You’ve heard the cliché again and again, and if you are football-wise you know how true it rings -- it all starts upfront, it all starts in the trenches. The trenches then, are where this four-part series will begin.
The Offensive Line
Considered a force in 2001, Russ Grimm’s boys declined a bit last season, and this year must replace what amounts to two starters at offensive tackle. Starter Marvel Smith will slide over to Tommy Maddox’s blindside with swingman Oliver Ross taking his place on the right. Wayne Gandy, the starter at left tackle each of the last four seasons, is now a well-paid Saint in New Orleans. The interior, however, returns intact. For the time being anyway.
Smith, guards Alan Faneca and Kendall Simmons, and center Jeff Hartings give the Steelers a solid foundation upfront. Pro Bowler Faneca and Steelers rookie-of-the-year Simmons are signed through 2007, Hartings through 2006. In the wings is promising third-year pivot Chukky Okobi and reserve guard Keydrick Vincent. Smith is expected to make a smooth transition to LT and was the team’s best lineman in 2002. Hartings should return to form after struggling with injuries much of last season, and Faneca still went to Hawaii despite an off year.
While Simmons played well as a rookie, exhibiting excellent quickness and athleticism, he was manhandled at times. He’ll need to get stronger and hone his technique, but he is the starter at RG for the long haul. Ross -- a valuable commodity coming off the bench -- was an abject failure as a starting guard last September, and while he is said to be better suited to play tackle, the proof is in the pudding. The Steelers brought in former Jaguars swingman Todd Fordham for competition, known around these parts as the man that shut down Jason Gildon. Hmmm…
Both Ross and Fordham have significant starting experience the last two years and one of them should prove sufficient at RT. An injury to Smith, Ross, or Fordham, however would place third-year tackle and Grimm project Mathias Nkwenti one-step closer to the field. The next down Nkwenti plays will be his first. His competition is even less reassuring. Worse yet, Smith, Okobi, Vincent, and Nkwenti, are all free agents of one kind or another next spring, leaving the Steelers with little more than their three interior starters under contract for 2004. Both Hartings and Faneca have restructured their already large contracts once each and hit the cap at a combined $10 million beginning next year, a figure that will only grow in subsequent years. Hartings could be a cap casualty as early as 2005, especially if the team is successful in retaining the underrated Okobi.
The front office is expected to lock up Smith prior to the season in the proactive get-him-before-he-gets-too-good manner that netted them Hines Ward’s undervalued deal in 2001. All Ward has done is light the league on fire; the belief is that Marvel may do the same. Of the three restricted free agents, Okobi will draw the most interest from teams around the league. He and Vincent are keepers, but a premium pick will likely replace Nkwenti and/or one of the veteran RT candidates next spring. That pick becomes even more crucial should Smith struggle at LT. Still, barring a Ross implosion at RT, the Steelers line should be a more physical bunch than the line that featured Gandy on the left, Smith on the right, and the rookie Simmons inside. That bodes well for both the running game and Tommy Maddox’s longevity.
The Defensive Line
On the other side of the ball is the rock on which the 3-4 defense is built -- the defensive line. Nosetackle Casey Hampton, a first-rounder in 2001, and ends Aaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen, have made stars and rich men out of Steelers linebackers Gildon, Joey Porter, and soon will do the same for 2001 defensive-rookie-of-the-year Kendrell Bell. All three starters are locked up through 2005.
Hampton, as you are well aware by now, is a rising star in this league. Recently the Sporting News rated him the fourth best tackle overall in the NFL, a slap in the face, certainly. Smith is the prototypical 3-4 defensive end, both stout against the run, and a handful as a passrusher. Off the bench are two big, young, fast passrushing ends competing for playing time. The question is, which one will ultimately spell the end for von Oelhoffen -- Rodney Bailey or Brett Keisel?
While von Oelhoffen is a selfless workhorse against the run, he offers little rushing the passer opposite the dynamic Smith. The Steelers thought enough of him to extend his contract last spring, but now count the one-dimensional, two-down defender at nearly $3 million a year through 2005. Hampton’s back-up, third-year nosetackle Kendrick Clancy, has done little since being selected in the third round of the 2000 draft. The undersized Clancy appeared in just seven games last year, and may have to fight for his job this summer.
While the depth outside is up-and-coming, neither Bailey nor Keisel can be confused with Smith. An injury to Hampton could well prove catastrophic. Clancy and von Oelhoffen, the starter on the nose in 2000, are the only legitimate back-ups inside. Each play a penetrating, gap-shooting style that will expose the inside linebackers; neither offer the space-eating brute power that makes Hampton special. Kimo struggled with injuries in 2002, and a move inside may well exacerbate that problem. On the contract front, Bailey and Clancy are restricted and unrestricted free agents respectively in 2004. A release of the 32-year old von Oelhoffen next spring would carry with it a cap hit of approximately $2.85 million.
Injuries however can strike anywhere and in today’s watered-down NFL, no team is deep enough to replace players the caliber of Smith and Hampton without significant drop-off. Steeler fans know that all too well after Bell’s struggles last season. Truth is, beyond Kimo’s contract, the defensive line is in great shape. The bulked-up Keisel continues to turn heads this spring, and Bailey will push von Oelhoffen hard for playing time. Bailey will be tough to hang on to in 2004, however; passrushers of his ilk are highly coveted. Of course, the same was said about Clark Haggans.
:: Despite a sore hammy, former Tennessee track star Justin Gatlin has been blowing the doors off the indoor track circuit of late. Not long ago, Gatlin was feverishly chasing undrafted free agent wide receiver Leonard Scott. Scott, Gatlin’s mentor and running mate on the Volunteers 4x400 relay team, offers world-class speed, if not world-class hands, to the Steelers receiving corps. The money here says he’s a lock for the practice squad.
:: Though it has caused a stir, the addition of NFL Europe DE Jabari Issa is rather benign. While guys of his size are tough to find, guys with his production are a dime-a-dozen. If he makes the team, it will cost Chris Hoke his job, unless of course, Hoke beats out Clancy at NT. Either way, neither will dress.
:: An alarming trend is beginning to develop. Issa is the second free agent lineman to sign with the Steelers in the last month, Calvin Collins being the first. Both were released by the expansion Houston Texans last September. Please, enough hype.
:: John Fiala’s decision to retire rather than accept a contract offer from the Houston Texans leaves the door open for his return should injuries hit the Steelers linebacking corps hard this season. Is that a good thing?
Let this one marinate …
After Marvel Smith, the Steelers will likely turn their attention towards inside linebacker Kendrell Bell and wide receiver Plaxico Burress. Both players enter the final year of their respective deals in 2004. When those deals are done, if those deals are done, somebody will lose their job. In fact, several players may. That is why John Fiala is gone, and why Mike Logan and Brent Alexander won’t be around next spring. That is why Mark Bruener will eat his pride and take a paycut. And why Kendrick Clancy won’t get any love as he approaches unfettered free agency. It’s why Jerome Bettis better have a monster year, and Dewayne Washington and Jason Gildon need to prove they’re worth their exorbitant salaries. It’s why Dan Kreider better knock Ray Lewis on his butt again this season not once but twice, and why Tommy Maddox can’t afford to take a step back. Bell and Burress, two of the game’s rising young stars, will be Steelers in 2005 and beyond, that is a given. The rest is up for discussion.