A Triumpth of “Position Flexibility” – Steelers Sign Trai Essex and Doug Legursky

You and I call it versatility.

Dictonary.com defines versatility it as: capable of or adapted for turning easily from one to anotherof various tasks, fields of endeavor.

Mike Tomlin simply calls it “Position flexibility.” The concept is simple, and ultimately a fundamental differentiator in the salary cap era:

  • The more positions you can play, the more you contribute, the bigger bang a team gets for its salary cap buck it invests in you

No one will ever accuse Trai Essex or Doug Legursky for being world-class athletes or even elite offensive lineman. But both men have position flexibility.

The Steelers picked Trai Essex in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft and since that time he’s played in 75 games. So far so good.

  • But normally, you project and expect a third round pick to develop into a stable starter.

Essex has failed to do that multiple times in his seven seasons with the Steelers. Before you write Essex off as a bust, the man entered the 2011 season capable of playing both tackle and both guard positons and in 2012 he added center to his bag of tricks when injures sidelined Doug Legursky and Maurkice Pouncy.

That’s a boast few NFL athletes can make, and its undoubtedly the reason why the Steelers signed Essex to a one year deal which bind him to the team for 8 years.

Doug Legursky Signs Restricted Free Agent Tender

Unlike Trai Essex, Doug Legursky’s phone did not ring on draft day. The Steelers signed him as an unrestricted rookie free agent in 2008. After spending the 2008 season on the practice squad, Legursky made the team in 2009 as a back up lineman.

Legursky saw some action at guard in 2009.

In 2010 he continued to practice at guard but also picked up center, and in the process helped make Justin Hartwig expendable. That year he started at guard a few times during the season and when injuries felled Maurkice Pouncey in the AFC Championship game, Legursky found himself starting at center in Super Bowl XLV.

Last season, Legursky started at both guard positions and also spent time starting at center.

Oh, and Legursky has also been known to line up at fullback on occasion.

  • That my friends, is position flexibility.

Today Legursky followed in Ramon Foster’s footsteps and signed his restricted free agent tender, binding him to the team for one more season.

The Steelers took a mild risk with Legursky, as they would have received nothing in compensation had a team signed him. But in the end their patience paid off because at 25 going on 26, Legursky’s still got some upside in him.

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Steelers Sign Leonard Pope

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their first move in free agency today by coming to terms with former Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Leonard Pope.

Pope’s addition adds a touch of mystery into the mix for the Steelers at the tight end position.

Health Miller is the incumbent starter and his status is of course unaffected by the move.

But during the 2011 campaign David Johnson and Weslye Saunders split the number two tight end responsibilities.

David Johnson got a restricted free agent tender from the Steelers, and figures to be back.

Saunders, however presents more of a mystery.

Saunders went undrafted during the 2011 NFL draft because of disciplinary issues in college, but prior to that many had felt he could go as high as the second round.

The Steelers signed him as an unrestricted rookie free agent in 2011 with an eye towards developing him as a pass catching threat. During his rookie campaign, Saunders played in all 16 games, starting 5 of them, but only caught four passes.

Since that time things have not gone well for Saunders, who is currently facing a 4 game suspension to start the 2012 season for violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

The Steelers normally keep only three tight ends on their roster, and the addition of Pope gives them four. Pittsburgh would get a roster exemption during Saunder’s suspension, but the Steelers remain pressed for salary cap space, which could put Saunder’s roster spot in jeopardy.

Ironically, Saunder’s lone touchdown catch came during the Steelers Monday Night escape/victory vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.

Lenoard Pope has started 49 games in his NFL career, including 10 last year for Kansas City where he caught 24 passes for 247 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers are not terribly impressive, but they are double what David Johnson did last year in 16 starts at tight end and fullback.

Pope has a long relationship with Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, another factor which works in his favor.

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Ramon Foster Signs with Steelers

Steelers starting right guard Ramon Foster will be back with the team for 2012, as he has signed his restricted free agent tender.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Mark Kaboly, Foster did get interest from other teams, but opted to remain in Pittsburgh. Kaboly also confirms that the Steelers would have matched any offer that Foster would have signed.

Ramon Foster signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted rookie free agent in 2009 out of Tennessee. Since then Foster has started 26 games, including Super Bowl XLV.

Restricted free agents have until April 20th to sign with other teams. After that, their rights revert to the the team that brought them into the league.

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Byron Leftwich to the Colts?

When Bruce Arians “retired” a large contingent of Steelers Nation reacted with relief.

Arians retirement lasted all of a week, and he just happened to land himself a spot as the offensive coordinator of the team that gets to select Andrew Luck. Now, apparently Arians has his eye on someone from the South Side to show Andrew Luck the ropes.

Mark Kabloy of the Tribune Review is citing league sources that indicate that Bruce Arians is trying to entice Byron Leftwhich to come to Indianapolis to help mentor his rookie quarterback (whether that signal caller turns out to be Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck.)

With 10 million in cap space the Colts could pay more than the Steelers, who are all but certain to offer Leftwich the NFL veteran minimum.

Should Lefwich Make the Switch?

Leftwich would be an interesting mentor for Luck/RG3. He was afterall a franchise quarterback for Jacksonville, having been drafted 7th overall in the 2003 draft. His stint in the spot light lasted less than four years and soon found himself on the waiver wire being asked to mop up the mess left in the wake of Michael Vick’s troubles with the law.

When Charlie Batch got injured in preseason in 2008, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert wasted little time bringing in veterans Daunte Culpepper and Byron Leftwich. The rules of the audition were clear: You’re here to back up Ben Roethlisberger. That’s it. Period.

Leftwich took the deal and got a Super Bowl ring for his troubles. After Super Bowl XLII Leftwich considered staying on in Pittsburgh, but opted for “greener” pastures in Tampa. Tampa had other plans, and Leftwich’s time as a starter lasted all of 3 games.

When Midgeville entered the vernacular of Steelers Nation, Mike Tomlin did not hesitate to bring Leftwich back and since that moment Tomlin has shown ever sign of anointing Leftwich as his official “number two.”

In Pittsburgh, Leftwich remains on a team whose Super Bowl most likely remains open. With the Colts, Leftwich will be with a team starting from almost zero and with little question as to who their signal call of the future is.

Would the Steelers be Better off if Arians did Poach Leftwich?

Byron Leftwich brings a lot to the backup quarterback position. He’s got 49 NFL starts to his name, a veteran presence, and an absolute rocket for an arm.

Bryon Leftwich is perhaps the only Steelers quarterback who has a hope of hitting Mike Wallace in full stride.

Mobility, however, is decidedly not one of Leftwich’s assets. Neither is durability. He has never played a full season. His stints in Jacksonville, Tampa and, if memory serves, Atlanta, all ended with him on IR. Leftwich spent the entire 2011 season on injured reserve, and was unable to start the first 4 games of 2010 due to an injury in preseason.

The Steelers have a lot of reasons to like Leftwich, but wonder if Arians might be doing the Steelers a favor by taking Leftwich off their hands and forcing Mike Tomlin to develop or find a more durable back up quarterback.

On the flip side, injuries can be streaky. For several years running the Steelers have wanted to keep Charlie Batch off the roster – who broke his wrist while playing just three downs in 2009 – because he was brittle.

Both times injuries to younger players, in the form of Leftwich and Dennis Dixon, forced the Steelers to keep Batch on the roster, and both times Batch delivered.

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Steelers Work Out Jeff George

When Mike Tomlin says that he will leave no stone unturned in his quest to improve the Steelers, he isn’t kidding.

Behind the Steel Curtain is reporting that the Steelers are trying out 44 year old NFL veteran Jeff George. George apparently was seen at the team’s south side facilities on the even of Saturday March 31st and will work out this morning for Steelers General Manger Kevin Colbert.

Drafted in 1990 by the Colts, George went on to play for Atlanta, Oakland, Minnesota and Washington.

While George’s rocket arm was never in question, his disposition always was another matter. George openly feuded with management coaches and teammates, including a very public spat with then head coach June Jones of the Atlanta Falcons. In fact, George’s tenure with the Washington Redskins ended when he rebuffed coach Marty Schottenhimer’s call for leadership by saying, “Don’t look to me.”

Last year when the Petyon Manningless Colts began to struggle, George made it known that his services were available. Colts president Bobby Irsay declined to take his former signal caller up on the option.

If the Steelers do sign George, it is unclear whether that makes Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich the odd man out on the depth chart.

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William Gay Signs with Pittsburgh West aka Arizona

Steelers Digest Twitter feed is reporting that William Gay is tweeting that he has agreed to terms with the Arizona Cardinals, aka, Pittsburgh West.

Other sources were close to report the news, as even Gay’s Twitter feed does not appear to back this up as of 12:30 pm eastern time.

However, by 12:52 eastern time Scott Brown of the Tribune Review was confirming the move.

Former Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton is now the Cardinals defensive coordiantor. In another ironic twist to the story, the Steelers let Bryant McFadden go to Arizona in 2009 largely due to William Gay’s emergence.

Gay struggled in 2009 as a full time starter, prompting the Steelers to bring McFadden back via trade during the 2010 NFL draft. William Gay’s performance improved tremendously under the eye of Steelers secondary coach Carnell Lake, but so did that of Keenan Lewis, thus making Gay expendable.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus 2012: Mike Wallace

What is Mike Wallace really worth?

That is a very difficult question to answer and Steelers future as a Super Bowl contender might hinge on Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s having gotten the answer correct.

Wallace was an undeniable bright spot in an otherwise difficult 2009 campaign. As a mere third round pick, his play surpassed all expectations, so much that the decision to part ways with Santonio Holmes became a no-brainer.

During 2010, Wallace showed that he was more than up to the task of being an NFL wide receiver – during the regular season, as he caught 60 passes for an eye-popping 21 yards per catch average. His ten touchdowns were only two shy of the team record.

During the playoffs Wallace told a different tale. 26 catches in 3 post-seasons games is perfectly fine, but his 8.8 yards receiving were more of what you’d expect from a running back.

Wallace began the 2011 season on fire, literally.

  • He extended his regular season streak of 100 yard receiving games to 6
  • Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace 40 yard plus hook ups, were a stable of the Steelers offense
  • Wallace now holds the record for the longest scoring and passing play in Steelers history

But Wallace’s play tapered of precipitously as the season wore on. He didn’t score a touchdown in the final six games. Worse yet, he more often seemed to sit and watch as DB’s made plays on under thrown balls.

(In private emails, Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain has argued that Wallace lacks the size and physique to out muscle DB’s in those situations. Fair enough – but should he at least try?)

His slump continued in the post season, becoming more renown for his drop on what could have been a 52 yard game-changing play vs. Denver, than anything else.

A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

Mike Wallace remains a riddle wrapped in an Enigma, to steal a Winston Churchill cliché.

And what a tantalizing enigma Mike Wallace is.

As Bill Barnwell of the website Grantland.com points out, only Anquan Boldin has accrued more years in than Mike Wallace in the three years he’s been in the league.

Barnwell indicates that the Steelers total number of possessions has been low during Wallace’s tenure and Ben Roethlisberger has been suspended, out or injured for many of Wallace’s games. He argues that if you control for those factors, Wallace’s numbers take on stratospheric proportions.

Barnwell’s number crunching is mouth watering.

But it also betrays the fantasy-league mentality that is rarely relevant towards what counts in the NFL — winning championships.

Mike Wallace does still have a real upside. And even if he fails to realize it, he is still one of the few NFL players who can take it to the house on any given play.

That alone makes him an asset to any offense.

But that alone doesn’t negate the reality that Wallace still has real holes in his game. Holes significant enough to lend one to believe that he’ll never blossom into a Larry Fitzgerald type receiver.

That’s why the Steelers decision to place a first round tender on Wallace and let him test the market is the right move. More than any other position, the Steelers have shied away from throwing big money at a wide receiver, as pointed out by Ed Bouchette in the Post-Gazette.

With Hines Ward’s time in Pittsburgh over, the Steelers will likely have to make that long-term commitment to either Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown very soon.

They’ve likely given themselves the chance to do that on their own terms and, if not, they’ll have extra first round pick which they can use to draft another wide receiver.

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Casey Hampton Accepts a Pay Cut

The Pittsburgh Steelers made their first big move in free agency and, true to form, the move was wholly contained within the South Side.

Starting right nose tackle Casey Hampton, still recovering from an ACL injury suffered in the Steelers playoff loss to Denver, has agreed to accept a pay cut.

Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette described the move as a “restructuring” while Dale Lolley of From the NFL Sidelines and Scott Brown of the Tribune-Review described the move as a cut.

According to Brown, Hampton agreed to take a 2 million dollar salary reduction and forgo a 1 million dollar roster bonus.

Brown also reports that this move brings the Steelers to 6 to 8 million below the cap – this number is significant, because previous reports had pegged the Steelers at 1.5 million to 2 million below the cap.

Either way the additional cap space is welcome. The move could allow the Steelers to seal Mike Wallace to a long term deal; it could likewise free up money for Jericho Cotchery, William Gay, or a free agent from another team.

Home Town Discount, or Homegrown Prudence?

Casey Hampton’s had been rumored to be the next cap casualty and/or a candidate for a salary cut. The fact that Hampton agreed to play for less is slightly surprising, given that he is in the final year of what is likely his final NFL contract.

However, he will be 35 when the season starts and is recovering from a serious knee. On top of that, the Steelers run defense had a below par year in 2011 – for Pittsburgh – and while it would be grossly unfair to finger Hampton for all of this, the nose tackle is the fulcrum on which the success of the 3-4 defense rises and falls.

Kevin Colbert had indicated that he wanted and expected Hampton back during the NFL scouting combine, but rumors of Hampton’s expendability nonetheless persisted.

By agreeing to a pay cut, Hampton all but ensured that he will be drawing a pay check for the 2012 NFL season, and pocketing a extra million in change beats making nothing.

For their part, the Steelers also avoided putting themselves in a position where the would HAVE to draft a nose tackle in the top 2 or 3 rounds. (With that said, the Steelers must get serious about finding and grooming Hampton’s successor.)

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Steelers Gamble to Gain Flexibility in the Free Agent Market

The Steelers placed their tenders to Mike Wallace and other restricted free agents today, and in doing so they gave themselves some breathing room, while also opening themselves to come considerable risks.

The Steelers offered Mike Wallace a first round tender, in a move that was widely expected. The move ensures that the Steelers would get a first round pick should anyone sign Wallace – the Steelers would likewise get the chance to match any offer for Wallace.

However, Wallace was the only Steeler to get a high tender.

Over the weekend Steel Curtain Rising speculated, based on Ed Bouchette’s predictions in PG Plus, that the Steelers would offer their starting guards 2nd round tenders.

  • They did not, only offering them the original round tenders.

In doing so they opened themselves to some significant risk. As Doug Legrusky and Ramon Foster were both undrafted rookie free agents, the Steelers would get nothing in return if they left, although they would retain the right to match any offer.

  • This move entails some real risk, if for no other reason than the Steelers have NO other guards on their roster, in the wake of the departure of Chris Kemoeatu.

While neither Legursky nor Foster strike fear in the hearts of opposing defensive line and linebackers coaches the way Alan Fanaca and Will Wolford once did, both men have shown they belong in the NFL.

The Steelers apparent motive in taking this risk is to preserve precious salary cap space. The Steelers are about in the middle of the pack in terms of salary cap space, but to get there they’ve had to defer a lot of salary to future years, a move that could come back to haunt them.

The Steelers are clearly trying to keep their options open, either to match an offer to Mike Wallace, secure him to a long term deal, or give themselves the ability to sign other free agents.

The Steelers, as expected, tender Keenan Lewis, Ryan Mundy, and David Johnson, so they can match offers for any of those men and will get compensation should any of them leave.

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Aaron Smith Says Good Bye to Steelers Nation

When the Steelers cut Aaron Smith, there was some speculation that he might head off to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals.

While no one has ruled that out explicitly, Smith himself seems to be strongly signaling that he will hang it up.

As reported by Post Gazette Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette, Aaron Smith took out a full page ad in the Post Gazette to say good bye and thank Steel City Fans for their support.

Steel Curtain Rising’s editorial policy is normally not to publish verbatium texts from other sites. But in this case an exception is being made because Smith’s message shows just how much of a class act he was and how great the Steelers orgaization remains.

According to Bouchette, the following text can be found on page D-7 of the Sunday March 11th Post Gazette:

Dear Steelers Fans,

As of today, I am no longer a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I leave the field and Steelers with no regrets, and am grateful to have played for such a tremendous organization. I feel truly blessed to have spent my entire professional career in the best town, playing for the most loyal fans who have loved and supported myself and my family.

The last 13 years of our lives have been special because of the people who cheered me on, and I am truly fortunate to have been a part of the Steelers, the City of Pittsburgh and the Steelers Nation. You have opened your arms and your hearts to us as a family and we will never forget that. Your support, enthusiasm, love and dedication are gifts I will carry with me my entire life.

I may no longer be on the Steelers active roster, but I will always be a Steeler and will never forget the people who made it all worthwhile — the fans, the Rooneys, the front office, the equipment guys and trainers, my teammates and family. Thank you for supporting me over the last 13 years, and I hope you will support me in whatever future path life will take me on.

We plan on making Pittsburgh our home and I will endeavor for the rest of my days to find a way to thank each and every one of you personally for all that you have done and meant for me and my family. You cheered for me for 13 years and now I cheer for you for the rest of my life. You will always be in my heart, thoughts and prayers. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to have the job of a lifetime. You will always be in my heart.

Your friend always,

Aaron Smith and Family, No. 91

Good Bye and Good Luck Aaron

As Bouchette points out, Alan Fanaca is the only player he can remember taking out an ad in the newspaper to say good bye to the fans. Oliver Gibson, a nose tackle the Steelers drafted out of Notre Dame in 1995 did something similar when he left for Cincinnati in 1999, by publishing a letter to the editor in the Steelers Digest.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a franchise which yields nothing to anyone else when it comes to the legacy of their defensive line. In 13 years of play, Aaron Smith earned the right to have his name spoken in the same breath as Ernie Stauntner, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White.

This is truly a touching way for Smith to end his time as a Steeler. Aaron Smith, Steelers Nation thanks you for your contributions and your sacrifices and wishes you the best!

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