QB Byron Leftwich, RB Mewelde Moore, C Justin Hartwig, DE/DT Orpheus Roye, OLB Keyaron Fox.
QB Dennis Dixon, RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Limas Sweed, OT Tony Hills, OLB Bruce Davis, ILB Mike Humpal, S Ryan Mundy.
QB Brian St. Pierre, FB Dan Kreider, WR Cedrick Wilson, TE Jerame Tuman, G Alan Faneca, DT Anthony McFarland, DE/OLB Clark Haggans, OLB Marquis Cooper, ILB Clint Kriewaldt, KR Allen Rossum.
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers Offense:
It may seem like I was half-joking whenever I opined that Ben Roethlisberger should take the 2008 season off as Pittsburgh figures out what to do with its offensive line. Well, I'm pretty close to being serious. It may seem foolish to abandon hope this year, rest Big Ben and feed Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon to the wolves, but it'll look pretty dumb when Pittsburgh's franchise signal caller suffers multiple concussions, breaks dozens of ribs and feels like he crashed his motorcycle into some old lady's car again.
I was really blown away when I watched the Steelers fail to make a single upgrade to their front. Don't they realize that they surrendered 47 sacks during the regular season and six more in their playoff loss to Jacksonville? Roethlisberger was running for his life half the time, so it's amazing he was able to come within a field goal of beating one of the top squads in the NFL.
The only move Pittsburgh made was signing Justin Hartwig, who is coming off a horrible 2007 campaign with Carolina. Hartwig's presence moves Sean Mahan out of the center position and over to left guard, probably behind the mediocre Chris Kemoeatu. The other guard is Kendall Simmons, who was a passable lineman prior to his shoulder injury. He had surgery on it, so it remains to be seen how effective he'll be in 2008.
It doesn't get much better on the exterior of Pittsburgh's line. The team's top blocker is left tackle Marvel Smith, who's coming off back surgery. Smith is in his contract year, so he may play through any problems he has stemming from that injury. But given that he'll be 30 next offseason, I wouldn't expect the Steelers to re-sign him, especially with the money they gave Max Starks this spring. Starks, the second-highest paid player on the team, is a backup tackle, who has struggled in his limited time protecting Roethlisberger's blind side. Pittsburgh had to overpay for Starks, as they don't really have many options up front. Right tackle Willie Colon leaves much to be desired, and could be benched in favor of Starks at some point in 2008. If that happens, Colon could move inside to one of the guard slots.
As you can tell, the Steelers' offensive line is a mess, but at least the front office isn't giving Big Ben the David Carr treatment (surrounding a quarterback with nothing but one great receiver). Roethlisberger does have that one great wide out though in Hines Ward, who catches everything thrown his direction and also blocks pretty well. Unfortunately, Ward, who just turned 32, had offseason knee surgery on his torn MCL, PCL and meniscus. I'm not sure he'll ever be 100 percent ever again (with his age being a factor as well).
If not, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed and Heath Miller will have to pick up the slack. Holmes beat Ward in production in 2007, as the second-year wide out had 942 yards and eight touchdowns despite missing three contests. Miller, entering his fourth year, managed 47 receptions, 566 yards and seven scores. His best performance came in the team's playoff loss to the Jaguars, as he caught eight balls for 85 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Sweed, a massive 6-4, 215-pound target, should be Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver by the start of the 2008 campaign. He was a steal at No. 53 in April's draft, as he was a projected first-round prospect.
The Steelers used their No. 1 choice on Rashard Mendenhall, who should be the type of reliable complement to Willie Parker that they've been missing since Jerome Bettis' retirement. Of course, Mendenhall is more than some short-yardage back. He's a tough runner with speed, who has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Mendenhall also provides some much-needed insurance for the Steelers, who really missed Parker when he suffered a season-ending injury (fractured fibula) late in the year. The lightning-quick Parker has averaged 1,337 yards and 7.6 touchdowns the past three years.
Pittsburgh's offense reminds me of an expensive, fancy car that has no motor. The scoring unit looks good on the exterior - great quarterback, dangerous duo of running backs, excellent receivers - but lacks what matters most (besides quarterback): a solid offensive line.
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers Defense:
When Pittsburgh lost Joey Porter last spring, there were some doubters who thought the Steelers' defense would struggle a bit without its most prominent sack artist (25 sacks from 2004 to 2006). But as Dolphins fans found out (or will find out), Porter was merely a product of the system in the Steel City.
James Harrison, who had just four career sacks in three years prior to the 2007 campaign, stepped into Porter's role and immediately thrived, generating nine sacks last season, including a memorable 3.5-sack performance against the Ravens on Monday Night Football.
But just because Pittsburgh has shown the capability to replace veteran linebackers with young unknowns and barely miss a beat, doesn't mean that the front office neglects the position early in the draft. LaMarr Woodley, chosen in the second round in April 2007, had four sacks despite barely playing (Clark Haggans was the starter in front of him). Woodley notched two sacks in Pittsburgh's playoff loss to the Jaguars, so he looks primed for a Pro Bowl campaign now that Haggans is gone. Meanwhile, Lawrence Timmons, selected a round earlier in the 2007 NFL Draft, will be moving next to James Farrior at inside linebacker.
Protecting the guys in the middle of the defense is a talented but aging three-man line. Casey Hampton, one of the top run-stuffing nose tackles in the league, just turned 31. He had hamstring problems that plagued him in 2007. He's not nearly as much of an issue as Aaron Smith, a 32-year-old coming off biceps surgery. Smith probably won't be ready to go until training camp, and there's no telling if he'll ever be 100 percent again. Brett Keisel rounds out the starting group. Keisel, who can get to the quarterback (six sacks in 2006) turns 30 in September, but he's not a concern just yet. Pittsburgh is also deep up front, as Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason are solid reserves.
Pittsburgh's secondary once again figures to be the "weak link" of a dominant defense, which is saying a lot because the team was ranked third against the pass in 2007. The defensive backfield is comprised of two stars. Everyone knows about strong safety Troy Polamalu, so let's move on to Ike Taylor, who's had an up-and-down career. Taylor was benched in 2006, but played extremely well last year with Mike Tomlin's coaching.
The rest of the secondary, meanwhile, is mediocre. The Steelers are just waiting for third-year Anthony Smith to make strides and replace Ryan Clark at free safety. If you've forgotten, Smith predicted victory against the undefeated Patriots and was subsequently embarrassed on multiple Tom Brady-to-Randy Moss connections. Deshea Townsend, who turns 33 in September, is currently slated to start across from Taylor. I don't know how long that's going to last, but nickel Bryant McFadden hasn't exactly made a strong case for replacing Townsend in the lineup.
Tomlin deserves a ton of credit. While media members and casual fans have predicted that the Steelers will transition to Tomlin's Tampa-2 scheme, they've stuck with the 3-4, and it doesn't look like they'll be switching any time soon. If you look at the Jets, Eric Mangini put the franchise's success in jeopardy by transitioning to the 3-4, despite the fact that most of his players were 4-3 athletes. Tomlin didn't make that error. Pittsburgh's stop unit was second (16.8 points per game) in 2007, and I expect the team's ranking to pretty much remain static.
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule and Intangibles:
Excluding New England, no one in the AFC has a better road record than Pittsburgh since 1996; the Steelers are 50-46 as visitors in that time frame. They're not bad at home either (66-29-1). They were 7-1 as hosts in 2007, but only 3-5 away from the Steel City.
I just praised Mike Tomlin for sticking with the 3-4, but it really bothered me that he mistakenly went for a two-point conversion when he didn't need to against the Jaguars in the playoffs. If he kicked an extra point on all three of his team's fourth-quarter touchdowns, the Steelers would have forced overtime instead of losing by two.
Santonio Holmes returned a punt for a touchdown in 2006, but Tomlin deemed him too important to the offense and took him off special teams. I can't blame him for doing that, though Allen Rossum wasn't that great of a replacement on punt returns. Sure, he scored a touchdown on a kickoff, but his punt-return average was miserable. Rossum is gone, so there's a good chance Tomlin could be going back to Holmes in his natural role. Najeh Davenport and Willie Reid, meanwhile, look to be the team's kick returners, which means it won't be scoring there. Pittsburgh also needs to work on limiting opponents from scoring on special teams; it yielded two touchdowns last season.
Pittsburgh is a tough place to kick, so give Jeff Reed tons of credit for nailing 23-of-25 attempts. He was just 4-of-6 from beyond 40 yards, however.
If the Steelers don't win the AFC North, you can look at their schedule as a possible reason why. Check out all of their tough opponents: Browns (twice), Eagles, Jaguars, Giants, Colts, Chargers, Patriots, Cowboys and Titans. That's 10 of 16 games! Cleveland has a similar schedule, but instead of the Patriots and Chargers, the Browns get the Broncos and Bills. That's a huge advantage.
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers Analysis: The Steelers are a well-coached team with great quarterbacking and defense. They have just one weakness, but it's a huge one. The offensive line has to be an overwhelming concern for anyone associated with Pittsburgh, especially for those who care about Ben Roethlisberger's safety.
Despite that, the Steelers could be the fourth-best squad in the AFC behind New England, Indianapolis and Jacksonville. Whether they win the AFC North or not is another story, as their tough schedule could really handicap them.
Projection: 11-5 (1st in AFC North)
2008 Fantasy Football Rankings:
Ben Roethlisberger: Prior to the 2007 season, Ben Roethlisberger had never thrown more than 18 touchdowns. New offensive coordinator Bruce Arians opened up the offense and turned Roethlisberger into a fantasy star. Big Ben had just 3,154 yards but threw for 32 touchdowns. I don't expect him to match that total, as the running game will have more success in the red zone, but he'll be in the mid-20s.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Stats: 3,300 passing yards. 26 passing TDs. 200 rushing yards. 2 rushing TDs.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Points: 353.
Willie Parker: Willie Parker tallied 1,316 rushing yards, which is definitely an impressive total, but struggled in the red zone behind a pedestrian offensive line. Parker scored just two touchdowns all year, which really hurt his fantasy production. With Rashard Mendenhall in the mix, it looks like Parker will never match the 16-touchdown total he registered in 2006.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Stats: 1,100 rushing yards. 150 receiving yards. 4 total TDs.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Points: 149.
Rashard Mendenhall: I still can't believe Rashard Mendenhall fell to the Steelers at No. 23, as the 2008 NFL Draft gave us a perspective of how truly inept some NFL general managers really are. At any rate, Mendenhall has more fantasy potential than Willie Parker because he'll get opportunities inside the red zone and passes out of the backfield.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Stats: 750 rushing yards. 200 receiving yards. 7 total TDs.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Points: 137.
Heath Miller: Heath Miller rebounded from a sophomore slump (though his struggles were attributed to Ben Roethlisberger's complications), catching 47 passes for 566 yards and seven touchdowns. He saved his best production for last, registering eight receptions, 85 yards and a score against the Jaguars in the playoffs.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Stats: 625 receiving yards. 7 TDs.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Points: 104.
Santonio Holmes: Santonio Holmes had a nice rookie campaign (49 receptions, 824 yards, 2 TDs), and on the surface, it doesn't appear that he improved because while his touchdown total soared to eight, he had 52 catches for 942 yards. Not much of an increase, but he missed three contests and was limited in a fourth. He's Big Ben's No. 1 target. If Ben Roethlisberger's at 100 percent, expect more from Holmes.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Stats: 1,200 receiving yards. 6 TDs.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Points: 156.
Hines Ward: I'd love to have Hines Ward on any real football team, but he may be overrated in the world of fantasy. Ward hasn't notched more than 1,004 yards since 2003. He's also 32 and coming off knee surgery.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Stats: 850 receiving yards. 7 TDs.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Points: 127.
Limas Sweed: Limas Sweed will get some end-zone looks considering his impressive size (6-4, 215). However, he is a rookie so I'd be careful. He's definitely worth taking in a keeper league.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Stats: 450 receiving yards. 4 TDs.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Points: 69.
Jeff Reed: Jeff Reed is an accurate kicker, but he has an average of only five made field goals from 40-49 the past four seasons. Heinz Field is a tough place to play, so he seldom gets long attempts.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Stats: 23-26 FG (0-1 50+). 45 XP.
Projected 2008 Fantasy Points: 119.
Pittsburgh Defense: The Steelers saw their sack total rise last year, and with the development of LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, that can only increase. That will lead to more turnovers and tons of fantasy points. They play the Ravens in Week 15, which should be your semifinal.
Projected Fantasy Ranking: Top 10 Defense.
2008 NFL Draft Grade:
Wow - the Steelers had an incredible first day. How the heck did they get Rashard Mendenhall at 23? Not only was he the best player available eight selections ago, he filled a major position of need. Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball when Willie Parker got hurt, and they've needed a power back ever since Jerome Bettis retired ... And how about Limas Sweed? There would have been nothing wrong if Pittsburgh landed him in the first round, but to get him late in the second speaks volumes about the ineptness of some of the general managers in the NFL ... The second day wasn't as great, but I like Tony Hills. He's got injury issues, but he'll be a vital asset to the team if he can stay healthy ... Mike Humpal and Ryan Mundy were decent selections late in the draft and should be able to contribute.
Pittsburgh didn't put enough emphasis into upgrading the offensive line. Instead of Bruce Davis and Dennis Dixon, why not Carl Nicks, Anthony Collins or Roy Schuening? I don't have a problem with Davis and Dixon, but neither really fills a need. Ben Roethlisberger's going to get killed behind his weak front again, and it's all because the Steelers didn't address it enough this offseason.
Grade give on 4/29/08: B
2008 NFL Draft Picks:
23. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Illinois
I can only imagine how hard Pittsburgh's front office was laughing on Draft Day. How in the world did Rashard Mendenhall fall to 23? What a great complement for Willie Parker. People will say Mendenhall won't have any running room, but there are plenty of solid linemen available in the third round, including Carl Nicks, Anthony Collins, Roy Schuening, Donald Thomas, etc. (Pick Grade: A)
53. Limas Sweed, WR, Texas
Might as well change their name to the Pittsburgh Draft Stealers. Once again, all of these stupid GMs need to look at Pittsburgh's organization and its draft strategy. (Pick Grade: A)
88. Bruce Davis, OLB, UCLA
I guess the Steelers don't care for addressing their offensive line. Let's hope Ben Roethlisberger survives the 2008 season. (Pick Grade: D)
130. Tony Hills, OT, Texas
The Steelers finally get an offensive lineman, and he's a talented one. Carl Nicks would have been a much better option, but this is still a solid pick. (Pick Grade: B)
156. Dennis Dixon, QB, Oregon
I'm glad Dennis Dixon got drafted, but taking him before Andre' Woodson and Josh Johnson? I'm not so sure about that. (Pick Grade: C)
188. Mike Humpal, ILB, Iowa
No surprise the Steelers took a blue-collar guy like Mike Humpal. Solid choice. (Pick Grade: B)
194. Ryan Mundy, S, West Virginia
A "meh" pick. Ryan Mundy is a sixth-round prospect and fills a need, but there are better options on the board. (Pick Grade: B)
The Steelers' season ended in Week 16 when Willie Parker broke his leg against the Rams. They nearly defeated the Jaguars in the first round of the playoffs with the help of an incredible comeback by Ben Roethlisberger, but were done in by Najeh Davenport's ineptness and Mike Tomlin's inability to figure out when to go for two or not. Even if Pittsburgh won that game, however, it had no shot against the Patriots or Colts without its 1,300-yard rusher.
Steelers trade G Sean Mahan to Buccaneers for undisclosed draft pick
Steelers sign DE/DT Orpheus Roye
Steelers sign QB Byron Leftwich
Steelers cut QB Jared Zabransky
Steelers cut RB Najeh Davenport
Steelers re-sign OT Max Starks
Steelers re-sign WR Nate Washington
Steelers opt not to sign DT Anthony McFarland
Steelers re-sign DE Nick Eason
Steelers cut WR Cedrick Wilson
Steelers sign C Justin Hartwig
Steelers re-sign OT Trai Essex
Steelers re-sign G Chris Kemoeatu
Steelers sign OLB Keyaron Fox
Steelers re-sign OLB Andre Frazier
Steelers sign RB Mewelde Moore
Steelers cut CB/PR Allen Rossum
Steelers cut TE Jerame Tuman
Steelers cut ILB Clint Kriewaldt
Steelers re-sign DE Travis Kirschke
Two Offensive Tackles: The Steelers need a starter and a backup (for now). Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 47 times in 2007, which is simply inexcusable. Left tackle Marvel Smith struggled with severe back problems, while right tackle Willie Colon was playing out of position. Pittsburgh needs a premier tackle (Jeff Otah?) to replace Colon, which would allow him to move over to right guard. A top-notch reserve, meanwhile, could spell Smith (a free agent next spring) should his back problems resurface. Drafted Tony Hills; re-signed Max Starks
Guard: I would be completely shocked if left guard Alan Faneca re-signed with the Steelers. It just seems terrible that the top lineman will be leaving a group that struggled mightily the previous season. Pittsburgh needs a solid replacement for Faneca - perhaps Chilo Rachal in Round 2. Signed Justin Hartwig (Sean Mahan to guard)
Running Back: As I noted in the Season Summary, the Steelers couldn't muster any sort of ground attack because Najeh Daveport was too busy dropping turds on the football field. And even before Willie Parker went down, Pittsburgh needed a power running back. Matt Forte would be a nice pick-up in the third round. Drafted Rashard Mendenhall; signed Mewelde Moore
Wide Receiver: Hines Ward was offended when Ben Roethlisberger recently stated that he would love a massive receiver to throw to. While I don't think Roethlisberger should have went public with this, he makes a good point. Ward and Santonio Holmes are 6-0 and 5-11, respectively. Drafted Limas Sweed
Free Safety: Anthony Smith confidently predicted that the Steelers would beat the Patriots last year. Now I'm predicting Anthony Smith won't be Pittsburgh's starting free safety in 2008. The Steelers can get someone like Jonathan Hefney or Simeon Castille in the fourth round of April's draft. Drafted Ryan Mundy
Return Specialist: Current return specialist Allen Rossum turns 33 in October. You can't have a 33-year-old running back kicks and punts. Pittsburgh needs a dangerous guy like Antwaan Randle El doing that.
Inside Linebacker: James Farrior just turned 33, which is generally the age of regression. Depth for this position, as well as the next two on this list, can be acquired in the later rounds of the draft. Drafted Mike Humpal
Defensive Line Depth: Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel will all be in their 30s once the 2008 season rolls around. The Steelers need some young blood to back them up, especially if Travis Kirschke isn't re-signed. Re-signed Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason and Orpheus Roye.
Cornerback Depth: More depth at corner is never a bad idea, especially when the two teams you're chasing have Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Wes Welker at receiver.
Pittsburgh Steelers Free Agents:
Salary Cap (As of Feb. 17): $18.61 million
Alan Faneca, G. Age: 31. Signed with Jets (5 years, $40 million)
Alan Faneca is going to be a rich man once March or April rolls around. Faneca is the top interior lineman on the market, and deserves the money that's coming to him.
Dan Kreider, FB. Age: 31. Signed with Rams
Dan Kreider's still an excellent blocking fullback, but he just doesn't fit into Pittsburgh's new offense. Look for Ken Whisenhunt to take him off the market.
Clark Haggans, DE/OLB. Age: 31. Signed with Cardinals (1 year)
It's unlikely Clark Haggans will be back with the Steelers next year, as LaMarr Woodley will take his spot. Haggans would be a great backup for any squad running the 3-4.
Max Starks, Steelers. Age: 26. Re-signed with Steelers (1 year, $6.85 million)
Max Starks played well down the stretch, taking Marvel Smith's spot in the lineup. However, he suffered a knee injury late December and will consequently be less appealing to other squads.
Travis Kirschke, DE. Age: 34. Re-signed with Steelers (2 years, $2.28 million)
A reliable reserve for the 3-4 defense, but past his prime.
Chris Kemoeatu (ERFA), Steelers. Age: 25. - Re-signed with Steelers
Nick Eason, DE. Age: 28. Re-signed with Steelers (2 years)
Nate Washington (RFA), WR. Age: 25. - Re-signed with Steelers (1 year, $1.417 million)
Clint Kriewaldt, ILB. Age: 32.
Allen Rossum, CB/KR. Age: 32. - Signed with 49ers (1 year)
Trai Essex (RFA), OT. Age: 25. - Re-signed with Steelers
Brian St. Pierre, QB. Age: 28. - Signed with Cardinals (1 year)
Andre Frazier (RFA), OLB. Age: 26. - Re-signed by Steelers (1 year)
Jerame Tuman, TE. Age: 32. - Signed with Cardinals (2 years)
Najeh Davenport, RB. Age: 29.
Marquis Cooper, OLB. Age: 26.
Cedrick Wilson, WR. Age: 29.
Jared Zabransky, QB. Age: 24.
Divisional Rival History: Baltimore Ravens: The host dominates this rivalry, winning 10 of the previous 11 matchups. Cincinnati Bengals: The road team has mysteriously claimed five of the past six meetings. Go figure. Cleveland Browns: Pittsburgh has won 15 of the last 16 battles. The Browns are pretty close to eclipsing them, however.