As teams around the NFL are making big splashes in free agency, the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to sit idle and examine what sifts through the cracks. This has been their free-agency philosophy for years.
The Steelers watch from the sidelines as the free-agency frenzy begins, then make several inexpensive signings to fill the holes in their roster. It has been a pretty successful philosophy.
But with this free-agency strategy, many fans get anxious and frustrated with the team since it is not a big spender and even call the team “cheap.” That is not the case at all.
Rather than spend big dollars on outside free agents, the Steelers have historically used their cap space on re-signing their own talent to long-term deals.
In recent years, the Steelers have spent a lot of money on Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Heath Miller, Ike Taylor and LaMarr Woodley. Just last year, they signed Antonio Brown to a contract extension after it became apparent that Mike Wallace would not sign a deal.
This year should be no different as there are a number of players who only have one year remaining on their contracts.
Here are seven players who the Steelers should consider giving contract extensions to.
Jonathan Dwyer did not waste any time signing his tender as he “wanted to prove a point,” according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. That point is that he is dedicated to becoming the top running back on the team.
Last year was a disappointment for the Steelers’ running game as it was one of the worst in the league with only 1,537 yards for an average of 3.7 yards per carry and eight touchdowns.
While Dwyer was part of the problem, he did have the best season of all of the Steelers’ backs.
Dwyer finished with 623 yards while averaging 4.0 yards per carry and had two touchdowns. He also added 18 receptions for 106 yards.
Those numbers are not particularly impressive, but when you consider the state of the offensive line last season and how Dwyer performed by comparison to Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall, he did have a solid year.
Dwyer has the potential to be a feature back, but he does have to improve his conditioning as he has never carried the ball more than 20 times in a game.
The incentive to signing Dwyer to an extension now is that he should come relatively cheap given his lack of production and he still has some upside.
At the very least, Dwyer would provide the Steelers with a valuable backup running back for the future, and they should consider working out a deal with him this season.
If Sanders signs an extension this offseason, he would join Antonio Brown as the long-term answer at receiver for the Steelers.
Sanders is a polished route-runner who has good quickness and deceptive speed to get downfield. He also is not afraid to go over the middle of the field and can play both the inside and outside.
However, despite such a diverse skill set, Sanders has not established himself as a top receiver quite yet. Because of this, he should not command top dollar and would be an affordable option for the Steelers.
After struggling with injuries over his first couple of seasons, Sanders was finally able to contribute last season, putting up 44 receptions for 626 yards and a team-high 14.2 yards per reception. However, his one touchdown demonstrates his lack of production in the red zone.
But with Wallace gone, Sanders will play a more prominent role in Pittsburgh’s offense this season if he returns, and the Steelers should strike a contract extension with him before he puts up bigger numbers.
Just like Dwyer, the goal would be to sign Sanders before a breakout season so they can have a quality offensive weapon at a fair price for years to come.
On the defensive side of the ball, Steve McLendon is in the same situation as Dwyer and Sanders. The only difference is that McLendon has yet to have the opportunity to start.
This year, he will finally get his chance as Casey Hampton is a free agent and is likely to sign elsewhere.
McLendon displayed incredible strength in training camp and the preseason and was flat-out dominant at times.
Not only is McLendon solid against the run, but he offers the ability to rush the passer, which is something that the Steelers have rarely seen from their nose tackles.
The Steelers placed the lowest tender on McLendon and not one team has given him an offer, which is mildly surprising considering it would require no compensation.
Considering his lack of value on the open market, the Steelers could sign McLendon to a long-term deal at a very team-friendly price.
If he starts, he will be compensated as a new, unproven starter, and if not, McLendon would be a fairly paid backup just as Chris Hoke was for years.
Moving on from the young players, Brett Keisel will be in an interesting situation. The Steelers have invested two first-round draft choices on defensive ends in recent years, and it is past time for these players to not just contribute, but help carry the defense.
As it stands now, Keisel’s presence in the starting lineup is preventing Cameron Heyward from starting. That could be the case again this season, even though Heyward has flashed potential in his limited time.
At some point, the Steelers will have to put the younger players in the lineup, meaning that Keisel would be a highly paid veteran as a backup. Having too many high-priced veterans on the decline is one reason that the Steelers have cap problems right now.
But considering that the Steelers like to use a rotation on their defensive line, having three or four quality options is essential, and Keisel probably has at least another two or three seasons of good football left in him.
Keisel would have to reduce his salary, but he would be a valuable option to use in the Steelers defensive line rotation for the next two or three seasons, and he should be a candidate for an extension.
Ryan Clark is another veteran who has played a major role for the Steelers defense, but he is now on the downside of his career.
Even though he may have been the Steelers' most consistent defender in 2012, at some point the Steelers are going to have to move on from Clark. The problem with allowing him to walk after the 2013 season is that the Steelers currently do not have his replacement on the roster.
Oftentimes, the Steelers sign low-priced veterans as a stopgap option until a young player is ready to take over. The Steelers should just sign Clark to an extension now so he can help groom his future replacement.
However, they do need to wait on any potential contract talks.
If the Steelers select a safety in this year’s draft, they will have no need to sign Clark. However, if they do not select a safety, Clark will likely be the Steelers' best option moving into 2014 and they will need to lock him up for at least one more season.
Unproven is the best way to describe Jason Worilds. That makes discussing his future rather difficult.
Worilds is in the Keenan Lewis situation this season.
Last year, Lewis started for the first time after struggling through the first part of his career. It was a make-or-break season for Lewis.
Lewis stepped up and became a solid starter and earned a contract from the New Orleans Saints. Whether he cost too much for the Steelers or if they just did not want to sign him may never be known, but the end result is that the Steelers lost one of their up-and-coming cornerbacks.
Worilds is in the same situation.
He did not show much early in his career and has had a number of injuries that have held him back, but he flashed enough potential last season that he could earn the starting job at outside linebacker this season.
Worilds could come out next season, get 10 sacks and earn a massive contract offer from another team. That would leave the Steelers looking for his replacement. But Worilds could also get five sacks, and the Steelers could easily allow him to walk away.
It will be interesting to see if they offer Worilds an extension. If they do, it means they have confidence in him moving forward and can sign him to a relatively cheap contract extension this year. If not, they will make him prove himself and risk losing him as a free agent next season.
While the other players in the final year of their contracts are either young and unproven or veterans near the end, Evander "Ziggy" Hood presents a completely different problem.
Hood is a former first-round pick who was selected to take over for Aaron Smith. He has done just that, but the results have not been overly impressive.
It has taken Hood a long time to develop, and he is average at best so far.
Every year, it seems as though Hood struggles early in the season, but then plays his best football once December hits. That is not good enough for a starter.
One of Hood’s primarily responsibilities is to occupy blockers and to stop the run. He does not do either particularly well.
Teams not only are not afraid to run in Hood’s direction, they will actually design their offense to go his way. His lack of dominance upfront may also be part of the reason that LaMarr Woodley disappears for long stretches of time.
But despite his struggles, the Steelers should extend Hood this year.
Like all of the other players mentioned, Hood should not command top dollar, and they need to capitalize on signing him while his value is low.
They may not be blockbuster deals, but the Steelers should take advantage of locking up their role players to team-friendly contracts. Not every player on the roster can be a star, and the Steelers have a number of players who can help the team win now—and in the future—and can have them at a low cost if they sign them now.