When I saw RB Rashard Mendenhall getting checked out on the sideline during the Steelers’ Week 17 squeaker against the Browns, my heart sank. As a fan, I was livid that one of the Steelers’ starters was hurt in what would prove to be a meaningless game. Yet as I watched the game unfold (as well as the Denver one), I began to think with my “homer” head instead of my “homer” heart and realized that if Mendenhall is out for the Playoffs and even Training Camp or more in 2012, it might not leave the Steelers in quite the bind that many expected. In fact, we in Steeler Nation can find a “silver lining” to the situation with Mendenhall’s injury and the RB corps as a whole in 2012.
So if you’re interested in what I have to say, hit that “Continue Reading” button and let’s get started:
Rashard’s Desire for New Contract = Win-Win
For those of you that weren’t aware, there is one important factor with regards to Mendenhall and how he will perform in 2012: When the 2012 season ends, Mendenhall’s contract will expire and he will become an Unrestricted Free Agent. That being said, the Steelers could end up benefiting greatly from Mendenhall’s contract situation, and both parties could in turn reap all of the rewards.
Coming off of an ACL injury and in need to have a solid season, we should expect to see Mendenhall running like a “bat out of hell” come July and onwards. 2012 will be Rashard’s big audition for teams (including the Steelers) to put his skills on display for a new contract. Thus, if Mendenhall adopts the attitude that he is auditioning for a new job (in or outside of Pittsburgh) and a new multi-million dollar contract, the Steelers will not only have tremendous production from their talented RB, but Mendenhall makes himself that much more marketable to other RB-starved teams looking to upgrade their squads in Free Agency.
Competition All Over at RB = Hooray!
This one pains me to say, because it really isn’t fair for any player to lose his job due to injury. Nevertheless, the N.F.L. is a “fast-moving-train,” and it stops for nobody. So when camp opens up in Latrobe, competition for the #1 spot at RB should be open for Redman to win, and Mendenhall should be forced to fight for his job and playing time as a whole with the Steelers’ three other talented RB’s.
Two Sunday’s ago coupled with the last two seasons have illustrated how Redman has the ability to gain tough yards and become a “feature back” in this League. There wasn’t an ounce of fear or hesitation as he hit the hole and watching that #33 pound the rock all day long looked like Merril Hoge was taking it to Denver’s Defense in the ’89 Divisional Playoff.
Throughout his career there has never been any tippy-toeing, and no ill-advised cut-backs for no gain when a simple plunge would have netted 3 yards. It has just been an all around solid developmental period for Redman who has averaged 4.5 yards per carry during his two seasons on the active roster. By progressing so well, Redman threw his hat into the proverbial “ring” for the starting RB job in 2012. Plus, if you factor in Mendenhall’s injury and Rashard likely not being 100% as camp starts, the former UDFA out of Bowie State (Redman) will have every chance to win the #1 slot.
And while Redman is shaping up to be a larger part of the Steelers’ Running Game, there are three other RB’s which will be fighting for playing time against Mendenhall and will try to prove they are no slouches either. It will then be a mad scramble and hell of a competition to prove which two will likely make the final roster/practice squad.
2nd Year man Baron Batch was having a fantastic training camp in 2011, and looked to be on the verge of unseating Me-Mo (who will likely be passed over in F.A. in 2012) as the Steelers’ 3rd Down Back. However, an ACL injury cost Batch his season before it really got started, and he will be even hungrier to prove his worth to the ball-club. His hands and ability to work in the passing game are valuable attributes, and he should provide a seamless transition from Me-Mo when the 2012 season kicks off.
Jonathan Dwyer/John Clay:
The competition for the “Big-Back” role will come down to 3rd Year man J0nathan Dwyer and 2nd Year man and Practice Squad phenom John Clay. With Batch’s ability to help in the passing game and work 3rd Downs, Dwyer and Clay will be in a fight for what could come down to the last roster spot. Both are bruisers and both can contribute on Special Teams. Yet the Steelers won’t be carrying more than 4 RB’s in 2012, and you can bet that Redman, Mendenhall, and Batch will be 1-3 on the depth chart.
With all of the competition as well as fight for carries that will inevitably occur in Pittsburgh, the Steelers are actually in a perfect position at RB. Redman will finally be getting his shot to start and should be giving his 100% effort to stay at the top of the depth chart. Moreover, Mendenhall needs to stave off Redman just to see the field and parlay his own success into big-money and a new contract elsewhere (or in Pittsburgh, but not likely). In addition, Mendenhall will need a solid performance to get playing time if one of the three youngsters proves their worth in a niche role (i.e. 3rd Downs, Goal Line, etc..) to the franchise in the Preseason and Regular Season.
Because of Mendenhall’s injury and the aforementioned factors, the RB battle will likely be the most entertaining to watch come this summer. We as Steelers fans should be lucky to watch the two vets. duke it out for the majority of the snaps and the loser and the three youngsters vie for what’s left of the playing time. Not many teams in the N.F.L. have a depth chart as full of talent as the Steelers do. And with Redman already stepping it up, Mendenhall needing his job back and a new contract, and the young guys needing to kick some tail so they can stick around, this competition’s victors will have truly earned the right to play.
Conclusion + Mendenhall’s Fate:
As I have alluded to before, there are two ways that this situation can go. First, Mendenhall will come into camp healthy, play lights out football when given his opportunity, and be the Back that is looking for a new contract in Pittsburgh or elsewhere. Or, Pittsburgh can cut their losses, realize that Redman is the Back that gives them the best chance to win when he is the “bell-cow,” use Mendenhall is a more limited role, and the youngsters will earn their right to play.
One thing I’m almost positive about though is Mendenhall will likely not be sticking around in 2013. With Redman, Dwyer, Clay, and Baron Batch already fighting for roster spots and likely to help form a stellar RB Corp in the future, it’ll be tough for Mendenhall to earn that long-term or lucrative deal from a team that already has a glut of RB’s and not enough carries to go around.
If Mendenhall was healthy, I would be interested to see if the Steelers attempted to trade him this offseason. I’m not sure what the market is for a guy that just suffered an ACL tear but was 78 yards short of turning in 3 straight 1,000 yard seasons. Nevertheless, I think it would’ve be wise for the Steelers to at least shop Mendenhall to see what the going rate is for his services before having him play out 2012, and then letting him eventually walk in Free Agency. (Although if he does perform well and then walks, I could see Pittsburgh getting a Compensatory Selection in Rounds 3-5, so let’s cross our fingers for that situation to happen)
This is by no means an article that dismisses anything that Rashard has done here in Pittsburgh. He has had a productive career since replacing Willie Parker as the #1 Back, and his performance against the Jets in the 2010 A.F.C. Championship (27 carries, 127 yards, and 1 TD) was one for the ages. Yet with RB being the most replaceable position in the N.F.L., Mendenhall could fall victim to a “numbers game” and his status in Pittsburgh will likely be in doubt after the 2012 season.
But right now, let’s get excited Steeler Nation! Let’s be stoked that the Steelers have options at the RB position. Let’s be ecstatic that Mendenhall will be looking to prove his doubters wrong once he gets healthy, and also prove to the N.F.L. as a whole that he is worthy of a lucrative and long-term deal. But most of all, let’s look at this situation from a “glass-half-full” perspective.
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