Steelers Players Guaranteed to Be Gone After 2012 Season
With 22 players set to become free agents after the 2012 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers will have some tough choices to make on the personnel front in 2013.
Pittsburgh’s front office will have to decide whether to keep the team's two backup quarterbacks, nearly all of its running backs, multiple key players on the offensive line and several notables on the defensive side of the ball.
Some free-agents-to-be are almost certain to stay in Pittsburgh. Wideout Emmanuel Sanders, for example, will be back as long as the price is right.
Sanders has had a very productive 2012, hauling in 41 passes for 585 yards as the Steelers’ third receiver. He ranks 29th in the league with 14.3 yards per catch. Not bad for a player who isn't on the field for every snap.
More importantly, Sanders did a great job stepping in for Antonio Brown during his three-game absence in the middle of the season.
Other future free agents will end up elsewhere next season. Whether due to injury, poor play, the emergence of a better option or financial considerations, some current players just won’t fit into the Steelers’ plans for 2013.
With that in mind, here are four Steelers who almost certainly won’t be back next year. The list runs from most likely to least likely to be gone.
1. Rashard Mendenhall
Pittsburgh’s erstwhile starting running back is definitely out of Pittsburgh at the end of 2012. Despite reports that the team will negotiate with him during the offseason, it would be a shock to see him in black and gold next year.
Though his recent suspension for not showing up for the Steelers’ game against the Chargers sealed his fate, Mendenhall was probably on the chopping block even before that indiscretion. He had already lost the starting job after the Browns game as a result of his struggles with injuries, fumbles and overall productivity. He never won it back, and the team appeared ready to move in a different direction next year even before the recent controversy.
Since injuring his ACL in the last game of the 2011 season, Mendenhall just hasn’t been the same player who was a top-10 back in 2009 and 2010. He has been inconsistent and has spent more time on the sidelines than on the field.
His return to action started well, with 68 rushing yards and a key 15-yard touchdown catch against the Eagles in his first game back.
After that, however, things took a turn for the worse. Mendenhall injured his Achilles in the next game after 17 yards on seven total touches.
He returned against Baltimore in Week 11 but failed to produce. Against Cleveland the next week, he fumbled twice on four carries and found permanent homes on the Steelers' bench and in Tomlin’s doghouse.
For a player with Mendenhall’s resume, there will be surprisingly little outrage over his departure. Throughout his tenure in Pittsburgh, the running back has struggled to connect with fans, teammates and the coaching staff. Mendenhall comes across as something of a talented but moody loner who bristles at the expectations placed on him. When he has opened his mouth, he has often been too candid for his own good.
And that’s why, despite two seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing and three ranked in the top 10 in touchdowns, he’ll probably be best remembered for his miscues. The key fumble against the Packers in the Super Bowl. The controversial Twitter posts about September 11 and Osama bin Laden. Getting suspended by Tomlin.
The good news for the Steelers is that in the pass-happy modern NFL, running backs have become a pretty fungible commodity. With a good offensive line and a legitimate passing attack, a team doesn’t need a superstar in its backfield. Just someone to keep defenses honest.
If Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman fail to prove themselves during the last few games of this season, picking up a serviceable replacement in free agency or the draft shouldn’t be a big problem.
2. Plaxico Burress
Wait, Plaxico Burress played for the Steelers this year?
Apparently, he did. Though fans can be excused for not noticing his one catch for 18 yards.
Pittsburgh brought the wideout in during the middle of the season for what has turned out to be a largely forgettable second stint with the team. The Steelers’ front office no doubt hoped the 6’5” receiver would give the offense a big red-zone target after Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders went down with injuries.
The gamble was small financially (the veteran minimum of $925,000). But even with so little at stake, it still wasn’t worth it. Burress had no catches against Cleveland, didn’t play against Baltimore and managed one reception against San Diego.
He was deactivated for last Sunday’s game against the Cowboys and, barring injuries to other Steelers receivers, has probably seen the field for the last time in 2012.
After getting so little production from a receiver who will be 36 next year, it’s unlikely the Steelers will re-sign him during the offseason.
3. Casey Hampton
Hampton has been a popular star for the Steelers during his 12-year career, earning five trips to the Pro Bowl. But his production has slipped this year, and a team with a history of cutting ties with aging fan favorites (see Ward, Hines) is unlikely to re-sign a 35-year-old player whose best days are behind him.
The huge nose tackle has always excelled at stopping the run. He has also been a good tackler historically, ranking near the top of ProFootballFocus.com’s 2009-2011 tackling efficiency ratings.
More importantly, Hampton’s ability to command a double-team is the key to Pittsburgh's run defense. If he can occupy two blockers, it allows Pittsburgh’s inside linebackers to step into the gaps and tackle opposing ball-carriers unmolested.
Unfortunately, his performance against the run has been really lackluster this year. As of November 29, Hampton was 66th among all defensive tackles at stopping the run. His consistently poor ProFootballFocus.com run grades this year have netted him multiple appearances on the “Had a Bad Day” lists the website publishes after every week of NFL games.
Partly as a result of Hampton’s struggles, the once formidable Steelers front seven has fallen to the middle of the pack against the run. According to Football Outsiders, the defensive line ranks 15th against the run this year. With little push from the aging Hampton, Pittsburgh’s defense line has been terrible when it matters most, ranking 21st in the league on 3rd- and 4th-and-short.
The Steelers' front office is surely not blind to the situation and will undoubtedly be looking for an upgrade during the offseason. Much as fans and the organization will miss him, there just won’t be a place in Pittsburgh for Hampton next year.
4. Byron Leftwich
Ben Roethlisberger is an elite NFL quarterback, and the Steelers offense struggled mightily in the three-and-a- half games he missed with rib and shoulder injuries this season. Neither Byron Leftwich nor Charlie Batch was able to move the ball consistently while filling in, and the team limped to a 2-2 record during Big Ben’s absence. The Steelers clearly need an upgrade at backup quarterback next year.
With a combined age that will exceed 70 next year, both free-agents-to-be have an uncertain future in Pittsburgh. If, as seems likely, the Steelers bring in a free agent or rookie backup quarterback in the offseason, only one of the two, at most, will be back next year.
Neither one stepped up and seized the second-string quarterback spot in 2012. So which one will the Steelers choose to keep in 2013?
Cost probably won’t be an issue, as neither will get any more than the minimum. So it will come down to choosing between Leftwich’s relative youth and Batch’s slightly better track record this year.
Leftwich is 32. Batch is a grandfatherly 38. However, Batch has posted a higher completion percentage, quarterback rating and, most importantly, win total this year.
At the end of the day, it’s the last statistic that is most likely to decide the matter for the Steelers. Leftwich lost to the hated Ravens at home. Batch led the Steelers to a comeback win in Baltimore two weeks later. Regardless of Leftwich’s age, it will be hard to shake the sense that Batch gives the team a better chance to win.
As a result, if Batch doesn’t retire after the 2012 season, Leftwich will be left looking for another team in the offseason.