August 25, 2009
By John DeWald
This is Part 9 in a series. If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for – the offensive line. Regardless of what Bruce Arians might think, the offensive line did not have a good year in 2008. During the off-season, they lost their best (although often injured) lineman in Marvell Smith, as well as Kendall Simmons. The incumbent starters entering training camp are (from left to right) Starks, Kemoeatu, Hartwig, Stapleton, and Colon. Added to this are 9 other veterans, rookies, and practice squad players. Last year the Steelers carried 9 linemen on the active roster and, in all likelihood, they will do the same this year. So, we are looking at 14 players fighting for 9 spots on the 53-man roster.
Although the line is a much maligned unit, there is ample reason for hope. Once the current line was in place, they steadily improved throughout the year. Continuity is very important in line-play, so with an off-season and training camp under their belts, the Steelers obviously hope their play will continue to improve (otherwise they wouldn’t have spent so much money keeping them). The Steelers would also like to see some of the young backups step up and push the starters. Without further ado, here are the prospective linemen.
Max Starks – The starting left tackle was a bit of a joke at the start of last season when, as the transition player, he couldn’t even crack the starting lineup. He more than proved his worth, however, when Marvell Smith went down with back problems. Starks stepped in and played solid for the rest of the year. This off-season the Steelers were so thin at tackle (all 4 tackles were either restricted or unrestricted free agents) that he was designated as the franchise player. Most thought that this would actually act as an impediment to a long term contract since he was guaranteed $8 million for 2009 under the franchise tag. In June, however, he signed a 4-year contract for $27 million, which is quite respectable for a starting left tackle.
Chris Kemoeatu – is a big, strong, nasty, mauling guard…with occasional temper issues. He also commits far too many penalties and mental mistakes. The saving grace is that he is young and this was his first year as a starter. After signing him to a 5-year $20 million contract, the Steelers obviously hope his play improves. This contract, however (unlike Kendall Simmons’ contract), had a modest $3.885 million signing bonus, so it offers an inexpensive “out” should Kemo fail to live up to expectations.
Justin Hartwig – is the old man of the group at 30. He was signed as a free agent last year and was a noticeable upgrade over Sean Mahan. Probably best known for the safety he committed during the Super Bowl, he actually had a very solid year. If anything, the biggest knock against him is that he is not Webster, Dawson, or Hartings. Over 30 years of excellence at the center position creates high expectations.
Darnell Stapleton – was signed as an undrafted free agent after the 2008 draft. He made the team last year as a backup center and proceeded to beat out Trai Essex for the right guard position after Simmons went down. Stapleton played extremely well for an undrafted free agent just one year out of college. Coming into camp he was set to compete with Essex and Urbik. Unfortunately for Darnell , he suffered a knee injury at the beginning of camp and had to undergo arthroscopic surgery. This will essentially keep him out of camp and he will likely lose his starting job as long as either Essex or Urbik prove competent.
Willie Colon – Willie “false start” Colon, the starting right tackle, did not have a very good year last year. In fact many analysts feel he would make a better guard than tackle. Even so, as a restricted free agent, he was offered a first round tender at roughly $2 Million. This is relatively cheap for a starting tackle and, as Colon is still young, the Steelers obviously hope he will improve. If he does improve, they can sign him long term. If not, they can let him go or move him inside to guard at a lower cost. So far in Camp, Zierlein and Arians have been raving about Colon – let’s hope that is an indication of his play and not simply an attempt to pump up his confidence.
Starks, Kemoeatu, Hartwig , Stapleton , and Colon are all locks to make the team. That leaves 9 people fighting for the 4 remaining spots.
Trai Essex - A 3rd round pick in 2005, he has been a top backup but has never shown enough to crack the starting roster. Able to play tackle and guard, he was resigned this off-season to a 2 year deal for about $1 Mill/year – respectable for a guy who can backup multiple positions. This year, with Stapleton out, he has staked a strong claim to the starting right guard position and appears light years ahead of Urbik. If he maintains his play throughout the pre-season he could keep the starting job even after Stapleton returns. In any case, he seems to have a roster spot locked up.
Kraig Urbik – The guard out of Wisconsin was the Steelers’ first 3rd round pick in this year’s draft. Urbik has the size and pedigree to be a dominant guard, but it appeared during camp that he is a bit over-matched right now. He needs time to adjust to the speed of the NFL and, as a high 3rd round pick, the Steelers will likely give that to him. Urbik may never see the field this year but I project that he will make the team.
Tony Hills – Selected by the Steelers in the 4th round in 2008, last year was essentially a red-shirt year for Hills. This year he needs to show more to make the team. Lucky for him the team is rather shallow at tackle. As Steelers Today has reported, Hills did not start camp off very well. His play, however, has steadily improved and he appeared to hold his own in the first pre-season game. He is competing against Jason Capizzi and Jeremy Parquet for the last tackle spot. I see it coming down between Hills and Capizzi, with Hills currently holding the edge.
Jason Capizzi – played at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is from Gibsonia, Pa. He was originally signed by the Steelers as a rookie free agent in 2007. He has bounced around on the practice squad of a number of teams before being resigned by the Steelers last December (after Marvell went on IR). He has put in a lot of work in the off-season and is fighting Hills and Parquet for the last tackle spot. As mentioned above, I believe Hills currently has the edge and Capizzi really needs to impress if he wants to overtake him.
Jeremy Parquet – A 7th round pick in 2005 by the KC Chiefs, Parquet spent time with the Rams before joining the Steelers in 2007. He was promoted to the active roster in October of last year. I don’t believe he is eligible for the practice squad anymore so he will probably be on the outside looking in when the cuts come in.
Ramon Foster – was signed this year as an undrafted free agent. He was a 4 year starter for Tennessee at tackle but projects as a guard in the NFL. The book on Foster is that he is BIG and could develop into a pounding guard (or play right tackle in a pinch) but that his footwork is slow. Foster has impressed during camp and has a decent shot to win the final roster spot. If not, they will definitely try to sign him to the practice squad.
Doug Legursky – played center for Marshall in College and was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He spent part of last year on the practice squad but was never added to the active roster. He is competing against A.Q. Shipley, Alex Stepanovich, and Foster for the final backup center/guard spot. As mentioned above, I believe Foster currently has the edge to make the active roster and Legursky’s fight is primarily against Shipley to make the practice squad.
A.Q. Shipley – The center out of Penn State was the Steelers’ first 7th round pick in this year’s draft. Shipley is another early fan favorite due to his blue collar work ethic. Heck, let’s just call him the NFL equivalent of “Rudy.” His height and arm length are too short to play in the NFL…everyone has told him that but he keeps plugging away. Unfortunately, I don’t see him making the active roster. There is a good chance, however, that he will be signed to the practice squad.
Alex Stepanovich – A 4th round pick in 2004 by the Arizona Cardinals, he started 34 games in his 5 year career, most of them for Arizona during his first 3 years. The past 2 years he has been a backup for the Bengals and the Falcons. He was signed recently as insurance given the injuries to Hartwig and Stapleton. On the positive side, he has far more NFL experience than Shipley, Legursky, and Foster put together. On the negative side, there is a reason he hasn’t been able to stick with a team. At the end of the day, he only makes the team if Hartwig and Stapleton are not healthy at the beginning of the season AND if neither Shipley nor Legursky are able to impress the coaching staff.
So in summary, I predict that Starks, Kemoeatu, Hartwig , Stapleton , Colon, Essex, and Urbik are in. Hills and Foster appear to have the edge for the final two spots. Capizzi, Shipley, and Legursky are fighting to make the practice squad and Stepanovich and Parquet are out. Agree? Disagree? Your comments are welcome.
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