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Sunday, April 15, 2007

A look at the specialists

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 specialists

As they have begun their preparations for the 2007 season, the Steelers have made no secret of the fact they'd like to replace 37-year-old punter Chris Gardocki.

The problem is, the Steelers wanted to replace Gardocki last year as well but he still came out of training camp as the team's punter, holding off Mike Barr for the third consecutive year.

The difference between last year and previous camps for Barr, however, was that he was given every opportunity to unseat Gardocki. He was just unable to do so.

But Gardocki's punting average has fallen in each of his three seasons with the Steelers, from 43.0 in 2004, to 41.3 last season, his lowest since 1995. Gardocki has never been a strong-legged punter - his value came from his ability to place the ball directionally and from the fact that he's never had a kick blocked.

But last season, he became an obvious liability and there's little chance he’ll still be with the team when training camp opens in July.

The Steelers signed Barr again following the completion of the 2006 season and he will get another opportunity to compete for the punting job. But it's obvious the Steelers aren’t comfortable handing the position to him. Their first foray in team history into the restricted free agent market was by making an offer to San Francisco punter Andy Lee, an offer sheet the 49ers matched.

Spurned in their efforts to acquire a new punter through free agency, the Steelers could look to this draft to bring somebody in to compete with Barr. There is still the off chance that the team could bring in a veteran to compete with Barr, with Matt Turk being the player most often linked to the team.

Placekicker Jeff Reed had an off season in 2006, making 20 of 27 field goal attempts. His 74 percent conversion percentage doesn't look all that bad until you consider that five of those misses came from 40 yards or shorter. That's just too many.

Reed's kickoffs, while adequate, could still be improved upon as well and it will be interesting to see if the Steelers go after a punter in the draft who can also handle kickoffs.

Long-snapper Greg Warren has quietly put together a solid two seasons for the Steelers, making just one bad snap during that period. But Warren also does not play another position, so there is always the off chance that he could be replaced. The Steelers, however, are not actively pursuing a replacement.

After a rough start last season, Santonio Holmes showed some promise as a punt returner as he got more comfortable with the speed of the NFL. Ideally, however, the Steelers would like Willie Reid, who played in just one game last season, to handle those duties instead of Holmes, who will start at wide receiver.

Reid has fully recovered from a foot injury that sidelined him last season and should be able to work his way into the wide receiver rotation, something that will keep him active on game days.

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