Wexell Report

You say you must read about the Pittsburgh Steelers and that it must be interesting stuff. Try this blog from Jim Wexell.

SUNDAY, JULY 27

* One last bit before we get lost in work around here, and I know I'm two weeks late, but congratulations to Thomas Tull for smashing all the records with his move "The Dark Knight." Tull, of course, is a rabid Steelers fan, and he's been a big help in getting my new book into the hands of a great New York City production team. Funny, the day after his movie smashed all of the opening-night box office records, he called to see if everything was going well with my book. Special guy. Steeler guy. And if you haven't seen it yet, "The Dark Knight" is the best flick you'll see in a long time. It's even better when you realize it's a Steeler movie.

THURSDAY, JULY 24

* On Wednesday, the Steelers made one last cut before the start of training camp by releasing 6-foot-6 wide receiver Matt Trannon. This clears the roster for the imminent signings of their top two draft picks, Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed.

Trannon, a former basketball player at Michigan State, had an impressive minicamp, but late in the weekend broke a finger trying to catch a pass and missed most of OTAs. His release leaves the Steelers with 10 wide receivers for camp.

THURSDAY, JULY 17

* According to a source, the Steelers had offered running back Kevin Jones a one-year, minimum-wage contract to join the team. Of course, Jones instead signed with the Chicago Bears yesterday.

The offer -- and this is the real non-news here -- wasn't made because of any kind of concern over Willie Parker's recovery from a broken leg. No, Parker's fine. The offer was made to simply find a bargain. The coaches, according to the source, aren't down on second-year man Gary Russell, but "he really hasn't proven anything to this point," the source said. "My understanding is the coaches just wanted to provide competition for the fourth (half)back." The source also said he expects the fourth back -- probably Russell at this point -- to be inactive all season anyway.

FRIDAY AFTERNOON, JULY 11

* Here's a link to some of my thoughts at the outset of training camp.

FRIDAY, JULY 11

* Here's a pretty good summation of the ownership story from Alan Robinson. I love the quote from Art Rooney Jr.: "I'm a big shot after being exiled 20 years ago." Speaking of the man who built the 70s Steelers, here's something interesting from Mondesi's House. In fact, I'll be calling my friend Art Jr. today about our favorite topic: self-publishing tips, since my book will be out soon. Hopefully he'll be able to add something to the other story that hasn't been mentioned.

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, JULY 9

* Another source has confirmed that the Steelers won't be sold by the end of the week, which should poke at least one hole in the media reports today that are rampant with speculation. Also, the word is that Dan Rooney, while opposing any proposed sale of his brothers' holdings, remains upbeat at the South Side facility and is reassuring staffers that "things will be all right." A source told me it's not just lip service, that the people in the building have faith in the owner.

A couple of points to keep in mind: Rooney needs only eight other NFL owners to agree with him in voting down any proposed sale; and the league has never given the Steelers a time limit on eliminating gambling ties or having one person with a 30 percent share of the team.

WEDNESDAY MORNING, JULY 9

* This week has certainly been a whirlwind with the potential sale of the Steelers. I've gone from believing it to be much ado about nothing to believing there's no way out for the Rooney family other than to give up majority ownership.

All I can add at this point is that an impeccable source has assured me the sale won't occur this week, and that there are other potential buyers involved in talks. My source believes the latter item to be a plus for the Rooneys, as well as all fans of the team.

TUESDAY NIGHT, JULY 8

* David Goldberg, the top NFL writer for the Associated Press, believes a sale to Stanley Druckenmiller could be completed by the end of the week, and would make Druckenmiller majority owner.

TUESDAY, JULY 8

* Steelers owners Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II are involved in talks to buy out Dan's brothers' shares of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers issued a statement yesterday.

* Also, the Steelers signed Bruce Davis to a three-year contract and, according to the Post-Gazette, are close to terms with Dennis Dixon. Fourth-round pick Tony Hills signed last week.

MONDAY, JULY 7

* According to the Post-Gazette, the Steelers have agreed to terms with fifth-round pick Dennis Dixon.

Dixon is the second draft pick to sign with the team in the last week. The Steelers agreed to terms with fourth-round pick Tony Hills last Thursday.

FRIDAY, JULY 4

* Either the Steelers really liked the signing of Tony Hills or it's the Fourth of July. Ha. Here's what's going on down at Heinz Field today:

Stadium gates open at 2 p.m. and admission is free to all activities, which begin at 10 a.m. with the Edible Allegheny "Waves of Grains" Farmers Market on Art Rooney Avenue. The Great Lawn will feature live entertainment beginning at 1 p.m. and will culminate at 9:30 p.m. with the Equitable Resources Foundation Laser and Fireworks Spectacular. The ramps at Heinz Field will be open at that time to provide the best view of the fireworks.

Great Lawn Activities:

1:00pm to 7:30pm – Performances throughout the day on the Great Lawn Stage

8:00pm to 9:25pm – "Pearl Vision of Glory" with the US Army National Field Band and Chorus.

9:30pm – Equitable Resources Foundation Laser and Fireworks Spectacular

Heinz Field Main Stage Schedule:

2:00pm - Vanessa Campagna

3:00pm - The Chris Higbee Project

5:30pm - The Stickers

7:45pm – Formula One ChampBoat Winner Presentation

8:00pm – Soul Asylum

Regatta & River Activities:

1pm, 3pm, 5pm & 7:30pm – Regatta "Red, White & Zoom" Water Activities

2:30pm, 3:30pm, 4pm, 4:30pm – Formula One ChampBoat Race Time Trials

6:00pm– Formula One ChampBoat Race Finals

THURSDAY, JULY 3

* In what's becoming a "story from the grave," former Steelers lineman Steve Courson's 5,000-word letter, written to a former teammate before Courson's death in 2005, has been recovered by The Baltimore Sun.

* Also, Pro Football Weekly has Ben Roethlisberger on its cover this week, with a story written inside by yours truly. Talk about it on our message board.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 2

The Steelers cut their roster to 74 by releasing QB Jared Zabransky. The team also got around to announcing the addition of WR Marvin Allen as part of the NFL International Practice Squad Program. He won't count as part of a roster that must be at 80 or under at all times during the off-season. (Unsigned draft picks don't count, either, and the Steelers still have seven.)

Zabransky, who signed with the Steelers on Feb. 6, spent part of the 2007 season on the Houston Texans' practice squad. He originally signed with Houston in 2007 as an undrafted rookie out of Boise State.

Allen (5-10, 180), 25, of London, England, spent the 2006 season on the Steelers' practice squad as the team's NFL Europe International Practice Squad player. He spent the 2007 season on the Miami Dolphins' practice squad as part of the same program. Allen played three seasons (2005-07) in NFL Europe with the Frankfurt Galaxy, Amsterdam Admirals and Rhein Fire, respectively.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30

* The Steelers signed undrafted rookie free agent defensive lineman Kyle Clement.

Clement (6-3 5/8, 297, 5.11) played collegiately at NCAA Division-II Northwood University, where he was a two-time first-team All-GLIAC selection in 2005 and 2007, along with a second-team selection in 2006. He started 33-of-45 career games, finishing his career with 143 tackles (99 solo), 50.5 tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks.

* Rashard Mendenhall will meet the Pittsburgh media Thursday at 4 p.m.

MONDAY, APRIL 28

Here's the full list of the Steelers' rookie free agents:

1. Patrick Bailey LB 6-4 235 Duke

2. Dorien Bryant WR 5-9 175 Purdue

3. Doug Legursky C 6-1 323 Marshall

4. Roy Lewis CB 5-10 190 Washington

5. Mike Potts QB 6-4 220 William & Mary

6. Martavius Prince DL 6-2 282 Southern Miss

7. Julian Rauch K 5-11 207 Appalachian State

8. Jordan Reffett DL 6-4 292 Washington

9. Micah Rucker WR 6-6 221 Eastern Illinois

10. Dezmond Sherrod TE 6-2 250 Mississippi State

11. Travis Williams CB 5-9 180 East Carolina

12. Donovan Woods LB 6-2 230 Oklahoma State

Here are links to some of the players:

* Oklahoma State linebacker Donovan Woods.

* The Steelers signed an Appalachian State kicker, but not their punter, Neil Young. Drat! No, it's Julian Rauch.

* Purdue WR Dorien Bryant has been "Musbergerged" in my mind, but the Steelers did sign him to a free-agent contract. (P.S. When a player has been "Musbergered", he's been overrated so badly by a jacked-up know-nothing TV announcer that you actually dislike the player without knowing him.)

* Micah Rucker, and an interesting story on him.

* The first known free agent might be their best because the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, West Virginia, reports that the Steelers signed Marshall center Doug Legursky to a three-year contract. I'll try to verify that as soon as possible.

Also, here's an interesting bit on sixth-round pick Mike Humpal.

THURSDAY, APRIL 24

* According to Scout.com's Roy Philpott, publisher of both the Dallas Cowboys and Clemson Tigers sites, the Steelers attended the workout today of Phillip Merling, the Clemson defensive end. Merling reportedly measured 6-5, 290 pounds, up in both numbers from the official combine measurements of 6-4 1/4, 276 pounds.

Merling didn't run the 40 because he's still recovering from a sports-hernia operation, but performed agility drills that satisfied his trainer, according to Philpott. The trainer said Merling has been working out for only two weeks.

The Washington Redskins had a heavy presence at the workout, and the Cowboys were there as well. The Cowboys are also looking for a 3-4 defensive end.

As you'll see, this report conflicts with my previous commentary on the Steelers and Merling:

* Since the five best Steelers D-linemen will be 30 years old this season, and since the Steelers allowed 3.4 yards per carry with Aaron Smith and 4.8 yards per carry without him, the team MUST address the unit in this draft.

The problem? The crop of 3-4 ends is weak on top and thin throughout. Today is example one: Phillip Merling will finally workout and I'm not sure the Steelers will even be there. For one, he's too small to help right now. A first-rounder must be able to help that unit, even if it's in the dime, but Merling only weighs 276 pounds and won't be of any use inside in the dime right now.

A couple of other reasons to pass on Merling: According to a source, he tested positive while at Clemson and also interviewed poorly at the combine. For example, Merling was asked to name his favorite part of football. "I don't have one," he said.

Merling can run, yes. Kentwan Balmer can't. Calais Campbell? In the immortal words of Chuck Noll, "He's being blocked." All of this mediocrity just may make a first-rounder out of Dre Moore yet.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23

The Steelers want to take quarterback Anthony Morelli with their last draft pick? Oh, boy. Here's a better option: Take a local kid to quarterback the defense instead. His name is Ryan Mundy.

The Woodland Hills kid went off to Michigan amid much local hoopla a few years ago, but transferred to West Virginia where he played free safety last season.

Veteran scout Tom Marino tells me he's a great sleeper pick, that he was the brains back there, that he devoured and understood the WVU defense in only one year.

He's 6-1, 208 and even though he's not a head-hunter Mundy handles the run and the pass like a pro. Marino believes Mundy would eventually give the Steelers what Darren Perry gave them in the 1990s – stability at free safety.

MONDAY, APRIL 21

Last week I called picks 20 through 30 "a wasteland" because that particular draft zone is lost between the blue chippers and a rich vein of second-rounders.

Trading down is the obvious play, but if the Steelers can't find a trading partner they might want to consider drafting someone to eventually replace James Farrior.

Not that the Steelers' buck linebacker is slowing down, but he is 33 and entering the final year of his contract.

If Farrior retires after the upcoming season, the Steelers would be stuck without a play-caller at what might be the most difficult position for a new player to learn. Right now, the Steelers have, on paper, four inside backers. But wouldn't Curtis Lofton or Jerod Mayo mark time better than Keyaron Fox?

FRIDAY, APRIL 18

It's supposed to be a weak crop of safeties, but Kenny Phillips gives hope to teams looking for a legitimate first-rounder at the position.

The Steelers hosted Phillips last week. In fact, last month they hosted several free-agent safeties because of Ryan Clark's weakened condition and the poor late-season play of Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter. Also, the rumor about Deshea Townsend moving to free safety just won't go away.

Could Phillips become the answer at free safety? Well, the Miami Hurricane is taller, faster and 18 pounds heavier than Smith, and he's only 21 years old. Phillips may not be a ballhawk in the Ed Reed mode, but he's fast enough to cover wide receivers and big enough to stuff the run.

Of course, a first-round investment in Phillips would mean the end for Smith, a first-day pick only two years ago, so the Steelers had better be sure about this

THURSDAY, APRIL 17

* As a matter of procedure, wide receiver Nate Washington signed his one-year tender with the Steelers as a restricted free agent. Unless Washington agrees to a long-term contract by the start of the season, he'll be paid just over $1.4 million this year.

* In today's draft look, we examine a player similar to Washington in DeSean Jackson. The explosive Cal receiver and return man only weighs 169 pounds, and there's not much chance he'll add any more weight. Jackson entered Cal at 167 pounds and through four years of eating and lifting gained only two pounds. Jackson hasn't changed much physically, or mentally. As an incoming freshman, Jackson played in a summer high-school all-star game. On his way to the end zone, Jackson thought it best to somersault over the goal line, but he fumbled out the back of the end zone and set the opponent up at the 20. Jackson found a seat on the bench, but not before showing us he's just another wide receiver with an ego that's bigger than the man himself.

TUESDAY, APRIL 15

Last week, before Jonathan Stewart visited the Steelers, I taped a draft show for FSN Pittsburgh and predicted Stewart would be the Steelers' first-round pick. In retrospect, that was simply wishful thinking.

The perception that Stewart was falling due to a foot injury has been put to rest by several teams drafting in the teens. They couldn't tamp their enthusiasm and now the world knows Stewart won't make it to pick 23.

I'm going to dissect a few more first-round possibilities this week, but right now, picking in what's becoming recognized as a wasteland, from picks 20 to 30, the Steelers may get stuck drafting Gosder Cherilus, an enigmatic right tackle from what Kevin Colbert calls the best crop of tackles he's seen in 24 years.

MONDAY, APRIL 14

Gosder Cherilus is an enigma. The 6-6½, 314-pound offensive tackle from Boston College looked like a future pro the first three years of his career. That's when he was a promising right tackle. But last year he moved to left tackle and played poorly. He has the frame to become the next Jonathan Odgen, but doesn't show the ability.

What worries me is that playing left tackle might mean more to the Steelers than playing it well. That fact alone blew up their grades on Max Starks, Trai Essex, Bo Lacy and Kendall Simmons. My guess right now is that it's turning Cherilus from a second-rounder into a first and that he's the leading candidate now for pick 23.

At least Cherilus can play right tackle. He moved back to his old position in the Senior Bowl and looked like Starks with better feet. But is that what the Steelers need in the first round? Another right tackle? Well if it means moving Willie Colon inside, perhaps they do.

FRIDAY, APRIL 11

I promised last month to get back to defensive end Quentin Groves. That's when Rooney One flew the Steelers' decision-makers to Auburn for his pro day. Well, Groves returned the visit this week.

Groves had only three sacks last season, but played half the year with three dislocated toes. He's built like Joey Porter, and since the Steelers are paper thin at outside linebacker the match appears perfect.

But I smell something fishy. Mike Tomlin learned last year his appearance at pro days makes news, and this year he was shouting at Groves from the sideline. That made news.

I know the Steelers don't like Groves' ability to cover. They think he has stiff hips. So this recent interest smacks of a smokescreen to me.

THURSDAY, APRIL 10

Hey, why not give Ben Roethlisberger what he's looking for? If the Steelers intend to continue their duck-and-chuck offensive approach, why not give Ben the big man downfield to make his escape-and-heave style all the more effective?

The next Plax is said to be 6-5½ James Hardy, who played for Ben's old coach, the late Terry Hoeppner, at Indiana. It sounds about right, particularly since Hardy rates as a third-rounder on most boards. But Hardy has a big problem: He was once charged with domestic battery and there's a good chance he's off the Steelers' board entirely. It's not a good year to come to the Steelers with that on your resume.

A better, albeit more pricey, option would be Limas Sweed.

Because of a year-long wrist problem, scouts don't know what to make of the 6-4 Texas wideout, but they know the kid can run, has excellent tracking skills, and is one of the hardest workers in the draft. Imagine this scenario: The Steelers surprise Ben by agreeing to his wishes. He knows the draft pick is raw, so he works with him constantly in order to thank the team for believing in him. The rookie, meanwhile, known for his work ethic, begins to thrive with Roethlisberger's attention.

With those dynamics at play, it's not hard to believe that these two could form a deep-ball combo to scare the rest of the league. So if Branden Albert's not there, Sweed's another player who makes sense in the first round.

MONDAY, APRIL 7

The Steelers brought in a small defensive end last year named Antwan Barnes, who had the size of a 3-4 outside backer but not the hips. He was just a speedball pass-rusher and the Ravens took him in the fourth round.

The Steelers recently brought in another player like him named Marcus Howard. The Georgia defensive end destroyed Colt Brennan in the Sugar Bowl and was named the game's MVP. The 6-0½, 237-pounder had 42 QB pressures as a D-end last year but looked stiff at linebacker in the Hula Bowl.

Howard ran the fastest 40 time of any front-7 defender at the combine and is worth a look as a situational pass-rusher. And, hey, who needs a linebacker with good hips in coverage if the quarterback is on his back?

SUNDAY, APRIL 6

While we're correcting other people's mistakes here, let me reiterate that the Steelers have absolutely zero interest in Booger McFarland, although they do wish he and his agent well in their attempt to use the media to find another job. Thank you.

FRIDAY, APRIL 4

* Eric Foster has been the fiery captain of the Rutgers defense the last two seasons. He played defensive tackle at a small 6-1½, 273 pounds, yet the Steelers are looking at him as a defensive end.

Ever since drafting the 6-5 Aaron Smith in 1999, the Steelers have been looking for length in their 3-4 ends. Brett Keisel's an example. So is Ryan McBean. That makes Foster an exception.

After recording 29 tackles for loss and 13 sacks the last two years as a D-tackle, Foster moved outside in the Texas-vs-the Nation all-star game and impressed scouts with his first-step explosiveness.

He didn't have to prove his hustle and work ethic. That's what's jumps off the tape from his last four years at Rutgers.

* Just for fans who read today's Tribune-Review, the Steelers never "announce" any of their visitors. Reporters must either catch the PR department in a good mood or simply walk up and introduce themselves to the touring prospect. We reported on Cliff Avril's pending visit last March 12. The Purdue defensive end projects to a 3-4 OLB in The League. He's considered a late second round prospect at best.

THURSDAY, APRIL 3

In the terrific new book "Ruanaidh", author Art Rooney Jr. tells the story of how his computer sputtered over the prospects of Wisconsin center Mike Webster.

The personnel chief of the '70s Steelers, Rooney explains that the 6-2, 225-pound Webster, with his 5.25 speed, wasn't considered a prospect, but that tape showed otherwise. It showed Webster's great strength and "unbelievable leverage." So Rooney labeled Webster an "exception, just like bumblebees are an exception," he wrote, adding, "but you can go broke taking chances on exceptions."

The Steelers took their chance and drafted a Hall of Fame center in the fifth round in 1974.

Tomorrow I'll report on a player I believe to be an "exception" in the computer-driven world of scouting.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 2

The mighty USC Trojans are hosting their Pro Day today and guys like Chilo Rachal and Sam Baker should interest the Steelers. They're offensive lineman – one's a huge guard and the latter's a pro-ready left tackle. But the Steelers will be watching another Trojan very closely because there's a chance Keith Rivers could fall to them in the first round.

Rivers was an outstanding junior linebacker who didn't perform up to expectations as a senior. He wears the fabled No. 55 at USC but struggled with an ankle injury and then couldn't run at the combine. On tape it's obvious the 6-2, 241-pounder can run, but he just doesn't make many plays. It's one of the reasons I expect him to slip in the first round and create a decision for the Steelers.

TUESDAY, APRIL 1

The Steelers didn't receive a compensation pick in this year's draft, but thanks to the Arizona Cardinals they could receive a third-rounder next year.

The formula for awarding compensation picks is determined mainly by net contract dollars, but the huge contract signed by Alan Faneca wasn't enough … until Friday.

To receive a third-round compensation pick, the Steelers would also have to show a net loss in the number of free-agent contracts signed. Knowing that minimum-wage contracts and street free-agent contracts don't count, the Steelers were at one free agent signed and one lost, and they needed to lose another free agent to qualify for the third-rounder. That's why the loss of Clark Haggans bolstered their chances. The Cardinals gave him a $1.5 million contract and that should be taken as good news for the Steelers.

MONDAY, MARCH 31

Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson had a terrible pro day and this must've been great news for the Steelers. They were there, and probably loved every ugly pass he threw. Same with Bernard Morris at Marshall. The Steelers were there and watched that inaccurate QB because of his upside.

Wasn't Tee Martin over Tom Brady and Marc Bulger enough? That choice symbolizes the Steelers' inability to gauge late-round quarterbacks, and it hasn't changed since.

The next time the Steelers look at a late-round guy who lacks accuracy, but not upside, ask them if he can cover kicks because that's what they need in the late rounds.

The Steelers were lucky that Ben Roethlisberger fell into their laps. So take that and be happy. And ask someone else to draft the next young project.

FRIDAY, MARCH 28

Anyone count the number of free-agent safeties the Steelers looked at this month? Neither did Ryan Clark. He's working out daily on the South Side and after losing his spleen and gall bladder recently, he believes he'll be back next year. The Steelers obviously aren't so sure, and obviously don't view Anthony Smith as the answer.

What about the draft? Well, the safety position is so thin that it might be best to look at cornerbacks for a conversion. Cal's Thomas DeCoud made the move last year and played well at free safety. The Steelers have scheduled a visit with Iowa corner Charles Godfrey in the hope that he can make the conversion. Another potential project is Alabama corner Simeon Castille. He's a guy to watch in the fourth or fifth round.

THURSDAY, MARCH 27

The Steelers lack talent on their offensive line, but not bodies. The perpetually mediocre Justin Hartwig is their latest.

My fear is the Steelers are fooling themselves into thinking they're okay on the line. My hope is they at least grab a mid-rounder. Yesterday, they looked at a couple of good ones at Rutgers.

Jeremy Zuttah is one. He played right tackle, and showed such great move skills at the combine that he projects to guard and maybe even center. He ran a sub 4.99 40 and had 35 bench reps at the combine.

Teammate Pedro Sosa isn't quite the athlete, but played the valuable left tackle spot at Rutgers. Either of these two would help a rebuilding job that could last years if the Steelers continue to delude themselves.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 26

* The Steelers have NOT signed defensive lineman Anthony "Booger" McFarland, as had been reported elsewhere. The Steelers have no plans to sign McFarland after he barely passed their physical. The Steelers were looking at the former Colt and Buccanneer as a backup defensive end for their 3-4 front.

* Jacob Hester wasn't THE star of LSU's national championship season, but he was so popular he sometimes needed a police escort to get around campus. Hester was the tailback and when the team wanted more speed he moved to fullback, but his attitude never diminished.

"I'll play water boy if you need me to," he said.

Hester has black and gold bloodlines. His grandmother married Terry Bradshaw's uncle and Hester grew up a Steelers fan in Shreveport. I, for one, would love to see the Steelers reciprocate that interest on draft day.

The next Ed Podolak, Hester hopes to improve his fourth-round grade at today's Pro Day, where he'll run, block, catch and tackle.

Don't the Steelers need a new special teams captain? Well, Hester's that guy.

TUESDAY, MARCH 25

Pitt held its Pro Day yesterday and the feature attraction was left tackle Jeff Otah. But the better draft value, in my opinion, belongs with Pitt's other tackle, Mike McGlynn.

The 6-4, 311-pounder from Youngstown was a four-year starter at right tackle, and he also played a few games at guard. McGlynn then played guard at the Senior Bowl and that's where scouts project him as a pro. But McGlynn can also play center and was Pitt's long snapper for placement kicks.

He may not have Otah's body, but he's more versatile, has more experience, strength, and, frankly, after watching Otah workout at the combine, McGlynn just might be the better athlete. And in the fourth round, it all adds up to better bang for your buck.

MONDAY, MARCH 24

The Steelers want a young prospect to groom for their defensive line, but the value in the first round doesn't jibe with their position. That's why they're bringing Kendall Langford in for a visit this week.

Langford is a 6-5½, 287-pounder who played defensive end in Hampton's 3-4 defense. A second-round prospect should dominate the MEAC and that's what Langford's done in being named first team three times.

According to NFLDraftScout.com, opponents ran at Langford 124 times the last two seasons and lost a total of 22 yards.

The big guy has the brute strength of a James Harrison and enough speed to develop into a pass-rusher.

Some may call him a sleeper, but not the Steelers, who've shown interest all season.

FRIDAY, MARCH 21

While we're doing that Michigan State thing, let's throw out one of my favorite late-round sleepers. His name's Jehuu Caulcrick and he's a Jerome Bettis-sized tailback.

Caulcrick is 6-foot, 254 pounds and runs a 4.6 40. He scored 21 touchdowns last season to lead the Big 10 in scoring. He's a short-yardage specialist who lacks the blocking skills to play fullback and isn't much of a receiver. But Caulcrick had enough footspeed and instincts to get out of Liberia, where civil war had reached his backyard.

His father Jerome, who worked for the government, wasn't so lucky. When Caulcrick reached America, he read of his father's assassination in the paper, but it hasn't deterred him.

"Coming from a war-torn country," Caulcrick said, "I see this as a land of opportunity."

THURSDAY, MARCH 20

* Dan Rooney's statement on the release of Cedrick Wilson: "To clarify the comments made earlier regarding the conduct of our players, in no way do we condone domestic violence of any kind. Each incident must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

"In the situation with James Harrison, he contacted us immediately after his incident and has taken responsibility for his actions.

"In today's decision with Cedrick Wilson, we determined the situation was severe enough to warrant the player being released immediately.

"We trust that today's roster move will indicate our intentions and send a message that we will not tolerate this type of conduct."

* Lance Zierlein might be the best draft analyst you've never heard of. The son of the Steelers' O-line coach and a former college lineman, Zierlein ran his mock draft last week and was stumped when it came to the Steelers. With the top O-linemen, backs and D-linemen gone, Zierlein scratched Gosder Cherilus and went with wide receiver Devin Thomas.

Thomas, from Michigan State, is 6-2, 216 and ran a pair of 4.3 40s at the combine. He went from 6 catches his sophomore season to 79 last season and chose to come out as a 21-year-old. He's big, physical, fast and an excellent kick returner, a duty he'd assume as Hines Ward's protégé at flanker.

If Branden Albert's gone, Devin Thomas makes sense to me.

* The Steelers agreed to play a preseason game in Toronto against the Buffalo Bills, according to the Post-Gazette.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19

Air Rooney made a stop last week in Auburn for appearances, but expect a touchdown in Austin, Texas, today for a legitimate reason. Limas Sweed will be working out today and that's a sports event unto itself.

Sweed's one of two legitimate first-round receiving prospects this spring but he missed most of last season with an injury and then got hurt again at the Senior Bowl. He ran a 4.5 40 at the combine and measured in at a fraction under 6-4, 215 pounds. He's a big long-strider who's more of a deep threat than a possession receiver.

Sweed underwent surgery in October on a wrist injury that wreaked havoc with his hands last season at Texas. Today will be the day to see if the big man is truly a first-round prospect.

TUESDAY, MARCH 18

* According to Adam Schefter of the NFL Network, the Steelers agreed to contract terms with former Carolina center Justin Hartwig. The deal is reportedly for two years, worth $4 million, and includes a $975,000 bonus.

* OT Trai Essex and OG Chris Kemoeatu, restricted free agents, signed their one-year tenders.

* The Steelers are in State College today looking at the best draft prospect Penn State has to offer.

I'm not talking about Dan Connor. I'm talking about the fastest defensive player in the draft – cornerback Justin King.

A clip of Rashard Mendenhall is spinning around the 'net these days. The big Illinois back is breaking a long run, and the point is this top 10 prospect can score from anywhere – anywhere Justin King's not playing. King ruined the clip by coming from off the screen to run Mendenhall down.

In spite of an uneven season, the kid from Gateway ran a 4.31 at the combine and is moving up the charts. The Steelers will see today if he's moved all the way up to pick 23.

* The Steelers hosted two defensive linemen yesterday: Dre Moore of Maryland and Keilen Dykes of West Virginia. Moore played tackle and is considered a second-round pick. Dykes played nose tackle and is a free agent candidate.

MONDAY, MARCH 17

At the combine, half of the defensive ends ran faster 40 times than free safety Jamie Silva, who was clocked four times in the 4.8s.

But Silva is my kind of football player. He made 115 tackles for Boston College last season and in the Shrine Game he just glistened on special teams. As for his pass-coverage skills, one statistician calculated that Silva allowed his receiver an average of 2.3 yards per catch, lowest among all DBs in the nation.

The Steelers are looking at Silva as a late-round pick. They asked him about his long brown hair.

"Do you really have a problem with safeties with long hair?" Silva responded.

"No, not at all," said the Steelers.

"I didn't think so," said Silva.

Kid has some pretty good instincts, too.

FRIDAY, MARCH 14

Duquesne will host its pro day today, and this one will draw the Dukes' biggest crowd of scouts since Leigh Bodden came out in 2003.

The draw this year is wide receiver Bruce Hocker. The 6-3, 206-pounder with 4.5 speed is Duquesne's career receptions leader with 162. He averaged 16 yards per catch and scored 33 touchdowns before scoring again in the Hula Bowl. Hocker showed on that play why scouts like his big body, which Hocker uses to shield smaller defenders.

Hocker and Bodden are the only Duquesne players ever to be named Division I-AA All-America by both the AP and the Coaches Association. In fact, scouts compare Hocker to Bodden in that Bodden was too raw to draft but too talented not to make a priority free agent.

THURSDAY, MARCH 13

To most mock-masters out there, Pitt's Jeff Otah appears to be a natural fit for the Steelers at pick 23, but the massive left tackle furrows my brow.

I watch the big tackle lock up Chris Long and George Selvie and I agree with the in-crowd. Then I watch him ignore blitzers like a raw junior college transfer and I want no parts of him other than as a two or three-year project.

I see Otah having more bust potential than just about any first-round prospect, and I don't see the Steelers drafting the guy and expecting him to help right away.

At best, he's a right tackle and this draft is rife with them. At worst, Jeff Otah is Mathias Nkwenti – a coach killer who in this case could also take down the general manager as well.

* If you've followed my message board thoughts on the draft, you may know most of this, but here are a few more thoughts.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12

The Steelers added depth to their linebacker and special teams corps today by signing free agent linebacker Keyaron Fox to a one-year contract.

Fox (6-3, 235) was originally drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the third round (93rd overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft out of Georgia Tech. He spent all four of his years in Kansas City, playing primarily on special teams and as a backup linebacker. In 2007, he posted 21 tackles, including a season-best 10 against the New York Jets in Week 17.

Fox enjoyed his best season in Kansas City in 2006 when he collected 52 tackles while playing in all 16 games, making four starts in place of the injured Derrick Johnson.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12

The Steelers drafted two linebackers last year, but that apparently didn't sate their appetite. The team will bring outside linebacker Cliff Avril in for a visit soon and the Air Rooney gang flew down to Auburn on Monday to watch outside linebacker Quentin Groves work out.

More on the intriguing Groves later, but Avril is another in a long line of Purdue defensive ends who projects to outside linebacker in the NFL. He's 6-3, 253 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.5 seconds at the combine.

So, why another outside linebacker? Well, Lawrence Timmons showed last season that he couldn't hold the point and was moved inside. If Clark Haggans moves on in free agency, the Steelers will be left with only two outside backers. A young pass rusher would provide depth next season while learning the scheme, and then possibly force James Harrison inside to replace James Farrior in 2009.

TUESDAY, MARCH 11

Rex Hadnot had not signed with the Steelers as of Monday morning, and we all wanted to keep it that way.

That was the rumor over the weekend, that Hadnot had indeed returned to Pittsburgh for more talks. But like the snowstorm, Hadnot was dumped on Cleveland instead, sparing Pittsburgh another awful offensive linemen. Sorry, but that seems to be their M.O. of late.

Now, I'm a big Kevin Colbert fan, but since he drafted Marvel Smith in 2000 and signed Jeff Hartings in 2001, Colbert has gone cold with O-linemen.

Rex Hadnot would not or could not help, and worse he'd give the Steelers a false confidence about their line going into the draft, just as the signing of Sean Mahan did last year.

That type of thinking in the free agency/draft overlap has become unacceptable. This offensive line is bad and getting worse. The only cure is to draft blue chippers, not take in castoffs from 1-15 football teams.

MONDAY, MARCH 10

When asked why he ran that quarterback sweep on the final third down of the season, Mike Tomlin said, "We anticipated ... all-out pressure, particularly from the interior."

That tells me he knows the Steelers need a young center. If it's Darnell Stapleton, great. If he's competing with Mike Pollak, better.

The Steelers are interested enough in Pollak to pencil him in for an upcoming visit. The coach at Arizona State, Dennis Erickson, called Pollak the best offensive lineman he's ever coached. Pollak is 5/8-inch taller and six pounds heavier than Jeff Hartings, and Pollak ran like him at the combine.

He also played guard at ASU, but is the top center in this draft. He's a mid to high second-rounder, meaning the Steelers would need to trade down to get him. Kevin Colbert is on record as saying it's the year to trade down. Pollak, I feel, would be the target.

FRIDAY, MARCH 7

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the cousin of the NFL's best young cornerback and the darling of mentor Deion Sanders. DRC ran a 4.33 40 and showed dazzling footwork at the combine, and at the Senior Bowl threw his skinny 6-1, 183-pound into ballcarriers.

He's from Tennessee State and scouts love his humility. DRC also returns kicks and figures to be available late in the first round because of his lack of polish.

He's a project worth having, but I don't see the Steelers taking the first-round plunge on any cornerback this year.

THURSDAY, MARCH 6

Scouts used to wonder about North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer's inconsistent motor and question his work ethic. That changed last year thanks to new coach Butch Davis.

Davis told Balmer a few things he needed to hear, about what it'll take to get to the NFL, and Balmer responded as the Tar Heels' defensive captain.

At 6-4½, 308 pounds, Balmer has long arms and the frame to add another 20 pounds without losing quickness. The former defensive end-turned tackle projects as the model 3-4 end in the pros, and the Steelers need one. In fact, they were hoping to take a shot at Corey Williams in free agency.

Because of the questions about Balmer's motor, the Tar Heel should be there for the Steelers on draft day. By then they should have their answers.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5

Kevin Colbert calls this the best crop of offensive tackles he's seen in 24 years.

Great. Take two.

In fact, the Steelers' offensive line as a whole could use the same infusion of talent the defensive backfield received in 1987.

In 1986, the Steelers' starting DBs were John Swain, Harvey Clayton, Eric Williams and Donnie Shell.

Swain, Clayton and Williams failed to make the following year's team after the Steelers drafted Rod Woodson, Delton Hall and Thomas Everett in the first four rounds of the 1987 draft.

Hall was the team's Rookie of the Year, Everett became a five-year starter, and Woodson will soon become a Hall of Famer.

So, spare us the stats and the depth chart when it comes to this offensive line because it's bad and getting worse. The time to draft real lineMEN is now.

TUESDAY, MARCH 4

I see the University of Virginia becoming the Steelers' next Triple-A affiliate. For the last few years, the Steelers have enjoyed the character and skills of James Farrior and Heath Miller, and they're looking at another Cavalier: offensive guard Branden Albert.

Albert was a junior captain last season. At 6-6, 309 pounds, he's massive, strong, mobile and has experience at left tackle.

In fact, Albert went to Virginia as a left tackle, but moved to guard because of D'Brickashaw Ferguson and stayed there. Albert did fill in at left tackle for two games, one against Pitt last year.

Albert has become the automatic name for the Steelers on nearly every updated mock draft these days. He's the top guard in the draft and probably the No. 4 tackle, and the Steelers need help at both positions spots.

MONDAY, MARCH 2

Well, that was a little quicker than I'd expected. The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger agreed on a $102 million contract that didn't force the Steelers to make any salary-cap maneuvers whatsoever.

"It was almost a wash," said a team source. Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner, confirmed it by saying the Steelers will lose little cap space with the mega-deal.

I asked the source if media reports were true, that the team was considering pulling the transition tag from Max Starks.

"It's allowable," the source said. "But we won't do it. It's bad business."

At the time of my departure from the South Side, the Steelers were hoping to sign free-agent running back Mewelde Moore to a contract. I like Moore as an all-around third-down back, and the Steelers liked him coming out of Tulane, but another source -- who goes by the name Answer Man in these parts -- wasn't too pleased.

"This shuts the door on drafting a running back," he said. "So much for the best available athlete."

Defensive back Ray Horton walked by and I chided him about his big day tomorrow hosting free-agent safety Eugene Wilson.

"This was the big day," Horton said as he pointed to the podium where Roethlisberger had just stood. "Signing that guy was worth five free agents."

Safety man Ryan Clark, as usual, was at the facility working out. He said he feels fine physically and expects to play next year. He said his biggest problem now is cholesterol because he's had his gall bladder removed. He'd previously had his spleen removed because of a problem sparked by playing in high altitude. I asked Ryan if he'll ever be able to go back to Denver. "The doctors say I should be fine physically," Clark said. "Now, mentally, there might be a problem going back there."

Clark laughed about it, but he wasn't laughing about the team scheduling a visit with Wilson for Tuesday. "I gotta go," he said. "I'm going over here [front office] to see if I should keep working out or whether I should start looking for a coaching job at LSU."

He was joking. I think.

To read quotes from Kevin Colbert, click here.

To read quotes from Mewelde Moore and Mike Tomlin, click here.

MONDAY, MARCH 2

Since attribution is the only way to express true love in journalism, my props go to SCI's Ian Whetstone for explaining this sudden race the Steelers seem to be having in the Ben Roethlisberger renegotiations: Roethlisberger is due a $2.95M roster bonus on March 5. So look for the Steelers to wrap things up with their quarterback by Thursday.

My guess is Roethlisberger will come out of this averaging $10 million a year, but six years for $60 million sounds a little light, doesn't it? Yet it fits the pay scale. And you know what? Alan Faneca would have, too. He signed for $8 million a year with the Jets. Since the current highest-paid Steelers are Troy Polamalu at $6.6M per year and Hines Ward at $6.5M per year (contract averages), it would've been easy for the Steelers to offer Faneca a five-year, $35 million contract prior to last season. Then again, it's easy for me to spend someone else's money.

Speaking of which, Eugene Wilson is sheduled to visit with the Steelers on Tuesday. He's visiting Tampa Bay today and also has plans to visit the Tennessee Titans.

I remember Wilson as a highly coveted cornerback out of Illinois in 2003. The Patriots moved him to free safety right away and he started 49 out of the first 51 games of his career. But he started only four games in 2006 because of injuries and then lost his job last season to James Sanders, and then the Pats let him go.

The question I put to Patriots/Scout publisher Jon Scott was this: How did Eugene Wilson, soon to be 28 years old, fall so far so fast?

"To be honest, I'm a bit confused why they don't want Wilson," replied Scott, who reports that Wilson started the first five games last year before losing his job.

"He's not comeing back to New England, and was disappointed in the way things turned out," Scott said. "Wilson has shown flashes of solid play. He's not too physical against the run and he's not quite fast enough to cover wide receivers, but he can cover tight ends down the seam and has good ball skills. Unfortunately for him, he's been hurt far too often.

"The Patriots have gone through so many safeties over the past three years, you'd be surprised. It's nuts."

Here's to Bill Belichick being nuts.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 28

I always freeze at the daunting prospect of writing about a great man's life when he passes. I think that was the indirect reason I quit my job as a suburban sports editor a long time ago. Because, really, how can I, small guy with a typewriter, pay due respect to big guy in heaven?

That was the question I was tossing around yesterday after the passing of Myron Cope. And then my wife gave me the proper angle. In schooling our eight-year-old about Cope, my wife said, "And the best thing about him was he never looked down his nose at anyone."

My wife was a big fan because Myron was one of those old-school gentlemen who'd pay the proper amount of respect to the ladies in his presence before the guys would begin hammering him for inside info. What my wife also knew is that Myron not only tolerated us little people, he cared about making us into big people.

One time in Cincinnati -- and my friend and colleague Dale Lolley was an unfortunate witness -- I did a foolish thing. Yeah, I know, it's the only foolish thing I ever did. Right. But about 1:30 a.m. as I was watching a band -- one of six in the gigantic building since demolished -- I got the bright idea to hop on stage and take a dive. Instead of catching me, though, this alleged mosh pit opened wide and allowed me to hit the deck. Just as I was picking myself up off the floor, four or five bouncers grabbed me and carried me to the side door and threw me out into the street. Dale and another friend came out laughing and we staggered home.

Cope got wind of the story the next day in the press box. He loved it. He told me he was going to tell the story the next day on Pittsburgh radio. "But I won't use your name Jim." And I said, "You can. I don't care." And he said, "Don't you want to be publisher of that paper of yours someday?" See. Always thinking.

But Myron also thought a lot of my skills. He'd write me often to tell me what a good job I'd done on this or that. He'd give little tips. The last one I remember is he wrote asking why, in my Steelers Digest notes column I'm not having more fun with the name Davenport. Whilst I'd been working more on poop jokes, Cope offered up something along the lines of Davenport the Couch, when once they had Jerome the Bus, or something like that. I never did get to work the couch angle into a column, but the point is Myron cared about young writers and I think that's one of the greatest assets an older writer can have. Many in this town have that kind of class -- Collier, Smizik, Bouchette to name a few -- but Myron cared a bit more. He went out of his way.

Like with radio. Way back when I started covering the team, I enjoyed just hanging back and listening to Cope do his work live. I'd tell him stories during the break and he'd either re-tell them on the air and give me credit, or ask me to come on. I remember my first time, in the camp lounge at St. Vincent. I'd seen some fight on the field and Cope had me on to tell of it. What a hatchet job. I nervously recounted the tale and Myron thanked me. But it helped, because you'll have those early nervous moments and I was glad to get one out of the way with minimal damage.

The last time I was on the air with Cope was his last paid performance for the Steelers Radio Network. We were awful that day. Myron kept pushing this tight end from Arkansas State and I kept saying I'd never heard of him. This, I think, upset Myron and we ended up churning out a lousy performance. Myron approached me the next day and apologized, said he made the tight end's name up hoping that I -- being a know-it-all -- would say, 'Yeah, I know him. He's okay,' or something along those lines and that he would leap and catch me lying. He was sorry for this game plan and told me so. And then he said this, "Wex, just a little advice for you when you're on the radio: STOP TALKING SO DAMN MUCH." I had to laugh. Great apology Myron. And I'm going to miss those wholly unsuspecting moments. You never came off as some type of "Great Man" to me, Myron, and you never tried. You seemed to only care about my progress. Thank you.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22

Alan Faneca didn't return my call, but the Answer Man did. He told me he didn't have time for a full-blown, sit-down, tape-recorded interview because "ever since they signed Travis Kirschke I've been out with the merchandise people picking out stuff for Super Bowl 43."

Good one. But the yuks turned to nuggets of gold that he ticked off quickly so that I would go away. Briefly, the Answer Man thinks that ...

... the front office just shoved Max Starks down Bruce Arians's throat as the Steelers close in on a long-term deal for a guy Arians had benched. "If they match any contract for him," the source said, "and then he's standing on the sideline during the game, the guys who have the same name around here are going to demand answers." Answer Man also pointed out that a long-term deal -- and the tenure that would go with it -- will force the staff -- which always has questionable tenure -- to look at Starks with more respect than the Starks who had only one year left on his contract.

... the coaches who "had to have Mahan" are now backpedaling and saying, "oh, hey, man, we knew he was just a backup." Answer Man doesn't appreciate the lack of accountability, "and I'm including Tomlin in that, too."

... a center is a strong draft possibility, but then the source slipped into disgust. "We're going to draft a center, we're going to draft a guard, we're going to draft a tackle, draft, draft, draft. Hey, we only have six picks. That won't fix all the problems."

... Corey Williams was a Steelers target in free agency, but the Green Bay defensive end was recently franchised. So I asked about Justin Smith, who was Dick LeBeau's first draft pick back with the Bengals. "Nope," my source said. "They think he's strictly a 4-3 end."

... Ryan McBean will help next season, "at least on special teams as one of those Keisel-type wedge-busters because he's big and he can run." But so could Shaun Nua. And so could Lee Vickers. I was told McBean instead has the type of mindset that Keisel had when he played special teams. Answer Man also said that McBean works out at the facility every day and impressed the coaching staff with the way he finished the season.

... Clark Haggans could return. It's being written by some that Haggans definitely won't return, as if he's disliked by the organization, but that's far from the truth. "It could turn out the way Deshea turned out," Answer Man said. "Remember? They didn't think he'd be back, but they scooped him up once the price was right." It's the same scenario with Haggans, he said, but that LaMarr Woodley is held in higher regard now than Townsend's expected successor Bryant McFadden was back then.

... the running back situation could remain intact, and this nugget also raised my source's ire. "The OC is really big on Gary Russell, thinks he'll be the new guy we all want to see back there." When I responded that I, too, like Russell, and that Najeh Davenport needs replaced as the No. 2, Answer Man agreed: "Right. If Russell has anything, let him show us as the No. 3, because he still hasn't shown enough to warrant that much optimism."

* In taking a look around the Internet this morning, I came across only one source of Steelers info from the combine. Draftdaddy.com, citing a source at the combine but providing no link, said the Steelers are showing interest in guard Chilo Rachal, tackle-guard James Blair, and guard Heath Benedict. The author writes that Benedict is "the draft's best trap blocker" and that he would fit perfectly as Faneca's replacement at left guard. The author's source also told him that everyone's favorite safety/specialteamer/footballplayer Jamie Silva "was talking at lengths with the Patriots, Steelers and Seahawks."

Love Silva. Really like James Blair. And of course I've liked Rachal ever since I saw him pummel Arizona State. But, remember, these "showing interest" blurbs don't often mean much more than a temporary high. Ergo, have a great weekend.

* The Steelers today cut reserves Clint Kriewaldt, Jerame Tuman and Allen Rossum. SCI capologist Ian Whetstone calculates the cap savings for the Steelers at $1.79 million, moving the total cap space available to $8 million.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 21

All I could do last night was list the questions that've been raised by the Steelers for putting the transition tag on Max Starks. Let me try to answer some of those questions this morning.

Why not tag Alan Faneca instead?

Neither side will comment on whether there even are ongoing negotiations, so hopefully Alan will answer his cell today. Until then we can only guess, and the guess here is that the Steelers weren't making any progress and that to tag Faneca would serve only to exacerbate a difficult situation. Why would they think this way when Faneca has no history of lying down on the job? Well, let's just say the Steelers operate out of respect for their long-time employees and hamstringing a guy who wants to test the market for an out-of-this-world offer just isn't showing that kind of respect. At least that sounds better. Hopefully Alan will clear things up later today.

Why the transition tag instead of the franchise tag?

I'd say gambling $6.9 million that you can get a long-term deal done is risky enough for a backup, and that another half million or so for the security of high compensation was just crossing the line.

Why take the risk at all for a backup?

The Steelers don't even know what to do with Starks, so it's probably difficult for them to gauge what the rest of the league will do come Feb. 29. Is he a starter? Would he leave for a lesser offer and the promise of more playing time? By remaining involved in the negotiations with the option to match any offer, the Steelers will better be able to gauge Starks's value, and if someone wants to pay him the big starter bucks then the Steelers could just quietly duck out.

Does this portend a move to the Steelers' starting lineup for Starks?

Not by my estimate, and this move only illustrates the confusion the team has toward Starks. The front office can't understand why the line wasn't shuffled and Starks inserted last season, but the coaching staff sticks by its decision and has told the front office this off-season that they still don't want to move Willie Colon inside to start Starks. The Steelers could get stuck paying a backup nearly $7 million this season, but there aren't many other positions worthy of such security, particularly since Starks showed promise as a left tackle as well.

Why no worry about a "poison pill"?

Remember, he's a backup. The bigger question should be why would another team make an enemy of the Steelers over a backup? Remember, after Minnesota used a "poison pill" to take Steve Hutchinson off Seattle's hands, Seattle responded in kind the next year for Nate Burleson.

What does this mean for future offseason moves?

The first thing to remember is this by no means locks Starks up. There's a very good chance he'll still leave. But the problem is he probably won't leave until the first wave of top free agents is dealt with, and that's a big chunk of cap space to slide into the margins as Justin Smith talks to the rest of the league. The Steelers could rescind the tag, but that's not their business style. (And if Starks is smart, he'll sign that offer sheet today.) As for the draft, the Steelers didn't want to use a number one pick for a backup player anyway. Since they didn't want to move Colon over for Starks, why would they do so for a rookie? Keeping Starks would allow the Steelers to concentrate on the interior of their line, which is the real problem.

Hopefully I haven't simply raised more questions with my attempt at giving answers. I'll be back tomorrow with any information I've gathered on this topic.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20

The Steelers made a curious move Wednesday when they slapped the transition tag on backup offensive tackle Max Starks.

The transition tag requires the team to pay the player the average of the top 10 salaries at his position. In this case, the Steelers would pay Starks $6.895 million this season if they're not able to negotiate a long-term deal.

Starks can still test the free-agent market on Feb. 29, but the Steelers have the right to match any offer and Starks would remain in Pittsburgh. If the Steelers choose not to match an offer, they wouldn't receive any compensation.

The transition tag hasn't been used in the NFL since Seattle slapped one on guard Steve Hutchinson in 2006. The Minnesota Vikings exposed a flaw in the process by putting a "poison pill" into their contract offer that said the full $49 million contract would become guaranteed if Hutchinson was not the highest paid lineman on his team. The Seahawks couldn't match the offer with the higher paid Walter Jones already on their roster.

Also, it's something of a gamble that the Steelers would risk such a large chunk of their salary cap on a backup, but the move may ensure that Starks doesn't opt to take a lighter offer from a team that's promising more playing time.

Another curious aspect is the Steelers could've offered a bit more -- $7.455 million – to use the franchise tag on Starks, or even Alan Faneca. The franchise tag requires that another team compensate the Steelers with two first-round picks should it lure the free agent away.

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 19

The Steelers announced they've signed defensive end Travis Kirschke to a two-year contract totaling $2.28 million, which includes a $300,000 bonus.

Kirshke, who'll turn 34 before opening day, played perhaps his best game with the team in the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season.

The 11-year veteran originally signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent on March 11, 2004. He had previously spent one year with the San Francisco 49ers (2003) and his first six seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions.

Kirschke has played in 141 career games, including 64 with the Steelers, and has made 30 starts (five with Pittsburgh). He played in all 16 games in 2007 for the Steelers and made four starts in place of the injured Aaron Smith.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7

I hadn't thought of Greg Lloyd as a Hall of Famer until Andre Tippett was elected last weekend.

Tippett, of course, was part of the weakest class inducted by what must be the weakest committee in history. Their explanation for electing guys like Tippett and Fred Dean is that there's some kind of backlog of pass rushers and with players like Bruce Smith coming down the pipeline that, well, yeah, they just had to put a couple of average players in.

No, I'm not quite sure I understand that either, nor am I sure where that leaves the great Dermontti Dawson. But this is where it leaves Lloyd: eligible and certainly electable.

Both Tippett and Lloyd played 11 seasons and started exactly 139 games. Both were on five Pro Bowl teams and both played in and lost one Super Bowl. Tippett, of course, played for the worst Super Bowl team in history, the team the '85 Bears ate for lunch. Lloyd's Steelers made the playoffs in five of his seasons; Tippett's Patriots in three.

* Tippett's career spanned from 1982 to 1993 and he was the consensus first-team All-Pro twice (1985 and 1987) and was second team twice (1986 and 1988). He was the clear-cut No. 1 outside linebacker in the voting one time (1987) and was tied with the great Lawrence Taylor (1985) one other time. Tippett missed the entire 1989 season with a shoulder injury and never returned to the all-star rolls.

* Lloyd's career spanned from 1988 to 1998. He was consensus first-team All-Pro three times (1993-95). He was the NFL's No. 1 outside linebacker in the voting in 1993 and 1994 and tied with Bryce Paup for first in 1995. Lloyd missed all but one game of the 1996 season with a knee injury and he never returned to the all-star rolls.

So far, it's not a stretch to argue that Lloyd was the better player. At the least, he's in the ballpark. The voters though went with the sacks. Tippett had 100 career sacks and Lloyd had 54.5. But if sacks weigh so heavily with the voters, why isn't Kevin Greene, who had 160 sacks in 14 seasons, receiving more consideration?

Lloyd, of course, was known more for his leadership. He may have been the biggest reason – and not Bill Cowher – for the Steelers' turnaround in the early to mid 1990s. I talked with Lloyd in October and the conversation ranged to every topic but the Hall of Fame. At the time, neither of us thought it possible. Now, at least I do. Here's some Lloyd:

"... So I'm running the second-team defense against our first offense. They hold them little cards and Marvin [Lewis] came over and said, ‘Greg, you go here.' And I'd say, ‘Marvin, you're in my way. Go ahead and yell at me but I ain't following that card. I'm going to the football.' I told him I was going straight to the football. I look up and Pow! I messed the play up. Bill Cowher, he's looking like this (makes quivering-lips face). I could see he was upset. ‘Do it again!' I said, ‘Hell, man, I'm going to be right there again.' I run in there again, Pow! He goes, ‘Coach! Get him outta there!' I said, ‘You know what? What if you got Ray Lewis running up in there on Sunday? You going to tell them to get Ray Lewis out of there?' That's why me and Bill started having our little tiffs then. Hey, this is football. Football isn't drawn up on a card, where you're going to see what the defense is doing. You've got to react. And if you don't know how to react, guess what? You're up a creek. And that's how our team started to come together. Our offense started adopting that defensive mentality and before you knew it our offense was saying things like, ‘We're going to drag him.' Something I hadn't heard in a while."

"... When [Andre] Hastings first came to Pittsburgh, he made our defensive backfield look so bad. I remember at practice he had Rod Woodson turning all kinds of ways, catching balls, making our defense look bad. It ticked me off. It ticked me off. When we went to seven-on-seven, I held them up and I told them, ‘If he catches the ball across this middle, I'm going to knock him out.' He was showboating and he's not going to do that to my defense. And lo and behold, I dropped back into pass and he cut across the middle and he caught it and when he turned, all he saw was 95. I hit him right there. I hit him right there. I hit him, the ball went one way, ear pads went another way, and the whole team's going, ‘Ohhhh. Ohhhh. Oh, Greg.' I'm like listen, ‘If he takes a hit from me out here today and he gets up, he's going to be all right. I guarantee he's going to be a good ballplayer.' And I said, ‘But you know what? NOBODY is going to come out here and show my defense up. NOBODY. I took my helmet off and talked to the whole offense. I said, ‘Anybody else think they can come out here and show my defense up? Put your mmmmm on and come out here right now.' The defense got fired up and the offense just mumbled to themselves."

"... After practice I would stretch and guys would say things like, ‘Man you pretty big for a small linebacker.' But I like to say it ain't the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog and you better understand that. Every bit of this 225 is going to be in your you-know-what. That was the mentality. Now, it was a form of intimidation but you had to back it up. You had to back it up."

"... But I'm going to do it in practice. I'm going to find out if they breed them the same way in Pittsburgh as they do in Fort Valley. I'm going to find out if just because you went to Pitt or Syracuse or Clemson and I went to Fort Valley State, do you think you're tougher than me? Do you think you can play this game better than me? Well let's strap it up. Let's do it. The thing about it is I'll fight you till I got no fight left in me. And I think after awhile my teammates began to appreciate that and they respected that and they realized that, ‘Don't come over here and line up in front of Greg in practice and not buckle your chinstrap up, because he's going a hundred miles an hour.' And then everybody adopted that mentality, and when everybody adopted that mentality guess what we did? We didn't win the Super Bowl but we had a Super Bowl mentality. We were in three AFC Championship games and a Super Bowl. There's no way in between that we shouldn't have won two Super Bowls."

"... I don't watch it because I don't think the game is at the level where we played it. I don't think there's enough integrity. I don't think the guys understand that when you always hear your name on ESPN and you're going to pimp my ride on MTV Cribs, that's not football. When we were there, we tried to carry ourselves no different than the CEO of PPG. That's the way we took our job. We showed up for work and we worked. We didn't show up for work to put on airs and to sell stuff. That's why me and the media there didn't get along. I'm not here to kiss your ass. I don't care if you don't invite me to your little parties or soirees that you have, because I don't want you in my personal life like that. I want you to understand that I was hired to be an outside linebacker, and that's where the shirt came from: I Wasn't Hired For My Disposition. I was hired to be an outside linebacker. Any and everything else you get from me is a bonus. Okay? Understand that."

Lloyd, of course, has been tangled up with the law and divorce court over the last few years. He claimed his innocence as he prepared to teach his taekwondo class that day in the Atlanta suburb of Fayetteville. But that story and the others are for another time and place.

• Just to catch up on the news, the Steelers got around yesterday to announcing the signings of Jared Zabransky and Matt Trannon. As I reported earlier in the blog items below, Trannon was signed Jan. 18 and Zabrasnsky was signed Jan. 28.

• Since they're obviously back to work, the Steelers might also be ready to make their offers to Alan Faneca and Max Starks. Faneca told Scout.com's Adam Caplan this week at the Pro Bowl that the Steelers haven't talked to his agent since the 2007 season started. Hopefully these offers will be made next week ... while I'm on vacation in Hawaii.

Aloha.

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TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 5

Ah, what bliss. What serenity. What a beautiful Monday. Thank you, God.

Oh, sorry for not writing. I know you're paying hard-earned money for solid analysis, but I chose Monday as one of those sudden holidays you take when you just want to smell the roses.

It's not the prediction, honest. Nor is it the money that's now coming my way because of the prediction. It's the Patriots losing. That's it, the sweet smell of burning arrogance.

My day started like most Super Bowl days: A prediction I had for two weeks was being tugged at, much like in this fashion: Lance Zierlein's bad day.

But I'd been there before. Oh, about a hundred years ago I loved Doug Williams's Redskins over John Elway's Broncos, but nobody agreed with me. And for 13 days that was okay. But on Day 14, on my way to the Super Bowl party, I changed my mind.

Since the Redskins beat the Broncos by about 50 points on that day, I haven't changed my mind since. But there I was two days ago being tested. A friend had made a phone call to his friend, who told him all the services were predicting New England. But I barely wavered, particularly since the greatest Mush in the county told me at the party that he loved the Patriots and the over. Once I heard his prediction, it was only a question of how much, which I mulled over with my pre-game steak and lobster at The Nest in Jeannette.

Someone two stools down then began telling the bartender that he loved the Patriots.

I leaned over and asked why.

"Because everyone loves the Patriots," he said. "I was listening to the radio and the reporter said it would be Patriots 52-10, and they had a bunch of other reporters on and they were all saying it would be a New England blowout.

"I'm going big!" the guy said in conclusion.

"So am I," I told him as it all came into focus.

Yes, what a sweet, sweet day. But what did we learn? That the club needs a tall receiver? Well, only if you're in the Pittsburgh media.

My Monday of bliss took a hard right turn, not when I read this hilarious column. (If you don't hit the link, here's the last graph: "Not for the day when Burress became Nostradamus and made the catch of his life to prove all his naysayers wrong.")

Good stuff. But, no, my day turned because I was in the waiting room at the dentist's office when I read that story. So, yes, my serenity would shortly come to an end.

But what is it about the Pittsburgh media and its obsession with, really, an average player? Now, that David Tyree, now there's a guy who's interesting.

Did you know that the real receiving star of the Giants' Super Bowl win once went to the Pro Bowl as a gunner? Yes, in 2005. He was drafted in the sixth round out of Syracuse in 2003 and has produced every time he's had to step in for one of the bloated Giants starters. Now that's the kind of young player the Steelers should be looking into acquiring this March.

More important for the Steelers is what the Giants really showed the world on Sunday. It's an old football axiom and it goes something like this: Get there with four.

Yes, the Giants blitzed at times. In fact, at one point in the game TV analyst Troy Aikman said, "Because they're bringing pressure inside, you cannot give help to Matt Light."

Of course, Light could've used it, but that was to be expected. And Kavika Mitchell blitzing past Dan Koppen? Expected that too. Stephen Neal struggling? Check. And of course it didn't take Nostradamus Plax to predict that Michael Strahan would destroy Nick Kaczur. But no one really expected Justin Tuck to dominate Logan Mankins the way he did.

The point is, except for a few blitzes thrown in to confuse the genius from New England, the Giants got there with four. It allowed the seven deep men to patrol and pillage as Tom Brady ran as fast as his sprained ankle could carry him.

And it all made me think of Kentwan Balmer. We'll have plenty more on the North Carolina defensive end later in the draft season, but briefly, when I watched him play early in the season, in his blue helmet, I thought I saw the body of former Giant Keith Hamilton. Balmer is tall and angular and just not quick enough to play end in a 4-3, but definitely strong enough and athletic enough to play end in a 3-4.

In the game I watched, Balmer sat out the first quarter with a knee injury, but his team needed him against feisty East Carolina and Chris Johnson. Balmer entered and routinely collapsed double teams. He even played nose on passing downs. He has to be a first-round consideration. And after watching what the Giants did to the Patriots, a guy like that, or any defensive lineman for that matter, has to be a consideration for every NFL team, and particularly the Steelers.

The only alternative is someone to block a defensive lineman. The Patriots might be thinking that way today, too.

To discuss this story, click here.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 1

Do the Giants have a chance? Well, can they get to the quarterback?

That's always the biggest question against the Patriots, and I beg to differ with the best writer in Pittsburgh, Gene Collier, when he raves about the OL talent on the Patriots' side. I've spoken with too many scouts and analysts who gnash their teeth when guys like Matt Light and Dan Koppen are voted to the Pro Bowl. I believe that, except for Logan Mankins, the Pats have very average talent on their line, but it's been coordinated and coached well and is helped immensely by the quick release and decisiveness of QB Tom Brady.

But Brady will be playing on a sprained ankle and the Giants may have the best group of pass rushers -- on a defensive line -- of any in the league.

With apologies to Mr. Collier, the reason I opened his column in the first place was to get the spellings right. Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck are easy. But he didn't use the other guy's name (probably spelling related reasons), so I had to go to Yahoo.com's Charlie Robinson to get the right spelling of the great Osi Umenyiora.

So there's that. There's also the Giants' edge at the line of scrimmage. In the teams' last five games, the Giants held a clear edge in average yards per rush and against the rush. The Giants are +1.0, a full yard per play, against a much more difficult schedule (not including the record of the Patriots from the regular-season finale). The edge nearly doubles (+1.8) in the season-long look at games played against common opponents. And since the teams faced each other's division this year, we could look at either the common away or home site (but not both; whichever was common to both teams).

Of course, you don't beat the Patriots at the line of scrimmage alone. You beat them by stopping their passing game, and that's why the pass rush and Brady's injury and the Pats' overrated offensive line are important. In the stats, the Giants have a decent pass defense (yards per completion), and they're only a bit off the Patriots in yards per point. That stat not only breaks down offensive and defensive efficiency, but includes special teams and red zone. And the Giants are in the Pats' ballpark with those numbers.

But the real key to beating the Patriots is making the key decisions when they count the most. Beating the Patriots -- getting over that final hurdle -- is the hard part. That's where Brady has the clear edge over Eli Manning, and where Plaxico Burress can put a dagger into the 1972 Miami Dolphins with one of his classic blunders (last game Plax fumbled twice inside the 10 -- one rolled out of bounds and another was ruled incomplete in spite of Plax's protest to the official that he caught the ball).

The dynastic Pats normally win Super Bowls by field goals, and I expect the same Sunday. I expect the Giants -- for all the reasons listed -- to keep this game interesting, even nail-biting, but I also expect the injured Brady to pull it out in the end. Burress predicted 23-17, but Brady said he should bring that score up a bit. So I'm going Giants with the 12 points and over the 54, but the Patriots will win, 30-27.

* On another note, hail to the folks at RealGM, who've come up with this mock after apparently reading our site.

* Also, Gene Upshaw is grousing about the Heinz Field turf again. The critics love to point to the Miami Monday Nighter in the Bog, but never mention that the NFL asked them to pull off that dumb maneuever of putting sod over the field with a big storm on the way. Anyway, again, I'm for the grass field. Keep it natural, I always say.

* One more note, I talked to the Answer Man this week. He wasn't in the mood to go in depth, but he asked me to relay an important point: Just because Bruce Arians doesn't believe Max Starks should play tackle with Willie Colon moving over to guard, doesn't mean he's calling the shots for the organization. All Answer Man would say is "It'll be interesting to see how they handle this."

He wasn't couching his answer; he was just saying he doesn't know and that it'll be interesting to see how the organization handles this. Stay tuned.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 29

Well, that didn't go too bad. I made my prediction for the Steelers' first-round pick and wasn't schooled too harshly on the message board.

I appreciate the restraint, but there were several questions, as there should be, since Branden Albert is being graded as a second- or third-round prospect all over the internet. So, to the questions:

SteelMafia: If Albert's the pick, can you show me how you wish them to line up at O-line and who the backups are?

JW: Okay, well let's go from left to right for the starters: Marvel Smith, Branden Albert, Darnell Stapleton, Kendall Simmons, Willie Colon. The backups are Trai Essex, Sean Mahan, another rookie, and the winner of the project battle between Jason Capizzi and Jeremy Parquet. That leaves Chris Kemoeatu. Now, maybe he can start at left guard and Albert sits and learns for a spell. But if Kemoeatu can't be trusted with knowing his assignments yet, and does lose his job, I don't know if he can be trusted to sit the bench again without becoming an attitude problem. They may cut him if he can't win the starting job, since Essex and Mahan, in theory, could also play guard.

SteelerSouth: Nah, can't go there with you Wex. [Albert's] prospects at LT are too speculative at this point and he doesn't do enough for me as a guard to be OK with the fact that it might ultimately be all he is. I would rather have the guy with definite long-term LT skills who can probably be a decent guard starting out than a guy who is a good guard, but may or may not be a competent LT when Marvel [Smith] is soon finished.

JW: I'm only going by the one game I saw and Albert was ferocious. I saw enough to be able to live with him as a guard just in case he can't play LT. From what I saw, he'd be a much better guard than either Chris Williams or Sam Baker. And really, their futures at LT are speculative at this point, too, wouldn't you say?

Tyranid: Jim, do you like Albert over [Oneil] Cousins? … Twenty-three is pretty old and they'd essentially need him to start right away.

JW: The Steelers like drafting juniors but you're right that, at 23, Albert doesn't give them the youth they normally would get from drafting a junior. Good point. As for taking him over Cousins, I definitely like Cousins as a prospect, and if the team opts to trade down to make their first-round pick I'd be happy to have Cousins in the pool of players they deem acceptable as part of the risk of trading down. But Cousins is a project. I believe Albert could step in right away. I'd have to say Albert would also have a better future at guard than Cousins anyhow. As a tackle? Well, that is, as someone else pointed out, too speculative anyhow right now.

SouthernStiller: The interesting thing about the Pro Football Weekly draft is they don't have Williams going in the first round, unless I missed it. Would you take Albert over Williams?

JW: What I like about Williams is that he can pass block and, I believe, would be adequate as a guard. But Albert, I feel, will be more than adequate as a guard. Based on what I saw, he could become a real killer. So, yes, considering the need I would take Albert over Williams. Now, as a value pick, it's tough to pass on the LT, but I'm trying to mix my feelings with how the Steelers typically think.

SteelChowder: My problem is with the logic. … If the Steelers aren't about moving players on the line once they're established, why would ultimately changing Albert from guard to tackle be any different?

JW: Good point. I was trying to say that it's becoming obvious they see Willie Colon as a tackle and not a guard. That's why they wouldn't change his position. I didn't mean to imply they wouldn't change anyone's position. It also depends on whether they think they're being fair with the player. With Alan Faneca, it's always been a "check with Alan" kind of attitude about a move to LT. In Albert's case, he seems to want to play LT eventually. And why not? It's where the money is. Let me just clarify that I don't know if it would be the reason they'd take him, but versatility is always a plus when it comes to breaking ties between, for example, Albert and Chilo Rachal. Also, I can't get the vision out of my head of Kevin Colbert saying, "… and he can also play left tackle, so that would give us some options down the road if need be." Really, I can hear him saying that.

Cobra39: I've seen him play a bit and I don't think there's any way this kid can ever play tackle (especially left tackle) and I don't think you should waste a 1.23 pick on a guard. He really is slow as heck. His 40 times from nfldraftscout.com are: 5.37, 5.26, 5.64.

JW: Cobra, I'm sure you're just using the 40 times as a reference point as opposed to implying any real significance to an O-lineman running 40 yards. But your point is well-taken. When I watched him, I was not thinking about him playing left tackle, so I didn't address it in my notes. But I later learned of the time he spent at LT. I'd love to get a tape of the Pitt game to see for myself. As for picking a guard at 1.23, that's a good point, but if the guy can fill a gaping hole, and fill it as spectacularly as I thought he played against Texas Tech, I have no problem with it. Sure, John Greco in the second round would satisfy me. But what if Albert lives up to his enormous potential and becomes a real killer at the position? And what if he can give you what Faneca gave you in Denver in 2003 with emergency LT play? Faneca, by the way, was a 1.26 pick in 1996. Other top guards chosen at 1.23 were Davin Joseph and Jeff Hartings. Yes, I agree that it should be an easy position to fill later in the draft, but taking one in the first lessens the risk, and when you have a gaping hole the risk should be minimized.

Sssssteve: Dang, you just had me convinced on Carl Nicks a couple days ago. Any possibility of a trade down with this guy? I'd love another third-rounder.

JW: That's always possible with Kevin Colbert. I think he has a real good grasp of what the first round really should look like, not what the media's portraying it to look like. My worry with Albert isn't whether he's worthy of pick 23, but whether he'll still be on the board. Did you look at the picture of the guy? Anyway, Colbert will have a better idea in three months than I do today, so I will trust him on whether he trades down or not.

Steelmann58: Jim, if they do pick Albert then who would you target at tackle? [John] Greco or [Chad] Reinhart? I would also like to know if you would target a RB anywhere in the draft like maybe [Matt] Forte or [BenJarvus] Green-Ellis?

JW: I would just stick with my draft board at tackle. I did like what I saw of Reinhart at guard in the Senior Bowl but I doubt he's a tackle. And I liked Greco in the Shrine Game. As for targeting one, I don't know. If the Steelers like Essex and Colon as much as I suspect, and since Marvel is expected to return to full health from his back surgery, I don't know that tackle's such a high priority with them. As for the running backs, I refuse to change my opinion of Forte as a guy who runs too tall through the hole. I think he'll get killed in the pros, since he only has average speed and strength. Classic meatball back. I think Green-Ellis will be a better value in the fifth and I think he has more power. But there are a lot of little backs I like. I think someone like Rafael Little can become the Kevin Faulk that they're looking for. If you need to lessen the risk, take Tashard Choice in the third round.

Chriskane: Now for Round 2 we need some defensive line help. The pick?

JW: I'll go with my guy Kendall Langford. With his raw strength he looks like a bigger James Harrison to me. Now, he needs some technique work, so if Round 2 is too early, than Round 3. But that's a guy I really enjoyed watching in the Senior Bowl, particularly since he made the game-saving tackle and particularly since so many "experts" are turning up their collective noses at him.

Talk about the blog Week 3 on the message board.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 27

The quarterback who led Boise State to two undefeated seasons in three years will sign with the Steelers on Monday.

That's what Jared Zabransky told the Idaho Statesman over the weekend.

The former quarterback from Boise State told the paper that the Steelers also expect to add a rookie at the position and that both of them will compete for the roster spot left open by departing free agent QB Brian St. Pierre.

Talk about the blog Week 2 on the message board.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 25

BLESTO released its results to its NFL clients this season and reported there are 21 college tackles they believe will be in NFL camps next summer. Not as draft picks, just that they belong on the 80-man rosters.

I learned this when I asked someone if Sam Baker and Gosder Cherilus were indeed first-round prospects. I was told they'd find a way into the first round, as might guys who we in the media believe to be second-round prospects, guys like Oneil Cousins.

"If there are 21 players, and half the 32 teams need at least one tackle, you do the math," I was told.

But the Steelers, you say, with the 23rd pick, can get in, get one, and get out.

But can they?

Chris Steuber, in his latest mock for Scout.com, believes so. He writes that only two tackles will be gone by the time the Steelers pick and that Jeff Otah of Pitt will be their choice.

Okay. He's not my first choice, but the Steelers need a guy who can play guard, right? Or, if we're certain the rookie can step in and play right away, that he's a sure-fire guy, the Steelers could move Willie Colon to his natural guard position and start the rookie at right tackle.

Yeah, that's about as likely to happen as the Steelers drafting a tall receiver in the first round. And forget about moving Marvel Smith back to right tackle. But at least we've defined the parameters, and that leaves Cherilus out of the mix. He's too tall to play guard, and if the Steelers really wanted to put that kind of money into right tackle, and make that kind of move with Colon, they may as well just keep Max Starks.

Can Otah help them at guard? Don't know. No one does. He's raw as is, as a tackle. My instinct is to leave him out of the mix as well. In fact, I talked to a scout who thinks he's a second-rounder, and as the guys who keep matching Otah with the Steelers try to tell us, the Steelers really know the Pitt guys well.

But back to the math. We can safely rule out Jake Long and Ryan Clady. Those are legitimate left tackles with pass-block/drive-block skills and they will be long gone. Another mock draft, this one by Frank Croyle, throws Sam Baker into the top-22 party at No. 21. Baker is another left tackle, and no one doubts he could play guard just in case one of those 16 teams that don't need two tackles needs a guard.

So let's leave Long, Clady, Baker, and Cherilus out of the mix.

Oh, but Mel Kiper has checked in with a first round that I fear is percolating in the pipeline. Kiper has five offensive tackles being picked before the Steelers pick. Not that the Steelers are hell-bent on a tackle, as I've written, but there aren't any pure guards worth taking in the top 23.

Kiper has Long (5), Clady (12), Otah (13), Baker (14) and Chris Williams (19) gone before the Steelers pick (23). Williams would be the perfect pick for the Steelers since he played left tackle in the SEC (tough), for Vandy (smart), and can block on the move (guard). But five tackles in the top 22? Is this possible?

Well, it hasn't happened since 1986. It also went that way in 1985. The average number of tackles chosen in the top 22 in 41 drafts is 2.4, but then again we remember the math presented to us by BLESTO, and we see the costs of these players in free agency, and we realize it's possible that another 5-in-22 draft is in the works.

If we take those five tackles out of the equation, and take Cherilus out, what will the Steelers be looking at?

Carl Nicks. Yes, a player I thought was a fourth-rounder earlier in the year, whose offseason play has forced me to change that grade to a high second-rounder, now becomes a possibility with pick 23. And he's a legitimate consideration. He's thick and strong and wide and has quick feet. He's built like a guard but played left tackle for Nebraska the last two years. This year he distinguished himself against USC pass-rusher Lawrence Jackson. Then again, Jackson's been inconsistent throughout his college career. Was Jackson up or down for that game?

Either way, Nicks is showing up in Mobile. He has the look of a powerful guard and the Steelers need one, a big one. But at 23? For a guy who'll never have the athleticism to beome the main pulling guard for this classic power-sweep team?

If the Steelers pass on Nicks, he'll get picked in the bottom of the round, which brings up the next question: Could the Steelers wait until pick 53 to get their guard?

Next on my list, after Nicks and Cherilus (the Nos. 6 and 7 linemen), are Cousins, John Greco, Brenden Albert, Chilo Rachal, Roy Schuening and Anthony Collins. The only tackle-to-guard question mark here is Collins, so we'll toss him. That leaves five more linemen, or 12 in the top 52.

The Steelers' second pick will be No. 53. A dozen linemen have been chosen in the first 52 picks only three times: 15 in 1968; 12 in 1976 and 1983. So the Steelers could probably wait to draft their lineman with the 53rd pick, but they'll be holding their breath.

So in summation, these look to be the Steelers' realistic options this draft:

1. Draft Carl Nicks at No. 23.

2. Trade down into the late, late first or early, early second for either Nicks or Cousins.

3. Wait and hope that either Greco, the tackle-guard from Toledo, is there at pick 53, or that the top pure guards all last.

The Steelers learned last year that linemen are now being taken at least a round earlier than their grade indicates, so that won't be an excuse this year. They know how the draft game has changed, and they should begin preparing for it now.

++++

Mike Singletary was the star of a rainy walk-through session Thursday. The NFL Network put a microphone on the Hall of Fame linebacker-turned-coach and he didn't hold back. Like last year, Singletary said what was on his mind, and guys like Philip Wheeler felt his wrath. But there was also one player who did – for all of us to see – absorb Singletary's coaching and put it into play right away. This made Singletary smile. Often.

The player's name is Wesley Woodyard, and he did everything right, smoothly, without false steps. Singletary obviously likes him. I had to throw on my Kentucky tape and take a closer look.

And, yes, he's very smooth, quick, smart. Everything he did right for Singletary transferred to the playing field. He's a fluid defender who can run and it's obvious that he loves the game. If he were a basketball player they'd be calling him a gym rat.

But on the negative side, he's only 212 pounds. And it showed against the Florida State run game. While Woodyard has some of the best instincts this side of Jordon Dizon, those weren't much help when FSU came right at him. Woodyard appears to be one – and perhaps the best – of the many safety/linebacker tweeners in the draft who, if Kevin Colbert is thinking like I am, will be one of the special-team core guys the Steelers are looking at in the fourth round.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 24

South Alabama is reportedly interested in interviewing Steelers assistant head coach/D-line coach John Mitchell for their vacant coaching position. Mitchell is in Mobile for the Senior Bowl.

The Mobile Register couldn't confirm that Mitchell, a native of Mobile, has in fact been in contact with the school.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 23

The Senior Bowl is the place to be, and I'm right there, on the couch, watching every stretch, 7-on-7 and one-on-one blocking drill thanks to the NFL Network. A couple of notes from Tuesday's practices:

* The Steelers met with Texas WR Limas Sweed. Yes, he's a big target, but no he's not consistent and no he's not a return man. Could they be doing this just to appease Ben Roethlisberger? The QB came out last week and said he wanted a big WR, and Sweed is that. But my feeling is that if a first-round WR can't return kicks, there's little point, particularly with a guy who's been so inconsistent over the years and has such high bust potential. My take is the Steelers needed to tie up loose ends with a guy who missed seven games this season with a wrist injury.

* Speaking of big WRs, Adarius Bowman's stock is plummeting. He might be a fourth-rounder these days. His size would make Ben happy and his ferocious blocking would make everyone else happy. Hines Ward would be tickled with this kid's attitude toward the game. Bowman has become a sleeper prospect.

* Thomas DeCoud (di-COO) is my favorite free safety. He's the confident defensive quarterback a great FS should be, and he has speed, range and the hitting ability to go with it. Love him in the second. Would probably have to pass in the first.

* Bruce Davis, the defensive end from UCLA who'll have to play OLB in the league, is the next Joey Porter – both in ability and personality. The kid's a rabble-rouser. While Porter was a third-round pick, Davis comes from a bigger school and will likely go in the bottom of the second.

* I finally got to see OT Chris Williams. I missed Vandy this season and have been scrambling back ever since, but I now understand why so many Steelers fans have been talking about this guy. He could play right tackle, even guard (center? – need to see more), as he grows into the LT job that Marvel Smith -- with his bad back -- is holding down now. It appears the Steelers could choose Williams or Gosder Cherilus in the first round. Here's how talent evaluator Mike Mayock broke down these two offensive tackles:

"They're different kind of players playing the same position," Mayock said. "Cherilus is more physical and a better run blocker. I think that Chris Williams is a more talented foot-athlete. I think he's got quicker feet and is a more natural knee-bender than Cherilus is."

* One guy who made Williams look bad Tuesday was my boy, Hampton University DE Kendall Langford. He's a late addition to the Senior Bowl and he surprised Williams with a quick outside move in a one-on-one drill. I've considered Langford a 3-4 DE who could go in the third round to a team that's too nervous to allow him to get into the fourth round where he probably belongs. Here's what Mayock said about Langford, who weighed in at 6-5.3, 275:

"Interesting kid. … If he can get up to 290-295, I think he'd be the ideal what they call 5-technique, which is a defensive end in a 3-4 set. That's what I think he'll be at the next level. He's two to three years away from a strength perspective and a technique perspective but I think he can be a starter in the NFL."

* Another of my favorites, OT Oneil Cousins, looks like a high second-rounder. He may be too raw to start right away, and that could push him toward the middle of the second round, but this guy is powerful and has a real attitude problem, as in nasty, nasty, nasty. He's a converted defensive lineman and he plays like one. I'd take him and put him at guard, as Mayock suggests, with the hope he could learn to play left tackle. I really think the Steelers have enough at tackle right now to allow a high pick to develop in this manner. A first-round tackle would move Willie Colon inside, but not a second-rounder.

SHRINE BOWL REVIEW: (West) You can have Joe Flacco, Andre Woodson, Colt Brennan and Chad Henne as your second-round quarterback. Give me Josh Johnson, the MVP of the East-West Shrine Game.

I watched the San Diego University QB on tape yesterday and thought of Joe Montana. Honest. The kid is graceful. He throws with touch or with heat, whatever he needs. And he scrambles with those long, easy strides of Joe Cool. Johnson only played two (maybe three, but please don't make me go back and watch this again) series, and on the first series he was too good for his B-game receivers. Three different players dropped consecutive passes that should've been touchdowns from the 12-yard line. Johnson capped the other drive with a lovely floater to Kevin Robinson for a score.

I'd heard Johnson carried a 5th-round grade after his record-setting senior season (43 touchdowns, one interception) in Division I-AA ball, but he shot up to Round Four on his first series when he showed he belonged with this tier of athlete, and I'm sure as the game went on his stock only skyrocketed.

Tarvaris Jackson made a move up into the second round with his play a few years ago in the Shrine Game, but Johnson's a much better quarterback. I couldn't help but give him a second-round grade. Too bad he's not playing in the Senior Bowl.

* In addition to catching the short TD pass over Jamie Silva, Kevin Robinson returned a punt for a touchdown. As a receiver, he also caught a slant over the middle and took the hit. He was also spotted blocking downfield on a Johnson scramble. After I slapped a third-round grade on him, I wondered if he was just another Willie Reid – a flash at the end of his college career. But Robinson's four quick cuts on the long return say he's not. Those cuts were short, sweet magic.

* West cornerback Dwight Lowery intercepted two passes, but didn't show any explosiveness as a return man (even fumbled a kickoff return) so that prevents me from using a second-round pick for the long-limbed cover man.

* Lowery's opposite number, Justin Tryon, ran with Dexter Jackson in deep coverage and batted the pass away. Tryon did a lot of that and the little guy should get a long look in the fourth round.

* I didn't watch Frank Okam, Tommy Blake, Anthony Alridge, Kevin O'Connell or Derrick Doggett because I'd watched them closely in previous games. I got the chance to catch up on Iowa State and that gang showed me that I hadn't missed anything.

* Linebacker Spencer Larsen shot the gap a few times and was named Defensive Player of the Game. He's still a mid-round plugger until he shows a bit more dash.

* No one stood out as a coverage ace on special teams from the West.

* At center, Kyle Van Dyn of Oregon State clearly outplayed Ryan Wendell of Fresno State. Van Dyn could go in the sixth.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 22

Let's start with a review of the East squad from the Shrine Game. More talent was stashed on that side of the ball, but silly mistakes by the East quarterbacks and the outstanding play of West quarterback Josh Johnson gave the West an easy win.

The player who intrigued me most on the East side was Hampton University defensive end Kendall Langford. On consecutive plays of the first West possession, Langford crushed his teammate, a linebacker, while tackling the running back five yards down the field, and on the next play Langford jerked back the head of massive OT Geoff Schwartz with a strong punch on his way to the quarterback. Langford got the sack and forced a fumble. He used his strength to collapse the pocket on a number of other occasions. On the down side, he was blown off the ball at the goal line for a West touchdown.

Langford appears strong enough to stop the run, but my guess is he needs work with his hands. It wouldn't surprise me if he were working on new techniques in the game after working with pro coaches all week. Listed at 6-6, 296, Langford could be more explosive off the ball, but he has Harrison-esque strength. The lack of quick-twitch muscle fiber wouldn't hinder him much as a defensive end in the Steelers' 3-4, but there's no mistaking his athletic ability. He went way up to nearly block a short field-goal attempt. He also appears to be a team player without ego, which would make him an ideal student for line coach John Mitchell. I'm thinking Mitch ought to begin pushing for Langford in the third round.

I hoped to get a good look at three East linebackers, but neither Jameel McClain, Jonathan Goff nor Curtis Gatewood showed much. Gatewood came in with a bigger pro billing than his more acclaimed Vanderbilt teammate, Goff, and Gatewood got off to a quick start by making the tackle on the opening kickoff. But afterward none of the three showed much more than good-looking bodies and quickness. I'll lump all three of them in the 3rd-4th-round range until I see more. McClain was also used at defensive end, a la Levon Kirkland circa 1991 Clemson, but didn't come close to the QB.

I also watched a couple of linebacker/end tweeners and both were disappointing. I gave Pitt's Joe Clermond a Priority Free Agent grade because he didn't push the pocket as an end and never was given the chance to drop into coverage as a linebacker. Curtis Johnson, a defensive end from Clark-Atlanta, played outside linebacker and looked like Jason Gildon in coverage – stiff, tall, strong. In other words he's a strong-side 3-4 OLB who must be better running forward than back. I gave him a fifth-round grade.

Of course, we TV scouts don't get the full picture on the safeties, but Boston College's Jamie Silva gave us one anyway. Silva will probably end up with a lousy 40 time, and was beaten in space a couple of times in the game, but he showed he's a special football player. The guy has great instincts. Pick this guy in the fifth round and make him your special-teams captain in a few years. TV analyst Todd McShay replayed tape of Silva coming within inches of blocking a punt at the 30-yard line. Silva picked himself up off the ground and ran to the other 30 to throw a block for the return man. I put a fifth-round grade on him, but then I watched Rodney Harrison of the Patriots and remembered that safeties can post wretched 40 times and still win championships. Silva will be difficult to pass on in the fourth round.

If you pass and don't get Silva in the fifth, you might want D.J. Parker. I haven't seen the 40 times, but Parker is another smart free safety and pure "football player" who's a bit small. The few times Parker was on screen, he showed polish in his backpedal. He also downed a kick at the one-foot line on special teams. You almost want to see Parker run poorly at the combine so he's there in the fifth or sixth.

Offensively, John Greco got the best grade – a fourth – of the guys who interested me from a Steelers perspective. The Toledo offensive tackle played mistake-free ball on both the right and left sides, although he did give a pressure on each side to Chris Harrington of Texas A&M. Greco's not great, but he'll protect your QB and get some push in the run game. He can become Matt Light some day.

A riskier fourth-rounder is WR Jerome Simpson. He has huge hands, but is a bit uncoordinated. Maybe he hasn't grown into his body. If he is a late bloomer, someone will hit a home run with this pick because he has size, speed and hands.

RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis impressed me, surprised me in fact, with the way he moved, no, dragged the pile with him. He's listed at 225 pounds and could become a great fifth-round steal as an inside runner. He showed up in pass pro as well, and also showed deft receiving skills. A sideline reporter told a story of Green-Ellis getting his two front teeth knocked out against Georgia, coming back in, and later being told to leave by the ref because "he was bleeding everywhere."

MONDAY, JANUARY 21

Yes, it's a depressing time of year. Always is when you're watching other teams, but this Super Bowl will be particularly dull because I don't see the Giants mustering another competitive run at the Patriots.

Green Bay? Well, they never really had a chance either, but at least the country would've come together as one in rooting for a quarterback, the way the media told us we'd come together in support of John Elway in 1998.

I couldn't have cared less about ol' Horse Face back then, but I figured we'd all root for Brett Favre against the perfect Patriots. That would've been a truth instead of a media creation.

Alas, it's Eli Manning. Can he and the Giants beat the Pats? Well, someone will have to stop Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans. Those were New England's core heroes yesterday. Those, in fact, are two key pieces the Steelers lack – a true short-yardage plow horse and a pass-catching threat out of the backfield.

If the Steelers do pick up a quality No. 2 back in this coming draft, would he become the pass-catcher? Would he become the Faulk to the Patriots' Laurence Maroney?

I doubt it. Say the Steelers, for example, land either Jonathan Stewart or Rashard Mendenhall in the first round. Does that player – a classic power/speed inside runner with the ability to get outside -- become the pass-catcher? That wouldn't be a comfortable niche for either of those two backs, and the first round is a high price to pay for a back who's not going to fit your specific need.

It means Willie Parker must improve as a pass-catcher, considering his game is attacking the perimeter. That would allow the other roles to be filled more easily, but it's never been that easy with Parker. Ask his much-maligned college coach, John Bunting.

Speaking of coaches trying to pound square pegs into round holes (a.k.a. Running Injured QBs Wide Behind Third-team Tackles), the Chargers ran big back Michael Turner wide on a key third-and-one play that lost a yard near the end of the first half. The resulting short field goal moved the Chargers within 14-12, but that was it for them. They needed a touchdown there.

The other key play -- a play no one mentioned during the frivolous halftime show starring Dan Marino's cell phone – was the Mike Vrabel-induced interception that Philip Rivers threw in the first half. It was a 7-6 game, and two plays after the pick the score was 14-6. But no one mentioned that Vrabel had leg-whipped Rivers on the play.

Perhaps I don't fully understand the rule here, or perhaps no one else saw it, but Vrabel slid to Rivers' right and kicked his leg into Rivers' injured leg and forced the poor throw. That should've been a 15-yard penalty against Vrabel.

The halftime TV "fun bunch" didn't explain it, and instead focused on reasons to yank Rivers for Billy Volek. After Bill Cowher finished saying he, as a coach, would watch Rivers closely at the start of the second half with the intention of playing Volek, and after Shannon Sharpe said he would simply start Volek coming out of the break, Boomer Esiason looked at Cowher, laughed and said, "It it was Ben Roethlisberger, he'd never bench him."

And then Marino's cell phone rang for a third time.

In the 40th anniversary of the Ice Bowl in Green Bay, honorary captain Bart Starr came out for the coin flip, but where was Jethro Pugh?

A sideline reporter mentioned during pre-game warm-ups that "Plaxico Burress (was) absolutely taken aback by the cold" and that "air in his gloves" caused Burress to say "I can't feel my hands." But Burress went on to have a great game.

He's still sloppy, though. Burress got away with a fumble that rolled out of bounds near the goal line, and later had a fumble that was ruled incomplete in another play at the goal line (Burress was actually motioning to the ref that he'd caught the ball – which would've been a fumble had they listened to him), but the big guy is getting his moment in the sun. And I know I'll be rooting for him in his next game.

I also on Sunday pored over the college Shrine Bowl tape. I focused on the East and tomorrow will make a case in this space for the Steelers to draft Hampton University defensive end Kendall Langford in the third round, Toledo offensive tackle John Greco in the fourth round, Boston College "football player" Jamie Silva in the fifth round, and Virginia Tech free safety D.J. Parker in the sixth round. And then I'll revise that in Wednesday's report after reviewing the West squad.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 19

Ben Roethlisberger said he wanted a big wide receiver and the Steelers have complied. The Steelers yesterday signed former Michigan State wide receiver Matt Trannon to their reserve/future roster.

Trannon is a 6-foot-6, 216-pound former wide receiver and college basketball player at MSU. He is the cousin of former NFL safety Lonnie Young, who's now a scout with the Arizona Cardials.

Trannon was a four-year football starter at MSU and caught 44 passes his senior season. He wasn't drafted last April, but signed with Arizona and was placed on the Cardinals' practice squad. He was released and subsequently joined the practice squads at Kansas City and Oakland before signing with Pittsburgh.

The Steelers also worked out the following free agents on Friday: RB Dominique Dorsey (Nevada-Las Vegas), QB Luke Getsy (Akron), DBs Patrick McGhee (Wake Forest) and Gerrick McPhearson (Maryland), DT Daniel Marquardt (BYU), and LB Gavin Walls (Arkansas).

Talk about the blog Week 1 on the message board.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 18

Before I get into the players I want to focus on in the East-West Shrine Game, let me get to Kevin Colbert's comments this week.

One of my colleagues in the reporting game always says this about talking to Colbert before the draft: "When we ask to talk to him, Kevin should ask us whether we expect him to give away the millions of dollars the Steelers have spent on prospect analysis this season, or whether we want him to just lie to us, because, really, that's all he can do."

This week Colbert gave Pittsburgh reporters his usual. He also told the Post-Gazette he would even draft a running back. "Heck yeah. Absolutely," he said.

What wasn't mentioned in the story is that Colbert was asked about that position. That's the key. He was prompted and gave the only appropriate response, so I read nothing into the comment.

As for Colbert defending his offensive linemen -- and I stress the word his -- Colbert did add that "you can lose two unrestricted free agents, and if you do, maybe that changes your focus."

Anyway, for all of us doing our own draft work, I say thanks, Kevin, for lying to those who aren't.

These are the players I'll be watching closely in Saturday night's East-West Shrine Game:

QB Josh Johnson -- Everyone who's seen him loves him. I've heard he's a fifth-rounder. Problem is, not many have seen San Diego University play this season. Now's our chance.

FBs Jerome Felton and Brandon McAnderson -- Felton, from Furman, is a 246-pounder who's supposedly a quality lead blocker and red-zone runner. McAnderson was Kansas' single back out of the spread, and this will give us a completely different look at yet another big tailback attempting to show he can lead block.

RB Thomas Brown -- The little back from Georgia is drawing raves this week for his work ethic, toughness and quickness in practice. He's being called a fourth-rounder, but I have my doubts.

WRs Jerome Simpson and Paul Hubbbard -- Both of these players are more track athletes than football players, and that means big, big upside ... if they can learn the game. Simpson was a track superstar at Coastal Carolina. Hubbard was an insignificant starter at Wisconsin, but has caused a buzz this week because of his size and speed.

C Ryan Wendell -- He's a bit small, but I have to see all of the centers if I'm going to predict which ones the Steelers will pass on. Just say I'm not optimistic about the team bolstering its biggest weakness.

OT John Greco -- Haven't seen Toledo's best player yet. Hear he's a solid mid-rounder.

OT Jeremy Zuttah -- I've seen him play RT at Rutgers and like him in the mid rounds quite a bit.

DE Ken Langford -- Another player from Hampton enters the draft. He's 6-6, 294 and is said to lack the speed required of a 4-3 end, but is also said to be a perfect 3-4 DE specimen.

DT Nick Hayden -- This guy may have the best motor in the country this season. Big, strong, relentless, but can he provide just a little pass rush to justify a move to 3-4 DE?

DE Joe Clermond -- Productive Pitt player is 6-3, 250. Does he have the hips to play 3-4 OLB?

S David Roach -- He's not the most acclaimed prospect from TCU, but folks down there love him.

S Josh Barrett -- King-sized ASU safety got hurt late in the year and missed his bowl game.

CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- You have to pay attention when Tennessee State has a prospect. Can also return kicks.

LB Jameel McClain -- The Big East is so difficult to watch that I haven't even seen Syracuse this year. Word is this Orangeman can play middle linebacker and rush off the edge.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 16

Dermontti Dawson not being on the list of finalists for the Hall of Fame is a disgrace. This is the list of finalists and not one of them, in my mind, is more worthy:

The contributor finalist is former National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The Senior Committee nominees are Chicago Cardinals back Marshall Goldberg and Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Emmitt Thomas. The modern-era player finalists include cornerback Darrell Green, defensive ends Fred Dean and Richard Dent; linebackers Randy Gradishar, Derrick Thomas and Andre Tippett; guards Russ Grimm, Bob Kuechenberg and Randall McDaniel; punter Ray Guy; wide receivers Cris Carter, Art Monk and Andre Reed; and tackle Gary Zimmerman.

It's hard to believe a guy like Goldberg, who played eight forgettable seasons with the Chicago Cardinals, rushing for 1,644 yards and 11 touchdowns in those eight seasons, is being considered over a remarkable athlete such as Dawson.

Dawson not only had Sayers-like athletic skills, he put up the numbers. Dawson spent all 13 of his NFL seasons with the Steelers, played in 171 consecutive games, went to seven Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl, was the Associated Press first-team All-Pro NFL center five years in a row (1993-97), was a unanimous All-Pro in 1997, had more first-place votes than any other player on the 1996 All-Pro team, and was one of the most graceful and intelligent human beings inside a locker room that was known for its professionalism.

Dawson also helped many teammates invest their money properly and has become a wealthy man in his retirement from football. The guy screams Hall of Fame and if the voters are deliberately keeping him out because too many Steelers already are in the Hall, they're makig a big mistake. To not include him as a finalist is a blackmark against every voter.

Dawson, of course, was the third great center in the Steelers' tradition that began with Ray Mansfield and continued through Mike Webster. After Dawson came Jeff Hartings, who went to two Pro Bowl before retiring after the 2006 season.

The play at center was so bad this past season, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians called a quarterback keeper around left end on the biggest third-down play of the season. The QB struggled down the stretch with a sprained ankle, and his lead blockier was No. 3 left tackle Trai Essex, but Tomlin stuck with Arians's call because, "We anticipated potentially that we would get all-out pressure, particularly from the interior. We thought we could outflank them and get on the edge." In other words, Tomlin thought Jacksonville would blitz up the middle and he didn't think the Steelers would block it and so he allowed the worst possible play to be called at the worst time. Of course it failed.

Will this situation improve? Word is Darnell Stapleton will be given every chance to win the job next season. He was inactive all season, forcing the team to work RG Kendall Simmons at the position whenever they could. Stapleton was active for the final game.

Of course, one brief appearance in one preseason game by an undrafted rookie is not enough to bank the 2008 season on, so here are the best college centers I've watched this season, with my own grades:

2nd round -- Kory Lichtensteiger, Bowling Green, is big, athletic, strong, nasty, shows balance and a rock-solid base in pass pro, and drove the Tulsa NT off screen several times in the run game during the GMAC Bowl.

2nd/3rd round -- Mike Pollak, Arizona State, can add 10-15 pounds, according to scouts. Someone on the message board pointed out that since the rest of the ASU line was so bad and picked up blitzes so poorly, perhaps the center isn't so sharp with his line calls. Perhaps.

3rd round -- Steve Justice, Wake Forest, doesn't interest the Steelers because he's too small and couldn't play another position, a must since they realized the problems presented by Chukky Okobi on game days. Justice belongs with the Denver Broncos.

4th round -- Fernando Velasco, Georgia, sets a tone getting off the bus with his size but is just too limited athletically for the Steelers. Against Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, Velasco appeared to tire and too often flopped to the ground for a cheap cut.

4th round -- Cody Wallace, Texas A&M, is also smart and strong and lacks mobility.

6th/7th round -- Kyle DeVan, Oregon State, is my favorite sleeper. Here's more on him.

7th round/UFA -- Jamey Richard, Buffalo, also played guard in the Hula Bowl but is a bit on the small side. He looks like another Marvin Philip, but without the big-school experience.

I haven't watched John Sullivan of Notre Dame. He's a highly regarded prospect who was injured much of the season.

Of course, tackles and guards can always be moved inside, but scouts have told me the priority is still to look at those playing the position.

Is there a Dermontti Dawson in the bunch? Of course not. A player like that comes along once every 75 years. Just because Webster is in the Hall, doesn't mean his successor wasn't his equal or even better. They were both great in their own unique way.

Speaking of Webbie, here's a good story on the 1976 playoffs. Note the quote by Joe Greene: "Oakland has the nastiest defensive backs this side of Attica's all-star intramural team."

TUESDAY, JANUARY 15

At the end of the Hula Bowl, play-by-play announcer Ron Thulin had a question: "MVP?" he said. "I'm torn. ... I don't know who."

"I'm not sure myself," said color analyst Kelly Stouffer.

That's because the handful of decent players in the game didn't touch the ball. The one who caught my eye, again, was Virginia Tech DT Carlton Powell. The guy finished his season on a rampage and it continued in the Hula Bowl. He consistently beat double teams and showed pass-rush ability for a big man and ran sideline-to-sideline to tackle running backs. He's a playmaking 4-3 tackle and thus the second-round grade I threw on him will mean little to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If Powell wasn't the MVP, Cincinati DE Angelo Craig was. He had two early sacks and a forced fumble but didn't play much in the second half. The East coaches gave more playing time at that position to a couple of tweener prospects, and both Marcus Howard of Georgia and Hilee Taylor of North Carolina disappointed. Both players were also used at linebacker and neither fared well in the transition.

Interesting as small defensive ends on their respective teams, Taylor looked stiff and lost as a strong-side 4-3 linebacker. Howard was smaller and quicker but looked no less lost in space. At least Howard still showed the burst around the edge as a 4-3 DE. He was the star of the Sugar Bowl with three sacks and two forced fumbles, one of which resulted in a touchdown. He's a smallish runaround guy with a burst and seemingly good hips, but they were of no use to him as a linebacker in the Hula Bowl. Taylor, a bigger "tweener", on the other hand appeared to have lost his speed over the course of the season.

It's too bad Curry is a strict 4-3 DE because there wasn't much else off the edge here. Hampton DE Marcus Dixon was often blocked by a tight end and it's doubtful he'll be drafted.

There were a handful of offensive lineman I wanted to see for the first time this season and James Blair of Western Michigan came away with the best grade of the bunch -- 6th/7th-rounder. He started at right guard but distinguished himself as a tenacious RT who stayed low and kept his balance. Buffalo center Jamey Richard is too small. UConn guard Donald Thomas showed mobility for a big man but was injured early. He's worth following.

Here are a few more quick-hit notes:

... Brian Johnston had two sacks and forced a fumble, which led to a mini-feature on the Gardner-Webb DE. He supposedly ran a 4.6 40 at 280 pounds, but didn't flash any of that speed in game action. His motor was responsible for the sacks and that motor could get this Lee Vickers clone drafted early in the seventh round.

... Pitt TE Darnell Strong was physical as an in-line blocker and made four catches. On the down side, he dropped a couple of passes -- including a touchdown pass -- and looked slow in space. He could go as high as the sixth round, but not by me.

... Colorado MLB Jordon Dizon blew up a little running back on a screen pass for the hit of the game. I didn't watch him closely since I'd graded Dizon earlier this season, and the LB-S tweener is definitely a potential special-teamer to keep an eye on.

... Pitt CB Kennard Cox was physical and played well. He's a small zone corner who was beat for a touchdown by Cal's Robert Jordan, but his late interception interrupted a bad sideline interview(er) with Larry Fitzgerald Sr. and his son Marcus. For that, we are grateful.

... Virginia Tech WR Josh Morgan looked like he had a dose of jet lag. He dropped a fair catch and a 34-yard touchdown pass. He also failed to show any burst in a couple of opportunities after catches.

... Three players I didn't intend to watch caught my eye anyway: Akron WR Jabari Arthur, Duquesne WR Bruce Hocker, and Marshall QB Bernard Morris. Arthur was the better playmaker but Hocker has better size and, in my mind, upside. Hocker caught a short touchdown pass from Morris, who showed a whip arm and good mobility. A scout earlier had told me Hocker -- who used his big body to shield the defender and catch the TD -- is a prospect on the same level as Leigh Bodden, who was signed by the Browns out of Duquesne after not being chosen in the 2003 draft. Bodden was a starting CB this past season.

... Strong safety Tyrell Johnson of Arkansas State forced a fumble early and was consistently around the ball. He could hear his name called late in the draft

... Tulsa QB Paul Smith was a bit of a disappointment. He lacks size and arm strength but makes up for it with his savvy. His sideline interview was more impressive than that of SDSU QB Kevin O'Connell, who came off as a bit too loose. On the other hand, O'Connell has the arm and great wheels to get into the mid-rounds.

... Just a note to you kids out there: If you're a late-round prospect who has the look of the day -- long hair and tattoos -- and you're tied with someone else for my last pick, I'm going to pass on you for the guy who doesn't look like a criminal.

There were a couple of interesting stories today. The Tribune-Review's John Harris seems surprised -- like many in the media were last week -- that Lawrence Timmons was moved to inside linebacker ... in the second week of the season.

And in the Post-Gazette, Kevin Colbert starts up with this nonsense about the Steelers' offensive line not being as bad as we think. Not again.

MONDAY, JANUARY 14

It's always the best weekend in football and the fact the Steelers weren't involved didn't bother me much. That was the catch about last week's loss: Who wanted to go to New England and withstand that arrogance again? I caught enough of it watching commercials from my couch the last two days. That know-it-all Patriots fan who doesn't know his bartender is Joe Montana? And he tells Joe how you're supposed to win playoff games? That pretty much sums them up.

... Mike Vrabel sums them up, too. He was too smart for Bill Cowher. That's my take on why Vrabel left Pittsburgh. He had a constant smirk on his face; the one you see when he says "THE Ohio State." Yeah, that one. He left after Joey Porter moved into the starting lineup in 2000 and hasn't looked back. Thinking about how and why Vrabel left made me think of Max Starks. A coach at the end of the season told me that he thought Trai Essex would pass Starks on the depth chart at training camp "because he listened." Pretty telling comment right there. A new coaching staff needs its troops to rally behind them. The guys who are too smart can go play for Belichick I guess.

... Of course, it looks like the Patriots will go 19-0 and become recognized as the greatest team ever, and, being that it'll be their fourth Super Bowl in seven years, they'll claim the greatest dynasty, too. It's certainly depressing and it seems like no one wants it to happen. You see it on the faces of the experts on the pre-game shows. There's a sadness, a resignation that we're all being subjected to a reign of arrogance. It's unlikely the San Diego Chargers are going to save the football world from it, either.

... The Chargers beat the Colts with the fresh legs of Michael Turner. He's become the poster boy for coaches who want two quality running backs, because it's too difficult for the starter to make it through 16 games and have those fresh legs in the playoffs. Maybe that's why Belichick shut Laurence Maroney down for most of the season. In fact, the second RB just might be more important than the starter since he'll be the back in the playoffs. Remember that before we get into another argument on the message board about whether the Steelers should even consider drafting a Marshawn Lynch in the first round. Not that they had a chance, but it was an argument last March.

... When the Chargers jubilantly ran off the field after stopping Peyton Manning's pass on fourth-and-goal inside the 10 in the final two minutes Sunday, whose mind didn't wander back to the 1994 playoffs?

... Cowher says the Packers are the last and best chance to stop the Patriots. Let's hope, but in the meantime, what's with the Terrible Towels in Green Bay? Seriously, Packers fans are now twirling yellow towels. Why would a franchise so steeped in tradition steal another team's trademark like that?

... At least the Cowboys lost. It'll be far more interesting to watch a game in the Green Bay elements next weekend as opposed to the sun-drenched artificial surface of the Starboys.

... The Hula Bowl was played Saturday and on Sunday I flipped back and forth between that tape and the AFC playoff game between the Colts and Chargers. On one hand, I'm watching players and wondering if they're worth a seventh-round pick. "Is he as good as Eric Taylor was?" I asked myself at one point. And then I'd flip to the incredible athletes on the other channel and wonder if my preoccupation with the mutts in the Hula Bowl was just busywork for an insane person. Whatever, I'll have that Hula Bowl report tomorrow for those who are similarly afflicted.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 12

The Steelers signed eight players to their reserve/future roster on Friday: wide receiver Dallas Baker, wide receiver Jeremy Bloom, offensive guard Matt Lentz, safety Mike Lorello, linebacker Anthony Trucks, running back Justin Vincent, wide receiver Gerran Walker, and tight end Cody Boyd.

Bloom, of course, is a kickoff return man and Baker is a big pass-catcher who gained confidence working with the team down the stretch. I don't know that there's going to be room for both players next season, which underscores the need in this draft for a return man.

Obviously the team needs to shore up both lines, but I would not be surprised to see a return man get the call in one of the first two rounds. Most of those type are cornerbacks, so if Mike Tomlin is worried about stopping the New England Patriots AND returning kicks -- and what AFC coach isn't? -- than cornerback could be the curveball pick in one of the first two rounds.

... Speaking of which, Ohio State CB/S Malcolm Jenkins has opted to return to school for his senior year. That's a shock. This guy is a classic top 10 player who may have been the brightest light for OSU in the national title game. His departure from the draft will mean one less player will be chosen before the Steelers pick 24th (23rd if Seattle advances to the Super Bowl).

... A bit of a surprise yesterday was the decision by USC RG Chilo Rachal to leave school early. I watched Rachal closely in three games: against Arizona State I put a second-round grade on him; against Nebraska a 2nd/3rd-round grade; and against Illinois in the Rose Bowl I gave him the same 2nd-3rd grade. He looks like Chukky Okobi with those long arms, but he actually moves people. Rachal is strong and helps fill out a weak position. Maybe that's why he came out after an underappreciated season.

... Speaking of guards (aren't these transition phrases brilliant?), we can thank God this morning that Ron Cook has come out to once again tell us how to think. It's one thing to have an opinion, but to take your crown and trounce your readers for being so dumb is lame. Cook would have you believe that he actually does some reporting here, and I wonder how his column will tell us to think once the Steelers make their offer. Sure, it's a good guess that Faneca will be gone. Everyone knows that. But the Steelers plan to "make a run" at him. Simple as that. Is this column just a bashing of "internet reports" or didn't he have anything better on his mind? Personally, I can't wait for the offer. After listening to all the tsk-tsking from guys who never break news and only react to it, I'm hoping Faneca stays just so these know-it-alls can take their crowns and trounce themselves.

... Speaking of Faneca going to Arizona -- Ha! Did it again -- I've seen reports that Russ Grimm interviewed for the Redskins' head job. I also saw that Baltimore LB coach Jeff FitzGerald was officially fired yesterday. He's the guy, Grimm told the Rooneys, who was going to be hired as the Steelers' DC to replace Dick LeBeau had Grimm gotten the Steelers' head job. So don't YOU be surprised, Ron, when Grimm brings FitzGerald along for the ride. And Faneca, of course.

... Uh, oh. Richie Snyder has a bit more money than Bill Bidwell.

... My vote has been tabulated and Pro Football Weekly has released its Pro Football Writers All-NFL teams. The biggest mistakes are Matt Light as All-NFL left tackle and Randy Moss as Comeback Player of the Year. Scouts are probably chuckling at the writers over Light. As for Moss over Ben Roethlisberger, shouldn't a guy who came back from a near-fatal motorcycle wreck be considered over someone who just dogged it in 2006? There aren't any Steelers on any of the teams, other than All-Rookie punter Dan Sepulveda, which leads me to another interesting note: Pitt's Andy Lee (49ers) was voted All-NFL punter. He's the guy the Steelers tried to sign in restricted free agency. Had they gotten their way, the Steelers would've had their quality punter and also been able to use their fourth- and a sixth-round draft picks on backup offensive linemen. On the bright side, I'm a Sepulveda fan and the guy they liked as a late-round line addition, Darnell Stapleton, is the odds-on favorite to start at center for them next year.

... One more note, the big, BIG news screaming all over the Scout.com email network is that Joe Flacco will not play in the East-West Shrine game because he'll play in the Senior Bowl. I'm supposed to credit Adam Capplan for this outstanding journalistic effort. So glad we pay the big money for that. As for Flacco, he's Vinny Testaverde lite. Has that loser look all over him. Just my opinion.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 11

It was the routine: Get up, get the coffee and answer questions on the SCI message board. It pays and it's fun. But I fear the information is being lost. I fear it must be time for another blog.

I put my best guy on it and all he could come up with was "Wexell Report." He thinks it works on an ironic level, but I don't know what that means.

Anyway, this will also cut down on the time element. I have to turn my focus to my book about my roadtrip. I have to go underground for awhile, into the zone. So this might be the best place to drop off whatever info I pick up along the way. This will be fun in a break-from-the-book kind of way.

As for the book, something Mike Tomlin said yesterday will find its way into a James Harrison chapter. Here's the full quote:

"That season speaks for itself. He's a Pro Bowl starter. He's team MVP. He's a great success story. But people that aren't in this business and around it on a day-to-day basis don't have an understanding of how it grows and develops. It's nothing mystical. It doesn't surprise me one bit his performance this year for us. Since the day I got here last winter, I'd run into that guy in this building in the morning more than any football player. He's a self-made guy. He's a professional. He'd love for you to believe that he's wild and it just happens for him. And I understand the persona: It's a work-hard, make-it-look-easy persona. But this guy is a tremendous professional. He has no bounds in terms of preparing himself, and it's good to see the results that happen for people that perform like that. And it better be a source of inspiration for others because those are the kind of efforts we're going to need individually and collectively to be world champs."

The part about seeing Harrison early in the morning struck a note with me. Before giving up weightlifting for simple pushups in my advancing age, I worked out at the St. Vincent gym four times a week. Thing was, I had to be out of there by 7 a.m.

So I'd be in there at 6 a.m. with PR guys like Dave Lockett, and scouts like Mark Gorscak, and coaches like John Mitchell, and players like James Harrison. Yeah, the players were scheduled for 7 a.m. but James would routinely get there by 6:30-6:45 and he'd be in there lifting with us. One time I saw a sleepy Ben Roethlisberger there his rookie year. I think he was being hazed or something. He told me he wasn't a morning person and that's the last I saw of him.

Not James. Dude was a morning person, and as Tomlin said, it's great to see that work pay off. It gives all of us hope. And that's what James has become, Tomlin's beacon of hope. He's the shining light, the main man of the Tomlin transition, a guy who didn't really like Bill Cowher.

"Didn't like him at all," said James' mom.

I asked James about that later, just so that his mom wasn't speaking for him.

"I liked Cowher," James said in protest. "I just didn't like some of his decisions."

Like starting Clark Haggans? I presumed, but didn't ask.

There's an old saying: Champions are made when nobody's looking. I love that saying. I've already taught my daughter that one. I'm not sure she knows what it means, but maybe after I read her that Tomlin quote she will.


Steel City Insider Top Stories

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SUNDAY, JULY 27\r\n

* One last bit before we get lost in work around here, and I know I'm two weeks late, but congratulations to Thomas Tull for smashing all the records with his move \"The Dark Knight.\" Tull, of course, is a rabid Steelers fan, and he's been a big help in getting my new book into the hands of a great New York City production team. Funny, the day after his movie smashed all of the opening-night box office records, he called to see if everything was going well with my book. Special guy. Steeler guy. And if you haven't seen it yet, \"The Dark Knight\" is the best flick you'll see in a long time. It's even better when you realize it's a Steeler movie. \r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, JULY 24\r\n

* On Wednesday, the Steelers made one last cut before the start of training camp by releasing 6-foot-6 wide receiver Matt Trannon. This clears the roster for the imminent signings of their top two draft picks, Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed.\r\n

Trannon, a former basketball player at Michigan State, had an impressive minicamp, but late in the weekend broke a finger trying to catch a pass and missed most of OTAs. His release leaves the Steelers with 10 wide receivers for camp.\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, JULY 17\r\n

* According to a source, the Steelers had offered running back Kevin Jones a one-year, minimum-wage contract to join the team. Of course, Jones instead signed with the Chicago Bears yesterday.\r\n

The offer -- and this is the real non-news here -- wasn't made because of any kind of concern over Willie Parker's recovery from a broken leg. No, Parker's fine. The offer was made to simply find a bargain. The coaches, according to the source, aren't down on second-year man Gary Russell, but \"he really hasn't proven anything to this point,\" the source said. \"My understanding is the coaches just wanted to provide competition for the fourth (half)back.\" The source also said he expects the fourth back -- probably Russell at this point -- to be inactive all season anyway.\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY AFTERNOON, JULY 11\r\n

* Here's a link to some of my thoughts at the outset of training camp.\r\n\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, JULY 11\r\n

* Here's a pretty good summation of the ownership story from Alan Robinson. I love the quote from Art Rooney Jr.: \"I'm a big shot after being exiled 20 years ago.\" Speaking of the man who built the 70s Steelers, here's something interesting from Mondesi's House. In fact, I'll be calling my friend Art Jr. today about our favorite topic: self-publishing tips, since my book will be out soon. Hopefully he'll be able to add something to the other story that hasn't been mentioned.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, JULY 9\r\n

* Another source has confirmed that the Steelers won't be sold by the end of the week, which should poke at least one hole in the media reports today that are rampant with speculation. Also, the word is that Dan Rooney, while opposing any proposed sale of his brothers' holdings, remains upbeat at the South Side facility and is reassuring staffers that \"things will be all right.\" A source told me it's not just lip service, that the people in the building have faith in the owner.\r\n

A couple of points to keep in mind: Rooney needs only eight other NFL owners to agree with him in voting down any proposed sale; and the league has never given the Steelers a time limit on eliminating gambling ties or having one person with a 30 percent share of the team. \r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY MORNING, JULY 9\r\n

* This week has certainly been a whirlwind with the potential sale of the Steelers. I've gone from believing it to be much ado about nothing to believing there's no way out for the Rooney family other than to give up majority ownership.\r\n

All I can add at this point is that an impeccable source has assured me the sale won't occur this week, and that there are other potential buyers involved in talks. My source believes the latter item to be a plus for the Rooneys, as well as all fans of the team. \r\n\r\n

TUESDAY NIGHT, JULY 8\r\n

* David Goldberg, the top NFL writer for the Associated Press, believes a sale to Stanley Druckenmiller could be completed by the end of the week, and would make Druckenmiller majority owner.\r\n

TUESDAY, JULY 8\r\n\r\n

* Steelers owners Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II are involved in talks to buy out Dan's brothers' shares of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers issued a statement yesterday. \r\n

* Also, the Steelers signed Bruce Davis to a three-year contract and, according to the Post-Gazette, are close to terms with Dennis Dixon. Fourth-round pick Tony Hills signed last week.\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, JULY 7\r\n

* According to the Post-Gazette, the Steelers have agreed to terms with fifth-round pick Dennis Dixon.\r\n

Dixon is the second draft pick to sign with the team in the last week. The Steelers agreed to terms with fourth-round pick Tony Hills last Thursday.\r\n\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, JULY 4\r\n

* Either the Steelers really liked the signing of Tony Hills or it's the Fourth of July. Ha. Here's what's going on down at Heinz Field today:\r\n

Stadium gates open at 2 p.m. and admission is free to all activities, which begin at 10 a.m. with the Edible Allegheny \"Waves of Grains\" Farmers Market on Art Rooney Avenue. The Great Lawn will feature live entertainment beginning at 1 p.m. and will culminate at 9:30 p.m. with the Equitable Resources Foundation Laser and Fireworks Spectacular. The ramps at Heinz Field will be open at that time to provide the best view of the fireworks.\r\n

\r\nGreat Lawn Activities:\r\n

\r\n1:00pm to 7:30pm – Performances throughout the day on the Great Lawn Stage\r\n

\r\n8:00pm to 9:25pm – \"Pearl Vision of Glory\" with the US Army National Field Band and Chorus.\r\n

9:30pm – Equitable Resources Foundation Laser and Fireworks Spectacular \r\n

\r\nHeinz Field Main Stage Schedule:\r\n

\r\n2:00pm - Vanessa Campagna\r\n

\r\n3:00pm - The Chris Higbee Project \r\n

\r\n5:30pm - The Stickers \r\n

\r\n7:45pm – Formula One ChampBoat Winner Presentation\r\n

\r\n8:00pm – Soul Asylum\r\n

\r\n\r\nRegatta & River Activities:\r\n

\r\n1pm, 3pm, 5pm & 7:30pm – Regatta \"Red, White & Zoom\" Water Activities \r\n

\r\n2:30pm, 3:30pm, 4pm, 4:30pm – Formula One ChampBoat Race Time Trials \r\n

\r\n6:00pm– Formula One ChampBoat Race Finals \r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, JULY 3\r\n

* In what's becoming a \"story from the grave,\" former Steelers lineman Steve Courson's 5,000-word letter, written to a former teammate before Courson's death in 2005, has been recovered by The Baltimore Sun.\r\n

* Also, Pro Football Weekly has Ben Roethlisberger on its cover this week, with a story written inside by yours truly. Talk about it on our message board.\r\n\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, JULY 2\r\n

The Steelers cut their roster to 74 by releasing QB Jared Zabransky. The team also got around to announcing the addition of WR Marvin Allen as part of the NFL International Practice Squad Program. He won't count as part of a roster that must be at 80 or under at all times during the off-season. (Unsigned draft picks don't count, either, and the Steelers still have seven.)\r\n\r\n

Zabransky, who signed with the Steelers on Feb. 6, spent part of the 2007 season on the Houston Texans' practice squad. He originally signed with Houston in 2007 as an undrafted rookie out of Boise State.\r\n

Allen (5-10, 180), 25, of London, England, spent the 2006 season on the Steelers' practice squad as the team's NFL Europe International Practice Squad player. He spent the 2007 season on the Miami Dolphins' practice squad as part of the same program. Allen played three seasons (2005-07) in NFL Europe with the Frankfurt Galaxy, Amsterdam Admirals and Rhein Fire, respectively. \r\n\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30\r\n

* The Steelers signed undrafted rookie free agent defensive lineman Kyle Clement.

\r\nClement (6-3 5/8, 297, 5.11) played collegiately at NCAA Division-II Northwood University, where he was a two-time first-team All-GLIAC selection in 2005 and 2007, along with a second-team selection in 2006. He started 33-of-45 career games, finishing his career with 143 tackles (99 solo), 50.5 tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks.\r\n

* Rashard Mendenhall will meet the Pittsburgh media Thursday at 4 p.m.\r\n \r\n\r\n \r\n\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, APRIL 28\r\n\r\n

Here's the full list of the Steelers' rookie free agents:

\r\n\r\n\r\n1.\tPatrick Bailey\tLB\t6-4\t235 Duke

\r\n\t2. \tDorien Bryant\tWR\t5-9\t175\tPurdue

\r\n\t3. \tDoug Legursky\tC\t6-1\t323\tMarshall

\r\n\t4. \tRoy Lewis\tCB\t5-10\t190\tWashington

\t\r\n\t5. \tMike Potts\tQB\t6-4\t220\tWilliam & Mary

\r\n\t6. \tMartavius Prince\tDL\t6-2\t282\tSouthern Miss

\r\n\t7. \tJulian Rauch\tK\t5-11\t207\tAppalachian State

\r\n\t8. \tJordan Reffett\tDL\t6-4\t292\tWashington

\r\n\t9. \tMicah Rucker\tWR\t6-6\t221\tEastern Illinois

\r\n\t10. \tDezmond Sherrod\tTE\t6-2\t250\tMississippi State

\r\n\t11. \tTravis Williams\tCB\t5-9\t180\tEast Carolina

\r\n\t12. \tDonovan Woods\tLB\t6-2\t230\tOklahoma State

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Here are links to some of the players:\r\n

* Oklahoma State linebacker Donovan Woods.\r\n

* The Steelers signed an Appalachian State kicker, but not their punter, Neil Young. Drat! No, it's Julian Rauch.\r\n

* Purdue WR Dorien Bryant has been \"Musbergerged\" in my mind, but the Steelers did sign him to a free-agent contract. (P.S. When a player has been \"Musbergered\", he's been overrated so badly by a jacked-up know-nothing TV announcer that you actually dislike the player without knowing him.)\r\n\r\n

* Micah Rucker, and an interesting story on him.\r\n \r\n

* The first known free agent might be their best because the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, West Virginia, reports that the Steelers signed Marshall center Doug Legursky to a three-year contract. I'll try to verify that as soon as possible.\r\n

Also, here's an interesting bit on sixth-round pick Mike Humpal.\r\n

THURSDAY, APRIL 24\r\n

* According to Scout.com's Roy Philpott, publisher of both the Dallas Cowboys and Clemson Tigers sites, the Steelers attended the workout today of Phillip Merling, the Clemson defensive end. Merling reportedly measured 6-5, 290 pounds, up in both numbers from the official combine measurements of 6-4 1/4, 276 pounds. \r\n

Merling didn't run the 40 because he's still recovering from a sports-hernia operation, but performed agility drills that satisfied his trainer, according to Philpott. The trainer said Merling has been working out for only two weeks.\r\n

The Washington Redskins had a heavy presence at the workout, and the Cowboys were there as well. The Cowboys are also looking for a 3-4 defensive end. \r\n

As you'll see, this report conflicts with my previous commentary on the Steelers and Merling: \r\n

* Since the five best Steelers D-linemen will be 30 years old this season, and since the Steelers allowed 3.4 yards per carry with Aaron Smith and 4.8 yards per carry without him, the team MUST address the unit in this draft.\r\n

The problem? The crop of 3-4 ends is weak on top and thin throughout. Today is example one: Phillip Merling will finally workout and I'm not sure the Steelers will even be there. For one, he's too small to help right now. A first-rounder must be able to help that unit, even if it's in the dime, but Merling only weighs 276 pounds and won't be of any use inside in the dime right now. \r\n

A couple of other reasons to pass on Merling: According to a source, he tested positive while at Clemson and also interviewed poorly at the combine. For example, Merling was asked to name his favorite part of football. \"I don't have one,\" he said.\r\n

Merling can run, yes. Kentwan Balmer can't. Calais Campbell? In the immortal words of Chuck Noll, \"He's being blocked.\" All of this mediocrity just may make a first-rounder out of Dre Moore yet.\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23

\r\nThe Steelers want to take quarterback Anthony Morelli with their last draft pick? Oh, boy. \r\nHere's a better option: Take a local kid to quarterback the defense instead. His name is Ryan Mundy. \r\n

The Woodland Hills kid went off to Michigan amid much local hoopla a few years ago, but transferred to West Virginia where he played free safety last season. \r\n

Veteran scout Tom Marino tells me he's a great sleeper pick, that he was the brains back there, that he devoured and understood the WVU defense in only one year.\r\n

He's 6-1, 208 and even though he's not a head-hunter Mundy handles the run and the pass like a pro. Marino believes Mundy would eventually give the Steelers what Darren Perry gave them in the 1990s – stability at free safety.\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, APRIL 21

\r\nLast week I called picks 20 through 30 \"a wasteland\" because that particular draft zone is lost between the blue chippers and a rich vein of second-rounders.\r\n

Trading down is the obvious play, but if the Steelers can't find a trading partner they might want to consider drafting someone to eventually replace James Farrior.\r\n

Not that the Steelers' buck linebacker is slowing down, but he is 33 and entering the final year of his contract. \r\n

If Farrior retires after the upcoming season, the Steelers would be stuck without a play-caller at what might be the most difficult position for a new player to learn. Right now, the Steelers have, on paper, four inside backers. But wouldn't Curtis Lofton or Jerod Mayo mark time better than Keyaron Fox?\r\n\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, APRIL 18\r\n

It's supposed to be a weak crop of safeties, but Kenny Phillips gives hope to teams looking for a legitimate first-rounder at the position.\r\n

The Steelers hosted Phillips last week. In fact, last month they hosted several free-agent safeties because of Ryan Clark's weakened condition and the poor late-season play of Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter. Also, the rumor about Deshea Townsend moving to free safety just won't go away.\r\n

Could Phillips become the answer at free safety? Well, the Miami Hurricane is taller, faster and 18 pounds heavier than Smith, and he's only 21 years old. Phillips may not be a ballhawk in the Ed Reed mode, but he's fast enough to cover wide receivers and big enough to stuff the run.\r\n

Of course, a first-round investment in Phillips would mean the end for Smith, a first-day pick only two years ago, so the Steelers had better be sure about this\r\n\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, APRIL 17\r\n

* As a matter of procedure, wide receiver Nate Washington signed his one-year tender with the Steelers as a restricted free agent. Unless Washington agrees to a long-term contract by the start of the season, he'll be paid just over $1.4 million this year.\r\n

* In today's draft look, we examine a player similar to Washington in DeSean Jackson. The explosive Cal receiver and return man only weighs 169 pounds, and there's not much chance he'll add any more weight. Jackson entered Cal at 167 pounds and through four years of eating and lifting gained only two pounds.\r\nJackson hasn't changed much physically, or mentally. As an incoming freshman, Jackson played in a summer high-school all-star game. On his way to the end zone, Jackson thought it best to somersault over the goal line, but he fumbled out the back of the end zone and set the opponent up at the 20. Jackson found a seat on the bench, but not before showing us he's just another wide receiver with an ego that's bigger than the man himself.\r\n\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, APRIL 15\r\n

Last week, before Jonathan Stewart visited the Steelers, I taped a draft show for FSN Pittsburgh and predicted Stewart would be the Steelers' first-round pick. In retrospect, that was simply wishful thinking.\r\n

The perception that Stewart was falling due to a foot injury has been put to rest by several teams drafting in the teens. They couldn't tamp their enthusiasm and now the world knows Stewart won't make it to pick 23. \r\n

I'm going to dissect a few more first-round possibilities this week, but right now, picking in what's becoming recognized as a wasteland, from picks 20 to 30, the Steelers may get stuck drafting Gosder Cherilus, an enigmatic right tackle from what Kevin Colbert calls the best crop of tackles he's seen in 24 years.\r\n\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, APRIL 14\r\n

Gosder Cherilus is an enigma. The 6-6½, 314-pound offensive tackle from Boston College looked like a future pro the first three years of his career. That's when he was a promising right tackle. But last year he moved to left tackle and played poorly. He has the frame to become the next Jonathan Odgen, but doesn't show the ability. \r\n

What worries me is that playing left tackle might mean more to the Steelers than playing it well. That fact alone blew up their grades on Max Starks, Trai Essex, Bo Lacy and Kendall Simmons. My guess right now is that it's turning Cherilus from a second-rounder into a first and that he's the leading candidate now for pick 23.\r\n

At least Cherilus can play right tackle. He moved back to his old position in the Senior Bowl and looked like Starks with better feet. But is that what the Steelers need in the first round? Another right tackle? Well if it means moving Willie Colon inside, perhaps they do.\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, APRIL 11\r\n

I promised last month to get back to defensive end Quentin Groves. That's when Rooney One flew the Steelers' decision-makers to Auburn for his pro day. Well, Groves returned the visit this week. \r\n

Groves had only three sacks last season, but played half the year with three dislocated toes. He's built like Joey Porter, and since the Steelers are paper thin at outside linebacker the match appears perfect. \r\n

But I smell something fishy. Mike Tomlin learned last year his appearance at pro days makes news, and this year he was shouting at Groves from the sideline. That made news. \r\n

I know the Steelers don't like Groves' ability to cover. They think he has stiff hips. So this recent interest smacks of a smokescreen to me.\r\n\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, APRIL 10\r\n

Hey, why not give Ben Roethlisberger what he's looking for? If the Steelers intend to continue their duck-and-chuck offensive approach, why not give Ben the big man downfield to make his escape-and-heave style all the more effective?\r\n

The next Plax is said to be 6-5½ James Hardy, who played for Ben's old coach, the late Terry Hoeppner, at Indiana. It sounds about right, particularly since Hardy rates as a third-rounder on most boards. But Hardy has a big problem: He was once charged with domestic battery and there's a good chance he's off the Steelers' board entirely. It's not a good year to come to the Steelers with that on your resume.\r\n

A better, albeit more pricey, option would be Limas Sweed.\r\n

Because of a year-long wrist problem, scouts don't know what to make of the 6-4 Texas wideout, but they know the kid can run, has excellent tracking skills, and is one of the hardest workers in the draft.\r\nImagine this scenario: The Steelers surprise Ben by agreeing to his wishes. He knows the draft pick is raw, so he works with him constantly in order to thank the team for believing in him. The rookie, meanwhile, known for his work ethic, begins to thrive with Roethlisberger's attention.\r\n

With those dynamics at play, it's not hard to believe that these two could form a deep-ball combo to scare the rest of the league. So if Branden Albert's not there, Sweed's another player who makes sense in the first round.\r\n\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, APRIL 7\r\n

The Steelers brought in a small defensive end last year named Antwan Barnes, who had the size of a 3-4 outside backer but not the hips. He was just a speedball pass-rusher and the Ravens took him in the fourth round.\r\n

The Steelers recently brought in another player like him named Marcus Howard. The Georgia defensive end destroyed Colt Brennan in the Sugar Bowl and was named the game's MVP. The 6-0½, 237-pounder had 42 QB pressures as a D-end last year but looked stiff at linebacker in the Hula Bowl. \r\n

Howard ran the fastest 40 time of any front-7 defender at the combine and is worth a look as a situational pass-rusher. And, hey, who needs a linebacker with good hips in coverage if the quarterback is on his back?\r\n\r\n\r\n

SUNDAY, APRIL 6\r\n

While we're correcting other people's mistakes here, let me reiterate that the Steelers have absolutely zero interest in Booger McFarland, although they do wish he and his agent well in their attempt to use the media to find another job. Thank you.\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, APRIL 4\r\n

* Eric Foster has been the fiery captain of the Rutgers defense the last two seasons. He played defensive tackle at a small 6-1½, 273 pounds, yet the Steelers are looking at him as a defensive end.\r\n

Ever since drafting the 6-5 Aaron Smith in 1999, the Steelers have been looking for length in their 3-4 ends. Brett Keisel's an example. So is Ryan McBean. That makes Foster an exception. \r\n

After recording 29 tackles for loss and 13 sacks the last two years as a D-tackle, Foster moved outside in the Texas-vs-the Nation all-star game and impressed scouts with his first-step explosiveness. \r\n

He didn't have to prove his hustle and work ethic. That's what's jumps off the tape from his last four years at Rutgers.\r\n

* Just for fans who read today's Tribune-Review, the Steelers never \"announce\" any of their visitors. Reporters must either catch the PR department in a good mood or simply walk up and introduce themselves to the touring prospect. We reported on Cliff Avril's pending visit last March 12. The Purdue defensive end projects to a 3-4 OLB in The League. He's considered a late second round prospect at best. \r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, APRIL 3\r\n

In the terrific new book \"Ruanaidh\", author Art Rooney Jr. tells the story of how his computer sputtered over the prospects of Wisconsin center Mike Webster.\r\n

The personnel chief of the '70s Steelers, Rooney explains that the 6-2, 225-pound Webster, with his 5.25 speed, wasn't considered a prospect, but that tape showed otherwise. It showed Webster's great strength and \"unbelievable leverage.\" So Rooney labeled Webster an \"exception, just like bumblebees are an exception,\" he wrote, adding, \"but you can go broke taking chances on exceptions.\"\r\n

The Steelers took their chance and drafted a Hall of Fame center in the fifth round in 1974. \r\n

Tomorrow I'll report on a player I believe to be an \"exception\" in the computer-driven world of scouting.\r\n\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 2\r\n

The mighty USC Trojans are hosting their Pro Day today and guys like Chilo Rachal and Sam Baker should interest the Steelers. They're offensive lineman – one's a huge guard and the latter's a pro-ready left tackle. But the Steelers will be watching another Trojan very closely because there's a chance Keith Rivers could fall to them in the first round.\r\n

Rivers was an outstanding junior linebacker who didn't perform up to expectations as a senior. He wears the fabled No. 55 at USC but struggled with an ankle injury and then couldn't run at the combine. On tape it's obvious the 6-2, 241-pounder can run, but he just doesn't make many plays. It's one of the reasons I expect him to slip in the first round and create a decision for the Steelers.\r\n\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, APRIL 1\r\n

The Steelers didn't receive a compensation pick in this year's draft, but thanks to the Arizona Cardinals they could receive a third-rounder next year.\r\n

The formula for awarding compensation picks is determined mainly by net contract dollars, but the huge contract signed by Alan Faneca wasn't enough … until Friday.\r\n

To receive a third-round compensation pick, the Steelers would also have to show a net loss in the number of free-agent contracts signed. Knowing that minimum-wage contracts and street free-agent contracts don't count, the Steelers were at one free agent signed and one lost, and they needed to lose another free agent to qualify for the third-rounder. That's why the loss of Clark Haggans bolstered their chances. The Cardinals gave him a $1.5 million contract and that should be taken as good news for the Steelers.\r\n

MONDAY, MARCH 31\r\n

Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson had a terrible pro day and this must've been great news for the Steelers. They were there, and probably loved every ugly pass he threw. Same with Bernard Morris at Marshall. The Steelers were there and watched that inaccurate QB because of his upside.\r\n

Wasn't Tee Martin over Tom Brady and Marc Bulger enough? That choice symbolizes the Steelers' inability to gauge late-round quarterbacks, and it hasn't changed since. \r\n

The next time the Steelers look at a late-round guy who lacks accuracy, but not upside, ask them if he can cover kicks because that's what they need in the late rounds. \r\n

The Steelers were lucky that Ben Roethlisberger fell into their laps. So take that and be happy. And ask someone else to draft the next young project.\r\n\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, MARCH 28\r\n

Anyone count the number of free-agent safeties the Steelers looked at this month? Neither did Ryan Clark. He's working out daily on the South Side and after losing his spleen and gall bladder recently, he believes he'll be back next year. The Steelers obviously aren't so sure, and obviously don't view Anthony Smith as the answer.\r\n

What about the draft? Well, the safety position is so thin that it might be best to look at cornerbacks for a conversion. Cal's Thomas DeCoud made the move last year and played well at free safety. The Steelers have scheduled a visit with Iowa corner Charles Godfrey in the hope that he can make the conversion. Another potential project is Alabama corner Simeon Castille. He's a guy to watch in the fourth or fifth round.\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, MARCH 27\r\n

The Steelers lack talent on their offensive line, but not bodies. The perpetually mediocre Justin Hartwig is their latest. \r\n

My fear is the Steelers are fooling themselves into thinking they're okay on the line. My hope is they at least grab a mid-rounder. Yesterday, they looked at a couple of good ones at Rutgers.\r\n

Jeremy Zuttah is one. He played right tackle, and showed such great move skills at the combine that he projects to guard and maybe even center. He ran a sub 4.99 40 and had 35 bench reps at the combine.\r\n

Teammate Pedro Sosa isn't quite the athlete, but played the valuable left tackle spot at Rutgers. Either of these two would help a rebuilding job that could last years if the Steelers continue to delude themselves. \r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 26\r\n

* The Steelers have NOT signed defensive lineman Anthony \"Booger\" McFarland, as had been reported elsewhere. The Steelers have no plans to sign McFarland after he barely passed their physical. The Steelers were looking at the former Colt and Buccanneer as a backup defensive end for their 3-4 front.\r\n

* Jacob Hester wasn't THE star of LSU's national championship season, but he was so popular he sometimes needed a police escort to get around campus. Hester was the tailback and when the team wanted more speed he moved to fullback, but his attitude never diminished.\r\n

\"I'll play water boy if you need me to,\" he said.\r\n

Hester has black and gold bloodlines. His grandmother married Terry Bradshaw's uncle and Hester grew up a Steelers fan in Shreveport. I, for one, would love to see the Steelers reciprocate that interest on draft day.\r\n

The next Ed Podolak, Hester hopes to improve his fourth-round grade at today's Pro Day, where he'll run, block, catch and tackle.\r\n

Don't the Steelers need a new special teams captain? Well, Hester's that guy.\r\n\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, MARCH 25\r\n

Pitt held its Pro Day yesterday and the feature attraction was left tackle Jeff Otah. But the better draft value, in my opinion, belongs with Pitt's other tackle, Mike McGlynn.\r\n

The 6-4, 311-pounder from Youngstown was a four-year starter at right tackle, and he also played a few games at guard. McGlynn then played guard at the Senior Bowl and that's where scouts project him as a pro. But McGlynn can also play center and was Pitt's long snapper for placement kicks.\r\n

He may not have Otah's body, but he's more versatile, has more experience, strength, and, frankly, after watching Otah workout at the combine, McGlynn just might be the better athlete. And in the fourth round, it all adds up to better bang for your buck.\r\n\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, MARCH 24\r\n

The Steelers want a young prospect to groom for their defensive line, but the value in the first round doesn't jibe with their position. That's why they're bringing Kendall Langford in for a visit this week.\r\n

Langford is a 6-5½, 287-pounder who played defensive end in Hampton's 3-4 defense. A second-round prospect should dominate the MEAC and that's what Langford's done in being named first team three times. \r\n

According to NFLDraftScout.com, opponents ran at Langford 124 times the last two seasons and lost a total of 22 yards.\r\n

The big guy has the brute strength of a James Harrison and enough speed to develop into a pass-rusher. \r\n

Some may call him a sleeper, but not the Steelers, who've shown interest all season.\r\n

FRIDAY, MARCH 21\r\n

While we're doing that Michigan State thing, let's throw out one of my favorite late-round sleepers. His name's Jehuu Caulcrick and he's a Jerome Bettis-sized tailback.\r\n

Caulcrick is 6-foot, 254 pounds and runs a 4.6 40. He scored 21 touchdowns last season to lead the Big 10 in scoring. He's a short-yardage specialist who lacks the blocking skills to play fullback and isn't much of a receiver. But Caulcrick had enough footspeed and instincts to get out of Liberia, where civil war had reached his backyard. \r\n

His father Jerome, who worked for the government, wasn't so lucky. When Caulcrick reached America, he read of his father's assassination in the paper, but it hasn't deterred him. \r\n

\"Coming from a war-torn country,\" Caulcrick said, \"I see this as a land of opportunity.\"\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, MARCH 20\r\n

* Dan Rooney's statement on the release of Cedrick Wilson: \"To clarify the comments made earlier regarding the conduct of our players, in no way do we condone domestic violence of any kind. Each incident must be considered on a case-by-case basis.\r\n

\r\n\"In the situation with James Harrison, he contacted us immediately after his incident and has taken responsibility for his actions.\r\n

\r\n\"In today's decision with Cedrick Wilson, we determined the situation was severe enough to warrant the player being released immediately.\r\n

\r\n\"We trust that today's roster move will indicate our intentions and send a message that we will not tolerate this type of conduct.\" \r\n\r\n

* Lance Zierlein might be the best draft analyst you've never heard of. The son of the Steelers' O-line coach and a former college lineman, Zierlein ran his mock draft last week and was stumped when it came to the Steelers.\r\nWith the top O-linemen, backs and D-linemen gone, Zierlein scratched Gosder Cherilus and went with wide receiver Devin Thomas.\r\n

Thomas, from Michigan State, is 6-2, 216 and ran a pair of 4.3 40s at the combine. He went from 6 catches his sophomore season to 79 last season and chose to come out as a 21-year-old. He's big, physical, fast and an excellent kick returner, a duty he'd assume as Hines Ward's protégé at flanker.\r\n

If Branden Albert's gone, Devin Thomas makes sense to me.\r\n

* The Steelers agreed to play a preseason game in Toronto against the Buffalo Bills, according to the Post-Gazette.\r\n\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19\r\n

Air Rooney made a stop last week in Auburn for appearances, but expect a touchdown in Austin, Texas, today for a legitimate reason. Limas Sweed will be working out today and that's a sports event unto itself.\r\n

Sweed's one of two legitimate first-round receiving prospects this spring but he missed most of last season with an injury and then got hurt again at the Senior Bowl. He ran a 4.5 40 at the combine and measured in at a fraction under 6-4, 215 pounds. He's a big long-strider who's more of a deep threat than a possession receiver.\r\n

Sweed underwent surgery in October on a wrist injury that wreaked havoc with his hands last season at Texas. Today will be the day to see if the big man is truly a first-round prospect.\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, MARCH 18\r\n

* According to Adam Schefter of the NFL Network, the Steelers agreed to contract terms with former Carolina center Justin Hartwig. The deal is reportedly for two years, worth $4 million, and includes a $975,000 bonus.\r\n\r\n

* OT Trai Essex and OG Chris Kemoeatu, restricted free agents, signed their one-year tenders.\r\n

* The Steelers are in State College today looking at the best draft prospect Penn State has to offer.\r\n

I'm not talking about Dan Connor. I'm talking about the fastest defensive player in the draft – cornerback Justin King.\r\n

A clip of Rashard Mendenhall is spinning around the 'net these days. The big Illinois back is breaking a long run, and the point is this top 10 prospect can score from anywhere – anywhere Justin King's not playing. King ruined the clip by coming from off the screen to run Mendenhall down. \r\n

In spite of an uneven season, the kid from Gateway ran a 4.31 at the combine and is moving up the charts. The Steelers will see today if he's moved all the way up to pick 23.\r\n

\r\n* The Steelers hosted two defensive linemen yesterday: Dre Moore of Maryland and Keilen Dykes of West Virginia. Moore played tackle and is considered a second-round pick. Dykes played nose tackle and is a free agent candidate.\r\n\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, MARCH 17\r\n

At the combine, half of the defensive ends ran faster 40 times than free safety Jamie Silva, who was clocked four times in the 4.8s.

But Silva is my kind of football player. He made 115 tackles for Boston College last season and in the Shrine Game he just glistened on special teams. As for his pass-coverage skills, one statistician calculated that Silva allowed his receiver an average of 2.3 yards per catch, lowest among all DBs in the nation.\r\n

The Steelers are looking at Silva as a late-round pick. They asked him about his long brown hair.\r\n

\"Do you really have a problem with safeties with long hair?\" Silva responded.\r\n

\"No, not at all,\" said the Steelers.\r\n

\"I didn't think so,\" said Silva.\r\n

Kid has some pretty good instincts, too.\r\n\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, MARCH 14\r\n

Duquesne will host its pro day today, and this one will draw the Dukes' biggest crowd of scouts since Leigh Bodden came out in 2003.\r\n

The draw this year is wide receiver Bruce Hocker. The 6-3, 206-pounder with 4.5 speed is Duquesne's career receptions leader with 162. He averaged 16 yards per catch and scored 33 touchdowns before scoring again in the Hula Bowl. Hocker showed on that play why scouts like his big body, which Hocker uses to shield smaller defenders.\r\n

Hocker and Bodden are the only Duquesne players ever to be named Division I-AA All-America by both the AP and the Coaches Association. In fact, scouts compare Hocker to Bodden in that Bodden was too raw to draft but too talented not to make a priority free agent.\r\n\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, MARCH 13\r\n

To most mock-masters out there, Pitt's Jeff Otah appears to be a natural fit for the Steelers at pick 23, but the massive left tackle furrows my brow.\r\n

I watch the big tackle lock up Chris Long and George Selvie and I agree with the in-crowd. Then I watch him ignore blitzers like a raw junior college transfer and I want no parts of him other than as a two or three-year project.\r\n

I see Otah having more bust potential than just about any first-round prospect, and I don't see the Steelers drafting the guy and expecting him to help right away.\r\n

At best, he's a right tackle and this draft is rife with them. At worst, Jeff Otah is Mathias Nkwenti – a coach killer who in this case could also take down the general manager as well.\r\n\r\n

* If you've followed my message board thoughts on the draft, you may know most of this, but here are a few more thoughts.\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12\r\n

The Steelers added depth to their linebacker and special teams corps today by signing free agent linebacker Keyaron Fox to a one-year contract. \r\n

\r\nFox (6-3, 235) was originally drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the third round (93rd overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft out of Georgia Tech. He spent all four of his years in Kansas City, playing primarily on special teams and as a backup linebacker. In 2007, he posted 21 tackles, including a season-best 10 against the New York Jets in Week 17.\r\n

\r\nFox enjoyed his best season in Kansas City in 2006 when he collected 52 tackles while playing in all 16 games, making four starts in place of the injured Derrick Johnson.\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12

\r\nThe Steelers drafted two linebackers last year, but that apparently didn't sate their appetite. The team will bring outside linebacker Cliff Avril in for a visit soon and the Air Rooney gang flew down to Auburn on Monday to watch outside linebacker Quentin Groves work out.\r\n

More on the intriguing Groves later, but Avril is another in a long line of Purdue defensive ends who projects to outside linebacker in the NFL. He's 6-3, 253 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.5 seconds at the combine.\r\n

So, why another outside linebacker? Well, Lawrence Timmons showed last season that he couldn't hold the point and was moved inside. If Clark Haggans moves on in free agency, the Steelers will be left with only two outside backers. A young pass rusher would provide depth next season while learning the scheme, and then possibly force James Harrison inside to replace James Farrior in 2009.\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, MARCH 11

\r\nRex Hadnot had not signed with the Steelers as of Monday morning, and we all wanted to keep it that way. \r\n

That was the rumor over the weekend, that Hadnot had indeed returned to Pittsburgh for more talks. But like the snowstorm, Hadnot was dumped on Cleveland instead, sparing Pittsburgh another awful offensive linemen. Sorry, but that seems to be their M.O. of late. \r\n

Now, I'm a big Kevin Colbert fan, but since he drafted Marvel Smith in 2000 and signed Jeff Hartings in 2001, Colbert has gone cold with O-linemen. \r\n

Rex Hadnot would not or could not help, and worse he'd give the Steelers a false confidence about their line going into the draft, just as the signing of Sean Mahan did last year.\r\n

That type of thinking in the free agency/draft overlap has become unacceptable. This offensive line is bad and getting worse. The only cure is to draft blue chippers, not take in castoffs from 1-15 football teams.\r\n\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, MARCH 10

\r\nWhen asked why he ran that quarterback sweep on the final third down of the season, Mike Tomlin said, \"We anticipated ... all-out pressure, particularly from the interior.\"\r\n

That tells me he knows the Steelers need a young center. If it's Darnell Stapleton, great. If he's competing with Mike Pollak, better.\r\n

The Steelers are interested enough in Pollak to pencil him in for an upcoming visit. The coach at Arizona State, Dennis Erickson, called Pollak the best offensive lineman he's ever coached. Pollak is 5/8-inch taller and six pounds heavier than Jeff Hartings, and Pollak ran like him at the combine. \r\n

He also played guard at ASU, but is the top center in this draft. He's a mid to high second-rounder, meaning the Steelers would need to trade down to get him. Kevin Colbert is on record as saying it's the year to trade down. Pollak, I feel, would be the target. \r\n

FRIDAY, MARCH 7

\r\nDominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the cousin of the NFL's best young cornerback and the darling of mentor Deion Sanders. DRC ran a 4.33 40 and showed dazzling footwork at the combine, and at the Senior Bowl threw his skinny 6-1, 183-pound into ballcarriers. \r\n

He's from Tennessee State and scouts love his humility. DRC also returns kicks and figures to be available late in the first round because of his lack of polish.\r\n

He's a project worth having, but I don't see the Steelers taking the first-round plunge on any cornerback this year. \r\n

THURSDAY, MARCH 6

\r\nScouts used to wonder about North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer's inconsistent motor and question his work ethic. That changed last year thanks to new coach Butch Davis.\r\n

Davis told Balmer a few things he needed to hear, about what it'll take to get to the NFL, and Balmer responded as the Tar Heels' defensive captain. \r\n

At 6-4½, 308 pounds, Balmer has long arms and the frame to add another 20 pounds without losing quickness. The former defensive end-turned tackle projects as the model 3-4 end in the pros, and the Steelers need one. In fact, they were hoping to take a shot at Corey Williams in free agency.\r\n

Because of the questions about Balmer's motor, the Tar Heel should be there for the Steelers on draft day. By then they should have their answers.\r\n\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5

\r\nKevin Colbert calls this the best crop of offensive tackles he's seen in 24 years. \r\n

Great. Take two.\r\n

In fact, the Steelers' offensive line as a whole could use the same infusion of talent the defensive backfield received in 1987. \r\n

In 1986, the Steelers' starting DBs were John Swain, Harvey Clayton, Eric Williams and Donnie Shell. \r\n

Swain, Clayton and Williams failed to make the following year's team after the Steelers drafted Rod Woodson, Delton Hall and Thomas Everett in the first four rounds of the 1987 draft. \r\n

Hall was the team's Rookie of the Year, Everett became a five-year starter, and Woodson will soon become a Hall of Famer. \r\n

So, spare us the stats and the depth chart when it comes to this offensive line because it's bad and getting worse. The time to draft real lineMEN is now.\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, MARCH 4

\r\n\r\nI see the University of Virginia becoming the Steelers' next Triple-A affiliate. For the last few years, the Steelers have enjoyed the character and skills of James Farrior and Heath Miller, and they're looking at another Cavalier: offensive guard Branden Albert.\r\n

Albert was a junior captain last season. At 6-6, 309 pounds, he's massive, strong, mobile and has experience at left tackle. \r\n

In fact, Albert went to Virginia as a left tackle, but moved to guard because of D'Brickashaw Ferguson and stayed there. Albert did fill in at left tackle for two games, one against Pitt last year.\r\n

Albert has become the automatic name for the Steelers on nearly every updated mock draft these days. He's the top guard in the draft and probably the No. 4 tackle, and the Steelers need help at both positions spots.\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, MARCH 2

\r\nWell, that was a little quicker than I'd expected. The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger agreed on a $102 million contract that didn't force the Steelers to make any salary-cap maneuvers whatsoever. \r\n

\"It was almost a wash,\" said a team source. Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner, confirmed it by saying the Steelers will lose little cap space with the mega-deal.\r\n

I asked the source if media reports were true, that the team was considering pulling the transition tag from Max Starks.\r\n

\"It's allowable,\" the source said. \"But we won't do it. It's bad business.\"\r\n

At the time of my departure from the South Side, the Steelers were hoping to sign free-agent running back Mewelde Moore to a contract. I like Moore as an all-around third-down back, and the Steelers liked him coming out of Tulane, but another source -- who goes by the name Answer Man in these parts -- wasn't too pleased.\r\n

\"This shuts the door on drafting a running back,\" he said. \"So much for the best available athlete.\"\r\n

Defensive back Ray Horton walked by and I chided him about his big day tomorrow hosting free-agent safety Eugene Wilson.\r\n

\"This was the big day,\" Horton said as he pointed to the podium where Roethlisberger had just stood. \"Signing that guy was worth five free agents.\"\r\n

Safety man Ryan Clark, as usual, was at the facility working out. He said he feels fine physically and expects to play next year. He said his biggest problem now is cholesterol because he's had his gall bladder removed. He'd previously had his spleen removed because of a problem sparked by playing in high altitude. I asked Ryan if he'll ever be able to go back to Denver. \"The doctors say I should be fine physically,\" Clark said. \"Now, mentally, there might be a problem going back there.\"\r\n

Clark laughed about it, but he wasn't laughing about the team scheduling a visit with Wilson for Tuesday. \"I gotta go,\" he said. \"I'm going over here [front office] to see if I should keep working out or whether I should start looking for a coaching job at LSU.\"\r\n

He was joking. I think.\r\n\r\n

To read quotes from Kevin Colbert, click here.\r\n\r\n

To read quotes from Mewelde Moore and Mike Tomlin, click here.\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, MARCH 2

\r\nSince attribution is the only way to express true love in journalism, my props go to SCI's Ian Whetstone for explaining this sudden race the Steelers seem to be having in the Ben Roethlisberger renegotiations: Roethlisberger is due a $2.95M roster bonus on March 5. So look for the Steelers to wrap things up with their quarterback by Thursday.\r\n

My guess is Roethlisberger will come out of this averaging $10 million a year, but six years for $60 million sounds a little light, doesn't it? Yet it fits the pay scale. And you know what? Alan Faneca would have, too. He signed for $8 million a year with the Jets. Since the current highest-paid Steelers are Troy Polamalu at $6.6M per year and Hines Ward at $6.5M per year (contract averages), it would've been easy for the Steelers to offer Faneca a five-year, $35 million contract prior to last season. Then again, it's easy for me to spend someone else's money.\r\n

Speaking of which, Eugene Wilson is sheduled to visit with the Steelers on Tuesday. He's visiting Tampa Bay today and also has plans to visit the Tennessee Titans. \r\n

I remember Wilson as a highly coveted cornerback out of Illinois in 2003. The Patriots moved him to free safety right away and he started 49 out of the first 51 games of his career. But he started only four games in 2006 because of injuries and then lost his job last season to James Sanders, and then the Pats let him go. \r\n

The question I put to Patriots/Scout publisher Jon Scott was this: How did Eugene Wilson, soon to be 28 years old, fall so far so fast?\r\n

\"To be honest, I'm a bit confused why they don't want Wilson,\" replied Scott, who reports that Wilson started the first five games last year before losing his job.\r\n

\"He's not comeing back to New England, and was disappointed in the way things turned out,\" Scott said. \"Wilson has shown flashes of solid play. He's not too physical against the run and he's not quite fast enough to cover wide receivers, but he can cover tight ends down the seam and has good ball skills. Unfortunately for him, he's been hurt far too often. \r\n

\"The Patriots have gone through so many safeties over the past three years, you'd be surprised. It's nuts.\"\r\n

Here's to Bill Belichick being nuts.\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 28

\r\nI always freeze at the daunting prospect of writing about a great man's life when he passes. I think that was the indirect reason I quit my job as a suburban sports editor a long time ago. Because, really, how can I, small guy with a typewriter, pay due respect to big guy in heaven?\r\n

That was the question I was tossing around yesterday after the passing of Myron Cope. And then my wife gave me the proper angle. In schooling our eight-year-old about Cope, my wife said, \"And the best thing about him was he never looked down his nose at anyone.\"\r\n

My wife was a big fan because Myron was one of those old-school gentlemen who'd pay the proper amount of respect to the ladies in his presence before the guys would begin hammering him for inside info. What my wife also knew is that Myron not only tolerated us little people, he cared about making us into big people.\r\n

One time in Cincinnati -- and my friend and colleague Dale Lolley was an unfortunate witness -- I did a foolish thing. Yeah, I know, it's the only foolish thing I ever did. Right. But about 1:30 a.m. as I was watching a band -- one of six in the gigantic building since demolished -- I got the bright idea to hop on stage and take a dive. Instead of catching me, though, this alleged mosh pit opened wide and allowed me to hit the deck. Just as I was picking myself up off the floor, four or five bouncers grabbed me and carried me to the side door and threw me out into the street. Dale and another friend came out laughing and we staggered home. \r\n

Cope got wind of the story the next day in the press box. He loved it. He told me he was going to tell the story the next day on Pittsburgh radio. \"But I won't use your name Jim.\" And I said, \"You can. I don't care.\" And he said, \"Don't you want to be publisher of that paper of yours someday?\" See. Always thinking.\r\n

But Myron also thought a lot of my skills. He'd write me often to tell me what a good job I'd done on this or that. He'd give little tips. The last one I remember is he wrote asking why, in my Steelers Digest notes column I'm not having more fun with the name Davenport. Whilst I'd been working more on poop jokes, Cope offered up something along the lines of Davenport the Couch, when once they had Jerome the Bus, or something like that. I never did get to work the couch angle into a column, but the point is Myron cared about young writers and I think that's one of the greatest assets an older writer can have. Many in this town have that kind of class -- Collier, Smizik, Bouchette to name a few -- but Myron cared a bit more. He went out of his way.\r\n

Like with radio. Way back when I started covering the team, I enjoyed just hanging back and listening to Cope do his work live. I'd tell him stories during the break and he'd either re-tell them on the air and give me credit, or ask me to come on. I remember my first time, in the camp lounge at St. Vincent. I'd seen some fight on the field and Cope had me on to tell of it. What a hatchet job. I nervously recounted the tale and Myron thanked me. But it helped, because you'll have those early nervous moments and I was glad to get one out of the way with minimal damage.\r\n

The last time I was on the air with Cope was his last paid performance for the Steelers Radio Network. We were awful that day. Myron kept pushing this tight end from Arkansas State and I kept saying I'd never heard of him. This, I think, upset Myron and we ended up churning out a lousy performance. Myron approached me the next day and apologized, said he made the tight end's name up hoping that I -- being a know-it-all -- would say, 'Yeah, I know him. He's okay,' or something along those lines and that he would leap and catch me lying. He was sorry for this game plan and told me so. And then he said this, \"Wex, just a little advice for you when you're on the radio: STOP TALKING SO DAMN MUCH.\" I had to laugh. Great apology Myron. And I'm going to miss those wholly unsuspecting moments. You never came off as some type of \"Great Man\" to me, Myron, and you never tried. You seemed to only care about my progress. Thank you.\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22

\r\nAlan Faneca didn't return my call, but the Answer Man did. He told me he didn't have time for a full-blown, sit-down, tape-recorded interview because \"ever since they signed Travis Kirschke I've been out with the merchandise people picking out stuff for Super Bowl 43.\"\r\n

Good one. But the yuks turned to nuggets of gold that he ticked off quickly so that I would go away. Briefly, the Answer Man thinks that ...\r\n

... the front office just shoved Max Starks down Bruce Arians's throat as the Steelers close in on a long-term deal for a guy Arians had benched. \"If they match any contract for him,\" the source said, \"and then he's standing on the sideline during the game, the guys who have the same name around here are going to demand answers.\" Answer Man also pointed out that a long-term deal -- and the tenure that would go with it -- will force the staff -- which always has questionable tenure -- to look at Starks with more respect than the Starks who had only one year left on his contract.\r\n

... the coaches who \"had to have Mahan\" are now backpedaling and saying, \"oh, hey, man, we knew he was just a backup.\" Answer Man doesn't appreciate the lack of accountability, \"and I'm including Tomlin in that, too.\"\r\n

... a center is a strong draft possibility, but then the source slipped into disgust. \"We're going to draft a center, we're going to draft a guard, we're going to draft a tackle, draft, draft, draft. Hey, we only have six picks. That won't fix all the problems.\"\r\n

... Corey Williams was a Steelers target in free agency, but the Green Bay defensive end was recently franchised. So I asked about Justin Smith, who was Dick LeBeau's first draft pick back with the Bengals. \"Nope,\" my source said. \"They think he's strictly a 4-3 end.\"\r\n

... Ryan McBean will help next season, \"at least on special teams as one of those Keisel-type wedge-busters because he's big and he can run.\" But so could Shaun Nua. And so could Lee Vickers. I was told McBean instead has the type of mindset that Keisel had when he played special teams. Answer Man also said that McBean works out at the facility every day and impressed the coaching staff with the way he finished the season.\r\n

... Clark Haggans could return. It's being written by some that Haggans definitely won't return, as if he's disliked by the organization, but that's far from the truth. \"It could turn out the way Deshea turned out,\" Answer Man said. \"Remember? They didn't think he'd be back, but they scooped him up once the price was right.\" It's the same scenario with Haggans, he said, but that LaMarr Woodley is held in higher regard now than Townsend's expected successor Bryant McFadden was back then.\r\n

... the running back situation could remain intact, and this nugget also raised my source's ire. \"The OC is really big on Gary Russell, thinks he'll be the new guy we all want to see back there.\" When I responded that I, too, like Russell, and that Najeh Davenport needs replaced as the No. 2, Answer Man agreed: \"Right. If Russell has anything, let him show us as the No. 3, because he still hasn't shown enough to warrant that much optimism.\"\r\n

* In taking a look around the Internet this morning, I came across only one source of Steelers info from the combine. Draftdaddy.com, citing a source at the combine but providing no link, said the Steelers are showing interest in guard Chilo Rachal, tackle-guard James Blair, and guard Heath Benedict. The author writes that Benedict is \"the draft's best trap blocker\" and that he would fit perfectly as Faneca's replacement at left guard. The author's source also told him that everyone's favorite safety/specialteamer/footballplayer Jamie Silva \"was talking at lengths with the Patriots, Steelers and Seahawks.\" \r\n

Love Silva. Really like James Blair. And of course I've liked Rachal ever since I saw him pummel Arizona State. But, remember, these \"showing interest\" blurbs don't often mean much more than a temporary high. Ergo, have a great weekend.

\r\n* The Steelers today cut reserves Clint Kriewaldt, Jerame Tuman and Allen Rossum. SCI capologist Ian Whetstone calculates the cap savings for the Steelers at $1.79 million, moving the total cap space available to $8 million. \r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 21

\r\nAll I could do last night was list the questions that've been raised by the Steelers for putting the transition tag on Max Starks. Let me try to answer some of those questions this morning.\r\n\r\n

Why not tag Alan Faneca instead?\r\n

Neither side will comment on whether there even are ongoing negotiations, so hopefully Alan will answer his cell today. Until then we can only guess, and the guess here is that the Steelers weren't making any progress and that to tag Faneca would serve only to exacerbate a difficult situation. Why would they think this way when Faneca has no history of lying down on the job? Well, let's just say the Steelers operate out of respect for their long-time employees and hamstringing a guy who wants to test the market for an out-of-this-world offer just isn't showing that kind of respect. At least that sounds better. Hopefully Alan will clear things up later today.\r\n

Why the transition tag instead of the franchise tag?\r\n

I'd say gambling $6.9 million that you can get a long-term deal done is risky enough for a backup, and that another half million or so for the security of high compensation was just crossing the line.\r\n

Why take the risk at all for a backup?\r\n

The Steelers don't even know what to do with Starks, so it's probably difficult for them to gauge what the rest of the league will do come Feb. 29. Is he a starter? Would he leave for a lesser offer and the promise of more playing time? By remaining involved in the negotiations with the option to match any offer, the Steelers will better be able to gauge Starks's value, and if someone wants to pay him the big starter bucks then the Steelers could just quietly duck out.\r\n

Does this portend a move to the Steelers' starting lineup for Starks?\r\n

Not by my estimate, and this move only illustrates the confusion the team has toward Starks. The front office can't understand why the line wasn't shuffled and Starks inserted last season, but the coaching staff sticks by its decision and has told the front office this off-season that they still don't want to move Willie Colon inside to start Starks. The Steelers could get stuck paying a backup nearly $7 million this season, but there aren't many other positions worthy of such security, particularly since Starks showed promise as a left tackle as well.\r\n

Why no worry about a \"poison pill\"?\r\n

Remember, he's a backup. The bigger question should be why would another team make an enemy of the Steelers over a backup? Remember, after Minnesota used a \"poison pill\" to take Steve Hutchinson off Seattle's hands, Seattle responded in kind the next year for Nate Burleson.\r\n

What does this mean for future offseason moves?\r\n

The first thing to remember is this by no means locks Starks up. There's a very good chance he'll still leave. But the problem is he probably won't leave until the first wave of top free agents is dealt with, and that's a big chunk of cap space to slide into the margins as Justin Smith talks to the rest of the league. The Steelers could rescind the tag, but that's not their business style. (And if Starks is smart, he'll sign that offer sheet today.) As for the draft, the Steelers didn't want to use a number one pick for a backup player anyway. Since they didn't want to move Colon over for Starks, why would they do so for a rookie? Keeping Starks would allow the Steelers to concentrate on the interior of their line, which is the real problem.\r\n

Hopefully I haven't simply raised more questions with my attempt at giving answers. I'll be back tomorrow with any information I've gathered on this topic.\r\n\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20

\r\n

The Steelers made a curious move Wednesday when they slapped the transition tag on backup offensive tackle Max Starks.\r\n

The transition tag requires the team to pay the player the average of the top 10 salaries at his position. In this case, the Steelers would pay Starks $6.895 million this season if they're not able to negotiate a long-term deal.\r\n

Starks can still test the free-agent market on Feb. 29, but the Steelers have the right to match any offer and Starks would remain in Pittsburgh. If the Steelers choose not to match an offer, they wouldn't receive any compensation.\r\n

The transition tag hasn't been used in the NFL since Seattle slapped one on guard Steve Hutchinson in 2006. The Minnesota Vikings exposed a flaw in the process by putting a \"poison pill\" into their contract offer that said the full $49 million contract would become guaranteed if Hutchinson was not the highest paid lineman on his team. The Seahawks couldn't match the offer with the higher paid Walter Jones already on their roster.\r\n

Also, it's something of a gamble that the Steelers would risk such a large chunk of their salary cap on a backup, but the move may ensure that Starks doesn't opt to take a lighter offer from a team that's promising more playing time.\r\n

Another curious aspect is the Steelers could've offered a bit more -- $7.455 million – to use the franchise tag on Starks, or even Alan Faneca. The franchise tag requires that another team compensate the Steelers with two first-round picks should it lure the free agent away.\r\n\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 19

\r\n\r\nThe Steelers announced they've signed defensive end Travis Kirschke to a two-year contract totaling $2.28 million, which includes a $300,000 bonus.\r\n\r\n

\r\nKirshke, who'll turn 34 before opening day, played perhaps his best game with the team in the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season. \r\n\r\n

The 11-year veteran originally signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent on March 11, 2004. He had previously spent one year with the San Francisco 49ers (2003) and his first six seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions.\r\n

\r\n\r\nKirschke has played in 141 career games, including 64 with the Steelers, and has made 30 starts (five with Pittsburgh). He played in all 16 games in 2007 for the Steelers and made four starts in place of the injured Aaron Smith.\r\n\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7

\r\n\r\nI hadn't thought of Greg Lloyd as a Hall of Famer until Andre Tippett was elected last weekend.\r\n

Tippett, of course, was part of the weakest class inducted by what must be the weakest committee in history. Their explanation for electing guys like Tippett and Fred Dean is that there's some kind of backlog of pass rushers and with players like Bruce Smith coming down the pipeline that, well, yeah, they just had to put a couple of average players in.\r\n

No, I'm not quite sure I understand that either, nor am I sure where that leaves the great Dermontti Dawson. But this is where it leaves Lloyd: eligible and certainly electable.\r\n

Both Tippett and Lloyd played 11 seasons and started exactly 139 games. Both were on five Pro Bowl teams and both played in and lost one Super Bowl. Tippett, of course, played for the worst Super Bowl team in history, the team the '85 Bears ate for lunch. Lloyd's Steelers made the playoffs in five of his seasons; Tippett's Patriots in three.\r\n

* Tippett's career spanned from 1982 to 1993 and he was the consensus first-team All-Pro twice (1985 and 1987) and was second team twice (1986 and 1988). He was the clear-cut No. 1 outside linebacker in the voting one time (1987) and was tied with the great Lawrence Taylor (1985) one other time. Tippett missed the entire 1989 season with a shoulder injury and never returned to the all-star rolls.\r\n

* Lloyd's career spanned from 1988 to 1998. He was consensus first-team All-Pro three times (1993-95). He was the NFL's No. 1 outside linebacker in the voting in 1993 and 1994 and tied with Bryce Paup for first in 1995. Lloyd missed all but one game of the 1996 season with a knee injury and he never returned to the all-star rolls.\r\n

So far, it's not a stretch to argue that Lloyd was the better player. At the least, he's in the ballpark. The voters though went with the sacks. Tippett had 100 career sacks and Lloyd had 54.5. But if sacks weigh so heavily with the voters, why isn't Kevin Greene, who had 160 sacks in 14 seasons, receiving more consideration?\r\n

Lloyd, of course, was known more for his leadership. He may have been the biggest reason – and not Bill Cowher – for the Steelers' turnaround in the early to mid 1990s. I talked with Lloyd in October and the conversation ranged to every topic but the Hall of Fame. At the time, neither of us thought it possible. Now, at least I do. Here's some Lloyd:\r\n

\"... So I'm running the second-team defense against our first offense. They hold them little cards and Marvin [Lewis] came over and said, ‘Greg, you go here.' And I'd say, ‘Marvin, you're in my way. Go ahead and yell at me but I ain't following that card. I'm going to the football.' I told him I was going straight to the football. I look up and Pow! I messed the play up. Bill Cowher, he's looking like this (makes quivering-lips face). I could see he was upset. ‘Do it again!' I said, ‘Hell, man, I'm going to be right there again.' I run in there again, Pow! He goes, ‘Coach! Get him outta there!' I said, ‘You know what? What if you got Ray Lewis running up in there on Sunday? You going to tell them to get Ray Lewis out of there?' That's why me and Bill started having our little tiffs then. Hey, this is football. Football isn't drawn up on a card, where you're going to see what the defense is doing. You've got to react. And if you don't know how to react, guess what? You're up a creek. And that's how our team started to come together. Our offense started adopting that defensive mentality and before you knew it our offense was saying things like, ‘We're going to drag him.' Something I hadn't heard in a while.\"\r\n

\"... When [Andre] Hastings first came to Pittsburgh, he made our defensive backfield look so bad. I remember at practice he had Rod Woodson turning all kinds of ways, catching balls, making our defense look bad. It ticked me off. It ticked me off. When we went to seven-on-seven, I held them up and I told them, ‘If he catches the ball across this middle, I'm going to knock him out.' He was showboating and he's not going to do that to my defense. And lo and behold, I dropped back into pass and he cut across the middle and he caught it and when he turned, all he saw was 95. I hit him right there. I hit him right there. I hit him, the ball went one way, ear pads went another way, and the whole team's going, ‘Ohhhh. Ohhhh. Oh, Greg.' I'm like listen, ‘If he takes a hit from me out here today and he gets up, he's going to be all right. I guarantee he's going to be a good ballplayer.' And I said, ‘But you know what? NOBODY is going to come out here and show my defense up. NOBODY. I took my helmet off and talked to the whole offense. I said, ‘Anybody else think they can come out here and show my defense up? Put your mmmmm on and come out here right now.' The defense got fired up and the offense just mumbled to themselves.\"\r\n

\"... After practice I would stretch and guys would say things like, ‘Man you pretty big for a small linebacker.' But I like to say it ain't the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog and you better understand that. Every bit of this 225 is going to be in your you-know-what. That was the mentality. Now, it was a form of intimidation but you had to back it up. You had to back it up.\"\r\n

\"... But I'm going to do it in practice. I'm going to find out if they breed them the same way in Pittsburgh as they do in Fort Valley. I'm going to find out if just because you went to Pitt or Syracuse or Clemson and I went to Fort Valley State, do you think you're tougher than me? Do you think you can play this game better than me? Well let's strap it up. Let's do it. The thing about it is I'll fight you till I got no fight left in me. And I think after awhile my teammates began to appreciate that and they respected that and they realized that, ‘Don't come over here and line up in front of Greg in practice and not buckle your chinstrap up, because he's going a hundred miles an hour.' And then everybody adopted that mentality, and when everybody adopted that mentality guess what we did? We didn't win the Super Bowl but we had a Super Bowl mentality. We were in three AFC Championship games and a Super Bowl. There's no way in between that we shouldn't have won two Super Bowls.\"\r\n

\"... I don't watch it because I don't think the game is at the level where we played it. I don't think there's enough integrity. I don't think the guys understand that when you always hear your name on ESPN and you're going to pimp my ride on MTV Cribs, that's not football. When we were there, we tried to carry ourselves no different than the CEO of PPG. That's the way we took our job. We showed up for work and we worked. We didn't show up for work to put on airs and to sell stuff. That's why me and the media there didn't get along. I'm not here to kiss your ass. I don't care if you don't invite me to your little parties or soirees that you have, because I don't want you in my personal life like that. I want you to understand that I was hired to be an outside linebacker, and that's where the shirt came from: I Wasn't Hired For My Disposition. I was hired to be an outside linebacker. Any and everything else you get from me is a bonus. Okay? Understand that.\"\r\n

Lloyd, of course, has been tangled up with the law and divorce court over the last few years. He claimed his innocence as he prepared to teach his taekwondo class that day in the Atlanta suburb of Fayetteville. But that story and the others are for another time and place.\r\n

• Just to catch up on the news, the Steelers got around yesterday to announcing the signings of Jared Zabransky and Matt Trannon. As I reported earlier in the blog items below, Trannon was signed Jan. 18 and Zabrasnsky was signed Jan. 28. \r\n

• Since they're obviously back to work, the Steelers might also be ready to make their offers to Alan Faneca and Max Starks. Faneca told Scout.com's Adam Caplan this week at the Pro Bowl that the Steelers haven't talked to his agent since the 2007 season started. Hopefully these offers will be made next week ... while I'm on vacation in Hawaii. \r\n

Aloha.\r\n\r\n

To discuss this story click here.\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 5\r\n

Ah, what bliss. What serenity. What a beautiful Monday. Thank you, God. \r\n

Oh, sorry for not writing. I know you're paying hard-earned money for solid analysis, but I chose Monday as one of those sudden holidays you take when you just want to smell the roses. \r\n

It's not the prediction, honest. Nor is it the money that's now coming my way because of the prediction. It's the Patriots losing. That's it, the sweet smell of burning arrogance.\r\n

My day started like most Super Bowl days: A prediction I had for two weeks was being tugged at, much like in this fashion: Lance Zierlein's bad day. \r\n

But I'd been there before. Oh, about a hundred years ago I loved Doug Williams's Redskins over John Elway's Broncos, but nobody agreed with me. And for 13 days that was okay. But on Day 14, on my way to the Super Bowl party, I changed my mind. \r\n

Since the Redskins beat the Broncos by about 50 points on that day, I haven't changed my mind since. But there I was two days ago being tested. A friend had made a phone call to his friend, who told him all the services were predicting New England. But I barely wavered, particularly since the greatest Mush in the county told me at the party that he loved the Patriots and the over. Once I heard his prediction, it was only a question of how much, which I mulled over with my pre-game steak and lobster at The Nest in Jeannette.\r\n

Someone two stools down then began telling the bartender that he loved the Patriots.\r\n

I leaned over and asked why.\r\n

\"Because everyone loves the Patriots,\" he said. \"I was listening to the radio and the reporter said it would be Patriots 52-10, and they had a bunch of other reporters on and they were all saying it would be a New England blowout.\r\n

\"I'm going big!\" the guy said in conclusion.\r\n

\"So am I,\" I told him as it all came into focus.\r\n

Yes, what a sweet, sweet day. But what did we learn? That the club needs a tall receiver? Well, only if you're in the Pittsburgh media. \r\n

My Monday of bliss took a hard right turn, not when I read this hilarious column. (If you don't hit the link, here's the last graph: \"Not for the day when Burress became Nostradamus and made the catch of his life to prove all his naysayers wrong.\")\r\n

Good stuff. But, no, my day turned because I was in the waiting room at the dentist's office when I read that story. So, yes, my serenity would shortly come to an end.\r\n

But what is it about the Pittsburgh media and its obsession with, really, an average player? Now, that David Tyree, now there's a guy who's interesting. \r\n

Did you know that the real receiving star of the Giants' Super Bowl win once went to the Pro Bowl as a gunner? Yes, in 2005. He was drafted in the sixth round out of Syracuse in 2003 and has produced every time he's had to step in for one of the bloated Giants starters. Now that's the kind of young player the Steelers should be looking into acquiring this March.\r\n

More important for the Steelers is what the Giants really showed the world on Sunday. It's an old football axiom and it goes something like this: Get there with four.\r\n

Yes, the Giants blitzed at times. In fact, at one point in the game TV analyst Troy Aikman said, \"Because they're bringing pressure inside, you cannot give help to Matt Light.\"\r\n

Of course, Light could've used it, but that was to be expected. And Kavika Mitchell blitzing past Dan Koppen? Expected that too. Stephen Neal struggling? Check. And of course it didn't take Nostradamus Plax to predict that Michael Strahan would destroy Nick Kaczur. But no one really expected Justin Tuck to dominate Logan Mankins the way he did. \r\n

The point is, except for a few blitzes thrown in to confuse the genius from New England, the Giants got there with four. It allowed the seven deep men to patrol and pillage as Tom Brady ran as fast as his sprained ankle could carry him.\r\n

And it all made me think of Kentwan Balmer. We'll have plenty more on the North Carolina defensive end later in the draft season, but briefly, when I watched him play early in the season, in his blue helmet, I thought I saw the body of former Giant Keith Hamilton. Balmer is tall and angular and just not quick enough to play end in a 4-3, but definitely strong enough and athletic enough to play end in a 3-4. \r\n

In the game I watched, Balmer sat out the first quarter with a knee injury, but his team needed him against feisty East Carolina and Chris Johnson. Balmer entered and routinely collapsed double teams. He even played nose on passing downs. He has to be a first-round consideration. And after watching what the Giants did to the Patriots, a guy like that, or any defensive lineman for that matter, has to be a consideration for every NFL team, and particularly the Steelers. \r\n

The only alternative is someone to block a defensive lineman. The Patriots might be thinking that way today, too.\r\n\r\n

To discuss this story, click here.

\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 1\r\n

Do the Giants have a chance? Well, can they get to the quarterback?\r\n

That's always the biggest question against the Patriots, and I beg to differ with the best writer in Pittsburgh, Gene Collier, when he raves about the OL talent on the Patriots' side. I've spoken with too many scouts and analysts who gnash their teeth when guys like Matt Light and Dan Koppen are voted to the Pro Bowl. I believe that, except for Logan Mankins, the Pats have very average talent on their line, but it's been coordinated and coached well and is helped immensely by the quick release and decisiveness of QB Tom Brady.\r\n

But Brady will be playing on a sprained ankle and the Giants may have the best group of pass rushers -- on a defensive line -- of any in the league.\r\n

With apologies to Mr. Collier, the reason I opened his column in the first place was to get the spellings right. Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck are easy. But he didn't use the other guy's name (probably spelling related reasons), so I had to go to Yahoo.com's Charlie Robinson to get the right spelling of the great Osi Umenyiora.\r\n

So there's that. There's also the Giants' edge at the line of scrimmage. In the teams' last five games, the Giants held a clear edge in average yards per rush and against the rush. The Giants are +1.0, a full yard per play, against a much more difficult schedule (not including the record of the Patriots from the regular-season finale). The edge nearly doubles (+1.8) in the season-long look at games played against common opponents. And since the teams faced each other's division this year, we could look at either the common away or home site (but not both; whichever was common to both teams).\r\n

Of course, you don't beat the Patriots at the line of scrimmage alone. You beat them by stopping their passing game, and that's why the pass rush and Brady's injury and the Pats' overrated offensive line are important. In the stats, the Giants have a decent pass defense (yards per completion), and they're only a bit off the Patriots in yards per point. That stat not only breaks down offensive and defensive efficiency, but includes special teams and red zone. And the Giants are in the Pats' ballpark with those numbers.\r\n

But the real key to beating the Patriots is making the key decisions when they count the most. Beating the Patriots -- getting over that final hurdle -- is the hard part. That's where Brady has the clear edge over Eli Manning, and where Plaxico Burress can put a dagger into the 1972 Miami Dolphins with one of his classic blunders (last game Plax fumbled twice inside the 10 -- one rolled out of bounds and another was ruled incomplete in spite of Plax's protest to the official that he caught the ball).\r\n

The dynastic Pats normally win Super Bowls by field goals, and I expect the same Sunday. I expect the Giants -- for all the reasons listed -- to keep this game interesting, even nail-biting, but I also expect the injured Brady to pull it out in the end. Burress predicted 23-17, but Brady said he should bring that score up a bit. So I'm going Giants with the 12 points and over the 54, but the Patriots will win, 30-27.\r\n

* On another note, hail to the folks at RealGM, who've come up with this mock after apparently reading our site.\r\n

* Also, Gene Upshaw is grousing about the Heinz Field turf again. The critics love to point to the Miami Monday Nighter in the Bog, but never mention that the NFL asked them to pull off that dumb maneuever of putting sod over the field with a big storm on the way. Anyway, again, I'm for the grass field. Keep it natural, I always say.\r\n

* One more note, I talked to the Answer Man this week. He wasn't in the mood to go in depth, but he asked me to relay an important point: Just because Bruce Arians doesn't believe Max Starks should play tackle with Willie Colon moving over to guard, doesn't mean he's calling the shots for the organization. All Answer Man would say is \"It'll be interesting to see how they handle this.\" \r\n

He wasn't couching his answer; he was just saying he doesn't know and that it'll be interesting to see how the organization handles this. Stay tuned.\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, JANUARY 29

\r\nWell, that didn't go too bad. I made my prediction for the Steelers' first-round pick and wasn't schooled too harshly on the message board.\r\n

\r\nI appreciate the restraint, but there were several questions, as there should be, since Branden Albert is being graded as a second- or third-round prospect all over the internet. So, to the questions:\r\n

\r\nSteelMafia: If Albert's the pick, can you show me how you wish them to line up at O-line and who the backups are? \r\n

\r\nJW: Okay, well let's go from left to right for the starters: Marvel Smith, Branden Albert, Darnell Stapleton, Kendall Simmons, Willie Colon. The backups are Trai Essex, Sean Mahan, another rookie, and the winner of the project battle between Jason Capizzi and Jeremy Parquet. That leaves Chris Kemoeatu. Now, maybe he can start at left guard and Albert sits and learns for a spell. But if Kemoeatu can't be trusted with knowing his assignments yet, and does lose his job, I don't know if he can be trusted to sit the bench again without becoming an attitude problem. They may cut him if he can't win the starting job, since Essex and Mahan, in theory, could also play guard.\r\n

\r\nSteelerSouth: Nah, can't go there with you Wex. [Albert's] prospects at LT are too speculative at this point and he doesn't do enough for me as a guard to be OK with the fact that it might ultimately be all he is. I would rather have the guy with definite long-term LT skills who can probably be a decent guard starting out than a guy who is a good guard, but may or may not be a competent LT when Marvel [Smith] is soon finished.\r\n

\r\nJW: I'm only going by the one game I saw and Albert was ferocious. I saw enough to be able to live with him as a guard just in case he can't play LT. From what I saw, he'd be a much better guard than either Chris Williams or Sam Baker. And really, their futures at LT are speculative at this point, too, wouldn't you say?\r\n

\r\nTyranid: Jim, do you like Albert over [Oneil] Cousins? … Twenty-three is pretty old and they'd essentially need him to start right away.\r\n

\r\nJW: The Steelers like drafting juniors but you're right that, at 23, Albert doesn't give them the youth they normally would get from drafting a junior. Good point. As for taking him over Cousins, I definitely like Cousins as a prospect, and if the team opts to trade down to make their first-round pick I'd be happy to have Cousins in the pool of players they deem acceptable as part of the risk of trading down. But Cousins is a project. I believe Albert could step in right away. I'd have to say Albert would also have a better future at guard than Cousins anyhow. As a tackle? Well, that is, as someone else pointed out, too speculative anyhow right now.\r\n

\r\nSouthernStiller: The interesting thing about the Pro Football Weekly draft is they don't have Williams going in the first round, unless I missed it. Would you take Albert over Williams? \r\n

\r\nJW: What I like about Williams is that he can pass block and, I believe, would be adequate as a guard. But Albert, I feel, will be more than adequate as a guard. Based on what I saw, he could become a real killer. So, yes, considering the need I would take Albert over Williams. Now, as a value pick, it's tough to pass on the LT, but I'm trying to mix my feelings with how the Steelers typically think.\r\n

\r\nSteelChowder: My problem is with the logic. … If the Steelers aren't about moving players on the line once they're established, why would ultimately changing Albert from guard to tackle be any different?\r\n

\r\nJW: Good point. I was trying to say that it's becoming obvious they see Willie Colon as a tackle and not a guard. That's why they wouldn't change his position. I didn't mean to imply they wouldn't change anyone's position. It also depends on whether they think they're being fair with the player. With Alan Faneca, it's always been a \"check with Alan\" kind of attitude about a move to LT. In Albert's case, he seems to want to play LT eventually. And why not? It's where the money is. Let me just clarify that I don't know if it would be the reason they'd take him, but versatility is always a plus when it comes to breaking ties between, for example, Albert and Chilo Rachal. Also, I can't get the vision out of my head of Kevin Colbert saying, \"… and he can also play left tackle, so that would give us some options down the road if need be.\" Really, I can hear him saying that.\r\n

\r\nCobra39: I've seen him play a bit and I don't think there's any way this kid can ever play tackle (especially left tackle) and I don't think you should waste a 1.23 pick on a guard. He really is slow as heck. His 40 times from nfldraftscout.com are: 5.37, 5.26, 5.64.\r\n

\r\n\r\nJW: Cobra, I'm sure you're just using the 40 times as a reference point as opposed to implying any real significance to an O-lineman running 40 yards. But your point is well-taken. When I watched him, I was not thinking about him playing left tackle, so I didn't address it in my notes. But I later learned of the time he spent at LT. I'd love to get a tape of the Pitt game to see for myself. As for picking a guard at 1.23, that's a good point, but if the guy can fill a gaping hole, and fill it as spectacularly as I thought he played against Texas Tech, I have no problem with it. Sure, John Greco in the second round would satisfy me. But what if Albert lives up to his enormous potential and becomes a real killer at the position? And what if he can give you what Faneca gave you in Denver in 2003 with emergency LT play? Faneca, by the way, was a 1.26 pick in 1996. Other top guards chosen at 1.23 were Davin Joseph and Jeff Hartings. Yes, I agree that it should be an easy position to fill later in the draft, but taking one in the first lessens the risk, and when you have a gaping hole the risk should be minimized.\r\n

\r\nSssssteve: Dang, you just had me convinced on Carl Nicks a couple days ago. Any possibility of a trade down with this guy? I'd love another third-rounder.\r\n

\r\nJW: That's always possible with Kevin Colbert. I think he has a real good grasp of what the first round really should look like, not what the media's portraying it to look like. My worry with Albert isn't whether he's worthy of pick 23, but whether he'll still be on the board. Did you look at the picture of the guy? Anyway, Colbert will have a better idea in three months than I do today, so I will trust him on whether he trades down or not.\r\n

\r\nSteelmann58: Jim, if they do pick Albert then who would you target at tackle? [John] Greco or [Chad] Reinhart? I would also like to know if you would target a RB anywhere in the draft like maybe [Matt] Forte or [BenJarvus] Green-Ellis?\r\n

\r\nJW: I would just stick with my draft board at tackle. I did like what I saw of Reinhart at guard in the Senior Bowl but I doubt he's a tackle. And I liked Greco in the Shrine Game. As for targeting one, I don't know. If the Steelers like Essex and Colon as much as I suspect, and since Marvel is expected to return to full health from his back surgery, I don't know that tackle's such a high priority with them. As for the running backs, I refuse to change my opinion of Forte as a guy who runs too tall through the hole. I think he'll get killed in the pros, since he only has average speed and strength. Classic meatball back. I think Green-Ellis will be a better value in the fifth and I think he has more power. But there are a lot of little backs I like. I think someone like Rafael Little can become the Kevin Faulk that they're looking for. If you need to lessen the risk, take Tashard Choice in the third round.\r\n

\r\nChriskane: Now for Round 2 we need some defensive line help. The pick?\r\n

\r\nJW: I'll go with my guy Kendall Langford. With his raw strength he looks like a bigger James Harrison to me. Now, he needs some technique work, so if Round 2 is too early, than Round 3. But that's a guy I really enjoyed watching in the Senior Bowl, particularly since he made the game-saving tackle and particularly since so many \"experts\" are turning up their collective noses at him.\r\n\r\n

Talk about the blog Week 3 on the message board.\r\n\r\n\r\n

SUNDAY, JANUARY 27

\r\nThe quarterback who led Boise State to two undefeated seasons in three years will sign with the Steelers on Monday.\r\n

\r\nThat's what Jared Zabransky told the Idaho Statesman over the weekend. \r\n

The former quarterback from Boise State told the paper that the Steelers also expect to add a rookie at the position and that both of them will compete for the roster spot left open by departing free agent QB Brian St. Pierre.\r\n\r\n

Talk about the blog Week 2 on the message board.\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, JANUARY 25

\r\n\r\nBLESTO released its results to its NFL clients this season and reported there are 21 college tackles they believe will be in NFL camps next summer. Not as draft picks, just that they belong on the 80-man rosters.\r\n

\r\nI learned this when I asked someone if Sam Baker and Gosder Cherilus were indeed first-round prospects. I was told they'd find a way into the first round, as might guys who we in the media believe to be second-round prospects, guys like Oneil Cousins. \r\n

\r\n \"If there are 21 players, and half the 32 teams need at least one tackle, you do the math,\" I was told.\r\n

\r\nBut the Steelers, you say, with the 23rd pick, can get in, get one, and get out. \r\n

\r\nBut can they?\r\n

\r\nChris Steuber, in his latest mock for Scout.com, believes so. He writes that only two tackles will be gone by the time the Steelers pick and that Jeff Otah of Pitt will be their choice.\r\n

\r\nOkay. He's not my first choice, but the Steelers need a guy who can play guard, right? Or, if we're certain the rookie can step in and play right away, that he's a sure-fire guy, the Steelers could move Willie Colon to his natural guard position and start the rookie at right tackle.\r\n

\r\nYeah, that's about as likely to happen as the Steelers drafting a tall receiver in the first round. And forget about moving Marvel Smith back to right tackle. But at least we've defined the parameters, and that leaves Cherilus out of the mix. He's too tall to play guard, and if the Steelers really wanted to put that kind of money into right tackle, and make that kind of move with Colon, they may as well just keep Max Starks. \r\n

\r\nCan Otah help them at guard? Don't know. No one does. He's raw as is, as a tackle. My instinct is to leave him out of the mix as well. In fact, I talked to a scout who thinks he's a second-rounder, and as the guys who keep matching Otah with the Steelers try to tell us, the Steelers really know the Pitt guys well. \r\n

\r\nBut back to the math. We can safely rule out Jake Long and Ryan Clady. Those are legitimate left tackles with pass-block/drive-block skills and they will be long gone. Another mock draft, this one by Frank Croyle, throws Sam Baker into the top-22 party at No. 21. Baker is another left tackle, and no one doubts he could play guard just in case one of those 16 teams that don't need two tackles needs a guard.\r\n

\r\nSo let's leave Long, Clady, Baker, and Cherilus out of the mix. \r\n

\r\nOh, but Mel Kiper has checked in with a first round that I fear is percolating in the pipeline. Kiper has five offensive tackles being picked before the Steelers pick. Not that the Steelers are hell-bent on a tackle, as I've written, but there aren't any pure guards worth taking in the top 23. \r\n

\r\nKiper has Long (5), Clady (12), Otah (13), Baker (14) and Chris Williams (19) gone before the Steelers pick (23). Williams would be the perfect pick for the Steelers since he played left tackle in the SEC (tough), for Vandy (smart), and can block on the move (guard). But five tackles in the top 22? Is this possible? \r\n

\r\nWell, it hasn't happened since 1986. It also went that way in 1985. The average number of tackles chosen in the top 22 in 41 drafts is 2.4, but then again we remember the math presented to us by BLESTO, and we see the costs of these players in free agency, and we realize it's possible that another 5-in-22 draft is in the works.\r\n

\r\nIf we take those five tackles out of the equation, and take Cherilus out, what will the Steelers be looking at? \r\n

\r\nCarl Nicks. Yes, a player I thought was a fourth-rounder earlier in the year, whose offseason play has forced me to change that grade to a high second-rounder, now becomes a possibility with pick 23. And he's a legitimate consideration. He's thick and strong and wide and has quick feet. He's built like a guard but played left tackle for Nebraska the last two years. This year he distinguished himself against USC pass-rusher Lawrence Jackson. Then again, Jackson's been inconsistent throughout his college career. Was Jackson up or down for that game?\r\n

\r\nEither way, Nicks is showing up in Mobile. He has the look of a powerful guard and the Steelers need one, a big one. But at 23? For a guy who'll never have the athleticism to beome the main pulling guard for this classic power-sweep team?\r\n

\r\nIf the Steelers pass on Nicks, he'll get picked in the bottom of the round, which brings up the next question: Could the Steelers wait until pick 53 to get their guard?\r\n

\r\nNext on my list, after Nicks and Cherilus (the Nos. 6 and 7 linemen), are Cousins, John Greco, Brenden Albert, Chilo Rachal, Roy Schuening and Anthony Collins. The only tackle-to-guard question mark here is Collins, so we'll toss him. That leaves five more linemen, or 12 in the top 52. \r\n

\r\nThe Steelers' second pick will be No. 53. A dozen linemen have been chosen in the first 52 picks only three times: 15 in 1968; 12 in 1976 and 1983. So the Steelers could probably wait to draft their lineman with the 53rd pick, but they'll be holding their breath.\r\n

\r\nSo in summation, these look to be the Steelers' realistic options this draft:\r\n

\r\n

1. Draft Carl Nicks at No. 23.\r\n

\r\n2. Trade down into the late, late first or early, early second for either Nicks or Cousins.\r\n

\r\n3. Wait and hope that either Greco, the tackle-guard from Toledo, is there at pick 53, or that the top pure guards all last.

\r\nThe Steelers learned last year that linemen are now being taken at least a round earlier than their grade indicates, so that won't be an excuse this year. They know how the draft game has changed, and they should begin preparing for it now.\r\n

++++\r\n

\r\nMike Singletary was the star of a rainy walk-through session Thursday. The NFL Network put a microphone on the Hall of Fame linebacker-turned-coach and he didn't hold back. Like last year, Singletary said what was on his mind, and guys like Philip Wheeler felt his wrath. But there was also one player who did – for all of us to see – absorb Singletary's coaching and put it into play right away. This made Singletary smile. Often. \r\n

\r\nThe player's name is Wesley Woodyard, and he did everything right, smoothly, without false steps. Singletary obviously likes him. I had to throw on my Kentucky tape and take a closer look.\r\n

\r\nAnd, yes, he's very smooth, quick, smart. Everything he did right for Singletary transferred to the playing field. He's a fluid defender who can run and it's obvious that he loves the game. If he were a basketball player they'd be calling him a gym rat. \r\n

\r\nBut on the negative side, he's only 212 pounds. And it showed against the Florida State run game. While Woodyard has some of the best instincts this side of Jordon Dizon, those weren't much help when FSU came right at him. Woodyard appears to be one – and perhaps the best – of the many safety/linebacker tweeners in the draft who, if Kevin Colbert is thinking like I am, will be one of the special-team core guys the Steelers are looking at in the fourth round.\r\n\r\n

THURSDAY, JANUARY 24

\r\nSouth Alabama is reportedly interested in interviewing Steelers assistant head coach/D-line coach John Mitchell for their vacant coaching position. Mitchell is in Mobile for the Senior Bowl. \r\n

The Mobile Register couldn't confirm that Mitchell, a native of Mobile, has in fact been in contact with the school.\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 23

\r\nThe Senior Bowl is the place to be, and I'm right there, on the couch, watching every stretch, 7-on-7 and one-on-one blocking drill thanks to the NFL Network. A couple of notes from Tuesday's practices:

\r\n* The Steelers met with Texas WR Limas Sweed. Yes, he's a big target, but no he's not consistent and no he's not a return man. Could they be doing this just to appease Ben Roethlisberger? The QB came out last week and said he wanted a big WR, and Sweed is that. But my feeling is that if a first-round WR can't return kicks, there's little point, particularly with a guy who's been so inconsistent over the years and has such high bust potential. My take is the Steelers needed to tie up loose ends with a guy who missed seven games this season with a wrist injury.

\r\n* Speaking of big WRs, Adarius Bowman's stock is plummeting. He might be a fourth-rounder these days. His size would make Ben happy and his ferocious blocking would make everyone else happy. Hines Ward would be tickled with this kid's attitude toward the game. Bowman has become a sleeper prospect.

\r\n* Thomas DeCoud (di-COO) is my favorite free safety. He's the confident defensive quarterback a great FS should be, and he has speed, range and the hitting ability to go with it. Love him in the second. Would probably have to pass in the first.

\r\n* Bruce Davis, the defensive end from UCLA who'll have to play OLB in the league, is the next Joey Porter – both in ability and personality. The kid's a rabble-rouser. While Porter was a third-round pick, Davis comes from a bigger school and will likely go in the bottom of the second.

\r\n* I finally got to see OT Chris Williams. I missed Vandy this season and have been scrambling back ever since, but I now understand why so many Steelers fans have been talking about this guy. He could play right tackle, even guard (center? – need to see more), as he grows into the LT job that Marvel Smith -- with his bad back -- is holding down now. It appears the Steelers could choose Williams or Gosder Cherilus in the first round. Here's how talent evaluator Mike Mayock broke down these two offensive tackles:

\r\n\"They're different kind of players playing the same position,\" Mayock said. \"Cherilus is more physical and a better run blocker. I think that Chris Williams is a more talented foot-athlete. I think he's got quicker feet and is a more natural knee-bender than Cherilus is.\"

\r\n* One guy who made Williams look bad Tuesday was my boy, Hampton University DE Kendall Langford. He's a late addition to the Senior Bowl and he surprised Williams with a quick outside move in a one-on-one drill. I've considered Langford a 3-4 DE who could go in the third round to a team that's too nervous to allow him to get into the fourth round where he probably belongs. Here's what Mayock said about Langford, who weighed in at 6-5.3, 275:

\r\n\"Interesting kid. … If he can get up to 290-295, I think he'd be the ideal what they call 5-technique, which is a defensive end in a 3-4 set. That's what I think he'll be at the next level. He's two to three years away from a strength perspective and a technique perspective but I think he can be a starter in the NFL.\"

\r\n* Another of my favorites, OT Oneil Cousins, looks like a high second-rounder. He may be too raw to start right away, and that could push him toward the middle of the second round, but this guy is powerful and has a real attitude problem, as in nasty, nasty, nasty. He's a converted defensive lineman and he plays like one. I'd take him and put him at guard, as Mayock suggests, with the hope he could learn to play left tackle. I really think the Steelers have enough at tackle right now to allow a high pick to develop in this manner. A first-round tackle would move Willie Colon inside, but not a second-rounder.\r\n

\r\nSHRINE BOWL REVIEW: (West) You can have Joe Flacco, Andre Woodson, Colt Brennan and Chad Henne as your second-round quarterback. Give me Josh Johnson, the MVP of the East-West Shrine Game.\r\n

\r\nI watched the San Diego University QB on tape yesterday and thought of Joe Montana. Honest. The kid is graceful. He throws with touch or with heat, whatever he needs. And he scrambles with those long, easy strides of Joe Cool. Johnson only played two (maybe three, but please don't make me go back and watch this again) series, and on the first series he was too good for his B-game receivers. Three different players dropped consecutive passes that should've been touchdowns from the 12-yard line. Johnson capped the other drive with a lovely floater to Kevin Robinson for a score. \r\n

\r\nI'd heard Johnson carried a 5th-round grade after his record-setting senior season (43 touchdowns, one interception) in Division I-AA ball, but he shot up to Round Four on his first series when he showed he belonged with this tier of athlete, and I'm sure as the game went on his stock only skyrocketed.\r\n

\r\nTarvaris Jackson made a move up into the second round with his play a few years ago in the Shrine Game, but Johnson's a much better quarterback. I couldn't help but give him a second-round grade. Too bad he's not playing in the Senior Bowl.\r\n

\r\n* In addition to catching the short TD pass over Jamie Silva, Kevin Robinson returned a punt for a touchdown. As a receiver, he also caught a slant over the middle and took the hit. He was also spotted blocking downfield on a Johnson scramble. After I slapped a third-round grade on him, I wondered if he was just another Willie Reid – a flash at the end of his college career. But Robinson's four quick cuts on the long return say he's not. Those cuts were short, sweet magic.

\r\n* West cornerback Dwight Lowery intercepted two passes, but didn't show any explosiveness as a return man (even fumbled a kickoff return) so that prevents me from using a second-round pick for the long-limbed cover man.

\r\n* Lowery's opposite number, Justin Tryon, ran with Dexter Jackson in deep coverage and batted the pass away. Tryon did a lot of that and the little guy should get a long look in the fourth round.

\r\n* I didn't watch Frank Okam, Tommy Blake, Anthony Alridge, Kevin O'Connell or Derrick Doggett because I'd watched them closely in previous games. I got the chance to catch up on Iowa State and that gang showed me that I hadn't missed anything.

\r\n* Linebacker Spencer Larsen shot the gap a few times and was named Defensive Player of the Game. He's still a mid-round plugger until he shows a bit more dash.

\r\n* No one stood out as a coverage ace on special teams from the West.

\r\n* At center, Kyle Van Dyn of Oregon State clearly outplayed Ryan Wendell of Fresno State. Van Dyn could go in the sixth.\r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, JANUARY 22\r\n

Let's start with a review of the East squad from the Shrine Game. More talent was stashed on that side of the ball, but silly mistakes by the East quarterbacks and the outstanding play of West quarterback Josh Johnson gave the West an easy win.\r\n

\r\nThe player who intrigued me most on the East side was Hampton University defensive end Kendall Langford. On consecutive plays of the first West possession, Langford crushed his teammate, a linebacker, while tackling the running back five yards down the field, and on the next play Langford jerked back the head of massive OT Geoff Schwartz with a strong punch on his way to the quarterback. Langford got the sack and forced a fumble. He used his strength to collapse the pocket on a number of other occasions. On the down side, he was blown off the ball at the goal line for a West touchdown.\r\n

\r\nLangford appears strong enough to stop the run, but my guess is he needs work with his hands. It wouldn't surprise me if he were working on new techniques in the game after working with pro coaches all week. Listed at 6-6, 296, Langford could be more explosive off the ball, but he has Harrison-esque strength. The lack of quick-twitch muscle fiber wouldn't hinder him much as a defensive end in the Steelers' 3-4, but there's no mistaking his athletic ability. He went way up to nearly block a short field-goal attempt. He also appears to be a team player without ego, which would make him an ideal student for line coach John Mitchell. I'm thinking Mitch ought to begin pushing for Langford in the third round.\r\n

\r\nI hoped to get a good look at three East linebackers, but neither Jameel McClain, Jonathan Goff nor Curtis Gatewood showed much. Gatewood came in with a bigger pro billing than his more acclaimed Vanderbilt teammate, Goff, and Gatewood got off to a quick start by making the tackle on the opening kickoff. But afterward none of the three showed much more than good-looking bodies and quickness. I'll lump all three of them in the 3rd-4th-round range until I see more. McClain was also used at defensive end, a la Levon Kirkland circa 1991 Clemson, but didn't come close to the QB.\r\n

\r\nI also watched a couple of linebacker/end tweeners and both were disappointing. I gave Pitt's Joe Clermond a Priority Free Agent grade because he didn't push the pocket as an end and never was given the chance to drop into coverage as a linebacker. Curtis Johnson, a defensive end from Clark-Atlanta, played outside linebacker and looked like Jason Gildon in coverage – stiff, tall, strong. In other words he's a strong-side 3-4 OLB who must be better running forward than back. I gave him a fifth-round grade.\r\n

\r\nOf course, we TV scouts don't get the full picture on the safeties, but Boston College's Jamie Silva gave us one anyway. Silva will probably end up with a lousy 40 time, and was beaten in space a couple of times in the game, but he showed he's a special football player. The guy has great instincts. Pick this guy in the fifth round and make him your special-teams captain in a few years. TV analyst Todd McShay replayed tape of Silva coming within inches of blocking a punt at the 30-yard line. Silva picked himself up off the ground and ran to the other 30 to throw a block for the return man. I put a fifth-round grade on him, but then I watched Rodney Harrison of the Patriots and remembered that safeties can post wretched 40 times and still win championships. Silva will be difficult to pass on in the fourth round. \r\n

\r\nIf you pass and don't get Silva in the fifth, you might want D.J. Parker. I haven't seen the 40 times, but Parker is another smart free safety and pure \"football player\" who's a bit small. The few times Parker was on screen, he showed polish in his backpedal. He also downed a kick at the one-foot line on special teams. You almost want to see Parker run poorly at the combine so he's there in the fifth or sixth.\r\n

\r\nOffensively, John Greco got the best grade – a fourth – of the guys who interested me from a Steelers perspective. The Toledo offensive tackle played mistake-free ball on both the right and left sides, although he did give a pressure on each side to Chris Harrington of Texas A&M. Greco's not great, but he'll protect your QB and get some push in the run game. He can become Matt Light some day.\r\n

\r\nA riskier fourth-rounder is WR Jerome Simpson. He has huge hands, but is a bit uncoordinated. Maybe he hasn't grown into his body. If he is a late bloomer, someone will hit a home run with this pick because he has size, speed and hands.\r\n

\r\nRB BenJarvus Green-Ellis impressed me, surprised me in fact, with the way he moved, no, dragged the pile with him. He's listed at 225 pounds and could become a great fifth-round steal as an inside runner. He showed up in pass pro as well, and also showed deft receiving skills. A sideline reporter told a story of Green-Ellis getting his two front teeth knocked out against Georgia, coming back in, and later being told to leave by the ref because \"he was bleeding everywhere.\"\r\n\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, JANUARY 21\r\n

Yes, it's a depressing time of year. Always is when you're watching other teams, but this Super Bowl will be particularly dull because I don't see the Giants mustering another competitive run at the Patriots. \r\n

Green Bay? Well, they never really had a chance either, but at least the country would've come together as one in rooting for a quarterback, the way the media told us we'd come together in support of John Elway in 1998. \r\n

I couldn't have cared less about ol' Horse Face back then, but I figured we'd all root for Brett Favre against the perfect Patriots. That would've been a truth instead of a media creation.\r\n

Alas, it's Eli Manning. Can he and the Giants beat the Pats? Well, someone will have to stop Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans. Those were New England's core heroes yesterday. Those, in fact, are two key pieces the Steelers lack – a true short-yardage plow horse and a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. \r\n

If the Steelers do pick up a quality No. 2 back in this coming draft, would he become the pass-catcher? Would he become the Faulk to the Patriots' Laurence Maroney? \r\n

I doubt it. Say the Steelers, for example, land either Jonathan Stewart or Rashard Mendenhall in the first round. Does that player – a classic power/speed inside runner with the ability to get outside -- become the pass-catcher? That wouldn't be a comfortable niche for either of those two backs, and the first round is a high price to pay for a back who's not going to fit your specific need. \r\n

It means Willie Parker must improve as a pass-catcher, considering his game is attacking the perimeter. That would allow the other roles to be filled more easily, but it's never been that easy with Parker. Ask his much-maligned college coach, John Bunting.\r\n

Speaking of coaches trying to pound square pegs into round holes (a.k.a. Running Injured QBs Wide Behind Third-team Tackles), the Chargers ran big back Michael Turner wide on a key third-and-one play that lost a yard near the end of the first half. The resulting short field goal moved the Chargers within 14-12, but that was it for them. They needed a touchdown there.\r\n

The other key play -- a play no one mentioned during the frivolous halftime show starring Dan Marino's cell phone – was the Mike Vrabel-induced interception that Philip Rivers threw in the first half. It was a 7-6 game, and two plays after the pick the score was 14-6. But no one mentioned that Vrabel had leg-whipped Rivers on the play. \r\n

Perhaps I don't fully understand the rule here, or perhaps no one else saw it, but Vrabel slid to Rivers' right and kicked his leg into Rivers' injured leg and forced the poor throw. That should've been a 15-yard penalty against Vrabel.\r\n

The halftime TV \"fun bunch\" didn't explain it, and instead focused on reasons to yank Rivers for Billy Volek. After Bill Cowher finished saying he, as a coach, would watch Rivers closely at the start of the second half with the intention of playing Volek, and after Shannon Sharpe said he would simply start Volek coming out of the break, Boomer Esiason looked at Cowher, laughed and said, \"It it was Ben Roethlisberger, he'd never bench him.\" \r\n

And then Marino's cell phone rang for a third time.\r\n

In the 40th anniversary of the Ice Bowl in Green Bay, honorary captain Bart Starr came out for the coin flip, but where was Jethro Pugh?\r\n

A sideline reporter mentioned during pre-game warm-ups that \"Plaxico Burress (was) absolutely taken aback by the cold\" and that \"air in his gloves\" caused Burress to say \"I can't feel my hands.\" But Burress went on to have a great game. \r\n

He's still sloppy, though. Burress got away with a fumble that rolled out of bounds near the goal line, and later had a fumble that was ruled incomplete in another play at the goal line (Burress was actually motioning to the ref that he'd caught the ball – which would've been a fumble had they listened to him), but the big guy is getting his moment in the sun. And I know I'll be rooting for him in his next game.\r\n

I also on Sunday pored over the college Shrine Bowl tape. I focused on the East and tomorrow will make a case in this space for the Steelers to draft Hampton University defensive end Kendall Langford in the third round, Toledo offensive tackle John Greco in the fourth round, Boston College \"football player\" Jamie Silva in the fifth round, and Virginia Tech free safety D.J. Parker in the sixth round. And then I'll revise that in Wednesday's report after reviewing the West squad.\r\n \r\n

SATURDAY, JANUARY 19\r\n

Ben Roethlisberger said he wanted a big wide receiver and the Steelers have complied. The Steelers yesterday signed former Michigan State wide receiver Matt Trannon to their reserve/future roster. \r\n

Trannon is a 6-foot-6, 216-pound former wide receiver and college basketball player at MSU. He is the cousin of former NFL safety Lonnie Young, who's now a scout with the Arizona Cardials. \r\n

Trannon was a four-year football starter at MSU and caught 44 passes his senior season. He wasn't drafted last April, but signed with Arizona and was placed on the Cardinals' practice squad. He was released and subsequently joined the practice squads at Kansas City and Oakland before signing with Pittsburgh.\r\n

The Steelers also worked out the following free agents on Friday: RB Dominique Dorsey (Nevada-Las Vegas), QB Luke Getsy (Akron), DBs Patrick McGhee (Wake Forest) and Gerrick McPhearson (Maryland), DT Daniel Marquardt (BYU), and LB Gavin Walls (Arkansas).\r\n

\r\nTalk about the blog Week 1 on the message board.\r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, JANUARY 18\r\n

\r\nBefore I get into the players I want to focus on in the East-West Shrine Game, let me get to Kevin Colbert's comments this week. \r\n

One of my colleagues in the reporting game always says this about talking to Colbert before the draft: \"When we ask to talk to him, Kevin should ask us whether we expect him to give away the millions of dollars the Steelers have spent on prospect analysis this season, or whether we want him to just lie to us, because, really, that's all he can do.\"\r\n

This week Colbert gave Pittsburgh reporters his usual. He also told the Post-Gazette he would even draft a running back. \"Heck yeah. Absolutely,\" he said.\r\n

What wasn't mentioned in the story is that Colbert was asked about that position. That's the key. He was prompted and gave the only appropriate response, so I read nothing into the comment.\r\n

As for Colbert defending his offensive linemen -- and I stress the word his -- Colbert did add that \"you can lose two unrestricted free agents, and if you do, maybe that changes your focus.\" \r\n

Anyway, for all of us doing our own draft work, I say thanks, Kevin, for lying to those who aren't.\r\n

These are the players I'll be watching closely in Saturday night's East-West Shrine Game:\r\n

QB Josh Johnson -- Everyone who's seen him loves him. I've heard he's a fifth-rounder. Problem is, not many have seen San Diego University play this season. Now's our chance.\r\n

FBs Jerome Felton and Brandon McAnderson -- Felton, from Furman, is a 246-pounder who's supposedly a quality lead blocker and red-zone runner. McAnderson was Kansas' single back out of the spread, and this will give us a completely different look at yet another big tailback attempting to show he can lead block.\r\n

RB Thomas Brown -- The little back from Georgia is drawing raves this week for his work ethic, toughness and quickness in practice. He's being called a fourth-rounder, but I have my doubts.\r\n

WRs Jerome Simpson and Paul Hubbbard -- Both of these players are more track athletes than football players, and that means big, big upside ... if they can learn the game. Simpson was a track superstar at Coastal Carolina. Hubbard was an insignificant starter at Wisconsin, but has caused a buzz this week because of his size and speed.\r\n

C Ryan Wendell -- He's a bit small, but I have to see all of the centers if I'm going to predict which ones the Steelers will pass on. Just say I'm not optimistic about the team bolstering its biggest weakness.\r\n

OT John Greco -- Haven't seen Toledo's best player yet. Hear he's a solid mid-rounder.\r\n

OT Jeremy Zuttah -- I've seen him play RT at Rutgers and like him in the mid rounds quite a bit.\r\n

DE Ken Langford -- Another player from Hampton enters the draft. He's 6-6, 294 and is said to lack the speed required of a 4-3 end, but is also said to be a perfect 3-4 DE specimen.\r\n

DT Nick Hayden -- This guy may have the best motor in the country this season. Big, strong, relentless, but can he provide just a little pass rush to justify a move to 3-4 DE?\r\n

DE Joe Clermond -- Productive Pitt player is 6-3, 250. Does he have the hips to play 3-4 OLB?\r\n

S David Roach -- He's not the most acclaimed prospect from TCU, but folks down there love him.\r\n

S Josh Barrett -- King-sized ASU safety got hurt late in the year and missed his bowl game.\r\n

CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- You have to pay attention when Tennessee State has a prospect. Can also return kicks.\r\n

LB Jameel McClain -- The Big East is so difficult to watch that I haven't even seen Syracuse this year. Word is this Orangeman can play middle linebacker and rush off the edge.\r\n\r\n

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 16\r\n

\r\nDermontti Dawson not being on the list of finalists for the Hall of Fame is a disgrace. This is the list of finalists and not one of them, in my mind, is more worthy:

\r\n\r\nThe contributor finalist is former National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The Senior Committee nominees are Chicago Cardinals back Marshall Goldberg and Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Emmitt Thomas. The modern-era player finalists include cornerback Darrell Green, defensive ends Fred Dean and Richard Dent; linebackers Randy Gradishar, Derrick Thomas and Andre Tippett; guards Russ Grimm, Bob Kuechenberg and Randall McDaniel; punter Ray Guy; wide receivers Cris Carter, Art Monk and Andre Reed; and tackle Gary Zimmerman.

\r\nIt's hard to believe a guy like Goldberg, who played eight forgettable seasons with the Chicago Cardinals, rushing for 1,644 yards and 11 touchdowns in those eight seasons, is being considered over a remarkable athlete such as Dawson.\r\n

Dawson not only had Sayers-like athletic skills, he put up the numbers. Dawson spent all 13 of his NFL seasons with the Steelers, played in 171 consecutive games, went to seven Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl, was the Associated Press first-team All-Pro NFL center five years in a row (1993-97), was a unanimous All-Pro in 1997, had more first-place votes than any other player on the 1996 All-Pro team, and was one of the most graceful and intelligent human beings inside a locker room that was known for its professionalism. \r\n

Dawson also helped many teammates invest their money properly and has become a wealthy man in his retirement from football. The guy screams Hall of Fame and if the voters are deliberately keeping him out because too many Steelers already are in the Hall, they're makig a big mistake. To not include him as a finalist is a blackmark against every voter.\r\n

Dawson, of course, was the third great center in the Steelers' tradition that began with Ray Mansfield and continued through Mike Webster. After Dawson came Jeff Hartings, who went to two Pro Bowl before retiring after the 2006 season.

The play at center was so bad this past season, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians called a quarterback keeper around left end on the biggest third-down play of the season. The QB struggled down the stretch with a sprained ankle, and his lead blockier was No. 3 left tackle Trai Essex, but Tomlin stuck with Arians's call because, \"We anticipated potentially that we would get all-out pressure, particularly from the interior. We thought we could outflank them and get on the edge.\" In other words, Tomlin thought Jacksonville would blitz up the middle and he didn't think the Steelers would block it and so he allowed the worst possible play to be called at the worst time. Of course it failed.\r\n

Will this situation improve? Word is Darnell Stapleton will be given every chance to win the job next season. He was inactive all season, forcing the team to work RG Kendall Simmons at the position whenever they could. Stapleton was active for the final game.\r\n

Of course, one brief appearance in one preseason game by an undrafted rookie is not enough to bank the 2008 season on, so here are the best college centers I've watched this season, with my own grades:\r\n

2nd round -- Kory Lichtensteiger, Bowling Green, is big, athletic, strong, nasty, shows balance and a rock-solid base in pass pro, and drove the Tulsa NT off screen several times in the run game during the GMAC Bowl.\r\n

2nd/3rd round -- Mike Pollak, Arizona State, can add 10-15 pounds, according to scouts. Someone on the message board pointed out that since the rest of the ASU line was so bad and picked up blitzes so poorly, perhaps the center isn't so sharp with his line calls. Perhaps.\r\n

3rd round -- Steve Justice, Wake Forest, doesn't interest the Steelers because he's too small and couldn't play another position, a must since they realized the problems presented by Chukky Okobi on game days. Justice belongs with the Denver Broncos.\r\n

4th round -- Fernando Velasco, Georgia, sets a tone getting off the bus with his size but is just too limited athletically for the Steelers. Against Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, Velasco appeared to tire and too often flopped to the ground for a cheap cut.\r\n

4th round -- Cody Wallace, Texas A&M, is also smart and strong and lacks mobility.\r\n

6th/7th round -- Kyle DeVan, Oregon State, is my favorite sleeper. Here's more on him.\r\n

7th round/UFA -- Jamey Richard, Buffalo, also played guard in the Hula Bowl but is a bit on the small side. He looks like another Marvin Philip, but without the big-school experience.\r\n

I haven't watched John Sullivan of Notre Dame. He's a highly regarded prospect who was injured much of the season.\r\n

Of course, tackles and guards can always be moved inside, but scouts have told me the priority is still to look at those playing the position.\r\n

Is there a Dermontti Dawson in the bunch? Of course not. A player like that comes along once every 75 years. Just because Webster is in the Hall, doesn't mean his successor wasn't his equal or even better. They were both great in their own unique way.\r\n

Speaking of Webbie, here's a good story on the 1976 playoffs. Note the quote by Joe Greene: \"Oakland has the nastiest defensive backs this side of Attica's all-star intramural team.\" \r\n\r\n

TUESDAY, JANUARY 15\r\n\r\n

\r\nAt the end of the Hula Bowl, play-by-play announcer Ron Thulin had a question: \"MVP?\" he said. \"I'm torn. ... I don't know who.\" \r\n

\"I'm not sure myself,\" said color analyst Kelly Stouffer.\r\n

That's because the handful of decent players in the game didn't touch the ball. The one who caught my eye, again, was Virginia Tech DT Carlton Powell. The guy finished his season on a rampage and it continued in the Hula Bowl. He consistently beat double teams and showed pass-rush ability for a big man and ran sideline-to-sideline to tackle running backs. He's a playmaking 4-3 tackle and thus the second-round grade I threw on him will mean little to the Pittsburgh Steelers.\r\n

If Powell wasn't the MVP, Cincinati DE Angelo Craig was. He had two early sacks and a forced fumble but didn't play much in the second half. The East coaches gave more playing time at that position to a couple of tweener prospects, and both Marcus Howard of Georgia and Hilee Taylor of North Carolina disappointed. Both players were also used at linebacker and neither fared well in the transition. \r\n

Interesting as small defensive ends on their respective teams, Taylor looked stiff and lost as a strong-side 4-3 linebacker. Howard was smaller and quicker but looked no less lost in space. At least Howard still showed the burst around the edge as a 4-3 DE. He was the star of the Sugar Bowl with three sacks and two forced fumbles, one of which resulted in a touchdown. He's a smallish runaround guy with a burst and seemingly good hips, but they were of no use to him as a linebacker in the Hula Bowl. Taylor, a bigger \"tweener\", on the other hand appeared to have lost his speed over the course of the season. \r\n

It's too bad Curry is a strict 4-3 DE because there wasn't much else off the edge here. Hampton DE Marcus Dixon was often blocked by a tight end and it's doubtful he'll be drafted.\r\n

There were a handful of offensive lineman I wanted to see for the first time this season and James Blair of Western Michigan came away with the best grade of the bunch -- 6th/7th-rounder. He started at right guard but distinguished himself as a tenacious RT who stayed low and kept his balance. Buffalo center Jamey Richard is too small. UConn guard Donald Thomas showed mobility for a big man but was injured early. He's worth following.\r\n

Here are a few more quick-hit notes:\r\n

... Brian Johnston had two sacks and forced a fumble, which led to a mini-feature on the Gardner-Webb DE. He supposedly ran a 4.6 40 at 280 pounds, but didn't flash any of that speed in game action. His motor was responsible for the sacks and that motor could get this Lee Vickers clone drafted early in the seventh round.\r\n

... Pitt TE Darnell Strong was physical as an in-line blocker and made four catches. On the down side, he dropped a couple of passes -- including a touchdown pass -- and looked slow in space. He could go as high as the sixth round, but not by me.\r\n

... Colorado MLB Jordon Dizon blew up a little running back on a screen pass for the hit of the game. I didn't watch him closely since I'd graded Dizon earlier this season, and the LB-S tweener is definitely a potential special-teamer to keep an eye on.\r\n

... Pitt CB Kennard Cox was physical and played well. He's a small zone corner who was beat for a touchdown by Cal's Robert Jordan, but his late interception interrupted a bad sideline interview(er) with Larry Fitzgerald Sr. and his son Marcus. For that, we are grateful.\r\n

... Virginia Tech WR Josh Morgan looked like he had a dose of jet lag. He dropped a fair catch and a 34-yard touchdown pass. He also failed to show any burst in a couple of opportunities after catches.\r\n

... Three players I didn't intend to watch caught my eye anyway: Akron WR Jabari Arthur, Duquesne WR Bruce Hocker, and Marshall QB Bernard Morris. Arthur was the better playmaker but Hocker has better size and, in my mind, upside. Hocker caught a short touchdown pass from Morris, who showed a whip arm and good mobility. A scout earlier had told me Hocker -- who used his big body to shield the defender and catch the TD -- is a prospect on the same level as Leigh Bodden, who was signed by the Browns out of Duquesne after not being chosen in the 2003 draft. Bodden was a starting CB this past season.\r\n

... Strong safety Tyrell Johnson of Arkansas State forced a fumble early and was consistently around the ball. He could hear his name called late in the draft\r\n

... Tulsa QB Paul Smith was a bit of a disappointment. He lacks size and arm strength but makes up for it with his savvy. His sideline interview was more impressive than that of SDSU QB Kevin O'Connell, who came off as a bit too loose. On the other hand, O'Connell has the arm and great wheels to get into the mid-rounds.\r\n

... Just a note to you kids out there: If you're a late-round prospect who has the look of the day -- long hair and tattoos -- and you're tied with someone else for my last pick, I'm going to pass on you for the guy who doesn't look like a criminal. \r\n

There were a couple of interesting stories today. The Tribune-Review's John Harris seems surprised -- like many in the media were last week -- that Lawrence Timmons was moved to inside linebacker ... in the second week of the season. \r\n

And in the Post-Gazette, Kevin Colbert starts up with this nonsense about the Steelers' offensive line not being as bad as we think. Not again.\r\n\r\n

MONDAY, JANUARY 14\r\n\r\n

It's always the best weekend in football and the fact the Steelers weren't involved didn't bother me much. That was the catch about last week's loss: Who wanted to go to New England and withstand that arrogance again? I caught enough of it watching commercials from my couch the last two days. That know-it-all Patriots fan who doesn't know his bartender is Joe Montana? And he tells Joe how you're supposed to win playoff games? That pretty much sums them up.\r\n

... Mike Vrabel sums them up, too. He was too smart for Bill Cowher. That's my take on why Vrabel left Pittsburgh. He had a constant smirk on his face; the one you see when he says \"THE Ohio State.\" Yeah, that one. He left after Joey Porter moved into the starting lineup in 2000 and hasn't looked back. Thinking about how and why Vrabel left made me think of Max Starks. A coach at the end of the season told me that he thought Trai Essex would pass Starks on the depth chart at training camp \"because he listened.\" Pretty telling comment right there. A new coaching staff needs its troops to rally behind them. The guys who are too smart can go play for Belichick I guess.\r\n

... Of course, it looks like the Patriots will go 19-0 and become recognized as the greatest team ever, and, being that it'll be their fourth Super Bowl in seven years, they'll claim the greatest dynasty, too. It's certainly depressing and it seems like no one wants it to happen. You see it on the faces of the experts on the pre-game shows. There's a sadness, a resignation that we're all being subjected to a reign of arrogance. It's unlikely the San Diego Chargers are going to save the football world from it, either.\r\n

... The Chargers beat the Colts with the fresh legs of Michael Turner. He's become the poster boy for coaches who want two quality running backs, because it's too difficult for the starter to make it through 16 games and have those fresh legs in the playoffs. Maybe that's why Belichick shut Laurence Maroney down for most of the season. In fact, the second RB just might be more important than the starter since he'll be the back in the playoffs. Remember that before we get into another argument on the message board about whether the Steelers should even consider drafting a Marshawn Lynch in the first round. Not that they had a chance, but it was an argument last March.\r\n

... When the Chargers jubilantly ran off the field after stopping Peyton Manning's pass on fourth-and-goal inside the 10 in the final two minutes Sunday, whose mind didn't wander back to the 1994 playoffs? \r\n

... Cowher says the Packers are the last and best chance to stop the Patriots. Let's hope, but in the meantime, what's with the Terrible Towels in Green Bay? Seriously, Packers fans are now twirling yellow towels. Why would a franchise so steeped in tradition steal another team's trademark like that?\r\n

... At least the Cowboys lost. It'll be far more interesting to watch a game in the Green Bay elements next weekend as opposed to the sun-drenched artificial surface of the Starboys.\r\n

... The Hula Bowl was played Saturday and on Sunday I flipped back and forth between that tape and the AFC playoff game between the Colts and Chargers. On one hand, I'm watching players and wondering if they're worth a seventh-round pick. \"Is he as good as Eric Taylor was?\" I asked myself at one point. And then I'd flip to the incredible athletes on the other channel and wonder if my preoccupation with the mutts in the Hula Bowl was just busywork for an insane person. Whatever, I'll have that Hula Bowl report tomorrow for those who are similarly afflicted.\r\n\r\n

SATURDAY, JANUARY 12\r\n

The Steelers signed eight players to their reserve/future roster on Friday: wide receiver Dallas Baker, wide receiver Jeremy Bloom, offensive guard Matt Lentz, safety Mike Lorello, linebacker Anthony Trucks, running back Justin Vincent, wide receiver Gerran Walker, and tight end Cody Boyd. \r\n

Bloom, of course, is a kickoff return man and Baker is a big pass-catcher who gained confidence working with the team down the stretch. I don't know that there's going to be room for both players next season, which underscores the need in this draft for a return man. \r\n

Obviously the team needs to shore up both lines, but I would not be surprised to see a return man get the call in one of the first two rounds. Most of those type are cornerbacks, so if Mike Tomlin is worried about stopping the New England Patriots AND returning kicks -- and what AFC coach isn't? -- than cornerback could be the curveball pick in one of the first two rounds.\r\n

... Speaking of which, Ohio State CB/S Malcolm Jenkins has opted to return to school for his senior year. That's a shock. This guy is a classic top 10 player who may have been the brightest light for OSU in the national title game. His departure from the draft will mean one less player will be chosen before the Steelers pick 24th (23rd if Seattle advances to the Super Bowl).\r\n

... A bit of a surprise yesterday was the decision by USC RG Chilo Rachal to leave school early. I watched Rachal closely in three games: against Arizona State I put a second-round grade on him; against Nebraska a 2nd/3rd-round grade; and against Illinois in the Rose Bowl I gave him the same 2nd-3rd grade. He looks like Chukky Okobi with those long arms, but he actually moves people. Rachal is strong and helps fill out a weak position. Maybe that's why he came out after an underappreciated season.\r\n

... Speaking of guards (aren't these transition phrases brilliant?), we can thank God this morning that Ron Cook has come out to once again tell us how to think. It's one thing to have an opinion, but to take your crown and trounce your readers for being so dumb is lame. Cook would have you believe that he actually does some reporting here, and I wonder how his column will tell us to think once the Steelers make their offer. Sure, it's a good guess that Faneca will be gone. Everyone knows that. But the Steelers plan to \"make a run\" at him. Simple as that. Is this column just a bashing of \"internet reports\" or didn't he have anything better on his mind? Personally, I can't wait for the offer. After listening to all the tsk-tsking from guys who never break news and only react to it, I'm hoping Faneca stays just so these know-it-alls can take their crowns and trounce themselves.\r\n

... Speaking of Faneca going to Arizona -- Ha! Did it again -- I've seen reports that Russ Grimm interviewed for the Redskins' head job. I also saw that Baltimore LB coach Jeff FitzGerald was officially fired yesterday. He's the guy, Grimm told the Rooneys, who was going to be hired as the Steelers' DC to replace Dick LeBeau had Grimm gotten the Steelers' head job. So don't YOU be surprised, Ron, when Grimm brings FitzGerald along for the ride. And Faneca, of course.\r\n

... Uh, oh. Richie Snyder has a bit more money than Bill Bidwell.\r\n

... My vote has been tabulated and Pro Football Weekly has released its Pro Football Writers All-NFL teams. The biggest mistakes are Matt Light as All-NFL left tackle and Randy Moss as Comeback Player of the Year. Scouts are probably chuckling at the writers over Light. As for Moss over Ben Roethlisberger, shouldn't a guy who came back from a near-fatal motorcycle wreck be considered over someone who just dogged it in 2006? There aren't any Steelers on any of the teams, other than All-Rookie punter Dan Sepulveda, which leads me to another interesting note: Pitt's Andy Lee (49ers) was voted All-NFL punter. He's the guy the Steelers tried to sign in restricted free agency. Had they gotten their way, the Steelers would've had their quality punter and also been able to use their fourth- and a sixth-round draft picks on backup offensive linemen. On the bright side, I'm a Sepulveda fan and the guy they liked as a late-round line addition, Darnell Stapleton, is the odds-on favorite to start at center for them next year.\r\n

... One more note, the big, BIG news screaming all over the Scout.com email network is that Joe Flacco will not play in the East-West Shrine game because he'll play in the Senior Bowl. I'm supposed to credit Adam Capplan for this outstanding journalistic effort. So glad we pay the big money for that. As for Flacco, he's Vinny Testaverde lite. Has that loser look all over him. Just my opinion. \r\n\r\n

FRIDAY, JANUARY 11\r\n

It was the routine: Get up, get the coffee and answer questions on the SCI message board. It pays and it's fun. But I fear the information is being lost. I fear it must be time for another blog. \r\n

I put my best guy on it and all he could come up with was \"Wexell Report.\" He thinks it works on an ironic level, but I don't know what that means.\r\n

Anyway, this will also cut down on the time element. I have to turn my focus to my book about my roadtrip. I have to go underground for awhile, into the zone. So this might be the best place to drop off whatever info I pick up along the way. This will be fun in a break-from-the-book kind of way.\r\n

As for the book, something Mike Tomlin said yesterday will find its way into a James Harrison chapter. Here's the full quote:\r\n

\"That season speaks for itself. He's a Pro Bowl starter. He's team MVP. He's a great success story. But people that aren't in this business and around it on a day-to-day basis don't have an understanding of how it grows and develops. It's nothing mystical. It doesn't surprise me one bit his performance this year for us. Since the day I got here last winter, I'd run into that guy in this building in the morning more than any football player. He's a self-made guy. He's a professional. He'd love for you to believe that he's wild and it just happens for him. And I understand the persona: It's a work-hard, make-it-look-easy persona. But this guy is a tremendous professional. He has no bounds in terms of preparing himself, and it's good to see the results that happen for people that perform like that. And it better be a source of inspiration for others because those are the kind of efforts we're going to need individually and collectively to be world champs.\"\r\n

The part about seeing Harrison early in the morning struck a note with me. Before giving up weightlifting for simple pushups in my advancing age, I worked out at the St. Vincent gym four times a week. Thing was, I had to be out of there by 7 a.m. \r\n

So I'd be in there at 6 a.m. with PR guys like Dave Lockett, and scouts like Mark Gorscak, and coaches like John Mitchell, and players like James Harrison. Yeah, the players were scheduled for 7 a.m. but James would routinely get there by 6:30-6:45 and he'd be in there lifting with us. One time I saw a sleepy Ben Roethlisberger there his rookie year. I think he was being hazed or something. He told me he wasn't a morning person and that's the last I saw of him.

Not James. Dude was a morning person, and as Tomlin said, it's great to see that work pay off. It gives all of us hope. And that's what James has become, Tomlin's beacon of hope. He's the shining light, the main man of the Tomlin transition, a guy who didn't really like Bill Cowher. \r\n

\"Didn't like him at all,\" said James' mom. \r\n

I asked James about that later, just so that his mom wasn't speaking for him. \r\n

\"I liked Cowher,\" James said in protest. \"I just didn't like some of his decisions.\"\r\n

Like starting Clark Haggans? I presumed, but didn't ask.\r\n

There's an old saying: Champions are made when nobody's looking. I love that saying. I've already taught my daughter that one. I'm not sure she knows what it means, but maybe after I read her that Tomlin quote she will.\r\n\r\n\r\n","mobileBody":"

SUNDAY, JULY 27

* One last bit before we get lost in work around here, and I know I'm two weeks late, but congratulations to Thomas Tull for smashing all the records with his move \"The Dark Knight.\" Tull, of course, is a rabid Steelers fan, and he's been a big help in getting my new book into the hands of a great New York City production team. Funny, the day after his movie smashed all of the opening-night box office records, he called to see if everything was going well with my book. Special guy. Steeler guy. And if you haven't seen it yet, \"The Dark Knight\" is the best flick you'll see in a long time. It's even better when you realize it's a Steeler movie.

THURSDAY, JULY 24

* On Wednesday, the Steelers made one last cut before the start of training camp by releasing 6-foot-6 wide receiver Matt Trannon. This clears the roster for the imminent signings of their top two draft picks, Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed.

Trannon, a former basketball player at Michigan State, had an impressive minicamp, but late in the weekend broke a finger trying to catch a pass and missed most of OTAs. His release leaves the Steelers with 10 wide receivers for camp.

THURSDAY, JULY 17

* According to a source, the Steelers had offered running back Kevin Jones a one-year, minimum-wage contract to join the team. Of course, Jones instead signed with the Chicago Bears yesterday.

The offer -- and this is the real non-news here -- wasn't made because of any kind of concern over Willie Parker's recovery from a broken leg. No, Parker's fine. The offer was made to simply find a bargain. The coaches, according to the source, aren't down on second-year man Gary Russell, but \"he really hasn't proven anything to this point,\" the source said. \"My understanding is the coaches just wanted to provide competition for the fourth (half)back.\" The source also said he expects the fourth back -- probably Russell at this point -- to be inactive all season anyway.

FRIDAY AFTERNOON, JULY 11

* Here's a link to some of my thoughts at the outset of training camp.

FRIDAY, JULY 11

* Here's a pretty good summation of the ownership story from Alan Robinson. I love the quote from Art Rooney Jr.: \"I'm a big shot after being exiled 20 years ago.\" Speaking of the man who built the 70s Steelers, here's something interesting from Mondesi's House. In fact, I'll be calling my friend Art Jr. today about our favorite topic: self-publishing tips, since my book will be out soon. Hopefully he'll be able to add something to the other story that hasn't been mentioned.

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, JULY 9

* Another source has confirmed that the Steelers won't be sold by the end of the week, which should poke at least one hole in the media reports today that are rampant with speculation. Also, the word is that Dan Rooney, while opposing any proposed sale of his brothers' holdings, remains upbeat at the South Side facility and is reassuring staffers that \"things will be all right.\" A source told me it's not just lip service, that the people in the building have faith in the owner.

A couple of points to keep in mind: Rooney needs only eight other NFL owners to agree with him in voting down any proposed sale; and the league has never given the Steelers a time limit on eliminating gambling ties or having one person with a 30 percent share of the team.

WEDNESDAY MORNING, JULY 9

* This week has certainly been a whirlwind with the potential sale of the Steelers. I've gone from believing it to be much ado about nothing to believing there's no way out for the Rooney family other than to give up majority ownership.

All I can add at this point is that an impeccable source has assured me the sale won't occur this week, and that there are other potential buyers involved in talks. My source believes the latter item to be a plus for the Rooneys, as well as all fans of the team.

TUESDAY NIGHT, JULY 8

* David Goldberg, the top NFL writer for the Associated Press, believes a sale to Stanley Druckenmiller could be completed by the end of the week, and would make Druckenmiller majority owner.

TUESDAY, JULY 8

* Steelers owners Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II are involved in talks to buy out Dan's brothers' shares of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers issued a statement yesterday.

* Also, the Steelers signed Bruce Davis to a three-year contract and, according to the Post-Gazette, are close to terms with Dennis Dixon. Fourth-round pick Tony Hills signed last week.

MONDAY, JULY 7

* According to the Post-Gazette, the Steelers have agreed to terms with fifth-round pick Dennis Dixon.

Dixon is the second draft pick to sign with the team in the last week. The Steelers agreed to terms with fourth-round pick Tony Hills last Thursday.

FRIDAY, JULY 4

* Either the Steelers really liked the signing of Tony Hills or it's the Fourth of July. Ha. Here's what's going on down at Heinz Field today:

Stadium gates open at 2 p.m. and admission is free to all activities, which begin at 10 a.m. with the Edible Allegheny \"Waves of Grains\" Farmers Market on Art Rooney Avenue. The Great Lawn will feature live entertainment beginning at 1 p.m. and will culminate at 9:30 p.m. with the Equitable Resources Foundation Laser and Fireworks Spectacular. The ramps at Heinz Field will be open at that time to provide the best view of the fireworks.

Great Lawn Activities:

1:00pm to 7:30pm – Performances throughout the day on the Great Lawn Stage

8:00pm to 9:25pm – \"Pearl Vision of Glory\" with the US Army National Field Band and Chorus.

9:30pm – Equitable Resources Foundation Laser and Fireworks Spectacular

Heinz Field Main Stage Schedule:

2:00pm - Vanessa Campagna

3:00pm - The Chris Higbee Project

5:30pm - The Stickers

7:45pm – Formula One ChampBoat Winner Presentation

8:00pm – Soul Asylum

Regatta & River Activities:

1pm, 3pm, 5pm & 7:30pm – Regatta \"Red, White & Zoom\" Water Activities

2:30pm, 3:30pm, 4pm, 4:30pm – Formula One ChampBoat Race Time Trials

6:00pm– Formula One ChampBoat Race Finals

THURSDAY, JULY 3

* In what's becoming a \"story from the grave,\" former Steelers lineman Steve Courson's 5,000-word letter, written to a former teammate before Courson's death in 2005, has been recovered by The Baltimore Sun.

* Also, Pro Football Weekly has Ben Roethlisberger on its cover this week, with a story written inside by yours truly. Talk about it on our message board.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 2

The Steelers cut their roster to 74 by releasing QB Jared Zabransky. The team also got around to announcing the addition of WR Marvin Allen as part of the NFL International Practice Squad Program. He won't count as part of a roster that must be at 80 or under at all times during the off-season. (Unsigned draft picks don't count, either, and the Steelers still have seven.)

Zabransky, who signed with the Steelers on Feb. 6, spent part of the 2007 season on the Houston Texans' practice squad. He originally signed with Houston in 2007 as an undrafted rookie out of Boise State.

Allen (5-10, 180), 25, of London, England, spent the 2006 season on the Steelers' practice squad as the team's NFL Europe International Practice Squad player. He spent the 2007 season on the Miami Dolphins' practice squad as part of the same program. Allen played three seasons (2005-07) in NFL Europe with the Frankfurt Galaxy, Amsterdam Admirals and Rhein Fire, respectively.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 30

* The Steelers signed undrafted rookie free agent defensive lineman Kyle Clement.

Clement (6-3 5/8, 297, 5.11) played collegiately at NCAA Division-II Northwood University, where he was a two-time first-team All-GLIAC selection in 2005 and 2007, along with a second-team selection in 2006. He started 33-of-45 career games, finishing his career with 143 tackles (99 solo), 50.5 tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks.

* Rashard Mendenhall will meet the Pittsburgh media Thursday at 4 p.m.

MONDAY, APRIL 28

Here's the full list of the Steelers' rookie free agents:

1. Patrick Bailey LB 6-4 235 Duke

2. Dorien Bryant WR 5-9 175 Purdue

3. Doug Legursky C 6-1 323 Marshall

4. Roy Lewis CB 5-10 190 Washington

5. Mike Potts QB 6-4 220 William & Mary

6. Martavius Prince DL 6-2 282 Southern Miss

7. Julian Rauch K 5-11 207 Appalachian State

8. Jordan Reffett DL 6-4 292 Washington

9. Micah Rucker WR 6-6 221 Eastern Illinois

10. Dezmond Sherrod TE 6-2 250 Mississippi State

11. Travis Williams CB 5-9 180 East Carolina

12. Donovan Woods LB 6-2 230 Oklahoma State

Here are links to some of the players:

* Oklahoma State linebacker Donovan Woods.

* The Steelers signed an Appalachian State kicker, but not their punter, Neil Young. Drat! No, it's Julian Rauch.

* Purdue WR Dorien Bryant has been \"Musbergerged\" in my mind, but the Steelers did sign him to a free-agent contract. (P.S. When a player has been \"Musbergered\", he's been overrated so badly by a jacked-up know-nothing TV announcer that you actually dislike the player without knowing him.)

* Micah Rucker, and an interesting story on him.

* The first known free agent might be their best because the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, West Virginia, reports that the Steelers signed Marshall center Doug Legursky to a three-year contract. I'll try to verify that as soon as possible.

Also, here's an interesting bit on sixth-round pick Mike Humpal.

THURSDAY, APRIL 24

* According to Scout.com's Roy Philpott, publisher of both the Dallas Cowboys and Clemson Tigers sites, the Steelers attended the workout today of Phillip Merling, the Clemson defensive end. Merling reportedly measured 6-5, 290 pounds, up in both numbers from the official combine measurements of 6-4 1/4, 276 pounds.

Merling didn't run the 40 because he's still recovering from a sports-hernia operation, but performed agility drills that satisfied his trainer, according to Philpott. The trainer said Merling has been working out for only two weeks.

The Washington Redskins had a heavy presence at the workout, and the Cowboys were there as well. The Cowboys are also looking for a 3-4 defensive end.

As you'll see, this report conflicts with my previous commentary on the Steelers and Merling:

* Since the five best Steelers D-linemen will be 30 years old this season, and since the Steelers allowed 3.4 yards per carry with Aaron Smith and 4.8 yards per carry without him, the team MUST address the unit in this draft.

The problem? The crop of 3-4 ends is weak on top and thin throughout. Today is example one: Phillip Merling will finally workout and I'm not sure the Steelers will even be there. For one, he's too small to help right now. A first-rounder must be able to help that unit, even if it's in the dime, but Merling only weighs 276 pounds and won't be of any use inside in the dime right now.

A couple of other reasons to pass on Merling: According to a source, he tested positive while at Clemson and also interviewed poorly at the combine. For example, Merling was asked to name his favorite part of football. \"I don't have one,\" he said.

Merling can run, yes. Kentwan Balmer can't. Calais Campbell? In the immortal words of Chuck Noll, \"He's being blocked.\" All of this mediocrity just may make a first-rounder out of Dre Moore yet.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 23

The Steelers want to take quarterback Anthony Morelli with their last draft pick? Oh, boy. Here's a better option: Take a local kid to quarterback the defense instead. His name is Ryan Mundy.

The Woodland Hills kid went off to Michigan amid much local hoopla a few years ago, but transferred to West Virginia where he played free safety last season.

Veteran scout Tom Marino tells me he's a great sleeper pick, that he was the brains back there, that he devoured and understood the WVU defense in only one year.

He's 6-1, 208 and even though he's not a head-hunter Mundy handles the run and the pass like a pro. Marino believes Mundy would eventually give the Steelers what Darren Perry gave them in the 1990s – stability at free safety.

MONDAY, APRIL 21

Last week I called picks 20 through 30 \"a wasteland\" because that particular draft zone is lost between the blue chippers and a rich vein of second-rounders.

Trading down is the obvious play, but if the Steelers can't find a trading partner they might want to consider drafting someone to eventually replace James Farrior.

Not that the Steelers' buck linebacker is slowing down, but he is 33 and entering the final year of his contract.

If Farrior retires after the upcoming season, the Steelers would be stuck without a play-caller at what might be the most difficult position for a new player to learn. Right now, the Steelers have, on paper, four inside backers. But wouldn't Curtis Lofton or Jerod Mayo mark time better than Keyaron Fox?

FRIDAY, APRIL 18

It's supposed to be a weak crop of safeties, but Kenny Phillips gives hope to teams looking for a legitimate first-rounder at the position.

The Steelers hosted Phillips last week. In fact, last month they hosted several free-agent safeties because of Ryan Clark's weakened condition and the poor late-season play of Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter. Also, the rumor about Deshea Townsend moving to free safety just won't go away.

Could Phillips become the answer at free safety? Well, the Miami Hurricane is taller, faster and 18 pounds heavier than Smith, and he's only 21 years old. Phillips may not be a ballhawk in the Ed Reed mode, but he's fast enough to cover wide receivers and big enough to stuff the run.

Of course, a first-round investment in Phillips would mean the end for Smith, a first-day pick only two years ago, so the Steelers had better be sure about this

THURSDAY, APRIL 17

* As a matter of procedure, wide receiver Nate Washington signed his one-year tender with the Steelers as a restricted free agent. Unless Washington agrees to a long-term contract by the start of the season, he'll be paid just over $1.4 million this year.

* In today's draft look, we examine a player similar to Washington in DeSean Jackson. The explosive Cal receiver and return man only weighs 169 pounds, and there's not much chance he'll add any more weight. Jackson entered Cal at 167 pounds and through four years of eating and lifting gained only two pounds. Jackson hasn't changed much physically, or mentally. As an incoming freshman, Jackson played in a summer high-school all-star game. On his way to the end zone, Jackson thought it best to somersault over the goal line, but he fumbled out the back of the end zone and set the opponent up at the 20. Jackson found a seat on the bench, but not before showing us he's just another wide receiver with an ego that's bigger than the man himself.

TUESDAY, APRIL 15

Last week, before Jonathan Stewart visited the Steelers, I taped a draft show for FSN Pittsburgh and predicted Stewart would be the Steelers' first-round pick. In retrospect, that was simply wishful thinking.

The perception that Stewart was falling due to a foot injury has been put to rest by several teams drafting in the teens. They couldn't tamp their enthusiasm and now the world knows Stewart won't make it to pick 23.

I'm going to dissect a few more first-round possibilities this week, but right now, picking in what's becoming recognized as a wasteland, from picks 20 to 30, the Steelers may get stuck drafting Gosder Cherilus, an enigmatic right tackle from what Kevin Colbert calls the best crop of tackles he's seen in 24 years.

MONDAY, APRIL 14

Gosder Cherilus is an enigma. The 6-6½, 314-pound offensive tackle from Boston College looked like a future pro the first three years of his career. That's when he was a promising right tackle. But last year he moved to left tackle and played poorly. He has the frame to become the next Jonathan Odgen, but doesn't show the ability.

What worries me is that playing left tackle might mean more to the Steelers than playing it well. That fact alone blew up their grades on Max Starks, Trai Essex, Bo Lacy and Kendall Simmons. My guess right now is that it's turning Cherilus from a second-rounder into a first and that he's the leading candidate now for pick 23.

At least Cherilus can play right tackle. He moved back to his old position in the Senior Bowl and looked like Starks with better feet. But is that what the Steelers need in the first round? Another right tackle? Well if it means moving Willie Colon inside, perhaps they do.

FRIDAY, APRIL 11

I promised last month to get back to defensive end Quentin Groves. That's when Rooney One flew the Steelers' decision-makers to Auburn for his pro day. Well, Groves returned the visit this week.

Groves had only three sacks last season, but played half the year with three dislocated toes. He's built like Joey Porter, and since the Steelers are paper thin at outside linebacker the match appears perfect.

But I smell something fishy. Mike Tomlin learned last year his appearance at pro days makes news, and this year he was shouting at Groves from the sideline. That made news.

I know the Steelers don't like Groves' ability to cover. They think he has stiff hips. So this recent interest smacks of a smokescreen to me.

THURSDAY, APRIL 10

Hey, why not give Ben Roethlisberger what he's looking for? If the Steelers intend to continue their duck-and-chuck offensive approach, why not give Ben the big man downfield to make his escape-and-heave style all the more effective?

The next Plax is said to be 6-5½ James Hardy, who played for Ben's old coach, the late Terry Hoeppner, at Indiana. It sounds about right, particularly since Hardy rates as a third-rounder on most boards. But Hardy has a big problem: He was once charged with domestic battery and there's a good chance he's off the Steelers' board entirely. It's not a good year to come to the Steelers with that on your resume.

A better, albeit more pricey, option would be Limas Sweed.

Because of a year-long wrist problem, scouts don't know what to make of the 6-4 Texas wideout, but they know the kid can run, has excellent tracking skills, and is one of the hardest workers in the draft. Imagine this scenario: The Steelers surprise Ben by agreeing to his wishes. He knows the draft pick is raw, so he works with him constantly in order to thank the team for believing in him. The rookie, meanwhile, known for his work ethic, begins to thrive with Roethlisberger's attention.

With those dynamics at play, it's not hard to believe that these two could form a deep-ball combo to scare the rest of the league. So if Branden Albert's not there, Sweed's another player who makes sense in the first round.

MONDAY, APRIL 7

The Steelers brought in a small defensive end last year named Antwan Barnes, who had the size of a 3-4 outside backer but not the hips. He was just a speedball pass-rusher and the Ravens took him in the fourth round.

The Steelers recently brought in another player like him named Marcus Howard. The Georgia defensive end destroyed Colt Brennan in the Sugar Bowl and was named the game's MVP. The 6-0½, 237-pounder had 42 QB pressures as a D-end last year but looked stiff at linebacker in the Hula Bowl.

Howard ran the fastest 40 time of any front-7 defender at the combine and is worth a look as a situational pass-rusher. And, hey, who needs a linebacker with good hips in coverage if the quarterback is on his back?

SUNDAY, APRIL 6

While we're correcting other people's mistakes here, let me reiterate that the Steelers have absolutely zero interest in Booger McFarland, although they do wish he and his agent well in their attempt to use the media to find another job. Thank you.

FRIDAY, APRIL 4

* Eric Foster has been the fiery captain of the Rutgers defense the last two seasons. He played defensive tackle at a small 6-1½, 273 pounds, yet the Steelers are looking at him as a defensive end.

Ever since drafting the 6-5 Aaron Smith in 1999, the Steelers have been looking for length in their 3-4 ends. Brett Keisel's an example. So is Ryan McBean. That makes Foster an exception.

After recording 29 tackles for loss and 13 sacks the last two years as a D-tackle, Foster moved outside in the Texas-vs-the Nation all-star game and impressed scouts with his first-step explosiveness.

He didn't have to prove his hustle and work ethic. That's what's jumps off the tape from his last four years at Rutgers.

* Just for fans who read today's Tribune-Review, the Steelers never \"announce\" any of their visitors. Reporters must either catch the PR department in a good mood or simply walk up and introduce themselves to the touring prospect. We reported on Cliff Avril's pending visit last March 12. The Purdue defensive end projects to a 3-4 OLB in The League. He's considered a late second round prospect at best.

THURSDAY, APRIL 3

In the terrific new book \"Ruanaidh\", author Art Rooney Jr. tells the story of how his computer sputtered over the prospects of Wisconsin center Mike Webster.

The personnel chief of the '70s Steelers, Rooney explains that the 6-2, 225-pound Webster, with his 5.25 speed, wasn't considered a prospect, but that tape showed otherwise. It showed Webster's great strength and \"unbelievable leverage.\" So Rooney labeled Webster an \"exception, just like bumblebees are an exception,\" he wrote, adding, \"but you can go broke taking chances on exceptions.\"

The Steelers took their chance and drafted a Hall of Fame center in the fifth round in 1974.

Tomorrow I'll report on a player I believe to be an \"exception\" in the computer-driven world of scouting.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 2

The mighty USC Trojans are hosting their Pro Day today and guys like Chilo Rachal and Sam Baker should interest the Steelers. They're offensive lineman – one's a huge guard and the latter's a pro-ready left tackle. But the Steelers will be watching another Trojan very closely because there's a chance Keith Rivers could fall to them in the first round.

Rivers was an outstanding junior linebacker who didn't perform up to expectations as a senior. He wears the fabled No. 55 at USC but struggled with an ankle injury and then couldn't run at the combine. On tape it's obvious the 6-2, 241-pounder can run, but he just doesn't make many plays. It's one of the reasons I expect him to slip in the first round and create a decision for the Steelers.

TUESDAY, APRIL 1

The Steelers didn't receive a compensation pick in this year's draft, but thanks to the Arizona Cardinals they could receive a third-rounder next year.

The formula for awarding compensation picks is determined mainly by net contract dollars, but the huge contract signed by Alan Faneca wasn't enough … until Friday.

To receive a third-round compensation pick, the Steelers would also have to show a net loss in the number of free-agent contracts signed. Knowing that minimum-wage contracts and street free-agent contracts don't count, the Steelers were at one free agent signed and one lost, and they needed to lose another free agent to qualify for the third-rounder. That's why the loss of Clark Haggans bolstered their chances. The Cardinals gave him a $1.5 million contract and that should be taken as good news for the Steelers.

MONDAY, MARCH 31

Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson had a terrible pro day and this must've been great news for the Steelers. They were there, and probably loved every ugly pass he threw. Same with Bernard Morris at Marshall. The Steelers were there and watched that inaccurate QB because of his upside.

Wasn't Tee Martin over Tom Brady and Marc Bulger enough? That choice symbolizes the Steelers' inability to gauge late-round quarterbacks, and it hasn't changed since.

The next time the Steelers look at a late-round guy who lacks accuracy, but not upside, ask them if he can cover kicks because that's what they need in the late rounds.

The Steelers were lucky that Ben Roethlisberger fell into their laps. So take that and be happy. And ask someone else to draft the next young project.

FRIDAY, MARCH 28

Anyone count the number of free-agent safeties the Steelers looked at this month? Neither did Ryan Clark. He's working out daily on the South Side and after losing his spleen and gall bladder recently, he believes he'll be back next year. The Steelers obviously aren't so sure, and obviously don't view Anthony Smith as the answer.

What about the draft? Well, the safety position is so thin that it might be best to look at cornerbacks for a conversion. Cal's Thomas DeCoud made the move last year and played well at free safety. The Steelers have scheduled a visit with Iowa corner Charles Godfrey in the hope that he can make the conversion. Another potential project is Alabama corner Simeon Castille. He's a guy to watch in the fourth or fifth round.

THURSDAY, MARCH 27

The Steelers lack talent on their offensive line, but not bodies. The perpetually mediocre Justin Hartwig is their latest.

My fear is the Steelers are fooling themselves into thinking they're okay on the line. My hope is they at least grab a mid-rounder. Yesterday, they looked at a couple of good ones at Rutgers.

Jeremy Zuttah is one. He played right tackle, and showed such great move skills at the combine that he projects to guard and maybe even center. He ran a sub 4.99 40 and had 35 bench reps at the combine.

Teammate Pedro Sosa isn't quite the athlete, but played the valuable left tackle spot at Rutgers. Either of these two would help a rebuilding job that could last years if the Steelers continue to delude themselves.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 26

* The Steelers have NOT signed defensive lineman Anthony \"Booger\" McFarland, as had been reported elsewhere. The Steelers have no plans to sign McFarland after he barely passed their physical. The Steelers were looking at the former Colt and Buccanneer as a backup defensive end for their 3-4 front.

* Jacob Hester wasn't THE star of LSU's national championship season, but he was so popular he sometimes needed a police escort to get around campus. Hester was the tailback and when the team wanted more speed he moved to fullback, but his attitude never diminished.

\"I'll play water boy if you need me to,\" he said.

Hester has black and gold bloodlines. His grandmother married Terry Bradshaw's uncle and Hester grew up a Steelers fan in Shreveport. I, for one, would love to see the Steelers reciprocate that interest on draft day.

The next Ed Podolak, Hester hopes to improve his fourth-round grade at today's Pro Day, where he'll run, block, catch and tackle.

Don't the Steelers need a new special teams captain? Well, Hester's that guy.

TUESDAY, MARCH 25

Pitt held its Pro Day yesterday and the feature attraction was left tackle Jeff Otah. But the better draft value, in my opinion, belongs with Pitt's other tackle, Mike McGlynn.

The 6-4, 311-pounder from Youngstown was a four-year starter at right tackle, and he also played a few games at guard. McGlynn then played guard at the Senior Bowl and that's where scouts project him as a pro. But McGlynn can also play center and was Pitt's long snapper for placement kicks.

He may not have Otah's body, but he's more versatile, has more experience, strength, and, frankly, after watching Otah workout at the combine, McGlynn just might be the better athlete. And in the fourth round, it all adds up to better bang for your buck.

MONDAY, MARCH 24

The Steelers want a young prospect to groom for their defensive line, but the value in the first round doesn't jibe with their position. That's why they're bringing Kendall Langford in for a visit this week.

Langford is a 6-5½, 287-pounder who played defensive end in Hampton's 3-4 defense. A second-round prospect should dominate the MEAC and that's what Langford's done in being named first team three times.

According to NFLDraftScout.com, opponents ran at Langford 124 times the last two seasons and lost a total of 22 yards.

The big guy has the brute strength of a James Harrison and enough speed to develop into a pass-rusher.

Some may call him a sleeper, but not the Steelers, who've shown interest all season.

FRIDAY, MARCH 21

While we're doing that Michigan State thing, let's throw out one of my favorite late-round sleepers. His name's Jehuu Caulcrick and he's a Jerome Bettis-sized tailback.

Caulcrick is 6-foot, 254 pounds and runs a 4.6 40. He scored 21 touchdowns last season to lead the Big 10 in scoring. He's a short-yardage specialist who lacks the blocking skills to play fullback and isn't much of a receiver. But Caulcrick had enough footspeed and instincts to get out of Liberia, where civil war had reached his backyard.

His father Jerome, who worked for the government, wasn't so lucky. When Caulcrick reached America, he read of his father's assassination in the paper, but it hasn't deterred him.

\"Coming from a war-torn country,\" Caulcrick said, \"I see this as a land of opportunity.\"

THURSDAY, MARCH 20

* Dan Rooney's statement on the release of Cedrick Wilson: \"To clarify the comments made earlier regarding the conduct of our players, in no way do we condone domestic violence of any kind. Each incident must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

\"In the situation with James Harrison, he contacted us immediately after his incident and has taken responsibility for his actions.

\"In today's decision with Cedrick Wilson, we determined the situation was severe enough to warrant the player being released immediately.

\"We trust that today's roster move will indicate our intentions and send a message that we will not tolerate this type of conduct.\"

* Lance Zierlein might be the best draft analyst you've never heard of. The son of the Steelers' O-line coach and a former college lineman, Zierlein ran his mock draft last week and was stumped when it came to the Steelers. With the top O-linemen, backs and D-linemen gone, Zierlein scratched Gosder Cherilus and went with wide receiver Devin Thomas.

Thomas, from Michigan State, is 6-2, 216 and ran a pair of 4.3 40s at the combine. He went from 6 catches his sophomore season to 79 last season and chose to come out as a 21-year-old. He's big, physical, fast and an excellent kick returner, a duty he'd assume as Hines Ward's protégé at flanker.

If Branden Albert's gone, Devin Thomas makes sense to me.

* The Steelers agreed to play a preseason game in Toronto against the Buffalo Bills, according to the Post-Gazette.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19

Air Rooney made a stop last week in Auburn for appearances, but expect a touchdown in Austin, Texas, today for a legitimate reason. Limas Sweed will be working out today and that's a sports event unto itself.

Sweed's one of two legitimate first-round receiving prospects this spring but he missed most of last season with an injury and then got hurt again at the Senior Bowl. He ran a 4.5 40 at the combine and measured in at a fraction under 6-4, 215 pounds. He's a big long-strider who's more of a deep threat than a possession receiver.

Sweed underwent surgery in October on a wrist injury that wreaked havoc with his hands last season at Texas. Today will be the day to see if the big man is truly a first-round prospect.

TUESDAY, MARCH 18

* According to Adam Schefter of the NFL Network, the Steelers agreed to contract terms with former Carolina center Justin Hartwig. The deal is reportedly for two years, worth $4 million, and includes a $975,000 bonus.

* OT Trai Essex and OG Chris Kemoeatu, restricted free agents, signed their one-year tenders.

* The Steelers are in State College today looking at the best draft prospect Penn State has to offer.

I'm not talking about Dan Connor. I'm talking about the fastest defensive player in the draft – cornerback Justin King.

A clip of Rashard Mendenhall is spinning around the 'net these days. The big Illinois back is breaking a long run, and the point is this top 10 prospect can score from anywhere – anywhere Justin King's not playing. King ruined the clip by coming from off the screen to run Mendenhall down.

In spite of an uneven season, the kid from Gateway ran a 4.31 at the combine and is moving up the charts. The Steelers will see today if he's moved all the way up to pick 23.

* The Steelers hosted two defensive linemen yesterday: Dre Moore of Maryland and Keilen Dykes of West Virginia. Moore played tackle and is considered a second-round pick. Dykes played nose tackle and is a free agent candidate.

MONDAY, MARCH 17

At the combine, half of the defensive ends ran faster 40 times than free safety Jamie Silva, who was clocked four times in the 4.8s.

But Silva is my kind of football player. He made 115 tackles for Boston College last season and in the Shrine Game he just glistened on special teams. As for his pass-coverage skills, one statistician calculated that Silva allowed his receiver an average of 2.3 yards per catch, lowest among all DBs in the nation.

The Steelers are looking at Silva as a late-round pick. They asked him about his long brown hair.

\"Do you really have a problem with safeties with long hair?\" Silva responded.

\"No, not at all,\" said the Steelers.

\"I didn't think so,\" said Silva.

Kid has some pretty good instincts, too.

FRIDAY, MARCH 14

Duquesne will host its pro day today, and this one will draw the Dukes' biggest crowd of scouts since Leigh Bodden came out in 2003.

The draw this year is wide receiver Bruce Hocker. The 6-3, 206-pounder with 4.5 speed is Duquesne's career receptions leader with 162. He averaged 16 yards per catch and scored 33 touchdowns before scoring again in the Hula Bowl. Hocker showed on that play why scouts like his big body, which Hocker uses to shield smaller defenders.

Hocker and Bodden are the only Duquesne players ever to be named Division I-AA All-America by both the AP and the Coaches Association. In fact, scouts compare Hocker to Bodden in that Bodden was too raw to draft but too talented not to make a priority free agent.

THURSDAY, MARCH 13

To most mock-masters out there, Pitt's Jeff Otah appears to be a natural fit for the Steelers at pick 23, but the massive left tackle furrows my brow.

I watch the big tackle lock up Chris Long and George Selvie and I agree with the in-crowd. Then I watch him ignore blitzers like a raw junior college transfer and I want no parts of him other than as a two or three-year project.

I see Otah having more bust potential than just about any first-round prospect, and I don't see the Steelers drafting the guy and expecting him to help right away.

At best, he's a right tackle and this draft is rife with them. At worst, Jeff Otah is Mathias Nkwenti – a coach killer who in this case could also take down the general manager as well.

* If you've followed my message board thoughts on the draft, you may know most of this, but here are a few more thoughts.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12

The Steelers added depth to their linebacker and special teams corps today by signing free agent linebacker Keyaron Fox to a one-year contract.

Fox (6-3, 235) was originally drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the third round (93rd overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft out of Georgia Tech. He spent all four of his years in Kansas City, playing primarily on special teams and as a backup linebacker. In 2007, he posted 21 tackles, including a season-best 10 against the New York Jets in Week 17.

Fox enjoyed his best season in Kansas City in 2006 when he collected 52 tackles while playing in all 16 games, making four starts in place of the injured Derrick Johnson.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12

The Steelers drafted two linebackers last year, but that apparently didn't sate their appetite. The team will bring outside linebacker Cliff Avril in for a visit soon and the Air Rooney gang flew down to Auburn on Monday to watch outside linebacker Quentin Groves work out.

More on the intriguing Groves later, but Avril is another in a long line of Purdue defensive ends who projects to outside linebacker in the NFL. He's 6-3, 253 pounds and ran the 40 in 4.5 seconds at the combine.

So, why another outside linebacker? Well, Lawrence Timmons showed last season that he couldn't hold the point and was moved inside. If Clark Haggans moves on in free agency, the Steelers will be left with only two outside backers. A young pass rusher would provide depth next season while learning the scheme, and then possibly force James Harrison inside to replace James Farrior in 2009.

TUESDAY, MARCH 11

Rex Hadnot had not signed with the Steelers as of Monday morning, and we all wanted to keep it that way.

That was the rumor over the weekend, that Hadnot had indeed returned to Pittsburgh for more talks. But like the snowstorm, Hadnot was dumped on Cleveland instead, sparing Pittsburgh another awful offensive linemen. Sorry, but that seems to be their M.O. of late.

Now, I'm a big Kevin Colbert fan, but since he drafted Marvel Smith in 2000 and signed Jeff Hartings in 2001, Colbert has gone cold with O-linemen.

Rex Hadnot would not or could not help, and worse he'd give the Steelers a false confidence about their line going into the draft, just as the signing of Sean Mahan did last year.

That type of thinking in the free agency/draft overlap has become unacceptable. This offensive line is bad and getting worse. The only cure is to draft blue chippers, not take in castoffs from 1-15 football teams.

MONDAY, MARCH 10

When asked why he ran that quarterback sweep on the final third down of the season, Mike Tomlin said, \"We anticipated ... all-out pressure, particularly from the interior.\"

That tells me he knows the Steelers need a young center. If it's Darnell Stapleton, great. If he's competing with Mike Pollak, better.

The Steelers are interested enough in Pollak to pencil him in for an upcoming visit. The coach at Arizona State, Dennis Erickson, called Pollak the best offensive lineman he's ever coached. Pollak is 5/8-inch taller and six pounds heavier than Jeff Hartings, and Pollak ran like him at the combine.

He also played guard at ASU, but is the top center in this draft. He's a mid to high second-rounder, meaning the Steelers would need to trade down to get him. Kevin Colbert is on record as saying it's the year to trade down. Pollak, I feel, would be the target.

FRIDAY, MARCH 7

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the cousin of the NFL's best young cornerback and the darling of mentor Deion Sanders. DRC ran a 4.33 40 and showed dazzling footwork at the combine, and at the Senior Bowl threw his skinny 6-1, 183-pound into ballcarriers.

He's from Tennessee State and scouts love his humility. DRC also returns kicks and figures to be available late in the first round because of his lack of polish.

He's a project worth having, but I don't see the Steelers taking the first-round plunge on any cornerback this year.

THURSDAY, MARCH 6

Scouts used to wonder about North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer's inconsistent motor and question his work ethic. That changed last year thanks to new coach Butch Davis.

Davis told Balmer a few things he needed to hear, about what it'll take to get to the NFL, and Balmer responded as the Tar Heels' defensive captain.

At 6-4½, 308 pounds, Balmer has long arms and the frame to add another 20 pounds without losing quickness. The former defensive end-turned tackle projects as the model 3-4 end in the pros, and the Steelers need one. In fact, they were hoping to take a shot at Corey Williams in free agency.

Because of the questions about Balmer's motor, the Tar Heel should be there for the Steelers on draft day. By then they should have their answers.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 5

Kevin Colbert calls this the best crop of offensive tackles he's seen in 24 years.

Great. Take two.

In fact, the Steelers' offensive line as a whole could use the same infusion of talent the defensive backfield received in 1987.

In 1986, the Steelers' starting DBs were John Swain, Harvey Clayton, Eric Williams and Donnie Shell.

Swain, Clayton and Williams failed to make the following year's team after the Steelers drafted Rod Woodson, Delton Hall and Thomas Everett in the first four rounds of the 1987 draft.

Hall was the team's Rookie of the Year, Everett became a five-year starter, and Woodson will soon become a Hall of Famer.

So, spare us the stats and the depth chart when it comes to this offensive line because it's bad and getting worse. The time to draft real lineMEN is now.

TUESDAY, MARCH 4

I see the University of Virginia becoming the Steelers' next Triple-A affiliate. For the last few years, the Steelers have enjoyed the character and skills of James Farrior and Heath Miller, and they're looking at another Cavalier: offensive guard Branden Albert.

Albert was a junior captain last season. At 6-6, 309 pounds, he's massive, strong, mobile and has experience at left tackle.

In fact, Albert went to Virginia as a left tackle, but moved to guard because of D'Brickashaw Ferguson and stayed there. Albert did fill in at left tackle for two games, one against Pitt last year.

Albert has become the automatic name for the Steelers on nearly every updated mock draft these days. He's the top guard in the draft and probably the No. 4 tackle, and the Steelers need help at both positions spots.

MONDAY, MARCH 2

Well, that was a little quicker than I'd expected. The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger agreed on a $102 million contract that didn't force the Steelers to make any salary-cap maneuvers whatsoever.

\"It was almost a wash,\" said a team source. Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner, confirmed it by saying the Steelers will lose little cap space with the mega-deal.

I asked the source if media reports were true, that the team was considering pulling the transition tag from Max Starks.

\"It's allowable,\" the source said. \"But we won't do it. It's bad business.\"

At the time of my departure from the South Side, the Steelers were hoping to sign free-agent running back Mewelde Moore to a contract. I like Moore as an all-around third-down back, and the Steelers liked him coming out of Tulane, but another source -- who goes by the name Answer Man in these parts -- wasn't too pleased.

\"This shuts the door on drafting a running back,\" he said. \"So much for the best available athlete.\"

Defensive back Ray Horton walked by and I chided him about his big day tomorrow hosting free-agent safety Eugene Wilson.

\"This was the big day,\" Horton said as he pointed to the podium where Roethlisberger had just stood. \"Signing that guy was worth five free agents.\"

Safety man Ryan Clark, as usual, was at the facility working out. He said he feels fine physically and expects to play next year. He said his biggest problem now is cholesterol because he's had his gall bladder removed. He'd previously had his spleen removed because of a problem sparked by playing in high altitude. I asked Ryan if he'll ever be able to go back to Denver. \"The doctors say I should be fine physically,\" Clark said. \"Now, mentally, there might be a problem going back there.\"

Clark laughed about it, but he wasn't laughing about the team scheduling a visit with Wilson for Tuesday. \"I gotta go,\" he said. \"I'm going over here [front office] to see if I should keep working out or whether I should start looking for a coaching job at LSU.\"

He was joking. I think.

To read quotes from Kevin Colbert, click here.

To read quotes from Mewelde Moore and Mike Tomlin, click here.

MONDAY, MARCH 2

Since attribution is the only way to express true love in journalism, my props go to SCI's Ian Whetstone for explaining this sudden race the Steelers seem to be having in the Ben Roethlisberger renegotiations: Roethlisberger is due a $2.95M roster bonus on March 5. So look for the Steelers to wrap things up with their quarterback by Thursday.

My guess is Roethlisberger will come out of this averaging $10 million a year, but six years for $60 million sounds a little light, doesn't it? Yet it fits the pay scale. And you know what? Alan Faneca would have, too. He signed for $8 million a year with the Jets. Since the current highest-paid Steelers are Troy Polamalu at $6.6M per year and Hines Ward at $6.5M per year (contract averages), it would've been easy for the Steelers to offer Faneca a five-year, $35 million contract prior to last season. Then again, it's easy for me to spend someone else's money.

Speaking of which, Eugene Wilson is sheduled to visit with the Steelers on Tuesday. He's visiting Tampa Bay today and also has plans to visit the Tennessee Titans.

I remember Wilson as a highly coveted cornerback out of Illinois in 2003. The Patriots moved him to free safety right away and he started 49 out of the first 51 games of his career. But he started only four games in 2006 because of injuries and then lost his job last season to James Sanders, and then the Pats let him go.

The question I put to Patriots/Scout publisher Jon Scott was this: How did Eugene Wilson, soon to be 28 years old, fall so far so fast?

\"To be honest, I'm a bit confused why they don't want Wilson,\" replied Scott, who reports that Wilson started the first five games last year before losing his job.

\"He's not comeing back to New England, and was disappointed in the way things turned out,\" Scott said. \"Wilson has shown flashes of solid play. He's not too physical against the run and he's not quite fast enough to cover wide receivers, but he can cover tight ends down the seam and has good ball skills. Unfortunately for him, he's been hurt far too often.

\"The Patriots have gone through so many safeties over the past three years, you'd be surprised. It's nuts.\"

Here's to Bill Belichick being nuts.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 28

I always freeze at the daunting prospect of writing about a great man's life when he passes. I think that was the indirect reason I quit my job as a suburban sports editor a long time ago. Because, really, how can I, small guy with a typewriter, pay due respect to big guy in heaven?

That was the question I was tossing around yesterday after the passing of Myron Cope. And then my wife gave me the proper angle. In schooling our eight-year-old about Cope, my wife said, \"And the best thing about him was he never looked down his nose at anyone.\"

My wife was a big fan because Myron was one of those old-school gentlemen who'd pay the proper amount of respect to the ladies in his presence before the guys would begin hammering him for inside info. What my wife also knew is that Myron not only tolerated us little people, he cared about making us into big people.

One time in Cincinnati -- and my friend and colleague Dale Lolley was an unfortunate witness -- I did a foolish thing. Yeah, I know, it's the only foolish thing I ever did. Right. But about 1:30 a.m. as I was watching a band -- one of six in the gigantic building since demolished -- I got the bright idea to hop on stage and take a dive. Instead of catching me, though, this alleged mosh pit opened wide and allowed me to hit the deck. Just as I was picking myself up off the floor, four or five bouncers grabbed me and carried me to the side door and threw me out into the street. Dale and another friend came out laughing and we staggered home.

Cope got wind of the story the next day in the press box. He loved it. He told me he was going to tell the story the next day on Pittsburgh radio. \"But I won't use your name Jim.\" And I said, \"You can. I don't care.\" And he said, \"Don't you want to be publisher of that paper of yours someday?\" See. Always thinking.

But Myron also thought a lot of my skills. He'd write me often to tell me what a good job I'd done on this or that. He'd give little tips. The last one I remember is he wrote asking why, in my Steelers Digest notes column I'm not having more fun with the name Davenport. Whilst I'd been working more on poop jokes, Cope offered up something along the lines of Davenport the Couch, when once they had Jerome the Bus, or something like that. I never did get to work the couch angle into a column, but the point is Myron cared about young writers and I think that's one of the greatest assets an older writer can have. Many in this town have that kind of class -- Collier, Smizik, Bouchette to name a few -- but Myron cared a bit more. He went out of his way.

Like with radio. Way back when I started covering the team, I enjoyed just hanging back and listening to Cope do his work live. I'd tell him stories during the break and he'd either re-tell them on the air and give me credit, or ask me to come on. I remember my first time, in the camp lounge at St. Vincent. I'd seen some fight on the field and Cope had me on to tell of it. What a hatchet job. I nervously recounted the tale and Myron thanked me. But it helped, because you'll have those early nervous moments and I was glad to get one out of the way with minimal damage.

The last time I was on the air with Cope was his last paid performance for the Steelers Radio Network. We were awful that day. Myron kept pushing this tight end from Arkansas State and I kept saying I'd never heard of him. This, I think, upset Myron and we ended up churning out a lousy performance. Myron approached me the next day and apologized, said he made the tight end's name up hoping that I -- being a know-it-all -- would say, 'Yeah, I know him. He's okay,' or something along those lines and that he would leap and catch me lying. He was sorry for this game plan and told me so. And then he said this, \"Wex, just a little advice for you when you're on the radio: STOP TALKING SO DAMN MUCH.\" I had to laugh. Great apology Myron. And I'm going to miss those wholly unsuspecting moments. You never came off as some type of \"Great Man\" to me, Myron, and you never tried. You seemed to only care about my progress. Thank you.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22

Alan Faneca didn't return my call, but the Answer Man did. He told me he didn't have time for a full-blown, sit-down, tape-recorded interview because \"ever since they signed Travis Kirschke I've been out with the merchandise people picking out stuff for Super Bowl 43.\"

Good one. But the yuks turned to nuggets of gold that he ticked off quickly so that I would go away. Briefly, the Answer Man thinks that ...

... the front office just shoved Max Starks down Bruce Arians's throat as the Steelers close in on a long-term deal for a guy Arians had benched. \"If they match any contract for him,\" the source said, \"and then he's standing on the sideline during the game, the guys who have the same name around here are going to demand answers.\" Answer Man also pointed out that a long-term deal -- and the tenure that would go with it -- will force the staff -- which always has questionable tenure -- to look at Starks with more respect than the Starks who had only one year left on his contract.

... the coaches who \"had to have Mahan\" are now backpedaling and saying, \"oh, hey, man, we knew he was just a backup.\" Answer Man doesn't appreciate the lack of accountability, \"and I'm including Tomlin in that, too.\"

... a center is a strong draft possibility, but then the source slipped into disgust. \"We're going to draft a center, we're going to draft a guard, we're going to draft a tackle, draft, draft, draft. Hey, we only have six picks. That won't fix all the problems.\"

... Corey Williams was a Steelers target in free agency, but the Green Bay defensive end was recently franchised. So I asked about Justin Smith, who was Dick LeBeau's first draft pick back with the Bengals. \"Nope,\" my source said. \"They think he's strictly a 4-3 end.\"

... Ryan McBean will help next season, \"at least on special teams as one of those Keisel-type wedge-busters because he's big and he can run.\" But so could Shaun Nua. And so could Lee Vickers. I was told McBean instead has the type of mindset that Keisel had when he played special teams. Answer Man also said that McBean works out at the facility every day and impressed the coaching staff with the way he finished the season.

... Clark Haggans could return. It's being written by some that Haggans definitely won't return, as if he's disliked by the organization, but that's far from the truth. \"It could turn out the way Deshea turned out,\" Answer Man said. \"Remember? They didn't think he'd be back, but they scooped him up once the price was right.\" It's the same scenario with Haggans, he said, but that LaMarr Woodley is held in higher regard now than Townsend's expected successor Bryant McFadden was back then.

... the running back situation could remain intact, and this nugget also raised my source's ire. \"The OC is really big on Gary Russell, thinks he'll be the new guy we all want to see back there.\" When I responded that I, too, like Russell, and that Najeh Davenport needs replaced as the No. 2, Answer Man agreed: \"Right. If Russell has anything, let him show us as the No. 3, because he still hasn't shown enough to warrant that much optimism.\"

* In taking a look around the Internet this morning, I came across only one source of Steelers info from the combine. Draftdaddy.com, citing a source at the combine but providing no link, said the Steelers are showing interest in guard Chilo Rachal, tackle-guard James Blair, and guard Heath Benedict. The author writes that Benedict is \"the draft's best trap blocker\" and that he would fit perfectly as Faneca's replacement at left guard. The author's source also told him that everyone's favorite safety/specialteamer/footballplayer Jamie Silva \"was talking at lengths with the Patriots, Steelers and Seahawks.\"

Love Silva. Really like James Blair. And of course I've liked Rachal ever since I saw him pummel Arizona State. But, remember, these \"showing interest\" blurbs don't often mean much more than a temporary high. Ergo, have a great weekend.

* The Steelers today cut reserves Clint Kriewaldt, Jerame Tuman and Allen Rossum. SCI capologist Ian Whetstone calculates the cap savings for the Steelers at $1.79 million, moving the total cap space available to $8 million.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 21

All I could do last night was list the questions that've been raised by the Steelers for putting the transition tag on Max Starks. Let me try to answer some of those questions this morning.

Why not tag Alan Faneca instead?

Neither side will comment on whether there even are ongoing negotiations, so hopefully Alan will answer his cell today. Until then we can only guess, and the guess here is that the Steelers weren't making any progress and that to tag Faneca would serve only to exacerbate a difficult situation. Why would they think this way when Faneca has no history of lying down on the job? Well, let's just say the Steelers operate out of respect for their long-time employees and hamstringing a guy who wants to test the market for an out-of-this-world offer just isn't showing that kind of respect. At least that sounds better. Hopefully Alan will clear things up later today.

Why the transition tag instead of the franchise tag?

I'd say gambling $6.9 million that you can get a long-term deal done is risky enough for a backup, and that another half million or so for the security of high compensation was just crossing the line.

Why take the risk at all for a backup?

The Steelers don't even know what to do with Starks, so it's probably difficult for them to gauge what the rest of the league will do come Feb. 29. Is he a starter? Would he leave for a lesser offer and the promise of more playing time? By remaining involved in the negotiations with the option to match any offer, the Steelers will better be able to gauge Starks's value, and if someone wants to pay him the big starter bucks then the Steelers could just quietly duck out.

Does this portend a move to the Steelers' starting lineup for Starks?

Not by my estimate, and this move only illustrates the confusion the team has toward Starks. The front office can't understand why the line wasn't shuffled and Starks inserted last season, but the coaching staff sticks by its decision and has told the front office this off-season that they still don't want to move Willie Colon inside to start Starks. The Steelers could get stuck paying a backup nearly $7 million this season, but there aren't many other positions worthy of such security, particularly since Starks showed promise as a left tackle as well.

Why no worry about a \"poison pill\"?

Remember, he's a backup. The bigger question should be why would another team make an enemy of the Steelers over a backup? Remember, after Minnesota used a \"poison pill\" to take Steve Hutchinson off Seattle's hands, Seattle responded in kind the next year for Nate Burleson.

What does this mean for future offseason moves?

The first thing to remember is this by no means locks Starks up. There's a very good chance he'll still leave. But the problem is he probably won't leave until the first wave of top free agents is dealt with, and that's a big chunk of cap space to slide into the margins as Justin Smith talks to the rest of the league. The Steelers could rescind the tag, but that's not their business style. (And if Starks is smart, he'll sign that offer sheet today.) As for the draft, the Steelers didn't want to use a number one pick for a backup player anyway. Since they didn't want to move Colon over for Starks, why would they do so for a rookie? Keeping Starks would allow the Steelers to concentrate on the interior of their line, which is the real problem.

Hopefully I haven't simply raised more questions with my attempt at giving answers. I'll be back tomorrow with any information I've gathered on this topic.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20

The Steelers made a curious move Wednesday when they slapped the transition tag on backup offensive tackle Max Starks.

The transition tag requires the team to pay the player the average of the top 10 salaries at his position. In this case, the Steelers would pay Starks $6.895 million this season if they're not able to negotiate a long-term deal.

Starks can still test the free-agent market on Feb. 29, but the Steelers have the right to match any offer and Starks would remain in Pittsburgh. If the Steelers choose not to match an offer, they wouldn't receive any compensation.

The transition tag hasn't been used in the NFL since Seattle slapped one on guard Steve Hutchinson in 2006. The Minnesota Vikings exposed a flaw in the process by putting a \"poison pill\" into their contract offer that said the full $49 million contract would become guaranteed if Hutchinson was not the highest paid lineman on his team. The Seahawks couldn't match the offer with the higher paid Walter Jones already on their roster.

Also, it's something of a gamble that the Steelers would risk such a large chunk of their salary cap on a backup, but the move may ensure that Starks doesn't opt to take a lighter offer from a team that's promising more playing time.

Another curious aspect is the Steelers could've offered a bit more -- $7.455 million – to use the franchise tag on Starks, or even Alan Faneca. The franchise tag requires that another team compensate the Steelers with two first-round picks should it lure the free agent away.

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 19

The Steelers announced they've signed defensive end Travis Kirschke to a two-year contract totaling $2.28 million, which includes a $300,000 bonus.

Kirshke, who'll turn 34 before opening day, played perhaps his best game with the team in the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season.

The 11-year veteran originally signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent on March 11, 2004. He had previously spent one year with the San Francisco 49ers (2003) and his first six seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions.

Kirschke has played in 141 career games, including 64 with the Steelers, and has made 30 starts (five with Pittsburgh). He played in all 16 games in 2007 for the Steelers and made four starts in place of the injured Aaron Smith.

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7

I hadn't thought of Greg Lloyd as a Hall of Famer until Andre Tippett was elected last weekend.

Tippett, of course, was part of the weakest class inducted by what must be the weakest committee in history. Their explanation for electing guys like Tippett and Fred Dean is that there's some kind of backlog of pass rushers and with players like Bruce Smith coming down the pipeline that, well, yeah, they just had to put a couple of average players in.

No, I'm not quite sure I understand that either, nor am I sure where that leaves the great Dermontti Dawson. But this is where it leaves Lloyd: eligible and certainly electable.

Both Tippett and Lloyd played 11 seasons and started exactly 139 games. Both were on five Pro Bowl teams and both played in and lost one Super Bowl. Tippett, of course, played for the worst Super Bowl team in history, the team the '85 Bears ate for lunch. Lloyd's Steelers made the playoffs in five of his seasons; Tippett's Patriots in three.

* Tippett's career spanned from 1982 to 1993 and he was the consensus first-team All-Pro twice (1985 and 1987) and was second team twice (1986 and 1988). He was the clear-cut No. 1 outside linebacker in the voting one time (1987) and was tied with the great Lawrence Taylor (1985) one other time. Tippett missed the entire 1989 season with a shoulder injury and never returned to the all-star rolls.

* Lloyd's career spanned from 1988 to 1998. He was consensus first-team All-Pro three times (1993-95). He was the NFL's No. 1 outside linebacker in the voting in 1993 and 1994 and tied with Bryce Paup for first in 1995. Lloyd missed all but one game of the 1996 season with a knee injury and he never returned to the all-star rolls.

So far, it's not a stretch to argue that Lloyd was the better player. At the least, he's in the ballpark. The voters though went with the sacks. Tippett had 100 career sacks and Lloyd had 54.5. But if sacks weigh so heavily with the voters, why isn't Kevin Greene, who had 160 sacks in 14 seasons, receiving more consideration?

Lloyd, of course, was known more for his leadership. He may have been the biggest reason – and not Bill Cowher – for the Steelers' turnaround in the early to mid 1990s. I talked with Lloyd in October and the conversation ranged to every topic but the Hall of Fame. At the time, neither of us thought it possible. Now, at least I do. Here's some Lloyd:

\"... So I'm running the second-team defense against our first offense. They hold them little cards and Marvin [Lewis] came over and said, ‘Greg, you go here.' And I'd say, ‘Marvin, you're in my way. Go ahead and yell at me but I ain't following that card. I'm going to the football.' I told him I was going straight to the football. I look up and Pow! I messed the play up. Bill Cowher, he's looking like this (makes quivering-lips face). I could see he was upset. ‘Do it again!' I said, ‘Hell, man, I'm going to be right there again.' I run in there again, Pow! He goes, ‘Coach! Get him outta there!' I said, ‘You know what? What if you got Ray Lewis running up in there on Sunday? You going to tell them to get Ray Lewis out of there?' That's why me and Bill started having our little tiffs then. Hey, this is football. Football isn't drawn up on a card, where you're going to see what the defense is doing. You've got to react. And if you don't know how to react, guess what? You're up a creek. And that's how our team started to come together. Our offense started adopting that defensive mentality and before you knew it our offense was saying things like, ‘We're going to drag him.' Something I hadn't heard in a while.\"

\"... When [Andre] Hastings first came to Pittsburgh, he made our defensive backfield look so bad. I remember at practice he had Rod Woodson turning all kinds of ways, catching balls, making our defense look bad. It ticked me off. It ticked me off. When we went to seven-on-seven, I held them up and I told them, ‘If he catches the ball across this middle, I'm going to knock him out.' He was showboating and he's not going to do that to my defense. And lo and behold, I dropped back into pass and he cut across the middle and he caught it and when he turned, all he saw was 95. I hit him right there. I hit him right there. I hit him, the ball went one way, ear pads went another way, and the whole team's going, ‘Ohhhh. Ohhhh. Oh, Greg.' I'm like listen, ‘If he takes a hit from me out here today and he gets up, he's going to be all right. I guarantee he's going to be a good ballplayer.' And I said, ‘But you know what? NOBODY is going to come out here and show my defense up. NOBODY. I took my helmet off and talked to the whole offense. I said, ‘Anybody else think they can come out here and show my defense up? Put your mmmmm on and come out here right now.' The defense got fired up and the offense just mumbled to themselves.\"

\"... After practice I would stretch and guys would say things like, ‘Man you pretty big for a small linebacker.' But I like to say it ain't the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog and you better understand that. Every bit of this 225 is going to be in your you-know-what. That was the mentality. Now, it was a form of intimidation but you had to back it up. You had to back it up.\"

\"... But I'm going to do it in practice. I'm going to find out if they breed them the same way in Pittsburgh as they do in Fort Valley. I'm going to find out if just because you went to Pitt or Syracuse or Clemson and I went to Fort Valley State, do you think you're tougher than me? Do you think you can play this game better than me? Well let's strap it up. Let's do it. The thing about it is I'll fight you till I got no fight left in me. And I think after awhile my teammates began to appreciate that and they respected that and they realized that, ‘Don't come over here and line up in front of Greg in practice and not buckle your chinstrap up, because he's going a hundred miles an hour.' And then everybody adopted that mentality, and when everybody adopted that mentality guess what we did? We didn't win the Super Bowl but we had a Super Bowl mentality. We were in three AFC Championship games and a Super Bowl. There's no way in between that we shouldn't have won two Super Bowls.\"

\"... I don't watch it because I don't think the game is at the level where we played it. I don't think there's enough integrity. I don't think the guys understand that when you always hear your name on ESPN and you're going to pimp my ride on MTV Cribs, that's not football. When we were there, we tried to carry ourselves no different than the CEO of PPG. That's the way we took our job. We showed up for work and we worked. We didn't show up for work to put on airs and to sell stuff. That's why me and the media there didn't get along. I'm not here to kiss your ass. I don't care if you don't invite me to your little parties or soirees that you have, because I don't want you in my personal life like that. I want you to understand that I was hired to be an outside linebacker, and that's where the shirt came from: I Wasn't Hired For My Disposition. I was hired to be an outside linebacker. Any and everything else you get from me is a bonus. Okay? Understand that.\"

Lloyd, of course, has been tangled up with the law and divorce court over the last few years. He claimed his innocence as he prepared to teach his taekwondo class that day in the Atlanta suburb of Fayetteville. But that story and the others are for another time and place.

• Just to catch up on the news, the Steelers got around yesterday to announcing the signings of Jared Zabransky and Matt Trannon. As I reported earlier in the blog items below, Trannon was signed Jan. 18 and Zabrasnsky was signed Jan. 28.

• Since they're obviously back to work, the Steelers might also be ready to make their offers to Alan Faneca and Max Starks. Faneca told Scout.com's Adam Caplan this week at the Pro Bowl that the Steelers haven't talked to his agent since the 2007 season started. Hopefully these offers will be made next week ... while I'm on vacation in Hawaii.

Aloha.

To discuss this story click here.

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 5

Ah, what bliss. What serenity. What a beautiful Monday. Thank you, God.

Oh, sorry for not writing. I know you're paying hard-earned money for solid analysis, but I chose Monday as one of those sudden holidays you take when you just want to smell the roses.

It's not the prediction, honest. Nor is it the money that's now coming my way because of the prediction. It's the Patriots losing. That's it, the sweet smell of burning arrogance.

My day started like most Super Bowl days: A prediction I had for two weeks was being tugged at, much like in this fashion: Lance Zierlein's bad day.

But I'd been there before. Oh, about a hundred years ago I loved Doug Williams's Redskins over John Elway's Broncos, but nobody agreed with me. And for 13 days that was okay. But on Day 14, on my way to the Super Bowl party, I changed my mind.

Since the Redskins beat the Broncos by about 50 points on that day, I haven't changed my mind since. But there I was two days ago being tested. A friend had made a phone call to his friend, who told him all the services were predicting New England. But I barely wavered, particularly since the greatest Mush in the county told me at the party that he loved the Patriots and the over. Once I heard his prediction, it was only a question of how much, which I mulled over with my pre-game steak and lobster at The Nest in Jeannette.

Someone two stools down then began telling the bartender that he loved the Patriots.

I leaned over and asked why.

\"Because everyone loves the Patriots,\" he said. \"I was listening to the radio and the reporter said it would be Patriots 52-10, and they had a bunch of other reporters on and they were all saying it would be a New England blowout.

\"I'm going big!\" the guy said in conclusion.

\"So am I,\" I told him as it all came into focus.

Yes, what a sweet, sweet day. But what did we learn? That the club needs a tall receiver? Well, only if you're in the Pittsburgh media.

My Monday of bliss took a hard right turn, not when I read this hilarious column. (If you don't hit the link, here's the last graph: \"Not for the day when Burress became Nostradamus and made the catch of his life to prove all his naysayers wrong.\")

Good stuff. But, no, my day turned because I was in the waiting room at the dentist's office when I read that story. So, yes, my serenity would shortly come to an end.

But what is it about the Pittsburgh media and its obsession with, really, an average player? Now, that David Tyree, now there's a guy who's interesting.

Did you know that the real receiving star of the Giants' Super Bowl win once went to the Pro Bowl as a gunner? Yes, in 2005. He was drafted in the sixth round out of Syracuse in 2003 and has produced every time he's had to step in for one of the bloated Giants starters. Now that's the kind of young player the Steelers should be looking into acquiring this March.

More important for the Steelers is what the Giants really showed the world on Sunday. It's an old football axiom and it goes something like this: Get there with four.

Yes, the Giants blitzed at times. In fact, at one point in the game TV analyst Troy Aikman said, \"Because they're bringing pressure inside, you cannot give help to Matt Light.\"

Of course, Light could've used it, but that was to be expected. And Kavika Mitchell blitzing past Dan Koppen? Expected that too. Stephen Neal struggling? Check. And of course it didn't take Nostradamus Plax to predict that Michael Strahan would destroy Nick Kaczur. But no one really expected Justin Tuck to dominate Logan Mankins the way he did.

The point is, except for a few blitzes thrown in to confuse the genius from New England, the Giants got there with four. It allowed the seven deep men to patrol and pillage as Tom Brady ran as fast as his sprained ankle could carry him.

And it all made me think of Kentwan Balmer. We'll have plenty more on the North Carolina defensive end later in the draft season, but briefly, when I watched him play early in the season, in his blue helmet, I thought I saw the body of former Giant Keith Hamilton. Balmer is tall and angular and just not quick enough to play end in a 4-3, but definitely strong enough and athletic enough to play end in a 3-4.

In the game I watched, Balmer sat out the first quarter with a knee injury, but his team needed him against feisty East Carolina and Chris Johnson. Balmer entered and routinely collapsed double teams. He even played nose on passing downs. He has to be a first-round consideration. And after watching what the Giants did to the Patriots, a guy like that, or any defensive lineman for that matter, has to be a consideration for every NFL team, and particularly the Steelers.

The only alternative is someone to block a defensive lineman. The Patriots might be thinking that way today, too.

To discuss this story, click here.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 1

Do the Giants have a chance? Well, can they get to the quarterback?

That's always the biggest question against the Patriots, and I beg to differ with the best writer in Pittsburgh, Gene Collier, when he raves about the OL talent on the Patriots' side. I've spoken with too many scouts and analysts who gnash their teeth when guys like Matt Light and Dan Koppen are voted to the Pro Bowl. I believe that, except for Logan Mankins, the Pats have very average talent on their line, but it's been coordinated and coached well and is helped immensely by the quick release and decisiveness of QB Tom Brady.

But Brady will be playing on a sprained ankle and the Giants may have the best group of pass rushers -- on a defensive line -- of any in the league.

With apologies to Mr. Collier, the reason I opened his column in the first place was to get the spellings right. Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck are easy. But he didn't use the other guy's name (probably spelling related reasons), so I had to go to Yahoo.com's Charlie Robinson to get the right spelling of the great Osi Umenyiora.

So there's that. There's also the Giants' edge at the line of scrimmage. In the teams' last five games, the Giants held a clear edge in average yards per rush and against the rush. The Giants are +1.0, a full yard per play, against a much more difficult schedule (not including the record of the Patriots from the regular-season finale). The edge nearly doubles (+1.8) in the season-long look at games played against common opponents. And since the teams faced each other's division this year, we could look at either the common away or home site (but not both; whichever was common to both teams).

Of course, you don't beat the Patriots at the line of scrimmage alone. You beat them by stopping their passing game, and that's why the pass rush and Brady's injury and the Pats' overrated offensive line are important. In the stats, the Giants have a decent pass defense (yards per completion), and they're only a bit off the Patriots in yards per point. That stat not only breaks down offensive and defensive efficiency, but includes special teams and red zone. And the Giants are in the Pats' ballpark with those numbers.

But the real key to beating the Patriots is making the key decisions when they count the most. Beating the Patriots -- getting over that final hurdle -- is the hard part. That's where Brady has the clear edge over Eli Manning, and where Plaxico Burress can put a dagger into the 1972 Miami Dolphins with one of his classic blunders (last game Plax fumbled twice inside the 10 -- one rolled out of bounds and another was ruled incomplete in spite of Plax's protest to the official that he caught the ball).

The dynastic Pats normally win Super Bowls by field goals, and I expect the same Sunday. I expect the Giants -- for all the reasons listed -- to keep this game interesting, even nail-biting, but I also expect the injured Brady to pull it out in the end. Burress predicted 23-17, but Brady said he should bring that score up a bit. So I'm going Giants with the 12 points and over the 54, but the Patriots will win, 30-27.

* On another note, hail to the folks at RealGM, who've come up with this mock after apparently reading our site.

* Also, Gene Upshaw is grousing about the Heinz Field turf again. The critics love to point to the Miami Monday Nighter in the Bog, but never mention that the NFL asked them to pull off that dumb maneuever of putting sod over the field with a big storm on the way. Anyway, again, I'm for the grass field. Keep it natural, I always say.

* One more note, I talked to the Answer Man this week. He wasn't in the mood to go in depth, but he asked me to relay an important point: Just because Bruce Arians doesn't believe Max Starks should play tackle with Willie Colon moving over to guard, doesn't mean he's calling the shots for the organization. All Answer Man would say is \"It'll be interesting to see how they handle this.\"

He wasn't couching his answer; he was just saying he doesn't know and that it'll be interesting to see how the organization handles this. Stay tuned.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 29

Well, that didn't go too bad. I made my prediction for the Steelers' first-round pick and wasn't schooled too harshly on the message board.

I appreciate the restraint, but there were several questions, as there should be, since Branden Albert is being graded as a second- or third-round prospect all over the internet. So, to the questions:

SteelMafia: If Albert's the pick, can you show me how you wish them to line up at O-line and who the backups are?

JW: Okay, well let's go from left to right for the starters: Marvel Smith, Branden Albert, Darnell Stapleton, Kendall Simmons, Willie Colon. The backups are Trai Essex, Sean Mahan, another rookie, and the winner of the project battle between Jason Capizzi and Jeremy Parquet. That leaves Chris Kemoeatu. Now, maybe he can start at left guard and Albert sits and learns for a spell. But if Kemoeatu can't be trusted with knowing his assignments yet, and does lose his job, I don't know if he can be trusted to sit the bench again without becoming an attitude problem. They may cut him if he can't win the starting job, since Essex and Mahan, in theory, could also play guard.

SteelerSouth: Nah, can't go there with you Wex. [Albert's] prospects at LT are too speculative at this point and he doesn't do enough for me as a guard to be OK with the fact that it might ultimately be all he is. I would rather have the guy with definite long-term LT skills who can probably be a decent guard starting out than a guy who is a good guard, but may or may not be a competent LT when Marvel [Smith] is soon finished.

JW: I'm only going by the one game I saw and Albert was ferocious. I saw enough to be able to live with him as a guard just in case he can't play LT. From what I saw, he'd be a much better guard than either Chris Williams or Sam Baker. And really, their futures at LT are speculative at this point, too, wouldn't you say?

Tyranid: Jim, do you like Albert over [Oneil] Cousins? … Twenty-three is pretty old and they'd essentially need him to start right away.

JW: The Steelers like drafting juniors but you're right that, at 23, Albert doesn't give them the youth they normally would get from drafting a junior. Good point. As for taking him over Cousins, I definitely like Cousins as a prospect, and if the team opts to trade down to make their first-round pick I'd be happy to have Cousins in the pool of players they deem acceptable as part of the risk of trading down. But Cousins is a project. I believe Albert could step in right away. I'd have to say Albert would also have a better future at guard than Cousins anyhow. As a tackle? Well, that is, as someone else pointed out, too speculative anyhow right now.

SouthernStiller: The interesting thing about the Pro Football Weekly draft is they don't have Williams going in the first round, unless I missed it. Would you take Albert over Williams?

JW: What I like about Williams is that he can pass block and, I believe, would be adequate as a guard. But Albert, I feel, will be more than adequate as a guard. Based on what I saw, he could become a real killer. So, yes, considering the need I would take Albert over Williams. Now, as a value pick, it's tough to pass on the LT, but I'm trying to mix my feelings with how the Steelers typically think.

SteelChowder: My problem is with the logic. … If the Steelers aren't about moving players on the line once they're established, why would ultimately changing Albert from guard to tackle be any different?

JW: Good point. I was trying to say that it's becoming obvious they see Willie Colon as a tackle and not a guard. That's why they wouldn't change his position. I didn't mean to imply they wouldn't change anyone's position. It also depends on whether they think they're being fair with the player. With Alan Faneca, it's always been a \"check with Alan\" kind of attitude about a move to LT. In Albert's case, he seems to want to play LT eventually. And why not? It's where the money is. Let me just clarify that I don't know if it would be the reason they'd take him, but versatility is always a plus when it comes to breaking ties between, for example, Albert and Chilo Rachal. Also, I can't get the vision out of my head of Kevin Colbert saying, \"… and he can also play left tackle, so that would give us some options down the road if need be.\" Really, I can hear him saying that.

Cobra39: I've seen him play a bit and I don't think there's any way this kid can ever play tackle (especially left tackle) and I don't think you should waste a 1.23 pick on a guard. He really is slow as heck. His 40 times from nfldraftscout.com are: 5.37, 5.26, 5.64.

JW: Cobra, I'm sure you're just using the 40 times as a reference point as opposed to implying any real significance to an O-lineman running 40 yards. But your point is well-taken. When I watched him, I was not thinking about him playing left tackle, so I didn't address it in my notes. But I later learned of the time he spent at LT. I'd love to get a tape of the Pitt game to see for myself. As for picking a guard at 1.23, that's a good point, but if the guy can fill a gaping hole, and fill it as spectacularly as I thought he played against Texas Tech, I have no problem with it. Sure, John Greco in the second round would satisfy me. But what if Albert lives up to his enormous potential and becomes a real killer at the position? And what if he can give you what Faneca gave you in Denver in 2003 with emergency LT play? Faneca, by the way, was a 1.26 pick in 1996. Other top guards chosen at 1.23 were Davin Joseph and Jeff Hartings. Yes, I agree that it should be an easy position to fill later in the draft, but taking one in the first lessens the risk, and when you have a gaping hole the risk should be minimized.

Sssssteve: Dang, you just had me convinced on Carl Nicks a couple days ago. Any possibility of a trade down with this guy? I'd love another third-rounder.

JW: That's always possible with Kevin Colbert. I think he has a real good grasp of what the first round really should look like, not what the media's portraying it to look like. My worry with Albert isn't whether he's worthy of pick 23, but whether he'll still be on the board. Did you look at the picture of the guy? Anyway, Colbert will have a better idea in three months than I do today, so I will trust him on whether he trades down or not.

Steelmann58: Jim, if they do pick Albert then who would you target at tackle? [John] Greco or [Chad] Reinhart? I would also like to know if you would target a RB anywhere in the draft like maybe [Matt] Forte or [BenJarvus] Green-Ellis?

JW: I would just stick with my draft board at tackle. I did like what I saw of Reinhart at guard in the Senior Bowl but I doubt he's a tackle. And I liked Greco in the Shrine Game. As for targeting one, I don't know. If the Steelers like Essex and Colon as much as I suspect, and since Marvel is expected to return to full health from his back surgery, I don't know that tackle's such a high priority with them. As for the running backs, I refuse to change my opinion of Forte as a guy who runs too tall through the hole. I think he'll get killed in the pros, since he only has average speed and strength. Classic meatball back. I think Green-Ellis will be a better value in the fifth and I think he has more power. But there are a lot of little backs I like. I think someone like Rafael Little can become the Kevin Faulk that they're looking for. If you need to lessen the risk, take Tashard Choice in the third round.

Chriskane: Now for Round 2 we need some defensive line help. The pick?

JW: I'll go with my guy Kendall Langford. With his raw strength he looks like a bigger James Harrison to me. Now, he needs some technique work, so if Round 2 is too early, than Round 3. But that's a guy I really enjoyed watching in the Senior Bowl, particularly since he made the game-saving tackle and particularly since so many \"experts\" are turning up their collective noses at him.

Talk about the blog Week 3 on the message board.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 27

The quarterback who led Boise State to two undefeated seasons in three years will sign with the Steelers on Monday.

That's what Jared Zabransky told the Idaho Statesman over the weekend.

The former quarterback from Boise State told the paper that the Steelers also expect to add a rookie at the position and that both of them will compete for the roster spot left open by departing free agent QB Brian St. Pierre.

Talk about the blog Week 2 on the message board.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 25

BLESTO released its results to its NFL clients this season and reported there are 21 college tackles they believe will be in NFL camps next summer. Not as draft picks, just that they belong on the 80-man rosters.

I learned this when I asked someone if Sam Baker and Gosder Cherilus were indeed first-round prospects. I was told they'd find a way into the first round, as might guys who we in the media believe to be second-round prospects, guys like Oneil Cousins.

\"If there are 21 players, and half the 32 teams need at least one tackle, you do the math,\" I was told.

But the Steelers, you say, with the 23rd pick, can get in, get one, and get out.

But can they?

Chris Steuber, in his latest mock for Scout.com, believes so. He writes that only two tackles will be gone by the time the Steelers pick and that Jeff Otah of Pitt will be their choice.

Okay. He's not my first choice, but the Steelers need a guy who can play guard, right? Or, if we're certain the rookie can step in and play right away, that he's a sure-fire guy, the Steelers could move Willie Colon to his natural guard position and start the rookie at right tackle.

Yeah, that's about as likely to happen as the Steelers drafting a tall receiver in the first round. And forget about moving Marvel Smith back to right tackle. But at least we've defined the parameters, and that leaves Cherilus out of the mix. He's too tall to play guard, and if the Steelers really wanted to put that kind of money into right tackle, and make that kind of move with Colon, they may as well just keep Max Starks.

Can Otah help them at guard? Don't know. No one does. He's raw as is, as a tackle. My instinct is to leave him out of the mix as well. In fact, I talked to a scout who thinks he's a second-rounder, and as the guys who keep matching Otah with the Steelers try to tell us, the Steelers really know the Pitt guys well.

But back to the math. We can safely rule out Jake Long and Ryan Clady. Those are legitimate left tackles with pass-block/drive-block skills and they will be long gone. Another mock draft, this one by Frank Croyle, throws Sam Baker into the top-22 party at No. 21. Baker is another left tackle, and no one doubts he could play guard just in case one of those 16 teams that don't need two tackles needs a guard.

So let's leave Long, Clady, Baker, and Cherilus out of the mix.

Oh, but Mel Kiper has checked in with a first round that I fear is percolating in the pipeline. Kiper has five offensive tackles being picked before the Steelers pick. Not that the Steelers are hell-bent on a tackle, as I've written, but there aren't any pure guards worth taking in the top 23.

Kiper has Long (5), Clady (12), Otah (13), Baker (14) and Chris Williams (19) gone before the Steelers pick (23). Williams would be the perfect pick for the Steelers since he played left tackle in the SEC (tough), for Vandy (smart), and can block on the move (guard). But five tackles in the top 22? Is this possible?

Well, it hasn't happened since 1986. It also went that way in 1985. The average number of tackles chosen in the top 22 in 41 drafts is 2.4, but then again we remember the math presented to us by BLESTO, and we see the costs of these players in free agency, and we realize it's possible that another 5-in-22 draft is in the works.

If we take those five tackles out of the equation, and take Cherilus out, what will the Steelers be looking at?

Carl Nicks. Yes, a player I thought was a fourth-rounder earlier in the year, whose offseason play has forced me to change that grade to a high second-rounder, now becomes a possibility with pick 23. And he's a legitimate consideration. He's thick and strong and wide and has quick feet. He's built like a guard but played left tackle for Nebraska the last two years. This year he distinguished himself against USC pass-rusher Lawrence Jackson. Then again, Jackson's been inconsistent throughout his college career. Was Jackson up or down for that game?

Either way, Nicks is showing up in Mobile. He has the look of a powerful guard and the Steelers need one, a big one. But at 23? For a guy who'll never have the athleticism to beome the main pulling guard for this classic power-sweep team?

If the Steelers pass on Nicks, he'll get picked in the bottom of the round, which brings up the next question: Could the Steelers wait until pick 53 to get their guard?

Next on my list, after Nicks and Cherilus (the Nos. 6 and 7 linemen), are Cousins, John Greco, Brenden Albert, Chilo Rachal, Roy Schuening and Anthony Collins. The only tackle-to-guard question mark here is Collins, so we'll toss him. That leaves five more linemen, or 12 in the top 52.

The Steelers' second pick will be No. 53. A dozen linemen have been chosen in the first 52 picks only three times: 15 in 1968; 12 in 1976 and 1983. So the Steelers could probably wait to draft their lineman with the 53rd pick, but they'll be holding their breath.

So in summation, these look to be the Steelers' realistic options this draft:

1. Draft Carl Nicks at No. 23.

2. Trade down into the late, late first or early, early second for either Nicks or Cousins.

3. Wait and hope that either Greco, the tackle-guard from Toledo, is there at pick 53, or that the top pure guards all last.

The Steelers learned last year that linemen are now being taken at least a round earlier than their grade indicates, so that won't be an excuse this year. They know how the draft game has changed, and they should begin preparing for it now.

++++

Mike Singletary was the star of a rainy walk-through session Thursday. The NFL Network put a microphone on the Hall of Fame linebacker-turned-coach and he didn't hold back. Like last year, Singletary said what was on his mind, and guys like Philip Wheeler felt his wrath. But there was also one player who did – for all of us to see – absorb Singletary's coaching and put it into play right away. This made Singletary smile. Often.

The player's name is Wesley Woodyard, and he did everything right, smoothly, without false steps. Singletary obviously likes him. I had to throw on my Kentucky tape and take a closer look.

And, yes, he's very smooth, quick, smart. Everything he did right for Singletary transferred to the playing field. He's a fluid defender who can run and it's obvious that he loves the game. If he were a basketball player they'd be calling him a gym rat.

But on the negative side, he's only 212 pounds. And it showed against the Florida State run game. While Woodyard has some of the best instincts this side of Jordon Dizon, those weren't much help when FSU came right at him. Woodyard appears to be one – and perhaps the best – of the many safety/linebacker tweeners in the draft who, if Kevin Colbert is thinking like I am, will be one of the special-team core guys the Steelers are looking at in the fourth round.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 24

South Alabama is reportedly interested in interviewing Steelers assistant head coach/D-line coach John Mitchell for their vacant coaching position. Mitchell is in Mobile for the Senior Bowl.

The Mobile Register couldn't confirm that Mitchell, a native of Mobile, has in fact been in contact with the school.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 23

The Senior Bowl is the place to be, and I'm right there, on the couch, watching every stretch, 7-on-7 and one-on-one blocking drill thanks to the NFL Network. A couple of notes from Tuesday's practices:

* The Steelers met with Texas WR Limas Sweed. Yes, he's a big target, but no he's not consistent and no he's not a return man. Could they be doing this just to appease Ben Roethlisberger? The QB came out last week and said he wanted a big WR, and Sweed is that. But my feeling is that if a first-round WR can't return kicks, there's little point, particularly with a guy who's been so inconsistent over the years and has such high bust potential. My take is the Steelers needed to tie up loose ends with a guy who missed seven games this season with a wrist injury.

* Speaking of big WRs, Adarius Bowman's stock is plummeting. He might be a fourth-rounder these days. His size would make Ben happy and his ferocious blocking would make everyone else happy. Hines Ward would be tickled with this kid's attitude toward the game. Bowman has become a sleeper prospect.

* Thomas DeCoud (di-COO) is my favorite free safety. He's the confident defensive quarterback a great FS should be, and he has speed, range and the hitting ability to go with it. Love him in the second. Would probably have to pass in the first.

* Bruce Davis, the defensive end from UCLA who'll have to play OLB in the league, is the next Joey Porter – both in ability and personality. The kid's a rabble-rouser. While Porter was a third-round pick, Davis comes from a bigger school and will likely go in the bottom of the second.

* I finally got to see OT Chris Williams. I missed Vandy this season and have been scrambling back ever since, but I now understand why so many Steelers fans have been talking about this guy. He could play right tackle, even guard (center? – need to see more), as he grows into the LT job that Marvel Smith -- with his bad back -- is holding down now. It appears the Steelers could choose Williams or Gosder Cherilus in the first round. Here's how talent evaluator Mike Mayock broke down these two offensive tackles:

\"They're different kind of players playing the same position,\" Mayock said. \"Cherilus is more physical and a better run blocker. I think that Chris Williams is a more talented foot-athlete. I think he's got quicker feet and is a more natural knee-bender than Cherilus is.\"

* One guy who made Williams look bad Tuesday was my boy, Hampton University DE Kendall Langford. He's a late addition to the Senior Bowl and he surprised Williams with a quick outside move in a one-on-one drill. I've considered Langford a 3-4 DE who could go in the third round to a team that's too nervous to allow him to get into the fourth round where he probably belongs. Here's what Mayock said about Langford, who weighed in at 6-5.3, 275:

\"Interesting kid. … If he can get up to 290-295, I think he'd be the ideal what they call 5-technique, which is a defensive end in a 3-4 set. That's what I think he'll be at the next level. He's two to three years away from a strength perspective and a technique perspective but I think he can be a starter in the NFL.\"

* Another of my favorites, OT Oneil Cousins, looks like a high second-rounder. He may be too raw to start right away, and that could push him toward the middle of the second round, but this guy is powerful and has a real attitude problem, as in nasty, nasty, nasty. He's a converted defensive lineman and he plays like one. I'd take him and put him at guard, as Mayock suggests, with the hope he could learn to play left tackle. I really think the Steelers have enough at tackle right now to allow a high pick to develop in this manner. A first-round tackle would move Willie Colon inside, but not a second-rounder.

SHRINE BOWL REVIEW: (West) You can have Joe Flacco, Andre Woodson, Colt Brennan and Chad Henne as your second-round quarterback. Give me Josh Johnson, the MVP of the East-West Shrine Game.

I watched the San Diego University QB on tape yesterday and thought of Joe Montana. Honest. The kid is graceful. He throws with touch or with heat, whatever he needs. And he scrambles with those long, easy strides of Joe Cool. Johnson only played two (maybe three, but please don't make me go back and watch this again) series, and on the first series he was too good for his B-game receivers. Three different players dropped consecutive passes that should've been touchdowns from the 12-yard line. Johnson capped the other drive with a lovely floater to Kevin Robinson for a score.

I'd heard Johnson carried a 5th-round grade after his record-setting senior season (43 touchdowns, one interception) in Division I-AA ball, but he shot up to Round Four on his first series when he showed he belonged with this tier of athlete, and I'm sure as the game went on his stock only skyrocketed.

Tarvaris Jackson made a move up into the second round with his play a few years ago in the Shrine Game, but Johnson's a much better quarterback. I couldn't help but give him a second-round grade. Too bad he's not playing in the Senior Bowl.

* In addition to catching the short TD pass over Jamie Silva, Kevin Robinson returned a punt for a touchdown. As a receiver, he also caught a slant over the middle and took the hit. He was also spotted blocking downfield on a Johnson scramble. After I slapped a third-round grade on him, I wondered if he was just another Willie Reid – a flash at the end of his college career. But Robinson's four quick cuts on the long return say he's not. Those cuts were short, sweet magic.

* West cornerback Dwight Lowery intercepted two passes, but didn't show any explosiveness as a return man (even fumbled a kickoff return) so that prevents me from using a second-round pick for the long-limbed cover man.

* Lowery's opposite number, Justin Tryon, ran with Dexter Jackson in deep coverage and batted the pass away. Tryon did a lot of that and the little guy should get a long look in the fourth round.

* I didn't watch Frank Okam, Tommy Blake, Anthony Alridge, Kevin O'Connell or Derrick Doggett because I'd watched them closely in previous games. I got the chance to catch up on Iowa State and that gang showed me that I hadn't missed anything.

* Linebacker Spencer Larsen shot the gap a few times and was named Defensive Player of the Game. He's still a mid-round plugger until he shows a bit more dash.

* No one stood out as a coverage ace on special teams from the West.

* At center, Kyle Van Dyn of Oregon State clearly outplayed Ryan Wendell of Fresno State. Van Dyn could go in the sixth.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 22

Let's start with a review of the East squad from the Shrine Game. More talent was stashed on that side of the ball, but silly mistakes by the East quarterbacks and the outstanding play of West quarterback Josh Johnson gave the West an easy win.

The player who intrigued me most on the East side was Hampton University defensive end Kendall Langford. On consecutive plays of the first West possession, Langford crushed his teammate, a linebacker, while tackling the running back five yards down the field, and on the next play Langford jerked back the head of massive OT Geoff Schwartz with a strong punch on his way to the quarterback. Langford got the sack and forced a fumble. He used his strength to collapse the pocket on a number of other occasions. On the down side, he was blown off the ball at the goal line for a West touchdown.

Langford appears strong enough to stop the run, but my guess is he needs work with his hands. It wouldn't surprise me if he were working on new techniques in the game after working with pro coaches all week. Listed at 6-6, 296, Langford could be more explosive off the ball, but he has Harrison-esque strength. The lack of quick-twitch muscle fiber wouldn't hinder him much as a defensive end in the Steelers' 3-4, but there's no mistaking his athletic ability. He went way up to nearly block a short field-goal attempt. He also appears to be a team player without ego, which would make him an ideal student for line coach John Mitchell. I'm thinking Mitch ought to begin pushing for Langford in the third round.

I hoped to get a good look at three East linebackers, but neither Jameel McClain, Jonathan Goff nor Curtis Gatewood showed much. Gatewood came in with a bigger pro billing than his more acclaimed Vanderbilt teammate, Goff, and Gatewood got off to a quick start by making the tackle on the opening kickoff. But afterward none of the three showed much more than good-looking bodies and quickness. I'll lump all three of them in the 3rd-4th-round range until I see more. McClain was also used at defensive end, a la Levon Kirkland circa 1991 Clemson, but didn't come close to the QB.

I also watched a couple of linebacker/end tweeners and both were disappointing. I gave Pitt's Joe Clermond a Priority Free Agent grade because he didn't push the pocket as an end and never was given the chance to drop into coverage as a linebacker. Curtis Johnson, a defensive end from Clark-Atlanta, played outside linebacker and looked like Jason Gildon in coverage – stiff, tall, strong. In other words he's a strong-side 3-4 OLB who must be better running forward than back. I gave him a fifth-round grade.

Of course, we TV scouts don't get the full picture on the safeties, but Boston College's Jamie Silva gave us one anyway. Silva will probably end up with a lousy 40 time, and was beaten in space a couple of times in the game, but he showed he's a special football player. The guy has great instincts. Pick this guy in the fifth round and make him your special-teams captain in a few years. TV analyst Todd McShay replayed tape of Silva coming within inches of blocking a punt at the 30-yard line. Silva picked himself up off the ground and ran to the other 30 to throw a block for the return man. I put a fifth-round grade on him, but then I watched Rodney Harrison of the Patriots and remembered that safeties can post wretched 40 times and still win championships. Silva will be difficult to pass on in the fourth round.

If you pass and don't get Silva in the fifth, you might want D.J. Parker. I haven't seen the 40 times, but Parker is another smart free safety and pure \"football player\" who's a bit small. The few times Parker was on screen, he showed polish in his backpedal. He also downed a kick at the one-foot line on special teams. You almost want to see Parker run poorly at the combine so he's there in the fifth or sixth.

Offensively, John Greco got the best grade – a fourth – of the guys who interested me from a Steelers perspective. The Toledo offensive tackle played mistake-free ball on both the right and left sides, although he did give a pressure on each side to Chris Harrington of Texas A&M. Greco's not great, but he'll protect your QB and get some push in the run game. He can become Matt Light some day.

A riskier fourth-rounder is WR Jerome Simpson. He has huge hands, but is a bit uncoordinated. Maybe he hasn't grown into his body. If he is a late bloomer, someone will hit a home run with this pick because he has size, speed and hands.

RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis impressed me, surprised me in fact, with the way he moved, no, dragged the pile with him. He's listed at 225 pounds and could become a great fifth-round steal as an inside runner. He showed up in pass pro as well, and also showed deft receiving skills. A sideline reporter told a story of Green-Ellis getting his two front teeth knocked out against Georgia, coming back in, and later being told to leave by the ref because \"he was bleeding everywhere.\"

MONDAY, JANUARY 21

Yes, it's a depressing time of year. Always is when you're watching other teams, but this Super Bowl will be particularly dull because I don't see the Giants mustering another competitive run at the Patriots.

Green Bay? Well, they never really had a chance either, but at least the country would've come together as one in rooting for a quarterback, the way the media told us we'd come together in support of John Elway in 1998.

I couldn't have cared less about ol' Horse Face back then, but I figured we'd all root for Brett Favre against the perfect Patriots. That would've been a truth instead of a media creation.

Alas, it's Eli Manning. Can he and the Giants beat the Pats? Well, someone will have to stop Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans. Those were New England's core heroes yesterday. Those, in fact, are two key pieces the Steelers lack – a true short-yardage plow horse and a pass-catching threat out of the backfield.

If the Steelers do pick up a quality No. 2 back in this coming draft, would he become the pass-catcher? Would he become the Faulk to the Patriots' Laurence Maroney?

I doubt it. Say the Steelers, for example, land either Jonathan Stewart or Rashard Mendenhall in the first round. Does that player – a classic power/speed inside runner with the ability to get outside -- become the pass-catcher? That wouldn't be a comfortable niche for either of those two backs, and the first round is a high price to pay for a back who's not going to fit your specific need.

It means Willie Parker must improve as a pass-catcher, considering his game is attacking the perimeter. That would allow the other roles to be filled more easily, but it's never been that easy with Parker. Ask his much-maligned college coach, John Bunting.

Speaking of coaches trying to pound square pegs into round holes (a.k.a. Running Injured QBs Wide Behind Third-team Tackles), the Chargers ran big back Michael Turner wide on a key third-and-one play that lost a yard near the end of the first half. The resulting short field goal moved the Chargers within 14-12, but that was it for them. They needed a touchdown there.

The other key play -- a play no one mentioned during the frivolous halftime show starring Dan Marino's cell phone – was the Mike Vrabel-induced interception that Philip Rivers threw in the first half. It was a 7-6 game, and two plays after the pick the score was 14-6. But no one mentioned that Vrabel had leg-whipped Rivers on the play.

Perhaps I don't fully understand the rule here, or perhaps no one else saw it, but Vrabel slid to Rivers' right and kicked his leg into Rivers' injured leg and forced the poor throw. That should've been a 15-yard penalty against Vrabel.

The halftime TV \"fun bunch\" didn't explain it, and instead focused on reasons to yank Rivers for Billy Volek. After Bill Cowher finished saying he, as a coach, would watch Rivers closely at the start of the second half with the intention of playing Volek, and after Shannon Sharpe said he would simply start Volek coming out of the break, Boomer Esiason looked at Cowher, laughed and said, \"It it was Ben Roethlisberger, he'd never bench him.\"

And then Marino's cell phone rang for a third time.

In the 40th anniversary of the Ice Bowl in Green Bay, honorary captain Bart Starr came out for the coin flip, but where was Jethro Pugh?

A sideline reporter mentioned during pre-game warm-ups that \"Plaxico Burress (was) absolutely taken aback by the cold\" and that \"air in his gloves\" caused Burress to say \"I can't feel my hands.\" But Burress went on to have a great game.

He's still sloppy, though. Burress got away with a fumble that rolled out of bounds near the goal line, and later had a fumble that was ruled incomplete in another play at the goal line (Burress was actually motioning to the ref that he'd caught the ball – which would've been a fumble had they listened to him), but the big guy is getting his moment in the sun. And I know I'll be rooting for him in his next game.

I also on Sunday pored over the college Shrine Bowl tape. I focused on the East and tomorrow will make a case in this space for the Steelers to draft Hampton University defensive end Kendall Langford in the third round, Toledo offensive tackle John Greco in the fourth round, Boston College \"football player\" Jamie Silva in the fifth round, and Virginia Tech free safety D.J. Parker in the sixth round. And then I'll revise that in Wednesday's report after reviewing the West squad.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 19

Ben Roethlisberger said he wanted a big wide receiver and the Steelers have complied. The Steelers yesterday signed former Michigan State wide receiver Matt Trannon to their reserve/future roster.

Trannon is a 6-foot-6, 216-pound former wide receiver and college basketball player at MSU. He is the cousin of former NFL safety Lonnie Young, who's now a scout with the Arizona Cardials.

Trannon was a four-year football starter at MSU and caught 44 passes his senior season. He wasn't drafted last April, but signed with Arizona and was placed on the Cardinals' practice squad. He was released and subsequently joined the practice squads at Kansas City and Oakland before signing with Pittsburgh.

The Steelers also worked out the following free agents on Friday: RB Dominique Dorsey (Nevada-Las Vegas), QB Luke Getsy (Akron), DBs Patrick McGhee (Wake Forest) and Gerrick McPhearson (Maryland), DT Daniel Marquardt (BYU), and LB Gavin Walls (Arkansas).

Talk about the blog Week 1 on the message board.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 18

Before I get into the players I want to focus on in the East-West Shrine Game, let me get to Kevin Colbert's comments this week.

One of my colleagues in the reporting game always says this about talking to Colbert before the draft: \"When we ask to talk to him, Kevin should ask us whether we expect him to give away the millions of dollars the Steelers have spent on prospect analysis this season, or whether we want him to just lie to us, because, really, that's all he can do.\"

This week Colbert gave Pittsburgh reporters his usual. He also told the Post-Gazette he would even draft a running back. \"Heck yeah. Absolutely,\" he said.

What wasn't mentioned in the story is that Colbert was asked about that position. That's the key. He was prompted and gave the only appropriate response, so I read nothing into the comment.

As for Colbert defending his offensive linemen -- and I stress the word his -- Colbert did add that \"you can lose two unrestricted free agents, and if you do, maybe that changes your focus.\"

Anyway, for all of us doing our own draft work, I say thanks, Kevin, for lying to those who aren't.

These are the players I'll be watching closely in Saturday night's East-West Shrine Game:

QB Josh Johnson -- Everyone who's seen him loves him. I've heard he's a fifth-rounder. Problem is, not many have seen San Diego University play this season. Now's our chance.

FBs Jerome Felton and Brandon McAnderson -- Felton, from Furman, is a 246-pounder who's supposedly a quality lead blocker and red-zone runner. McAnderson was Kansas' single back out of the spread, and this will give us a completely different look at yet another big tailback attempting to show he can lead block.

RB Thomas Brown -- The little back from Georgia is drawing raves this week for his work ethic, toughness and quickness in practice. He's being called a fourth-rounder, but I have my doubts.

WRs Jerome Simpson and Paul Hubbbard -- Both of these players are more track athletes than football players, and that means big, big upside ... if they can learn the game. Simpson was a track superstar at Coastal Carolina. Hubbard was an insignificant starter at Wisconsin, but has caused a buzz this week because of his size and speed.

C Ryan Wendell -- He's a bit small, but I have to see all of the centers if I'm going to predict which ones the Steelers will pass on. Just say I'm not optimistic about the team bolstering its biggest weakness.

OT John Greco -- Haven't seen Toledo's best player yet. Hear he's a solid mid-rounder.

OT Jeremy Zuttah -- I've seen him play RT at Rutgers and like him in the mid rounds quite a bit.

DE Ken Langford -- Another player from Hampton enters the draft. He's 6-6, 294 and is said to lack the speed required of a 4-3 end, but is also said to be a perfect 3-4 DE specimen.

DT Nick Hayden -- This guy may have the best motor in the country this season. Big, strong, relentless, but can he provide just a little pass rush to justify a move to 3-4 DE?

DE Joe Clermond -- Productive Pitt player is 6-3, 250. Does he have the hips to play 3-4 OLB?

S David Roach -- He's not the most acclaimed prospect from TCU, but folks down there love him.

S Josh Barrett -- King-sized ASU safety got hurt late in the year and missed his bowl game.

CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- You have to pay attention when Tennessee State has a prospect. Can also return kicks.

LB Jameel McClain -- The Big East is so difficult to watch that I haven't even seen Syracuse this year. Word is this Orangeman can play middle linebacker and rush off the edge.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 16

Dermontti Dawson not being on the list of finalists for the Hall of Fame is a disgrace. This is the list of finalists and not one of them, in my mind, is more worthy:

The contributor finalist is former National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The Senior Committee nominees are Chicago Cardinals back Marshall Goldberg and Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Emmitt Thomas. The modern-era player finalists include cornerback Darrell Green, defensive ends Fred Dean and Richard Dent; linebackers Randy Gradishar, Derrick Thomas and Andre Tippett; guards Russ Grimm, Bob Kuechenberg and Randall McDaniel; punter Ray Guy; wide receivers Cris Carter, Art Monk and Andre Reed; and tackle Gary Zimmerman.

It's hard to believe a guy like Goldberg, who played eight forgettable seasons with the Chicago Cardinals, rushing for 1,644 yards and 11 touchdowns in those eight seasons, is being considered over a remarkable athlete such as Dawson.

Dawson not only had Sayers-like athletic skills, he put up the numbers. Dawson spent all 13 of his NFL seasons with the Steelers, played in 171 consecutive games, went to seven Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl, was the Associated Press first-team All-Pro NFL center five years in a row (1993-97), was a unanimous All-Pro in 1997, had more first-place votes than any other player on the 1996 All-Pro team, and was one of the most graceful and intelligent human beings inside a locker room that was known for its professionalism.

Dawson also helped many teammates invest their money properly and has become a wealthy man in his retirement from football. The guy screams Hall of Fame and if the voters are deliberately keeping him out because too many Steelers already are in the Hall, they're makig a big mistake. To not include him as a finalist is a blackmark against every voter.

Dawson, of course, was the third great center in the Steelers' tradition that began with Ray Mansfield and continued through Mike Webster. After Dawson came Jeff Hartings, who went to two Pro Bowl before retiring after the 2006 season.

The play at center was so bad this past season, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians called a quarterback keeper around left end on the biggest third-down play of the season. The QB struggled down the stretch with a sprained ankle, and his lead blockier was No. 3 left tackle Trai Essex, but Tomlin stuck with Arians's call because, \"We anticipated potentially that we would get all-out pressure, particularly from the interior. We thought we could outflank them and get on the edge.\" In other words, Tomlin thought Jacksonville would blitz up the middle and he didn't think the Steelers would block it and so he allowed the worst possible play to be called at the worst time. Of course it failed.

Will this situation improve? Word is Darnell Stapleton will be given every chance to win the job next season. He was inactive all season, forcing the team to work RG Kendall Simmons at the position whenever they could. Stapleton was active for the final game.

Of course, one brief appearance in one preseason game by an undrafted rookie is not enough to bank the 2008 season on, so here are the best college centers I've watched this season, with my own grades:

2nd round -- Kory Lichtensteiger, Bowling Green, is big, athletic, strong, nasty, shows balance and a rock-solid base in pass pro, and drove the Tulsa NT off screen several times in the run game during the GMAC Bowl.

2nd/3rd round -- Mike Pollak, Arizona State, can add 10-15 pounds, according to scouts. Someone on the message board pointed out that since the rest of the ASU line was so bad and picked up blitzes so poorly, perhaps the center isn't so sharp with his line calls. Perhaps.

3rd round -- Steve Justice, Wake Forest, doesn't interest the Steelers because he's too small and couldn't play another position, a must since they realized the problems presented by Chukky Okobi on game days. Justice belongs with the Denver Broncos.

4th round -- Fernando Velasco, Georgia, sets a tone getting off the bus with his size but is just too limited athletically for the Steelers. Against Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, Velasco appeared to tire and too often flopped to the ground for a cheap cut.

4th round -- Cody Wallace, Texas A&M, is also smart and strong and lacks mobility.

6th/7th round -- Kyle DeVan, Oregon State, is my favorite sleeper. Here's more on him.

7th round/UFA -- Jamey Richard, Buffalo, also played guard in the Hula Bowl but is a bit on the small side. He looks like another Marvin Philip, but without the big-school experience.

I haven't watched John Sullivan of Notre Dame. He's a highly regarded prospect who was injured much of the season.

Of course, tackles and guards can always be moved inside, but scouts have told me the priority is still to look at those playing the position.

Is there a Dermontti Dawson in the bunch? Of course not. A player like that comes along once every 75 years. Just because Webster is in the Hall, doesn't mean his successor wasn't his equal or even better. They were both great in their own unique way.

Speaking of Webbie, here's a good story on the 1976 playoffs. Note the quote by Joe Greene: \"Oakland has the nastiest defensive backs this side of Attica's all-star intramural team.\"

TUESDAY, JANUARY 15

At the end of the Hula Bowl, play-by-play announcer Ron Thulin had a question: \"MVP?\" he said. \"I'm torn. ... I don't know who.\"

\"I'm not sure myself,\" said color analyst Kelly Stouffer.

That's because the handful of decent players in the game didn't touch the ball. The one who caught my eye, again, was Virginia Tech DT Carlton Powell. The guy finished his season on a rampage and it continued in the Hula Bowl. He consistently beat double teams and showed pass-rush ability for a big man and ran sideline-to-sideline to tackle running backs. He's a playmaking 4-3 tackle and thus the second-round grade I threw on him will mean little to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If Powell wasn't the MVP, Cincinati DE Angelo Craig was. He had two early sacks and a forced fumble but didn't play much in the second half. The East coaches gave more playing time at that position to a couple of tweener prospects, and both Marcus Howard of Georgia and Hilee Taylor of North Carolina disappointed. Both players were also used at linebacker and neither fared well in the transition.

Interesting as small defensive ends on their respective teams, Taylor looked stiff and lost as a strong-side 4-3 linebacker. Howard was smaller and quicker but looked no less lost in space. At least Howard still showed the burst around the edge as a 4-3 DE. He was the star of the Sugar Bowl with three sacks and two forced fumbles, one of which resulted in a touchdown. He's a smallish runaround guy with a burst and seemingly good hips, but they were of no use to him as a linebacker in the Hula Bowl. Taylor, a bigger \"tweener\", on the other hand appeared to have lost his speed over the course of the season.

It's too bad Curry is a strict 4-3 DE because there wasn't much else off the edge here. Hampton DE Marcus Dixon was often blocked by a tight end and it's doubtful he'll be drafted.

There were a handful of offensive lineman I wanted to see for the first time this season and James Blair of Western Michigan came away with the best grade of the bunch -- 6th/7th-rounder. He started at right guard but distinguished himself as a tenacious RT who stayed low and kept his balance. Buffalo center Jamey Richard is too small. UConn guard Donald Thomas showed mobility for a big man but was injured early. He's worth following.

Here are a few more quick-hit notes:

... Brian Johnston had two sacks and forced a fumble, which led to a mini-feature on the Gardner-Webb DE. He supposedly ran a 4.6 40 at 280 pounds, but didn't flash any of that speed in game action. His motor was responsible for the sacks and that motor could get this Lee Vickers clone drafted early in the seventh round.

... Pitt TE Darnell Strong was physical as an in-line blocker and made four catches. On the down side, he dropped a couple of passes -- including a touchdown pass -- and looked slow in space. He could go as high as the sixth round, but not by me.

... Colorado MLB Jordon Dizon blew up a little running back on a screen pass for the hit of the game. I didn't watch him closely since I'd graded Dizon earlier this season, and the LB-S tweener is definitely a potential special-teamer to keep an eye on.

... Pitt CB Kennard Cox was physical and played well. He's a small zone corner who was beat for a touchdown by Cal's Robert Jordan, but his late interception interrupted a bad sideline interview(er) with Larry Fitzgerald Sr. and his son Marcus. For that, we are grateful.

... Virginia Tech WR Josh Morgan looked like he had a dose of jet lag. He dropped a fair catch and a 34-yard touchdown pass. He also failed to show any burst in a couple of opportunities after catches.

... Three players I didn't intend to watch caught my eye anyway: Akron WR Jabari Arthur, Duquesne WR Bruce Hocker, and Marshall QB Bernard Morris. Arthur was the better playmaker but Hocker has better size and, in my mind, upside. Hocker caught a short touchdown pass from Morris, who showed a whip arm and good mobility. A scout earlier had told me Hocker -- who used his big body to shield the defender and catch the TD -- is a prospect on the same level as Leigh Bodden, who was signed by the Browns out of Duquesne after not being chosen in the 2003 draft. Bodden was a starting CB this past season.

... Strong safety Tyrell Johnson of Arkansas State forced a fumble early and was consistently around the ball. He could hear his name called late in the draft

... Tulsa QB Paul Smith was a bit of a disappointment. He lacks size and arm strength but makes up for it with his savvy. His sideline interview was more impressive than that of SDSU QB Kevin O'Connell, who came off as a bit too loose. On the other hand, O'Connell has the arm and great wheels to get into the mid-rounds.

... Just a note to you kids out there: If you're a late-round prospect who has the look of the day -- long hair and tattoos -- and you're tied with someone else for my last pick, I'm going to pass on you for the guy who doesn't look like a criminal.

There were a couple of interesting stories today. The Tribune-Review's John Harris seems surprised -- like many in the media were last week -- that Lawrence Timmons was moved to inside linebacker ... in the second week of the season.

And in the Post-Gazette, Kevin Colbert starts up with this nonsense about the Steelers' offensive line not being as bad as we think. Not again.

MONDAY, JANUARY 14

It's always the best weekend in football and the fact the Steelers weren't involved didn't bother me much. That was the catch about last week's loss: Who wanted to go to New England and withstand that arrogance again? I caught enough of it watching commercials from my couch the last two days. That know-it-all Patriots fan who doesn't know his bartender is Joe Montana? And he tells Joe how you're supposed to win playoff games? That pretty much sums them up.

... Mike Vrabel sums them up, too. He was too smart for Bill Cowher. That's my take on why Vrabel left Pittsburgh. He had a constant smirk on his face; the one you see when he says \"THE Ohio State.\" Yeah, that one. He left after Joey Porter moved into the starting lineup in 2000 and hasn't looked back. Thinking about how and why Vrabel left made me think of Max Starks. A coach at the end of the season told me that he thought Trai Essex would pass Starks on the depth chart at training camp \"because he listened.\" Pretty telling comment right there. A new coaching staff needs its troops to rally behind them. The guys who are too smart can go play for Belichick I guess.

... Of course, it looks like the Patriots will go 19-0 and become recognized as the greatest team ever, and, being that it'll be their fourth Super Bowl in seven years, they'll claim the greatest dynasty, too. It's certainly depressing and it seems like no one wants it to happen. You see it on the faces of the experts on the pre-game shows. There's a sadness, a resignation that we're all being subjected to a reign of arrogance. It's unlikely the San Diego Chargers are going to save the football world from it, either.

... The Chargers beat the Colts with the fresh legs of Michael Turner. He's become the poster boy for coaches who want two quality running backs, because it's too difficult for the starter to make it through 16 games and have those fresh legs in the playoffs. Maybe that's why Belichick shut Laurence Maroney down for most of the season. In fact, the second RB just might be more important than the starter since he'll be the back in the playoffs. Remember that before we get into another argument on the message board about whether the Steelers should even consider drafting a Marshawn Lynch in the first round. Not that they had a chance, but it was an argument last March.

... When the Chargers jubilantly ran off the field after stopping Peyton Manning's pass on fourth-and-goal inside the 10 in the final two minutes Sunday, whose mind didn't wander back to the 1994 playoffs?

... Cowher says the Packers are the last and best chance to stop the Patriots. Let's hope, but in the meantime, what's with the Terrible Towels in Green Bay? Seriously, Packers fans are now twirling yellow towels. Why would a franchise so steeped in tradition steal another team's trademark like that?

... At least the Cowboys lost. It'll be far more interesting to watch a game in the Green Bay elements next weekend as opposed to the sun-drenched artificial surface of the Starboys.

... The Hula Bowl was played Saturday and on Sunday I flipped back and forth between that tape and the AFC playoff game between the Colts and Chargers. On one hand, I'm watching players and wondering if they're worth a seventh-round pick. \"Is he as good as Eric Taylor was?\" I asked myself at one point. And then I'd flip to the incredible athletes on the other channel and wonder if my preoccupation with the mutts in the Hula Bowl was just busywork for an insane person. Whatever, I'll have that Hula Bowl report tomorrow for those who are similarly afflicted.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 12

The Steelers signed eight players to their reserve/future roster on Friday: wide receiver Dallas Baker, wide receiver Jeremy Bloom, offensive guard Matt Lentz, safety Mike Lorello, linebacker Anthony Trucks, running back Justin Vincent, wide receiver Gerran Walker, and tight end Cody Boyd.

Bloom, of course, is a kickoff return man and Baker is a big pass-catcher who gained confidence working with the team down the stretch. I don't know that there's going to be room for both players next season, which underscores the need in this draft for a return man.

Obviously the team needs to shore up both lines, but I would not be surprised to see a return man get the call in one of the first two rounds. Most of those type are cornerbacks, so if Mike Tomlin is worried about stopping the New England Patriots AND returning kicks -- and what AFC coach isn't? -- than cornerback could be the curveball pick in one of the first two rounds.

... Speaking of which, Ohio State CB/S Malcolm Jenkins has opted to return to school for his senior year. That's a shock. This guy is a classic top 10 player who may have been the brightest light for OSU in the national title game. His departure from the draft will mean one less player will be chosen before the Steelers pick 24th (23rd if Seattle advances to the Super Bowl).

... A bit of a surprise yesterday was the decision by USC RG Chilo Rachal to leave school early. I watched Rachal closely in three games: against Arizona State I put a second-round grade on him; against Nebraska a 2nd/3rd-round grade; and against Illinois in the Rose Bowl I gave him the same 2nd-3rd grade. He looks like Chukky Okobi with those long arms, but he actually moves people. Rachal is strong and helps fill out a weak position. Maybe that's why he came out after an underappreciated season.

... Speaking of guards (aren't these transition phrases brilliant?), we can thank God this morning that Ron Cook has come out to once again tell us how to think. It's one thing to have an opinion, but to take your crown and trounce your readers for being so dumb is lame. Cook would have you believe that he actually does some reporting here, and I wonder how his column will tell us to think once the Steelers make their offer. Sure, it's a good guess that Faneca will be gone. Everyone knows that. But the Steelers plan to \"make a run\" at him. Simple as that. Is this column just a bashing of \"internet reports\" or didn't he have anything better on his mind? Personally, I can't wait for the offer. After listening to all the tsk-tsking from guys who never break news and only react to it, I'm hoping Faneca stays just so these know-it-alls can take their crowns and trounce themselves.

... Speaking of Faneca going to Arizona -- Ha! Did it again -- I've seen reports that Russ Grimm interviewed for the Redskins' head job. I also saw that Baltimore LB coach Jeff FitzGerald was officially fired yesterday. He's the guy, Grimm told the Rooneys, who was going to be hired as the Steelers' DC to replace Dick LeBeau had Grimm gotten the Steelers' head job. So don't YOU be surprised, Ron, when Grimm brings FitzGerald along for the ride. And Faneca, of course.

... Uh, oh. Richie Snyder has a bit more money than Bill Bidwell.

... My vote has been tabulated and Pro Football Weekly has released its Pro Football Writers All-NFL teams. The biggest mistakes are Matt Light as All-NFL left tackle and Randy Moss as Comeback Player of the Year. Scouts are probably chuckling at the writers over Light. As for Moss over Ben Roethlisberger, shouldn't a guy who came back from a near-fatal motorcycle wreck be considered over someone who just dogged it in 2006? There aren't any Steelers on any of the teams, other than All-Rookie punter Dan Sepulveda, which leads me to another interesting note: Pitt's Andy Lee (49ers) was voted All-NFL punter. He's the guy the Steelers tried to sign in restricted free agency. Had they gotten their way, the Steelers would've had their quality punter and also been able to use their fourth- and a sixth-round draft picks on backup offensive linemen. On the bright side, I'm a Sepulveda fan and the guy they liked as a late-round line addition, Darnell Stapleton, is the odds-on favorite to start at center for them next year.

... One more note, the big, BIG news screaming all over the Scout.com email network is that Joe Flacco will not play in the East-West Shrine game because he'll play in the Senior Bowl. I'm supposed to credit Adam Capplan for this outstanding journalistic effort. So glad we pay the big money for that. As for Flacco, he's Vinny Testaverde lite. Has that loser look all over him. Just my opinion.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 11

It was the routine: Get up, get the coffee and answer questions on the SCI message board. It pays and it's fun. But I fear the information is being lost. I fear it must be time for another blog.

I put my best guy on it and all he could come up with was \"Wexell Report.\" He thinks it works on an ironic level, but I don't know what that means.

Anyway, this will also cut down on the time element. I have to turn my focus to my book about my roadtrip. I have to go underground for awhile, into the zone. So this might be the best place to drop off whatever info I pick up along the way. This will be fun in a break-from-the-book kind of way.

As for the book, something Mike Tomlin said yesterday will find its way into a James Harrison chapter. Here's the full quote:

\"That season speaks for itself. He's a Pro Bowl starter. He's team MVP. He's a great success story. But people that aren't in this business and around it on a day-to-day basis don't have an understanding of how it grows and develops. It's nothing mystical. It doesn't surprise me one bit his performance this year for us. Since the day I got here last winter, I'd run into that guy in this building in the morning more than any football player. He's a self-made guy. He's a professional. He'd love for you to believe that he's wild and it just happens for him. And I understand the persona: It's a work-hard, make-it-look-easy persona. But this guy is a tremendous professional. He has no bounds in terms of preparing himself, and it's good to see the results that happen for people that perform like that. And it better be a source of inspiration for others because those are the kind of efforts we're going to need individually and collectively to be world champs.\"

The part about seeing Harrison early in the morning struck a note with me. Before giving up weightlifting for simple pushups in my advancing age, I worked out at the St. Vincent gym four times a week. Thing was, I had to be out of there by 7 a.m.

So I'd be in there at 6 a.m. with PR guys like Dave Lockett, and scouts like Mark Gorscak, and coaches like John Mitchell, and players like James Harrison. Yeah, the players were scheduled for 7 a.m. but James would routinely get there by 6:30-6:45 and he'd be in there lifting with us. One time I saw a sleepy Ben Roethlisberger there his rookie year. I think he was being hazed or something. He told me he wasn't a morning person and that's the last I saw of him.

Not James. Dude was a morning person, and as Tomlin said, it's great to see that work pay off. It gives all of us hope. And that's what James has become, Tomlin's beacon of hope. He's the shining light, the main man of the Tomlin transition, a guy who didn't really like Bill Cowher.

\"Didn't like him at all,\" said James' mom.

I asked James about that later, just so that his mom wasn't speaking for him.

\"I liked Cowher,\" James said in protest. \"I just didn't like some of his decisions.\"

Like starting Clark Haggans? I presumed, but didn't ask.

There's an old saying: Champions are made when nobody's looking. I love that saying. I've already taught my daughter that one. I'm not sure she knows what it means, but maybe after I read her that Tomlin quote she will. 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