Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis had a breakout season in 2012.
Not only did the Steelers complete the daunting task of getting under the salary cap for 2013, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, they also brought in free-agent wide receiver Steve Breaston for a visit, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The NFL announced Thursday that the 2013 salary cap will be $123 million. The Steelers have cleared $14 million in cap space by restructuring the contracts of Lawrence Timmons, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers still have some work to do before NFL free agency officially begins March 12. By then, they need to free up enough cap space to sign an outside free agent or two and re-sign some of their own free agents.
If the Steelers want to rebound from their 8-8 season, they can't afford to make the following mistakes in free agency.
The Steelers are interested in Steve Breaston, who will be 29 next season, because they need wide receivers.
They're almost certain to lose unrestricted free agent Mike Wallace. That would leave Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery as the only receivers who made a significant contribution last season.
The prospect of Breaston reuniting with Todd Haley is another reason he is enticing to the Steelers. He had his best season in 2008, when Haley was his offensive coordinator in Arizona. Breaston caught 77 passes for 1,006 yards that year.
After Haley left to coach the Kansas City Chiefs, Breaston caught just 55 passes in 2009 and 47 in 2010. He went to the Chiefs in 2011, where Haley coached the first 13 games, and caught 61 passes.
Last season, Breaston fell out of favor with then-Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, according to Rotoworld. He dressed for 10 games and caught seven passes.
Breaston's numbers are better when Haley's around, but the Steelers still must be frugal in pursuing him. It's hard to say why Crennel kept him out of games, but the Steelers can't just throw money at a guy who caught seven passes in 2012.
Cotchery, who will be 31 next season, signed a two-year, $3 million contract in 2012. Until Breaston proves last season was an aberration, the Steelers shouldn't sign him for any longer and shouldn't pay him any more than that.
Emmanuel Sanders is another wide receiver with whom the Steelers should take a wait-and-see approach.
Sanders is a restricted free agent. According to the NFL Network via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the lowest tender amount for RFAs is $1.323 million. Teams applying that tender would be compensated with a draft pick in the round that player was taken.
By placing the $1.323 million tender on Sanders, the Steelers would have the right to match any offer he receives from another team and get a third-round draft pick if he signs somewhere else.
Sanders hasn't shown enough for the Steelers to make a long-term commitment to him. He missed five games in 2011 with injuries to both feet and a knee.
He played in all 16 games for the first time in 2012. He caught a career-high 44 passes and led the team with 14.2 yards per reception, but he also fumbled the ball three times, two of which went for turnovers.
If Sanders has a breakout season in 2013 and is in line for a long-term deal next year, the Steelers will deal with it then.
For now, they'll have to risk losing him for a third-round pick.
One of the few bright spots late in the Steelers' 2012 season was the play of Cortez Allen.
The cornerback intercepted two passes, broke up three passes and forced three fumbles in the final two games. The turnover-starved Steelers defense needs a ball hawk like him, but it needs Keenan Lewis more.
Re-signing Lewis should be the Steelers' top priority in free agency. In his first year as a starter, Lewis was second only to the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman with 23 passes defended in 2012, according to STATS LLC via the The Washington Post. That body of work far outweighs Allen's two-game sampling, one of which was the meaningless season finale.
If the Steelers keep Lewis and Ike Taylor fully recovers from his ankle fracture, Taylor and Lewis would presumably be the Steelers' starting corners next season with Allen providing valuable depth.
Allen then would be that much more prepared to eventually succeed Taylor, who will be 33 next season.
The Steelers are already in the process of making this mistake, unless there are negotiations going on behind the scenes.
Teams have until March 8 to sign their own free agents before they hit the open market, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Beginning March 9, free agents can negotiate with other teams and they can sign starting March 12.
The Steelers must take advantage of their exclusive negotiating window with Keenan Lewis and sign him before other teams have his ear.
Lewis wants to stay in Pittsburgh, according to Steel City Insider, and is seeking a five-year, $35 million contract. The Steelers could get that deal done with a 2013 salary cap burden as low as $3 million.
The top 10 cornerbacks in the NFL all make at least $8 million a year, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. So there's a chance Lewis could get an offer in that neighborhood.
Even though he broke up 23 passes in 2012, Lewis had no interceptions and has just one in his career. The Steelers can hope that causes other teams to think twice before offering Lewis a mega-deal. They shouldn't hope, however. They need to re-sign Lewis before another team offers more money than the Steelers can afford.
The Steelers must find a way to re-sign Larry Foote because they have no one to replace him at inside linebacker.
Stevenson Sylvester will be entering his fourth season but has played primarily on special teams. He has five tackles in his career, according to Steel City Insider.
Sean Spence, drafted in the third round last year, suffered a gruesome knee injury during the preseason and could miss all of 2013, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
If the Steelers lose Foote, his replacement would have to not only learn the position but also the defensive signals. Foote inherited the signal-calling duties from James Farrior when he was let go after the 2011 season.
Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons called the signals during a preseason game last year, but not well enough, according to Steel City Insider.
If that's true, the Steelers might be able to re-sign him for less than the $3 million (according to Spotrac) he made in 2012.
The Steelers are at a crossroads after missing the playoffs with an 8-8 record. They could wallow in mediocrity or can make a push to get back to the playoffs.
For the latter to happen, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin needs to tighten the reins on the team. Showing Rashard Mendenhall the door would be a step in that direction.
Mendenhall was suspended for one game for conduct detrimental to the team in 2012, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via ESPN.com, after not showing up for a game at Heinz Field in which he wasn't active.
Steel City Insider says there's a chance the Steelers bring back Mendenhall at a discount if his behavior drives down his market value.
Even if Mendenhall was a team player, it would be hard to justify keeping him around after an injury-plagued season in which he played in just six games and ran for 182 yards. Mendenhall hit rock bottom when he fumbled twice in four carries in the Steelers' humiliating 20-14 loss at Cleveland.
The Steelers can place the lowest tenders on restricted free agent running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, or maybe just one of them. In Dwyer's case the Steelers would get a sixth-round draft pick as compensation if he signs elsewhere. The Steelers could then take a running back in the draft and start fresh at the position.