NFL Nation: Limas Sweed

PITTSBURGH -- ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay don’t always agree when evaluating draft-eligible players. But their thinking falls along the same lines when it comes to Steelers fourth-round draft pick Martavis Bryant.

Kiper listed the former Clemson wide receiver as one five offensive players drafted in the later rounds who could make an immediate impact in the NFL. McShay also said that Bryant has a chance to contribute early for the Steelers.

“He does a really nice job of getting off the line and he’s a vertical route runner,” McShay said. “You’ve got a big, strong-armed quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger and you want a guy that can stretch the field vertically. There’s some boom or bust there, but when you get him in the fourth round you’re not worried so much about the risk factor. If he focuses and does all the right things he could wind up being a real steal from this class.”

[+] EnlargeMartavis Bryant
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesMartavis Bryant's size and speed could help the WR earn plenty of playing time as a rookie.
The 6-foot-4, 212-pound Bryant gives the Steelers the tall wide receiver that the offense has lacked. His 40-yard dash time (4.42 seconds) at the NFL scouting combine as well as his career yards per catch (22.2) at Clemson validate his potential as a big-time deep threat.

And he started only one season at Clemson where first-round picks DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins overshadowed Bryant, meaning he is far from a finished product -- something that should excite the Steelers’ coaches as well as challenge them.

“He’s what I have been hunting,” Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann said. “Probably had he played more [at Clemson], stayed for another year, he would have been a first-rounder for sure. I think all that he needs to learn we will teach it to him.”

Bryant slipped to the fourth round of the draft because of concerns about his maturity as well as his inconsistency as a pass-catcher. The Steelers hosted Bryant for a pre-draft visit and were comfortable enough after what they heard from him to think that he will be fine in the right environment.

As for the drops he had in college, Mann said that is something that can be easily corrected and can probably be traced to Bryant’s hand placement or his trying to run before securing a catch.

“He does a really good job of tracking the ball and catching it over the top,” Mann said. “A lot of times guys can’t do it and it’s very hard to teach.”

McShay agreed that Bryant’s ball skills are undeniable.

“He was inconsistent catching the ball but he also makes tough catches,” McShay said, “and he can adjust to the ball below his waist, over his head, behind his body.”

It is way too premature to get overly excited about Bryant, who takes part in the Steelers' three-day rookie minicamp that starts on Friday.

Fred Gibson, the last physically gifted wide receiver that the Steelers drafted in the fourth round (2005), didn’t even make it out of training camp. And for all of the buzz created by the second-round selection of Limas Sweed in 2008, the former Texas standout caught just seven career passes for the Steelers.

Chronic drops were one of the reasons why the Steelers released Sweed in 2011.

One thing that Mann won’t do is speculate on how big of a role Bryant will have in the Steelers’ offense as a rookie. But he also won’t rule out Bryant challenging for the starting job opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.

“You have to come in and work because we have other guys in the room,” Mann said. “Potentially he will be a starter, you just never know. You play the best. That’s how you win.”
Here is the latest edition of the Steelers' mailbag. Any questions that I received but did not answer here are at the top of the list for next week. Great questions again, and please keep them coming. Send to @ScottBrown_ESPN with hashtag #steelersmail.

If the Steelers had lost to the Bengals, a lot of criticism this week would be directed at wide receiver Mike Wallace.

He dropped four passes in the 24-17 win over the Bengals, including a deflected pass in the end zone. It's like Wallace turned into Limas Sweed all of a sudden.

Wallace
Wallace
Wallace now has five drops in six games this season, which accounts for 10.4 percent of his targets. This is very unusual for Wallace, who had only dropped passes on 2.9 percent of his targets in his first three seasons in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He had never dropped more than four passes in a single season.

Asked about his drops, Wallace said, "I should have caught [them]. Bottom line, I didn't. I'll make up for it next week. We got the win, so I feel good about it."

Could this be the result of Wallace missing every practice this spring and summer over a contract dispute? Could it be that a potential soon-to-be free agent was pressing on national television?

Whatever the reason, not everyone feels as good as Wallace about the drops.

“The tape is the tape. He’s [Wallace] got to catch the ball in a consistent manner,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “He didn’t do it tonight. We’ll get back to work, and hopefully he’ll be better next week.”

The Steelers consistently looked to Wallace despite his struggles Sunday night. He was targeted 15 times, which was nearly double any other teammate.
“I don’t shy away from them even with drops,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I will always have confidence in them no matter what. These guys all hold themselves to a really high standard, and it just shows how valuable these guys are to our attack.”
LATROBE, Pa. -- Distractions and controversy? What distractions and controversy?

The opening of training camp was business as usual for the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite offseason incidents that ranged from Hines Ward's arrest to Rashard Mendenhall's misuse of Twitter to James Harrison ripping commissioner Roger Goodell and teammates, players quickly deflected any issues and seemed genuinely happy to get back to work.

The Steelers believe their off-the-field problems are a thing of the past, and the team is ready to move forward and attempt to make another title run in 2011.

"Any time we come to training camp, our goal is the Super Bowl," Ward said. "Anything less than the Super Bowl is a down year for us. Having experienced and tasted a loss in the Super Bowl is not a good feeling. So, hopefully we can get back there and come out on the winning side."

The Steelers have a lot of work to do before the start of the regular season. Here are some early questions:

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. How will the Steelers get under the cap?

According to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Steelers have until Thursday to get under the $120 million salary cap. Despite a flurry of roster moves last week, Pittsburgh remains about $7 million to $10 million over, which is where the team started this summer.

The Steelers made several key salary cuts, including veteran receiver Antwaan Randle El and offensive tackles Max Starks and Flozell Adams. But the re-signings of in-house free agents such as cornerback Ike Taylor have basically nullified those moves.

Expect more tough decisions to be made this week.

"We have to find ways to get under [the cap] and in compliance," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "We're going to look at every and all possibilities."

There is some good news for the Steelers.

The new CBA allows teams to use three $1 million exceptions in 2011, and Colbert says he will use them all. Teams have this onetime flexibility to add an extra $3 million to the cap, which essentially brings the Steelers' number up to $123 million. This could allow Pittsburgh to retain some veterans it otherwise would lose.

[+] EnlargeIke Taylor
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesIke Taylor has 11 interceptions in eight NFL seasons.
2. Has Pittsburgh fixed its pass defense?

The last memory Steelers fans have of their defense is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers carving up the secondary for 304 yards and three touchdowns in Super Bowl XLV. Since then, Pittsburgh hasn't made any significant additions to the secondary, leaving many to wonder whether this problem is fixed.

Because Pittsburgh is fielding the same players in the secondary, it's difficult to imagine the pass defense being better than it was last season. The Steelers re-signed veteran corners Taylor and William Gay and drafted rookies Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.

"You can't worry about what people think outside the locker room, because we've been so successful on the field," Taylor said of the criticism. "So it really doesn’t matter. Everybody has their own opinion. It comes with the territory."

Expect many teams to spread the Steelers out this season by using three- and four-receiver sets. That will force backups such as Gay or some of the young corners to play important roles on the defense.

3. How thin is Pittsburgh's offensive line?

Pittsburgh's offensive line could be the thinnest group in the league.

Outside of second-year center Maurkice Pouncey, who is a stud, the rest of the line is littered with questions. Jonathan Scott plays the important role of left tackle and was inconsistent last year. Guards Ramon Foster and Chris Kemoeatu are decent run-blockers but struggle in pass protection. And right tackle Willie Colon is coming off an Achilles injury that forced him to miss the entire 2010 season.

Cutting Starks and Adams severely hurt the talent and depth of this group. Those were two of the most experienced linemen Pittsburgh had. Cap issues make it unlikely the team will sign another starting offensive lineman in free agency.

"You can't go into it and expect to have veteran depth at every position," Colbert admitted. "It just doesn't work out financially. You have to trust some of your young guys."

[+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesMaurkice Pouncey is the rock of the Pittsburgh offensive line.
BIGGEST SURPRISE

It's only the first weekend of camp, but backup cornerback Keenan Lewis has been a pleasant surprise. Lewis is gaining valuable experience working with the first-team defense. Taylor signed a four-year contract in free agency and isn't allowed to practice with the team until later this week.

Despite a rocky two years in Pittsburgh, Lewis is a good athlete. He has good size and quickness and is making fewer mental mistakes, which is key. The competition for the important nickel role in the secondary will be intense this summer, and Lewis could have the inside track.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

With the lengthy NFL lockout, someone was bound to show up out of shape. Backup running back Jonathan Dwyer was that person for the Steelers.

I expected to see more from Dwyer, a sixth-round pick in 2009. But he struggled mightily during the conditioning evaluations and hasn't done much in the practices. The Steelers' running back corps is deep, and Dwyer is definitely on the roster bubble.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • I like the swagger this year of Pittsburgh's "Young Money" crew of receivers. Last year, Mike Wallace was going into his first year as a starter, and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were rookies just trying to fit in. But you can see that last year's success, particularly in the second half of the season and the playoffs, has helped this group and improved confidence. Instead of getting yelled at by Ward, Wallace is on top of everything so far in practice and is even helping Ward tutor other receivers. Sanders and Brown look much more comfortable in their roles and are displaying the same quickness and competitiveness they showed last year.
  • Pouncey already looks scary-good in his second season. In my seven years covering the NFL, I've never seen a center who moves as well and fluidly as Pouncey. Last week, longtime NFL writer Damon Hack of Sports Illustrated and I were sitting next to each other watching Pittsburgh's conditioning evaluation. We were amazed with how easily Pouncey, who is listed at 304 pounds, was running 100-yard sprints, while the rest of the linemen were lagging far behind. Pound for pound, Pouncey is easily one of the top athletes on the Steelers.
  • Linebacker Lawrence Timmons appears to have added considerable muscle in his upper body. Timmons, who is in a contract year, said he trained mostly in Florida this summer. Timmons also is one of the best pure athletes on the team. The key will be for him to maintain his quickness and acceleration while also adding strength.
  • The fact that the Steelers tried hard to recruit big receiver Plaxico Burress says a lot about the status of Limas Sweed. The former second-round pick enters this training camp on thin ice and is down to his last shot. Sweed is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and had issues with drops before that. Pittsburgh is taking the approach that anything it gets from Sweed is considered a bonus. He is currently the No. 5 receiver.
  • Keep an eye on rookie seventh-round pick Baron Batch. The running back has showed good explosiveness through the hole and the ability to pass-protect, which is very valuable. He has been a pleasant surprise in camp so far.
  • Overall, Pittsburgh's situation at running back is getting crowded. Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Batch were all impressive during the first weekend of training camp. The Steelers also re-signed veteran backup Mewelde Moore. There were rumors about Tiki Barber being interested in the Steelers, but I don't see it. Pittsburgh has considerable depth at that position.
  • Finally, another sleeper who is actually having a good camp is backup tight end and de facto fullback David Johnson. What the third-year veteran lacks in athleticism he makes up in effort. Although not his specialty, he's made several nice receptions in practice and remains one of the best run-blockers on the team. The Steelers are still in the market for a No. 2 tight end after the departure of Matt Spaeth to the Chicago Bears.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 17, 2011
3/17/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.

Baltimore Ravens

Best choice: The Ravens were fortunate the Cleveland Browns were willing to do business with a division rival in 2006 when Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata became available. Cleveland considered Ngata but liked linebacker Kamerion Wimbley more and traded picks with Baltimore, allowing the Ravens to select Ngata with the 12th pick in the first round. Five years later, Ngata is arguably the best defensive lineman in the NFL and one reason future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, 35, continues to play at a high level.

Worst choice: The Ravens haven't had a lot of big misses, but 2009 second-round pick Paul Kruger is a candidate with two uneventful years in Baltimore. Too often Kruger failed to make the active roster because he doesn't contribute much on special teams. Last year Kruger gained weight to focus solely on playing defensive end but was a backup in 11 games and recorded one tackle and a sack. In two years he has only 12 tackles, a sack and an interception. This is a big third season for Kruger to find a role in Baltimore's defense.

On the bubble: There was a lot of optimism in Baltimore when former Texas linebacker Sergio Kindle fell to the second round last year. The Ravens drafted Kindle in hopes that he could be the pass-rushing threat they were looking for opposite Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs. But an unfortunate accident last summer resulted in a fractured skull and kept Kindle out of football last season. Baltimore is optimistic about his recovery but has to wait to see when Kindle will be cleared to play football again.

Cincinnati Bengals

Best choice: The Bengals took cornerbacks in the first round back-to-back years in 2006 and 2007, starting with Johnathan Joseph. He has developed into one of the better cover corners in the NFL and has nine interceptions the past two seasons. Joseph is now a free agent and appears ready to join a long list of solid Bengals draft picks who bolted in free agency. The market for corners is starting at $10 million per season and Cincinnati doesn't seem interested in going that high for Joseph.

Worst choice: Despite several red flags, the Bengals were enamored with Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith in the 2009 draft and took him No. 6 overall. There were questions about Smith's weight and worth ethic entering the draft, and many of those concerns still exist two years later. Smith also suffered two foot injuries that required surgery and has only five career starts. The Bengals have the option of extending Smith's contract from four to six years this offseason, but that seems unlikely after two disastrous seasons.

On the bubble: Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga had a good rookie year in 2009 but followed it up with an average campaign last season. Now, 2011 is considered a swing season for Maualuga, a second-round pick, to prove himself. Cincinnati's coaching staff is challenging Maualuga to become the physical, dominant force he was at USC. He showed flashes of it as a rookie. The Bengals could move Maualuga to his natural position of middle linebacker this season, which could help put Maualuga in his comfort zone.

Cleveland Browns

Best choice: The Browns went with the safest pick in 2007 by selecting left tackle Joe Thomas No. 3 overall, which was a slam dunk. Thomas is one of the NFL's best left tackles and has been to the Pro Bowl in all four seasons. Cleveland's biggest issue is finding a quality quarterback for Thomas to protect. Thomas also is entering a contract year in 2011, and it would be wise for Cleveland to provide an extension before he hits the open market in 2012.

Worst choice: The Browns have had a lot of misses the past five years, but former second-round pick David Veikune gets my vote. Veikune was a surprise pick by former coach Eric Mangini in 2009 and was a bust from the start. He quickly fell out of favor with Cleveland's coaching staff and didn't contribute on special teams. When president Mike Holmgren took over the following year, he cut Veikune. I'm sure a lot of Browns fans will make the case for former quarterback Brady Quinn, a first-rounder in 2007. But Quinn at least played a few decent games, and the Browns were able to trade him for tailback Peyton Hillis. So the Quinn experiment wasn't a total loss.

On the bubble: Mohamed Massaquoi, a second-round pick in 2009, has been an enigma in two seasons in Cleveland. Is he a No. 1 receiver? Probably not. But there's a chance he could be a decent No. 2 receiver. The problem is the Browns cannot find out until they're able to land a top-flight receiver to take the pressure off Massaquoi. In many ways, Massaquoi regressed last season. His yards and touchdowns were both down compared to his rookie year. Cleveland could help quarterback Colt McCoy and Massaquoi by finding a legit No. 1 receiver this offseason.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Best choice: Considering the player and value of the pick, LaMarr Woodley was Pittsburgh's best draft choice of the past five years. Woodley was taken in the second round in 2007 and joined the starting lineup one year later. He became only the second Steeler to record double-digit sacks in three consecutive seasons and is money in the playoffs. Last year Woodley was one of the NFL's best bargains, recording 50 tackles and 10 sacks while making only $550,000. Pittsburgh gave Woodley the franchise tag this offseason and will try to work out an extension.

Worst choice: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger asked for bigger receivers, and the Steelers tried to accommodate him by drafting Limas Sweed in the second round in 2008. The pick didn't pan out as Sweed struggled to catch the football. Sweed's issues may be mental. He didn't have a reputation for drops in college and many in Pittsburgh were easy, wide-open opportunities. The Steelers grew tired of waiting for Sweed and drafted Mike Wallace in 2009 and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown in 2010. They have taken firm roles in the offense, leaving Sweed's future with Pittsburgh in doubt.

On the bubble: Second-round pick Jason Worilds was a surprise choice in 2010. Pittsburgh has a wealth of talented linebackers, but it's a position it likes to stockpile for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme. Like most defenders in Pittsburgh, Worilds has to wait his turn and played mostly special teams last season. Worilds recorded two sacks in limited playing time, but it doesn’t appear he will have a chance to crack the starting lineup for a while.

Double Coverage: An 18-game schedule

July, 2, 2010
7/02/10
10:00
AM ET
Double CoverageUS PresswireLongstanding records would likely fall if the NFL moved to an 18-game regular season. But does that matter in the long run?
Who's up for more football?

The NFL would like to expand the regular season to 18 games and eliminate two preseason games by 2012. Seems like a no-brainer.

But at such a politically charged time, the NFL Players Association isn't willing to concede anything. There are reasons against lengthening the regular season. Injuries are prominent in the discussion, and players would like to be paid for playing additional games.

If the NFL wants an "enhanced season," as it's calling the proposal, then the players would like "enhanced compensation."

Beyond that, however, there are many reasons to debate the idea. That's why ESPN.com's Tim Graham and Bill Williamson are squaring off over it.

Tim Graham: Let's waste no time here, Bill, and get to a fundamental aspect about the proposed expanded season. We can deliberate on injuries and tradition and whether the NFL needs to increase revenues -- and we will. But the root of the 18-game concept is that fans want more meaningful action and less preseason silliness. Season-ticket holders must pay full price to watch undrafted rookies and retreads with no shot of making the roster run around in exhibitions. Those games are irrelevant. What matters is the enthusiasm NFL fans have for getting the season started as early as possible. Take a look at the message boards and listen to the talk shows. They're frothing in anticipation of the upcoming season. More and sooner is better.

Bill Williamson: OK, slick, let's get this right: We're supposed to see the greatest sport of mankind completely change its world because fans shouldn't have to pay for parking during the preseason? I totally agree the preseason is a waste of time after the first two games. But cutting back the preseason to add two games to the regular season -- risking further injury and mucking up the tradition of the game -- just doesn't make any sense. Cut the preseason to two games, keep the 16-game regular-season slate and be done with it. That's a win-win to me.

TG: You know darn well lopping off two preseason games won't cut it with the owners, especially guys like Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft and Woody Johnson. Those games are moneymakers for the individual teams because they can sell local broadcast rights and advertising without having to share with the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars. That kind of cash grab can't evaporate without a trade-off. Two more regular-season games increase revenue streams for all 32 teams. As for your contention it would completely change the greatest sport of all time, I disagree. The fact the game is so remarkable is why we should be able to watch more of it.

BW: Tim, you hit on two points that are going to be the reasons we ultimately end up seeing an 18-game regular season: revenue and fan base. Roger Goodell is a fine commissioner. He is a visionary. He is going to capitalize on the country's absolute rabid desire for the NFL. Fans will jump at the chance to see an 18-game regular-season slate (two more weeks of beer and chicken wings is admittedly appealing), and the owners will bathe in more money. But that doesn't make it right. Sometimes, enough is enough, and Goodell is going to be messing with a good thing. The players are the product, and they are going to suffer because of this. Then, in turn, the game is going to suffer. Who wins there?

[+] EnlargeNFL Fans
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireSundays during the regular season have become an event for NFL fans.
TG: You just mentioned chicken wings and beer. I can think of two winners already.

BW: Tim, I think we can both agree the toughest task for any NFL team to navigate a 16-game season is staying healthy. Nothing ruins a Super Bowl dream like a couple ripped-up knees. Going to an 18-game season will only increase season-ending injuries. Look, it's a month before training camp starts and there already have been several players lost for the season, including Willie Colon, Limas Sweed and Thomas Davis. It's a nasty game. Why make these guys risk further injury and further dampen their teams' Super Bowl hopes by playing two more games in the regular season?

TG: I agree additional games will escalate the likelihood a given player gets seriously hurt. But some injuries are going to happen no matter what. New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker, for example, crumpled to the Reliant Stadium turf while making a cut in the regular-season finale. He wasn't touched. Who's to say he wouldn't have suffered the same injury the following Wednesday at practice?

BW: Right, injuries happen all the time. That's my point. Why increase the season by 14 days and give players 14 more chances to get hurt in a game or in a practice? In an 18-game world, a team would have to play a minimum of 21 games to win a Super Bowl. It's currently 19 games. It may be only two more games, but that is a big difference down the stretch. It would be physically and mentally draining for players to wake up Dec. 1 and realize they have two extra games to play to reach their ultimate goal.

TG: Wake up on Dec. 1 and then realize they have two extra games? Will the expanded schedule make comas more prevalent? The players, coaches and training staffs will prepare their players for the extra games from the start of the offseason conditioning program. Maybe, for once, organized team activities will become truly voluntary. Subtract some of those workouts. But there are possible in-season remedies too. I understand players will get beaten up with the accumulation of hits and strains. So return to a two-bye schedule, increase the roster size or do away with game-day inactives to give a team more players to use. The NFL also is talking about another developmental league to replace NFL Europa. That would help improve the quality of substitute players.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Don McPeak/US PresswireChris Johnson eclipsed 2,000 yards in 16 games. What would his target be in 18 contests?
BW: The 16-game slate has been in play for 32 years, and it's working great. Every Sunday in the NFL is an event. Even in Detroit and Oakland, where the losses have been suffocating, game day is a cherished occasion. That's because there are only 16 game days a year. An NFL Sunday is a rarity. I love baseball. But if I miss my San Francisco Giants (who are killing me these days, by the way) on a busy Tuesday night, I know I'll have Wednesday to catch them. That's not the case with the NFL. Sundays in the fall are must-see NFL days. It also makes the season more urgent for the participants. "Don’t mess up one of these 16 chances" is often the message from NFL coaching staffs to players. Increasing the number of games would take away from the game. What's next? Twenty games? Twenty-four games? Stop the madness. The football season is compact and intense. Why change it?

TG: NFL games are events not because of how many there are, but because your team plays once per week. Fans revel in or grouse about the last game from the final whistle until about Wednesday morning, when they start looking forward to the upcoming opponent. The tension rises steadily as they talk trash about what's going to happen, they set their fantasy lineups, they maybe wager a few bucks, they attend a tailgate party and then settle into their seats for the opening kickoff. It's an unfailing routine. That's why fans go through a hangover the moment the season is over, and why they can't wait for the next season to commence. NFL games would remain an event if we had a 52-game schedule.

BW: Let's not underplay the value of records. There are some stirring records out there that will be broken by the virtue of two extra games. That's not cool. Let baseball corner the market on asterisks. Why should the NFL have to play that game? It's just one more reason why moving to an 18-game slate would damage the integrity of the game. It's just not worth it. My message to Roger Goodell is this: Be happy with what you got. It’s perfect.

TG: Records, schmecords. NFL milestones stood up when the schedule was lengthened to 16 games in 1978. Running backs still target 1,000-yard seasons, but they stopped being special a long time ago. Last year, Fred Jackson hit quadruple digits. He'll be called a 1,000-yard rusher for the rest of his life. Chris Johnson rushed for 2,000 yards, and he was lumped in with O.J. Simpson, who did it in 14 games. Besides, records don't mean nearly as much as they used to because the game itself has changed. Steve Largent retired as the NFL's all-time leading receiver in 1989. Derrick Mason and Larry Centers, a fullback, have more catches, for crying out loud. Eighteen games. Bring it on.

AFC North rookie surprises

June, 22, 2010
6/22/10
11:00
AM ET
Jordan ShipleyFrank Victores/US PresswireJordan Shipley stood out at Cincinnati's recent minicamp and could be a contender to be the Bengals' No. 3 receiver.
Every year there are rookies around the league who, seemingly out of nowhere, quickly develop and contribute to their respective teams. Pittsburgh Steelers receiver and 2009 third-round pick Mike Wallace was a perfect example last season.

So who could be this year's version of Wallace in the AFC North?

Here are seven rookies drafted in the third round or lower who could surprise in 2010:

1. Jordan Shipley, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Draft status: Third round (No. 84 overall)

Analysis: Shipley was one of the stars of Cincinnati's mandatory minicamp last week. The receiver caught everything from the slot position and already looks like a good fit for the Bengals' offense. Shipley has a knack for manipulating the middle of the field and finding openings in coverage. Cincinnati has lacked this type of receiver since the departure of T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Look for Shipley to have a good competition with third-year veteran Andre Caldwell for the No. 3 receiver spot behind Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant.

2. Ed Dickson, TE, Baltimore Ravens

Draft status: Third round (No. 70 overall)

[+] EnlargeDennis Pitta
Tim Heitman/US PresswireDennis Pitta will battle with fellow rookie tight end Ed Dickson for playing time in the Ravens' offense.
Analysis: Dickson was one of the top receiving tight ends in this year's draft, and he should be able to stretch the field for Baltimore's offense. At this point, Dickson is a luxury as a backup to starter Todd Heap. That should allow the Ravens to bring Dickson along and only put him in positions to be successful. He will have an interesting competition with rookie teammate Dennis Pitta, who is also on this list.

3. Carlton Mitchell, WR, Cleveland Browns

Draft status: Sixth round (No. 177 overall)

Analysis: Someone has to catch passes in Cleveland. Why not Mitchell? The Browns have arguably the worst receiving depth in the league. So this is a good opportunity for Mitchell to step up and impress Cleveland's coaching staff in training camp. He’s a bit unpolished but has good size and a good burst. If Mitchell can show some potential, that could be enough to earn playing time in Cleveland's offense, which is lacking playmakers.

4. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Steelers

Draft status: Third round (No. 82 overall)

Analysis: The Steelers found Wallace in the third round last year. Could they find another solid contributor in the third round this season with Sanders? Pittsburgh's receiving depth took a hit with the offseason trade of Santonio Holmes and the season-ending Achilles injury to Limas Sweed. Each instance has moved Sanders up the depth chart. Wallace and Hines Ward are the starters, and veteran Antwaan Randle El probably is set as the No. 3 receiver. But Pittsburgh will give Sanders an opportunity in training camp to earn a role with the team.

5. Dennis Pitta, TE, Ravens

Draft status: Fourth round (No. 114 overall)

Analysis: In a bit of a surprise move, the Ravens took tight ends in back-to-back rounds. The organization felt the value for Pitta in the fourth round was too good to pass up. He had outstanding production at Brigham Young, and what Pitta lacks in athleticism, he makes up for with savvy and great hands. Pitta will compete with Dickson to back up Heap. The Ravens only need one of these rookies to pan out this season and put up numbers in what should be a very good offense.

6. Shawn Lauvao, G, Browns

Draft status: Third round (No. 92 overall)

[+] EnlargeJonothan Dwyer
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIJonathan Dwyer could make an impact for the Steelers in the red zone.
Analysis: The middle and left side of Cleveland's offensive line are set with tackle Joe Thomas, guard Eric Steinbach and center Alex Mack. But the two right positions are still undecided, which provides an opportunity for third-rounder Lauvao to produce in his rookie year. For what it's worth, Lauvao has looked good in non-contact practices and is getting quality reps in Cleveland's offense. But it's difficult to mark the progress of offensive linemen until there's full contact in training camp. Browns coach Eric Mangini likes to use various linemen in games, so Lauvao could see playing time regardless.

7. Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Draft status: Sixth round (No. 188 overall)

Analysis: Dwyer was very productive in college, rushing for 1,395 yards and averaging 5.9 yards per carry at Georgia Tech last season. But right now, Pittsburgh is more interested in Dwyer's nose for the end zone; he rushed for 26 touchdowns the past two seasons. The Steelers lacked a short-yardage running back who could move the chains last year. The team also struggled in the red zone, and if Dwyer proves he can move the pile, he could have an immediate role with Pittsburgh.

Not all of these players will surprise in their rookie year, but there's a decent chance some from this group will be productive.

Which mid- to late-round draft pick do you think will surprise in 2010?
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Falling

Pittsburgh Steelers' WR depth: Just weeks after trading former starter Santonio Holmes, the Steelers suffered another blow to their depth at receiver when Limas Sweed tore his Achilles last weekend at veteran minicamp. Sweed, a backup who was due to compete for the third or fourth spot at receiver, had surgery as soon as possible. The team hasn't said for sure whether the former second-round pick will miss the entire 2010 season. But at the very least, Sweed will be absent for a significant portion of the year at a time when it seems the Steelers cannot catch a break. Without Holmes and Sweed, Pittsburgh cannot afford to suffer any additional injuries at wide receiver.

Rising

Adam "Pacman" Jones: Out of work in 2009, Jones has suddenly gained a buzz this offseason to where it appears the controversial free-agent cornerback is very close to making his return to the NFL. The Cincinnati Bengals are the favorites to sign Jones. Reportedly they are in contract negotiations with his representation this week. Cincinnati was the first team to invite Jones to a tryout in February and worked him out again Tuesday. The Bengals are searching for cornerback depth and, because of his off-field track record, Jones would be a cheap option. The Detroit Lions are also interested.
The Pittsburgh Steelers nearly got out of their 2010 mandatory minicamp without incident. But on the final practice of the weekend, the team potentially suffered a significant setback to its receiving corps.

Such is life during the Steelers' wild and crazy offseason.

On Sunday, Pittsburgh third-year receiver Limas Sweed suffered an Achilles injury that could be serious, according to head coach Mike Tomlin. Sweed recently overcame family issues and was looking forward to this season. He also changed his jersey this week to No. 80 to symbolize a fresh start.

Depending on the severity, an Achilles injury could sideline Sweed for part or all of this upcoming season. It would be the latest setback for a receiver who's struggled during his tenure in Pittsburgh.

But the offseason trade for starter Santonio Holmes opened the door for Sweed to possibly earn playing time again. He was in competition with Antwaan Randle El, Arnaz Battle and rookie Emmanuel Sanders to be the No. 3 receiver, which plays an important role in Pittsburgh's offense.

If Sweed cannot return, the Steelers' depth is drastically hurt behind starters Hines Ward and second-year standout Mike Wallace. It's yet another blow to a passing game that's already severely hindered without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is serving a conditional six-game suspension.

Steelers minicamp notes

April, 30, 2010
4/30/10
5:56
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers, minus star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, began their mandatory veteran minicamp Friday.

Here are some notes and observations:

  • It's early, but it appears cornerback Bryant McFadden has the inside track to reclaim his starting job with the first-team defense. McFadden was the starter during Pittsburgh's Super Bowl run after the 2008 season and was plugged right in during the opening of minicamp. He returned to Pittsburgh via a draft-day trade with the Arizona Cardinals.

    "I'm just trying to get back adjusted," McFadden said. "A year removed seems a little longer than what it is. We got a couple of new wrinkles in [the defense]."
  • Pittsburgh starting outside linebacker James Harrison was an excused absence from the first day of minicamp Friday because of a family situation.
  • After leaving the team late last season, Steelers receiver Limas Sweed rejoined the group and said he was going through some personal issues with his family. Sweed appeared happy to be back on the practice field.

    "It feels good," Sweed said. "I feel like a kid again, playing the game I've been playing for a long time. It's good to be back and it's good to be around the guys."

Scouts Inc. on Steelers WRs

April, 12, 2010
4/12/10
11:43
AM ET
The Pittsburgh Steelers sent shockwaves throughout the AFC by trading former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to the New York Jets for a fifth-round pick.

Holmes was in Pittsburgh's doghouse after various off-the-field incidents, so much so that Steelers assisted another AFC contender.

So where does this leave Pittsburgh's receiver corps? The AFC North blog checked in with Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson for answers.

[+] EnlargeWallace/Ward
AP Photo/Gene PuskarWith Santonio Holmes out of the picture, Hines Ward (86) and Mike Wallace (17) look to be the top two receivers in Pittsburgh.
For starters, what did Pittsburgh's offense lose when it traded Holmes?

Williamson: They lose a potentially great player -- I don't know how else you can say it. He was especially great when Ben Roethlisberger was buying time and extending the play. Holmes would get you deep and Ben would find him often, and I think Roethlisberger trusted him. Holmes was effective off play-action, and I don't see a massive weakness with him. He had to share a lot of catches with [Hines] Ward, and earlier in his career Pittsburgh was a run-heavy team. So his numbers aren't quite where you think they would be. I don't know if that will ever be the case with the Jets, either, but that doesn't mean Holmes isn't incredibly effective.

Where do you feel Mike Wallace is in his development, and is he ready to be a starter in Year 2?

Williamson: I think Wallace is very ready to be a starter. He's only getting better and his ability to take the top off a defense [get deep] is tremendous. He's very fast and he plays very fast. Wallace is going to abuse single coverage, and I do like him as a starter.

Hines Ward isn't getting any younger. Can Pittsburgh still be successful with Ward, 34, as the team's No. 1 receiver?

Williamson: I worry more about Ward now. If I'm defending the Steelers last year, I'm more afraid of Holmes than Ward. The thing is Ward is still playing very well, but he's only going to get slower. He's never been the fastest guy around. So when coverage is rolled in his direction or Ward's facing the No. 1 corner on the opposing team, is he able to be as productive? I don't know that he is, so that worries me.

How do you evaluate the Steelers' depth at WR with backups Antwaan Randle El, Arnaz Battle and Limas Sweed?

Williamson: I think the Steelers really need to add a guy. They need a big body. They have Sweed. But I don't think they can trust him at all, although it would be great if he could live up to that second-round billing and plays like he did at Texas with more of an opportunity now. Randle El could be a competent slot guy. I wouldn't want him starting, and I think Battle might be a No. 4. He could play some and get his jersey dirty on special teams, but the Steelers don't want him out there an awful lot.

Any good options in the draft?

Williamson: They have a ton of picks (11), and they can't get that many guys on the roster. They're going to really be primed to move up once or twice in this draft. I don't think the Steelers can use a first-round pick on a receiver. But there are some receivers out there who are interesting. A guy like Eric Decker comes to mind from Minnesota in the second or third round. But it would also be nice for them to use a second- or third-round pick right now on a running back or a guard or a cornerback.
[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesSecond-year receiver Mike Wallace will likely step into a starting role alongside Hines Ward.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' trade for Santonio Holmes means the team has a lot of confidence in second-year receiver Mike Wallace.

And why not?

Wallace took advantage of every opportunity last season as a rookie, recording 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns. He added deep speed and reliable hands to Pittsburgh's offense as the No. 3 receiver, and Wallace could be an early fantasy sleeper for 2010 now that he's projected in the starting lineup.

Although the Steelers didn't get much in return for Holmes -- only a fifth-round pick -- they do have depth at the position. Wallace will step into Holmes' starting slot alongside Hines Ward, while the recently signed Antwaan Randle El likely will be the team's third receiver. Arnaz Battle and former 2008 second-round pick Limas Sweed are among the backups.

Not coincidentally, the Steelers are looking at receivers in this year's NFL draft. Receivers Golden Tate and Arrelious Benn were among the prospects to visit Pittsburgh last week.

Ten AFC North mysteries

March, 22, 2010
3/22/10
12:30
PM ET
Andre Smith, Lawrence Timmons & Donte' StallworthIcon SMIAndre Smith, Lawrence Timmons and Donte' Stallworth are among the larger mysteries facing AFC North teams as they prepare for the 2010 season.
Mystery and intrigue are part of what make the NFL go.

Every year, there are players with various questions who could have a major impact on their teams' upcoming season.

With that said, here are 10 AFC North mysteries even Sherlock Holmes would struggle to solve in 2010:

Timmons
Timmons
10. Lawrence Timmons, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

2009 stats: 14 games (13 starts), 78 tackles, seven sacks

Why: Let's first give credit where credit is due: Timmons flashed more ability over the past few years than a majority of the players listed below. But his up-and-down 2009 season -- his first as a full-time starter -- raised a few questions. Does Timmons fit at middle linebacker, which is not his natural position? Considering his tremendous athleticism, why did Timmons struggle at times in pass coverage? Also, the decision to bring back veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote, who started ahead of Timmons in 2007 and 2008 before leaving as a free agent, certainly adds some intrigue.

Mystery rating (scale of 1 to 10): 6.5

Webb
Webb
9. Lardarius Webb, CB, Baltimore Ravens

2009 stats: 14 games (four starts), 35 tackles, one sack

Why: Webb's mystery revolves around youth and injury. The Ravens feel Webb has the potential to be their starting cornerback next season. The former third-round pick played well opposite Domonique Foxworth for a brief stint before suffering a torn ACL in December. Now there are questions about whether Webb will be ready for training camp or even the start of the regular season. Does Webb have enough experience? Can he be the same player, or will it take another year to shake off the injury? These are all questions Webb has to answer next season.

Mystery rating: 7.0

(Read full post)

Draft Watch: AFC North

February, 24, 2010
2/24/10
2:00
PM ET
NFC Busts/Gems: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Busts and late-round gems.

Baltimore Ravens

Busts: The Ravens have one of the most consistent front offices in the NFL, so you have to look all the way back to 2005 to really find an underperforming first-round pick in Mark Clayton. The receiver has shown flashes with several big games in Baltimore. But Clayton never developed the consistency to become a No. 1 receiver. In the second round, linebacker Dan Cody was another miss in 2005. His career never got off the ground, because he couldn't shake the injury bug. Also, it's too early to determine the status of 2009 second-round pick Paul Kruger. But the linebacker/defensive end was mostly a non-factor in his rookie season. Gems: Baltimore has several contributing players that were found in the late and middle rounds. Most recently, 2009 third-round cornerback Lardarius Webb looks like a potential starter and has the ability to return kicks. Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain was another great, under-the-radar pick in the fourth round in 2007. Starting left tackle Jared Gaither was found in the supplemental draft in 2007 and started 26 games the past two seasons. Other key contributors include starting safety Dawan Landry and punter Sam Koch, who were fifth- and sixth-round picks in 2006, respectively.

Cincinnati Bengals

Busts: It's well-documented that Cincinnati doesn't put nearly the same resources into scouting as most teams, and it shows in their list of draft busts. Eight players the Bengals selected in the first three rounds since 2004 are no longer with the team. Several -- such as first-rounders Chris Perry and David Pollack and second-rounders Odell Thurman and Kenny Irons -- are out of the NFL. Most recently, the career of 2009 No. 6 overall pick Andre Smith got off to a poor start. But he has time to turn things around. Receiver Jerome Simpson, who was a second-round pick in 2008, is running out of chances and may not make the 53-man roster next fall. It's difficult to maintain a steady level of success when you're missing this often in the first and second rounds. Gems: Seventh-round pick Chinedum Ndukwe was not highly touted out of Notre Dame but continued to make plays for the Bengals until coaches had no choice but to play him. Defensive tackle Domata Peko was a fourth-round pick in 2006 who developed into one of Cincinnati's most important players. Last year's sixth-round pick, tailback Bernard Scott, showed flashes as a rookie.

Cleveland Browns

Busts: The Browns are on their third regime in three years. With that kind of turnover, you can expect a lot of misses in the draft as the team continues to switch philosophies. The Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel era began in 2005 with receiver Braylon Edwards and safety Brodney Pool. Edwards didn't live up to expectations and was traded to the New York Jets last season. Pool likely will be let go to free agency. It has been three years, and we still don't know exactly what to make of 2007 first-round pick Brady Quinn. The new regime led by Mike Holmgren doesn't seem too impressed, as the team continues to explore its options at quarterback. Receiver Brian Robiskie and linebacker David Veikune, both second-round picks in 2009, also need to step up for Cleveland in 2010. Gems: Starting fullback Lawrence Vickers, a sixth-round pick in 2006, was another great find. He paved the way for Jamal Lewis to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2007 and 2008. Vickers also helped tailback Jerome Harrison (862 rushing yards), another late gem, put up career highs last season. Most recently, 2009 fourth-round pick Kaluka Maiava may turn out to be a decent linebacker from the middle rounds.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Busts: Similar to the Ravens, the Steelers do not make a lot of mistakes at the top of the draft. Six of Pittsburgh's past seven first-round picks are starters. That includes quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu, receiver Santonio Holmes and tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Pittsburgh has had some issues in the second round. In 2008, the Steelers were hoping Limas Sweed could be the big receiver they were looking for, but that hasn't panned out. In 2004, second-round cornerback Ricardo Colclough had zero starts in four years before being released. Gems: Last year's third-round pick Mike Wallace already is a significant addition to Pittsburgh's offense. His deep speed was needed, and he had 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. Pittsburgh also has been fortunate to find starting offensive linemen late in the draft. Offensive tackle Willie Colon and guard Chris Kemoeatu were taken in the fourth and sixth rounds, respectively. Dennis Dixon, who was taken in the fifth round in 2008, also could develop into a solid backup quarterback.4933687

AFC Rookie Surprise: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- Mike Wallace had no idea the Steelers would be calling his name.

The rookie receiver spent so much time with the Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans leading up to April’s NFL draft that, in Wallace’s mind, he was prepared to pack his bags for one of those two cities. Both teams were in desperate need of receivers and liked Wallace’s potential.

Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace was surprised he was drafted by the team, but is glad to work with veterans Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.

But after the first day of the draft passed and no one called, the Mississippi product was shocked when the defending champions selected him in the third round, No. 84 overall.

Steelers receivers coach Randy Fichtner met with Wallace on two brief occasions last spring: Once during Wallace’s pro day and at another meeting during the combine. According to Wallace, there was never a strong indication Pittsburgh would draft him.

"It wasn’t even on my mind to come to the Steelers," Wallace said. "But I feel like everything happens for a reason. I was excited because it was a good team -- the Super Bowl champs -- and they got two great guys to learn from in Santonio [Holmes] and Hines [Ward]. So I'm just trying to make sure I get in and fit in with those guys."

A month into the season, Wallace has been the biggest second-day draft surprise in the AFC North. He is playing behind Ward and Holmes as the team’s No. 3 receiver and ranks third with the Steelers in receiving yards (194) and fourth in receptions (14).

Wallace, who also might be the fastest player on the team, made his longest catch of the season when he recently zipped past the Cincinnati Bengals' secondary for 51 yards. The play was part of his seven-catch, 102-yard performance in Week 3. He also had two catches for 47 yards in last weekend’s 38-28 victory over the San Diego Chargers.

As Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl MVP receivers Holmes and Ward get most of the attention, Wallace has quietly taken advantage of his opportunities.

Rookie Watch
Scouts Inc. is keeping a weekly watch on the league’s top rookies.
Rookie Watch
"He’s a great talent," Ward said of his rookie teammate recently. "Teams are going to have to start paying attention to him."

Wallace is not your typical first-year player.

The rookie is 23, which is one year older than Pittsburgh's 2008 first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall. Wallace also played four years, including 10 games as a true freshman, in the tough SEC.

Wallace’s receiving statistics in college didn’t jump out compared to some of his rookie peers. But so far the third-round pick has more receptions and yards than first-round receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey of the Oakland Raiders and Jeremy Maclin of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Wallace went through three offensive coordinators during his college career at Ole Miss, which probably hurt his production. But Wallace also says learning different systems was a blessing in disguise because he ran many of the routes required in the NFL.

"I also had two different head coaches," Wallace said of his college career. "We had switched so much that I had to run into some of the concepts [in Pittsburgh] that we were already doing."

Wallace also has life experience. His hometown of New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 while Wallace was in college. The roof of his family’s home caved in and they were forced to relocate to Dallas for five months. Eventually Wallace’s family returned home to New Orleans, fixed the roof and replaced all the furniture. Wallace says everything is back to normal.

Overall the Steelers are happy with the production of their third-rounder. The team traded out of the second round last April for additional third-round picks, because it felt the same caliber of players might be available. The pick used on Wallace was acquired in a trade with the Denver Broncos.

Pittsburgh rarely is a team where rookies get a lot of opportunities, but Wallace has quickly earned the trust of coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Wallace was the team’s fourth receiver in training camp. But Limas Sweed’s struggles early in the season opened the door for Wallace to become a bigger part of the offense.

Wallace developed a reputation in college as a speedster who needed to sharpen his routes, but he has worked hard with Pittsburgh’s coaching staff to improve in that area and it’s paying off. In addition to his coaches, Wallace said Ward and Holmes also are staying on the rookie in practice.

Wallace understands their reasons.

"If I don’t know how to run my route, that’s hurting them too and that’s hurting the rest of the team," Wallace said. "So both of them are always on me about different things all the time. One of them might tell me about dipping my head, the other might tell me about my stride. Both of them are always picking at me, so I’m constantly trying to clean all of that up."

With Ward and Holmes doing the polishing, Wallace doesn't look like a rookie so far.

SPONSORED HEADLINES