March Madness Lands Early in Steeler Nation

Past, present and future: Jim Wexell says the Steelers gambled on the labor talks; wonders why the team's looking at another Lawrence Timmons; and re-thinks a draft-day O-line evaluation.

The Steelers have said throughout the past year that they'd be taking a business-as-usual approach to the March 5 meltdown of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. But in reality, they're breathing a sigh of relief as their gamble on Willie Colon appears on the verge of paying off.

Colon is the Steelers' best offensive lineman, perhaps one of the best young tackles in the league, and he's just now moving into his prime athletic years. Colon will turn 27 on April 9.

So, should the league and the players reach a labor agreement and prolong the CBA this week, the Steelers could be turning loose a young and talented player into free agency at a position where they lack depth. And Colon would go into that free agency feeling a bit jilted. After all, the Steelers extended Heath Miller last summer, and Miller was headed for the same type of contract status as Colon under the approaching new rules.

It was business as usual for Miller, but not for Colon.

Of course, it doesn't appear that a labor agreement will be reached and Colon will be locked into an RFA tender this year, and again the following year.

With that kind of time, the Steelers should be able to have someone ready to replace Colon, who might be feeling a bit disrespected by 2012 if he's not extended to his first big contract.

Every NFL player should have the opportunity to hit it big at one point in his career. Colon has to be feeling that his chance is being taken from him. But, for now, it looks like a good business move, or gamble, by the Steelers.

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In 2007, I raged – initially – at the drafting of Lawrence Timmons with the 15th pick. I was surprised that the Steelers were calling him an outside linebacker for their scheme when in reality he was a 4-3 will backer.

Well, the Steelers moved him inside to replace their weakest linebacker and now it appears they have their pass-downs coverage backer for the next several years. Fine.

But the Steelers are looking at Lawrence Timmons II at this combine. His name is Sean Weatherspoon. Like Timmons, he's really a 4-3 will backer with similar size and speed.

Weatherspoon had an admittedly uneven senior season, and played poorly when moved inside against Navy in Missouri's bowl loss. But, at the Senior Bowl, he played his best football of the season as a middle backer. Weatherspoon dropped fluidly and quickly into coverage and shot gaps to take down ballcarriers. And he did it all loudly, since he's an enthusiastic and passionate leader. But, at his size, he doesn't take on blocks. He runs around them, so I still feel he'd fit better as a 4-3 will backer. He's Timmons Lite.

So why draft a second Timmons? Why draft an inside coverage backer who'll have to be taken off the field on third downs because you already have one of those?

It doesn't make sense to me, but I'll watch Weatherspoon go through the paces at the combine today. And I'll also watch Brandon Spikes, who, with his physical inside presence and third-down pass-rushing ability off the edge, makes more sense as James Farrior's eventual replacement.

That is, of course, if Rolando McClain is already drafted in the first 17 picks, as expected.

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Considering the aforementioned Steelers' lack of depth, let's talk about college tackles. Two whom I felt were among the second tier, or perhaps more aptly the 1-B tier, were among the stars of the first day of combine workouts Saturday.

I expected Bruce Campbell to post great track numbers, and he did, but I realize he's still a project as a player. No, the track numbers that surprise me belong to Trent Williams.

Here's my take on Williams: He played poorly at left tackle for Oklahoma this season, and, when moved to center for his bowl game, he was underwhelming. However, I could just imagine Kevin Colbert at the head table on draft day explaining that "versatility" and "having left tackle capability" were the reasons they drafted Williams in the first round.

I shuddered, because if you want a true interior lineman, you draft Maurkice Pouncey. And if you want true left tackle capability, you trade up and draft a true left tackle. Williams, I felt, was nothing more than a right tackle.

But on Saturday, he moved around the combine like he was – to steal Mike Mayock's latest – "a trained killer" as a potential interior lineman. So I went back and looked at the tape of Williams' performance at center against Stanford in the Sun Bowl.

On the first snap, Williams shot to the second level and knocked the middle linebacker on his can. The drive ended two plays later, and on the second series, Stanford intercepted and returned the ball 55 yards. Williams, I noticed, never gave up on the return and showed great hustle and speed in nearly catching the defender before the defender was pushed out of bounds near the goal line. Williams fell over the sideline pile and the announcers said he had trouble getting up and required some medical assistance.

Did I miss these early plays on my first viewing? Did I forget them? I can't remember, but I do remember Williams' sluggish play throughout the remainder of the game.

Was he hurt? The announcer never said. Was Williams gassed from OU's high-tempo attack the rest of the game? I don't know that answer, either.

But now that I've seen his athleticism at the combine, I am allowing that perhaps I was w-w-r-r-o ... w-w-r-r-o-n ... oh, maybe I was mistaken just a bit.

So I'll give Williams the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he is a 5-position player who could step in anywhere as an injury replacement as a rookie. Or maybe he could even start somewhere inside on opening day.

Then again, a 4.88 40 from a 6-foot-5, 315-pounder may have just taken the decision out of the Steelers' draft-day hands.


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