Heading into training camp, there are some unanswered questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers. Who will replace Bryant McFadden at cornerback? Who will fill Nate Washington's role as the deep threat? and can Lawrence Timmons be an impact player as a full-time starter? just to name a few.
The loss of Bryant McFadden is a significant one. While Ike Taylor is undoubtedly the team's number one cornerback, many people, including myself believe that it was McFadden, not Taylor who was the team's most valuable corner last season.
McFadden was a very physical corner, who had surprising quickness, and was able to break on the ball and knock down a lot of passes. If not for a early season shoulder injury last season, he probably would have received more than the two year, $10 million offer that he received from the Arizona Cardinals.
While some people are still shocked and upset at the loss of McFadden, they have to be encouraged by his potential replacement William Gay. He filled in nicely for McFadden last season making four starts, and finished the season with 41 tackles, 1 interception, and 7 passes defensed.
Gay is the favorite to start heading into training camp, but don't be surprised if he faces some stiff competition from Rookie Keenan Lewis, who will be given every opportunity to compete for the starting job.
Lewis is built almost identically to Bryant McFadden at 6 ft. 208 lbs, and has a nearly identical 40 time as McFadden (both were clocked in the low 4.5's).
However, the similarities don't stop there. Like McFadden, Lewis is also known for his coverage abilities. While at Oregon State, he routinely covered the opponent's best receiver, and shut him down, and was All-Pac 10 honorable mention.
It's William Gay's job to lose, and I expect him to come out as the victor in this training camp battle. He has two years experience under his belt, and has shown that he is just as good of cover corner as Lewis, if not better.
The Steelers front office is extremely high on William Gay, and his development is one of the reasons that they felt comfortable letting Bryant McFadden leave in free agency.
The battle for the third receiver position is a little more trickier. Limas Sweed has the slight upper hand going into training camp, but do to his lackluster 2008 showing, he is hanging on to that spot by a small thread.
The Steelers went out and drafted wide receiver Mike Wallace out of Ole Miss in the 3rd round of this year's draft to compete with Sweed for the third receiver spot.
Wallace is a flat out burner who was clocked at 4.33 seconds in the 40 at the NFL combine. A lot of people want to compare him to Nate Washington as a deep threat, but there is absolutely no comparison there. Wallace is much faster than Nate, and it's not even close.
Washington was clocked in the 4.5's coming out of college and has always had questionable hands. Look for Wallace to help immediately in the return game, and possibly take the No. 3 receiver spot from Sweed by mid-season if he falters early on. Dallas Baker and Shaun McDonald will be in the mix too.
Now that Larry Foote has left for the not so greener pastures in Detroit, it is time for the Lawrence Timmons show to began.
Timmons will not have to face any real competition for the other starting inside linebacker position opposite James Farrior, and he won't have to worry about splitting playing time with anyone else.
Timmons is a very exciting player to watch, and he reminds many Steelers fans of Kendrell Bell (Pre-Kansas City Chiefs) with his explosiveness.
It's not just his explosiveness that makes him so special though. It is his ability to cover a lot of ground and also his ability to cover fast tight ends and even some receivers (Think Adalius Thomas, but faster).
Lawrence Timmons will be an upgrade over Larry Foote, who was very solid in his own right, and will add more athleticism to an already established, talented group.
There are a couple of more battles/changes to look out for in training camp. The most obvious will probably be what to do with Deshea Townsend.
Right now, Deshea Townsend is a nickel corner at best for the Steelers. His days of being a starting corner are gone.
Look for the Steelers to move Deshea to Free Safety as a back up to Ryan Clark, who has had some injury problems in the past.
This move makes a lot of sense on both sides. It gives the Steelers a solid back up free safety to replace Anthony Smith, who wore out his welcome, and it gives some of the younger corners like Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett a chance to make an immediate impact as a nickel or dime corner.
Don't forget that Fernando Bryant and Keiwan Ratliff are still in the mix for the nickel and dime positions too. I expect Keenan Lewis and Fernando Bryant to come out on top as the nickel and dime corner's respectively.
Rookie Kraig Urbik, out of Iowa, will push incumbent starter Darnell Stapleton for the starting right guard position.
Stapleton, who many people consider to be the weak link on the offensive line, is in no way guaranteed the starting right guard position, and will be pushed by Urbik from day one of training camp.
In a slightly surprising upset, I expect Urbik to be the starting right guard for week 1. He is a little bigger than Stapleton at 6'5", 323 lbs, compared to 6'3", 305 lbs for Stapleton, and comes from a school (Wisconsin) that is known for running the football and running the football successfully.
Urbik tallied a whopping 176 pancake blocks in his final 2 seasons at Wisconsin, and should make a smooth transition to the Steelers smash-mouth style of football.
The final position battle of importance is the battle to back up Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers do not have the luxury of having Byron Leftwich as a back up quarterback this season, so this battle will be between long time veteran Charlie Batch, and up and comer Dennis Dixon.
Batch is the hometown favorite, but is coming off of an injury, and I'm not sure how much he has left physically. Dixon, on the other hand, has played sparingly his first two seasons, and I'm not sure what he can do in a game situation.
With that being said, I see this as Dixon's job to lose. The Steelers drafted him for a reason, and that is to play quarterback, not be a slash type player.
With two years in the system under his belt, we will finally see Dixon turn the corner, and become the unquestioned back up quarterback of this team.
The Steelers only like to keep two quarterbacks during the season, so Charlie Batch very well could be cut, unless the Steelers decide to keep three quarterbacks.
With start of training camp only two months away, many questions will be answered, and few more will probably arise. One thing is for certain though; the Steelers are re-loaded and ready to compete again at a high level.
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