Ah, spring. It's that time of year again, when the trees are in bloom, the days are getting warmer and longer, and Steelers fans everywhere consider whether it would be worse to dive naked into a barrel of fire ants, or wait until August for something resembling football.
If you think you have it bad, try figuring out something to write about.
Now, it's a known fact that journalists aren't the riskiest of people when it comes to making claims that can't be backed up. Even though Twitter has quickly turned many writers' ultimately false rumors into holy writ, it's still the exception to the rule.
Fortunately for all of us, I'm not Edward R. Murrow. Don't get me wrong, though -- I'm not going to start claiming that Ben Roethlisberger is going to be traded, or that Dan Rooney is selling his stake in the team to become the majority owner of a minor-league soccer club in Cincinnati. But, when the draft is over, and we are waiting anxiously for Organized Team Activities, just so we can see something in our news feeds that isn't about international relations or Miley Cyrus, I live by the motto of "when in doubt, stick your neck out." And by "stick your neck out," of course, I can only mean one thing: it's time for this year's Absurdly Premature Predictions!
1. The offensive line will send two representatives to the Pro Bowl -- and neither will be named Maurkice Pouncey.
With all the apologies in the world to our world-class center, Pouncey may now be the third-best lineman on the team. David DeCastro has earned every penny of what the team will offer him to extend his contract. He bears far more than a passing resemblance to 2016 Hall-of-Fame finalist Alan Faneca, and should make his second consecutive appearance in the Pro Bowl.
But before anyone thinks I have completely flipped my lid, I'm not about to imply the other representative from Offensive Line Coach Mike Munchak's group will be Alejandro Villanueva, despite his stellar showing after starting Left Tackle Kelvin Beachum went down for the year. No, the other offensive lineman from Pittsburgh who will make the roster for the Least Entertaining Football Game, Ever will be Right Tackle Marcus Gilbert. His nearly obsessive focus on diet and fitness over the last few seasons has paid off big-time, netting him a nice contract last off-season and making him one of the most athletic right tackles in the league. His performance last year was worthy of a Pro-Bowl invite, and there is no reason to think he won't be even better this year.
2. By the end of December, four of the Steelers' top five draft picks from 2015 will be regular starters.
Bud Dupree is already there, for all intents and purposes. Senquez Golson will be either the number-two or number-three corner and, since the nickel has become the team's base defense regardless of whether anyone wants to admit it, will likely be on the field for the first defensive snap of almost every game. Sammie Coates was drafted specifically to replace Martavis Bryant should he end up suspended for substance abuse -- and he did, of course. Cornerback Doran Grant isn't likely to crack the starting lineup except by way of injury, but fifth-round pick Jesse James has the inside track on the number-one tight end position now that Heath Miller has retired, due to his ability to catch and block.
3. By the end of September, at least one rookie will be a starter.
Heck, this prediction may be over by week one. Whether you want to chalk it up to weaknesses in front of him, or his outstanding athleticism, rookie Strong Safety Sean Davis could very well be the opening-day starter in what once was the House that Troy Polamalu built. You'd probably be right, no matter what you want to credit for his likely meteoric rise up a thin depth chart. Ahead of him to start the offseason are Robert Golden, who had a handful of starts in 2015 and played well enough to be seen as a one-year stop-gap; and Shamarko Thomas, who was supposed to lock down the position last year, but has had trouble getting the mental aspects of the game figured out. Davis comes in as an athletic, chiseled specimen with good natural ability and some obvious deficiencies. If he simply comes into camp and manages to not suck, he could be the starter on opening day.
4. The Steelers will finish first in total offense.
One caveat need be granted here: they will finish first, if a few key contributors stay healthy. Last season, the team could have been the top offense in the league, but they lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for four complete games and parts of three others. they lost Le'Veon Bell for the entire second half of the season. If those two, and receiver Antonio Brown, all stay healthy in 2016, there is little to stand in this team's way when they have the ball. In fact, with the exception of losing Bryant, the league's best deep threat, they have gotten better since January. They added an athletic, pass-catching tight end to help out along the seams, and they should have all their starters back and healthy. Villanueva should be penciled in at left tackle, and should only continue to improve. And we should finally see what can happen when both Bell and DeAngelo Williams are healthy.
5. The Steelers will sport a top-three run defense.
In 2015, the defense put up the fifth-=best run defense, and it should continue to get better. For starters, their strong safety is almost guaranteed to be under the age of 30 for the first time since 2011. Third-year nose tackle Dan McCullers is the likely new starter at the position, and has been aptly described in the past as "an obstruction." Outside linebacker Dupree improved against the run as the season went on and should be even better in 2016. Finally, the probable top-three cornerbacks -- William Gay, Ross Cockrell and Golson -- are all quality tacklers.