Friday, January 27, 2006

Jerome Bettis is from Detroit?

Alright, I'm already burned out with the same regurgitated Super Bowl stories, and it's the Friday before the Friday leading up to the Super Bowl. Yowzers. So I'm taking a break from that and instead I'm going to talk about something I had originally intended to discuss in the next few weeks (and I still will, and in probably more detail too): Steelers' free agents. There are 13 players eligible for free agency come March 3 (11 are unrestricted free agents, and two, Sean Morey and Ike Taylor, are restricted) and almost everybody on the list plays an important role (and yes, Barrett Brooks, you're the reason I said "almost").

Pittsburgh's gotten a lot more national attention during their playoff run, and that's been a good thing for Antwaan Randle El. The season's not even over and I've already heard speculation that the Redskins and Bears (Countertorque beat me to punch on breaking this one) would both love to have him as their #2 receiver. This seems like a case of teams overvaluing a player based on a handful of games, but hey, the Redskins could do worse (and they have). Personally, I hope the Steelers re-sign El, but I say that strictly as a fan, and not from the perspective of, say, a general manager. (And in case you haven't figured it out, this makes perfect sense, because, I am a fan, and not a, ahem, GM.)

Here's my point: when in doubt, I'm usually in favor of keeping players together (with the notable exception of Chad Scott; he should've been gone about two years earlier, but that's a whole other story). I wanted the Steelers to keep Plax because (a) he was Ben's security blanket, and (b) I thought he was a pretty good second option to Hines. I also was hoping Earl Holmes would stick around after the 2001 season, and would've been fine having Mark Bruener around for another season or two. Yeah, I admit, these weren't my best moments. But hey, I never claimed to be a personnel guy. I'm a fan first, and I like the idea of a team, well, being a team for more than a season or two. Admit it, how weird was it to see Cedrick Wilson for the first time sporting Plax's jersey number?

Anyway, there are a lot of questions the Steelers will have to address in the coming weeks, but for now, it looks like Randle El is getting most of the attention from other interested parties.

Here's the latest from The Sporting News:
WR Antwaan Randle El is an unrestricted free agent after the season and, based on his receiving totals, normally would not command a lot of attention on the free-agent market. But Randle El is one of the best, if not the best, punt returner in the league, and that will escalate his value among other teams. The Steelers would like to keep Randle El, who split duties as the No. 2 receiver with Cedrick Wilson, but they will not give him a big contract after signing Hines Ward to a lucrative contract extension before the season. They would replace Randle El with Wilson at split end, but they would have a difficult time finding a more dangerous returner. CB Ricardo Colclough, who was an outstanding punt returner in college, would get the opportunity.
A couple of things. First, if Randle El does re-sign, who knows if he'll even be the #2 guy. It could be Wilson, or, if the Steelers also talk Quincy Morgan into coming back, he could get the nod. And let's not forget everybody's underdog, Nate Washington. I'm guessing other teams, in addition to throwing wads of cash Randle El's way, will also be able to promise him the #2 job, something the Steelers may not be willing to commit to.

Pittsburgh's never been an organization to cave to pressure when it comes to a players' perceived worth. The organization has an idea of what they're willing to pay, and generally doesn't budge from it. If things work themselves out, fine. If not, players usually end up elsewhere. Replacing Randle El's offensive production isn't a problem. What should be giving people pause is his ability to return punts. I remember some people all abuzz about Colclough as a kick returner when he was drafted. Other than his one return for a TD during the preseason (and that was a kickoff), he's been pretty ineffective. Who knows, maybe he is a better punt returner than kickoff guy (god knows Randle El is), but if he's not, and Randle El is gone, who's going back there?

You know, as I re-read what I've written so far, I've come to two realizations (or maybe, "I've unsuppressed two commonly known/already-accepted facts" is a better way to put it). First, Randle El's not a great #2 receiver, but he is a great punt returner. Two, he's probably not coming back. The first point certainly isn't any kind of revelation to most people, but it does cause me some cognitive dissonance because, as I stated above, I like the guy, and I'm usually in favor of keeping teams together. And yes, that's more to do with sentimentality than dollars and cents, X's and O's, and whatever other hackneyed cliche you can think of. But hey, the NFL is a business first and foremost (as long as we're throwing out hackneyed cliches, I can't exclude this one), so that probably means the Steelers, and Randle El will be going their separate ways.

So using that as a starting point, what are Pittsburgh's options? Well, let's see. They could:
(a) Promote from within: Morgan, Wilson, Washington;
(b) Sign a free agent to compete for the job;
(c) Draft a WR to compete for the job;
(d) All of the above.
OK, (d) really serves no purpose other than to make the question more official looking. So disregarding that, and first focusing on (a) the question then becomes, can Morgan be effective as a full-time #2? He sure as hell couldn't do it in Cleveland or Dallas. And one of the knocks against him is that he occasionally has the dropsies and doesn't run great routes. But he also has his former Cleveland coach, Bruce Arians, now serving as his WR coach in Pittsburgh, and apparently that's a big plus. But all of this may be moot because Morgan's an unrestricted free agent too. That, and who knows, based on how things play out, maybe Wilson will be the second receiver heading into training camp, and Morgan may not want to spend another year as a 3rd or 4th wideout.

Honestly, (b) seems less realistic than re-signing El. I guess I should clarify: signing an impact wideout via free agency seems less realistic. (I mean, Brandon Lloyd's available, and I'm sure everybody remembers him as Cedrick Wilson's partner in crime during those great 2003-2004 seasons in San Fran) For starters, it will probably cost the Steelers more money, which means they'd be overpaying for a #2 wide receiver with the added benefit of still not having somebody to return punts. Still, for the sake of discussion, it's worth mentioning who'll be available. Here are the top 15 unrestricted free agents, based on some random grading system with which I am not familiar:
Name         Ht.   Wt.   Grade  2005 team
D. Givens 6-0 215 7.9 New England
R. Wayne 6-0 198 7.6 Indianapolis
A. Bryant 6-2 188 7.4 Cleveland
K. McCardell 6-1 191 7.3 San Diego
R. Gardner 6-2 213 7.2 Green Bay
T. Brown 5-10 196 7.1 New England
A. Davis 6-1 195 7.0 New England
E. Drummond 5-9 190 7.0 Detroit
P. Price 5-11 190 7.0 Dallas
A. Randle El 5-10 192 7.0 Pittsburgh
R. Caldwell 6-0 215 6.9 San Diego
J. Gaffney 6-1 205 6.9 Houston
K. Johnson 5-11 195 6.9 Detroit
Q. Morgan 6-1 215 6.9 Pittsburgh
P. Warrick 5-11 195 6.9 Seattle
OK, raise your hand if you think this list pretty much sucks? David Givens and Reggie Wayne would both be great pick ups, but yeah, I don't see that happening. For starters, they're too expensive. I also read somewhere that the Colts have every intention of signing Wayne. And finally, eff the Patriots (once again, I let the irrational fan in me make all the important proclamations; yes, I know, good idea). So who's left? Antonio Bryant? Head case. Keenan McCardell? Fossil. Rod Gardner? He makes Quincy Morgan say, "Now that guy is an underachiever!" Troy Brown? Uh, no. Andre Davis? Maybe.

He's actually had better numbers than his former teammate, Quincy Morgan, and he's still relatively young. I suspect he'll be pretty cheap too. Of course, if he ends up in Pittsburgh, the team will have to endure much the same talk the Browncos did this year when they traded for Cleveland's defensive line. Yep, meet your 2006 Cleveland Steelers. Just sounds dirty.

Eddie Drummond? Well, he solves the kicking game problem, but not much else. But who knows, half the Steelers' roster is from Detroit, so maybe Kevin Colbert's cooking something up. Peerless Price? Let's see, he was cut from a Falcons team that still has Brian Finneran on the roster. Yeah, I'll pass. Reche Caldwell? I just read that the Chargers weren't all that happy with Caldwell because he ran crappy routes and gave up on plays. Maybe we can give him #80. Jabar Gaffney? Honestly, I don't know anything about this guy, except that he plays in Texas. Maybe he's the Maxi-Me version of Cedrick Wilson, 2005. Kevin Johnson? Nope. Too old, and he's been tainted by playing in Baltimore. Peter Warrick? Sure, why not. And the Steelers should sign Desmond Howard while they're at it.

So like I was saying, (b) doesn't seem that promising either. So that leaves the draft. Let me just say that I love the draft, but I usually don't get into full draft mode until the middle of February. Knowing that, it's a pretty safe bet that I don't have any real guesses about which college players might even be worth the Steelers' time. I know Roethlisberger's former teammate, Martin Nance, is coming out, but of the few things I've seen, most have questioned Nance's ability to get open and to finish plays. See Reche Caldwell comment above. The Senior Bowl's this Saturday, and Arizona State's Derek Hagan, Michigan's Jason Avant, Florida's Chad Jackson, and Santana Moss Jr. (a.k.a. Sinorice) are all guys people have been talking about since the fall. But here's a thought, how about this guy? You know, a bigger, stronger ARE? (It doesn't solve the punt returner issue, but it'll still give the Steelers plenty of chances to roll out the gadget plays and ensure that the number of QBs on the roster doesn't drop below 15.) Anyway, I'm not yet ready to talk seriusly about potential draft options at wideout, but please feel free to share any info you may have.

Okey doke, that covers the Randle El free agency, and I guess I might as well cover the other players before the start of the signing period too. But first, back to all the Super Bowl talk. And Jerome from Southeast Detroit. Don’t forget him. (And by the way, I got a couple of emails/comments that I'll get to first thing next week.)