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.
The easiest call to make during the 2013 free-agency period pertains to the future of Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall. Once considered one of the team’s rising stars, Mendenhall had a horrible 2012, both on and off the field. The Steelers will probably let him walk and would be more than justified in doing so.
After rushing for more than 1,000 yards in the two previous years, the Steelers’ feature back was poised to surpass that threshold again in 2011 before he blew out his ACL in the final game of the season.
That knee injury kept him out of the first three games of this past season and set a bad tone for the remainder of 2012.
Though he looked good in his first game back, rushing for 68 yards on 13 carries and catching a touchdown pass, Mendenhall was never quite right this past season.
He hurt his Achilles in the second game and missed the next four games. In his second game back from that injury, he fumbled twice, got benched and was deactivated for the following two contests. In total, Mendenhall managed only 182 yards on 51 carries in 2012, a dismal 3.6 yards per carry on average.
A performance like that from a running back would normally be more than enough rationale not to re-sign him. NFL players at that position have pretty short shelf lives to begin with, and a running back’s career can go from All-Pro to over seemingly from one play to the next.
Smart teams like the Steelers don’t get too attached to the backfield, no matter how talented it might be.
What makes parting ways with Mendenhall an even easier decision, though, was his suspension after skipping one of the games for which he was deactivated. Bad play is one thing. Bad play plus insubordination means hoping another team picks you up on a veteran minimum contract during the free-agency period.
The Steelers can also let Mendenhall walk knowing they won’t be much worse off without him, even though the rest of the team’s running backs were no threats to make the Pro Bowl.
Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman were serviceable and could be upgraded to decent in 2013 if the offensive line’s play improves. More importantly, they are cheap.
In an offseason that will be defined by cutting costs, having its top two backs under contract for less than $3 million in total will offset any concerns the Steelers might have about lower production from their backfield.
Verdict: Don’t re-sign
A mainstay of Pittsburgh’s defensive line since 2001, free-agent-to-be Casey Hampton appears to be losing the inevitable battle with Father Time.
The massive nose tackle averaged his third-fewest tackles per game since he entered the league and went from being one of the best defensive tackles at stopping the run from 2009 to 2011 to being one of the worst in 2012.
The result of his drop-off in performance was the aforementioned mediocre Pittsburgh run defense. On 1st-and-10 with the point differential within 14, the Steelers allowed 4.17 yards per carry, a figure average enough to rank 13th in the NFL.
Though his age and declining play make Hampton a pretty easy player to let walk in the offseason, the Big Snack’s popularity in Pittsburgh and stated desire to remain with the team may give the front office at least a moment’s pause before parting ways with him.
However, the Steelers are an organization accustomed to making tough decisions about aging fan favorites.
Given that the team had little trouble letting go Hines Ward after the 2011 season, it seems unlikely that Kevin Colbert and Co. will tarry in making the same decision about Hampton. And as with the popular former receiver, it will be the right call.
Verdict: Don’t re-sign
Arguably the most pleasant surprise in an otherwise unsatisfactory season was the play of cornerback Keenan Lewis.
The fourth-year player sparked some snickers when he predicted a Pro Bowl-worthy performance before the 2012 season. But even though he won’t be playing in Hawaii this month, Lewis did enough to make his boasting not seem so far-fetched in hindsight.
Lewis’s emergence as a bona fide corner contributed significantly to the strength of Pittsburgh’s defensive backfield in 2012 and should make him a desired free agent this offseason.
Despite a defensive line that finished 11th in adjusted sack rate, the Steelers still had the top pass defense in terms of yards allowed and the second best in terms of yards conceded per attempt thanks to the stellar play of Pittsburgh’s secondary. The team’s defensive backs also helped limit the damage caused by opposing running backs, ranking fifth in the league in stopping runs that went for more than 10 yards.
The one concern the Steelers might have about locking Lewis up in a longer-term deal is the possibility that he was a flash in the pan this past season.
Plenty of teams have regretted dropping a huge contract on a player with one above-average year to his name, and Lewis did little prior to 2012 that would have suggested that he was an elite player.
However, what the cornerback did last year indicates that his season was more a maturation than an aberration. He didn’t excel because opposing teams were avoiding him in favor of other corners or because he had lucky interceptions land in his lap.
With established veteran Ike Taylor playing on the other side for most of the season, opposing quarterbacks threw at Lewis a lot, especially early in the campaign.
Even though that trend slowed somewhat as the year progressed, he was still the second-most targeted corner in the league after Week 15. And he held up beautifully in the face of all that pressure, finishing the season with the second-most passes defended of any NFL defender.
With plenty of weaknesses elsewhere on the roster and no backup cornerback poised to step in if Lewis signs with another team, the Steelers should try to keep their high-quality secondary intact by re-signing the free-agent-to-be.
As long as the price is reasonable and doesn’t put the team over the salary cap, the Steelers should definitely bring Lewis back.
It’s hard to assign blame to one particular player when the entire interior of an offensive line is not getting the job done. Football Outsiders doesn’t even measure separate adjusted line yards for runs over left guard, right guard or center, because its researchers have found no statistically significant difference among rushing plays through the various parts of the line’s interior.
So guard Ramon Foster is not entirely responsible for generating the second-fewest adjusted line yards on runs up the gut in 2012.
However, as the center or guard with the most downs played in 2012, he clearly was on the field for a lot rushing plays up the middle that got stuffed. And that should make the Steelers think twice before offering the free-agent-to-be a contract this offseason.
Losing Foster, one of only two Steelers linemen who didn’t miss a game due to injury last year, would certainly hurt Pittsburgh’s depth at that position. But the team has enough legitimate players in the middle of the line to make the veteran guard expendable.
David DeCastro and Willie Colon are both signed through 2015. Though neither distinguished himself in 2012 due to injuries, they both appear to be viable NFL starters. Their presence should give the Steelers some comfort that they don’t have to bring Foster back if the price isn’t right.
Verdict: Don’t re-sign
With millions to be shaved off of the Steelers’ payroll heading into the 2013 season, the team is also going to have to look at making some tough decisions about veteran players who are already under contract.
Not all of them can or should have their contracts renegotiated. Which means the Steelers’ front office needs to think about demanding that they either take pay cuts or face being cut outright.
One of the prime candidates to be asked to make that choice, unfortunately, is popular defensive end Brett Keisel. Like his linemate Hampton, the 34-year-old Keisel appears to be reaching the final days of his career, and his play declined significantly in 2012.
He recorded his second-fewest tackles per game since becoming a starter in 2006 and batted down only one pass after a six-year run in which he averaged 4.7 passes defended per game.
Further complicating Keisel’s future is his contract. With one year remaining on it, the Steelers cannot convert his base salary to bonuses and prorate it over future years the way they can with Roethlisberger’s, Woodley’s and Timmons’s.
And at $4.5 million, the money due to Keisel is more than many teams would want to pay a defensive end whose best days are behind him.
With that in mind, the Steelers have two choices: ask Keisel to take a pay cut that would save the team about $1.8 million or cut him and free up a little more than $2.8 million in cap space. Given the decline in the defensive end’s skills and Pittsburgh’s needs to cut costs, the latter is probably the better option.
Steelers fans are likely to face a Groundhog Day-like scenario this offseason, as the free-agent story of 2012 becomes the free-agent story of 2013. Much ink was spilled about speedster Mike Wallace’s holdout prior to the beginning of last season.
Pittsburgh did not give in to the receiver’s demands and instead signed the then-restricted free agent to a one-year tender. That move guaranteed more speculation about Wallace’s future in Pittsburgh during the 2013 offseason.
Though the subject of the story will remain the same, the tone of it will be much different this year. Wallace’s 2012 season failed to build on the successes of the previous year. He ranked outside the top 25 in most statistical categories and was nearly 18 percent worse per play than a replacement-level wide receiver after adjusting for the opponent and the situation.
Though the Steelers will come into talks with their main deep threat with a significantly stronger negotiating position than in the previous year, it is unlikely that Wallace will be receptive to the team’s arguments.
Especially when the receiver knows that other organizations that are less careful with their cash probably would be glad to pay him whatever he wants.
Though some might argue that it makes sense to splurge on a player with Wallace’s talents, it is better for the long-term health of the organization for the Steelers to maintain a hard line.
Wallace’s speed certainly causes matchup problems and forces opposing defensive coordinators to adjust their game plans to account for him. But huge contracts should go to players who have an undeniably positive impact on nearly every single offensive or defensive snap.
That can certainly be said about the top end of the Steelers’ payroll. One could argue that Roethlisberger, Woodley, Timmons, Troy Polamalu and Miller are underpaid relative to the value they provide.
It is difficult to claim that Wallace belongs on that list. The receiver has not shown enough consistency over an extended period of time to earn a spot among Pittsburgh’s highest-paid players. And he probably won’t ever do so, given that deep throws are low-percentage plays by nature.
Some years, Wallace will have huge numbers. Other years, he won’t. And that’s fine. That’s what teams get from most deep-threat receivers. The Steelers just shouldn’t pay a lot of money for theirs.
Verdict: Don’t re-sign
Like Hampton, star linebacker James Harrison is another key contributor to Pittsburgh’s three recent Super Bowl appearances who looks like his best days are behind him.
Combined with his $10 million cap hit, his lack of production in 2012 will force the Steelers to ask themselves whether they want to bring him back in 2013. And the answer may not be something the team’s fans want to hear.
The decline in Harrison’s play has been somewhat abrupt, but not entirely remarkable for a player who turned 34 before the 2012 season began. After winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008, the linebacker ripped off three straight Pro Bowl seasons in which he averaged 5.6 tackles per game and a sack every 1.5 games.
In 2012, Harrison struggled to make tackles and to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He managed only 5.3 tackles per game, his second lowest since become a full time starter in 2007, and a sack every 2.2 games, his lowest rate during the same time period.
Though it is possible that Harrison could turn things around in 2013, it seems unlikely that a player who has excelled thanks to his overwhelming physicality will suddenly return to some semblance of his former self at age 35.
More importantly, that is not a gamble the Steelers can afford to take given the cost of keeping the linebacker around. And it is not a risk Pittsburgh is likely to take, given the team’s history of parting ways with aging linebackers.
Harrison only became a starter after the Steelers cut popular star Joey Porter.
The Steelers will face a similar question about what to do with star strong safety Troy Polamalu during the 2013 offseason.
The 31-year-old had an injury-plagued, ineffective 2012 campaign that raised questions about whether he remains the destructive force on defense that he once was. With two years remaining on Polamalu’s contract, the Steelers also have no possibility of restructuring the deal and would be stuck with a $10 million cap hit in 2013 followed by another $11 million in 2014.
Even though it might cause riots in Pittsburgh, the team has to at least consider releasing the perennial Pro Bowler.
However, unlike in Harrison’s case, there are some compelling reasons to keep Polamalu around for the coming season.
For starters, the safety’s numbers did not drop off all that precipitously this past year. In the seven games he played in 2012, he managed 4.9 tackles per game, which was a little less than his career average and more than what he posted as an All-Pro in 2008 and 2010.
It is entirely possible that his subpar 2012 was due more to the lingering effect of the injuries than to a permanent decline in his skills. And if that was the case, Polamalu could very well return to form in 2013 and be worth his big salary.
More importantly, breaking up the Steelers’ highly successful secondary with no clear replacement for one of its most critical parts doesn’t seem like the wisest strategy for a team that already has to address weaknesses elsewhere.
At 30 years old, backup and free-agent-to-be Will Allen is not a long-term replacement and did not perform particularly well in Polamalu’s absence.
With that in mind, the Steelers should hang onto Polamalu next season and hope that 2012 was just an aberration.