If only Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn't have to worry about the salary cap.
Every offseason is abuzz with speculation about which team will go after which high-profile free agent. The reality for the Pittsburgh Steelers, though, is that due to salary cap considerations and an organizational commitment to building the team through draft picks and bargain-basement signings, the team will not make a big splash in the 2013 free-agent market.
The team will have to move money around just to get under the 2013 salary cap and maybe have a little left over to re-sign some of its own free-agents-to-be. It is unlikely that Pittsburgh will have the freedom to splurge on a big name this offseason.
And even if money were no object, the Steelers still wouldn’t chase after high-priced free agents in 2013. The team reloads through a very successful and sustainable model based on picking up new talent through the draft and letting it develop over time. Though slow, that process is extremely cost-effective, thanks to a rookie wage scale that keeps salaries down.
Not too many Steelers fans would find fault with this approach. Six Super Bowl titles is proof enough that it’s working.
Still, sometimes it can be boring to be so prudent. It’s nice to imagine what the offseason would be like if the front office were willing and able to go wild in the free agent market. If the salary cap didn’t exist and the team lived for the moment just once.
Which free agents would the Steelers pick up if that were the case?
As any Cowboys or Redskins fan knows, simply going after the most expensive players available isn’t usually the best plan. The new additions don’t necessarily need to be the most talented free agents on the market. They should respond to specific needs, mesh well with the existing lineup and fit the team’s particular offensive and defensive game plans.
With that in mind, the following is a list, by position, of the 2013 free agents who best meet those criteria and whom the Steelers could go after in a world in which salary cap space and other practical considerations didn’t matter.
Matt Moore has value as a backup quarterback.
Unlike many NFL teams, the Steelers have the good fortune to be set at quarterback for the next half-decade. Starter Ben Roethlisberger ranks among the league’s elite signal-callers and still has several good years left in him. Most other clubs would gladly take a quarterback with a 69 percent career-winning percentage and two Super Bowl wins on his resume.
This means that Pittsburgh heads into the offseason only needing to upgrade at the backup quarterback positions, a much easier task than finding the future face of the franchise. The team’s current second- and third-string options, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch, underwhelmed during the three games Roethlisberger missed due to injury in 2012, going 1-2 and failing to generate much offense. In an effort to salvage the season, Big Ben rushed back to the starting lineup before he was fully healed and struggled down the stretch.
With Roethlisberger on the wrong side of 30, securing a more reliable backup would help Pittsburgh survive future injuries without major declines in performance. If the Steelers were to turn to the free-agent market to address this need, the best option would be Matt Moore, formerly of the Miami Dolphins.
Moore will never be confused with Peyton Manning, but the six-year veteran has everything an experienced playoff contender like Pittsburgh would want in a backup. He is a steady, if unspectacular, performer who won’t lose winnable games if pressed into service. In his one year as a starter, Moore was almost the definition of a slightly above-average, reasonably competent quarterback. He finished in the top half of the league in most statistical categories, completing 60.5 percent of his passes and posting 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions.
As a result, Pro Football Focus ranks Moore as the second best free-agent quarterback on the market. He would be an extremely valuable addition to a Steelers team in need of new blood at that position.
The best option in a weak free agent crop.
None of the Steelers running backs distinguished themselves in 2012. Once the team’s feature back and a safe bet for a 1,000-yard season, Rashard Mendenhall may not even be back next year after a season marred by injuries, poor production and spats with the coaching staff. Neither of his backups, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, stepped up to win Mendenhall’s starting spot. Both played well in stretches but disappointed overall.
The Steelers’ 2013 depth chart at running back is far from set in stone, and with more cap space available, the team would likely be in the market for a free-agent signee this offseason. Unfortunately, even if Pittsburgh were to make a run at someone, none of the running backs hitting free agency are very enticing. Only three free-agents-to-be were on the field for more than half of their team’s offensive snaps in 2012.
The two most intriguing prospects, Chris Ivory and Andre Brown, are restricted free agents and probably won’t hit the open market. Too bad. Both offer good mixes of speed and power that would make them ideal fits for a Steelers offensive scheme that requires a physical back to ease the burden on Roethlisberger.
The other backs whom Pro Football Focus rates positively are either too old (Steven Jackson, Cedric Benson and Ronnie Brown ), too small (Danny Woodhead, Bernard Scott and Justin Forsett), too inconsistent or injury-prone (Peyton Hillis, Felix Jones and Kevin Smith) or too unknown (pretty much all the rest) to be of much value to the Steelers offense.
The only free-agent-to-be who is even mildly interesting is Mike Goodson of the Raiders, whom Pro Football Focus rates as the fourth best back available in 2013. At 5’11” and 195 pounds, Goodson seems sturdy enough for Todd Haley’s offense. But he’s also fast enough that he has returned kicks for most of his NFL career.
Goodson has had little playing time in his four-year career, so signing him would be a gamble. He has done well when he’s gotten carries, though. During one three-game stretch as a starter for 2010 Panthers, he put up 275 yards and a healthy 4.7 yards per carry. As a result of his production in those three weeks, Goodson finished the season as Carolina’s second-leading rusher.
This past year, the Raiders running back showed just as much potential in limited duty. In the only game in which he got double-digit carries, Goodson managed to rack up 89 yards and average 6.9 yards per rush.
The Steelers saw more of Alexander than they wanted in 2012
The free agent who arguably best suits the Steelers’ particular needs is wideout Danario Alexander, who had a surprisingly strong second half of the 2012 season after joining the Chargers in the middle of October. In just 10 games after getting signed off the street, the wideout had 37 catches for 658 yards. His 17.8 yards per catch were tied for second in the NFL among receivers with more than 35 receptions.
Because Haley’s offensive scheme is built around runs and quick passes, it requires receivers who have the right mix of size and quickness to turn a short throw into a long gain. It needs wideouts who can generate a lot of yards after the catch.
Unfortunately, the Steelers’ top two receivers, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, are not that kind of player. Both are fast and great at getting down the field, but their slight builds make them far too easy to tackle on short passes. Neither generates many yards after the catch (YAC), producing 4.31 and 4.83 YAC per reception, respectively, in 2012.
Alexander, on the other hand, is 6’5” and 217 pounds, a big target who is hard to bring down. He averaged a whopping 7.18 YAC per catch this past year, also good for second in the league.
The Chargers wideout looks even better when viewed through the lens of advanced metrics. According to Football Outsiders, Alexander has the highest Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) of any NFL receiver, meaning he has the most value per play among wideouts.
The Steelers shouldn’t need much convincing that the 26-year-old receiver would make a great addition to the team. After all, Alexander abused Pittsburgh in a Week 14 game. The Steelers' backup cornerbacks couldn’t cope with the wideout’s height and strength, giving up San Diego Chargers 34 at Pittsburgh Steelers 24 seven catches, 88 yards and two touchdowns.
Stealing Pitta from the Ravens would be doubly sweet.
Until the second-to-last week of the season, the Steelers were pretty well set at tight end. Heath Miller quietly had a superb season, leading the team in receptions and finishing fourth among NFL tight ends in catches and yards. In a season full of disappointments, the veteran was one of the few Steelers who always seemed to come up with a big play when the team needed one.
Unfortunately, Miller blew out his knee in the second Bengals game and is looking at a long rehab process that may cause him to miss time next season. Just that quickly, one of Pittsburgh’s strongest positions became a weakness and a hole to be filled.
If the Steelers could afford to target a tight end during the free agency period, the best play would be to poach Dennis Pitta from the Ravens. The fifth best free-agent-to-be at that position according to Pro Football Focus, Pitta had a very strong 2012, hauling in 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. Only in his third NFL season, the tight end is gradually getting more use and looks poised to have a big year in 2013.
Not only would signing Pitta stick it to a hated rival, it would potentially give Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense a Patriots-esque 1-2 punch at the tight end position once Miller returns to form.
Levitre would shore up a weak offensive line.
The offensive line was a serious problem for the Steelers in 2013. Pittsburgh’s linemen had horrible luck with injuries, missing a combined 41 games during the course of the season. Without a consistent lineup from week to week, the unit struggled mightily, and the Steelers running game suffered as a result. The team finished the season 26th in total rushing yards and tied for 28th in yards per attempt.
The Steelers’ guards were largely to blame for the team’s anemic ground game. Pittsburgh ranked 31st in the NFL in adjusted line yards on runs up the middle, but was in the top ten on running plays that went anywhere else.
The jury is still out on rookie guard David DeCastro, who saw limited action due to injuries. But neither Willie Colon nor Ramon Foster did anything to solidify their starting spots next year. Going into 2013, the Steelers need a big upgrade at this position. If Pittsburgh were to address its need via free agency, the team would be best served by looking for a difference-maker.
Andy Levitre is that kind of player. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the second best free agent guard available in 2013. He anchored a Buffalo Bills line that was behind the league’s sixth best rushing attack. Thanks to Levitre and company, Bills running backs averaged 5.0 yards per carry, the fourth highest mark in the NFL in 2012. That Buffalo generated the sixth most adjusted line yards on runs up the gut was a testament to the quality of Levitre’s play.
Arthur Jones has the makings of a stud defensive end.
With Brett Keisel looking at taking a pay cut or being released and Ziggy Hood not exactly setting the world on fire, the Steelers are facing long-term uncertainty at the defensive end position.
If Keisel parts ways with the team and Pittsburgh were to decide to fill his spot through free agency, it should look at stealing another Ravens player. Defensive end Arthur Jones showed enough promise in 2012 to make him worth pursuing in the 2013 free agency period.
Jones has been part of Baltimore’s defensive line rotation for the past couple of seasons, but he saw more playing time in the second half of this year as a result of injuries to other linemen. The 3-4 defensive end made the most of his increased playing time. Against the Chargers in Week 12, Jones sacked Philip Rivers twice and hurried him three more times. His Pass Rushing Productivity, a Pro Football Focus statistic that measures how often defensive linemen disrupt opponents’ passing plays, was the highest among ends playing in a 3-4 scheme that week.
Two weeks later versus the Redskins, Jones again was a beast on passing downs, pressuring Robert Griffin III four times on the afternoon.
The free-agent defensive end is far from a sure thing, but he has shown enough potential this season to make him an intriguing target for a Pittsburgh team that may need to roll the dice on a defensive lineman.
The tough-tackling Henderson would fit in perfectly on Pittsburgh's blue-collar defense.
Salary cap considerations also could force linebackers James Harrison and Larry Foote out of Pittsburgh this offseason. Even if the two veterans do end up with the team again in 2013, the Steelers may still be in the market for more new blood for their defensive front seven. Given Harrison’s and Foote’s advanced ages, Pittsburgh needs to start planning for a future without them one way or another.
Even though Erin Henderson of the Minnesota Vikings plays outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, his skills are varied enough that he would still be a valuable replacement for either Harrison or Foote in the Steelers’ 3-4 alignment.
He played inside linebacker in college and has been an effective run-stopper in the pros. As of the middle of the 2012 season, Henderson ranked fourth in the league in Run Stop Percentage among linebackers. His ability to shut down opposing running backs would be a welcome addition to a Pittsburgh defense that sometimes struggled against the run.
Quin would give Pittsburgh flexibility on defense.
The Steelers are also aging at both safety spots. At 31 and 33, respectively, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are on the back halves of their careers. Painful though it may be to think about, Pittsburgh needs to start considering life after two of its most popular defensive players.
If the team were to look to free agency to find replacements for Polamalu and Clark, the best fit would be Glover Quin of the Houston Texans. A versatile talent who can play both safety spots, Quin put together a great year. He made Pro Football Focus’s Teams of the Week and Secret Superstars lists on multiple occasions in 2012 and tied for 7th in tackling efficiency among defensive backs.
Having a defensive back like Quin who can play both free and strong safety would give the Steelers greater flexibility in how they decide to use Polamalu and Clark going forward. Being able to deploy the former, whose skills slipped noticeably in 2012, more strategically would be a huge advantage for Pittsburgh and a suitable justification for picking up Quin.