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.