1. Troy Polamalu, strong safety - When you're the first player a
team has ever traded up to acquire in the first round of the draft,
the bar is set pretty high for you from the beginning. But
Polamalu struggled learning the intricacies of the Steelers
defense last season and wasn't fully comfortable until halfway
through the season. Polamalu's a guy whose game is keyed by
his speed and because he was unsure of himself out there, he
couldn't use his speed.
That won't be a problem now. Polamalu, now the team's starting strong safety, was all over the field during its offseason workouts. He was flying to the ball, tipping passes and intercepting others. Polamalu will be the team's best strong safety since Carnell Lake played the position at an All-Pro level in the mid-'90s.
2. Joey Porter, outside linebacker - After earning his first Pro
Bowl trip in 2002, Porter seemed poised to become an NFL
stud. But his 2003 season was much more dud than stud.
Porter was shot in the behind a week prior to the start of the regular season and missed the first two games. As it turns out, he probably shouldn't have rushed himself to return.
Porter had none of the explosiveness rushing the passer he had shown in the past and recorded just five sacks, his lowest total since he became a starter in 2000. By comparison, he had two sacks in spot play as a rookie in 1999. Porter also failed to intercept a pass after picking off three in 2002.
Porter fancies himself the leader of the team's defense if not the leader of the team. And as evidenced by his constant jawing with opponents, he also fancies himself as one of the best linebackers in the league.
It's time to put up or shut up. My bet is Porter bounces back with a double-digit sack, Pro Bowl season in 2004 as new defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau brings out the best in him.
3. Antwaan Randle
El, wide receiver - As a return man, Randle El
had a good season in 2003, taking a pair of punts back for
touchdowns. But he struggled as a receiver, dropping easy
passes and failing to average over 10 yards per catch on his 37
Many times receivers struggle until their third season in the league. And considering Randle El played quarterback in college, not receiver, his struggles were understandable.
But with Plaxico Burress skipping the team's offseason workouts, Randle El got increased playing time with the first-team offense and could blossom in 2004. At least the team had better hope so. With Burress unlikely to be back in 2005, a breakout season by Randle El would certainly ease some of the team's problems.
4. Tommy Maddox, quarterback - In 2003, the Cincinnati Bengals
selected quarterback Carson Palmer with the top pick in the draft
and promptly told the world Jon Kitna would remain the team's
starter for that season. Kitna responded with a career year and
was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year.
Don't think the Steelers didn't think about that scenario when they selected Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick in this year's draft. No sooner had they taken Roethlisberger than they proclaimed Tommy Maddox the starter for 2004 and then handed him a $2 million paycheck for this season.
Though Maddox set team records for attempts, completions and 300-yard games in 2003, it was hardly a good season for him. He had five games with multiple interceptions and the Steelers lost all five of those games. He also had three interceptions returned for touchdowns.
But if the offensive line play improves and the Steelers can generate some kind of a running game, Maddox should have more time in the pocket. And if the addition of Roethlisberger has the same effect on Maddox that Palmer had on Kitna, the Steelers could be in good shape in 2004.
5. Kendall Simmons, guard - What can you say about Simmons'
2003 season? He probably shouldn't have played after being
diagnosed with diabetes a week before the start of training
camp. Simmons was hospitalized and lost 30 pounds while he
struggled to get his disease under control and then missed
most of camp.
And for much of the season, he played like a guy didn't really have any business being on the field. But given the problems the Steelers were having at the tackle positions, they really didn't have any choice but to keep on running him out there.
Simmons has talent. And he's had a full year to learn how to live with his affliction and to get his strength back up. Expect a big season from him in 2004.
Five ready to shine
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