Steelers' makeover taking shape
There's no fear of the unknown for the Steelers.
They finished minicamp — one with only two days of practices rather than three — and headed out Thursday for their last vacation time before they reassemble July 26 in Latrobe.
They'll likely be the same team that they are now. And that raises a question: What team is this?
Is this a team in transition, as coach Mike Tomlin said, one that is merely reconfiguring itself as some key players on the three Super Bowl teams of the past eight years head into their post-football careers?
Or is this a team in trouble, one that has lost too much talent from an underachieving 8-8 team of a season ago to begin talking about a Super Bowl?
“The first thing that coach Tomlin said was, ‘Be here, and show up. If you're going to be here, let's go to work,' ” center Maurkice Pouncey said Thursday. “All of the leaders on this team, including myself, need to really show up this year and play football. Everybody is hungry this year. You can tell it's a different vibe in the locker room.”
But does a different vibe mean a better vibe and a better record?
The Steelers are replacing seven starters, or nearly one-third of their lineup: receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker James Harrison, running back Rashard Mendenhall, left guard Willie Colon, left tackle Max Starks, cornerback Keenan Lewis and nose tackle Casey Hampton. Wallace and Lewis were two of the few players who cashed in big during free agency.
In their place are draft picks, new and recent, including Jarvis Jones, Le'Veon Bell, Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert and Cortez Allen.
It is the biggest season-to-season makeover of the seven-year Tomlin Era, but the players seem excited about the altered look of a team that customarily employs change in gradual steps.
During this decade, there have been seasons in which the Steelers switched only a single starter from one year to the next.
Here's an example: When was the last time a sixth-round draft pick who has yet to play in a preseason game was unofficially listed as a second-team linebacker, as Vince Williams is?
“Our success lies on their shoulders just as much as on us old guys,” defensive end Brett Keisel said.
Tomlin was asked Thursday if four weeks of organized team activity practices and minicamp taught him anything.
“Functionally, in-house, I've learned quite a bit,” Tomlin said. “New guys, what their buttons are, how they learn. I think any time you work with a new football player and you start the process of team building each and every year, one of the first things you have to get is an understanding of how your new people learn.”
What the Steelers are learning is that nearly everyone in the top half of their rookie class — Jones, Bell, receiver Markus Wheaton, safety Shamarko Thomas — could play a significant role this season. NFL Network analyst Charles Davis believes the Steelers will rely on their rookie class more than any other team.
“We have some unknown guys that are going to have to step up and play big roles for us,” linebacker Larry Foote said.
There's still much unknown about Jones, who will compete with Jason Worilds to replace Harrison at outside linebacker, and Bell, who will try to sprint past Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman on the running backs depth chart.“There's a lot of opportunities, probably more in this training camp, for guys to make the team than maybe I've ever been a part of,” said Keisel, who was drafted in 2002.
“There's a lot of openings, really. That's what makes training camp so special. You find the guys that are able to rise up to those occasions. It will be an exciting camp, just as exciting as any.”