The ball is finally in the hands of a player few would have thought would have lasted this long in the NFL. Where he takes it, and what he does with it, is up to him.
In 2013, Jonathan Dwyer is guaranteed to have a break out season, in one way or another.
A sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2010 by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dwyer is a restricted free-agent this off-season. Whether they offer him a qualifying tender, or attempt to sign him for less as a free agent, all signs point to Dwyer returning to Pittsburgh. Exactly why, though, has yet to be determined.
In his first three years, Dwyer has been dogged and ridiculed by coaches and media over his weight and conditioning. Injuries kept apprehending any progress, forcing him to spend far too much time in the trainer's room or on the bench; but, he kept making the roster. Entering the 2012 season, a fit and ready Dwyer arrived at training camp to find himself as the third-string back on a roster which also had two third-down backs and a full-time fullback. Despite little chance of seeing playing time, the Steelers once again retained Dwyer to the roster; primarily because regular starter Rashard Mendenhall was still recovering from a torn ACL suffered toward the end of the 2011 season.
The Steelers running game got off to a rough start. Pittsburgh lost two of their first three games, and desperately missed Mendenhall, who was believed to be the missing piece from the team's ground attack. In the second loss, which again saw little ground yardage in a shootout with the Oakland Raiders, Dwyer lost a highly contested draw handoff. The Steelers had a bye the following week, which gave Mendenhall enough time to be ready to retake his starting spot against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5.
Despite having better numbers than fellow running back Isaac Redman, Dwyer was the one chosen to be deactivated to allow Mendenhall to return, allegedly because of his fumble and coach Tomlin's emphasis on ball control. Dwyer sat the next two games, until Mendenhall injured his heel against the Tennessee Titans, forcing him to miss several more weeks. Not only did Dwyer return to the active roster the next week against the Cincinnati Bengals, he got the start as Redman also dealt with his own injury. Dwyer ran for over a hundred yards in the Steelers best rushing game of its season.
Dwyer started the following game against the Washington Redskins, and posted his second 100 yard game in as many tries. However, Dwyer suffered a quad injury and was forced to miss the following contest against the New York Giants.
Dwyer had earned to right to surpass Redman on the depth chart when healthy, but the team still saw Mendenhall as its starter. However, after an unimpressive return climaxed with two lost fumbles against the Cleveland Browns, Mendenhall was given the Dwyer treatment, and was demoted to third-string and was deactivated the following week as the team had injured players to accommodate for. Dwyer officially became the team's No. 1 running back.
Mendenhall took his demotion badly and intentionally skipped a game, which drew the ire of coach Tomlin and a one-game suspension. Dwyer remained the starter for the rest of the season, although Mendenhall was allowed to return to the team and played in the last few games.
Comments from Mendenhall at the end of the season left the Steelers organization to believe he was planning to test the free-agent market. Dwyer had earned the starting job in the eyes of the coaches and would be expected to resume his role in 2013; but the team and Mendenhall have both left the door open for a possible return to Pittsburgh for him as well. Surely Mendenhall would not re-sign to be a backup.
If Mendenhall is re-signed, Dwyer would be relegated to second-string yet again. Dwyer has had a taste of the top of the depth chart, and he may not wish to remain a permanent backup behind Mendenhall. If so, expect Dwyer to break out of Pittsburgh and take his chances in free-agency after the season. A re-signed Mendenhall will not allow for any sizable contracts for Dwyer as a backup.
If the team is unable to clear the necessary room, or changes its mind on Mendenhall, Dwyer will remain the top dog. He will need to have a break out season if he wishes to receive a contract offer from the Steelers afterward. If he flounders in his first season as the sole starter, he won't be so much broken out as he will be tossed out, with little hope for a future in the NFL.
If he can stay in shape through the off-season, and remain healthy and focused through the 2013 season; Dwyer could make a strong case to be the team's top tailback moving forward. At the age of 23, he could have a long career in Pittsburgh before he reaches 30.
Dwyer has learned to make the most of the opportunities presented him, but 2013 will be his final exam. His final grade will determine his future. The first part of his test will be to break out of his poor work ethic reputation and show up to OTAs in the the best shape of his life. Then he needs to put his new found shape to the test, by giving the Steelers a reliable option at tailback. His intelligence and flexibility will be tested should the Steelers require him to adapt to any alleged philosophy changes, with no room for error.
If he cannot, this back will wind up on his tail; and the team will find his replacement in the 2014 NFL Draft.