Report Card Grades for Every Positional Unit on Pittsburgh Steelers' Roster
It's the time of year for Pittsburgh Steelers fans to work on their tan, and their predictions for the upcoming season.
The first step in that process is to grade every positional unit on the Steelers' roster.
The last time we saw the Steelers in any meaningful situation, they were making Tim Tebow look like John Elway.
Those still seething from that calamity might be tempted to hand out a bunch of big, fat "F"s.
Sure, the Steelers had some hidden flaws that were exposed on that mile-high stage, but now we can be a little more rational with our grading because of the calming influence of these long, lazy summer days. Right?
The Steelers' haul in the 2012 NFL draft might give some of these grades a boost, but none of those guys can make a mediocre unit a great one until they actually start playing.
We should know a little more in training camp, which is right around the corner.
Ben Roethlisberger is at least the second-best quarterback in Steelers' history.
There might have been nine quarterbacks with better passer ratings in 2011, but among them only Tom Brady has more Super Bowl rings. Another one, Eli Manning, is tied with Roethlisberger with two rings.
Also recording better passer ratings than Roethlisberger in 2011, according to NFL.com, were Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Tony Romo. Would you rather have them?
Didn't think so.
The problem is Roethlisberger, now 30, needs better and younger backups.
Charlie Batch is 37. Sure, he helped the Steelers go 3-1 in Roethlisberger's absence at the start of the 2010 season, but when he was pressed into duty against Cleveland last December, he looked every bit his age.
Byron Leftwich missed all of last season with a broken left arm after playing in just one game in 2010 with the Steelers and three games in 2009 with the Buccaneers.
The Steelers cut Troy Smith Monday. Smith was just another Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback whose game didn't translate to the NFL.
That leaves Jarrod Johnson as the only one who can bring new blood to the Steelers' backup quarterback situation.
At 6'5", 251 pounds, the former Texas A&M signal caller has the look of a prototypical NFL quarterback. The 23-year-old is trying to restore his throwing motion after it was altered by shoulder surgery in college, according to his blog from Steelers minicamp in the Bryan-College Station Eagle.
However, he's got some work to do to make the Steelers' 53-man roster.
Isaac Redman has earned the starting running back job in Rashard Mendenhall's absence.
He averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season and didn't make anyone miss Mendenhall in the wild-card game in Denver, rushing for 121 yards on 17 carries.
However, Redman hasn't been tested as a starter for a full season.
Chris Rainey adds speed and versatility to the Steelers' backfield. His ability to run, catch passes and return kicks makes him perhaps the most hyped fifth-round draft pick in Steelers' history. Right now, though, it's just hype.
The Steelers are eagerly awaiting Baron Batch's debut after the 2011 seventh-round pick tore his ACL in training camp last season.
Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay showed flashes last season, and David Johnson can concentrate on blocking now that he's moved from tight end to fullback.
While there's a lot of optimism here, every Steelers running back has something to prove.
Since this isn't an article about Mike Wallace's contract situation, let's assume he'll be in a Steelers uniform by the time they go to Denver for the season opener Sept. 9.
While he might have benefited from the double-teams on Wallace, Antonio Brown emerged as a legitimate receiver last season with 69 catches, just three shy of Wallace's total.
Emmanuel Sanders, who was more productive than Brown when both were rookies in 2010, has had a hard time staying healthy. He caught just 22 balls last season while missing five games because of injuries. He did, however, raise his stock with six receptions for 81 yards in the playoff game at Denver.
Wallace, Brown and Sanders form the Steelers' celebrated Young Money Trio. However, they've yet to all play to their full potential at the same time. If that happens this season, enjoy it, because free agency might break up the trio.
Jerricho Cotchery made 15 of his 16 catches last year in the second half of the season. It will be interesting to see what he can do with Hines Ward out of his way on the depth chart. After he helped the Jets nearly overcome a 24-0 deficit against the Steelers in the 2010 AFC Championship Game, it's nice for the Steelers to have him on their side.
Seventh-round draft pick Toney Clemons, if he makes the team, likely would be the Steelers' biggest receiver (6'2", 210 pounds). It seems from NFL.com's assessment that Clemons would bring the same skill set as Ward, particularly an ability to catch balls over the middle and block.
Former Alabama receiver Marquis Maze highlights the Steelers' class of undrafted free agents. He caught 56 passes in 13 games as a senior at Alabama. He could earn a roster spot as a kick returner.
This is a unit featuring elite players and some depth.
Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have to completely abandon his swashbuckling approach to the quarterback position, but it wouldn't hurt if he was a little more efficient. More quick passes to Miller is one way to achieve that.
Miller caught 51 passes last season. The only other time he caught more than 50 passes in a season was 2009, when he caught 76 passes and made his only Pro Bowl. If he is called upon to be a central part of the Steelers' offense, he's up to the task.
Leonard Pope is the centerpiece of the Steelers' free agent signings this offseason. You can't teach someone to be 6'8". That could come in handy if Roethlisberger is looking for someone to throw to in the back of the end zone.
Pope's biggest contribution might be his experience working with Haley. Pope insists he's learning Haley's playbook like the rest of his new teammates, according to the Associated Press via WTAE.
If that's true, then why is it that Haley and Pope might as well be teaming up to perform Sondheim's "Together (Wherever We Go)?"
When Haley left his post as Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator to become the Kansas City Chiefs head coach in 2009, Pope went with him. Now, Pope's following him again.
Pope caught a career-high 24 passes last season. The Steelers won't need much more than that from him if he can aid the offense's transition to Haley.
Anything the Steelers get from seventh-round draft pick David Paulson would be a bonus.
Not that this is a bad grade, but when Haley's words are put into action, it will improve.
This position will get a better grade if and when a certain ex-Buckeye puts on pads and lives up to his billing.
The only Steelers' offensive tackle with a halfway decent NFL season under his belt is second-year man Marcus Gilbert. He started 13 games at right tackle last season.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked Gilbert 13th among the NFL's right tackles in 2011, and the Steelers liked him enough to slot him for left tackle in 2012.
Then they drafted Mike Adams in the second round.
There doesn't seem to be a clear front-runner in the competition at left tackle, a job that comes with the responsibility of protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side.
Either way, Gilbert and Adams are likely to be the bookends of the Steelers' offensive line in 2012.
If there's an injury or if Adams is slow to develop, there's not a lot behind them.
Willie Colon, who's only played one game over the past two seasons because of injuries, is moving from tackle to guard, but still could be used at tackle in a pinch.
Trai Essex also can play both guard and tackle, but he's nothing special.
Even less special are Jonathan Scott and Chris Scott. They'll be fighting to keep their jobs in training camp.
David DeCastro can't be anointed a star just yet, but a lot is expected of the Steelers' first-round draft pick. He's earmarked as the starting right guard.
Willie Colon is slated to be the starting left guard, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That seems to be asking a lot, considering he's never played the position and he's only played one game the last two seasons because of health issues.
However, teammate Maurkice Pouncey expressed a vote of confidence in Colon on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh via Sports Radio Interviews.
Trai Essex has the versatility to fill in anywhere on the offensive line. Doug Legursky can spell anyone at guard or center. If the Steelers are really trying to overhaul their offensive line, however, there's going to be less playing time for them.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the Steelers' offseason has been the performance of seventh-round draft pick Kelvin Beachum, who was drafted as a tackle but has moved to guard.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he's been impressed with Beachum. He's someone to keep an eye on.
Ramon Foster figures to be losing his starting job at right guard with the arrival of DeCastro. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked him a mediocre 18th among the NFL's starting right guards in 2011.
As a rookie, DeCastro is unproven until he throws his first pancake block in Denver. If he lives up to the scouting reports, he'll instantly make this unit better. There are some questions behind him, however.
Maurkice Pouncey has been invited to two Pro Bowls in his two years in the NFL.
Pouncey is a key element in the Steelers' effort to transform the offensive line from the rag-tag unit it's been for the last half-decade.
He just needs to be healthier when the Steelers need him the most.
Pouncey missed three quarters of the 2010 AFC Championship Game and all of Super Bowl XLV with an ankle sprain. In 2011, he missed two regular-season games and the playoff loss in Denver with a high-ankle sprain.
It's tempting to wonder how the Steelers would have done in those postseason games with Pouncey.
Pouncey figures to have plenty more chances to contribute in the playoffs, however. He doesn't turn 23 until the day before training camp starts.
Doug Legursky is the primary backup at center. While he should be commended for the flexibility he's shown, he's no Pouncey.
As with the other positions on the Steelers' offensive line, Trai Essex can spell Pouncey in a pinch.
Here, the Steelers have yet another rookie who's generating a lot of excitement but hasn't played a down in the NFL, a five-time Pro Bowler who will be 35 and is coming off ACL surgery and a serviceable backup who's not the long-term answer
The rookie is Alameda Ta'amu, a 6'3", 348-pounder drafted in the fourth round.
The former Pro Bowler is Casey Hampton, who according to The Sporting News is likely to start the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
The backup is Steve McLendon, who has appeared in 21 games over the past two seasons.
If the battle to start Sept. 9 in Denver comes down to Ta'amu and McLendon, Ta'amu has nearly 70 pounds on the 280-pound McLendon, but McLendon has the obvious edge in experience.
This is a talented but unsettled positional unit.
There are times when Brett Keisel is the Steelers' best defensive player on the field.
The 11-year veteran earned Pro Bowl honors in 2010 with seven passes defensed, according to Pro Football Reference, and his only career interception. He returned the pickoff 79 yards for a touchdown.
Keisel followed that up last season with six passes defensed, two forced fumbles and 33 tackles.
He'll turn 34 next season, but Keisel shows no signs of slowing down and should retain a starting job at defensive end.
Fourth-year man Ziggy Hood started 14 games at defensive end last season and was adequate, making 31 tackles.
If his offseason conditioning program is any indication, Hood wants to be more than just adequate. He's lost 18 pounds of fat and gained 20 pounds of muscle, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and his workouts have made him a YouTube star.
It remains to be seen how this all translates to the football field.
Cameron Heyward, the Steelers' first-round draft pick in 2011, will have the benefit of his first full offseason of work. He can't be counted out in the competition to start opposite Keisel.
Lawrence Timmons was in on 135 tackles, defended nine passes, had three sacks and made two interceptions in 2010.
He declined a little statistically last season, partly because he was shifted to outside linebacker for much of the season because of injuries to James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
Timmons is 26 and should be heading into the prime of his career.
The other inside linebacker spot is in flux because of James Farrior's departure.
Larry Foote, 32, appears to have the inside track as the starter, according to the Pittsburgh Post -Gazette. He would take over Farrior's role calling the defensive signals.
The Steelers eventually will need new blood there.
Stevenson Sylvester, a fifth-round draft pick in 2010, has been strong on special teams and would be next in line behind Foote. However, 2012 third-round pick Sean Spence looks promising in his Miami game tape. It wouldn't be surprising if he hurdles Sylvester on the depth chart.
We'll know more when Spence starts wearing pads.
Injuries limited this unit's effectiveness last season.
After nine sacks in the first eight games, LaMarr Woodley missed six games with a hamstring injury. Even though he came back, he never really recovered and went without a sack in three games, including the playoff loss in Denver.
James Harrison missed four games in 2011 with a fractured eye socket and also was suspended for a game. He had nine sacks, six of them coming in two games.
Harrison is 34 and like many thirtysomething members of the Steelers defense, could be due for a decline at any time.
Next in line is Jason Worilds. He had three sacks in seven starts last season. While he has contributed, he has to show a little bit more as he enters his third season, especially if he's needed to start.
Chris Carter is among the second-year players who hopefully will make a big jump after a full offseason of workouts. A fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft, Carter showed potential as a rookie. He hinted that he can rise to the occasion by having his best game against the Patriots.
There's elite talent here and promising depth, but too many absences last season. That's reflected on the report card.
It makes little sense to get excited about anything that happens in May, but it sure is tempting to think that Troy Polamalu is poised for a killer season based on his unexpected appearance at organized team activities.
Polamalu usually trains on his own during the offseason, but showed up at OTAs to help fill the leadership void caused by the exits of veterans like James Farrior and Aaron Smith, according to CBSSports.com.
The Steelers' Hall of Fame-bound strong safety made two interceptions last season, his lowest total since he had none in 2007. However, he played in all 16 games for the first time since 2008.
He's 31 and undoubtedly closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he remains capable of rewriting history with a single play. We've seen how one strip sack or pick-six can make the Steelers' road to the Super Bowl a lot easier.
Free safety Ryan Clark can be frustrating at times. He seems to keep both teams in the game with those 15-yard penalties.
Clark led the Steelers last season with 100 tackles, according to NFL.com. Part of that was because the Steelers lagged a little, by their standards, in stopping the run.
However, Clark was missed in Denver. The Steelers will need to better compensate for his absence on Sept. 9. Life without Clark is something the Steelers need to consider anyway, because he'll be 33 in October and soon will need a successor.
Ryan Mundy has been a capable fill-in at safety, but he's not a long-term solution as a starter.
This is a position the Steelers should have addressed in the draft, considering the age of the starters. Undrafted free agent Robert Golden of Arizona at least deserves a look because of his experience against the top level of college competition.
Myron Rolle showed in college that he has talent, and it would be an interesting story if he makes the team and contributes. However, I can't help but wonder about the desire of someone who has so many options outside of football. The Rhodes Scholar spent a year and a half away from football studying at Oxford, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
This is a strong, game-changing unit. But age is creeping in and younger talent needs to emerge.
Ike Taylor told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he remembers his awful performance in the playoff loss to Denver "every day."
He's not the only one still thinking about it.
Taylor can't be blamed entirely for the loss. It would have helped if the Steelers had any kind of a pass rush. Tim Tebow was barely touched.
That said, the scars from his epic fail in Denver, combined with the fact that he's 32, warrant a careful look at Taylor for any signs of a decline.
For now, Taylor remains an elite NFL cornerback. He just doesn't get the recognition or Pro Bowl accolades because he's never had more than three interceptions in a season. He can't catch the ball, he just stops opposing receivers from catching it.
The competition to start opposite Taylor will be the main event of Steelers' position battles at training camp.
Keenan Lewis, entering his fourth year in the league, has a leg up on 2011 draft picks Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen. He had a game-clinching interception in Kansas City last season and broke up six passes in 2011.
Lewis doesn't have the job locked down, though. Allen, a fourth-round pick, did well enough in the Steelers' nickel packages to make William Gay expendable. Brown, a third-rounder, turned heads on special teams with 14 tackles and a forced fumble.
Terrence Frederick, drafted in the seventh round in April, faces an uphill battle to make the team.
The Steelers need an upgrade here.
Shaun Suisham made 23 of his 31 field-goal attempts in 2011. His 74 percent success rate was the lowest of any NFL kicker with at least 20 attempts. He was a lackluster 7-of-13 from beyond 40 yards.
To push Suisham, the Steelers brought in Danny Hrapmann, a rookie from Southern Mississippi. He's worse than Suisham both from long distance (7-of-16 from beyond 40 yards in 2011, according to ESPN.com) and overall. He made just 23 of his 34 field-goal attempts in 2011.
This might be the one area where the Steelers currently don't have anyone who can get the job done.
Unlike the last two seasons, Jeremy Kapinos won't have to answer the Bat Phone and rescue the Steelers when Daniel Sepulveda gets hurt.
Kapinos is now the incumbent because the Steelers aren't bringing back Sepulveda in 2012.
In eight games, Kapinos averaged 45 yards per punt in 2011 with a 38.3 net average. Sepulveda's averages in eight games were 46.1 and 39.1, but he only played two full seasons in the five years he was with the Steelers.
Kapinos' reward for answering the Steelers' call the last two seasons will be stiff competition from undrafted rookie free agent Drew Butler.
The Georgia product won the Ray Guy Award in his sophomore season as the nation's top punter, averaging 48.1 yards per punt. Butler had at least one punt of 50 yards or more in 29 of his 42 games at Georgia, according to the New York Post.
Emmanuel Sanders has been assigned the Steelers' main kickoff and punt return duties in 2012, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Antonio Brown has graduated from that role with his performance at receiver.
Sanders returned punts and kickoffs on a part-time basis in 2010 and 2011 but didn't stand out.
Undrafted free agent Marquis Maze might have something to say about who returns kicks. That might be his only way to make the team. Fifth-round draft choice Chris Rainey also might get a shot.