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Labriola on the ups and downs of Day 1

Posted Jul 28, 2017

As usually is the case with NFL teams, training camp opened with a good news, bad news theme

LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

* Well, so much for being over-stocked with wide receivers.

* Training camp opened for the Steelers yesterday, and by mid-afternoon the players were safely ensconced in Rooney Hall. Well, most of them anyway. Le’Veon Bell wasn’t because he still hadn’t signed the $12.1 million tender the Steelers placed on him along with the franchise player tag back in February.

* Alejandro Villanueva was here, though, after putting pen to paper on a four-year contract about an hour before the conditioning test was scheduled to begin. For the Steelers, the good news is Villanueva is bound to the team through the 2020 season; for Villanueva, the good news is that he will be making far more than he would have in 2017 as an exclusive rights free agent and in 2018 as a restricted free agent; and for Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the guys who make their livings doing things with the football in their hands, the good news is that best offensive line of the Mike Tomlin era began this process in tact.

* But the opening of any NFL training camp rarely begins without any bad news, and more specifically, without any surprise bad news, which brings us to Sammie Coates and Martavis Bryant. Both of them reported on time, but neither will be able to participate in any on-field activity.

* Coates sustained an injury to his knee during the time between the end of the offseason program and the start of training camp. The injury required a surgical procedure to fix his meniscus, and so he opened his third NFL training camp on the physically unable to perform list.

* Upon arriving on campus, Coates described the injury as “leftover stuff from the end of the (2016) season,” and he also was optimistic he would be able to get back to practicing with the team before the end of training camp, which officially ends on Aug. 20, but players often voice optimism about a return-to-play date.

* Bryant’s situation was related to his one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy and subsequent conditional reinstatement on April 25. At that time, the NFL “conditionally reinstated” Bryant, while noting that clearance for “all preseason activities,” i.e., practices and games, called for him to make arrangements for “clinical resources” in Pittsburgh.

* It’s possible those arrangements are at the heart of this issue, because Mike Tomlin used the word “procedural” to describe it.

* Bryant is being allowed to attend meetings and otherwise take part in all off-the-field work at camp, which indicates he hasn’t failed a drug test nor missed an appointment for a drug test. So there’s that.

* There’s also no Bell, and that’s likely to be the case for a while. A couple of the perks associated with wearing the franchise tag is that the salary determined by the tender becomes fully guaranteed at signing, with the other being that until that tender is signed the player is under no obligation to report to training camp.

* Mike Tomlin is a football coach, and football coaches have a high opinion of training camp. When asked about Bell’s absence, his response fell somewhere between “who cares” and “Le’Veon who.”

* “Obviously, I would like him to be here. He is not,” said Tomlin during his camp-opening media briefing. “I will focus my energies on the guys who are. It’s an unfortunate circumstance, one that we’ll deal with, one that he’ll deal with. I have had good, clean communication with him, but I’ll leave the nature of that conversation between us. But rest assured he’ll be ready to play football. When he gets here, I do not know. I’ll remain focused on the guys who are here and their overall development, and when he gets here, he gets here.”

* Even if Bell had signed his franchise tender the day after it was placed on him, and even if he had been the first to arrive on campus yesterday, the main concern with him would be his health on the eve of the regular season opener in Cleveland. With that still being the case, is it really so much of a negative that he isn’t here to have some rookie free agent possibly roll-up on his ankle during a practice on a steamy afternoon in early August?

* “He’s in shape over the course of a 12-month calendar. Football conditioning is not an issue with him, but rust and overall readiness will be,” said Tomlin. “We’re a group that values this team-building process and doing it in this setting, so yes, there is value, and yes, there are consequences for not being here. That’s the reality of it. (The consequences) are untold as we sit here.”

* But so are the potential benefits. There is no arguing with Tomlin’s belief in the importance of team-building, but Bell has an advantage when it comes to his social standing in the locker room. I believe Bell has banked a reserve of respect among the guys who will be doing the working and sweating on these practice fields each day, and it comes from his teammates remembering that Sunday in Buffalo last season, remembering the fourth quarter against the Ravens on Christmas Day, remembering the Divisional Round game at Arrowhead Stadium.

* But in the meantime, the Steelers are down to eight wide receivers, and their Killer Bs have been cut in half, from four to two.

* As Tomlin said as he sat down behind the microphone yesterday, “Welcome to Latrobe.”

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