Dixon wants more reps with 1st-team offense
Third-year quarterback Dennis Dixon isn't your typical late draft pick. A knee injury blunted his Heisman Trophy hopes and pushed him down to the fifth round, where the Steelers were able to steal him.
Dixon made his lone NFL start last season at Baltimore when Ben Roethlisberger was a late scratch because of a concussion. Dixon displayed promise in the Steelers' 20-17 overtime loss, and he is expected to be No. 2 on the depth chart behind veteran Byron Leftwich when training camp opens a week from today.
Despite Dixon's upside, agent Jeff Sperbeck doesn't believe his client practiced with the first-team offense enough during offseason workouts for the coaching staff to fully evaluate his development. Dixon is competing with Leftwich to replace Roethlisberger, who will miss at least the first four games due to a suspension.
Sperbeck also questions why Leftwich, who appeared in five games with the Steelers in 2008, is playing ahead of Dixon after spending last season with Tampa Bay.
"I think Dennis should be given an opportunity to start," Sperbeck said in a phone interview from California. "He's been there going on three years. He knows the offense. He's familiar with his teammates. He's ready to go.
"I don't understand why after Byron's been gone a year, they would bring him back and start him ahead of Dennis. To me, it should have been Dennis' job as the No. 1. He was No. 2 last year. Byron was not even in the picture."
NBCSports.com agrees with Sperbeck, ranking the Steelers' decision to play Leftwich ahead of Dixon No. 7 among the NFL's 10 worst offseason moves.
Dixon, who's been training in Oregon, said he's prepared for the challenge of beating out Leftwich -- if he receives more of an opportunity.
"I would say yes. Everybody would like to take the first-team reps," Dixon said this week. "Once you get your shot, you want to show that you can get it done. I'm pretty sure there will be a point in time when that happens. It hasn't right now."
No. 3 quarterback Charlie Batch is among Dixon's biggest supporters on the Steelers. During a recent interview with a Tampa, Fla., radio station, Batch said it's a matter of time before Dixon attains stardom.
"Dennis Dixon is a great talent and I think he showed that last year against Baltimore. So I think at some point they're going to try to get him ready because he is the future," Batch said. "I think the way that everything has gone, they want to give Dennis as many (reps) in training camp as possible. And I think watching him as he progressed over the last couple of years, he's really going to be a talent -- whether that's with Pittsburgh or some other team."
Inside linebacker and co-captain James Farrior has faced Dixon enough times in practice to realize he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Now, Farrior said, Dixon must take his game to the next level and earn the respect of his teammates.
"I know Byron's probably going to be the starter going into training camp, but Dennis is going to give him a good push," said Farrior, who is completing his final week of workouts in Florida. "Ben is our quarterback, so it's up in the air for the next guy to come in. It's important to be able to manage the offense and be a leader out there. Having confidence from the guys he's in the huddle with is going to help him a lot."
Said Dixon: "I want my body language to show that I'm very confident in everything I do."
Dixon will play with more confidence if he receives additional first-team reps in training camp, according to Sperbeck.
"That's such an important part of a young guy's development," Sperbeck said. "When you bestow the confidence in him that he is the guy, now the team knows that and they are prepared to follow him. Without the team giving that to him, it's more difficult for any quarterback to lead when your own status is uncertain. You lead differently as a starter than you do as a backup."
Sperbeck said Dixon's third season is important to his development, in part because he becomes a restricted free agent after this season and could be sought after by other teams. Sperbeck compares Dixon at this stage in his career with talented quarterbacks such as Mark Brunell (fifth round) and Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round), who were also drafted late.
"Dennis was not a typical fifth-rounder. That was an aberration because of his injury," Sperbeck said. "The Steelers knew what they had early on. They knew they got great value in him. But now, since he was really more of a first- (or) second-round talent, those guys fall in the category of after a season or two they are considered ready to be starters."