Now that the draft is complete we've entered the dog days of football news. All of the major free agents have either signed contracts or won't do so until someone puts a bigger dollar figure on the table. The drama of the draft is a month past and most rookies have either inked their contracts or will soon do so for predetermined amounts. Roster bonuses have been paid so we know who will and won't get cut before training camp. And camp itself is still some time in the future. So I thought this was a fair time to ask a question that's been running through my mind since February. Why is Rashard Mendenhall still on the Steelers roster?
First, let's throw in the obligatory respect for Rashard's talent and contributions. He's rushed for over 3000 yards and scored 29 touchdowns in the past 3 years. When on the field he's been a valuable cog in an offense that frankly hasn't shown any sort of commitment to run the football. He's had the thankless task of running behind an offensive line that was only offensive to anyone who enjoys watching smashmouth football. Normally, this is the kind of player you would want to keep around.
Yet there are a number of reasons why keeping Rashard on the active roster is a horrible idea and one that I just can't understand.
First is the obvious. Mendenhall is injured and barring a miracle will not see the football field at the start of the season. An ACL tear takes time to rehab and thanks to being injured late in the season he has far less time to work with. By starting the year on the PUP list he will not be eligible for the first six weeks of the season. By that point, you generally know what you have as a team and you've built habits as an offense. Bringing Rashard back and sending Redman to the bench has a ripple effect on the playing time of multiple players that won't help team morale. And that's assuming he's even able to come back at all. Like Aaron Smith last year they could bring him onto the active roster prior to being ready to play only to find out he just doesn't have it in him. By that point you've lost the chance to utilize both his roster spot and salary cap room.
Which brings us to point #2. Mendenhall is set to make a little over $2M this season. Counting his signing bonus, that results in a salary cap hit of approximately $3.5M. That's cheap for a running back of his caliber but only if said running back actually hits the field. If he's not able to play, you've chewed up salary cap space for no good reason. Cutting him before the season saves that $2M and his roster spot could easily be filled by people already in house who make less(take your pick of Dwyer, Batch, Rainey, or Clay- whomever doesn't make it initially).
And it's not like you're going to get him back next season. Rashard is in the final year of his contract and like anyone else he's going to want to get paid at some point. If Deangelo Williams is worth $43M over 5 years, certainly Mendenhall isn't worth a whole lot less. Tossing out Williams' injury-shortened 2010 season, their 3 year histories are remarkably similar. If you're the Rooney family, are you giving Mendenhall that kind of contract? I don't think even the most hardened Rashard supporter would say that, especially in light of the other contract issues the Steelers will have next year.
If you were getting the Rashard Mendenhall that the Steelers initially drafted, maybe you think about that deal. If you're getting a player who hits the hole hard, has great vision, and possesses a unique combination of speed and aggression, you find a way to get the deal done. But Rashard is not that player anymore. I don't know if it's a combination of hits or any one hit in particular, but he's not leaning into the hole. He's not advancing to contact. Instead, Rashard dances around behind the line of scrimmage, looking for a hole to open up. And while he fiddles, our offensive line burns. Yet another busted 3rd and One play. That's why Redman was such a breath of fresh air; he might not have breakaway speed but at least you knew he'd fall forward for a couple yards and that he'd get everything there was to get on a particular play.
Finally, while I hate to even bring it up, Rashard just doesn't seem to get that there's a wide world outside his door. His comments on Bin Laden earned him the contempt of many fans both inside and outside the organization. Sure, he has the freedom to speak his mind- and that can be refreshing in an athletic world filled with cliche-spouters. But the reason why those people spout cliches is because they recognize that they are on a pedestal. They recognize that someone is always watching. They recognize that they can't just pop off at the mouth and expect the beer-guzzling public to accept "Freedom of Speech" as an explanation. Fair or unfair, it's the real world.
So, I ask again, why is Rashard Mendenhall still a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers? I've heard the following arguments:
1. The Steelers don't think Rashard will command a high price in next year's free agent market because he is coming off an injury.
-This is pure fantasy. The Williams contract mentioned above came in very similar circumstances. Just because he was injured in 2012 doesn't mean he won't demand a large contract in 2013. If he can prove he's physically recovered you can bet someone will lay out the cash. And looking around the league, there aren't a lot of proven options that will be on the market next year, particularly with Shady McCoy re-signing with the Eagles. You think Reggie Bush or Ryan Torain are going to command Mendenhall money?
2. Mendenhall will be back this year and we need him.
-This one is hard to prove either way. But in a best case scenario, Rashard doesn't see the field until week 7. Six games will have already gone by with only ten remaining. As noted above, this best case scenario also forces the Steelers to adjust their RB rotation and ultimately release someone who has been a contributing member of their roster from training camp on. Factor in the 2-4 weeks needed to get him in game-shape and you're looking at a few games of full speed contributions. For that contribution you'll be eating his contract for an entire year.
3. It would be disloyal to cut ties with someone who was injured in the "line of duty"
-True. Absolutely true and I won't pretend otherwise. But we're talking about the same organization who CUT HINES WARD. Hines was the ultimate loyalty case; he was reportedly willing to take the veteran's minimum to stay with the team. He's been a fixture on the roster and in the community for a decade and a half. He'd be available to play week one. While his skills are diminished, they're hardly gone. If anyone was going to receive a loyalty exemption, it would Hines. Yet he's on the outside looking in. So if you're going to make the calculated decision that it's not worth honoring Ward's contract, why would you honor Rashard's?
If I'm missing one... I'd love to hear it. If someone can defend keeping this guy around, let me know... because right now I just don't understand it.