A fair portion of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ disappointing 2012 season resulted from subpar production at several key positions. According to Pro Football Focus’ estimates, Pittsburgh got $2.3 million less value on the field from its roster than what the front office paid out in salaries last year.
This problem was particularly pronounced at the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker and safety positions, where certain players cost the Steelers $13.5 million more than what they produced in 2012.
For example, an injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 10 left the team in the incapable hands of backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch. The team went 1-2 in during their tenure, prompting the starter to rush back to the field ahead of schedule. Still injured, Big Ben struggled to regain his usual form, and the team went 1-3 to finish the season.
Pittsburgh’s committee of running backs was one of the worst in the NFL in 2012. Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey combined for the seventh-fewest total rushing yards, the second-most fumbles and the second-worst value over average of any group of running backs in the league last year. The lowlight of their dismal season was the first Cleveland game, in which the four backs coughed up the ball a combined six times.
The Steelers’ wide receiving corps came into the season with much higher expectations but produced equally disappointing results. After holding out in search of a better contract before the season began, Mike Wallace turned in one of the worst years of any everyday NFL wideout in 2012. Fellow receiver Antonio Brown wasn’t much better. A year after gaining 1,000 yards in receiving and 1,000 in returns, Brown provided less value than a replacement-level player last year.
Though inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons quietly turned in a fantastic season, his partner at the inside linebacker position, Larry Foote, was the eighth-worst player at his position last year, according to Pro Football Focus. The 32-year-old Foote often looked slow and struggled to stop the run throughout the season.
The Steelers’ struggles at the safety position came as something of a surprise, given Troy Polamalu’s and Ryan Clark’s reputations. When Polamalu played, he did perform at his usual high level. The problem, of course, was that he was only on the field for seven games in 2012. Though they don’t yet sound a death knell for Polamalu’s career, his recent injuries do highlight the fact that the 31-year-old safety isn’t getting any younger.
To rebound in 2013 and reload for subsequent years, the Steelers will have to add high-quality players at each of these positions. The team needs a solid backup quarterback who can step in when Roethlisberger gets injured and who can, hopefully, emerge as a future starter.
With Mendenhall likely to depart via free agency and neither Redman nor Dwyer apparently capable of being an every-down back, Pittsburgh has to find a running back to carry the load week after week. Similarly, with Wallace likely to sign with another team, the Steelers will need a new starting wide receiver—preferably one who can stretch defenses the way Wallace does.
On the defensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh has to uncover a young inside linebacker who can take Foote’s spot. Though it has a bit more time before it must find a replacement for Polamalu, the organization also needs to keep an eye out for a talented young safety.
With barely any cap space free to re-sign its own free agents, the Steelers will have to turn to the draft to address these five needs. However, filling all the holes that emerged in 2012 will require creativity.
The team’s first couple of selections (hopefully) should be safe bets to become NFL starters. As the draft progresses, however, the picks will become more and more speculative. Fixing the weaknesses in the projected 2013 roster will require that the Steelers get lucky on several of those gambles.
The following lists the player who would be the best late-round bet for Pittsburgh at each of the positions mentioned above. The list focuses on players projected to be drafted in the fifth round or later.