Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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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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McFadden to Play? – Steelers Cut Roy Lewis Re-sign Najeh Davenport

The Steelers continue to play musical chairs with their 53rd roster spot today, giving running back Najeh Davenport something to be thankful for, as he returns to the team, while cutting reserve cornerback Roy Lewis.

The Steelers released Davenport following their victory over the Washington Redskins. Lewis, who joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent had played on the team’s practice squad all year, until being activated prior to the San Diego game, when both starting corners Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden were injured.

Davenport’s return does not necessarily mean that Willie Parker will not play against New England. Parker has missed five games to injury and was taken out at half time against the Bengals when he “tweaked” his sprained MCL. It was reported that Parker suffered from swelling around the knee earlier this week, but it was reported that he returned to practice today.

In contrast, Lewis’ departure could possibly signal that Bryant McFadden will return to the line up against the Patriots this week. McFadden has been nursing a broken arm in recent weeks, and began practicing a week ago. McFadden’s return could give a boost to a secondary preparing to face off against a Matt Cassel who has passed for 400 yards in consecutive games.

Assuming he clears waivers, Roy Lewis will likley return to the Steeler practice squad.

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Steelers Cut Davenport, Sign Donovan Woods

ESPN is reporting that the Steelers have waived reserve running back Najeh Davenport to make room for the return of linebacker Donovan Woods on the roster. This is the second time in less than six months that the Steelers have cut Davenport..

This move comes as a surprise given that it has been reported that starting running back Willie Parker will not play against the Colts, and that it was only two weeks ago that Mike Tomlin described Davenport as “the only option” as a kick returner.

Davenport was waived by the Steelers in early June when he became expendable after they signed Mewelde Moore and drafted running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of the NFL draft. They quickly resigned Davenport in October after Mendenhall and running back Carey Davis were injured in a game against the Ravens, while Willie Parker was already nursing a sprained MCL.

  • During his second stint with the team, Davenport only carried twice for five yards, but he returned ten kickoffs garnering a respectable 21.5 yard average.

Linebacker Donovan Woods will play on special teams.

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Steelers Discipline Santonio Holmes – Wide Receiver to Sit Against New York

Faced with the most serious discipline crisis of his tenure as head coach, as Santonio Holmes was caught with misdemeanor marijuana possession on Thursday, Mike Tomlin acted quickly to discipline his errant wide receiver.

The Post-Gazette reported that Holmes was stopped by police in Hill District because his SUV had similar characteristics to one they believed to be carrying a large amount of narcotics. The officer stopping Holmes smelled marijuana, and asked Holmes if he had been smoking marijuana. Holmes admitted that he had done so the day before, and confessed to having a small amount of the drug in his possession.

  • Holmes was not arrested, and will be charged with a court summons.

This is not the first time a Steeler has found his way onto the police blotter during Tomlin’s time, as Najeh Davenport, James Harrison, and Cedric Wilson were all involved in domestic disputes during the past year. (Davenport was acquitted by a jury, Harrison saw the charges dropped against him, and Wilson was released from the team.)

But this incident comes on the heels of the Steelers biggest regular season match up, less than 72 hours before the reigning Super Bowl Champion New York Giants are sent to arrive at Heinz Field.

Tomlin Moves with a Firm Hand on Holmes

The importance of this match up cannot be understated. The New York Giants are 5-1, and although their play has not been flawless, they’ve played well enough to demonstrate that they are capable of making a repeat run at the Super Bowl.

While the Steelers are also 5-1, they’ve only played two teams that figure to have a serious shot at playing multiple games in January. Holmes importance to the team cannot be overstated. He has caught 22 passes this year, and while he only has one touchdown, his 16.4 yards per catch average shows just how much of a deep threat he is.

Given the urgency of the Giant’s game up, Tomlin deserves praise for taking a resolute stand. Not only did Holmes not practice today, not only will he not play against the Giants, but he has been banned from showing his face at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Afterpractice Mike Tomlin minced no words:

His situation has created somewhat of a distraction. We want to minimize that as much as we can and remain focused on the task at hand which is to compete and play against the New York Giants on Sunday…. I notified him of that and told him I would see him on Monday morning…. This is how I choose to address it and deal with it at this time. My approach and mentality in regards to the situation might be different next week. Right now I don’t have the time or patience to delve into it….

Strong, But Strong Enough?

Tomlin wasted no time in declaring Holmes inactive for the game against the Giants, and in doing so he delivered a strong message his players, but the question is, was it strong enough?

There is no mistaking Tomlin’s tone, but he stopped short of suspending Santonio Holmes.* Benching a player and banishing him from team facilities on the eve of a big game makes a clear statement, and will get the attention of the other players in the locker room.

But a suspension would have added some real sting and sent an unequivocal signal to the rest of the team.

*Yesterday, both the press reports and the Steelers website were on record as saying that Holmes had not been suspended. However, today the Post-Gazette is reporting that “He [Mike Tomlin] declined to say if Mr. Holmes had been suspended by the team or docked a game’s pay.”

Click here for Steel Curtain Rising’s speculation on how this latest incident could affect Santonio’s future with the Steelers.

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Does Arrest Jeopardize Santonio Holmes Steelers Future?

Santonio Holmes has yet to even be charged for his latest brush with the law, so the headline might seem a little premature at this stage, but precedent invites speculation.

  • In the early 1990’s when the NFL got serious about drug testing, Terry Long, Eric Green, Tim Worley, and Carlton Haselrig all got busted for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policies.

While the timetables were different for each of the men in question, the failed drug tests signaled the beginning in each case. Bam Morris was arrested for marijuana and cocaine procession and never saw another game in a Steelers uniform.

Holmes offense is minor, but it is not his first run in with the law. Santonio Holmes was arrested twice in the two months after the Steelers selected him with the 25th pick of the draft in 2006. He will likely be on the field when the Steelers travel to play the Redskins, but this latest incident must call his long-term future with the team into question.

The Steelers reputation as one of the league’s stricter teams is well deserved, but they certainly do not have a zero tolerance policy. Last spring the team released Cedric Wilson after he was accused of domestic violence, but had taken no similar action against James Harrison who’d been accused of the same crime. (Indeed, Dan Rooney set off a fire storm with his statement on the disparity in the way the team dealt with the two incidents.)

  • The Steelers are unlikely to cut Holmes, but he’s still playing on his salary cap friendly rookie contract, meaning that they could easily trade him.

Potentially this may open a window of opportunity for Nate Washington, whose value is on the rise. It is beyond a mere stretch to suggest that Washington could make Holmes expendable, but Holmes legal troubles could very mean that the Steelers will be willing to pay more to retain Nate Washington when he becomes a free agent in 2009. Until proven otherwise, legitimate questions surround Santonio Holmes Steelers future.

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Steelers Cut Najeh Davenport – Backfield Winnowing Begins

Training camp remains 29 days away, but the process of thinning out the glut at back up running back has begun. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review first reported that the Steelers have waived reserve running back Najeh Davenport, after unsuccessful attempts to trade the reserve running back.

The Steelers picked up Davenport in September 2006, after it became clear that Duce Staley was unable to serve as an effective complement to Willie Parker.

At 6-1, 245 pounds and arriving with a 4.9 yards per carry average, Najeh Davenport tantalized…. Although he did have an injury history, he appeared capable of filling big back void created by Jerome Bettis’ retirement and Stanley’s decline.

While Davenport’s did put in some solid performances and his overall numbers were respectable, he failed to deliver at key moments. The coaches opted not to use him in a goal-line situation against New England, and overall he was unable to help the team move the chains when the Steelers needed to kill the clock in crucial games.

It became clear after Willie Parker got hurt in St. Louis that Davenport would never grow beyond a role player. As a starter against Baltimore in the season finale and in the playoffs against Jacksonville, Davenport totaled 52 yards on 28 carries.

  • The signing of Mewelde Moore and the drafting of Rashard Mendenhall apparently made Davenport expendable.

Davenport was due to make one million dollars this year, and his departure gives the much needed Steelers salary cap room as they enter negotiations with their draft class.

This move also signals a vote of confidence in Gary Russell, an young back with tremendous potential. All major press reports indicated that the Steelers prefered to keep Russell over Davenport.

The Steelers also waived two other players, and must shed two more to reach the NFL’s 80 man roster limit prior to convening training camp in Latrobe on July 27th.

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Steelers Must Thin Out Glut at Back Up Running Back

No team runs the ball like the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although offensive coordinator Bruce Adrians seems intent on beefing up the passing game, Mike Tomlin has repeatedly expressed his love for attrition football.

Last year, the Steelers were in no position to play attrition football. In fact, they gave up several games in the fourth quarter. There are many reasons for these late game give aways, one of those is that they lacked the backfield to pound opponents into submission.

Until Verron Hayes rejoined the team late in the season, the team’s backfield did not feature a single back that had been drafted by the Steelers. In fact, only one of their backs, Najeh Davenport, entered the NFL through the draft. The rest were rookie free agents.

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One offeseaon has seen a dramatic change with the Steelers selection of Rashard Mendenhall in the draft and the signing of Mewelde Moore, who was Minnesota’s 4th round pick in 2004.

That gives the Steelers Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Najeh Davenport, Cary Davis and Gary Russell. (They also have Billy Lasto and Justin Vincent, neither of whom figures to hold a roster spot beyond the first mandatory cuts.)

  • That leaves six backs when the Steelers normally carry only five. Who is the odd man out?

Baring injury, Parker and Mendenhall are both locks to make the 53 man roster. You’d have to figure that Moore is too, given that the team invested significant money to sign him. He’s also projected to work as a kick returner, which is certainly a need area.

Carey Davis would appear an inside track on staying, by virtue of his play at fullback last year. Dan Krieder currently off the roster, Davis would figure to inherit the starting role. Davis averaged four yards a carry, but only had 17 of them. Davis got the nod over Krieder at certain points because of his supposed versatility, but he never did much to justify the coach’s faith in him.

The easy money would peg Gary Russell as the prime candidate depart. He played little last year, only rushing the ball 7 times for 21 yards. Russell’s potential is his upside. He drew comparisons to Barry Foster during preseason last year, and he only played two years in college. Russell has more room to grow.

Then there’s Davenport. Steel Curtin Rising speculated that the signing of Mewelde Moore might have signaled the beginning of the end for Davenport. Yet that was before that draft. Ironically, it’s conceivable that Mendenhall’s arrival actually favors Davenport making the team.

The logic is that while Davenport will never give the Steelers the 1-2 punch capability they wanted, his 500 yards, 4.7 yards rushing average, and combined 7 touchdowns do show that he can be a role player. Perhaps Mendenhall gives Davenport room to be that kind of role player. Perhaps not.

  • Heading into the Steelers OTA’s (or mini-camp as they used to call it) the weeding out process at running back comes down to three things.

Who plays full back? Here its hard not to make a sentimental plea for Dan Krieder’s return, as the man embodies attrition football. But even if Krieder is fully recovered from his injury, as Kevin Colbert asserts, one has to wonder if how much longer he’ll use his body as a human battering ram.

  • Davis has a year under his belt at FB, but he did nothing to dazzle. If Russell or Davenport can fill that role Davis could be in trouble.

Salary cap impact is the next factor. The Steelers have invested serious money in Parker, Mendenhall, and Moore. Throw in the reality that they’re paying Max Starks seven million dollars and projecting him as a back up. The team also might want to dip into the free agent pool to sign Anthony McFarland or some other offensive or defensive lineman. Najeh Davenport reportedly makes a million a year, and could easily become a cap casualty.

Finally, there is special teams. The Steelers sorely lacked special teams stand outs in 2007. If any of the three men demonstrates an ability to make an impact on special teams its safe to assume he will greatly enhance his prospects of making the team.

The success or failure of the Steelers running game hinges more on the offensive line’s run blocking, Willie Parker’s ability to bounce back from injury, and Mendenhall’s development, than who occupies the back up spots.

Nonetheless, one of the tricks to winning in the salary cap era is stocking your team with back ups that provide the best bang for the buck. Finding those players is what needs to guide this back up running back competition.

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Steelers Sign Minnesota’s Mewelde Moore – A Telling Trial of Tomlin as a Talent Evaluator?

The Steelers made a minor move in free agency yesterday by signing Minnesota running back Mewelde Moore. They project that he will work as a kick returner and compete for the third down back duties.

  • At pure face value, this move makes sense as it addresses two need areas. It is hard to offer more than this superficial analysis.

Mewelde Moore played spot duty in Minnesota, and garnered some decent stats, both as a back up and an occasional starter. His punt and kick return numbers are not stellar, but he could easily be an upgrade.

Are the Steelers tipping their hand as to what they really think of Najeh Davenport? Davenport was a great unknown going into 2007, a career back up with an injury history, but otherwise decent stats in limited playing time.

The Steelers talked good game about having confidence in Davenport, but the fact that they didn’t even once try to pound the ball in at the goal line in the 2007 debacle at New England speaks volumes. Davenport did show flashes, but overall Davenport did little to indicate that he was anything beyond a serviceable back up.

Regardless, this move could tell us a lot more than the Steelers’ real feelings about Davenport. Moore is coming in form Minnesota, so it is a safe assumption that Mike Tomlin had a big role in his acquisition.

Therefore, this move bears watching because it serves as another test of Tomlin’s ability to evaluate free agent talent. One of the real knocks against Tomlin in his rookie year were his personnel moves. Sean Mahan’s play at center was woeful at best, and Allen Rossum’s play at kick returner was extraordinarily average.

These were Tomlin’s two signature signings, and both decisions turned out to be pretty poor. As the Steelers sign Mewelde Moore, looking forward, it will be revealing to see how Tomlin fares in this third talent evaluation test.

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