Steelers Validate Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s Commitment to Fairness with Brandon Johnson Signing

Mike Tomlin has vowed numerous times to “Leave no loose stone unturned” in his effort to improve whatever ails the Pittsburgh Steelers. The aftermath of Steelers decision to cut Shuan Suisham’s illustrates just how serious Tomlin takes his own words.

  • To fill Shaun Suisham’s spot, the Steelers signed Penn State’s Brandon Johnson, he of 4 carries to his NCAA rushing resume.
steelers, rookie, 90th roster spot, brandon johnson, penn state, running backs, undrafted rookie free agents

One of Brandon Johnson’s four carries while @ Penn State; Photo Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

One benefit to such late roster moves is Steelers Nation REALLY knows who is the 90th man on the roster. The Steelers invited Brandon Johnson to their rookie tryout camp, and while the Steelers cut Rajion Neal and Christian Powell, they replaced them with Cameron Stingily and Brandon Brown-Dukes leaving Brandon Johnson on the outside looking in.

  • Now Brandon Johnson has a shot at his NFL dream, however slim it might be.

When one things of unheralded, rookie free agent running backs names like Willie Parker or Gary Russell come to mind (even if Russell didn’t come to the Steelers as a true UDFA.) When Willie Parker proved he belong in the NFL, fans wondered why he didn’t play more for the North Carolina Tar Heels. But Parker logged 285 carries at Chapel Hill. Gary Russell only played two years in college, but the Minnesota Gophers trusted him enough to put the ball in his hands 210 times.

  • In contrast, Brandon Johnson got carries in two games, and turned his 4 carries into 23 yards.

The website Go PSU Sports further informs us that the former walk-on Brandon Johnson appeared 19 games total, almost all on special teams. Jacob Klinger of Penn Live reports that his measurable from Penn State’s Pro Day were 4.43 40-yard dash and vertical jumped 39 inches.

  • No matter how you look at it, Brandon Johnson’s pedigree is thin.

The fact that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin filled an unexpected roster vacancy with a running back is no confidence, given the Steelers lack at running back behind Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Fitzgerald Toussaint.

But the Steelers Brandon Johnson signing really does represent a “loose stone turn over signing” much like Donald Washington’s does. (The Steelers signed “veteran cornerback Donald Washington, who has been out of the NFL since 2011 and only played a handful of snaps in the CFL since then.)

Past Steelers Running Backs from Penn State

It says here if Brandon Johnson gets a couple of carries late in the 4th quarter of the Steelers first preseason game, he will have beaten the odds. Still the fact that he has a pre-training camp roster spot means that Bradon Johnson has a chance of being the first Nittany Lion running back to play for the Steelers since fullback Jon Witman made the team in 1996.

Witman was preceded by Leroy Thompson, who was drafted by Chuck Noll in 1991. And of course Thompson followed in the footsteps of two other Penn State greats, Franco Harris and Dick Hoak.

  • Judged by yards gained, the fortunes of Penn State running backs with the Steelers are on a downward trend…

Don’t expect Brandon Johnson to break the trend, but Todd Haley and James Saxon will give this latest loose stone a fair shot at trying.

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4 Solutions for the Steelers 2016 Running Back Depth Deficiency

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 Draft Class added both quantity and, on paper at least, talent to the team’s most glaring weaknesses on the depth chart. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin also added depth to several other key areas.

  • One area that Colbert and Tomlin failed to address was running back.

As things stand today, the Steelers 2016 running back depth promises to be dangerously thin. Here’s a look at how Colbert and Tomlin might address that need before the season.

How the Steelers Running Back Depth Got So Depleted

The Steelers 2016 Draft Needs Matrix pegged running back as the Steelers 4th most urgent area of need not because of talent issues, but because of the Steelers thin depth at running back.

Fitzgerald Toussaint has the look of a solid backup based on his playoff performances, his fumble not withstanding. After Toussaint, the Steelers have zip in terms of proven depth behind him. If Art Rooney II’s words offer any guide, the Steelers expect Le’Veon Bell to be back at full strength.

That’s fine, but in 2016 Bell will begin his fourth season on a league where the average running back’s career lasts just above three. And he’s coming off a complicated MCL, PCL injury. And he’s missed time due to injury in each of his first three seasons. running backs average less than 3. DeAngelo Williams will turn 33.

For a franchise that started its 4th string running back in 3 consecutive post-season appearances those factoids hardly encourage confidence.

  • Colbert and Tomlin know this and responded by trying to trade the 5th round.

The Steelers found no takers, at least at a reasonable asking price. So which running backs did the Steelers miss a chance to draft?

  • So which running back did the Steeler miss?

In the 5th round DeAndre Washington, Paul Perkins, Jordan Howard, Wendell Smallwood, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins found homes with Oakland, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Seattle. In the 6th round Denver, Tampa Bay, San Diego, San Francisco, and Dallas welcomed Andy Jaovich, Dan Vitale, Derek Watt, Kelvin Taylor and Darrius Jackson (although Janovich, Vitale, Watt are listed as fullbacks.)

Surprisingly, Colorado’s Christan Powell was the only running back in the Steelers 2016 undrafted rookie free agent class, and he got cut after rookie minicamp. In contrast, the Steelers drafted no offensive lineman in the 2015 NFL Draft, yet brought 5 offensive lineman to Pittsburgh with their 2015 undrafted rookie free agent class.

Steelers Could Sign a Free Agent Running Back

Yes, the best free agent running backs have long been off the market, but teams can and do make roster moves after the draft. The website Sporttrack lists 23 free agent running backs that remain unsigned, including Reggie Bush, LeGarrette Blount and Arian Foster.

If the Steelers really were interested in adding depth at running back via free agency, they likely would have done so in March instead of waiting until May. Nonetheless, on May 12 unsigned players officially become “Street Free Agents” meaning teams can sign them without impacting their compensatory picks.

The Steelers could take advantage of that to add a body, but if they do it will likely be the type of free agent who isn’t even assured a roster spot in September.

Steelers Could Trade for a Running Back

Trades are rare in the NFL and until recently the Steelers rarely trade for another player. Yet, that has changed lately. In August 2013, Kevin Colbert traded Adrian Robinson for Felix Jones. Later that season, he traded for Levi Brown. Last summer Steelers traded for Brandon Boykin….

  • …And you can see why the Steelers prefer to avoid acquiring layers via trade.

Arguably, Felix Jones was the most productive of the three, and that’s not saying much. Levi Brown got injured in warm ups and never played a down. Brandon Boykin spelled Antwon Blake late in the season and perhaps provided an upgrade, but the Steelers think more of untested Senquez Golson than they do Boykin.

In terms of trading to build depth at running back, the Steelers actually traded for Patrick Cobbs when Duce Staley couldn’t dispel their doubts at the end of the 2006 preseason. Cobbs never played a down in Pittsburgh, although he did carry 37 times over five years in Miami….

Don’t expect the Steelers to trade for a running back.

Colbert Could Grab a Running Back from the Waiver Wire

Kevin Colbert ranks among the best NFL General Managers when it comes to finding players who can help the Steelers after they’ve been discarded by other teams. 2013’s cut down day saw the Turk visit Fernando Velasco in Nashville and Cody Wallace in Tampa Bay, but both made multiple starts for the Steelers at center later that season.

In terms of running backs, the Steelers picked Najeh Davenport off of waivers early 2006, and Davenport was a solid contributor in for two seasons. The Steelers picked up DuJuan Harris in 2012 during training camp, and he went on to contribute to Green Bay. Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint both got pink slips at the end of training camp and ended up starting for the Steelers in the playoffs.

  • One harsh reality of the modern NFL is that proven backups get cut simply because rookies offer teams more bang for their buck.

Colbert has kept many a gem from falling though the cracks of the NFL salary cap, and you’d better believe he will closely watch for running backs who reach the waiver wire all between now and September.

Steelers Stand Pat with Their Running Back Stable

Based on what we’ve seen since the 2016 NFL Draft, this appears to be the Steelers plan. Following rookie minicamp, two of the four Steelers roster moves involved replacing running backs.

While banking on undrafted rookie free agents to provide depth at running back is a roll of the dice, remember is the same franchise that saw a little known running back who hardly played in North Carolina named Fast Willie Parker go from training camp surprise in 2004 to a run from scrimmage record setter in Super Bowl XL in January of 2006.

Both Carey Davis and Gary Russell had some NFL experience prior to joining the Steelers in 2007, and while no one will ever confuse the tandem with Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris, both men helped win Super Bowl XLIII.

At the Steelers rookie minicamp, Mercyhurst’s Brandon Brown-Dukes impressed Jim Wexell, although Wexell did describe him as “diminutive.” Dale Lolley reports that Cameron Stingily, who was injured in last summer’s Hall of Fame game, is running well and looking leaner than in 2015.

  • The Steelers cut running backs Rajion Neal and Christian Powel to make room for Stingily and Brown-Dukes.

While these move come squarely at the bottom of the Steelers roster, they demonstrate that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are keenly aware Steelers running back depth needs to improve.

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Steelers 2016 Draft Needs @ Running Back – A Higher Priority Than You Think…

No team has rushed for more yards since the AFL-NFL merger than the Pittsburgh Steelers. In January 2010, Steelers President Art Rooney II described quality rushing as a “foundation of the franchise.”

In contrast to Bill Cowher, during Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have looked to running back earlier and more often in the draft having used 3 premium picks on running backs. Will that trend continue or, perhaps better stated, should that trend continue in the 2016 NFL Draft?

Steelers Depth Chart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – the Starter

Although he finished 2015 on injured reserve, Le’Veon Bell will enter 2016 as the Steelers starting running back, and if Art Rooney II’s statements are any guide, the Steelers will look to lock him up to a long-term contract.

  • It is easy to understand why, as Bell’s dynamic ability as a double threat teases to reestablish the concept of “franchise running back.”

Such lofty visions must be tempered with the reality that the shelf life of running backs in the NFL is short and continues to grow shorter, and Bell has already missed 16 of a 51 possible games to injury, including 3 playoff contests. The Steelers have confidence in Bell’s ability to recover, but on the outside that looks like a leap of faith.

While it almost seems quaint to acknowledge a fullback as a “starter” the Steelers chose undrafted rookie free agent Roosevelt Nix over Will Johnson.

Steelers Depth Cart @ Running Back Entering the 2016 NFL Draft – Backups

A year ago the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams as an insurance policy, and many were skeptical that a 32 year old NFL running back coming off an injury and with 1432 carries on his frame could deliver.

  • Those skeptics were dead wrong.

DeAngelo Williams had his best season rushing since 2009, and showed himself a dangerous double threat, not only did Williams do damage on the ground, but he also gave Ben Roethlisberger an enticing target underneath.. Williams almost literally saved the season.

In late November, the Steelers made a curious move – they activated a guy named Fitzgerald Toussaint from their practice squad. This came before DeAngelo Williams injury, and after Mike Tomlin had assured reporters he would not attempt to groom an understudy for Williams.

The move came shortly after the Ravens put Justin Forsett on season ending IR and activating Toussaint looked like a proactive move to protect him from practice squad poaching. When the playoffs arrived, Toussaint vindicated the Steelers faith in him as he collected over 120 all-purpose yards in the playoff win against the Bengals.

For the record, the Steelers also have running backs Abou Toure, 2015 practice squader Rajion Neal and Daryl Richardson who has experience with the Rams and Browns.

Steelers 2016 Draft Need at Running Back

Running back is one slot on the depth chart where Steel Curtain Rising’s analysis likely differs from much of Steelers Nation and likely Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2016

  • The Steelers have now been forced to start their 4th string running back in three consecutive post-season contests.

OK, 2014 is somewhat of an aberration, as LeGarrette Blount’s insubordination and Dri Archer’s total failure couldn’t have been foreseen, at least not while something could be done about it. Yet, in 2015 the Steelers essentially chose to enter the season with a running back’s depth chart that was two backs deep.

By season’s end, both Bell and Williams were hurt….

  • Sure, Jordan Todman and Toussaint played well, but do you really want pin post season hopes practice squaders and waiver wire pickups?

Sure, the days when the Steelers staffed their depth chart with three or four quality running backs may seem like an anachronistic memory of a bye gone era, but it’s no secret that the Steelers won their last Super Bowl with a depth chart that went Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Gary Russell and Carey Davis – all of whom were on the opening day roster, and all of whom were at “Above the line” ball carriers.

  • It says here that drafting running back in the first round would be a mistake.

Drafting one in the second round might be too high as well. But the Steelers have rolled the dice on running back depth in two straight seasons and it has cost them in two straight post seasons which means that the Steelers 2016 draft need at running back must be considered Moderate High.

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DeAngelo Williams Foot Injury Highlights Thin Steelers Running Back Depth, Changing Times

As everyone knows, Ben Roethlisberger‘s name heads the Steelers injury report as Pittsburgh prepares to play the Cleveland Browns this week. That comes as no surprise after his leaving the Steelers victory over Oakland in the 4th quarter.

The next two names are linebackers James Harrison and Ryan Shazier. Clearly the Steelers are better with those two in the lineup than without, but both have a couple of three players who can take their place.

Last week the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell to an MCL tear and this week DeAngelo Williams misses practice due to a swollen foot….? Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire pointed out the Steelers 2015 playoff hopes might hinge on Landry Jones’ arm.

Because those are the “next men up” should DeAngelo Williams be unable to play vs. Cleveland, or at any other point in the remainder of 2015. For the record, Todman has 3 careear starts, 113 carries and 464 yards on his NFL rushing resume. He even has 3 touchdowns and has 3 receptions (although not 3 touchdowns for 3 receptions.) Pead has 19 carries for 78 yards.

Certain segments of Steelers Nation will no doubt wish to pick up the pitch fork and man the barricades to condemn Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert for allowing such a situation to come to pass. But the truth is that DeAngelo William’s swollen foot merely highlights the precarious nature of the Steelers thin running back depth, which simply a symptom of a larger, league wide problem.

Steelers Running Back Depth Long a Franchise Hallmark

Throughout Steelers history, the franchise has long boasted depth charts that were at least three deep at running back.

In 1976, the Steelers had two 1,000 yard rushers in the form of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Six years later the Steelers had three 1st round running backs on their depth chart as they did in 1982 with Harris, Greg Hawthorne and Walter Abercrombie along with work horse Frank Pollard.

The trend of the Steelers fielding a deep bullpen of running back depth continued through 80’s and into the 1990’s. In 1991 the Steelers running back depth chart had Merril Hoge, Barry Foster, Tim Worley, Warren Williams and Leroy Thompson. In 2000, the Steelers running back depth chart boasted Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, and Jon Witman with Dan Krieder on the practice squad.

As recently as 2008, the Steelers opened the season with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Cary Davis, and Gary Russell for depth at running back. Even in 2012, the Steelers still had Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer – hardly three super stars, but the threesome gave Pittsburgh more running back depth than they currently enjoy.

Those days ended then and there, however.

2013 a Turning Point for Running Back Depth for the NFL and the Steelers

The Steelers picked Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Assuming the Bell makes a full recovery from his injury and resumes his stratospheric performances fans will someday wonder how a back of his talent fell out of the NFL Draft’s first round. Or they won’t.

  • The 2013 NFL Draft marked the first draft since 1936 that no running back was taken in the first round.

The trend continued in 2014 and, while the San Diego Chargers took Melvin Gordon in the 1st round of the 2015, NFL Draft, 2013 marks milestone for running back depth for both the Steelers and for the NFL.

2013 saw Bell’s early season sacrificed to a Lis-franc injury, and Redman ailing due to an undisclosed neck injury, so it fell to Dwyer and Felix Jones to carry the Steelers load at running back. The duo did not do well. By comparison’s sake, in Isaac Redman 2012 out-rushed and out received the combined ’13 rushing and receiving totals of Dwyer and Jones.

Choices Lead to Thin Steelers Running Back Depth in 2015

The Steelers thin depth at running back in 2013 was largely a product of accident, but in 2014 it became more a product of choice.

The Steelers of course signed LeGarrette Blount in the off season to back up Bell. But behind Blount the Steelers only had Dri Archer, whom they envisioned as a utility back/wide receiver, and fullback Will Johnson. (Josh Harris was on the practice squad.) LeGarrett Blount discipline problems cost him his roster spot, forcing the Steelers to sign Ben Tate after Bell went down vs. the Bengals.

  • The Blount dismissal aside, the Steelers made a conscious choice to enter 2014 only two players deep at running back.

And the made the same choice in 2015, opting to go with Bell and Williams, only picking up Todman on waivers after Josh Harris failed to impress during preseason. The NFL is a passing league, and no one argues with the Steelers giving Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates roster spots.

  • But every roster choice involves an opportunity cost.

And with Bell down for the count, and DeAngelo Williams nursing a swollen foot, the potential opportunity cost of the Steelers opting to staff such a thin depth chart at running back has just gone up.

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The Colbert Record: Undrafted Rookie Free Agents

Prologue…

Future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis started the 2000 season with Richard Huntley, Amos Zereoue, Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Jon Witman backing him up. Never in franchise history, perhaps, have the Pittsburgh Steelers boasted a deeper backfield.

Things changed fast. First fullback Jon Witman fell to injury and then Fuamatu-Ma’afla followed.

Injuries are always inopportune, but Pittsburgh headed into a mid-season show down with the Baltimore Ravens having to activate a little-known rookie free agent from the University of New Hampshire, football power house that it is.

Dan Kreider buckled his chin strap and challenged Ray Lewis head on, the Steelers rushed for 100 yards, Pittsburgh dealt the Ravens their last loss of 2000 and Kevin Colbert now had one of his biggest calling cards – uncanny success with undrafted rookie free agents.

The Colbert Record – Rookie Free Agents

With the NFL lockout heading to its conclusion one of the first orders of business will be to sign unrestricted rookie free agents. No one knows how the layoff will affect teams.

Previous installments of The Colbert Record dealt with his draft record. Today attention turns to Colbert’s success after the draft, success which has historically given the Steelers an advantage.

The list below contains the Steelers most prominent rookie free agents from the Kevin Colbert era. Click on the player names, each listed in the order of their appearance on the active roster.

Steelers 2000 Rookie Free Agents – Dan Kreider, Ainsley Battles
Steelers 2001 Rookie Free Agents – Keydrick Vincent, Chris Hoke
Steelers 2002 Rookie Free Agents – James Harrison
Steelers 2003 Rookie Free Agents – None
Steelers 2004 Rookie Free Agents – Willie Paker
Steelers 2005 Rookie Free Agents – Nate Washington
Steelers 2006 Rookie Free Agents – Anthony Madison
Steelers 2007 Rookie Free Agents – Gary Russell
Steelers 2008 Rookie Free Agents – Patrick Bailey, Darnell Stapleton
Steelers 2009 Rookie Free Agents – Stefan Logan, Doug Legursky,Ramon Foster, Isaac Redman
Steelers 2010 Rookie Free Agents – Steve McLendon

Kevin Colbert’s 2000 Rookie Free Agent Class

Dan Kreider – the “Sixth Offensive Lineman”
After getting his practice squad promotion in 2000 Dan Kreider went on to play in 113 games, starting 67 of those. Those numbers are impressive, but not as impressive as these: 4528 yards rushing and 4198 yards rushing.

Those are the rushing totals that Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker accumulated with Dan Kreider paving the way. Kreider is Steelers Football type who delivered down in the trenches time in and time out when victory or defeat lay in the balance.

Ainsley Battles
An unheralded member of this list, Ainsley Battles made it as a rookie free agent in 2000 and played in all 16 games, starting two of those.

When the history of Steelers safeties is written, Battles name will seldom noted or remembered. But he did record a sack and two fumble recoveries, and returned for spot duty with the Steelers in 2004 after two years as a part-time starter in Jacksonville.

Kevin Colbert’s 2001 Rookie Free Agent Class

Keydrick Vincent
Kevin Colbert plucked Keydrick Vincent out of the rookie free agent pool in 2001 and Vincent went on to start 27 games while appearing in 38. He even made starts as a rookie and as a sophomore, and then saw his value to the team soar in 2003 when injuries ravaged the offensive line.

Yet his greatest moment was in 2004, when a training camp ACL tear to Kendall Simmons threatened to derail the season. Vincent stepped up, and started 16 games in a season that saw the Steelers finish 15-1. Not bad for a guy whose phone refused to ring on draft day.

Chris Hoke – the Perpetual Unsung Hero
The record reflects that Chris Hoke joined the Steelers the same year as Casey Hampton, but with a lot less fan fare. If there is an unsung hero among Kevin Colbert’s rookie free agent signings, that man is Chris Hoke.

Hoke held a roster spot for much of his first three years, but only dressed twice, until dressing regularly in 2004. At mid-season the man who was less than an afterthought stepped in when Casey Hampton tore his ACL – and the Steelers did not miss a beat in route to a 15-1 season.

Hoke gets little press, but he’s arguably the most valuable back up the team has. 108 games played and a ‘mere’ 16 starts might seem pedestrian over 10 years, but Chris Hoke does what’s asked of him and delivers when his number has called.

Kevin Colbert’s 2002 Rookie Free Agent Coup — Silverback!

James Harrison – Silverback Attack
James Harrison actually made the active roster in 2002. The stories of his dismissals, recalls, and stint with the Ravens are now legendary. Since then he’s played in 107 games and started in 71 of them, but my God, do those numbers fail to do him justice.

Images can only suffice.

Harrison hinted that he was something special as early as 2004, when he laid down the law with a drunken Browns fan:

Harrison chose the Steelers 75 Anniversary Game against the Baltimore Ravens for his coming out party, a day when he exploded for 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 recovered fumble, and an interception.

And, just in case Ed Reed had any illusions about who was the baddest defender on the field that night, James Harrison erased any doubts:

James Harrison’s biggest play as a Steelers is perhaps the most over looked, which is especially rare given that it’s the longest run in Super Bowl history. While Ben Roethlisberger’s game-ending drive rightly draws rave reviews, James Harrison’s pick six of Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII amounted to a four point swing in a game that finished 27-24.

Oh, yeah, James Harrison has racked up 49 sacks, 5 interceptions, and forced 25 fumbles. And James Harrison was the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

James Harrison accomplished these things in spite of the fact that he gets held more than any other pass rusher in the NFL. Not bad for a guy whose name was never called at a podium in New York, Silverback’s current foot-in-mouth attack notwithstanding.

Kevin Colbert’s 2004 Rookie Free Agent Fast Find

Fast Willie Parker
Not only did Willie Parker fail to be drafted, he barely played in college.

Parker went from non-entity to training camp sensation, to the man who relegated Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis to the bench, to authoring the then longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history in just two years.

A true work horse, “Fast Willie” played in 79 games starting 60 of them, and rushed for 5,378 yards and 24 touchdowns. What’s all the more impressive is that Willie did this in 6 years earning him the number 3 spot on the Steelers All-Time rushing list, and his 4.3 yards per carry average career rushing average ties Barry Foster as the best for a Steelers running back.

Who knows which Steelers scout uncovered him, Dan Rooney Jr. lives near Fast Willlie’s stomping grounds in the Carolinas, but who ever it was deserves a medal.

Kevin Colbert’s 2005 Rookie Free Agent Protégée

Nate Washington
Nate Washington cut his teeth as an unrestricted rookie free agent on the 2005 Super Bowl XL championship team. Washington’s best play as a rookie may have been the pass defense he made to save an interception in the AFC Championship game against Denver.

Year-by-year Washington got better, his hands became steadier, and he make himself into an integral part of the Steelers offense to the point where yours truly suggested that the Steelers might dump Santonio Holmes in favor of Washington after Holmes 2008 arrest.

Kevin Colbert’s astute pick up of Washington paid handsome dividends in Super Bowl XLIII as Nate Washington’s last pass as a Steeler came during the game winning drive.

Kevin Colbert’s 2006 Rookie Free Agent Special Teams Stud

Anthony Madison
Anthony Madison may have only played in 59 games and started none of them for the Steelers, but those numbers by no means measure his importance to the team. Madison is an outstanding special teams player and, as John Harris from the Tribune Review predicted, the team suffered mightly when they tried to do without him in 2009.

The Steelers brought him back, and their special teams improved accordinglyu.

Kevin Colbert’s 2007 Rookie Foster Free Agent Signing

Gary Russell
As a rookie in 2007 Gary Russell ran with the power and decisiveness that led Ed Bouchette to compare him to Barry Foster. And like Foster, Russell seems to have had attitude problems which lead to his dismissal following Super Bowl XLIII.

Nonetheless, during his time in Pittsburgh, Russell filled a badly needed short-yardage specialist role and scored the first touchdown of Super Bowl XLIII.

Kevin Colbert’s 2008 “Flash” Rookie Free Agent Class

Patrick Bailey
Ultimately, Patrick Bailey disappointed, but his sharp special teams play won him 2008 rookie of the year honors.

Darnell Stapleton
Darnell Stapleton may not have had the staying power of some of the other offensive lineman on this list who made the team as undrafted rookie free agents, but he did step into the starting role when Kendall Simmons was injured against Baltimore in 2008.

And if his post-season performance and his knee injuries at Latrobe in 2009 made the coaches leery of bringing him back, Darnell Stapleton was good enough at right guard for 14 games on a Super Bowl championship team, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Kevin Colbert’s 2009 Rookie Free Agent Foursome

Who would think that four free agent rookies would make the roster of the defending Super Bowl Champions? It happened with Colbert’s 2009 free rookie agent class, and a year later three of those four would play a vital role in bringing the Steelers to the brink of capturing the team’s 7th Lombardi.

Stefan “Joystick” Logan
Stefan Logan aka “Joystick” was another 2009 training camp sensation who did a commendable job as a kick returner in 2009. The emergence of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown made Stefan Logan expendable in 2010, but he was a bright spot on an otherwise dismal special teams unit.

“Mr. Versatility” Doug Legursky
Mike Tomlin has routinely praised “position flexibility” and perhaps no player has epitomized that more than Doug Legursky throughout is 24 games played and four starts. After making the practice squad in 2008, Legursky cracked the 53 man roster in 2009 seeing spot duty.

But in 2010 the team needed every bit of of Legusrsky’s versatility, and Legursky lined up at Center, Guard, fullback, and it would surprise me none to learn that he perhaps played a few snaps at tackle.

Ramon Foster
Ramon Foster found no love on draft day 2009, but the Steelers had plenty of love for him in late 2009 when injuries thrust him into the starting line up. He began 2010 on the bench, but by mid-season Mike Tomlin sent Trai Essex to the pine and Foster again joined the starting line up all the way through Super Bowl XLV.

Isaac “Redzone” Redman
Perhaps never has a Steelers player been move of a sensation without even taking a regular season NFL snap. Isaac Redman came out of no where in training camp 2009, and even held a roster spot for one game. In 2010 he earned a full roster spot, scored the game winning touchdown against Baltimore in the regular season.

At this point the only question about Redman is why don’t the Steelers give him more carries? Not bad for a Bowie State alumni.

Kevin Colbert’s 2010 Rookie Free Agent Signing

Steve McLendon
Steve McLendon’s stats will impress few, but McLendon saw serious playing time on a brutally hot Tennessee Sunday afternoon contributing to a defensive line that shut down Chris Johnson. McLendon only saw acting in 6 other games he has shown promise.

Undrafted Rookie Free Agents – Pittsburgh’s Competitive Differentiator

Normally undrafted rookie free agents fill out training camp rosters, play special teams, and perhaps grow into role players. If a rookie free agent holds his own in spot duty then he’s considered a success. Developing into a number one back up or unheralded starter is a decided plus.

Over the past decade Colbert, his scouts, and the Steelers coaches have developed just shy of one starting-caliber rookie free agent per season, and his two greatest finds, James Harrison and Willie Parker, authored the two of the most dramatic plays in history.

The Steelers success in staying competitive speaks for itself. Outsiders marvel at their record, asking “how do they do it?”

Those on lookers need do nothing more than browse the list above.

Kevin Colbert, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin have drafted well, but their consistent success with rookie free agents has pushed Pittsburgh over the top. Lombardi’s number five and six offer proof.

Thanks for visiting! Check out previous installments of The Colbert Record. You can also follow us on Twitter @SteelCurtainRis.

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Final Comment on Larry Foote and Gary Russell

There’s been plenty of talk about Larry Foote and Gary Russell on this site, but there are two more items of interest before putting the story to bed.

No Ill Will Toward Larry But….

It is hard to wish someone who has been such a reliable player and upstanding citizen ill will, and I certainly do not desire that for Larry Foote.

But his comments about feeling “limited” by the Steelers prior to Lawrence Timmons arrival leave a little bit of a bitter aftertaste.

Larry Foote is a good player, a very good player. But has he done anything to elevate himself to the elite level of linebacking that is at the core of the Steelers defensive identity?

James Harrison has. As has James Farrior. LaMarr Woodley is giving plenty of signs he’s headed in that direction too. Joey Porter was there, as were linebackers like Levon Kirkland and Greg Lloyd before them.

I dare say no.

Foote won two Super Bowls with Pittsburgh. He has now forced his way out of the only franchise to win six Super Bowls to sign with the only team to go 0-16.

He has certainly found a place with plenty of room to grow.

Give the man credit. He signed a one year deal with an eye toward proving himself and cashing in. He is putting his money where his mouth is.

Gary Russell Redux

Ed Bouchette made a very interesting comment in his recent chat. Someone asked him if Russell would still be with the team had the Steelers chosen to move Foote earlier.

Bouchette characerized the Steelers justification that Russell had to go to clear up cap room to resign Charlie Batch was a “smoke screen.”

In his previous chat Bouchette stuck by his reporting that Russell had been cut for cap reasons, but when pressed by Steel Curtain Rising, Bouchette admitted that he only “sort of” bought the explanation.

Rumors have abounded to explain the Steelers motive for letting Russell go. All are unsubstantiated so they will not be repeated here, but suffice to say, it looks like those who thought there was something else to the story were probably correct.

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Steelers 2009 Draft Needs at Tight End, Running Back, Linebacker, and Quarterback

The Steelers primary needs heading into the 2009 draft are defensive line, offensive line, wide receiver and defensive back. There are of course four other positions, plus special teams.

The Steelers are obviously going to take someone who plays at least one of them. As with the primary need positions, the question is the same. Which takes priority?

The Steelers 2009 Draft Needs at Tight End

The Steelers are young at this position. Heath Miller is growing into one of the top tight ends in the game, and Matt Spaeth showed that he could be dangerous in the passing game. They also have Sean McHugh, who doubles at fullback.

Steeler’s Digest’s Bob Labriola has labeled drafting a back up tight end a luxury. His logic is sound, but a little short sighted.

Heath Miller will be a free agent next year, unless the league goes to an uncapped year, and then he’ll be a restricted free agent. While the Steelers can match any offer in that scenario, are they going pony up when Daniel Snyder or Jerry Jones offers Heath Miller a five year 15 million dollar a year deal?

If Matt Spaeth is developing into a nice complement to the passing game, the knock on him is that he adds nothing as a blocker. And the Steelers need help with blockers.

Tight end should not be high on the Steelers list, but if they get a shot at a good one starting in middle rounds, they should feel free to take one. Especially if he’s a tight end who can smash people.

Running Back: Shouldn’t Have Been a 2009 Draft Need But….

If the Steelers once vaunted running game never really got unleashed in 2008, they still enter 2009 when one of the league’s top running back stables. Willie Parker will return, as will 2008’s number one pick Rashard Mendenhall. The unsung hero of the 2008 season, Mewelde Moore will be backing them up. And Cary Daivs, while no world beater, will also be there both as a runner and to split fullback duties with Sean McHugh.

Why pray tell, would the Steelers draft a running back? Well, they shouldn’t. At least not in the early rounds.

After that drafting a running back makes more sense.

Here’s why.

Willie Parker is aging and has been injured for parts of the last two years. Since he played so little in college he’s probably got more left in him than many other NFL backs who’ve logged a similar number of carries. But he’s also in the final year of his contract.

Rashard Mendenhall showed some flashes before he got hurt in 2008. He really didn’t get enough carries to make an honest evaluation. And that’s the point. Mendenhall is still an unknown talent.

Mewelde Moore was the free agency steal of the 2008 off season. He’s a keeper.

Davis’ production has yet to match his apparent versatility. Its not that he’s done anything wrong, but that he really hasn’t done much. Why the Steelers kept him and let Gary Russell fall to Cincinnati remains a mystery.

Had the Steelers kept Russell and let Davis go, Steel Curtain Rising would be content to say that the Steelers could safely ignore running back in this draft.

Now we will not think them foolish if they draft for depth in mid-rounds. This is especially true if the find a running back who has the skill and speed to return kicks. (Or, heaven forbid, a true fullback….)

The Steelers (Almost) Lack of Need at Linebacker in the 2009 Draft

The Steelers had the NFL’s best linebacking corps in 2008 and should very well have the best in again 2009. They had James Harrison, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, two other Pro Bowl caliber starters, plus Larry Foote, plus Pro Bowler in waiting Lawrence Timmons. They also have a good mix of experienced and maturing talent behind them.

  • What motive could they possibly have for drafting a linebacker?

Because the make up of their linebacking corps. could well change in short order after the draft.

The Steelers have virtually no room to operate under the salary cap. They already had to cut Gary Russell for cap reasons and renegotiate Ike Taylor’s contract. If they need to cut more salary, Larry Foote’s time with the team is likely at an end.

Timmons would more than make up for the loss of Foote, but it would also thin out their depth at inside linebacker quite a bit.

But the potential they have at this position is sufficient, that they should probably relegate any linebacker pick ups until late rounds. If Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know they can keep Foote, then they can ignore linebacker in this draft.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Envy of the League at Quarterback

That the Steelers came so close to signing both Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich actually speaks volumes about how much of an asset this team is. During 2008 there were some teams that scrambled to find one man who was competent to stand under center. The Steelers were on the verge opening camp in Latrobe with three of them on their roster.

And while he played little, Dennis Dixon is showing signs that he will develop into the back up that the Steelers envisioned him being when they took him in the 5th round last year.

The Steelers will probably bring a fourth arm to camp, but give the team’s needs else where, it would be foolish to use a draft pick on a quarterback.

Thanks for visiting Steel Curtain Rising.

 

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Watch Tower: Mixed Interpretations of Gary Russell’s Departure

It took two days, but both Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette weighed in on the Steelers surprising decision to cut Gary Russell.

  • Their interpretations are slightly different.

Scott Brown is taking Kevin Colbert at his word when he says that the Steelers cut Gary Russell was cut for salary cap reasons. He even goes as far as to quote Colbert’s remarks from the pre-draft press conference:

“There could be further deletions as we move forward, depending on how our cap situation evolves.”

In a separate piece, Brown shares in the speculation that Steel Curtain Rising voiced ealier this week, namely that if the Steelers are indeed so hard up for cap space that they had to cut Gary Russell, that they’ll need to make cuts to get their draft picks.

A Slightly Different from Ed Bouchette View, Sort Of

Ed Bouchette also seemed to back Colbert’s explanation. In addition to writing about it, he accepted no less than three questions about Gary Russell’s departure from the Steelers in his on-line chat.

Each time he reiterated Colbert’s point about cutting Russell for salary cap reasons.

But Steel Curtain Rising directly questioned him as to whether or not he bought Colbert’s rational. This was his response:

Davis can do more than Russell, and I sort of buy the cap room thing. I don’t believe that Gary did anything wrong, that’s what you mean.
[Emphasis added.]

Well, what does “sort of” mean? In responding to another question, Bouchette again stated that he didn’t think Russell had done anything to anger the Steelers. But the “sort of” comment does at least suggest that he smells a hint of something else to the story.

All well and good. But before we pat ourselves on the back too hard for Steel Curtain Rising’s ace media analysis skills, an honest reading of Kevin Colbert’s complete answer indicates that the move was salary cap related.

Loose Ends

Scott Brown reported an interesting fact about the salary cap. During the off season it is only the top 51 salaries that count against the cap. Never knew that before. Not a terribly useful piece of information, but interesting nonetheless.

Bouchette’s comments about Gary Russell’s departure were slightly dismissive, saying that Russell was not another Franco Harris nor another Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala.

No real argument there, but this was slightly surprising as Bouchette compared Russell to Barry Foster during 2007 training camp, and he sung Russell’s praises at various times during the 2008 off season.

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Hines Ward, Gary Russell Make News in Steelers 2009 OTA’s

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are not set to have their annual pre-draft conference until this afternoon, but the Steelers 2009 OTA’s are already yield some news.

Is Hines Ward Intent on Staying in Put in Pittsburgh?

Hines Ward is entering the final year of his contract, and is taking a very different attiude this time around. The last time he faced this situation, in 2005, he held out for the first half of training camp. Don’t expect a similar performance this time.

When asked about this contract, he told the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette this:

The contract, we’re just going to play and whatever happens happens. I want to be a Steeler . . . I don’t want to put on another uniform. I’m late in the game now to worry about it. You look at all the previous players who went on and played for other places. I learned a lot from Jerome [Bettis], what he did. I want to go down in Steelers history to be one of the better wideouts to wear the black and gold.

Ward certainly does not sound like a man who has plans to go anywhere.

Last week, Steel Curtain Rising pointed out a comment made by Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest about Ward’s possible retirement to suggest that perhaps the Steelers Digest editor had information that either the Steelers or Ward himself, were contemplating retirement for number 86 at the conclusion of 2009.

Colbert [sort of] Explains Release of Gary Russell

Kevin Colbert also stated that Gary Russell was waived in order to make salary cap room for Charlie Batch…. Ok.

Kevin Colbert certainly knows the Steelers salary cap numbers better than Steel Curtain Rising does, but his explanation does not make sense.

  • If the Steelers needed cap space then why cut Gary Russell, who was seeing his role expanded, and not Cary Davis, who had seen his role retrenched?
  • If the Steelers are so desperate for cap space that they need to cut second year players, then who else is slated for the copping block when it comes time to sign the draft picks?

If the Steelers do do something like cut Larry Foote to free up cap space, then you’ll know Colbert is shooting straight. But if the Steelers don’t make major salary-cap related moves after the draft, that’s a pretty strong indicator that there were other factors motivating the team’s decision to part ways with Gary Russell.

 

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Steelers Cut Gary Russell

In what amounts to a minor shock, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is announcing that the Steelers have waived reserve running back Gary Russell.

Gary Russell joined the Steelers as an unrestricted rookie free agent in 2007. During training camp he drew comparisons to Barry Foster for his low center of gravity and power rushing style, but played sparingly during the 2007 regular season.

After carrying seven times in 2007, he saw his role increased in 2008, which is why this move is so surprising.

Why Cut Gary Russell Instead of Cary Davis?

Why would the Steelers cut Gary Russell? Taken at face value Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s decision to cut Gary Russell is perplexing.

Russell’s overall numbers are not that impressive, 28 carries for 77 yards, which amounts to a 2.8 average. But during mid-season Russell appeared to have carved out a niche for himself as a short yardage specialist, and a kick returner.

  • Gary Russell also flashed during the Jacksonville game that he was capable of doing damage in the open field.

By mid-season Russell established himself as the team’s “go to back” in goal line and short yardage situations, and did quite well for himself. In fact, during November, Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain argued that Russell’s role with the rushing offense should have been expanded even more (and Steel Curtain Rising concurred.) Gary Russell scored three touchdowns in the regular season, and scored the first and only rushing touchdown for the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.

Russell was not the Steelers only undrafted rookie free agent running back pick up in 2007. He joined the team with Cary Davis, who eventually replaced starting full back Dan Krieder.

That was 2007. In 2008, when the Steelers found themselves without Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall, it was Cary Davis who got the nod at running back. But as the season progressed, Cary Davis found himself phased out in favor of Sean McHugh, while Russell got the work in short yardage.

Possible Explanations for Steelers Cutting Gary Russell

As Ed Bouchette reported, the Steelers gave no reasons to explain Russell’s release. That leaves Steelers Nation wondering.

Did they simply feel they were set with Rashard Mendenhall and Willie Parker back to health and Mewelde Moore behind them? As an undrafted free agent, Russell’s salary almost certainly was not an issue, and if so why him and not Davis?

Could it be because of off the field issues – disciplinary issues kept Russell from playing more than two years at the college level? In all fairness to Russell, Steel Curtain Rising is not suggesting off the field issues were the Steelers motive, we have no information to that effect, we’re merely asking the question.

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