Free agency is a time for hope for many teams in the NFL, but not the Pittsburgh Steelers. Normally it is a time in which they sign their young talent to contract extensions and part ways with aging veterans. There will be a change to that philosophy this season and it will not be good.
Not only will the Steelers allow many of the older veterans on the team to depart, they are also unlikely to sign many of their young players either.
It is one thing to allow Casey Hampton to leave or to release James Harrison, but it is entirely different to watch players like Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis—who are just entering their primes—go to another team.
The Steelers have never been a big spender in bringing in outside free agents, but they have invested in their own players. However, without the necessary cap room, there will be more departures than arrivals this year.
As a result, the Steelers are going to have to make some shrewd moves if they want to win free agency. Here is their blueprint for success.
With Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis and Rashard Mendenhall all potential losses to free agency, it is imperative that the Steelers retain many of their restricted free agents.
This past week, the Steelers placed tenders on Steve McLendon, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Emmanuel Sanders. Stevenson Sylvester and Jeremy Kapinos did not receive tenders.
Given their cap situation, the Steelers placed low tenders on all of the restricted free agents that they offered, meaning that if any are signed by another team, the Steelers will receive their original draft pick in return.
Sanders would net a third-round selection and Dwyer a sixth-round selection while the Steelers would receive no compensation for McLendon and Redman since both players were signed as undrafted free agents.
It is imperative that the Steelers sign all four players if they want to consider free agency a success.
McLendon played well last season and is expected to take over for Casey Hampton at nose tackle. If they lose McLendon, they will be without a proven nose tackle to take over.
Dwyer and Redman will be an important part of the backfield which currently lacks any depth. While the Steelers are looking to upgrade the position, both running backs are solid role players.
Besides McLendon, Sanders is the most important restricted free agent as he will enter the starting lineup with the impending loss of Wallace. Considering that Sanders requires third-round compensation if signed by another team, he will likely return to Pittsburgh.
While the Steelers should be able to re-sign their restricted free agents, they will likely get decimated on the unrestricted front.
Wallace and Mendenhall are all but gone and the Steelers are going to have a difficult time signing Lewis as well.
Lewis had a solid—but not outstanding—season last year and should draw plenty of interest in free agency with his 23 passes defended.
But to be considered a true success, the Steelers are going to need to sign Lewis to a long-term deal.
When paired with Ike Taylor, the Steelers have one of the better cornerback tandems in the league. Add in Cortez Allen playing nickel and William Gay as the fourth corner, the Steelers have an extremely deep unit.
Besides Lewis, the Steelers do not have many “must-sign” players, but there are some who would really help the team next year.
The Steelers lack depth at inside linebacker—especially since Sylvester wasn’t tendered and Sean Spence may not be ready for the season. Re-signing Larry Foote would be the safest option.
Foote provides a veteran presence in the middle and would be a nice stopgap option until a younger player is ready to step up.
As far as depth players go, the Steelers should retain Charlie Batch to compete for the third-string quarterback role and Will Allen as a backup safety.
Allen had a quality season last year after he overtook Ryan Mundy as the top backup.
While it is unlikely, signing Max Starks or Ramon Foster would be huge for the Steelers.
Starks does not expect to return next season, but he has been a steady presence at left tackle.
The Steelers have spoke with Foster’s agent, but with his starting experience and durability, Foster will likely pick up some quality offers on the open market and he will be difficult to re-sign.
Foster would be a particularly good signing since he is so durable and can play any position on the line but center.
By losing both of these linemen, the Steelers will be very thin up front.
Even with all of their problems, the Steelers still have a quality starting lineup, but the problem is their depth. Backup quarterback is one of the biggest issues.
The free-agent route would be the best way to address this position.
Signing Batch would provide the Steelers with a solid third option, but they need a true backup quarterback who is younger and more durable than Batch.
Considering that Ben Roethlisberger can be expected to miss a game or two each year, adding a veteran like Jason Campbell would be the best option, but he’ll be too expensive.
Instead, the Steelers need to look at the lower-tiered free-agent quarterbacks such as Drew Stanton, Chase Daniel or Bruce Gradkowski.
All three are mobile quarterbacks who would fit well behind the Steelers offensive line, but more importantly are younger than last year’s options.
The Steelers aren’t going to find a starting running back in free agency—at least not one who is better than Dwyer or Redman. Instead, the Steelers should look for a quality third-down back or an option with speed.
Chris Rainey was supposed to be an explosive option for the Steelers. He was going to be the player who could make big plays on the ground or in the passing game and added value as a returner. But now that he is gone, the Steelers have a number of open spots to fill.
A player such as Reggie Bush would add the playmaking ability that the Steelers want while Ahmad Bradshaw would be the feature back that the team desires. However, both players will be far too expensive for the Steelers.
Instead, the Steelers could look at a player such as Shonn Greene.
Greene is a power runner who can get between the tackles, but doesn’t add that element of speed that the Steelers are looking for and isn’t much—if any—of an upgrade over what they already have.
A more viable option would be LaRod Stephens-Howling.
ESPN’s Jamison Hensley suggested Stephens-Howling as a possible option and I agree.
Stephens-Howling is a perfect option as a third-down back and he can contribute in the return game. He’d fill two holes for a low cost while the Steelers look for a starting back in the draft.
Assuming Sanders is re-signed, the Steelers only have him, Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery at receiver. That will not strike the fear in any defense.
The Steelers already passed on Steve Breaston, but they are clearly interested in adding depth.
There is always the option of re-signing Plaxico Burress, but he barely saw the field last season and things probably wouldn’t change must this year.
If you also remember, no young receiver established himself in training camp last season meaning that the Steelers will have to improve with a receiver from outside the organization.
Earlier in the offseason, I advocated that the Steelers should sign Josh Cribbs and that should still be under consideration.
Cribbs can play the outside meaning that Sanders could shift inside to the slot position when they’re in three-receiver sets. Of course, Cribbs can also fill the void as a return man as well.
But Cribbs is older and the Steelers are a team trying to get younger. They also may want a receiver with some size as well.
A much more intriguing option is David Nelson, who is coming off an ACL injury.
At 6’5”, Nelson would provide the Steelers with some much needed size at receiver and he should be relatively cheap coming off a major knee injury.
With only 32 games played and 17 starts in his three seasons, Nelson has 94 receptions for 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns.
Nelson would not replace Wallace, but he would add a new dynamic once he returns to action and would be a nice fit with the Steelers offense.
The Steelers could potentially lose Starks, Foster and Doug Legurksy leaving the Steelers very thin on the offensive line.
With John Malecki ready to take over Legurksy’s spot if necessary, the Steelers would need to add a veteran who can play guard or tackle.
Right now, Kelvin Beachum appears to be the top swingman on the depth chart, but with all of the injuries along the offensive line over the past few seasons, the Steelers need quality players.
There are a lot of older veterans on the open market, but the Steelers instead should find a young, under-the-radar option who will sign for little more than the minimum.
By offensive line depth via free agency, the Steelers would eliminate the need to draft more linemen.
The Steelers are very thin at inside linebacker and will be looking to find another starter either in free agency or the draft to replace Larry Foote as the starter.
Without much money to spend, finding a starter in free agency will be challenging, but they could at least find quality depth.
A popular name on message boards has been Larry Grant.
Grant was impressive in limited time while with the San Francisco 49ers and is already 28 as he enters free agency.
The Steelers may not be able to offer Grant the most money, but they could offer him a prominent role in one of the league’s best defenses.
After playing behind two of the best inside linebackers in the league, Grant may like the opportunity to play not behind, but next to another one of the best in Lawrence Timmons.
Grant would be able to challenge for a starting role and play on special teams and would fill a huge hole for the Steelers.
Adding a player such as Grant wouldn’t be a free-agent splash for most teams, but it would be for the Steelers.