Saturday, February 10, 2007

Getting Draft Ready -- Assessing the Steelers

There are less than two weeks remaining before the unofficial beginning of the NFL Draft season.

One February 22, 2007 the NFL Combine will get underway at Indianapolis, Indiana and with that all manner of mock drafts will be un leashed upon an unsuspecting public. But before assessing the newest batch of NFL rookies-to-be it is both useful and necessary to look within, i.e. assess just where the Steelers are at as a team, vis-a-vis strengths and weaknesses. Over the next few days Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic will look at the various units within the team (e.g. offensive line, defensive backs) in an attempt to help focus the attention of Steelers fans on those players who might well fill the team's greatest needs.

With our purpose and plan clearly stated let us begin our examination with an area that is arguably the Steelers' greatest strength -- running backs. Willie Parker saw his rushing yardage increase be nearly 20% in 2006 as compared to the 2005 Super Bowl season (1,494 v. 1,202). His rushing touchdowns grew dramatically (from four in 2005 to thirteen in 2006), and perhaps not unexpectedly -- with the retirement of Jerome Bettis -- as Mr. Parker solidified his place as the #1 running back. Additionally, Mr. Parker had no fewer than nine carries of 20 yards or more as compared to the 2005 season in which he had only four such carries.

Backing up Mr. Parker for much of the 2006 season was Najeh Davenport, a free agent this offseason, who joined the team in the week preceeding the game versus San Diego (following the season-ending injury to Verron Haynes). Mr. Davenport effectively replaced the yardage lost to Mr. Bettis' retirement, averaging 3.7 yards per carry to Mr. Bettis' 3.3 yards per carry. Mr. Davenport also managed to energize the Steelers' kickoff return team, leading that unit in yards returned with 448.

With his selection to the Pro Bowl, Willie Parker has established himself not only as the Steelers best running back but also as one of the NFL's best running backs. The "question mark," such as it is, exists at the backup position. Do the Steelers resign Najeh Davenport, or do Kevin Colbert and Bruce Arians perceive John Kuhn -- a crowd favorite from Slippery Rock -- as being ready for that role?

And all of that ignores the tightrope that the Steelers are walking in relying upon fullback Dan Kreider's seeming indestructability. Mr. Kreider, who joined the Steelers active roster for the fourth game in 2000, has not been inactive since week three of the 2001 season -- 103 consecutive regular season games. But Mr. Kreider turns 30-years old next month, and it would seem prudent to begin some succession planning.

Obviously the running back position is very strong -- at least at the top -- however there are questions of depth that must be addressed either before the draft or on the draft's second day.

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