Don’t be surprised if the Pittsburgh Steelers draft a running back with the 23rd pick in the first round on April 26. They’re due.
Pittsburgh, which has led the NFL in rushing since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, has not drafted a running back in the first round in 19 years. Tim Worley was the last to receive that distinction when he was the seventh overall pick in the 1989 draft.
Worley basically was a washout after a suspension for the 1992 season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He never played for the Steelers again—and they’ve never drafted another running back either in the first or second rounds.
This year could be different, and on paper, that may seem strange. Pittsburgh needs help in the offensive and defensive lines, and at wide receiver, it would seem more than at running back.
The Steelers, after all, had the NFL’s leading rusher last season in Willie Parker through 14 games and Parker racked up his third straight 1,000-yard season and a second straight bid to the Pro Bowl.
But Parker’s fibula was broken in the 14th game of the season and they have little behind him. Also, they failed at times to run the ball when they had to in close games or to protect a lead. Parker is not a power runner who can produce those kinds of yards consistently.
Jonathan Stewart is that kind of runner. He’s a power runner from Oregon who stands 5-10 1/2 and weighs a rock-solid 230 pounds. He’s Barry Foster reincarnated. He and Parker, given their differing running styles, would mix extremely well.
But will he be there at the 23rd pick? Some teams will shy away from Stewart because of a toe injury and some because they believe his running style, while powerful, is not the game-breaking type they want that a few other backs seem to have.
The Steelers, though, have a different philosophy. In Parker, they have the game-breaking ability. They need someone to drive people off the ball and keep those chains moving to protect leads. Coach Mike Tomlin has said he believes in a two-back system but he did not have another runner to turn to last year for that.
Najeh Davenport is OK, but his upright running style does not fit the power game they’re looking for. Gary Russell, an undrafted rookie last season, is an unproven commodity.
Stewart would fit Pittsburgh perfectly.
• LaMarr Woodley will be the Steelers’ starting left outside linebacker in 2008, and he could become their top pass rusher. In fact, he was their top pass rusher last season, based on his sacks per play. Woodley had four sacks in 80 defensive snaps as a rookie in 2007.
“He’s exactly one every 20 snaps,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “If he kept that pace up, then he’d be a pretty good football player.”
• It appears Troy Polamalu will remain the hair apparent in the Steelers backfield now that the NFL has passed on trying to limit a player’s flowing locks outside his helmet.
“Thankfully, we don’t have to deal with it at this point,” Tomlin said. “He and I talked … Like everybody else, (he wanted to know) is it going to fly? My guess is it doesn’t have wings at this point.”
• The Steelers fully support commissioner Roger Goodell’s attempts to hold players and the league to stricter personal conduct policies. Team chairman Dan Rooney said his late father, Art Sr., would approve as well.
“You may say isn’t that going a little far?” Rooney said. “Not when you’re talking about the integrity of the game. We don’t have anything else. My father would talk about that. That’s one thing that was so important to him, the image of the league so the people could trust.”
Quote To Note: “I have a passion for those (pass) rushers, man. Those guys are unique animals, man. When you have them, you have a chance to play great defense and when you have a chance to play great defense, you have a chance to win.”—Coach Mike Tomlin.
Strategy And Personnel
TEAM NEEDS/OFFSEASON STRATEGY
1. Offensive tackle: Undersized Willie Colon is on the right and veteran Marvel Smith on the left. Smith is signed only through 2008. Max Starks, who started in ‘05 and ‘06, lost out to Colon last year but because of their anxiousness about the position, they slapped the transition tag on him. Trai Essex, a restricted free agent, is the only other experienced tackle.
2. Offensive guard: Alan Faneca started 10 years at left guard and made seven Pro Bowls. Chris Kemoeatu, who has started two games in three years, will replace him. Veteran Kendall Simmons starts on the right. They have no experienced backups other than starting center Sean Mahan, who played some guard at Tampa Bay.
3. Defensive line: While solid in their starting three of ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel and nose tackle Casey Hampton, all will be at least 30 near the start of the season and they have little behind them other than veteran backup NT Chris Hoke, who is 32. Coach Mike Tomlin has pledged to get younger players in his line.
RB Willie Parker, whose fibula was broken in the 15th game of the season, is working out and running at home in North Carolina and the team feels he’ll be fine in 2008.
WR Hines Ward, who had knee surgery, started working out in Pittsburgh Monday after workouts at home in Atlanta.
DE Aaron Smith, who missed the final four games including the playoff with a torn bicep that required surgery, “looks good … he’s close to normal,” according to Tomlin.
OT Marvel Smith, who had minor back surgery in December, is working out with teammates.
FS Ryan Clark, who had his spleen and gall bladder removed at midseason, is coming along nicely but has not done much related to football.
DE Ryan McBean remains on crutches after postseason foot surgery.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None
TRANSITION PLAYER: OT Max Starks (tendered at $6.895M).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
• LB Marquis Cooper is a special teams player and possible developmental linebacker. Not a priority.
• RB Verron Haynes was re-signed late in the season after Willie Parker was hurt but likely won’t receive another offer from Pittsburgh.
• FB Dan Kreider’s role was diminished last year and then his ACL was torn. He’s working out and the Steelers might sign him if he gets no looks elsewhere.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
• WR Nate Washington (tendered at $1.47M with 2nd-round pick as compensation).
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
• LB Arnold Harrison will receive a contract because he’s a good, young backup at a position that is thin and he also plays special teams.
• LB Keyaron Fox: UFA Chiefs; $645,000/1 yr, $40,000 SB; 2008 cap: $485,000.
• C Justin Hartwig: FA Panthers; $3.725M/2 yrs, $975,000 SB.
• RB Mewelde Moore: UFA Vikings; $4.95M/3 yrs, $1.35M SB.
• DE Nick Eason: UFA’ 2 yrs, terms unknown.
• OT Trai Essex: RFA, $927,000/1 yr.
• LB Andre Frazier: Not tendered as RFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
• G Chris Kemoeatu: RFA; $1.47M/1 yr.
• DE Travis Kirschke: Potential UFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
• LS Greg Warren: RFA; $2.3M/3 yrs, $395,000 SB.
• G Alan Faneca: UFA Jets; $40M/5 yrs, $21M guaranteed.
• LB Clark Haggans: UFA Cardinals; $1.5M/1 yr, SB unknown.
• LB Cliff Kriewaldt (released/failed physical).
• CB/KR Allen Rossum (released).
• QB Brian St. Pierre: UFA Cardinals; 1 yr, terms unknown.
• TE Jerame Tuman (released).
• WR Cedrick Wilson (released).