The Pittsburgh Steelers' 2012 season exposed a number of weaknesses in the team's roster that simply must be fixed before anyone can consider them an elite team again.
But those moves must come within the restraints of the NFL's salary cap. Here's a look at realistic free agent targets that should fit into the team's budget constraints.
Before we get into who might be a good fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers, we need to get a realistic idea at what kind of money they'll have to spend on potential additions to their roster.
The easiest way to begin is to assume that there will be no additional cap money assigned to teams in 2013. There's been word that the NFL won't raise the cap much beyond the $120 million and change that's governed 2012. If we assume $121 million in spending money, that's where we'll begin.
The Steelers will have some work to do if they plan on getting under the likely cap. That will require another round of restructures for guys like Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers may have to make some tough calls on older players as well.
Harrison and Troy Polamalu will be guys that Kevin Colbert has to look at as potentially expendable. That's a painful thought, but with the successful work of Jason Worilds this year and Polamalu's injury history, it could be time to bid farewell and save some money.
The Steelers should be able to get about $4-6 million under the cap through a long list of salary reshuffling and cuts.
Assuming they'll have $6 million to work with, the following four free agents are good fits for the Steelers.
Where's the Need?
There won't be a ton of glamorous signings here with only $6 million to spend. That's enough for one or two good players. If the Steelers want to plug some leaks in free agency, they'll have to be thrifty.
One need they must fill is the void behind Ben Roethlisberger. Bringing back Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich will solve nothing. A new player who's younger and more of a fit for this offensive system is in order.
The brutal reality of Roethlisberger's play is that he will miss some time. That time is going to become more frequent as he ages. This year, the Steelers imploded during a three-and-a-half game stretch where he was on the sideline.
Stanton is mobile, has a good arm and is a veteran leadership presence. The Steelers have a bit of a leadership vacuum at this point. They could use a gritty guy who knows how to set an example. This is especially true if Batch departs as expected.
Stanton is young enough to be around awhile and he's durable. Pittsburgh would be wise to also draft a young player to develop behind their starter, but a veteran that can steady the ship if and when the team's elite passer goes down is also essential.
Where's the Need?
Special teams have been an annual black hole for this team. Mike Tomlin fired special teams coordinator Al Everest before the regular season began. He'll likely be saying goodbye to Amos Jones as well. Under Jones, the special teams have been the worst unit in years.
Sometimes, a player can be of more help on specialty units than on offense or defense. A player like that, with field position so important in the NFL, can be worth more than an offense play-maker or defensive star at times.
The Steelers need to inject something into their coverage units.
Osgood has never been a big receiver, but he can play on offense when needed. He's very similar to former Pittsburgh receiver Arnaz Battle, a special teams ace that rarely caught a pass.
The Steelers need a special teams guy that can get the job done. The people they're putting out there right now couldn't stop a leaky faucet. They certainly can't stop returners from getting good field position.
Osgood can step into the last receiver spot, where the team must keep five players next season to prevent injury issues, and play on the coverage units.
Where's the Need?
While David Paulson may truly be able to step in and successfully substitute for Heath Miller next season while the team's elite tight end recovers from a horrific knee injury, the Steelers will need depth behind him.
Leonard Pope was a one-year free agent addition and doesn't fit what the team likes to do offensively. David Johnson, formerly the team's fullback, will be back but may not be the player he was before. Paulson is only a rookie at this point.
The Steelers need a proven veteran presence there to block and occasionally catch some passes as the number two man.
The tight end market isn't very robust. The good players there won't come cheaply. The Steelers did a good job in 2012 of getting Pope—a player who knew how to execute Todd Haley's offense.
Now they'll have to do it again with a guy like Shiancoe, who can go out and catch some passes but also can deliver in blocking when needed.
The Steelers don't need a long-term fix or a star. They need a solid contributor. Shiancoe, who's been lost in this year, can certainly bring that. He will probably be a hungry player too. That's always useful.
Where's the Need?
Pittsburgh needs help on the inside at linebacker. Stevenson Sylvester will be let go after a disappointing tour of duty that saw him fail to develop into anything but a disappointment. Larry Foote cannot go on forever and is playing above average right now.
That means the Steelers must get creative. While drafting a player might be the answer, doing what was done when Pittsburgh snuck in and snapped up James Farrior could also be a route here.
Pittsburgh needs help on the inside of the defense. Linebacker is a good place to start. The Steelers have a history of creating stars there.
This is the one wild card pick for free agent additions. It's outside the box for the Steelers to go after a bigger name. They'd only be able to sign one star-caliber player with their available cap.
This contract would have to be back-loaded as well to account for this year's spartan space.
But a player like Maualuga, who's disruptive and adept at blitzing could fit the Steelers' defensive system perfectly. He's been squeezed out by Vontaze Burfict in Cincinnati. Here he could get some revenge and be a star.