- Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will begin training camp with right tackle Matt Feiler at left guard (Twitter link via Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). The Steelers need a new left guard after Ramon Foster‘s retirement. However, a Feiler position switch would create a hole at right tackle — where he started 16 games last season. The Steelers signed Stefen Wisniewski as a possible Foster replacement, and Dulac does not expect Feiler to ultimately make the move to guard. Should Feiler be a genuine option at left guard, third-year tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and fourth-year blocker Zach Banner would compete for the Steelers’ right tackle gig.
- Both James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster are in contract years. While nothing has transpired on the Conner extension front, Dulac expects the Steelers to extend Smith-Schuster and avoid the franchise tag to do so. The Steelers have displayed an excellent ability to identify receiver talents for many years and have often let starters walk in free agency (Plaxico Burress, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace) or traded them (Santonio Holmes, Martavis Bryant). But the team does not have a veteran contract in its current receiver stable, leaving the door open for JuJu to get paid.
The Hall of Fame Game has been canceled, per a Thursday morning announcement from the NFL. The league’s annual preseason kickoff was slated to take place on August 6 between the Steelers and Cowboys.
COVID-19 cases have risen all across the country and a number of players have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks. Not long ago, the league was optimistic about having fans in attendance for games and moving forward with its existing preseason and regular season schedule. Now, everything appears to be in flux.
As of this writing, the rest of the NFL’s exhibition period remains in tact. However, that could change quickly. On Thursday, the league will have a virtual huddle-up to discuss the fate of upcoming training camps and other in-person offseason activities.
Before this, teams were planning to hold training camp on July 28, which is the scheduled start date for most of the league. They were also hoping to have a pre-camp conditioning period. At minimum, it seems likely that the preseason will be shortened from its usual four-game slate to two games.
On the plus side, Dr. Anthony Fauci indicated that a COVID-19 vaccine could be developed sometime before the end of the calendar year.
The NFL has scheduled a conference call with owners Thursday, and the discussion will include plans to reopen team facilities, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets. Players not rehabbing injuries have been barred from team headquarters throughout the offseason. As discussion between the NFL and NFLPA regarding the navigation of a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic continues, here is the latest from the coronavirus front:
- Multiple teams are proceeding as if they will report to training camp July 28, which is the scheduled start date for most of the NFL, and that there will be no pre-camp conditioning-type period, Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero of NFL.com note (via Twitter). This does not appear set in stone, but the NFLPA is not believed to be on board with an earlier report date. Additionally, a shortened preseason is likely following the late-July reporting date, per the NFL.com duo. A truncated exhibition slate has also been a recent topic.
- Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this week a COVID-19 vaccine surfacing this year is not out of the question. Fauci said he was “cautiously optimistic” a vaccine would be available by the end of 2020 or early in 2021, Steven Nelson of the New York Post writes. Fauci added that vaccine distribution could come around the same time. These developments would obviously be a game-changer as the world grapples with the virus, and sports leagues would benefit immensely from a vaccine being available so soon.
- Although Fauci recommended the NFL reconsider a bubble format — one the league opted against weeks ago — other doctors have pushed back on the idea the league can or should attempt this, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe notes. While restrictions on players when they are away from team facilities during camp and the regular season are not yet known, multiple experts informed Volin sequestering NFLers for so many months was not exactly feasible.
- Shifting back to the subject of preseason football, the possibility of the Hall of Fame Game not taking place is on the table. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said recently that the game will likely not be played in front of fans and that the Cowboys–Steelers matchup would not take place if it needed to be played at this moment, per Zac Jackson of The Athletic (on Twitter). Cowboys officials have been skeptical for weeks the game will happen, David Moore of the Dallas Morning News tweets. The league could well opt to eliminate the early portion of the preseason schedule in an effort to give players more time to re-acclimate after the virtual offseason.
Mike Tomlin confirmed Tuesday that two Steelers players have tested positive for COVID-19, per Brooke Pryor of ESPN.com (on Twitter).
The 14th-year Steelers coach added that neither has spent any time at the team’s facility this offseason. Players who are not rehabbing injuries remain barred from teams’ facilities.
This continues a bad trend for the NFL and the sports world, which just saw tennis phenom Novak Djokovic and Denver Nuggets All-Star Nikola Jokic test positive. These non-NFL names follow the likes of Sean Payton, Von Miller, Ezekiel Elliott, Kareem Jackson and several others. Neither Steelers player has been identified.
The Steelers join the Saints, Broncos, Cowboys, Texans, Buccaneers, 49ers and Rams as teams that have confirmed players or other personnel tested positive for the coronavirus. As of Sunday, around 10 teams had seen positive tests emerge. College football teams have seen numerous players test positive, with some programs suspending workouts because of the virus.
The NFL and NFLPA continue to work toward a solution on this complicated front. The sides are negotiating on players’ return to facilities, how exactly training camps will work as 90-man rosters and dozens of additional personnel convene after the virtual offseason, and the formulation of a plan for the salary cap’s immediate future. The league’s stadium reopening task force is on track to issue recommendations by next week. The NFL has already announced recommendations for social distancing — from mandatory off-field masks to weight-room changes to the suggestion meetings be held outdoors — but because of its roster sizes, the league will be forced to navigate challenges the other major sports do not.
Earlier this month, we learned that there have been no recent contract talks between the Steelers and star defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, who is entering the final season of his current deal. Mark Kaboly of The Athletic believes Pittsburgh should make Heyward its top priority, even ahead of some of its younger talent that will be due for extensions soon, but that could be a tall order.
For one, the Steelers always spend to the cap and often push money into future seasons in order to stay cap compliant. As Kaboly observes, the team pushed $21MM of salary into the 2021 season, with the expectation that the salary cap would increase by at least $15MM next year. But the 2021 cap may be reduced as a result of the pandemic, which could put Pittsburgh in a bind.
Secondly, even without the pandemic, the club may have found it tough to keep the 31-year-old Heyward in the fold. A source tells Kaboly that Heyward could fetch Aaron Donald money on the open market, due to his overall excellent play and his ability to line up both inside and outside (plus, in 2019, Heyward graded out as Pro Football Focus’ second-best interior defender, behind only Donald himself). Heyward’s age could limit his payday a bit, but he is only two years older than Donald, who is playing on a six-year, $135MM deal that included $50MM guaranteed at signing. Though it would be surprising to see Heyward cash in to that degree, his next contract will certainly be massive in its own right, so the Steelers may have no other choice but to look elsewhere.
Likewise, Kaboly suggests that the Steelers will not extend outside linebacker Bud Dupree prior to the July 15 deadline for franchised players, and the team will almost assuredly not tag him against next season. Indeed, we haven’t heard of any contract talks between the two sides, and it looks as if Dupree will play out the 2020 campaign on his $16MM+ tender, with an eye towards hitting the open market in 2021.
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As could be expected, the NFLPA appears to be in favor of alternatives that would not involve players reporting to training camps earlier than scheduled. Most teams are set to report July 28, but NFL-NFLPA joint committee on health and safety have recommended extending the five-day acclimation period — implemented in this year’s CBA — significantly. However, an NFLPA source informed SI.com’s Albert Breer the union “would have no interest” in a scenario that features an early reporting date to make up for so much offseason time being missed. Some teams are in favor of having players report either one or two weeks early, Breer adds, but the league office has pushed back on the notion it would want players back early. This comes on the heels of minicamps being canceled.
The NFL and NFLPA have been discussing training camp scenarios for weeks, and the sides will need to hammer out an agreement before players are allowed to return to team facilities. However, the players have not yet proposed a report date that would differ from their new July 28 ETA, per Breer.
Here is the latest coming out of the ongoing NFL-NFLPA talks and the state of training camps amid COVID-19:
- Teams will be reporting to camp July 28, for the most part. But a few rosters will be back sooner. The Cowboys, Steelers, Chiefs and Texans will report earlier, per Adam Schefter of ESPN.com. The Cowboys and Steelers are scheduled to play in this year’s Hall of Fame Game and will be the guinea pigs in this new reality, reporting July 22. With Chiefs-Texans being this year’s regular-season opener, each team will report July 25. These uniform dates mark a slight change from previous years, when teams would gradually report in late July since they were required to report 15 days before their first preseason game.
- A few numbers have been thrown out about how much a fan-less season would impact the league. The NFLPA’s latest estimate came in. Union executive director DeMaurice Smith said a season featuring games without fans would represent a loss greater than $3 billion, Breer tweets. An NFL.com report indicated losses could exceed $4 billion in this scenario, placing even greater importance on the league’s talks with the union regarding the navigation of the salary cap — which would be set for a significant reduction unless the parties come up with a solution.
- Shortening this year’s preseason schedule continues to surface as a rumored option as well.
Josh Harris and David Blitzer – owners of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils – have purchased a piece of the Steelers, according to Erik Schatzker of Bloomberg. The exact figures aren’t known, but they acquired less than 5% of the team, per Schatzker’s sources.
The Steelers stake may have cost as much as $140MM, per Forbes’ estimates from September 2019. It’s just the latest addition to their expansive roster, which also includes ownership of Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center and the English Premier League’s Crystal Palace soccer club. They’re also said to be weighing a bid for the New York Mets.
It’s possible that Harris and Blitzer bought the shares from David Tepper, who went from minority owner of the Steelers to the majority owner of the Panthers. The Steelers, meanwhile, remain under the control of the Rooney family, with additional backing from other investors.
The duo will not add their Steelers shares to Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the company that houses their other pro sports investments.
As a key deadline looms for restricted free agents, one of the key members of this contingent is back in the fold with his team. Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton signed his second-round tender on Thursday, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets.
Hilton’s preference remains to sign a long-term deal to stay in Pittsburgh, per Schefter, but this ties him to a $3.26MM payment this year. RFAs have until June 15 to sign tenders. Otherwise, teams can withdraw them and pay players 120% of their respective 2019 salaries.
Hilton has operated as a key Steelers defender for years, manning the slot for the improved defense. Last season, the Steelers rocketed up to third in DVOA against the pass. Although 2019 additions Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick had plenty to do with that, Hilton and Joe Haden remained key figures in the Pittsburgh defense’s rise.
Because of his undrafted status, Hilton has been eligible for a new deal since the 2018 season ended. The Steelers tendered him as an ERFA in 2019. The 26-year-old cornerback said last year he wanted to be a Steeler long-term, and that stance evidently has not changed.
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Steelers offensive tackle Matt Feiler has signed his one-year restricted free agent tender, according to Dan Graziano of ESPN.com (on Twitter). The Steelers cuffed Feiler at the second-round level earlier this year to ward away other teams.
Per the terms of the tender, Feiler is now set to earn $3.27MM this year. If another club signed him to an offer sheet and the Steelers declined to match, that club would have had to forfeit a second-round pick. As good as Feiler is, that was too high of a price tag for other teams.
Feiler, 28 in July, came into the league as an undrafted free agent with the Texans. His time in Houston aside, he’s pretty much spent his entire career in Pittsburgh. Feiler cracked the starting lineup in 2018 and, last year, he was first-string for all 16 of the Steelers’ games. For his work, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 20th best tackle in the entire league out of 80 qualified players.
With a repeat performance, Feiler could be in line for a much bigger pay bump in 2021.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
In March, we heard that the Steelers and star defensive lineman Cameron Heyward were expected to agree to a contract extension “soon.” Over two months later, there has been no movement on that front, as Mark Kaboly of The Athletic writes.
While that may not be too surprising given the uncertainty created by COVID-19, Heyward’s tenor suggests that he may be coming to grips with leaving the only team he has ever known. “Man, I hate talking about it in the past tense like I am already gone, but I have to be ready for the reality if that comes about,” Heyward said. “I love being a Pittsburgh Steeler, but if my time is up, my time is up.”
The 31-year-old, who is set to play out the last year of the six-year, $59.2MM pact he signed in 2015, told Kaboly that while there were some early indications that the team would consider a new contract, there has been radio silence ever since. The Steelers could have reached out to him to tell him that the delay was pandemic-related and that they were still going to pursue a re-up once things settled down, but according to Heyward, the team has not communicated with his camp at all.
And as Kaboly observes, Pittsburgh’s policy has been to table contract negotiations once the season gets underway. So if there is no new deal in place by September 14, then Heyward will be eligible for free agency in 2021. If that happens, Kaboly expects the 2011 first-rounder to be playing elsewhere next year.
“We haven’t had any talks as of late, and it may be due to the virus, I don’t know,” Heyward said. “I don’t know if their minds have changed. I understand their policy and respect their policy. If I have to play this year and go into next year as a free agent, then so be it. That’s not going to deter me from being the best teammate, the best person, the best player I can be.”
Heyward has established himself as the team’s leader in the locker room, and he is easily one of the best D-linemen in the game. Able to line up both inside and outside, he has earned three consecutive Pro Bowl nods (including two First Team All-Pro selections) and has averaged nearly 10 sacks per year over the past three seasons. In 2019, he tallied a career-high 83 tackles and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ second-best interior defender (behind only Rams’ superstar Aaron Donald).
He is a critical component of Pittsburgh’s stout defense, so it will be interesting to see if the team does resume extension talks or if the threat of a decreased salary cap in 2021 will compel the Steelers to explore younger, cheaper options.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.