Someone asked me to put a number on whether Brett Keisel will sign with the Steelers before training camp, and in spite of the rampant optimism out there among my colleagues I had to call it 25-75 against a re-signing.
Not that I don't want him there. I would happily be wrong in this case. As I was just telling one of my old sources in the scouting department, I really, really hope the team signs Keisel.
In an attempt at full disclosure, I told my friend -- as we stood on the sideline watching practice Wednesday -- that I probably want Brett back for selfish reasons, because he wasn't just a great go-to guy for me in the locker room, he was a friend. Sure, I could always get a great quote from him, but more importantly I got insight, even wisdom, from him.
I told my friend that I'm trying to realize this personal selfishness and not let it get in the way of any good sense I may have in reporting on Keisel and whether the team should/will re-sign him.
"You're not being selfish," my friend said. "Look at all of these young guys out there. They need him in the locker room for those very same reasons."
Of course, that's a plus for those who want to bring Keisel back. But let's leave the emotion out of this and take a practical look at the situation:
* The Steelers have already moved Cameron Heyward over to the right side, the weak side, the playmaking side that Keisel called home since the 2005 championship run. And Cam is already working on the freewheeling stuff Keisel used as a pseudo-linebacker in their mixer third-down defenses. Could they move Heyward back to the strong side? Absolutely. He played well there last season. But spring is always a window into the future. If the Steelers can get away with it, they'll leave Heyward where he's at now. Strike one on Brett.
* Cam Thomas, a swing NT/DE, is starting on the strong side, the Aaron Smith side, the side opponents crash the gate as classic right-handed running teams. But Thomas isn't near the athlete Keisel is. In fact, Thomas' future here, as I see it, is to become the next Al Woods, a swing man, and you saw what the Steelers were (or weren't) willing to pay Woods this past March. They let Woods go and signed Thomas, who lost his starting job last season in San Diego. Thomas is a stop gap here, or a bridge to a future that includes Stephon Tuitt. He's their second-round pick who's not going to be ready to start the opener, or perhaps start a game at any point in this season. He impresses me in individual drills with his power and the way he can get those big arms up and into an offensive lineman's chest, and he can move well, but he's just guessing out there in scrimmages. And he looks like he needs to lose another 10 pounds, or he at least needs to get the pounds he has into shape. But until Tuitt's ready, the front office gave the coaches a younger guy in Thomas to use for the time being. Strike two.
* So they sign Keisel because Mike Tomlin has made the righteous appeal to the front office that, hey, Keisel is better than Thomas. In that sense, there's a need. But don't be fooled into thinking this is a depth issue. In fact, the Steelers have decent and intriguing depth. They could just use a better starter. But does the degree to which Keisel > Thomas supercede the need to give young players such as Brian Arnfelt, Nick Williams, Daniel McCullers and Josh Mauro a legitimate chance? Other possibilities are undrafted free agent Ethan Hemer, who rotated first team with Tuitt at rookie camp, and street free agent Al Lapuaho, who's been seeing time as a second-team tackle in the nickel. I don't want to count out undrafted Louisville rookie Roy Philon, either, before the pads come on.
As I see it the Steelers have three locks at DE and Tomlin has never kept more than five. It's possible Tomlin and DL coach John Mitchell could write off Williams because of his lengthy injury problem, and have Arnfelt and one of the others in mind for the practice squad. If the coaches have a sense that McCullers, Mauro, Hemer and/or Philon can't make it, and that Lapuaho is more nose tackle than end, then all of that adds up to an opening. But I just don't see that all happening before camp. And during camp they would have to be certain that most of these young players have no future. Nah, at best I can call this a check swing on the 0-2 pitch.
But if I'm the first-base ump, and you're appealing to me, I'm saying that Keisel didn't go and calling it a ball. So he still has his last strike. And I'm hoping that aforementioned wisdom might help him muscle a single up the middle and keep this rally alive.