Pittsburgh Steelers' 7 Biggest Offseason Decisions
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Whether the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers finish 7-9 or 8-8, it's not a record that looks good for a franchise that measures its success with championship rings.
The Steelers could be facing even uglier numbers during the offseason. They could be as much as $15 million over the salary cap, according to a projection last February on ESPN.com.
As painful as it's been for the Steelers to miss the playoffs, the pain will continue with some of the decisions they have to make during the offseason.
Many of those decisions will be financial, and many will be based on performance.
A lot of Steelers will be playing their last game in black and gold in Sunday's season finale against the Browns.
Considering how the Steelers have performed this season, that might not be a bad thing.
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Maybe it's a blessing Mike Wallace turned down the five-year, $50 million contract the Steelers offered him during the offseason.
The Steelers wouldn't make the same offer this offseason, but another team might.
Wallace is an unrestricted free agent. The Steelers would have to clear cap room to keep him. They probably can't afford to place the franchise tag on him. The franchise tag number for wide receivers is tentatively set at $10.357 million for 2013, according to NFL.com.
If the Steelers let Wallace go, they'd be losing their primary deep threat. However, he hasn't been as productive as he was last season.
Wallace has 64 receptions this season and needs eight in the season finale Sunday to match his career high of 72, which he posted last season. He has a hip rotator strain, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and might not even play Sunday.
Wallace has 13.1 yards per catch through 15 games and is likely to finish with a career low in that category. He also dropped six passes this season, according to the Washington Post.
Wallace's statistics could hurt his earning power in free agency. However, he became more than just a deep threat this season, catching passes on a variety of routes. His statistical dip this season could be pinned on new offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
If the Steelers keep Haley around, he might have some input regarding whether Wallace stays or goes.
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It's safe to say the Steelers' running-back-by-committee experiment hasn't worked this season.
There's a chance the entire committee could be gone next season.
Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman all will be free agents.
Mendenhall is an unrestricted free agent. The Steelers are going to face a lot of hard choices this offseason to get under the salary cap. They shouldn't waste any time agonizing over Mendenhall, who didn't show up for their Week 14 game against the Chargers after being told he was inactive.
The Steelers will miss the playoffs this year and are heading in a precarious direction as a franchise. Purging themselves of Mendenhall's attitude is one of the many steps they need to take to right the ship in 2013.
That leaves Dwyer and Redman. Dwyer, currently the starter, has two 100-yard rushing games this season while Redman has one. However, neither has shown an ability to be a consistent running threat for an entire season. Both backs are averaging less than four yards a carry.
Dwyer and Redman both are restricted free agents. If the Steelers tender them, they'd have the right to match another team's offer.
The Steelers should draft a running back who has the potential to start as a rookie, but try to hold on to Dwyer or Redman as the complementary back. Last year's original-round tender amount was $1.26 million. If it's in that same neighborhood this year and the Steelers use it on Dwyer, they'd receive a sixth-round draft pick as compensation if they don't match another teams' offer.
They wouldn't receive a draft pick as compensation if they tender Redman because he wasn't drafted.
Running back is a position that needs to look a lot different next season in Pittsburgh.
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This should be one of the Steelers' easiest decisions of the offseason.
They need to keep Keenan Lewis.
Lewis should be given the highest priority among the Steelers' unrestricted free agents. The ball came his way a lot when Ike Taylor was healthy, and Lewis responded. He's tied with the Seahawks' Richard Sherman with 23 passes defensed this season, according to the Washington Post.
The 26-year-old cornerback did his best to keep the Steelers' secondary together when Taylor went down. Despite hobbling around with hip and knee injuries, he made four tackles and broke up two passes in Sunday's loss to the Bengals.
The franchise tag number for cornerbacks in 2013 is tentatively set at $10.668 million, according to NFL.com, so the Steelers might not be able to franchise Lewis. They should try to sign him long-term for a lower yearly salary, even if it means cutting older players who are under contract for 2013.
Shutdown cornerbacks are hard to find. Assuming Ike Taylor recovers from his injury, the Steelers should have two of them next year and can concentrate more on re-tooling the front seven on defense.
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Next to Keenan Lewis, Max Starks should be the Steelers' second priority among unrestricted free agents.
Starks is making $825,000 this season, according to Rotoworld. If the Steelers can do enough cap maneuvering to sign the 31-year-old for another year at about the same price, it might be worth it.
At left tackle, Starks was the Steelers' only offensive lineman to play every snap this season, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. That counts for something considering how injuries reshuffled the offensive line this season.
On the other hand, it's not like the line really did its job protecting Ben Roethlisberger this season. As bad as the line has been in years past, Roethlisberger never was damaged as badly as he was this season. He hasn't been the same since injuring his shoulder. Starks deserves his share of the blame for that, which is why the Steelers can afford to lose Starks more than they can afford to lose Lewis.
Assuming Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams can return to health, the Steelers might just let Starks walk.
How much worse can Roethlisberger's protection get?
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James Harrison is due to make $6.57 million next season, according to Rotoworld.
If he's not willing to take a pay cut, Sunday's game should be his last in a Steelers uniform. It still might be even if he is willing to take a pay cut.
Harrison, who will be 35 next season, has become more injury-prone in recent years.
The outside linebacker has five sacks this season. Since becoming a starter in 2007, he's never had less than 8.5 sacks in a season, according to NFL.com. Harrison forced at least five fumbles every year from 2007 to 2010, but he's forced just two fumbles in each of the last two seasons. That might be a factor in the Steelers' inability to force turnovers since the beginning of last season.
If the Steelers keep Harrison around, those takeaways are likely to remain few and far between. If 2010 draft pick Jason Worilds or 2011 draft pick Chris Carter aren't ready to take over, then the Steelers haven't drafted well enough at linebacker.
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Larry Foote leads the Steelers this season with 104 combined tackles and is tied with Lawrence Timmons for the team lead with 70 total tackles, according to NFL.com.
However, the Steelers defense needs to do more than just tackle. It needs to take the ball away from the other team, and it hasn't been doing that for the last two seasons.
Foote, who will be 33 next season, has two forced fumbles this season. Neither has come since Week 6. His best game this season might have been in Week 1, when he had eight tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
The Steelers could have used a performance like that in December.
It might be time to let Foote walk, and according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he's prepared for that possibility.
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Casey Hampton will be 36 next year and heads into the offseason as an unrestricted free agent.
Hampton is making $2.8 million this season, according to Rotoworld. Steve McLendon is the heir apparent at nose tackle and could take over as the starter next season. Still, the Steelers should try to keep Hampton around for another year if he's willing to work for around $1 million.
The Steelers also need to tender McLendon, who will turn 27 on Jan. 3.
They need to keep at least one of those nose tackles, because they shouldn't expect much from 2012 fourth-round draft pick Alameda Ta'amu, a disappointment so far both on and off the field.