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Might Steelers bring back Keisel?

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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel celebrates a tackle in front of the Browns' Greg Little during the first quarter Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, at Heinz Field.

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Alan Robinson
Tuesday, June 3, 2014, 9:48 p.m.

The Steelers began the second week of offseason practices Tuesday with an unaccustomed abundance of salary cap room — and an unaddressed shortage of defensive linemen, linebackers and cornerbacks.

The question is whether the $7.99 million in cap space formally gained this week from the prior release of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley will be used for short-term depth or long-term contracts.

The Steelers now have the cap space to sign their top four draft picks and possibly pick up a veteran or two on defense who might become available on the open market.

One possibility is bringing back longtime defensive end starter Brett Keisel, who remains unsigned but is continuing to work out in anticipation of a job opening.

With the Steelers uncomfortably thin at defensive end, Keisel could serve as a backup and a mentor to second-round draft pick Stephon Tuitt — just as former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, now a defensive assistant, is doing with Jarvis Jones at outside linebacker.

Center Maurkice Pouncey, who is in the final year of his rookie deal, is likely to get a new contract before the season starts. But whether the Steelers will move to give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a new deal remains uncertain; he's currently signed through 2015.

The Steelers historically never plug-and-play any of their draft picks, yet that's exactly what they appear to be doing with first-round draft Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker and Tuitt, who is in heavy rotation at defensive end.

Certainly, it's early in the process — training camp doesn't start for another seven-plus weeks — but it appears evident the two will be counted upon much more heavily than most Steelers rookies in the past.

The offseason practices that continue through June 19 are offering a hint of what the lineup might look like Sept. 7 against Cleveland:

• If Shazier isn't going to start, then coach Mike Tomlin is putting up quite the smokescreen by running him with the “ones” — the starters. It's evident the Steelers are intent on getting younger and faster on both sides of the ball, and Shazier — the fastest linebacker available in the draft — helps them do both.

• William Gay and Cortez Allen were lining up with the ones at cornerback until Ike Taylor returned Tuesday; the question is which two will start.

• Second-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton, coming off a horrific rookie season ruined by two broken fingers, is looking fast and sure-handed as the Steelers spend an inordinate amount of time working on the deep pass, according to multiple players. Fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant might be too raw and unpolished to push for a starting job right away. With Lance Moore seemingly penciled in as the slot receiver, it looks to be Wheaton's job to win — or lose — as he, Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey compete to replace Emmanuel Sanders.

• An interesting competition is shaping up at punter, where former Bears starter Adam Podlesh goes against undrafted Brad Wing, a left-footed, Aussie-style punter who averaged nearly 45 yards per punt during his two seasons at LSU. The Steelers were next to last in net punting (41.1 yards) last season, averaging 7.7 yards per punt below league-leading Miami, and it's an area that badly needs strengthened.

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