Pittsburgh Steelers: Evaluating the Defensive Free Agent and Draft Priorities
After a slow start to the 2012 season, the Pittsburgh’s Steelers saw their defense of old return to form. They finished at the top of the league in yards allowed and passing defense and second in the league in rushing defense.
But even though their rankings were impressive, the Steelers defense still needs to get better if they want to be one of the league’s elite.
Maybe the biggest area in which they must improve is in creating more turnovers. This was particularly evident considering the Steelers had a minus-10 turnover differential on the season.
Team president Art Rooney II believes that there is a simple solution to creating more turnovers
"We have to get more pressure on the quarterback," Rooney said (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). "Anybody will tell you that creates turnovers."
Rooney also believes that the defensive backs need to be “more ball aware.”
Finding playmakers to rush the quarterback and young safeties are just two of the priorities that the Steelers will have this offseason.
In the second of a two-part series examining the free-agent and draft priorities, I will examine the priorities on defense.
Free agency and draft priorities will be rated as “low” if the Steelers need a minimal investment in the position such as a veteran at a league minimum or a sixth- or seventh-round draft choice. They will be rated “medium” if they need to spend on a mid-level free agent or a draft choice between the third and fifth round. “High” means the Steelers need to spend a significant amount in free agency or address the need with a first- or second-round selection.
Here is a position-by-position look at Pittsburgh’s priorities on defense.
Free-Agent Priority: Low
Draft Priority: Medium to High
The Steelers have invested a lot on defensive ends in recent years, and these players will be counted on in 2013.
Ziggy Hood is good for a slow start and a strong finish, and Cameron Heyward should see an increase in his role next season.
Combine these two with Brett Keisel and the Steelers are in pretty good shape.
Al Woods provides quality depth at the position, meaning that the Steelers do not have any immediate needs there. However, with Keisel aging, they may want to invest a late-round selection on a defensive end.
It takes defensive ends in the Steelers system around three years to fully develop, and considering that the Steelers ask these players to occupy blockers, there are capable players that can be found later in the draft.
The story is different at nose tackle where Casey Hampton is a free agent.
It took Hampton about half a season to get healthy, but he played well once finding his stride. That does not mean he’ll return though as he is an unrestricted free agent.
The Steelers should consider bringing back Hampton, but they should not put a top priority on him. Instead they would be better served to put a focus on retaining and increasing the role of restricted free agent Steve McLendon. He is a dynamic nose tackle who can rush the passer as well as stop the run.
Pittsburgh has a couple of developmental prospects with Alameda Ta’amu and Hebron Fangupo, so there is little need to spend much in free agency.
However, an elite nose tackle is the foundation to Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense, and if there is a top prospect available in the draft, the Steelers need to add depth.
If the right player falls, the Steelers should invest a top three selection on a nose tackle.
The Steelers rotate their defensive linemen enough to justify having two quality nose tackles. It would also enable them to move McLendon around the DL if they desire.
Everything starts up front for the Steelers defense, and if they want to establish the line of scrimmage and develop a strong pass rush, they need a top-notch defensive line and must invest accordingly.
Free-Agent Priority: Medium
Draft Priority: Medium to High
Pittsburgh will be short on inside linebackers once free agency begins, as the have two unrestricted and one restricted free agents at the position.
Larry Foote and Brandon Johnson were the Steelers top two linebackers and may not return while restricted free agent Stevenson Sylvester has shown very little in his brief career.
The Steelers need help behind Lawrence Timmons and Sean Spence—who is recovering from a major knee injury.
Foote told 93.7 The Fan that he would be willing to take a pay cut to return in 2013.
It would be a wise move to bring back Foote. He is an adequate starter at worst and at the very least a very good backup. He knows the system quite well and has performed solidly given what is expected of him.
If it is not Foote who is returning, it would be another borderline linebacker who is a better fit as a backup than starter, but that player wouldn’t know LeBeau’s system.
They will likely need to add another linebacker as well—possibly one who can backup at both inside and outside linebacker.
The Steelers may look to the draft where there will be no shortage of possible choices in the early and middle rounds.
Even though the Steelers selected Spence last season, there still is a need at the position.
Spence is unproven and coming off a major injury. He will likely have a role on passing downs and ideally will take over the starting job.
However, there should be another option in place and that could come from a first-rounder such as a Manti Te’o, Alec Ogletree or Kevin Minter or a linebacker such as Gerald Hodges or Sean Porter in the middle of the draft.
There is a need for an upgrade at the position, and the draft would be the best spot to accomplish this.
Free-Agent Priority: Low
Draft Priority: High
Pittsburgh’s biggest need this offseason is a pass-rusher. The problem is that elite pass-rushers rarely hit free agency, and when they do they cost way more than what the Steelers can afford.
Therefore, do not expect the Steelers to get any help at outside linebacker through free agency. At best, they will sign a cheap backup who can play both inside and outside.
Instead, the Steelers need to invest a high draft choice on the position.
It is a strong possibility that James Harrison will be released due to his high cap hit, and even if they do bring him back at a reduced cost, there still needs to be a developmental player in the pipeline.
Jason Worilds and Chris Carter are currently sitting in that pipeline, but neither player has inspired much confidence moving forward.
Worilds has a shot at developing, considering he led the team in sacks this season, despite playing a limited number of snaps. The problem is that he is not yet very consistent and needs to improve both in defending the run and the pass.
The draft is loaded with pass-rushing prospects who will be available in the top two rounds, but the quality of these players is a question.
A number of potential options for the Steelers would include Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Dion Jordan, Alex Okafor and Ezekiel Ansah.
Ansah is the rawest of this group but is the most intriguing specimen and has the highest upside. Now the question becomes, are the Steelers willing to spend a first-round pick on a player as raw as Ansah.
Of course, they could wait until the middle of the draft and try to find one of those hybrid defensive ends who usually slip through the cracks.
Regardless of whom they take, this is a priority position, and Pittsburgh must spend a high draft pick to get an outside linebacker.
Free-Agent Priority: High
Draft Priority: Low to Medium
Expect the Steelers biggest free-agent move to come at cornerback as they attempt to re-sign Keenan Lewis.
Lewis struggled to make a name for himself early in his career but developed into a solid second corner this season. He was second in the league in passes defensed, but he only has one interception in four years.
Besides Lewis, the Steelers have some talent at cornerback with Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen. There is also some potential with youngsters Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian who round out the group nicely.
Assuming the Steelers can keep Lewis in town, they will be pretty deep at the position. However, in today’s pass-happy NFL, teams can never have enough good corners.
The Steelers shouldn’t spend a high pick on a cornerback—unless a stud falls to them. But they should still look to add talent in the middle of the draft or later. If nothing else, it will breed competition and make the team even deeper at the position.
Free-Agent Priority: Low-Medium
Draft Priority: Medium to High
When they are healthy, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark still comprise one of the best safety combinations in the league.
The problem has been the health of Polamalu.
Polamalu played in only seven games this season, leaving the combination of Ryan Mundy and Will Allen to start nine games.
Mundy struggled and was replaced by Allen as the team’s top backup at safety. Both players are free agents this year, and only Allen has the possibility of coming back.
Unless the Steelers like the young safeties on the roster, they may have look for a solution in free agency. Allen played well enough to earn another contract, but it will be well above the minimum.
But with starters at safety already in place, the Steelers won’t spend much at all in free agency. This is another area in which they must use the draft to find a future starter.
Any draft pick may be a year or two away from starting, so it may not be wise to spend a first-round selection on one. There should be some good players available in the first round, though.
Eric Reid is the top safety in the draft and comes from a school (LSU) that has produced a number of NFL defensive backs. The other possibility in the first round is Kenny Vaccaro, a well-rounded safety from Texas.
Pittsburgh may be able to find good value in the second or third round with Matt Elam or Robert Lester. By taking a safety later, it would allow the Steelers to draft a player in the first round who can make more of an immediate impact.
No matter at which point the Steelers take a safety, it is imperative that they upgrade their talent at the position. Pittsburgh will need to have players ready for that day when the team must replace Polamalu and Clark.