Keenan Lewis will be the top unrestricted free-agent target for the Steelers.
When it comes to building a team, the Pittsburgh Steelers almost always look to the draft and rarely to free agency. They may have to alter that philosophy coming off an 8-8 season.
A missed playoff appearance is a big deal in Pittsburgh and the Steelers will need to boost their roster if they are going to compete in 2013.
With a healthy roster, the Steelers should be in pretty good shape next year with only a few holes in the starting lineup to plug with younger players, but with 24 free agents, the Steelers front office will have plenty of work to do with limited resources.
ESPN’s John Clayton predicts that the Steelers will be $10.8 million over the 2013 salary cap.
As a result, the Steelers may have to consider cutting veterans such as James Harrison and Willie Colon and restructuring the deals of LaMarr Woodley and other highly paid players who are signed to long-term deals.
But if the Steelers are to free up salary cap space, they will first concentrate on retaining their own free agents before looking for some lower-tier and mid-tier free agents. Let’s just say that they will not be making a Jeff Hartings-type signing this offseason.
Here are five big moves that the Pittsburgh Steelers could make in free agency.
Despite his lack of production in 2012, Rashard Mendenhall is still the Steelers' most talented running back.
The Steelers will most certainly re-sign restricted free agents Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. But does either of these running backs scare anyone?
Dwyer led the team with 623 yards while averaging 4.0 yards per carry and only had two touchdowns. Redman was not far behind with 410 yards and a 3.7 yards per carry average and also had two touchdowns.
The two combined for only three 100-yard rushing games last season and neither player has game-breaking speed, which limits them when it comes to the big play.
Mendenhall had a down season coming off an ACL injury and was demoted for two consecutive games after he had trouble holding on to the ball against the Cleveland Browns and was then suspended for "conduct detrimental to the team" after he did not show up after being deactivated against the San Diego Chargers.
Despite all of the problems, Mendenhall is the Steelers' biggest threat at running back.
He has good, but not great speed, a knack to find the end zone with 31 touchdowns in 57 career games and has twice run for over 1,100 yards in a season. Besides his running abilities, Mendenhall is an above-average receiver and could be an ideal fit for what Todd Haley wants to do on offense.
The Steelers have a couple of things in their favor if they wish to re-sign Mendenhall and that is he has been an overall disappointment and is coming off a down season. He has also only played in at least 15 games in three of his five seasons.
It may not be likely, but keeping Mendenhall in town may be the Steelers' best bet at running back and it will have to come at a team-friendly contract.
Mike Wallace is the most dangerous weapon on the Steelers and potentially the most expensive free agent.
The surprise of the offseason may be if the Steelers sign Mike Wallace to a long-term contract.
They had their chance last offseason and the two sides could not work out a deal, which led to Wallace holding out of training camp.
A disappointing 2012 season will not add to his contract value either.
Wallace dropped too many passes and didn’t fight for many balls and had an overall lack of production last season. He attributed this to losing focus.
The offense changed, and as a result, Wallace’s role changed.
That does not mean that the Steelers are a better team without him—they aren’t. He still led the team in receiving yards and was tied for the team lead with eight touchdown receptions.
Most importantly, Wallace is a player that other teams must account for. He is the only home run hitter on the offense. He can stretch a defense and open the field for the other receivers.
Wallace will have to take the good old hometown discount to stay in Pittsburgh. It probably won’t happen, but it is one of the big moves that the Steelers should pursue.
Keenan Lewis will be the top priority this offseason.
While Mendenhall and Wallace have a hazy future with the Steelers, Keenan Lewis is the one unrestricted free agent that should be a lock to re-sign.
There are four premium positions in the NFL right now and they are quarterback, left tackle, pass-rusher and cornerback.
The Steelers have two good cornerbacks under contract in Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen and Lewis makes it a terrific trio.
Lewis developed into a solid starting cornerback this season playing opposite of Taylor. He may not have the true shutdown skills that Taylor has, but Lewis rarely allows the big play and was second in the league in passes defended.
With only one year as a starter and one career interception, Lewis should come at a fair price for the Steelers and he is the player most likely to be the team’s big free-agent move.
Shonn Greene would be a backup plan if the Steelers do not re-sign Mendenhall.
If the Steelers are unable to secure Mendenhall, they may decide to let Redman walk in free agency as well and look to the open market for a complementary back to pair with Dwyer.
Though the Steelers would still need to look to the draft to find a long-term option, Shonn Greene could be a short-term solution at the position.
Greene is best suited as a complementary back, but he has shown that he can get a bulk of the carries for the team with moderate success.
In an effort to boost the ground attack, the Steelers could offer Greene a two- or three-year contract and have him compete with Dwyer for the starting role. At worst, he would be a viable backup.
Greene has rushed for over 1,000 yards for each of the past two seasons and has compiled 14 touchdowns over that time as well.
Greene is not the big-play threat that the Steelers need at running back, but he is a durable back who is capable of carrying the load and is a nice backup option if the Steelers find themselves in need of a short-term fix.
Josh Cribbs would fill multiple roles for the Steelers.
After the Steelers announced that they waived Chris Rainey, the team immediately had an opening for kick returning duties.
Rainey was one of the few bright spots that the Steelers had on special teams. He ranked eighth in the league with 1,053 kick return yards and tied for seventh while averaging 26.5 yards per return.
One of the players who ranked ahead of Rainey is Josh Cribbs.
Cribbs has been a special teams standout for the Cleveland Browns and is ready for a change of scenery (via Cleveland.com).
“I hate that we rebuild every year,” he said. “You gotta teach guys how to play special teams because, in college, you don’t take special teams to heart. Guys don’t pay a lot of attention to it. They don’t know how important it is. Every year is a constant rebuilding process, every year. Coupled with that and the turnover and the regime [change] constantly happening, you know I’m not on the field by myself. . . . It’s not a good recipe for successful football.”
Cribbs is ready to play for a team that is a winner, a team that is capable of playing championship-level football. That team could be the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Cleveland is in the midst of another regime change and Cribbs may find himself on the outs. Pittsburgh could be a nice, soft landing spot for the former All-Pro returner.
Cribbs would immediately upgrade the Steelers kick and punt returner game. With a true threat at the position, the Steelers wouldn’t have to worry about putting Antonio Brown back there when they need a big play.
Besides his return abilities, Cribbs would nicely fill the role of fourth wide receiver on offense.
Though he only has 107 career receptions, Cribbs would easily fill out the depth chart, particularly considering that he can play special teams. The Steelers could also use Cribbs for the occasional gimmick play given his versatility.
Cribbs would have to come at a low cost, but he may be willing to sacrifice his pay for the chance to play for a winner.
It would be a win-win for both sides.
Cribbs would finally have an opportunity to compete for a championship while the Steelers would fill their need of a returner and fourth wide receiver.