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Joe Sargent

The Steelers X factor that may give them the competitive edge in 2014

There are a few more pieces to add or, perhaps delete, but the group that will carry the fortunes of 2014 season has largely been assembled. Based upon the talents and skills available the possible tactics to be utilized to carry the Steelers back into contention begins to manifest in the collective imagination. Now beginning with this weekend’s rookie minicamp the process of separating promise from reality begins. The competition for roster spots and roles begins in earnest. And even then you’ll be told a dozen times between now and late July that it’s just football in shorts. This means we’ll find out some things about athleticism, intelligence and competitiveness, but it will still be a while before it is determined who can actually play.

Ha, ha. Just kidding. Unfortunately there are some who are not kidding. Understand that the demand for clicks is ongoing and unrelenting. The problem is that it really is, honest to God, too early to determine short or long term how useful this draft may be for the Steelers or anyone else.

Quick quiz. How would you rate the value of drafting Jason Worilds this time last year? And today? How about Cam Heyward? Cortez Allen? It is perfectly appropriate, and also a great deal of fun to dream about what’s possible if the full potentiality of this group were to pan out. Short of the actual experience of the games themselves this is the best part of being a fan.

But we also know that some of the new and returning players will not learn and develop at the same rate. Some will not get it together at all before the team has to move in other directions. There will be injuries, the only question being whether they will be a nuisance or a real impediment to individual and team competitiveness. So, if you find yourself in the orbit of another fan or an "expert" who tries to convince you that they know what is going to happen to this team based upon the outcome of this draft my suggestion would be you get a cross and some cloves of garlic because this kind of thinking might be contagious.

Even taking into consideration the cautions that I’ve just mentioned, it would be difficult not to be impressed with the quality and variety of talent that is being put in place for a possible title run. But to me the factor that may place the Steelers a cut above the rest of the league in the final analysis is not the players. Is there a more talented and decorated group than has been put in place by head coach Mike Tomlin? Maybe, but I think we can agree that it would be a very short list that can outshine a group that includes three former head coaches, two Hall of Famers and all but a couple who have more coaching mileage under their belts than the head man himself. Given a malleable group of young clay the potentialities are greater than they might be under more pedestrian leadership. Consider the possibilities.

LeBeau

He has in his possession now a group of "playmakers". Translation: individuals that blur and defy traditional position job descriptions such as ‘linebacker’ or ‘safety’. Think Troy or Lawrence Timmons. Now think Troy multiplied in the persons of Shazier, Mitchell, Thomas(Shamarko), Spence, Jones, Garvin and to a limited extent McLendon, Thomas(Cam) and Tuitt. LeBeau’s defense is difficult enough to decipher with specialists manning it. Imagine having some variation of this group milling around the line of scrimmage and trying to determine whose blitzing and who’s dropping into coverage.

The Lake Effect

Yes, Shaquille Richardson was taken in the fifth round and didn’t generate the excitement of a Gilbert, Fuller or Dennard. But how often does Carnell Lake disappoint? And the fact that Richardson has been his handpicked disciple would have to count for something would it not? And with all of those playmakers flying around it should make his job that much easily. At the very least he doesn’t have to loan out Troy for linebacking duty.

John Mitchell

He may not have the luxury this year of bringing his players along gradually. On the other hand, he picked up two players in the draft in Tuitt and McCullers who, in the case of the former would most likely have been a top ten pick if injuries hadn’t scared teams off and the in the case of the latter the biggest man in the draft class.

He has a player in Heyward who has grown into his promise. Two position flexible starter quality veterans and three developing second year players.

Joey Porter

He brings a level of technical expertise that should prove invaluable to Jarvis Jones and others, but the most important quality that he can impart is attitude. If, as Keith Butler pointed out last week, he can translate a portion of the mindset that would inspire him to attempt to drag Ray Lewis off the team bus to this group of linebackers, well…

Mike Munchak

This position group appeared have turned the corner even before he arrived. But the combining of one of the best in the business with a group of high draft choices creates a potential that would suggest that Munchak’s declaration of the group as being "special" may not just be a matter of coachspeak. If injuries can be kept in some semblance of control this position group could be the rock upon which the next Lombardi sits.

Richard Mann

So called informed opinion last year declared that the Steelers receiver corps could only be expected to be mediocre at best due to the loss of free agent darling Mike Wallace. In fact, this group was the strength of the team, particularly during the dark days of September.

In my opinion, even without the addition of Bryant this was likely to be a group that would do all right, especially if Ben got time to work courtesy of his newly competent offensive line. Remember, the evaluators were the same ones that underestimated them last year. But with Bryant it is likely that some high quality talent will find themselves either on the street or without a helmet on game days as this appears to be one of the most competitive position groups on the team.

Todd Haley

You have to figure that Haley was one of those lobbying the hardest for the acquisition of Archer. He would seem to be the offensive counterpart to Shazier; a playmaker who defies being categorized merely as a running back, receiver or special teams specialist, deceptively ‘undersized’ and possessing lethal speed. Or look at it this way; Wallace wasn’t so much replaced as doubled. One (Bryant) can stretch the field like Wallace only taller so that even if you keep up with him it may not matter. The other (Archer) doesn’t need to stretch the field, he can score from anywhere.

And while you are figuring out how to stop them there’s Antonio and Le’Veon and Heath and LeGarrette, and Markus, and Lance, and Darrius and Matt. And with all those people to keep track of how do you marshal the numbers necessary to get to Ben? If he stays clean and has time to do what he wants you’re pretty much dead. Bottom line, Haley like LeBeau has the potential to create intolerable levels of stress for opposing coordinators.

Danny Smith

Just consider one thing. Think about how many nonstarters can run under 4.4 40s. Put them on special teams. The other teams in the AFC North have to hope that the relative lack of familiarity with divisional play will be a nonfactor or maybe an advantage. Just to cite one example, this will be Gary Kubiak’s first job east of the Mississippi. Sometimes these kind of things matter.

One characteristic of a high quality leader is the willingness to surround him or herself with who match or exceed him in ability without feeling threatened or needing to control. In this regard Tomlin passes with flying colors.

UDFAs

History shows that we shouldn’t stop paying attention after the draft is over. Some of the most productive players that have served the franchise have come via undrafted rookie free agents. Even though there would appear to be plenty of competition for spots on the roster this year from able veterans and recent draft choices, it should not surprise anyone that another Terence Garvin may still be standing after the final cuts are made in September. Stanford lineman Josh Mauro has drawn some attention as one who could make that leap, but often it is the guy that’s on no one’s radar at this stage who makes it.

With the preceding in mind, you might want to familiarize yourself with the roster for the rookie minicamp which is ongoing as I write this. The draftees will get the lion’s share of the attention and rightfully so, but some important pieces of the future of the team may be among the less familiar names listed. It would be a mistake to assume that they are just bodies just there to provide fodder for others, though that will certainly be the case for some. For a lucky few or one it will be that opportunity they need to make a leap.In relation to the issue of coaching already mentioned in a previous segment, Tomlin has already started working on Bryant and his maturity issues. It raises the question as to whether an advantage for the Steelers is that because of the strength of their coaching staff they may be willing to take on players that other team might shy away from because they believe that they can manage and transform certain issues.

Odd how many of the newcomers have family members who have loyalties to the organization. It makes one wonder whether the reach of the team in the public imagination is great than you might believe. Or is it plausible your relationship with the Steelers could have a positive impact upon the player evaluation process. When you consider the coaches we were just highlighting, several mentioned had ties to either the Steelers (Haley, Porter), Pittsburgh (Mann and Smith) and surrounding areas (Munchak, Penn State). Ryan Shazier's father is a 'huge' Steelers fan. Wesley Johnson's maternal grandfather was a Steelers season ticket holder. Maybe its just a coincidence.

The Ohio connection

Neal Coolong probably intended it as something of a lighthearted article. Cam Heyward was giving fellow Ohio State alum Ryan Shazier some grief for the latter being photographed wearing a Cleveland Browns t-shirt. There seemed to be nothing to what might have been going on between Heyward and Shazier, but readers did not pass on the opportunity to give Cleveland grief.

Thing is that the Steelers owe a considerable debt to the state of Ohio for their contributions to the team's success over the years. Where would this franchise be without the contributions of Chuck Noll, Dick LeBeau, Ben Roethlisberger, Jack Lambert, James Harrison, Santonio Holmes and more. Ohio State University has become quite the pipeline to the Steelers with Shazier joining Heyward and Mike Adams. Dri Archer could be the next addition, coming from Kent State. Say what you want about Ohio, but where would the Pittsburgh Steelers be without it.

More on the Steelers draft

Having made my statement about reading too much too quickly into the draft, this is not to say that nothing can or should be said about it at all. The feedback has been generally positive, especially as some gain some distance from their own assumptions as to how the Steelers should have conducted themselves. Peter King could find no fault with the Steelers moves. Todd McShay could not decide upon a favorite among Pittsburgh's picks.

Among the themes that seem to be playing out with the selections was an emphasis on speed and maintaining fidelity to the notion of stopping and facilitating the run still being the center piece to successful defense and offense respectively. Tom Villiotti provides a broader overview league wide as to how the draft shook out. Steelers.com release part one of a documentary giving a behinds the scenes look at how the team prepared for the draft.

Of course, the appetite for information about the team's new additions is great. And it would appear in all cases that more information seems, for the most part, to make the selections more attractive and sensible. Profiles of Tuitt, Archer, Bryant and Johnson would appear to confirm Kevin Colbert's assessment of a deep draft that would yield a large number of attractive prospects. To me nothing seemed to be much of a reach.

Worilds

After the moves made to retain his services for the 2014 season, Jason Worilds seemed to have disappeared as a solution to his long term contractual issues sat in limbo. He has resurfaced via a video portrait of his workout routine in Atlanta.

Bill Nunn

In his 5 Burning Questions segment this week, Hombre de Acero raises the question as to whether the great personnel man who was buried this week would receive the appreciation he deserved. Many of the respondents were skeptical that he would. But there were a few who recognized his passing and his contributions.

Concussions

Try as it might the league can't get past this issue, even in the wake of the feel good period that is draft week.

Basketball

The Steelers have a team. And they've been spreading a little joy throughout the community. They have a softball team too.

Bradshaw

Terry is doing something that involves the title 'dumb blonde'. Nice to see that he's having fun.

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