With the the Steelers applying the franchise tag to Le'Veon Bell earlier this week, they're tight against the salary cap heading into the start of the NFL's calendar year next Wednesday.
So, unless there's a change of heart and the franchise tag gets pulled, they don't figure on being too active in free agency -- as is typically the case. That means they need to find options to fix their defense internally, including, as we reported earlier this week, moving second-year cornerback Cameron Sutton to free safety.
According to a source, another option the team is strongly considering is having outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree flip sides.
Such a move would mean Dupree moves over to the right side of the defense, with Watt sliding over to line up on what is typically the opposing offense's strong side -- over tight end.
The move would be made for several reasons:
• Watt is better in coverage than Dupree and would be more adept at covering those tight ends.
• The Steelers also feel Dupree's speed rushes might be more effective at right outside linebacker, where he could work as a complement next to Cameron Heyward. Heyward's consistent push up the middle could keep quarterbacks from stepping up on Dupree's outside speed move. And Heyward's demand of double teams should get Dupree more matchups on running backs or tackles one-on-one from the blind side.
• The Steelers also feel Watt's heavy hands might be put to better use against right tackles, who are typically more power-type players than left tackles, who rely more on finesse. That's especially true in the run game.
According to sources, the Steelers were not unhappy with the production they got from Watt in his rookie season or Dupree in his third, but they would like to see both take another step. The two combined for 13 sacks last season and dropped into coverage more than in previous seasons. But just because they're being asked to play more in space doesn't mean Watt and Dupree can't bump their sack totals up.
It used to be that teams automatically put their best pass rusher on the right side of their line to come from the quarterback's blind side. But in recent years, we've seen that change, most notably with Von Miller in Denver and Justin Houston in Kansas City.
• Despite not being unhappy with Dupree's production overall, the Steelers would like to see him get better in the running game in particular. For a guy who typically plays at 250 to 260 pounds, he still gets blocked off his feet too often. That said, the Steelers are still deciding if they want to pick up Dupree's fifth-year option for 2019. He would be paid the average salary of the top 25 players at his position, minus the top three contracts, if they decide to do so. And the contract only becomes guaranteed if he is injured in 2018 or once the season begins. They could still release him after 2018 if he doesn't blossom. The only thing they would lose would be a possible compensatory pick. -- Lolley
• The Steelers were all over the Alabama Pro Day on Wednesday. Then again, considering the Crimson Tide had 14 players at the NFL Scouting Combine last weekend, that's not all that surprising. Inside linebacker Rashaan Evans and safety Ronnie Harrison are two players the Steelers met with at the combine and are both mocked to the team on a regular basis. Evans would be the likely pick if he's available, but he and Harrison are both rehabbing injuries and won't run until March 28. The Steelers just might be better off if neither do -- just as happened with Heath Miller. Both look plenty fast on tape and can play the game. There's nothing good that can happen for the Steelers if one or both go out and run a 4.4 40-yard dash and bump themselves higher than Pittsburgh's pick in the first round, which is 28th overall. -- Lolley
• While the Steelers won't have a shot at drafting Alabama's massive defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne, who will go in the middle of the first round, don't be surprised if new defensive line coach Karl Dunbar doesn't help the team with some later round guys or even priority free agents. Dunbar is well aware of the talent in the SEC and, even more importantly, some of the hidden talent on Alabama's roster. One surprise invitee to the combine was Alabama backup nose tackle Josh Frazier. He tweeted that he had dinner with the Steelers coaches, including Mike Tomlin, Tuesday night. Frazier would be a nice replacement for Daniel McCullers, who never worked out, as a late-round guy. -- Lolley
• When the Penguins recalled Daniel Sprong from Wilkes-Barre on Dec. 30, the Dutchman was the AHL's second-leading goal scorer with 18 goals and he had recorded 28 points in 29 games. Since then? Not so much. In the 17 games he's been back in Wilkes-Barre, following an eight-game stint in the NHL, Sprong has scored just three goals. To his credit, he does have 13 assists in those games, but he's also been a minus-7. That should explain why Josh Jooris and not Sprong was recalled Thursday. Jooris has 200-plus games of NHL experience, which is considerably more than four of the Penguins' 12 forwards, including Bryan Rust and, obviously, Dominik Simon, who left Wednesday night's game with injury. Sprong isn't a bust. There's a reason why he wasn't part of the trade that landed Derick Brassard, but there are inconsistencies in his game -- on both ends of the rink -- that need ironed out. Keep in mind that this is still the 20-year-old's first full professional season. -- Chris Bradford in Philadelphia
• Call it gamesmanship or whatever you want, but you'll notice that since Mike Sullivan and Jim Rutherford voiced their displeasure at a lack of penalties being called during a run in which the Penguins had just three power play chances in four games, they have since been awarded 14 power plays in their last five games. Thursday night's game in Philadelphia was called extremely tight as the Penguins were awarded four chances with the man advantage in the first period alone. Pretty sure someone in New York or Toronto got the message. -- Bradford
• The Penguins do use delayed entries on their top-ranked power play with some regularity, usually with Kris Letang dropping a pass back for Phil Kessel to gain the zone at full speed, but Sullivan said this week that it's not necessarily their go-to move. It's just a matter of keeping penalty-killers honest. -- Bradford
• Zach Aston-Reese's still-a-mystery upper-body injury isn't one that would cause him to miss playoff time, I'm told. -- Dejan Kovacevic
• The Penguins' front office remains resolute that they acquired a quality NHL player in Matt Hunwick. Their feeling is that he's having a crisis of confidence and straying well beyond his limits in trying to compensate, particularly on defense. But now isn't the ideal time to address such a crisis on the ice. They'll stand by him. -- Kovacevic
• Letang's really been beating himself up of late. "I've got to get so much better," he told me the other night. This is a positive. Trust me on that. When he's playing poorly -- for real -- he speaks in awkwardly upbeat tones. When he's doing as well as he has for a while now, he wants more. Fascinating guy. - Kovacevic
• Sean Rodriguez wasn't pleased with the Pirates' decision to acquire Corey Dickerson to be the club's everyday left fielder. The trade eliminated any possibility of Rodriguez seizing the starting job, and Rodriguez took it as the front office doubting his ability to return to form after he was limited to just 54 games because of shoulder surgery last season. "Selfishly, yeah, no doubt," Rodriguez said when I asked if the move frustrated him. "You want to play. Shoot, my whole career has been hoping, looking and waiting for opportunity to present itself. I thought it was here, but that didn't end up being the case. ... It showed me that they doubted I could get back, but I know I'm back. Winning will take over any other feeling. That's what it comes down to." -- Lance Lysowski in Bradenton, Fla.
• From what I've heard, the plan is for Colin Moran to not start at all when a lefty starter is on the mound, at least for the foreseeable future. David Freese will handle those. -- Lysowski.
• The Pirates don't sound concerned at all about Tyler Glasnow's spring struggles. At least not at the moment. -- Lysowski
• An American League scout told me in Florida this past weekend that Dickerson, a subpar defensive outfielder, has "no chance" at surviving PNC Park's mega-challenging left field. Dickerson lacks both the glove and the athleticism needed, the scout said. He predicted that Dickerson could need to switch with Gregory Polanco, except that Polanco's become so much more comfortable in front of the Clemente Wall. -- Kovacevic
[caption id="attachment_582008" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Current advertisement. - PITTSBURGH PIRATES[/caption]
• Incredibly, even in the current environment of public hostility, it appears the Pirates are getting desperate to sell out the home opener. I'm told that the team has approached season-ticket holders who've already bought tickets for that game, offering discounts if they buy even more tickets. In the past, it worked the other way around, with such purchases being strictly limited. Yikes. -- Kovacevic
• The firing of Kevin Stallings came without a press conference, including Heather Lyke. Reporters were also told there would be no interviews of Lyke or anyone else. A written statement was made by the athletic director, and that was that. As long as I've been covering sports in this city, that's a new one for me. Obviously, the hire itself will outweigh all, but this is a fanbase -- and maybe even a potential coach somewhere -- that could have used an encouraging word at the moment. -- Kovacevic
• I'm told that Stallings, 57, wasn't about to resist being pushed out. He knew he wasn't wanted back, he knew that Lyke and others in the administration were deeply disappointed with the lost games and lost revenue, and he knew there wasn't any appetite among alumni or boosters, either. But he also knew the university wasn't going to have the stomach for a public spat with a fired coach while trying to lure a new one, so he smartly waited on the full $9.4 million buyout. -- Kovacevic
• Why would Stallings have accepted a lesser buyout? Well, as I first reported a couple weeks back, the administration and alumni felt there was a convincing case to make that he hadn't applied himself to his job at the standard expected. Some spoke of his skipping meetings with recruits, or spending too much time watching his son Jacob play catcher for the Pirates and, above all, of not engaging nearly enough with the program's community. Including the Zoo itself. Jamie Dixon was spectacular at that type of engagement, so the bar was set high. -- Kovacevic
• The firmly held belief at Pitt, based on conversations I've had, is that a quick turnaround is eminently possible, both on and off the court. They feel that the Pete, Zoo, the ACC, the program's very recent past and more will present the right coach with the opportunity to rebuild that mojo, if not the roster, within a year or two. And if it's the really right coach, maybe sooner. -- Kovacevic
• Penn State’s newly released 2016-17 financial report indicates athletics turned a profit of nearly $5.3 million, with the largest revenue stream coming, not surprisingly, from ticket sales ($35.5 million). Hockey generated an impressive total revenue of $3-plus million during the past four fiscal years. Wrestling made $685,443 off of ticket sales during the 2016-17 fiscal year, which raises the question of what else would that program need to do to bring in more revenue? They’re a dynasty with a legendary coach and of course a travel budget that at least now doesn’t have a dual championship to pay for. Is this as good as it ever can get? -- Audrey Snyder in State College
• If there’s one thing Penn State’s facility master plan overlooked, it could be this: What’s the ideal venue for wrestling? With the Nittany Lions selling out Rec Hall and the season ticket wait list continuing to grow – and thus Penn State missing out on a chance to bring in more revenue – I asked Cael Sanderson what his ideal facility would look like. “We have a season-ticket waiting list that doesn’t really move here that’s well over 1,000-plus people that hasn’t even been updated in a long time and so those people think that they’ve just been forgotten, but the thing is people just don’t give up season tickets,” he said. “It’s a challenge. It’s something that we wrestle with. I don’t know if it’s more matches in the Jordan Center or all of our matches -- I don’t know, it’s just something that we talk about on a regular basis every year.” -- Snyder
• With 31 varsity athletic programs – which amounts to a lot of mouths to feed and rising recruiting costs (as evidenced by the $1 million spent on recruiting by football alone in fiscal year 2016-17) -- Penn State’s ability to be self-sustained is huge. With that year’s report accounting for the Rose Bowl season, expect similar numbers when next year’s report is released. -- Snyder
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