It's no secret that the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to have to make some tough decisions this offseason regarding personnel.
The franchise is $25 million of the salary cap, which means that some of the most well-liked and successful Steelers of the past decade are in danger of being cut loose. Sadly, most of the cuts are going to have to come on defense—the one aspect of the game that the Steelers organization has prided itself on for as long as this writer can remember.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette indicates the defensive backfield will stay more or less in tact, so most of the cuts will likely come from the linebacking corps and the defensive line. There are numerous players at these positions in the twilight of their careers.
Some have been stricken with the injury bug, while others are locked in pricey, heavy contracts. Some are injury prone and pricey.
The following slideshow features five veterans that the Steelers will likely have to replace within the next five years.
Note: Contract information for all players is taken from sportrac.com.
You can follow Mike Schoeffel on Twitter @mschoeffel.
When NFL Network broke the news of the Steelers' decision to give Hines Ward up to free agency on February 12, many fiery debates, especially here on Bleacher Report, were ignited.
Some believed that it was time for the Pittsburgh icon to move on to another team. After all, he was essentially a fourth-string wide out making first or second-string money.
Other fans—the more sentimental ones—lobbied for his retention, citing his commitment to the organization and the improvement of younger receivers as evidence of his value to the club.
The Steelers have since denied that they've reached any sort of decision on Ward's future, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
However, even if the 37-year-old Ward ends up sticking around, his contract is set to expire after the 2013 season. It would be wise for the Steelers to pick up a talented young receiver in this year's draft so he'll be ready to fill the void left by Ward whenever he departs.
That being said, the Steelers don't necessarily need to waste a high-end draft pick on a pricey, big-name playmaker like Alshon Jeffery or Michael Floyd. First of all, they already have three competent pass catchers in Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, so it isn't pertinent that the Steelers' take a player that can make a huge impact in his first season.
Secondly, there is enough talent at the receiver position in this year's draft that the Steelers should be able to nab a high-quality pass catcher—such as Brian Quick from Appalachian State or Dwight Jones from UNC—at a much cheaper price, sometime in the later rounds.
Check out some other possible replacements for Mr. Ward here.
Since being drafted in the first round of the 2001 draft, Casey Hampton has been an invaluable member of the Steelers defense.
As a nose tackle in the 3-4 scheme, he is expected to clog up the line of scrimmage so the linebackers can run free and make tackles—a job that he's done very well during his 11-year career with the Steelers (he's a five-time Pro Bowler).
But Hampton, 34, is aging and injury prone.
He missed three games last season with a knee ailment and will undergo the third ACL surgery of his career this offseason (via The Post-Gazette). He wants to play for the Steelers next season—and there's little doubt that the Steelers will benefit from his talents—but, once again, money is a major issue. The Steelers are about $25 million over the cap, and Hampton is owed over $8 million dollars next year, so something has to give.
If Pittsburgh decides to cut Hampton free, the defense may take a major hit, since long-time backup Chris Hoke won't be there to fill Hampton's shoes (Hoke retired in January). Steve McClendon, the only other nose tackle on the roster, got some playing time last season during Hampton's absence, but still remains relatively green.
If the Steelers decide to upgrade the nose tackle position through the draft, there are several intriguing players they could turn to. The first one that comes to mind is Nick Jean-Baptiste (Baylor), who attracted the attention of many scouts at the East-West Shrine game and has the size (6'1", 335 pounds) to disrupt the flow of opposing offenses in the Steelers 3-4 scheme.
For the past decade, James Farrior has been one of the most consistent linebackers on the Steelers' roster. He's started at least 14 games in all 10 of his seasons with Pittsburgh, while averaging 74.2 tackles per year. Furthermore, he's been named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad on two separate occasions, the All-Pro team once and is one of few Steelers on the current roster remaining from the Bill Cowher era.
But the Virginia Alum isn't getting any younger, as they say.
He turned 37 in January, and his increasing age seems to be causing his numbers to decline. He posted a career-low in tackles (57) in 2011, suffered a calf injury that kept him out of two games in October and seemed to have lost a step or two in pass coverage.
There's no doubt that Farrior is still a talented player, but he's somewhat pricey (he's owed $3.82 million in 2012). This puts the Steelers—whose economic issues this offseason have been well-documented—in a position to ax the 15-year veteran.
However, if they decide to keep him around, he'll likely be ousted when he becomes a restricted free agent after the 2012 season.
Since Farrior's time in Pittsburgh is quickly ticking away, the Steelers may be looking to draft a young inside backer sometime in the near future. The most obvious replacement is Alabama's Dont'a Hightower, who at 6'4", 260 pounds would more than able to fill the void left by Farrior's departure. But even if Hightower is off the board by the time the Steelers' first pick around, there are plenty of quality inside backers—Audie Cole (N.C. State), Kevin Reddick (UNC) and Tank Carder (TCU), to name a few—that the Steelers could possibly snatch up in the later rounds.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has ruminated on the idea that the Steelers may be forced to release either Larry Foote or James Farrior this offseason, due to pressing salary cap issues.
Foote and Farrior share very similar contract situations. Both are set to make over $3.5 million during the 2012 season, after which they will become unrestricted free agents.
Farrior and Foote split time at inside backer last season, but Farrior was more productive—at least statistically speaking. Farrior had 57 tackles; Foote had 29.
From this angle, it seems more logical for the Steelers to cut Foote. However, from a strict economic standpoint, Farrior's release would make more sense, since he's owed $225,000 more than Foote in 2012.
As mentioned on the James Farrior slide, there are plenty of players in this year's draft class that could boost the Steelers depth at inside backer. However, if they choose to hold off on picking an ILB, they already have two promising talents waiting in the wings—Chris Carter and Stevenson Sylvester.
"If I could be like him and live my life like he lives his, I'd die a happy man," Steelers teammate Brett Keisel once said of Smith.
Smith's general likability makes his recent injury struggles all the more upsetting. In each of the last three seasons, he's suffered a devastating injury that ended his season before it really even got started. In 2009, it was a torn rotator cuff. In 2010, it was a tricep injury. Last year, it was a neck injury.
He's played a combined 15 games over the last three seasons.
Smith's injury problems, combined with his age and his relatively steep contract, make him a prime candidate for the Steelers' offseason chopping block. Smith turns 36 in April and is currently an unrestricted free agent.
The Steelers do have several young ends—Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward—ready to compete for the starting job should Smith be cut free.
However, if the Steelers choose to look toward the college ranks to increase depth at the position, there are several possible sleepers that could be taken in the later rounds of the draft. Cordarro Law (Iowa) is the first name that comes to mind. Law is big (6'4") and fast (4.64 40-yard dash).
He is highly athletic, a characteristic that will help him adjust to the Steelers 3-4 scheme should Pittsburgh decide to pick him up.