Predicting Starters at Every Position for Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012
Although the 2012 regular season is still months away, it's never too early to begin dreaming ahead and looking at who the key players will be once things get going. In Pittsburgh, consistency is the rule, but a few changes seem likely this year as the team undergoes a bit of a changing of the guard at certain spots.
Here's a very early look at who might be in the starting lineup once things settle for 2012.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger
This is obviously a no-brainer. Roethlisberger will be the team’s starter until he either retires or the team discards him. Neither situation is likely anytime soon as Roethlisberger is still in the early part of his prime. It will be interesting to see his performance in a new offensive system, but I think Todd Haley’s philosophy will be great for him and the young receivers.
Running Back: Isaac Redman
No, this isn’t an early-season thing. This is permanent in my mind. If the Steelers truly want to run the ball more and more effectively, they have two hurdles. First, they have to get a durable back. Redman is that. Second, they have to rebuild their offensive line. That’s a work in progress.
Redman can bulldoze through non-existent holes, so he makes more sense during this transition. I also think he’s a better all-around back than Mendenhall, who could find himself on the outside looking in either this year or after his contract expires.
Fullback: David Johnson
This gets a bit tricky because the team has to figure out how to handle the suspension to Weslye Saunders. If they cut him, Johnson could be in line for a move to second tight end. If they simply chalk this up to a one-time mishap, then Johnson probably stays at fullback/halfback.
Also, Todd Haley’s offensive scheme changes might play a role in what happens with the fullback position. If they shift to more of a running or balanced system, they might want to get a full-time, true fullback.
Third-Down Running Back: Baron Batch
This might be stretching it a bit, but I would put money on the team not bringing back Mewelde Moore. There are younger and more versatile options and not nearly enough spots for them. Batch is intriguing because he mixes great speed with receiving skills.
Not that the team needs another receiver, but you saw how Dexter McCluster played a role in Kansas City’s offense under Haley. That could be where Batch fits in now. He’s not McCluster, but he’s got the same basic skill set and could develop if he comes back healthy.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Wide Receiver No 1: Mike Wallace
This is another no brainer. Wallace is among the elite receivers in the league and is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. He’s in line for a contract extension (he’s a restricted free agent now) and he should be tagged if that fails. He’s a rising star and his rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is only growing.
Wide Receiver No 2: Antonio Brown
Brown broke out last year in the same way Wallace had done in 2010. He emerged from the pack to be the second-best receiver on the team and he has definitely surpassed Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders. Brown is great because he prevents teams from doubling Mike Wallace regularly.
Wide Receiver No 3: Emmanuel Sanders
This isn’t really a contest even if Hines Ward and/or Jerricho Cotchery return. Sanders is the younger and better weapon when healthy, something he hopes to be in 2012 after a spotty 2011. If Sanders is healthy, the Steelers can regularly employ three receiver sets with blazing speed and amazing hands at every spot. Another plus with Sanders is that he knows the offense for every receiver position. That’s invaluable.
Tight End: Heath Miller
This is obvious. Miller has seemingly become an afterthought in the more vertical passing offense of Bruce Arians, but he’s still one of the best safety valves in the league. I would expect his role to increase under Haley, who likes to use athletic tight ends on routes in the middle. The absence of a healthy tight end in Kansas City last season slowed his system. He should have no such issues here.
Left Tackle: Marcus Gilbert
This is where some of the changes will happen. I don’t foresee the team bringing back Max Starks unless he’s fully healthy and even then he may not fit the team’s plans. Gilbert emerged last season as a rookie and now could make the jump to the left side. If he does, Starks will be out of the picture.
Left Guard: Doug Legursky
If only he could stay healthy. Chris Kemoeatu is likely going to be cut. Legursky played well at guard when healthy last year and I see this as his job to lose unless the team makes a big free-agent addition. That’s unlikely given their cap situation. Legursky should be the starter, although there should be a draftee to push him.
Center: Maurkice Pouncey
The health issues are minimal really when you consider that he’s only missed a few games in two seasons. Hopefully he can stop himself from missing the big games (or any altogether). The reality is that, when healthy, he’s among the top centers in the league. He will only get better with time and consistency around him, something he didn’t have much of in 2011.
Right Guard: Ramon Foster
Foster performed well last season and, like Legursky, it will be his job to lose this season. He’s quietly developed into a solid lineman, but I also expect the team to spend a draft pick or two on the line, so he may have someone pushing him for time. That can be helpful, as it will make him raise his game.
Right Tackle: Mike Adams (Draft Choice)
I think the team will try to target Adams with their first draft pick (24th overall). They may move up a little if he’s the guy they’re looking for as well. I don’t foresee the team retaining Willie Colon even if he’s healthy. Even if they do, I can’t see them betting on him for a full season. Enter Adams, who fits the team’s blocking scheme and is good in the running game, where the team needs the most improvement.
Defensive End: Brett Keisel
The beard may be gone (and for a great cause), but the player isn’t. Keisel is now likely to be one of the old men of the defense, but he still seems to have plenty left in the tank. He plays tough and can take multiple blockers. He also rarely gets hurt badly enough to miss a lot of games, something the team needs to avoid.
Defensive End: Ziggy Hood
I like Hood, but I see a battle between him and Cameron Heyward this year in camp. It’s nothing personal, but both men are top draft picks that have played well in their spots. The team gave Heyward a lot of work last season, which tells me they are thinking about putting him in somewhere as a regular. He could move to tackle, but it's more likely he will challenge Hood, who’s coming off a nice, quiet year.
Defensive Tackle: Steve McLendon
This is tough. I don’t know if the team can or will retain Casey Hampton. He’s hurt and he’s slowing. If they can get him healthy and get his price down, he could be back in the middle. That’s a lot of question marks for a big guy on the wrong side of 30. McLendon wouldn’t be a permanent fix, but if the team focuses on the offensive line in the first round, they won’t likely have a starter ready from the draft this year. Another option is Heyward, but that’s not a lock either.
Outside Linebacker: James Harrison
One of the NFL’s most-feared players will be back again. Harrison is aging, but he got a late start and seems fresh. He missed a lot of 2011 with a broken bone near his eye, but that’s more fluke than fragility. I’d expect him to return to form in 2012 and anchor the defense.
Outside Linebacker: LaMarr Woodley
The hamstring injury that ruined what looked like a record-setting campaign should be healed by the time the team heads out for 2012. Woodley is a force and it seems that he’s getting even better. He stepped up big when Harrison was hurt. It would have been easy to struggle without a proven rusher opposite him, but it was quite the opposite. He should team up with Harrison in 2012 to terrorize quarterbacks.
Inside Linebacker: Stevenson Sylvester
Even if James Farrior sticks around at a lower price, I can’t see him starting the majority of games. He’s slowed and he’s losing a lot of his effectiveness against the run. That can’t happen for a team whose biggest calling card is keeping running backs dead in the backfield. Sylvester hasn’t proven anything, but he’s long on potential. I could see him blossoming with more time on the field.
Inside Linebacker: Lawrence Timmons
Timmons had a good season, but he struggled at times with Farrior not up to par next to him. It will be interesting if someone new starts at the other interior spot to see if Timmons can elevate his game. I think he can. He has all the talent you’d want.
Cornerback: Ike Taylor
Taylor did the team a favor by offering to redo his recently-signed deal. He also had possibly his best season ever in 2011 (at least until the Denver game). Taylor proved to be airtight against the league’s top receiving talent, something the Steelers needed. It will be interesting to see if teams adjust next year, but Taylor looks to be in line for another Pro Bowl-caliber season.
Cornerback: Keenan Lewis
Of the team’s two free-agent corners: Lewis and William Gay, I feel like Lewis is the better bet to return. He won’t cost as much (Gay might be looking to cash in on a nice season) and he’s a little younger. I also like his aggressiveness, although it needs to continue to be harnessed. If he comes back, he’ll have the inside track to the job, although I expect Cortez Allen to be in the mix.
Strong Safety: Troy Polamalu
The Pro Bowler is back again, but teams are starting to realize that his coverage skills contain a lot of mistakes and bad gambles. Dick LeBeau is going to have to sit down and figure out how to disguise it again or correct it permanently, although I’m not sure which option is more likely. Either way, he’s a fearsome playmaker.
Free Safety: Ryan Clark
Clark is one of the better players at his position, but he doesn’t get a lot of national recognition because of who he plays next to in the backfield. Still, he’s a star performer. Clark should be back once again, but the team would be wise to start grooming a successor for him and possibly Polamalu, both of whom hit hard and are getting up in years.
Kicker: Carson Wiggs (Draft Pick)
Shaun Suisham is no slouch, but his iffy leg strength and accuracy from beyond 40 yards make me wonder if they can do better in the draft. I also don’t see Suisham as a long-term answer, something the team needs with the unique conditions at Heinz Field. Wiggs possesses all of the qualities they covet.
Punter: Jeremy Kapinos
Kapinos showed enough the last two years to get the job permanently. The team cannot keep relying on Daniel Sepulveda to stay healthy, especially after back to back major injuries. Kapinos has the same (or better) leg strength and none of the red flags. This year, I think he sticks for good.