Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The off season begins to pick up steam on Combine weekend

The Winter Olympics are ongoing, college basketball is building momentum to March Madness, the NBA just completed their All Star weekend and is moving into the second half of the season, the part that will really count. The Penguins are doing well and people are paying attention to spring training and the Pirates for the first time in like, forever. Yet the NFL, nearly a month after the conclusion of the 2013 season, and a full six months before the beginning of the 2014 campaign will muscle their way into the national consciousness this weekend. You have to tip your hat to power of the game on the public imagination as well as the league's marketing expertise in shoehorning such an event into prominence at a time of the sports year when there is no real shortage of quality diversions.

The NFL has managed to create a twelve month rhythm that dedicated fans can sink their teeth into and follow. Attention now is shifting from shoring up and developing the management/leadership/development end of the equation (coaching and front office management) to the six month season of player procurement and roster development. From now until the Draft we will drown in speculative information on potential new players while current players will be terminated, leave on their own accord, be resigned or have their financial arrangements readjusted. As Neal Coolong has pointed out, the upbeat, if disappointing, conclusion to the Steelers' 2013 season combined with what are universally viewed as potent, empowering staff moves has fostered (with the exception of a dogged, cranky minority) a feeling of optimism that contrasts sharply with the mood of a year ago even though the team is coming off of identical 8-8 records.

The Combine

What really is the value of the Combine in the player evaluation process? For the typical fan, and I count myself among that number, there are particulars of determining the pro readiness of these athletes that are a mystery. Some are more trusting (or gullible) and seem to put more stock in the importance of performances on display in Indianapolis. Can the collective gushing of the commentators on Espn and the NFL Network be trusted given the fact that they have a financial and marketing stake in convincing us this exercise is really, REALLY important? With the preceding in mind I can't more enthusiastically endorse the piece by our own Steel34D on how to view the Combine. His take on how to view the quarterback and running back drills from the perspective of NFL scouts is incredibly enlightening. It is a tremendous credit to BTSC that this quality of analysis is available here. Ed Bouchette and Peter King also take a critical eye to what the weekend does and does not accomplish.

Kevin Colbert

The Rooneys are around. Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff are around. But this is clearly the time of the year that the Steelers' GM is in the spotlight (and the hot seat). Colbert began interfacing intensely with the media last week, and that process continues as those outside the organization seek clues as to thinking about possible draft picks, contract negotiations, free agent concerns and the ongoing strategy that will attempt to propel the franchise back into championship contention. Colbert could not be as clear or candid as media or fans would like because I doubt if anyone has all the answers to what is on the minds of fans and the media, but also for strategic and practical reasons as well. Consequently, while some tentative answers have come forward, there is still plenty of room for speculation about any number of issues. The following are some of the highlights.

Salary cap. If the projection of $130 million turns out to be correct, then while nowhere near being home free, it will, nonetheless, be easier to see how the team can maneuver without engaging in the sort of radical surgery that has become the standard prediction at this time of the year over the past several off seasons.

Draft depth. Colbert keeps saying that this is one of deepest draft classes he has seen, with a mitigating factor of so many young undergraduates being part of the rookie pool with the concern being whether they possess the maturity to make a successful transition to the professional culture. This fact has fueled speculation that the team might benefit from trading down in order to increase the number of picks without impact on the quality of the harvest.

Wide receiver. A consensus has developed (and not contradicted by Colbert) that Emmanuel Sanders will probably leave via free agency. This has led many to believe that wide receiver will be the first position addressed in the draft. There is also conversation that the development of Markus Wheaton, Derek Moye and Justin Brown (and the resigning of Jerricho Cotchery) could mean that the need in that area would not be as critical as some would suggest.

Defense. Some are mindful that perhaps it is the defense that is the top priority, with the emphasis on the nose tackle position as well as the secondary. Given how the offensive game has evolved, the relative importance of these positions since Casey Hampton was selected over a decade ago have become topics of inquiry.

Woodley vs Worilds, or Woodley and Worilds. As I mentioned in this space last week, the idea that the only solution is either/or with these two players is less carved in stone than many believed over the previous weeks. Obviously I don't know how it will be resolved (nor do I think the team is absolutely certain as well).

Ben. The consensus of the organization is that Ben Roethlisberger should retire as a Pittsburgh Steeler. My response to that would be "Duh?" And has anyone seen Ian Rappaport lately?

Roster projections: outside linebackers

Rebecca Rollett continues her series and makes an intriguing suggestion of a strategy that would not only allow for the retention of both Woodley and Worilds, but would entail bringing back James Harrison as well.

Steelers trade history

With possibility that the team may choose to go the route of a trade(s) to address some of its team needs, Dale Grdnic has been running a series of articles this week that covers some of the moves that the team has made in this regard herehere, herehere and here.

A willingness to shop the free agent market

One of the questions argued at this time of the year is how will the Steelers participate in the free agent market. Some fans may be frustrated with priority of preferring, where possible to resign their own free agents, and to avoid the high profile players generate so much excitement in March. Beyond that the team does a good job of judiciously adding lower profile players that often make quality contributions. Examples would include James Farrior, Mewelde Moore, Ryan Clark and most recently Jerricho Cotchery. Some are encouraged that the visit by Louis Delmas indicates that free agents will be part of the formula of roster construction in 2014.

Addressing the injury issue

Hombre de Acero proposes one more staff move that might significantly improve the injury outlook for the team moving forward. Check out what this is here.

David DeCastro

Somewhat quietly, the football world is starting to validate that the guard from Stanford is becoming that pony for Christmas that we celebrated receiving two years ago. DeCastro was honored as an Emerging Player, which, along with the attention he received in the All Pro voting seems to demonstrate that its just a matter of time, if he remains healthy, that he will soon be recognized as one of the top talents at his position league wide.

More Munchak

While on the subjects of guards, Tunch Ilkin, who was a pretty good one himself wrote a piece this week about new offensive line coach Mike Munchak and what he thought he would bring to that position group. Tunch mentioned that the HOF coach played the same position as DeCastro and could help the third year guard with nuances to his game that could accelerate his development.

Ben and Antonio

Roethlisberger and the wide receiver Antonio Brown apparently had an issue shortly after the conclusion of the regular season. How both men handled it and its aftermath should speak volumes to each player's evolution as leaders for this team.

Joe Greene

The man generally recognized as the greatest player in franchise history received a lifetime achievement award from the Fritz Pollard Alliance this week. The last surviving player from the famed Steel Curtain defensive front and owner of six Super Bowl rings (four as a player) was recognized for his thirty year contribution as a player, coach and scout in the NFL. Two things stand out in the Bob Labriola's story. First was the consistent manner in which the Rooneys and Chuck Noll did not allow for race to become a determining or restrictive factor in how talent was procured or utilized by the organization. Gary Pomerantz described in his book Their Life's Work the special relationship that developed between Greene and Steelers founder Art Rooney. Labriola's piece points out that the relationship between Greene and the current owner of the Steelers, Dan Rooney, who presented Greene for the award has been pretty special too. I had forgotten that Dan Rooney had selected Greene to present him when Rooney was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Both men seem to cherish that moment and its significance.

AFC North news

Taken in isolation the Steelers would appear to be having a solid off season so far. There are questions and challenges, but the organization seems to be handling things well and there is plenty of cause for optimism. Then you compare Pittsburgh to what's happening in the rest of their division and, well, we're doing just great!

The Ravens

Our arch rivals would seemed to have secured some stability on the defensive side of the ball via a long term deal for Terrell Suggs. However, that would not be the big news coming out of Baltimore this week. 'Sugar' Ray Rice (perhaps the one player the Steelers have feared most in recent years) apparently won the pugilistic championship of his household when he KO'd his fiance. Ozzie Newsome says it doesn't look good.

The Browns

And just when you thought that Cleveland had exhausted their quotient for crazy, word comes in that there may have been a trade in the works that would have sent San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh to Lake Erie in exchange for draft choices. To which my reaction is Thank God that didn't happen. As perversely entertaining as Browns/Ravens would be under such a scenario, the ravings of one Harbaugh brother twice a year is my limit. Two Harbaugh brothers four times a year would just be too damn much. Driven to insanity, the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati would be full of bodies. Bad enough they're allowed in the league at the same time. In the same division? No.

Incognito follow up

The fallout from the Wells report has caused some disruptions in Miami where the offensive line coach and a trainer have lost their jobs, and the credibility of head coach Joe Philbin has suffered some damage. On a more positive note, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jason Avant acknowledges that the locker room environment that prevailed with the Dolphins is unacceptable, but also provides some insight as to how it may have gotten that way and some suggested steps as to how the situation can be improved.

Sean Spence

Its always nice when a member of the BTSC community crosses the divide from commenting on posts to generating thought provoking pieces that enrich the conversation in our little corner of the Nation. ScottishSteeler234 gives us this piece from across the pond. This also means that this edition of Checkdown was able to reference contributions from Europe and South America. Asia, Africa or Australia anyone?

The Cannonball

This final note may be something that only effects me. Growing up in Pittsburgh I got the opportunity to meet a small handful of the athletes who played for the city's professional teams. For a time Roberto Clemente resided a few minutes walk from my home, but I was never fortunate enough to see him. A big moment for me was when my uncle introduced me to the Pirates' ace pitcher Bob Veale. I didn't recognize it at the time but it was a pretty big deal when I met basketball great Connie Hawkins when he came to our neighborhood playground to help promote the ABA's Pittsburgh Condors. During my youth I met three Steelers. My first football coach was George Radosevich who played for the Steelers in the 1950s. He was a good coach and an even nicer man who was Peabody High School's head coach (How he came to be my first head coach when I attended Allderdice High is another story for another day). Roy Jefferson was known to many of the kids who played sandlot football in the Point Breeze and Homewood areas. But the first time I ever met a Steeler was when I headed into the gym at Lemington Elementary for my PE class, and there was a substitute gym teacher by the name of James 'Cannonball' Butler. This was in the days when most NFL players could not hope to make ends meet on what they made playing the game. I remember his broad grin, his fit, muscled physique, and the fact that he was about the same height as I was, and did I mention I was in elementary school? He played for Pittsburgh, but his best years were when he was with the Falcons. The image of him that I've always held in my mind was of that day in the Lemington gym. The Post Gazette reported that Cannonball passed away in Atlanta this past week. He was 70 years old and suffered from dementia. Probably only matters to me.

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