cannot overshadow this reality: If you don’t have a quarterback in this league you don’t have a chance. Ndamukong Suh moving to South Beach and Chip Kelly overhauling his roster don't change that.

That is why team president Art Rooney II smiled broadly late Friday afternoon when he announced the new contract the Pittsburgh Steelers consummated with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

“There was nothing more important than getting this done, so we’re very happy with how our first week of free agency ended,” Rooney said.

The deal, which came after the Steelers had been one of the quietest teams through the first wave of free agency, had always been a matter of when, not if.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Don WrightBen Roethlisberger will be entering Heinz Field as the Steelers' quarterback for the foreseeable future after signing an extension Friday.
That did not stop the fanfare that accompanied Roethlisberger’s new deal, as Dan Rooney, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert squeezed into a corner of the Steelers’ media room along with Roethlisberger's wife and two young children. Nor should it have.

Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his career, and if the Steelers needed any last reminder of why they signed him to a new five-year contract they got it when they passed the library on the way to the media room.

The library is where the Steelers display six gleaming Lombardi trophies, and Roethlisberger told Rooney II that he might have to look into expanding the room.

“That’s got to be our ultimate goal and I trust that coach [Mike Tomlin] and the Steelers will put the best football team on the field,” Roethlisberger said.

His signing a new deal is an endorsement of the direction the Steelers are headed after going 11-5 last season and winning the AFC North for the first time since 2010.

The Steelers also have the much easier job -- at least for the foreseeable future -- of building around a franchise quarterback rather than building a team first, then trying to find the right quarterback to lead it.

Consider the quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls since 2005, when Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a title in his second season: Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.

“There’s no other way to do it these days in the league,” Rooney II said.

Amen to that. But there is an element of luck in getting one of those players.

As sophisticated as scouting has become, projecting a college quarterback at the next level is still largely throwing a dart at a board while blindfolded and facing a howling wind.

When you have one, you ride him as long as you can, something the Steelers know from their own history.

From the time Terry Bradshaw retired in 1984 until the Steelers drafted Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick in 2004, Pittsburgh won nine playoff games.

The Steelers have won 10 with Roethlisberger as their starting quarterback, as well as the team's only two post-Bradshaw era Super Bowls.

The Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since the 2010 season, which is why Roethlisberger emitted an unmistakable sense of urgency even as he radiated happiness over the deal, which could allow him to play his entire career with one team.

“I think this day is just another step of me doing everything I can to try and be the best leader, teammate, quarterback, everything I can be,” said Roethlisberger, who was clad in a charcoal-colored suit. “I think we’ve got a good, young football team that’s got a lot of talent, a lot of ability. I think the sky’s the limit for this team.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers added an intriguing quarterback to their roster Friday when they signed Tajh Boyd to a one-year contract.

Boyd is the ACC’s all-time leading in passing yards (11,904) and passing touchdowns (107) and the former Clemson star was a sixth-round draft pick by the New York Jets last year.

The Jets cut Boyd at the end of preseason practice and he played for two FXFL teams before signing with the Steelers, where the 6-foot-1, 225-pound quarterback will be reunited with former Clemson wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

The addition of Boyd all but rules out the Steelers' drafting a quarterback or signing an undrafted free agent.

And there could be an opportunity for Boyd to make the roster.

Landry Jones, the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback, has yet to dress for a game in two NFL seasons or seriously push Bruce Gradkowski for the No. 2 job behind Ben Roethlisberger.

General manager Kevin Colbert said recently that Jones made significant improvement in his second season, so the signing of Boyd is not necessarily an indictment of Jones, a 2013 fourth-round pick.

But Boyd’s pedigree also suggests that he will be more than just an extra arm for training camp and will have a legitimate shot of making the 53-man roster if he performs well.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are more than $8 million under the 2015 salary cap if it comes in at $143 million, according to ESPN Roster Management.

An expected $10 million spike from last year’s spending ceiling and the restructuring of a pair of contacts put the Steelers at $8.025 million under if the cap is $143 million.

That puts the Steelers in pretty good shape with the start of the NFL’s new year – and the free agent signing period – still more than a week away. Both start on March 10 and the Steelers could easily create more cap room before then.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu is due a base salary of $6 million in 2015 and the eight-time Pro Bowler will probably have to accept a significant pay cut if he wants to return to the Steelers.

Restructuring the contract of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is also an option after the Steelers re-worked the deals of right tackle Marcus Gilbert and free safety Mike Mitchell earlier this week.

Pouncey has a cap hit of $8.1 million in 2015. The Steelers could lower that by turning most of his $5.5 million base salary next season into a signing bonus and spreading the bonus over the remaining five years on Pouncey’s contract.

The Steelers should also gain some cap relief after they sign quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a long-term contract.

Roethlisberger is going into the final year of his contract and has a cap hit of $18.395 million.

The Steelers will presumably lower that when they sign Roethlisberger to a new deal that will likely include a huge signing bonus and escalating base salaries.

There aren’t any indications that the Steelers and Roethlisberger are close on a new contract.

It will get done and is still a matter of when and not if, a stance that the Steelers have consistently maintained.

PITTSBURGH -- The biggest news to come out of general manager Kevin Colbert's sit-down with reporters Tuesday isn't that the Pittsburgh Steelers have started negotiations with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's camp on a long-term contract.

It is how confident the Steelers are that the window isn't even beginning to close on Roethlisberger, who turns 33 on March 2.

Colbert, who is hardly prone to hyperbole, compared Roethlisberger to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, a pair of all-time greats who have played at a high level well into their 30s.

That the Steelers are prepared to reward Roethlisberger as such was never really a question -- even after the organization tabled contract talks last July so it could address more immediate business.

Roethlisberger
The eight-year, $102 million contract that Roethlisberger signed in 2008 was the most lucrative in franchise history. His new deal could be right around those numbers and even exceed them.

Colbert's effusive praise of Roethlisberger is a strong indication the Steelers do not plan to lowball their three-time Pro Bowl quarterback.

It also makes it likely that Roethlisberger and the Steelers agree to a new deal sooner rather than later. Getting the contract done has been a fait accompli for some time, which should allow Colbert and the Steelers to tend to more pressing needs.

Colbert said at this time last year the Steelers wanted to surround Roethlisberger with as much talent as possible to maximize his remaining seasons. The Steelers have done that with their recent drafts.

Now it is time to re-build a defense that needs pass rushers and defensive backs.

An offense flush with talent at the skills positions will lead the Steelers in the foreseeable future. But for the Steelers to take the next step after winning the AFC North in 2014, they need the defense to close the gap on the offense.

Fortunately for the Steelers, they can focus on that priority without protracted contract negotiations with their franchise quarterback looming over them.

As Colbert said, when it comes to Roethlisberger's third and likely final contract with the Steelers, it remains a matter of when and not if.
This is the first in a series that takes a closer look at the Pittsburgh Steelers' position groups with the free agency and the draft approaching.

Under contract: Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones are all signed through next season. Roethlisberger and Gradkowski are each entering the final year of their respective contracts.

Free agents: None.

Roethlisberger
The good: Roethlisberger is seemingly getting better with age. Three of his four 4,000-yard passing seasons have come since he turned 29, and Roethlisberger shared the NFL passing title last season with New Orleans' Drew Brees, as each threw for 4,952 yards. Roethlisberger is in line for another big contract after signing an eight-year, $102 million deal in 2008, the most lucrative in franchise history. The Steelers should be able to lock up Roethlisberger for the rest of his career and create immediate room under the salary cap by lowering his cap number ($18.395 million) for 2015.

The bad: Gradkowski is a capable reserve, but is Landry Jones a viable No. 2 quarterback if the Steelers don’t bring back Gradkowski after the 2015 season? The Steelers have little idea what they have in Jones, who has yet to suit up for a game in two seasons and has produced mixed results in preseason action.

The burning question: What will Roethlisberger’s final contract with the Steelers look like? It will probably be five or six years with possible compensation exceeding $100 million. For comparison sake Brees signed a five-year, $100 million contact that included $55 million in guaranteed money in 2012 when he was 33 years old. Roethlisberger turns 33 on March 2.

The money: Roethlisberger’s base salary is $11.6 million in 2015, but that will change with his new deal. Gradkowski and Jones are scheduled to make $1.55 million and $585,000, respectively, in 2015, so the Steelers don’t have a lot of cash tied up in Roethlisberger’s backups.

Draft priority: Low. It’s too early to start looking for Roethlisberger’s eventual successor. And the Steelers have too many other needs to spend a pick on a backup quarterback after taking Jones in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.

He said it: “I hear that term thrown around too often to be quite honest with you. If you follow professional football you would think half the teams in the league have a franchise quarterback, and we all know that’s not the case. We have a good quarterback. I like him. I would like to keep him.” – Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on the importance of having a franchise quarterback.
Le'Veon Bell played high school football in the shadow of Ohio State, but the Buckeyes never showed much interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers running back.

And Bell, who had only a handful of scholarship offers before signing with Michigan State, was pursued like a five-star recruit by schools compared to Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Brown, one of the premier wide receivers in the NFL, was so lightly regarded coming out of high school that he did not receive any stars by Rivals.com, a national recruiting service.

Wallace
Brown
The Miami native played at a North Carolina prep school before receiving a scholarship to Central Michigan.

The stories of Bell and Brown should – but won’t -- temper the celebrations that have taken place across the country on Wednesday, the first day that high school players are officially allowed to sign with schools.

A Steelers offense that finished second in the NFL in total yards last season (411.1) – and led Pittsburgh to its first AFC North title since 2010 – also provides proof the top-rated prep players in the country often fall short of later making a name for themselves in the NFL.

Or are surpassed by less ballyhooed recruits at the next level.

Here is a look back at how five Steelers skill players who project as starters next season were rated coming out of high school.

I will have a post later on Wednesday that looks at the offensive line and tight end Heath Miller coming out of high school.

QB Ben Roethlisberger: Rivals.com’s player rankings go back only to 2002 but it is well-documented how Roethlisberger did not start at quarterback until he was a senior in high school. The 2000 Findlay High School graduate signed with Miami (Ohio), a mid-major program, because higher-profile schools either got in on Roethlisberger too late or recruited him for another position.

RB Le’Veon Bell: Bell starred at Madison High School, which is in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, but Rivals.com rated him as only a two-star prospect in 2010. Bell, who finished second in the NFL with 2,215 yards from scrimmage last season, was not rated among ESPN’s RecruitingNation top 100 running backs in the country coming out of high school.

WR Antonio Brown: It’s pretty easy to see how Brown slipped through the cracks since he did not have great size or blazing speed and hails from Miami, which is overflowing with young football talent. But not receiving any stars from Rivals.com? The three-time Pro Bowler continues to have the last laugh at all who doubted him – from high school to college to the NFL where Brown lasted until the 195th pick of the 2010 draft.

WR Markus Wheaton: Wheaton received three stars from Rivals.com coming out of Chandler High School in Arizona in 2009. Wheaton, who signed with Oregon State, was ESPN RecruitingNation’s No. 67 wide receiver nationally. An interesting note: ESPN’s 10th-ranked wide receiver in 2009 was Terry Hawthorne, who played cornerback at Illinois and was a fifth-round pick by the Steelers in 2013 – two rounds after they selected Wheaton. The Steelers cut Hawthorne after his only training camp and preseason with the team.

WR Martavis Bryant: The 2014 fourth-round pick was highly regarded coming out of high school. Rivals.com gave Bryant four stars. ESPN RecruitingNation ranked him the No. 8 wide receiver nationally in 2010. Bryant played a season at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia before joining 2014 No. 4 overall draft pick Sammy Watkins in Clemson’s 2011 recruiting class.
Here is the latest Pittsburgh Steelers' mailbag. If you have a question please send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #mail. And away we go...


@ScottBrown_ESPN: Le'Veon Bell is going to be the every-down back but the Steelers need an upgrade behind him unless they think Josh Harris develops into the kind of player who can handle a heavy workload if Bell is out. The Steelers are bracing for a one-game suspension of Bell, probably at the beginning of 2015, because of his arrest for marijuana possession and driving under the influence. Injuries, meanwhile, are always an X factor, so someone better be ready behind Bell. This appears to be a deep draft for running backs and that's the way the Steelers have to go after what happened with LeGarrette Blount. They should be able to find a quality back in the middle rounds, after they have addressed their myriad needs on defense.


@ScottBrown_ESPN It's so tough to tell because of the limited repetitions Landry Jones gets in practice. Through little if any fault of his own, it is simply a wasted draft pick unless Jones makes enough progress to supplant Bruce Gradkowski as the No. 2 quarterback. Even if that happens -- and that is a big if at this point -- why would the Steelers use a fourth-round draft pick in 2013 on a quarterback when they had so many other needs and after they had signed Gradkowski to back up Ben Roethlisberger? The Steelers had three different quarterbacks start games in 2012 because of injuries so that is the best explanation why they took Jones in the following draft even when they had already gotten younger at quarterback behind Roethlisberger.


@ScottBrown_ESPN: Yep, could definitely see them having an interest in the former University of Washington standout if he is still available when they make their second-round pick. Marcus Peters is one of the most talented cornerbacks in the draft though he has some questions to answer -- first and foremost why he got kicked off the team last season. It's hard to imagine the Steelers taking a chance on Peters in the first round even as needy as they are at cornerback. What they will have to determine during the pre-draft process is whether he is worth the risk. The Steelers, like every other NFL team, will do their homework on Peters before ultimately deciding when they are willing to gamble on him if they are at all.


@ScottBrown_ESPN: Steelers president Art Rooney II said recently that there have not been any talks on that front. I expect discussions to really start now with the 2014 season in the books and free agency on the horizon. Roethlisberger is under contract for next season, but it would help the Steelers if they get a new deal done before March 10 (the start of free agency), so they can lower his cap hit of $18.395 million in 2015 and use the savings to address other areas of need. Rooney has said the Steelers aren't setting any sort of deadlines as far as signing Roethlisberger and I assure you a deal will get done. For comparison sake, Roethlisberger signed his eight-year, $102 million contract in 2008 on March 3.


@ScottBrown_ESPN: I would be surprised if they get a third-round compensatory draft pick this year. The formula for determining compensatory picks is based on how many free agents a team signed and how many it lost the previous year. The Steelers were busier than usual last March signing free agents such as safety Mike Mitchell, outside linebacker Arthur Moats, cornerback Brice McCain and defensive end/nose tackle Cam Thomas. All started at least eight games in 2014 and Mitchell started every game last season. Emmanuel Sanders had a heck of a season in Denver, catching 101 passes for 1,404 and nine touchdowns, but unless I am missing somebody Sanders was the only free agent who left the Steelers and became a full-time starter elsewhere. I don't believe linebacker Larry Foote counts when it comes to determining compensatory picks since the Steelers released the veteran before he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. I am interested to hear general Kevin Colbert's thoughts on what the Steelers expect to receive as far as compensatory picks. They will be announced at the NFL owners meetings in late March.


@ScottBrown_ESPN: Lawrence Timmons can play outside if the Steelers need him there because of injuries, something he did in 2011 when he started four games at right outside linebacker in place of James Harrison. But I don't think the Steelers would even entertain such a move full-time for Timmons. Coach Mike Tomlin said in early January that even with the depth the Steelers have at inside linebacker, none of those players stand out as candidates who could move outside. And why even consider a position change for Timmons? He is a Pro Bowl inside linebacker and is probably just another guy at outside linebacker.


This is the final in a series that looks at 17 plays that shaped the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season – one from every game.

For this series, we went in chronological order.

No. 1: Running back Le’Veon Bell’s 38-yard touchdown scamper in a 30-27 win over the Cleveland Browns.

No, 2: Wide receiver Justin Brown’s lost fumble after a 6-yard reception in a 26-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

No. 3: Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones’ sack of quarterback Cam Newton for an 8-yard loss in a 37-19 win over the Carolina Panthers.

No. 4: Wide receiver Antonio Brown’s drop of a sure touchdown pass in a 27-24 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

No. 5: Cornerback Brice McCain’s 21-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 17-9 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

No. 6: Cornerback Cortez Allen getting beat for a 51-yard touchdown catch by Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron.

No. 7: Running back Bell ’s 43-yard reception in a 30-23 win over the Houston Texans.

No. 8: Cornerback William Gay ’s 33-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts.

No. 9: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton’s 47-yard touchdown catch in a 43-23 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

No. 10: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s rare and untimely interception in a 20-13 loss to the New York Jets.

No. 11: Bell’s 5-yard touchdown run in a 27-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans.

No. 12: New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills’ 69-yard touchdown catch in a 35-32 win over the Steelers.

No. 13: Outside linebacker Arthur Moats’ fumble recovery in a 42-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

No. 14: Gay’s 52-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Steelers’ 27-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

No. 15: Defensive end Stephon Tuitt’s forced fumble in a 20-12 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

No. 16: Steelers lose Bell to a knee injury in a 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

No. 17: Roethlisberger’s short pass attempt turns into disaster and halts Steelers’ comeback bid.

The setting: The Steelers had battled back from a double-digit deficit in their AFC wild-card game against the visiting Baltimore Ravens. Even after the Ravens answered a Roethlisberger touchdown pass with a field goal, the Steelers only trailed 23-15 when they got the ball back with just under 9 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

The play: The Steelers were facing a third-and-4 from their 26-yard line when Roethlisberger, under pressure, tried to dump off a pass to running back Ben Tate. The ball clanged off the hands of Tate, who had signed with the Steelers earlier that week, and into the arms of Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. A short return set up the Ravens at the Steelers’ 21-yard line.

What it meant for the bigger picture: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco threw a touchdown pass to tight end Crockett Gillmore on the next play and Baltimore went on to beat the Steelers in the playoffs for the first time, 30-17. The absence of Bell – the All-Pro running back did not play against the Ravens because of a hyperextended knee – showed his importance to the Steelers’ offense. It also magnified the Steelers’ need to find a quality back to play behind Bell. Roethlisberger took the blame for the interception that killed the Steelers’ chances of rallying past the Ravens at Heinz Field. But it hit Tate right in the hands, and maybe Tate catches it if he had more than a week to practice with the Steelers. The Steelers, however, were forced to play Tate significant snaps against the Ravens because he was more proven than rookie running backs Josh Harris and Dri Archer. The Steelers need Harris to emerge as their No. 2 back – and for Archer to become more of a weapon in the offense and return game – or bring in another player who is capable of spelling Bell and carrying the load when he is out. And Bell is likely to serve a one-game suspension at the beginning of next season because of his August arrest for marijuana possession and driving under the influence.
Le'Veon Bell came within 42 yards of leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2014. He joined Pro Football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as the only players in NFL history with at least 1,350 rushing yards and 850 receiving yards in a season, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

And yet nothing reflected his value more than the one game that Bell missed.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' offense struggled in a 30-17 AFC wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens with Bell watching helplessly on the sidelines because of a hyperextended knee.

Bell
The Steelers rushed for only 68 yards and gave up five sacks -- they had yielded four in the their last four regular-season games -- in the loss that ended their season. The critical turnover of the game came in the fourth quarter, when a Ben Roethlisberger pass bounced off the hands of running back Ben Tate and into the arms of Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.

The Steelers could only wonder what might have been had Bell been healthy enough to play against the Ravens since he excels as a runner and receiver and is also adept at picking up blitzing linebackers.

Bell’s all-around game earned the second-year man a truckload of accolades, and he has been voted the AFC North’s Most Valuable Player.

Bell beat out Roethlisberger, who tied New Orleans’ Drew Brees for the most passing yards (4,952) in 2014, for the honor, which was voted on by ESPN reporters who cover AFC North teams.

“The things that he can do in all three phases of the game to run, to catch the ball, and to block are some of the most special things I’ve ever seen a running back do,” Roethlisberger said during Bell’s breakout season.

Bell set numerous Steelers records, including the one for most yards from scrimmage (2,215) in a season. He also joined the late Walter Payton as the only players in NFL history with at least 200 yards from scrimmage in three consecutive games.

Payton accomplished the feat in 1977. Bell matched it with 711 yards from scrimmage during a three-game stretch that bridged November and December.

“When they were talking about me and Walter Payton being the only ones having that (record), it kind of hit me a little bit,” Bell said, “like, OK, all the hard work I’ve been putting in for 17 years playing football and all the hard work I’ve been putting in is paying off. Being looked at as one of the better players in the NFL is something that I take pride in.”

And Bell only turns 23 when he celebrates his birthday Feb. 18.

"This is only my second year so I feel like I have room for improvement,” Bell said. “There’s still a lot of things I can work on and get better at.”

AFC North Most Valuable Player voting: Le'Veon Bell, 12 points; Ben Roethlisberger, 8; Joe Flacco, 4; Justin Forsett, 3; Antonio Brown, 2; Jeremy Hill, 1.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.

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