Though the regular season has just ended, there's no harm in taking a look at what the future may hold for the Pittsburgh Steelers, especially on the free-agent front.
Currently, the Steelers have a whopping 25 players headed for free agency on either a restricted or unrestricted basis, and with their cap situation not likely to be any better in 2013 than it was last year, they'll yet again find themselves with big and difficult decisions to make.
Here are the biggest and most important Steelers names who could be headed to the open market this year if the cash simply isn't there to retain them.
Without question, the Pittsburgh Steelers' highest-profile unrestricted free agent this offseason is wide receiver Mike Wallace. However, with the salary cap unchanged at $121 million for 2013 and the wide receiver franchise tag worth $10.357 million, there's little chance the Steelers will be able to keep Wallace under that designation.
The only option is a long-term contract, but that seems just as unlikely as franchising Wallace. Wallace had a chance to stay with the Steelers for years to come during the 2012 offseason, but instead, he rejected Pittsburgh's offer and held out through the preseason. That contract, a five-year deal worth $42 million, instead went to his teammate, Antonio Brown.
In a season in which Wallace needed to prove he was worth more than what he was initially offered—by the Steelers or any other team—he mostly disappointed. Wallace blamed a lack of focus for having such low numbers this year, but really, he had more than enough opportunity to match his 2011 production, even in Todd Haley's new offensive system.
Last year, Wallace caught 72 passes for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns and averaged 16.6 yards per reception. This season, he had 64 catches for 838 yards and eight touchdowns and had a 13.1 yards-per-reception average.
Further, the deep passing hasn't taken a hit in Haley's system, at least when it comes to Wallace. The issues are instead the receiver's, as well as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's.
In 2011, Wallace was targeted deep (20 or more yards) 24 times, according to Pro Football Focus. He caught 10 of them, had one drop and scored five touchdowns on those passes. In 2012, Wallace was thrown to in the deep end 31 times, the result being just six catches, with four touchdowns and two drops. It wasn't the system to blame for his struggles.
So, with Wallace's disappointing season, the seeming willingness of the Steelers to forge ahead without him and his price tag is too high even if they had a change of heart, Wallace may be the Steelers' biggest-name free agent, but he's not the one most important to the team.
The Steelers need to find stability and production out of their run game, considering at varying points in the 2012 season, Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer all took on lead back duties, with mixed results from all of them.
Dwyer was the team's leading rusher, with 623 yards and two touchdowns on 156 carries. Redman had 110 carries for 410 yards and two scores, while Mendenhall, who missed the first month while still recovering from 2011's ACL tear, had 51 carries for 182 yards and a touchdown. Dwyer's four yards per carry also led the group.
Though it seems most likely that the Steelers let Mendenhall go—especially after his one-game team suspension for not showing up to the team's home contest against the San Diego Chargers in protest for his fumble-related benching—that's not necessarily the endgame to this partnership. In December, the team and Mendenhall commenced contract talks, and he very well could stay depending on the price.
Dwyer has a lot of promise; however, he's not a 1,000-plus-yard feature back type, something the Steelers need in Todd Haley's system. Mendenhall is the closest thing they have to that in house, and if he stays, that will probably make Redman the odd man out. This situation is one the Steelers will want to resolve as quickly as possible, because they otherwise could use a third-round pick on a talented back.
The safety position is one the Steelers need to address in the coming months, especially with Troy Polamalu suffering nearly yearly injuries and his retirement date rapidly approaching and Ryan Clark being 33 years old presently—not all that young, despite how well he played this season. Depth at safety is important; therefore, this makes the impending free agency for both Will Allen and Ryan Mundy considerably disconcerting.
Of the two, clearly Mundy is the most expendable. In his 292 snaps played in 2012, he had six missed tackles, allowed 10 catches in 14 targets and gave up three touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks had a rating of 119.6 when targeting him, while the Steelers' next-worst performing safety, Clark, gave up a 60.0 quarterback rating. Letting Mundy walk is no big deal, therefore, especially if the Steelers are committed to adding one early on in the draft.
Allen, who played 432 snaps and allowed no touchdowns, is more worthy of getting a contract, and the Steelers should create some cap space to do just that. Even if Polamalu chooses to play one more year, Allen's depth value is high, and he proved himself a far better option than Mundy when they needed someone to play when Polamalu fell injured this year.
Though neither Doug Legursky nor Ramon Foster would be starting offensive linemen next season, it doesn't mean the Steelers can afford to lose either of them. Injuries seem to befall Pittsburgh's offensive line season after season, and having experienced depth at guard, center and tackle remains a top priority.
Foster started all 16 games this season, 13 at right guard and three at left, replacing the injured David DeCastro on the right, and later, when DeCastro returned from IR, taking over for Willie Colon on the left. He gave up just two sacks on the season—both when he was on the left—and just two hurries. Between he and Legursky, he's the more valuable of the two impending free agents.
Legursky saw action in seven games in 2012, four at center, two at left guard and one at right guard. He also gave up two sacks this season, as well as five hits and seven hurries. Legursky would be both more affordable for the Steelers and more likely to stay.
Considering how well Foster performed in 2012, he could easily test free agency and get a good deal elsewhere, and more importantly, he could also be a starter. With Foster simply depth for Pittsburgh and the skills to get a great paycheck and guaranteed playing time, don't expect him to stick around for 2013.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis beat out Cortez Allen for the Steelers starting spot that was left vacant when William Gay went to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency. Though generally raw when he's been on the field in the past, he handled his new role well and played a significant part in Pittsburgh's top-ranked 2012 defense.
However, Lewis is an unrestricted free agent and is a bit irked that the team didn't extend him a long-term deal last season, and he's thus going to test the open market when the free agency kicks off in a few months.
The comment may just be an effort to call the Steelers' bluff and get them to initiate contract talks; however, if the Steelers don't bite and he does test the free-agency waters, it's likely he'll be gone. In his 943 snaps in 2012, he had 56 tackles, allowed only 52.7 of the passes thrown his way to be caught and gave up three touchdowns. These numbers rank him higher than the majority of corners in the league, and there's no doubt teams will be courting him at the start of the new league year.
The Steelers would be best served to tender a contract to Lewis before that happens. Allen would be a serviceable starter, but that means Curtis Brown would shift into full-time nickel duty, which is a major downgrade at the position. The other option would be to give Josh Victorian a bigger on-field load—he's a restricted free agent and will come with a much smaller price tag—but that's not ideal, either.
With Mike Wallace likely out when free agency commences, it's important that the Steelers offer something—whether a contract or a one-year tender—to restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders. Though Pittsburgh still has Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery on the roster (and very well could retain Plaxico Burress), Sanders is the team's starting slot receiver and has valuable experience as well as a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger that cannot be had elsewhere.
The Steelers' receiver situation will also likely dictate they pick up another one in the draft—their selection of Toney Clemons in 2012's draft didn't entirely pay off, and the practice squad wasn't a source of serviceable talent at the position either. But if they somehow lose Sanders, everything on offense becomes a bit more dire and more desperate.
Sanders was targeted 69 times in 2012 with 44 receptions for 624 yards and a touchdown; he also had three drops and two fumbles. In Todd Haley's offense, possession and slot receivers like Sanders are necessary. Though Sanders wasn't at his most reliable in 2012, it won't be a good situation for the Steelers to be without both him and Wallace in 2013.
A one-year tender would be a smart move, and then, if performance and the salary cap allow it, they can give him a longer-term deal in 2014.