Week III: OTAs End in Flourish of Optimism

From the notebook of a sportswriter who likes the arm – and, really, the field presence – of the Steelers' new quarterback:

* But he must be nothing more than a camp arm, what with that No. 78 jersey they gave him.

* Seriously, one rookie reporter raced off to his veteran mentor Thursday at Heinz Field to inform said mentor of his "scoop" about a No. 78 playing quarterback.

* And more seriously, I loved Ben Roethlisberger wearing No. 78 in smirking defiance of the Steelers not having re-signed left tackle Max Starks yet.

* The word I wanted to use was impudent. That word hit me after I saw rookie punter Drew Butler wearing the No. 9 of his idol Jim McMahon.

* McMahon would've never complained about the new playbook, nor would he have praised the new draft picks throughout spring drills. He would've assured all that the new offense is a snap (even if it wasn't, or even if he had no intention of learning it) and he would've ripped any rookie trying to replace one of his long and trusted bodyguards.

* That's what Roethlisberger did yesterday. Call him impudent if you must, but I love that he's sticking up for one of his boys and that in chatting up the new offense in a positive manner he provided everyone around the team with more confidence.

* Maybe some of the quarterback's confidence has to do with the practice surge this past week of wide receiver Antonio Brown. Up until the last few practices, the star wide receiver had been Emmanuel Sanders – by a longshot.

* Brown made several acrobatic catches Thursday, but he had to laugh at one that was sheer luck. In a red-zone drill, Brown ran a corner route to the 3-yard line and didn't turn in time for the ball. But the ball hit him in the head and he pinned it there and held on as he did two seasons ago against the Ravens. Brown also managed to keep his feet inbounds to move the chains. After practice I asked him about not getting his head around in time to find the ball. "Yeah," he said with a big smile, "the ball found my head instead."

* After Thursday's practice at Heinz Field, Brown and Sanders were off to the side taking their pads off, stretching out, cooling off, both beaming more confidently than ever with their standing on the team.

* Sean Spence wasn't so much a star yesterday, but his interception of Byron Leftwich over the middle brought out some of the news Spence had been making off the field.

* The Steelers have already reversed their draft-day decree that Spence is a mack linebacker. The week-long absence of Stevenson Sylvester gave Spence an opportunity to play the buck position, and he's opened plenty of eyes.

* And most of those good impressions were made in the classroom. "He asks all the right questions," said one coach.

* But I wouldn't write Larry Foote off just yet. He lined up to race Chris Carter and another linebacker in a 10-yard dash. Foote won by a step because he came off the snap more quickly, more instinctively.

* Remember, with the disappearing of the fullback, buck backers – or playcallers in the Steelers' scheme – don't have to weigh 240 pounds anymore. Spence is listed at 231 but looks smaller.

* I asked someone who watches practice tape if he's been impressed by any of the young unknowns. He said that seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum is "one who makes me say ‘wow.'"

* After relaying this to another writer on the sideline, the writer – who was watching practice and listening to me at the same time – said, "As in, ‘Wow, look how fast Chris Carter just ran by Beachum.'"

* Sure, rookies will have bad moments, but since hearing that tip I've been impressed by Beachum's mobility, solid base, and versatility.

* The other "wow guy" mentioned was seventh-round pick Toney Clemons. The WR who was great the first week and bad the second week bounced back impressively this third week.

* As for the other seventh-round picks, another source told me TE David Paulson is "coach's guy" and CB Terrence Frederick had been slowed by a hamstring problem "but he just made a play."

* Since I shared Mike Tomlin's affinity for Paulson before the draft, I've been keeping an eye on him, and Paulson finally made his breakthrough this week. He had his best day Thursday. He even caught a pass over the middle and turned it up for a touchdown. He's not flashy, but is plucky.

* As for Frederick, all I can say is that he and undrafted rookie Terry Carter play as a CB tandem way down on the depth chart and Frederick is smaller but more polished, and, frankly, better.

* A scout asked about my 12-year-old daughter's athletic progress. She's the goalie for a soccer team that just won the State Cup, and like everyone else has her flaws. After giving me some drills for her, the scout said, "Tell her to make her weakness her strength. That's what the great ones do."

* Thinking it was wisdom passed down from the mountaintop, I repeated this to my daughter, who said, "Duh."

* Justin Kapinos is not letting Butler, the highly touted rookie, pull away in the punting derby. And undrafted rookie WR Marquis Maze had a two-"my bad" day with his coaches. So I'm moving safety Robert Golden to the top of the oddsboard for the roster chances of the undrafted rookies.

* If the 202-pound Golden is the No. 1 undrafted rookie at this point, OLB Adrian Robinson is No. 1-A. The difference being the amount of talent in front of Robinson.

* Robinson himself isn't sure what running past tackles Marcus Gilbert and Trai Essex means in the spring without pads, but he's as hopeful as the rest of the "tape-watchers" in the Steelers' organization.

* Andre Freeman, the undrafted rookie cornerback from Slippery Rock, made a stunning interception in the corner of the end zone Thursday. That kid's not going away anytime soon, either.

* Have to love Wes Lyons's receiving potential as a tight end, but if you watch him hit a sled you want to yell "Stop ducking your head! You're making my spine hurt!"

* Tight end coach James Daniel came through with this comment to Lyons: "One thing we say in football is don't duck your head, so don't duck your head. You get hurt when you duck your head."

* He sounded like the commercial that ends with "so don't end up in a ditch by the side of the road."

* FB/TE Jamie McCoy did the best job with the sled. Leonard Pope – who's probably heard about "pad level" ever since he was 10 years old – adjusted best to Daniel's instructions.

* Cortez Allen is holding off Curtis Brown for the No. 3 CB job, but a scout told me Brown is probably the second quickest player on the team – behind rookie RB Chris Rainey.

* Rainey was born in prison but was standing there next to me, just off the field, at the pinnacle of his profession. I asked him if he could explain that gigantic chasm in a few sentences, but he could only laugh. One source told me that Rainey's "smart, very smart, gym-rat smart."

* Rainey was wide open in the flat, but dropped the pass while no doubt salivating over the open grass in front of him. Tomlin went from saying "Get some!" to "Awww." Ziggy Hood, who was hustling out into the flat, said to Rainey, "You dropped that. Time to die!"

* Yep, Ziggy's growing into a leader, and reading the papers, too.

* And a few plays later Rainey made one of the sickest 360 spin moves of the spring.

* If it's not Spence, it's Rainey who's the most impressive rookie here.

* Scout.com sent a survey to us team publishers, and one question was "Worst Draft Pick." I honestly couldn't think of one, so – and this was two weeks ago – I wrote, "Kelvin Beachum (?)" Well, after watching nine workouts, I e-mailed Scout to ask if they could change that to "None."

* At least the lower echelon – picks 3 through 7D – have shown great value. Next week we'll have the opportunity to gauge the top picks, and no one expects to be disappointed.


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