Wilson: Re-tooling the roster

Willie Parker is the team MVP, and while the Steelers have their first-team running back of the future, the roster could see some turnover this off-season at other positions. With 10 unrestricted free agents, possible retirements, and some likely cuts, Pittsburgh could look a little different in 2007.

... Willie Parker was named the Pittsburgh Steelers' MVP on Thursday, and according to the Post-Gazette, it's the first time a running back has won the award since Jerome Bettis in 2000. If we can all forget about the game-changing fumble against the Ravens for a second, Parker is probably most deserving of the award.

In fact, when you think about it, I don't know who else should even be in the running. Aaron Smith? Maybe Larry Foote? Those are the only two names probably worthy of consideration. It's been that kind of year on the South Side. If the Steelers had managed to beat the Ravens and Chidi Iwuoma managed to avoid the IR, he would've gotten my vote. Of course, I'm not a player so my vote doesn't count, but that doesn't take away from my point: special teams can make or break a season. And the fact that Iwuoma would've won my made-up award in only a handful of games – after being released for Brian St. Pierre, no less – well, that's an after school special waiting to be written. Today Chidi deals with rejection in "I Lost My Job Because My Boss Is Crazy" …

... It's that time of year – once a team has been eliminated from the postseason the media dust off the trusty clichés. Usually teams are either "playing for pride" or "playing for their jobs next season." I never got the whole pride thing, but there's certainly some truth to playing for future job considerations.

With that in mind, here's an incomplete list of players who may not be around in 2007:

Unrestricted Free Agents
Rodney Bailey
Tyrone Carter
Sean Morey
Najeh Davenport
Mike Logan
Lee Mays
Barrett Brooks
Chidi Iwuoma
Chad Brown
Brian St. Pierre

Others Jeff Hartings Cedrick Wilson Chris Gardocki Travis Kirshke Rodney Bailey Verron Haynes Jerame Tuman

That's a lot of bodies. Some, like Brooks, won't be missed. Others, like Iwuoma and even Morey, will be harder to replace should it come to that.

I think it's pretty obvious that Gardocki's Steelers career has run its course and if it takes a blocked punt to get him out of the league I'd let the Bengals' special teams know that Sunday could be a big day for them. I've already made my views known on the punting situation: Pittsburgh should use a fourth-rounder on the best college punter available. And before you say that a fourth-round pick is too high, just take a moment to think back on recent Steelers' selections: Danny Farmer, Mathias Nkwenti, Fred Gibson. I could go on, but I oppose torture. In the meantime, everybody learn how to correctly pronounce Daniel Sepulveda.

I'd like to think that Tyrone Carter will be back, but if the Steelers draft another defensive back, and Ricardo Colclough returns from his bout with depression after single-handedly losing the Bengals game neck injury, Carter could be the odd man out. This is assuming that Mike Logan is done in Pittsburgh. However many defensive backs end up making the team, their ability to play special teams should be a pretty high priority. This is a not-so-subtle way of saying keeping Chidi Iwuoma might be a good idea.

This line of reasoning supports bringing back Sean Morey, too. At this point, I think Morey is more valuable to Pittsburgh than Cedrick Wilson. I want to like Wilson, but he just hasn't done much in two seasons. This preseason, the talk was whether the Steelers would keep seven wideouts. They ended up keeping six and the loss of Quincy Morgan hurt the special teams more than the offense. Now that we know Morey is a really dangerous kick returner, I hope the team doesn't make the same mistake (stifles a giggle).

... In Tuesday's column, the Tribune-Review's Mike Prisuta made the following comment:

Roethlisberger and the Steelers came up short far too many times to take advantage of an open back door to the postseason. They'll recognize that eventually, if they haven't already. The lineup around Roethlisberger will be tweaked, as it always is from one season to the next.

Adding another big-play receiver, preferably a big one through the draft or free agency, wouldn't hurt. But the biggest change must come from Roethlisberger responding to having been figuratively and literally knocked down.

Maybe it was just a throwaway line or maybe he really meant it. Either way, if there's one thing the Steelers don't need it's "another big-play receiver." Or, more succinctly, it's not at the top of the off-season to-do list. Currently, the depth chart at wideout looks like this:
Hines Ward 
Santonio Holmes 
Nate Washington 
Cedrick Wilson 
Willie Reid 
Sean Morey
Where's the room for another big-play receiver? I love the idea of a healthy Ward and Holmes playing together, as well as Washington, with a full season behind him, as the No. 3. If Wilson hangs around in 2007, he should be used in the Terance Mathis/Chris Doering/Antwaan Randle El trick play role. Reid will basically be a rookie ... again, but hopefully he can manage to make the game-day roster and, if nothing else, return punts.

Given all of Pittsburgh's other needs, I'd take a pass on drafting a wide receiver. Even Calvin Johnson. That said, I agree when Prisuta writes that "...the lineup around Roethlisberger will be tweaked..." and in Wednesday's column he goes into a little more detail:

If 2006 is viewed as an aberration, the organizational response figures to be more of a tweak than a shakeup. That's a conclusion that lost some credibility when the Steelers got pummeled for a second consecutive time by the new heavyweight in the AFC North Division, the Baltimore Ravens.

Still, it's an argument that might be viewed as viable, given the circumstances of Ben Roethlisberger's offseason and preseason and all those turnovers.

And whether a tweak or a shakeup is needed will be the most discussed topic of the off-season after Bill Cowher let's us know what his future plans include. I'm on record as saying Pittsburgh doesn't need a complete overhaul but some people don't see it that way. I understand the argument, but when you go whole hog on rebuilding, you're basically saying, "alright, it's going to take two or three years to get this thing like we want it, but it's a sacrifice worth making in the long run." I don't think the Steelers are in such a situation and to start making extensive changes seems a little premature.

Luckily, I don't have to make that decision and the Rooney's have a pretty good personnel track record. I loved this bit from Prisuta's latest:

In 1969 they hired Chuck Noll, then a defensive coach with Baltimore (there were no such things as coordinators at the time).

In 1992 they turned to Cowher, then the defensive coordinator in Kansas City. The two first-time head coaches combined to win five Super Bowls and last a combined 37 seasons, giving credence to the theory that being able to identify a rising star in the profession can pay huge dividends.

Also interviewed, among others, as the search for Noll's successor played out were John Fox (then Noll's defensive backfield coach), Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren and Dave Wannstedt.

The Steelers knew what they were doing, as far as identifying rising stars in the industry.

In retrospect, it's pretty amazing to think Cowher got the job over Fox, Green, Holmgren and Wannstedt. I understand that all four coaches were unproven at the time, but what did the Rooneys see in Cowher that made him the favorite? I wonder how things would've worked out if one of the other guys got the job. The best belated Christmas present I can think of is never having to pull for a Mike Holmgren-coached Steelers team. Small mercies, I guess.

Whatever happens next week, it's reassuring to know that unlike a lot of franchises, the Rooneys know what they're doing. And even if they don't, they're very, very lucky.

... Finally, I wanted to point out this Ed Bouchette article from Thursday's Post-Gazette. It's basically 300 words that could be summed up in one sentence: linebacker James Farrior leads the team in tackles with 145, the most by any Steelers' player since Jack Lambert had 159 in 1983. It's not a bad piece, per se, but it could be a hell of a lot better. I can learn who leads the league in tackles by going to NFL.com.

The question Bouchette should be answering -- or at least asking -- is why is Farrior leading the team in tackles? Is he more mobile than in previous seasons? Are the defensive linemen doing a better job of occupying blockers in front of him? Is he missing more tackles than in previous seasons? Where, in relation to the line of scrimmage, is he making these tackles?

This is the kind of information that interests fans. I don't yet have the data for 2006, but here's what I wrote last off-season about Farrior:

Farrior certainly didn't have a bad year [in 2005], it was just a departure from 2004. According to the game-charting data, on passing plays, Farrior made his average stop 6.4 yards past the line of scrimmage, good for 72nd in the league among linebackers. (Note: passing plays also include sacks). On running plays, Farrior made his average stop 2.4 yards past the line of scrimmage, which ranked 12th.
I'm not saying Bouchette should have access to these numbers but he has something a lot more valuable: access to the coaches who watch the film and see these guys every day for nine months a year. Ask Dick LeBeau or Keith Butler why Farrior's numbers are up this season. To just write that Farrior leads the team in tackles tells only half the story -- the half that isn't interests nobody.

Come on, throw me a bone.

Steel City Insider Top Stories