While the 7-5 Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have righted the ship for the moment as they struggle to move forward without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the front office is undoubtedly already thinking about how to avoid similar injury and ineffectiveness pitfalls in coming seasons.
To do that, the Steelers must entertain the idea of a couple of free-agent signings this offseason. Here’s a look at the top five players they need to invite in for a visit.
Before we get into who the team will need to look at when the offseason opens, let’s take a look at why these particular positions are being targeted.
Backup quarterback has been a need for years, but Pittsburgh’s staff has been reluctant to stray from Charlie Batch and/or Byron Leftwich behind star Ben Roethlisberger. This year, that misguided loyalty played a major role in two consecutive losses.
The Steelers may have found an answer in the backfield in Jonathan Dwyer, but the fact remains that the team should bid farewell to both Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall this offseason in favor of more effective and efficient complementary pieces.
Keenan Lewis has emerged as a solid complement to cornerback Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen had a nice showing against the Baltimore Ravens, but the fact remains that depth at corner is dangerously thin. Taylor is also getting older. It’s never too early to start thinking about what is coming down the road.
Larry Foote has been a revelation at inside linebacker, stepping back into a starting role after several years as a backup and performing well. He is, however, on the wrong side of 30 and can’t be expected to maintain his production for much longer. The team needs a permanent replacement inside.
The Steelers have relied successfully once again on Max Starks to save them at the offensive tackle spot. Starks is the only player who seems to have been healthy the entire season, but his injury history and age bring questions. It would be a good idea to consider a replacement in case Mike Adams does not develop as expected.
I've also ranked these five moves in order of how big of an impact it would make on the team in 2013.
I would expect Moore to hit the market now that the Miami Dolphins seem comfortable with Ryan Tannehill as the starting quarterback. Moore doesn’t really fit into Joe Philbin’s system and has no ties to his regime, so he’s easy to part ways with after this season.
Beyond that, the Steelers desperately need to find a younger, more capable backup quarterback. While Moore won’t light up scoreboards the way Ben Roethlisberger can, he will be a steady hand with some limited mobility, should he need to step in.
Moore is going to be one of the better backup quarterbacks to hit free agency this year. He’s a no-brainer if the team gets serious about improving its depth under center.
The Steelers will bid farewell to former starter Rashard Mendenhall this year. Mendenhall has been upstaged by a younger and healthier Jonathan Dwyer. Isaac Redman may also be on the way out the door for a multitude of reasons.
Battle has been a great complementary piece throughout his career. If the Steelers go with Dwyer as their top back, they could mix Battle in with Chris Rainey and perhaps a draft pick behind him. That would give them a dynamic set of runners capable of anything.
This move only happens if both Redman and Mendenhall go. Battle is a slight upgrade on Redman because of ball security, but the skill set is very similar. Battle also may be looking for an expanded role. That won’t happen in Pittsburgh.
Smith hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status in Cincinnati, but he’s a decent starter and a more than capable tackle on the right side of the line. While I can’t say for sure if teams will view him as a starter or backup, I can say a fresh start would do him some good.
The Steelers need to be realistic with their offensive line. Years of injuries or poor attention in the draft have left the line very vulnerable to injury or ineffectiveness. Sometimes, it’s even both at the same time. Mike Adams has been slow to develop as well and Max Starks can’t keep saving the day forever.
Smith will be a more affordable option on the market for starting-caliber offensive linemen. He would allow Marcus Gilbert to move to left tackle and Starks to become the top backup. That gives Adams more time as well.
While the Steelers need a safety more than they need a cornerback, safety will be a position they can target in the draft with success. Cornerback would be much easier to handle with a solid free-agent addition.
While this may be aiming a little high, Rodgers-Cromartie isn’t the big-name starter he once was perceived as being. His value has dropped some because of inconsistency. Put quite simply, he’s not quite starting material sometimes.
The Steelers have to take into account Ike Taylor’s age and the chances of re-signing Keenan Lewis when they enter the market. Even if Lewis returns, this addition makes sense in the nickel package and allows them some wiggle room in case someone gets hurt.
It will also push the inconsistent Cortez Allen to be a better player. That never hurts.
Why not? There’s a chance that the Cincinnati Bengals will still attempt to keep Maualuga beyond this season, but with the way Vontaze Burfict has played, they may be better off shuffling the linebackers they have and letting the more expensive Maualuga walk away.
The Steelers would be very wise to snap him up. He’s an instant upgrade over Larry Foote and signing him would be akin to what Pittsburgh did with James Farrior when he came over from the New York Jets. They’d be taking a player another team doesn’t need and plugging him into a system where he’d become a star.
If the Steelers—notorious for being stingy in free agency—make one move this offseason, it needs to be this one. This solidifies a linebacker corps and gives the Steelers another dynamic playmaker in the middle.
Given the injury history of strong safety Troy Polamalu, it is time to start considering other methods of making opposing offenses say uncle.