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Steelers prepare for Parker's decline

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Willie Parker is an NFL running back, which means his next carry might be his last.

Parker has produced three consecutive 1,200-yard seasons and was named to two Pro Bowls in a row. His reward• The Steelers selected Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall with the No. 23 overall pick in Saturday's draft.

Welcome to life in the big city, Willie. And you thought making it this far as an undrafted free agent was tough duty. You haven't seen anything yet.

The Steelers didn't take the easy way out. Instead of reaching for a true need at defensive tackle, the Steelers passed on North Carolina's Kentwan Balmer after Dallas had selected Arkansas running back Felix Jones over Mendenhall one pick earlier -- a Jerry Jones special if ever there was one -- and chose beauty over brawn, going with the higher-rated player.

"This guy does a lot of things well. He catches the football. He's going to enable us to do a lot of things," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Mendenhall.

"Most successful teams have two productive running backs that they can count on," director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "This one's a little bigger than Willie, so there may be some things he can do to complement Willie."

Or eventually replace him.

The clock on Parker's career with the Steelers is now officially ticking toward its inevitable conclusion.

Most running backs have a short shelf life. Three seasons ago, Shaun Alexander rushed for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns. In case you missed it, Seattle just released Alexander, who is all of 30.

When veteran running back Deuce McAllister was knocked out of action in 2005, New Orleans drafted Reggie Bush. When veteran running back Fred Taylor was slowed by injuries in 2005, Jacksonville drafted Maurice Jones-Drew. When Parker broke his right fibula against the Rams last December, the Steelers drafted Mendenhall.

Parker turns 28 in November.

It was interesting to see the scouting staff observe the Steelers' organized team activities last week. It was even more interesting to hear Parker proclaim himself fit and ready to go. Well, almost.

"I'm really close to 100 percent," Parker said to reporters regarding the discomfort he sometimes experiences after running and working out. "When the pain goes away, that's when I'll be 100 percent."

Maybe the Steelers' brass became nervous about Parker's quote when they saw Mendenhall's name still on the board yesterday. Maybe Parker's physical status concerned them. Maybe it was the fact that Mendenhall is a superior runner between the tackles and a better pass receiver than Parker. Maybe it was those 1,019 career carries, the last of which knocked Parker out of action.

A year ago, Minnesota drafted Adrian Peterson in the first round despite incumbent running back Chester Taylor coming off a 1,216-yard, six-touchdown campaign. All Peterson accomplished as a rookie was to rush for 1,341 yards and 12 touchdowns and all but shove Taylor out of the starting lineup.

We haven't seen the last of Parker. But given what transpired yesterday, we may already have seen the best of him.

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