Test – Steelers

There may be no defensive player in the NFL more deserving of banking $8.6 million a year than James Harrison. His work ethic is phenomenal, he’s a fantastic rags to riches story, and he’s easily the meanest Steeler since Joe Greene.

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Mean.

 But by making Harrison the second-highest-paid player in franchise history, the Steelers essentially mortgaged their future for the promise of a dynasty.

It’s not such a bad strategy. Ben Roethlisberger is only 27 years old, but the amount of punishment he has taken on and off the field is going to seriously diminish his NFL shelf life. By 32, Roethlisberger will likely be in the twilight of his career.

During his five years as an NFL starter, Ben has been sacked 192 times. Eli Manning, selected in the same NFL Draft, has been sacked only 120 times in that same span. Are those 72 extra pops going to make a difference? Yes – not even counting Ben’s off-field health issues, they will likely shorten his career by two years. 

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Big tree fall hard.

 These stats don’t even consider the countless times Ben has taken vicious hits after releasing the ball that don’t go down in the stat sheets, like the helmet-to-helmet collision with the Falcons’ Chauncey Davis that knocked him out in 2006, or the seemingly routine hit that left him motionless on the turf for 15 minutes in last season’s Week 17 game against Cleveland.

Roethlisberger consequently shook off the spinal chord concussion and led the Steelers to a win over the Chargers, and on to their second Super Bowl win.

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 Roethlisberger has proven that he’s one tough son of a gun, but no one is indestructible. In the end – which might be sooner than Steelers fans anticipate – all of these heavyweight caliber blows will catch up with Big Ben.

Fact is, like Earl Campbell, the same one-of-a-kind toughness and physicality that makes Roethlisberger great will ultimately break him down.

The Steelers organization knows this, too. And that’s precisely why they stepped out of character and locked up a 30-year-old linebacker for the prime of Roethlisberger’s career. They followed it up this week by restructuring Hines Ward’s contract to keep him in the ‘burgh for the rest of his career. Even Dan Rooney’s Steelers know they need to get while the gettin’s good. 

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“…I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

Harrison’s signing makes this weekend’s NFL Draft vitally important for the future of the Steelers. Depth is already a question mark at cornerback (signing Keiwan Ratliff is a temporary, one-year solution), wide receiver (Ward is 33), and on the defensive line (no brainer). Harrison’s six-year, $51 million contract limits how much depth the Steelers can add.

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Bonus of the Keiwan Ratliff signing: he has a haircut similar to Adam Duritz from the Counting Crows. You know, I’ve missed that ‘do.

recently-updated111 Remember “Mr. Jones”? In the 1990s, you couldn’t slam a pog without hearing that song.

 Still, for the cash-strapped Steelers, the next two to three years could be golden. The NFC North is perhaps the weakest it has ever been. The Bengals are in free-fall with a banged up, over-the-hill quarterback in Carson Palmer and one of the league’s worst defenses. The Browns self-destructed when they were on the precipice of turning the corner thanks to poor management and coaching – not to mention a quarterback controversy. The Ravens’ vaunted defense is in decline because of both aging players and free agency, which means their young, exceedingly average quarterback won’t have anywhere to hide in 2009. 

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For the depleted Ravens to challenge the Steelers in ’09, Flacco will have to be more solid than his unibrow.

 The Steelers could plant their flag on top of the AFC North for foreseeable future. It’s imperative that they bank some economical, cap-friendly NFL players in the later rounds of this weekends draft – one’s that will get snaps, unlike recent underwhelmers Anthony Smith, Willie Reid, and Bruce Davis.

The Steelers’ Super Bowl title defense starts this weekend.

My projections:

First round: Defensive lineman

Second round: Offensive lineman

Third round: Cornerback

Fourth round: Possession wide receiver

What do you think of this weekend’s draft? Give us a shout in the Comments section. 

 

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