Thursday, January 31, 2013

What we've learned from Tomlin's hires

Mike Tomlin hired a pair of assistants this week, tapping Jack Bicknell Jr., to coach his offensive line and Danny Smith to run the special teams.

Bicknell doesn't have a ton of NFL experience, but he has had success. He was part of a Super Bowl staff with the Giants. He also had a ton of success running a zone blocking scheme last year in Kansas City.

Bicknell prefers smaller, more mobile offensive linemen, which is what the Steelers have been trending toward the past few years anyway.

Smith has a ton of experience, having been an NFL assistant for 14 years.

Tomlin tried to hire him in 2009 before settling on Al Everest, but was denied an opportunity to speak with him by the Washington Redskins.

Some have tried to tie Smith's hiring to Kevin Colbert since Smith was with the Lions when Colbert was there. But the Pittsburgh native and Central Catholic High School grad also worked at Tomlin's alma mater, William & Mary for three years, so there's an obvious tie-in there as well.

Tomlin told Steelers.com he was looking for a dynamic personality to lead his special teams unit. If anything, that's probably where Amos Jones, who replaced Everest after he was fired in August, failed.

Jones, who had been the Steelers assistant special teams coach since 2007 before his promotion, was a good coach. But he never came across as a dynamic speaker.

@ Congratulations to Charlie Batch for winning the Byron "Whizzer" White Award for his charity work. Batch works extremely hard on his charity and constantly reaches out to help youth athletes in the Pittsburgh area.

The award is long overdue for Batch.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tomlin hires offensive line coach

We've largely seen Mike Tomlin stick pretty much with what he knows or, should I say, who he knows when it comes to coaching hires.

His initial staff with the Steelers included a number of hires - outside of the people he kept - who were people with whom he had coached at previous stops.

But last year's hiring of Todd Haley as offensive coordinator was a step outside of that box. So, too, was Tomlin's hiring of Jack Bicknell Jr., as his new offensive line coach.

Looking at Bicknell's resume, it doesn't appear to have any direct ties to Tomlin or anyone else on his staff.

In fact, Bicknell, who has just four years of coaching experience at the NFL level, is something of fresh blood at this level.

The two stops he has made in the NFL - with the Giants from 2009-11 and Kansas City last season - have proven fruitful in different ways.

In New York, Bicknell helped coach a line that paved the way for a Super Bowl champion. In Kansas City, he coached a line that led one of the NFL's top rushing attacks despite the fact the Chiefs' QB situation was a mess.

With the Steelers, Bicknell inherits a line that includes promising young players Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Adams, David DeCastro, Kelin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. All but Beachum, a seventh-round draft pick last year, were premium draft picks.

The onus will be on Bicknell to help those young players reach their full potential.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Post Senior Bowl thoughts

Watching the Senior Bowl, I couldn't help but think that it was something of a waste of time - at least for me, since I cover the Steelers.

OK, maybe not a complete waste of time, but as we've seen time and again with the Steelers, their first-round pick likely won't be one of the players who was performing in the Senior Bowl.

Time and again in the Kevin Colbert era, the Steelers have tended to take players who were coming out as juniors, whether they be redshirt juniors or true juniors.

The thinking, at least for the Steelers, is that when you take a guy who is 20 or 21 years old, not only do you get more mileage out of him, but his potential upside might be greater as well.

If he grades out as a first-round pick at 20 or 21, he still has room to grow.

Now, once they get into the later rounds, age doesn't become such a factor. But for those guys making the big money - the first rounders - the Steelers like a guy who's just 25 or 26 heading into his second contract.

With that in mind, some guys to look at as potential first rounders include linebacker prospects Barkevious Mingo, Damontre Moore, Alec Ogletree, cornerback Dee Milliner, defensive tackles Jonathan Hankins and Sharrif Floyd, wide receivers Keenan Allen, DeAndre Hopkins and Robert Woods, running back Gio Bernard and safeties Matt Elam and Eric Reid.

The young underclassman mantra isn't a must, but it's a good place to start when looking at potential Steelers first-round draft picks.

Some of those guys probably won't wind up with first-round grades once everything is hashed out, but they are some players to watch at the NFL combine. Of course, there are other factors as well.

With a guy like Ogletree, you have to weigh his four-game suspension at Georgia for a violation of team rules - drugs - against his athleticism and play. Given the issues the Steelers had this season with draft picks, I'm guessing they take Ogletree off their board.

Another thing to consider is that given this team's need of an influx of playmakers, the Steelers might throw the underclassman rule out the window and simply take the best playmakers available.

@ The Steelers aren't wasting any time looking at potential new special teams coordinators. They are interviewing Washington's Danny Smith, a Pittsburgh native, for the open position.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Jones leaves Steelers for Cardinals

The Steelers will have their third special teams coordinator in less than a year when they begin their spring OTAs.

Special teams coordinator Amos Jones is leaving the Steelers to join the staff of Bruce Arians in Arizona.

Jones, who had been with the Steelers since 2007, replaced Al Everest in August when he was abruptly fired. Previously, Jones had been the Steelers assistant special teams coach.

His departure leaves head coach Mike Tomlin with two and possibly three positions to fill on his staff.

In addition to Everest and Jones, offensive line coach Sean Kugler left at the end of the season to accept the head coaching position at UTEP.

Tomlin and his staff were in Mobile, Ala., this week for the Senior Bowl. Team president Art Rooney II was with them, meaning Tomlin was likely talking to potential replacements.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Has Pro Bowl run its course?

According to Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, some 32 players asked out of the Pro Bowl this year, opening the doors for 32 other players to make it to the NFL's All-Star game.

But is it really an All-Star game if 32 of the game's best - as voted by the fans, players and coaches - choose not to play?

I'd say no.

Add to those 32 who have asked out of the game or not been able to play because their team is in the Super Bowl the dozens of players who declined invitations because of existing injuries - such as Steelers safety Ryan Clark - and you're looking at guys playing in this game who were voted the third, fourth-best or worse player at their position in their conference competing in the all-star game.

It's time for the farce to come to an end.

And let's not even talk about the way the game is played. The league is begging for players to take this game seriously. Fat chance of that when they've got millions of dollars at stake if they get injured.

The solution? Forget playing the game. Name the Pro Bowl teams and let them take their trip to Hawaii or some other warm-weather site - after the Super Bowl - to ensure that the NFL's best players attend.

And have a ceremony showing highlights from the player's season. Give out the awards for MVP and other honors. Make it an event and tie it in to some kind of charity.

But for the love of God, quit playing a game that the players don't care about and the fans really don't want to see.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New bowl game

There will be a new bowl game coming up March 15 in Florence, Ala., at the University of North Alabama's Braly Stadium for late-round draft prospects and prospective free agents.

The Prograss International Scout Bowl will feature players from NCAA Division I, I-A, II and III and replace the defunct Cactus/Snow Bowl. There will also be some international players invited to play as well.

The coaching staff for the South team will include Mike Gottfried, a former Pitt head coach, while Johnny Majors has also signed on.

The North squad coaching staff will include former California University of Pennsylvania and Washington & Jefferson College coach John Luckhardt.

The former Cactus Bowl, which started in 1994 as the Snow Bowl, featured a number of future NFL players over the years, including Jahri Evans, Leonard Weaver, John Kuhn, Delanie Walker, Brandon Carr and Zach Miller.





Sunday, January 20, 2013

Worst nightmare

The worst possible thing that could have happened has happened for most NFL fans.

It will be the Ravens vs. the 49ers in the Super Bowl this year.

That in itself isn't so bad. There should be plenty of story lines for this game.

But they will all be overshadowed by the Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh stories that will be churned out as if they've never been done before.

Did you know that John and Jim Harbaugh are brothers? Brothers!

They even share the same parents.

We saw all of this in 2012 when the Ravens and 49ers met for a Thanksgiving Day game when the story was played to death. It will all be hashed and rehashed again in the next two weeks. Ugh!

@ For Steelers fans, the Ravens making the Super Bowl is a good thing.

We already knew that Ray Lewis was going to retire at the end of this season. But with Baltimore making it this far, there's a good chance that some of the other Ravens' longtime vets hang it up after this game as well.

Ed Reed, Bryant McKinnie, Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk are four others who come to mind, which would leave Baltimore with some big shoes to fill.

And then there's this: With each playoff win, Joe Flacco's pricetag goes up another $10 or so million.

Flacco has played pretty well in these playoffs, but I'm still not a big fan. I don't think he's an elite talent at quarterback. But he's going to have to be paid as if he is now.



Friday, January 18, 2013

East-West Shrine prospects to watch

There will be a pair of college All-Star games on Saturday, but the one I'll be watching will be the East-West Shrine game, which has better overall prospects, than the Raycom College Football All-Star Classic.

There are a few players I'm interested in seeing perform against fellow all-star type NFL prospects.

First up is David Bass, a defensive end from Missouri Western State, who at 6-4, 260, would be an outside linebacker in the Steelers' system.

Bass started 50 consecutive games and finished 2012 with 11.5 sacks after recording 14.5 in 2011. But that was playing at the NCAA Division II level. Bass has long arms and a good motor, so his play could translate to the NFL.

But I want to see it.

* Ray Graham, RB, Pitt. Obviously, living in Pittsburgh, I've seen a lot of Graham. And I've always liked what I've seen. He's a tough runner despite being just 5-10, 190 pounds.

The thing I want to see with Graham is if he's healthy. He was having a monster season in 2011 before tearing up his knee. He rebounded well in 2012, but then missed the Panthers' bowl game.

Graham has a lot to prove in this game.

* D.C. Jefferson, TE, Rutgers. Jefferson didn't see the ball much at Rutgers, but I liked what I saw of him as a blocker the few times I watched the Scarlet Knights. At 6-5, 250 pounds, he's got the size you need to set the edge.

Can he catch the ball well enough to make it in the NFL?

The Steelers are going to likely bring in a late-round prospect or rookie free agent at tight end. Jefferson could be a nice fit.

* Shamrko Thomas, S, Syracuse. My favorite mid-round safety prospect this year is South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger, who is a human missile.

But Thomas also caught my eye this season with the way he throws his body around. At 5-10, 217 pounds, he's similar in size to Troy Polamalu. He plays the run like Polamalu at times as well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Colbert fires the first shot

Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said today that pretty much anything is on the table in regards to the team's roster following an 8-8 season.

"If we don't change 8-8, if we don't change the roster that produced 8-8, we'd be silly to expect a better result if we've got the same group of guys," he said. "We can't box ourselves in and limit what we potentially could do."

That could even mean stepping outside the box and diving into free agency.

Certainly, the Steelers have cap issues right now. They are roughly $11 million over next year's cap, which is estimated to be at $121 million.

But the team has plenty of wiggle room to get under that number.

One move I could see this team making in free agency? Acquiring a starting running back, or at least a back who can help carry the load for whatever rookie the team drafts.

Colbert made it apparent he was definitely not happy with the team's production at running back, where Rashard Mendenhall is an unrestricted free agent and Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are heading into restricted free agency.

I get the feeling the team will tender Redman but not Dwyer, who the coaching staff wasn't too happy with as a "feature" runner when he was given a shot.

 I don't think we're talking about breaking the bank and bringing in 30-year-old Steven Jackson, or even 28-year-old Reggie Bush. That's too expensive and you don't help things by signing running backs who are near 30 and have a lot of mileage.

But a mid-level free agent such as Detroit's Joique Bell or Kansas City's Peyton Hillis, could be a nice player to pair with a young runner.

Bell, 5-11, 220, is a restricted free agent, but the 26-year-old also was undrafted. Detroit has salary cap issues, just as the Steelers do, and may be unwilling to put a high tender on Bell to retain his services. He's the kind of multi-talented runner/receiver the Steelers could use in Todd Haley's offense.

Hillis, 6-1, 250, is more of a banger, but the 26-year-old would be a nice complimentary back to a smaller speed-type runner as he was this season in Kansas City.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Moving forward

It's all just speculation until a new offensive line coach is named - and there's no hurry there at this point - but with three key offensive linemen heading into free agency, the Steelers are going to have a different starting group in 2013.

Left tackle Max Starks, guard Ramon Foster and backup center/guard Doug Legursky will all be unrestricted free agents, and the Steelers could have a tough time bringing any of them back.

Starks and Foster want to start, and that opportunity might not be available with the Steelers. Of the three, Legursky could be the one who re-signs with the Steelers to continue as Maurkice Pouncey's backup - though he's shown enough as a true center to justify a team taking a chance on him as a starter.

With the Steelers having taken Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro and Mike Adams with premium draft picks in the past three years, they figure to hold down four of the starting spots. At what position - at least for Gilbert and Adams - remains to be seen.

At this point, if I were positioning them, Adams would be the left tackle and Gilbert would be the right. But that could change.

I know Adams struggled at left tackle last preseason, but he was a rookie at that point, seeing his first playing time. He's now had a decent amount of game experience and should have a better understanding of what's required.

At the same time, Adams proved to be a very good run blocker in the games he started this season, which would seemingly make him a better fit on the right side.

As for Gilbert, I question his footwork for a move to the left side. He also had issues last season on the right side handling power pass rushers, but again, perhaps an offseason to work on technique and strength will be good for him.

The wildcard in the equation is Kelvin Beachum. Beachum was taken late in last year's draft to be the new Trai Essex, a guy capable of playing guard or tackle.

He proved to be reasonably solid as a pass blocker, but didn't have the functional strength to run block. He's another player who will benefit from an offseason in the weight room.

The Steelers are trying to get away from the big, hulking, overweight linemen of the past - which is what you get when you fill your line with late-round draft picks.

And they've done a good job of becoming more athletic up front.

The next step is getting those linemen in the right places.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Rainey situation different from others

I've been asked on Twitter what the difference is between what happened with rookie running back Chris Rainey and rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu.

There are differences.

Rainey had been charged in 2011 with sending a threatening text to a girlfriend. But after speaking with Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers felt he was worth taking a chance on.

He then had two minor incidents during the season before being charged with striking a woman in Florida this week. Obviously, Rainey hadn't gotten the message in regard to walking the straight and narrow.

While Ta'amu's drunk driving incident on the South Side was deplorable, it was his lone misstep while with the team. He's had no other issues since joining the Steelers. If he had, he would have been gone.

As it was, Ta'amu was suspended for two games and subsequently released and placed on the practice squad.

That alone cost him between $200,000 to $300,000 in salary this season.

Ta'amu is still on notice. If he makes another mistake or has another run-in with the law, he'll be released as well.

@ Former Steelers Jerome Bettis and Kevin Greene made the cut to be among the finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.

The guess here is that Bettis gets in and Greene does not.

When Bettis became eligible for the Hall of Fame, he did so in the same year as Marshall Faulk and Curtis Martin.

At that time, the pecking order among those backs ranked them Faulk, Martin, Bettis.

Faulk got in the first year, Martin the next. Now, it's Bettis' turn.


Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Rooney happy with Haley


Steelers president Art Rooney II said Wednesday that offensive coordinator Todd Haley will meet with officials from the Arizona Cardinals about their vacant head coaching position.

The Cardinals received permission from the Steelers to speak to Haley last week, but Haley has not yet interviewed.

“When a guy has an opportunity to be a head coach, I don’t think there are many teams that would withhold that permission these days,” Rooney told Steelers.com. “He’s a good, young coach and has opportunities, and I certainly wouldn’t stand in his way if he had that kind of opportunity.”

Rooney said he was happy with the job Haley did with the Steelers’ offense this season. The Steelers were 6-3 before an rib and shoulder injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger forced him to miss three games as Pittsburgh lost five of its final seven games to finish 8-8.

“If we look at it in terms of nine games into the season, our offense was functioning at a pretty high level,” said Rooney. “Ben was on track to have his best season of all time, and he was taking fewer sacks. So a lot of the things we were hoping for were happening. After he got hurt, our offense seemed to lose its rhythm, and even after Ben came back we never really regained that momentum.

“You have to look at it as: OK, when our quarterback was healthy what did we have? And what we had I thought was pretty good. Not that there aren’t things we don’t want to improve, but you would think the second year of a new offense would be better than the first. Hopefully those kinds of things will evolve in our favor.”

Monday, January 07, 2013

Contract situations

With the Steelers roughly 13 or so million dollars over next year's salary cap of $120 or so million, they will have some juggling to do to get under the cap and still be able to resign potential free agents, offer tenders to their restricted and exclusive rights free agents and sign their rookie class.

Here are the top 10 salaries headed into next year:

                                Cap Number
Ben Roethlisberger   $19.6  
LaMarr Woodley     $13.2
Lawrence Timmons  $11.16
Troy Polamalu          $10.1
James Harrison         $10.03
Ike Taylor                $9.45
Heath Miller             $7.95
Willie Colon             $7.65
Antonio Brown        $6.2
Ryan Clark              $4.75

As you can see, the top of the pay scale tips heavily toward the defense - particularly in favor of the linebackers. That group of 10 players also accounts for roughly $100 million of the team's salary cap for 2013, leaving just $20 million to fill out the rest of the roster.

Now, there is some wiggle room there, such as turning base salary into signing bonus - something the Steelers have done quite a bit of in the past. The only problem with that is you have to be sure the player is going to be part of your plans in future seasons because it increases their cap hit down the road.

For example, a simple restructure for Roethlisberger would make sense, since you could turn his base salary into bonus money and save $7.1 million.

For a player such as Harrison, however, the savings would only be $2.8 million. And with Harrison at 35, that's probably not the way to go.

Just doing a simple restructure on all of their top 10 contracts - at least the ones they would be able to do so with - and the Steelers could create nearly $36 million in cap space.

But, that includes restructuring Harrison, Polamalu and Taylor - Clark can't be done since he is only signed through next season.

Take those three out of the equation, and you're looking at $27.2 million in savings, plenty enough wiggle room to do everything they need in the offseason without releasing any veterans.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Losing Haley would be a setback

According to the Arizona Republic, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been given permission to interview with the Cardinals for their open head coaching position.

Haley, a former offensive coordinator in Arizona, is held in high esteem by the Bidwell family after helping the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2008.

But if he leaves the Steelers after just one season, it will be a big setback.

The team spent an entire offseason last year learning a new offense - most notably new offensive terminology.

If Haley leaves, the Steelers will have their third offense in three seasons. With one of the youngest offenses in the league - outside of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - that's a lot to throw at young players.

The Steelers have long prided themselves on continuity. It's one of the reasons why the team has had some much success over the past couple of decades. They have largely kept things the same, making things easy for young players to improve by learning the system better.

Now, certainly, the Steelers could offset the loss of Haley - if that happens - by promoting from within. Mike Tomlin's top choice a year ago would have been Kirby Wilson had he not been recovering from burns suffered in an accident in his home.

But at this point, Wilson's offense would likely be different from the one Haley runs. And he would faced with the choice of keeping Haley's terminology or returning to what the Steelers used before.

Plus, prior to injuries to Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger and half of the offensive line, the Steelers offense was producing under Haley in the first half of the season. They led the league in third down conversions, were second in time of possession and their scoring was up about a point-and-a-half from the previous season.

And that was with a group of players still learning the new offense.

Now, certainly, the team didn't finish as well. But the aforementioned injury problems were the main culprit for that.

Much has been made of comments Roethlisberger made regarding Haley's offense, particularly following a loss at Dallas.

But Roethlisberger has always taken shots at the offensive coordinator, whether it was Ken Whisenhunt or even his best buddy, Bruce Arians. He always wants to do things his way, which would include running the no-huddle exclusively.

And the offensive coordinators have had to reign him in.

The fact is, the rift between Haley and Roethlisberger just isn't there. It's a figment of the imagination of people who were waiting for a big blowup between the two that never happened.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Wallace has no regrets

http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20130101/SPORTS0403/130109941

Here's my piece from Wednesday's O-R on Mike Wallace's thoughts on his season.

To summarize, he feels the holdout hurt him, but doesn't regret it. He also doesn't think he's necessarily a good fit in Todd Haley's offense.