The Definitive Blueprint to Pittsburgh's Perfect Offseason
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are in a tough spot heading into the 2013 season.
Steelers fans will not be satisfied with another 8-8 season that sees the team fail to qualify for the playoffs. To improve, Pittsburgh's front office must address the weaknesses at key positions that contributed to a disappointing 2012 campaign.
At the moment, however, the organization has little room to maneuver. With 2013 salaries exceeding next year’s cap by a wide margin and several high-profile players and emerging talents entering free agency, the team has some hard choices to make to free up cash.
Fortunately for Steelers fans, the organization has first-rate ownership and a front office that historically has not shied from making tough decisions that are in the club's best interest in the long run. Pittsburgh's brass has also shown a good understanding of cap management and the art of finding value in NFL players.
Though drastic roster upgrades are unlikely considering the Steelers current financial situation, there are moves the front office can make to improve how competitive Pittsburgh will be on paper in 2013. The following is a list of steps the team should take, roughly in chronological order, to reload for the coming season.
The suggested cuts and additions are based on an analysis of each player's projected cost relative to his likely contributions to the team in 2013. Please note that many of the financial figures are estimates, as accurate data is not yet available.
Restructure the Big Contracts
LaMarr Woodley's contract needs restructuring for the second straight year.
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The downside to building a team that has posted one losing season since 2000 is the cost associated with keeping top-tier players around. Like many good teams, the Steelers have become financial victims of their own success on the field.
Contracts for Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Heath Miller have swollen commensurate with their historically elite level of play and now will eat up more than half of the projected 2013 $121 million salary cap.
As a result, the team’s expected payroll for next year currently exceeds the cap by almost $13 million, factory in the money paid to free-agents-to-be like Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis.
As he did before this season, cap wizard Omar Khan will have to restructure several of these contracts to get the team down to (and hopefully under) the cap.
Roethlisberger, Woodley and Timmons, each of whom restructured his contract in the previous offseason, are the most likely candidates for a restructuring this year. Big Ben’s contract runs through 2015. The two linebackers are signed through 2016.
This means the team has some flexibility in terms of amortizing payments across the life of the contracts. Pittsburgh can clear up about $18.5 million in cap space by turning some of their three highest paid players’ salaries into signing bonuses and spreading the cost over the remaining years.
Make Painful Cuts
An interception against the Browns was a rare highlight in Troy Polamalu's 2012 season.
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Harrison’s, Polamalu's and Miller’s contracts expire after 2014, making them nearly impossible to restructure. Instead, the first two are likely to be the subjects of some difficult conversations within the organization.
The other downside to an extended run of success is that eventually, there comes a point at which the stars of yesterday are taking up valuable playing time and cap space that should go to the team’s future. Football is a hard and heartless business. Smart teams like the Steelers know when it’s time to move on.
Sadly for Pittsburgh fans, that time may have come for two of its most popular players. A combination of big 2013 cap hits, advanced ages, injuries and slipping skills make them potential candidates to be released.
Harrison will be 35 at the start of next season and has struggled to stay healthy for the past two seasons. He averaged a sack every 2.2 games and a little more than five tackles per game this year, his worst and second-worst rates, respectively, since he became a starter in 2007.
Releasing him would save the Steelers approximately $5.1 million next year and give them some of the financial flexibility necessary to rebuild other parts of their aging defense.
Cutting Harrison would not be a particularly shocking move for a team that has a history of letting aging linebackers go. Harrison became a starter immediately after Pittsburgh cut his predecessor, Joey Porter, a high-profile Pro Bowl player, to free up cap space in 2007.
Releasing Polamalu, arguably the team’s most popular star, has less of a precedent and will probably never happen. But it would be a good, if painful, way to free up an additional $4.6 million in cap space.
The team’s star safety missed the majority of this season with injuries. When he was on the field, Polamalu was inconsistent. He performed well against the Bengals, sacking quarterback Andy Dalton on one of his signature blitzes timed to the snap. Against the Cowboys the week before, however, Polamalu struggled, frequently getting caught out of position and badly missing several tackles.
The problem with the safety’s freelancing style of play is that it requires the athleticism of a younger man. As he ages, Polamalu is losing the ability to recover quickly when he guesses wrong. That trend isn’t going to reverse itself in 2013. He is not going to magically turn back the clock and become a dominant defensive player again.
Given that Polamalu’s contract will expire after 2014, the Steelers can either accept his limitations and cap burden for the next two seasons out of respect, encourage him to retire or let him go.
It’s pretty unlikely that the Steelers won’t go with the first option, but the second and third are probably better for the team's long-term health.
Harrison and Polamalu aren’t the only popular players the Steelers should look at cutting. Another option would be defensive end Brett Keisel, who will be in the final year of his contract. If Keisel is unwilling to accept a pay cut that would save the team about $2 million next year, Pittsburgh could release him and save nearly $3 million.
A less controversial move would be releasing kicker Shaun Suisham, which would add about $1 million in cap space. Though Suisham has had an excellent season and the projected savings are not huge, the performance of kickers tends to vary widely from year to year, making them pretty fungible commodities.
Veterans who should be spared include cornerback Ike Taylor, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and offensive lineman Willie Colon.
At first glance, Taylor seems like a juicy target given his age and $6 million base salary in 2013. However, he has been the cornerstone of an excellent defensive backfield that has yielded the fewest passing yards in the NFL despite missing Polamalu for nine games and playing behind a front seven that only ranks 11th in the NFL in adjusted sack rate, a Football Outsiders stat that measures sacks and intentional grounding penalties per pass attempt, adjusted for down and distance.
Cotchery and Colon are also potential cap casualties, but cutting them would only save about $2.2 million and cost the Steelers two players who offer pretty good value. With a cap hit of $1.5 million, Cotchery doesn’t cost much more than a replacement-level receiver would and the receiver made some crucial catches this year as the team’s third or fourth wideout.
Colon has not had a great year, but his ability to play guard and tackle, coupled with the Steelers’ lack of depth on the offensive line, gives the team a reason to hang onto him.
Clear the Dead Wood
Rashard Mendenhall's future in Pittsburgh looks dim.
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When the free agency period starts in March, Pittsburgh should quickly part ways with veterans who have not performed up to expectations.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall has worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh, getting suspended for insubordination toward the end of his sub-par season. His squabbles with coach Mike Tomlin aside, the 3.6 yards per carry he averaged this year were his fewest since he became a starter in 2009. Mendenhall simply isn’t hitting the hole with much authority anymore.
Though his backups haven’t set the world on fire, the time has come to part ways with a back who is generating more headaches than yards.
As painful as it may be for Steelers fans, the team should also bid farewell to nose tackle Casey Hampton. Though Hampton remains one of Pittsburgh’s most popular players, his performance on the field in 2012 has not earned him a new contract. As of November 29, Pro Football Focus ranked Hampton 66th among defensive tackles at stopping the run. Pittsburgh’s once formidable run defense suffered as a result of the huge nose tackle’s struggles to occupy blockers and free up the Steelers’ inside linebackers, ranking 14th in the league against the run according to Football Outsiders. At 35 years old, Hampton is unlikely to turn things around in 2013 and should be allowed to seek his fortunes elsewhere.
Backup quarterback Byron Leftwich was pressed into service this year after Roethlisberger went down with an injury against the Chiefs in Week 10. The 33-year-old quarterback was largely ineffective in the loss and lasted one game before getting hurt himself.
Given that Pittsburgh needs to start grooming a replacement for Big Ben, the team should let the aging Leftwich walk in the offseason.
Wide receiver Plaxico Burress was brought in as a stopgap solution when Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders missed time due to injuries. The former-Steelers star failed to impress, catching only three passes in three games and getting deactivated for two others after Brown and Sanders returned to action.
His touchdown against the lowly Browns on Sunday should not take away from the fact that the Steelers have enough young talent at receiver to make Burress irrelevant in 2013.
Guard Ramon Foster has “anchored” an offensive line that ranked 31st in the NFL in generating rushing yards up the middle. The Steelers’ inability to drive opposing defensive lines off the ball was a problem throughout 2012. With the most snaps this year among Pittsburgh's guards and centers, Foster bears a lot of responsibility for this.
Given that the Steelers plan to build around rookie guard David DeCastro and the fact that the more versatile Colon is under contract until 2015, keeping Foster around in 2013 doesn’t make much sense.
Safeties Ryan Mundy and Will Allen have not performed well backing up starting free safety Ryan Clark and strong safety Polamalu. Both can also go.
Mundy offers all of Clark’s potential to draw flags for hitting defenseless receivers with little of the starter’s ability to make big plays. He is clearly not a viable long-term replacement for the 33-year-old Clark. Allen contributed little when filling in at strong safety, averaging barely more than two tackles per game this year, compared to the more than five that Polamalu has averaged when healthy.
Lock Up Restricted Free Agents
Emmanuel Sanders will be a bargain in 2013.
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The easiest decision the Steelers will need to make will be to resign the five players who will be restricted free agents next year. Sanders, running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, nose tackle Steve McLendon and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester should all be tendered this offseason.
Sanders has had an excellent season as the Steelers’ third option at wide receiver, hauling in 44 passes for 626 yards and filling in admirably for Brown when he has been hurt. Getting a receiver of that caliber for $2 million in 2013 is a steal.
Dwyer and Redman have not performed as well in 2012. But given Mendenhall’s almost-certain departure and the Steelers’ struggles to get under the cap, bringing them back at relatively cheap prices makes more sense than looking for a proven running back in free agency.
With Hampton likely to be gone next year and rookie Alameda Ta’amu potentially facing jail time for his involvement in an ugly police chase, Pittsburgh will need McLendon on the roster in 2013. Having the nose tackle on a one-year tender is a good way for the Steelers to test out a young player who could be a key contributor without taking much of a financial risk in the short term.
Sylvester has not really become the linebacker of the future that the Steelers hoped. He has mostly played on special teams and has been a holding penalty waiting to happen there. However, the Steelers need depth at that position. Keeping a backup who knows the system seems a prudent move given the low price.
Offer Good Free Agents Their True Value
Mike Wallace looks unlikely to get the money he wanted last offseason.
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Having cleared cap space through restructures and cuts, let go underperforming free agents and tendered players who can be brought back cheaply, the Steelers can then turn to negotiating with the unrestricted free agents who they may want to resign for 2013.
Even though the aforementioned moves will give the Steelers some room to spend, the team will still need to ensure that it doesn’t offer a penny more than each free agent’s true worth. If another team wants to overpay any of them, Pittsburgh must be willing to let them walk.
Had receiver Mike Wallace’s 2012 season not been so disappointing, it is unlikely that the Steelers could have afforded him in 2013. Based on a 2011 campaign in which he ranked in the NFL’s top 15 in most statistical categories for receivers, Wallace demanded a big contract during the last offseason.
Pittsburgh tendered the then-restricted free agent instead and pushed the hard negotiations to the 2013 offseason. The move paid off for the team in the short run financially, if not on the field. Wallace failed to justify his contract demands, performing considerably worse with drops and mental errors, significantly weakening his bargaining position heading into contract negotiations.
This means the Steelers can lowball Wallace. The front office can argue that a season in which he averaged about three fewer yards per catch and a little less than 20 fewer yards per game than in the previous year doesn’t merit a big contract.
The problem, though, is that other, less fiscally prudent teams looking to make a splash in free agency will probably be more than willing to pay top dollar for Wallace’s speed. As a result, the speedster is very likely to end up playing elsewhere.
Another future free agent who may attract interest from other teams is Lewis. In his first full year as a starter, the cornerback has stepped up and performed admirably. Lewis finished the season with the second most passes defended with 23, a testament to both how many times opposing teams have gone after him and his abilities in coverage.
Though the Steelers probably don’t want to get into a bidding war over a player with only one good year under his belt, it may be worth paying a slightly higher price to keep Lewis around in the future.
As mentioned, Pittsburgh’s secondary played extremely well and keeping one of the team’s stronger units together will help as the Steelers retool other parts of their defense.
Max Starks, Doug Legursky, Larry Foote and Charlie Batch are four veterans who also could contribute to the 2013 team. On his second one-year contract with Pittsburgh after being cut before the 2011 season, Starks played pretty well, playing the most snaps of any Steeler player and helping the offensive line generate the fifth most adjusted line yards on runs off of left tackle.
Legursky was part of the dreadful heart of the offensive line, but his ability to play both center and guard boosts his value a bit. Foote had another solid year, but his age makes anything more than a one-year, low-dollar contract risky.
Restock Through the Draft
Matt Elam (22) is a high-impact player and potential replacement for Troy Polamalu.
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Even after said money-saving moves, the Steelers will still have little cap space available to go after higher-priced free agents to fill the holes created by those offseason departures and ongoing position concerns. As a result, the team will need to plug these gaps primarily by drafting rookies.
If the team decides to part ways with Polamalu or Allen, the most urgent need would be at strong safety. Safety is not usually a great position to target in the first round, but the Steelers need to get an impact player to replace Polamalu whether he moves on this year or after either of the next two seasons. So a gamble might be worth it.
If Pittsburgh goes after a strong safety early, the best option is probably Matt Elam of Florida, who should go in the late first round if he declares for the draft.
Elam appears to be a great fit for the Steelers defense. He is physical enough to stop the run, notching 65 tackles in 2012, but fast enough to track receivers in coverage. Elam also has shown a good ability to disrupt opposing offenses through blitzes. More importantly, he looks capable of playing either safety position, which would allow him to fill in for Clark if necessary.
Without Harrison next year, the Steelers will also need to get a replacement at outside linebacker. If UCLA’s Anthony Barr changes his mind about entering the draft, the junior could provide the pass rush from the edge that the team has been lacking this year. Since switching from fullback to linebacker last year, Barr has become a pass-rushing demon, racking up 13.5 sacks in 2012.
If Wallace departs and the Steelers stick with an offensive game plan built around short, quick passes, the team needs a bigger receiver who can get plenty of yards after the catch. At 6’3” and 205 pounds, Jordan Matthews from Vanderbilt would provide the sort of big, fast target Todd Haley’s offense requires. The All-SEC wideout amassed 1,272 yards in 2012 and averaged a healthy 15.5 yards per catch over the course of his college career.
With only the aging Batch backing up Big Ben, Pittsburgh will need to look for both a short-term emergency solution and a quarterback of the future to take over from Roethlisberger in a few years.
The 2013 draft offers few sure things at that position, especially where the Steelers are drafting, so the best option is to take a flier on a later-round pick with lots of potential. E.J. Manuel from Florida State is a big, mobile quarterback in the Roethlisberger mold whose inconsistency in 2012 has caused his draft stock to drop.
With 4.64 speed in the 40-yard dash and a strong arm, however, Manuel has enough upside to make him worth taking in the fourth round or later.
Ziggy Hood has not been a star at defensive end, but he has been capable enough that the Steelers can survive the departure of Keisel. Nonetheless, the team should consider drafting a defensive end in the later rounds to eventually supplant Hood, especially considering how deep the 2013 crop of defensive ends is shaping up to be.
There is so much talent at that position that monster defensive end Margus Hunt from SMU may slip to the Steelers later in the draft. The 6’8 Latvian only started playing football in 2009, but he finished his college career with the 17 blocked kicks, the second-most in NCAA history.
In the Aloha Bowl last week, Hunt forced two fumbles and recorded a sack for a safety. He is understandably raw but appears to have the physical tools to become disruptive force on the order of J.J. Watt.