Blitz is extremely busy right now as he prepares for his move to the great northwest so he asked me to fill-in for a bit and cover some possible training camp battles. We'll have to tread water until our leader returns.
The Steelers are in an extremely fortunate position heading into this season since they only lost two starters from 2007. One of them will be missed (Faneca) and only time will tell if his replacement will be able to adequately fill his shoes. The other (Haggans) seems more like addition by subtraction, and I think we all agree that his replacement will be a better player very soon if not immediately. While it's conceivable that all other starters will remain the same, there should be some hotly contested battles in training camp at linebacker, cornerback and various spots along the offensive line. I figured we'd get started with the potential battle between long-time veteran Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden.
The Incumbent Starter: If you looked up 'savy veteran' in the dictionary, there would be Deshea Townsend's smiling face. Not blessed with blazing speed, superior athleticism or great size he instead gets by on heart, will and shear determination. He's entering his 11th year, the past four as a starter, and has posted seven seasons with multiple interceptions and four seasons with double digit pass defenses. He's also an accomplished pass rusher and has posted multiple sacks in five seasons. The Steelers have drafted McFadden and the recently departed Ricardo Colclough, both 2nd rounders, in an attempt to replace Townsend but so far he's held off both youngsters. He's not a flashy or dynamic player that strikes fear in opposing offenses, but year in and year out he's gets the job done. The story line for the past couple of years has been something like 'he's got the slow down sometime' but instead he posted a career highs in passes defended and close to a career high in tackles. Not only is he productive on the field, he's also a team leader and tied with Hines Ward as the longest tenured Steeler.
The Challenger: If Bryant McFadden was a baseball player he'd be described as "toolsy." He's got the speed (4.41), athleticism (39 1/2 inch vertical and 11 feet 3 inch broad jump) and size (6'0 190) to be a fantastic player, but he's yet to put it all together and make his mark in the NFL. One of the knocks on him coming out of Florida State was that he didn't always play up to his measureables and that he had a problem with nagging injuries. He got off to a quick start though in Pittsburgh playing in the final thirteen games of his rookie season and saved his best for the playoffs when his pass breakups against Reggie Wayne and the Colts saved the game. He would continue to progress in 2006 by playing in all 16 games and won a starting job towards the end of the season. He'd finish that season with career highs in every category including tackles, pass breakups and interceptions. McFadden couldn't parlay that success into a starting job in 2007 though, as new coach Mike Tomlin chose consistency over potential and went with Ike Taylor and Townsend as starters. A high ankle sprain and then subsequent sprain of the opposite ankle cost McFadden five games in the middle of the season. He's not leaving anything to chance this off season though as he, along with teammates Taylor, James Farrior and Santonio Holmes, spent time training in Florida with former track coach Tom Shaw in an effort to be even quicker and more explosive in 2008.
Bottom Line: Last year Tomlin went with veteran experience over younger potential but in 2008 he'll go with whichever player performs the best leading up to the season. Townsend has fought off younger more gifted players for the past four or five seasons, but this could be the year that youth finally overtakes the veteran. McFadden, in my opinion, took his potential starting spot for granted in 2007 and it cost him an entire season. Now he's got one last chance to prove he's a legitimate starter in the league before he hits free agency. He's made no secret of his desire to not only win a starting spot but also land a lucrative free agent deal, either from the Steelers or another team. Having a highly motivated McFadden and solid Ike Taylor could give the Steelers the best starting corners to occupy Steel Town in quite some time. Townsend will still excel in the slot as a nickel back and could even see time at safety if Ryan Clark isn't healthy. Ultimately we won't know exactly how this battle will play out until September the 7th when the Texans come to town, but for now it should be an exciting competition. Thoughts/Predictions/Concerns???