Steelers Fever – A Few Pieces Of The Puzzle

A Few Pieces Of The Puzzle – By Mark Mihalko

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

After continually reading other Steelers websites and news articles that continually blast the teams front office, especially general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Bill Cowher, for their handling of the of the team during this years free agent market, let me be one of the first to applaud their efforts. Entering this offseason the Steelers had glaring needs at three critical positions: right offensive tackle, cornerback and running back. While the team has made moderate strides to correct those areas, the NFL offseason is a marathon not a sprint and fans and columnist alike should wait before holding judgment.

While the signing of veteran running back Duce Staley may not be the long term solution to the woes in the Steelers running game, it is a step in the right direction. Staley may be 29 years-old, but by playing with the Philadelphia Eagles he was never forced to carry the load offensively and there is still plenty of gas left in his tank. Sure he isn’t the breakaway running back many fans and sportswriters crave, but he is a strong and powerful running back, which is vital for the Steelers to have when the weather starts to change in Pittsburgh. The team tried to go with a slashing back with speed last season (Amos Zereoue) and that experiment failed miserably. More importantly Staley wanted to be in Pittsburgh and the Steelers did not have to break the bank to sign him.

The signing of Staley also allows the team to have a little more flexibility in the upcoming NFL Draft. The team will probably not look at running backs Kevin Jones (VA Tech) and Steven Jackson (Oregon State), both of the running backs that are projected to be selected in the first round of the draft. However, the Steelers will still probably select a running back at some point during the first day of the draft. With Jerome Bettis coming back to the team with a significantly reduced salary in 2004 the writing is on the wall about his future after this season. With Staley, Bettis and the often injured Verron Haynes listed as the teams top three running backs, it is clear that the front office isn’t done yet. The running back position is one of the deepest positions in the draft and the Steelers could easily find an impact running back after the first round. Running backs Julius Jones (Notre Dame), Chris Perry (Michigan) and Tatum Bell (Oklahoma State) all have the potential to be better running backs then the two backs being projected as sure-fire first-round selections and all three will be available in the second or third round.

Last season the Minnesota Vikings gave CB Denard Walker a huge contract, he was supposed to be the lock-down corner the team was searching for. Unfortunately for the Vikings this did not pan out and as I am writing this the team is attempting to trade the overpriced cornerback. I mention this because that is what every cornerback available this year has been, overpriced. Yes it would have been nice to have a cornerback the caliber of Antoine Winfield patrolling the Steelers secondary, but his $30+ million contract is a little steep for a diminutive cornerback.

The Steelers attempted to bring in five different cornerbacks this offseason and four of the five ended up signing elsewhere prior to their visits. Those five included – Fernando Bryant (Lions), Reggie Howard (Dolphins), Fred Thomas (Saints), David Barrett (Jets) and Artrell Hawkins (Panthers). None of those five could be considered shutdown cornerbacks, yet teams lavished them with large signing bonuses. Look at Fernando Bryant; he received a $7.25 million signing bonus with the Detroit Lions, while his original team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, had no interest resigning him. CB Artrell Hawkins is the only one of the five cornerbacks who visited the Steelers; he ended up signing with Carolina Panthers, who gave the veteran a $2.5 million signing bonus. Hawkins originally played under new defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau when he was in Cincinnati, so when the Steelers offered Hawkins a contract prior to his visit to Carolina you can be sure it was a fair offer.

The Steelers might have missed out on a shutdown cornerback via free agency, but really how many were available. The only true shutdown cornerback who changed teams this offseason is CB Champ Bailey and that was via a trade. The Steelers do need an upgrade at the cornerback position and in the secondary as a whole. The drafting of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in the 2003 NFL Draft was a step in the right direction. Both players took time getting comfortable in the Steelers system, but they both have speed and athletic ability and will make a bigger impact in 2004.

Improving the teams dismal pass rush would also help the secondary. It was clear that LB Jason Gildon was on his last leg during the 2003 season. The team re-signed Clark Haggans, who has the ability to play both outside linebacker positions, earlier this offseason. LB Alonzo Jackson should play a bigger role in 2004. While I may be in the minority on this subject, I cannot see how people are already labeling him a bust. Jackson, a second-round selection, played defensive end in college. Last season was his first as a linebacker and if I remember correctly Jackson flashed some big play potential during training camp and preseason games last year. Look back at other defensive ends the Steelers drafted and converted to linebackers: Clark Haggans, Joey Porter, Carlos Emmons, Mike Vrable, and Jason Gildon. Did any of them make an impact as a linebacker as a rookie? The answer is a resounding NO! Jackson could be a super-star in 2004, but the team needed to re-sign Haggans if they wanted to rid themselves of Gildon’s huge salary. Going into 2004 with only an unproven rush linebacker would have been suicide.

The Steelers also need to improve their right tackle position. They attempted to get into the Orlando Brown sweepstakes, but missed out. However, there are still plenty of tackles available that could be an upgrade to what the team already has. Sure they aren’t high-profile players but they could come in and compete.

The signing of P Chris Gardocki was at first glance surprising. After all, his numbers mirrored those of the departed Josh Miller. But the aloof Miller might have worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh and is already starting to rub other teams the wrong way on the open market. With the team refusing to overpay for LS Mike Schneck, who is an unrestricted free agent, the addition of Gardocki could be huge. Gardocki, a 13-year veteran, who has never had a punt blocked, will go a long way at aiding a new long snapper. By ridding themselves of Miller’s personality and weakening a divisional rival this is a win-win signing for the Steelers. Maybe it wasn’t the headline maker that people were looking for this offseason, but in the end it will pay dividends.

As you look at the roster today the addition of players such as Staley and Gardocki may seem like minor additions with no significant impact on the team. However, both players will play key roles during the team’s playoff run in 2004. The Steelers still have time this offseason to repair different positions. By adding a veteran punter and potential work-horse running back to the mix, the team can go many different ways while improving their roster.

When the Steelers are making a run at the playoffs next season, what is the one thing that you will remember about the signing of these two critical elements? The fact the Steelers did not overpay for their services, like they could have.

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