Champions and consistent winners in the NFL follow a standard principle: Lock in a core group of 12 or 13 players, and fill the rest in with inexpensive veterans and drafted youth.
The Steelers are a fine example of that.
On the eve of their second Super Bowl in four years, they are dangerously close to letting the rarely-justified "D" word escaple their lips (dynasty), and judging by the young players who are turning into core players, some attention should be paid to who the Steelers have coming through their pipeline.
RB Rashard Mendenhall
When adding the injured 2008 first-rounder, the Steelers will essentially have two first-round picks in camp this year. Despite some fumblitis early in the pre-season, he showed some flash and power in certain situations. He wasn't quite all the way there as a three-down player, but judging by what his coaches told Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette Sunday, he's working hard and will physically get back to form with plenty of time to spare for training camp.
Mendenhall will bring an added dimension to an offense that improved tremendously throughout the season. The biggest flaw it had all year was its offensive line, which led the unit's overall improvement. Mendenhall would be wise to work on blitz pick-up, being that it is the one component necessary to become a three-down back in the NFL.
WR Limas Sweed
Obviously, Steelers fans only think of one play when thinking of the former Texas WR. It's hard not to. The worst part, though, was his "injury" after the drop, which automatically burned a timeout, which the Steelers needed to kick a field goal at the end of the half.
Imagine the AFC Championship game, with a non-Joe Flacco quarterback under center for the opposing team. Ya think Pittsburgh wouldn't have paid for walking away from a drive scoreless after a dropped touchdown pass and a bogus roughing the punter call? You're dreaming.
OLB LaMarr Woodley
Judging by Sweed's performance this year after being a second-round pick, it's difficult to remember starting OLB LaMarr Woodley was taken in the second round the previous year. Obviously, it's an apples-to-oranges comparison, but clearly Woodley is an emerging force league-wide, and it doesn't seem it will be long until he's considered one of the top defenders in the game.
After watching him this year, it's hard to say he's a second-year player. He plays far above that. If Sweed puts up half the production Woodley did this year, Pittsburgh's got itself a phenominal run of second-round picks.
CB William Gay
As his nickname indicates, "Big Play" William Gay has a knack for being around the ball. was thrust into the spotlight in his second year, filling in nicely for Deshea Townsend's open nickel back position. Townsend filled in his customary starting role for Bryant McFadden over a stretch this season. McFadden is an unrestricted free agent this off-season, and while it will be interesting to see if the Steelers want to let McFadden go, he really had a breakout year in 2008. If they choose not to meet the demands of his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, Gay may be back in the nickel spot next year.
Gay had the game-clinching interception in Steelers/Ravens II, and broke up seven passes in his second season in Pittsburgh.
P Dan Sepulveda
Anyone miss him? I'm sure special teams coach Bob Ligashesky does. While the Steelers have seen a dramatic turnaround in their kick coverages this year, their punting has been among the worst in the league. It begs two questions: 1. Was the giant leap forward due to the fact they had far less distance to run to the returner (39.8 yards per kick in 2008 vs. 42.4 yards per kick in 2007) or was it simply with the team's lack of ability to bring returners down last year?
Either way, this year's 35.8 net average is a far cry from last year's 37.9. Pittsburgh went from 8th in the league to 25th. The Steelers need The Sepulverizer.
TE Matt Spaeth
The Minnesota product filled in nicely for Heath Miller in Weeks 10 and 11, netting 12 catches for 108 yards. The Steelers usually start in a double-TE set, and with his blocking improving tremendously from last season, they've created a nasty set from which they can run or pass. Miller is the Steelers' key free agent this off-season, but regardless what they do with him, Spaeth has become an important part of the offense.