For a team that lacks depth and needs to add young talent, free agency has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Just three days into free agency, the Steelers have already lost their top three free agents.
While it was expected that Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis could all sign elsewhere, it doesn’t make the loss of these players any less painful.
Following a disappointing 8-8 season, the Steelers were already in need of upgrading their roster and they have had the reverse happen. By losing their top young free agents, not only have the Steelers not made the necessary improvements to make themselves playoff contenders, but they actually appear to be a worse team on paper.
Absorbing the loss of any one of these players would have been challenging to overcome, let alone the loss of all three.
Now there are three more holes on the roster that must be filled. This will be quite the task for a team that lacks salary cap space to make any impact signings. Given their recent track record in the draft, the Steelers may struggle to find a replacement there as well.
Which free-agent loss will be the most significant for the Steelers? Let’s take a look.
It was no secret that Mike Wallace was leaving Pittsburgh. The only thing that we didn’t know is who would dig deep into their bank account to pay him.
With Wallace gone, how will the Steelers cope?
Losing one of the fastest players in the game will be difficult. The offense will have to continue to transition to the quick passing attack implemented last season by offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and they will need to add a young receiver in the draft to add depth to the position.
But the Steelers won't be entirely in the clear. You can't teach speed, and the threat of a big play cannot be easily replaced.
Without Wallace, the Steelers will be without one of the best deep threats in the league. No longer will defenses have to key in on defending the deep ball and no longer will they have to worry about focusing their attention on any one receiver.
More importantly, Roethlisberger will now lack the option to just heave the ball downfield when a play breaks down. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are fast, but nowhere near as fast as Wallace.
But despite everything that Wallace brings to the table, the Steelers will be able to survive without him.
Wallace struggled to adjust to Haley’s offense and really was on a bit of a downward spiral over the past year-and-a-half. In his first 23 games after becoming a full-time starter in 2010, Wallace had 11 100-yard receiving games. By comparison, he only has two 100-yard receiving games over his past 24 games.
Given the new style of offense that the Steelers are trying to run, having receivers like Brown and Sanders being the top two options is not all too bad. They're quick and run better routes than Wallace.
Brown and Sanders will start and Jerricho Cotchery will step in as the third receiver until a possible high draft pick is ready to contribute.
Remember, the Steelers won a Super Bowl with Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El and Cedrick Wilson at receiver.
There are plenty of good receivers available in the draft and with the rules the way they are, it is easier to develop a quality passing game, even if your receiving weapons aren’t elite.
Pittsburgh’s ground game struggled last season without a healthy Rashard Mendenhall, so imagine how it will perform this year without him.
Mendenhall had been a mild disappointment for the Steelers after being selected in the first round of the 2008 draft. But even so, he was the best the Steelers had and could have benefited from a potentially improved offensive line this year.
The Steelers want to have the ability to run the ball outside this season and will need to add some speed at the position. Their only solution so far has been to offer tenders to restricted free agents Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman—two power backs.
Mendenhall not only has the speed to get to the outside, but also the breakaway speed to turn what should be a short run into a long gain.
When healthy, he can be a weapon. Between 2009 and 2011, Mendenhall ran for 3,309 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also showed that he can be a multi-dimensional option by adding 66 receptions over that period.
The problem with Mendenhall has been that while he has the athleticism to be one of the best running backs in the game, he has rarely showed this on the field. Injuries and inconsistency have held Mendenhall to only two 1,000-yard seasons in his career.
This is the type of production that the Steelers will miss. But it has been a full season since Mendenhall has been healthy. The Steelers will not be losing much production from last season, when he only had 51 carries.
The problem is that his replacements last season were not good enough, and they are the same backs who will be returning in 2013.
Dwyer will likely head into training camp as the starting running back with Redman acting as the short-yardage back.
But that will not be enough.
The Steelers must invest a draft pick on a running back. The problem is that there are no elite running backs in this year’s class, so they may not be able to find an immediate upgrade.
On the bright side, if the offense line improves in 2013, the Steelers should be able to plug anyone in the backfield and see an improved performance over last season.
Now the Steelers are without a very good cornerback who rose to the occasion in his first year as a starter, leading the AFC with 23 passes defended.
But the Steelers let Lewis go for a reason that may have gone beyond the inability to pay him.
It took Lewis four seasons to prove himself as a player. Even though he was a very good starter last year—ranked as the Steelers’ third-most undervalued player by Pro Football Focus—Lewis was not much of a playmaker, with only one career interception.
Beyond this, the Steelers must like what they have with Cortez Allen.
Allen has been a very intriguing player ever since he was a rookie and made a positive impression in training camp. Since then, Allen has only gotten better and should be ready to start now that he is in his third season.
In his first season with significant action while playing the nickel role, Allen played very well, finishing the season with 55 tackles and two interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He also added 10 passes defended.
Allen has the type of playmaking abilities that the Steelers want on defense. They have been looking to increase the number of turnovers that they generate.
For his efforts, Allen was ranked as the Steelers' second-most undervalued player by Pro Football Focus.
But even if Allen steps up next season, Lewis is still the Steelers' most significant loss.
Lewis' exit has a domino effect.
While Allen will move to the starting role—where he could even be an upgrade next season—this move will also leave the Steelers without a quality nickelback—unless you consider William Gay to be a quality nickelback.
Regardless of how Gay plays, a secondary with Lewis, Ike Taylor and Allen is much better than the Steelers’ 2013 secondary with Taylor, Allen and Gay.
For all of the passing in the league, the Steelers will be in the nickel package for a significant number of downs once again next season and they will need to go three deep at cornerback.
That means that the Steelers should spend a fairly high draft pick on a cornerback who could eventually develop into a nickelback, or even a starter—unless they believe Curtis Brown will develop into a better player this season.
One of the Steelers' biggest strengths took a hit on Thursday when Lewis left, making his loss the most significant of the offseason.