AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

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The Pittsburgh Steelers will apparently take a closer look one of the most talented players in the NFL draft after Randy Gregory’s stock took a potential hit following an admission of a failed drug test.

The Steelers will host Gregory for a pre-draft visit, according to Tony Pauline of Draft Insider.net, in case the Nebraska defensive end/outside linebacker falls in the draft.

Gregory is one of the top pass-rushers in the draft after recording 17 sacks in two seasons at Nebraska. He has one of the highest ceilings in the draft -- click here to watch a snapshot of his sheer power -- and the Steelers would be crazy not to at least do their homework on him.

ESPN’s Todd McShay ranks Gregory as the seventh-best player in the draft. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Gregory is the 11th-best player in the draft, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.

Gregory told the NFL Network earlier this week that he tested positive for marijuana at the NFL scouting combine last month. He reportedly failed multiple drug tests at Nebraska and his latest admission will compel teams to do extra homework on Gregory.

Will it also bring teams like the Steelers, who pick No. 22 overall and have a need for pass-rushers, into play for him?

Kiper doesn’t think so.

“I’d say the range for him is still 5 to 13 because of the [failed drug] test,” Kiper said. “Could he drop down to 12, 13? Maybe. He’s going to be kind of a wild card.”

If the Pittsburgh Steelers are ever going to use a first-round draft pick again on a cornerback – they have not done so since 1997 – this would appear to be the year to do it.

Cornerback and outside linebacker are the Steelers’ biggest need with the draft five weeks away.

And with the draft “rich” in pass-rushers, according to coach Mike Tomlin, it makes sense for the Steelers to address cornerback first and then target outside linebackers.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said the three most likely cornerback candidates for the Steelers to pick in the first round are Washington’s Marcus Peters, LSU’s Jalen Collins and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson.

All three come with concerns.

Peters was kicked off Washington’s team last November after a series of run-ins with coaches. Collins started only 10 games in three seasons at LSU and recently underwent foot surgery. Johnson, meanwhile, might be better playing off coverage and the Steelers like to use their cornerback in press coverage.

But all three are widely projected as first-round picks – the Steelers have the No. 22 overall selection -- and for good reason.

Peters might be the most talented cornerback in the draft and Collins might be the best long-term prospect at the position. Johnson, meanwhile, is polished and experienced and oozes confidence, a trait that is critical for cornerbacks.

Two cornerbacks to also keep an eye on when it comes to the Steelers, Kiper said, are UConn’s Byron Jones and Utah's Eric Rowe.

Jones tested as well as anyone as the NFL combine, is a high-character kid and has position flexibility. Like Jones, Rowe tested well at the combine and also has experience playing safety.

“He tested like a first-round and played like a high pick as well at a variety of positions,” Kiper said of Rowe.

Jones did not run the 40-yard dash at the combine because he was still recovering from shoulder surgery. But he set a broad jump record with 12 feet, 3 inches – no one had ever exceeded 12 feet at the combine -- and also recorded a vertical leap of 44 inches.

“He's a really good 40 time away from having one of the better corner workouts we've ever seen," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said after the combine.

Jones is slated to run next Tuesday at UConn’s pro day and it will be interesting to see who the Steelers send to Storrs to watch the workout.

Florida State is also staging its pro day on March 31, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that is among the annual showcases he never misses.

Jones will only boost his draft stock if he runs at his pro day. Kiper said on Thursday that it would not “shock” him if Jones works his way into the first round and is selected in the range where the Steelers pick.

PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers added depth at wide receiver when they brought back another one of their free agents.

The team re-signed Darrius Heyward-Bey to a one-year contract. The former first-round draft pick caught just three passes last season, but established himself as a key special-teams player.

Heyward-Bey is the fourth unrestricted free agent to re-sign with the Steelers, joining outside linebackers James Harrison and Arthur Moats and tight end Matt Spaeth.

This signing won’t budge the needle, but the Steelers needed proven depth behind Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton and also a player who is willing to accept a limited role in the offense.

The return of Heyward-Bey makes it unlikely that the Steelers will sign an outside free agent at the position. It is another strong draft for wide receivers, so look for the Steelers to add one in the later rounds and also take a long look at C.J. Goodwin, who spent last season on their practice squad.

Heyward-Bey is just 28 years old and is one of the fastest players on the team. He recorded five tackles on special teams and snuffed out a fake punt by the Cincinnati Bengals in a victory that delivered the Steelers their first AFC North title since 2010.

The seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft, Heyward never fulfilled expectations in Oakland -- he averaged 517.8 receiving yards in four seasons with the Raiders –- and played a season with the Colts before signing with the Steelers.

Heyward made $795,000 in 2014 but counted just $635,000 against the salary cap, as he signed a veteran-minimum contract.

PHOENIX -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't borrow from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers Tuesday and tell fans to R-E-L-A-X over the situation at cornerback.

The eighth-year coach is confident the Steelers will be more than capable at cornerback in 2015 despite the inexperience they have at the position and finishing 27th in the NFL against the pass last season.

"I expect the guys that we have to continue to grow and get better," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings. "I expect to add credible, competent men to add to that mix to provide competition and put them in a competitive environment and see who comes out on top. I'm completely comfortable that at the end of that we're going to have above the line corner play."

The Steelers have just three cornerbacks with NFL experience on their roster, though Antwon Blake is expected to sign the one-year, $1.554 million contract the team offered him as a restricted free agent.

Tomlin cited Blake as a young cornerback who made some big plays last season and is on the rise.

The Steelers expect him to at least replace Brice McCain, who signed a two-year, $5.5 million contract with the Miami Dolphins earlier this month. Tomlin said he is also confident Cortez Allen will rebound from a season in which he battled injuries and twice lost jobs because of ineffectiveness.

The Steelers hosted free-agent cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Sterling Moore last week but each signed one-year deals with other teams.

Both Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert said this week the Steelers are most likely to add to the position through the draft. The team could draft several cornerbacks early and use a first-round pick on one -- which would be the first time since 1997 when the Steelers selected Chad Scott.

The Steelers have largely shrugged off questions and concerns about the cornerback position after allowing 253 passing yards per game last season, and so far losing instead of adding players at the position.

Tomlin explained why Tuesday at the media breakfast for AFC coaches.

"We believe in the process that we go through and we also believe in the men that we have," Tomlin said. "I know some of the guys that we have on our roster at the position right now don't have extended resumes. That's always the case. How do you gain experience without going through the process of gaining experience? These guys are driven and they want to be positive contributors to our efforts and reasons why we're successful and some of those guys played key roles down the stretch last year."

PHOENIX -- The seeds for James Harrison's second return to the Pittsburgh Steelers were planted during his first one -- specifically when both player and team wondered if they had made a mistake right after the Steelers talked Harrison out of retirement last September.

“To be perfectly honest [after] the first practice I don’t know if we thought he could do it,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said at the NFL owners meetings. “I don’t know if he thought he could do it because he was in great lifting shape but wasn’t in cardiovascular football shape but he fought through it.

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Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDon't let his enthusiasm on the field fool you: Steelers sack leader James Harrison didn't miss football when he decided to come out of retirement.

“I just can’t underscore how much he means to those guys or how much he meant to those guys when he came back and got himself into James Harrison football-type shape. The respect that he commanded from those young guys, I think it really opened their eyes because a couple guys hadn’t seen him.”

Harrison is back for another season and the Steelers are as happy to have him as a leader as they are a player who can still get after the quarterback.

It may seem natural that Harrison would be a team leader given his experience and maniacal work ethic. But Harrison’s personality, which can be prickly, never seemingly lent itself to the 12th-year veteran throwing an arm around a younger player and offering to teach him the ins and outs of the Steelers' defense.

But Colbert said Harrison, who turns 37 in May, embraced a leadership role at the end of his career simply because the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year may be more comfortable with it.

“It looks different to me because it’s him and younger guys. Before it was always him and his peers,” Colbert said. “Now it’s James and his students in our eyes.”

Harrison’s importance as a mentor is such that Colbert said it was a significant factor in the Steelers signing him now instead of waiting until after the conclusion of offseason practices or even during training camp.

The logic to waiting to sign Harrison is it would allow younger player to get more work since he doesn’t need it and can easily work his way into football shape.

“We actually thought about that but the values that he provides right now for those young guys we think trumps that waiting because he’s valuable in the building right now,” Colbert said. “He’s been in the building voluntarily since really the end of the season. It’s been amazing to watch. Those young guys see it and they’re like, ‘OK, I think I’m supposed to do that too.’ We can’t have them there mandatory but they’re all kind of following his lead.”

PHOENIX – The Pittsburgh Steelers had moved on from Jason Worilds even before the outside linebacker announced his surprise retirement earlier this month, general manager Kevin Colbert acknowledged.

“His decision to retire really didn’t affect us one way or another, because he really wasn’t in our plans,” Colbert said at the NFL owners meetings. “I am surprised that Jason [retired] at this point, but I respect his wishes to move on with his life. He had a good career with us. He helped us win a lot of games. We wish him nothing but the best.”

Worilds led the Steelers with 15 sacks in the previous two seasons and seemed poised to cash in on the open market, given how coveted pass-rushers are.

But Worilds announced his retirement on March 11, the day teams were allowed to start signing unrestricted free agents.

The Steelers would have considered doubling back on Worilds had the market completely bottomed out for the former second-round draft pick. But that wasn’t going to happen, as Worilds had just turned 27 and had been productive since becoming a full-time starter during the 2013 season.

When asked, in retrospect, if the Steelers saw any signs last season that Worilds was contemplating retirement so he could pursue a religious calling, Colbert said, “Nothing whatsoever. We knew Jason was deeply religious, and we respected that. But not to the point to say that we weren’t surprised by the decision when it was made. But again, we respect it and we wish him well.”

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PHOENIX -- As loyal as James Harrison is to Dick LeBeau -- the latter talked Bill Cowher out of cutting Harrison in 2004, the year the outside linebacker finally stuck in the NFL -- it could not trump something as simple yet also as powerful.

And, simply put, it made as much sense for Harrison to return to the Steelers as it did for them to bring back the five-time Pro Bowler for one more season.

Hence, the two-year contract that Harrison signed Sunday morning at the Arizona Biltmore. Harrison has been training nearby and the deal that brought him to the swank resort where the NFL is holding its owners meetings elicited a collective sigh of relief from fans who had grown increasingly anxious as the Steelers showed about as much interest in free agency as they would changing their colors to black and purple.

Harrison is not a game changer at outside linebacker. Not at the age of 37, which he turns in May.

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesJames Harrison shined for the Steelers after Jarvis Jones suffered an injury early in the 2014 season.

But the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is still a difference maker even at his advanced football age. And the Steelers did not have a better option unless they wanted to pick an outside linebacker prospect early in the draft and hope he can play right away.

The Steelers can still take an outside linebacker prospect early in the draft and have him learn from Harrison, who drew raves from general manager Kevin Colbert for embracing a mentor role at this stage of his career.

Harrison, meanwhile, gets to finish his career where it started, finish it where he and his family are rooted and finish it with a team that is coming off an 11-win season, and can contend for the Super Bowl in 2015 if it some things fall into place on defense.

The Tennessee Titans, coming off a two-win seasons, could really only offer the chance to play for LeBeau, the Steelers' former defensive coordinator, as they pursued Harrison.

“I always thought that if James would play again after he came back this year I always thought he’d finish his career with us,” Colbert said Sunday at the NFL owners meetings. “I think he just had a deep admiration for coach LeBeau and I think he wanted to respect that because he felt that coach LeBeau did so much for him and his career.”

That Harrison will finish his career with the Steelers won’t stop some fans from still wanting to cancel the 2015 season because of questions that remain at outside linebacker and persist at cornerback.

But the Steelers could not have helped themselves any more at outside linebacker than they did by bringing back Harrison.

And in the end it made too much sense for both sides not to finish what they started more than a decade ago when Harrison made the Steelers for good on his fourth attempt.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to wait for Troy Polamalu to decide if he will retire or play another season.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that if Polamalu returns in 2015, it will be with another team.

Steelers president Art Rooney II said on Friday the team does not have any updates on Polamalu.

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsAs of Friday morning, there has been no update on whether the Steelers will retain Troy Polamalu or if the veteran safety will retire.

When asked if there is any chance the iconic safety returns to the Steelers next season, Rooney said, "I don't have an update on Troy."

Polamalu still has two years left on his contract and has a base salary of $6 million in 2015 with a salary cap hit of $8.25 million. The Steelers are hoping he retires so they don't have to release one of the most beloved players in franchise history.

Polamalu's agent Marvin Demoff told ESPN.com last week, that out of respect for what he has meant to the organization, the Steelers have given Polamalu time as the 12th-year veteran mulls his future.

The Steelers can afford to wait on Polamalu since they don't need to clear room under the salary cap. The Steelers have signed just one free agent -- they agreed to terms with running back DeAngelo Williams on a two-year deal last Friday -- and Rooney said he they will not do much more in free agency.

The Steelers would clear $6 million in salary-cap space if they release Polamalu after June 1 -- or release him and designate the eight-time Pro Bowler a post-June 1 release.

Polamalu, who turns 34 in April, is one of the most decorated players in franchise history and has long been one of the faces of the Steelers' defense.

The 2003 first-round draft pick is tied for seventh on the Steelers' all-time interceptions list (32) and he is widely considered a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.

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Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes said he has pre-draft visits lined up with the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars.

He also has private workouts scheduled with the Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans.

The Pittsburgh Steelers might bring in Waynes for a pre-draft visit. Or maybe they saw enough Wednesday at Michigan State's pro day and simply hope that they have a chance at drafting the player who is widely considered the best cornerback in the draft.

Waynes ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds at the NFL scouting combine last month. He ran well in other drills at the Spartans’ pro day with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, general manager Kevin Colbert and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake watching.

What pleased Waynes as much as anything: The 6-foot, 186-pound cornerback got a good review after his workout from close friend and former Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

“I’m just trying to be like him,” Waynes told reporters. “When I was here, he was one of those guys that was hardest on me just because he saw my potential early on and he pushed me to be the player I could.”

The Steelers had a chance to draft Dennard last year, but they opted for linebacker Ryan Shazier at No. 15 overall and Dennard went 24th to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Steelers might not have a chance to draft Waynes unless they trade up from No. 22 overall. They have only traded up once in the first round for a defensive player since Colbert joned the organization in 2000.

They drafted a transcendent talent in 2003 when they moved up from No. 27 to No. 16 to take Troy Polamalu. Waynes does not project as the same kind of game-changer, but the Steelers' need at cornerback is so acute that they could consider trying to move up in the first round to get a shot at taking Waynes.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay each rank Waynes as the 16th-best player in the draft. The overall need for cornerbacks in what has become a passing league could push Waynes into the early teens of the draft, if not higher.

And Waynes, who played just three seasons at Michigan State, said his best football is ahead of him.

“I feel like I tackle well and run with people, but everything can use improving, obviously,” he said. “I’m not at the best or highest level right now.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a cornerback Wednesday when Brice McCain signed a two-year contract with the Miami Dolphins.

David Canter, who represents McCain, announced the signing on Twitter.

The loss of McCain leaves the Steelers with William Gay, Cortez Allen and B.W. Webb as the only cornerbacks on their roster with NFL experience.

Antwon Blake is expected to return after the Steelers offered him a $1.554-million contract on Monday. Blake is a restricted free agent and the Steelers have a right to match any offer made to him.

The Steelers are also expected to take a cornerback early in the draft.

McCain, 28, resuscitated his career after signing a one-year contract for the veteran minimum last March. He opened the season as the Steelers’ No. 4 cornerback, but the 5-foot-9, 187-pounder ended it as a starter because of injuries and ineffectiveness at the position.

McCain tied Gay for the team lead with three interceptions despite starting only eight regular-season games.

McCain's 22-yard interception return for a touchdown helped the Steelers stave off an upset bid in a 17-9 win at Jacksonville in early October. Besides his three interceptions, McCain recorded 24 tackles and defended five passes. He also recovered a fumble.

McCain spent his first five seasons in Houston, but fell out of favor with the Texans and they released him after the 2013 season.
Outside linebacker Jason Worilds and cornerback Brice McCain are among the players who did not re-sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers before 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, making them unrestricted free agents.

Worilds
The Steelers have been intent on letting Worilds test the open market for some time. He led them with 15 sacks in the last two seasons.

He won’t be back unless there is a soft market for the fifth-year veteran, something that isn’t expected to happen given how coveted pass-rushers are and the fact that Worilds turned just 27 years old last week.

The Steelers did not re-sign McCain after he tied William Gay with three interceptions and helped bail them out after Cortez Allen flopped at cornerback.

The Steelers have not given up on Allen, who signed a four-year, $24.6 million last September, and they also offered a one-year, $1.554 million contract to cornerback Antwon Blake, who is a restricted free agent.

The Steelers will likely let the market determine McCain’s value before deciding if they want to make a serious run at the sixth-year veteran.

Other Steelers players of note who are unrestricted free agents include outside linebacker James Harrison, cornerback Ike Taylor, safety Will Allen, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and running back Ben Tate.

The Steelers have been largely quiet leading up to the start of free agency, signing only outside linebacker Arthur Moats and tight end Matt Spaeth before each became an unrestricted free agent.
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 saved almost $4 million in regard to the 2015 salary cap when they restructured right tackle Marcus Gilbert ’s contract.

Gilbert
The Steelers converted a $3.5 million roster bonus that would have been due next month and $1.15 million of Gilbert’s base salary for 2015 into a signing bonus, per ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates, creating $3.724 million in cap savings for the upcoming year.

The Steelers were $1.92 million over the projected salary cap for 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information, before restructuring Gilbert’s five-year, $30 million deal.

That is based on the cap rising from $133 to $140 million, and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter has reported that the salary cap for 2015 will be at least $140 million. The 2015 spending ceiling for teams could come in as high as $143 million, per Schefter.

The Gilbert restructuring should put the Steelers in compliance with the 2015 cap, something teams are required to do by March 10 at 4 p.m. ET.

The Steelers, however, have work in front of them as they have to create enough salary cap room to be active in free agency, which starts at March 10, the first day of the NFL’s new league year.

Troy Polamalu is due a base salary of $6 million in 2015 and the Steelers will have a hard decision to make if the eight-time Pro Bowl safety does not opt for retirement.

The Steelers could ask Polamalu to take a pay cut or release the future Pro Football Hall of Fame safety.

Team president Art Rooney II has said he wants Polamalu to play his entire career for the Steelers.
Dick LeBeau, in his farewell to Pittsburgh earlier this month, paid homage to the 2008 defense that led the Steelers to the Super Bowl title.

LeBeau, the coordinator of that esteemed defense, talked at length on a day honoring him about the key players on that unit.

Clark
And he certainly did not forget about Ryan Clark, who was often overshadowed by the great players on that defense, and especially by fellow safety Troy Polamalu.

"One of the smartest men and, pound for pound, maybe one of the toughest men I’ve ever seen,” LeBeau said of Clark during a ceremony in which Pittsburgh City Council gave LeBeau a symbolic key to the city.

Steelers fans would do well to remember those words when it comes to Clark’s legacy in Pittsburgh.

As hard-hitting off the field as he was on it – and he backed down from no one -- Clark could rankle fans, reporters and maybe even some of his teammates with his nonstop chatter and outspoken nature.

He infamously referred to the Pittsburgh media as “turds” in the midst of the Steelers’ 2009 second-half collapse. Two seasons later, a Steelers media relations staffer had to separate Clark and another reporter after they nearly came to blows at training camp.

If Clark’s look-at-me ways could be grating, they were also not surprising.

Clark had to fight his way into the NFL after going undrafted in 2002 and signing with the New York Giants.

He climbed the ranks as an undersized safety and never lost his edge even after he established himself as Polamalu’s running mate on the back end of the Steelers’ defense.

Clark served an indispensable role on some great Steelers’ defenses as his familiarity with Polamalu allowed the eight-time Pro Bowl safety to play all over the field, knowing that Clark had his back.

And Clark could deliver a pop.

Willis McGahee will never forget the shot that Clark delivered at the end of the 2008 AFC Championship Game -- if the former Baltimore Ravens running back remembers it in the first place.

Clark hit McGahee so hard that fans at Heinz Field weren’t sure whether to gasp or cheer, and the ghastly collision knocked out both players.

That willingness to give up his body is Clark’s legacy, as are the strong opinions he routinely offered while not giving a hoot about whom they ticked off.

In the end, Clark did it his way.

And he did it for 13 seasons in the NFL, overcoming a life-threatening injury along the way, while staying true to himself right up until he announced his retirement.

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