Steelers 2012 Training Camp Imperative: Develop Talent

Finally, it is time to strap on the pads.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 training camp has commenced. Players have completed the run test. Now real football can begin.

The advent of free agency and the internet have transformed NFL football into a year-round phenomena. While all those free agent trackers, mock drafts, mini-camps and OTA’s are great for providing fans with their continuous fix of NFL football, in the end they’re all meaningless.
  • Lump free agent signings and draft choices in that category too.

Yes, that’s right. By themselves those decisions represent nothing more than potential and opportunity costs.

As Steelers standard bearer Mike Tomlin is fond of saying, “I am not a fan of football in shorts.”

Since 1967, before anyone in Pittsburgh had even heard the name “Chuck Noll,” the fields of St. Vincent’s have served as the crucible where men have alternatively made or broken their dreams.

This summer promises to be no different for the 85 plus young men who come to Latrobe seeking to realize or extend their shot at membership in the elite few who can say they played in the NFL.

But there is a difference for the franchise, an important difference:
  • Developing the current draft class is more important now than it has been in previous summers.

Training Camp Reveals You a Lot, Often Times Quickly

Training camp doesn’t provide a perfect guide by any means.

Thaddeus Gibson drew rave reviews in the summer of ’10 only to be gone by October

But if every camp has its flash in the pan, each camp also confirms the rise or decline of half dozen or so rookies. Exchanging pre-draft hype for shoulder pads and three point stances  tends to have that effect.

Huey Richardson broke his nose in non-contact drills during his rookie camp and found himself dispatched to the Redskins in a fire-sale trade one summer later.

In contrast, Joe Greene showed up late and overweight his first summer at St. Vincents, yet tossed veteran Ray Mansfield aside like a rag doll and crushed the on coming back in Chuck Noll’s infamous “Oklahoma drill.”

Four summers later, Ray Mansfield himself watched rookie Mike Webster excel in the same drill, and told the coaches and he thought he’d just met his successor.

Players have moments like these over the next three weeks. The Steelers however, need more players to have Greene and Mansfield moments as opposed to Richardson moments.

Why This Camp Is Different for the Steelers

Developing young talent is of course an important goal in every camp. But this year is different for the Steelers. Understanding why requires both looking back and forward.

The Pittsburgh Steelers recent run of success has made them the envy of just about every NFL team save for perhaps New England and New York. They’ve switched coaches, restructured ownership, battled off season issues, held their offensive line together with bubble gum and duct tape for seemingly seasons on end.
  • Yet they continue to win.

Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin should rightfully be proud of that achievement.

But that very accomplishment has obscured an inconvenient truth.

The Steelers have had some bad drafts of late.

A team need not turn in a grade ‘A’ draft every year to remain a contender. But it can only afford so many mistakes.

A team seldom suffers an immediate impact from a bad draft. Instead, the impact surfaces in succeeding years. The consequences might remain obscured to the untrained eye.

Think the Steelers brought back Randle El and Larry Foote out of sentimentality or signed Will Allen in 2010 simply to take advantage of the uncapped year?

A poor draft can also have a ripple effect on draft conducted a few years in the future. Attentive readers will remember that Steel Curtain Rising began 2010 training camp with a similar column.

I don’t like recycling columns, but the point was valid then is even more valid today.

Consider this – If Tony Hills had developed even a competent tackle, maybe the Steelers use this year’s second round pick to shore up an aging safety corps.

Yes, this summer is different for the Steelers, and they themselves implicitly acknowledge that.

Mike Tomlin himself has said that David DeCastro and Mike Adams must prove themselves as 2 of the team’s top five lineman to start.
  • That’s the policy of a head coach who wins Super Bowls.

But make no mistake about it. The Steelers are counting on DeCastro starting almost immediately and Mike Adams starting shortly there after. And while they might not be “counting” on Alameda Ta’amu this year, their short term plans for him are clear.

  • The Steelers have never a rookie class figure so prominently into their plans for an upcoming season.

While it’s certainly conceivable that the Steelers can climb the Stairway to Seven without immediate contributions from their 2012 draft class, the imperative goes beyond this season.

The Steelers top three play makers, arguably, are James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, and Ben Roethlisberger. All three are on the wrong side of 30.

The big 3-0 isn’t quite the milestone that screams “decline” that it was a generation ago thanks to advanced training and nutrition techniques. But it does indicate that these men have logged more seasons in the past than they will in the future.
  • And the Steelers Super Bowl window is held open on the shoulders of these men.

The Steelers coaches probably can’t do anything extra to ensure that David DeCastro, Mike Adams, Sean Spence, Alameda Ta’amu, ChrisRainey, Toney Clemons, David Paulson, Terrence Fredrick, and Kelvin Beachum realize their potential. These coaches will play their normal role of nurture while the “nature” side of player development runs its course. 

It’s a deliberate process, but one that remains decidedly and art and not a science, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have more than usual riding on its outcome.

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