(Discuss Jim's blog entry here on the message board.)
SUNDAY, OCT. 25
9 p.m.: What a way to go into the bye week. It was a thrilling win over the Vikings in a game decided by a ball bouncing from one set of hands to another. That was the difference between a defensive collapse and a defensive save. This time, the ball bounced the Steelers' way.
My favorite quote after the game was neither philosophic nor insightful, but it was made by the game's unsung star, Brett Keisel. He tomahawked his childhood hero, Brett Favre, to ignite a touchdown return. The quote had nothing to do with the play. Said Keisel: "I grew up liking Brett Favre because he has a great first name." The three reporters standing there began to laugh, and Keisel said, "Really."
There was another quote I liked but wasn't able to mention it here in these notes, but Hines Ward said this on a pre-game show: "Some people say I like to hit guys when they're not watching. Well, watch, look. It's football."
SATURDAY, OCT. 24
8:30 a.m.: It appears Troy Polamalu will play Sunday, and perhaps at a much healthier status than last Sunday, so let's turn our attention to college football for the moment.
Scout.com's Chris Steuber reports that the Steelers will have scouts at the Oregon-Washington, UConn-WVU and South Florida-Pitt games. I'm interested in a prospect or two in each game as well.
The only standout from Washington is quarterback Jake Locker, who, if he comes out as a junior, should be a first-round pick, but it's doubtful he's a Steelers target. The guy I like from Oregon is tight end Ed Dickson (No. 83). In a great year for two-way tight ends, Dickson is a second-round blocker and pass-catcher. A blocking tight end out of Oregon tells you right there that the college game is ever changing.
At WVU, I'm sure the Steelers remain fixed on first-round right tackle Selvish Capers, who protected Pat White's blind side for a couple of years. UConn has an interesting defensive end, No. 9 Lindsey Witten, a fluid pass-rusher who can also drop into coverage. He's a third-round prospect.
And at Pitt, South Florida brings a handful of defensive prospects, including a pair of first-round defensive ends. They also have a second-round corner (Jerome Murphy, No. 3) and a mid-round inside linebacker (Kion Wilson, No. 42), but the Steelers are likely most interested in free safety Nate Allen (No. 5), a high second-round prospect who's a natural ballhawk and also pretty impressive against the run.
SUNDAY, OCT. 18
8:30 p.m.: And I thought this one was going to be another heartstopper. I thought the same about the San Diego playoff game last year and look how that ended up. So here are some thoughts over on the message board.
SUNDAY, OCT. 11
8:30 p.m.: Breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out.
It's OK. The Lions didn't come all the way back on the Steelers. I'll just take the win and walk away. And here are some thoughts.
FRIDAY, OCT. 9
11:15 a.m.: Here are some nuggets I came across this week that may be of interest:
* First, I'd like to applaud the class of one Mike Tomlin. After hearing that legendary reporter Stan Savran had undergone heart surgery this week, Tomlin stopped in the media room to learn the details. The next day, he sidled up to a reporter and asked about the visiting hours. No doubt Tomlin will give Savran a huge lift when he walks into that hospital room.
* I asked Lawrence Timmons if he's 100 percent recovered from his high ankle sprain, and he said, "Oh, yeah." I told him that I asked only because on one play, in coverage of Antonio Gates last week, he appeared to lumber out of a cut. "Well, it still hurts a lot," Timmons said. "But I don't think it's affecting me out there."
* I asked one of the vets about Ryan McBean, a castoff who's now starting for the Denver Broncos. "He didn't know where to line up or where to go," the vet said. "He never knew where to go." I asked about McBean's physical abilities. "He was a stud," the vet said. "He just never knew where to go, and it never changed." The Broncos' defensive system, it was explained, is much less complex than the Steelers' system, and it helped McBean to go to a team with a new head coach. So it brought me to Ra'Shon Harris, the sixth-round pick who was let go after his first camp with the Steelers. "Now that one surprised us," the vet said. "There's a guy with some potential." The vet also said that the word around the locker room is that Carolina is paying Harris $15,000 per week just to be on the practice squad. The minimum wage for a rookie on the active 53-man roster is $18,235 per week.
* Chris Steuber tells me that Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert will scout Saturday's Miami (Ohio)-Northwestern game. It'll be the second Northwestern game the Steelers will have attended, and the guess here is that Colbert is looking hard at 3-4 DE prospect Corey Wootton, a 6-foot-6, 280-pounder with the frame to add 20, 30, or 40 pounds. Wootton made the All-Big 10 first team last year after recording 10 sacks, but tore his right ACL in the Alamo Bowl and hasn't had a sack this season. He's said to be improving each week, but he looked awfully sluggish when I watched him play against Eastern Michigan the second week of the season.
* From a guy who studied tape of the Lions this week, LT Jeff Backus has been surprisingly bad in this his ninth NFL season. It could mean another multi-sack performance for James Harrison. My source also tells me the Steelers should run all day on the Lions.
* Mike Wallace's given name is Burnell Michael Wallace III. His father also went by "Mike," just in case you needed to know. I learned this while interviewing the rookie for this story.
MONDAY, OCT. 5
4:10 p.m.: The Steelers this afternoon re-signed DE Nick Eason and waived RB Isaac Redman with the idea of putting him back on the practice squad.
1 a.m.:Let's go here to talk about my thoughts on the, um, interesting win over San Diego.
THURSDAY, OCT. 1
8 p.m.: Willie Parker didn't practice again today, and I don't expect him to play Sunday against the Chargers. All indications are that Rashard Mendenhall has done all the right things and will play in the game, but I have a hunch the starter and main back will be Mewelde Moore. I don't write that because of anything I saw at practice, but just from knowing how much Mike Tomlin likes Moore.
* What I did see in practice is another running back in Stefan Logan. He's back at his natural position -- giving a great look as Darren Sproles -- and he really looks comfortable. He agreed with me, even said he told RB Coach Kirby Wilson that he's back where he belongs. "He just laughed," said Logan, who just might be showing enough to get a carry sometime soon.
* Word from one of the veterans is that "they think they made a mistake by taking Lawrence Timmons out of the game Sunday." Timmons, of course, was lifted from the game for Keiwan Ratliff just before the 4th-and-2 play. "They" in this case was not specified, but safely assume it means Dick LeBeau, Tomlin, or a combination of the two.
1:45 p.m.: No, it's not a sexy story, but it's the truth: Troy Polamalu will NOT play on Sunday. Trust me just as you trusted me this summer when I said that Michael Vick would not come to Pittsburgh and Casey Hampton would not leave Pittsburgh.
Normally I just laugh off and mock such reports, but if you need proof, I have it. Troy limped into the cafeteria today while the team was beginning its practice. No one expected him to practice, so it wasn't a surprise. I kiddingly called him over and asked if he was playing Sunday. "God willing," he said with a smile.
It's what he always says. Apparently, it's what he told some reporters the other day, and one of them was able to cobble together an interesting little note on it. But that note has since grown into a national story. Someone said Adam Schefter reported this morning that Troy might play Sunday. I have not checked the story, nor do I intend to. Anyway, Troy sat down and, while talking, began flipping a little white tablet that was in his hand. It looked like an aspirin. I asked him if it was "the magic pill that will allow him to play Sunday." He laughed. "I'll need something a lot stronger than this," he said.
So, anyway, the moral of the story is, if you ever see Troy out and about the North Hills of Pittsburgh some day, and you ask him if his infant son Paisios will become, say, President some day, and he says, "God willing," don't run to your computer and fire off a story. Let Adam Schefter do it.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 29
11:45 a.m.: In the last 48 hours, several goats have been mentioned, but none more than Limas Sweed. Most say he lost the game for the Steelers with his drop of a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter. Some are calling him a bust. A few even want Mike Tomlin to cut him. I disagree on all counts.
First of all, I want to give Sweed a bleeding-heart pass on the drop. To me – and I realize this is preposterous – he showed a baby step of improvement from his big drop in last year's AFC Championship Game, when he flat froze and dropped the ball. It looked like he might not have the stomach to play in this league. But on Sunday, he pulled it into his body and cradled it momentarily, only to fall on his elbow, which jarred it loose. Of course, it was still a drop, but he wasn't the deer in the headlights that he was last year. Considering some of the big catches he's made since August 1, he should be given a pass and, really, a few more passes early in the next game. He needs his confidence back because he's a big guy who separated easily out of his break past cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Plaxico Burress had the same trouble with his gangly body as a young body-catcher himself.
As for losing the game on that play, the Steelers came back on defense and sent the Bengals three-and-out thanks to William Gay's tackle on a 3rd-and-1 pass to Laveranues Coles. The Steelers then went down and scored their touchdown to take the 20-9 lead that Sweed should've given them. Had Sweed scored, it's possible the Steelers' offense would've gone into its turtle-ing act a series earlier than it did.
* That Joseph, who was beat all day long, became the hero of the game for the Bengals made me sick, and all the more sick because of a bad call by the linesman, who was right next to the behind-the-line screen pass to Santonio Holmes that went for 11 yards. The official incorrectly called Hines Ward for pass interference, and on the next play – when Ben Roethlisberger pointed to the blitzer and Willie Parker, who was lined up in the slot, pointed back – Holmes missed the hot read and Joseph was there for the pick six.
* Much is being made of the Steelers' age on defense, and, in particular, James Farrior is being cited because he was a step behind fresh-legged fullback Brian Leonard on the 4th-and-10 conversion just before the game-winning touchdown pass. Farrior was also the right edge linebacker who was blocked easily on Cedric Benson's 23-yard touchdown run. But upon closer review, the Steelers blew the Benson play by giving away their blitz too soon. The outside backers jumped inside and the inside backers went outside. Carson Palmer saw it, audibled to the outside run, and Farrior, unlike James Harrison, had no chance of holding the point. Give Palmer credit for the audible. As for Farrior on the final sequence, if he was a goat, so was Keiwan Ratliff and whoever – probably Dick LeBeau – put Ratliff in the game for Lawrence Timmons with a minute left, just before the 4th-and-2 play. If you look at your tape closely, you'll see Ratliff's man (off the line) catching the 4th-and-2 pass, and Ratliff a step away from Leonard on the 4th-and-10, and Ratliff a step away from the touchdown pass, and Ratliff two steps away from the conversion pass. Ratliff was cut once by the Bengals. Timmons is a No. 1 draft pick with a burst and explosiveness. Get the athletes on the field. Oh, and my suggestion to help Farrior have the same legs he had when he was all over the field on the first few series is to rotate Keyaron Fox into the mix at the buck. Fox had the hit of the game on KR Andre Caldwell.
* Willie Parker gained 72 yards in the first half, and I've heard callers to talk shows credit rookie David Johnson, because Johnson missed the second half with an injury and Parker finished with only 93 yards. But Johnson only played six snaps, and on the five running plays Parker gained 11 yards. As a fullback, Johnson led three plays and hit no one on two of them. Parker went the other way on the other. As a tight end on two plays, the Steelers passed once and ran up the middle for 4. Johnson also lined up as a wide receiver at the goal line. Actually, the tight end who blocked Antwan Odom to seal the edge on Parker's 24-yard run was Matt Spaeth.
* Rookie tackle Ramon Foster was the de facto replacement for Johnson. Parker gained 7 yards through a Foster-made hole on Foster's first play. The Steelers ran up the middle or to the right on six other snaps with Foster as the tight end on the left side. For the most part, Foster made his blocks, but Odom did fight him off to make the tackle on a key fourth-quarter drive with fullback Heath Miller as the lead blocker. In all, the Steelers ran on all eight of Foster's snaps for 18 yards.
* In the last 16 games, the Steelers have had seven 4th-quarter leads of 8 points or less when they had to run an offense play besides a kneeldown. They're 3-4 in those games. The Dallas win should hardly count since Gary Russell ran with 51 seconds left before Roethlisberger took the knee, so in the other six games they blew the lead five times. The only lead they didn't blow was the AFC Championship Game, when Troy Polamalu's pick six sealed the win.
* Since the start of the 2008 season, the Steelers have run 15 first-down plays in the fourth quarter with leads of 8 points or less. They've run 11 times for 23 yards and completed 2 of 4 passes for 0 yards. It's time to change up the formation with the short lead and attack out of three wides.
SUNDAY, SEPT. 27
10 p.m.: Last week's loss left me feeling bad for the Steelers. This one's different. I'm just mad. Call me a whiny brat after reading some of my thoughts here on the message board.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 26
9 a.m.: Scout.com college expert Chris Steuber reports that Steelers scouts will attend the Florida-Kentucky and Buffalo-Temple games today.
At Temple, the Steelers will watch a late-round receiver, Buffalo's Naaman Roosevelt, who tore up the Pitt secondary but who looks like nothing more than Martin Nance. Steuber says Temple has an interesting junior safety in Jaiquawn Jarrett, and I'll have to trust him on that because I can't nor won't watch it.
Now, the other game of course is more interesting. As with the rest of the media, Steuber reports that the top Florida prospects are LB Brandon Spikes, DE Jermaine Cunningham, WR Riley Cooper and QB Tim Tebow. And personally I don't have much interest in any of them. No offense to a truly great team, and a great QB, but the ultra-competitive Tebow is a puzzle that I won't have to worry about as a reporter who covers the Steelers. Cooper is just another Florida WR, while Spikes might be the most overrated defender in the nation. He just looks like a run-downs player to me. Cunningham, this must be some kind of a joke, right? Another lightweight 4-3 end. The Gators I'll be watching are juniors Carlos Dunlap (DL), Joe Haden (CB) and Mike Pouncey (OG). I haven't seen Kentucky this year, but do remember 180-pound cover corner Travard Lindley and ILB Micah Johnson from a year ago. Lindley is a first-day player who probably won't interest the Steelers, while Johnson is a mid-rounder.
Some other suggestions for your own personal couch scouting:
* Indiana at Michigan (noon) -- Michigan DE Brandon Graham (55) might remind you of LaMarr Woodley.
* North Carolina at Georgia Tech (noon) -- UNC has a bunch of talented junior defenders. My favorite is MLB Quan Sturdivant (52).
* Minnesota at Northwestern (noon) -- NU's Corey Wootton is supposed to be a first-round 3-4 DE prospect, and he has the body, but he's coming back from serious injury and has looked extremely sluggish so far.
* Fresno State at Cincinnati (noon) -- Cincy QB Tony Pike looked to me to be the best player in the land, but no one agrees. So someone will get a steal later in the draft.
* Iowa at Penn State (8 p.m.) -- Iowa has a decent coverage LB in A.J. Edds (49) but I want to see junior OT Bryan Bulaga. Hopefully he'll go up against PSU's first-round prospect, DT Jared Odrick.
SUNDAY, SEPT. 20
10:45 p.m.: Tough one. Don't really know any other way to sum it up. The Steelers played well, but need to develop a killer instinct. It'll happen.
For that and more profundity, click here.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 19
9:40 a.m.: One of the top college games of the day, at least as far as the Steelers are concerned, is a matchup at the new TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota, where Cal visits for a noon (E.S.T) game that will be televised on ESPN.
If you haven't seen Cal, you owe it to yourself to watch junior running back Jahvid Best (#4). Cal also has a low first/high second-round prospect at cornerback, Syd'Quan Thompson (#5). Both Best and Thompson double as return men. Cal also has an interesting defensive tackle, third-round prospect Tyson Aluala (#44), a 6-2, 295-pounder with a great motor. Wide receivers Verrran Tucker (#86) and Nyan Boateng (#8) are late-round prospects.
Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker (6-3, 215) is a second-round prospect.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 18
12 p.m.: Ron Cook called it controversial. Mike Florio went so far as to insinuate that the Steelers would force Jerome Bettis to "tone it down" or he wouldn't feel any more love from the organization. But Bettis's foray into the writing world was far from controversial. And anyone who thinks the Steelers would talk to a writer -- any writer -- about stating the obvious just doesn't understand the Rooneys at all. That said, Bettis's column, in which he criticized the running game and the offensive line, was the talk of the locker room this week, only because most of the reporters thought it would be controversial. But if everyone agrees with something, where's the controversy? At one point, Willie Colon pulled me aside and asked what Bettis had written. I told him that Bettis did what everyone else is doing: He criticized the offensive line and the running game. I told Colon that unless his name is Frank Summers, he shouldn't be worried at all, that it's the same old stuff, only Bettis was more concise in his criticism because he lost his TV job for being too wishy washy and is trying to prove himself as a journalist. Colon nodded, and repeated much of what I told him to the inquiring minds. Just another story about nothing.
* Someone asked Hines Ward about losing a step at his advanced age of 33, and Ward just shook his head. This after he caught 8 balls for 103 yards in the opener. I shook my head, too, because I'd just watched the Bears play the previous night and believe they'd kill for a veteran receiver with Ward's understanding of the pro passing game. The Bears probably have the worst collection of receivers in the league, with only a couple of sprinters to run fly patterns. The possession guy, Earl Bennett, might be the worst starting wide receiver in the league, and the assumption is he's only playing because he was Jay Cutler's go-to guy in college. That didn't work so well for Martin Nance here, did it? Anyway, I'm predicting a Steelers win because of this flaw in the Bears' offense. It'll allow the Steelers to concentrate on the short stuff to Devin Hester and tight end Greg Olsen, and at the same time allow them to hammer running back Matt Forte. If the Bears don't find a veteran receiver, it's going to be a long year for Forte.
* Speaking of tight ends, here's some stuff on Heath Miller that you might enjoy. Or not.
* Ben Roethlisberger really seems like a new guy in the locker room this season, and it's not forced. Last year he was aloof, and the word from team sources was that he and Hines Ward hated each other. If it was true then, it's clearly not the case these days. Roethlisberger leads the group in an Around-The-World "basketball" game every day around the garbage can. And he and Hines are best of buddies.
THURSDAY, SEPT. 17
1:45 p.m.: Ben Roethlisberger only speaks to the media on Wednesday ... unless you can entice him with some interesting subject matter on Thursday. That happened a few hours ago. The Steelers' quarterback was walking unmolested through the reporter-infested locker room as he typed on his cell phone. He put it all down when I approached and asked these questions:
Q: How's Heath Miller developing as your right-hand man on the field?
BR: "I've said this a thousand times: He's one of the best -- if not the best – tight ends in the game. It's unfortunate he doesn't get the recognition or credit for it. I wish analysts would just take the time and watch him play the game – the way he blocks, the way he catches the ball, the precision, the way he finishes plays. He might be one of the only guys on the field who, when a guy catches a pass, is trying to push the pile – on every single play. One hundred percent of the time he's giving 100 percent effort, and it's all the way through the whistle. He's as good as a lineman blocking and he's as good as a receiver catching the ball. I like to give him crap about not having a lot after the catch, but he's hard to bring down. He doesn't have a lot of moves, so I like to give him a hard time about that, but he truly is one of the best in the game. I can't say enough about him."
Q: When you're on the run, is he always where you think he's going to be?
BR: "He plays ball. You know, it's one of those things. We don't practice it; you don't have to with a guy like that. It's just that I know where he's going to be. And it's easy to throw to a guy like that when he can catch anything in this area (stretches his arms to illustrate the wingspan), and then some. I mean, when he drops a ball in practice – normally our receivers will drop maybe one a week, two a week, whatever – he'll drop one every other week and people are like (facial expression of wonderment) – and then they make fun of him. It's just easy to throw to a guy when you don't have to concentrate on putting it right here (small chest area). When you're scrambling and you find him, he's always looking for the ball and it's comforting."
The interview was one of many about the popular Miller for a feature in next week's Steelers Digest. For you folks here at SCI this evening, I talked to Rashard Mendenhall about going home, the heat on the running game, and running into his quarterback. I also talked to Trai Essex about the Bears' front, dug up some info on Limas Sweed's injury (no walking cast), and learned from Lawrence Timmons that he'll practice today and still hopes to play Sunday. Be back with more after watching practice and the Mike Tomlin mini press conference.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 16
Questions form the Chicago Bears Scout.com publisher: 1. While I understand the value of running the football, especially when an organization has an identity like the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger performs well slinging the ball all over the place out of the shotgun. Why not open up the offense a little more and let Big Ben do what he does so well?
They threw the ball 43 times in the opener, which was two more than Roethlisberger ever attempted last season. I don't know how much more they can throw. The guy gets hit enough as is, and the best way to lower the heat is to establish a running game. The Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall first a couple of years ago to do just that. His return from injury has turned the heat up on Willie Parker, who has responded by getting in great shape. That said, the Steelers will likely give Parker another game or so to prove he hasn't lost a step, and Mendenhall perhaps a month to prove he's not a bust. If they can't get anything going, they'll have little alternative than to put their QB in the shotgun on first down.
2. Many Bears fans were high on Rashard Mendenhall in the draft two Aprils ago since he's a product of Niles West High School and the University of Illinois. Luckily for them, Matt Forte turned out to be a stud after passing on Mendenhall. Is he on his was to being the featured back any time soon?
He looked good last year in the first half of the Ravens game before Ray Lewis busted his scapula. The injury is still in his head, as evidenced by his poor pass blocking, so no one's really sure what to make of him. His power, speed and hands demand that the the coaches give him more time, but right now he's looking like nothing more than a third-down back -- if he can improve his pass-blocking.
3. Pittsburgh seems to have a perfect mix of weapons in the passing game: Hines Ward as the possession target, Santonio Holmes as the big-play threat and Heath Miller as the dependable security blanket. Are the roles for these three pass catchers as clearly defined as they appear to be on paper?
Ward got deep a couple of times against the Titans, but for the most part those stereotypes fit. Mike Wallace has deep speed and the intention is for he and Holmes to open up the middle for Ward and Miller, and the coaches looked good on that count in the opener.
4. If Jay Cutler and Co. had trouble figuring out Green Bay's version of the 3-4 in Week 1, then they're in big trouble facing the Steelers' wide-open scheme in Week 2. Does this defense have any noticeable tendencies based on down and distance, or is Dick LeBeau completely random when making calls?
Other than being able to run on the Steelers' dime defense, I don't know of any tendencies. People with far greater football minds than mine watch hours of tape trying to answer that question. GB DC Dom Capers, by the way, and LeBeau coached three seasons together under Bill Cowher, so the Packers' defense is a good blueprint for the Bears this week. The problem, as I saw it from my couch, wasn't so much scheme as it was the LT, the LG and the RT. And people think the Steelers have stiffs up front.
5. Both teams will be missing their most recognizable defender: Brian Urlacher for Chicago, Troy Polamalu for Pittsburgh. While Urlacher's star is beginning to fade, Polamalu is in the prime of his career. It's hard not to be impartial here, but which team will miss their superstar the most Sunday?
You should've written off Rex Grossman as quickly as you're writing off Urlacher, who looked great Sunday night. Polamalu also looked dynamic, but, with Lawrence Timmons likely due back, the Steelers will have someone capable of covering Greg Olsen. They can then put anybody man up on Bennett, a safety over the top of Hester, and just beat on that stud you have at running back. No, I think the bigger loss is Urlacher, since the Bears have so little in their back seven.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 8
3 p.m.: Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette reports that center Justin Hartwig has signed a four-year contract worth $10 million, with a $2.1 million signing bonus included.
11:15 a.m.: There's always the chance that Sonny Harris will return to the Steelers. Much like the Rule 5 Draft in baseball, some teams can't keep a borderline prospect all season and at some point will let him go, whereby the original team can do what it should've done from the start: keep the player.
Harris's former teammates feel that way. A quick sampling of linemen yesterday revealed there was nothing more behind the Steelers' cutting of the sixth-round pick other than the obvious: They tried to squeeze him onto the practice squad in order not to lose veteran Nick Eason.
Eason was the player who narrowly beat Harris for the roster spot. And by narrow, I mean the narrow width between the thumb and forefinger that my non-player source was holding up in front of me.
Coaches, of course, never want to keep the rookie over the veteran, but this one was close -- and with good reason, according to some of his former teammates, who say Harris understood his assignments, was a good guy, had a fine relationship with his position coach, and, most importantly, was showing real progress as a player. The guys I talked to were surprised the Steelers cut him.
* The Anthony Madison cut may have surprised some of the players, but not those close to Coach Mike Tomlin, who, whenever asked about his core special teams players, repeats the names Keyaron Fox, Andre Frazier and Patrick Bailey. I learned that his responses have been similar to the way Tomlin responded to reporters over the years whenever he was asked about Bryant McFadden off the record. Whenever asked about Madison last season, Tomlin wouldn't denigrate him, but he'd change the topic, and that topic would normally fall under the "Fox, Frazier, Bailey" umbrella.
* Donovan Woods, it turns out, lost his spot to Arnold Harrison, not the combination of Bailey and Harrison, because Bailey already had the team made. Of course, Woods pulled a hamstring during the interception return last week, but Bailey was a lock because of his flawless technique in covering kicks. Apparently, coverage experts froth while watching Bailey run downfield on film. They admire how he keeps his shoulders square the entire trip, as opposed to the way Woods turns them back and forth "the way a quarterback would." It's all foreign to me, but the important information is that Woods isn't the core special-teams player I'd assumed he was.
* Starting right guard Trai Essex is also No. 1 backup left tackle, but a team source calls Ramon Foster the team's third-best tackle. When I countered that Foster would therefore – since he's perceived to be better than Essex – be the second-best guard, the response was: "Who's No. 1?"
* Yes, Chris Kemoeatu's on the spot Thursday night. He's the guy who lined up across from rookie Jason Jones in last year's game, and Jones ended up with 3.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Kemoeatu is coming off back-to-back preseason games in which he nearly got running back Rashard Mendenhall killed, one of which caused a fumble and drew Tomlin's sympathies. If it continues, Foster could emerge sooner rather than later. Yesterday, Foster was the second-team right tackle. Down the line, to Foster's left, were Doug Legursky, A.Q. Shipley, Kraig Urbik and Tony Hills.
* Keenan Lewis is the No. 4 cornerback and lead gunner on the punt team. He'll be paired with his childhood friend Mike Wallace on Thursday night. I'll have a bit more from Lewis later today.
* The front office offered some resistance to the cutting of Sean McHugh. While Tomlin insisted rookie David Johnson is the better in-line blocker – even today – than the veteran McHugh, the front office countered that McHugh is the better lead blocker as a fullback and that they didn't want to cut McHugh for fear the Cincinnati Bengals – ravaged by injuries at the position – would pick him up. So the compromise was to pay McHugh his salary as they stashed him on IR.
* I doubt the signing of Tuff Harris to the practice squad was done solely for intelligence work on his former team, the Titans. Some of the veteran players knew of Harris and were raving about his athleticism, or more specifically his "360 (degree) dunks."
* Steve McLendon, the practice-squad nose tackle from Troy, lamented his school's opening-day loss to Bowling Green and is appropriately fearful of this week's game against Florida. He talked about the jolt he received while tackling Tim Tebow last year, and said his understanding is that the Gators are obsessed with repeating as national champions. I asked McLendon if it might match his current team's obsession with repeating. "This team right here is FAMILY," he said with emphasis. "I've never been a part of any group like it in my life."
McLendon, by the way, is listed at 280 pounds but says he's over 300 and has been for a while.
* The Steelers sent a scout to the Troy-Bowling Green game and no doubt watched 6-4, 256-pound Troy defensive end Brandon Lang, who's considered a late first or early second-round prospect. McLendon raved about him, but there was no comment from the Steelers' front office.
* Three guys I watched closely this weekend were – for no particular reason other than I have to start somewhere – Syracuse NT Arthur Jones, Miami MLB Darryl Sharpton, and Oklahoma State CB Perrish Cox. My initial thoughts are that Jones, the projected first-rounder, looked just like Sonny Harris and is ranked too high; Cox, the physical and instinctive second-round ballhawk, is ranked too low; and the middle-round Sharpton was a 5-foot-11 sideline-to-sideline missile who was inexplicably yanked from the game during Florida State's final drive. If you watch the last play – the dropped touchdown pass – the guy who slowly ambled over to finally attempt to cover FSU's intended receiver, No. 44, was the guy who'd replaced Sharpton.
* Remember when James Farrior stepped in front of Mike Tomlin for an interception on the college field? Neither does Farrior, who in 2007 said, "I don't remember the play or Tomlin. The only one of their players I remember is Darren (Sharper)." Farrior mocked William & Mary at the time, but Tomlin hasn't returned the favor this week after W&M shocked Virginia, 26-14. "I think he talked more smack to Heath (Miller) since Heath was there more recently," Farrior said. But Miller said he heard little to nothing on the topic from Tomlin, who's either too classy or is waiting for the right moment.
* Ben Roethlisberger, the insane competitor, was lining up his next turn in an around-the-world basketball-type game in the locker room with Hines Ward and Ike Taylor – with a paper ball and a garbage can – when I asked him if he had been sandbagging Shaquille O'Neal during the televised H-O-R-S-E game last month. If you watched, cameras captured the two playing H-O-R-S-E in Ben's backyard. Ben was down to H-O-R-S and was shooting from the rocks in his flower garden with E on the line. He hadn't made a shot the entire game, nor had he come close, when he swished the long ball from the garden, and then went on to hammer Shaq with a flurry of shots to come back and win the game. "No, I wasn't sandbagging. Shaq was actually very good," Ben said. "TV made it look a lot different than it really was."
* The truth comes out when you turn off the tape recorder and put it in your pocket, and that's when Aaron Smith told me he expects a tight, back-and-forth game Thursday with the game to be decided by a fortunate bounce of the ball. I believe Aaron was telling me his truthful view, but so often that's when blowouts occur – when the better team holds the utmost respect for its opponent and cares about every detail coming in. For that and other reasons, I'm looking for a big Steelers win Thursday night.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 4
11:45 p.m.: Well, it's all come down to the last few hours before the 2009 Steelers are announced, and there's plenty of lively conversations on the SCI message boards today.
I started a thread that builds from the 45 active players needed to beat Tennessee. It's a good place to start.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 2
6:30 p.m.: We haven't rolled this template out since David Johnson signed his rookie contract. Other than Johnson, the 7B pick, being on the verge of making the team, nothing much has changed since then. Peter King is still insisting that Michael Vick coulda, shoulda, woulda been a Steeler, and I'm still picking the Black and Gold to win the Super Bowl. I don't know which is more idiotic, but at SteelCityInsider.com you can decide.
Also, I received this from a great guy who helped me out a lot with my book. Give this a chance tomorrow night if you can:
"Greetings from Charlotte, NC. Jon Wilson of Wilson's World, on Fox News Rising, is doing a live remote at our sports bar, Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, on Thursday, Sept. 3rd, beginning at 5:30 a.m. Wilson wants to promote what a real Steelers' Tailgate looks like and we need plenty of warm bodies to fill the picture. Please come out and support the Steeler Nation!"
FRIDAY, JUNE 19
1:20 p.m.: Steelers rookie tight end David Johnson became the seventh of the team's nine draft picks from the 2009 NFL Draft to sign with the club when he agreed today to a three-year contract. Financial terms of the deal were not released.
Johnson (6-2, 260), was the Steelers' seventh round selection (241st overall) in April's draft. Johnson caught 45 passes for 760 yards and nine touchdowns during his college career at Arkansas State. He enjoyed his best season as a senior when he set career highs with 22 receptions, 356 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
The Steelers have signed all of their 2009 draft picks except for first round defensive end Ziggy Hood and third round offensive lineman Kraig Urbik.
MONDAY, JUNE 15
9 p.m.: Keenan Lewis's contract numbers are in, courtesy of Scout.com's Adam Caplan. The third-round cornerback signed a three-year deal for $1.655 million that includes a $480,000 signing bonus.
THURSDAY, JUNE 11
2:40 p.m.: The final spring OTA session was a walk-through with barely any news of significance taking place. Even Ben Roethlisberger took the last day off. The QB was a spring-time regular, as was another last-day absentee, James Farrior.
Before I begin to transcribe Coach Mike Tomlin's post-practice press conference, here are a couple of practice notes I was able to come up with:
* The only play worth noting was a terrific interception by rookie CB Keenan Lewis. He ripped the ball from Limas Sweed's hands on the sideline during an out pattern. Of the rookies, Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett may have the better opportunities to contribute early, but Lewis was the one who impressed me most this spring.
* Trai Essex played RG with the first team as Darnell Stapleton stood on the sideline. I assume Stapleton was nicked up, but I do expect Essex to receive a shot at winning that job in training camp.
* Scouting intern Luke Palko -- Tyler's older brother -- was just hired by the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers are the cradle of personnel, so an internship with them is worth its weight in gold. Good Luke to Palko.
* Watching undrafted rookie safety Derrick Richardson close in on Brandon Williams along the sideline brought to mind that even the slow guys at this level are fast.
* The championship ring is massive. Where will it go from here? One reporter said that since it's impossible to get any wider or longer, that future rings can only go higher.
* Without the shells and helmets, it became obvious that Lawrence Timmons is much thicker this season. He said he weighs 245, up from his Super Bowl game day weight of 236. He said he wants to stay at that weight since he'll need to plug the run a little more this year. Both he and Dick LeBeau said that Timmons hasn't lost any quickness with the extra weight.
* I asked Ryan Clark if he's even thinking about this year's game in Denver -- considering his past health problems there -- and he said he's not thinking about it, "but they are," he said as he pointed to coaches and trainers. Clark is off to Arizona for the next month to train.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 10
12:40 p.m.: The Steelers moved OTA No. 13 over to Heinz Field today, as they do once per spring, and, as they do, closed the practice to local media. So I'll be back Thursday afternoon with the final practice report and the transcript from Coach Mike Tomlin's end-of-spring State of the Steelers address.
THURSDAY, JUNE 4
4 p.m.: As expected Mike Wallace is the team's No. 1 kickoff return candidate, but even he can see that the competition will be fierce. "I want you people to understand these J-O-B-S are wide open!" Coach Mike Tomlin told the assembled group today.
Here's a closer look at the group:
* Wallace is the favorite. The rookie from Ole Miss has the long speed and the size Tomlin didn't have last year with Nate Washington.
* Mewelde Moore took the next turn and is probably more of a veteran fallback, as is Shaun McDonald, who was back with the group but never took a rep.
* Joe Burnett went third. He's smaller than Washington, but the rookie has college experience that Washington never got at Tiffin. Burnett must receive reps here because he's the favorite to become the punt returner, and therefore may have to find another job to do if active on game days.
* Stefan Logan is the Canadian Football League star who has great quickness and strength in spite of his diminutive stature. Logan looks like another Darren Sproles; however, he may lack the necessary long speed. According to my colleague Mark Kaboly of the McKeesport Daily News, Logan stayed after practice last week to race Willie Parker, and Parker won by five yards.
* Brandon Williams is another veteran slot receiver who flashes a great play or move every now and then. He hopes to win a WR job over McDonald, but is smaller. Making plays as a kickoff return man is a necessity for him, and he appears to have enough quickness.
* Jayson Foster is back for another camp with the Steelers. He's the former Georgia Southern QB who made it to the regular-season playing field with the Miami Dolphins, but was cut with extreme prejudice by incoming Bill Parcells, who refuses to enlist 5-foot-7 players. Like Logan, this guy is cat-quick, but is a better downfield receiver. Logan's more of a wingback/running back trying to play WR.
* The blocking backs for this group of KRmen were, in order, Rashard Mendenhall, Carey Davis and Justin Vincent.
* As the players went through their stretch, I did some numbers crunching, as in uniform numbers. I think that undrafted rookie Cedric Goodman is keeping No. 80 warm for Mike Wallace, who shouldn't get married to the idea of wearing No. 17. I also think that No. 40 is too big for Joe Burnett, who should switch with Keenan Lewis and wear No. 20. Lewis has that long, lean Gale Sayers look and would look better in No. 40.
* Watching the DBs work on their ball skills, it's obvious that both Lewis and Burnett have great hands. Lewis's are quieter.
* DB Coach Ray Horton explained a new drill and asked veteran Deshea Townsend to provide an example. As Townsend proceeded, Tomlin yelled over from the linebackers drills: "I see you Deshea!" I love that comment. I use it with my daughter's softball team. It's something you say to someone doing one of the little things that only a coach or teammate would appreciate. I first heard this from Jason Gildon when he was one of the greybeards and has since been a constant on the Steelers' practice field.
* Lewis is going to be a player. Two snapshots from today: He looked big enough to form a shadow over 6-foot-4 Martin Nance deep, and, two, coming off his man in the short zone to hone in on McDonald trying to catch a ball at the line of scrimmage. McDonald juggled and dropped the ball and Lewis was in prime belting position. I'm sure we'll see the next frame in the sequence from Lewis when going up against an opponent.
* I watched practice with two Pitt players. One of them was really intrigued by Nance. "Look at those routes," he said to his buddy.
* Limas Sweed went up in between Will Gay and Andre Frazier to make a great catch of an intermediate out from Ben Roethlisberger. Later, Sweed dropped a perfect deep middle pass between Lawrence Timmons and Keiwan Ratliff.
* In the background, on the other field, Dirk Johnson was punting the entire 80-yard length of the field. (BTW, Dan Sepulveda got back to work this week. He'll be fine.)
* Dennis Dixon threw darts from behind this offensive line: LT Jason Capizzi, LG Ramon Foster, C Doug Legursky, RG A.Q. Shipley, RT Tony Hills. Just mixing things up a bit.
* Rookie tight end David Johnson made the Catch of the Day, a diving TD catch of a Dixon pass in the corner of the end zone to end the hurry-up red zone session.
* I don't go around asking for disappointing spring performances, but I have a hunch second-year OLB Bruce Davis is having a bad camp. Today, in coverage downfield on Carey Davis, Bruce Davis was turned around and eluded during a sideline run by the pass-catching fullback. A collective groan went up from the defense when the linebacker was fooled. He then went to the bench for a talk with his position coach.
* Running sprints well after practice, with a sled of weights tied to them like a downed parachute, were Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore, Deshea Townsend, Will Gay, Ike Taylor and Brandon Williams.
THURSDAY, MAY 28
3:15 p.m.: Mike Tomlin has to be pleased with not only a great and full week of work, but with the attitude of his veteran team as May draws to a close. Coming off the Super Bowl, there are few distractions -- real distractions, not media-driven distractions -- and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been at every practice. Even the injured players -- Hines Ward, Ryan Clark and Dan Sepulveda -- have shown up regularly. There's no sign of a hangover, or malaise, possibly because there are so many veterans in salary drive mode. But more likely is that this is a group of smart and ambitious people. The only players missing (working out elsewhere) are Troy Polamalu and Santonio Holmes, and both of them play positions where depth must be developed.
* The running backs look great. Rashard Mendenhall has all the makings of a bell cow and Willie Parker is up for the challenge. Competition is already driving these two players. Parker is in great shape and is working hard on his receiving. Mewelde Moore is a solid No. 3 and Frank Summers got a chance today to show off why he's nicknamed "Tank." The big guy was rumbling through the touch-football field and looks like he can develop into a force some day. He has good hands, too; caught a high swing pass, turned it upfield to the sound of Tomlin roaring. Afterward he took some advice from the coach in the middle of the field, something about looking to run people over more. Even FB Ryan Powdrell, the former USC fullback who lost his college season to a knee injury and spent 2007 on IR with Green Bay, showed some explosiveness today. Good, solid group with the potential for greatness.
* Max Starks missed the workout and Trai Essex moved over to left tackle. That moved Kraig Urbik up to second-team guard, but please don't ask this amateur to gauge his progress. I'll just say that he seems strong enough and quick enough.
* I watched Limas Sweed take a slant all the way up the middle -- without a defense -- and shuddered at the big, fast man's potential. Then I saw him drop a short pass over the middle with Anthony Madison trying to cover. One scout likened his inconsistency to a young Plaxico Burress, and of course is hopeful, even optimistic, of a similar developmental curve.
* Shaun McDonald had a good day. Mike Martz really liked this guy in the slot, and drafted him and then brought him to Detroit. The departure of Martz from Detroit is what McDonald blames for his poor 2008. I'll give him Catch of the Day today for the way he "ziggied" up the field after a few short catches.
* Speaking of Ziggy, everyone likes him. The big man can move. I'll have a little story on him coming up in a few days. The big man was running from sideline to sideline today and had Tomlin pretty excited.
* Tomlin really makes you feel like you're here for a reason. Bill Cowher used to leave much of these workouts to his coordinators. May have been good for the coordinators, but the practices didn't have the same urgency.
* I know. May 28.
* Backup ILB Donovan Woods turned his ankle and left the field.
* Rookie WR Mike Wallace again had the Indoor Arena in a state of eruption, but Ike Taylor recovered to break up the slightly underthrown bomb from Charlie Batch. Tomlin threw a phantom flag on the play.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 27
3:30 p.m.: James Harrison missed practice today to bring his son home from the hospital. Hallelujah for the boy, and for those of us who don't have to read anymore about off-the-field James.
Funny, but not one of the righteously indignant columnists mentioned that the boy was attacked by the dog the same day Harrison skipped the White House visit. Don't know that it means anything, but it should've been mentioned somewhere, particularly by the guys who waited a week before ripping into Harrison for blowing off the White House -- or, I should say, the guys who waited a week before mailing their columns in.
* Anyone else out there starting to feel the same way about Bill Cowher that the media and team support staff have for the last 15 years? He looked ridiculous with that Carolina mascot while ringing the siren at last night's hockey game. And don't be so surprised by his lack of loyalty. This is the guy who wouldn't root for the Steelers -- his own boys -- in the last Super Bowl because, he said, the other team had a couple of his ex-assistants.
* OTA VII went off without many highlights today. Rashard Mendenhall continues to impress, but the other rookie from last season, Limas Sweed, had two big drops. In fact, the first pass of the day clanged off his hands and bounced to safety Ryan Mundy for a touchdown. Sweed did catch a 50-yarder from Ben Roethlisberger later for a score. Cornerback Fernando Bryant tripped and fell and Sweed was wide open. He took it to the end zone and slam-dunked the ball over the crossbar.
* Sweed won't be the No. 3 receiver this year. The favorite has to be Shaun McDonald. Not that he's showing much, but no one else appears capable of running those inside routes that veteran slot receivers can run.
* I watched Lawrence Timmons pick up a loose ball and throw a spiral 60 yards. I hope Mike Tomlin saw it, in case he ever wants to run a linebacker option pass.
* The punt returners got some real action outdoors today. While Stefan Logan will assuredly pick up some fans in the preseason with his quickness, fifth-round rookie Joe Burnett is showing poise and polish beyond his years. He's a natural punt-catcher and knows exactly what he wants to do with the ball and where he wants to go. I asked an assistant coach if Burnett has a good chance to be the punt returner this year, and he said "Burnett has a GREAT chance."
* After Logan went deep to snag a ball over his shoulder, Tomlin asked him if he ever played baseball, and told him to catch the next deep one like a center fielder. Sure enough, a few kicks later, Logan took his eyes off the ball and turned and ran to a spot, just like he was Willie Mays, and then he turned, picked up the ball and caught it easily. "There you go!" Tomlin bellowed.
* While Sweed made a couple of nifty catches, he lost points for his drops and therefore Catch of the Day went to Heath Miller, who turned safety Roy Lewis around and got behind him to catch a deep pass. On the next play, Roethlisberger scrambled, motioned for Matt Spaeth to break deep, but he couldn't break free from Lewis, who broke up the pass.
* Rookie cornerback Keenan Lewis flashed pro recovery speed to break up a deep pass intended for Brandon Williams, the guy who has the only realistic chance of beating McDonald out for the open slot receiver spot.
* The 6-foot-5 kicker from Poland, Piotr Czech, finished the field goal period by booming a 55-yarder through the skinny goal posts. Speaking of the backup kickers, punter Dirk Johnson played with Aaron Smith at Northern Colorado.
TUESDAY, MAY 26
3:30 p.m.: In Saturday's Tribune-Review, Max Starks said that he hasn't been offered a multi-year deal yet by the Steelers. Today a top source with the Steelers said the Steelers have indeed offered Starks a long-term deal.
"He should communicate with his agent better if that's what he's saying," the source said. "I'd like to see the context in which he was quoted."
The Steelers are confident the sides will come to an agreement on a long-term deal with Starks before training camp. The source said the team isn't involved in any other serious contract negotiations because of Starks' current $8.4 million salary and its strain on the cap.
"We need to get the number down," he said. "And he's getting married and wants long-term security."
* OTA Session V was the workout in Washington D.C., and for Session VI the attendance was down a bit. Still out are the two starting safeties, as well as backup Tyrone Carter. So Roy Lewis and Ryan Mundy played with the first team at safety. They got help from cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, since emergency safety Deshea Townsend was also out. Hines Ward mentored a WR corps that also missed Santonio Holmes. Limas Sweed and Dallas Baker were the starting wideouts. Martin Nance returned to practice, but in a limited capacity. Defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel were also absent.
* Because of rain, the team practiced indoors and the punt return session was hampered. The roof is only so high, so Joe Burnett, Stefan Logan and Shaun McDonald had to pretend to catch a lot of kicks.
* Yes, I'm reporting on phantom punt returns by three guys who weren't on the team last year. You get it all here at SteelCityInsider.com.
* The rookie D-linemen -- Ziggy Hood and Sonny Harris -- did some work in a 4-3 alignment, bringing up the question again of whether Mike Tomlin is looking to convert to his more familiar 4-3 Chuck Noll defense that he learned from Tony Dungy in Tampa. Hood, after all, is better suited for a 4-3, so maybe that's what's on the back burner, particularly if Casey Hampton and James Farrior are in their final year or two.
* The opposite of Catch of the Day: Steven Black, two-time winner in the only two days of the award, dropped a pass today. Otherwise, the best Run After the Catch of the Day came from rookie Mike Wallace, who went high to haul in a short pass before darting down the sideline. He made a few jukes and showed enough quickness to get a pat on the hat from Tomlin.
* Willie Parker's spending a lot of time working on his receiving. He was off to the side with a coach today and looked like Ike Taylor a few springs ago.
* Speaking of the backfield, Rashard Mendenhall is looking beastly. He was Hard Charging Rashard today, with his knees up high and those big, thick forearms wrapped around the ball in an agressive looking-to-hit-someone posture.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 20
5:15 p.m.: In spring football, it's not so much the on-field production that sheds light on the coming season, but the coaches' intent for a player, or how they're using the player. In that way, it's a big spring for Mike Wallace and Ryan Mundy. They're obviously important parts of the staff's overall plan.
Wallace, the speedy rookie receiver from Ole Miss, is being used as a gunner on the No. 1 punt coverage team. He's also part of the multiple-WR set on the second team offense and will certainly be given a chance to win a kickoff return job.
Mundy, who was signed to the practice squad last November, is the starting free safety with Ryan Clark out. He's also the fullback, or personal protector, on the No. 1 punt team. The coaches are also giving him reps with the second and third team defenses when they can. It's obvious these two players are being "coached up" in order to help this season.
On the field, Wallace runs mainly short routes, because, he said, he ran so few of them in college. Wallace did run one deep pattern today. Anthony Madison crept up in press coverage and Wallace ran past him, had him by a couple of steps, caught the eye of Ben Roethlisberger, but couldn't come down with the difficult catch downfield. Ryan Clark razzed Wallace as he returned, saying the rookie has to make those catches if he wants to play. It's obvious that he has everyone's attention here, and it's not just because of his Mohawk hairstyle. Wallace also sped downfield to cover a punt, but got there too early, tried to catch it, but didn't and with his back to the return man allowed a sizable return. Mundy intercepted a Roethlisberger pass over the middle that was intended for Santonio Holmes. Mundy was in zone coverage and did nothing special to make the play, other than to mop up a mistake.
* Has Ziggy Hood stepped into a viper pit on the D-line with his fancy No. 1 draft status? Of course not. The defensive line is my favorite part of the team because the vets have class and they get it from their coach. I imagine that on most teams Hood would be snubbed by a veteran unit that's heard too much about its advancing age, but most teams don't have Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel and Co. They must like the kid because, if I may, they're showing him a lot of love during unit drills.
* I did get word that the Steelers had Eric Wood rated higher than Hood. How's that for love? But I figured some of the draftniks out there wanted to know.
* To continue with my amateur scouting analyses, Ramon Foster, the undrafted rookie RT out of Tennessee, sure looks like a ballplayer. I've seen a lot of stiffs over the years, and he isn't one of them. He's the third-team RT now, but my gut tells me he'll eventually move to guard, a la Keydrick Vincent. He's more mobile than Vincent and will add to the interesting depth the Steelers are grooming on the O-line.
* Foster was a strong seventh-round consideration by the team, but the Steelers opted for the muscular young TE David Johnson. That the Steelers passed on Foster gives you a window into what they think about Tony Hills and Jason Capizzi. Hills, as Bruce Arians reiterated on draft day, has good feet and is an athletic big man. The giant Capizzi is focused and realizes he has a chance to put it all together at training camp. Interesting depth indeed.
* WR Martin Nance remained sidelined, but was running routes and sprints. He told me the low hamstring down behind the knee has been bothering him.
* I asked a scout if he likes anything out there. He ripped off the names Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett and street free agent WR Brandon Williams.
* With Ziggy Hood and Kraig Urbik buried deep among their respective lines, the most intriguing rookies this year are, again, Wallace and Lewis.
* Frank "The Tank" Summers isn't getting much work. He'll have to show something before getting the chance that, say, Wallace is getting.
* For the second day in a row, undrafted rookie Steven Black made the catch of the day, this one a diving catch over the middle with Ike Taylor in pursuit.
* Silverback Harrison wasn't on the first punt team, but the rest of the interior coverage unit was Lawrence Timmons, Donovan Woods, Andre Frazier, Keyaron Fox, Carey Davis and Patrick Bailey. Not bad at all.
TUESDAY, MAY 19
4 p.m.: Here are some notes from O.T.A. session No. 3 that no one should take too seriously:
* Before proceeding, please repeat to yourself: It's only football in shorts. It's only football in shorts.
* Bruce Davis is No. 50. That's all I can, or will, tell you about this most interesting second-year player until he flashes across my field of vision.
* The way James Harrison did in beating Max Starks to sack Ben Roethlisberger, who spiked the ball in disgust. Quick and powerful. Same ol' Silverback.
* Aaron Smith flashed when he slipped back in coverage on Mewelde Moore and made the push out of bounds after Moore caught it with the big man converging.
* Keenan Lewis caught my eye as a big, fast gunner when he converged on the diminutive Stefan Logan. Lewis looks like he's got a great shot at living up to the Ike Taylor comparison.
* Logan's quick. That's quite obvious. But he also had a bad fumble (muff) on a return.
* With the safeties missing, it's becoming clear that Ryan Mundy has a wide-open path to making this team. Mundy played with the first team next to Tyrone Carter and impressed in deep coverage on Santonio Holmes. Mundy shadowed/faceguarded Holmes, who couldn't come up with Ben Roethlisberger's over-the-shoulder bomb.
* Rookie H-back David Johnson shook Carter deep over the middle with an inside move and made the catch, causing players on the sideline to razz Carter.
* Roy Lewis and Derrick Richardson are the backup safeties. Lewis is the converted CB who played so well last camp as an undrafted rookie free agent. Richardson is an undrafted rookie free agent from New Mexico State. Nothing to report on either, though.
* Limas Sweed doesn't look anything like the scared rookie of a year ago. He's moving with confidence and caught everything thrown to him today. Two scenes stood out in particular: 1.) Sweed ripping a ball from Anthony Madison's hands to complete a third-and-10 out, and 2.) huddling with Roethlisberger and Holmes away from the group as the QB talked shop.
* Sweed played first team in place of Hines Ward, who was a coach/mentor on the field.
* The only other player sidelined with an injury was WR Martin Nance, but I apologize for not knowing the specifics.
* While Keenan Lewis has immense potential, the rookie to watch is WR Mike Wallace. On one third-down play, starting CB William Gay crept up into press position on Wallace at the line, but dropped some 12-15 yards just before the snap. Wallace ran a 10-yard hitch and was open, but not thrown to. I didn't think much of it, but Santonio Holmes did. "That right there!" Holmes shouted from the sideline. "That's speed! That's all speed!"
* The catch of the day was made by free agent rookie Steven Black. He ran a short out and, with his feet pressed against the sideline, took a pass that had been deflected by a DB, juggled it, and finally caught it before falling to the ground with his toes still inbounds. Black is a 6-3, 213-pounder from Memphis.
* In an off-the-field note, the priority with the front office is said to be Heath Miller -- along with the neverending long-term talks with Max Starks of course.
2:45 p.m.: Outdoors, following the resumption of the Steelers' spring-time OTA schedule, James Harrison was telling a mob of reporters that he was not, contrary to popular belief, a devil-worshipper just because he won't visit the White House with his teammates on Thursday.
Inside, a man with the real answers, approached a table full of reporters and began asking questions.
"Do you know why James didn't go the last time?" asked the man who requested anonymity. "Do you know why he doesn't go on vacations? Do you know why he doesn't go down to Orlando to workout with the rest of the guys? Do you know why he won't get on a plane unless he has to go play a football game? Do you know why?"
By then the reporters had a pretty good idea.
"He's deathly afraid of flying," the man answered. "That's the real scoop. Go try to find out the last time he got in a plane when he didn't have to."
A teammate of Harrison's lent support to the theory. "When he went over to Europe, he freaked out," the teammate said. "He said he's never going back. Something about flying over water really spooks him."
Harrison has spent the last several days being skewered by the media. "Devil worshipper" would've been the kindest label put on him by some reporters, but obviously it's far from the truth. Ask any of the 1,600 fans who turned out Sunday for the Steelers' basketball game at nearby Hempfield High School to benefit 6-year-old Fallyn McNamara.
Harrison not only showed his soft side for the child during a playful photo set, but during the game he took on the role of Meadowlark Lemon, the old Globetrotter clown prince. To top off the afternoon, Harrison interrupted a dying auction of a photo of the 6 Lombardi Trophies and caused a roaring crowd to add another $500 in bids. At one point, Harrison jumped the bid $325 by offering his own bid of $2,000. The item eventually sold for $2,150, thanks to Harrison. It's a side he doesn't like to let many reporters see.
When the story was relayed to the Steelers source in the cafeteria, he said, "James just likes to play at being crazy."
WEDNESDAY, MAY 6
2:10 p.m.: The Cincinnati Bengals took the expected hit at left tackle by loping off Levi Jones for cap reasons. He'd probably add championship depth to a Steelers team that ignored the tackle position in the draft. I ponder this after posting these thoughts about the Steelers on our message board.
FRIDAY, MAY 1
7:40 p.m.: The first day of camp wrapped up today and Mike Tomlin finally spoke to the media about the situatiion with Larry Foote and other things. As expected, Tomlin said Foote wasn't at the mandatory mini-camp because he and the coach felt it wasn't the best thing for either party. Foote will not be fined.
A player who caught my eye today was one I really didn't even realize they had signed early in the offseason - wide receiver Brandon Williams. A former third-round draft pick of the 49ers, Williams spent last season with St. Louis and is yet another guy who has returned kicks and punts during his career. He made a beautiful diving catch along the sidelines during team drills in the afternoon. Williams, a Wisconsin product, was a 4.4 guy coming out of college.
Keenan Lewis is listed at 6-0, 208, roughly the same size as the man who used to wear No. 20 here, Bryant McFadden. But Lewis certainly fills out the No. 20 jersey more than McFadden did. And McFadden was no small guy. I can see now why some thought Lewis might play some safety as well.
It's interesting that the Steelers signed a veteran punter in Dirk Johnson rather than a rookie. Daniel Sepulveda is still not doing a whole lot and Johnson was actually booming his kicks this afternoon - not that Sepulveda is in any danger, if he's healthy.
Johnson and Piotr Czech - I love that name - were both punting today. Newly signed Shaun McDonald, rookie Joe Burnett and running back Stefan Logan were the return guys. They all looked comfortable back there despite swirling afternoon winds.
Tomlin was very cryptic about what's going on with wide receiver Martin Nance, saying that the team wouldn't have anything to say about Nance's availability until Sunday or Monday. D.L.
4:40 p.m.: Mike Reilly, the QB from Central Washington that Ron Jaworski spent half a draft day praising on TV, is considered one of the team's top undrafted rookie free agents. The other is offensive tackle Ramon Foster from Tennessee. He played right tackle today. Two scouts each said they were most excited about Foster as a free agent.
One of the rookies who flashed on the field, in my opinion, was sixth-round pick Sonny Harris. The defensive tackle can run, as DL coach John Mitchell said on draft day.
1:40 p.m.: Potential injuries are the reason the Steelers are hanging on to Larry Foote, and not just potential injuries to their own team. With seven mandatory minicamps going on around the league this weekend, the Steelers will wait to see if any other team might need a 28-year-old starting linebacker with an affordable contract before releasing him. Last year, after losing Philip Daniels for the season, the Washington Redskins traded second and sixth-round draft choices to the Miami Dolphins for 33-year-old Jason Taylor and his $8.1 million salary. It's simply sound business on the Steelers' part.
1 p.m.: Last we left Larry Foote, he was being cut by Lenny Pasquarelli of ESPN, but the Steelers insist Foote remains part of the team. Foote wasn't at the first minicamp practice this morning, the only player not at the mandatory workout, and no one has an explanation. Perhaps the Steelers are waiting to get out of the minicamp injury free before letting him go.
Lawrence Timmons, of course, replaced Foote at the inside mack linebacker position. The backup to Timmons is Donovan Woods, the outside linebacker who spent some time with the team last season as an undrafted rookie. The third-team inside linebackers are rookie free agents Andrew Schantz and Tom Korte. Korte intercepted a pass from Charlie Batch to Matt Spaeth.
* Attending but sitting out the practice were Ryan Clark, Hines Ward and Martin Nance. Clark was replaced by Tyrone Carter and Ward was replaced by Limas Sweed. Roy Lewis and Deshea Townsend also saw time at free safety.
* Rookie fifth-round pick Joe Burnett was the only rookie to spend time with the first team. He played several snaps at right cornerback. He covered Santonio Holmes over the middle on a high pass that was intercepted spectacularly by opposite corner William Gay.
TUESDAY, APRIL 28
3 p.m.: According to Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com, linebacker Larry Foote has been released. One of the great warriors of two championship seasons, Foote's release has been rumored since the end of the season. He was being pushed by Lawrence Timmons and was carrying a salary of $2.9 million, which the Steelers will need to extend other contracts and pay their draft class.
2:40 p.m.: The Steelers released their list of rookie free agents:
Steven Black, WR, 6-2, 200, Memphis
Jeff Bradley, DT, 6-3, 280, Western Carolina
Mark Estermeyer, LS, 6-1, 251, Pitt
Ramon Foster, OT, 6-5, 328, Tennessee
Cedric Goodman, WR, 6-2, 189, Georgia
Tyler Grisham, WR, 5-10, 184, Clemson
Tom Korte, ILB, 6-0, 239, Hillside (Mi.)
Kevin McCabe, QB, 6-2, 209, California (Pa.)
Steve McLendon,, DT, 6-3, 305, Troy
Isaac Redman, RB, 5-10, 228, Bowie State
Mike Reilly, QB, 6-3, 214, Central Washington State
Derrick Richardson, S, 5-11, 201, New Mexico State
Andrew Schantz, LB, 6-1, 234, Portland State
12:40 p.m.: The start time of the Steelers-Bengals game on Sept. 27 at Cincinnati has been changed to 4:15 p.m.
8 a.m.: Scout's senior analyst Ed Thompson reports that the Steelers will give prospect Cyrus Mulitalo of Sacramento State a tryout this weekend at minicamp. Mulitalo played both linebacker and running back in college. The Steelers will conduct a mandatory minicamp Friday through Sunday.
Also, according to the Winston-Salem Journal, the Steelers have signed the son of a former player, Ed Bradley, to a free-agent contract. Jeff Bradley, a 6-2, 275-pound defensive lineman from Western Carolina, "won't have to take the Steelers decals off his pickup truck," according to his father Ed, who played linebacker for the Steelers from 1972-75 and spent eight seasons in the NFL. His son was a two-time all-conference player at Western Carolina.
* The trade for veteran receiver Roscoe Parrish never materialized, but the Steelers are talking to veteran Ashley Lelie about a contract, according to the Tribune-Review. Lelie, of course, is the former Denver receiver who was a No. 1 draft pick.
MONDAY, APRIL 27
7:45 a.m.: Here are the undrafted free agents the Steelers have added:
Mike Reilly (6-3, 214, 4.81), QB, Central Washington.
Ramon Foster (6-5.1, 328, 5.61), OT, Tennessee.
Mark Estermyer, long snapper, Pitt.
Tom Korte, ILB, Hillsdale College.
Tyler Grisham, WR, Clemson.
Derrick Richardson, S, New Mexico State.
Kevin McCabe, QB, California, Pa.
Andy Schantz (6-1, 235), LB, Portland State.
SUNDAY, APRIL 26
8:30 a.m.: Great morning to get some draft work done. The Steelers have three picks early in the day and are expected to address their interior offensive line first and foremost. Here are some of the available guards:
1. Duke Robinson, the 329-pound Chris Kemoeatu clone.
2. Herman Johnson, the 364-pound Herman Munster clone.
3. Gerald Cadogan, the left tackle from Penn State who could kick inside.
4. T.J. Lang, the 6-4, 316-pound tackle from Eastern Michigan who visited the Steelers.
5. Kraig Urbik, the 6-5 1/4, 328-pounder from Wisconsin.
The Steelers don't have a fourth-round pick, and with two picks in the fifth round could possibly nab these linemen:
1. Fenuki Tupou, Oregon
2. Jaimie Thomas, Maryland
3. Louis Vasquez, Texas Tech
4. Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas
5. Gus Parrish, Kent State
Considering the Steelers also need a return man (WR or CB) and depth at safety and inside linebacker, here are a dozen more third-round candidates:
1. Rashad Johnson, FS, Alabama
2. Louis Murphy, WR, Florida
3. Derrick Williams, WR, Penn State
4. Juaquin Iglesias, WR, Oklahoma
5. Darry Beckwith, ILB, LSU
6. Asher Allen, CB, Georgia
7. Tyrone McKenzie, ILB, South Florida
8. Macho Harris, CB, Virginia Tech
7. Keenan Lewis, CB, Oregon State
8. Mike Thomas, WR, Arizona
9. Kevin Barnes, CB, Maryland
10. Chip Vaughn, S, Wake Forest
11. Scott McKillop, ILB, Pitt
12. Johnny Knox, WR, Abilene Christian
SATURDAY, APRIL 25
10 p.m.: Failing in their attempt to trade up for Max Unger, the Steelers looked around at pick 64, saw no legitimate offensive linemen, and traded it to the Denver Broncos for picks 79 and 84 in the third round. The Steelers also gave up their fourth-round pick, No. 132, in the trade.
8 p.m.: The coaches haven't come into the room to discuss the drafting of Ziggy Hood because they're trying to trade up to draft Max Unger. More details later.
6 p.m.: The Steelers have their interior linemen ranked the same way I do: 1. Eric Wood, 2. Max Unger, and 3. Alex Mack. But they don't expect Wood to fall to them. As for tackles Eben Britton and Phil Loadholt, one source says the Steelers would pass on both in the first round.
4:10 p.m.: The Steelers have locked up the heart and soul of the organization for the remainder of his career.
According to ESPN.com's John Clayton, Steelers receiver Hines Ward has agreed to and signed a four-year contract extension worth $22 million. Ward was scheduled to be a free agent after the season. He's now signed through 2013.
The deal frees up cap room for the team as well as providing significant draft-day flexibility. It makes a draft-day trade for Roscoe Parrish all the more possible.
TUESDAY, APRIL 21
2 p.m.: SCI capologist Ian Whetstone broke the news this morning that Ike Taylor restructured his contract to free $430,000 in cap money for the Steelers to complete the James Harrison deal. Taylor confirmed the report today. One of five defensive starters in the last year of his contract, Taylor was asked if he'll have his contract renegotiated prior to the start of the season.
"Don't know," Taylor said, "don't care. I let my agent handle all of that."
* Taylor's restructuring also helped the Steelers give Charlie Batch a small bonus. The previous day, it was reported that the cutting of Gary Russell was responsible for signing Batch. Russell was instead cut because Columbus, Ohio, authorities raided a house where Russell was staying with a friend and a sizable amount of marijuana was seized. This story was confirmed by a source with the Steelers, who added that Coach Mike Tomlin acted immediately upon hearing the news.
* Owner Dan Rooney stopped by the media room and was talking about some of the players -- Buck Buchanan and Emerson Boozer -- who were wrested from the Steelers by the old AFL, when someone asked why the draft was starting so late. "We're trying to see if we can get better ratings from 1 to 6 a.m.," Rooney deadpanned as he walked out the door.
MONDAY, APRIL 20
3 p.m.: I'm getting answers down here on the South Side. Sort of. Hines Ward drew the first big media crowd of the season and said that he feels good, has barely started talking contract with the team, believes "everything will take care of itself," and would like to continue playing into 2010 if he stays healthy. I asked him what he has left to accomplish. He said he'd like 10,000 receiving yards and another ring. Well, that could happen this season with 220 receiving yards and some good line play.
Ward talked a good game today, but my guess is that 2009 will be his last season.
* A source said of Casey Hampton's future with the team: "It all depends on how bad he wants to play."
"Oh, I want it bad," Hampton said. "People see that I'm chill and they take me the wrong way. But that's off the field. On the field, I'm a different person. I want it real bad. I want to stay here and win a few more rings."
Hampton understands that the real meaning of "wanting it bad" is "get in better shape." So he chuckled when I asked him for his workout plans.
"I'm not sure yet," he said in keep-em-all-guessing Hampton fashion.
* The Lawrence Timmons-Larry Foote battle for the mack linebacker spot began with a whimper today since neither player showed up for the voluntary OTA session. Also missing were Santonio Holmes, Tyrone Carter, Ryan Clark, Willie Parker, Troy Polamalu and Nick Eason. Coach Mike Tomlin said he wasn't surprised by any of the no-shows. Tomlin said he was most pleased by the return of Charlie Batch, Rashard Mendenhall and Dan Sepulveda, and that he was happy to see the first-team offensive line intact.
* Kevin Colbert explained that he cut Gary Russell for cap purposes. But if saving $150K was necessary, why not save more by cutting 10-year veteran Fernando Bryant?
If Colbert is being totally honest, and the Steelers are that tight with the cap, the Roscoe Parrish trade rumors can't have any legs. Also, the Steelers won't be able to sign high draft picks before taking measures to lower their cap number.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 8
9 a.m.: Scout.com senior analyst Ed Thompson advised me that two more players have set dates for visits with the Steelers: CB Mike Mickens and OG Andy Levitre will visit the South Side on April 16-17.
Mickens is a 5-11.4, 184-pounder out of Cincinati who has started the last four years and intercepted 14 passes. He missed three games with a knee injury last season and had to leave the Senior Bowl practices early because of inflammation and did not work out at the Combine. He's considered more of a zone corner who needs to add weight and become more physical. He's considered a 3rd-4th round prospect.
Levitre is a 6-2.5, 305-pounder out of Oregon State. He started all but two games the last three seasons, including one at left guard, 20 at right tackle, and 17 at left tackle. He was the team captain and left tackle last season who projects as a 2nd-3rd round guard, with the possibility of playing center.
TUESDAY, APRIL 7
8 a.m.: We figured it was only a matter of time before the Steelers brought in one of the five defensive ends they consider to be first-day prospects, and yesterday was the day for USC's Fili Moala, who was my second-round pick in the Scout.com publisher's mock draft last month.
Moala visited the South Side yesterday along with offensive linemen Alex Mack and Herman Johnson. As has been reported a couple of times previously in this blog, the 6-4, 305-pound Moala is considered by the Steelers to be a first-day DE prospect along with B.J. Raji, Tyson Jackson, Ron Brace and Jarron Gilbert.
As we reported on March 29, Gilbert will visit the Steelers on April 16. Expect visits from Jackson and Brace in the coming days as well.
* A source with Scout.com yesterday tipped me off that the Steelers have already hosted one of my favorite sleeper cornerbacks -- WVU's Ellis Lankster. The 5-9, 191-pounder is a bit on the small side, but he'll hit and he can return punts. He was WVU's full-time PRer (8.6) and part-time KRer (24.4) last season.
Lankster came out of Mobile, Ala., as did teammate Pat White, but came to Morgantown via the junior college route. He sat out his first season at WVU after being arrrested for receiving stolen property (laptop computer) and returned last season to start 13 games. He's considered a late-round prospect, but is receiving plenty of interest after playing well in the Senior Bowl.
* Just a reminder, massive Texas Tech guard Louis Vasquez is scheduled to visit the Steelers today, and Norfolk State cornerback Don Carey will visit tomorrow. Expect guards Tyronne Green and Andy Levitre to visit any day as well.
* A reporter from a publication in New England called me for a mock draft yesterday and, after giving me a quick rundown of who was available, I spit out CB Darius Butler. He asked me for an explanation, and I said "even though he's not that big and physical, and even though he's not a legitimate return man ... " and then I changed my mind. I went with my old standby Eric Wood over Max Unger. I just can't shake the interior linemen, which I feel is a huge need for the Steelers. Then I watched the Senior Bowl again and watched Wood have his way with Raji (although Matt King gave him a bit of trouble). I just think there'll be a less precipitous fall-off to small cornerback than to mobile interior lineman later in the draft, and the Steelers need a No. 1 right guard more than they need a No. 4 cornerback. The dark horse remains Gilbert, the athletic DE who has too much bust potential in my mind. I'm worried about his play against the run, which is imperative in the Steelers' scheme.
* A great story by Nolan Nawrrocki in Pro Football Weekly today eased my mind a bit about having so much interest in Wood and Unger. Those two players, along with Levitre, Brace and my favorite sleeper, A.Q. Shipley, scored well in this statistical attempt to rank hip flexibility by subtracting 20-yard shuttle times from 40-yard dash times. It might just be mumbo jumbo, but if it fits the players I like, then mumbo-jumbo away.
MONDAY, APRIL 6
11:30 a.m.: The Post-Gazette is reporting that Keyaron Fox has signed a two-year contract worth $1.8 million, which includes a $380,000 signing bonus. The backup to James Farrior at the buck inside linebacker is one of the Steelers' top special-teams coverage men. He was second on the team to Anthony Madison with 21 special-teams tackles. Madison had 25.
SUNDAY, APRIL 5
10 a.m.: In many of the stories circulating about Alex Mack's pending visit with the Steelers, the player's being hailed as "the consensus top-ranked center." However, I have him as the No. 3 center, and I looked at the only other set of rankings I care about, and, yep, Mike Mayock has him No. 3 behind Max Unger and Eric Wood. I looked through my notes for some Mayock comments and found these:
-- "We've got some coach's cut-up tapes on some of these guys. We've got a great one on Eric Wood. He's just killing people."
-- "I've never seen a center snap out of the shotgun and pull and get to the next level like Max Unger."
But the item I'm going the long way around the barn to get at, though, is this exchange I found in these old notes between Mayock and Rich Eisen during one of the NFL Network's combine shows:
Mayock: "Herman Johnson lost 19 pounds between the Senior Bowl and the Combine."
Eisen: "That's what his mom lost about 24 years ago one day."
It's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Johnson, who's scheduled to visit the Steelers with Mack on Monday, was the biggest baby born in the history of Louisiana at 15 pounds, 14 ounces.
"We did a C-section," Dr. Ralph Armstrong told The Advocate of Baton Rouge last Christmas Eve. "By the time I got out of the surgery, word had traveled. There was someone from the local paper waiting to take a picture."
Armstrong whispered "LSU" into baby Herman's ear, and -- voila -- the doc became a prophet.
Johnson measured 6-foot-7, 382 pounds as the LSU left guard, and at the Senior Bowl he played right tackle. He got down to 364 a month later and still ranked as the heaviest of all players at the Combine, where he also had the biggest hands (11.3 inches) of all players and tied Phil Loadholt for the longest arms (36 1/2") among the offensive linemen. Johnson also ran the 40 in 5.53 seconds, a slow time for a team such as the Steelers who are looking to upgrade the mobility of their line. Johnson figures to be a late third-round pick.
* In another prospect note, reporter Bill Huber of The Packer Report shot us a note that the Steelers are showing much interest in former Penn State castoff Chris Baker, who played defensive tackle at Hampton. Here's Huber's outstanding feature on Baker.
* And finally, Scout.com's Ed Thompson reports that the Steelers are showing interest in Wisconsin LB DeAndre Levy.
SATURDDAY, APRIL 4
7:45 a.m.: Mike Tomlin's always looking to be "thoughtfully non-rhythmic," and his spring OTA schedule reflects that. The Steelers will conduct a scattering of OTA workouts starting April 20-21 and continuing May 19-21, May 26-28, June 2-4, June 9-11. The 14 workouts are "voluntary" with a mandatory minicamp scheduled for May 1-3.
THURSDAY, APRIL 2
12:30 p.m.: Visiting today is Oregon defensive tackle Ra'Shon Harrris (6-3, 298), a potential seventh-round draft pick. According to scouts, the one-year starter is stout enough to draw double teams, but often plays too high and has poor hand usage. He ran the 40 in the 4.9 to 5.1 range and repped 28 times at the Combine, but posted poor numbers in the vertical jump (25-5), broad jump (8-10), short shuttle (4.87) and 3-cone (8.13).
9:30 a.m.: One of the mid to late-round cornerbacks the Steelers interviewed at the Combine, Don Carey of Norfolk State, has scheduled an April 8 visit to the Steelers' South Side facility, according to Scout.com's Ed Thompson.
Carey (5-11 1/4, 192, 4.54) was hampered at the Combine by a hamstring injury, but scouts like his size and speed, as well as the playmaking skills that led to five interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a blocked kick and two touchdowns last season. Carey's also smart enough to have been accepted by Yale, but turned down the school because of cost. Carey played in the East-West Shrine Game and is regarded as a physical cornerback.
* On March 8 in this blog, I wrote about the Steelers' three-man presence at the UNLV Pro Day, where they worked out Frank "The Tank" Summers. Well, "Junior Bus" is coming in for a visit tomorrow, according to the Las Vegas Sun.
Back in early March, Steelers RB coach Kirby Wilson called Summers "one of the most difficult guys to tackle we've seen on tape this year." Summers also showed off his pass-catching ability that day. Summers attended Marvel Smith's Skyline High School in Oakland, Ca. He suffered from dyslexia and got off to a slow collegiate start before choosing UNLV over USC prior to the 2007 season. Summers is a stumpy, pass-catching fullback in the Carey Davis mold.
* Here's a fresh name: Louis Vasquez. The massive Texas Tech guard has scheduled an April 7 visit with the Steelers, according to Draftdaddy.com. The 6-4.6, 333-pound Vasquez is a phone-booth mauler who was the bench-pressing champ of the combine with 39 reps. He's considered a late-round prospect.
* Speaking of champs, Houston Chronicle blogger Lance Zierlein did some interesting research in today's Z Report. He analyzed the last 10 draft picks of the first round over the last 10 years and found that 23 percent are "good to great" and 32 percent are "busts."
While two of the offensive linemen fell in the boom category, four were busts. A much worse ratio was the 1-to-8 boom-to-bust ratio of defensive linemen, which makes a project such as Jarron Gilbert a scary proposition at pick 32.
On the flip side, Zierlein found that the best success at the bottom of the draft is found at the linebacker and tight end positions.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 1
2:15 p.m.: We're still waiting for some fresh names. The Steelers, as expected, hosted CB/RS Joe Burnett and RT Phil Loadholt today. The Steelers have shown interest in Burnett, the speedster from Central Florida, every step of the way. Loadholt would likely be only a fallback option at the bottom of the second round.
* Here's a link to an April Fool's Draft Thoughts column I wrote about the Steelers and the draft at this point in the process.
TUESDAY, MARCH 31
3 p.m.: Mike Thomas has made his scheduled visit with the Steelers today. The diminutive speedster is a return man/slot receiver, and one who has a fiery temper. See the link in my March 24 entry below for more information.
SUNDAY, MARCH 29
8 a.m.: Just a couple of quick notes as I ready for takeoff from my brother's place here in Connecticut: 1.) The visit -- not a workout -- at the South Side with Jarron Gilbert is set for April 16; 2.) Eric Wood told Chris Steuber that Steelers GM Kevin Colbert expressed much interest in Wood during and after the Louisville Pro Day; 3.) The Steelers, according to another web site, have scheduled visits with guards Tyronne Green and Andy Levitre, both third or fourth-rounders; 4.) And the Steelers last week went to Central Florida to workout CB Joe Burnett, who will be visiting.
* And here's a pleasant read on Ball High's retiring of Casey Hampton's number in Galveston, Texas.
SATURDAY, MARCH 28
10:15 a.m.: According to East Coast Sports News, the Steelers were one of 15 NFL teams at Northern Illinois' Pro day to watch OLB/DE Larry English, who ran in the 4.62-4.75 range on a fast rubber surface. English told teams that he scored a 34 on the Wonderlic test.
* According to a league source, the Steelers have scheduled visits with C/G Eric Wood and DE Jarron Gilbert.
Wood, of course, is the center from Louisville who proved at the Senior Bowl that he could make the simple transition to guard. The draft is so weak at guard -- the Steelers' most glaring weakness -- that Wood and fellow guard-center Max Unger are rated as late first/early second-round prospects. Gilbert is an impressive 6-6 defensive tackle who might be able to make the transition to 3-4 DE in the NFL. He figures to be drafted in the second round.
FRIDAY, MARCH 27
9 p.m.: Marvel Smith has signed an incentive-laden contract with the San Francisco 49ers. Smith is coming off of two straight seasons that ended with back surgery.
Also, according to Pro Football Talk, Wake Forest CB Alphonso Smith will visit the Steelers.
Another player scheduled to visit the Steelers is small-college standout CB Greg Toler of St. Paul's (Va.). Paul was reportedly timed at 4.35 seconds in the 40 and had 14 intereceptions at St. Paul's.
THURSDAY, MARCH 26
2:45 p.m.: Chris Steuber reports to me today that the Steelers are at the Louisville Pro Day where center/guard Eric Wood is working out. Hope to have more on the workout tomorrow.
10:15 a.m.: We'll have a dynamite appearance by the Answer Man later today, but only after I edit out his rant against the NFL. You know how we hate to butt heads with authority around here.
(Waits for laughter to die.)
Seriously, the edit's necessary because of the recent explanation regarding the awarding of the fifth-round comp pick. We learned the Steelers did not receive a third-rounder for losing Alan Faneca because of the NFL's age-discrimination policy that doesn't allow a player with 10 or more years in the league to bring more than a fifth-rounder in return.
However, the Answer Man's rage over the new rules that limit a "hit zone" on poor defenseless defenders will stand. It's curious that while the league is so concerned about rugged tackling and blocking, it continues to encourage play after the whistle, i.e. the Hochuli Rule, which will only force coaches to encourage play after the whistle. It's a a disaster (and probably a lawsuit) waiting to happen.
* According to Scout's Clemson site, the Steelers will be hosting Clemson nose tackle Dorrell Scott in the coming weeks. I'm not so high on Scott, who appears to be late-round backup fodder, but these guys like him.
* One of my scouting sources is raving about a couple of small-school wide receivers: Dobson Collins (6-1, 181) of Gardner Webb and John Halman (6-2 1/2, 212) of Concordia (AL). Collins is also a kick-returner. The scout also passed along a note on Vanderbilt cornerback D.J. Moore, saying he's too slow and that he deserves a fifth-round grade. Yikes.
* Rick Gosselin's blog today includes notes on two players I've written about earlier in this blog. One, Jason Chery, brought a visit from the Steelers' WR coach last week. Gosselin writes about Chery's special-teams skills, and not only as a return man. The other WR, Mohamed Massaquoi, from Georgia, has an eight-year football record of 103-12. I mentioned Massaquoi's championship-caliber heart earlier after watching him run down two long interception returns against Florida.
TUESDAY, MARCH 24
5:30 p.m.: The league has made four rules changes that deal with safety, according to the Boston Globe, and one, of course, reflects upon Hines Ward.
1. A defenseless receiver can't be hit in the head or neck area with a shoulder or forearm.
2. No more bunch formations on kickoffs. This was used on onsides kicks.
3. Kickoff return wedges can no longer consist of more than two players.
4. The Hines Ward rule will no longer allow the poor, poor defenders to take "crackback" blocks in the shoulder or neck area from wide receivers. What every media member will fail to report tomorrow morning is that Keith Rivers broke his jaw when his head slammed off the ground, not off Ward.
* Ed Thompson is on a roll. The Scout.com analyst just learned that Oklahoma's monstrous LT, Phil Loadholt, will visit the South Side on April 1. With his slow feet, Loadholt projects as a right tackle who'll be taken in the late second or early third rounds.
Also, Thompson reports that Oregon's Jairus Byrd, one of my favorite cornerbacks, was interviewed formally by the Steelers at the combine. Byrd's status is similar to that of Heath Miller when the junior came out untested because of an injury. The 207-pound Byrd -- a three-year starter with terrific ball skills -- has been dealing with an injured groin. But his missed 40 time, as a cornerback, will make him a bigger gamble than Miller was back in 2005.
12:15 p.m.: I imagine AdamJT13 as a genius in the mode of the Russell Crowe character in "A Beautiful Mind." I imagine him out back in his cabin performing calculations all over the walls to figure out the NFL's compensation theorems, because how else can we explain his amazing success at predicting these picks over the years. Of course, I imagine him to be an elusive genius -- one I could not reach out to. But I do know that AdamJT13 is pissed. No, he's not a Steelers fan, but he's still upset that he could be so wrong about his prediction that the Steelers would land a third-round compensation pick. Instead, the Steelers received a fifth-rounder. Here's AdamJT13's reaction, courtesy of J.J. Cooper's outstanding blog. Note AdamJT13's plea at the bottom for the Pittsburgh media to uncover an explanation for this travesty, which, hopefully, was simply an oversight that will be corrected by the league.
* OK, our crack staff of draft experts uncovered more scheduled visits with the Steelers. A few days ago, Chris Steuber reported that the Steelers will visit Louisville on April 6 to talk to C/G Eric Wood, a guy I've targeted since the Senior Bowl. Wood was my pick for the Steelers in the Scout.com publisher's mock that will be released later today. With pick 64, I landed DE Fili Moala of USC. He and Troy would hit it off famously, I'm sure. More on what I learned through that mock later.
Steuber also sent me some interesting news on his favorite speed project, Travis Shelton, who went through his Pro Day at Temple last week. Shelton, a wide receiver and return specialist, ran 4.28 and 4.34 40s and told Steuber he would've run faster had he not pulled a quad muscle. Steuber himself had previously timed Shelton at 4.27 and compares him to Davone Bess, only less polished as a receiver and much faster. After Shelton's Pro Day, a rep from the Steelers worked Shelton out as a receiver. He could be a priority free agent for them.
Our senior analyst at Scout, Ed Thompson, provided some fresh news last night: The Steelers have scheduled South Side visits for Arizona WR/RS Mike Thomas (March 30-31) and Cal center Alex Mack (April 4-5). Mack, of course, has been a focus of every draft analyst who watched the Steelers' OL interior last season. He projects as an early second-round pick. Thomas projects to be a late second-round pick, and I'm certain the Steelers will look into the much-discussed shoving match with his coach during Arizona's bowl game. Here's a discussion on the matter.
Thompson also reported to me a few days ago that speedster Joe Burnett of Central Florida will visit the Steelers on April 1. Burnett is a mid-round cornerback who can return kicks. He's considered a leader and physical for his size (5-9, 192, 4.49 combine numbers).
* More from Thompson: He spoke with Eben Britton, who said that his combine interview with the Steelers was his most memorable because the Arizona LT was in the same room with Joe Greene, the Rooneys and Mike Tomlin. Florida RT Jason Watkins also reported to Thompson that "I was pretty much speechless" about meeting Tomlin.
* You know my favorite receiver in this draft is Hakeem Nicks, and Rick Gosselin has some great info on Nicks after talking to his coach at North Carolina. "Davis", as the former Browns coach is known in Pittsburgh, says Nicks is pro ready because of the offense and routes he ran as a Tar Heel.
* If you can stand any more of my rambling, my friends over at Behind The Steel Curtain honored me by asking for my opinion on a few matters. Hope you like the interview.
MONDAY, MARCH 23
8:45 p.m.: A few years ago, this would've been the norm, but once again the Steelers were shafted by the NFL in the awarding of compensatory picks.
The Steelers, who should've received a third-round pick by normal calculations (see my report on March 11 below), have instead been awarded the first comp pick of the fifth round. We hope to get an expert explanation tomorrow.
3:15 p.m.: The Steelers will open the 2009 season at home on Thursday night, Sept. 10 against the Tennessee Titans, according to the Tribune-Review. The Titans, of course, are the last team to beat the Steelers, and were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs before being toppled by the Baltimore Ravens.
* Scout.com's Adam Caplan, who is at the owners' meeting and missed on this story, updated his story on the compensation picks by reporting he did not know when the picks will be announced. The Steelers, though, are expected to receive a third-round compensation pick this draft.
FRIDAY, MARCH 20
10:30 a.m.: So it was coming down to the wire and many quality players remained on the board. The Scout.com publishers hunched over their laptops for the first of (hopefully) two mock drafts, and at pick 28, all four of the offensive linemen who figure to tempt the Steelers -- Eben Britton, Max Unger, Eric Wood and Alex Mack -- were still on the board. And so was my favorite receiver, Hakeem Nicks. And so were two great pass-rushers, Robert Ayers and Larry English. And so were two smart, ballhawking corners, Alphonso Smith and D.J. Moore. And so were two droppers from Ohio State, James Laurinaitis and Beanie Wells.
The picks made up to this point weren't off the mark, unless one considers CB Sean Smith and DT Ziggy Hood surprises, but only small ones. So this draft was sticking to form and I got the idea that I wasn't going to remain married to some boring interior lineman, that I was going to surprise my "constituents" with a guy who'd make the Pro Bowl for eight years or so. And then, unfortunately, I began to think as the clock ticked on Philadelphia at Pick 28:
-- Laurinaitis could certainly fill the vacant backup spot behind 34-year-old James Farrior. He'd eventually be the Butkus run-stuffer amid a corps of explosive pass-rushers. Great leader. Team captain. But the guy ran a 4.8 40 at the combine. That's slower than Scott McKillop, who weighs the same 244 pounds and is only an inch shorter than the 6-2 Laurinaitis. And I know McKillop can play, so I decided I'd opt for him with the comp pick in the third round. But while I was in the Ohio State section of the Internet, I noticed ...
-- Beanie Wells ran a 4.34 on OSU's fast surface. He's a player the Dayton Daily News reports is a serious consideration of the Bengals at Pick 6. I looked back at his combine and saw that while he was 20 pounds heavier than Knowshown Moreno, his 40 time (4.59) was only .04 slower. Then I remembered something Dick LeBeau said the other day. I wasn't fishing for info, just making small talk about his trip to the OSU Pro Day, and he said, "Beanie Wells. Whoa." So this was now my guy. I didn't care where he fit, only that I could get a big back who'd fallen in the draft because of an injury-plagued season. But he was over the injury, as his lightning time at Pro Day proved. And then, boom! The Eagles took him.
It was on to Pick 29 and the Giants took WR Kenny Britt. The Titans followed with DE Michael Johnson, and the Cardinals took RB Shady McCoy. So I was left looking at the same core of players, minus Wells, and here's how I came to my decision:
-- As much as I believe Nicks will become a great pro, he doesn't return kicks, and if the Steelers draft either a CB or WR in the first round, he'd better be able to return kicks, otherwise it's the goal-line back and the fullback again. So I nixed Nicks.
-- Cornerbacks Smith and Moore are both ballhawks who can return kicks, but they're both on the slight side, not as physical as LeBeau likes in his corners. And if they're going to draft a CB in the first round, he had better be physical because this draft has so many quality corners. (Although, here's a bit on Smith from Rick Gosselin that has me re-thinking this morning; that and Mike Tomlin's seeming desire for someone with elite ball skills.)
-- I resisted the urge to take one of the angry and explosive pass-rushers, so I was back with the O-linemen. And, really, there's no avoiding them. While the front office and Ben Roethlisberger and much of the media can bray about this group winning a Super Bowl and how it's back intact, the numbers speak louder: LG Chris Kemoeatu and sixth man Trai Essex received such small bonuses, they can be cut after a year (even sooner); RG Darnell Stapleton gave up 3 sacks to one player (a good player, but Darnell Dockett had only 4 sacks all season) in the Super Bowl; center Justin Hartwig gave up 2 points in the Super Bowl because he held linebacker Chike Okeafor while being flattened on a bullrush; and Hartwig, and tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon are working on 1-year deals.
But the tackles are the strength of the line, so instead of taking Britton, the fifth-best college tackle, I focused on the interior linemen. Mack, a close 3rd choice among the group, clinched his elimination by benching only 20 times during his Pro Day. So I was down to Wood and Unger. My gut told me Wood was the better ballplayer, but to cover all bases I looked back at the combine measurables: Wood was faster (5.17 to 5.27), stronger (30 to 22 reps) and has longer arms (33.6 to 32.4) than Unger. I interviewed both and Wood came across as more passionate about the game, while Unger boasted about academics and, frankly, seemed to be a more balanced human being. Of course, we can't have that in this game, so I picked Eric Wood. Then I couldn't find his name on the two-round list I was using to check names, and again began having second thoughts. But, regardless, that's who my "constituents" must live with -- until the next mock draft.
* In the real world on Thursday, the Steelers attended Pro Days at Virginia, Georgia, Stanford and Note Dame.
Here are some notes from the Notre Dame Pro Day concerning an interesting fullback, Asaph Schwapp, a short guy I watched slam into linebackers early in the season and marked down as a potential seventh-rounder. He's listed by the school at 6-0, 257, and at his Pro Day ran 5.07 and 5.10 40s (7.61 3-cone, 30.5 VJ, 9-3 BJ). He also benched 225 33 times, prompting these comments from Coach Charlie Weis (courtesy of the ND SID and Scout's Chris Steuber):
"When you're an interior defensive lineman or a fullback, the thing they're looking for is how strong you are. Asaph put up 33 on the bench and (Pat) Kuntz put up 31 on the bench. To be honest with you, that's almost a magical number, when you get that number in the bench in the 30s. It automatically gets everyone's attention."
Weis was then asked if any of his players might be moving up draft boards.
"Besides (CB Terrail) Lambert (4.36, 4.37), a guy like Asaph. Asaph is a guy who may be marginal for some teams, but any team who is looking for a blocking fullback -- you have to be looking for a blocking fullback -- but any team looking for a blocking fullback can get somebody like Asaph. Because instead of having a veteran for $800,000 or $900,000, you can get a guy for a third of the money to do the exact same thing. So anytime you see a guy 250 go ahead and throw 33 on the bench, it gets everyone's attention."
THURSDAY, MARCH 19
11:30 a.m.: OK, I've wasted enough time making a fool of myself on the message board today. Let's bring some heat, and that can only mean one thing: an update on the James Harrison talks.
The talks were described to me yesterday as a "roller coaster ride. One day it's 'We're gonna get this done anyday now,' and the next day it's 'We'll never get this done.'" Or, as a source put it, the talks are akin to the recent financial dealings the Rooneys undertook to save their team.
As for Harrison, the man himself, he was at the South Side facility again yesterday, roaming the hallways after working out, point-blank ignoring any and every media member, pure hatred steaming off his silvery back. Gotta love a guy who won't change his stripes while bucking for a new contract. I was also told that he showed up at the South Side to workout two days after the Super Bowl. He was complaining that no one else was there, when someone said, "James, go home. Enjoy your championship for another week or so." But, as you probably guessed, he didn't.
* I asked another source about the Max Starks talk and was told that for all intents and purposes they're on hold until the sale of the team is completed later this month, and probably won't continue in earnest until late in the off-season when there's a better cash flow. Remember, while Starks'll make $8.5 million this year, he won't cost the team a dime until the season begins. Yes, it's those economic realities again, but before readers become upset they should realize that the Steelers have not raised ticket prices this year. It's the second time they've held tight after a Super Bowl win this decade. That's just outrageous. And perhaps more outrageous is the fact the team has not issued a press release to bray about it.
* Speaking of Starks, so was the Palm Beach Post yesterday when it reported on RT Jason Watkins: "Pittsburgh apparently loves Watkins, comparing him very favorably to former Gator Max Starks." Well, I don't really see the similarities, but Watkins is probably as good a mid- to late-round prospect as any. Also note the line at the bottom of the story, about Pitt officials booting agent Drew Rosenhaus from the Panthers' Pro Day workout.
* The Steelers also attended Pro Day workouts yesterday at N.C. State, Cal, Penn State, and Louisiana-Lafayette. The Cal workout, of course, included center Alex Mack, who did only 20 reps. An encouraging sign at the Penn State workout was the 4.37 40 run by WR/RS Derrick Williams (also reported in The Morning Call). He'd be an ideal third-round fit for the Steelers. At Lafayette, the Steelers are hot on the trail of wide receiver Jason Chery, a fringe draft prospect who, if I'm reading this story correctly, ran back seven kickoffs for touchdowns last season. Chery's considered more return specialist than receiver by NFLDraftscout.com.
* Also, Marvel Smith went back to his native Bay Area to meet with the 49ers.
TUESDAY, MARCH 17
12:30 p.m.: Well, President Obama has gone and done it. He's hired Dan Rooney as his ambassador to Ireland. With the newspaper game drying up, I wonder if he'll need a strong man up in Belfast. In fact, one of my last good day-long drunken binges was up there, back in '97, when a helicopter shadowed our train past the guerillas hiding in the bushes at the border. If only I could remember how the story ended ...
10 a.m.: To kick off our St. Paddy's Day celebration, let's start with the Houston Chronicle and The Z Report's Top 50 Players. Blogger Lance Zierlein is one of the best-sourced draft experts in the business, and today he ranks his favorite players. Some of the more interesting spots for Steelers fans are:
6. Everette Brown DE/OLB -- Just about every mock draft I see these days has the stiff-hipped Brian Orakpo going to the Cleveland Browns, when in my humble opinion Brown is a much better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. And he's a lot stronger than I could ever have imagined: Although I doubt its validity, The St. Augustine Record reports that Brown threw up the bar 39 times during Florida State's Pro Day yesterday. (Also note in the story the Steelers' interest in 5-8 CB Tony Carter, who ran 4.28, 4.35 with a 39-inch VJ and 17 reps. He had 9 picks in 49 FSU starts.) Let's just hope the Browns go with Orakpo instead.
7. Tyson Jackson DE -- In ProFootballTalk's latest mock draft, Jackson slips to the Steelers at No. 32. Yeah, good luck with all that. Zierlein and I agree that this classic 3-4 run stuffer with pass-rush ability belongs in the top 10.
28. Phil Loadholt OT -- Just watched a little bit of the Senior Bowl last night and, nope, this giant still can't block speed-rusher Robert Ayers off the corner. It cost his team a touchdown at one point. But Loadholt fits "The Planet Theory" and would entice any team at the bottom of the round as a potential Otah-type right tackle. I still have to give him a second-round grade, though.
29. Max Unger C/G -- Mike Mayock and Charles Davis raved about Unger's ability to shotgun-snap and pull on the same play, which, unbeknownst to me, a village idiot, is something of a near impossibility. They say it was one of Oregon's base plays and Unger made it work. OK. He's not my favorite of the three interior studs at the bottom of the round, but he's played LT and that always causes the Steelers' grade to spike.
33. Darius Butler CB -- To me, this guy's a tough, physical cover corner with ball skills and return ability. I assume he'll be the No. 2 CB drafted, but I guess there's hope he could slip.
35. Larry English DE/OLB -- While watching his bowl game, I thought of Demarcus Ware, who played in a similarly insignificant bowl game, and was so aggressive his opponent had great success running counters his way. But this dude also reminds me of Silverback with his strength and balance and pass-rush ability. Love to see Mike Tomlin forget about his lineup and its holes and just take this guy for the fun of it.
36. Jarron Gilbert DE -- The Shrine Game was in Houston this year and Zierlein watched all the practices and raves about this 3-4 DE prospect. Gilbert has the right size to fit the spot with the Steelers, and he offers speed as a pass-rusher. He'd be interesting to watch this spring and summer, that's for sure, but my source downtown tells me he's fifth on their list of 3-4 DE hopefuls (Jackson, B.J. Raji, Fili Moala, Ron Brace), although two of them are NTs, whether they'll admit it or not.
39. Eric Wood C/G -- This is my guy, has been since the Senior Bowl. Has the strength to maul with the big boys and the feet to pull and get out in front of screens. According to Scout.com draft expert Chris Steuber, Wood has a workout today with the Denver Broncos, who'll pick 12th and 48th.
41. Eben Britton OT -- The Steelers attended his Pro Day late last week. I haven't seen him play, so I asked Steuber about him. He responded that "Britton is a durable, consistent performer who's solid in many aspects of the game. He has great size and mauls the opposition at the line. He has good balance and uses his hands effectively. He moves well laterally, despite not possessing the quickest feet, and uses his wingspan to force defenders off their course of action. He's a solid run blocker. He's not the most athletic tackle and struggles to get to the second level. He projects to be a right tackle at the next level." Wingspan? But didn't Britton have the second-shortest arms of all tackles at the combine? Said Steuber: "When you watch him on film he uses his reach very well. The difference between him and Jason Smith in arm length, if you go by the measurements, is just an inch. I think what's more important is how the player comes off the line and initiates contact. Britton does a nice job of that."
* OK, here's more fun as the sounds of the late, great Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher fill up my living room: The irrepressible Mock Muncher from our friends at The Orange and Brown Report in Cleveland. Of the 40 mock drafts thrown into the mix, not one picked my boy Eric Wood for the Steelers. The winner is center Alex Mack, with whom I'd have no problem. For giggles (I think), one slapstick picked Alabama center Antoine Caldwell (who would be a great fourth-round pick). Also, one mock picked fatso guard Duke Robinson and another surprise was Pitt RB LeSean McCoy.
* One of my favorite draft writers is Carlos "Big C" Holmes of the Dayton Daily News. Today he serves up a feature on Ron Brace that'll pleasantly waste a few minutes.
* ProFootballTalk.com is reporting that Fernando Bryant signed a one-year contract with the team. Hip hip ... ah, forget it.
* Finally, Ed Thompson of Scout.com tells me that the Steelers (and Packers) stayed late after the March 12 Kent State Pro Day to talk with All-MAC left tackle Gus Parrish. At the combine, Parrish measured 6-4, 302, with long 35-inch arms. He ran a 5.39 40 and pushed the bar up 19 times. He's considered a third-round prospect who may have to move inside to play guard, but loves the game and is a hard worker.
Enjoy the day, and try to stay sober ... until lunch anyway.
MONDAY, MARCH 16
4:45 p.m.: The Post-Gazette is reporting that Arnold "Snelly" Harrison signed a one-year deal, giving the Steelers their second backup OLB in a week. So I don't expect to be pleasantly surprised on draft day when Mike Tomlin makes like the N.Y. Giants and drafts Larry English just because he likes to stockpile pass-rushers.
Also, I was going to save my big C.J. Davis news for tomorrow, but Ed Bouchette's back from vacation and he reported that the Pitt center visited the team with Scott McKillop last week. Davis is a fringe draft prospect from Pitt who plays guard and the pivot.
Speaking of centers, Penn State's A.Q. Shipley visited today, giving the team three locals (Shipley's from nearby Moon Township) who've visited. Expect a wave of prospects this week.
Oh, and I'll have updates on a couple of offensive tackles the Steelers scouted last week. (Sorry, but I have to stretch this stuff out. Tis the season when the big news is "James Harrison does job" and "Someone stole banners.")
SATURDAY, MARCH 14
11 p.m.: SteelCityInsider.com is reporting that the Boston Globe is reporting that Pro Football Talk is reporting that a Tampa radio station is reporting that Joey Galloway has reached a one-year deal with the New England Patriots. (Seriously. Click the link.) PatriotsInsider.com has confirmed this to be true.
* In other news involving free agents who visited the Steelers this week, The Baltimore Sun is reporting that CB Chris Carr has signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens. According to the report, the Ravens offered $800,000 more per season than did the Steelers.
* And, in the nobody cares but the media department, someone stole some banners that said "Yay Stillers!" from some downtown office.
8 a.m.: Veteran wide receiver Joey Galloway drew the Steelers' interest early this week, but in the middle of the week they turned their attention to another speedster, first-round draft prospect Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Known widely as a 4.2+ wide receiver coming into his junior season at Maryland in 2008, Heyward-Bey ran a 4.30 on the slow combine track, and since then his status has skyrocketed. At his Pro Day this week, Heyward-Bey impressed scouts with his skills. A "body-catcher" in the Willie Gault mode, Heyward-Bey apparently showed enough to stamp himself as a football player.
After the workout, Heyward-Bey told Scout.com's Ed Thompson that the Vikings, Jaguars and Steelers showed the most interest at his Pro Day. But don't count out the Ravens, who scheduled a March 23 visit to Maryland and will bring quarterback Joe Flacco with them.
* The Steelers on Friday attended Pro Days at South Florida, Purdue and Ohio State.
* Many thanks go out to the Scout.com team of Thompson, Chris Steuber and Tom Marino, who are putting in the work without sending their results to other Internet sites in a desperate cry for attention. Thanks again, men.
* Also, reserve offensive lineman Trai Essex, a free agent, visited the Tennessee Titans on Friday.
FRIDAY, MARCH 13
9:30 a.m.: A little background on the West Virginia Pro Day from the WVU coaching staff:
-- QB Pat White didn't run routes as a receiver because he'd tweaked a hamstring last week.
-- In preparation for the scheduled appearance of Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, the WVU defenders broke down the Steelers' defense in order to speak intelligently.
-- Tomlin spent time chatting up defenders Mortty Ivy and Ellis Lankster. Ivy is an OLB I remember better as the QB at Gateway HS. He's a late-round hopeful. Lankster is a savvy CB who's tough against the run and was one of the team leaders. He'd provide great value in the late rounds.
-- Tomlin also spent time with Pat McAfee, the kicker/punter who banged home a 60-yarder with Tomlin looking over his shoulder. Camp fodder? Or competition for bad-boy Jeff Reed?
Don't read too much into Tomlin's appearance, since Morgantown is a short drive from Pittsburgh and he's an old friend of WVU Coach Bill Stewart.
* Yesterday the Steelers also attended the Pro Day at Nebraska. Possible targets include OG Matt Slauson, RT Lydon Murtha and DE Zach Potter. All are considered late-round prospects. The 6-7+, 309-pound Murtha ran a 4.89 40 at the combine and the 6-6.4, 276-pound Potter, who ran a pair of 4.9 40s yesterday, appears to be a fit as a 3-4 DE.
* Speaking of 3-4 DEs, the Steelers consider Boston College fatsos B.J. Raji and Ron Brace to be defensive ends. Yeah, I hear you laughing, but that's the word. Of course, the Steelers told us on draft day that Lawrence Timmons was a base 3-4 OLB and five months later they moved him inside. I see the same possibility with Brace. The 6-3, 330-pound DT ran "in the 5.0 to 5.2 range" yesterday, according to The Daily News Tribune. Brace is a second-round prospect, and with Casey Hampton entering the final year of his contract, the "defensive end" might be needed to play nose tackle some day soon.
* The Steelers had interviewed Brace at the combine but didn't show up for his Pro Day. They didn't go to Oregon, either, but they already know enough about center prospect Max Unger, a low first-round prospect. The guy I want to know more about -- Jairus Byrd -- once again passed on a workout. The physical cornerback with 17 interceptions in three years as a starter, missed the Senior Bowl (as a junior), the combine, and now his Pro Day. He's nursing a sore groin.
* The Steelers also passed on the Pro Day at Troy, where a guy they like, CB Sherrod Martin, ran a 4.45 40 and jumped 37 inches. A 6-1, 194-pound safety who projects to cornerback, Martin turned heads at the combine with cat-quick times in the short shuttle (3.98) and 3-cone (6.6) drills. The 24-year-old is considered a third-round prospect.
THURSDAY, MARCH 12
3:15 p.m.: According to Scout.com's Chris Steuber, Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert made an appearance at the West Virginia University Pro Day today. They watched Pat White play quarterback, and only quarterback. The speedy southpaw had promised to run routes at his Pro Day, but, according to Steuber, White continues to stick to his dream of becoming an NFL quarterback.
Not that the Steelers need another quarterback, but they do need offensive linemen, so Tomlin likely kept an eye on LT Ryan Stanchek's performance. Stanchek is considered a sixth-round prospect.
* Also, John Clayton is reporting at ESPN.com that OLB Andre Frazier has re-signed with the Steelers. We'll have confirmation and further details soon.
10:45 a.m.: One of the free agents the Cincinnati Bengals were prepared to let leave was center Eric Ghiaciuc. However, he's still on the market, and it appears that the Bengals will bring him back. They'd better, because it's unlikely that they'll get their man, Eric Wood, with their pick in the second round. The Steelers are interested in the Louisville center, who opened my eyes with his performance at guard in the Senior Bowl.
Unfortunately, Wood also opened the eyes of the Philadelphia Eagles, who ran him through a private workout yesterday. Scout.com draft analyst Chris Steuber reports that the workout "went very, very well" and he wouldn't be surprised if the Eagles took him with the 28th pick of the first round.
Steuber talked to Wood, who said he was interviewed by 13 teams at the combine. Wood singled out the Eagles, Steelers and Bengals as those who seemed particularly interested. My source on the South Side agreed with this assessment, particularly on that second team, so it appears that the guy I've been targeting for six weeks is falling right into the expected draft range.
* A radio station in Salt Lake City reported that Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin attended Utah's Pro Day to watch DE/OLB Paul Kruger and king-sized CB Sean Smith. I asked Tomlin about it and he said, "A lot of people are saying I'm in a lot of places. But you can report that I was in my front yard playing catch with my boys."
Tomlin wasn't there, of course, and I received a tip that Smith is not a consideration for the Steelers' pick at 32. I didn't even ask about Kruger, who has to be a medical risk since he doesn't have a spleen and one kidney, who is a few years older than most prospects because of a religious mission, and who, in my opinion, doesn't have the hips to play OLB in their scheme. Just to cover all bases, though, the Daily Utah Chronicle reports that "the eccentric Smith" ran a 4.43 40 after losing five pounds from his combine weight of 214, but that the star of the day was 5-9, 182-pound CB Brice McCain, who ran a 4.24 40.
* While we insiders are focusing on Wood, expect "outsiders" to begin buzzing about 330-pound guard Duke Robinson after the Steelers reportedly spent several minutes with him at the Oklahoma Pro Day. Sooners Illustrated's Greg Powers added additional commentary on the OU message board.
My first question is: What would the writers at ProFootballTalk.com say about the 330-pound Robinson had he gone shirtless the way 325-pound Andre Smith did in his workout Wednesday? But that's just meant as a shot at that site's typical overreaction.
My second question is: Are the Steelers second-guessing a guy they'd considered a third-rounder during the season? Well, probably not. They most likely sent assistant O-line coach Harold Goodwin (who works with Steelers tackles) to see if Robinson was worthy of their second-round pick. At least that's my hope after focusing on Robinson yesterday while re-watching tape of the national title game.
What I saw in Robinson was a Chris Kemoeatu clone. Robinson mauled a few people in the run game, and showed to be an angry finisher. Loved that part, even though it cost him a personal foul (ticky-tack, bad call, in my opinion) during a first-quarter drive. But on the next play, a blatant hold by Robinson cost the Sooners a completed bomb inside the Florida 5. Robinson was yanked from the game on the next series, but returned and again cost the Sooners midway through the second quarter of a 7-7 game. With OU third-and-goal from the half-yard line, Robinson was stood up in his tracks and the running play was stuffed for a loss. OU again ran left on fourth down and the play was again stuffed. Of course, Florida gained momentum and went on to win the game and the national championship.
In my opinion, the Steelers don't need another Kemoeatu, who's a liability in pass protection, has a problem with middle blitzes, and, for an alleged run-game masher, often falls short in game-deciding, short-yardage moments. Nope, not even in the second round.
* By the way, Scout.com senior analyst Ed Thompson reported to me that the Steelers interviewed massive OU left tackle Phil Loadholt at the combine. Loadholt doesn't have the feet to handle NFL speed rushers, but has the size and enough athletic ability to be developed as a right tackle and would be a worthy second-round choice. Perhaps that's what the Steelers' tackle coach was doing at OU before putting up his post-workout smokescreen with Robinson. (Yes, that's just an opinion.)
* In the last two days, the Steelers have also attended Pro Days at Oklahoma State and Kentucky. They were probably only doing their homework on OSU first-round TE Brandon Pettigrew. The Kentucky targets are most likely NT Myron Pryor and DE/OLB Johny Williams, both fringe seventh-rounders.
* The only info I received from the Scott McKillop workout yesterday was that the former Pitt linebacker played the part of a pierogie during a Pirates game last year. If you don't understand, you don't need to.
* One of my favorite Steelers is backup QB Charlie Batch, who was at the facility yesterday to talk contract with the Steelers. The free agent told me, "We're just talking. I don't think we'll get anything done until they do something with James (Harrison) or Max (Starks)."
DOFO Kevin Colbert told me that talks with both Harrison and Starks are "moving at our pace," which isn't the pace everyone else wants, but it's how the Steelers operate. That process, said Batch, is why the team lost CB Bryant McFadden to the Cardinals. They understood that the Steelers only have less than $6 million in cap money with which to work. Batch said the Cardinals' odd 2-year, $10 million contract acted as "a poison pill" that's used to snare transition-tagged players and restricted free agents.
Charlie also said that he doesn't understand why free agent Byron Leftwich hasn't been offered a contract by another team (he didn't know if the Steelers had done so and neither do I) and said that Leftwich is a smart, talented player with leadership skills and is a positive influence in the locker room.
Anyway, after talking to Batch, I came to the conclusion that the Steelers are more apt to sign Joey Galloway than Chris Carr since Galloway, a Steelers fanatic as a child, would likely come at a much lower cost, which is necessary at this point in the Harrison/Starks talks.
* And this just in: Scout's Ed Thompson just spoke with USC LB Clay Matthews, who revealed that he, too, interviewed with the Steelers at the combine. Here's a one-on-one interview I did with Clay at the Senior Bowl.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 11
5 p.m.: Chris Carr has left the building and it doesn't appear as if a deal is imminent. If I hear otherwise from Chris' lawyer, you'll read all about it here.
4:15 p.m.: I wrote a long entry from the South Side earlier this afternoon, filled with updates, news and draft opinions, but a computer goblin ate the dang thing, so I'll just recap the important stuff and save the rest for the morning.
At this moment, the Steelers are still in talks with visiting free agent CB/RS Chris Carr, but are hamstrung against the cap while trying to get something done with James Harrison and Max Starks. Director of Operations Kevin Colbert said that progress is being made on both fronts, but at the Steelers' normal pace, not the pace for which everyone else is hoping.
Colbert also said talks with 37-year-old free agent WR Joey Galloway are "still alive," that Galloway passed the team's medical tests, and that he still has the speed which made him a deep threat for so long in the league.
11 a.m.: We interrupt this sleepy day for a news flash from AdamJT13. Yes, that can only means his irrefutable compensation picks are in This well-known Internet football/math scholar has the Steelers receiving a pick at the end of the third round for losing Alan Faneca in free agency last spring.
It's what we all expected from the net of losing Faneca and Clark Haggans and gaining Mewelde Moore and Keyaron Fox.(Justin Hartwig was a street free agent.) The NFL will confirm AdamJT13's work at the owners' meeting later this month.
5:30 a.m.: Ten days ago I reported of the Steelers' interest in free agent WR/RS Chris Carr, and today he's finally visiting the Steelers, according to the Post-Gazette. The Steelers will also be hosting their first college prospect today: Pitt inside linebacker Scott McKillop.
A native of nearby Vandergrift, McKillop was lightly recruited coming out of Kiski Area High School, but became the leader of the best Pitt defense in at least the last 20 years. The inside linebacker, according to the school, made over 300 tackles the last two seasons as a starter.
He attended the combine in Indianapolis and measured 6-0.7, 244, ran the 40 in 4.77, and benched 225 pounds 27 times. A scout told me he's "a fourth or fifth-rounder, but someone will fall in love with him and take him in the third." That team would most likely draft McKillop based on his last game, a spectacular bowl performance against Oregon State in which the Pitt defense allowed only a field goal in a 3-0 loss. McKillop showed off his terrific instincts, as well as enough quickness to make an NFL roster.
McKillop also played in the Senior Bowl. Here's the transcript of an interview I did with him the first night in Mobile.
I'll be back later this morning with some thoughts on Utah CB Sean Smith, news from the Oklahoma Pro Day, and more.
TUESDAY, MARCH 10
8:30 a.m.: Call me lazy, I know, but as Steeler Nation mulled over the prospect of bringing a needed veteran receiver into the fold -- and if 37-year-old Joey Galloway has anything left it's a GREAT idea -- I was on the couch watching an Oct. 18 college game between Georgia Tech and Clemson. I know. Grim. But I hoped to re-acquaint myself with a left tackle who didn't play in Tech's bowl game or any of the all-star games because of what I'd thought was a knee injury. So I watched Andrew Gardner, and was impressed with his feet, his techniques, his hustle, his hands and his size. But I couldn't understand why on so many snaps he ended up on the ground after trying to cut-block somebody. This guy had too much potential to flop so often. Well, turns out, the injury was a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Gardner continued playing until November before undergoing surgery. It stopped what at the time was Division 1-A's longest active iron-man streak.
Gardner said he was nearly recovered at the combine (6-6.2, 305) and yesterday he was put through the paces by one of the Steelers' line coaches.
If it's true that Gardner's considered a sixth-round prospect, as stated in one of the links, the Steelers, I feel, would be getting a steal in the bottom of the fifth.
* Just to put it on record, I still feel Georgia Tech DE/OLB Michael Johnson is the most overrated prospect in the draft. Johnson, of course, dazzled NFL scouts at the Georgia Tech Pro Day with his size (6-7, 266) and speed (Lions had him at 4.49), but, as Mike Mayock pointed out in the article, the guy does nothing on the field.
"Michael will be a better pro than he is a college player," Johnson's father told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. And when you hear words like that, you'd better get your bust antennae up. Said Michael about Mayock's criticism: "That wasn't the first time someone said something bad about me. It won't be the last." Right.
* Speaking of the Lions and overrated prospects, I watched the Georgia-Florida "Cocktail" game from earlier this year and saw QB Matthew Stafford throw three interceptions in a blowout loss to Florida. Stafford has all the tools, but is the exact opposite of Ben Roethlisberger in that he has a knack for finding ways to lose. There's no chance I'd pick this guy first, but I did learn something about a Georgia player because of those interceptions: WR Mohamed Massaquoi is a flat-out warrior. No Freddie Gibson here. Massaquoi, who measured 6-2, 210 at the combine and ran a 4.57 40, made like Ben Watson-versus-Champ Bailey by running down a cornerback from the opposite side of the field to stop an 88-yard interception return at the 1-yard line. Later, even though the Dawgs were done, down by about 40 in what became a 49-10 Florida win, Massaquoi wouldn't do the sensible thing and quit. He ran down another long interception return.
I'm sorry that I don't have the numbers on that last tackle because a Google search revealed no one else wrote about Massaquoi, other than his 5 catches for 112 yards. But my lasting memory of Mohamed Massaquoi is of him lying on the ground gasping for air after his second tackle, the "C" over the heart of his jersey heaving as he gasped. It reminded me of a similar tackle on an interception return a few years ago in a bowl game by a guy named Adrian Peterson, who I think is doing pretty well in the league.
* Another player I watched closely in the "Cocktail" game was Florida right tackle (yes, right, not left as I'd erroneously reported earlier) Jason Watkins. My feelings on him are mixed. He definitely has the feet, the size and the strength, but he's a finesse tackle through and through. While the Steeler have to like his mobility, he's obviously not a glass-eater.
* Cornerback Sean Smith's Pro Day at Utah came and went without much fanfare. He measured 6-3.4, 209 and ran 4.47 and 4.49 40s. That's all that was reported anywhere. I saw no mention of whether the Steelers took interest in this Mel Blount knock-off.
SUNDAY, MARCH 8
10 a.m.: The Steelers don't need a running back, right? I mean, that paltry 3.7-yard average and pathetic short-yardage package was the fault of the O-line? Or Bruce Arians? Or injuries to Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, right? Well, a good coach concedes none of that and attacks the overall problem. That's why I was pleased to read about the Steelers' interest in Frank "The Tank" Summers.
The Steelers sent two scouts and running backs coach Kirby Wilson to host the UNLV Pro Day for 11 other teams the other day, and Summers, a 5-9 "bowling ball," was the star of the show by running a 4.55 40 and benching 225 pounds 30 times. The two Las Vegas papers differed on his weight, but he's in the 230 to 240-pound area.
Wilson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Summers was "one of the most difficult guys to tackle that they've seen on film this year." And, of Summers' receiving ability, Wilson said: "You don't see that out of a big man much."
In the previous link to The Las Vegas Sun, a scout was overheard saying of Summers, "He's a junior Bus." But even though Summers wasn't invited to the combine, it appears he'll be drafted and follow a similar path to the NFL taken by another Oakland native, Marvel Smith. Both played for John Beam at legendary Skyline High School and both were recruited by nearby Cal. Smith, though, got away from the friends in his rough neighborood and attended Arizona State. Summers went to Cal, but left after a redshirt year to play at Laney Junior College before leaving for UNLV, where he rushed for 1,668 yards and caught 36 passes in two seasons.
"I can play fullback, tailback and special teams," Summers told reporters. "I can play defense if they need me there, too."
Sounds and reads like a fifth-rounder to me.
* I was just telling my wife the other day that we don't need to send our sports-crazed daughter to all of these soccer camps and Cup teams as long as she develops her speed and strength. I said that upper-level coaches don't like the bad habits most kids develop from playing so much at a young age, and then, bang, I read the great Jon Kolb feels the same way. According to well-known wrestling coach Ray Brinzer, Kolb brought his son Caleb in to wrestle at an older age, but that it didn't matter. The proof came yesterday when Caleb won the PIAA wrestling title. It's one of the most prestigious scholastic accomplishments in the country, so congratulations to the Kolb family.(And thanks to The Daily Item, which has made this blog on back-to-back days. Honest, I'd never heard of the paper till this weekend.)
* A couple of quick-hitters: Ed Bouchette's Sunday column is easily the best read of the day, and the rumor from the West Coast is that the Steelers will open the season on a Thursday night against either the Vikings, Titans or Ravens.
* Also, I got a hot tip on a prospect from Scout.com's Chris Steuber, who tells of Temple WR/RS Travis Shelton (5-10, 185), a cousin of Devin Hester's, who, according to Shelton, used to beat Hester in every race at family gatherings. Steuber is a friend of Shelton's and watched him run a 4.27 40 the other day. Shelton thinks he can improve on that time this week at his Pro Day.
SATURDAY, MARCH 7
8:50 a.m.: Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is one of my favorite draft reporters because he talks to scouts and personnel men instead of pretending to be one. But that is not the reason for today's link. No, McGinn gives the breakdown on Anthony Smith's signing with the Green Bay Packers. At one time a promising free safety prospect fondly called "Kill Shot" by Steelers fans, Smith wore out his welcome with not only his bravado and over-aggressiveness, but because he gave up too many deep passes for a defense that gave up its longest play of the 2008 season in the Super Bowl (see Larry Fitz). That wasn't Smith's fault, of course, because he didn't play in any of the playoff games, so his release was hardly a surprise.
For an interesting read on Smith's background (and I apologize for the promo, but it's true), read my book Steeler Nation to understand why Smith didn't end up in jail with former Youngstown pals and Ohio State recruits Maurice Clarett and Larry Irizarry. In short, the reason is Smith's Uncle Homer and his other adopted kids. They're the reason I believe Smith still has a chance to make it in this league.
* Speaking of free agents, Bryant McFadden's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, must be getting desperate. He apparently e-mailed Mike Florio, who reports at Profootballtalk.com that "a league source" informed him McFadden is being pursued by four teams, the Steelers included. Funny how "league sources" these days are either agents or other writers.
* The best story you'll read today just might be this one on Andy Russell in the Sunbury (Pa.) Daily Item. Russell gave a talk at a local high school and the ever-interesting former superstar linebacker told what he felt was the most important step his parents took with him. Russell, of course, was known in the 1960s as "a hunch blitzer", probably because he was smarter than his coaches.
* Earlier in this blog, it was reported that Mike Mayock's sleepers at center are "the guys at TCU and Penn State." We know about PSU center A.Q. Shipley, and thanks to TCU's Pro Day we now know about Blake Schlueter, a 6-2 1/2, 290-pounder who ran a 4.79 40. He was a three-year starter and as a senior was All-Mountain West Conference. Gil Brandt calls him seventh-round sleeper.
* And finally, I ran across a Steelers blogger who will participate in an all-NFL-bloggers mock draft today. This guy proudly links to every Steelers site except ours, so it'll be interesting to see what he knows. Have a great weekend.
THURSDAY, MARCH 5
7:20 a.m.: Pretty slow night for news, but this photo of Ben warmed me up. As you probably know, my friend Thomas Tull, who helped Dan Rooney keep the Steelers last season by becoming part of ownership, is coming out with yet another blockbuster, Watchmen. As partner Dale Lolley and I joked during our last radio show of the season, this is a Steelers movie. So who knows, perhaps a big take will help the club re-sign James Harrison.
Many of my more intelligent friends tell me this is going to be an even better movie than Tull's The Dark Knight, so go see it. Great to see Ben at the front of the line, too.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 4
3:15 p.m.: A couple of quick blasts after lunching on the South Side. First, Keyaron Fox is visiting with the front office "working on a deal." One of the team's special-teams stars and a backup inside linebacker, the free agent said he talked with a couple of other teams but wants to remain in Pittsburgh. Also, the word is that Dick LeBeau, perhaps the greatest assistant coach in NFL history, has a solid chance of being a Seniors Committee nominee for the Hall of Fame next year. Now that's almost as good news as the warming weather in Pittsburgh. Hallelujah!
8:20 a.m.: Scout.com's Ed Thompson reports to us that the Steelers interviewed Florida left tackle Jason Watkins (6-6, 318) at the combine. Watkins has long arms that measured 34.3 inches to rank ninth of 25 tackles at the combine, and his 10 1/2-inch hands were bigger than all but one tackle. But those numbers were the highlights as Watkins ran a 5.47 40 and benched 225 pounds only 18 times. He's considered a mid-round prospect whose "very raw and not very physical," according to College Football News' Pete Fiutak, who added that Watkins has "excellent upside for a patient team."
* At the Senior Bowl, we reported that Pat White bleeds black and gold, and White reiterated that stance yesterday for NFL.com. He also says he'll run patterns for scouts at his March 12 Pro Day in Morgantown.
It's unlikely that the Steelers will draft this late-second/early-third round prospect since they already have enough quarterbacks. I did ask White at the combine if he watched the Super Bowl with his Mobile-based, Steelers-crazed father, and he said, "No, but we texted each other during the game about every five minutes."
Speaking of WVU's Pro Day, the player in whom I'll be interested is left tackle Ryan Stanchek, who's unlike the aforementioned Watkins in that he's an overachiever without the upside. But if you watched Stanchek's gritty gutty performance against Pitt pass rusher Greg Romeus in the last Backyard Brawl, you probably wondered why he wasn't invited to the combine. I also like WVU's right tackle Selvish Capers as an undrafted project.
* The best TV sports reporter in town is KDKA's Bob Pompeani, who sat down with James Harrison's agent and reports that a deal between "Silverback" and the Steelers is "100 percent certain," although the latter phrase was not in quotations in the story.
* Here's an interesting photo of Troy Polamalu, who appears to have gotten a haircut. I like the photo's cutline as well.
TUESDAY, MARCH 3
8 a.m.: According to The Tennessean, Nate Washington agreed to a 6-year contract for $27 million. Washington, the Steelers' No. 3 receiver who got behind defenses intent on stopping deep threat Santonio Holmes, told reporters, "I'm ready for that responsibility to step in and be a No. 1-type receiver."
* The Steelers are still in the hunt for CB Bryant McFadden, who visited the Arizona Cardinals on Monday, but didn't sign a contact, according to The Arizona Republic. In Arizona, McFadden would compete with Rod Hood for the starting job, with the loser becoming the nickel back. That might even be a step up for McFadden, who, in spite of starting Super Bowl XLIII, was fourth among team cornerbacks in snaps that game behind Ike Taylor, nickel back Deshea Townsend, and rotating RCB William Gay.
* On the one-year anniversary of Ben Roethlisberger's $102 million signing, the Tribune-Review is reporting that talks between the Steelers and James Harrison's agent are going nowhere. While Harrison still has a year remaining on his contract (Roethlisberger had two), the Steelers would like to finish a deal with their No. 1 off-season priority to see where they stand for the remainder of the spring and summer re-signing period. Of course, the Steelers are hesitant to pay Harrison (31 on May 4) much more than their current highest-paid defender, Troy Polamalu (28 on April 19), who averages $7.55 million per year.
* Broken-down left tackle Marvel Smith is apparently having no luck with the Baltimore Ravens, according to The Baltimore Sun, which is reporting that the Ravens have not followed up on their Monday talks with Smith.
* Speaking of Roethlisberger, the quarterback reportedly spent the weekend in Las Vegas with a couple of teammates. Word is he spent his time drinking bottled water, which should become a lesson for kicker Jeff Reed, who reportedly got bombed in Ebensburg the night of his infamous attack on a towel dispenser. Word of advice to Reed: stop drinking. You might want to remember these glory years in your old age.
MONDAY, MARCH 2
6:10 p.m.: The Steelers lost their first free agent today when the Tennessee Titans signed wide receiver Nate Washington. Terms of the deal were to have been announced at a 5 p.m. press conference.
Washington was the Steelers' No. 3 receiver and a key player in the team's Super Bowl run. First in line to take his place is last year's second-round draft pick Limas Sweed.
SUNDAY, MARCH 1
10 a.m.: Here's the list of restricted free agents and the compensation due for signing them.
8:40 a.m.: While the Steelers haven't scheduled a visit yet, they have contacted Tennessee Titans CB/RS Chris Carr, according to The Tennessean.
Carr signed with the Titans last year as a restricted free agent from the Oakland Raiders. He finished fourth in the league in kickoff return average (28.1) and 10th in punt return average (10.1) while intercepting one pass as a reserve cornerback (two starts).
In four seasons, Carr has a kickoff return average of 24.7 and a punt return average of 7.1. The 5-10, 180-pounder out of Boise State turns 26 on April 30.
SATURDAY, FEB. 28
12:30 p.m.: The Baltimore Ravens,according to The Baltimore Sun, are bringing in Marvel Smith for a visit -- yes, the same Marvel Smith who could barely bend over to pick up a pencil while telling me his back was fine last January.
The Ravens, of course, realize that the team last holding an injured player's rights becomes the team responsible, monetarily, for that injury. So good luck with all that, dear Ravens.
FRIDAY, FEB. 27
4:15 p.m.: The Steelers managed to keep right guard Chris Kemoeatu. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the 344-pounder signed a 5-year, $20 million contract that includes a $3.885 million signing bonus. The paper also reported that the Steelers signed restricted free agent Sean McHugh, a 265-pound fullback/tight end, to a 3-year, $2.57 million contract that includes a $390,000 signing bonus.
12:20 p.m.: The Nate Washington tour expands.
7:45 a.m.: Chris Kemoeatu replaced Alan Faneca last season after Faneca went to the New York Jets. This season, Kemoeatu could be playing on the same line with Faneca, according to the New York Daily News.
5:40 a.m.: According to the Detroit News, Steelers No. 3 receiver Nate Washington is visiting the Lions this weekend, with visits also planned to the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Bucs.
SUNDAY, FEB. 22
11:20 a.m.: The Steelers can't hide their interests any longer. It was easy to cover their tracks with O-linemen (who met with the media before they met with the teams), but the Steelers have already interviewed several defensive players, including cornerbacks Darius Butler of UConn, Coye Francies of San Jose State, and defensive tackle Fili Moala of USC.
Butler, who has the quickest feet and change-of-direction skills of any CB, according to expert Mike Mayock, is also a fine return man, something the Steelers need (and something they weren't getting out of the expendable WR Nate Washington).
Francies, a CB from San Jose State, was a physical presence during Senior Bowl week, but has been hounded by questions about his character since being dismissed from Oregon State before the 2007 season. He was a passenger in a car that carried an unregistered gun, but the charge was dropped. He said teams don't seem concerned since he had no priors or posts.
I'm outta here, and I'm hoping to hear later that Oregon CB Jairus Byrd, son of former San Diego CB Gill Byrd, is another Steelers target.
9:45 a.m.: It looks like the Steelers are prepared for life without Nate Washington. According to Tribune-Review columnist John Harris, the Steelers haven't engaged in talks with Washington, their No. 3 receiver who became a legitimate deep threat by the end of the season and who will likely move on in free agency this week.
Yes, Washington has inconsistent hands and is a bit on the soft side, but Limas Sweed hasn't proven he's ready to move up in class just yet. Of course, it's been the Steelers' style to force feed their high draft picks, and that must be their thinking here.
While Sweed dropped easy touchdown passes down the stretch and in the playoffs, he did get off the line and run past cornerbacks. He's big, fast, strong, enthusiastic, and a punishing and willing blocker. All he has to do now is catch the thing.
Another factor playing a role in what appears to be a decision to let Washington walk is that Kevin Colbert loves this crop of receivers. He told us here at the combine that it's a deep class with players available into the later rounds.
* On another note, Steelers QB Coach Ken Anderson interviewed Buffalo QB Drew Willy yesterday. Hello, camp arm.
SATURDAY, FEB. 21
4:30 p.m.: Max Starks has signed his franchise tender, which will earn him at least $8.5 million this season. The Steelers, of course, will be working to extend Starks's contract and reduce the cap number by giving him a large signing bonus that'll be spread over a number of years.
* Percy Harvin, the WR/RB/RS from Florida, was a delightful interview, far from the moody egomaniac portrayed in the recent edition of Pro Football Weekly. Harvin even brought up the character issues and high-school suspension without being prompted by the media. One of his advisors rolled her eyes at this, but I told her he'd been answering these types of questions all week to much more important people than us in the media.
* Speaking of bubbly personalities, Wake Forest LB Aaron Curry, the potential top pick of the draft, is a lock to blow teams away in their interviews. This guy's a gem. He'll some day be a team captain as well as a spokesman to the media, much like Jerome Bettis was in Pittsburgh. You can tell this kid's a flat-out winner.
2:15 p.m.: Jarron Gilbert of San Jose State checked in at 6-5, 288, the perfect size to become a Steelers' end in their 3-4 scheme. Gilbert's father Darren played for the New Orleans Saints, and he also talked about his now famous YouTube clip from the swimming pool. Gilbert said he hasn't talked to the Steelers yet, but said he'd have no problem handling the no-frills, oxen-like duties of a DE in the Steelers' scheme because, as he said, he was an offensive lineman in college. I'll link to the transcript when it's done
Oh, and here's the link to Gilbert's amazing video:
1 p.m.: Real slow morning, but I did learn that becoming the Steelers' defensive coordinator "was part of the discussion" in explaining why Keith Butler didn't interview with the Cardinals for the same opening on their staff. However, the belief is that Dick LeBeau "will coach a few more years" before hanging it up, said the source.
9:00 a.m.: As reported yesterday in our ever-expanding list of Steelers' interviewees, Auburn guard Tyrone Green talked with Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein at the combine.
7:15 a.m.: LeBron James can't believe the fine levied to Santonio Holmes.
FRIDAY, FEB. 20
4:45 p.m.: Here's the transcript of the Shady McCoy press conference.
3:55 p.m.: Penn State WR Derrick Williams loves Joe Paterno, but worries about his old coach. Here's an interesting exchange I had with the Penn State WR/return specialist:
Q: How much longer do you think Joe's going to keep coaching?
DW: Joe Paterno is one of those coaches who eats, sleeps, dreams, everything is about football. That's what's keeping him going. He's very young at heart. We know that if he was going to retire, something really, really would have to be wrong, like he had to die on the field, or something like that.
Q: Do you see him dying on the field?
DW: I definitely do. The thing that spooks us as players is we think Joe's going to be buried on the field and everybody's going to be coming to the stadium. If he does go, there's going to be a big funeral at the stadium.
Q: That's what he wants, isn't it?
DW: (laughs) I don't know.
Williams also had this to say aout the inordinate amount of muffs he had during Senior Bowl practices:
"I dropped three punts the first day and everywhere I hear how everybody's surprised at how many punts I dropped. But it was different. You had to get used to the wind. And the kid from Cincinnati, the punter, was left-footed and his balls -- it was difficult to get the hang of it at first. Luckily after that, he came up to the place I was working at in Orlando and I worked with him and it got much easier to catch. But it was that, the wind, and I might've been a little nervous at first."
* You gotta love Shady McCoy. The Pitt running back struggled mightily throughout his media interview because of the flu -- he vomited on the plane and weighed in at 198 -- but he's here, because to not "would be a cowardly thing," he said. So McCoy will do everything but bench press. He said the highest number of 225-pound reps he had while training was 19.
* Hakeem Nicks doesn't mind the label "possession receiver," because, he said, it means he can catch the ball. But doesn't that mean he's a step slow?
"I think I have a lot more speed than what's expected," he said.
And what about Mike Mayock's comparison of Nicks to Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin?
"I think that's a great comparison."
His favorite receiver in the NFL is "Steve Smith, but my game comes closest to Anquan Boldin's."
* LSU's outstanding fullback, Quinn Johnson, said he played fullback in high school, and that he's always loved the position. "I love contact," he said.
That makes him a different kind of fullback than the tailback conversions who never seem to learn how to block. The guy has a thorough understanding of the position. Unfortunately, the Steelers haven't talked to him -- yet.
* An interesting note on Max Starks from our message board: Vernon Carey just signed a 6-year extension with the Dolphins for $42 million. And I agree with those who say that is close to what Starks should command.
12:15 p.m.: Scout.com's Adam Caplan has been monitoring restricted free agent Willie's Colon's progress and provides an update in his blog.
11:30 a.m.: NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock took the podium this morning and we'll link to the entire transcript as soon as its done. But here are some Steelers-related highlights:
* OT Eben Britton "has short arms and might be a right tackle only, but he's very athletic."
* Loves the depth at center. His favorite sleepers are the TCU and Penn State centers -- meaning my man A.Q. Shipley. More on that later.
* One of Mayock's sleeper 3-4 defensive ends is a player from Stillman College. Also called LSU's Tyson Jackson a "top 15 or 20 player."
* On UConn RB Donald Brown, "some teams have him 1 on their board."
* On UConn CB Darius Butler, "the quickest feet and change of direction at the Senior Bowl."
* Also called my sleeper CB, Oregon Jr. Jairus Byrd, an intriguing player who could go late in the first or early in the second. So much for him being a "sleeper."
* On DE/OLB Aaron Maybin playing at 234 pounds last season, "that's too small in any scheme." He still likes Maybin, but said that "he'll struggle against the run and in pass drops for a year."
* In a discussion on nose tackles, Mayock looked down at his notes and ran off several names. He mentioned San Jose State DE Jarron Gilbert as being able to play "inside and outside." Would be the rare end who could actually transition to nose tackle, so maybe Mayock had his notes mixed up.
* In an answer to a question about Missouri QB Chase Daniels, Mayock referred to the West Virginia QB. "He's like Pat White. The kid gets it. I want him on my team."
* Said that Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers "really opened my eyes," and "he's the fastest riser in the draft ... At the Senior Bowl, nobody could block him." So Mayock went back to look at film and was impressed by his performance against Alabama. "He handled Andre Smith."
* I asked about WR Hakeem Nicks and Mayock said that Nicks needs a good 40 time today to sneak into the bottom of the first round. "At North Carolina, he ran a 4.55, 4.58 and was quote-unquote a possession receiver," Mayock said. "I think he's a cross between Anquan Boldin and Hines Ward -- not that he's either one of those guys, but he's that type." Mayock concluded the answer by saying, "I really like Hakeem Nicks."
7 a.m.: Judging by the reaction to the tagging of Max Starks, you'd think Starks is the diabolical mastermind behind all the missing money in this country. Wow. You'd think a guy that played left tackle for the Super Bowl champs would be given more respect than that, but apparently no one wants to forgive Starks his slow feet.
That's the only explanation I can offer. Yes, Starks plays ugly, but I've long since gotten over that. Remember what Russ Grimm said the day the Steelers drafted Starks: "It takes a taxicab ride to get around him."
Big, slow-footed, and effective. The guy can play football, and Kevin Colbert -- burned last year -- believes he can get a long-term deal done this time around, meaning Starks's cap number should be lowered as it wasn't last year.
Last year, of course, was a different animal. Tagged for $7 million, Starks was a backup and therefore he not only was cautious of a long-term deal, so were the Steelers, and any mutual understanding was a near impossibility. But the disconnect between the front office and coaching staff has been eradicated by Starks's effective play down the stretch as Marvel Smith's replacement at one of the most difficult (and expensive) positions on the field. Starks wasn't beautiful, but he was effective.
I guess that's a difficult distinction to erase from the mind. And it's not just fans. After breaking the story that Starks is guaranteed $8.5 million in one season -- if he so chooses -- ESPN's John Clayton wondered whether Starks will be the Steelers' starting left tackle. Apparently, the stigma of having slow feet can't be undone by any amount of money. Or Super Bowl rings.
THURSDAY, FEB. 19
8:30 p.m.: Before slapping the franchise tag on Max Starks, Steelers DOFO Kevin Colbert answered every single question right here.
1:45 p.m.: I didn't think Cal center Alex Mack looked 6-4 at the Senior Bowl, and I was right! He checked in today at 6-3 7/8. Speaking of measurements, Penn State center A.Q. Shipley checked in at rather short 6-1 but agreed that if it wasn't a problem for the great Mike Webster, it shouldn't be a problem for him.
Shipley, of course, played HS ball at nearby Moon with Webster's son Garrett, and A.Q. has heard the comparison made before. Shipley is also a Steelers fan and said the team talked to him last night. In other quick notes, A.Q. said he's played plenty of guard in practice at Penn State, and agreed that his Rose Bowl game may have been the best of his career.
1:15 p.m.: William Beatty, the undersized-but-athletic left tackle from UConn, grew up in York, Pa., as a Steelers fan. He said his entire family cheers for the Steelers, and has alerted William to the fact that they're drafting 32nd, which is where many analysts range Beatty.
Beatty will have to add more weight, however. He played at the Senior Bowl at 291 pounds, but said he was sick from travel and had lost weight heading in. Beatty entered UConn at 267 and said he has no trouble adding weight. My opinion? His frame doesn't make me think the pounds will be easy to add.
12:30 p.m.: Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said he'll meet with other organizational heads this afternnon before deciding whether the team will use a franchise tag on one of the team's pending free agents. Colbert said the team is unsure of William Gay's state of readiness, and also wondered about Deshea Townsend's age, leading to speculation the team might franchise cornerback Bryant McFadden. Such a move would cost the team $9.957 million for 2009 unless a long-term deal could be developed. Today's meeting will help answer the latter question.
A full transcript of Colbert's press conference and follow-up interview will be posted later this afternoon.
THURSDAY, FEB. 12
10 a.m.: I haven't written much since the Super Bowl, but shouldn't the enjoyment of the afterglow mean something? Shouldn't silence be the proper punctuation in this case?
Well, yes, particularly since I've never been a fan of exclamation points. But, really, sitting out this past week, watching the other stories fly back and forth, has been entertaining. There's the Larry Foote story: He wants to go to Detroit; he scoffs at going to Detroit. There's the Keith Butler story: The Cardinals sought permission to make him their defensive coordinator; the Cardinals never sought permission. Today I read that the Steelers will be choosing to go after Max Starks or broken down Marvel Smith for their left tackle spot next season. Well, I'll tell you what: If they choose to go after Marvel (which they won't), they'd better go after someone else, too, because for all the claims that Marvel could've played in the Super Bowl, I can match that with a playoff-season interview I did with Marvel. While telling me he's fine, fine, fine, he dropped a pencil. He didn't bend over to pick it up, but squatted down and struggled mightily. If they can grab Marvel for minimum wage and some incentives, great, but they'll need someone else.
Of course, the most humorous stories in the last 10 days have dealt with the alleged help the Steelers received from the officials in the Super Bowl. I'm starting to think the Super Bowl is the only game some of these people watch, considering their silly outrage. Seriously, I heard a real, live football reporter on the radio in Jacksonville whine about a celebration penalty that should've been called. I realize that Pete Prisco has held some sort of vendetta against the Steelers since the rivalry days with the Jaguars, but he should really listen to himself sometime. Here's a veteran football writer crying about celebration calls – the worst rule in an overofficious league. And this after two questionable calls cost the Steelers 6 points (third-down TD-turned-to-FG call and the safety).
Anyway, those are my reasons for my laziness, er, silent thoughtfulness after the Super Bowl. I'm hoping to learns some free agency plans soon, but until then here are my draft thoughts.
At the bottom of the first round, it appears that need will match value. The Steelers need interior linemen, and if they don't sign Starks – who's proven for two years now that as a left-hander he's a better left tackle than right tackle (as he's tried to tell us all along) – the need may mushroom to include tackle. So at this point, there are four considerations:
* Max Unger – Measured at 6-4, 299 at the Senior Bowl. He played center and left tackle at Oregon, but played a lot of guard at the Senior Bowl and looked (and admitted to being) rusty. The scout I talked to gave him a low first-round grade. He'll turn 23 in April.
* Alex Mack – Measured at a stuffed 6-4, 312 at the Senior Bowl. One scout ranks him below Unger as a high second-rounder because he lacks Unger's versatility. Mack has great leverage, a decent anchor, strength and will hustle. He was also a superstar academician at Cal, which will certainly be noted by the Steelers. He'll turn 24 in November. The Miami Dolphins seem to be set on drafting a center, so Mack could be gone by pick 32.
* Eric Wood – Louisville's center checked into the Senior Bowl at 6-4, 304. He's the longshot first-rounder of the group, but he looked like a first-rounder while playing guard in the Senior Bowl. He may lack Mack's strength, but that can be developed since it's not too shabby as is. He's a better guard than Mack because of his move skills. He turns 23 in March.
* Eben Britton – Arizona's left tackle came out as a junior and that always interests Kevin Colbert. Britton, listed at 6-6, 310 by his school, won't turn 22 until October. I've never seen him play, and will keep you updated on what I learn about him and all of these guys as we move to the combine next week.
There are also a couple of defensive linemen who interest me:
* Tyson Jackson – Didn't play – or, I should say "compete" as the coaches like to say – at the Senior Bowl because of his agent's advice. I was unimpressed by this guy's motor last year, but one scout had a first-round grade on him in case he did come out. I haven't watched Jackson this year yet, but guys who have say his motor's still dull. I just wonder if that's because he's reading too much as a 3-4 end. He's listed by his school at 6-4, 295 and turns 23 in June.
* Jarron Gilbert – This San Jose State sleeper checked into the Shrine Game at 6-6, 280. I haven't watched that tape yet, but people I respect compare him to Kendall Langford. That would make him a prime prospect for pick 32.
As always, I'll keep you posted on anything I learn in the weeks to come.
SUNDAY, FEB. 8
8 a.m.: Here's a story in the L.A. Times that attempts to define Ben Roethlisberger's competitiveness.
Are the Cleveland Browns hoping to imitate the Steelers? I think Eric Mangini's trying to say yes here.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the Steelers are respected. In today's Detroit Free Press, Lions fans hope their team imitates the Steelers.
SATURDAY, FEB. 7
8 a.m.: The Arizona Cardinals fired defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergrast on Friday and several Phoenix-based writers are speculating that his replacement will be Steelers linebackers coach Kevin Butler, who coached with Ken Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh and is well versed in the nuances of the 3-4 defense. Butler played in the defense for the Seattle Seahawks and has coached Steelers linebackers since 2003.
Whisenhunt attempted to lure Butler to coach linebackers when he was hired by the Cardinals in 2007, but the Steelers refused to allow Butler to interview for the position, which at the time was a lateral move.
Butler had been rumored for the defensive coordinator job in San Francisco last month, but now looms as the top candidate in Arizona. Dale Lolley of the Washington Observer-Reporter has taken the speculation a step further. In his blog today, Lolley reports the Cardinals have already sought permission from the Steelers to interview Butler. Since the coordinator position is comsidered a promotion, the Steelers would be forced to oblige the Cardinals.
Should the position in Pittsburgh open up, one name to keep in mind is former Steelers LB Jerry Olsavsky, who coaches linebackers at Youngstown State. He had applied for the position when Mike Archer resigned, but the Steelers instead hired Butler.
FRIDAY, FEB. 6
5:45 a.m.: The Steelers today will sign Stefan Logan from the Toronto Argonauts. Called the CFL's "most exciting player," Logan will have an opportunity to make the team as a return specialist and third-down running back, according to The Vancouver Sun.
THURSDAY, FEB. 5
11:30 a.m.: Jim Wexell finally got home from the Super Bowl. He reflects on the game here.
THURSDAY, JAN. 29
11:30 a.m.: In a surprise, Mike Tomlin was named NFL Coach of the Year this morning, but, then again, it wasn't that much of a surprise considering Motorola based the award on fan voting. So chalk up another win for Steelers Nation. The NFL Network is reporting that neither Chuck Noll nor Bill Cowher had ever won a Coach of the Year Award, but I'm pretty sure that Noll -- against the popular myth -- won a Coach of Year Award from a more respected source than Motorola. Not to take anything away from the incredible job Tomlin did this year, but I felt there were other more deserving candidates.
* Really, not much is going on down here in Tampa. The bar owners are expecting the Nation to arrive tonight, so that front will be covered, but don't expect any of the Steelers to say anything to incite the Cardinals or rev up the media.
* Santonio Holmes admitted to selling drugs as a youth in Belle Glade, Fla., and I'm reading reports of how Santonio "turned away from the drug culture to become the player he is today." Um, did I miss something about his pot arrest this year? Please tell me if I'm wrong.
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 28
9:20 a.m.: I drove to Tampa after giving a speech on "Steeler Nation" at the Wheeling Public Library on Monday night. It was a great atmosphere because the fans are just busting with pride and anticipation. I beat the winter storm out of town and took my time driving here. I arrived late Tuesday night, and this morning heard other reporters complaining about the lack of pot-stirrers, like Joey Porter, who make strong comments and make our jobs easier. But that's good news for me, since I apparently didn't miss anything on media day. Today I'll try to dig into a few decent stories from the Steelers. Be back early this afternoon.
P.S. If you didn't see it on the message board, Dale asked Brett Keisel about the Dick LeBeau retirement rumors that are being pushed and promoted by Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk.com. Dale reports that LeBeau called the team together Saturday night and told them the rumors weren't true. (--j.w.)
FRIDAY, JAN. 23
6:15 p.m.: The game plan is in place for the most part for the Steelers after they finished practice Friday afternoon. They'll have a walk-through on Saturday and then leave for Tampa early Monday morning. With head coach Mike Tomlin preparing as if the team was playing Sunday, the Steelers released an injury report Friday, even though they weren't required to do so. Wide receiver Hines Ward and linebacker Patrick Bailey were both listed as questionable. The Steelers, in an effort to help Ward's knee injury heal more quickly, are sending his personal hyperbaric oxygen chamber to Tampa to help with his rehab regimen. (-- d.l.)
THURSDAY, JAN. 22
6:15 p.m.: The Senior Bowl has crawled to a halt. The players have taken the pads off and the scouts have left town. It gave me a chance to hit my email and I found some good reading from the South Side. (-- j.w.)
5 p.m.: Ben Roethlisberger and Mewelde Moore returned to the practice field today for the Steelers. Roethlisberger sat out Wednesday with a stiff back - probably from carrying this offense against the Ravens – while Moore suffered an ankle sprain in the win over Baltimore. Linebacker Patrick Bailey (hamstring), center Justin Hartwig (knee), offensive tackle Max Starks (knee), linebacker Lawrence Timmons (illness) and wide receiver Hines Ward (knee) all missed their second day of work.
This team remains very loose, so loose, in fact, that backup defensive tackle Scott Paxson (aka T-Rex) danced through the locker room dribbling a football off his head and feet while his teammates chanted a European soccer song. Doesn't sound too crazy? Paxson was completely naked. It was not a pretty sight. (-- d.l.)
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 21
1:40 p.m.: Last night at a press conference, nose tackle B.J. Raji was asked about the quality centers he had destroyed that morning, and he ended his humble answer with "... they're good ones." I asked him what he does to the bad ones, and several reporters laughed and Raji smiled.
Anyway, my guess is that someone told Alex Mack and Max Unger that the jerk reporters were laughing at their expense, because today, they were on fire. Unger looked like a new man and he and Mack were hustling and scrapping and finishing their blocks to the bitter end. They even handled Raji a bit today; Unger once flipped him to the ground during team. Mack is my preference, but Unger looked much better at guard today and he has the ability (and history) to play left tackle, as well as center of course.
As noted earlier, Mack won't be able to add much weight. He's pretty stocky, while Unger has a big frame and room to grow. My thinking is that Unger goes earlier in the first round, thereby making Mack the betting favorite to land with the Steelers. He lacks some versatility, but looks like he can play guard if necessary. The thing you like is his nastiness. That attitude would fit right in with the Steelers. He's also an academic star and all that good stuff, so he'll pass the character exams. And just by looking at his frame you can tell he's a hard worker. In fact, he was the first one down the field -- every time -- when he and his O-line buddies had to cover kickoffs. Mack's my man right now.
TUESDAY, JAN. 20
5:40 p.m.: The South appears to have the rich vein of centers with Antoine Caldwell (6-3, 307), Eric Wood (6-4, 304), Jonathan Luigs (6-3, 302) and Anthony Parker (6-1, 310). All four moved around between center and the two guard spots. I realize center isn't a great need for the Steelers with Justin Hartwig playing well and Darnell Stapleton around for depth, but it seems to be the deepest spot on the O-line here and one of these guys could be a team captain in five years.
Just in case Hartwig is extended long term, one of these guys must be able to play guard. To me, so far (and I've only seen the South once), the best interior linemen seems to be either Alex Mack or Luigs. The latter really fires off the ball and has decent mobility. Caldwell's real strong and tenacious, but doesn't move well. He looked awful in front of a screen. I need to take a second look at Wood. Parker's interesting, but at 6-1 I doubt he can play guard (even though he played it at Tennessee).
* Herman Johnson (6-7, 382), the giant guard from LSU, was used at both tackle spots today and showed a lack of required agility. Scouts should call him Herman Munster and ask him to punt. (If you saw the episode, you'll get it.)
* The best D-lineman was another short, squat guy -- Peria Jerry (6-1, 290) of Ole Miss. In fact, none of these D-linemen here in Mobile looks like a 3-4 end. It's a good year for nose tackles, though, and therefore the scouts can't help but get a good read on the centers.
* I know I vowed not to look at cornerbacks, but the sound of Coye Francies hitting receivers kept interrupting. Francis is a 6-0, 179-pound corner out of San Jose State who has a lot of confidence and really hits. He looks like a football player to me. So does Wake Forest's CB Alphonso Smith (5-8, 193). I looked up and saw Smith make a great pick, and remembered a scout raving to me the previous day about his ball skills. He's also a return man, but I understand New England's looking at him very closely.
* Pat White didn't play any other position but quarterback. He'd better. He won't be able to remain solely at QB. Packages, yes, but he can't strictly be a QB. He's too small and lacks consistent accuracy.
1:55 p.m.: I don't know how writers get much quality "scouting" done down here since it's so vast, but I've narrowed my focus to linemen.
I've seen two North practices at this point, but it took till the second one to get a feel for it. So, I set my sites on Max Unger and Alex Mack, a pair of center/guards from the Pac 10. Problem is, Casey Hampton Jr. is down here wrecking all the plays. His name is B.J. Raji and it doesn't look like he's going to allow any plays to occur. They may as well just cancel the game. Seriously, Raji looks like Hampton did 50 pounds ago. I don't know what any of the scouts are saying, but this guy will be someone's nose tackle next season. Better hope someone else grabs him before the Bengals or Browns do. Should the Steelers draft him? Hell, yeah. But they'll never get the chance. They'll be sorting through the wreckage to try to come up with an offensive lineman who could at least hold him.
Mack did the better job than Unger. He's shorter than Unger and looks like a stronger version of Darnell Stapleton. A scout told me he's a high second-rounder and I can understand why he's not a first-rounder, because he may not be big enough to play guard. He weighed in at 6-4, 312 but looks more squat than that. In fact, I'm very surprised that he's 6-4, but will trust the tape. "He'll knock you on your ass," one scout told me, and he does appear to have that toughness and nastiness. He can move a bit, too.
Unger is considered a late first-rounder because he's a bit taller and has a frame to build on, and he also played left tackle a bit this season at Oregon. He told me Monday night that he'd never played guard and felt awful there Monday afternoon. On Tuesday morning, Unger was steamrolled and flattened by Raji a few times in one-on-one drills. Unger did a better job at center, but maybe he'll do an even better job at left tackle. He's a nice guy and my first impression of him is that he's a California-type left tackle, whereas Mack appears to have some Mike Webster in him. Neither have knocked me out. I want me a Raji instead.
* One of the North tackles interests me because he has bona fide NFL size. I know Phil Loadhold has his failings, but while his feet are a bit slow, he can play right tackle in the league. A massive man at 6-8, 343, Loadholt, according to someone at the weigh-in, looked "cut" without his shirt, particularly in comparison to Herman Johnson, who checked in at 6-7, 382, and was supposedly very flabby. But I saw Johnson in his jersey Monday night (no pads) and he looks like Max Starks. Johnson is a South guard. I'll watch him play later today, but I hear he was tried at tackle and his feet are too slow. Can't see the Steelers drafting a guard in the first round who can't get out in front of screens.
* A couple of other notes on some North linemen: Andy Levitre of Oregon State isn't much of an athletic specimen and doesn't flatten his back much, if at all, while run-blocking. He's a feisty pass-blocker, but I wouldn't draft him before the third round.
* William Beatty of UConn is the best athlete of the North O-linemen. He's light but a real knee-bender with quick feet. Would make a good long-term prospect if it's determined he can add weight.
* Steelers scouts are here, but they're low-key and don't want to talk. I spoke with Kevin Colbert before I left and he surprised me by saying he doesn't like the Senior Bowl as much as the combine. He said that, yes, it's great to watch the guys practice and scrimmage, but said he can't get much from the player interviews at the Senior Bowl, so he isn't too interested in trying. He said he'd rather talk to them at the combine and beyond. Funny, I remember a report last year, the first report on a Steelers sighting at the Senior Bowl, that they were talking to a guy named Limas Sweed.
* After the first practice, I walked onto the field to get a few quick words with either Mack or Unger. A rep from the Cleveland Browns cut me off both times. He also talked quickly to Levitre. So chalk the Browns up for interior linemen. The Redskins also had a man on Mack and Unger immediately following the first practice.
* I wanted reaction from Pitt's Scott McKillop on the Steelers. He told me he wasn't much of a fan growing up in Kiski (Vandergrift) but that he became a fan while meeting the players at the South Side complex (shared by Steelers and Panthers).
* I couldn't think of another local kid who'd have grown up a Steelers fan, but I did see Pat White. Now, he grew up in Mobile, so I asked him if he became a Steelers fan while matriculating through WVU in Morgantown. He surprised me by saying he grew up a die-hard Steelers fan, that his dad was a diehard fan from the 1970s and "taught me right." White's excited, but he wasn't too excited about me calling him the next Antwaan Randle El. He wants to be a quarterback. Not that he'd refuse to play WR, he simply is holding true to his dream right now. I'll report on him later this afternoon after I get to my first South practice.
* I've been told to keep an eye on Clint Sintim of Virginia. He's a 3-4 OLB prospect; played the position in school. But, really, I don't see the Steelers drafting an OLB in the first round. Wouldn't mind it -- always love another "ass-kicker" -- but I have to keep my focus narrowed, so don't expect me to report much on the ugly passers down here, or any senior receiver (the juniors are where it's at there), or even any running backs. It's the hogs, man, and I'm digging all these one-on-one drills here.
MONDAY, JAN. 19
6 p.m.: Word from Pittsburgh is that Hines Ward sprained his MCL and that he could've returned to the game.
I have no further insight or answers, but I guess they just had to get Limas Sweed on the field. Sweed dropped the same pass, on the same route, while wide open, in Thursday's practice.
Another note on Sweed, a defensive coach, as he was walking down the hallway of the South Side today, shouted: "Limas, I love you, man, but if you drop one more touchdown pass, we're going to have a problem."
* I'll have some Senior Bowl notes late tonight. Have to get to a function on a boat right now.
2 p.m.: Just heard the Ken Whisenhunt press conference. He was asked about Dick LeBeau and said something along the lines of disliking him, that he didn't have much respect for his ability, that he didn't have enough big-game experience ... and then Whisenhunt laughed and came clean. Whisenhunt, of course, is a great guy, and just to correct all of the erroneous reporting coming out this morning, Whisenhunt took the Cardinals job before the Steelers made their decision between Mike Tomlin and Russ Grimm. Now, some have said that Whisenhunt saw the writing on the wall, that he knew he wasn't going to get the job, but the facts remain.
* I'm in Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl. I'm just settling in. The teams will practice at 4 p.m. EST. I'll view the North Squad and get back to you on it. Dale Lolley will keep you up to date from the South Side of Pittsburgh.
11 a.m.: Here are a few of my thoughts the morning after the Steelers won the AFC title: Wexell's Notes.
And, a note from the Steelers on a travel package to Super Bowl XLIII:
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