The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a very quiet off-season. Aside from Hines Ward announcing his retirement, the Steelers seem very content with their current roster. The only significant move the Steelers have made was assigning a first round tender to wide receiver Mike Wallace . The Steelers, though, have many positions in need of help. Their defense, which finished first in the league in 2011, is not getting any younger, and the Steeler offense lacks essential weapons to compete on a consistent basis. One aspect of the Steelers that may need an overhaul is its backfield. With injured Rashard Mendenhall , exclusive rights free agent Isaac Redman and unknown Jonathan Dwyer currently on the roster, Pittsburgh has a big decision to make about the future of its back field. The biggest question mark is Rashard Mendenhall. Injured in the 2011 season finally against the Cleveland Browns, reports are surfacing that Mendenhall may not be healthy enough to play in 2012. Now the question becomes what should the Steelers do with Rashard Mendenhall in 2012?
1. Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List
Rashard Mendenhall has had a productive career. In 4 seasons he has played in 51 games, rushing for 3,367 yards, has an average of 4.1 yards per carry, and has scored a total of 30 touchdowns. Mendenhall has been a solid back for the Steelers, but fell short of his career averages in 2011. During 2011 he rushed for only 928 yards, but was able to reach the end zone 9 times. The major concern for the Steelers is the nature of Mendenhall's injury. On January 1, 2012 playing against the Cleveland Browns, Mendenhall tore an ACL in his knee during the first quarter. An ACL tear, depending on the severity, can take several months or a year to recover from. If his injury is bad enough, Mendenhall may not be ready to take the field in 2012; however, his season doesn't have to be lost. By placing him on the PUP list, the Steelers can wait to see how his rehab progresses without deeming him lost for the season. Mendenhall will have to sit out for the first six games, but the Steelers will be able to fill his roster spot in the mean time. If after 6 weeks Mendenhall is ready to play, the Steelers can activate him within a three week grace period. If after that three week grace period the Steelers don't feel Mendenhall is able to perform at his normal level, they can place him on injured reserve (IR). This may be the best option for the Steelers. It wouldn't hurt to reevaluate Mendenhall after the six week period to see how he progresses. They could always place him on IR if he isn't healthy enough to play.
2. Injured Reserve
The Steelers do have the option to place Mendenhall on season ending IR. If Mendenhall's knee is taking its time healing, the Steelers can retain Mendenhall's contract and have him sit out for the 2012 season. Mendenhall has been a good running back for the Steelers during the past 4 years and Pittsburgh should honor his efforts and hard work by giving him a chance when he returns from his injury.
Another option the Steelers could explore is to release Mendenhall outright or trade him. The only viable option the Steelers have is Isaac Redman, but he is an exclusive rights free agent in 2012. The Steelers have all the power to negotiate with Redman exclusively and offer him a tender without another team being able to sign him away. If the Steelers feel that Redman is capable of becoming their long term answer in the back field, they could save some cap room by letting Mendenhall go. Due to the nature of Mendenhall's knee injury, his trade value is probably less than market value for a running back with his accomplishments. A team trading for Mendenhall would have to have some pretty good long term answers, or looking to create a running back by committee style backfield.
The Steelers are in quite the situation concerning Mendenhall. The timing of Mendenhall's injury could not have been any worse for the four year veteran. The Steelers do have some options though. If they choose to move on from Mendenhall, there are plenty of capable running backs still available in free agency. Michael Bush would fit in the Pittsburgh offense very well. The Steelers power running style would mesh really well with Bush's abilities. The Steelers could look into trading for Carolina Panthers Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers signed former San Diego Charger's running back Mike Tolbert, and find themselves with a loaded backfield. Stewart, who has shown in the past that he can be a featured back, has some durability concerns but would fit the Steelers offensive style. Pittsburgh could also look at bringing in a rookie via the 2012 NFL Draft. Former Miami running back Lamar Miller is one of the top rated backs in the 2012 draft and would make for an intriguing pick. The Steelers hold the 24th pick this year, and although they have other needs to address, I wouldn't be surprised if they spend their first pick on Mendenhall's replacement.