I've been really sick for much of the past month. As such, my mood wasn't much different than that of much of Steeler Nation over the last six months or so. I've been in pain, and angry and pessimistic as a consequence. My mood was relentlessly dark as was my vision for the future. I lashed out indiscriminately and inappropriately at anything and everything that had the misfortune to attract my attention.
I'm much better now, thank you. And to celebrate my return to relatively good health and the sunnier disposition that accompanies the circumstances I've decided to turn my attention to some of the prospects for the 2013 season. Yes, as I write this OTAs have yet to commence, we're not even altogether certain that all of the pieces of the puzzle are even present yet. That is just the first of a few cautions going forward. I call what follows not predictions but rather a set of possibilities, some things to think about as we enter into the training and evaluation season over the next few months. It goes without saying that given recent history someone could step into a gopher hole and everything is blown to hell. Feel free to add your own thoughts (As if I had to ask).
In general the view coming out of the darkness is of a Steelers team that is not so emasculated as many predicted or feared. The FO was not lobotomized, the coaching staff still appears to be competent for the most part, remains well respected among those whose opinions really matter and has made some promising additions. Quality talent has been lost as is inevitable when there is so much of it on one organization, but much quality remains (Partial translation; we still have Ben) and some has been added. That quality is across the board. Yes, it is thin and fragile in places, a little inexperienced here, a little long in the tooth there. But it is a group that will definitely be competitive in every match up, dangerous and even frightening as an opponent in many.
Imagine Haley's offense during the first half of last season in sync with LeBeau's defense the second half of that season. Now imagine Haley's offense moving beyond the awkward transition phase as everyone gets comfortable with and buys into the system. And imagine LeBeau's league leading defense being younger on average by two years than it was two years ago. Now imagine any improvement on special teams at all. With a new coordinator and the story of how he was pursued this may not just be an exercise in wishful thinking. And if you want to take the fantasy a little bit further; think that this injured, frustratingly incompetent team almost swept the Super Bowl champions with a backup quarterback playing with two busted ribs and the third string quarterback playing with a walker.
Yeah, I think I'm ready to ride this Steelers thing out for another year, see where it takes me. I know we're not like, you know, the Seahawks. Just call me crazy. But let's get a little more specific.
Player to watch: Mike Adams. Two things distorted our perception of Adams last year. First there was much grumbling about character concerns. Many thought that he would be what Chris Rainey and Alameda Ta'amu turned out to be and felt the team sold their souls to draft him. Second, we have been spoiled by Maurkice Pouncey and have come to expect that a first year player will just waltz on in and start producing instantly at an All Pro level. That's not necessarily normal. So it is not unreasonable that Adams may find his bearings after the natural adjustment issues and injuries.
And, knock on wood, if character is not a concern then we have to take into account that Adams, an otherwise first round prospect actually fell further in last year's draft than David DeCastro. Not saying that DeCastro won't meet expectations, I think he will. But the possible emergence of Adams would be more dramatic exactly because the expectations were driven lower by the character concerns. That would give Pittsburgh an offensive line anchored by three first round talents, good enough I think. But the question, I know its coming, what about the other two slots?
I also think we should keep an eye on Kelvin Beachum. I wouldn't be shocked if he managed to beat out Ramon Foster for the starting left guard position. I think that many fans seriously underestimated Beachum's upside last year, and its possible that we still do. It may be too much to ask for this group to go from injury plagued to completely injury free in one year. If so, with his position flexibility Beachum will likely play an important role on this unit one way or another.
I'm going to go out on a limb a bit for this Golic kid. The reason? Pedigree. Sometimes its genetics, as often as not it is embedded wisdom. He's not plagued by the learning curves and pitfalls that other players have to face navigating the challenges of making a place for themselves in the league. And the chances that he will be able to maximize his talent will be better. Plus the entire internal motivational structure is different. He not trying to do something that has never been done before. He's trying to prove that he can do what has already been done. Wouldn't be surprised if he at least makes the practice squad.
Player to watch: David Paulson. Like Beachum the expectations on Paulson were very low with many feeling that he wouldn't survive training camp last year. I can recall on a number of occasions last year when because of the similarities of the body type and uniform numbers that Paulson was mistaken for Heath Miller on some plays, even to the point where the group where I was viewing would start the HEEAATH chant. ( I refuse to believe that it was simply because they are both white). Also like Beachum I don't think that Paulson has come close to the limits of his upside yet, and the leap in his second year could be quite substantial.
A word about David Johnson. A lot of fans don't like this player for reasons that elude me. He is a very good blocker and while I like Will Johnson, I saw with my own eyes D. Johnson outplay W. Johnson at both training camp and the first preseason game before being injured. Add position flexibility and you have an important asset, especially until Miller gets back up to speed.
Players to watch: All of them. Our perceptions are often colored by our expectations, and I believe that our expectations concerning last year's running back corps were altogether too high. The situation then was probably no less precarious than many believed it has been this spring. Mendenhall was projected by some to not come back for a year. That meant that last year this time, unlike this year, we didn't have any prospects of having a feature running back entering the season. That Mendy came back a lot earlier than expected, probably fueled by contract concerns and, in hindsight, an unwise move was not anticipated last year.
Dwyer was considered to be immature and inconsistent at best. Redman and Baron Batch were saddled with, in my opinion, outsized reputations that they hadn't earned. Two camp legends who were essentially set up to disappoint. Batch, a seventh round draft pick who was multi-talented, thoughtful, had great work habits but had never so much as played in a preseason game, and Redman, an UDFA was the star of an ongoing Messiah fantasy which some, no doubt, took to heart. Occasionally they perfomed like a seventh round draft choice and a UDFA and came away with tarnished reputations. Chris Rainey's preseason promise, both in the imagination of fans and on the field simply did not translate to the regular season. And the Cleveland fumblefest seemed to push the whole enterprise over the cliff in the minds of Steeler Nation.
While not out of the woods on the feature back question it would be hard to argue that the team is in somewhat better position. Whatever his faults Dwyer actually exceeded expectations last year, and there is good reason to believe he may do so again this year. If we stop seeing Redman and Batch as Superman and Batman and view them as solid complementary backs who have a year of experience under their belts is it unreasonable to be optimistic about improved and more consistent contributions going forward? They've essentially traded Mendy and Rainey for Le'Veon Bell and Stephens-Howlings. Could be a pretty good trade.
Player to watch: Plaxico Burress. In spite of the loss of Mike Wallace and not counting for the moment what Wheaton, Brown and any newcomers can bring to the table, the receiver corps is quite solid. Tom Brady wishes he had the tools that Ben has at his disposal in this regard. Indeed, his team tried to grab one of them. Plax has been considered something of an afterthought and he shouldn't be. Here's why.
First throw out whatever you thought you saw last season. Burress was a midseason replacement for an offense in transition. He is not some veteran free agent who they will try to shoehorn into the system. He is a Steeler, a prodigal son, who has come home. He is completely compatible with the organization, the culture and the community. Rapport is not a small thing between a quarterback and a receiver. And the rapport that Ben has had with Burress, both on and off the field, may be the strongest of anyone that Ben has played with in his professional career. Add the fact that players whom Ben leaned on for support in the past such as Willie Colon, Max Starks and Charlie Batch are no longer around, the relationship he has with the man who is now the oldest player on the offensive side of the ball takes on even greater weight.
While separated both men experienced playing pivotal roles in the crucible of winning a championship on a late scoring drive. Being away from the game for a couple of years he is physically younger in football terms than his birth certificate might demonstrate. Still dogged by off field issues from when he was away he has a powerful incentive to use the game as a means to push past these things. If he has one typical season left, this could be bigger than most imagine.
Player to watch: Ben Roethlisberger. He is a franchise (read, generational) player in his prime. Ben is a franchise player in his prime. Ben is a franchise player in his prime. Keep repeating this phrase until it sinks in and you can't stop smiling.
Player to watch: Steve McLendon. The issue is very simple here; can McLendon successfully replace Casey Hampton? If so, then Dick LeBeau's defense is likely in the running for being number one in the league once again, and that means that the Steelers are in the playoff conversation. I think it would be a bit misleading to spend too much energy comparing him to Hampton. I think the more apt comparison would be to Chris Hoke, particularly the year that Hoke pretty much played the entire season in place of an injured Hampton.
I'm keeping my powder dry for now on the whole Heyward/Hood thing. I think Heyward will be fine. And I believe Hood to be in the unenviable position of being the guy who replaced Aaron Smith. From that perspective how could he not be seen as being inadequate. Frankly, my major concern in this area is whether Keisel can remain upright.
Player to watch: Lawrence Timmons. There would seem to be a lot more interesting, even important stories in this position group. The competition between Worilds and Jones, the health of Woodley and Spence. But lost in all the frustration and dysfunction last season was that Timmons had a breakout year, and if he can keep it rolling DPOY is not out of the question. With all the conversation over the winter concerning the failure of recent drafts, Timmons would be a welcome dose of balance.
Player to watch: William Gay. Generally speaking if Troy and Ryan Clark can remain reasonably healthy than this may be the strongest position group on the team. I focus on Gay because he had a very strong season in 2011 under Carnell Lake. If reuniting with Lake can help him regain that form then we could well see the strongest group since when Lake was playing.
Player to watch: Shaun Suisham. Can he maintain the consistency he established last year. It would be nice if he had a slightly stronger leg, but can't have everything I guess.
You may have noticed that I didn't include any newcomers among players to watch, and that is because at the end of the day it will be up to the players who are already here and proven that will determine for the most part the fate of this team. Last year folks put to much faith on the draft class to be the source of salvation for the Steelers. They were wrong last year. And to do so again this year would be equally wrongheaded. Let's hope the newcomers can make significant contributions, but these are the guys who are likely to make it go.
Check out Behind The Steel Curtain's OTAs Hub for all the latest news surrounding the Steelers' first full team workout of the 2013 season.