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Friday, March 30, 2007

Wide receiver analysis

Priorities are what often drive a draft more than anything else. As much as teams like to pay lip service to the old "best player available" mantra, let's be honest about something for a second: Few teams, if any, actually work their draft in that matter.

We're going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, position by position, over the next month as we try to get a better handle on what directions the team will go on April 28 and 29.

Today: The wide receivers.

The Steelers went hard and heavy at the wide receiver position in last year's draft, taking Santonio Holmes in the first round and Willie Reid in the third.

That would tend to lean against them taking a receiver at some point in this year's draft, but given new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians statements that he would like to spread the field out more often this season than the Steelers have in the past, the team could be in the market to upgrade at wide receiver if the value is there.

Also, Sean Morey's jump to Arizona leaves the team – which usually likes to carry five receivers on the active roster – with an opening.

We know that Hines Ward is a given as the team's No. 1 receiver and that Holmes came into his own in the second half of last season to grab the No. 2 role. But behind those two there are some question marks.

Reid missed most of his rookie season with a nagging foot injury, while Nate Washington struggled at times with his concentration, dropping several touchdown passes. Cedrick Wilson, meanwhile, has been functional, at best, in his role as the No. 2/3 receiver.

New head coach Mike Tomlin said recently that he’s been talking to Holmes about making a big jump in his second year in the league. Holmes caught 49 passes for 824 yards and a pair of touchdowns last season, but the bulk of that came in the second half. In the team’s final nine games Holmes caught 33 passes for 579 yards and both of his touchdowns. If he can just continue at that pace, he’ll not only be a nice compliment to Ward, he could wrest the role of No. 1 receiver away from him by year's end.

The team would be looking for a similar jump from Reid had his rookie season not been a washout. As it is, the Steelers will likely look for the speedy rookie to take over some of the return duties from Holmes, who is too valuable to expose on punt and kickoffs on a consistent basis. Plus, Reid was better in those duties in training camp than Holmes last year anyway.

As for Washington, his overall numbers of 35 receptions for 624 yards and four touchdowns don't look bad when you consider that last season was basically his rookie year as well. Though he was with the team in 2005, he barely saw any action and could be looking at a jump in production this season as well. It's easy to look at his end zone drops and be critical. But the fact is, he was getting open in those situations against NFL coverage, which is a positive.

Wilson caught 37 passes for 504 yards and one touchdown last season, but lost his starting spot to Holmes in the last month of the season. He'll battle with Washington this year for the No. 3 spot. Though he's making a lot of money to be a No. 3 or 4 guy, he's a veteran at a position the Steelers are pretty young at – especially if they bring in another rookie – which can't be overlooked.

Perennial practice squader Walter Young and Mr. August, Lee Mays, each were around for a cup of coffee at times last season, but neither is in the team’s long-term plans.

Given Ward's age – he turned 31 earlier this month – and his physical playing style, it wouldn't be a stretch for the team to begin looking down the road at life without their all-time leading receiver. All those hits he dishes out and takes have to have an affect on his body.

Ward realizes this as well, hence his outspokeness about the team's release of linebacker Joey Porter. Ward knows that he could find himself in a similar situation within the next couple of years if/when he reaches the end of the road. That would be a tough pill to swallow for both the team, Ward and fans.

With all of this in mind, look for the Steelers to address the wide receiver position with a mid-to-late pick in the draft.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Safety dance

Priorities are what often drive a draft more than anything else. As much as teams like to pay lip service to the old “best player available” mantra, let’s be honest about something for a second: Few teams, if any, actually work their draft in that matter.

We’re going to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, position by position, over the next month as we try to get a better handle on what directions the team will go on April 28 and 29.

Today: The safeties.

Safety is one position the Steelers are not only stocked at with a good quantity of players, but quality as well.

Starting strong safety Troy Polamalu remains one of the best players at his position in the league – one of a handful of amazing talents at the position currently in the league who are redefining the position. At free safety, veteran Ryan Clark held down the position last season, with rookie Anthony Smith – a third-round draft pick – starting the final three games when Clark was out with an injury.

Recently re-signed Tyrone Carter, a veteran with 34 career starts under his belt including three last year in place of an injured Polamalu, also provides depth.

Considering the team usually only carries four safeties - five at most - on its roster, there wouldn’t seem to be any room for another youngster on the roster.

But looming over the team’s plans right now is the fact that Polamalu, a three-time Pro Bowl player, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the completion of the 2007 season. Considering some of the contracts handed out to safeties in the past year, signing Polamalu to a contract extension – something the team is working on – isn’t going to come cheaply.

The Steelers have also never liked to paint themselves into a corner with contract negotiations. They don’t like to go into a contract situation with a veteran player without having a possible replacement in place in case negotiations break down. Add to that the fact a bank-breaking contract extension for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looming in the future as well, and Polamalu’s situation is a bit tenuous.

The Steelers would love to guarantee having Polamalu roaming their defensive backfield for another five or six years. But will the cost to do so become prohibitive?

Some have argued that if new head coach Mike Tomlin plans of eventually moving to a cover-2 base defense, Polamalu doesn’t fit the scheme. That, of course, is hogwash since great players defy schemes. They are able to adapt to any style of play.

The question is, however, would Polamalu be as effective in a cover-2?

The knock on him coming out of college was that he wasn’t very good in coverage. And that’s a fair assessment. But he does possess rare ball skills and is able to cover a lot of ground quickly to help make up for any coverage lapses.

If Polamalu were to leave after this season, however, the Steelers likely have his replacement on the roster as Clark would slide from free safety to strong – the position he started at with the Washington Redskins – to play beside Smith, who will be a good bet to start beside Polamalu this season.

That said, it’s unlikely the Steelers will take a safety in this year’s draft.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Another punter

The Steelers have been speaking to the agent for free agent punter Matt Turk about a possible visit to Pittsburgh.

The 26-year-old Turk is just one year younger than current punter Chris Gardocki, but has been much more consistent in recent years. Part of that may be due to the fact he kicked in St. Louis at an indoor stadium.

But the Steelers also have Mike Barr, who has been to camp with them the past few years, still hanging around as well.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Steelers open talks

Word is that the Steelers have opened contract talks with three 2008 potential free agents - Troy Polamalu, Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons.

Of those three, Simmons is the surprise. But remember, the contract talks are preliminary and the team could be just feeling him out to see what his demands would be.

Free agent frenzy

It's been a perfect storm for free agents this year as teams have spent record amounts of money on players who are average at best.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have largely sat out this free agency period, though that is nothing new for them.

But this year more than ever, that's been the smart play.

When this 2007 free agent period is finished, it may be viewed as one that sent the NFL down a road toward ruin.

Why is that?

In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen average player after average player signed to big money deals – deals that were made for no other reason than because those player were available.

That’s why we’ve seen the likes of tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, wide receiver Kelley Washington and offensive tackle Tony Pashos find themselves in a whole new tax bracket in a matter of days.

Not to pick on those particular players, but Shiancoe was given a deal for five years at $18.2 million – with $7 million guaranteed – Washington got a five-year deal that could be worth as much as $22 million and Pashos was handed $24 million over five years.

And these are players with a combined 52 career starts in a combined 12 NFL seasons, an average of less than five starts per year per player. None of them have ever been or likely will ever be a star in this league. But they sure are making star-quality money now.

Certainly one team’s trash could be considered another team’s treasure, but this is ridiculous.

And those three players are hardly the only ones who have been given outrageous deals since free agency began earlier this month.

Heck, that’s why the always outspoken Joey Porter didn’t rip into the Steelers for releasing him on the eve of free agency. Instead of the $5 million or so in salary Porter would have earned from the Steelers in 2007, Porter walked into a five-year, $32-million deal with Miami that included a $12-million signing bonus. With that kind of money, Porter figures the Steelers did him a favor by releasing him.

But do you think there will be some unhappy veterans reporting - or not - to mini-camps this spring?

And do you think those veterans will be wanting their teams to pony up more cash to them?

When these veterans go into meetings with team officials, they’re not going to want to hear that their respective teams can’t afford to give them more money when those teams went out and spent this offseason like they were sailors on leave. They are not going to want to hear about the team's salary structure.

This was a lackluster crop of free agents who walked into the perfect storm. Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement and more TV money than ever before, NFL teams had record levels of cap space available. Somebody should have told them they didn’t have to spend it all in one place.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Keisel to OLB

Now that Joey Porter is gone and the Steelers have been rebuffed in their efforts to acquire a veteran outside linebacker in free agency - not that the crop was that good to begin with - many are asking what they will do now?

One possibility is to move defensive end Brett Keisel to outside linebacker and select a young defensive end in the draft to take his place. Nebraska's Adam Carricker certainly would fit and could be available when the Steelers make their first-round pick, the 15th overall.

The Steelers have been smart not to dive into this free agent pool. Some of the contracts being given out are way over the border for ridiculous.

The Steelers will restock through the draft this year. And it's a deep draft, much deeper than the free agent pool.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Free agents - defense

With free agency starting Friday, here's a look at some defensive players who may interest the Steelers.

Now that the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut ties with linebacker Joey Porter, the team’s depth at the position – already a weak point – looks as if it will be even thinner.

The problem is that the pickings are pretty thin in this year’s free agent linebacking field when the market opens Friday. And you can bet that players such as Chicago’s Lance Briggs and Baltimore’s Adalius Thomas are going to command top dollar, something the Steelers will be unwilling to pay. In fact, Porter is also likely to draw big money on the free agent market, though probably not as much as $4.5-million base salary he was scheduled to earn with the Steelers.

So if the Steelers are still planning on running a 3-4 defense, they’ll probably want to add at least one veteran linebacker in free agency in addition to selecting one in the first few rounds of the draft.

The top two mid-level outside linebackers available who fit into the 3-4 defense are New England’s Tully Banta-Cain and Houston’s Antwan Peek.

The 6-2, 250-pound Banta-Cain is coming off the best of his four NFL seasons having recorded 43 tackles and 5.5 sacks last season for the Patriots. Considered a smart overachiever, the 26-year-old Banta-Cain may just be coming into his own.

Peek, a 6-3, 250-pound converted college defensive end is well-known to new head coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin was an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati when Peek was a standout defensive end there.

Peek lost playing time in 2006 after the Texans switched from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, but in 2005 he managed 46 tackles and six sacks.

One other linebacker who is well-known to Tomlin is Minnesota's Napoleon Harris.

The 6-2, 255-pound Harris is versatile enough to play inside or outside. Harris had 59 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions starting at middle linebacker last season in Tomlin’s only year as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator.

A player who is well known to the Steelers’ coaching staff is Cincinnati’s Brian Simmons, who was released Wednesday in a cost-cutting move. A nine-year NFL veteran, Simmons played under current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau when he was Cincinnati’s head coach.

Like Harris, Simmons is a player who can play inside or outside. The 6-3, 240-pounder excels in pass coverage, having recorded at least two interceptions in each of the past four seasons. He played inside and outside in 2006 to help ease the loss of O’Dell Thurman to suspension and had 60 tackles and two interceptions in 11 games. He recorded 83 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions playing on the outside in 2005.

Tennessee’s Peter Sirmon is another possibility the Steelers may look at. The 6-3, 236-pound Sirmon had 88 tackles, .5 sacks and an interception in 2006.

It’s a good thing this is a strong defensive line draft because there isn’t much second-level talent available at that position. Kansas City’s Jared Allen, Atlanta’s Patrick Kearney and Chicago’s Ian Scott figure to garner the most interest on the free agent market and will be out of Pittsburgh’s price range.

A cheaper alternative at end could be Tampa Bay’s Dewayne White, another player Tomlin knows well from his days as a secondary coach for the Buccaneers.

The 6-2, 273-pound White has recorded 11 sacks in the past two seasons and is well-suited to a 4-3 defense, something Tomlin has said the Steelers could shift to at times. At worst, he could offer the Steelers a pass-rushing specialist opposite Brett Keisel in the nickel and dime defense.

If the Steelers are looking to add more beef up front, Tennessee’s Robaire Smith and Denver’s Michael Meyers could help out.

A 10-year NFL veteran, the 6-3, 300-pound Meyers had a career-best 57 tackles to go with two sacks in 2006 playing for a Broncos’ defense that proved difficult to run the ball against.

Smith (6-4, 310) has experience in both the 4-3 as a tackle and in the 3-4 as an end from his playing days in Houston. He had 44 tackles and half a sack last season with Tennessee after recorded a career-high 68 tackles to go with 1.5 sacks playing 3-4 end for Houston the year before.

Given the young talent the Steelers have at cornerback and safety, it’s unlikely they will make any free agent moves at either of those positions.

Free agents - offense

With free agency starting Friday, here's a look at some players on the offensive side of the ball that may interest the Steelers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been big players in the free agent market, choosing to keep their own players rather than jump into the free agent market with both feet.

But they have added some key players over the years, center Jeff Hartings and linebacker Kevin Greene being the most noteworthy.

Once again this year the Steelers won’t be swimming in the free agent pool with the big spenders, but could look to pick off some secondary players who will fit into their scheme.

New head coach Mike Tomlin has stated several times that he'd like to acquire a quality backup to running back Willie Parker. The draft would be one way to do that, while free agency would give the Steelers a chance to land more of a sure thing.

Running back Chris Brown has fallen out of favor in Tennessee and the 6-3, 220-pound Brown could be a nice change-of-pace back to help spell Parker.

A slashing runner with some power, Brown has played in 42 games in his four seasons in the NFL, making 28 starts. He’s rushed for 2,295 yards on 541 carries and scored 11 touchdowns. He’s also not a bad receiver out of the backfield, catching 55 passes for 539 yards. He’s had some injury problems during his career, but if the Steelers could limit him to five to 10 carries per game, he would be a nice compliment to Parker.

If the Steelers want to go for a completely different style of running back, power runners such as Houston’s Ron Dayne or Washington’s T.J. Duckett might fit the bill.

Dayne, a former first-round pick of the Giants, resurrected his career in Houston last season, playing in 11 games and making six starts while carrying the ball 151 times for 612 yards with five touchdowns. His 4.1 yards per carry average was above his career mark of 3.7 yards per carry, much of which was put up when he served as a change-of-pace back to Tiki Barber.

At 5-11, 243 pounds, the seven-year veteran has played in 83 games, making 20 starts and has 789 career carries for 2,949 yards with 22 touchdowns.

The 6-0, 254-pound Duckett languished on the bench last season in Washington, carrying just 38 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Like Dayne, he has served as a change-of-pace back in the past, teaming with Warrick Dunn in Atlanta.

Duckett has appeared in 65 career games, making 14 starts. He has 590 career rushing attempts for 2,307 yards with 33 touchdowns. Duckett is probably the best pure power back available on this year’s free agent market, but, like Brown, has had some injury problems in the past.

A cheaper option than those three might be Jacksonville’s LaBrandon Toefield. At 5-11, 232 pounds, Toefield has the size the Steelers are looking for in a complimentary back to Parker, but doesn’t have much of a career resume, having only seen spot duty for the Jaguars where he has been stuck behind Fred Taylor, Greg Jones and Maurice Jones-Drew.

But in four seasons, Toefield has appeared in 43 games, making two starts, carrying the ball 150 times for 545 yards and six touchdowns. He’s also caught 45 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns.

The Steelers have some openings on the offensive line with the retirement of center Jeff Hartings and the impending free agency of right tackle Max Starks. The Steelers are expected to make a qualifying offer for Starks, a restricted free agent, but won’t go too high to match any offers for him.

A better option than Starks might be Kansas City’s Jordan Black, a 6-5, 310-pound tackle who has started on both sides for the Chiefs and would give the Steelers some versatility up front.

Having played in Kansas City’s scheme, you can be assured that Black can run block, something that will still be a priority under Tomlin.

If Black is out of the Steelers’ price range, they may want to consider Buffalo’s Mike Gandy, a 6-4, 310-pound veteran of six NFL seasons who has started at both left guard and left tackle in his career.

The Steelers have traditionally liked linemen who can move around to different positions and Gandy would certainly fit the bill there, giving the team a lineman who could not only compete with Starks should he also return, but also for a starting spot at right guard. Gandy has also been very durable, playing in 64 games and making 62 career starts.

If the team decides to bring somebody in to challenge Kendall Simmons at right guard or give itself the option of moving Simmons to center, Washington’s Derrick Dockery would be a nice fit.

The 6-6, 335-pound Dockery has never missed a game in his four NFL seasons, playing in 64 games with 61 starts at left guard.