By Eli Nachmany
A special treat today for Nachmany Football fans as we bring in a writer from the popular Steelers blog Behind the Steel Curtain, Neal Coolong. Check him out on his SB Nation profile page or follow him on Twitter @NealCoolong.
To preface, we really appreciate when writers from other sites do interviews with us. It’s great to get a new perspective, especially from writers on the beat with specific NFL teams. We thank Mr. Coolong a bunch for coming in and doing this interview with us.
Anyway, to the questions:
Nachmany Football: “Where is running back Rashard Mendenhall in his rehab process?”
Neal Coolong: “From what I’ve heard, he’s going through the standard rehab process. The trick with ACL injuries is obviously it takes a while to come back from, but even when he gets to a point where he’ll have full motion and be able to run again, it still takes a while after that to get back to where you were pre-injury.
That puts the Steelers in an interesting spot this offseason. Baron Batch, a seventh-round pick in 2011, tore his ACL in training camp last year. He was drawing some pretty high praise, particularly for his blocking ability and desire. He was someone the team was looking at this year to possibly step into the role previously filled by veteran RB Mewelde Moore, who is currently a free agent.
Isaac Redman will carry the ball, and judging by his performance in the playoffs (largely overshadowed by a Steelers loss and another reason for people to talk about Tim Tebow non-stop), he should be able to perform well.
“Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay will both contribute to making the running back position the hottest training camp competition. Many outside of the Steelers will see running back as a weak position on the team, but the Steelers have been stockpiling low-pick and undrafted talent at the position for a few years now. They may even add one in the draft this year (Isiah Pead out of Cincinnati was in for a visit recently).”
NF: “How far off are Pittsburgh and Mike Wallace from reaching a deal?”
NC: “That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Maybe more like $10 million a season question. Judging by the size and scope of contracts given to Philadelphia’s Desean Jackson and Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson, I can’t see Wallace accepting any less than something in the ballpark of 5-years, $50 million. The question is whether he wants to play for the $2.7 he’ll get with his restricted free agent contract this year, biding his time until he hits the open market next year (where he could still be franchised), or take perhaps a little less money overall to not risk injury this season, and get a long-term deal in place.
Given the Steelers’ salary cap position over the next two seasons, and a shaky history in terms of giving wide receivers not named Hines Ward extensions, it seems a future with Wallace is cloudy. He is a critical member of the offense, though, and receives frequent lobbying efforts from QB Ben Roethlisberger. It may simply just be a financial issue – something every team that wins consistently eventually runs into. When you have as many talented players as the Steelers do, you’re not going to be able to keep all of them. Unless, of course, you can get Wallace to sign the borderline moronic deal Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson signed, but it seems laughable Wallace would accept four years and $13 million.”
NF: “How do the Steelers plan to respond to their free agent losses on defense?”
NC: “In some ways, they already had. DE Aaron Smith is a Steelers legend, and always will be. However, injuries broke him down in three of the last four years, thrusting Ziggy Hood into his position. Hood’s got some work to do, but he now has loads of experience on his side, and he’ll enter camp as a starter – the first time that’s happened in his young career.
In other ways, it’s kind of like they did already, but it will still be new. ILB James Farrior was a captain and a leader on the defense. Veteran Larry Foote will likely be the starter at the buck linebacker position, which is not what he played when he started for the Steelers in 2004-08. He played the mack, which is more of a weak side position. He filled in for Farrior during his brief injury stint last season. Foote’s coverage ability is something of a concern, and no one matches Farrior in terms of leadership. It’s a position the Steelers could bring in someone to fill in the upcoming draft, but even with a high pick invested, it isn’t likely a rookie could play the buck position this year with a good deal of success.
William Gay departed to Arizona, like several other former Steelers players and coaches. His coverage ability in the slot will be missed, although he struggled outside the numbers in his career. The Steelers made him an offer, so it seems reasonable to think they wanted him back, while the young CBs Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown continue to develop. Lewis is likely the starter opposite Ike Taylor at the start of training camp, but Allen will compete aggressively for that spot. Brown has shined on special teams, but there have been concerns about his ability to pick up his role from a mental standpoint. He has excelled on special teams, however, and will contribute in 2012.
It seems now Casey Hampton will play at some point in 2012. The Steelers agreed to restructure his contract, and essentially guaranteed him a spot on the roster. Like Mendenhall, Hampton tore his ACL late in the season (in the playoffs), and can’t be reasonably expected to be 100 percent at camp. Steve McLendon has improved by leaps and bounds, and while asking him to be the outstanding player Hampton has been throughout his career flat-out isn’t fair, he’ll have to continue to improve. Chris Hoke, Hampton’s long-standing back-up, retired, leaving the Steelers perilously thin at the nose tackle position. Expect them to address this position early in the draft.”
NF: “What is the safest bet for the Steelers with the 24th overall pick?”
NC: “The Steelers draft athletic guys who proved to be productive players at the collegiate level. While NT Dontari Poe certainly shows athleticism, his college production is not outstanding. Alabama LB Donta Hightower produced at a high level for the nation’s best defense, but there are some concerns about his lateral speed. TE Coby Fleener’s name has been thrown around a bit lately, which would be a surprise, even if he is a very talented player.
I’m big on Hightower. I think LB Lawrence Timmons is the uber-athlete the Steelers like, and can be used to help hide some of Hightower’s perceived speed issues. Hightower is great against the run, and could provide some pass rush skill in nickel packages if needed (much like Farrior did when he was at his best). You have to worry about his coverage skill though, but at the same time, you don’t get a top three talent at pick No. 24. He’s got the leadership ability, the polish of a highly productive SEC player and the taste of championship. Odds are, he’s the guy, but you’ll hear lots of Steelers fans calling for Poe, if he’s on the board at 24.”
NF: “Which Pittsburgh players do you project will have breakout campaigns in 2012?”
NC: “I think people will want to keep an eye on WR Emmanuel Sanders. He was the third round pick of the Steelers in 2010, the same year they took Antonio Brown in the 6th round. Roethlisberger has targeted Sanders quite often in his two seasons, and if not for injuries and the passing of his mother, Sanders would have put up much better numbers than he did last year. He needs to stay healthy (a foot injury in Super Bowl XLV came back during training camp last year), and if he does, he’ll be in the 60 catch range.
On defense, I really liked what I saw of Cortez Allen in his playing time. He’s very strong and an excellent athlete. He started playing football in 10th grade, and was an All-State defensive back in Florida (elite competition) by his senior year. I think he’s really going to continue improving and may even be starting in 2012.”
Once again, we truly appreciate Mr. Coolong for coming in and doing this interview with us. It’s fantastic to hear the perspective of a team-specific writer when trying to deliver content.
You’re welcome back anytime, Mr. Coolong.