Rashard Mendenhall didn’t end his time in Pittsburgh as he probably would have hoped. An ACL tear in the final game of the 2011-12 season and a disappointing return last season won’t keep him from rejuvenating his career in a new city, though.
As ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Tuesday, the former Illinois standout has scheduled visits with two potential suitors:
Steelers free-agent RB Rashard Mendenhall is scheduling visits with the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 12, 2013
Prior the knee injury that sidelined him for much of the 2012-13 season, Mendenhall was a productive back in Pittsburgh. He compiled consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 2009 and 2010 and tallied 29 touchdowns in his time as the Steelers’ starter. But an inability to hold onto the football was often a glaring concern.
With a ball-carrying style far from the high-and-tight technique taught at every level of the game, Mendenhall is prone to losing the football. Despite his production between 2009 and 2011, his reliability came into question far too often as a result of six fumbles in that span.
In six games last season, the 25-year-old put the ball on the turf three times in six games. Combined with a suspension for “conduct detrimental to the team,” Mendenhall finished last season on the bench, with his future almost certain to be in a new city.
With Jonathan Dwyer signing his sixth-round tender to remain with the Steelers in 2013 (per Adam Schefter), Mendenhall became an expendable piece. He now has a chance to prove himself a starting-caliber running back with a new team.
An upset of today: Steelers RB Jonathan Dwyer signed his sixth-round tender for $1.323 million. Didn't want to wait. Wanted to prove point.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 12, 2013
If winning is at the top of Mendenhall’s priority list, he won’t find a better option in free agency than the Denver Broncos.
With Peyton Manning at the helm, Denver cruised into the playoffs last season with a Super Bowl on its horizon. Despite fielding one of the best offenses in the league, suspect defense against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs led to a disappointing exit and a missed opportunity.
The Broncos still have the pieces in place to make another deep playoff run this year, but if Mendenhall chooses to sign with them this offseason, he can’t expect the starting role to be handed to him.
With Willis McGahee on the shelf at the end of last season, former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno finally began to play up to his potential, gashing Oakland and Baltimore for 234 yards and two touchdowns in Weeks 14 and 15.
Moreno tailed off to finish the season, but he proved he can be a strong runner should the Broncos choose to utilize his talents. Backup running back Ronnie Hillman should also challenge for the starting role in 2013, and McGahee should be healthy enough to be in the mix after being expected to miss just six to eight weeks with an MCL tear last season (per ESPN).
Playing time may be scarce in Denver’s crowded backfield, but if Mendenhall wants to play for a contender, he’ll have a hard time going elsewhere in free agency.
While Denver may offer Mendenhall a better opportunity to win in 2013, the Arizona Cardinals could be an appealing option as well.
Which potential suitor will be the best fit for Rashard Mendenhall?
Arizona hired former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to take the reins this offseason. Arians oversaw Mendenhall’s best seasons with the Steelers, and the potential to reunite could be enough to sway his decision in free agency.
The Cardinals also released the oft-injured Beanie Wells prior to free agency (per ESPN), and 2011 second-round pick Ryan Williams has played in all of five games in his injury-riddled two-year career.
While no figures have been mentioned, Arizona’s need at the position would suggest it could offer a larger contract and more playing time to Mendenhall. Given his unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh, both factors could play a big role in his offseason decision.