Another year’s free-agency period dawned this week, and—as in the past—the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t expected to be big players in the market for new talent.
That's not to say that the team hasn’t been busy. In the past week, the team released veteran outside linebacker James Harrison; gave guard Ramon Foster an extension; tendered restricted free agents (RFAs) Emmanuel Sanders, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Steve McLendon; re-signed inside linebacker Larry Foote and let wide receiver Mike Wallace walk to the Miami Dolphins.
But aside from trying to lock down free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis to a longer-term contract, the Steelers are unlikely to purse any big-name players in the coming weeks. The team historically has eschewed bidding on high-priced veterans, preferring instead to build through the draft and bargain-basement waiver-wire signings. So even if Pittsburgh had enough cap space to pursue a quality free agent—which it probably won’t if it re-signs Lewis—the franchise wouldn’t do it anyway.
If the team were willing to brave the free-agency waters, however, there are a few low-cost moves that the Steelers could make that would strengthen the roster in the short term without completely destroying their cap situation. One of the best of those options would be to try to poach Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta.
On Monday, the Steelers’ hated rival issued a second-round tender to the RFA and offered him $2.023 million for the 2013 season. Under the league rules, a potential suitor would have to up the bid on Pitta and be prepared to give the Ravens a second-round pick if Baltimore chose not to match the other team’s offer.
Though making a move like this would be a departure from the norm for the Steelers, going after Pitta makes sense for several reasons.
To start with, Pitta could help Pittsburgh address uncertainty at a position that, until Week 16 of the 2012 season, was one of the more stable spots for the team.
Before he blew out his knee in the second-to-last game of the year, starting tight end Heath Miller was having a career year and may have been the team’s best player on offense. The 30-year-old out of Virginia led the team in receptions and touchdowns and was second in receiving yards.
Miller stacked up equally well against his peers. According to Pro Football Focus, Miller was the second-best pass-catching tight end in the league last year. Advanced NFL Stats estimated that he generated the sixth-most expected points added per play (EPA/P) of any player at his position.
The big tight end also had the highest Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) of any of Pittsburgh’s offensive skill-position players, meaning he was the most valuable player when compared to a replacement-level player. It was fitting, therefore, that his teammates voted him Pittsburgh’s MVP at the end of the season.
Unfortunately, the Steelers may have to start the season without this valuable offensive weapon. With his knee injury requiring surgery in the offseason, Miller is looking increasingly likely (via the Post Gazette) to begin the 2013 season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
Given that neither David Paulson nor Leonard Pope has given any indication that they are capable of taking on Miller’s workload, the Steelers are now looking at a gaping hole in their offense. Bringing in Pitta would allow Pittsburgh to plug that hole with an experienced tight end while Miller recovers.
With Miller sidelined, Wallace’s departure puts additional strain on the Steelers receiving corps. Adding Pitta to the roster also could help Pittsburgh make up some of the speedy receiver's lost production, albeit in an indirect fashion.
With the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver taking his talents to South Beach, erstwhile No. 1A wideout Antonio Brown will have to become the team’s primary option at receiver. If Brown can return to his 2011 level of play after a disappointing 2012, then that should not be much of a problem.
Brown’s promotion to the team’s No. 1 receiver will pull Sanders up to the No. 2 spot, forcing him to split wide more frequently than he has in the past. In theory, the three-year veteran should be capable of handling the added responsibility. In 2012, he had the highest Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) of any Steelers’ receiver, meaning he had more total value than any of his fellow wideouts over the course of the entire season.
However, this comes with a caveat. Sanders ran 67 percent of his total routes out of the slot position. Whether lining up wide more often will decrease his effectiveness in 2013 remains to be seen.
With Sanders moving out wide, the loss of Wallace will manifest itself most at the slot position in 2013, assuming Pittsburgh does not draft a receiver capable of immediately supplanting Sanders on the depth chart. Pittsburgh’s projected third receiver, Jerricho Cotchery, will have to fill in for Sanders at that spot next year. And it is not certain that he will be able to carry the load.
To be fair, the 30-year-old Cotchery was fairly effective lining up in the slot last season, averaging just a hair fewer yards per route run (YPRR) out of that position than Sanders. Not bad, considering the latter was one of the top slot receivers in the NFL in 2012.
However, Cotchery’s seeming efficiency is based on a very small sample size. The receiver only ran 87 pass routes from the slot position last year—46 percent of his total routes run and about a quarter of the routes that Sanders ran as an interior receiver during the 2012 campaign. Pittsburgh quarterbacks targeted Cotchery a mere 11 times when he lined up in the slot, and the wideout caught seven of those passes for 87 yards. By comparison, the ball came Sanders’ way 48 times. He snared 30 of those for 361 yards.
So though Cotchery looked good in limited action, it is far from clear that he will be as good as Sanders if his workload increases.
Signing Pitta would help address this potential drop in production by giving the Steelers another option at the interior of their offensive formations. Perhaps more importantly, it also would allow Pittsburgh to broaden its offensive repertoire once Miller returns. The Steelers could employ the two-tight-end set that has become popular in the league as a result of the Patriots’ success with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
These solutions only work, of course, if Pitta is any good on the field. And by most measures, he is a good player with the potential to blossom into one of the best tight ends in the league with more use.
For starters, Pitta put up very good conventional numbers in 2013. The Ravens tight end tied for second on his team with 61 receptions and was third in receiving yards with 669. His seven touchdowns were second among Ravens pass-catchers and tied for sixth among NFL tight ends.
The tight end’s touchdowns were not the only measure that ranked him favorably among his peers. Pro Football Focus ranked Pitta as the eighth-best receiver among tight ends who appeared in at least 25 percent of their team’s 2012 offensive snaps. He also had the sixth-lowest drop rate and the seventh-best YPRR when compared to the same group. Though the site dinged him for his run- and pass-blocking, it still had him as the No. 21 tight end in the league last year.
Advanced NFL Stats and Football Outsiders largely concurred, rating Pitta as a top-20 player at his position by most of their metrics. The Raven tied for 17th in win probability added per game (WPA/G), which measures the degree to which a player increased his team’s chances of winning every contest in which he played. He also ranked 18th in EPA/P, 19th in yards per target and 16th in DYAR.
Obviously, the decision to make an offer to Pitta does not just hinge on his on-the-field production. It also depends on how much the Steelers would have to pay to get him. Fortunately, the RFA’s price is pretty low relative to what he is likely to give a team in return.
As was mentioned above, Pittsburgh would have to pay at least $2 million and give up a second-round draft pick to get Pitta. Though it is impossible to predict what sort of value said pick would produce on the field, it is possible to estimate his cost. With that, the team can get general sense of the cost of obtaining Pitta.
The average salary of last year’s second-round choice, Mike Adams, is a little less than $900,000 per year. Given that Pittsburgh’s draft choices are higher in each round this year, that price should go up a bit in 2013. With that in mind, then, a reasonable rough estimate of the value the Steelers should expect to get from Pitta in 2013 is somewhere between $3 million and $3.5 million.
If the tight end performs as well as he did last year, Pittsburgh should recoup its investment quite easily. According to Pro Football Focus’ estimate of Pitta’s Performance-Based Value (PBV), a metric that calculates each player’s worth by assigning him a dollar figure based on his production and the salaries paid to players at his position, Pitta was worth $4.1 million in 2012. So even if he were to play just 75 to 85 percent as well as he did last season, the Steelers would still break even on the move.
More than anything, however, bidding on Pitta would allow the Steelers to put their division rivals in a bad spot as Pittsburgh tries to claw its way back to the playoffs. In an effort to clear space to re-sign critical players on the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens traded their 2012 No. 1 receiver, Anquan Boldin, to the 49ers. The loss of Boldin leaves Baltimore dangerously lacking in weapons for the new “NFL’s richest quarterback,” Joe Flacco, to throw to.
By picking up Pitta, the Steelers could essentially leave the Ravens’ cupboard bare of receiving options and force Baltimore to search the free-agent market for a replacement. Even if Pittsburgh wasn’t able to land the tight end, an offer to him would at least bid his price up and eat into the Ravens’ cap space a bit.
So faced with all these reasons to bid on Pitta, why are the Steelers unlikely to do so during this free-agency period?
First, even though Pitta’s cost is relatively low, his price may still be more than Pittsburgh can afford right now. After the recent round of restructures and cuts, the Steelers are a little less than $14 million under the 2013 salary cap. This figure, however, does not include the money the team will have to pay to re-signees like Larry Foote and David Johnson. More importantly, it does not account for the likely salary hit incurred from re-signing Lewis. There might be some space left after that contract is inked, but there is no guarantee that there will be enough to pursue Pitta.
Second, and more critical, is the apparent unspoken agreement among NFL clubs not to pursue one another’s restricted free agents.
The designation itself will all but disappear in 2014, as the four-year rookie contract lengths in the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) essentially remove the circumstances in which restricted free agency applies. With this on the horizon, it appears that NFL owners and general managers have an understanding among themselves that they will not drive up salary costs by poaching restricted free agents from other teams in the meantime.
Of course, there is no hard evidence to support allegations of collusion in this matter. The circumstantial evidence, however, has piled up.
The penalties slapped on the Cowboys and Redskins supposedly for exceeding a “secret cap” during the uncapped 2010 season. The fact that only one restricted free agent has changed teams since 2009. The fact that every NFL team undoubtedly has strong incentives to keep costs down. Add it all up, and the rumors start to look pretty believable.
With that in mind, it is highly unlikely that the Steelers would target Dennis Pitta in the 2013 free-agent market. Even if the team got him, the benefits he could potentially provide on the field probably wouldn’t outweigh the increased costs resulting from whatever retaliation the other 31 NFL teams inflict on Pittsburgh for doing so.