As Rashard Mendenhall likely boards the plane for Denver Saturday afternoon, he should have his cell phone handy.
The Steelers don't negotiate contracts during the season, but they do use every last minute before then to make deals. The Steelers surprisingly announced an extension for SS Troy Polamalu the Saturday before the season began in 2011. Mendenhall faced a grueling rehabilitation assignment this off-season, and is ahead of schedule, by all accounts. He practiced at full speed this week, drawing the praise of his defensive teammates.
Is his progress enough to garner an offer from the Steelers?
The Steelers' backfield is loaded with talent, but Mendenhall's knee, Isaac Redman's ankle and hip, John Clay's quadriceps (he's on the IR) and now, Baron Batch's groin, have proved the value of keeping multiple running backs stockpiled.
It's an art the Steelers have mastered over the years. While Mendenhall was a first round pick, Redman is a practice squad alum, and Jonathan Dwyer languished away on the depth chart behind Redman, Mendenhall and former Steelers RB Mewelde Moore. Clay came off the practice squad last season to rush for 41 yards and a touchdown in spot duty for the Steelers last year.
While there's no reason to feel, beyond unforeseeable injuries, Redman can't handle full-time duties. He rushed for 121 yards with Mendenhall and Dwyer on the shelf in last year's playoff loss at Denver. But with him hitting restricted free agency next season, and Dwyer the year after that, it's worthy of considering keeping Mendenhall around for the sake of stability at a position that sees lots of injuries.
Redman may have shown he can be the feature back, so has Mendenhall. A 324-carry 2010 season is sandwiched by two lighter workload years in 2009 (242 carries) and 2011 (228). He rushed for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010, shredding the Jets in the AFC Championship Game (incidentally, he also rushed for 121 yards) and the Packers in the Super Bowl - until he fumbled.
The Steelers put Mendenhall on a pitch count of sorts last season, particularly over the second half of the season. After a 23-carry, 146-yard performance against Jacksonville in Week 6, Mendenhall didn't have more than 18 carries in a game the rest of the year.Those two games with 18 carries, though, 76 yards vs. Cleveland (Week 13) and 116 yards (Week 15). His injury occured on a reception against Cleveland in Week 16, but he had already rushed eight times for 38 yards (4.75 yards per carry).
His numbers don't reflect Adrian Peterson-like production, and shouldn't expect that kind of a contract. Placing the franchise tag on him next season may be a little more costly than it should be. Offering Mendenhall a reasonable extension (somewhere around four years, $28 million, $8 million guaranteed in the first two years) may not be a bad deal for a player coming off major knee surgery but has shown, in practice at least, he's put the work in to recover.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Mendenhall turned 25 years of age in June, and has plenty of tread left on the tires.
May not be a bad time for the Steelers to get a bargain.