Like his Pittsburgh Steelers predecessor, Willie Parker, the rise and fall of running back Rashard Mendenhall was almost too fast to recount.
After being drafted in the first round out of Illinois in 2008, Mendenhall quickly impressed the Steelers enough to earn a starting role in 2009 and helped carry the running game over the course of his middle three seasons in town.
Now set to hit the free-agent market, Mendenhall will likely end his Pittsburgh career with over 3,500 yards rushing and a Super Bowl appearance in the team's loss to Green Bay just three years ago.
While Mendenhall certainly exceeded expectations as a lead-dog back during the time he started 43 games from 2009 to 2011, he dealt with injuries and a suspension in 2012, as well as the threat of other backs (Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer) taking his starting job away for good.
Mendenhall played in just six games last year, averaging 3.6 yards per carry and failing to find the end zone.
All those factors led to Pittsburgh being perfectly fine with their former star running back hitting the free-agent market. But, as things often go in free agency, a poor end to one's career in one city doesn't mean the free-agent market won't be churning for a guy who, when healthy, can put up 1,000 yards and be a goal-line threat to get in the end zone.
That being said, here's the latest on the teams interested in Mendenhall's services and what each side would offer in a potential free-agent marriage.
Denver suffered the loss of Willis McGahee to a leg injury last season, and at age 31, who knows what kind of impact (if any) he will have to the lineup next season.
That leaves Denver with Knowshon Moreno and Lance Ball, both guys that chipped in admirably over the final few games but haven't asserted themselves as true red-zone threats to get the ball into the end zone. Moreno has been disappointing after being selected in the first round, and Ball is a change-of-pace guy at best.
Mendenhall is a 225-pound tailback who has fewer NFL carries in five seasons (864) than draft prospect Montee Ball had in four seasons at Wisconsin (924).
It's unclear if there is mutual interest, but joining a team that went 13-3 and missed the AFC Championship Game because of an error in the secondary has to interest Mendenhall, who has experienced mostly winning seasons in Pittsburgh himself.
As free agency develops, more rumors continue to emerge that place Mendenhall in Arizona next season.
Mike Jurecki of XTRA 910 in Phoenix reported on Twitter that the Cardinals have some serious interest in solving their oft-injured RB woes by bringing him into the fold during the free-agency period:
Mike Jurecki @mikejurecki
Hearing RB Rashard Mendenhall would be prefect fit for Cards offense, carry the load, gd in pass protect & excellent on the goal line, tough3/12/2013, 2:26:38 PM
After watching Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams and Larod Stephens-Howling all wind up injured last season, it's somewhat troubling that Arizona is looking to add another RB that has suffered significant injuries over the past 12 months.
However, the RB market is stretched thin with talent this year, headlined by the fact that Steven Jackson is looking to sign with a contender and Reggie Bush is more of a novelty back than a No. 1 option.
With that in mind, and the fact that the team cut Wells and Fozzy Whittaker on Monday (via ESPN), don't be surprised if Arizona makes an aggressive push to add Mendenhall with the promise of a big salary and a starting job.
Miami seems to be in on everyone this offseason.
After stating their case in regard to Mike Wallace, the Dolphins are apparently interested in tight end Jared Cook, too, and have already made good on a contract extension with wideout Brian Hartline.
It's clear that Miami is upgrading the team through offense first, and Mendenhall could help fill the gap left by allowing Bush to depart via free agency.
Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com is hearing that the 'Fins are in on the 25-year-old back:
Daniel Jeremiah @MoveTheSticks
Hearing a lot of buzz about Dolphins interest in R. Mendenhall.. Makes sense if they allow R. Bush to leave.3/10/2013, 12:57:22 AM
Dolphins insider Neal Driscoll is also reporting that Miami is interested in his services:
Neal Driscoll @NealDriscoll
The #Dolphins are "interested" in WR Mike Wallace, TE Jared Cook, and RB Rashard Mendenhall. Who do they get? Time will tell...3/12/2013, 12:43:14 PM
With Daniel Thomas already around, is Mendenhall the best fit in Miami? Maybe not, but he's a clear No. 1 back who has experience with a team that loves to run the football. Don't count Miami out on his services because it is really vamping up its free-agent pursuit this offseason, but right now consider the first two options as more likely.
While nothing has been reported on this front, don't be surprised to see the Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Rams, Atlanta Falcons and/or the Green Bay Packers jump in on Mendenhall this week.
Dallas is looking for help behind DeMarco Murray and passed on Mendenhall for Felix Jones in the 2008 draft, so it wouldn't be shocking if Jerry Jones wanted to right that wrong and find a new No. 2 back. However, the Cowboys have cap issues and plenty of other holes (DT, S) to fill, so it's unlikely the kind of money Mendenhall will demand will keep Dallas in the mix for long.
As for St. Louis, we know that Steven Jackson is leaving because he wants to be a No. 1 guy. Is that what Mendenhall wants? All signs point to yes, but St. Louis is on the up-and-up with a young offense, pace back Daryl Richardson and a strong defense.
Mendenhall might not carry the ball 25-plus times per game in St. Louis, but he would be an exciting piece to an evolving offense.
As for the Packers and Falcons, both are looking to add running back help. Michael Turner is gone in Atlanta and Cedric Benson probably isn't coming back to Green Bay, making one of these two teams the likely suitor for Jackson and the other left to pick up the best available RB on the market.
That would be Mendenhall.
Nothing is settled as we prepare for the start of free agency, but expect a lot of interest for one of the highest-valued RBs in the 2008 draft class. He shined once before, and is eager to do so again in a new city.
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