At 1-4, the Steelers' playoff hopes are still flickering. But they have a long way to go before anyone can mention them as a playoff contender and keep a straight face.
Therefore, the Steelers must operate with an eye on the future. Like they do every offseason, they'll try to improve their team with cost-effective role players in free agency. Here's an early look at players who should be on the Steelers' free-agency radar for 2014.
Stats are from NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Contract information is from Spotrac, unless otherwise noted.
Even if 2013 fourth-round draft pick Shamarko Thomas is ready to take over Clark's starting job, the Steelers will still need depth at safety. They brought back 31-year-old Will Allen to replace injured Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The only other safety on the roster is Robert Golden, and it's hard to shake the disturbing image of Golden being pancaked by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in Week 3.
Husain Abdullah returned an interception 44 yards for a touchdown in the Chiefs' 24-7 win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders. The 28-year-old has started one game this season and has broken up four passes and shared a sack. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he also has four quarterback hurries.
Abdullah, who sat out the 2012 season for religious reasons, according to Rotoworld, is working for $715,000 this season. If Thomas can succeed Clark, the Steelers can save money with Abdullah as a quality backup.
The Steelers have a tendency to grab free-agent linebackers who earn their living playing special teams.
The 24-year-old Bellore has four total tackles and an assisted tackle on kickoffs this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Andre Caldwell, 28, would be a younger version of Jerricho Cotchery.
If 2013 third-round draft pick Markus Wheaton earns the No. 3 receiver spot, Caldwell would seamlessly take over for Cotchery as the No. 4 receiver. At 6'0", 200 pounds, Caldwell is just about the same size as Cotchery.
If Wheaton doesn't develop as quickly as the Steelers hope, they'll need to fortify their receiving corps through free agency, especially with Emmanuel Sanders unsigned beyond this season.
While Peyton Manning has been putting up video-game-type numbers this season, Caldwell has been lost in the shuffle behind Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. Caldwell has just four receptions over the past two seasons.
There was a time, however, when Caldwell was a productive receiver. He caught 51 passes to help the Cincinnati Bengals win the AFC North in 2009. Then in 2011, he caught 37 passes as the Bengals reached the playoffs.
Caldwell would be a bargain for the Steelers if he can return to his pre-Denver form.
The Steelers need a steady backup for Heath Miller at tight end.
David Paulson's stint as his replacement this season will be remembered mostly for a momentum-killing fumble at Cincinnati.
David Johnson has had trouble staying healthy. He sat out last season with a torn ACL and suffered what could be major wrist and hand injuries against the Jets on Sunday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Matt Spaeth (remember him?) can come back in Week 9 after being placed on the injured reserve-designated to return list. Spaeth has never caught more than 17 passes in a season, and that was in 2008. However, he received a perfect blocking grade from Bleacher Report's Matt Miller in his B/R NFL 1,000 series after the 2012 season.
The Steelers are quite familiar with the 26-year-old Jeff Cumberland. It wasn't enough to beat the Steelers, but Cumberland posted a career-high 59 receiving yards and tied his career high with four catches on Sunday.
The 6'4", 260-pound Cumberland had a breakout season with 29 receptions and three touchdowns in 2012. He's on pace to match that with 11 receptions and two touchdowns this season.
The Steelers need to improve the supporting cast for rookie Le'Veon Bell at running back.
Behind him are Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Felix Jones. Dwyer already has been cut once. Redman hasn't had a carry since Week 2. Jones is a chronic underachiever.
Third-down back LaRod Stephens-Howling was signed during the offseason, but he tore his ACL during the season opener.
Rashad Jennings, 28, is averaging 3.9 yards per carry this season. Dwyer is averaging 3.2. Jennings also has caught 12 passes and has 73 receptions in his four-year career.
Jennings could inject some new blood into the Steelers running game and help them move on from the not-so-dynamic duo of Dwyer and Redman.
The Steelers could lose two defensive ends after this season. Brett Keisel is 35 and in the final year of his contract. It will be difficult for the Steelers to keep him around at his age.
Ziggy Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward. There's a good chance the Steelers will move on from Hood when he becomes a free agent in 2014.
That would leave the Steelers looking for a defensive end.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks the 28-year-old Fili Moala 21st in the NFL among 3-4 defensive ends. That's one spot behind Heyward, 12 spots ahead of Keisel and 20 spots ahead of Hood.
The 6'4", 308-pound Moala, who has started two games this season, equals Keisel and Hood with seven quarterback hurries even though he's played 134 snaps this season compared to 258 for Keisel and 223 for Hood.
Even if the Steelers re-sign Keisel, age could suddenly catch up to him. They should consider signing Moala as insurance, especially if Hood is gone.