With most of their proven stars under contract heading into the 2013 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not a team that has to worry about losing many key players in free agency. Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and Antonio Brown are all under contract until at least the next offseason. With a handful of notable exceptions, most of Pittsburgh’s future free agents are either aging veterans or young players who have yet to prove themselves.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the team doesn’t have much flexibility when it comes to negotiating with their free-agents-to-be. Given that the team’s payroll exceeds next season’s salary cap by a considerable margin, the Steelers’ front office will have to restructure contracts and make some painful cuts just to re-sign the few players it deems irreplaceable.
These financial constraints will open the door to teams looking to poach some of Pittsburgh’s personnel during the offseason.
The trick for those clubs will be figuring out which of the Steelers’ future free agents can actually contribute on the field. Not one of them is a bona fide star. Each is flawed in some way. Some have a short track record of success—meaning it’s too early to say if they are more than flashes in the pan. Others have enjoyed good runs but had a rough 2012 campaign that raised questions about their future value. A few are very capable role players who can make solid contributions in the right situation. And some just aren’t very good and never have been.
The other factor that teams in the market for free agents will have to consider is cost. It’s not possible to overpay for a legitimate star, but tying up too much cap space with overpriced mid-tier free agents can sink a club for years. Conversely, flaws don’t matter so much if a player comes cheap.
With that in mind, the following is a list of upcoming Steelers free agents who might be interesting to the right team at the right price and whom Pittsburgh might lose as a result.
They are ordered by the value they offer to prospective employers, starting with the worst bargains and proceeding to the steals. Though it is impossible to predict with accuracy the salaries each will command on the open market, a combination of their 2012 salary and the pay of similar players can give at least a ballpark idea.
According to nearly every measure, backup Ryan Mundy was the worst safety on the Steelers roster in 2012 (h/t Pro Football Focus), and only teams in desperate need of depth at that position should consider picking him up. And then only if he’s willing to take less than the $1.26 million he made last season.
While subbing for Polamalu and Clark, Mundy did little to make the Steelers a better team. According to Advanced NFL Stats, the backup safety ranked 100th out of the 123 safeties the site rated in positive win probability added (+WPA), which measures how much a player’s positive contributions increased the team’s chances of winning.
Similarly, he placed 114th in positive expected points added per game (+EPA/G) with 0.25, which means the sum total of his good plays added a quarter of point per game to Pittsburgh’s score. To put this in context, starter Ryan Clark’s positive plays added 2.44 points per game.
Mundy was particularly weak against the run in 2012.
Pro Football Focus placed him 146th at stopping opposing running backs out of a total of 163 safeties who stepped on the field for any team last year. The site’s analysts also note that Mundy failed to record a single run stop—defined as plays that constitute a “loss” for the offense—during the entire season.
Much of his struggles to stop the run were the result of his poor tackling. Though he was on the field for half as many snaps as fellow backup safety Will Allen, he missed the same number of tackles. According to Advanced NFL Stats’ analysis, Mundy recorded about one-third as many tackles as a player at his position should.
Sadly, the Steelers safety wasn’t that much better in pass coverage. He conceded the 74th most receptions per snap in coverage among safeties who played at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive plays.
Unfortunately, Mundy’s track record over the past few seasons doesn’t indicate that his 2012 performance was an aberration. According to Pro Football Focus’s rankings, he was slightly below average in 2011, a decent safety in 2010 and as bad in 2009 as he was this past year.
Taking all of this into consideration, Ryan Mundy doesn’t look like much of a bargain at any price. Only teams who really need a safety should risk taking a flyer on him.
Much ink has been spilled about Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall’s struggles in 2012. The erstwhile star missed the first few games recovering from a knee injury that ended his 2011 campaign prematurely, showed some spark initially after his return, sustained another injury, got benched after fumbling twice against Cleveland, was suspended for skipping one of the games for which he was deactivated and rode out the rest of the year in coach Mike Tomlin’s doghouse.
The Steelers running back’s stats offer ample evidence of what a terrible season he had.
Using defense-adjusted yards above replacement, an advanced metric developed by Football Outsiders that measures a player’s cumulative value over the course of a season, Mendenhall finished 2012 as the eighth-worst running back in the NFL. Similarly, he tied for 118th out of 144 halfbacks in Pro Football Focus’s overall rankings.
Mendenhall was neither hard to tackle (tied for 57th in yards after contact per carry) nor fast (only two runs longer than 15 yards) last year. This toxic combination helped the back limp to a dismal 3.6 yards per rush, tied for 92nd in the league.
Prospective employers, however, should not focus too much on Mendenhall’s 2012 season. Injuries to and poor play from the Steelers offensive line may have doomed the team’s ground game from the beginning.
So the question clubs looking for a running back should be asking isn’t whether Mendenhall can be the player he was before 2012. It’s how good he was before he got injured.
The answer, surprisingly, is not particularly.
Though Mendenhall’s presence on the field in 2011, 2010 and 2009 didn’t decrease his team’s likelihood of winning like it did this year, his win probability added (WPA) during those three years ranged from 0.04 to 0.17. By contrast, the top backs in the league had WPAs that exceeded 1.0.
Similarly, though Mendenhall’s defense-adjusted value over average—another Football Outsiders stat tries to put player performance into context—was a bad enough to rank him among the worst running backs in football.
Making the Steelers running back an even less attractive free-agent pickup is his salary. Though his first deal with Pittsburgh paid him a not-unreasonable average of $1.971 million per year, it was his rookie contract.
Presumably, the free-agent-to-be will be asking for a higher figure in his next deal, but paying more than $3 million for a player with a spotty track record at a position known for short playing careers is a risk many teams will not want to take.
No one will ever mistake safety Will Allen for a Pro Bowler, but the nine-year veteran’s combination of steady (if unspectacular) play and reasonable salary make him a good target for teams looking for a backup defensive back.
Allen was almost the very definition of an average safety in 2012, ranking 46th out of the 88 safeties who Pro Football Focus estimates played in at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.
Likewise, Advanced NFL Stats had him 67th out of 124 players the site evaluated in +WPA. The latter isn’t too shabby, considering it put him one spot and just a few hundredths of a point behind Polamalu.
Looking at his performance in a little more detail, the Steelers defensive back was very weak against the run, grading out as the eighth worst safety at generating run stops when lined up within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. As with Mundy, these struggles stemmed from bad tackling. According to Pro Football Focus, Allen was the 13th-least efficient tackler in the league last year, making only 5.7 tackles for every miss.
Unlike his teammate, however, Allen made up for his shortcomings against the run with above-average play in pass coverage. The Steelers defensive back gave up the sixth fewest catches per play he was in pass coverage and the 11th fewest yards per snap in coverage.
Coming off a contract that paid an average salary of a little less than $1.5 million over the past three years, Allen offers a reasonably good bargain for teams looking for a backup safety who essentially performs at the league average. For clubs that need depth in the defensive backfield, Allen is a bargain worth pursuing.
Mike Wallace’s future value is one of the biggest questions that the Steelers and other suitors must answer this offseason. Even though he had a rough 2012, the Steelers wide receiver has game-breaking speed that makes him a special (and valuable) commodity for NFL teams.
He will be looking for, and will almost certainly receive from some team, a hefty raise compared to his recently concluded one-year, $2.742 million deal.
What potential employers will need to evaluate, however, is how much more an undeniably talent but frequently inconsistent player is really worth. Will their money get them the player who ranked in 25th in catches, 11th in yards, 15th in yards per catch and 11th in touchdowns?
Or will they get the receiver who finished 2012 outside the top 35 in all of those categories save touchdowns?
Will a team get the Mike Wallace whom Pro Football Focus ranked 13th in 2011 and ninth in 2010? Or will they get the one who was 91st out of the 105 receivers who played in at least a quarter of their team’s offensive plays last year?
Will a big contract yield the wideout who increased Pittsburgh’s expected point total by 0.49 per play in 2011 and 0.6 per play in 2010? Or the player who added just 0.03 points on every snap in 2012? The receiver who caught more than 60 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2011 and 2010? Or the guy who snagged only 53.8 percent in 2012?
Will the team that signs him get the player who ranked fifth and first in DYAR in 2011 and 2010, respectively, among receivers? Or will it be stuck with the wideout who gained 49 fewer defense-adjusted yards than a replacement-level player last year, bad enough for 80th place in the league?
The short answer is that no one knows for sure.
Deep threats like Wallace are, by nature, less consistent than possession receivers. The longer the pass, the less certain the completion. Sometimes deep throws connect; sometimes they don’t. And for Wallace, 2012 was a year in which they didn’t.
However, there is a fair amount of evidence that suggests that his down year might have been a fluke.
Though the drops are what have stuck in the minds of many fans, they may have obscured the fact that Wallace wasn’t getting a lot of help from his quarterbacks last year. A receiver is obviously only as good as the guy throwing him the ball (just ask Larry Fitzgerald), and neither an injured Roethlisberger nor the decrepit Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch gave Wallace much to work with.
In the past three years, the speedy Steelers receiver has been targeted between 24 and 31 times on passes longer than 20 yards. In 2010 and 2011, Pro Football Focus categorized about half of those as “catchable.” Last season, only about one-third were. Even if Wallace hadn’t dropped two of them, he still would have finished with fewer deep receptions than in years past.
So as long as a team pays Wallace Vincent Jackson or DeSean Jackson money (as opposed to Larry Fitzgerald money), it should feel comfortable that it’s getting something close to proper value.
With a decent and healthy quarterback, Wallace probably will return to his pre-2012 output. Which might seem pretty enticing to a team like the Colts, whose quarterback threw the most long balls in the NFL last year but whose deep threats were a 34-year-old Reggie Wayne and T.J. Hilton, whom Pro Football focus ranked the 80th overall wide receiver in 2012.
Another Steeler likely to draw significant interest during the 2013 free agency period is cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is coming off a career year in 2012. Like Wallace, Lewis stands to get a much bigger contract than his now-expired deal, which paid him $1.26 million for one year.
The question teams need to ask about Lewis, however, isn’t about his consistency. Instead, they should worry about the sustainability of his 2012 performance.
While Wallace had an off year last season after superb campaigns in the two previous years, Lewis had an excellent 2012 after toiling in the relative obscurity of nickel packages during the three preceding seasons. So the main concern for any club offering him a big contract is whether he is a flash in the pan or a real talent who simply blossomed last year.
It’s nearly impossible to say based on a single statistically significant season, but given how he fared against one of 2012's toughest workloads, Lewis looks like a pretty legitimate cornerback.
Opposing quarterbacks threw at Lewis a total of 112 times last year, making him the second-most targeted corner in the NFL in 2012. Even in the face of all that pressure, however, the Steelers defensive back played as well as any cornerback in the conference and made a case that he belonged in the Pro Bowl.
Lewis effectively shut down opposing receivers week after week. He did not concede 100 yards or more in a single game once the entire season. The first-year starter allowed the fourth-fewest yards per target and the seventh-fewest touchdowns per target among AFC cornerbacks who played in more than 60 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.
Though he failed to record an interception, Lewis led the league in passes defended.
In his first year in the spotlight, the Steelers corner also proved adept at multiple facets of the game. Proving that he is not just a ball-hawk who can’t stop the run, a la Asante Samuel, Lewis didn’t miss a single tackle on running plays in 2012 and helped the Steelers allow the fifth-fewest yards on runs longer than 10 yards.
Does any of this guarantee that Lewis will sustain his 2012 performance across the life of a multi-year contract? No. However, if last year was a fluke, then it was a pretty huge one. Teams looking for a marquee corner should not hesitate to bid on Lewis.
It seems absurd to say that a receiver who had Plaxico Burress' numbers—three catches in three games—last year offers the best value of any Steelers free agent in 2013, but Plaxico Burress wouldn’t have to generate a lot of output to justify the veteran minimum $940,000 salary that the big wideout is likely to get wherever he plays next year.
Given that Burress has only played a full season in one out of the last four years due to his incarceration, suspension and release by the Jets, there is not a lot of recent historical data that could be used to project what sort of year the receiver will have in 2013.
While playing for New York in 2011, Burress had a decent season, catching 45 passes for 612 yards and eight touchdowns. Not great numbers for the $3.017 million per year he was getting. But plenty good enough at less than $1 million.
The advanced metrics for Burress in 2011 further illustrate that he would be a bargain if he can play at a level that’s even close to what he did as a member of the Jets. If he had posted the same DYAR in 2012 that he did in 2011, he would have ranked somewhere between Earl Bennett and Jeremy Maclin among receivers. Both of those wideouts make more than $3 million per year on average.
Will Burress be able to repeat his 2011 performance next year at age 36?
But even if he produces 75 percent of his output from two years ago, the six touchdowns he would score would make it well worth bringing him in on a one-year veteran minimum contract. It’s a low-risk, potentially moderately high-reward move, which should make it an attractive option to teams in need of a rangy wideout who can be a very good red-zone target.