With an extra week of training camp this year, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is taking the opportunity to rest many of his veteran players. Many of them, like James Harrison, haven’t even participated in a practice yet while others are receiving reduced repetitions.
The byproduct is the coaching staff is getting a good look at many second- and third-teamers who otherwise wouldn’t be playing as much.
Here are some random thoughts on some young players who have stood out:
*Rookie sixth-round pick Anthony Chickillo has been more noticeable than first-round pick Bud Dupree. Chickillo has a knack for rushing the passer. He has a motor, and he competes well. It’s not that Dupreee has been disappointing, just that Chickillo has been able to make a few more plays.
The Steelers only kept three outside linebackers last year and Chickillo has at least four players (Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats Bud Dupree) in front of him on the depth chart, but he is making the staff take a long hard look at him.
*The newest offensive lineman is holding his own in drills. The Steelers signed Kevin Palmer shortly before camp started because Mike Adams had back surgery. Palmer was undrafted out of Baylor and is already with his third team this year. He originally signed with the Cardinals and was cut in May. The Chiefs picked him up but cut him in June.
*Palmer has been taking reps at right tackle and has more than held his own the first couple of days the team has practiced in pads. In a run-blocking drill against 2014 practice squad player Ethan Hemer, Palmer twice reached Hemer and pushed him three or four yards down the field.
Some other observations from one-on-one drills between the offensive and defensive lines on Thursday:
*Ramon Foster had a rough time in one-on-one pass rush drills. He was twice matched up with Cam Heyward and twice was beaten baldy. On the first rush, Heyward pulled Foster forward and easily got into the backfield. On the second he executed a bull rush and pushed Foster backward.
*Kelvin Beachum and Jarvis Jones went at it three times in a row. After Jones got the better of Beachum on the first rep, Beachum won the final two. On the second one, he muscled Jones to the ground. It was only one snapshot from a long practice but it was too reminiscent of Jones struggling to get off blocks and show any kind of violent force.
*Right tackle Marcus Gilbert didn’t get lazy the year after signing a big contract. He was impressive again on Thursday. In a run-blocking drill, he had a pancake block against Stephon Tuitt, last year’s second-round pick.
*Cody Wallace is getting the first-team reps at center with Maurkice Pouncey on the PUP list and playing well for the most part. He won one and lost one against starting nose tackle Steve McLendon in the one-on-one pass rush drill.
*The Steelers hold their annual night practice tonight at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.
It’s time for the Steelers to go get another backup quarterback. Now.
Bruce Gradkowski did not practice for most of the spring because he had a sore arm and he opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list for what the Steelers term “arm fatigue.’’ It is ironic that Gradkowski would have a tired arm because he has not thrown a pass in his two regular seasons with the Steelers.
The other day, Gradkowski was quoted as saying he thought it might be a few weeks before he starts practicing. In the meantime, the quarterbacks behind Ben Roethlisberger have been dreadful in the early goings of training camp, continuing their showing in the spring. It’s so bad that they have trouble handling shotgun snaps from center, dropping them and ruining yet another practice play. Wednesday was particularly bad for them.
Landry Jones and Tajh Boyd cannot be the No. 2 quarterback. Quarterbacks-to-wide receivers-to-quarterbacks Devin Gardner and Tyler Murphy should not be taking snaps at all. Murphy wears No. 16 and the Steelers probably wish the man who used to wear that number at quarterback was back in that position, Charlie Batch, instead of preparing to broadcast games for them on KDKA-TV.
But there is one quarterback out there available. He has a little age on him and he carries some old baggage. His name is Michael Vick, who turned 35 last month.
He comes from the same Tidewater area of Virginia as coach Mike Tomlin, who made inquiries about signing Vick after he was released from federal prison in 2009 after serving 21 months for his dog fighting conviction. The distractions, though, were considered too much for the Steelers and it was never seriously pursued. He signed with the Eagles that August.
Vick has since gone about working to rebuild his reputation. His teammates in Philadelphia voted him the winner of the Ed Block Courage Award. He has worked to try to get passed the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act in Congress.
He also long has had well-documented financial problems.
But he can still play football as the Steelers found out last November when he threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions in he New York Jets’ 20-13 upset victory against them. He also ran eight times for 39 yards in that game.
The Jets were Vick’s second team since his pre-jail days in Atlanta with the Falcons. He played five years for the Eagles and last season for the Jets, who did not try to re-sign him when he became an unrestricted free agent in March.
He’s been trying to find another job with an NFL team since then with no luck. Last week, he issued a video of himself through Twitter to remind all that he can still throw a football.
“I think that I’ve done a lot throughout the course of my career,’’ Vick told the NFL Network in June. “I’ve proved that I can win games and play with some consistency and be a leader. I think those are the qualities that you want in a quarterback.’’
The Steelers have one of those already in Ben Roethlisberger, who has not missed a regular-season snap to injury in the past two seasons. They are praying right now that he can do it for three in a row because the alternatives could be disastrous.
What they need right now is a quality backup, someone who can at least handle a snap from center and does not have a mysterious sore right arm. That first preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings will look more like the Hall of Shame game with anyone but Roethlisberger playing quarterback for the Steelers with Gradkowski out. And Mike Tomlin is not about to let Roethlisberger play much in that game.
Vick is by far the best free agent quarterback available. The Steelers are in desperate need to find one. Tomlin knows him. What could it hurt to sign him? Now.
Some reaction to the news on Le’Veon Bell and Tom Brady:
--- It was interesting to me that some local news stations led with the news on Brady and not on Bell. Brady is a much bigger story nationally but Bell does play for the Steelers, is an All-Pro who was the NFL’s second-leading rusher last year and there was news because his suspension was reduced. Just a curiosity, that’s all.
--- Another thing that grabbed me was that Brady sent 10,000 texts in the four months from the time he got a new cell phone until he destroyed that phone on the eve of his hearing in late June. Ten thousand! I did the math – that comes to an average of 83 texts a day, every day, over the course of four months. Does he do anything else in the offseason besides write texts? His thumbs must really hurt. I just looked in my phone and I sent 8 texts yesterday. What, is the guy 14 years old?
--- As I’ve written and said many times, Bell’s suspension should have been either one or two games, not three. They disciplined him under both the old and new drug policies and that was not fair.
--- For a 10-year veteran, halfback DeAngelo Williams sure does get touchy about softball questions of how much he believes he is going to play this year. We now know he will not start in the third game of the season. And if he thinks he’s going to split time as he did in Carolina, he should look at some game tape of Le’Veon Bell last season. Bell did not need to be spelled last season and he won’t this year either, barring injury and blowout victories.
--- There’s still a good chance the Steelers will face Brady in the opener because all he has to do is sue the league and get an injunction to halt his suspension until the legal proceedings end, which often they never seem to do.
--- I’m not quite sure why the NFLPA is suing the league over this. The union agreed to all the wording in the CBA and Roger Goodell followed the CBA wording to a T. The Steelers players, you might recall, were the only ones among the 32 NFL teams to vote against the new CBA during the 2011 training camp. They did so mainly because it gave Goodell the kind of power he wielded on Tuesday. Do you think Tom Brady urged his teammates to vote for it so there would be no more work stoppage and he could continue to collect those fat paychecks?
--- The NFL sent out a treatise to the media announcing its Brady decision and then explaining what went into it. They sent out nothing on Bell. They never officially announced Bell’s original 3-game suspension and they never officially announced that it was reduced.
--- Another Saint Vincent 50th anniversary camp story:
The Steelers lost Leon Searcy in free agency to the Jacksonville Jaguars early in 1996 and went looking for another right tackle to take his place. They drafted Jamain Stephens of North Carolina A&T in the first round. He was terrible and I drew the ire of Bill Cowher one day when I asked him bluntly if he were a bust. I was correct, and it was proven definitively during the annual run test to open training camp in 1999.
Stephens was terribly out of shape and hardly could run at all that day. He finally just gave up and walked through the rest of the series of 40-yard “dashes” that were left. It wasn’t the first time he had done that during a run test – he once collapsed and lay prone as Greg Lloyd famously waived a towel over him -- but it would be his last. Cowher was so disgusted with the ongoing performance or lack thereof from Stephens that he cut him that night.
Cincinnati picked him up and he played into 2002 for the Bengals before Marvin Lewis, Cowher’s first linebackers coach with the Steelers, cut him in 2003 when he became head coach in Cincinnati.
The Steelers are off today, so another old camp story and then a few of your Ask Ed questions. Chat today at 1:30 p.m. at post-gazette.com/chat. You can send your Ask Ed questions to me at email@example.com
--- I was chatting with Craig Wolfley at practice yesterday and it reminded me of what he calls the only time he snapped angrily at a reporter. I said I would tell the story and Wolf told me only, “Be kind.’’
In 1986, I spent my first full training camp at Saint Vincent College after making it only for the final several days in 1985, when the Post-Gazette put me on the Steelers beat late. That summer, Wolfley, a starting guard, tore up his knee and there was not much information on it provided by the team – how serious it was, when he would be back, etc.
Steve Hubbard, then in his first year covering the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Press, called Wolfley’s home and talked to his wife. He quoted her in the next day’s paper.
Shortly thereafter, as I walked to lunch I ran into Wolf, who was on crutches. I said hello and he immediately tore into me, up and down. He was so angry I’m surprised he did not try to hit me with one of his crutches.
As he took a breath, I asked him what the heck he was talking about and why he was so angry at me. He stopped, cocked his head and gave me a look. “Aren’t you Steve Hubbard?”
I was more than happy to say no, I was Ed Bouchette. Wolf nearly tripped over his crutches apologizing. He later did find Hubbard and pretty much repeated to him what he had said to me, without the apology. Wolf also never forgot my name after that and we have shared that story many times as he continues to broadcast Steelers games.
An addendum: Yesterday, while chatting with him, Wolf told me he had torn the ACL in his knee that time in 1986 and they gave him two choices: Repair it, which would end his season, or remove it and he probably could play later that year. He told them to yank it out.
Wolf also told me proudly that he returned to play 11 games that season. Again, he was wrong. He only played in nine.
Onto Ask Ed:
--- YOU: Does Art Rooney II have any kids? Just as he was groomed to take over for his dad, who will take over for him? Will it be a non-Rooney? I’m not too familiar with the different investors these days, so I realize the arrangement is different than it used to be.
ED: Art is the third generation to be president of the Steelers after The Chief, his grandfather Art Sr., and his dad Dan, who is currently chairman. The son of Art II, Dan works as a scout for the Steelers. He was a quarterback and is a graduate from Dartmouth and interned in the NFL offices for a few years before joining the Steelers’ scouting department. He is intelligent, grew up around football, knows the game and looks to me to have all the qualifications to succeed his father in the job with more seasoning, if indeed that is how they want to go when that time comes. But don’t be too quick to move Art out. He has quite a few years left in him on the job.
--- YOU: I've noticed that the Steelers seem to have a propensity to use high draft picks on players that lack ideal measurables and/or athleticism. Going back to 2011 when they drafted both Mike Adams and Sean Spence and followed that up in subsequent years with Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas, and Senquez Golden; all of these guys either performed poorly in combine testing or simply lacked ideal measurables for their position. In fact, the Steelers brain-trust even make comments, post selection, on how if "Player X" had run faster, lifted more, been a few inches taller they'd be higher selections. I'm not sure I quite understand the reasoning behind those comments but isn't this a fool's gold philosophy? I'm not sure if the Steelers are out-thinking themselves or if this is a concerted draft philosophy but these kind of athletic/measurable player deficiencies tend to get exposed in today's NFL.
ED: Chuck Noll often said that drafting is not a science. You don’t put everything into a computer and have it spit out a draft pick for you. James Harrison went undrafted because he did not have many of those “measurables” and Brett Keisel nearly went undrafted as a seventh-round pick. Mike Adams had the measurables, he just got caught smoking weed or he might have been someone’s first-round draft pick. Shamarko Thomas was a fourth-rounder and by then, every team is making some kind of concession over the ideal draft pick, whether it be measurables or those that cannot be measured.
You should broaden your scope and not just pick on a handful of Steelers draft choices. All teams are forced to draft players who are not ideal in one way or another. You don’t like Ryan Shazier’s size at just 6-1? How do you like his 4.38 time in the 40, which would place him among the faster wide receivers in the league, never mind the fastest linebacker? Sean Spence, who is only 5-11, looked like a great third-round draft pick before he tore his knee up in the final preseason game of his rookie year. I also thought he played well last season in his first time back from that injury. Mike Singletary stood just 6 feet and was drafted in the second round by the Bears. I supposed you would have knocked them for that. Jack Lambert was so skinny, some thought he’d break down and could not play middle linebacker when the Steelers drafted him in the second nround. Both are in the Hall of Fame.
As for the Steelers draft philosophy, more teams would love to have it based on their success through the years.
--- YOU: Would the Steelers not have been wise to pick up La'el Collins in the final round of this year's draft? They could have picked up a player with a first round grade with their seventh round pick. More importantly, with Kelvin Beachum likely to test free agency after this season they could have had an economical replacement waiting in the wings. I know there was a lot of concern about Collins but that has passed and so did the chance to take a flyer on a first round talent.
ED: I suppose but they were not the only ones to pass on him in the draft. All 32 teams gave him the cold shoulder, including the Dallas Cowboys, who ultimately signed him after the draft to a three-year deal.
Welcome to Day 2 of Steelers training camp. One more unpadded practice in helmets and shorts before the real evaluating begins. Head coach Mike Tomlin is not big on evaluating football players in shorts, and for that reason, Wednesday starts the process for several of the younger players who hope to make the team this summer.
I wrote about one of those players today. Alejandro Villanueva is going to have plenty of opportunities over the next month to show the coaches what he can do. With top reserve Mike Adams rehabbing a back injury for four weeks it’s Villanueva who will get the first opportunity for extended playing time in his place.
This is an important summer for Villanueva, who spent last season on the practice squad. He has never played in an NFL game and turns 27 in September. The Steelers like what they have seen from him over the past year he’s been in their program, but teams don’t usually spend a lot of time on players in their mid- to late-20s unless they prove they are capable of contributing.
For that reason, the next four weeks are the most important ones of Villanueva’s professional football career.
This is his first camp with the Steelers. He joined the practice squad after the final cuts were made last year after playing for the Eagles during the preseason. To this point there has been little opportunity for him to truly show the coaches what he can do on a consistent basis.
Under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement NFL teams are allowed only 14 padded practices during the regular season. That’s it. Villanueva will get that and thensome this summer.
Don’t be surprised if Villanueva is a camp darling. Last fall, during those infrequent padded practices, the coaches would have the second-stringers compete in blocking drills at the end of practice after the starters had taken their competitive reps. Villanueva more than held his own and in one memorable practice dominated second-round pick Stephon Tuitt, who a short time later would become a starter.
Villanueva is looking forward to his first opportunity compete as an offensive lineman in a game. That will come against the Vikings Aug. 9 in the Hall of Fame Game.
“Once you put on pads and it’s a game environment then I can evaluate where I am in my game and see what I have to focus on,” he said. “And make a case for the roster.”
Here are some additional quotes from Villanueva that did not make it into my story this morning:
On Adams being out: “I don’t think it matters. I’m not competing against one guy. I’m competing against everyone else in the league right now. Whether they drafted a guy in the first round or didn’t draft a guy at all I thought it was up to me to make the team and contribute. For me, I just have to work really hard on my skills and not worry about who’s available, who’s healthy and who’s not.”
On his leading the linemen in the conditioning run: “I was fortunate to train in Spain, where family is [earlier this summer] where it’s pretty hot as well. Distance is never a problem for me. When you’re in the army you have to run a lot longer than football. The favorite run in the army is the five-mile run.”
On carrying close to 340 pounds: “I feel good with the weight. For me, it’s the explosiveness and short distance. I feel good with my physical conditioning. The mental aspect will be more important.”