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Labriola on 'fantasy,' Ben, Conner or Bell

Posted Aug 25, 2017

Ben Roethlisberger's pregame workout last Sunday was an impressive display of pinpoint accuracy.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* This is the time of year when fantasy football drafts are happening all over the place, and while I can find little as tedious and frivolous as fantasy football, I have to admit that Peter King and Mark Mravic came up with a way to make it compelling.

* King, most recognizable for his work covering the NFL for Sports Illustrated, is the founder of MMQB.com, and Mravic is its executive editor. They rounded up a dozen “GMs” with an unparalleled knowledge of professional football and had them draft a 25-man team plus a coach, with the pool being anyone and everyone who ever played or coached professional football, either in the NFL, AFL, or AAFC.

* Each GM was to pick a 25-man team plus a coach. On offense each unit had to contain one quarterback, two running backs, two guards, two tackles, one center, two wide receivers, and one tight end. On defense, the GM could choose between a 4-3 or a 3-4, and then add two cornerbacks and two safeties. Each team had to have a punter and a placekicker, which left one spot for a returner or other specialist. The coach was No. 25.

* Seventeen Steelers players plus Chuck Noll were among the selections of the 12 GMs. King had the most Steelers among his 25, with Jack Lambert and Kevin Greene as linebackers in his 4-3 defense, Troy Polamalu at safety alongside Brian Dawkins, Franco Harris in the backfield with Gale Sayers, and Noll as the coach.

* The other Steelers picked were Dermontti Dawson, Jack Butler, and Alan Faneca on former NFL Senior VP Joel Bussert’s team; Joe Greene and Mel Blount on Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf’s team; Jack Ham on Hall of Fame voter Rick Gosselin’s team; Terry Bradshaw on Dan Fouts’ team; John Henry Johnson on football historian John Turney’s team; Rod Woodson and Donnie Shell on Gil Brandt’s team; Mike Webster and Walt Kiesling on veteran NFL writer Bob McGinn’s team; Ernie Stautner on Pro Football Hall of Fame VP Joe Horrigan’s team; and Gary Anderson on former GM Ernie Accorsi’s team. Neither Bill Polian nor Fritz Pollard Alliance Director John Wooten chose any Steelers.

* The whole thing was very interesting, and I have to admit I have gone back and looked over all of the rosters several times and tried to predict how each of the rosters would fare in matchups against the others. Way, way more interesting that actual fantasy football.

* Click the link: MMQB Fantasy Teams and see for yourself. You’ll lose yourself in the possibilities for hours.

* It was a couple of hours before kickoff of the Steelers preseason home opener against the Atlanta Falcons. It had been announced a couple of days before that Ben Roethlisberger wouldn’t be playing, and so he was out on the field going through a throwing workout. To say it was impressive doesn’t really do it justice.

* The highlight for me came close to the end of a session in which Roethlisberger made a couple of hundred throws. It went like this: Roethlisberger was standing in the middle of the field at the 40-yard line and dropping back to the 45-yard line. Standing 5 yards deep in the end zone was Derek Rinehart, a member of the team’s equipment staff who was serving as a target for the purposes of this exercise.

* Rinehart stood facing the stands with his feet about a foot from the sideline. Roethlisberger would take the snap at the 40-yard line, drop back to the 45-yard line, turn to the right and throw an arching pass to Rinehart, who was standing approximately 56.6 yards away, based on my application of the Pythagorean theorem, with his arms extended away from his body and toward the sideline.

* Roethlisberger dropped back, turned and threw Rinehart about 10 passes, maybe more. Rinehart caught every one, and he caught every one without having to move his feet. Again, he didn’t have to move his feet even once. Not. Even. Once.

* One of the recurring narratives during the offseason program was that the Steelers were optimistic about the potential of second-year tackle Jerald Hawkins, their fourth-round pick in 2016. Hawkins, it was said, had been impressive during the brief time during his rookie training camp before an injury removed him from the practice field and ultimately sent him to the injured reserve list.

* But with this preseason halfway completed, Hawkins has been one of the individual disappointments so far. His performance at Saint Vincent College wasn’t what was expected from a player entering his second professional season, and he didn’t have a real good game against the Giants in the preseason opener. The Steelers will keep at least eight offensive linemen, and it could be a stretch to believe Hawkins currently is above that line.

* If it’s not to be Hawkins, who might be No. 8? Well, the top seven would be the starters – Al Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert – plus Chris Hubbard and B.J. Finney. In the thick of the fight for that eighth spot is Matt Feiler, and so watch the next couple of preseason games to see when he gets onto the field, how long he stays on the field, and what positions he plays while there. Offensive lineman No. 8 will have to be versatile.

* Right now, he’s a better guy than he is a professional football player. Whether you want to believe that or not, whether that sentence sends you off into a blind rage or reaching for your mobile device to vent via social media, or both, it doesn’t change the fact it’s an accurate description of James Conner today.

* Steelers Nation fell madly in love with Conner from the moment his name was announced as the team’s second pick in the third round, and truthfully there was a lot to love. A very nice career as a college running back was supplemented by the way the young man battled cancer and seemingly beat it, all the while being gracious to those who helped him with that fight and giving of his time to people of all ages who were in similar fights for their lives.

* James Conner is the man you want your son to grow up to be, the man you want your daughter to marry, and for a seemingly growing number of Steelers fans he has become the man they want to replace Le’Veon Bell. If not immediately and permanently, then at least right now until Bell is suitably “punished” for not signing his franchise tender in time to participate in the offseason program, training camp, and, if Bell’s own tweets are to be believed, in any of the preseason games.

* That’s crazy. From a football standpoint, in fact, it literally would be insane to play Conner in place of a healthy Bell. Conner has potential, and given time, who knows what caliber of NFL running back he might become, once he better prepares his body for the rigors of professional football, once he gains a better understanding of the sport as it has to be played on the professional level, once he has had a chance to settle in and settle down.

* Dropped passes in wide-open spaces, making spin moves mid-run for no apparent reason, failing to get all the yardage a play presents because of an ill-advised cut-back are young player mistakes, and Conner is a young player. A promising young player, yes, but still a young player and clearly not a better option than Le’Veon Bell for a team looking to contend for a championship this season.

* Conner’s 98 yards on 20 carries in the second preseason game should be recognized for what it was – a sign that he belongs in the NFL. That’s all it was, and that’s all it needed to be.