With mini-camps getting underway soon & threads about who makes the team cropping up, I began to appreciate how we are well-prepared to deal with Ben’s suspension from a personnel standpoint. Each of the candidates has their pluses & minuses - in Leftwich we have a veteran with a great arm & familiarity with our offense but with a lumbering pocket-presence that might get him killed behind our line; with Dixon we’ve got another live-armed QB, who’s a tremendous athlete in the Vince Young mold but lacks game experience; & we have Charlie Batch, who can help these two with diagnosing the offense from a former starter’s perspective. But I realized that we really don’t enjoy that same depth at other positions – as we experienced last year with the loss of Troy & Aaron.
So I got to thinking…what other players, if they were to go down, would cause the most calamity on the team? And what resulting moves would or could be made to address it? Would they go with who’s already here or would they go outside the organization via trades or FA signings? While I’ll rank them in my order of importance, that’s more a reflection of the holes the team would be in if that player went down & not necessarily a ranking of important players. For example, while Casey, Woodley & Harrison are all critical, we have a number of capable alternatives to deal with their loss. Troy still is the most dynamic player & the most irreplaceable, but I think that if they lost him again this season that they'd be more prepared than they were last year. Here it goes...
1. Hines Ward – This is a real possibility as Ward continues to deal with hamstring issues. Age & wear were already considerations, but if the hamstring were to severely limit him or some other injury take him out – then what would we do? Losing Hines would change the entire offense because of inexperience or age. Mike Wallace would become our #1 WR in his first year starting, when we have no idea as to how he’s going to handle ascending to Santonio’s spot & for the #2, we have a host of has-beens & haven’t-proved-anything WRs sliding up into spots they are ill-equipped to man. The next best candidate - ARE - is not #2 quality anymore & Battle is a special-teamer & possible #4 at this juncture of his career. The other WRs are a collection of undersized rookies & UDFA players who can’t be trusted to step up at this juncture. Perhaps if Sweed hadn’t gone down I’d feel more at ease, but with his injury & Santonio’s trade, a serious injury to Hines would be the most devastating & the playoffs wouldn’t be likely.
FA Solution: Sign Terrell Owens. Being a veteran Owens can digest a playbook & knows how to get open. He still has some speed, commands respect from a defense & is deceptively physical.
Trade Solution: Target Jordy Nelson (GB) or Louis Murphy (OAK) – building for the future as both are young, have decent size & wouldn’t command too much.
2. Reshard Mendenhall – If Mendy goes down we have no proven “bell-cow” RB to replace him & with the renewed emphasis on the running game that would be over. Looking who’s behind him, there’s one veteran - Melwelde Moore - & a host of unproven players. Moore is a nice change-of-pace RB but not a #1 on any offense & we saw his running production really take step back last season. There will be some to point to the newly drafted RB Dwyer as a possibility – especially since RB is the easiest position to step into as a rookie – but with his coming from Ga Tech’s triple-option, we don’t know how he will do in either a single-back set or from the “I”. Complicating matters is that, again from the college offense he came from, we can assume that both his receiving & pass-blocking skills are limited. The other candidates are complimentrary backs that don’t offer what the offense needs. An injury to Mendy would be too much to ask the offense to overcome, making us the predictable passing offense we were trying to get away from.
FA Solution: Sign Jamaal Lewis. Like Owens, Lewis is a veteran that can digest a playbook & would run hard, knowing how to play in the AFC North. Lewis might be motivated to play for a playoff contender & would know that Mendy is the long-term answer.
Trade Solution: Target Marshawn Lynch (BUF) – Lynch has fallen out of favor with Bills brass, but he has starting experience & a skill set seemingly perfect for the Steelers. He’s a physical runner who still had 28 receptions last year.
Lynch Contract = 2010: $885,000, 2011: $1.14 million, 2012: $1.14 million (Voidable Year)
3. Heath Miller – Imagine the Steelers offense without the “most underrated TE in the NFL”...not pretty. Heath has been essentially the #2-B receiver on the team while Santonio was here & now stands to be even more essential to the offense as the unproven Wallace steps into the #2 WR role. Heath enjoyed a break-out season last year as Arians finally started using him as a weapon & not just Ben’s security blanket when things start breaking down. This is besides the fact that he can also hold the POA in the running game. To illustrate how critical he is, consider that his back-up Matt Spaeth only had 5 catches last season & is considered a liability as a blocker, while David Johnson - the 3rd TE - is actually a better blocker but is a non-threat in the passing game. For this offense to be effective, the starting TE needs to have about 32 to 48 catches for the season – something Spaeth & Johnson just don’t seem capable of.
FA Solution: Sign L.J. Smith. Smith still has some skills but injuries have cut down his effectiveness. L.J. has the ability to contribute in the passing game but would likely be less than average in the run game.
Trade Solution: Target Greg Olsen (CHI) or Will Heller (DET) – Olsen seems on the outs in the Bears new Mike Martz offense & Heller is probably the 3rd TE behind Pettigrew & Scheffler, despite 29 catches last season. Two different options here as Olsen is more of a threat in the passing game, while Heller is much stronger in the running game.
Olsen Contract = 2010: $550,000 (+ $140,000 reporting bonus), 2011: $650,000 (+ $125,732 reporting bonus)
Heller Contract = 3/8/2010: Signed a three-year, $3.95 million contract.
4. Ike Taylor – This has been somewhat mitigated by the re-acquisition of McFadden, but should still be huge concern for the team. Ike routinely shadows the best WR on the opposing team & while he had a down year last season, he’s still the best we have by far. McFadden is a solid #2 CB, but the combination of him & William Gay as the starting CBs isn’t going to scare anyone. The one reason why I have Ike’s loss listed lower is that the team has some talent to draw from in either Keenan Lewis or Joe Burnett (whom I have high hopes for).
FA Solution: Go after RFA Richard Marshall. Marshall is an above average player that the Panthers are trying to get on the cheap.
Trade Solution: Target Rashean Mathis (JAX) – Surprisingly Mathis may be had as the Jags think they have his replacement in Derek Cox & they are still a couple of years off before seriously challenging. Mathis is due $3.95 million in 2010 & $4.45 million in 2011.