Some Thoughts at the Beginning of Steelers Camp

ARLINGTON TX - FEBRUARY 06: Head coach Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers is congratulated by head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers after the Packers defeated the Steelers 31 to 25 during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6 2011 in Arlington Texas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Mike Tomlin

The contract extension for Tomlin coming as it has in the run up to training camp may not be fully digested for a while. For one thing, it means, absent unforeseen circumstances, Tomlin's tenure with the Steelers will be at least ten years. Only four active coaches (Bill Belichick, Jeff Fisher, Mike Shanahan and Andy Reid) have been with any one team for as many as ten years. All four coaches have at least one Super Bowl appearance during their decade (+) stints. Up to this point it has been assumed or hoped that Tomlin would be a continuation of the franchise's practice of keeping head coaches for the long term. I think ten years qualifies for 'long term'. The contract has also been reworked, and though details have yet to be released I believe it's reasonable to assume that Tomlin now occupies the same financial territory as the other top paid coaches in the league.

Looking ahead, what can we expect over the next five years? There are too many variables to make any kind of reliable predictions, but there are a few things we can consider. At the end of the extension Tomlin will be all of 45 years old. Contrast this with Belichick being 65 at the same point. Tomlin could still be considered a young coach at that time, still maturing and refining his craft. Many of his current players will also still be around and many will be in their prime. Ben would only be 35, old but certainly not ancient as far as quarterbacks go. And even if he has slipped some it would not be unreasonable to assume that Ben slightly past his prime is still better than most quarterbacks in their prime. In other words, unless we're just all dead wrong concerning the potential of players like Pouncey and De Castro, Allen and Brown (both Antonio and Curtis), Heyward and Batch (Baron, not Charlie), or we're just unlucky with injuries and contracts, then the next five years could be at least as good as the last five (three division titles, two Super Bowl appearances, one championship). If so, do you extend him again?

So for that shrinking minority of Steeler Nation who are still hanging on to the notion that the jury is still out on this matter, sorry. The jury and the verdict is in on MIke Tomlin.

Of Dogs and Bones

Defensive Backs

Much is going to be made of the competition for the starting corner position vacated by the departed William Gay, and rightfully so. Allen, Brown and Lewis should put on quite a show. But let's not forget the undercard. Every year there is a surprise or more concerning lower round draft choices or UDFAs who perform at a much higher level than expected. There's a very good chance that one of those type of players will come out of Coach Lake's group. With Ryan Clark already scratched from the opener at Denver, and Troy Polamalu a head on collision from being sidelined, the battle for backup safety fought among Will Allen, Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, Myron Rolle and Robert Golden may be more than just about special teams. And sparks may fly at the lower end of the cornerback depth chart as 7th round pick Terrance Frederick, spring sensation Terry Carter and Bryant McFadden's brother, Walter fight it out.

Inside Linebacker

No one should ever confuse Dick LeBeau or Keith Butler with Rex Ryan. Tempermentally and culturally, the Steelers assistant coaches are not given to hyperbole. So when these two heaped rather high praise upon rookie Sean Spence I perked up. Yes, it is true and acknowledged that he's done nothing in pads yet. But I would also think that this fact would be taken into account when they were making their assessments. I'm not saying that he's won the job, but I think he'll definitely will be legitimately in the conversation for this year, not down the road. Larry Foote plays the role of canny veteran presence and verbal leader. And Stephenson Sylvester who surprised a couple of years ago to make this team could be in position to surprise again.

Defensive Line

What I said about hyperbole above goes double for John Mitchell. Mitchell went out of his way to admonish people to not write off Steve McLendon. So, if McLendon comes into his own, if the reports of Casey Hampton's demise are premature, and if Alameda Ta'amu happens to develop ahead of schedule, then what? And if workout warrior Ziggy Hood takes that next step, If a year of true off season work facilitates a leap for second year lineman Cam Heyward, and if someone out of left field like Al Woods manages to shine, then what?

Wide Receivers

We're assuming that Wallace and Brown are the unquestioned #1 and #2 receivers. But the competition that established this whole dogs and bones thing was between Brown and Sanders, and Sanders won. Since then Manny has had some physical and personal setbacks, but what if those are over? Cotchery came to the team late and was injured much of last season. Could good health and greater familiarity with the system catapult him to a higher level. And what about that #5 spot with Clemons and Beiler and Maze and possibly even Rainey in the mix?

Tight End

No question about the #1 position here but plenty of questions about everyone else. Is Pope by way of size, experience and his previous relationship to Todd Haley a lock? Is Weslye Saunders doomed because of his impending four game suspension coupled with a history of character issues or is his talent sufficient to overcome? Is David Paulson destined for the practice squad or will he surprise and make the 53 man roster? Is it possible that if he is losing the battle at fullback that David Johnson could be thrown back into the tight end room and muddy the waters?

Offensive Line

Though the main event will be clearly fascinating, once again let's not forget the undercard. There are some assumptions about how this plays out that I don't necessarily buy; that De Castro and Adams are more or less locks to be in the starting lineup at he begininng of the season, that Foster and Legursky are locks to make the roster, that Essex and Beachum are, at best, on the bubble if not out the door, that Max Starks is an insurance policy only and that Chris Scott is definitely gone.

Let's say, just for the sake of argument that a key value for the coaching staff is position flexibility. Legursky has it, but Essex and Beachum probably have more (each can play tackle which Legs can't credibly do).Essex brings additional leadership intangibles and is in the best shape of his life, while Beachum may bring a higher potential ceiling. If you keep nine guys and Pouncey, De Castro, Gilbert, Starks, Adams, Colon and, say, Foster are locks, which one of the remaining three do you jettison? Do you just put Beachum on the practice squad? Cut Essex? Cut Legursky? Install Beachum as long snapper, cut Warren and keep them all?

A lot of questions to consider starting this week.

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