LATROBE, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to have one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL this season. The only question is whether they will register as truly historic.
Even if injuries strike as they did a year ago and key players miss games, there is simply too much talent on that side of the ball for the team not to rack up points. If Le'Veon Bell has his four-game suspension reduced, which many believe will happen, it's truly scary to contemplate the heights this offense could attain.
It's hardly out of the question to envision Ben Roethlisberger throwing for over 5,000 yards, Bell rushing for over 1,500 yards and receiver Antonio Brown topping 1,800 yards. And that's to say nothing of some of the new weapons the team added in the offseason, and the growing legion of young receivers who seem primed for a breakout as well.
There might not be a more exciting team in the league, and if I was involved in Fantasy football drafts, I would be keying in on a bunch of Steelers players early and often.
"The sky is the limit for us," Bell told me, before taking the field for another full practice and he continues a remarkable recovery from his season-ending knee injury. "I think we've got playmakers all over the field. Our coaches do a great job of putting us all in the right situation to make plays, and obviously Ben, he's going to be Ben, he's a guy who has already been to the Super Bowl a couple of times, and he knows how to lead our offense. And the O-line, not to mention, is the best O-line in the league. So I'm privileged to run behind those guys ... I'm excited. This offense, the sky is the limit for us."
The entire unit reaches maximum efficiency with Bell in the lineup, as he may be the most explosive back in the game. This unit is brimming with confidence and is well equipped to carry this team back to the postseason -- and deep into the playoffs this time -- even given some of the limitations of a defense still in transition and looking for more impact performers to emerge. I'm very bullish on the Steelers for 2016, and I wouldn't be surprised if they end up as the top seed in the AFC.
"If you ask Ben how he feels, he's confident that we can go out there and strike the band up," Bell said. "And A.B. would say the same thing. And [center Maurkice] Pouncey would say the same thing. I'll say the same thing. I feel like we can be the best offense in the league. We've obviously got to be consistent and take care of the football and do the little things and ... I think we'll be a tough team to stop."
Bell has been very impressive in the early going, and Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his career and no longer taking the kind of sacks he did when he used to hold the ball too long. There is speed all over the field and matchup problems galore. This team is poised to lead the league in scoring, and yardage, and who knows what else.
"I have the same expectations that I've had for 10 years," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "As I sit here in front of you, I know maybe your expectation may be different, but mine is not. We're taking off on this journey with the potential of being the eventual world champions, and that's going to guide our approach to preparing this team."
Bell back sooner than thought?
Some in the organization are quietly hopeful that Bell's suspension could end up lessened on appeal. They are operating internally right now as if they definitely will not have the star running back for Week 1, but if he was back by Week 3, some wouldn't be stunned here.
Bell's suspension, which will be appealed in August, surrounds missed drug tests, not failed results. The fact that details of Bell's case continue to be leaked to the media -- in a process that is supposed to be confidential -- has rubbed plenty in this organization the wrong way.
No extension talks for Brown
I don't get the sense this team is in a rush to do a new deal for top receiver Antonio Brown. He has made no secret of his desire to be paid like the very best at what he does -- and he unquestionably has that pedigree -- but the Steelers are sticklers when it comes to certain contractual precedents, and this is one of them. They don't negotiate contracts in-season and they don't typically engage in talks with players who have multiple years left on their deals.
"That's been our policy and we've been consistent with that," general manager Kevin Colbert told me. "And once the season starts, there's absolutely no negotiation."
Brown is signed through 2017, and sources said there have been no conversations with the team to this point. I'd be really surprised if a deal for the kind of money Brown is seeking gets done until after this season.
Locking up DeCastro long-term
One player I would put a high probability of getting a new deal, or at least engaging in heavy negotiations, is star offensive lineman David DeCastro. He is currently set to play out his fifth-year option for $8 million, but the Steelers know he is one of the best young guards in the game and they want him secured long-term. The process hasn't begun just yet, but trying to get him signed during the preseason will be a major priority for the franchise.
"He's a great player, a great person and a great worker," Colbert said. "All of the superlatives fit."
Look for these talks to start sooner rather than later.
A new kind of tight end in Pittsburgh
There are big-time expectations for tight end Ladarius Green, who has great athleticism and the ability to expand an offense in which coordinator Todd Haley tends to favor tight ends. A foot/ankle issue has kept him off the field all offseason -- the team expected a long absence at the time they signed him -- but there is also a sense of eagerness to see him on the field.
Green brings elements of speed and explosiveness that Heath Miller lacked. Miller was beloved, and his teammates continue to celebrate him, but Green could unlock even more stuff downfield and broaden the scope of an already potent offense.
"We knew back when we signed him that it wouldn't be until right about now that we could get him on the field," Colbert said. "So he's right on that timetable still, but we'll just have to wait until the doctors tell us it's time. But we're definitely eager to see him. That's something we've never really had here before in that position (a highly athletic tight end). And for all of Heath's talents, the ability to stretch the field was the least and obviously that's Ladarius's strength."
- As of now there remains no meeting scheduled between Steelers linebacker James Harrison and the NFL regarding the PED allegations made in an Al Jazeera report, according to numerous sources. Harrison is operating like it's business as usual and the team has been given no indication yet that his status will be changing any time soon.
- The young defensive back who has the team most excited is second-round pick Sean Davis, who could start right away at safety and can also play corner.
- First-round corner Artie Burns is feeling his way through things and could need more time to learn the defense and be ready to play in base sets. In the meantime, he is trying to make a statement on special teams. "I'm just trying to get that job," Burns said of his intent to return kicks for the team this season.
- Don't minimize the impact the return of center Maurkice Pouncey will have. It's huge. He is one of the true vocal leaders of this offense and a rallying point for others. Oh, and he may be the best center in the game as well. One more reason to be bullish on this offense.
- The Steelers are always finding and developing young receivers, and with the season-long suspension of Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates is the next man up. He's picked up where he left off in the postseason and he is being viewed as someone who can make a real dent in an offense already loaded with options. "He's going to be a very good player for us," corner Ross Cockrell said. "He's another guy who can make big plays for us."