5 Positions the Pittsburgh Steelers Need to Upgrade
The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise is as stable as they come in professional sports. Rarely do they make rash decisions that completely change the face of the team in a short period of time.
However, this year may be different.
A combination of age and salary have finally caught up with the Steelers, and we will see more changes this offseason than we have become accustomed to.
Pittsburgh is expected to be $25 million over the salary cap, and team president Art Rooney II acknowledged that the team would have to make some "tough decisions" on players.
That could mean releasing several starters or key backups.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, if the Steelers release Aaron Smith, Bryant McFadden, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Larry Foote, the team could save $15.31 million.
It is almost certain that Smith and McFadden will be gone and the Steelers will probably decide between Farrior or Foote, as they cannot deplete the inside linebacker position.
The chances of Hampton being released increased with the report from the Post-Gazette that he will have surgery Friday to repair his torn ACL.
Beyond these potential cuts, Chris Kemoeatu may be released, Chris Hoke just retired and the Steelers have several important free agents, including William Gay.
While the core is still in place, the Steelers will be facing upgrades at several key spots.
5. Fullback/Tight End
Will the Steelers return to a power run game?
Well, according to Chris Mortenson, team sources said that Rooney wants the Steelers to return to their blue-collar identity.
However, anyone with any common sense knows that Pittsburgh isn't going to be the power-running team they were under Bill Cowher. Instead, it may mean that the Steelers will have a physical offensive line and place a little more emphasis on running the ball to help set up the deep pass.
Though the Steelers ran for 4.4 yards per carry this season, they did not have a running game that could just be turned on whenever they wanted. Not to say it wasn't effective, but it could certainly be better.
One way to make it better, particularly in the red zone is to bring in a true fullback.
Nothing against David Johnson, but the hybrid tight end just isn't good enough to be a lead blocker. He doesn't have the feel for the running game that a true fullback would.
There are fullbacks who are versatile enough to not just exclusively be a blocker, but are also able to catch the occasional ball out of the backfield.
This would be the easiest upgrade since the Steelers currently do not have a fullback on the roster.
Combined with bringing in a real fullback, the Steelers could then find a dominant blocking tight end. This would enable the Steelers to leave Johnson in to help the tackles and allow Heath Miller to be used more in the passing game.
4. Offensive Tackle
Outside of the quarterback, there are three positions are are extremely valuable to every NFL franchise: pass-rushers, cornerbacks and tackles.
Pittsburgh has two of the best pass rushers in the league with LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Jason Worilds has yet to show that he can be dominant, but will just be entering his third year in the league, and Chris Carter has potential at the position as well.
In last year's draft, the Steelers added two quality cornerbacks in Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, who may both develop into starters.
That leaves the tackle position.
Prior to his ACL injury, with Max Starks in place for possibly another year if he was re-signed, the Steelers' tackle situation looked as good as it has in years.
Starks had a solid season and was a major reason that the team turned around after early failures. Rookie Marcus Gilbert had a successful rookie campaign at right tackle and should only be better next year. The Steelers also expect Willie Colon to return to the lineup next year as well after spending the 2011 season on injured reserve with a torn triceps muscle.
With Starks out of the equation, the Steelers will have to depend on sliding Gilbert to left tackle and Colon at right tackle, and their back-up situation is dismal.
There are two concerns here. The first is whether or not Gilbert can handle left tackle, and the second is if Colon can stay healthy, as he has spent the last two seasons on the IR.
Given all of the injuries over the last two seasons, the Steelers would be wise to invest in a tackle early in the draft if one is available.
The Steelers don't need one guard; they need two new starting guards. That is a lot to ask for one offseason, though.
Kemoeatu should be a cap casualty, which leaves undrafted free agents Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster as the starters.
Legursky is underwhelming and is often overpowered by the huge defensive tackles that he matches up against. He is a nice backup to have, but should not be in the starting lineup.
Foster is a better option and has the size that Legurksy doesn't. He also has likely peaked, as he has not shown much improvement over his time in the starting lineup. Once again, a fine backup, but not a player that you want blocking for Ben Roethlisberger.
If the Steelers can replace at least one of these players, the offensive line would be much better. No longer would the interior of the line be a weakness and an easy area to attack by the opposing defenses.
2. Inside Linebacker
Whether it is Farrior or Foote (or both), the Steelers will need to find a new starter for inside linebacker.
It is entirely possible that one player stays with the team and shares time with Stevenson Sylvester.
Sylvester is very athletic and has the ability to be explosive; however, he has not shown good positioning and often times over-pursues the ball carrier.
Pittsburgh needs an inside linebacker who can run with the running backs and tight ends that are such dangerous threats in the passing game today.
If the Steelers are unable to upgrade the position, offenses will continue to exploit this area of weakness on Pittsburgh's defense.
1. Nose Tackle
When he was getting manhandled by one offensive lineman, I knew the outlook was not good for Hampton.
When he got dragged by a running back, the outlook was even worse.
Then came the ACL injury and surgery, and with his cap hit at over $8 million, Hampton's days in a Steelers uniform may be done.
This comes on the heels of Chris Hoke's retirement, meaning that as of today, next year's starter at nose tackle is Steve McLendon.
McLendon established himself as a solid backup this season and may find himself playing a very important role for the defense next year.
However, with the Steelers defense, nose tackle is the most important position, and without a dominant force who can occupy blockers in the middle, the defense is not very good.
Nose tackle should be the top priority for the offseason, whether the Steelers acquire one in free agency or through the draft.
The team is way too thin at the position right now and must rank this at the top of their list of positions to upgrade this offseason.
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