Mini-Camp Provides Mini-Preview

We all got our first look at the incoming rookie-class this past weekend. The second-year players also participated along with the free agents new to the system, as expected. Beyond these usual suspects is a story about veterans struggling to hold onto a roster spot and those players looking to take another step in their careers as Steelers.

Last year at this time, even though Kendrell Bell was just in his second year, the Pittsburgh Steelers were already tipping their hand. Bell began his paces learning the rushing end position in his quest to get on the field for all three downs. Did mini-camp provide any glimpses of plans for this coming season?

First, the veterans most likely to lose their jobs were there at mini-camp trying to find any edge in order to stave off a visit from the Turk come August. TEs Jerame Tuman and Matt Cushing got a close look at free agent acquisition Jay Riemersma, a player who may cost one of them a job. NT Chris Hoke cased out the rookie free agent class, keeping an eye out for any competition for his position on the depth chart. Certainly, OLB Justin Kurpeikis can understand Hoke's anxiety. OG Keydrick Vincent is back at it, taking nothing for granted, looking for any way to stick, perhaps even start. Finally, there's Hank Poteat facing his demise in Ike Taylor, a player bigger and faster than Poteat could ever be.

Desperate veterans aside, this year's Bell-project concerns three players: Oliver Ross, Verron Haynes, and Rodney Bailey. Ross' charge is obvious, he wants to do anything he can to solidify his role as a starting right tackle now that Wayne Gandy has gone south and Marvel Smith has been moved to left tackle. Haynes is hoping to work his way on to the running back depth chart, already spending extra time with Jerome Bettis watching film. The pick of J.T. Wall in the 7th round doesn't make any of the fullbacks feel all that comfortable about their future prospects with the Steelers. Ah, but the real intrigue here is the presence of DE Rodney Bailey. What is Bailey doing at mini-camp?

In last year's draft, conventional wisdom had the Steelers chasing a defensive end. The speculation was that Kimo Von Oelhoffen wasn't getting any younger and that the Steelers could upgrade the position. Lost in this analysis were the wayward contract negotiations of the other starting DE, Aaron Smith. The Steelers were looking for some leverage, but the draft opportunity did not present itself.

The defensive end draft talk resurfaced this year and once again, many draftniks predicted that the Steelers would grab a player to upgrade Von Oelhoffen. Once again, the Steelers did not draft a defensive end for their 3-4 scheme. Might the Steelers be considering a switch to a 4-3?

The pick of Alonzo Jackson in round 2 answered that question. No. Jackson did try to bulk up and look more like the bigger ends the NFL prefers, but there is no hiding that he is a classic tweener. He will need to season a year or two and a sudden switch to a 4-3 would make that all for naught, essentially throwing away a second-round pick.

Maybe Bailey didn't jump out at you in 2002, but he quietly amassed the same number of sacks as Aaron Smith, 5.5, in perhaps one-third of the time on the field. That may not sound impressive, but keep in mind that the Bailey-Smith sack duo out-performed the leading sack duo for the Baltimore Ravens last season, Peter Boulware and Anthony Weaver (10.5).

While defensive stats are notoriously poor indicators of performance, they do have some relative value. A quick perusal of the Steelers defensive statistics reveals that Rodney Bailey comes out ahead of Kimo Von Oelhoffen. While neither of them is in the neighborhood of Aaron Smith (even combining their stats), the handwriting is on the wall. Bailey has put himself in position to give Von Oelhoffen a run for the starting job at right defensive end.

By now, the "why" of Bailey's presence at mini-camp should be clear. Coach Cowher likely told Bailey in their one-on-one off-season meeting that Bailey is expected to start in 2003. Bailey has accepted the challenge and attended mini-camp to start learning the position on running downs. Bailey is hoping to graduate from situational rusher to a three-down player. The Steelers had a similar hope for Kendrell Bell last season (and this coming one as well) and now it is Bailey's turn.

-- Jim Russell

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