The four teams in the AFC North have been very active with both arrivals and departures this offseason. Only the Cincinnati Bengals have been relatively quiet so far.
With all of those changes, how can the Pittsburgh Steelers best position themselves for a run at the division title in 2013? Can they compete despite losing some big names?
Here’s a look at what the Steelers must do to earn a division crown next season.
Pittsburgh has been rumored to have interest in free-agent defensive end Elvis Dumervil. If that interest is serious, the Steelers should move quickly to sign a player who would be James Harrison’s replacement.
Dumervil is a younger player who could slide back to the outside linebacker position in the 3-4 defense. He wasn’t playing to the contract he’d signed, but Pittsburgh can probably get him for less than that original number and certainly less than what James Harrison was set to make before his release.
Getting a pass-rusher opposite LaMarr Woodley is essential because it ensures that the team will not be in trouble if Woodley has another down year. It also keeps Pittsburgh from having to rely on the unproven Jason Worilds in Harrison’s old spot.
Wide receiver may not seem like a major need for a team that has virtually no running backs, an aging defense and a lot of holes, but the Pittsburgh Steelers could use a shot in the arm at the position whether or not Emmanuel Sanders leaves via restricted free agency.
Tavon Austin is the player to target. He’s a burner with excellent speed that can tear the top off a defense. He will force defenses to respect him and open up holes for Antonio Brown and the team’s other receivers to exploit. He makes everyone around him more dangerous.
But Pittsburgh also needs to balance the need at one position with that same need at many spots. The best way to combat that problem is to move back in the first round via trade to accumulate more draft picks.
If the Steelers move back to the end of the round, they will miss out on Austin. At that point, Keenan Allen is the player to target. He hasn’t gotten much attention yet, but Allen is a great receiver who fits perfectly into this system with his excellent hands.
Jonathan Dwyer’s re-signing early in free agency was a good thing. He proved that he could contribute in some role with Pittsburgh, and he could be developed into a short-yardage specialist or a pounding force for late in games when the opposing defense is worn.
Pittsburgh, however, needs to set up an effective multi-back system to be successful. The draft is the best place to reload since the free-agent options aren’t very enticing this year.
Montee Ball, Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell, Ray Graham and Stepfan Taylor are all good system fits that will be available in various rounds. Bell and Ball are probably the best values in this draft because they’ll be available longer than they should be.
If Pittsburgh wants to add a speed back like Willie Parker or Chris Rainey to their fold this year, Theo Riddick would be the best option for late in the draft. With an extra sixth-round choice (the round where Riddick projects to go), it’s a perfect way to inject a ton of youth and talent into a position that was a tremendous disappointment last year.
The re-signing of Larry Foote makes the inside linebacker position a lot more sure than it was a month ago, but Foote is nothing more than a one or two-year solution.
Getting some youth at the position is important. Again, the draft is where to find it.
Kiko Alonso out of Oregon projects as a mid-round selection and would be a good fit on the interior of the Pittsburgh defense because he’s a good, athletic prospect with great instincts and intelligence. He could eventually shift outside because of his ability, but would be a great developmental guy next season before starting somewhere on the defense in 2014.
Even if the Steelers sign Elvis Dumervil, they need to add someone on the outside like Khaseem Greene or Arthur Brown that can replace the useless Chris Carter as a backup player and project. Carter has shown that he won’t become more than a special teams guy.
One of the trends for Pittsburgh is that they are shirking free agency to build through the draft as they work to get out from under some heavy contracts.
That’s a great way to build a younger, more talented, deeper roster, but the Steelers don’t have the picks to do it right now.
The easiest way to make the most of what they have is to use the 17th overall choice as a bargaining chip on draft day. Once a team is hungry for a specific player, sell the pick to them for as many draft choices as they’re willing to surrender.
There’s no big need to have a first-round choice. Keenan Allen will be available late in that round and possibly at the top of the second round. If Pittsburgh misses out on him, they could always draft Stedman Bailey in the second or third round.
If Pittsburgh can pick up multiple mid-round selections, it will be worth the price of missing on the first-round players. In the end, the Steelers will need to have around 10-12 selections to really make a marvelous impact on the roster.