The Steelers had to answer their critics when they traded a draft choice to get the opportunity to move higher and select punter Daniel Sepulveda in the fourth round last year.
Now they have to wonder if he wasn't damaged goods when they drafted him.
Sepulveda, who punts with his left foot, will miss the 2008 season because of a torn ACL in his right knee that the second-year player said bothered him since he rushed back to play for Baylor in 2006 just months after first having surgery to repair the same ligament.
He punted well enough that fall to become the only man to win a second Ray Guy Award as the nation's best collegiate punter and be chosen All-American for the second time in three years.
But, after numerous MRIs on the knee since his first surgery showed no tangible damage over the past two years, a tear finally turned up on an MRI performed by Steelers medical personnel yesterday.
Daniel Sepulveda's numbers in his rookie season ... 42.4
Average yards/punt -- 18th in the NFL ... 37.9
Net average yards/punt -- 8th in the NFL ... 28
Punts inside the 20 -- 8th in the NFL
Paul Ernster, 26, was claimed off waivers from the Detroit Lions yesterday to replace him. Ernster, drafted in the seventh round by Denver in 2005, has had a largely unimpressive three years in the NFL with three teams, including two terms with the Broncos. He punted against the Steelers for Cleveland in the opener last season.
The Steelers, who usually carry two punters in training camp, had none other than Sepulveda this summer.
"You have no control over when it happens," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're paid to be light on our feet and react in this business, and that's what we'll do."
Since Sepulveda also held for Jeff Reed's place kicks, they must find someone else to do that job. Backup quarterback Charlie Batch has done it before, and Ernster also will get that chance.
Sepulveda had a decent rookie season in 2007. He averaged 42.4 yards a punt, with 28 of his 68 punts landing inside the 20. He was noted for his "Aussie Roll," whereby he could place a punt and have it bounce back -- which worked well when he was called to punt near midfield and could actually put the ball near the goal line and have it bounce back and be downed by teammates.
But his knee never has been right since surgery in April 2006 to repair the ACL, he said yesterday.
"The MRI always said the ACL is good, but it always had a little bit more glide than it probably should," Sepulveda said. "Nothing that was ever too much of a concern to not let me play but it's been like that for a while.
"It wasn't too long after I got it initially fixed that it was like that."
A repaired ACL can take up to a full year to heal well enough for a player to return to the field, but others have played more quickly after such injuries. The Steelers' Rod Woodson had his ACL torn in September 1995 and played in the Super Bowl the following January. Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer had his ACL torn in a January 2006 playoff game against the Steelers and returned to start the season that September for the Bengals.
But Sepulveda's return was quicker than those. He had surgery April 27 and was punting four months later for Baylor.
Yesterday, he acknowledged that he might have come back too soon two years ago, and it could be the reason for his problem today.
"I don't like to second guess the decisions I make," Sepulveda said. "God gave me a peace about that one, and it ended up working out pretty good. Obviously, I suffer maybe some consequences from the decision I made back then, but I'm going to be responsible for that and I'm going to be professional and move forward and deal with it the best I can."
Sepulveda said he mentioned to a doctor at Baylor that he did not think his knee was right.
"Shortly after I got my ACL fixed initially, it kind of shook on me a little bit, and it got real swollen, and I went to go see the doctor. He thought it was re-torn at that point."
But no tear showed up on the MRI, Sepulveda said, even though it continued to bother him.
"It was like the ACL was really tight before that happened and after that it loosed up a little bit. It was still structurally sound, but that's what they called it, they called it the little glide, your knee would slide a little bit.
"I'm not a doctor, but it didn't feel right."
Sepulveda said his knee bothered him again in the first practices Monday at Saint Vincent College, and the Steelers ordered another MRI. He said there was no reason to believe this one would turn out any different than previous tests.
"My knee's been shaky for a while now, but the MRIs always said it's good. Today the MRI wasn't good and I re-tore my ACL.
"It's just one of those things that happens."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published July 30, 2008 4:00 AM