The Pittsburgh Steelers have several players that are noticeably on the decline. Their careers are a handful of years from being over at most, and the team must start looking at how these key cogs in the machine can be replaced.
Here’s a look at five players that are declining and five draft prospects that could replace them.
Troy Polamalu has been a force on the Pittsburgh defense for almost a decade now, but his most recent season was disappointing because of the injuries that shelved him for all but a smattering of games.
Now the question is whether or not Polamalu can still contribute on defense and for how long. The injuries have stacked up in recent seasons, and the on-field play has diminished.
Pittsburgh’s defense is predicated on strong safety play. If Polamalu cannot deliver, the Steelers need to figure out what to do next. At most, he has two years left before he will need replaced.
A further complication to consider is Polamalu’s contract, which pays him vastly more than he’s worth in on-field production unless he can stay healthy. For a team that is dealing with some of the biggest cap problems they’ve faced in years, now is a time to start looking ahead.
Matt Elam is a hard-hitting, big-play safety that should be a mid-first-round selection in this year’s draft. He is a complete player with very few holes in his game.
Elam is athletic enough to replace Troy Polamalu on the team’s roster within the next couple of seasons. He has excellent range and can drop into coverage or play the run. He can also be used as a pass-rusher if desired.
The safety class this year is deep with talent, so Pittsburgh wouldn’t necessarily need to look this way early, but Elam is worth the 17th-overall selection if he’s still on the board.
Pittsburgh needs to get younger on defense, and this is a good place to start, considering they won’t be bringing Ryan Mundy and Will Allen back as the backups.
James Harrison’s roster spot is not even assured at this point. The feared linebacker is still a good player, but his skills have deteriorated markedly since he signed his contract. If he’s not willing to take some kind of cut in pay, he may simply be too expensive for Pittsburgh.
Harrison no longer possesses the top-end speed that allowed him to race around offensive tackles to hit the quarterback. He also has suffered several injuries in recent seasons. Those have robbed him of his range.
With a draft class deep in linebackers and the team in salary cap trouble, now may be the best time to say goodbye. Jason Worilds appears ready to step in and take over, and a draft pick could be brought in as insurance or as the permanent replacement if the team doesn’t have faith in Worilds as a long-term answer.
Even if Harrison remains with the team, his future is uncertain and he probably only has a year or two left before he’s no longer a capable starter.
If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to replace James Harrison’s production (or at least their expectations of production from his position), they could go with Damontre Moore in the first round of the draft.
Moore is a high-motor guy that knows how to get to the quarterback. He played very well in his final college season and showed he has the skills to compete immediately at the NFL level.
Moore is the classic Steelers linebacker project. He played defensive end in college, but he’s a great edge rusher with the speed and range to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Pittsburgh has successfully done this before with LaMarr Woodley being the most recent example.
There are a ton of linebacker prospects in the draft this season, but Moore has the makeup that Pittsburgh looks for. His stock has continued to climb since the end of the season. At this point, he’s the best 3-4 outside linebacker prospect that Pittsburgh will find in the middle of the round.
A free agent, Larry Foote is at a career crossroads. He could potentially start again at inside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013, or he could retire.
The decision seems to hinge on what the Steelers plan to do at the position. Foote is one of the older defensive starters from 2012 and was a temporary fix to begin with last season.
A lot of what happens next to Lawrence Timmons on the inside will depend on the health of Sean Spence, last year’s third-round selection and a player that Pittsburgh was very high on before a knee injury ruined his debut season.
If Spence is healthy, the team might be best off parting ways with Foote and drafting some depth for behind Spence, who should start if he’s ready to go.
If Spence is not ready or the team is convinced that a veteran backup is necessary, Foote could find his way back onto the roster.
Regardless of what the Pittsburgh Steelers do with Larry Foote or Sean Spence, they’d be foolish not to draft an inside linebacker in this year’s draft.
If the decision is made that this position needs addressed in the first round, Pittsburgh could go with either Manti T’eo or Kevin Minter. Minter is the better overall player and has significantly less baggage.
Minter is a tough player in the style of a James Farrior. He is good in coverage, but best against the run. He isn’t polished yet, but he could start in 2014. His speed and aggressiveness are the qualities most likely to attract the Steelers in the draft.
When Willie Colon was moved to guard after a collegiate and professional career spent at the tackle position, the move seemed to be designed to both help the team by filling a hole and the player by giving him a position where he could stay healthy more easily.
Neither really materialized. Colon was mediocre as a guard after starting off well and exited the season early with a major injury for the third time in three seasons.
The decision to keep Colon rather than allow him to walk after the 2009 season has proven to be a disaster for Pittsburgh.
If Colon restructures his deal and takes a massive cut in pay, he could remain with the team. Regardless of how that pans out, he should not be depended upon as more than a backup in 2013. Far too much production has been lost because of him. That must end.
Could the Pittsburgh Steelers, intent on fixing their offensive line for years now, add an offensive lineman for the second-straight year in the first round?
If there’s a David DeCastro-esque fall this year, they might. They also might decide a player like Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina is worth the price of a first-round selection.
Cooper is a mechanically sound guard that would dramatically improve the Pittsburgh running game with solid blocking. He could immediately step in at right guard and allow David DeCastro to slot in on the left side, where his athleticism is more useful.
Given that the team is employing a new offensive line coach, they may choose to give their new man some new players. They need to revitalize depth at the position. Getting a player that allows Colon to move into a support role is advantageous to everyone involved.
Casey Hampton has been with Pittsburgh since he was drafted in the first round of the 2001 NFL draft. For more than a decade, he’s anchored the middle of one of the league’s best defenses while playing well enough to be named to five Pro Bowls.
Unfortunately, those days are over now. Hampton is a free agent with a year or two left in him coming off a solid season in which he proved to be fully recovered from a knee injury.
The problem is that Pittsburgh can’t afford to sign a guy in his mid-30s that has lost a step when they can easily replace him with a guy like Steve McLendon or a draft pick.
Hampton will likely start for another team in 2013, as it makes no sense for Pittsburgh to re-sign him for any amount of money.
To replace Casey Hampton, the Pittsburgh Steelers could elect to dip into a pool that they’ve used many times before. Ohio State players are very popular with the Steelers. Currently, they have five former Buckeyes on the roster.
Johnathan Hankins could be the next one. He projects as an excellent 3-4 nose tackle with the ability to take up space in the running game and occupy blockers. Hampton is no longer good at taking on multiple opponents, which has hurt the run defense.
Hankins also can get to the quarterback if he gets free. While no Pittsburgh nose tackle is going to be expected to pile up sacks, it is good to have a player in the middle that can get himself loose in the backfield at times. It makes the pass rush on the outside, a Pittsburgh staple, more devastating and effective.