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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Mozes in Minnesota

Those questioning why Washington's Dan Mozes would sign with Minnesota need to look no farther than the Vikings' depth chart.

Starting center Matt Birk is a former Pro Bowl player, but is getting up in age.

The team selected Ryan Cook in the second round of last year's draft as Birk's eventual replacement, but Cook ended up starting at right tackle last season and appears headed for that position again this season.

That leaves Mozes fighting for a roster spot and/or a possible practice squad spot with fellow rookie Kyle Cook, a former Michigan State star, and Norm Katnik, who spent last season on the Vikings' practice squad.

Those aren't bad odds when you're trying to earn a spot on an NFL roster.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Minicamp thoughts and notes

The Steelers signed Kevan Barlow to a free agent deal this week to possibly help ease the burden on running back Willie Parker.

The team then gave Barlow No. 22 and put him in Duce Staley's old locker – no kidding.

Barlow promptly went out and sprained his ankle on the second day of practice with his new team. If he adds about 20 pounds between now and training camp, the coincidences will be too great to ignore.

© Speaking of injured players, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, the team's top two draft picks this year, were both injured on Friday and unable to practice the rest of the weekend.

New head coach Mike Tomlin said it wouldn't be a problem if the guys were quick learners and able to take "mental reps."

I haven't been around either long enough, though, to know if either player is capable of doing that. It could be a pretty big setback.

© Watching new punter Dan Sepulaveda punt is nothing short of awesome. When the big rookie fourth-round draft pick kicks the ball, it takes off like it was shot out of a rocket.

Saturday morning, he was practicing his "Aussie roll," where he actually holds the ball vertical to the ground instead of horizontal and then kicks the toe of the ball. It flops end over end like a kickoff, knuckling in the air.

Some of the Steelers' punt return men were struggling to catch those balls, making last-second adjustments to haul them in.

Sepulaveda will be a weapon this season – though not one fans are going to want to see 10 times per game.

© At one point during Saturday's practice after tight end Heath Miller made a beautiful catch over the middle, one of the defensive players on the sidelines yelled, "Maybe we should line our tight ends up at wide receiver."

The defensive player was taking a playful jab at the receivers, but judging by the number of times I saw two and three tight ends on the field, the Steelers' coaches are thinking the same thing.

© Everybody who has been quick to write Timmons down as James Harrison's backup at right outside linebacker has forgotten about Arnold Harrison, a second-year player.

The Steelers haven't and Arnold Harrison could make a big step forward this season.

© I spoke to John Kuhn Sunday about where he fits into the whole running back situation with this team and he doesn't seem worried about the signing of Barlow and the possible re-signing of Verron Haynes – which is still a possibility.

Kuhn feels his blocking has improved enough that he could make the roster as a combo fullback/halfback and also as a special teams contributor.

© The biggest differences between a Bill Cowher minicamp and a Tomlin one was the presence of whistles.

In 15 seasons, Cowher never had coaches on the field with whistles. Tomlin does.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Faneca's follies

In the 14 years I've covered the Steelers, I've never seen a player open up and rip the organization as Alan Faneca did Friday on the opening day of minicamp.

Faneca was candid in his thoughts about the team - as he usually is. But this time, his candidness was pointed at the team's front office instead of himself or his teammates.

A pillar of honesty throughout his career with the Steelers, Faneca wore his emotions on his dripping wet with sweat sleave as he addressed reporters following the team's two-hour morning practice Friday, leaving nothing to the imagination.

Faneca's not happy that his days in Pittsburgh are numbered and he's not afraid to tell anyone about it.

The question is, where do the two sides go from here?

Faneca admitted that finding a way to play through his animosity is something he's going to struggle with all season long. But, being a consummate professional, he'll probably find a way. Once he steps between the white lines, it will be all business for Faneca.

But the team, and particularly new head coach Mike Tomlin, have to be concerned about how the rest of the players perceive Faneca's situation, especially coming on the heals of the team's release of Joey Porter in March.

Maybe the younger players will look at those two situations as a dose of reality. If guys such as Porter and Faneca can be shown the door - albeit in different ways - so can they.

But maybe Faneca's situation and Porter's release will damage that family feeling the Steelers have promoted within their locker room, especially in the past few years when players truly have cared about the guy next to them. They've not only been teammates on the field, they've been a family unit of 53 players off it as well.

And it doesn't take much to damage those kind of feelings. Heck, it wasn't all that long ago – 2000 training camp in fact – that linebackers Jason Gildon and Earl Holmes went after Richard Huntley with chairs following a minicamp practice.

It will be Tomlin's job in his first season to hold this ship together. But when members of the crew aren't particularly happy – especially key members – and everybody knows it, it can make for tough sailing.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Faneca situation looms

In just a few short days we’ll finally know a little more about what the future holds not only for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they open their first mandatory training camp with their rookie draft picks, but also star guard Alan Faneca as well.

While new head coach Mike Tomlin was quick to dump linebacker Joey Porter rather than have Porter serve as a distraction because of a contract holdout, the team kept Faneca, who was in the same exact situation as Porter.

Both were heading into the final season of their contract with the Steelers and both were due a $1 million roster bonus at the beginning of March.

But the Steelers gave Faneca his roster bonus, but released Porter rather than pay his bonus only to have him skip mini-camp and/or training camp.

Could it be the Steelers know something about Faneca that others don’t?

A big deal was made when Faneca skipped the team’s voluntary coaching sessions and non-mandatory mini-camp, even though Faneca wasn’t the only player – nor only star – to miss the practices.

The message boards and radio talk shows were rife with fans saying to trade him.

Of course many of these same people don’t stay an extra minute past quitting time at their jobs. But hey, this is the Steelers we’re talking about here.

But while the fans have been up in arms about Faneca’s supposed sins, the Steelers have been silent about the whole thing. There really have been no shots across the bow or any read-between-the-lines statements from the team about their star guard’s status.

That could change this weekend if Faneca skips the team’s mandatory mini-camp.

But the guess here is that Faneca will show up for the mini-camp. Despite the fact he’s miffed about the team’s initial contract offer, it would serve no purpose for Faneca to skip a three-day, non-contact camp other than to tick off Tomlin.

The opening of training camp might be another matter. But for now, look for Faneca to avoid a nasty confrontation. He hasn’t missed anything to this point that would cause a problem and he’s not a problem-causing kind of guy.

That’s one reason why the Steelers chose to give Faneca his roster bonus while dumping Porter.

Faneca, who unlike Porter isn’t clearly on the downside of his career just yet, has to know he can play out his current contract, bank $4.3 million this season and still cash in at the end of the season. He’s never had a major injury. And even a serious knee injury to wouldn’t be devastating to his future earnings.

That likely had something to do with the decision as well.