The Optimist’s Take – Projecting Health

For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect  the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.

Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.

Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the optimistic side of the coin.

Question: Are the Steelers in a good place from a health standpoint?

There can be no denial from any informed party that the Steelers have had more than their fair share of injuries over the past several seasons. The offensive line in particular has regularly been hit heavily by injuries while other teams have the same starting five for every game in a season.

The Steelers haven’t had that luxury in quite some time, and this past season was no different. Center Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the year just eight offensive snaps into the season opener, as should be common knowledge, but every starter on the line barring Marcus Gilbert missed at least one game due to injury.

And considering Gilbert missed time in multiple games despite starting, including playing just a few snaps against the Baltimore Ravens, it would be fair to say that every lineman had their health concerns. Teammate Ramon Foster said that Gilbert was playing with legs of two different sizes by the end of the season due to swelling from injury.

Injuries can never be fully accounted for, but there are some known issues heading into every season regarding specific injuries. Pouncey, for example, will be coming off an ACL tear, but given his youth, athleticism, and the fact that the injury happened early in the season, it is reasonable to project that he should be relatively ready to go at full capacity.

Inside linebacker Larry Foote was also lost for the season during the opener after suffering a ruptured biceps. The Steelers don’t appear to be in a position to require his services as a starter thanks to Vince Williams, but none the less, it seems that he should be in fine health by the time the season starts should he be needed.

Outside of Pouncey and Foote, there are no major injury concerns among the team’s starters. The only other question mark would be Heath Miller, who tore his ACL at the end of the 2012 season and had to work through that injury throughout last year, including missing the first two games, with mixed results.

Miller will have plenty of more time to get that knee in better shape for the 2014 season, so I see no reason why one couldn’t safely project that he will have a better and all around more productive year than in 2013.

The Steelers have three free agents that ended the year on injured reserve, those being Plaxico Burress, LaRod Stephens-Howling, and Fernando Velasco. Of the three, only the last made any kind of significant contribution last year. Burress has virtually no value, and thus no chance of returning, at this point in his career.

Stephens-Howling, on the other hand, was brought into the fold because the Steelers wanted what he could bring to the table. He too suffered an ACL tear in the season opener, and thus will have had approximately a year to recover, so should the Steelers desire to bring him back, he should be able to contribute while gradually getting more comfortable on his knee.

Last is Velasco, who started most of the season at center for the Steelers, and who suffered a torn Achilles toward the end of the year. While he is supposedly rehabbing rather well, general manager Kevin Colbert already stated that they would be cautious and wait for him to practice at training camp should he still be with the team.

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