The off-season keeps getting shorter as the lockout drags on. Practice and camp time is being cut, but the biggest issue is the rookies and younger players are having their interaction with coaches seriously cut. Think about the Ohio State issue; most rookies out of OSU get a late start due to their graduation system and miss OTA's. It consistently sets back those that don't graduate early.
This season all the rookies are being set back. Worse than the OSU guys normally are. During the brief lockout reprieve teams worked to get rookies the play books and instructional tools they would need. I'm going to avoid the subject of human nature and work and we'll assume all of them are putting in work and understand the material. They still haven't been coached. At all.
Now let's take a step back to 2009. Just off a great 2008 Super Bowl winning campaign the Pittsburgh Steelers and their new coach of the dynasty Mike Tomlin needed to get younger. They did. The veteran small role players were cut and replaced with young blood that could surely step up and fill the holes. Except they didn't. They didn't to the tune of TD returns all over, a five game losing streak that I still refuse to think about and even tempering the very fires of hell with their lack of execution.
Jump back to 2011.
Our Special teams unit is in better hands now then it was in 2009. Crezdon Butler, Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester made a big difference last year, but then they also had Anthony Madison, Will Allen, Keyaron Fox and Arnaz Battle. We could take a gamble and replace all of those veterans, but again, we took that gamble before, I don't know if Tomlin will be apt to try it again.
Here's a look at some questions involving rookies and young players by the position involved.
William Gay vs. Curtis Brown/Crezdon Butler. Curtis Brown projects to a very good nickel back. He has the tools to cover quick slot receivers and potential to turn into a starter on the outside someday. His main flaw for this role is he's not a great run support corner and he's a rookie. Nickel back is incredibly important in today's league, and his learning curve has a short deadline. Butler doesn't have the lateral agility and quickness you want in a nickel back, but he has a year in our system, I hear his name thrown around but I don't think he fits the job.
My verdict: We keep Willie Gay. I don't like any of our roster guys for the job, and Brown is a rookie. I could see Brown taking this job late in the year if WG struggles, but if you start him right out the gate, you probably lose some games for it. Butler just doesn't fit the job description. (Allen is like Butler, a better outside corner than inside, and he is a rookie with a bigger learning curve than Brown) WG is at least a known commodity, if TP is healthy we can cover for his physical limitations. While it would be nice to not resign WG just to play till someone better is ready to take his job, the position is too important to gamble with.
Keyaron Fox vs. C. Carter/S. Sylvester/J. Worilds. My initial thought on this was easy, ditch Fox and let Worilds and Stevenson increase their roles with Larry Foote letting the team have veteran depth. The problem is Fox is our Special Teams captain. Sylvester and Worilds are great ST players, and if we keep Madison I could see letting Fox go, but this again puts us into the 2009 how many ST vets can you cut question again.
My Verdict: I think Carter will be too far behind to make the roster. He should make the PS safely and let Fox be on the roster. Keeping Fox makes the other ST players more expendable, and that is a good thing.
Nick Eason vs. Cameron Heyward. This one is easy, FA vet or the first round pick. Heyward doesn't need to play unless there is an injury, and then he should hold his own. If we are cautious we resign Eason and carry Heyward as a 7th, where he doesn't need to play at all. No way Heyward doesn't make the roster, the question is if we keep Eason so Heyward doesn't have to play at all.
My Verdict: This one carries only a little risk, if Smith goes down again Heyward would be our #3 guy unless we keep Eason. I don't think Heyward will be ready to start even in an emergency with a shortened off season, so I could very well see us keep Eason, but if we really believe in Ziggy to get heavy play time or in McClendon/Harris to spot play if Heyward can't I think Eason is gone. Look for us to take this gamble. By mid season Heyward should be a competent player even with the short summer.
The Baron vs. Memo. This is a big one. Memo is an underrated cog in the Steelers offense, Batch could be a nice upgrade, but you have to ask if he can fill the number of roles Moore plays for our team. Moore is a blitz blocking, pass catching, punt fair catching, short term 100 yard gaining back. If an area of our teams play is struggling Tomlin can throw Moore in their and get an average return. He's more reliable with less high end return than the rest of the roster. He's also older and costs more than we would like. Batch is our shiny new folk hero who could be a big find as a 3rd down back. He's good at Blitz pick up, should be able to return punts, and has serious potential in passing downs. He can carry the ball too.
My Verdict: I'm on the fence here. It's easy to undervalue Moore, and it's easy to look at a rookie's potential. It also helps that Batch is awesome and a BTSC favorite. Mewelde just seems like the classic piece of the puzzle you don't value until he's not there. I think we go for Batch here, and save some much needed money; I just hope we don't regret it. I mean really, think how glad we were to see McFadden come back.
Dwyer vs. Redman. If this was a football death match we all know who would win, but this is a roster spot. Dwyer is a dark horse candidate to throw our 3rd RB spot into chaos. The man has shown some serious potential, and while Redman is amazing, he doesn't have the big gain ability or the elusiveness of Dwyer. I love Redman as a complement to Mendenhall, but look at last years snaps, I don't think Tomlin or Brucey love him like we do. If Dwyer shows he can run better than Redman, or if he could take Memo's job you could see some serious shake up at the position.
My Verdict: Dwyer will cause roster chaos. I think he was a big steal and with a year to learn to block and play RB I expect him to make waves on our offense. The question is if he makes the roster, what role does he take. I'd love to see our four RB's be Mendy, Redman, Dwyer and Batch; but I could see Redman getting cut if Dwyer shows enough to steal his carries. He's a power over spinnyness version of Mendenhall, and we know MT and BA love Mendy over Redman even in short yardage. If Redman is gone, look for him to start his own team and win the SB this year. Maybe the World Series too.
Hills vs. Gilbert. I debated making this Essex vs. Hills, but I don't think we'll let Essex go, so I'm going for Hills. Tony showed signs of life last year but only played in three games, even with all the injuries to tackles we endured. I think his lack of position flexibility will cause him to be the one on the block.
My verdict:: Someone isn't coming back, and I think we will sign Colon and Essex, making Hills the natural casualty. I like the youth and depth on our line, we may only have one stud, but we have a lot of decent players. I've heard the Colon to Guard rumors, but I can't believe we'd put a +pass blocker and -run blocker at RG. I think he gets his old job back if he's able to play. I could see Adams moving to Guard, although he might not take it well.
Arnaz Battle vs. Keyaron Fox vs. Anthony Madison. WR has Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown pushing to be in the top 4 WR spots, ARE hanging around, and Limas Sweed getting one more shot. If Sweed puts it together the Steelers will probably cut Battle. Otherwise there's probably a roster spot for him. Anthony Madison is in peril with the two new CB's drafted. Brown will make the roster and Allen has a decent shot as well. Both are talented enough they might not slip to the PS. Fox is discussed above, he's our captain but either of the other two could fill that role. Will Allen is also a vet who plays on ST, but his job doesn't have the competition the others have, unless K. Lewis is actually switched and takes his spot. I don't see that happening.
My verdict: I think Madison is the most likely to go, Gay is harder to replace, and we have other vets. The other two should be safe heading into camp. Either one could be cut if Sweed grows some hands or C. Carter makes a strong case to make the roster and play ST. I think the safe bet is Fox and Battle stay on, Madison is gone.
Two things Steeler fans need to remember when we start looking to the FA situation and the upcoming 53 man roster choices: 1. The shortened off season hurts young players and new additions to the team more than anyone else, 2. We learned not to place too much on unproven youth only two years ago, when it ruined our 2009 season.
We aren't going to make those mistakes again, but will try to balance veteran play with making the roster younger. It's best not to get too crazy in either direction. Lastly the "OMG Player A is teh worst, anyone would be an upgrade!" sentiment is understandable, but false. Your Grandmother may make a mean Moussaka, but she isn't stopping Adrian Peterson 1v1 either.