Showcasing Pittsburgh Steelers' Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs
Since 2001, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won two Super Bowls and have qualified for the playoffs in eight of 12 seasons. While that makes them one of the NFL's most successful franchises over that span, it didn't lessen the disappointment of missing the 2013 postseason.
The Steelers finished 8-8, which was two games behind the final wild card spot. Whether or not they can bounce back right away next season is the question that will dominate the offseason conversation in Pittsburgh.
They have an aging roster, especially on defense, where they rely on players like James Harrison, Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark. All of those stars are at least 33 years old, though, and the time for a youth movement on that side of the ball is on the horizon.
With that in mind, let's examine each area of the Pittsburgh roster and determine where the team would be best off using its resources during the offseason. If the Steelers miss the playoffs next season, it would be the first time since 1999 and 2000 that it happened twice in a row.
Ben Roethlisberger remains a top-tier option at quarterback. Big Ben finished the regular season with 26 touchdowns and just 11 turnovers. He did it despite a receiving corps that dropped far too many passes and an inconsistent offensive line.
The number of hits he takes, which is partly due to the line and partly due to his tendency to hold onto the ball longer than other QBs, has undoubtedly taken its toll on his body. He's only played in all 16 games once in his career.
Due to that, the Steelers need a backup they can rely on. Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich are both unrestricted free agents, and their struggles mean they probably won't be brought back. Signing a different veteran is the best option, but it wouldn't hurt the draft a QB in the middle rounds, either.
Four running backs carried the ball at least 25 times for the Steelers in 2012.
Jonathan Dwyer led the way with 156 carries for 623 yards. Isaac Redman, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Rainey were the other backs who played a role.
Yet none of those options are appealing for the long haul. Dwyer and Redman are both restricted free agents and Mendenhall is unrestricted. So the Steelers' backfield could—and probably should—take on a different look heading into next season.
The good thing about running backs is that teams don't have to spend a high pick to get a good one. Washington Redskins sixth-round pick Alfred Morris proved that once again this season.
A player like Ray Graham or Rex Burkhead would be a good target late in the draft for the Steelers.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
On paper, the Steelers should have featured one of the league's best receiving groups. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are all capable of making plays downfield and Heath Miller is as reliable as they come over the middle.
However, things just didn't work out as expected. A combination of drops and players becoming invisible for extended periods of time caused the passing game to fall well short of its potential. Things got so bad that the team signed Plaxico Burress for some late-season help.
Wallace, the Steelers' leading receiver in each of the past three seasons, is an unrestricted free agent. The team could use the franchise tag on him, but they have made no indication that they will.
Using an early pick on a wideout such as Terrance Williams would be a wise move.
The Steelers continue to possess a subpar offensive line.
Roethlisberger has been sacked at least 30 times in all but one season, and a key reason for the running game's marginal of success this year was the lack of a push up front.
Statistically speaking, Pittsburgh ranked 27th in run blocking and 15th in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. Max Starks struggled at left tackle, which is the most important position on the line, and that had an impact on the entire group.
The Steelers do have talent in the middle, with David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster giving them a solid foundation. Still, improving at the tackle spots would go a long way in improving the unit's overall effectiveness.
Xavier Nixon and Brennan Williams are a couple of mid-round targets.
The defensive line is one area where the Steelers will probably feel pretty comfortable heading into next season.
The defensive end rotation of Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward are locked in and should return to their respective roles next season.
There might be a change in the middle with Casey Hampton scheduled to hit free agency. The Steelers won't have to use any of their resources to find a replacement, though because Steve McLendon, who is a restricted free agent that is likely to come back, is ready to take over.
If the Steelers did add to the line, it shouldn't be through anything more than a late-round flier on a prospect they liked during the draft process. There isn't a big enough hole to warrant using a high pick at this position or signing a big-name free agent.
Here's where the Steelers should use their first-round pick, which is slotted at No. 17.
No player on the team recorded more than six sacks during the regular season. In fact, veterans James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons were the only two to reach this mark.
Pittsburgh needs somebody capable of wreaking havoc off the edge. In a perfect world, star Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones—who's been all over the place in mock drafts—would fall into their lap. He would be a perfect fit.
If another team snaps up Jones, things would get a little more complicated. A couple names to keep an eye on over the next few months are Arthur Brown, Chase Thomas and Khaseem Greene. They represent the next wave of outside linebackers.
Two things things need to be focused on regarding the Steelers secondary this offseason.
First, the team must decide whether they can find a way to re-sign Keenan Lewis, who was a solid contributor. Second, they must determine if they think Troy Polamalu can still cut it as a starter.
If the Steelers are able to lock up Lewis—which should be one of their main priorities—and believe that Polamalu is still the answer, there won't be anything aside from some minor depth additions to make. If Lewis leaves or Polamalu gets pushed aside, the need will be greater.
Ryan Clark is still a good option at free safety and Cortez Allen made nice strides in his second season at cornerback. Ultimately, the Steelers will probably remain close to status quo in the secondary, but that could change leading up to the draft.
Kicker Shaun Suisham and punter Drew Butler are both locked up for next season. That makes it unlikely that the Steelers will make changes at either of those spots, even though neither player was overly productive this season.
In terms of the return game, the Steelers ranked ninth in kick return yardage, thanks to Chris Rainey. They were near the bottom of the league on punts returns, with Antonio Brown handling those duties. Still, there's really no reason to seek out another option.
So Pittsburgh's main special teams players are likely going to stay the same. That's good news because they have some other areas that need to be addressed first, Wasting a pick or free-agent money on a specialist wouldn't be ideal.