Tales from minicamp

Minicamp is the perfect example of how you can be a million miles away while standing right on top of it. But there are some tales.

Fred Gibson rides high on that stool in front of his locker. His rich and popular neighbor is Hines Ward, a hero to Steeler and Georgia Bulldog fans alike. The rookie Gibson is both.

"I wanted to be by him," he said of Ward to his left. To Gibson's right is Arnold Harrison. He's a rookie linebacker and he's also from Georgia.

What's up over in this corner?

"I told them to put them beside me," Ward said. "That's what I do for the younger guys, especially guys who come from my alma mater. I want to help all the young guys out, but these two are special for me."

Gibson in particular. He's a 6-foot-4 receiver, so the Plaxico Burress comparisons are inevitable. At the first practice of minicamp, Gibson flashed NFL deep speed as well as quickness into and out of his cuts. His hands appear fine. He looks for all the world to be a big, fluid athlete who'll become the deep threat opposite Ward some day soon. At Georgia, Gibson was the deep threat opposite the productive Reggie Brown.

"What they had at Georgia was just like what Plax and I had," said Ward. "But he can't come in and try to be Plax. He's got to be Fred. Plax is his own player and we had some great years together. But I'm trying to help him develop as a player, and coming in as a late-round pick you have to go out and grind twice as hard.

"He's kind of going through my footsteps now, so I just want to help him as much as possible."

Yep. There's Hines' underdog chip from his draft day. Gibson has that, too, after falling into the fourth round. It's the perfect opportunity for Ward to mold an eager and talented player in his own image.

It's the perfect opportunity for Ward to market himself, too. Look at what he's saying: all the right things at all the right times. In this high-stakes negotiation, Ward seems to be winning.

So what's he worth?

Most sources peg the Steelers as having just over $2 million in available cap space. The rookies will eat little of that. The team still has Aaron Smith's contract to restructure. A $10 million bonus for Ward should be do-able. But would he spread it out over five years?

Probably not.

A $12 million bonus over six years sounds about right. He becomes the team's highest-paid player, and also comes close enough to Marvin Harrison's bonus for any necessary ego gratification. In Ward, the Steelers get an ultra-productive team leader who, at 29, won't be breaking down anytime soon. Good deal for both sides.

At the afternoon practice, Gibson broke free of an Ike Taylor jam and caught a Ben Roethlisberger deep pass over his head before stepping out of bounds. Gibson is certainly the team's most impressive new offensive player. The guy who closed on him to bat away a deep ball the next day, he's the most impressive new defensive player.

Bryant McFadden is taller than I'd pictured. I'd pictured a compact Dewayne Washington-type instead. McFadden's thick, just taller.

And it's obvious McFadden is a blue-chip athlete. He moved through the agility drills as if he were a five-year vet. He's smooth, but Gibson had him by a few steps. Roethlisberger was just a little bit short with the ball, and it helped McFadden, but not enough for me to forget about his flash of recovery speed.

McFadden face-guarded Gibson and put his hand up to deflect the ball away from the falling receiver. Interference could've been called. Regardless, McFadden proved he is more than just a jam corner who can support the run.

One of his former mentors at Florida State was Steelers free safety Chris Hope. He praised McFadden's cover skills before talking about his physical style. It was the opposite of the way McFadden was presented by draft experts.

"It was a benefit for him to learn all those off-coverages at Florida State," Hope said. "I think he's a well-rounded cornerback."

Alonzo Jackson is in a world of his own. No, really, he is. He's off by himself during positional drills, mindlessly wandering, perhaps even talking to himself. Jackson smiles often. Must've been what Huey Richardson looked like at Bill Cowher's first camp, Richardson's last.

Of course, Alonzo's in the locker room holding court with reporters, who earnestly note his 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 pound weight loss. Or was it a gain? Sorry, but no one really cares. The guy is so gone. Dedrick Roper will demand a recount if not.

"I feel a lot more comfortable," said Roper, who's hoping to jump off the practice squad this year to replace Jackson.

"I didn't really expect anything to happen last year. That was out of my hands," Roper said. "My biggest emphasis this off-season was just learning the playbook and learning responsibilities. I think that's what kept me off the field, not having the full mastery of the plays."

Dedrick, tell me the truth: Do you despise Alonzo Jackson for costing you close to $300,000 in salary last year?

"What'd you say?"

Uh, nevermind.

James Harrison, the other reserve outside linebacker, the one who showed so much promise last season, worked at inside backer this minicamp.

"A little bit of both. I played some outside. Same as last year," said Harrison. "I'm the maintenance man. I'm trying to fix it wherever they need help."

Well, Harrison's more than a maintenance man. He's the pass-rushing wild card for the Steelers this year, and they know it. He's one of the guys now. He's even got Chad Scott's old locker. Yeah, the one on the upper west side.

James, after your breakout year, does playing 'maintenance man' behind a guy like Alonzo Jackson make you want to kill him with your bare hands?

"What'd you say?"

Uh, nevermind.

(TALES, to be continued)

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