Monday, July 29, 2013

Back to Work -- Training Camp

Enough of the summer hiatus. Time to get back to work.

Before we talk about the Steelers, how about Baltimore tight end Dennis Pitta's season-ending knee injury on the second day of camp? Pitta was probably Joe Flacco's go-to receiver as much as anybody, along with Anquan Boldin, and now both are gone -- along with a whole lot of other players from last year's Super Bowl winning team.

Before Pitta's injury, we were convinced Baltimore would be every bit as formidable as they were during last year's late-season run.  Now, we're not so sure, although they will be helped by the addition of defensive end Elvis Dumervil, safety Michael Huff and cornerback Lardarius Webb, who returns from injured reserve. Still, the loss of Pitta could really hurt them.

Joey Porter's Pit Bulls have always liked Pitta. He's fast, smooth in his routes and has excellent hands. When he came out of Brigham Young, we thought he'd look good in a Steeler uniform and were disappointed that Baltimore drafted him, and not the Steelers.  Last off-season, we made the argument the Steelers should sign Pitta as a restricted free agent -- as much to hurt Baltimore as to help the Black 'n Gold at tight end, a position with quantity but some question of quality in the wake of Heath Miller's devastating knee injuries (ACL, MCL, PCL).

Now, with Pitta's season-ending hip injury suffered during drills on Saturday, the Ravens will be without their No. 1 tight end. They have another good one in Ed Dickson, but Pitta was better all-around, more reliable and more clutch.

As for the Steelers at tight end, well, questions remain.  Which brings us to the draft.

Heath Miller's knee injuries raise the question of when and whether he will return to full effectiveness. In the first round, the Steelers passed on Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eiffert and instead selected pass-rushing linebacker Jarvis Jones out of Georgia, despite medical questions (spinal stenosis) and a 4.92 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.  That 4.92 40 time, by the way, is the same run by fourth-round QB Landry Jones, a pocket statue who had all of 15 yards rushing last year at Oklahoma.

Having said that, our feeling is that Jones and most of the other Steelers' 2013 draft picks bring a tough edge to the team that was sorely missing toughness and leadership last year.  Jarvis Jones, Le'Veon Bell, Marcus Wheaton, Shamarko Thomas, Vince Williams -- all have reputations for toughness, and at this point, the Steelers need all the toughness they can get.  Maybe some of those guys will turn into team leaders, too.

Zach Ertz
At the very least, let's hope Jarvis Jones can cover Tyler Eiffert, who was snapped up by division rival Cincinnati in the first round.  In our book, Jones and Eiffert will be linked for years to come. Who will be the better player?

Joey Porter's Pit Bulls will also be following with interest the NFL career of Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, whom we suspect may be every bit as good as Eiffert, if not better.  As stated before the draft, we could have seen the Steelers trading down in the first round and selecting Ertz, who went to Philadelphia with the third pick of the second round (No. 35 overall).

Such a move, of course, would have left the Steelers without Jones and with a major lack of depth at the critical outside-linebacker position formerly manned by James Harrison, also now with the Bengals. Another option we thought might make sense for the Steelers in the first round was Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who went to the Vikings with the 25th overall pick. Rhodes has reportedly been a standout so far in Vikings camp.

Naturally, we hope Jarvis Jones succeeds in a major way. We hope he will be every bit as successful as he was at Georgia during his final season, when he led the college nation in sacks, forced fumbles and tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The Steelers need him to succeed in a big way.

We love, absolutely love, running back Le'Veon Bell -- loved him before the draft and hoped the Steelers would take him. When they announced his name in the second round, we did a big Yeah!, and then immediately wondered if they might have been able to get him later -- he'd been projected as a third or fourth rounder. Maybe, just maybe, he was overdrafted?  Possibly. Still, we're glad they landed him.

One of the many very good things about this guy: Le'Veon Bell doesn't fumble.  Bell had zero fumbles in three years at Michigan State. Not one. Nyet. Nada. None. Ze-Ro.

He starts Game One and solidifies a running game that was awful last year. We have no idea why the Steelers retained Jonathan Dwyer in the off-season.  Dwyer recently said he's lost 25-30 pounds in the past month or so -- which would have put him at 260-265 lbs. at about the time of OTAs.  Really.

To draft Bell, however, the Steelers passed on two other players we would have loved to see in Black 'n Gold -- SMU's 6'8" defensive end Margus Hunt (went to the Bengals, Round 2, pick number 53 overall) and Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown (to the Ravens, number 54 overall, at 6'0", 241).

Margus Hunt's the guy we really hated to see get away -- he would have been perfect for the Steelers -- and Brown looks like he'll be a perfect fit in Baltimore. It is a bit worrisome that both Hunt and Brown went to our top two rivals in the division.  Hunt, especially, seems like he could be a special force for years to come, and if he blocks field goals or extra points that keep the Steelers out of the playoffs ... we won't be happy. We're keeping our fingers crossed Hunt and/or Brown won't be Steelers nemeses for years to come.

On the other hand, we have high hopes for the Steelers' sixth-round pick, linebacker Vince Williams (Florida St., No. 206 overall, 6'0", 247). Maybe Williams will have every bit as good a career as Arthur Brown. Or not. We shall see. Our feeling is that Williams is going to be a good one, and possibly very good.

As for the Steelers' third-round pick -- wide receiver Marcus Wheaton -- absolutely loved him before the draft and were elated the Steelers got him. He's a perfect fit here, and they got him in the perfect spot. He'll be terrific.

Speaking of wide receivers, our feeling before the draft was the Steelers made a mistake in April by retaining wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders instead of letting him go to New England in return for a third-round draft choice (91st overall).

We were hoping WVU wide receiver Stedman Bailey would be available and sure enough, he was. Bailey went to St. Louis with the 92nd pick overall (the very next pick after the pick the Steelers would have gotten from New England, which, interestingly passed on Bailey).  Intuition says Bailey would have made a perfect Steeler. We would have had both Wheaton and Bailey, and both would be under contract for four years. As it stands now, Sanders can become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

As for the fourth-round picks, we love the toughness safety Shamarko Thomas brings, but we're concerned about his height (5'9"?).  Might he have trouble covering the likes of Eiffert, Dickson, A.J. Green, Torrey Smith, etc.?

The other fourth-round pick, QB Landry Jones out of Oklahoma, eh, we have concerns about him.  The Steelers are long past due drafting a good young quarterback. But we're not sure Jones is the guy. Certainly we hope Jones leads the Steelers to the Super Bowl many times and cements his place in the Hall of Fame. We have doubts, however, and we also have concerns that Big Ben will last a full season -- ever.

Before the draft, we made the case for drafting Duke QB Sean Renfree, who went to Atlanta in Round 7, 249th overall.  Too bad.

Another college player we had our eye on as a potential draft pick was Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, who went in the fifth round to Bruce Arians's Arizona Cardinals.  Taylor had a lousy Combine but compiled 4,300 yards and 40 touchdowns during his career at Stanford.

Well, you can't get everybody you want, and we'll trust the Steelers know more about what they're doing than we do..  

That's it, Fort Pitt.

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