8 Offseason Moves Pittsburgh Steelers Must Make to Compete in 2014-15
The Pittsburgh Steelers have missed the playoffs for two straight seasons for the first time since 1999 and 2000.
Not only do the Steelers want to get back to the playoffs, but they'd like to get there without having to rely on other teams to help.
After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, there are several steps the Steelers must take to get out of their .500 rut and again become the type of team that takes care of its own business and clinches a playoff spot on the field.
Stats taken from NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Extend Ben Roethlisberger's Contract
Ben Roethlisberger turns 32 in March. He has plenty of good years left, and the Steelers should extend his contract to ensure that he at least comes close to finishing his career in Pittsburgh.
It seems like ages ago that Roethlisberger reportedly was going to ask for a trade. Since, he threw 15 touchdown passes and four interceptions in the last seven games of the season.
That coincided with better pass protection. Roethlisberger was sacked seven times in the last seven games. The Steelers might actually have an offensive line that can keep him healthy in the latter stages of his career.
Roethlisberger has two years remaining on his contract, according to Spotrac. His salary will count almost $19 million against the cap in 2014, and according to Steel City Insider (subscription required), the Steelers are more than $12 million over the projected salary cap for next season.
An extension could reduce Roethlisberger's cap figure in 2014 and help the Steelers build a team around him that can get back to the playoffs.
Keep Todd Haley
Want to know the last time the Steelers scored at least 20 points in nine straight games?
2002, according to Pro Football Reference.
The Steelers finished the 2013 season with 20 or more points in their last nine games. Take away touchdowns by the defense and special teams, and the offense still scored at least 20 points in all those games.
The Steelers never did that when Bruce Arians was offensive coordinator.
It's not like Todd Haley became a better play-caller. Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense was energized by the institution of the no-huddle. If Haley's hands-off approach is working, there's no reason to bring in a new offensive coordinator next year.
Re-Sign Jason Worilds
Who would have thought before the season that Jason Worilds would be the Steelers' top free-agent priority this offseason?
Worilds, who will be 26 next season, had a career-high eight sacks in 2013. Seven of them came in his last eight games. He became a more dangerous pass-rusher after moving to left outside linebacker. The Steelers should keep him there next season no matter what they do with LaMarr Woodley.
To do that, though, the Steelers have to re-sign Worilds, who is an unrestricted free agent. They could place the franchise tag on him, which according to Steel City Insider (subscription required) would cost about $11 million.
It would be a wise investment. Worilds was one of the Steelers' few bright spots on defense and unlike many players on that side of the ball, he has more career ahead of him than behind him. He's more than just a pass-rusher, too. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him the Steelers' second-best run defender behind nose tackle Steve McLendon.
The Steelers will have to clear a lot of salary-cap space and make some painful decisions to keep Worilds, but he had more sacks than any Steeler since James Harrison had nine in 2011. They can't let Worilds go.
Re-Sign Jerricho Cotchery
Who would have thought before the season that Jerricho Cotchery would be the Steelers' second-biggest free-agent priority this offseason?
You have to find a way to keep a guy who caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes, more touchdowns than any Steeler since 2010 and the 10th most TD receptions in the NFL. All of those touchdowns came in the red zone.
Cotchery, who will be 32 next season, caught 46 passes in 2013, the most he's caught since hauling in 57 for the New York Jets in 2009.
The Steelers are likely to lose Emmanuel Sanders in free agency. If that happens and they don't keep Cotchery, they'll be left with no receivers other than Antonio Brown who caught more than six passes in 2013.
Cotchery made $1.5 million in 2013, according to Spotrac. He's earned a pay raise. The Steelers could double his salary and it still would be very manageable under the salary cap.
Keep Troy Polamalu
The Steelers have a lot of hard financial decisions to make. For the third straight offseason, they'll have to say good-bye to veterans who have helped them win Super Bowls.
Troy Polamalu should not be among them.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Polamalu as the Steelers' best overall defensive player this season. He forced a career-high five fumbles and had two sacks, his first multiple-sack season since 2005.
Unlike recent seasons, health wasn't a problem for Polamalu in 2013. He played every snap for the first time since at least 2008. Many of those snaps came at inside linebacker after Larry Foote was injured in the season opener.
Polamalu enters the final year of his contract in 2014 and is scheduled to earn a base salary of $8.25 million, according to Spotrac. Despite the Steelers' salary-cap constraints, that would be money well spent. Polamalu made his eighth Pro Bowl despite not always playing his natural safety position. The Steelers still need him.
Release LaMarr Woodley
LaMarr Woodley would be the Steelers' second-biggest salary cap expenditure in 2014 with a hit of almost $13.6 million, according to Spotrac.
Woodley is among five players who count for more than $67 million against the cap. The other four are Ben Roethlisberger, Ike Taylor, Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu. Those five players figure to take up more than 50 percent of the salary cap in 2014.
Someone has to go.
It's not going to be Roethlisberger. Polamalu is a Pro Bowler. Timmons didn't have his best season, but the instability at the other inside linebacker position didn't help and he'll be only 28 next season. Taylor will be 34 and his skills are starting to diminish. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him 36th among the 40 cornerbacks who played at least 75 percent of their team's snaps this season. But at least Taylor stayed healthy in 2013.
That leaves Woodley.
He's missed 14 games over the past two-and-a-half seasons and has just nine sacks during that time. His injuries have been preventable. According to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, his injuries suggest a lack of conditioning
"He just repeatedly gets injured in ways that infuriate the coaching staff," Kovacevic told me Thursday on Black N Gold Central.
Woodley also will turn 30 next season. If the Steelers make a big investment in Worilds and if Jarvis Jones picks up where he left off in the season finale, which was his best game, that will be their outside linebacker tandem in 2014.
There would then be no sense in keeping Woodley around at that price.
Address Defense in the Draft
The Steelers defense ranked 14th in points allowed in 2013, according to Pro Football Reference. That was their worst ranking since 2003, when they were 15th and went 6-10.
The Steelers defense ranked 13th in yards allowed, their worst showing since they were 13th in 1992.
It didn't help that only eight of the 18 players the Steelers drafted in 2012 and 2013 were defensive players. Of those players, only Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas and Vince Williams have seen any regular-season action in a Steelers uniform.
An overwhelming majority of the Steelers' 2014 picks must be defensive players.
They'll need defensive linemen if Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood leave. They need depth at inside and outside linebacker. Even if Thomas and/or Will Allen fill the void left if Ryan Clark goes, they'll need depth at safety with Troy Polamalu possibly playing his last season. At cornerback, Ike Taylor doesn't have much more than a year left, and there isn't much behind Cortez Allen and William Gay.
Focusing on the offensive line for so many years in the draft finally appears to have paid off. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked just seven times in the last seven games of 2013.
It's time to do the same thing, with a much quicker impact, for the defense.
Draft a Wide Receiver
Yes, the Steelers must go heavy on defense in the draft, but they also need to address their highest priority on offense, which is wide receiver.
The cap-strapped Steelers can't afford to keep Emmanuel Sanders and his career-high 67 receptions and six touchdowns.
That leaves Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery, if they re-sign him, as the Steelers' top two receivers in 2014.
Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye show promise, but they combined to catch eight passes in 2013. Justin Brown, a sixth-round draft pick in 2013, spent the season on the practice squad. If none of them make a big leap in 2014, the Steelers will have a gaping hole at the No. 3 receiver spot.
Sure, there's Plaxico Burress, but even if he's healthy he'll be 37 in 2014.
The Steelers have to draft a receiver who can make an immediate impact, or Brown will be double-covered an awful lot next season.