Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Elements of the 2013 roster begin to take shape as we reach the deadline for RFAs to sign their tenders and the draft looms just around the corner.

Its been an interesting week, full of controversy and some tragedy. The Steelers resolved some issues that has been met with decidedly mixed reviews. In all the excitement the team began voluntary workouts to very little notice. An iconic voice of the NFL left us while the troubles of the real world intruded on the sports world in Boston. The 2013 schedule was announced allowing all of us to plan our football lives for the remainder of the year, including Thanksgiving with the Ravens.

The moves made by the Steelers have been uneventful, but I think will pay off on draft day. The FO has put enough pieces together to field a roster, which will have an impact on the perceived "needs" on draft day. The Steelers have moved from having draft needs to having draft wants. Tomlin has starters at every position, and can now go after players in the draft that provide the most bang for the draft choice buck. There are positions that will become thin in the future, but the FO has now put themselves in a situation where they have two drafts to address those positions, as opposed to one.

Greig Clawson

I think this captures the essence of the big story this week. The Steelers signed RFAs Emmanuel Sanders, Steve McLendon and Isaac Redman to contracts this week, McLendon's a substantial three year deal. This time last week it was believed to be unlikely that all (or perhaps any) of these three players would or could be retained. In fact, many felt that signing one meant abandoning the others. So, once again (it seems to happen every year) the Steelers do what pundits and fans say they are unable to do or should not do. I fall into the opposite camp on this one, but if ever there is a situation where we can say that reasonable people can disagree it would be this one. There are solid arguments on both sides and it may be quite some time before its clear as to whether these moves (or the alternatives) were ill advised or not. But first the details.

Steve McLendon

This edges out Sanders as my top story of the week because he not only re-upped but inked a long term deal as well. McLendon's story has been something of a mystery. Almost exactly a year ago defensive line coach John Mitchell clued us into the notion of McLendon becoming an emerging force on the team. Excitement rose as third year nose tackle from Troy shined in training camp and the preseason as the incumbent Casey Hampton was struggling to return from an injury and to allay the perception that his shelf life as an NFL player had expired, and rookie Ta'amu Alameda failed to impress. Then as the regular season began McLendon disappeared in favor of an early returning and rejuvenated Hampton. Among the rumored reasons for the team's course of action was the possibility of hiding McLendon in order to keep the price of retaining him down. Who knows.

What many did come to believe was that by matching the Patriots offer to Sanders a consequence would be that the team would lose McLendon, either because the New England offer was a ruse with their actual target being McLendon or that another team would take advantage of the Steelers cap difficulties to lure the nose guard away and Pittsburgh would be unable to match. The scenario appeared be playing out when Green Bay seemed to be showing serious interest, a long term deal was negotiated presumably before Green Bay could make an offer. The apparent consequence of the signing is that the Casey Hampton era is officially over with McLendon established as the heir to the nose position unless and until someone can dislodge him. So ends the mystery.

Emmanuel Sanders

A very close second as far as top stories is concerned is the Sanders saga that was finally resolved this past Sunday. Last week at this time it was believed in many circles that the wide receiver was gone, that the Steelers either could not or would not match the offer he signed with the Patriots. If popular opinion were a factor he would have been gone. In a poll two thirds of the BTSC community recommended to cut him loose for the 91st draft pick received in compensation plus the financial savings and cap relief being more attractive to this group. Reports indicated that sentiment was split within the Steelers organization itself with Sanders most vocal and significant supporter being quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The wishes of the minority were fulfilled with the result as the debate continued throughout the week. No doubt some concerns have been alleviated with the retention of McLendon and Redman, but the larger philosophical and perceptual issues are currently unanswerable. These questions include whether it is best to sacrifice the present for the future or vice versa, can Sanders (or McLendon and Redman for that matter) perform to a level worthy of the investment, is the team capable of a credible championship run as constituted or is a more radical approach (rebuilding) required? These issues form the undercurrent of the Sanders debate and is why it may continue.

Isaac Redman

This one seems to have really slipped under the radar. As recently as Thursday there was speculation that the running back would sign with another team or the Steelers would pull his tender. The Tribune Review's Alan Robinson reported that Redman signed his tender on Thursday evening.

I've come down on the side of the minority in this dispute. The ground has been pretty well plowed but I'd like to take this platform to point out a least a couple of things that haven't been emphasized enough in my opinion as well as expand on the view laid out by Greig Clawson.

Why would you waste one or two years of Ben's prime having him wet nurse a young rebuilding team? There will be plenty of time to rebuild when Ben's washed up. The fact that the other teams Pittsburgh was involved with in competing for the services of Sanders and McLendon, New England and Green Bay are in similar circumstances; they want to win now while they still have the services of franchise quarterbacks in their prime. In this sense the answer to the question of now or the future is clearly now.

If the Steelers are talent deficient and in decline as some have argued how come the team has found itself in the rather unprecedented space of having to fend off attempts by other teams to poach their restricted free agents? And these teams represent the top tier of the league. What am I missing here?

I have been saying in this space for the past couple of months that the shape of the 2013 roster is largely unclear. There is still much to be done, but as Clawson has pointed out the Steelers have assembled enough pieces to put a team on the field if the season started today, and it would be highly competitive if not ideal in its composition.

The offensive line is young, talented, in need of experience and depth but in a circumstance that is more hopeful than last year prior to the draft. The tight ends (D. Johnson, Spaeth, Paulson) are solid and experienced even without Miller or any new additions. Wallace's deep speed will be missed but if Burress and Cotchery still have a mile or two left in the tank then this is a deep and talented group even without help from rookies. The situation at running back is pretty much the same as it was last year, with Mendenhall believed to be unavailable until later into the season at best. Whoever is on the depth chart under Ben is an extravagance unless he gets hurt, and then whoever it is won't be enough.

The defensive line may be considered deeper (many thought Hampton to be washed up and essentially out of the picture this time last year), there were questions as to whether Harrison could make it all the way back at linebacker. Nothing much was expected of Lewis or Will Allen, the loss of Gay was of greater concern. It was hoped that Cortez Allen or Curtis Brown could step up to replace Gay.

Yes, it would be great to get help on the offensive line, safety, linebacker, running back and quarterback. But as Clawson says this is more about wants than needs. Best player available becomes part of the equation. Unless next week is the beginning of a stretch of terrible moves then the team has a good shot at being highly competitive.

James Harrison

On Friday evening he became a Cincinnati Bengal putting a definitive exclamation point on his career with Pittsburgh. I am not a big fan of Mark Madden but I found myself mostly in agreement with his views in this piece on Harrison's animosity expressed toward Pittsburgh.

2013 Schedule

The Steelers schedule was released this week. Its always hard to actually gauge a schedule because the thinking is usually based upon the performance of teams the previous year, but its fair to say that the schedule has a nice balance of big and more pedestrian moments. Four national appearances, not including a game in London, with a lot of interest likely to be generated by a Monday night game at the Bengals for their home opener as well as a Thanksgiving tilt at Baltimore.

Limas Sweed

Here is a nice cautionary tale for those who believe that there is such a thing as a can't miss draft prospect. An in depth and somewhat painful tale of Sweed's sad journey in the NFL.

Voluntary workouts

As the debating and hand wringing continued over the pros and cons of retaining this or that free agent as well as whom to draft next week, the Steelers began voluntary workouts at the South Side facility on Monday. One of the questions that will be examined as the spring moves on is who will emerge in key leadership roles. Just like last year when the team lost not only the talent of players like James Farrior, Chris Hoke, Hines Ward and Aaron Smith, the depletion of leadership may have been even more devastating. The same situation is in play with loss of the likes of Harrison, Hampton and Starks. It was therefore significant that Ben was front and center as the workouts began, something he didn't necessarily have to do. It is something of an adjustment to Ben who noted that besides Plaxico he is now the oldest guy on the offensive side of the ball.

Pouncey

Ben is not alone on the leadership front. In spite of his relative youth, the 23 year old center is stepping up with the young group of linemen who will be going through passes under the direction of new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr.

David Johnson

Every year there are a few players on the roster that a certain segment of fans do not like. I don't pretend to understand why this is so, but they are delighted when these players stumble and you get the feeling that there is a secret level of frustration when they confound the belief that they are worthless and actually do well. Some of the easier examples might include William Gay, Willie Colon and Charlie Batch. David Johnson seems to be part of that group as well. Last summer there was a competition for the new fullback position in Todd Haley's offense. D. Johnson was clearly winning the competition, but Will Johnson was capturing the imagination of some fans. D. Johnson was playing extraordinarily well in the opening plays of the teams first pre season game when he became the charter member of the Maurice Gilbert 'I will fall on your leg and put you on IR Club'. The reaction of some fans was peculiar. 'Your done, thanks for services rendered, bring on W. Johnson and Yippee!'

Some thought (hoped?) we had seen the last of D Johnson and couldn't quite disguise their disappointment when he signed with the team this spring. Johnson will be moved back to tight end, but has that valuable trait of position flexibility. With the timetable for Heath Miller's return unknown you would think that Johnson's return would be a fortunate bit of news. (And btw, Johnson's injury occurred last August and he reports being about 85% at this time. consider that time line when estimating the full return of Miller.) A lot of fans aren't crazy about Matt Spaeth either. Until Miller returns the position will be in competent if unspectacular hands. Those advocating spending a high draft pick on a tight end may want to ask what is the motivation.

Pat Summerall

The term icon can be a bit overused. but I'm comfortable attaching that label to Summerall who passed away this week. Along with the likes of John Facenda and Ray Scott he helped shape our relationship with the game in the 70s and 80s first with Tom Brookshirer and then John Madden. Younger fans might find it productive to listen to some of his old broadcasts.

Boston

Will sporting events be the ground zero of terrorist activity going forward. My brother was in Cambridge, Mass. on Friday on business and got caught up in the lockdown. I wasn't too concerned, but the challenge will be how much we succumb to fear and the effects it will have on the games.

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