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Steelers training camp: Offensive line

August 24, 2009 By: Admin Category: Uncategorized

August 25, 2009
By John DeWald

This is Part 9 in a series.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

Part 1:  Defensive linemen

Part 2:  Linebackers

Part 3:  Safeties

Part 4: Cornerbacks

Part 5: Quarterbacks

Part 6: Running backs

Part 7: Wide receivers

Part 8: Tight ends

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.

Max Starks

Max Starks

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.

Willie Colon

Willie Colon

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.

A.Q. Shipley

A.Q. Shipley

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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17 Comments to “Steelers training camp: Offensive line”

  1. I generally agree with your assessment of the O-line & who does & doesn’t make the team. At the beginning of every camp, I like to look at the 80-man camp roster & make my early picks as to who makes the team. As camp goes along, I make my adjustments. This year, I believe my early assesment is largely holding true. The only variation I had with your O-line picks was that I had Capizzi beating out Hills. I see the case for either guy making the team, though. The Steelers don’t like to be proven wrong with any draft pick they make and since Hills was drafted & Capizzi wasn’t, I think they give Hills every opportunity to make the team. If it’s close between the 2, maybe Hills gets it for that reason alone. But, Capizzi is tremendously huge - the biggest guy on the roster. That alone has made him an appealing prospect to the Steelers & other teams. It’s a shame, however, that all that size seems to be thwarted by a lack of technique. Cappizi isn’t just a disappointment in the NFL - he also began his college play at Pitt before transfering to IUP - definitely a down-grade in competition level. I am not a big fan of Hills, but after watching camp to this point, it seems there is more potential to work out the bugs with Hills than with Capizzi. Overall, I am a little disapointed that none of the backups has done much to push last year’s starters. I, like much of Steeler nation, was hoping guys like Urbik, Foster, and Capizzi might work out better than expected. But, since they are young, they have to be given the opportunity to develop. Unfortunately for all involved, there isn’t enough room for that development to happen on the active roster, or even the practice squad. All that said, I think your picks for the O-line are solid.

  2. Thanks for the comments. I agree with your contention that the competition between Hills and Capizzi is close. After the first preseason game, I just felt that Hills had the edge. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to see the Redskins game so I don’t know how they did in that one.

    On Urbik and Foster I would cut them a little slack right now. They are both only rookies and even Faneca didn’t crack the starting lineup until halfway through his first season. Let’s wait til next year to see how they’re doing.

    Remember, it took Harrison a number of years to finally put it all together and become the monster he is now. I am more concerned about how well the starters “gel” together this year than how well the rookies do. Colon and Hartwig are in contract years and even Kemoeatu’s contract would not necesarily prevent him from being cut next year. They need to continue the progress they last year or they will conintue to be the weak link on the team (especially now that Sepulveda’s back).

  3. I know that what you put out here is based on what you have actually seen as well as your personal opinions but I have to be honest I don’t have a good feeling about our O-line based on not only last seasons performance but your prognosis of the available talent. I just hope that they simply do the same as last year and no worse or else we could be in for a rough ride.

    I find it curious that you saved the O-line for last (barring kicking players) as that would spark the most conversation out of all the positons.

  4. Benny,

    The decision to put the O-line 8th wasn’t really on purpose. We just decided to do defense first and then it look me longer to do the O-line because of the number of players involved. It might have sparked the most discussion if we had posted it earlier but, given the relative inexperience of most of them, we really didn’t know enough about them to make any judgements.

    I pretty much have a wait and see feeling about the O-line. Given the importance of continuity, I am a little concerned about the time Hartwig and Kemo have missed. As far as the starters, the only new person is Essex. Since he is bigger and stronger than Stapleton, it could be an improvement over last year.

    Overall, preseason will not tell us much about the line. We will have to wait until they take the field in a real game before we can make any valid judgements about the overall line quality.

  5. Jim Elias says:

    Below are two well reasoned articles making the cases for the Steelers O-line being made up of inferior individuals and the statistical fact they really did not improve the longer they played together. Read them are provide a comment(s). Thanks.

    1.) Is Bruce Arians practicing fuzzy math?
    2.) 2009 Offensive Line Rankings and Analysis

  6. Jim,
    Thanks for providing the articles. I haven’t had a chance to read them yet, but I will definitely check them out. However, I don’t think that Steelers fans really need any proof that our o-line is made up of inferior individuals or that they didn’t really improve. Steelers fans understand that they o-line sucks. They just hope that they can at least keep Ben alive while the defense continues to win games for us.

  7. Benny,
    I’d like to add a few thoughts to what John has already stated. Firstly, I think your concerns about the offensive line are fairly universal among Steeler Nation. We all are praying that the line can keep Big Ben alive this year, but we have our doubts.

    I have been very hard on Tony Hills during training camp, and I think he deserved it. However, I agree with John that Hills is probably ahead of Capizzi. Capizzi is just too darn tall. At 6’9″, it is hard for him to get the proper leverage that he needs. Given the choice between having a lineman who is too tall or too short, I’d usually take the player who is too short, because shorter players often have a leverage advantage and a lower center of gravity. Also, when you see Capizzi he just looks tall. He doesn’t look particularly thick. Contrarily, when you look at Max Starks (who is 6’8″) he looks massive. He’s both tall and wide.

    I think that in 3 years we are all going to look back at this class of rookies and say that Ramon Foster was the steal of the bunch. I know that he’s raw now, but overall I like what I’ve seen from the kid, especially at training camp. Oops, correction: We’ll probably say that Stefan Logans was the steal of the bunch, but Ramon Foster will be next. I’ve been more impressed by Foster than by Urbik or Shipley.

  8. I believe that you have nailed it with who ends up where regarding the O-line. We are all hoping that another year together improves the play of this unit. It still concerns me that we have not prioritized the O-line in our recent drafts. We certainly could have gone O-line three years ago instead of Spaeth (a 3rd rnd pick that still makes me wonder, ‘what were we thinking?’) two years ago instead Davis (3rd rnd) and last year in Rnd 2 (Max Unger; Loadholt.)We have to draft some blue chippers (ala Faneca, Searcy)to go along with the later rounders in an effort to make the O-line a dominant force-which it must be to play Steeler football. Instead, we are all hoping that ‘C’ players become ‘B’ players! We need some ‘A’ players as in Pro Bowlers on our O-Line!

  9. John #21,
    I partially agree with you. The Steelers offensive line definitely needs work. However, because the Steelers have traditionally been a winning team, we typically draft late in each round. By the time our draft pick comes around, most of the stud offensive linemen (the “A Players” that you mentioned) are already gone. The Steelers have been wise to not reach for the 9th best tackle or 5th best guard when they could get the best tight end, or the best punter.

    The Steelers don’t tend to reach for picks. They take the best player on their draft board, regardless of position. History will show that this philosophy has served them well.

  10. I think I need to stop thinking about the O-line because the more I read about it the more I get nervous and I also don’t see any reason why the O-line would actualy get better (those links provided above certianly don’t help :-) ). It could be that I don’t understand, but other than getting more playing time together what can they do to increase their level of play?

    On the other hand I have stated earlier that if the O-line plays the same and other areas increase their levels of play (kick returns, running attack, and punting) then I think we could still have a pretty good season again. What does everyone else think?

  11. Benny - Good point. Our punting game should take a giant step forward. meaning that our defense should be in even better position to start most drives. We invested a lot of draft picks to improve the return game, so we better see an improvement. Since we were last-it’s gotta be better. In those respects we will be better. Even with those improvements,it is important for the O-line to take a step forward. Protecting Ben and establishing the run are critical priorities.
    John - to your point, we had this conversation during the draft - you are right - the Steelers do not reach for draft picks. I wouldn’t have been opposed to them packaging a few picks over the past few years to land a blue chip O-lineman. Not a strategy to use every year, but one time in the last 4 would have been nice! Or choose to pay Faneca!
    It is nice to have these conversations with the Lombardi Trophy on the mantle isn’t it!?

  12. Jim Elias says:

    John, I suspect you will like this website. Actually very good analysis with video of preseason games supporting their analysis.


    Steelers Offensive Line: Guilty until proven innocent:

    Uh-Oh, Lawrence Timmons struggles against the run:

    Take Care!

  13. Jim - The video analysis is a bit disturbing. Tonight’s game is supposed to be the first with a “game plan”. It should tell us more about our O-Line. I must ask, why do we not run any screens or draws? The way teams tee-off against our line (especially last season) it seems logical that we would use that against them. Yet all through the tough games against the Eagles & Ravens, I can’t remember any screens or draws. There was a time when we were the best team at running screens. Is that a function of our O-line’s skill set too?

  14. @ John#21

    I have been saying that all last season. I would be surprised, if you looked at the tapes from last year, if we even ran 5 total traditional screen passes to the running back. And that is my point with the weaknesses of the O-line let them fall back and the backs burn the defenses.

    Also I could be wrong but isn’t that what a draw play is also designed to do? I think if we had a dedicated fullback we be having this conversation a lot less because it would take at least a little pressure off of the O-line.

  15. Jim,

    I checked out the first group of articles and the ‘postgame’ site. The first group of articles doesn’t say anything that we didn’t already know. Mainly that (despite what Arians might think) the offensive line simply wasn’t that good last year.

    However, I didn’t see any statistical facts that showed they did not improve over the year. The stats showed that they went from 29 sacks in the first 8 games to 20 over the final 8. The author then dismisses the improvement by saying that 40 sacks (pro-rating the final 8 total over 16 games) is still bad. I don’t disagree with that but I also think it misses the point.

    Those who feel the O-line improved over the course of last year do not mean to imply that they reached their peak. The arguement is that (being either new or young) they have the potential to continue to improve over the offseason and training camp. So, if they continue to improve (even modestly) they can reduce the sacks down into the low 30′s. That still isn’t great but is a marked improvement over the 49 from last year.

    Finally, the ‘postgame’ site looks interesting and I do like the fact they use stats to support their views rather than just spout their opinions. Like most opinion oriented articles there are going to be things you agree and disagree with. While I think that continuity and experience gives the line opportunity for improvement, I agree with them that they are “guilt until proven innocent.” That is, it’s up to the line to show us on the field before we believe in them.

    I notice they just put their own prediction for the 53 man roster and their differences with Steelers Today are:
    Eason over Harris
    Davis over Redman
    Burnett over A.Harrison (they carry 10 DB’s and only 8 LB’s)
    Capizzi over Hills

  16. John and Jim,
    I don’t think that the difference in their 53-man roster and ours are that great. Eason has more experience and is more ready to play right now. The reason that I went with Harris was that I thought the Steelers need to inject some youth into their d-line. Ziggy Hood is a start, but they need more. However, Harris is probably safe if he were put on the practice squad. I could live with either decision.

    I chose Redman over Davis because I just don’t think Davis brings enough to the party. I believe Redman will be a better short yardage back, and that is what the Steelers need. If the Steelers feel that Rashard Mendenhall can get the short yardage, then they might keep the more experienced Davis. However, Mendenhall still hasn’t proven himself in my opinion, so I went with the best short yardage back I’ve seen so far. The one X-Factor will be how Frank Summer plays in this last preseason game. Summers could be a viable short yardage back, and he has the advantage of being an good special teams tackler.

    Burnett has probably caused the most discussion. He does have potential, but he is not going to contribute as a CB this year. He also isn’t going to beat out Logans as a punt returner. I can’t see them keeping an extra DB in place of a LB when linebackers are so important to the steelers’ success.

    Lastly, Capizzi and Hills are both irrelevant. Neither is going to see the field.

    It’s going to be exciting to see how the Steelers answer the Joe Burnett question. This final preseason game should help shed some light on that answer.

  17. Sorry but I cannot respond to your thoughts at this time. I am have trouble focusing. I just got home from back surgery and the pain killers are making it difficult to think coherently. Take care!


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