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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Keeping up with the Rooks

After training camp and two preseason games, the coaches should be well on their way to deciding the final 53 man roster. The Steelers have 20 of 22 starters returning and didn't lose much depth, which makes it hard for unproven rookies to make the team. But unlike years past, this class of rookies seems to be drawing raves from coaches, players, and onlookers.

I'm stuck in the Rocky Mountains, so I don't have any information other than the preseason games and what I've read in articles, blogs, and camp reports. But that won't stop me from analyzing each rookie and their shot of making the squad.

Ziggy Hood
Ziggy Hood has performed like the Steelers front office hoped he would. In addition to his talent, the front office loved his work ethic and attitude. Hood moved to Pittsburgh prior to signing a contract so he could adapt to his new home prior to training camp. He signed a contract early and has drawn nothing but praise from everyone that's worked with him. He recorded a sack in the first preseason game and applied pressure on a play that resulted in an interception. He was credited with two sacks in the second preseason game. Granted, he's learning a completely new system and probably has less pressure and a more limited role- back up defensive end and spot duty on passing downs -than any other 2009 first round pick because of the pedigree of the players in front of him. Nonetheless, the following comments are exactly what you want to hear about your first round pick.

"He's ahead of anybody I've seen coming in," said Aaron Smith. "He's a talented kid. He's a smart kid. He understands it more than the rest of us did as a rookie. I would have cut me my rookie year." Then Smith added, "There's a reason he's a first-rounder. Usually, a first-rounder is the complete package. He's a big, strong kid who works hard. He is the complete package.

"He's progressed faster than anybody I've ever seen do it before," Smith said. "He's still got a ways to go, but as far as a rookie in camp, he's progressed much faster than I've ever seen."
Smith said Hood has done so well through the first half of training camp that he expects the former Missouri star to make an impact this season even though the Steelers are deep at defensive end. He's going to be a really good player for a really long time," Smith said. "He gets it. He's a smart kid and works hard."

"Hood, the Steelers' top draft pick, has the look of a future star - or at least as much of a star as defensive linemen can be in this defense." - Jim Wexell

Likelihood of making team: 100%

Kraig Urbik
Of any player the Steelers drafted in the 2009 draft, Kraig Urbik was expected to have the greatest chance of becoming a starter. Darnell Stapleton struggled in spots during 2008 season and was expected to be pushed by the rookie guard from Wisconsin. As predicted, Stapleton will likely lose the starting job, but it will be to Trai Essex and not Kraig Urbik. Urbik has been the most disappointing of all the rookies. He has lacked power against the defensive lineman and generally looks lost. Early on in camp, he became Tomlin's "whipping boy" after making repeated mistakes. In the first preseason game, he failed generate much push off the line against Arizona's third team. His play against Washington wasn't much better.
"Ramon Foster is a better player than Kraig urbik. Urbik, frankly, is too soft. And I'm stunned" - Jim Wexell

"The second practice — when we started doing one-on-ones — that was a huge, rude awakening," said Urbik, one of three third-round picks the Steelers made in the NFL draft at the end of April. "You have to have perfect technique every time. I did bad on it, so it's really an eye-opener that you really have to hone your technique."

Likelihood of making team: 70%
The Steelers will give Urbik a chance to improve. It would be awfully rare for the front office to cut its second pick in the draft without giving him at least a year to develop.

Mike Wallace
No one in the rookie class - maybe no one on the team - has drawn as many raves as Mike Wallace. The receiver out of Ole Miss ran the second fastest 40 time at the combine -a wicked fast 4.33 - that was only surpassed by Darrius Heyward-Bey. He was drafted to provide depth at wide receiver and to take the top off opposing defenses. Well if anyone was worried that Wallace's speed wouldn't transfer from the track to the football field, worry no more. Nearly every time he's mentioned it's followed by "really fast," "visibly fast," "fastest Steeler," "Damn he's fast," or "nice mohawk." The speed isn't surprising, but his abilities to run routes has been. He's been running a variety of routes, including going over the middle to take some hits by overzealous DBs, with precision. And nearly every day there is a report that he caught a deep TD pass or that he was open and the QB underthrew him. If not for the development of Limas Sweed, Wallace would have the inside track at the #3 wide receiver spot. Not to mention, he also will provide speed at kick returner, where the Steelers will be happy not to have short yardage backs returning kicks.

The only critique on Wallace is his tendency to drop a pass every now and then - a trait shared by many Steeler wide receivers. Wallace had a nice first preseason game with 2 catches for 35 yards and a 35 yard return. He also got open deep, but Dennis Dixon underthrew him. He was also solid against Washington.


"He's one of fastest I've ever run against," said cornerback Ike Taylor, generally acknowledged by his teammates as the fastest Steelers player. "Nobody's really running like him right now."

"He's one of those guys who will go in what I call the combat zone -- inside those numbers, between the hashes," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "He's not afraid to go in the combat zone. It takes special cats to go in there. A lot of guys like to play out there by those numbers, especially those fast guys, and he hasn't shied away at all."

Rookie Mike Wallace continues to impress at training camp, showing off great hands in addition to great speed. - Jim Wexell

"Wallace just ran a reverse and all I can say is I cant wait till the season. O, and there's a screen to him. Wow" - Jim Wexell

"Four things stood out about rookie receiver Mike Wallace in the early days of training camp: He has a Mohawk haircut, he has speed, he has a tattoo of the New Orleans Saints on his neck, and he dropped his share of passes."

Likelihood of making team: 100%

Keenan Lewis & Joe Burnett

It's rare to read about one without reading about the other so I'll lump these two cornerbacks together.

Keenan Lewis - Mike Wallace's high school teammate has received positive remarks in training camp for his ball skills and positioning. Lewis is a big cornerback, 6'1" and 210 lbs, who is expected to provide physical, bump-and-run type coverage for the team. He's been compared to Ike Taylor in build and style of play. Other than generic praise for Lewis, I haven't seen much written about him. Dick Lebeau seems to have positive remarks. That's good enough for me. Lewis has been quiet in both preseason games, but, as a cornerback, that's not always a bad thing.

Joe Burnett - After watching the preseason games, my one thought about Burnett - man is he small. But there are successful corners in the NFL the same size as Burnett, 5'10" and 190 lbs. The cornerback out of Southern Florida confirmed his reputation as a playmaker by intercepting multiple passes at training camp and picking a pass against the Cardinals. Thought t have potential to make the team as a returner, Burnett has fumbled two punt returns in the preseason - a quick way to get relegated to Ricardo Colcough-style hatred in the burgh.


"You would probably compare [Lewis] to Ike," DB coach Ray Horton told reporters. "He's 6-foot, 200 pounds and runs a 4.55 (40-yard dash). He'll be able to run up the field with men just like Ike. You have to stop the run and make (teams) throw the ball and he is a big, physical corner, a la Ike."

"I'm going to the Super Bowl," said Lewis, a cornerback from Oregon State who was drafted in the third round. "I'll find anyway I can, even if it's on special teams. That's my goal -- to help this team get back to the Super Bowl. Whatever I can do to enhance the situation, I'm going to do."

Q:Do you think Keenan Lewis makes the team??
Ed Bouchette: Yes, he's looked very good in training camp. I don't see how he doesn't make it.

Rookie cornerback Keenan Lewis is setting his goals high. “Definitely (NFL Defensive) Rookie of the Year and I want to go to the Pro Bowl,” he said. “If I can’t do that, I fail.” Strong words for a third-round draft pick who isn’t even a starter. So why would he put his goals so high? “I feel I’m ready,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to start (this year), but I feel I will have the opportunity to play. Special teams, anything. Hopefully, I’ll get in on defense.”

"But, all in all, Burnett looks like not only a keeper but a potentially dynamic player for the Steelers."

"Anatomically speaking, they're different," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "But they're both quality corners. Both have been very impressive in balls drills and passing drills and being able to relate to the ball in the air and make some plays with the ball in the air.
"That has been the single-most pleasing factor -- they don't tense up with the ball in the air and they both make plays on the ball."

"They are right where they should be, right where we expected them to be," said secondary coach Ray Horton. "We couldn't be more pleased with them."

Likelihood of making team:

Lewis - 70%
Burnett - 40%

These numbers are just a guess, but I think Lewis and Ratliff beat Burnett for the final corner spots and Stefan Logan takes the punt return duties. Lewis has the edge over Burnett due to his size.

Frank Summers
Frank "the Tank" quickly became a fan favorite because his size and power provided Pittsburgh with its next big running back. However, Summers has received very few reps at running back. The coaches seem to think he is better suited for fullback, which is probably not a good development for the Tank. He'll be battling coach favorite Carey Davis and TE-FB hybrids Sean McHugh and David Johnson. Summers provided several nice blocks on touchdowns against the Cardinals, but I don't remember seeing him against the Redskins. The real potential for Summers to make the team is through his special teams play.

Steelers RB Frank "The Tank" Summers has been working at fullback, but incumbent Carey Davis is a better blocker and special teams player. Summers has struggled learning the offense and may end up on the practice squad. - CBS

dmsteel: Gene do you see Frank Summers making the Team?
Gene Collier: They don't like to cut draft picks, but Frank would be a longshot at this point. He hasn't wowed anybody.

"I love special teams. It's a time for me to really hit somebody without carrying the ball, just to run 60 or 50 yards downfield like a crazy man. I love to play the sport of football. Special teams is my favorite part of the game; anytime people were punting or kicking off, that was my favorite part." -Frank Summers

Likelihood of making team: 35%

Sonny Harris
Keeping in line with the Steelers draft persona, the team selected defensive tackle Sonny Harris in the sixth round of the draft. He was injured early on in training camp, so there hasn't been much buzz about Sonny. But Harris played very well against the Cardinals. He had a tackle, half a sack, a quarterback hit, and brought consistent pressure. I don't think he is much more than a practice squad player at this point, but John Mitchell may be able to make a man out of him in the future.

Quotables: “Yeah, Sonny’s played real well,” said Aaron Smith, the veteran defensive end. “To me, he’s the biggest surprise."

Jim Wexell reported that Sonny Harris scored out very well in the first preseason game.
Likelihood of making team: 20%

AQ Shipley
The winner of college football's best center award fell to the 7th round of the draft due to concerns about his size and short arms. Pittsburgh was happy to grab the Penn State lineman and Pittsburgh native and the fans seemed pleased about the pick as well. After an initial surge of excitement, there hasn't been much mentioned about Shipley. He's currently behind starter Justin Hartwig and backup Doug Legursky, which means his chance of making the squad this year is virtually nil. Still, he is a nice developmental prospect on the practice squad.

Likelihood of making team: 10%

David Johnson
David Johnson was a relatively unknown TE/FB hybrid out of football powerhouse Arkansas State. When drafted, he seemed like nothing more than camp fodder to provide competition with Sean McHugh. But, coaches and reporters are raving about Johnson's blocking ability. So much so, that he may have the inside track for the third tight end spot and may start as a fullback (in the few instances Arians uses one). He provided key blocks on both of Isaac Redman's touchdown runs against the Cardinals.

"He's the first guy I've ever seen knock James Harrison an inch backward," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "Not a foot, but an inch, anyway. He's just so powerful when we put him up against linebackers. And against our defensive ends, he really stood out. You talk to those guys, they say, 'Man, this kid's got some punch.' And he can run and catch.

"If he continues to come around, we might have found a jewel because that's the guy who can also play fullback," Arians said.

“He’s good. He’s got a lot of potential,” said Heath Miller. “He’s big but he’s not that tall, so he’s got a lot of leverage on people. He’s explosive, too. But he looked good in the spring and he’s definitely looked pretty good here in camp.

Steelers rookie David Johnson has the edge over Sean McHugh for the third TE spot. Johnson is a powerful blocker and has decent hands. He's also versatile, having lined up at fullback in goal-line situations. - CBS Camp Reports
Likelihood of making team: 50%

Ramon Foster
Nearly every year an undrafted rookie makes the final roster for the Steelers. Ramon Foster will be that guy. His draft stock plummeted after a terrible workout, but the former Tennessee Volunteer has proved his worth in camp. He's played well enough at left guard that the team has started giving him reps at left tackle as well. A clear sign that coaches want him to develop position flexibility, a necessity for back up lineman that make the roster.

While Harris seems destined for the practice squad, the other No. 73 [Ramon Foster] has become a roster lock. Foster, the undrafted rookie out of Tennessee, had the best second quarter of any of the Steelers’ second-teamers Thursday night. The staff likes him so much that they’ve moved him to tackle this week in the hope he can become a game-day swing player off the bench.

“He gives us that big guy in there who can move a bit,” said line coach Larry Zierlein, who knew coming into camp that Foster would challenge for a roster spot. Yeah, there were some expectations for him, but he’s given us a tad more than what I thought he might. It’s early. It remains to be seen whether he can be consistent, but I think he’s got a future.”

"Chris Kemoeatu out. Hope that means Ramon Foster starts. May be best run blocker on team." - Jim Wexell

Likelihood of making team: 80%

Isaac Redman
The little known running back from Bowie State made headway in Steelers camp when he scored twice in the goal line drill. He made national (and fantasy football) news when he scored twice from the goal line in the first preseason game. That earned him a promotion to play with the big boys. Going against the Steelers first team defense, Redman scored three times in the goal line drill. A showing good enough that Tomlin used him in all 7 goal line attempts. He scored on five of them. It appears that Redman is battling Frank Summers and Stefan Logan for the fifth running back spot, behind Parker, Mendenhall, Moore, and, inexplicably, Carey Davis. Redman will need to continue his stellar goal line play and show something in special teams to make the squad.
-Steelers RB Isaac Redman has been the unquestioned surprise of camp. The undrafted Bowie State product is ahead of RB Frank "The Tank" Summers for the final backfield spot. - CBS Rapid reports
"You guys saw what I saw, he got in the end zone a bunch," Tomlin said. "He's still got a ways to go. That's the process. No question he represented himself pretty well."

The Steelers have a new folk hero on their hands, an undrafted, mostly unwanted rookie who has become one of the remarkable stories of this training camp." - Ed Bouchette

"Hopefully we will get some more looks at him against some varsity guys, if you will," Tomlin said of Redman after the game. "He did a nice job with what he was faced in front of tonight. We are not going to make too much out of it."
Likelihood of making team: 50%

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