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How the Steelers can handle Rashard Mendenhall

One of the topics that Steelers GM Kevin Colbert spoke on, at the media session at the NFL Combine on Thursday was running back Rashard Mendenhall.  This is an interesting situation because Mendy (as we in the SteelerNation like to call him) is signed through the 2012 season; after that he’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Normally this is a time when the team will try to negotiate a long term deal and lock up the player before they hit the open market.  While Colbert didn’t speak about any contract specifics in regards to Mendenhall, one would think that they will take a wait and see approach with his ACL recovery.  Here’s what Colbert had to say when asked about the Steelers ball carrier (courtesy of Ken Laird at the Pittsburgh Trib):

 On the team’s RB situation:
“We’re pretty sure we won’t have Mendenhall early, so we’ll have to see what mix we come out with.”

 

Would you have to pay Mendenhall if you put him on IR?
“If there’s performance bonuses and a guy doesn’t perform, it could lessen it. Anything that’s concrete is concrete. They make the same money on ‘Physically Unable to Perform’ that they do on active. Because you’re actually an active player until you go on reserve, and then you still get complemented fully. We’re not expecting him to be on IR for the year. What I said a few weeks back was an ACL could take a year to be 100%. That doesn’t mean you can’t play. A lot of guys play at 70%, 80%, so after 6-weeks he gets three weeks of practice. After those three weeks you have to decide whether to activate him or to put him on Reserve-PUP for the season. We anticipate he will be active someday.”

 There’s never any way to predict how a player will recover from such a bad injury so it would not behoove the Steelers do to anything other than wait right now. They are not in a position of need at running back entering next year, as it stands now, so they can afford to be cautious.  There’s no reason to think that Rashard can’t come back at some point and be productive but you just never know with this type of injury.  While some players never do fully recover, with today’s advances in medicine and rehab there’s a better chance than ever for them to return to a productive career. That being said every position is different and running back is one where you rely on a lot of quick cuts, bursts of speed, and driving your legs through tackles to try and gain that extra yardage.  You better have good knees and ankles to be able to make those moves.

As we just mentioned, the Steelers have the benefit of having multiple options available in the running game next year so even if Mendenhall has to start out on the PUP list, they should be fine. Isaac Redman, who came on in relief of Mendenhall  in the final game of the season and in the playoffs, took full advantage of his opportunity and showed that he deserves a shot to start. He’ll get that opportunity in 2012 and there’s no reason to think he won’t be up for the task.  Redman feels he is more than a short yardage specialist and sees no reason why he can’t be a full time starter getting 20-25 carries a game. He’s got good vision, runs hard and low to the ground, and has quick feet. Those are all traits that have served him well in his young career.  If he is successful to start out the season he’ll make the decision to give Mendenhall his starting job back very difficult.  Today’s NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” type of league as we know, and unfortunately for some it’s not always fair. An injury can cost you your starting job even though it wasn’t your fault.

They also have potential talents in Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay, both of whom saw limited action last season. Dwyer, in his first start had over 100 yds against the Titans, and Clay saw action in weeks 16-17 and in the wildcard game in Denver, getting some valuable experience for the future.  Also consider the return of Baron Batch, the 2011 rookie out of Texas Tech who tore his ACL in training camp.  He figures to compete with veteran Mewelde Moore for the 3rd down back duties. Batch has good hands to be an outlet for Ben in the short passing game and showed good potential in blitz pickup.

It’s unlikely that Mendenhall would be able to command a huge payday next season although he certainly won’t make the league minimum either. Players coming off ACL injuries don’t tend to have breakout years right away upon return. Still, he is a proven productive back with post season experience so he’ll have options to consider.  The Steelers will have to decide if it’s worth paying him or if they can rely on Redman for the future and some combination of upstart young players currently on the roster.

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