It's that time of year. Columnists and regular Joes like me alike are over-analyzing every single roster move and rumor out there, and are formulating their own expert opinion on how their favorite team's front office should approach offseason affairs.
I know I'm guilty, but hey, it's a free country, and basketball just isn't enough to keep an American man sane in a time without football.
Now is the time for the Steelers front office to take a seat and take heed to my words of wisdom if they wish to have any chance of climbing the Stairway to Seven, and subsequently having Led Zepplin magically reunite and play the Super Bowl halftime show in their honor.
Here is my ideal offseason scenario for the Steelers, complete with a four round mock draft.
At this point, we all know about the cap issues, and the front office has already taken care of some of the work for me by releasing Bryant McFadden and Arnaz Battle, two players made obsolete by the wave of youth brought in by the Steelers over the past two years. Smart.
Next, the front office restructured the contracts of Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, clearing up a boatload of cap space. Smart.
Now, it's time to get dumb. We begin by cutting ties with Aaron Smith and James Farrior. It's been an amazing run, and they will always have a place near and dear to our hearts, but everyone's time comes eventually, and unfortunately the time has come for these two defensive stalwarts.
Then we move on to restructuring injured NT Casey Hampton's contract, along with All-Pro OLB James Harrison's. I'm no logistics expert when it comes to things like this, but doing so, I believe, will allow for the Steelers to save a substantial amount of cap space, while managing to keep locker room continuity by not cutting two more long-time starters. Besides, Hampton is the only true NT on the roster. Steve McClendon isn't ready to take over full-time, and he's undersized.
By the way, I find those who are calling for the release of Harrison to be quite out of line. The man, despite battling back and eye injuries, managed to rack up nine sacks in only 11 games.
Even with a down year in tackles (59), that's still solid production, and only one less sack in five less games than his lowest total since becoming a starter (2009 season, 10 sacks, 16 games). On top of that, he did so mostly without Lamarr Woodley playing opposite him. With the pace the two were on when healthy, if they both stayed healthy all season, I'm convinced the season/post season would have turned out totally differently.
Anyway, next move is the obvious one of cutting Kemo and J. Scott. Smart. Then, cut Willie Colon. Smart. Why? He's missed the past two seasons with season ending injuries. Know who else missed two seasons in a row with season enders? Aaron Smith. Nuff said. Now, replacing the two comes later.
Finally, we hope that Big Ben and Hines Ward restructure their contracts. Big Ben out of necessity, Hines out of hope that he can return for one final year with the Steelers.
All of these moves should provide more than enough cap space for resigning, drafting, and free agency.
Priority No. 1: Mike Wallace. Elite talent, No. 1 receiver, due for a payday. After enjoying his chocolaty, peanut-laden snack bar, he should receive the Franchise Tag, giving the front office time to negotiat a long-term deal before camp starts.
Priority No. 2: Max Starks, assuming he can recover from an ACL. He came back for the league-minimum last year in a pinch, now the front office can hopefully bring him back at around $1.5 to $2 million a year. The Steelers cannot afford to lose three tackles in one year, and that is exactly what would happen by releasing Colon, Scott, and Starks.
Priority three: Jerricho Cotchery. Providing a solid locker room presence, and reliable hands in clutch situations (see Denver Wild Card game). He has stated that he hopes to finish his career as a Steeler, so hopefully the front office can work out a deal and make it happen without breaking bank.
QB Byron Leftwich - Pittsburgh needs a No. 2, and Leftwich is the most reliable option, as long as he can stay healthy.
RB Mewelde Moore - Mendy is recovering from an ACL, Baron Batch is still an unknown and also coming off an ACL (Pittsburgh had a ton of them this year), John Clay is unproven, Johnathan Dwyer is hit-and-miss, so the Steelers need a steady force alongside Isaac Redman.
TE David Johnson - A handy utility player in this offense, he has shown improvement in each season so far.
CB Keenan Lewis - Hopefully he comes back for cheap, because this may be the year he finally emerges as a starter (deja vu, anyone?)
S Ryan Mundy - Provides the only proven depth at safety, and he can play both positions.
G/T/C Trai Essex - Should provide depth for one more year at all positions on the line
G/T/C Doug Legursky/Ramon Foster - Both can play multiple positions, and although neither will ever dominate a game, their experience and flexibility is essential until the Steelers inject some O-line talent in the draft or FA.
CB William Gay - Unfortunately
Not much to say here, as the Steelers typically don't do much in Free Agency. Pittsburgh has needs at tackle (if Starks is unable to return), guard (both), nose, ILB, and kicker.
Tackle will be addressed in the draft, as will NT and ILB. Big names in free agency are out of the question, so the above picture is invalid. One name that should be considered is Evan Mathis of the Eagles. At age 30, he's a veteran guard who could be a stop-gap starter that provides more talent than what the Steelers currently have. This should buy time for the Steelers to draft/groom a starting guard in this or next year's draft.
There are several free agent kickers available in FA, hopefully the Steelers can manage to land one of them. Josh Scobee, Neil Rackers, Connor Barth, and Matt Prater are some names that stick out, although not all of them are likely to last long.
If only. If only.
Ignore the picture, WR is not a need in this draft. Look for the Steelers to focus on talent at the NT, ILB, DE, OL, TE, and safety positions. I'm going to give a mock draft for the first four rounds, but won't be going into much depth on the selections.
Round 1: Dontari Poe - NT, Memphis. Fits need at NT, should be available.
Round 2 (Trade up): Vontaze Burfict - ILB, AZ State. If available, he'd be worth trading up about 10-14spots to get.
Round 3: N/A (lost in trade)
Round 4: Senio Kelemete - G, Washington OR Aaron Henry - S, Wisconsin. Both fit needs, if Kelemete falls (mid-rounders are unpredictable) he's a steal here, if not then Henry provides a potential starter of the future.
Bruce Arians is finally gone. Now the same people who wished for him to be out of work are complaining about Todd Haley and the "drama" he's going to create. I'm convinced people just like to whine and complain.
With the talent now added and retained through FA and the draft, the Steelers can focus on having a solid offseason, preparation-wise. The young players on defense have another year to pick things up, and new starters need to be determined in some places.
Todd Haley has the offseason to build a relationship with Big Ben and the rest of the offense. I'm confident that in a professional organization such as Pittsburgh, once it's time to get to work, everyone will come together and begin work as a single unit to install the offense and prepare for reclaiming the AFC North title, the Lamar Hunt Trophy, and of course the elusive seventh Lombardi.
The Steelers have an excellent chance at making a run at the Lombardi in 2012. There's a healthy mix of experiene and youth on the roster, one of the finest coaching staffs around the board with Coach Tomlin, Lebeau, and new hire Todd Haley, a Pro-Bowl QB, and they are returning the league's top-ranked defense.
If they play their cards right, they can match the Ravens blow-for-blow in the regular season, pull out the division and make a deep playoff run. However, the road starts right now in the offseason.
Side-note: You may be wondering why there's a picture of the Army football team above. Just showing off some newly found school pride, that's all. West Point, Class of '16! Go Army, and go Steelers!