* It's difficult to gauge running backs in shorts, but Rashard Mendenhall's receiving skills stood out. He catches the ball naturally and twice I saw him juke the first defender and gain 10 to 20 yards with his speed.
* The second comment on Mendenhall is he's smart. We saw that in the public forum when he criticized the University of Illinois for kicking his brother off the team. He's only 20 but he didn't back down against the scumbags in college football. Later I asked Rashard whether he's ever had a nickname. He said nothing's ever stuck, that his Illini teammates called him "Shard" or "Heem." ("It's kind of like Him. I don't know," he said.) So I asked what he thought about "Rocket Rashard" and he said, "I don't know. I can't pick my own nickname."
* Okay, I know it's not genius-type stuff, but I appreciate the potential superstar's humility. I told him I'd hold off on "Rocket Rashard" until he breaks off a long run. "That's cool," he said.
* Rashard looks like a bigger and faster Verron Haynes. I remember Verron's rookie year. I asked Dick Hoak about him and he said, "I like him a lot, but I just wish he was a little bigger and a little faster." Looks like Hoak retired a little too early because that guy's here now.
* It's been reported that Rashard took Verron's No. 34 because of Walter Payton. Not exactly. I asked Rashard the question about his uniform number at lunch and he said, "I didn't have much choice." I then put the words "Walter Payton" and "Chicago" in his mouth a bit before he admitted that Payton had a little bit to do with him choosing No. 34. Rashard grew up a Raiders fan in Chicago.
* A few minutes later I looked up and saw Limas Sweed sitting across from Rashard. Sweed reached out to shake his hand and said something motivational about being teammates and starting off on long NFL careers with a great organization. It was nice to see two potential superstars act more "geek" than cool.
* Sweed seems to be a special person. He grew up on a ranch outside of Houston and was raised by two parents who cared a great deal. His mom was a prison guard who used to "jack me up against the wall." Dad was the competitor. That's what Limas looks to be: a disciplined competitor. He dropped a few passes the first day and didn't take offense when I asked him about it later. "There's never been a receiver who hasn't dropped a ball," he said with a laugh. Then he was mobbed by the rest of the media and I ducked out.
* It's too early to tell if Sweed can play, but he goes hard every snap. Even during a simple special-teams drill, when the rest of the Steelers were working at their above-average tempo, Sweed was going full speed.
* Veteran cornerback Deshea Townsend likes the attitude of the rookie class. "That's one thing they always do upstairs (front office), they'll find a good group of guys," Townsend said. I asked him for particulars. "The guys everyone's been talking about: Sweed, Mendenhall," he said. "Sweed's a big guy and he's got the personality everyone said he had." Townsend is also impressed by the intelligence of sixth-round pick Ryan Mundy.
* The bottom line on Sweed: He's a big athlete who works as hard as he can. There'll be a payoff with him, but as a raw route-runner he'll need time. Try to remember that.
* Third-round pick Bruce Davis talks and looks like his idol Jason Taylor -- deep voice, well spoken, shaved head. In college I thought Davis looked like Joey Porter because of his cat-quick pass-rush skills and his talkative nature. After this weekend, all I can say about Davis on the field is that he can get back in coverage. That aspect of the transition from defensive end won't be a problem. And considering he'll eventually line up opposite LaMarr Woodley, who's more pass-rusher than coverage backer, Davis, with his skills, will provide a good balance between the two.
* The Steelers say Davis could move inside, but I re-watched the Senior Bowl and his run-stopping instincts in the middle are non-existent. His speed, though, is nothing like the 4.8 he registered with scouts. He told me he was running uphill – up the UCLA field crown – when he was timed. After watching the tape again, I believe him. He's too quick, and it showed on special teams. He was routinely the first player down the field to cover Senior Bowl kicks.
* Back to Davis and Porter. With his shirt off, Davis looks nothing like the young Peezy. The kid needs to get in the weight room and pump that chest up a little … no, a lot.
* Fifth-round pick Dennis Dixon didn't receive much work. I did see his two snaps Sunday: the first was intercepted by undrafted rookie Roy Lewis and the second ended in him scrambling down the field … during seven-on-seven passing drills. We used to make fun of Kordell for that.
* On Dixon's interception, it looked like he threw from his ear. It was an ugly push pass that deserved its fate.
* Dixon also needs a new number. No. 2 just doesn't work for a quarterback, or anybody.
* Speaking of odd numbers, I asked someone this: "Why do they need the backup kicker running pass routes in the spring?" I watched a little white guy, No. 11, running amid the giants. During the season, when the roster is much smaller, the kickers serve as needed. "That's not the backup kicker," I was told. "That's Jeremy Bloom."
* Bloom, Willie Reid and Santonio Holmes worked as punt returners Friday afternoon. Mewelde Moore, expected by the media to take on that role, wasn't used. I asked Santonio if there was talk he'd return punts this season. "We've been talking about it," Holmes said. "If push comes to shove and we have to get rid of some guys, I should be able to fit in." That tells me Reid is sitting on the bubble with both cheeks.
* The last backfield spot will be hotly contested at camp. I don't see Carey Davis getting the axe. He's so big and quick and has such good hands. It seems fans tend to naturally dislike him because he took Dan Kreider's job, but I'm excited to watch Davis play this year. He's not as bad a lead blocker as many fans say he is … or hope he is.
* I see the last spot being contested by Najeh Davenport and Gary Russell. Davenport worked at fullback this weekend, so he has an edge in versatility. But Russell is still 21 and has added 10 solid pounds. He put one slick move on a linebacker in the open field that's stuck in my memory banks. I wouldn't cut him. No chance.
* The best-looking young receiver is Matt Trannon. He made some great leaping, twisting catches, but that's been Trannon's history, that he's great in shorts but doesn't take particularly well to contact. Just another angle to watch at camp.
* Sources told me that Jared Zabransky threw some of the ugliest, end-over-end passes they'd ever seen. I tried to argue Billy Kilmer and all that guts-to-glory stuff, but the source said he now understands why the Steelers brought in a fifth quarterback, that Mike Potts of William & Mary wasn't brought in by the coach as a favor to his old school.
* They used to say that about Jon Dekker, who went to Princeton with Bill Cowher's daughter. But Dekker has his weight up to 264 and is looking like a real tight end. He always had the speed, agility and hands, now he has the muscle, and on one play looked like Mike Ditka seeking linebackers to run over.
* Don't count out WVU safety man Mike Lorello from making this team. In his third year he's moving with much greater confidence and has also put on extra muscle. Perseverance goes a long way with the Steelers.
* I wish I could make an intelligent comment on the Willie Colon-Max Starks re-do at right tackle. Let's just go back to the meeting held in the front office last February. The offensive coaches told the bean counters then that they wouldn't move Colon over for Starks. That's why the front office put the transition tag on Starks. They didn't know if he was a starter and hoped another team would set the salary bar. It never happened and now they have a $7 million backup.
* Max looks better, more comfortable at left tackle, but Marvel Smith is feeling great. I'd never had such a friendly talk with Marvel, who's a tough guy to figure out. But he smiled so much during conversation that I figure his back must feel as good as he says it does.
* I don't expect Larry Foote to hold off Lawrence Timmons for the mack inside linebacker job. I looked up at one deep ball and saw Timmons covering Holmes. Holmes had Timmons by two steps, but no other linebacker would've been that close. Timmons has too much speed to sit this year. Foote, a great, great guy who won't sulk, will be a valuable backup.
* Another backup at ILB, sixth-round pick Mike Humpal, is a two-time Iowa high school state wrestling champ and was the runner-up in the state's 110-meter high hurdles. In addition to that strength and speed, scouts rave about his football instincts. I talked to him and will add that he's got enough psycho in him to become a great special-teamer.
* Here's the ridiculous and the sublime from the light 40-minute practice that ended minicamp. The ridiculous: Ben Roethlisberger wearing a floppy sombrero while playing quarterback. The sublime: James Farrior walking over to join my interview with Deshea Townsend and both players talked about aging. Both believe they have four or five years left because they didn't play much early in their careers. It was a graceful moment with these gentlemen.