Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Taking a look at Steelers training camp

Well, the Pittsburgh Steelers will convene for training camp in less than three weeks, and I figure now is as good a time as any to take a look at some of the positions that could be up for grabs. Today I'll look at the offense and tomorrow I'll take a look at the defense.

Tommy Maddox has his new contract so backup Charlie Batch is no longer the highest paid QB on the team. And that wouldn't have been the case this season even if Maddox didn't get a raise because the Steelers will have to fork over some dough to sign their first round draft pick, Ben Roethlisberger.

Unless Roethlisberger has a lights-out camp (and that's predicated on him actually being in camp on time -- most first rounders are unable to negotiate a contract before camp commences), Maddox will be the starter. The only real question concerning the QB position is who will be the third string. There has been some mention of Batch being the odd man out, but I find it hard to believe that the Steelers could be one play away from having to start either Roethlisberger or St. Pierre. I suspect that Batch will be Maddox's backup -- at least for the first half of the season -- and that St. Pierre is the odd man out. And given the fact that the Steelers need all the help on defense they can get (hence the acquisition of what seems like 30 cornerbacks this offseason), there is no way they'll carry four QBs on the roster.

Running Back
The Steelers only big free agency move was signing Duce Staley. And while some teams used free agency as their own personal draft (see the Redskins), the Steelers were conservative in their approach and refused to overpay for what many thought was a marginal free agency class.

Anyway, Duce Staley will in all likelihood be named the starter with Jerome Bettis periodically spelling him. I'm not sure where Verron Haynes fits in -- but he'll probably be the third down back. Of course, his two biggest problems have been his predilection for fumbles and his inability to avoid injuries. If he has a lackluster camp, or sustains an injury, he could actually be cut.

I know Jerome has mentioned on several occasions that he wants to start, but realistically I don't think he can go every down for 16 games. What makes Cowher's decision a little tougher is the fact that Bettis is the 6th all-time leading rusher and would like to move up the list as far as possible in 2004. The good news for Bettis is that the Steelers will try to run the ball a lot more in 2004 and that means more carries for everybody. Either way, unless Staley sustains an injury (which has been one of the knocks against him), he'll be the starter.

Wide Receiver
As far as anyone knows, Plaxico is still celebrating Mother's Day in Miami. There has been no mention as to whether he'll show up at the end of the month either. What's somewhat more interesting is that Hines Ward, who's upset that he wasn't afforded the same opportunity to renegotiate his contract as Maddox, might consider missing training camp. Of course to hear him tell it, you get the impression he can't wait to get back on the field, but ultimately he'll let his agent decide what he should do (in terms of holding out).

I have no worries that Hines will show up and be ready to go. Plaxico of course, is another story. One beneficiary in all this silliness is third year WR Lee Mays. He's certainly not as big as Plaxico, but he's big enough and has blazing speed. He's spent the first two seasons on special teams so he's still very raw. Currently he listed third on the depth chart behind Chris Doering, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him get a chance to play. I'm getting a little ahead of myself by assuming that Plaxico won't play in 2004, but let's just call these "contingency plans." The one thing Mays has going against him is that the Steelers second round draft pick, Ricardo Colclough, in addition to being a cornerback is also a kick returner. This was Mays primary duty his first two seasons and if he's not needed to return kicks and Plaxico comes back, Mays might not be with the team come September.

Antwaan Randle El is the third receiver and there's no chance he replaces Ward. I've mentioned this before, but if Plaxico does hold out during the season, and Antwaan Randle El starts opposite Hines Ward, the Steelers could struggle offensively. Disparage Plaxico for being lazy, dropping balls and having virtually no yards-after-catch, but the one thing he does when he plays is that he stretches the field. And by that I mean he draws a lot of attention from the opposing defense and takes some of the pressure of not only the running game, but also Hines Ward, who despite his toughness, has trouble creating space because of his average size and speed.

So in a perfect world, Hines and Plax would start, but don't be surprised to see Lee Mays get some playing time if Plaxico chooses not to come to his senses.

Offensive Line
The Steelers used their third round pick on tackle Max Starks and their sixth round pick on guard Bo Lacey. The reason these guys were taken is because right tackles Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham struggled mightily in 2003. Of course right guard being diagnosed with diabetes during training camp, center Jeff Hartings playing with almost no cartilage in his knee and left tackle Marvel Smith being injured most of the season didn't help either.

The knock against Starks coming out of college is that he was soft and had slow feet. Nonetheless, he'll have a really good chance to come out of training camp as the starting right tackle if for no other reason than the alternatives ain't good.

Even if Starks takes some time to adjust to the position, the offensive line should be much improved because Simmons and Smith are healthy and Chucky Okobi is a very solid backup to Hartings.

At the very least, the 2004 roster looks to be in much better shape than what the Steelers had going into the 2003 season. Of course at the time, all indications were that the Steelers were on their primed to make another playoff run (it's amazing what blind loyalty and a crappy offensive line can do to perspective).