Steelers’ Roster Moves May be Complete, Despite Glaring Need At Tackle

It appears that after a frantic period of transactions, the Steelers’ 2011 training camp-roster is nearly set, although Pittsburgh could still bring in a veteran wide receiver due to injuries to three of their projected top six players at that spot, although none are considered serious at that point.

Barring major injury, the only other possible addition at this point would be adding a veteran offensive tackle. That would appear to be a prudent and much needed transaction since starting left tackle Jonathan Scott is a true warrior but a journeyman talent, evident in his only receiving a 2-year contract at the rate often given to a team’s sixth offensive lineman. Ideally, Scott would serve as the team’s No. 3 tackle.

Further, starting right tackle Willie Colon is coming off a ruptured Achilles, an injury that more than a third of NFL players never return from and the vast majority who do never play at as a high a level as they did before sustaining that injury. Although it was risky, I was pleasantly surprised that the Steelers’ inked Colon to a long-term deal, but his play remains a major question for the 2011 season.

However, signing another offensive lineman to complete for a starting tackle job would have likely already happened if it were in the Steelers’ plans, particularly after they locked up outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley on a long-term deal that freed up cap space for this fall.

Do Not Lose Perspective; Re-signing Ike Taylor Was the Key

By far Pittsburgh’s primary offseason need was to re-sign No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor. To the front office’s credit, they recognized and accomplished this mission very quickly despite having many difficulties in getting under a much lower NFL salary cap than expected (I did not think it was possible for the players to get a worse CBA than the last one, but they did). Taylor’s return was paramount to the Steelers’ remaining a strong Super Bowl contender again this fall.

Although the team is still very weak at the No. 2 and No. 3 cornerback spots, the Steelers should again have one of the NFL’s top five defenses, and probably the best overall if safety and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu can become and stay fully healthy.

Questionable Offensive Line Strategy

However, the actions and inactions of the Steelers’ brass on the offensive line during the free-agency period have been puzzling and mildly disappointing even with the re-signings of Colon and Scott. While it was shocking to read initially, the release of veteran left tackle Max Starks appears to have been the right move.

Starks was a serviceable but below-average starting NFL left tackle who gave up too much space in pass protection, was mediocre in the run game despite his mammoth size, and rarely finished plays. On top of that scouting report, he is now badly overweight, must return from neck surgery that makes him far more susceptible to a career-ending injury from one hit, and the team saved $5.45 on this year’s salary cap by releasing him.

The Steelers apparently did not ask Starks to take a pay cut which means they likely do not want him back. Moreover, no other NFL team has been reported to have contact with Starks since his release and based on his questionable work ethic it is doubtful that he will work his way back into shape on his own volition.

Although not much of a surprise, the Steelers’ release of veteran right tackle Flozell Adams was very disappointing and the wrong move in my opinion. Adams, was set to earn $5 million this season, a paltry figure for an above-average NFL starting right tackle. More important, absolutely none of that was guaranteed. In other words, if Adams was not going to start or his 36-year-old boy already started breaking down in the preseason, the Steelers could cut him and owe him nothing under the salary cap.

The Steelers did have to get under the cap and asked Adams to stay by taking a reduced salary, and without the promise of entering camp as a starter. But like last year, Adams is only going to play if he can start for a Super Bowl contender.

I can see the front office’s view that they have too many right tackles on their roster. But most offensive line coaches at all levels of football say their goal is to put their best five linemen on the field. There is no doubt that Adams would meet that criteria for the Steelers’ 2011 offensive line, which right now is actually more questionable on paper than last year’s unit which finished as the league’s worst offensive line per Pro Football Focus even though the Steelers advanced to the Super Bowl and got a tremendous patchwork job by first-year offensive line coach Sean Kugler after the team lost both of its starting tackles to season-ending injuries.

Superstar, second-year center Maurkice Pouncey is obviously the Steelers’ best offensive lineman. A healthy Colon would rank No. 2 on that list, assuming a full return to his pre-injury, 2009 form. But Adams would be a close third, well ahead of starting left guard Chris Kemoeatu and Scott, who would round out my top five offensive linemen regardless of position.

The signing of Adams before last year’s training camp literally saved the Steelers’ season. Despite transitioning to right tackle after starting the previous 11 seasons for the Cowboys at left tackle, Adams was mostly solid in pass protection and a dominant force in the run game, although his aging body appeared to break down more regularly as the season progressed.

Here is what the Steelers should have done: Entered camp with Adams getting reps at both RT and LT, and Colon at both RT and RG. The debate on whether Colon would be better at guard has been prevalent among fans since the Steelers drafted him out of Hofstra in 2006.

To me it is ridiculous to argue that a healthy Colon could not play well at guard, a position switch that many tackles easily make after they enter the NFL or during their professional careers. At 6-foot-3, 320 pounds, Colon is one of the shortest tackles in the NFL and built like a guard. His strengths are run-blocking and quick feet, and his weakness have always been handling speed rushers in pass protection. Sounds like a guard to me, even more so now that he returns from such a serious injury.

Colon was among the NFL’s best starting right tackles in 2009, but will probably never be more than an above-average tackle overall, since most teams put their best tackle on the left-side, where Colon will never play.

But he may have All-Pro potential a guard, something the Bears evidently believe since they made Colon a more lucrative offer than the 5-year, $29 million contract he signed to remain with the Steelers but with the caveat that Colon would play guard in Chicago.

Colon has always played tackle for the Steelers not because he could not play guard, but instead because he was most needed at tackle.

Imagine having an offensive line including RT Adams, RG Colon, C Pouncey and LG Kemoteau. That would easily be the Steelers’ best run-blocking offensive line since 2004, since all four players are excellent road-graders.

In contrast, both of the current players battling for the Steelers’ right guard spot, Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky, are serviceable reserves who do not have the athleticism or talent to ever be considered even average starting guards in the NFL.

However, if Colon struggled making the transition to right guard but was healthy, he would then simply start at right tackle. Many believe that Adams is now too old and slow to play left tackle, and that may well be a correct assumption. But Scott, who had by far the best season of his professional career in 2010 and still ranked 42nd in pass-blocking among NFL tackles per Pro Football Focus, is also too slow to play left tackle well.

Remember that many Dallas fans’ contended and the Cowboys’ brass incorrectly assumed that Adams was completely washed-up before last season. They were wrong. Adams was a five-time Pro Bowl selection at left tackle, including as recently as 2008. Essentially, 2009 was his only down year at left tackle in his career.

However, if Scott were the better option at left tackle, he would start. If Adams started at right tackle, he would also serve as the top reserve at left tackle. But if he could not start at right tackle over Colon then Adams would be forced to take a significant paycut to serve as the No. 3 tackle or more likely be released.

Unfortunately, the Steelers now have no other realistic starting options at tackle besides Scott and Colon, both of whom are major question marks. Any experimentation with Colon at guard would have needed to begin at the start of training camp.

Maybe the Steelers were expecting rookie, second-round pick Marcus Gilbert to serve as the No. 3 tackle. However, most scouts projected Gilbert as a right tackle prospect, who may need to begin his career at guard while he refines his skills in pass protection. Yes, he did play left tackle at Florida, but left tackle is where most college programs place their best lineman, like Tennessee did with Foster and current Steelers’ second-year player Chris Scott.

Gilbert is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury and has yet to partake in a practice snap with the Steelers due to the offseason lockout. In other words the Steelers’ only backup left tackle right now is Tony Hills, who few expected to make the 2011 roster and was absolutely horrific last year when he saw the first extensive action of his then-three-year career against the Titans.

Chris Scott is a right tackle/guard prospect who does not have the height or arm-length to ever be considered an NFL starting left tackle. However, he was excellent in pass protection for the Volunteers. Physically, he is very similar to the versatile Trai Essex in that he could play a lot of positions, has quick feet but is top-heavy and not very powerful. That said Scott would be a steal as a late fifth-round pick in 2010 if his career mirrors Essex.

Right now I would assume Chris Scott will join Legursky as the reserve offensive linemen on the Steelers’ game-day dress roster in Week 1 on the road against the Ravens and Terrell Suggs, who physically dominated Jonathan Scott in both of their matchups last season.

Starks could be added down the road if he got in shape, but that seems unlikely. Adams obviously could sign with another team right now, but no Super Bowl contender will promise him a starting job unless an injury occurs. Currently he is a phone call away and would likely be starting the next week if Colon went down, but Adams is unlikely to return to the Steelers as a reserve.

In addition to all these uncertainties on its offensive line, the Steelers are also currently plagued with minor injuries in that area that have temporarily sidelined youngsters like Gilbert, Foster, Chris Scott and Pouncey, among others.

Trai Essex to the Rescue?

Considering all of these concerns revolving around the offensive line and the Steelers’ complete lack of experienced depth at tackle, the most likely remaining free agent the Steelers could add to their roster before the start of the 2011 season would be Essex, who I thought for sure was likely gone after the 2010 season.

Essex was a horrible starting right guard, but he is a valuable, experienced and articulate swingman capable of playing four positions on immediate notice. When Jonathan Scott got dinged up for a play or struggled mightily last year at times, Essex came in off the bench and improved the situation at left tackle for the short-term.

I am actually somewhat surprised that he has not been signed by another team as a reserve lineman, but that is likely because some squads were scrambling to get under the cap and many are just now filling out their roster with lower-tier free agents like Essex.

Essex is not the solution to the Steelers’ offensive line problems by any respect. But considering they currently have two questionable starters at tackle and no reserves likely to make the 53-man roster who have played an NFL snap at tackle, Essex would be a welcome addition to this point, although I would be much more excited about signing Adams or even Starks.

On the plus side, remember that the Steelers had among the league’s worst offensive lines in 2005, 2008 and 2010, and still went to the Super Bowl each of those seasons. Further, Pouncey is the team’s best lineman since Alan Faneca left via free agency after the 2005 season, and a healthy Colon would give Pittsburgh a dominating force in the run game for several more seasons. That said, the offensive line is once again the biggest concern and seemingly a major weakness for the 2011 Steelers.

This entry was posted in 2011 steelers, Free Agency, Front Office, Offensive Line, Offseason, Wide Recievers. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Chris

    The Offensive Line is a mess.  Mistake letting Max go.  He could play LT, RT, and was very much respected by his teammates, fans, and management. 

  • Canadian Steeler

    Does anyone know if we could’ve kept Flozell and been under the cap? I’d certainly take him back at a reduced rate, but you’d have to think that we’d (at best) be right up against the cap with him. He’s purely a RT at this point, since normally 34 year olds who have ‘down years’ don’t return to pro-bowl form. 

    I think we’re just looking at a weak offensive line again this year, and I can deal with that because we’ve got an all-world quarterback. We’re going to have weaknesses, it’s a matter of whether we can win with those weaknesses. We’ve shown that we can.

    • ted

      CS, a primary reason that Flozell was cut was to help us get under the cap. He reportedly refused to accept a paycut to stay after we resigned Colon, although I doubt the front office would have had the brass to cut Flozell had we not been able to resign both Colon and Scott.

      Cutting Flozell and Max were easy ways to help get us under the cap, along with the other restructures. However, if we had been able to get the Woodley done a day or two earlier the reduction in his salary-cap hit for 2010 essentially equates to Flozell’s salary. Moreover, I am still baffled that we did not ask Aaron Smith to restructure and extend his deal to take a paycut for 2011 but likely keep him a Steeler through 2012, which is his stated goal.

      Every Steeler fan loves Aaron Smith, and he is arguably the best pure 3-4 defensive end of all time. But the guy has missed the majority of or a large portion of 3 of the last 4 seasons with year-ending injuries. Now, he is one of four quality 3-4 ends, and should not play more than 50% of the plays, which will hopefully give his 35-year-old body a better chance of staying healthy. But a part-time, injury-prone player at a position of strength and great depth is not worth $6.5 million in a $120 million salary cap season. Moreover, he is an UFA after this year. They could have restructed to give him $7.5 over 2 years and I bet he would have taken it. This is a team player who loves the organization and has made lots of cash.

      Such a reduction could have easily dropped his cap hit by $3.5-4 million in 2010. We also could have saved another million-plus by not resigning Sepulveda or M. Moore to veteran minimum’s contracts and gone with cheaper roster players in Dwyer and Batch at No. 3 and No.4 RB, and at punter with Kapinos, who will likely end up on the roster before the year is over because Robo punter is always hurt.

      In other words, cutting Flozell definitely helped get us under the cap, but it was not the only way of doing so. Plus, my guess i he would have taken a reasonable cut (1-2 million) if he was told that we would try Colon at guard and him at right tackle. And if he doesn’t win the starting job, you cut him and then use that money to boost the first year of an extension on Timmons or Polamalu so we are not so much in cap hell down the road.

      Aaron Smith is a better football player than Flozell. But on this team right now with our o-line and concerns at tackle, I would prefer Flozell if I had to chose between the two, but we probably could have had both just by asking Smith to restructure and extend.

      • Canadian Steeler

        I do see your argument for Aaron Smith. It does seem strange to me that they (seemingly) haven’t approached him about restructuring/extending, considering they went to many other (more important, IMO) players first. The only speculative reason which I can see, is that they’re hoping he retires this year, considering he would likely be a multi-million dollar cap hit next year, and that all of Timmons, Polamalu and Wallace are due. Even though Wallace is a RFA, you’d have to imagine they’d want to re-sign him long-term. 

        I’d love to see Flozell Adams as the right tackle, but until I see that he’s willing to sign for less than the 5M he was due, I can’t really believe it was a possiblity. Ben’s excellent at feeling pressure from edge rushers, though as JJ pointed out in last year’s podcast, pressure up the middle that collapses the pocket kills any quarterback. Although Kemo can be a liability in pass pro against high effort, stout guys (the Kyle Williams of the world), an interior line that included Pouncey and Colon would go a long way in giving Ben time in the pocket. Considering we got to the Super Bowl with Scott playing 10 games, I’m not as worried about him. If they deem Starks do be healthy/fit enough to play LT at some point, you’d have to imagine him being signed on the cheap, since he is attracting about as much interest as I would were I to strap on pads and declare myself eligible tomorrow. Until then, I do trust the organization, as much of a cop-out as that is.

      • Anonymous

        I see what you’re getting at with the salary issue. But Dwyer has been disappointing from a physical standpoint, hit-or-miss when running, and by most accounts poor at blocking. Batch was a completely untested rookie. Going with them would have been quite a gamble. And can’t they still cut Moore during preseason?

        Sepulveda is an injury risk. But last year Kapinos was pretty awful. I can understand that signing as well.

  • Cols714

    “…has been prevalent among fans since the Steelers drafted him out of Hofstra in 2006.”

    I fail to see how this is an argument for anything at all. Also prevalent among Steelers fans (at least message boarders) since 2006:
    1. Jason Capini or whatever his name was going to be a starting LT by now.
    2. Matt Kranchik was going to be Antonio Gates.
    3. Any and every tall receiver that came out of college was going to be the next Plaxico.
    4. Frank Summers was going to be Jerome Bettis.
    5. AQ Shipley was going to be a pro bowler because he played at Penn State.
    And on and on.

    I feel like the Colon to guard thing has been going on forever in the minds of Steelers’ fans. However, he’s taken pretty much zero snaps at the guard position over the years. Let it go already.

    I do think they should’ve kept one of Starks or Adams around for backup purposes. I was really surprised when they cut Starks. I thought he always played rather well. Scott did a good job in the playoffs. They must have faith that he’s turned the corner and that Gilbert is that good.

    • ted

      Those are excellent examples to support a good counter that had me chuckling. While I remember laughing at the first four comparisons, I have to admit that I loved the AQ Shipley pick and thought he had a chance to be our long-term answer at center. But there is a reason why he lasted until the 7th round, and it’s because 5-foot-10 guys do not start on NFL offensive lines today. Then again, as a Steeler fan in this era you have to hope for longshots to emerge on the offensive line, because Colbert so rarely expends premium picks on linemen. In fact, the drafting of Marcus Gilbert in the second round in April was the first time he used a top-2-round pick on an OT since drafting Marvel Smith in the second round in 2000, thus breaking the NFL’s longest drought of drafting premium OTs in the process. Smith is the only Steeler OT to make the Pro Bowl this century and Colbert has never taken a first-round tackle.

      I should have just pointed out that the Bears’ offered a player coming off a ruptured Achilles more than $6 million per year on a 5-year deal to play a position where you correctly note that he has never played in an NFL game. That offer shows that the Colon-to-guard argument is not just limited to Steeler fanatics like those above but rather may be indicative of what most other franchises see in Colon.

      Remember that he was rated as a guard prospect by every scouting and draft service coming out of Hofrstra. Moreover, how many other NFL starting tackles in 2011 are 6-foot-3 or under? Although depth charts are still being sorted, I can’t think of any off the top of my head and would be shocked if there are more than 2-3. That’s because most teams would automatically put a guy of that size at guard in this era, particularly if they are great run blockers like Colon.

      Assuming Colon could make the transition to guard effectively (and I see no reason why he could not), this comes down to whether you would prefer having Ramon Foster start at RG or Flozell Adams at RT. To me that is a no-brainer. But hey I did not assemble an offensive line that ranked 32nd out of 32 teams last year per PFF. Moreover – and I know you will love this – I have to point out that the Steelers would not be in this predicatment if Colbert did not historiclaly ignore the offensive line to take luxury picks in premium rounds of guys who do not project to start for a long time – if at all.

      On that note, we should have taken Jared Veldheer over Jason Worilds in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. Assuming Harrison’s back holds up and Woodley stays healthy, Worilds will never be a regular starter for the Steelers before becoming an UFA, making that a ridiculous second-round pick considering the team’s needs on the o-line and CB, as well as the deep depth of quality OLBs prospects in that draft. Moreover, and JJ can vouch for this, I called for taking Marshal Yanda over Matt Spaeth in the third round of 2007 draft, because we had a horrific future situation on the offensive line, while we already had Heath Miller and Tuman at TE.

      • Cols714

        Still with the Worilds pick? I think you are just trying to make me reply.

  • Hutch

    While I’ve got no problem with experimenting with the OL – any combination they try in the preseason may well happen during the regular season via injury – I tend to think Colon best serves the Steelers at RT, even with a healthy Adams. While Adams is still a useful run blocker at the point, he rarely makes the effort to get to the second level and is, in my estimation at least, a bit of a liability in pass pro. Adams was also not only subbed out for significant portions of games late in the season, but also early on in TN and Tampa as well. I’m not saying that Adams is done in the league – although that clock is surely nearing midnight – but I think the Steelers are right to basically view him as a part time or situational player at this point. 

    Maybe that view changes as the preseason progresses, but I’d bet that neither Starks nor Adams plays a snap for the Steelers unless there’s a significant injury to either Colon or J. Scott. 

    I also disagree a bit with your characterization of Colon. I think he’s actually a substantially better pass blocker than run blocker. This is not to say his run blocking is bad – it’s pretty good – but that he is a criminally underrated pass blocking RT for a QB that doesn’t make life easy on his tackles. You cite (in your fine other post on the OL) ProFootballFocus’ ranking of Scott as the 42 ranked OT in pass pro – a rating that’s probably deserved. However, keep in mind that Colon is their top ranked OT in pressure given up per snap over the last three seasons, above much more vaunted players like Jake Long or Joe Thomas. 

    Admittedly Colon is coming back from an achilles injury and it’s still a question as to whether or not he’ll maintain his ability to protect the edge. If he’s healthy though, he can be a good starter there.

    In other words, can Colon play guard? Sure. He could be a really good guard in the NFL. But I think what makes Colon a desirable player is actually his pass blocking. And generally speaking it seems that the Steelers would be best served to set him on the edge.

    Of course, if someone better comes along I’m happy to see him moved inside. I just don’t think that guy is Adams.

    • ted

      Excellent post and I agree with much of what you wrote. Colon was arguably the best all-around RT in football in 2009. However, over his first two years as a starter, his biggest problems were handling speed rushers (even though you rarely see top-flight rushers at RT) and untimely penalties. But by 2009 he had evolved into an excellent pass protector, and I would definitely agree that he was better in pass protection that season than Adams was at RT in 2010.

      Assuming Colon is fully healthy, playing again a a high level, and could make the transition from RT to RG without any major hickups, the question then is would you rather have Flozell Adams starting at RT or Ramon Foster at RG? To me that part is a no-brainer, but it is contingent upon the three assumptions. And please remember that our RGs pull far less than LGs, and that he already knows what to do since he has been playing next to right guard over his entire career. It would be so nice, though, to have one side of an offensive line as a strength like we had with Smith and Faneca, which is something Adams and Colon theoretically could have provided together.

      I like Jon Scott. He is a fighter. That said he is still probably a slight below average run blocker and poor pass blocker compared to the average of NFL starters at left tackle. Kemo is an above-average run blocker and poor pass blocker compared to NFL starters at left guard. I know he gave up some sacks last year, but Pouncey is clearly above average in both areas, but Ramone Foster is below average in both facets compared to NFL starters at right guard. When healthy, Colon is above average in both categories compared to other RTs.

      Overall, that means there are major weaknesses on both sides of the line. Tell me what teams do you think would trade their starting LT for J. Scott right now or their starting RG for Foster? I am not sure if anyone could name one for either player, especially Foster. If you have two players starting on your line who could not start for just about any other team in the league at the same spots, you have a major problem on your line. And as JJ pointed out, unlike last year, our depth is now suspect as well to go along with the uncertainity of how well Colon returns from injury. It’s not like he can rely on his length in pass pro if he has lost any quickness.