Buying or Selling: Latest Free Agent Buzz Surrounding Steelers

Pete MartinContributor IIFebruary 12, 2013

Buying or Selling: Latest Free Agent Buzz Surrounding Steelers

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    Given the Steelerslack of free salary cap space and organizational aversion to dropping money on big-ticket free agents, most of the speculation this offseason has centered on what the team will do with the more than 20 players headed from the 2012 roster to unrestricted free agency.

    The Steelers’ front office has its work cut out for it as it looks to navigate the constraints of the salary cap and re-sign the veterans and emerging players capable of leading the team back to the playoffs. 

    As they look to solidify the Steelers’ future, Kevin Colbert and company will have to decide the fate of numerous starters from this past year, including Rashard Mendenhall, Keenan Lewis, Casey Hampton, Mike Wallace, Larry Foote, Max Starks and Ramon Foster. 

    They will also need to weigh the pros and cons of making offers to several backups who saw significant playing time in 2012, such as Will Allen, Charlie Batch, Doug Legursky, Byron Leftwich and Ryan Mundy.

    That Pittsburgh cannot sign all of these players is generally accepted and, especially given that the free-agency period hasn’t even started yet, has given rise to plenty of gossip about who might be staying and who might be leaving.

    Though the team isn’t saying much thus far, it is possible to analyze the chances that each of those rumors is true.

    With that in mind, the following is a breakdown of several rumors about impeding Steelers’ moves in the free-agent market and whether to put any stock in them. The analysis has been conducted based on the player’s or players’ probable contributions to the 2013 Steelers and what they are likely to cost the organization to sign.

Steelers Will Let Rashard Mendenhall Walk

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    Buying

    On January 20, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that “the odds of [Rashard] Mendenhall returning are not good.” Given the sort of season the two-time 1000-yard rusher had last year, that is hardly a surprise. Mendenhall struggled with injuries, fumbles and disciplinary issues, and his departure appeared to be a forgone conclusion as early as December.

    However, even if Mendenhall hadn’t had a terrible 2012 campaign, it is conceivable that the Steelers still wouldn’t have wanted to bring him back.

    Though his conventional stats were above average in 2009, 2010 and 2011, his impact on Pittsburgh’s overall performance was not significant. For example, Mendenhall was never ranked higher than No. 34 among NFL running backs in Win Probability Added per Game (WPA/G) in any of those three years.

    And when the Steelers running back did make his presence felt on the field, it wasn’t in good ways. In 2009 and 2010, the two best statistical years of his career, he received negative grades from Pro Football Focus’s analysts and didn’t crack the top third of the running backs evaluated.

    In addition, there are some indications that he may have worn down after a taxing 2010 season.

    Including the playoffs, Mendenhall carried the ball 385 times that year, a 34 percent increase over 2009. Historical evidence shows that running backs who exceed 370 rushes in a season and/or experience more than a 33-percent increase in carries from one year to another tend to hit a wall the following season.

    Though an arbitrary and, therefore, not particularly rigorous statistical measure, the 370-carry, 33-percent increase rule does illustrate a larger truism: running backs wear down if overused.

    And sure enough, the year after his high-usage season, Mendenhall managed only two 100-yard games and blew out his ACL in the final game of the season.

    That is not to say that Mendenhall, who will turn 26 before the 2013 season, is washed up. However, the possibility that his best days are behind him is yet another in a disturbingly long list of reasons the Steelers won’t keep him around next year.

Steelers Will Pursue Steven Jackson

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    Selling

    With Rashard Mendenhall all but gone and the starting running back spot unclaimed by Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, there has been some speculation that the Steelers will look to land a big-name back in the free agent market.

    Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch listed Pittsburgh as one of three possible destinations for career 10,000-yard rusher Steven Jackson.

    As tempting as it is to imagine Jackson, a player who hasn’t rushed for fewer than 1000 yards in a season since his rookie year, wearing black and gold in 2013 and easing the burden on oft-sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, it is equally hard to see why the Steelers would bid on a running back who will be 30 next year and who may not have many good years left.

    As consistently good as Jackson has been since coming into the league in 2004, the track record of feature running backs in their 30s has not been good.

    According to a statistical analysis of the average yards from scrimmage of the top 20 rushers in NFL history, those backs’ output peaked in their sixth season in the league, declined slowly for the next three years and then dropped precipitously thereafter, usually starting when the back turned 30.

    Jackson’s career hasn’t exactly followed that arc—his highest total yards from scrimmage came in his second year—but his total output has declined by about 100 yards in each of the past three seasons. Unless he is a freak of nature, immune to the ravages of time, it is hard to believe that his play will not decline significantly as he edges further into his 30s.

    Even if the Steelers were to consider signing him to a shorter-term contract in order to take advantage of his last couple of years of elite productivity, his likely price tag (somewhere between $3 million and $5 million per year, according to Thomas) makes it problematic for a team with limited salary cap space to pick him up as a rental.

Steelers Will Not Re-Sign Casey Hampton

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    Buying

    As painful as it may be for Steelers fans to accept, popular nose tackle Casey Hampton has probably played his last game in a Pittsburgh uniform. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac reported on January 27 that the team is not expected to bring the defensive lineman back for a 13th season.

    The sad fact is that Hampton just isn’t as effective as the Steelers need him to be anymore.

    Pro Football Focus ranked him No. 140 out of the 148 defensive tackles who played at least one snap in 2012. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh’s defensive line suffered with one of the league’s worst tackles anchoring its middle. The unit ranked No. 22 in the NFL in stopping the run in short yardage situations on third and fourth down.

    Hastening Hampton’s departure from Pittsburgh is the emergence of his (presumably) future replacement, Steve McLendon. The erstwhile backup has performed well enough in limited action over the past two years to give the Steelers hope that they have found a stable, long-term solution at that position.

    Though he only played in 136 snaps last year (14 percent of the team’s total defensive plays), McLendon graded out as the 19th best defensive tackle according to Pro Football Focus’s rankings. The previous year, he appeared in a similar number of plays (145) and ranked No. 25 among NFL defensive tackles.

    The most promising element of his early performance was his ability to stop the run. McLendon ranked No. 23 in 2012 and No. 21 in 2011 in the percentage of his tackles that constituted a “loss” for an opposing team’s ground attack.

    Though the Steelers’ 3-4 defensive scheme does not require its nose tackles to make tackles in run defense, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have one who can do so.

    So with his skills declining and a replacement ready to step in, Hampton will have to accept a significant pay cut and a backup role if he wants to be back with the Steelers in 2013. And there has been no indication thus far that he’s willing to do either.

Pittsburgh Will Not Splurge on Mike Wallace

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    Buying

    For the second straight offseason, wide receiver Mike Wallace’s future with the Steelers is in doubt. Unlike last year, however, he probably isn’t coming back this time around. 

    According to Bouchette’s report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 3, the team won’t be willing to meet Wallace’s salary demands, and the deep threat will seek his fortunes elsewhere.

    In the reporter’s opinion, Wallace’s 2012 preseason holdout alienated many in the front office and coaching staff, which will cause the team to take a harder line in 2013 negotiations.

    In reality, however, the issue won’t be personal differences: it will be money. And more specifically, value for money.

    Wallace reportedly rejected the five-year, approximately $10-million-per-year contract the Steelers offered last year, gambling that he would get a bigger deal during this offseason. After a 2012 campaign that saw him fall out of the top 25 in most major receiving categories and perform worse than a replacement-level wide receiver, however, Wallace isn’t likely to get anything approaching that much money this year.

    Given that the franchise tag tender for wide receivers probably will exceed $10 million, the Steelers also are unlikely to use that option to keep him around.

    And even if it loses a very talented wide receiver as a result, the team is probably right not to throw that much money at Wallace.

    Though his subpar 2012 was probably a fluke, it did highlight the problem with nearly all deep-threat receivers: inconsistency. The production of wideouts who get large chunks of yardage and a higher proportion of their touchdowns from long passes will necessarily vary a lot from year to year, because deep balls don’t connect as consistently.

    That’s not to say that Wallace and his peers don’t have value, perhaps a lot of it. But for a team with salary cap issues to drop $10 million a year on a receiver, there can’t be any questions about what it will get in return.

    The organization needs to be sure that it’s buying consistent production year after year. And that’s probably not something that Wallace can guarantee.

Max Starks and Ramon Foster Will Lose Their Roster Spots

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    Buying

    The Steelers offensive line was a mess in 2012.

    Injuries struck the unit so hard that only three Pittsburgh linemen played in more than 80 percent of the team’s offensive snaps last year.  As a result of the lack of a consistent lineup, the line struggled to open holes for the team’s running backs. In 2012, the Steelers’ front five generated the sixth-fewest rushing yards attributable to offensive lines.

    So it should come as little surprise that Dulac reported on February 10 that Pittsburgh’s front office is looking at making some sweeping changes to that unit heading into the 2013 season. 

    And according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, the new lineup is unlikely to include tackle Max Starks and guard Ramon Foster.

    For starters, the Steelers have invested heavily in offensive linemen in the past few years, and the team seems ready to put those assets on the field and hope they stay healthy.

    Dulac projects that 2011 second-round draft pick Marcus Gilbert will start in place of Starks at left tackle. Mike Adams, a 2012 second-rounder, is slated to take the right tackle spot. Three-time Pro Bowler and 2010 first-round draft choice Maurkice Pouncey is firmly entrenched at center. And the Steelers are anxious to see how last year’s first-round pick, David DeCastro, performs in a full season at guard.

    The second thing that may leave Starks and Foster looking for another home next season is the arrival of a new offensive line coordinator.

    Apparently, Jack Bicknell Jr. plans to shift from the Steelers’ traditional man-blocking system to the zone-blocking scheme favored by the league’s top rushing teams. That approach favors lighter, quicker linemen who can move easily, none of which describes Starks or Foster. As a result, Dulac speculates that erstwhile tackle Kelvin Beachum might switch to guard next year because of his agility.

    Though it is too early to tell how a line full of players younger than 25 will fare, the losses of Starks and Foster will not be insurmountable. 

    Neither played particularly well in 2012. Pro Football Focus had Starks as the 10th-worst tackle in football last year. He was especially bad at run blocking, ranking No. 119 in that area out of the 122 players who appeared at tackle last year.

    Foster fared better in the overall rankings thanks to his strong pass blocking. His run-blocking skills, however, leave much to be desired. The free agent-to-be was the seventh-worst guard in the NFL in that category last year.

    It should come as little surprise that the Steelers’ offensive line generated the second-fewest yards in the league on runs up the middle in 2012.

Larry Foote Will Come Back One More Time

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    Buying

    Linebacker Larry Foote is likely to be back for one more go with the Steelers this coming season. 

    In an interview with a local radio station in late December 2012, the aging free agent-to-be indicated that the team was interested in having him back in 2013. And though Foote didn’t have a great 2012, the notion that Pittsburgh would re-sign him to a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t seem farfetched.

    To begin with, the other options available to the Steelers at Foote’s position are far from proven. 

    Though Lawrence Timmons, arguably the team’s best defensive player last year, has one inside linebacker spot locked up, there is no established player ready to step into the other if Foote leaves. Sean Spence, a third-round draft pick in 2012, injured his knee in the preseason and missed the entire year.

    In his three years with the team, Stevenson Sylvester has not shown himself to be anything more than a special teams player. With Pittsburgh’s ability to pick up a decent free-agent inside linebacker limited by salary cap issues, the only other possible replacement for Foote would have to come through the draft.

    So the Steelers eventually will have to roll the dice with an unproven commodity at inside linebacker, whether that means Spence, Sylvester or a rookie. 

    Doing so now, while said player would be surrounded by veterans Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison (if he’s not released), would be a good way to ensure that the new starter gets as much quality guidance as possible.

    Similarly, keeping Foote around for another year to back up Spence, Sylvester or a rookie would be a wise move. With his experience, Foote would be an ideal mentor for the young linebackers, and it would be extremely valuable to have an experienced veteran who can step in if the starter gets injured or proves ineffective.

    Sweetening the proposition is Foote’s willingness to take a pay cut. In the same interview mentioned above, the linebacker stated that he would consider giving a “hometown” discount to the Steelers if that’s what it would take to keep him in Pittsburgh.