Regardless of how this season ends for the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are going to be some significant changes in the offseason. Last week, I outlined how I would handle the free agents currently on the roster and proposed that some of the highest salaries on the roster would have to take significant pay cuts or move on as well.
This week, I want to talk about four priority free agents whom the Steelers should consider, if they are willing to go scorched earth on the roster's dead weight. And while I concede that great teams are built through the draft, when you have so many young players on a roster, simply adding more youth isn't always a sound strategy. Bolstering a roster with quality veterans gives the team an anchor in its positional units to build from with that young talent.
Now, before any of you pipe up about contracts and the salary cap, understand this: I am looking at these players from the perspective of talent, age and fit on the Steelers roster. Also, as I mentioned in a previous article, deep cuts will be made, which will result in big bags of salary-cap cash.
So, let's take a look at my four-pack of free agents who could fix this team in a hurry. The numerical ranking next to the player's name is his current positional ranking, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
4. Aqib Talib, Cornerback (11th)
If age is catching up to any area of the Steelers defense, it is in the secondary. Key among that unit is cornerback Ike Taylor. He is 33 years old and has a 2014 cap hit of nearly $12 million, so it could be time for Pittsburgh to move on.
Talib is essentially a younger version of Taylor. He is developing into the type of player who can fill the role that Taylor has on this defense. Line him up in man coverage on the other team's best receiver and forget about the threat. And he will smother that pass-catcher while being six years younger than Taylor.
Of the four players on this list, I'd likely rank Talib fourth in terms of importance. If the Steelers can fix their pass rush, the need for investing huge money into the secondary will be minimized. However, as a backup plan, adding Talib would make a lot of sense.
3. Brandon Pettigrew, Tight End (43rd)
There is no doubt that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wants to feature the tight end in this offense. The problems are that starter Heath Miller is back but not healthy and the depth behind him is mediocre at best.
Pettigrew is having something of a down season, primarily because the Detroit Lions have found an additional receiving option in running back Reggie Bush. Also, Calvin Johnson is having a massive season. But you only have to go back to 2011 to see Pettigrew as a focal point of the passing offense to the tune of 83 catches for 777 yards.
The status of multiple Steelers wide receivers is in question this upcoming offseason, so adding Pettigrew could allow the Steelers to save money on their wide receivers and give the team a dynamic two tight end look.
2. Branden Albert, Offensive Tackle (22nd)
No position on this roster is in more dire need of an upgrade than offensive tackle. I understand that. However, this team has spent high draft picks on offensive tackles in recent years, and the return on those picks hasn't come to fruition. So, from a philosophical standpoint, it could be more prudent to attack the problem of offensive tackle via free agency as opposed to yet another draft pick.
Albert is a bit of an enigma because he has played well this year for what the Kansas City Chiefs are asking of their offense. With their 2013 first-round pick Eric Fisher waiting in the wings to take over at left tackle, the Chiefs might want to move forward without him. The Steelers would do well to snatch him up.
That's not to say the offensive tackle situation is hopeless, but with the rash of injuries that have struck the Steelers, many players who are more suited to play in situational roles are being thrust into full-time starting positions. Albert would provide them a fixed point at left tackle and assuming center Maurkice Pouncey can return, a very talented left side of the offensive line.
Also, with the Steelers' tendency to employ extra offensive linemen as run-blockers, having Albert in the mix would mean they have much greater flexibility in their formations.
1. Paul Soliai, Defensive Tackle (24th)
A key component of any 3-4 defense is its interior. The nose tackle position and the inside linebackers must be working with synergy and complement each other. This season, I just don't see that with nose tackle Steve McLendon and inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams.
Part of this stems from the lack of physical advantage from McLendon. His actual weight has been a mystery for years, but the eyeball test says he is not the big, bulky interior player that this defense demands.
Speaking of big and bulky, enter Soliai. Conservatively, he is an inch shorter than McLendon but 20 pounds heavier, and he plays like it. He does a great job as an anchor in the middle of the defensive line. After more than a decade of defensive tackle Casey Hampton terrorizing the middle of opposing offenses, it's clear the Steelers need to get that type of player again.
Do I expect the Steelers to sign all these players? Of course not. Nevertheless, if they could get two of these players on board, they would have more flexibility when the NFL draft comes around and wouldn't be forced to reach for positions of need.