It is quite remarkable in a season in which Ben Roethlisberger started all 16 games that the Steelers would once again finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs. This means that Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert will be in the same situation as he was following the 2012 season.
Colbert promised changes to the roster following the Steelers' disappointing 2012 season, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"When you're 12-4 and a playoff team, sometimes you get mesmerized by your success and you get a little reluctant to change," Colbert said.
"If we don't change a roster that produced 8-8, we'd be silly to expect a better result because it's the same group of guys. ... I guess it's easier to make decisions to change when you're 8-8 than when you're 12-4."
Despite the changes, the Steelers' record remained the same, so you have to figure that Colbert will have even more moves planned for the 2014 offseason. However, after a strong finish to the 2013 season with eight wins in their final 12 games, how significant will these changes be?
That will be determined over the next few months, but there will certainly be plenty for Colbert and the rest of the Steelers brass to consider when it comes to contracts. But keep in mind that the Steelers always believe that they are a contender and will feel confident following their 8-4 finish to the season.
With that said, there are a number of important players at or nearing the end of their contracts, and the Steelers will have to decide whether it is worth keeping them around for the future or if it is time to move in another direction.
For the Steelers, it will be about putting the best football team out on the field in 2014, and that may make for some surprising roster moves (or non-moves). Here are 10 key players to keep an eye on as the Steelers evaluate their contract status for next season and beyond.
According to Joel Corry of CBSSports.com, the Steelers are projected to be about $10 million over the 2014 salary cap. The good news is with a few moves, they can get under that number and have some room to work with.
The easiest move will involve the release of Levi Brown.
Brown was acquired via trade from the Arizona Cardinals earlier this season, but he would never play a down for the Steelers after suffering a triceps injury during pregame warm-ups in his first game with the team.
That helped open up the door for Kelvin Beachum to take over at left tackle, and he has done a solid job. At the very least, he will enter training camp as the incumbent starter, meaning that the Steelers can part ways with Brown.
By releasing Brown, the Steelers will save $6.25 million of cap space without losing a key member of their roster.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport set off a firestorm in Pittsburgh when he tweeted that Ben Roethlisberger would "explore trade options after 2013."
The Steelers were in the midst of a 2-6 start to their season, and the talk of big changes was running rampant in Pittsburgh. But even so, the trade rumors were hard to believe.
A strong finish to the season—including some outstanding football by Roethlisberger—has all but eliminated the trade talk. Instead, the words "contract extension" have come up more often than not.
In recent years, the Steelers have extended their quarterback's contract when there were two years remaining. That is the situation that Roethlisberger is in now, and you should fully expect a deal to be worked out this offseason.
Not only would it lock Roethlisberger up for what may be the rest of his career, but it would also reduce his cap hit, which is at $18,895,000 next year and $18,395,000 in 2015. He is open to doing what it takes to remain in Pittsburgh for the remainder of his career.
"Obviously I will do whatever I need to do," Roethlisberger said via Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "That's something that can be discussed when the time comes. It's not really my thing. I play football. I have people to deal with all that stuff. I will do whatever it takes to stay here and be a part of this team and help this team win."
With three of their top four defensive ends slated to be free agents in 2014, the Steelers are going to be very thin at the position unless they make a move or two.
Nick Williams and Brian Arnfelt provide the Steelers with a couple of solid developmental prospects, but they appear to be another season or two away from contributing. Rather than counting on these unproven prospects, the Steelers should re-sign a proven vet.
As much as Brett Keisel has meant to this team over the years, he has had issues staying healthy and is 35 years old. It is time to move on.
Instead, the Steelers should sign Ziggy Hood to a short-term deal until they can find a better option.
Hood is only 26 years old and has not missed a game. While he has been a disappointment as a former first-round draft pick, Hood is still a capable starter and should not cost a fortune.
If Kevin Colbert had a time machine, do you think he'd go back to the 2013 offseason and negotiate a deal with Keenan Lewis? I do.
The Steelers used to build their team by releasing older veterans on the downside of their careers, freeing cap room to sign young players with upside.
That wasn't the case with the late-blooming Lewis, and they will find themselves in a very similar situation with Jason Worilds this year.
The development of Worilds has been hampered by injuries, and it wasn't until he took over for LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker that he really begin to make a name for himself.
After 10 sacks in his first three seasons, Worilds has eight sacks this year, including seven in the past eight games. On top of this, he is sixth on the team with 63 tackles.
Signing Worilds won't be without risk.
Prior to the second half of this season, Worilds was a disappointment. It took until the second half before he showed that he could potentially be a capable starter. The problem is that it came at left outside linebacker, the spot in which LaMarr Woodley plays.
Besides his lack of production, Worilds has been injury-prone throughout his career. This likely contributed to his lack of development in the early part of his career.
While his injury history will make him more affordable, quality pass-rushers always get paid well, and late in the season, he began to show that he can get to the quarterback.
However, the Steelers cannot risk losing another young player on the rise to free agency. They need to invest in their young talent, and Worilds should be one of their top priorities, if not their top priority, this offseason.
If the Steelers keep Jason Worilds and have Jarvis Jones starting on the other side, is there room for LaMarr Woodley on the roster?
Logical says no, but history says yes.
You can never have enough good pass-rushers in the NFL, and having three outside linebackers capable of starting would be quite a luxury.
The injury history of Worilds and Woodley would also make it beneficial to have an extra starting-caliber linebacker on the roster. It is entirely possible that Jarvis Jones could struggle rushing the passer again next year, so a three-man rotation would be a plus.
However, that would be a lot of financial resources invested into one position, and the Steelers need to free up some space as well as try to improve the team.
As good as Woodley was in the past—with 35 sacks in his first three seasons as a full-time starter—that is how bad he has been in recent years.
Even with five sacks in his first six games this season, Woodley has just 18 sacks over his last 34 games played and has missed 14 games over the last three seasons.
Production aside, Woodley is just not on the field enough to justify his contract. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, the Steelers would save $8 million if they designate Woodley as a post-June 1 cut. They would still face cap charges, but would have savings for 2014.
Besides this, Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review had another reason to move on from Woodley:
There's more: Upon joining the Steelers from Michigan, Woodley was among the most approachable, amicable players in the team's circle. But he has changed dramatically, no doubt coinciding with his dropoff. He has become abrasive and aggressive with people inside and outside the team. He has also consistently found a way to blame everyone for his dropoff except the man in the mirror. It's been ugly and uncomfortable to watch.
For a defense that has lost a number of leaders in recent years and figures to lose even more this year, there is no better time to get rid of a player who not only can’t produce on the field, but also does not provide a positive influence in the locker room.
Heath Miller has consistently been one of Ben Roethlisberger's favorite targets, but he will turn 32 next October and will be in the final year of his contract.
As it stands now, Miller's 2014 cap hit is $9,466,500, but that could easily be reduced with a contract extension. It should be one of the easier calls that the Steelers make this offseason.
Miller is still a valuable blocker and put up impressive numbers following an ACL injury suffered at the end of the 2012 season. In 14 games, Miller had 58 receptions for 593 yards.
Todd Haley's offense may not feature the tight end as the top target, but Miller is still a major part of the offense and has at least another two or three years of quality football left in his legs. Expect him to receive a three- or four-year contract extension.
Troy Polamalu is one of the all-time great Steelers, and there isn't one person who hasn't appreciated what he has done for the team. However, his play has declined, and he has proven to be a liability in coverage this season.
That does not mean that he no longer has value to the team.
Dick LeBeau used Polamalu as a hybrid linebacker throughout the season on passing downs, allowing him to play near the line of scrimmage more often than he has in the past.
A cap hit of $10,887,500 is too much for the soon-to-be 33-year-old safety. However, a short-term extension could help reduce his cap number and keep him in town until he is ready to retire.
Even on the downside of his career, Polamalu is still in the upper half of strong safeties in the league, but more importantly, he is better than any other option that the Steelers have.
With Ryan Clark unlikely to be re-signed, the Steelers should not go with two new safeties in their defensive backfield and keep Polamalu around for another year or two.
It is not secret that Ike Taylor has a strong bond with Dan Rooney, evident in this video from Steelers.com, but will that relationship influence his status on the roster?
Taylor is scheduled to count $11,942,401 against the 2014 salary cap. He will turn 34 years old this offseason, and his play clearly declined this season.
No longer could the Steelers depend on Taylor to shadow the opponent's best receiver, as he was a major part in allowing over 200 receiving yards to both Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon.
Many will be calling for the veteran cornerback to be released, but that will leave a gaping hole at cornerback. Like Polamalu, Taylor still remains the best option at his position, and the Steelers would be best-served to keep him around.
Expect the Steelers to approach Taylor and ask him to take a pay cut. Given his respect for Mr. Rooney and the organization, it would not surprise me at all for Taylor to take a hometown discount to play another season or two in Pittsburgh.
The decision on Ike Taylor would have been easier if the Steelers would have re-signed him last year or if Cortez Allen would have grabbed hold of the starting job this year.
Big things were expected from Allen this season. He was named a "Secret Superstar" by Pro Football Focus, but never lived up to that billing.
Allen was by far one of the most disappointing players on the team this season. He was slowed by an ankle injury early in the year and didn't bounce back until late in the season.
Against the Green Bay Packers, Allen had a pick-six and dropped an easy interception against the Cleveland Browns in the final week of the season. For the season, he had two interceptions and 13 passes defended.
Rather than find themselves in another situation with Allen like they had with Keenan Lewis last year, the Steelers should extend Allen's contract this offseason.
Allen will be entering the final year of his deal, but has yet to establish himself as a starter, so he should be very affordable. His ball skills are better than any other cornerback on the roster, and his 6'1" frame allows him to match up well against the bigger receivers in the league.
An agreement to a long-term deal with Allen this offseason will save the Steelers from losing another talented defensive back and set themselves up well for the future.
Cortez Allen may have been a disappointment, but that was not the case at all for Cameron Heyward.
Heyward was arguably Pittsburgh's best defender once he finally took over as the starting defensive end in Week 6. He finished the year with 59 tackles and five sacks.
At times, Heyward was absolutely dominant, collapsing the pocket and pressuring the quarterback even when only three and four men were rushing. If the NFL kept stats on throwing opponents to the ground, Heyward probably would have led the league in that category.
It took three years, but Heyward finally showed why the Steelers selected him in the first round. He is poised to be a force on the defensive line for years to come and is a player they can build around.
Like Allen, Heyward will be in the final year of his rookie deal next year, and rather than allow his price to go up with another good season, the Steelers should look for a long-term extension.
Pittsburgh built the foundation for its Super Bowl teams through good drafting and signing its young talent before they became free agents. It is time that the Steelers get back to that philosophy, and they can start with players such as Heyward and Allen.