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Friday, February 28, 2014

News and notes

As we have seen in recent days, it's understandable why Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has taken all of the news regarding the salary cap with a grain of salt.

The latest reports have the cap now at $133 million - a figure that was sent out to teams in a memo, which would make it official - with it scheduled to raise to $150 million by 2016.

That's good news for the Steelers, of course, but it's also good news for all of the team who have found themselves up against the cap.

The biggest winners? Perhaps the Cincinnati Bengals.

With a lot of good young talent, the Bengals were going to have some issues signing guys in upcoming years - and still might given owner Mike Brown's propensity for being cheap. Now, the Bengals can sign who they want.

Their big issue will be whether they want to move forward in the future with quarterback Andy Dalton.

@ The Ravens cut loose a guy that would interest me a lot if I were in charge of the Steelers - linebacker Jameel McClain.

I've always liked McClain as a player. Some Steelers fans might still hold a grudge against McClain for his hit on Heath Miller a few years ago, but it was a football play, nothing dirty.

@ Things should really start to heat up on the free agent front with the Steelers in the coming week. With the start of free agency coming March 11, look for the team to lock up one or two of its impending free agents next week.

My guesses? Linebacker Jason Worilds and defensive lineman Al Woods.

@ The Steelers have also opened some extension negotiations with some veterans for cap relief. Look for something to happen with Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

DBs burn up the track

It was time for the defensive backs to run their 40s on Tuesday and they didn't disappoint overall.

Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard likely solidified their spots in the first round at the cornerback position.

Gilbert was timed at an ultra-fast 4.37 in the 40 for his official clocking. Considering his ideal 6-0, 202-pound size and excellent tape, he might have locked himself in as the top corner in this draft.

Dennard, the 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner, came into the combine with fears that he wouldn't run well. He did, clocking at an official 4.51, though his hand-held times were both well under that, so some teams might have him faster.

The top two safety prospects both also did fine for bigger guys.

Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix had an official time of 4.58 at 6-1, 208 pounds with his hand-held times coming in at 4.50 and 4.52.

Louisville's Calvin Pryor, meanwhile, also clocked in officially at 4.58 at 5-11, 207.

Who really helped themselves?

How about Northwest Missouri State's Brandon Dixon (4.41), Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller (4.49), Phillip Gaines of Rice (4.38), Dontae Johnson of North Carolina State (4.45 at 6-2, 200), Jabari Price of North Carolina (4.45) and Jaylen Watkins of Florida (4.41).

Guys who are going to need to redeem themselves at their pro days with better times include Dion Bailey of USC (4.66), Ahmad Dixon of Baylor (4.64), Kenny Ladler of Vanderbilt (4.70) and Louchiez Purifoy of Florida (4.61).

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Steelers draft starting to take shape

If you had any questions about what the Steelers were thinking heading into the NFL draft, they gave a glimpse this weekend at the combine.

Pittsburgh met with a number of players, most of whom were players at three spots: defensive linemen, wide receivers and safeties.

The potential early-round draft guys they spoke with according to Jim Wexell of include defensive linemen Ra'Shede Hademan of Minnesota and the Notre Dame duo of Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and Penn State's Allan Robinson, and safeties Terrance Brooks of Florida State, Calvin Pryor of Louisville, Ahmad Dixon of Baylor and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama.

The team also met with corner Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State and tight end Eric Ebron of North Carolina, both of whom are considered first-round prospects.

@ Moncrief is a guy who should jump out at you on that list. People knew he was fast, but at 6-2, 221 pounds, the former Ole Miss star - the same school that produced Mike Wallace - ran an uber-fast official 4.4-second 40.

By comparison, Benjamin (6-5, 240) ran an official 4.61, while Robinson (6-2, 220) was at 4.60.

Also of interest was that Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, who I have yet to see linked with the Steelers, ran a 4.46 at 6-3, 215 pounds. Not bad for a guy considered to be the most polished route runner in this draft by many.

Mike Evans of Texas A&M didn't hurt himself, either, with a 4.53 at 6-4 1/2, 231 pounds, though Sammy Watkins solidified his status as the No. 1 receiver by burning up the track with a 4.43.

Needless to say, this is a deep wide receiver class.

@ ESPN's John Clayton is now reporting that sources are telling him the salary cap is going up to $132 million in 2014. This after Adam Shefter reporter earlier in the week that it would be $130 million.

Of course, the original projections had it set at just over $126 million.

This is why Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said earlier in the week that nothing has yet been set in stone. The Steelers will continue to work off of the lowest figure and if the cap figure comes in higher, they'll be pleasantly surprised.

Currently, the Steelers are sitting at $138.75 million for their top 51 salaries. So if the cap does come in at $132, the simple release of Levi Brown at a savings of $6.25 million would pretty much put the Steelers in cap compliance.

There will, of course, be other moves - things will start heating up now that the combine is wrapping up. But, as I have been saying all along, the Steelers' cap situation isn't nearly as dire this season as it has been in previous ones.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cap jumps to $130 million

The Steelers, and really everyone else in the NFL, got some good news Thursday when it was reported the salary cap is expected to be at $130 million in 2014, not the $126.3 million that was originally expected.

That number is not yet set in stone and could go up - which is more likely - or down, but for a teams currently over the cap, as the Steelers are as I write this, that's good news if it turns out to be true.

"I think that is a welcomed rumor," said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert Thursday. "We haven't gotten any information on the cap, and I don't anticipate us getting it until really close to March 11. So whether it goes up or not, we have to prepare for the worst and see where it lands. You don't want to have false hope that it's going to be ($130 million) and then it's not. So, we still have to prepare off of what we were working with last year, and then maybe add to it.

"Those numbers start floating around, but they haven't been substantiated."

The first move will be releasing offensive tackle Levi Brown at a savings of $6.2 million. That move by itself will leave the Steelers just $2 million over the cap if the $130 million figure is correct, something that can be fixed with a simple restructure or a contract extension without releasing anyone else.

It was interesting to note, however, that listed a number of Steelers as potential cap cuts, including LaMarr Woodley and Ike Taylor, with Troy Polamalu listed as a possible surprise cut.

Brown and linebacker Larry Foote were only listed possible potential cuts.

Make no mistake, Brown is going to be released. Of the others, Woodley is possible, but only after June 1.

I don't see Taylor or Polamalu being released.

Taylor will be asked to take a pay cut, to be sure. And if the Steelers ask him to take a pay cut, they also have to be prepared for what happens if he says no. But Taylor has said several times that he doesn't want to play anywhere else. He has a very close relationship with Steelers chairman Dan Rooney.

I'll take him at his word that he doesn't want to leave Pittsburgh.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Three weeks to free agency

With about three weeks remaining until the start of the NFL's free agency period on March 11, there has been little movement around the league in terms of teams signing their own guys

That could be due to what Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said was the deepest draft he's seen in 30 years. It could also be because teams still aren't quite sure where the cap is going to be at.

Early estimates put it at $126.3 million. The early estimates are usually low, and recently I've also seen around $128 million as being possibility.

Either way, the Steelers have some work to do before free agency begins. Colbert said last week that the team has had some preliminary talks with some players about new deals, extensions and possible pay cuts. Watch for those to heat up considerably in the coming weeks, most likely after everyone gets back from the NFL combine, which begins this weekend.

Look for the Steelers to also be players on the free agent market this offseason - at least on some mid to low-level guys, particularly on the defensive line and in the secondary.

Here are some guys I like who could come rather cheaply:

Alex Carrington, DE, Buffalo
Tyson Jackson, DE, Kansas City
Corey Wooten, DE, Chicago
Terrence Cody, NT, Baltimore
Earl Mitchell, NT, Houston
Clinton McDonald, DL, Seattle
Tony McDaniel, DE, Seattle
Captain Munnerlyn, CB, Carolina
Nolan Carroll, CB, Miami
Richard Marshall, CB, San Diego
Javier Arenas, CB, Arizona
Mike Mitchell, S, Carolina
Nate Allen, S, Philadelphia
Charles Tillman, DB, Chicago - convert to safety
Rashean Mathis, DB, Detroit - convert to safety

@ You can add Detroit safety Louis Delmas to this list.

The Steelers hosted Delmas, who was cut in a cost-related move, last week on Monday. Players who have been released are available to sign immediately.

Delmas, 26, had three interceptions and two sacks last season to go along with 64 tackles and eight pass defenses.

He's a former second-round pick out of Western Michigan.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Colbert speaks

Steelers general manager met with some media members Wednesday for the first time since the 2013 season ended and had some interesting things to say about both last season and what's to come.

Colbert said he was again disappointed by the team's 8-8 finish, but was perhaps not as disheartened as he was in 2012, when the team faltered after a strong start.

The Steelers started 0-4 last season, but rebounded to go 8-4 in their last 12 games, including 6-2 in the second half.

Colbert also said that while there is concern about linebacker LaMarr Woodley's injury issues, the Steelers might be capable of keeping both Woodley and Jason Worilds on their roster moving forward.

To that end, he did say the team has been in some discussions with their current group of potential unrestricted free agents about extensions. The team has been talking to players about restructures and extensions, though Colbert wouldn't name any specific players.

Colbert called this year's draft the "deepest I've seen in 30 years," mainly thanks to an influx of a record 98 underclassmen.

But, he did warn that some of those underclassmen, while talented, might not be emotionally or physically ready for the demands of the NFL, which could lead to some bust issues for some players.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

It's never easy when it's Peazy

Mike Tomlin made another good addition to his coaching staff Tuesday when he hired former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter as a defensive assistant.

Porter, a member of the NFL's all-decade team for the 2000s, was a four-time Pro Bowl player, including three with the Steelers and in 2008 became the first player in league history to have at least 70 sacks and 10 career interceptions.

He finished his career with 98 sacks and 12 interceptions, including 60 and 10 with the Steelers.

Ironically, Tomlin's first big move as head coach of the Steelers in 2007 was to release Porter in a cost-cutting move. It also opened the door for James Harrison to move into the starting lineup.

Among Porter's duties will be working with the team's outside linebackers, including 2013 No. 1 draft pick Jarvis Jones.

Jones has a wealth of talent but is pretty laid back in his attitude. He's a hard worker, but could use some fire. Porter can certainly help him in that respect.

Porter joins secondary coach Carnell Lake and fellow defensive assistant Jerry Olsavsky as former Steelers players on the team's coaching staff.

@ Word has it that Ben Roethlisberger has been working out in California with young wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye.

That's a good sign, as both Wheaton and possibly Moye will be counted on to take big steps forward in 2014.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Will Sam be accepted?

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam made headlines Sunday by announcing to the world something that was a pretty well-known fact among scouts and everyone at his college campus. Sam is gay.

Sam wanted to get out - no pun intended - in front of the story for the few remaining teams that didn't know he was gay. Considering he was pretty open about it at Missouri, there couldn't have been many NFL teams that didn't know.

Now, the focus shifts to his NFL future.

A 6-2, 260-pound defensive end, Sam is something that is perhaps even more dreaded than being gay. He's a tweener - too small to play end in many schemes, perhaps not fast enough or flexible enough to be an outside linebacker.

That will be what teams focus on with Sam over the next couple of months, not who he's sleeping with.

Currently, Sam is viewed as a mid-round draft pick. And I don't expect that to change a great deal, unless he shows at the NFL combine that he's capable of moving to outside linebacker.

Though he was an All-America player at Missouri last season, that doesn't necessarily mean his production will translate to the NFL. He's got to prove he can do it.

And if that happens, his teammates will accept him, gay or not.

Sam is certainly not the first gay football player. He's just the first one to announce it on the national stage.

Will it cause some teammates to avoid him in the locker room? Perhaps.

But that can be dealt with. In a locker room with 60 or so grown men, you can bet there are players who don't like each other or don't approve of everyone's lifestyle. Most of the time, it's not a problem. They just choose not to hang out together or see each other socially. It's not a big deal.

In today's society, no player would dare speak out against him. Nobody wants to be labelled a homophobe any more than they want to be labelled a racist or misogynist.

And if Sam can actually play the game at the NFL level and help his team win, nobody will care what he does in his private life.

Sam's biggest problem with be on game days when he has to deal with taunts from opposing teams and fans.

Friday, February 07, 2014

What about Roethlisberger?

In the days after the Super Bowl, I have seen multiple stories making a case why Russell Wilson should have been the MVP of the game. I've also seen others, such as Cam Chancellor stories and how he should have been the MVP.

It made me wonder why Ben Roethlisberger didn't get the same kind of respect after his performance in XLIII.

Santonio Holmes won the award following that game after catching nine passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, which happened to be the game-winner with 42 seconds remaining. Roethlisberger was 6-8 for 84 yards and also had a 4-yard rush on the game-winning drive that started at the Pittsburgh 22 and was pushed back to the 12 on the first play from scrimmage due to a holding penalty on Chris Kemoeatu.

But Roethlisberger was 21 of 31 for 256 yards, one touchdown and one interception. But Roethlisberger was masterful on the game-winning drive, buying time with his legs to find open receivers.

Had Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or pretty much any other quarterback directed that game-winning drive, they would have easily won the MVP award.

Heck, Wilson threw for 205 yards and two touchdowns in a 43-8 rout that was more about Seattle's defense than anything the team's offense did.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Clark takes parting shot on his way out the door

Steelers safety Ryan Clark dropped a little bomb into the team's lap on Thursday as he prepares to head into free agency.

Making one of his regular appearances on ESPN's "First Take," Clark, who is working to make sure he has a job in the media after football, said that he knows that some of his teammates smoke marijuana and that the NFL's testing for that drug isn't nearly stringent enough to catch abusers of the substance.

Clark isn't telling any secrets.

Not only are there marijuana users in the Steelers' locker room, but around the league as well. But I doubt the number of marijuana users is any higher than it is among the general public fo

r young men between the ages of 21 and 35.

In fact, in the transcript of thousands of Tweets between Ritchie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, there are some references by Martin of a party at "Pouncey's" house in which there was drug usage.

We can assume that Martin was referring to Miami center Mike Pouncey, the twin brother of Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey.

The Incognito-Martin tweets also make a great number of references to drinking alcohol as well.

So the usage of some recreational drugs by NFL players is nothing new. Ever seen North Dallas Forty?

Clark's teammates might not appreciate being outed. And I'm sure the Steelers and the NFL don't appreciate his candor in the matter.

But the league is fooling itself if it thinks an offseason drug test during OTAs or minicamp and another during training camp is going to keep its players from taking a toke here or there.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Looking at free agency

Got into the office tonight and saw that the Atlanta Falcons had just released defensive back Asante Samuel. That got me to thinking, if I were looking for a free agent free safety or corner, who would I target?

Everybody knows the big names, but the Steelers aren't going to be in the market for a Jarius Byrd or T.J. Ward. That's just too expensive.

But Samuel would certainly be a guy I'd look at to move to safety if I were the Steelers.

Yes, he was benched last season as a corner by a bad Atlanta team. But the thing that jumps out to me about Samuel is 51 career interceptions, including six in the past two seasons with Atlanta when his coverage skills were clearly waning.

At 33, Samuel could give you at least two or three good years as a bridge at safety, while also giving you something Ryan Clark did not, big-play ability.

The Steelers need a true centerfielder, somebody who is capable of forcing some turnovers, and Samuel is certainly capable of that. His six interceptions in the past two seasons, by the way, are one fewer than Clark had in the past four seasons.

Who else would I take a long look at?

How about former Steelers killer Rashean Mathis?

At 33, Mathis' days of playing corner are probably behind him. But at 6-1, 195 pounds, he's certainly got safety size and his 30 career interceptions certainly look good.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Super Bowl proves one thing

Many will point to the outcome of the Super Bowl and say it shows that defense and running the ball still matter in the NFL.

While that might be partly true, to me it also shows that teams who are not paying their quarterback big money - yet - have an advantage.

Seattle has done a good job drafting over the past few years. But, because it doesn't have $10 to $20 million tied up in the quarterback position, the Seahawks were also able to add some key players last offseason in free agency.

In fact, take a look at this list of players Seattle had the cap space to sign in the offseason:

Wide receiver Percy Harvin, defensive end Michael Bennett, defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, defensive end Cliff Avril, cornerback Antoine Winfield and cornerback Marcus Trufant

Harvin didn't play much this season because of a hip injury, but made a huge impact in the Super Bowl, while McDaniel, Avril and Bennett were all key players in the defensive front rotation.

Harvin counted $13.4 million against the team's salary cap this season, while Avril was $9.25 million, making them two of the team's top five-paid players (Harvin was first, Avril fifth).

Quarterback Russell Wilson counted just over $800,000, and that number goes up to just over $950,000 next season.

In fact, it won't be until 2016 when the chickens really come home to roost for Seattle, though a number of key players off that stellar defense will become free agents before that.

But once it has to pay Wilson, who has won more games in his first two seasons than any other quarterback and is signed through 2015, Seattle is going to be in cap hell like everyone else who has a star quarterback.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Bettis snubbed again

Reports have surfaced that Steelers running back Jerome Bettis has again been denied a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.

This marks the fourth consecutive year that Bettis has failed to garner enough votes to get in. And this could have been his final chance with the regular voters.

It's not often that a player continues to make it to the finals and doesn't get in.

Bettis might now have to wait until he is eligible for the Senior Committee to put him up for the vote again. It's likely this committee - as currently constructed - has heard enough of the argument for Bettis for him to not even make the finalists in 2015.

And therein lies the problem with the voting process for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The way it is currently constructed, the selection committee consists of one media representative from each area with a current NFL franchise. If that area has more than one franchise - ie. New York - it gets two representatives.

A 33rd member is chosen by the Pro Football Writers of America, while there are also 13 at-large members.

That means that currently, and for quite some time now, the Pittsburgh area has one voter, Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette. And it has only had one voter for as long as I have been covering the Steelers, some 21 years.

Meanwhile, because of the at-large votes, there are no fewer than five - that I know of - voters who live in the New York City area.

It's a flawed process, to say the least.

I'm not saying the Pro Football Hall of Fame should open up its voting as the Baseball Hall of Fame does. Voting members for that organization need only be members of the Baseball Writers of America for 10 years to get a vote.

But including myself, there are at least five guys who work in the Pittsburgh media and have covered the Steelers - and thus the NFL - for 20-plus years on a daily basis. And only one of us has a vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.