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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Your Steelers are now under the cap

With three strokes of the pen, the Steelers have gotten themselves under the NFL salary cap, which now appears as if is going to be $123.9 million, an increase of about $2.3 million from 2012.

After restructuring the contracts of Lawrence Timmons, at a savings of $5.3 million, Antonio Brown at $3 million and Ben Roethlisberger at $6 million, the Steelers pared $14.3 million from their cap, which should put them under as they needed to be by March 12.

That's significant because the team did not need to release any players to get to that number and still has enough wiggle room by restructuring, say, LaMarr Woodley's deal, to be somewhat active in free agency.

Next up, however, will be deciding upon tender offers to their own restricted free agents.

As I've stated before, there could be some surprises there. I wouldn't be shocked if linebacker Stevenson Sylvester and running back Jonathan Dwyer weren't tendered offers, which would make them unrestricted free agents March 12.

What the Steelers will not likely do with their newfound cap space is make a late run at their potential unrestricted free agents - unless it were a veteran such as Casey Hampton or Charlie Batch at a minimum deal.

They'll let guys such as Keenan Lewis, Mike Wallace and Ramon Foster test the open market to set the contract price and then see if they can match or better a deal that is offered - if it is offered.

@ The additional cap space could also allow the Steelers to make a pitch to free agent wideout Steve Breaston, who was in town Thursday to meet with the team.

@ The Steelers claimed quarterback John Parker Wilson off waivers from Jacksonville.

The 27-year-old Wilson, a former Alabama star, has not appeared in a regular season game in the NFL, but spent three seasons with Atlanta before joining the Jaguars last season.

He's not much more than a camp arm at this point.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thoughts, observations

That the Steelers have opened negotiations with several veterans about contract restructures isn't huge news.

Everyone knew they were going to have to do something - and soon - to trim some salary cap before March 12.

The big news will be if they have to release any veteran players to get under the cap.

At this point, that's looking like it's not going to happen.

By restructuring Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons and even LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers should be able to get under $123 million - which is now the number that the cap is estimated to be at.

Teams won't know the true cap number until sometime next week.

@ Some fans will make a big deal about players restructuring their deals, but it's really beneficial to the player.

Put it this way, it's kind of like your boss coming to you and asking if you'd like $50,000 now in a lump sum - that you get to keep no matter what - as opposed to waiting for it and getting it on a weekly basis the remainder of the year - unless you're fired.

@ Dee Milliner solidified his spot atop the rankings among cornerbacks in this draft by running a 4.37 on Tuesday and might now be a top-10 consideration for some teams, while Xavier Rhodes didn't do anything to hurt his first-round status by running a 4.43 at 6-1, 210 pounds.

But the other corner who could now start seeing some first-round consideration is Washington's Desmond Trufant. At 6-0, 190, Trufant rant a 4.38. That, coupled with a solid Senior Bowl, could push him into the bottom of the first round.

@ The situation at safety is a little more clouded.

Kenny Vacarro, the top safety available, ran a pedestrian 4.63 at 6-0, 214 pounds. But he did lead the safeties in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.06 and had a 38-inch vertical jump.

Considering Texas used Vacarro as a nickel back on passing downs, that's not surprising. He has the short-range change of direction to cover slot receivers.

But his on-campus workout will be important if he wants to go in the first round. He needs to get that 40 time into the 4.55 range if he wants to go early.

LSU's Eric Reid was probably the star of the safety position, running a 4.53 40 at 6-1, 213, while showing off an 11-2 broad jump and 40.5 vertical.

But that position is deep this year. If the Steelers were to pass on Vaccaro in the first round, I love D.J. Swearinger in the third as a guy who can play free or strong safety.

Swearinger is a big hitter and showed off good athleticism at the combine, with a 37-inch vertical, 10-2 long jump and 6.70 in the three-cone drill.

He only ran a 4.67 40, however.

@ If the Steelers don't go for a safety and pass on an offensive lineman in the first round, that leaves WR or LB in the first.

I'm not a big fan of Cordarrelle Paterson in the first round (I question his smarts) and Keenan Allen, the other top wideout in this class didn't work out at the combine due to a hamstring injury.

Tavon Austin would be a solid pick, but with his size restrictions (5-8, 174 pounds), teams might shy away from taking a guy who is strictly a slot receiver early in the first round.

Clemson's DeAndre Hawkins looks like the next Roddy White. At 6-1, 214 pounds, he's a physical receiver with a 36-inch vertical. But he ran a 4.57 40. If he can improve that time, I wouldn't have a problem taking him in the first round, even at 17.

I can't say the same right now for some of the linebacker prospects.

Why take a chance on a Barkevious Mingo, who tore up the combine, when his production in college didn't match his measurables?

Other guys who might be available at 17 - such as a Damontre Moore - had pedestrian combines. In fact, Moore ran 4.95 in the 40.

The Steelers might be better served waiting and taking a guy like Sio Moore of UConn in the second or round. Moore was a monster at UConn and his good play last season was backed up at the combine, where he ran a 4.65 40, did 29 reps of 225 on the bench and showed off a 38-inch vertical leap.

At 6-1, 245, Moore would probably transition to inside linebacker in the Steelers scheme.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Running backs, receivers put on show

The running backs and receivers put on a show Sunday at the NFL combine, with some impressive results.

West Virginia wideout Tavon Austin and Texas receiver Marquise Goodwin were the top performers in the 40-yard dash at that position.

Austin and Goodwin were originally hand timed at 4.25 seconds, times that were later adjusted to 4.34 for Austin and 4.27 for Goodwin.

That those two were the top receivers in terms of speed was not surprising. Austin consistently blew away the competition last season, while Goodwin is an Olympic-level track star as well.

The downside for those two? Austin is 5-8, while Goodwin is 5-9.

Austin will still likely wind up as a first-round player - he had a top-flight 4.01 in the 20-cone shuttle, showing his change of direction skills - while Goodwin didn't have the production of Austin and will likely work his way into the third round.

The surprise among the wide receivers was Texas A&M's Ryan Swope. At 6-0, 205 pounds, Swope ran a 4.34 40 and also had 16 reps of 225 pounds. He was a productive player for the Aggies, but many questioned his speed - don't they do that with all white receivers?

Swope was originally viewed as a third-round pick, but after answering the questions about his speed, might slide up to the second round.

One receiver the Steelers did meet with was USC's Robert Woods. At 6-0, 201 pounds, Woods ran a sold 4.51 Sunday. He's a silky smooth receiver who runs solid routes and catches nearly everything.

As for the running backs, they didn't show the overall speed as a group that the wideouts did, but Auburn's Onterrio McCalebb did rip off a 4.34 40.

At 5-10, 168 pounds, however, he's not much more than a change-of-pace back who's a day 3 draft pick despite his great 40 time.

Of the backs who interest the Steelers, Montee Ball ran a 4.66 40. Before you say that's too slow, realize that was .01 faster than Alfred Morris ran last year. Morris, a sixth-round pick, didn't have Ball's pedigree, which is why Ball will likely go in round three, while Morris went in the sixth.

Monday, the defensive linemen and linebackers will work out, while Tuesday, it will be the safeties and corners.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Colbert speaks

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert doesn't speak publicly often, so when he does, it's usually newsworthy - even though Colbert is often very guarded with what he says.

Today was no different.

Colbert addressed the media today in Indianapolis at the combine and did his usual dance of saying a lot while really not tipping his hand too much. It's truly an art form.

What he did say, however, was that he and head coach Mike Tomlin have their finger on the pulse of the team's locker room and he really doesn't see a fracture there as some players have suggested after linebacker LaMarr Woodley was ripped by an anonymous player earlier this week in a story in the Post-Gazette.

Was their some "me first" stuff in the locker room this year? Certainly.

But really, that wasn't any different than any other year. People have been quick to rip Mike Wallace for that perceived attitude forget that Hines Ward once held out as well.

And Ward was also a player who got upset when he didn't get the ball as much as he thought he should - though he handled it a different way, making veiled comments in the media.

Who could forget all of the Roethlisberger and Ward don't like each other stuff? True or not, they coexisted because both men knew they needed the other.

* Colbert also said that the Steelers haven't opened any negotiations with players on contract restructures or extensions, but will do so once they return from Indianapolis.

The Steelers are about $14 million over the 2013 cap and must be under it by March 12.

Picking up that $14 million won't be as difficult as some have said.

The Steelers can extend some key veterans - Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller and even Ryan Clark - and restructure some others such as Antonio Brown, Woodley and Lawrence Timmons to clear space.

Colbert did mention Woodley by name - especially after he was ripped anonymously earlier this week by a teammate - as a player the Steelers would have no problem restructuring or extending. They feel Woodley will bounce back after an injury-plagued last season and a half.

There is some evidence to back that up. Woodley was a beast in training camp last season, so much so that head coach Mike Tomlin was using him as the measuring stick for the tight ends on backers vs. tight ends drills.

Woodley manhandled all of the team's tight ends.

But with James Harrison out early, opponents were able to focus their blocking schemes on Woodley. And by the time Harrison returned, Woodley was dealing with ankle and hamstring issues.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Breaston, Steelers seem like a good match ... but

When Steve Breaston was released by Kansas City earlier this week, the questions immediately started to come.

Wouldn't Breaston and the Steelers be a perfect fit?

In an ideal world, certainly. But the Steelers aren't currently dealing with ideal circumstances.

Because the salary cap did not increase this year, the Steelers find themselves some $14 million over the cap with the free agency period set to begin in a couple of weeks.

In other words, to sign Breaston, the Steelers would have to part ways with some veterans.

The Steelers will likely rework the contracts of Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Antonio Brown and maybe even LaMarr Woodley to help them get under the cap.

They could also ask James Harrison and Willie Colon to take pay cuts - though Harrison's would probably have to come in the form of at least a one-year extension.

But that's a lot of movement of contracts to work out and still figure out a way to sign a free agent or two.

And Breaston, who had 61 catches in 2011 with Todd Haley as Kansas City's coach before falling off to seven in 2012, might not want to wait for the Steelers to sift through their salary cap mess to sign a new deal. He'll have other suitors, some who might even offer more than the minimum wage deal the Steelers would likely pony up.

Then again, Breaston has already followed Haley from Arizona to Kansas City and is known to have a good relationship with the Steelers offensive coordinator. So maybe he'll wait until the Steelers have room before the former Woodland Hills star signs with his old team.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Combine time

It's the most important job interview many of these young men ever participate in.

The NFL combine is set to kick off and will provide plenty of intrigue a news.

How important is the combine?

Last year, for example, 85 percent of the 253 players selected in the draft participated in the scouting combine. That 85 percent number has been pretty constant over the past few years.

That doesn't mean a combine invite is a ticket to the NFL. There were 328 players invited last season. But only 65 percent of those players were selected in the draft.

Teams have learned their lesson over the years. Nobody wants to draft the next Mike Mamula, a player who has become synonymous with being a combine stud and Sunday dud.

Most teams use the combine to reinforce things - both bad and good - that they already knew about a player.

If you had a third-round grade on a player, you're not going to necessarily downgrade him to a seventh-round or undraftable grade simply because he didn't run or jump as high as you expected.

In fact, the most important part of the combine is actually the player interviews.

For the most part, NFL coaches haven't had any interaction with these players. To this point, it's only been the scouts - and that contact is on a limited basis.

The scouts visit schools throughout the late summer and fall, but only get to watch practices or film. They may or may not get an opportunity to sit down with a player and talk for five minutes.

Teams will get that chance at the combine.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The purging is beginning

In the last couple of days, word has leaked out that the Packers are going to cut All-Pro Charles Woodson and the Colts will do the same with Dwight Freeney.

Such is life in today's NFL.

We all know that the Steelers are having cap issues. But while Steelers fans are bemoaning the team's issues, they have to realize that other teams are in the same boat.

With the cap not going up much again this year, many teams are being forced to bite the bullet with aging veterans who might not be worth their big cap number.

It wasn't exactly what the players had in mind when they signed a new CBA prior to the 2011 season.

The Steelers, of course, are headed down the same road with linebacker James Harrison - possibly.

Depending on what the team can get done in terms of contract extensions with Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller and maybe another younger vet or two, they could have to make the difficult decision to cut Harrison in order to have enough cap space to make offers to their restricted free agents in a couple of weeks.

Then again, there could be a couple of surprises there as well.

While the Steelers have routinely offered contracts to all of their restricted free agents, this year, that might not be the case.

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the team didn't offer running back Jonathan Dwyer or linebacker Stevenson Sylvester.

The coaching staff was unhappy with Dwyer's stamina and his constant tapping out of games after making just two or three carries in a row. The thought is that he might not have what it takes to be an every down back, so why tender him an offer that will more than double his salary if you don't think he's in the long-term plans?

The same goes for Sylvester, who has been around three years but still hasn't shown anything as a position player. He was supposed to be a good special teams player, but even that was missing in 2012, when he managed just one special teams tackle in nine games.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

This is why they gave him the money

Antonio Brown is sometimes seen as a me-first kind of player, drawing silly penalties for doing things like running backwards into the end zone.

And he's criticized for being a member of the "Young Money Crew," something that some fans take issue with, especially in 2012, when the team's group of wide receivers - including Brown - didn't perform up to expectations.

But if you had any question about why the Steelers handed Brown a $42-million contract extension after just two seasons in the league, there's a good clue on the team's web site.

Brown told this: "We have a lot of young guys. A lot of guys haven't been around here for the history of this team. I want to make sure guys understand the importance of being here, the tradition that is required from our peers, coaches and everybody inside this building. You have to know the history of something if you are a part of it. You have to know where it started, where it came from and what it's about. You know where you are with it now and where you want it to go. I can help teach guys about that and take that type of approach. Every man has to understand the importance of what the Steelers logo stands for, the men that came before us and wore that jersey, and we have to understand the importance of it, be humbled by it and work with that mentality."

Now, some might think that Brown is talking just to talk. But he truly means that. When the Steelers say that Brown's work ethic is second to none, they mean it. He is a tireless worker, and he really wants to be the best receiver in the NFL.

An ankle injury derailed Brown's season in 2012, limiting his effectiveness. But you can bet that will drive him in the offseason to work even harder to make it back to a Pro Bowl.

Does he still have some "look at me" moments? Sure. But I think they are born more out of excitement than they are planned outbursts like previous "star" receivers such as Terrell Owens.

He will be an excellent tutor for whatever young receiver the Steelers add in this year's draft.

Friday, February 08, 2013

More changes on Tomlin's staff

The changes continue to come on Mike Tomlin's staff as wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery has left to become and assistant coach at Duke.

Montgomery had come to the Steelers three years ago after serving as the receivers coach at Duke. He replaced Randy Fichtner, who moved from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach. Fichtner remains on the staff.

Montgomery's move marks the third departure from Tomlin's staff this offseason.

Previously, offensive line coach Sean Kugler left to become head coach at UTEP, while special teams coordinator Amos Jones left to take the same position with Arizona.

And no, Hines Ward will not be taking this job anytime soon.

It is not yet apparent what position Montgomery will serve with the Blue Devils. According to the school, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper remains with the team, though the positions of associate head coach, recruiting coordinator, wide receivers coach, passing game coordinator and special teams coordinator are open.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

More silver linings

Looking for more in terms of silver linings from Baltimore's Super Bowl win?

Try this one on:

While we all know that there's often a letdown for teams after winning the Super Bowl - the Steelers can attest to that - take a look back at the last time that the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000.

Coming off that win, the Ravens were considered to be the NFL's next possible dynasty, led by a defense that was being compared to many of the greats.

What happened after that?

In 2001, the Ravens went 10-6, yet finished second to the Steelers in the AFC North standings. Pittsburgh whipped them in the playoffs, 27-10.

The following season, the Ravens stumbled to a 7-9 year and failed to make the postseason.

So while everyone in Pittsburgh is focused on what happened with the Steelers in 2012 and who this team is going to be without in 2013 - and rightfully so - don't forget to look at who the defending Super Bowl champs are going to be without as well.

Ray Lewis will retire. Paul Kruger and Ed Reed - two main cogs of the defense - are both unrestricted free agents and could be out the door.

In fact, take a look at Baltimore's list of impending free agents, and you will see a list that is longer than any other team in the league. And it includes the likes of quarterback Joe Flacco, Reed, Kruger, left tackle Bryant McKinnie, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Cary Williams and tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.

Some of those guys are restricted free agents, but even at that, those guys will be getting significant raises if the Ravens intend to keep them.

And Flacco is likely to get a big increase from his $4.61 million salary of last season to at least $20 million in 2013.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Super Bowl proves Steelers not all that far off

If the Super Bowl proved one thing, it is this: The Steelers are not as bad off as some would think.

Remember, the 2012 Steelers beat both the eventual Super Bowl champions and the defending Super Bowl champs on their home fields.

They also took the Ravens to the limit in a game at Heinz Field with Byron Leftwich at QB.

So while a non-playoff season stinks and the Steelers have some salary cap issues to deal with, the picture isn't all that bleak.

@ Bad black eye for the NFL and New Orleans for the power to go out in the league's biggest event.

Maybe the league would consider scaling back its halftime extravaganza to one that only sucks up enough electricity to power a small city instead of a major one.

Nah, that's silly talk.

@ Is it too much to ask that the national anthem be performed the way it was written and intended to be sung?

I realize the Star Spangled Banner isn't the easiest tune to carry - I have some some singing myself.

But do we really need "stars" to add their own flair to it? We all know Alicia Keys is a good singer. We don't need her to bastardize the national anthem to prove it.

@ I really didn't think Joe Flacco should have won the MVP award for this Super Bowl. If I were voting, I would have cast a ballot for Jacoby Jones. Two 50-plus yard touchdowns - including a record 109-yard kick return to open the second half - were good enough for me.

@ For all of the people ripping some of Mike Tomlin's decisions this season - and I was among that crowd at times as well - realize that all coaches make a bonehead call at times.

Witness John Harbaugh's fake field goal call at the end of the first half on fourth-and-nine and well within field goal range.

@ Flacco's MVP award likely added another $10-20 million to his pricetag as a free agent, so there's that.

@ There is no way on God's green earth that Warren Sapp should be going into the Hall of Fame before Jerome Bettis, let alone Michael Strahan, who was a far better player than Sapp.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Big weekend for Bettis

It's a big weekend for former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis.

Bettis is one of the finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame again this weekend and I expect the third time to be the charm for the NFL's fifth-leading all-time rusher.

He should be inducted into the hall.

Bettis became eligible three years ago, at the same time that Marshall Faulk and Curtis Martin also became eligible.

I talked to a number of Hall of Fame voters, and they felt there was a pecking order at that time. It went Faulk, Martin and then Bettis.

It was hard to argue. Faulk was one of the most dynamic all-purpose runners in league history.

I remember when he was with Indianapolis, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher gnashing his teeth wondering how the Steelers were going to match up with Faulk when he split wide. He was too fast and ran routes too well to cover with a linebacker, but you also didn't want to put a defensive back on him and take one out of coverage elsewhere.

Martin, meanwhile, is the NFL's fourth all-time leading rusher, ranking just ahead of Bettis.

This is Bettis' year.