Well, it's here. The Steelers report to training camp on Monday and our coverage will kick into high gear. If you liked our work last year, you'll love it this year. Here's a taste of what's to come:
Back on April 21, during the pre-draft minicamp, it became obvious that the Steelers needed help at outside linebacker.
On that day, young inside backer Rian Wallace lined up opposite James Harrison at the outside positions. The No. 1 backup was Marcello Church, who’d sat out of football the previous year and was in his first NFL camp.
Coordinator Dick LeBeau was asked whether this underscored the obvious, that the Steelers would draft outside backers the following weekend. His answer was surprising, but truthful.
“I don’t think anything that happens out here is going to affect the draft,” LeBeau said. “The draft is definitely a longer range situation than what you’re talking about in even a year.”
Well, the Steelers did draft outside backers with their first two picks, but LeBeau was right: Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley are involved in “a longer range situation.”
Unless there’s an injury to one or maybe even two players, Timmons and Woodley are destined for little more than specialized spot duty and special-teams work this season.
However, the first two picks are locks to make the team, so they don’t have much to worry about when they report to St. Vincent College for training camp tomorrow. That should give them an easier night of rest than most of the newcomers. Here’s the rundown of each new player’s chances of making the team:
Lead Pipe Locks
A Steelers.com online poll asked readers if Timmons would make a quick impact on defense. Of the nearly 205,000 votes cast, 72 percent voted “Yes.”
Wow. The real question is: How will a 21-year-old who was inconsistent in his only year as a college starter, and who missed all of spring drills with an injury, and who probably should’ve gone back to college for more seasoning, move past Arnold Harrison for the second spot on the depth chart?
Really, not much should be expected of Timmons this season. The hope is that he polishes up his instincts and understanding of the game while sitting in the meeting room.
Woodley, on the other hand, has good instincts but he doesn’t have near the quick-twitch muscle fiber flashed by Timmons at Florida State. To mix the two players would be ideal, but it’s enough to say that both will learn the game the right way this year under LeBeau and LB coach Keith Butler.
The only newcomer who’ll battle for a starting job is center-guard Sean Mahan. He might not only push Chukky Okobi off the first team, but possibly off the roster. Okobi will make $2 million in salary this year and he can’t play guard, a position at which the Steelers lack depth.
Ideally, Okobi would start at center and Mahan would be that valuable center-guard backup on game day. However, Okobi hasn’t shown the ability to get any push in his seven starts over the last six years. To shoot for the ideal, when the backup is better than the starter, would be foolish.
Of course, fourth-round pick Dan Sepulveda will not only make the roster, but he’ll be the punter and is currently a favorite to win the team’s Rookie of the Year award.
Prepare To Light A Cigar
Street free-agent Kevan Barlow didn’t run well in the spring, but he’s younger and in better shape than was Duce Staley last season, and the logic for keeping Staley was that his experience would allow him to produce when needed. Well, he was never needed last season and fans were spared a spectacle. Barlow, even though his legs appear worn, has a great chance to make the team because two spots are open behind Willie Parker, Najeh Davenport and Dan Kreider. Barlow’s main competition will be oft-injured Verron Haynes and tailback-fullback hybrids John Kuhn and Carey Davis. But Barlow had better begin hustling around the field, and he must be able to play special teams to make this team.
Fifth-round pick Cameron Stephenson plays the right position. The Steelers lack depth at guard and Stephenson was an object of the scouting department’s work throughout his senior season at Rutgers. He can only lose this spot.
The Jobs Are Wide Open
Aside from backup guard, the Steelers also have roster holes at tight end and defensive end; however, no one stepped forward for either job in the spring.
At tight end, third-round draft pick Matt Spaeth did not impress with either speed or blocking. At 6-foot-7, he doesn’t look like the next Kyle Brady. It appears Spaeth will always have trouble gaining leverage. Undrafted rookie Cody Boyd may be more athletic than Spaeth, but is too skinny at this point to help as an in-line blocker. While it would take courage for Mike Tomlin to do so, no one who watched spring practice would be surprised if he names Jon Dekker the No. 3 tight end.
The most confused rookie in the spring may have been fourth-round draft pick Ryan McBean. Now, defensive linemen always need time to play for John Mitchell, but McBean was hopelessly lost. His competition, street free-agent Nick Eason, has a chance to take the job, but also failed to impress, so the door is open for undrafted rookie Derek Jones and practice-squadders Scott Paxson and Shaun Nua.
There’s also an opening for a fifth safety, but the Steelers have only five safeties on the roster. That would give practice-squad player Mike Lorello a great chance, unless converted cornerback Harrison Smith surprises everyone.
Best Of The Rest
Undrafted Eric Fowler was the standout rookie of the spring. He caught everything. The 6-3 receiver led Grand Valley State to back-to-back D-2 championships, but sat out most of the last title game with a hamstring problem. That could’ve hurt him on draft day, but if Fowler flashes any speed, he and seventh-round pick Dallas Baker could give Willie Reid a run for his money, or even force Mike Tomlin into keeping six wide receivers.
If Reid’s foot injuries continue to be a problem, the longshot return men are undrafted rookie Chris Jackson and waiver pickup Dan Sheldon. Both are receivers.
Backup linemen Darnell Stapleton and massive Jason Capizzi appear destined for the practice squad. Speaking of which, quarterback Brian St. Pierre is out of practice-squad eligibility. If he can’t force Tomlin to keep three quarterbacks, newcomer Bryan Randall would make the practice squad. He’s better than the team’s Nos. 3 and 4 camp QBs last year.
Undrafted rookie Gary Russell could surprise the running back corps, but he’ll need more chances than he received last spring.
Fifth-round pick William Gay looked slow in the spring and could have trouble beating Anthony Madison and Chidi Iwuoma for the last cornerback spot.
Church, the outside linebacker, will have to make the roster as a special-teamer.
By Jim Wexell
22 July 2007