Four biggest questions at Steelers OTAs

Steelers set to being organized team activities Tuesday with several unknowns

The Steelers begin their organized team activities Tuesday at the team’s UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

While it’ll be a couple of months until pads go on and hitting begins at training camp, there is still plenty of intrigue heading into OTAs.

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Here are the four biggest storylines (of many) that I’ll be watching over the next three weeks.

Will Stephon Tuitt be there?

Even with all of their roster questions, this is maybe the biggest unknown issue for the Steelers, because it simply involves a player that has had some mystery involving his status for a year now.

Tuitt did not play at all for the Steelers last season following the untimely killing of his brother in a hit-and-run. The team also said that the 29-year-old was dealing with an injury, but refused to get into specifics on the knee ailment.

When Tuitt is healthy and playing, he is one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL. He racked up a career high 11 sacks in 2020 and, combined with other pass rushers like Cam Heyward, TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith, could form a lethal front for Pittsburgh.

Beyond that, Tuitt would drastically help a run defense that allowed an NFL-worst 5.0 yards per carry to opponents last season.

Stephon Tuitt gif
Photo credit Josh Rowntree

Even if Tuitt is in Pittsburgh Tuesday, his health status and conditioning are a question that needs to be answered. A year out of football is hard for any player to overcome, particularly one that is 6-foot-6 and over 300 pounds.

If Tuitt is not planing on being there, the Steelers should already be searching for a replacement in a drying free agent market.

How will QB carousel work?

While Tuitt is the biggest unknown of OTAs, how the quarterbacks will be used is certainly the sexiest.

The Steelers took Kenny Pickett 20th overall a month ago. He’s clearly viewed as the franchise’s quarterback of the future. But it would be surprising if he were handed the keys to the first team offense Tuesday morning.

Mitch Trubisky was signed in free agency and Mason Rudolph is the only quarterback on the roster with knowledge of the offense prior to this offseason.

Despite many of their actions, Steelers coaches and management have said all the right things about Rudolph, and they could use him with the first team to start the workouts. That wouldn’t be all that surprising.

If that’s the case, I wouldn’t expect it to last long into the summer, but it could be Trubisky and Pickett — in that order — backing up Rudolph to kickstart things.

Pickett is about to be 24 years old. He was drafted because he was the most NFL ready quarterback in the Draft.

How long will it take him to prove it? That riddle will begin to be solved Tuesday.

Any holdouts?

There are definitely some candidates to go the TJ Watt route of 2021 and not participate in OTAs as they look for contract extensions.

One of those players, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, is almost assuredly going to be signed long-term by the Steelers this offseason. But the other, wide receiver Diontae Johnson, is more of an unknown.

Johnson is coming off his best season since being drafted in 2019. He caught 107 passes for 1,161 yards and scored eight touchdowns, including some top-tier contested catches.

Diontae Johnson catch vs Chargers
Photo credit Josh Rowntree

But Johnson also has 24 drops over his three NFL seasons, including a league-leading 13 in 2020, and could be looking for money comparable to what top wide receivers are making in the NFL.

The Steelers drafted a pair of receivers capable of playing on the outside this offseason in George Pickens and Calvin Austin III. So relpacement plans could be in the works if the team doesn’t want to give Johnson, 25, a big deal.

Additionally, Johnson did not show up for his youth football camp Sunday afternoon on the South Side, according to the Post-Gazette. Event organizer FlexWork Sports Management told parents of disappointed children that the receiver had his fight to Pittsburgh delayed that morning. That may be a reasonable explanation, but the absence is certainly noteworthy given his contract situation.

There are other Steelers starters scheduled to play on contracts that will expire after this season, like linebacker Devin Bush, defensive lineman Tyson Alualu, safety Terrell Edmunds and kicker Chris Boswell, who will likely get a new contract this offseason, as well.

But any of those players not participating in OTAs over a contract negotiations would be unexpected.

Who takes the OL spots?

The offensive tackle positions appear to be secure, with Chukwuma Okorafor signing a surprisingly pricey contract this offseason and Dan Moore Jr. bringing plenty of experience back after a busy rookie season.

The middle is a bit more of an uncertainty.

Kevin Dotson went through a tumultuous second year in the NFL last season, dealing with a mid-season ankle injury.

He was also ripped publicly by Mike Tomlin, who said Dotson had ‘done nothing to earn first-team reps’ in training camp.

Still, he would appear to be the frontrunner to be the left guard, assuming he’s bounces back from the ankle problem.

Kendrick Green started most of last season at center, but was wildly ineffective, and the team brought in Mason Cole and has J.C. Hassenauer still in that mix.

Green could slide to right guard, which may be a better fit for him and the Steelers. But he’ll have competition there from James Daniels, who was signed this offseason, as well.

The Steelers have depth on the interior of their offensive line. How competitive that depth is, however, will be figured out this offseason.