Cost-Effective Moves the Pittsburgh Steelers Can Make This Offseason
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General manager Kevin Colbert says the Steelers will get under the cap, which is not a bold prediction, given they they are required to be under the projected $121 million salary cap by March 12. But it's about as bold as an 8-8 team can get.
The Steelers need to be thrifty in 2013 if they want to avoid their first back-to-back, non-playoff seasons since 1999 and 2000.
Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polamalu and James Harrison combine for more than half of the Steelers' 2013 cap space, according to Steel City Insider. Timmons is the only one who didn't miss any games in 2012.
A redistribution of wealth and a focus on health are among the cost-efficient steps the Steelers can take to improve in 2013.
Sign Keenan Lewis to a Long-Term Contract
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Cornerback Keenan Lewis should be the top priority among the Steelers' unrestricted free agents.
He was second in the NFL in 2012 with 23 passes defensed, according to STATS LLC via the Washington Post. He had a lot of chances to break up passes because quarterbacks tried to avoid throwing to Ike Taylor's side of the field.
If Lewis continues to develop, quarterbacks won't like throwing to his side of the field any more than they like throwing to Taylor's.
It would be penny-wise-and-pound-foolish for the Steelers to let Lewis get the big bucks somewhere else. He'll be 27 next season. The Steelers need more talented defensive players younger than 30, not fewer of them.
Lewis is seeking a five-year, $35 million contract, according to Steel City Insider. That might seem like a lot of money, but it would be more cost-effective for the Steelers than franchising him.
The tentative franchise tag number for cornerbacks in 2013 is $10.668 million, according to NFL.com. Lewis' average yearly salary would be less than that if the Steelers give him the deal he reportedly wants.
It would be a wise investment for the Steelers.
Stress Improved Conditioning
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LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers' second-highest paid player next to Ben Roethlisberger, missed three games in 2012 and sat out significant stretches in some of the games he did play.
Troy Polamalu, who pulls down the Steelers' fourth-biggest salary in terms of cap room, missed nine games in 2012.
For the Steelers to get more bang for their buck, Woodley and Polamalu need to be on the field more in 2013.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic hinted that weight might have been among Woodley's problems in 2012.
The Steelers have encouraged Woodley to train with Tom Shaw at Disney World's Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla., during the offseason, according to MLive.com. Ike Taylor and James Farrior have trained with Shaw.
Taylor could have been called "Iron Ike." He had never missed a game since becoming a full-time starter in 2005. Then he
broke his leg fractured his ankle in Baltimore, an injury that even the best conditioning can't necessarily prevent.
The Steelers also are encouraging other players to train with Shaw. The Steelers lost 78 starts to injuries in 2012, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That number can go down if more players adopt Taylor's training methods.
Polamalu has used his own trainer in California during the offseason. However, after Polamalu re-aggravated his calf injury during the Steelers' game against the Eagles in October, a source told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette that Polamalu was questioning his training.
Polamalu missed seven games after hopping to the Heinz Field sidelines during the Eagles game. He'll be 32 in April. Perhaps the offseason training plan that worked for him five years ago doesn't work now, and he needs to adjust.
Draft a Running Back in the Early Rounds
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Rashard Mendenhall is an unrestricted free agent. It would be a cost-effective business decision for the Steelers to get him off their payroll. After all, he didn't show up for work against the Chargers on Dec. 9 after being told he wouldn't play.
It's hard to say whether Jonathan Dwyer or Isaac Redman can carry the load as the featured running back. They mostly ran behind an offensive line that was shuffled like five decks of cards at a blackjack table.
When they did run behind a stable offensive line, Dwyer had two 100-yard games and Redman had one during a three-week stretch in October.
Either way, the Steelers could use a back with more speed than Dwyer and Redman.
Eddie Lacy, who put himself on the map in Alabama's BCS title-game victory over Notre Dame, might be a more athletic version of Dwyer and Redman.
Lacy, North Carolina's Giovani Bernard, Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle (pictured) are all projected to go in the first three rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft, according to NFL Draft Scout.
They'd all work cheaper than Mendenhall, thanks to the rookie wage scale, and the Steelers can find out in the pre-draft screening process how likely any of them are to stay home on game day.
Draft a Wide Receiver to Replace Mike Wallace
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Mike Wallace is a luxury the cap-strapped Steelers can't afford.
Perhaps it's a blessing in disguise that he turned down the Steelers' five-year, $50 million contract offer during the offseason. He's likely to get a deal like that somewhere else.
The Steelers shouldn't throw money at a guy who held out for all of training camp and said that he loses focus when plays aren't designed for him, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via NFL.com.
Wallace caught 64 passes in 2012, down from 72 in 2011. He averaged 13.1 yards per catch, down from 16.6 in 2011.
Losing Wallace's speed and home-run capability will be a blow to the Steelers' offense, but the Steelers survived after trading Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes in 2010. They chose Emmanuel Sanders in the third round of that year's draft and Antonio Brown in the sixth round. Both helped the Steelers get to the Super Bowl as rookies.
There's no shortage of receivers in the draft. NFL Draft Scout projects 25 to go in the first six rounds. Drafting one who can start right away would be more cost effective than keeping Wallace around.
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The Steelers can free up salary cap space by restructuring contracts.
According to Steel City Insider, the Steelers can reduce Ben Roethlisberger's 2013 salary cap number by more than $7 million by restructuring his contract. They can save more than $6 million under the cap by restructuring LaMarr Woodley's contract, more than $5 million by restructuring Lawrence Timmons' deal and more than $3 million on Troy Polamalu's deal.
Several other contracts could be restructured, but those four would bring the biggest cap savings. The Steelers can't restructure all eligible contracts because it pushes the cap hit into future years and therefore would create a bigger cap headache down the road.
The Steelers need to do some restructuring and must be judicious about which contracts to rework.
Players don't lose money when their contracts are restructured. The money is just moved around. They do lose money if they take a pay cut.
James Harrison counts more than $10 million against the Steelers' 2013 salary cap. They'd save less than $3 million by restructuring. They need to save more than that on Harrison. He needs to take a pay cut.
Harrison has missed eight games over the past two seasons. After recording double-digit sacks every year from 2008 to 2010, Harrison had nine in 2011 and six in 2012. He'll be 35 next season. He has the fifth-highest salary on the team, but he's no longer one of the Steelers' top-five players.
Decide on Free Agents and Cuts
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Rashard Mendenhall and Mike Wallace aren't the only Steelers unrestricted free agents likely to be in another uniform next season.
If the Steelers can somehow keep another unrestricted free agent aside from Keenan Lewis, it should be left tackle Max Starks. If they don't keep him, Mike Adams or Marcus Gilbert will try to protect Ben Roethlisberger's blind side next season. Is anyone really comfortable with that?
Unfortunately for the Steelers, they might not be able to keep Starks. Among their other unrestricted free agents are Larry Foote, Casey Hampton, Ramon Foster, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and Will Allen. They might not be able to afford any of them.
The Steelers need to tender restricted free agents Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Emmanuel Sanders and Steve McLendon, the heir apparent to Hampton at nose tackle, for $1.3 million each. That would give them the right to match any offer they get from another team. They'd get a third-round draft pick as compensation if they lose Sanders and a sixth-round pick if they lose Dwyer.
Linebacker Stevenson Sylvester is another restricted free agent, but he seems to be no more than a special-teamer, so they probably can get his services at a lower rate with someone else.
Guard Willie Colon is still under contract, but the Steelers should cut him and clear $1.2 million in cap space.
Because of injuries, Colon hasn't played a full season since 2009. He's scheduled to count $7.6 million against the cap in 2013, more than Antonio Brown, Ryan Clark and Brett Keisel. That doesn't make much financial sense.
The Steelers instead could start David DeCastro ($1.7 million) and Kelvin Beachum ($491,000) at guard. Both players still have to prove themselves, but at least the Steelers would be getting their money's worth.