It’s the most terrible time of the year.
Sing it with me, you know the words:
It’s the most terrible time of the year
When the draft is completed
My patience depleted
OTAs still aren’t here!
It’s the most terrible time of the year
I lament it every single offseason. We’ve spent two weeks beating draft results to death. We’ve had film rooms and analysis and we’ve gone on such a deep dive that we could probably tell you what T.J. Watt’s aunt’s neighbor had for breakfast.
And if I read about one more guy who will never make it through the first round of cuts getting signed to the pre-camp roster, I might see if the Steelers will sign me to one of those camp-tackling-dummy contracts, just so I have something interesting to write: my own obituary, since one hit from James Harrison will most certainly cause me to shuffle off this mortal coil.
There is one guaranteed byproduct of this, the slowest football-news period of the entire year: my annual Absurdly Premature Predictions.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have a career year.
Of course, this one comes with two obvious caveats: several players must stay healthy, and receiver Martavis Bryant has to stay away from unapproved “herbal supplements." But, if he does, there's no reason to believe this won’t be the quarterback’s best season.
If Bryant merely manages not to be stupid, the list of weapons at Roethlisberger’s disposal is, well, what it should have been in 2016, along with a few additional improvements. Running back Le’Veon Bell should be available for all 16 games and he's simply amazing. Receiver Antonio Brown is still the best in the NFL, while Bryant could be a No. 1 receiver on at least half the teams in the league. Plus, there’s still the promise of tight end Ladarius Green, if he can avoid another season plagued by concussions.
If Sammie Coates can return to his early 2016 form following off-season surgery to repair the injury that ultimately cost him his starting job alongside Brown, he will bring significant versatility to an already potent offense. Eli Rogers emerged late in the season, as well. Tight end Jesse James isn’t going to burn anyone down the seams, but he’s become a dependable checkdown target.
And that’s all before we consider 2017 draft pick JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has extremely good hands plus the size to fight through press coverage. Don't forget about running back James Conner, who's way more than just a feel-good story.
Roethlisberger should be excited at the possibilities in 2017.
Martavis Bryant will break the cycle.
I know a lot of people have lost faith in Bryant’s ability to stay clean. I understand. There’s even a part of me that's being pessimistic about whether he can abide by the terms of his conditional reinstatement. But something feels different when comparing him to, say, Josh Gordon or Randy Gregory.
What we never heard about either of those guys was any kind of real change in their lives. Bryant’s journey, though, has been different.
He spent most of the past year in Nevada, working out away from the glitz and glamour of a typical, 25-year-old NFL player’s lifestyle. He’s trained hard — something he openly admitted he had never done in the past. He’s been coaching high school wide receivers. He's moved away from his past life, putting those temptations and distractions far away.
In short, while others before him have chosen to surrender to their demons, Bryant has attacked his head-on.
I’m not sugar-coating the power of addiction. There's never any guarantee that a relapse won’t occur. But, when someone makes healthy, wholesale changes to their lifestyle and habits to help overcome their struggles, it’s hard to not give them the benefit of the doubt. I truly believe Bryant will overcome, and be a star in the NFL for the next decade.
James Conner will see more carries than DeAngelo Williams did.
Call me crazy.
Mike Tomlin loves to run his backs until they fall over — or, as he once famously said about Willie Parker, he runs them “until the wheels fall off”.
But he seems enamored by Conner’s story, and by what he can bring to the table. He’s fresh legs, not ones that are in the twilight of a solid career. Sure, Williams had far less wear and tear on him than other rare backs who ran into their mid-thirties, thanks to the Carolina Panthers giving the bulk of the carries to Jonathan Stewart. But when you get beyond thirty years old, things start hurting for no good reason.
Conner has the same kind of heart that Williams had, and was returning to his pre-cancer form in the latter parts of the 2016 season. Before going down with a season-ending knee injury in the 2015 opener, then subsequently being diagnosed, Conner was being looked at as a possible first-round pick. Tomlin loves a good steal. Antonio Brown in the sixth. Stephon Tuitt in the second. David DeCastro outside the top 10. Alejandro Villanueva, as a defensive end, off the scrap heap and turned into a borderline Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle. Conner is the steal Mike Tomlin loves.
And you can bet he’s going to see plenty of playing time, even with All-Universe running back Le’Veon Bell around.
Greg Warren will retire before final cuts.
This isn’t exactly a bold prediction, I know. But I’m saying it out loud: Warren wanted to retire this off-season, but agreed to stay on for one more year, or until a replacement was identified and prepped. That replacement is Colin Holba. You don’t use a sixth-round pick on a long snapper unless you are sure he’s your guy. The rest is a formality, but the Steelers will let Warren retire rather than cut him, out of respect for his contributions. That retirement, by the way, will leave Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison as the only remaining members of the Super Bowl XL team — and Harrison wasn’t even a full-time starter yet.
Brian Allen will make the final roster.
I saved the boldest prediction for last. Yes, even bolder than saying Martavis Bryant has overcome his demons. At least that has a year of demonstrable evidence backing it up, to some degree. But this one? This prediction is rooted in post-draft hype and a few tales out of rookie mini-camp. That’s it.
But I like this kid, and I have a feeling the coaches see what I see.
He’s not going to be a day-one starter. He will probably only have a handful of snaps per game. But here’s the thing: Tomlin referred to Allen as “inexperienced, not raw.” Allen has a certain polish about his game, and a fine attention to detail. He has some rough edges, of course. Any rookie does, and there is a reason he was chosen in the sixth round. But a lot of that reason was his lack of playing time at corner back and, as a consequence of that, a lack of game film to be reviewed. He’s a former wide receiver with ridiculous measurables, good speed and impressive agility for someone who stands 6’-3”. With another quality year under his belt, he may have been a third-round pick -- even a second, with a little work. So, when the only thing standing between Allen and a double-digit draft position is a little inexperience, why wouldn’t you hang on to him? Put him on the roster, give him a hat, and let him make a few mistakes at times in games when those mistakes are tolerable.
We say every year that, if Bob Draftpick (insert an actual name here) goes to the practice squad, some other team will take him. Well, with Allen, that really is a distinct possibility. Remember, “inexperienced, not raw.”
High praise for a sixth-round pick, coming from a Super Bowl-winning coach.