If you've been around the site long enough, you know how much I like Jim Wexell's reporting and writing. I honestly don't get to as much as his stuff as I'd like to. As the publisher of SSteelCityInsider.com, there's always good stuff from either him or his well-respected and regarded roster. He's also, as you know since I've mentioned it at least 6 times, the author of Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon. I know we all love Dick LeBeau, so it's worth mentioning that the paperback re-release will have new material in it, including a lengthy candid talk with Coach Dad. If you've waited this long to read it, don't wait any longer once the paperback comes out. Anyway, Mr. Wexell was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions I had as we enter the doldrums of the offseason leading up to the draft.
BTSC: So the latest news of course is the signing of CB Bryant McFadden out in Arizona. Could the Steelers really not afford to match a 2-year deal with just a paltry $5 million in guarantees? I have a hard time figuring out the logic of drafting a guy like McFadden in the 2nd round, letting him get some seasoning on two Super Bowl runs, then letting him walk at age 27. Seems like chasing one's tail, but as we usually say around the site, 'hard to second guess the organization's track record in this regard.'
Wexell: Let me just give you two quick reasons:
1.) Cap number. That may only have been a $10M contract, but at 2 years that's an immediate cap hit of $5M per. The Cardinals knew what they were doing. It acted as a poison pill for the Steelers, who are having cash flow problems and who want to get a deal done with James Harrison Superstar. And, 2.) We in the media have been expecting Bryant McFadden to ascend to the starting role ever since he was drafted, and just haven't been able to understand what's holding him back. Any time we go fishing (is it phishing?) with an assistant coach, and mention McFadden, we never hear what we expect: "Oh, he's on the verge. He just needs to ..." or "The guy in front of him does x better."
Someone mentioned to Mike Tomlin in a quiet moment that he liked the way McFadden plays the ball when it's in the air. Tomlin replied, "You'd rather have a cornerback who doesn't have to play the ball at all," meaning QBs throw on him. Sure, you'd rather have that, but that was a funny answer, and really one of the only telling ones to a media that's been phishing and never really getting any inside info. Hope that kind of helps answer your question.
BTSC: On a related note, any thoughts about whether or not the organization will be looking at a CB in either Round 1 or 2 in this year's draft? Or might they look for another William Gay type of talent in the 4th or 5th round to play some special teams, perhaps return kicks and eventually get phased in as Deshea Townsend winds down his career in the coming years?
Wexell: Kevin Colbert likes the depth at the position and has scheduled a visit with Joe Burnett and had a formal interview with Sherrod Martin. It looks like they're aiming for the middle rounds, but then again, if a guy like Darius Butler (UConn) falls to them in the first, I'd be stunned if they pass.
BTSC: I wrote quite a bit about Tony Hills just a few weeks ago, and how his development, or lack there of, might be one of the more important yet ignored topics of this offseason. I'll spare the gist of my argument, though it wasn't much of an argument for Hills so much as an attempt to argue that maybe the organization has some sort of plan/perspective on Hills and his development that we as fans are not at all privy to. We did all agree on this though - there's no way to know until we see him in pads going up against Deebo and Woodley this summer. Anything else you maybe have on him?
Wexell: I just see him down there working out. At the end of the season you could tell he had much more muscle definition in his body. Right now, no one wants to say anything about him, and they shouldn't. He's just another cog in the competition machine. You won't see much preseason probing of Jason Capizzi for that matter either. It's time to just let these guys compete.
BTSC: Do you think the Steelers flirtation with Joey Galloway was more a luxury they'd enjoy at the right price, or do they feel Limas Sweed isn't ready yet to be the team's No. 3 WR?Is getting a veteran WR still a priority?
Wexell: How can they feel Limas Sweed is ready? I mean, the Steelers are a bottom-line organization and they saw what we all saw. Yeah, we're all happy he gets off the line and can run and is big and strong, but the one drop, the one with the eyes wide open, left me feeling that he's scared and might never make it. Again, as with Hills, the guy has to prove it first. The Steelers will say all the right things if they don't come out of this draft with a WR, but it's a prove-it-to-me organization. Look how long it took Nate Washington to secure faith, and he showed a lot more as a rookie than Sweed did. Oh, to answer your question, they'll try to get a veteran No. 3 WR, but, again, with Mike Thomas coming in March 30-31, it appears they're targeting a WR for the upper middle rounds.
BTSC: Do you like WR Hakeem Nicks, and is he an option for Pittsburgh at No. 32?
Wexell: I would love to think so. He's my favorite. He's a guy who explains why later-round draftors have so much success. They don't have to answer to themselves about combine times and that nonsense. Sometimes they just get stuck with really good players, and Nicks is one of them. The problem will be -- and the reason I like guys like Thomas and Mike Wallace -- is that Nicks isn't a kick returner. But I'd be willing to take the chance. Make it real funny and use Darnell Stapleton to return kicks this year. What would be the difference at this point?
BTSC: Have you had much contact or at least seen much of Coach Tomlin in action since the beginning of the offseason? If so, any impressions about how he's handling things.
Wexell: Yes, I've said hello to him. I really enjoy running into him. He lifts your spirits just by remembering your name and asking about your kids. I loved his interview today (March 24) with Ed Bouchette in which he said he understands the need to make himself known to the public, but that after a certain point they don't need to know any more and that he'll begin withdrawing from the public eye. It made me remember Chuck Noll and how much I admired his lack of commercialism and need to be loved. I always thought Noll was a genius and see the same qualities in Tomlin. Before the combine, he was overheard telling his PR guy "But I don't want to get to know the national guys," meaning the national media. Local guys love hearing that stuff after a Super Bowl.
BTSC: So rumor has it James Harrison was back in the weight room just a few days after the SB win. To me, this tells me this guy needs football (physically and mentally) to be 'right'. I couldn't ever see him holding out for a few extra dollars if it meant not getting to scratch that necessary itch. I'm of course projecting bigtime from afar here, but how much does a player's personality and what the organization knows about how and what makes them tick - how much of that stuff might you say factors in to these negotiation processes?
Wexell: Yes, I reported that. He was actually in the weight room complaining that the rest of the team wasn't in there with him. I spoke with Lawrence Timmons during Super Bowl week and asked him about James's legendary regimen. Timmons, who's in great shape himself, said he tried to keep up with James but couldn't, said the guy just keeps coming back to the room all day long, said he puts in 10 hours a day. Yes, that's all James wants to do: Football and preparing for football. He will watch cartoons with his son the other couple of hours during the day. To answer your question, that means a lot to the Steelers, whose biggest draft-day measurement is a prospect's passion for the game. That work ethic got James Farrior a nice contract for his old age last year. It means a lot to them in their negotiations with Harrison this year.
BTSC: Willie Parker will be in a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform past the expiration of his current contract in 2010. True or False.
Wexell: I have to say false, just based on last year. RBs have a short shelf life and Parker's body has been breaking down. Then again, FWP has a superior work ethic as well. Prove me wrong, Fast One, prove me wrong.
BTSC: If you filled out an NCAA bracket, who you got cutting down the nets?
Wexell: I don't watch basketball at all anymore, only my daughter's games. I used to watch everything that moved, but only football now, and during the spring only college tape. In fact, I watched Brian Orakpo get killed at the point against Ohio State last night. The Browns would be making a big mistake in drafting him. I'd compare him, as a prospect, to Harrison, who wasn't even drafted, but surprised with his startling strength at the point. It would be foolish to perceive that kind of strength in Orakpo and draft him sixth. Nice pass rusher, but he didn't show he could drop and showed he won't be able to play the run in the league for a couple of years, if ever. Back to your question, I filled out Louisville just to steer clear of the mob picking Pitt. I'm in the middle of a 60-person soccer-fundraiser NCAA pool, which is led by my wife. She always wins this stuff.