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Steelers are driven by fear, and other Combine leftovers

Ben Roethlisberger has become indispensable in Pittsburgh.
Ben Roethlisberger has become indispensable in Pittsburgh.gary landers/AP file/FR171284 AP via AP

In Sunday’s NFL notes, we brought you buzz from the Combine about Kyler Murray and Josh Rosen, Antonio Brown, the momentum behind adding an official to the instant replay booth, and plenty more.

But there were several other items we didn’t get to. Here are some more nuggets from four days in Indianapolis:

■   The Steelers are having one of the most bizarre and drama-filled offseasons in memory, and from what we are told, it is being driven by fear — specifically, the fear of Ben Roethlisberger retiring.

Roethisberger, entering the final year of his contract, has all of the leverage in the organization, and both he and the team know it. Le’Veon Bell is leaving town, and Antonio Brown is forcing himself out as well, leaving Roethlisberger as the team’s linchpin.


As long as the Steelers have Big Ben, they can retool the roster and remain contenders in the AFC. But if he retires, as Roethlisberger threatened back in the summer of 2017, the Steelers have no quarterback in the pipeline and will have to start from scratch.

This explains why they’re willing to wreck their salary cap to trade Brown, whose relationship with his quarterback has soured. The Steelers would take a whopping $21 million dead-money hit on the salary cap by trading Brown before June 1.

That fear is one reason they let go of linebackers coach Joey Porter after five seasons. Porter, Roethlisberger’s teammate on the 2005 Super Bowl team, was hired in 2014 in part because he was one of the few people who had the cachet to talk back to Roethlisberger. This offseason, he’s being let go for the same reason, at least in part. The Steelers don’t want anyone talking back to Big Ben.

And that fear is why general manager Kevin Colbert went on Pittsburgh radio a couple of weeks ago and said, “Ben is the unquestioned leader of this group.” Colbert belittled the rest of the locker room in the same interview, saying that Roethlisberger has “52 kids” as teammates. And Colbert defended Roethlisberger’s right to criticize them publicly.


“If our players were smart, they’d listen to him, because he’s been there,” Colbert said.

The good news for the Steelers is that all of this appeasement seems to be working. Per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the team has held preliminary talks with Roethlisberger about a contract extension, and a new deal could happen soon.

Roethlisberger should expect a healthy raise from the $17 million he is scheduled to make this year ($5 million roster bonus on March 15, $12 million salary). And the Steelers hope that if they keep him happy enough, Roethlisberger will agree to play several more years.

■  One of the more interesting nuggets we heard was that the NFL plans to make major changes to the format of the Combine — specifically, it wants to stretch the event out even longer, and put the drills on national TV.

The Combine currently holds drills during the day from Thursday to Monday. From what I was told, the NFL would stretch the event out a few more days — perhaps having each position group work out on a certain day, and/or by inviting more prospects — and flip-flop the players’ schedule. Currently, players work out during the day and conduct team interviews late into the night. But under the new format, the players would do interviews during the day and conduct their drills at night, on prime time TV.


The switch to prime time would probably coincide with moving the Combine to Los Angeles and the Rams’ new facility, which in addition to the football stadium will have a 6,000-seat theater and the new home of the NFL Network studios.

My tweet about this Friday night brought a lot of eye rolls and “please no” responses, and there’s no question that the Combine is oversaturated and more hype than substance.

But moving the drills to prime time TV is a no-brainer. With all of TV struggling with declining ratings, the most valuable content left is live sports, and the NFL is the absolute king. The NFL Draft and Pro Bowl draw huge numbers relative to other live sporting events, and the NFL is sitting on a potential ratings gold mine with the Combine.

The interest is clearly there; this year, the quarterback drills were aired on network TV for the first time (Saturday on ABC from 1-3 p.m.). And the NFL can certainly squeeze more out of the Combine than it does with its current setup, with the drills held during the day and on the weekend. However boring you may find the Combine, there’s little doubt that it will draw better TV ratings than whatever sitcom ABC or CBS airs on a Tuesday night.


Putting the Combine in prime time also would provide extra (and free) marketing for the new crop of rookies, helping them become household names two months before the draft.

And I realize that Indianapolis has a great downtown setup, but count me as someone who would rather be in Los Angeles in February. I’m sure I’m not alone.

The new LA stadium is set to open for the 2020 season. A switch to prime time and the West Coast in the next couple of years makes too much sense not to happen.

■  Two big winners were a pair of Iowa tight ends, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. Fant and Hockenson finished 1-2 among tight ends (in that order) in several drills: vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, and 60-yard shuttle. Fant also led all tight ends with a 4.50 in the 40, while Hockenson was seventh at 4.70.

And these guys aren’t just track stars; they were the Hawkeyes’ top two receivers last year.

Fant, 6 feet 4 inches and 241 pounds, caught 18 touchdown passes the last two seasons. Hockenson, 6-5 and 251, had 49 catches for 760 yards and six touchdowns last year. Both have a chance to go in the first round this year, with Hockenson hyped as a top-15 pick.

The Patriots need a young tight end, with Dwayne Allen being released and Rob Gronkowski having maybe one more year left (if that). And you’re telling me the top two tight ends are both from Iowa? Where they played for Kirk Ferentz, a longtime Bill Belichick confidant who coached with him back in Cleveland? Where they run a pro-style offense that requires tight ends to block in the run game? The same Iowa that supplied the Patriots with five players last year (Adrian Clayborn, Cole Croston, James Ferentz, Matt Tobin, and Riley McCarron)?


The Patriots ending up with Hockenson or Fant seems like one of the most obvious draft bets since they took Navy long snapper Joe Cardona in 2015.

■  Being an NFL agent is hardly the sexy lifestyle it is portrayed to be, especially if you aren’t one of the dozen or so big-time agents. Rookie contracts have been slashed, commissions are capped at 3 percent, and other agents are constantly trying to poach your players, especially as they approach free agency.

Life got even harder for the little guys this year. The buzz in Indy was that one of the major agencies is representing rookies this year with a zero percent agent fee, which is about keeping them as clients until they sign their second contract after Year 4. For agents, the 3 percent commission on rookie deals pales in comparison to the commissions they receive on free agent contracts.

The zero percent deal also comes with a large marketing agreement — we heard $50,000 — that the player would have to pay back if he leaves the agency before signing a second contract.

If you’re a smaller agent with just a handful of clients, how are you supposed to compete with that?

■  Robert Kraft’s situation was the icebreaker in dozens of conversation I had over the weekend among coaches, agents, executives, and media. Some smirked. Some shook their head in disbelief. Most just wanted to know what will happen to him.

The New York Post had an interesting article about Kraft and the solicitation charges last week, quoting legal experts that the case against him is flawed and raising questions about the legality of the police sting.

Regardless of whether Kraft is exonerated in a legal sense — he pleaded not guilty, though it could be a prelude to a plea deal — I can tell you that there is not much sympathy for Kraft from players, agents, and coaches, and there will be tremendous pressure on Roger Goodell to punish him, regardless of the legal outcome.

Goodell has fashioned himself as the crime-and-punishment commissioner, and has come down hard with suspensions on players who weren’t punished by the legal system. Jameis Winston (three games), Ezekiel Elliott (six games), and Jimmy Smith (four games) are recent examples. Kareem Hunt is also expected to receive a significant suspension for this upcoming season, even though charges were never filed against him.

Goodell could have a player/agent/coach revolt on his hands if he doesn’t suspend the Patriots owner. They still get punished by the league, the thinking goes, and so should he.

■  Phillip Dorsett didn’t produce much in two years with the Patriots: just 12 catches for 194 yards and no touchdowns in 2017, and 32 catches for 290 yards and three touchdowns last year. And he had trouble getting on the field, playing in just 35 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps in 2018, fourth-most among wide receivers.

But Dorsett, 26, a former first-round pick, still might do well for himself as an unrestricted free agent. An agent with no affiliation to Dorsett told us that the market for Dorsett is stronger than expected, as several teams like him as a mid-tier No. 2 or 3 receiver. Dorsett had the highest catch percentage on the Patriots last year (76.2 percent) and has speed to burn.

I’d like to see the Patriots bring back Dorsett for receiver depth, but there seems to be enough interest in him that he could price himself out of their market.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.