Among the many plot-lines evolving for the Steelers 2012 season started before the 2011 season even ended -- namely, which heavy salaried, long-in-the-tooth veterans would return to the team for this coming season? As we found out, not many, as the Steelers cut ties with Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior within a few days of each other.
Both Ward and Smith were Steelers draftees, spending their entire careers with the team (Farrior was a former first-round pick of the Jets, acquired by the Steelers in free agency in 2002). So I was interested to look back at how those first summers in Latrobe went for Ward and Smith:
Found this story from Thursday, July 23, 1998 by the esteemed Mr. Gerry Dulac:
"It was late morning, the first day for the players on the field in pads, and Hines Ward Jr. looked tired, almost disgusted. The rookie wide receiver was walking off the practice field at St. Vincent College, helmet in hand, wondering if he had spent the previous two hours convincing the Steelers' coaches of his ability.
"That, after all, is the problem with the first real day of training camp.
"We try to do too much,'' Ward said. ``We try to impress the coaches in one day and we overdo it. We end up hurting ourselves.
Ward, the team's third-round selection from the University of Georgia, will have to do a lot to hurt his stock with the Steelers.
"He has come to training camp not merely as a candidate to fill one of the receiving spots made vacant by the free-agency departure of Yancey Thigpen. Rather, he comes bearing a title that would seem to be a perfect fit for the Steelers' offense. And the perfect foil for opposing defensive coordinators.
"The next Slash. ..." (read the entire story)
So despite being a third-round pick, Ward was definitely on the radar Smith was a rookie the next year, in 1999, and had a rather inauspicious start to his Steeler career: he held out the start of his first training camp.
Ed Bouchette reported on July 31, 1999:
The Steelers still have not reached a contract agreement with their fourth-round draft choice, Aaron Smith, baffling many of them, including Cowher.
"I am very, very surprised," Cowher said. "It seems like, ` What's wrong with this picture?' would apply to this."
Smith, a defensive end out of Northern Colorado and the sixth of the Steelers' 11 draft picks, is the only player not under contract.
Indeed. The gumption of a fourth-round pick from a D-II school to hold out?
The very next day, Bouchette reported:
Rookie Aaron Smith, the last of the team's unsigned draft picks, had been holed out in a hotel in downtown Pittsburgh since Tuesday as his agent and the Steelers negotiated.
On Friday, he told his agent, Peter Schaffer, to wrap up a deal because he was reporting to camp.
Schaffer did the deal late Friday night and Smith made it to practice with 10 minutes to spare yesterday morning.
"I said I'm not going to miss any more practice," said Smith, a pass-rushing end and a fourth-round draft pick from Northern Colorado. "I kind of forced the issue with him."
As we all know, Ward and Smith went on to be two of the most important Steelers to play for the team since the clock hit all zeroes in Super Bowl XIV. The Steelers simply do not get to or win Super Bowls XL and XLIII without them.
So who are the next ones? Is there another Ward or Smith in this group of rookies? Maybe Sean Spence or Chris Rainey -- third and fifth-round picks who've already turned some heads during OTAs? Or last-round pickups like Kelvin Beachum or Toney Clemons? Perhaps even diamond-in-the-rough undrafted types like D-II alums Andre Freeman or Ike Igbinosun?
Of course, only time will tell.
Steelers and AFC North news:
- PG: Kirby Wilson speaks.
- PG: Ed Bouchette's Steelers Report.
- NFL.com: Who will take over for Aaron Smith: Ziggy Hood or Cam Heyward?
- SI.com: Issac Redman gets his shot with Mendenhall on the shelf.
- Grantland singles out Jonathan Dwyer as a possible fantasy sleeper.
- PG: Yours truly from training camp, via Skype. A very bad camera angle.
- The Baltimore Sun reports that Ray Lewis is lighter.
- NFL.com: Who will fill in for Suggs in Baltimore?
- ESPN: Naming Brandon Weeden the Browns starting QB merely a formality?
- The Bengals will practice at their own facility for the first time, Cincinnati.com reports.
- CBS: Clark Judge says the AFC North is the top division in football.