Ranking the 10 Biggest Free Agency Priorities for Pittsburgh Steelers

Mike Batista@Steel_TweetsContributor IFebruary 21, 2013

Ranking the 10 Biggest Free Agency Priorities for Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers usually don't make a big splash signing free agents. Traditionally, their priority has been to retain their own free agents.

    That's not likely to change this offseason, especially with the Steelers projected to be approximately $14 million over the salary cap, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    The Steelers have 18 unrestricted free agents and six restricted free agents. They'll need to have enough room under the salary cap by March 12 to re-sign the players they want to keep. Realistically, most of them have played their last game for the Steelers.

    They can tender their restricted free agents, which would give them the right to match any offer. In that case they would get draft-pick compensation if that player signs with another team.

    If the Steelers don't tender a restricted free agent by March 12, that player becomes an unrestricted free agent.

    Don't expect the Steelers to apply the franchise tag to anyone. General manager Kevin Colbert said it's "doubtful" the Steelers would do that, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Most of the Steelers' top 10 free-agent priorities are their own players, although recent developments have added one outside free agent to the list.

No. 10: Isaac Redman (RFA)

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    The Steelers are not expected to keep unrestricted free agent Rashard Mendenhall, especially after he failed to report to Heinz Field after being told he wouldn't dress for a game last season.

    To replace Mendenhall the Steelers likely will look for a running back high in the draft who can start right away. They'll still need a complementary back, however.

    Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch would be the only running backs remaining on the Steelers roster if they don't keep Mendenhall.

    Redman and Dwyer both are restricted free agents. They were the most productive backs for a running game that was 26th in the NFL last season. Redman gained 410 yards at 3.7 yards per carry and Dwyer ran for 623 yards at a four-yard-per-carry clip.

    To keep Redman, the Steelers will have to tender him for at least $1.323 million. That's approximately what the lowest of the three tenders will be, according to the NFL Network's Albert Breer via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Teams placing a $1.323 million tender on a player earn original-round compensation for that player if he signs somewhere else. Since Redman wasn't drafted, the Steelers would get nothing in return.

    If Redman does stay for $1.323 million, the Steelers would be more than doubling his salary after a season in which his production declined.

    Redman earned $540,000 in 2012, according to Spotrac. His yards per carry dropped to 3.7 from 4.4 in 2011, and he lost three fumbles last season compared to two in 2011.

    The most cost-effective way for the Steelers to keep Redman would be to not tender him and hope they can re-sign him at a rate comparable to his 2012 salary.

No. 9: Will Allen

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    Will Allen did a decent job starting seven games in place of injured Troy Polamalu in 2012. He had 29 combined tackles in those games, according to NFL.com, and broke up three passes in a 27-12 win over the Washington Redskins.

    Allen will be 31 next season, younger than starting safeties Polamalu and Ryan Clark. It would be nice to keep Allen around considering Polamalu no longer can be counted on to get through an entire season healthy. However, Polamalu Insurance is a luxury the Steelers can't afford as they try to get under the salary cap.

No. 8: Steve Breaston

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    If the Steelers sign one free agent from outside the organization in 2013, it could be Steve Breaston.

    Despite their salary cap crunch, there are a few reasons the Steelers might find a way to make this happen. Breaston is a Pittsburgh native; he's played most of his career under Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley and he could come cheap after catching just seven passes in 2012.

    The Kansas City Chiefs cut the wide receiver Tuesday. Breaston saw little action last season because he fell out of favor with then-coach Romeo Crennel, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Breaston caught 61 passes for 785 yards in 2011, when Haley was his head coach for part of the year. His best season came in 2008, when he hauled in 77 passes for 1,006 yards with the Arizona Cardinals. Haley was his offensive coordinator that season.

    With unrestricted free agent Mike Wallace likely gone, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders (a restricted free agent) figure to be the Steelers' starting wide receivers. That leaves Jerricho Cotchery, unrestricted free agent Plaxico Burress and little-used David Gilreath on the depth chart. Breaston would be a good pickup to fortify the position.

No. 7: Max Starks

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    Every time it seems Max Starks is finished as a Steeler, he always finds his way back to Pittsburgh.

    This time, Starks' career with the Steelers might really be over.

    Starks has started every game at left tackle since he rejoined the Steelers in Week 5 of the 2011 season, and he is the Steelers' only offensive lineman who played every snap in 2012.

    However, Starks is an unrestricted free agent, and the Steelers appear to be going with a youth movement and a philosophical change on the offensive line.

    New Steelers offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. favors athleticism over size, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    That means there might not be a place for Starks even if the Steelers could afford to keep him. The plan is to start Marcus Gilbert at left tackle and Mike Adams at right tackle in 2013, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Both were drafted within the last two years.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranks Starks 33rd among the NFL's left tackles in his NFL 1,000 series. Miller gave him a grade of 22 out of 50 for his run blocking, which is a point of emphasis for the Steelers next season.

    Starks is 31 and could generate interest on the open market. So he might not be at the Steelers' beck and call if Gilbert or Adams get hurt in training camp.

No. 6: Charlie Batch

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    Charlie Batch led the Steelers to a victory over the eventual Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens last season. He might have had another victory under his belt if the Steelers' running backs didn't hold the ball like a Water Wiggly in Cleveland.

    Even though the 38-year-old Batch is five years older than fellow unrestricted free agent Byron Leftwich, he should be the backup quarterback that he Steelers keep. He's had more recent success than Leftwich and can step in right away if Ben Roethlisberger is injured.

    The Steelers need a younger backup quarterback who can be groomed to start multiple games if needed. Meanwhile, Batch knows the Steelers' system and can help ease the transition.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked Batch 37th among NFL quarterbacks in 2012 in his B/R 1,000 series. Batch was ranked ahead of several starting quarterbacks. The Steelers probably could keep him for another year for less than $1 million.

No. 5: Steve McLendon (RFA)

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    If the Steelers lose Casey Hampton, Steve McLendon would be the most experienced nose tackle remaining on the roster.

    McLendon wasn't drafted, so the $1.323 million restricted free agent tender would bring no draft-pick compensation. The Steelers could tender him at $2.023 million and get a second-round pick in return if another team signs him.

    McLendon, 27, played in all 16 games last season and had two sacks and a forced fumble. He's the front-runner to replace Hampton, but the Steelers also have 2012 fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu.

    The Steelers kept Ta'amu even though, according to ESPN.com, he allegedly crashed into several cars while driving drunk and tried to flee from police officers during an incident in October. The Steelers must see enough potential in Ta'amu to look past all that.

    Al Woods and Hebron Fangupo are fringe candidates for the nose tackle position. The Steelers claimed Fangupo off waivers in December, according to Steelers Digest via Twitter.

    The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said that defensive end Ziggy Hood might be better suited as a nose tackle, with McLendon moving to defensive end.

    So even if he's not necessarily their next nose tackle, McLendon figures somewhere in the Steelers' plans on the defensive line.

No. 4: Jonathan Dwyer (RFA)

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    If Jonathan Dwyer can kick his habit of motioning the sideline for a replacement every time he carries the ball two plays in a row, the Steelers should keep him over Redman.

    The Steelers had three individual 100-yard rushing games in 2012, and Dwyer had two of them.

    The ultimate tiebreaker between Dwyer and Redman is the fact that Dwyer was a sixth-round draft pick and Redman wasn't drafted.

    That means Dwyer would yield a sixth-round draft pick if the Steelers apply the $1.323 million tender and he signs somewhere else. The Steelers would get no compensation for Redman.

    Perhaps Dwyer would look better if the Steelers improved their run blocking.

No. 3: Larry Foote

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    The Steelers already are working on keeping Larry Foote. They've been talking to his agent about re-signing him for 2013, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Foote will be 33 next season, but he was the Steelers' leading tackler in 2012, according to Steelers.com. He also called the signals on defense.

    The Steelers have no one ready to replace Foote at inside linebacker. Sean Spence, their third-round draft pick in 2012, tore up his knee in the preseason and might not be ready to return at all next season, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Stevenson Sylvester, an unrestricted free agent, has one career start and hasn't contributed much beyond special teams.

    Foote earned $3 million in 2012, according to Spotrac. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he would return at the veteran minimum, which is $555,000 according to Steel City Insider.

    The Steelers should find the room under the salary cap to sign Foote. If they can't get at least another year out of him, there will be a hole in the middle of their defense.

No. 2: Emmanuel Sanders (RFA)

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    Assuming Mike Wallace is wearing another uniform next season, the Steelers will be left with Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery as their only established wide receivers under contract.

    If they don't keep Sanders, they'll be dangerously thin at the position.

    It would make sense for the Steelers to place the $1.323 million tender on Sanders. If another team signs him, the Steelers would receive a third-round pick as compensation since he was taken in the third round of the 2010 draft.

    Sanders had his best season in 2012 in terms of productivity and health. He caught a career-high 44 passes, averaging a team-high 14.2 yards per reception.

    He also played in all 16 games for the first time in his three-year career.

    Keeping Sanders should be the Steelers' easiest free-agent decision.

No. 1: Keenan Lewis

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    If the Steelers keep one of their own unrestricted free agents in 2013, it has to be Keenan Lewis.

    Shutdown cornerbacks are hard to find, and Lewis was second in the NFL with 23 pass breakups in 2012, according to STATS LLC via the Washington Post.

    Lewis' breakout season stabilized the cornerback spot opposite Ike Taylor. Neither Bryant McFadden or William Gay could keep that job for more than a year.

    It might be tempting for the Steelers to save the money, let Lewis sign with another team and make Cortez Allen a starter.

    Allen intercepted two passes, broke up three passes and forced a fumble in the Steelers' second-to-last game of the 2012 season against the Bengals. He forced two more fumbles in the season finale against the Browns.

    That's just two games, however. Lewis is the Steelers' top priority in free agency because of what he did over an entire season. He also played hurt late in the season, doing his best to keep the Steelers' secondary together after Taylor was lost for the season.

    Lewis is looking for a five-year, $35 million contract, according to Steel City Insider. According to Steel City Insider salary cap expert Ian Whetstone, such a deal could count $3 million against the cap in 2013.

    Taylor fractured his ankle at Baltimore in December. Even if he returns to full health, he'll be 33 next season and won't be around forever.

    By signing Lewis, who will be 27 next season, the Steelers theoretically could be set at cornerback for the foreseeable future. Allen, 24, would be ready to take over when Taylor retires or slows down.

Say Goodbye to These Guys

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    Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall aren't on this list because there's virtually no way the Steelers will re-sign either of them.

    The Steelers tried to keep Wallace with a five-year, $50 million offer last year, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via SI.com. That wasn't enough for Wallace, and he could get more than that on the open market this year.

    Mendenhall is coming off an injury-plagued season and hasn't performed well enough for the Steelers to put up with his selfish behavior.

    There's a sliver of hope the Steelers could keep Casey Hampton and Plaxico Burress.

    Hampton had a solid season last year. He started all 16 games for just the third time in his career and helped the Steelers finish second in the NFL in run defense. However, he'll be 36 next season and it might just be time to move on.

    Burress also will be 36 next season. He and the Steelers had a nice little reunion in 2012, but he caught just three passes in four games. The Steelers are better off finding receiving depth in the draft.