On the heels of a disappointing 2012 campaign, the Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2013 offseason needing to tweak their roster to remain in the mix for the AFC North crown in the coming year. Fortunately, the team isn’t far from being capable of competing.
Many high-quality, Pro Bowl-caliber pieces—quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown, tight end Heath Miller, center Maurkice Pouncey and linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley—are already locked in for the next couple of years. If healthy, those players comprise an excellent nucleus that should get Pittsburgh most of the way back to the playoffs.
Whether the team wins those one or two games that mean the difference between playing in January and staying home depends on its success in addressing weaknesses elsewhere on its roster.
Thanks to a shaky offensive line that ranked 27th in adjusted line yards and an inconsistent backfield, Pittsburgh’s running game contributed little to the team’s offensive output. Facing 1st-and-10 with the score within 14 points—arguably the purest measure of a team’s ability to run the ball—the Steelers ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing yards. If the team wants to keep Roethlisberger upright and healthy in 2013, it will need to improve in this area.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers’ formerly fearsome front line was surprisingly mediocre against the run, especially when it mattered most.
On third and fourth downs with less than two yards to go, Pittsburgh’s defensive line ranked 22nd in the league in coming up with stops. This is another area that will need improvement if the Steelers hope to make it back to the playoffs next year.
Unfortunately, because current Steelers contracts exceed the projected 2013 salary cap by approximately $13 million, the team would have a hard time getting immediate help at those positions via free agency. And that’s assuming Pittsburgh would even go after high-profile free agents, which it hasn’t historically.
Instead, most of Pittsburgh’s offseason activity will be focused on bringing its total payroll to less than the estimated $121 million salary cap in force next year.
Some of the work necessary to bring the number down will be easy. Restructuring Roethlisberger’s, Timmons’s and Woodley’s contracts should be a painless way to shave about $18.5 million off the Steelers’ 2013 cap hit.
After that, the decisions start getting tougher.
Some popular veterans are getting long in the tooth and are not as effective as they once were. The front office will have to take a long and honest look at whether the cap space freed by letting them go would be more valuable than having their leadership on the field next year.
Once the team has some breathing room as far as its cap number is concerned, it will have to look at whether to re-sign its own free agents. Several up-and-coming Pittsburgh players are poised to hit the open market in 2013, and the Steelers will need to decide whether it is worth paying them what other teams might offer.
With all that in mind, the following is a list of the hardest personnel calls the Steelers will face in the run-up to the 2013 season and what choice the team should make in each case. It is arranged from the easiest decision to the hardest.