Sunday, April 13, 2014

Free Pouncey?

What team doesn't over-value some of its own talent from time to time? Certainly the Steelers, yes, or they wouldn't be coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons and teetering on the the brink of sustained mediocrity and even irrelevance.

Derrmontti Dawson
Is Maurkice Pouncey as good as he thinks he is, or as good as the long-time Steelers' braintrust have seemed to think he is? Has Pouncey ever performed as well as he did during his 2010 rookie year, when the first-round draft choice earned a spot in the Pro Bowl?

With that rookie season, Pouncey gave Steeler Nation hope that the the team had found a worthy successor to the decades-long lineage of centers that included Hall of Famers Derrmonti Dawson and Mike Webster, and very good centers such as Jeff Hartings and Ray Mansfield.  Nobody's had better centers over the past five decades than the Steelers. It's a proud tradition.

In 2011, Pouncey notched a second Pro Bowl appearance and then, in 2012, was given a third, which surprised some. To the casual observer, it appeared his play had declined during both the 2011 and 2012 seasons, but you know how Pro Bowl selections are -- the incumbents keep getting named once they're in.

Maurkice Pouncey, about to be carted off with a
knee injury in the 2013 season opener, with Antonio Brown
offering words of encouragement 
Overvaluing Their Own Talent?
We've had the sense for some time now -- and this goes back three, four, years, at least, that this Steelers' management team overvalues much of its own talent. And we all know they've had, ahem, mixed success, at best, in the draft (see: 2008-09 drafts).

Management has shown misplaced faith in some players, held on to some others for too long, given others probably too much rope, and let some others go they probably should have kept. It's that way to some extent for most teams, but the most successful teams do less of that, of course, and make adjustments along the way.

Which brings us to the crossroads at the center position, brought to a head over the past few days by Cleveland's signing of Alex Mack to a $42-million contract that includes $18 million guaranteed over the first two years. As noted on Friday's post on this blog, what's bad for the Steelers, and other NFL teams, is the deal is overpriced and sets a new level of expectation for centers across the league.

Ray Mansfield, The 'Ol Ranger
Trade Possibilities?
Question No. 1: Might the Steelers entertain pre-draft (or draft-day) trade offers for Pouncey? With holes galore, cap space tight, and lacking a true third-round draft pick this year (not counting the compensatory selection at the end of the third round), trading Pouncey has to be a consideration.

Question No. 2:  Go ahead and scoff if you want, Steeler insiders, but would another team even be interested? That depends on how they rate Pouncey, how much he would cost, and whether he'd be an upgrade over what they have already or might get on the open market. It's basic Return on Investment (ROI).

The hard truth is, the Steelers might not get much value in return for Pouncey, who is coming off a season lost to a torn ACL/MCL knee injury, and going into the last year of his contract.

Nobody at Steelers' offices will say it publicly, of course, but many people think Pouncey is over-rated. Many more were put off by his association with alleged murderer Aaron Hernandez (including Pouncey's clueless "Free Hernandez" B.S.); antics like hosting dinner for the Miami offensive line the night before the Steelers lost to the Dolphins; and some of his Twitdiocy (Twitter Idiocy) over the past few years, including inane comments like, "I’m rich play for the steelers and have a awesome life!! Are u mad loser", which he posted shortly after the playoff loss in Denver.

Mike Webster,
Hall of Famer
Many in Steeler Nation would not be heartbroken to see Pouncey on another team.

We'd been thinking for a while now -- even before the Mack signing in Cleveland, that the Steelers may be able trade Pouncey, and that a third-round choice in return (along with, possibly, a conditional choice next year), might be a reasonable return for a 305-pound three-time Pro Bowler coming off injured reserve and facing the last year of his contract.

The excellent Neal Coolong over at Behind the Steel Curtain makes an excellent case for such a trade, and he even proposes a potential trade partner: the Jacksonville Jaguars, who lost out on Mack when the Browns retained his rights.

The Trouble: Other Teams See What We See
The trouble with expecting much return for Pouncey is that other teams also know his play was not stellar in 2011-12, despite being named to the Pro Bowl. He got pushed around too often. The whole line was a sore spot, and Pouncey, the linchpin, was a big part of it. Pro Football Focus rated Pouncey 25th among centers in 2012. You can take that sort of rating with a grain of salt, but we didn't need Pro Football Focus to tell us what we saw.

Then came the 2013 season opener in which Pouncey injured his ACL/MCL in the first game and was put on injured reserve. Fernando Velasco stepped in off the street and the line solidifed as the season progressed. While Velasco was not as mobile as Pouncey, he seemed to hold the point of attack and pass-protected better than Pouncey had been doing in 2011-12.

The partying Pouncey twins, wearing their
cute little "Free Hernandez" hats expressing support
of accused murderer Aaron Hernandez
Is There a Trade Market?
All of which brings us back to a potential trade market for Pouncey. If we fans can see the dropoff in performance before Pouncey got hurt, it's reasonable NFL talent evaluators also saw it.

Would the Jacksonville Jaguars, say, be willing to surrender a third-round draft choice for a player coming off an ACL injury, whose performance had arguably been so-so before the injury, and who is looking to receive a massive contract when his current one expires after this upcoming season?

The Steelers have salary cap issues and at least one possible replacement for Pouncey, if they decide to trade him. Cody Wallace would be that replacement, although the current Steelers' depth chart lists David Snow as the starting center.

Cody Wallace
Wallace played well in his limited playing time. Wallace is a career journeyman, but he showed mobility, ferocity and tenacity in his four starts. The Steelers re-signed Wallace to a new three-year contract this off-season, it's reasonable to think the team was hedging its bets in anticipation that they may have trouble signing Pouncey to an extension before he hits free agency after the 2014 season.

For all intents and purposes, the Steelers currently don't have a third-round pick. Conceivably, it's possible the Steelers could use Pouncey as a trade chip -- but only if other teams are willing to assign him the value the Steelers think he's worth. And that may be problematic -- if so many fans in Steeler Nation believe Pouncey is over-rated, so too must a number of scout and personnel people at other NFL teams.

Enter Mike Munchak
And that brings us full-circle to the question of to what extent the Steelers may over-value their own players. While the Steelers brain-trust in recent years may have been guilty of that, there is one key person new to the staff who brings a fresh perspective: Offensive line coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman himself. He stated last week on that he will "have a chance to coach some young offensive linemen that I think can be really, really good."

We wonder which offensive linemen Munchak has in mind?

One footnote about Cody Wallace:  He hasn't had an easy path to get to this point, if the following excerpt from his page on Wikipedia is any indication:
"Wallace was raised by his paternal grandparents, since both his parents died when he was young. When he was 8, his father, aged 43, died in prison—which he was in for charges that include theft—due to liver failure and a ruptured esophagus, both caused by alcoholism. 
"His mother died of an unknown illness when he was 16, and was unable to take care of her two children many years before that. To feel his mother's presence, he wears her stud earrings. His older brother by two-and-a-half years has served four years in prison for drug charges. 
"Wallace stated: "Going through so much at a young age, it seems like I can handle more difficult situations maybe easier than most people. I just kind of look at everything in a little bigger picture."

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