Tomlin expects all players to be signed before first practice
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer
dlolley@observer-reporter.com

PITTSBURGH - With the Steelers set to report to training camp Sunday at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, head coach Mike Tomlin had the nervous energy of a kid on Christmas Eve.

With a veteran team coming off a 10-6 season and headed by Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, that's not surprising.

Then again, even the most veteran team has some open spots to fill.

For the Steelers, those position battles will be at guard, where Alan Faneca left in free agency; at center, where there will be a battle between incumbant Sean Mahan and free-agent signee Justin Hartwig, and free safety, where Ryan Clark returns after season-ending surgery last season.

"We've got a bunch of questions to ask; we've got a bunch of questions to be answered," Tomlin said Wednesday as he finished preparations for his second training camp with the Steelers. "Collectively, I think we're all excited about this next phase."

Tomlin also is anxious to see how quickly the team can incorporate first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenehall into the offense at running back.

Mendenhall and second-round pick Limas Sweed are the Steelers' only two remaining unsigned draft picks. But Tomlin expects all of the team's players to be in camp by the 4 p.m. Sunday reporting deadline, with Mendenhall and Sweed having contracts in place.

"Progress on those negotiations is going well," Tomlin said. "We don't anticipate any of those guys having any holdups."

Pittsburgh also has a number of key players - running back Willie Parker (broken leg), wide receiver Hines Ward (knee), defensive end Aaron Smith (biceps), safety Troy Polamalu (knee) and left tackle Marvel Smith (back) among them - returning from season-ended injuries or offseason surgeries. Tomlin anticipates each will be ready to practice when the team takes the field for the first time Monday morning.

"Right now, it looks like everyone's going to be ready to go at training camp," Tomlin said. "There may be some limits in terms of what we do initially."

That's good news for the Steelers, who have only three weeks at Latrobe and four preseason games to prepare for the upcoming season. Last year, the Steelers went to camp a week earlier because they had five preseason games.

Of course, a shorter camp might cut down on distractions, such as the current ownership questions surrounding the Steelers. The Rooney family is exploring possible ways to restructure the ownership of the team between the five sons of founder Art Rooney Sr., and the McGinley family, which owns 20 percent of the franchise.

"Will it be a distraction? Potentially, because there will be questions that I'll have to answer and there will be questions that our team has to answer," Tomlin said. "I don't have the answer to those questions and neither does our football team. I'm here to coach, they're here to play. Those questions will be answered by the Rooneys.

"Our ability to deal with it, move on and leave it in its proper place will determine the mental toughness of our football team and ultimately determine our level of success."