Partly due to their organizational philosophy and partly out of necessity, the Pittsburgh Steelers seem content to let another free-agency period come and go without making much of a splash.
Thanks to a payroll swollen by the money paid to the nucleus of a team that reached two Super Bowls in the past five years, the Steelers have had little ability to add new talent during the 2013 free-agency period. So rather than going after high-priced free agents, the team has instead been bidding adieu to established players to clear cap space. The team cut linebacker James Harrison and guard Willie Colon, letting the latter walk to the Jets. As expected, Pittsburgh also allowed safety Ryan Mundy and running back Rashard Mendenhall to join new teams.
The Steelers even stood pat when it came to their two highest-profile free agents. The front office showed little interest in keeping wide receiver Mike Wallace. The five-year, $60-million contract the speedster signed with Miami was considerably more than Pittsburgh was willing to pay. Somewhat surprisingly, the team also balked at pursuing Keenan Lewis. The emerging star cornerback inked a five-year, $25-million contract with the Saints.
Even after all of these departures, the Steelers’ payroll is still barely less than the salary cap. As a result, the team has not pursued many free agents on the open market. The organization added a couple of unexciting pickups—tight end Matt Spaeth and cornerback William Gay. It also re-signed a few of its own veterans—Ramon Foster, Greg Warren, Larry Foote, Plaxico Burress and David Johnson. But given that only Foster and Foote played in more than 150 snaps in 2012, none of those transactions made Twitter explode.
Given the circumstances, it seems unlikely that the team is lying in wait and planning to add a big-name free agent this year. Though Pittsburgh still has numerous needs—a workhorse running back, a third wide receiver, a backup defensive end, an inside linebacker of the future, a backup outside linebacker, a backup cornerback and a future starter at safety—it will probably look to the draft to address them. And that’s probably the right approach for an aging team that needs cheap young talent.
If the franchise were to look to fill the holes mentioned above via free agency, it would obviously have very limited options. Given the Steelers’ budget, the best talent, the players most likely to contribute on the field, would be out of the question. So the team would have to look for unproven young players who have shown a hint of potential or older players who might have one last good season in their tanks.
With that in mind, the following are the best free-agent options available to the Steelers at each position that needs reinforcement heading into the 2013 season. Those players are ranked from the worst to the best bet for the Steelers based on the value propositions presented by their past histories and salaries.
The re-signing of Larry Foote does little to help fortify the interior of the Steelers’ defense. In addition to bringing a nearly 33-year-old player back to the NFL’s oldest defense on a per-snap basis, Pittsburgh also gave another go to 2012’s seventh-worst inside linebacker at stopping the run. Even playing next to one of the league’s best inside linebackers may not be enough to conceal Foote’s weaknesses.
Unfortunately, the Steelers really didn’t have any better options at that position heading into 2013. One backup to Foote and fellow inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is entirely unproven. Second-year player Sean Spence missed the entire 2012 season with a knee injury. The other second-stringer from last year, seven-year pro Brandon Johnson, played two snaps in 2012 and remains an unsigned free agent.
As a result, Pittsburgh could still benefit from signing a solid inside linebacker who can back up and potentially replace Foote. However, there is not an abundance of options available on the free-agent market.
The majority of the good free-agent inside linebackers are too old to be of much use to the Steelers. Karlos Dansby, Nick Barnett, Leroy Hill, D.J. Williams, Scott Fujita and Bart Scott all have nearly as many years of NFL experience as Foote.
The one unrestricted free agent with less than five years in the league and a positive grade from Pro Football Focus is probably not going to fit Pittsburgh’s budget. Former Packers linebacker Brad Jones has attracted the interest of several teams, which likely guarantees him more money in 2013 than the Steelers are willing to pay.
As a result, if the Steelers decide to go shopping for a backup inside linebacker in the league’s bargain bin, one of its only bets is former 49er Tavares Gooden.
Though Gooden has not seen regular action since 2010, he has been playing behind two of the NFL’s best and healthiest inside linebackers: Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Prior to coming to San Francisco in 2011, however, Gooden showed flashes of promise that might make it worthwhile for Pittsburgh to take a flier on him.
In 2009, the only year in his career in which he played in more than 400 snaps, the then-Raven ranked in the top 20 inside linebackers in the league. The following year, Gooden missed nine games due to shoulder and head injuries and was much less effective. The year after that, he was backing up Willis and Bowman in San Francisco.
Is one good season three years ago sufficient for the Steelers to take a flier on him in the hopes that, with health and more use, he turns out to be decent? If the price is right, yes. And given that Gooden made $700,000 last year, the risk associated with giving him a chance is not very big.
With Brett Keisel approaching his 35th birthday and Ziggy Hood grading out as one of the worst defensive ends in the NFL, the Steelers could use some additional depth at the edges of their defensive line. Unfortunately, the supply of 3-4 defensive ends in the 2013 free-agent market is very thin.
The only four who received positive grades from Pro Football Focus in 2012 are already gone (Ricky-Jean Francois and Glenn Dorsey), too old and banged-up (Kenyon Coleman) or a restricted free agent (Arthur Jones). Coming up with any potential free-agent signing at this position, let alone a diamond in the rough, will be next to impossible for the Steelers.
The best of the rest, and the player Pittsburgh should consider if it wants to pick up a defensive end in free agency, is Ropati Pitoitua. Though the former Kansas City Chief was one of the worst players at his position last year according to Pro Football Focus, there are a few things that could make him worth a look.
First, Pitoitua is pretty strong against the run, and the Steelers’ defense needs help in that area. He ranked 21st in stopping the run out of the 34 defensive ends who played in at least 25 percent of their teams’ defensive snaps. He was even better at coming up with big plays, ranking seventh in the percentage of his tackles that resulted in a failed play for the opposing offense.
Second, 2012 was something of a down year for the former Chief. Pitoitua finished 2011 with a slightly positive grade from Pro Football Focus, ranking 19th out of the 32 defensive ends who were on the field for at least 25 percent of their team’s plays. He was almost as effective at stopping running plays as he was last year but was much better at generating pressure on the quarterback.
Fourth, Pitoitua should come pretty cheap. The defensive end made just $1.15 million in 2012, a good $600,000 less than Hood. Given that Pitoitua has not attracted much attention from other teams, it seems unlikely that he will command much more from a potential employer in 2013.
Though the departure of former Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison hurts the Steelers’ linebacking corps, the maturation of Jason Worrilds should help avoid a huge drop-off in production. Without Harrison, though, Pittsburgh is dangerously thin at a very important position. Chris Carter and Al Woods, the Steelers’ probable backup outside linebackers, played a combined 106 snaps in 2012.
As with the 3-4 defensive ends, however, the options available at outside linebacker are pretty limited. Especially after Pittsburgh’s front office passed on one of the best talents at that position.
The Steelers brought in Victor Butler, formerly of Dallas, for a visit on March 15. The linebacker ranked in the top 12 among 3-4 outside linebackers in each of the last three seasons. Butler left the meeting with the Steelers, however, without having signed a contract.
With Butler out of the picture, the next best option for the Steelers is Jamaal Westerman, a four-year pro who spent time on two teams in 2012.
Though certainly no threat to supplant likely starters LaMarr Woodley and Worrilds, Westerman may have what it takes to be a useful backup for Pittsburgh. In very limited duty in each of the past three seasons, the linebacker ranked better than half of the outside linebackers who played a single down in the NFL. More importantly, he received better 2011 and 2012 season grades than Carter or Woods.
Westerman’s specific skills also would help address a particular need that emerged during the Steelers’ 2012 campaign. According to Pro Football Focus, Pittsburgh had the worst pass rush in the NFL last year. In 2011, the year in which Westerman saw the most on-the-field action, the then-Jet was the 14th-most productive pass rusher in the league at his position. If he could duplicate that performance in spot duty for the Steelers, it would certainly help the team generate much-needed pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Having made just $615,000 in 2012, Westerman can also be had for bargain-basement prices. With that in mind, the Steelers should consider picking him up if they decide to look for an outside linebacker on the free-agent market this year.
Though losing one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks will hurt the Steelers’ pass defense in 2013, the team may not suffer a huge loss in production next season. Obscured by Lewis’s breakout year was a very strong season from Cortez Allen. The two-year pro out of The Citadel quietly finished the season as the 17th-best cornerback among players who appeared in at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps. He was particularly strong in coverage, ranking 14th among the same group.
Presumably competing with Allen for the second starting cornerback job will be prodigal son William Gay. The former Steeler returns to the team after a terrible one-year stint with the Arizona Cardinals. One of the few players that Pittsburgh signed away from another team this offseason, Gay was the eighth-worst cornerback in the NFL last year.
Though there is a chance that Gay could return to being the decent player he was with the Steelers in 2010 and 2011, the team could certainly use an insurance policy. Especially considering the only other backup corner on the roster, Curtis Brown, played in just 83 snaps last year and ranked 184th out of the 217 players who lined up at his position.
With that in mind, a player who could give them some much-needed depth at cornerback is Marquice Cole, formerly of the New England Patriots. The four-year veteran graded out in the top third of NFL cornerbacks in each of the past three seasons and cost New England just $650,000 last year.
Though a good run defender, ranking eighth among pro corners at stuffing opposing teams’ running plays in 2012, he is an even better cover corner. Cole finished the season in the top half of the league’s cornerbacks in yards allowed per snap in coverage and receptions allowed per snap in coverage.
Arguably more important given that he would probably log most of his time in nickel packages, the former Patriot performed particularly well when covering slot receivers. In 2010 and 2012, he finished in the top 50 percent of NFL cornerbacks in both yards allowed per snap in coverage and receptions allowed per snap in coverage when lining up opposite other teams’ inside receivers.
With former Pro Bowlers Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark as starters, the safety positions are arguably Pittsburgh’s strongest on the defensive side of the ball. When the two are both on the field, that is.
With a combined age of 64 years, the two star safeties are increasingly likely to miss games due to injury. Though the 33-year-old Clark has largely been healthy the past few years, his 31-year-old partner in the defensive backfield has struggled to stay on the field. Polamalu has been sidelined for 20 games in the past four seasons.
As bad as Mundy was in 2012, the four-year pro did at least give the Steelers some experience behind Polamalu and Clark. With Mundy headed to New York and fellow backup Will Allen still an unsigned free agent, Pittsburgh has suddenly become very thin at this position. The players behind Mundy and Allen on the depth chart, Robert Golden and Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, appeared in just 41 defensive plays last year.
Fortunately, the team has lots of good options available to it in the free-agent market. Though top-quality safeties like Kerry Rhodes and Quintin Mikell are too old and probably too expensive to be of use to the Steelers, there is enough depth in the crop of free-agent safeties that Pittsburgh should find a good one for a low price if it chooses to go that route.
For example, the team could target Corey Lynch, formerly of the San Diego Chargers. The safety ranked 32nd among the 88 players who lined up at his position for at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps last year. Lynch was particularly good at locking down opposing receivers in 2012, ranking in the top third of all NFL safeties in receptions per snap in coverage.
More importantly, Lynch improved San Diego’s chances of winning the games in which he played more than most other safeties helped their teams. Lynch ranked 37th among his peers in the amount his positive plays increased the Chargers’ probability of emerging victorious in their contests.
Not bad for a player who cost just $700,000 in 2012.
Mendenhall’s departure was not unexpected and does not make the Steelers’ backfield much worse in 2013. It would be hard for Pittsburgh’s ground game to be much less productive, considering it ranked 31st in the league in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average last year.
Though Mendenhall certainly contributed to that poor output, turning in the eighth-lowest Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) of any running back in the league in 2012, his running mates didn’t give the team much hope that its post-Mendenhall future was it good hands. Jonathan Dwyer finished with the ninth-lowest DYAR, and Isaac Redman finished with the 20th-lowest. Obviously, neither made a compelling case that he could be Pittsburgh’s feature back in 2013.
With that in mind, the Steelers could certainly use an upgrade at this position going into the next season. Should they choose to pursue such a player in the free-agent market, they may want to consider Ryan Grant, the ex-Green Bay Packer.
Though Grant has not gotten much usage since missing nearly all of the 2010 season due to an ankle injury, the six-year pro has been fairly effective when he has touched the ball. Grant finished the 2012 campaign with 16 DYAR, meaning he was better than a replacement-level player. He was also 5.5 percent more valuable than said average running back on a play-by-play basis.
If the Steelers were to sign Grant, they would also be getting a player who is relatively fresher than most running backs his age. For example, though the former Notre Dame star has been in the league two more years than All-Pro Arian Foster, he has logged 54 fewer carries as a result of injuries.
Those injuries are obviously the greatest risk associated with bringing in Grant. At his age, the likelihood that he will miss significant time again is pretty high. But given that his 2012 salary was just $700,001, that is a risk without a lot of financial downside for the Steelers.
Going after an older player in free agency probably doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Steelers. With most of the core of the franchise’s two recent Super Bowl teams inching toward the conclusions of their careers, the team needs to get younger if it wants to compete for the playoffs again soon.
If it does decide to pursue a veteran with a few more miles on his tires, then it should do so on the offensive side of the ball. The snap-weighted age of that unit was the fourth-lowest in the NFL last year, meaning it could take on a veteran or two without qualifying for AARP.
One such player who could help the team overcome the loss of Wallace is Kevin Walter, whom the Houston Texans recently released to free up cap space. Bringing on the 31-year-old would allow the Steelers to split current slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders out wide without losing too much production in the interior. The former Texan is a reasonably effective possession receiver who might be looking at a pay cut due to his age and the fact that many teams needing wideouts have already signed other free agents.
Even if Walter does command the $2 million that he got from the Texans last year, his production may justify that salary. As Houston’s third option in 2012, Walter caught 41 passes for 518 yards and two touchdowns. Thanks to similar numbers in the previous two seasons, the 10-year veteran has averaged more than 12 yards per catch during the past few years.
By comparison, the current Steelers receiver with whom Walter probably would compete, Jerricho Cotchery, has averaged a little less than 25 receptions and 300 yards receiving over the past three seasons. This production came at approximately the same cost as Walter’s.
Walter was also considerably more effective than Cotchery by other measures. With 79 DYAR, the former Texans receiver was the 49th-most efficient receiver in the league and easily outdid Cotchery, who finished with 32.
Given the depth at the wide receiver spot in this year’s draft and the likelihood that the Steelers could pick up a quality wideout as late as the second or third round, it probably makes more sense for Pittsburgh to pursue a replacement for Wallace through that avenue. If the front office decides that free agency is a better path, though, the team could do worse than picking up Kevin Walter.