Predicting Pittsburgh Steelers Starting Lineup Post-Week 1 of Free Agency

Mike BatistaContributor IMarch 22, 2013

Predicting Pittsburgh Steelers Starting Lineup Post-Week 1 of Free Agency

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    There will be a few changes to the Pittsburgh Steelers starting lineup in 2013.

    One reason for that is the Steelers want to improve after an 8-8 season. The other reason is that five 2012 starters are no longer with the team.

    Not surprisingly, free agency has taken a toll on the Steelers' starting corps.

    Mike Wallace went to the Miami Dolphins, Rashard Mendenhall went to the Arizona Cardinals and Keenan Lewis went to the New Orleans Saints.

    The Steelers released Willie Colon and James Harrison, and they're not expected to bring back unrestricted free agents Casey Hampton and Max Starks. That would make seven 2012 starters who are wearing other uniforms, or waiting for a call, in 2013.

    In some cases, the Steelers will fill their starting vacancies by promoting from within. In other cases, the Steelers will acquire their 2013 starters in the NFL draft or free agency.

    Now that the initial free-agent frenzy has died down, here's a look at the Steelers' projected starting lineup when the 2013 season begins in less than six months.

QB: Ben Roethlisberger

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    As long as Ben Roethlisberger remains healthy and stays out of trouble, he's the Steelers' starting quarterback.

    The No. 2 spot will be one of the more intriguing position battles in training camp.

    The Steelers signed Bruce Gradkowski to provide depth. The 30-year-old is eight years younger than Charlie Batch, but Batch showed last season he has plenty of fight left.

    The Gradkowski signing most likely means the Steelers will say bye-bye to Byron Leftwich.

RB: Draft Pick

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    The Steelers' starting running back next season will have his name called at Radio City Music Hall next month.

    It could be Alabama's Eddie Lacy, North Carolina's Giovani Bernard, UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle, Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Stanford's Stepfan Taylor or another early round NFL draft prospect.

    The Steelers need to draft a running back who can start right away. Rashard Mendenhall has gone to Arizona after an injury-plagued season in which he started just four games. Jonathan Dwyer started six games last season, and Isaac Redman started five. Neither back is a difference-maker, however.

    Dwyer was the Steelers' leading rusher last year with 623 yards, the lowest total for a Steelers leading rusher since 1991, according to ESPN.com. Redman added 410 yards.

    That's not going to move the chains.

TE: David Paulson

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    Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was optimistic that Heath Miller could be ready to start the 2013 season after tearing two knee ligaments in December, according to CBSSports.com.

    On the other hand, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Rashard Mendenhall was never 100 percent in 2012 after tearing his ACL at the end of the 2011 season.

    Mendenhall was six years younger than Miller when he had his knee injury. Then again, Max Starks was 29 when he tore his ACL in January of 2012, and he was in the opening-day lineup eight months later.

    Mendenhall and Starks tore only their ACL, however. Miller tore his ACL, MCL and PCL.

    That doesn't bode well for Miller's recovery. At the very least, it's hard to see him in uniform on opening day.

    David Paulson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2012, caught seven passes in a limited role last season. He surpassed Leonard Pope on the depth chart, and will have more of a chance to show what he can do in 2013.

TE: Matt Spaeth

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    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller is as plain as day in his assessment of Matt Spaeth as a blocker, calling him "one hell of a blocker."

    Miller gave Speath a perfect 20-out-of-20 blocking grade and ranked him the No. 22 NFL tight end in his B/R NFL 1,000 series.

    The Steelers and Speath are together again after Pittsburgh signed him Monday as a free agent.

    The 6'7" Spaeth spent the first four years of his career with the Steelers then played the last two seasons with the Bears. He has 49 career receptions, including a career-high 17 in 2008.

    David Johnson, a tight end/fullback hybrid, was signed to a one-year contract after a knee injury wiped out his 2012 season. He'll compete with fullback Will Johnson to get on the field as a blocker in short-yardage situations. But David Johnson only became a full-time starter after Spaeth left.

    Spaeth, 29, will pick up where he left off in Pittsburgh as the blocking tight end.

WR: Antonio Brown

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    Antonio Brown had a disappointing 2012 season, but he has five years remaining on a $43 million contract, so the Steelers hope he can regain the form that earned him team MVP honors in 2011.

    Brown went from 69 catches in 2011 to 66 last season. He went from 16.1 yards per reception to 11.9 last season. Brown's fourth-quarter fumbles in Oakland and Dallas might have cost the 8-8 Steelers two victories in 2012.

    He'll have an opportunity to erase those bitter memories in 2013.

WR: Emmanuel Sanders

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    The New England Patriots kicked the tires on Emmanuel Sanders last week, but he didn't get an offer sheet, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Assuming he stays in Pittsburgh, Sanders will try to fill the void left by Mike Wallace as the Steelers' top vertical threat. He likely won't be able to duplicate Wallace's speed, but he led the Steelers with 14.2 yards per reception in 2012 on a career-high 44 catches.

    Like Antonio Brown, Sanders needs to work on ball security. He fumbled three times in 2012, losing two of them.

    Sanders and Brown don't figure to face starting competition from Jerricho Cotchery or Plaxico Burress. There's a chance, however, that a receiver taken early in the draft could make a run at a starting job.

LT: Marcus Gilbert

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    Max Starks can't answer the Bat Phone forever.

    The Steelers brought back Starks after Week 4 of the 2011 season. Last year, they waited to see how he would recover from ACL surgery before committing to him as their starting left tackle.

    Starks, 31, is an unrestricted free agent. It's time for both parties to finally move on.

    The Steelers have used two first-round draft picks and two second-round draft picks on offensive linemen since 2010. It's about time they see a return on that investment.

    The hiring of new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., who according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, prefers more athletic linemen, is another sign the Steelers are trying to turn the page on their offensive lines of the past.

    The 6'6", 330-pound Marcus Gilbert started 13 games at right tackle as a rookie in 2011. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked him the NFL's No. 13 right tackle that year in his B/R NFL1,000 series, noting that Gilbert has the athleticism to move to left tackle.

    Gilbert missed 11 games with an ankle injury in 2012 and slipped to No. 24 in the B/R NFL1,000 series.

    With that injury behind him, the 25-year-old will be in charge of protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side in 2013 and many years beyond that, the Steelers hope.

LG: Ramon Foster

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    The Steelers aren't ready to commit to Kelvin Beachum as a starter just yet. If they were, they wouldn't have re-signed unrestricted free agent Ramon Foster to a three-year contract.

    The 6'6", 325-pound Foster has started 30 games in the last two seasons. He allowed just two sacks last season, according to ESPN.com.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked the 27-year-old Foster the No. 31 guard in the NFL in his B/R NFL 1,000 series, saying he'd be ranked higher if he were a better run-blocker.

    Beachum, chosen in the seventh round of the 2012 draft, was in line to start before the Steelers re-upped with Foster. Beachum has the versatility to be a backup at guard and tackle and should get a chance to start in the future.

C: Maurkice Pouncey

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    The 6'4", 304-pound Maurkice Pouncey will be 24 as he enters his fourth season. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons, and finished the year healthy for the first time in 2012.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranks Pouncey the league's No. 16 center in his B/R NFL 1,000 series. His brother, Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, is ranked No. 2.

    So while Pouncey might not be the starting center if his family were putting together a team for a backyard game, he faces no competition in Pittsburgh.

RG: David DeCastro

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    The Steelers were giddy when David DeCastro fell all the way to their spot at No. 24 in the 2012 NFL draft.

    The euphoria was interrupted by DeCastro's preseason knee injury, but the 6'5", 316-pounder returned to start the last three games of the season.

    There still might be some growing pains since DeCastro won't have a full year of playing experience under his belt as he starts the 2013 season.

    On the other hand, the Bengals' Geno Atkins might have provided him with an entire year of schooling in Week 16, based on Pro Football Focus' assessment.

RT: Mike Adams

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    The Steelers' second-round draft choice in 2012, Mike Adams started six games at right tackle as a rookie.

    The 6'7", 323-pounder helped spring Jonathan Dwyer for two 100-yard running games and Isaac Redman for one during a three-game stretch in the middle of the season. Those were the only three 100-yard games by Steelers running backs in 2012.

    While Adams is an asset as a run-blocker, he's a liability in pass protection, according to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, who ranked the 23-year-old Adams the NFL's No. 27 right tackle in his B/R NFL 1,000 series.

    Adams' rookie season ended in Week 12 at Cleveland when he suffered a high-ankle sprain.

DE: Brett Keisel

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    Brett Keisel will be 35 next season, but he hasn't shown any noticeable decline.

    He didn't knock down passes in 2012 like he did in previous years. He had one pass defended after breaking up seven passes in 2010 and six in 2011.

    Keisel did have 4.5 sacks last season, the most he's had since registering 5.5 sacks in 2006, and according to Steel City Insider he led the Steelers with a career-high 40 quarterback pressures.

    Third-year man Cameron Heyward hasn't started a game yet, but he ended 2012 on a positive note with a career-high four combined tackles and half a sack in the season finale. The Steelers used their first-round draft pick in 2011 on Heyward, so they expect him to start at some point.

    It just won't be on opening day in 2013.

NT: Steve McLendon

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    Unrestricted free agent Casey Hampton is not expected back, which leaves the nose tackle job up for grabs.

    Steve McLendon is a restricted free agent, and the Steelers risk losing him, too. They placed the low tender of $1.3 million on him, which gives them the right to match any offer he receives, but no draft pick compensation if he signs somewhere else.

    McLendon will bring a different style to the position. He won't quite be the run stuffer that Hampton was, but he'll make up for it with his ability to wreak havoc.

    In limited playing time last season, the 27-year-old McLendon had two sacks and a forced fumble. According to Steel City Insider, he had six quarterback pressures and two tackles for loss in 139 snaps. Meanwhile, Hampton had nine quarterback pressures, five tackles for loss and no forced fumbles in 503 snaps.

    If the Steelers run defense suffers without Hampton, and the Steelers feel they need more bulk at the position, they better hope 348-pound Alameda Ta'amu makes significant strides in his second year.

DE: Ziggy Hood

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    This might be greeted with a collective groan from Steelers fans who are tired of Ziggy Hood's nondescript play.

    The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggested that Hood could move to nose tackle, and Steve McLendon could play defensive end. That might be too many moving parts for a unit that's already losing its big boulder in the middle with Casey Hampton's expected departure.

    Hood hasn't exactly been a bust, but he also hasn't had the impact expected from a first-round draft pick. Pro Football Focus, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, says Hood was the worst pass-rushing defensive end in the league in 2012.

    The thing is, Steelers defensive linemen aren't asked to get to the quarterback. Their job is to occupy blockers. The 6'3", 300-pound Hood helped the Steelers rank second in the NFL against the run last season. He's also made 30 consecutive starts and is the strongest player on the team, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    And don't forget, he'll be in a contract year.

OLB: Draft Pick

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    Steelers defensive rookies tend to watch and learn.

    Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons all had a minimal impact in their rookie year.

    It wasn't always this way.

    In 2001, the Steelers drafted Casey Hampton in the first round and Kendrell Bell in the second round. Hampton started the last 11 games at nose tackle and was a mainstay there for the next 11 years. Bell had nine sacks as a rookie, although his career was cut short by injuries.

    The Steelers are long overdue to draft a defensive player who can start right away. Specifically, they need a pass-rusher to replace James Harrison.

    Jason Worilds is in line to replace Harrison at outside linebacker. That doesn't make opposing quarterbacks shake in their shoes. He has 10 sacks in three seasons, but he doesn't have the presence that Harrison had.

    Look for the Steelers to take a pass-rusher early in the draft, and for that pass-rusher to beat out Worilds for a starting job.

    Then it just becomes a question of who. In 2012, Jarvis Jones of Georgia led the nation in sacks with 14.5, tackles for loss with 24.5 and forced fumbles with seven. However, his spinal stenosis might scare some teams away.

    Jones could be available to the Steelers at No. 17. If he is, they'll have a decision to make after weeks of poring over Jones' medical tests.

    If the Steelers don't get Jones or take him off their board because of medical concerns, they'll need to look elsewhere for a pass-rusher.

    Oregon's Dion Jordan will be off the board by the time the Steelers pick. BYU's Ezekiel Ansah is too raw. LSU's Barkevious Mingo is too inconsistent.

    Damontre Moore of Texas A&M could be on the Steelers' wish list. He had 12.5 sacks last season and goes to the Steelers in Pat Kirwan's mock draft on NFL Draft Scout.

    There will be a learning curve for whoever the Steelers draft to fill the void at outside linebacker. He'll be learning, just not watching.

ILB: Larry Foote

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    Larry Foote posted a career-high 113 tackles and tied his career high with four sacks in 2012. He also forced two fumbles.

    Foote will be 33 next season, but he's the Steelers' best option at that inside linebacker spot. He inherited the defensive signal-calling duties from James Farrior, and there doesn't seem to be anyone who's ready to take that over from Foote.

    That's why the Steelers re-signed Foote. Another reason is there's a huge dropoff behind him on the depth chart at inside linebacker.

    The Steelers didn't bother tendering restricted free agent Stevenson Sylvester, according to ESPN, making him an unrestricted free agent. Sean Spence, the Steelers' third-round draft choice last year, might not play again after suffering a gruesome knee injury in the preseason.

    The Steelers will be happy if Foote can sustain his level of play next season. Meanwhile, they'll look for some depth in the draft.

ILB: Lawrence Timmons

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    The Steelers should have no worries at this spot.

    Lawrence Timmons shared the team lead with six sacks last season. He led the team with three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and was second with 106 combined tackles. He also had 19 quarterback pressures, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Timmons will enter his seventh season with the Steelers, but he'll still only be 27. Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette said he should have made his first Pro Bowl last season. If he can maintain his level of play as he enters his prime, he'll be a Pro Bowler eventually.

OLB: LaMarr Woodley

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    If LaMarr Woodley regains his early 2011 form, when he had nine sacks in the first eight games, Steelers fans should clear their schedules next January. There will be Steelers games to watch.

    Woodley has never been the same since injuring his hamstring in the Steelers' 2011 victory over the Patriots. His health was spotty last season, when he had just four sacks in 13 games.

    The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says the Steelers want Woodley to put more of an emphasis on conditioning during the offseason to curb the injuries.

    To ease the transition of the rookie starter on the other side, Woodley will need to get in the face of opposing quarterbacks more often in 2013.

CB: Cortez Allen

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    If Cortez Allen does what he did in the last five games of 2012, Steelers fans will forgive the front office for letting Keenan Lewis go.

    Allen held his own when Ike Taylor went down with a fractured ankle at Baltimore, breaking up three passes in the Steelers' 23-20 win.

    In the Steelers' Week 16 loss at home to the Bengals, Allen intercepted two passes, broke up three more and forced a fumble as the Steelers tried in vain to keep their playoff hopes alive. He then forced two more fumbles in the season finale.

    The Steelers saw enough to deem Lewis expendable. They never made an offer to keep Lewis, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, even though he was second in the NFL with 23 passes defended in 2012, according to ESPN.com.

    The Saints signed Lewis to a contract within the Steelers' price range.

    Perhaps the Steelers' thinking changed when William Gay became available. When they signed him for a second go-round with the Steelers, they no longer had to worry about replacing Allen at nickel back if Lewis left.

    The Steelers took a risk by not re-signing Lewis. In 2013, Steelers fans will be watching Allen the way Jack watches Gaylord Focker in Meet the Parents.

SS: Troy Polamalu

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    If Troy Polamalu's healthy, he'll start.

    Polamalu almost has become a forgotten man after missing nine games last season with a calf injury. It was the second time in four years he's missed more than half the season with an injury.

    But don't count Polamalu out.

    Between his injury-marred 2009 and 2012 seasons, Polamalu missed just two games in 2010 and 2011. In the last two games of 2012, he had a sack, three passes defended and an interception.

    Sure, Polamalu will be 32 next season, but he's still younger than fellow defenders Larry Foote, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor.

FS: Ryan Clark

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    Ryan Clark was at times the Steelers' best defensive player last season.

    Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked Clark the NFL's No. 8 safety in his B/R NFL 1,000 series.

    Clark will be 34 next season, but the Steelers need at least one more good year out of him, because unless Robert Golden or Da'mon Cromartie-Smith are hidden gems, he won't face much competition to start.

    The good news is the Steelers won't play at Denver in the 2013 regular season.

CB: Ike Taylor

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    Ike Taylor missed the last five games of 2012 with a fractured ankle, but Rotoworld (via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) said Taylor should be healthy enough to participate in the Steelers' entire offseason program.

    Taylor will be 33 next season, but showed no signs of a decline last season before his injury. He broke up 13 passes in 12 games.

    After his season ended at Baltimore, Taylor was missed, particularly in Steelers losses at home to San Diego and at Dallas.

    Ben Roethlisberger's injury in 2012 wasn't the only one that kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.

K: Shaun Suisham

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    Shaun Suisham made 28 of his 31 field-goal attempts in 2012, tying him for eighth in the NFL with a 90 percent conversion rate. His longest field goal was 52 yards, and one of his three misses came from 53 yards and another from 54 yards.

    Suisham is average on kickoffs. He was 21st in the league with a 38.7 touchback percentage.

    There's no reason for the Steelers to make a change at kicker, although they'll probably bring another kicker into training camp just to keep Suisham on his toes, so to speak.

P: Undrafted Free Agent

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    The Steelers would be foolish not to bring a rookie or free agent into training camp to compete with Drew Butler. As a rookie last season, Butler was 28th in the NFL in both average punt distance (43.8 yards) and average net distance (37.8 yards).

    Butler tied for 18th with 26 punts inside the 20. He led all NFL punters with a long of 79 yards, but needs to be more consistent.

KR/PR: Draft Picks or Undrafted Free Agents

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    The Steelers will draft their 2013 kickoff and punt returners in April, or pick them up in undrafted free agency.

    The Steelers are going to take a wide receiver and a running back somewhere in the draft. They'll be the leading candidates to return kicks and punts.

    Rookie Chris Rainey returned 39 of the 43 kickoffs the Steelers received, but he was waived after a January arrest.

    Antonio Brown returned 27 punts last season, and Emmanuel Sanders returned nine. Assuming the Patriots aren't willing to give up a third-round draft pick for Sanders, Brown and Sanders will be the Steelers' starting wide receivers next season. They've graduated from return duties.