On the heels of a frustrating 2012 campaign, the Pittsburgh Steelers face some very tough decisions this offseason. The organization approaches the 2013 season needing upgrades at several key position, namely running back, nose tackle and inside linebacker.
The team also needs more depth at quarterback, guard and safety. With Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller now recovering from a knee injury sustained in the season’s final game, the Steelers will also be in the market for an effective backup who can serve as a target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger while Miller recovers.
Given Pittsburgh’s salary cap pressures and organizational commitment to building through the draft, it is unlikely that the team will pursue high-priced free agents this coming spring. The Steelers do not have an extensive history of throwing money after big-name players in the offseason and it is doubtful they will buck that trend in 2013.
However, if the organization were to test the free agency waters this year, there are several players available who could fill the holes that emerged in the team’s roster in 2012 and help the Steelers return to the playoffs next year. At the same time, there are many more free agents who would be little more than dead weight, taking up salary cap space and contributing little on the field.
The key, of course, is to separate fact from fiction and to avoid wasting money on players who won’t pan out. With that in mind, the following is a list of players who would be disastrous free-agent signings for the Steelers this offseason. Each offers a very poor value proposition to Pittsburgh or any other team foolish enough to sign them.
Some are overrated. Some get injured too frequently. Some are coming off career years and are likely to come back down to Earth. Some have been good historically, but are showing signs of age and wear. Some just aren’t any good to begin with.
None are worth the Steelers time or money.
After Roethlisberger’s Week 10 injury forced them into service, it became clear that neither Byron Leftwich nor Charlie Batch is capable of backing up the Steelers’ starting quarterback in the long term. Batch’s inspiring win over the Ravens in Week 13 aside, the two aging signal-callers struggled mightily in Big Ben’s absence and the team limped to a 1-2 record.
With the 32-year-old Leftwich and the 38-year-old Batch set to become free agents, it is likely that one or both will be gone next year. Either way, the Steelers need to get younger and better at the backup quarterback position, especially as Roethlisberger ages.
In all likelihood, Pittsburgh will look to secure a quarterback of the future (or at least a serviceable backup) through the draft. If the team were to look at free-agent options, however, it should steer well clear of Brady Quinn.
The former first-round draft pick has underperformed since entering the league in 2007, posting a career quarterback rating of 64.4 and throwing only 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions. In the two seasons in which he has played more than eight games, Quinn has “led” his teams to a 3-14 record and recorded QBRs of 33.4 and 27.4 (out of 100).
The Chiefs quarterback played especially poorly this year. After replacing an ineffective Matt Cassel in Week 5, Quinn threw for 1,141 yards, two touchdowns and eight interceptions. On the plus side, he did post the best completion percentage of his career. Sadly, it was only 56.7 percent. Unsurprisingly, Pro Football Focus ranks him as the worst free-agent-to-be at the quarterback position in 2013.
As if the former-Notre Dame star’s putrid career numbers and 2012 stats weren’t enough to keep the Steelers away, his inability to get the ball down the field makes him a particularly bad fit for Pittsburgh, given the team’s speed at receiver.
The Chiefs quarterback averaged only 3.0 air yards per attempt this past year. Only the Cardinals' John Skelton and Ryan Lindley’s passes traveled a shorter distance in the air. Against a Broncos team with nothing to play for in Week 17, Quinn completed only one pass that traveled more than 10 yards in the air.
Throw in the fact that Quinn is a big enough name that his price probably will be inflated relative to his worth and the five-year veteran represents a horrible value proposition for Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s ground game was a disappointment in 2012, finishing tied for 28th in the NFL with a terrible 3.7 yards per carry. With erstwhile star Rashard Mendenhall on the sidelines for most of the year due to injuries, poor play and insubordination, backups Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer carried the bulk of the load. Unfortunately, neither consistently hit the hole with authority, and neither was good enough to lock up the starting running back spot.
The Steelers should definitely be on the lookout for better options heading into next season. Replacing Redman or Dwyer with another big, plodding back like Peyton Hillis, however, would be a big mistake.
After a breakout season in 2010 in which he ran for 1,177 yards, 4.4 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns, the "Madden-cursed" running back had two injury-riddled seasons that saw his average yards per run fall to 3.6. Given that 2010 was the only year in which his Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) was positive, his one good year looks more and more like an aberration in hindsight.
Like Chiefs teammate Quinn, Hillis had a particularly poor 2012. Between missing three games due to injury and losing carries to Jamaal Charles, Hillis managed only 309 yards and one touchdown this past season. He had the second-worst DVOA of any running back with at least 20 carries.
Given that football is a team game, it might be tempting to spread some of the blame to Kansas City’s offensive line. However, despite injuries to key starters, the Chiefs had the 12th best line in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus’s rankings. That unit helped starting running back Jamaal Charles rush for 1,509 yards, 5.3 yards per carry and more than 200 yards in a game twice. It was only in power rushing situations, when Hillis was more likely to get the ball, that the team struggled.
Also like Quinn, Hillis is well-known, and his performance in 2010 is probably enough to make some team overpay for his services in 2013. The Steelers should just make sure that they aren’t that team.
If Pittsburgh cannot come to terms with deep threat Mike Wallace, they may be in the market for a wide receiver who can stretch opposing defenses and open up shorter crossing and seam routes for Miller, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. With uncertainty elsewhere in the roster, a team in the Steelers’ position might be tempted to throw money at a proven star like Packers receiver Greg Jennings.
However, for a value-conscious organization like Pittsburgh, Jennings represents a terrible investment. The wideout is generally regarded as a star player based on an excellent five-year run from 2007-2011, but a subpar 2012 campaign that saw him perform -5.8 percent worse than a replacement-level player is likely a signal that the 29-year-old’s best days are behind him.
Jennings missed Green Bay Packers" href="http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/gnb/2012_injuries.htm">eight games due to groin and abdominal injuries and posted the lowest yards per reception of his career, more than five off of his lifetime average. He recorded the second-lowest yards per game. More tellingly, the Packers receiver was 67th in the NFL in receiving yards per route run, meaning when he was on the field, he spent a lot of time running around not catching the ball.
It is possible that 2012 was simply an off-year for Jennings and that he will return to form this coming season. However, betting that a 5’11”, 195-lb receiver whose game is built around speed will suddenly return to form at age 30 is not wise.
It is telling that Green Bay is so uninterested in re-signing him that the veteran receiver has already put his house on the market. If the Packers don’t want to pay him the top-tier salary that he’ll probably get, why should the Steelers?
Miller’s injury leaves the Steelers dangerously thin at position that has been vital to their offense over the past few years. The players behind Miller in the depth chart have given few indications that they are ready to step in and take over while the starter recuperates. As a result, Pittsburgh could turn to the free-agent market to fill this unexpected gap.
But pursuing high-profile free agent to-be Dustin Keller would be a big mistake. The Jets tight end will probably get a hefty offer from some team based on a statistically flashy 2011 season, but he probably won’t be worth it. Especially for the Steelers.
Keller’s strengths (catching passes) and weaknesses (run blocking) are largely the same as Miller’s, but the Jets tight end has not been as consistently good as his Steelers counterpart, which raises the legitimate question of why Pittsburgh would pay potentially big money for the poor man’s version of a commodity they already have.
While Miller routinely sits near the top of Pro Football Focus’s rankings of the league’s tight ends, Keller is habitually in the bottom half. This past year, he was the 36th best tight end overall, catching 28 passes in eight games, according to the site’s analysts. The year before, he was 47th, despite having the most productive year of his career. That followed a 2010 campaign that finished with Keller ranked 40th.
Football Outsiders agreed with Pro Football Focus’s assessment of Keller’s play over the past few years. According to their analysis, the Jets tight end had negative Defensive-adjusted Yards Above Replacement in 2009 and 2011, meaning he produced fewer yards than a replacement-level player would have. Keller’s DVOA was also negative from 2009-2011.
Keller’s name-recognition is such that some team will surely take a chance on him. That team just shouldn’t be the Steelers.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line was one of the team’s worst units in 2012, ranking 27th in Football Outsiders’ rankings of each team’s run-blocking abilities and 30th in a similar list published by Pro Football Focus.
Injuries and inexperience limited the effectiveness of the team’s front five, especially in its heart. The play of the Steelers’ centers and guards contributed significantly to Pittsburgh’s lackluster ground game and produced the second-fewest adjusted line yards of any group in the league.
Better luck should turn this unit’s performance around next year, but the Steelers could look to add depth through free agency, especially if future free agent guards Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky do not return.
If the team were to go shopping, however, it should steer clear of Washington guard Kory Lichtensteiger. The free-agent-to-be would add little stability to a unit that will have to improve markedly for the Steelers to get back to the playoffs in 2012.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lichtensteiger is the seventh-worst guard who will be available in the 2013 free agency period. More troublingly for a Steelers team that is trying to use the run more to take pressure off of Roethlisberger, the Redskins lineman is the worst run-blocking guard who played in at least 60 percent of his team’s 2012 snaps.
The Steelers had similar difficulties on the other side of the line of scrimmage, though for different reasons. Five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton has had a great career in Pittsburgh, but he is clearly not the same player he once was. As his ability to plug the middle of the line has declined, the Steelers defense has become less effective against the run. That unit slipped from 15th to 22nd in the league against running plays on third or fourth-and-short.
With Hampton set to become a free agent and backup Steve McLendon still an unproven commodity, Pittburgh could choose to upgrade on the open market this spring. Picking up Houston nose tackle Shaun Cody, however, would be a big mistake.
Cody has been a surprising weak link in the middle of one of the NFL’s best defenses. Despite being five years younger than Hampton, he has played only slightly better than his aging Steelers counterpart. According to Pro Football Focus, the Texans nose tackle ranked 63rd among defensive tackles in 2012. He was particularly weak against the run, finishing 52nd in the league at his position according to the site’s rankings.
As a result of Cody, teams attacked the middle of the Texans defense, running up the gut 67 percent of the time during the regular season. Houston’s defense gave up more yards on runs through the middle than on those in any other direction.
Unlike some of the other players in this list, Cody probably will not command a big offer during the 2013 free agency period. However, his play in 2012 has been bad enough that his cost may not really matter. He may not be a bargain at any price.
With Larry Foote coming off a subpar season and possibly not returning to the team next year, Pittsburgh will be hoping that second-year inside linebacker Sean Spence is ready to step in to replace Foote, even though Spence missed the entire 2012 campaign with a knee injury.
If the team looks to hedge its bet on Spence by picking up a veteran linebacker in free agency, it should avoid signing Rey Maualuga away from the rival Cincinnati Bengals. Though once a promising young talent, Maualuga has turned into one of the league’s worst players at his position.
The four-year player finished dead last among inside linebackers who played in more than 25 percent of their teams snaps in Pro Football Focus’s rankings. He was also 14th-worst against the run, which should be troubling for a team like the Steelers, whose 3-4 formation requires strong run-stopping support from its linebackers. The year before, Maualuga was the 15th worst inside linebacker and the 17th poorest at stopping the run.
That Maualuga performed this badly while playing behind emerging star defensive lineman Geno Atkins should be another red flag. Atkins was the top-rated defensive tackle in the league this year and the second-best last year. He was particularly strong against the run in 2012, ranking way ahead of all of his peers in that category.
With Atkins in front of him, Maualuga should have had a better year last year. That he didn’t should be enough to keep the Steelers away.
With star safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark both on the wrong side of 30, the Steelers are already looking for long-term replacements for both players. More than likely, the organization will pick up young talents in the 2013 or 2014 drafts and try to groom them to step in.
If the team were to consider pursuing a marquee free agent, however, it would do well to steer clear of Jets safety LaRon Landry. Landry did not belong in the 2013 Pro Bowl and doesn’t deserve a top-tier contract this offseason.
Though his big hits give the impression that he is an impact player, Landry’s game awareness and pursuit angles are often very poor. The result is a risky and inconsistent performer who does not merit a big contract.
Of the 43 safeties who were on the field for 75 percent of their team’s snaps in 2012, Landry ranked 32nd according to Pro Football Focus’s analysis. Going after a player who finished 23 spots behind the 33-year-old Clark on this list does not make a lot of sense for a Steelers team trying to build for the future.
Landry’s low ranking was largely the result of the tackles he missed while gunning for knockout blows. Landry finished 19th in tackling efficiency among the 41 safeties who played at least 75 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.
Also hurting his overall standing among his peers was another product of his undisciplined play: penalties. The Jets safety tied for seventh most penalties committed by a safety in 2012.
Landry’s inconsistency has been a problem throughout his career. Though he ranked much higher on Pro Football Focus’s lists in 2011 and 2010, he missed half of the 2011 campaign and another seven games in 2010 due to injuries. In 2009, Landry again ranked very low among his peers, finishing 34th out of 36 safeties who played in at least 75 percent of defensive snaps.
Some teams might be comfortable throwing money at an up-and-down big-name player like Landry. Smarter organizations like the Steelers should let their less prudent competitors do just that.