I am not going to lie to you readers, the fact that Pittsburgh selected two “top-tier” Offensive Linemen in the first two Rounds of last week’s Draft made me an extremely happy camper. The Steelers’ recent efforts to stockpile and develop young talent along their Offensive Line has illustrated the concerted efforts of a franchise hell-bent on protecting their $100+ million Quarterback as he enters his 30′s. Yet with all of the new and talented faces in town, there is one once-starting member of the Steelers’ Offensive Line whose current status is a bit “up in the air” and multiple questions will likely surround in the coming months: Willie Colon.
Colon’s Career So Far, Injuries, and Growing Uncertainty
Willie Colon may have started over 3 plus seasons in a row for the Steelers, and he indeed signed a 5 year $29 million dollar contract before the 2011 season began as well. However, Colon enters the 2012 season as more of a question mark than an answer along an Offensive Line with a core of young, developing, and potentially fantastic talent. And the biggest reason for the uncertainty surrounding Colon has to be his overall health and the reliability of his body to hold up over a 16+ game marathon of a season.
Earlier in his career, Colon was actually a model of stability along the Offensive front for Pittsburgh. From the end of his Rookie season (2006), to the end of 2009, Colon logged 54 out of a possible 54 starts in a row (postseason included), and was the only one of Pittsburgh’s grunts up front to start each and every game during said stretch. In a period where Jeff Hartings retired, Alan Faneca left via Free Agency, Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons got seriously hurt, then left town, and then retired, Sean Mahan and Justin Hartwig proved inadequate solutions at Center, the Right Tackle spot Colon manned seemed to be the only position which guys were not constantly be shuttled in and out on a consistent basis. Now however, Colon’s reliability is in question because of the injuries which he has sustained over the last two seasons.
Over the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Colon has missed 31 out of a possible 32 regular season games because of the aforementioned injuries. Before the 2010 season began, Colon tore his Achilles and the injury coupled with the subsequent surgery forced him to miss the entire season. Undeterred by Colon’s ailment, the Front Office rewarded Colon with a new contract (5 years $29 million) in 2011, and it appeared all was well, and Colon would take his spot back at Right Tackle. Unfortunately, Colon was injured again, and went down late in Week 1 of the 2011 opener at Baltimore and was lost for a second season in a row.
Pittsburgh’s Coaches, Scouts, and Front Office members were not been blissfully ignorant of Colon’s recent injury history and the amount of time he has missed over the last two seasons. With those things in mind, the Steelers have drafted accordingly over the last two years to cover their bases, and done a pretty good job at that as well. Thus, the Steelers’ recent accumulation of talent at the Tackle position has put Colon somewhat “on notice” as the Steelers begin to prepare for the 2012 season.
The Tackle Pool Is Now Stronger
Colon’s replacement Marcus Gilbert, a 2nd Round pick in 2011, stepped up and manned the Right Tackle position for the Steelers for almost the entirety of the season. After not being expected to contribute much in his Rookie year, Gilbert stepped in at Right Tackle after Colon’s injury and started 14 games (including the postseason). Gilbert’s overall performance earned him the team’s Rookie of the Year award, and while there is room for Gilbert to learn and grow as a Lineman, the former 2nd Round pick out of Florida seems to have put himself in the Steelers’ starting rotation along the Offensive Line. While the team has expressed an interest in moving Gilbert to Left Tackle permanently this season, Colon will face just as tough competition from Mike Adams, 2012′s 2nd Round selection.
While Adams may have played his entire college career at Left Tackle while with the Buckeyes, he is considered by many including myself to be a candidate for a move to the right side due to his size and run blocking ability. The overall talent to succeed at the professional level on the field is there for Adams, and probably nobody would debate that matter. In my mind, Adams’ raw ability to run block, pass block, to possess footwork for a guy his size, and his experience at Left Tackle at a major college program made him a 1st Round talent and the best Tackle in the Draft not named Matt Kalil purely from a talent stand-point. However, the off-field issues with Adams have been well documented, and whether or not the Coaching Staff will deem him worthy to start his Rookie year will be entirely up to them. Still, Adams will be hungry to earn a starting spot on his favorite team, and if he is motivated, should be out prove his naysayers around the League wrong. If this turns out to be the case, Colon might find himself in a dog-fight to win his old position back come late July and throughout Training Camp and the Preseason periods.
Possible Outcomes/Where to Play Colon
2012 will be a make-or-break season for Colon, and he must stay healthy and vigilant to hold off Gilbert, Adams, or even Max Starks who if healthy and given a chance to tryout will be competing for a spot this upcoming year. With that said, Colon might end up taking one of two routes this season if he indeed stays healthy.
Starting Right Tackle
If this is indeed the case, and Colon holds off Adams, Gilbert, Starks, or some combination of all three to win back his job outright and put to rest any doubts about his job security as a starter, it would be fantastic for the Offensive Line as a unit. I personally would be ultimately happy if this aforementioned situation unfolded for two important reasons.
With Colon back as the starting Right Tackle, it would mean that Adams would get an extended chance to develop his overall skill-set, adjust to the speed of the professional game, and learn what it takes to be a professional from one of the best organizations in the League. With a year under his belt and learning from Kugler and the veteran, Adams could burst out like a “bat out of hell” in 2013 and be ready to compete for a starting job and establish himself as one of the better Linemen on the roster. Secondly, and most importantly, would be that if Colon assumes his old starting role, he is back at 100% again and the Steelers would have an experienced guy up-front with over 50 career starts manning one of their Tackle spots and protecting number 7 when he drops back to pass.
For units which have been decimated by injuries over the last half decade, it would be refreshing to see most if not all of Pittsburgh’s Offensive Linemen make it through a season without being seriously hurt, Colon especially. If Colon comes back healthy, he would definitely deserve the immediate chance to earn his old job back and should instantly upgrade the Offensive Line as a whole. Wishful thinking aside, let’s for the sake of argument say that the Offensive Line chooses to go in a different direction this offseason, and Colon eventually finds himself at a new position. I think some of you know where I am going with this.
Starting at Guard
The rumors every offseason which used to surround Willie Colon were not always about injuries and his health. Earlier in his career, the biggest question which seemed to surround Colon was centered on the debate of him possibly being moved inside to Guard. While it may sound a bit farfetched, if Adams and Gilbert play lights-out and perform well enough in late Summer, moving Colon might be a viable option for the Steelers if they choose to do it.
Let me preface this explanation though by saying that I was actually always in the “Colon at Tackle” camp early in his career. This was by no means that I did not think Colon would make a solid Guard if developed there, it was more a testament to the lack of consistent and healthy talent the Steelers had at the Tackle position from 2007 to 2010. While I never believed Colon to be an eventual “blind-side” protector for Ben due to his size and his struggles at times in pass protection, he still provided solid effort and suited up every week at Right Tackle where there were limited backups. Yet now that Pittsburgh has more talented and better options competing for starting roles at the Tackle positions (including backups if Starks indeed returns again), the Steelers might be wise to give a healthy Colon some reps. at Guard, because of the long-term dividends it could pay for the franchise and Colon as well.
In terms of his size and body type, Colon actually has more of a Guard frame than a Tackle frame. At 6’3″ Colon is far shorter than many Tackles in a League where 6’6″ is more the norm than an anomaly. While Colon’s weight is solid at 315 lbs., the Steelers other Tackles in the forms of Gilbert, Adams, and (possibly) Starks all tip the scales at over 330 lbs.. With his more compact frame, his solid run blocking ability, but issues with pass protection at times on the edge, Colon actually would be a good candidate to kick inside to Guard if the opportunity presented itself.
As I stated before though, Colon moving to Guard would likely only take place if Gilbert and Adams absolutely wowed during the late Summer and made it impossible for Kugler and the Coaching Staff not to start them. Still, it would not be a terrible thing if Colon was in fact kicked inside. A Line consisting of Gilbert, DeCastro, Pouncey, Colon, and Adams in front of Big Ben would likely be one of the best young Lines in the game, as Pittsburgh’s five most talented Linemen would be on the field at the same time.
Still, after close to 5 years of “Colon to Guard” talk, nothing has come of it. Nevertheless, with Gilbert and Adams on the roster, it could serve Colon well to take some reps. at Guard in the coming seasons and display some positional versatility. As I alluded to before, Colon has the body type for the position, he can run block, and he possesses above-average athleticism for a Guard. If he were to move inside after Adams was ready in a year or so and stays healthy, he could finish out the remainder of his contract in Pittsburgh as a starter. While this is the more unlikely of scenarios of the two I described, it definitely provides for an intriguing option.
At 29, Colon still has 3-4 years of good football in front of him from a production stand-point. That is of course if Colon can spend more time on the field than on the sidelines as he has done in recent seasons. The serious injuries, coupled with time-consuming rehab periods have forced the Steelers to smartly hedge their bets on competition and possible replacements for Colon. Still, we should not discount Colon’s productivity during the seasons when he was healthy, and the wealth of experience he could bring to the young Offensive Line would be nice as well.
Hopefully Colon can come back healthy and give the Steelers at least somewhat of a return on the 5 year $29 million investment they made in him last offseason. The 2012 season will provide a good setting for Colon to prove himself to many though. The Tackle pool is as strong as it has ever been from a talent perspective since he became a starter, and the youngsters will be looking for as many reps. as possible. Even though the Right Tackle spot (and maybe Guard but it is more unlikely) will be Colon’s to lose this season, he still must make believers out of Tomlin and members of Steeler Nation that he can stay on the field.
The Steelers are in the process of building one heck of an Offensive Line in the coming years. The young talent they have accumulated so far has given us reason for hope in the future. Will Willie Colon be a part of the rebuilding and eventual finished product in the coming years? Or will injuries derail his career like they have the last two seasons? I cannot say for sure. I do know however that I will be watching closely to see how the Offensive Line shakes out and forms in the future.