Free Agents, Draft Picks That Could Fill Pittsburgh's Biggest Needs
As the Pittsburgh Steelers stare down consecutive non-winning seasons, attention turns to the offseason and how they can try to turn things around for this storied franchise.
In the salary-cap age, franchises have one of two ways to go. If a team chooses to delve into the free-agent pool and spend big bucks, and it works, it offers a serious return on investment.
The problem with this approach is that in many cases, pulling in high-priced veterans could backfire if they do not produce and the team is now strapped to the contract.
This means that many teams, like the Steelers, choose not to dip their toes in the free-agent pool and instead build via the draft. When the draft works, it affords a franchise a pool of young talent for chunks of seasons that aren't cost prohibitive.
Looking back at the past few seasons, the Steelers have become reactionary to some misses in the draft and have overspent in order to keep veterans on the roster and remain competitive.
Now we are at a crossroads. Bad contracts have piled up, and there are young players on the roster who haven't developed. This means the Steelers are going to have some hard decisions to make in order to fill what are some glaring holes on both sides of the football.
Here's a look at some of the biggest positions of need and some players who can fit the bill.
It seems like it would be obvious that offensive tackle would be the top need on this team. However, this team already has two first-round picks and two second-round picks committed to the offensive line in the past three drafts. With the failings of young tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, it could be prudent to steer clear of the draft and instead look for an upgrade along the offensive line.
The Draft: Greg Robinson, Auburn
Greg Robinson is an impressive young player who could find himself selecting in the top 10 of the draft should he choose to declare. His ability to get to the second level and his physical skills are elite.
Free Agent: Jared Vedlheer, Oakland Raiders
Jared Veldheer has missed the bulk of the 2013 season with injury, but looking back at his body of work prior to this year, it appears he would be an immediate improvement over anyone on the roster. The Raiders will certainly want to re-sign Veldheer, and so this would be a rather large financial investment.
Of all the hard decisions the Steelers may need to make, how they handle cornerback Ike Taylor is one of the most sensitive. Taylor has been a great pro; however, his contract is bloated in comparison to his production, particularly down the stretch.
The Steelers could hope to go into 2014 with cornerbacks William Gay and Cortez Allen, but beyond them, there is very little to be excited about, and both could be better suited to a backup role.
The Draft: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
One of the most enticing facets of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu's game is his history as a safety. The Steelers employ a lot of big nickel and dime with additional safeties as opposed to strictly cornerbacks. Ekpre-Olomu is a physical coverage player and willing run defender. While he lacks ideal size he is an excellent fit for the Steelers.
Free Agent: Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins
Along similar lines as Ekpre-Olomu, Brent Grimes is a physical player who doesn't shy away from taking on the opposition's best player. Grimes is going to be pricey, but he could be a seamless transition as a starter and allow a player like cornerback William Gay to stay as that hard-nosed nickel cornerback.
For all the negative press the offensive line gets, it could be the safeties who have let the team down the most. Starting safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu are past their prime, and this team must move forward.
While the hope is that Shamarko Thomas will come back healthy and ready to contribute in 2014, it is very unclear if there is anyone else on the roster ready to step up. Again, this is a decision about formations. The Steelers shade Polamalu so far up to the line of scrimmage, they need better coverage players on the back end.
The Draft: HaHa Clinton-Dix, Alabama
HaHa Clinton-Dix is one of the best all-around safeties in the country and with every round of film study, impresses a little more. At 6'1" and 208 pounds, he has the size to cover big physical tight ends, but he has the speed and athleticism to run with wideouts. A pairing of Thomas and Clinton-Dix would be quite formidable.
Free Agent: Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills
You can bet that Jairus Byrd will be expensive. That doesn't mean he isn't worth it. Byrd is one of the most talented safeties in the league when healthy, and assuming he returns to full health, he will again rank among the best in the league. His ability to play the deep middle and close on the football makes him a great fit in the role that Clark plays now.
As much as I like defensive tackle Steve McLendon, he is not the type of player that can best fit the Steelers 3-4 defense. This team needs a massive interior player who commands constant double-teams and can do more than just take up blockers.
The Draft: Louis Nix III, Notre Dame
When it comes to massive, disruptive players, Louis Nix III is the cream of the crop in the 2014 draft. He is a natural nose tackle with serious strength and nice athleticism for the position. Nix would certainly remind Steelers fans of former great Casey Hampton.
Free Agent: Paul Soliai, Miami Dolphins
The closest player on the free-agent market to remind of Nix is Paul Soliai. He is bigger and stronger at the point of attack than McLendon, and he does a much better job drawing attention to himself. It's hard to say how much Soliai's asking price will be, but if his demands aren't cost prohibitive, he could be near the top of the list.
How badly the Steelers will need a wide receiver will depend greatly on who they chose to re-sign. Both Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders will test the waters, and really the Steelers only need to sign one to keep wide receiver off their radar.
The Draft: Sammy Watkins, Clemson
If the Steelers really want to make a splash in the NFL draft, going up and getting Sammy Watkins. Watkins paired up with wide receivers Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton would be incredibly dynamic. Watkins is the top wide receiver in the draft by a significant stretch, with his ability to make plays all over the field.
Free Agent: Kris Durham, Detroit Lions
One thing the Steelers have been missing since wide receiver Plaxico Burress was at his best is a big target on the outside. Kris Durham is a huge receiver at 6'6" and has a massive catch radius. Durham could be had on the cheap compared to some of the other available players, and he wouldn't cost a draft pick.
No matter how great tight end Heath Miller is and has been, the Steelers need to begin to look to the future. Tight end David Paulson and Matt Spaeth are nice players, but they do not have the potential to be the type of starter the Steelers need. When you figure in Miller's contract, it becomes more clear why this is a need.
The Draft: Eric Ebron, North Carolin
Eric Ebron is a new-school tight end. He's a little smaller than Miller but faster and far more athletic. As a weapon in the middle of the field, Ebron is as dangerous as any wide receiver in the draft. He would add an element to the passing game that even at his best Miller can't give them.
Free Agent: Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens
Ebron would likely cost a late first-round pick, which could really be better used elsewhere. Instead the Steelers could snatch up Dennis Pitta, who is very much like Miller in stature and style of play. Not to mention, poaching a player like Pitta from a division rival would be pretty damn sweet.