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Tomlin confident Steelers' top picks will sign before camp

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin expects the team's top two draft picks to be signed by the time training camp starts Sunday, and said the team's unsettled ownership shouldn't be a distraction unless players let it become one.

"Will it become a distraction? Potentially," Tomlin said Wednesday. "But ... those questions will be answered by the Rooneys."

Tomlin was referring to the pioneering NFL family now headed by Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and his son, team president Art Rooney II. Dan Rooney is trying to buy a larger interest than his current 16 percent from one or all of his four brothers, who each own the same percentage but want more money than Rooney is offering. Cousins own the other 20 percent of the team.

Whether that will result in an outside suitor buying a controlling interest in a marquee franchise worth about $1 billion has managed to dwarf other typical questions for this time of year. They include whether an Alan Faneca-less offensive line can protect the richest player in team history -- quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who signed an eight-year, $102 million extension that includes $36 million in guaranteed money.

Tomlin said the players' ability to sidestep the inevitable ownership questions will be one measure of their training camp success.

"You've got a good football team when they can do that," Tomlin said. "And not only on that subject, but on any subject that doesn't have anything to do with playing football."

Tomlin expects to have a full complement of 81 players report to camp Sunday and begin two-a-day practices on Monday at St. Vincent College near Latrobe, the Steelers' training camp home for 42 years.

Tomlin said talks with first-round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall, a running back out of Illinois, and second-rounder Limas Sweed, a wide receiver out of Texas, are "going well. We don't anticipate any holdups on those guys going forward in training camp."

Mendenhall is said to be negotiating a five-year contract while Sweed is discussing a four-year deal. The other five Steelers draft picks are already signed.

The Steelers hope Sweed becomes the lanky, go-to target Roethlisberger has coveted since Plaxico Burress signed with the New York Giants before the 2005 season.

Tomlin didn't say much about Sweed on Wednesday. But a question about Mendenhall's likely role with the team drew one of Tomlin's most detailed answers.

"The initial plan is he's going to be a supplemental runner, returning kicks," Tomlin said. "The growth of his role will depend on his ability to execute the assignments."

Noting that Mendenhall just turned 21, Tomlin said the running back has nonetheless "shown he is mature and unique for a young guy. He's got a nice, humble mentality about it. I won't be shocked if he ends up doing some nice things."

One thing he's not expected to do right away is replace Willie Parker, who is said to be recovered from his season-ending broken leg.

As for the offensive line that will hopefully open holes for Parker and Mendenhall, Max Starks is penciled in at right tackle while Sweed's college teammate, fourth-round draft pick Tony Hills, will be given a shot to win the left tackle job, Tomlin said.

Center Sean Mahan will compete with free agent Justin Hartwig in what Tomlin said may be the offensive line's most "hotly contested battle."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.

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