Looking back on the 2013 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, there were plenty of highs and lows. Nevertheless, the season is over for them, and that means it is time to look ahead to the offseason and how to improve.
Historically, the Steelers have chosen to try to keep their talent in-house, building via the draft and opting out of lots of free-agent spending. This has been met with some significant success, but times are changing.
Over the past several seasons, the Steelers have paid out some bad contracts—contracts that are starting to look bloated in the grand scheme of things. It's not all bad news, however.
This Steelers team has a nice core of young talent, and those older players with bad contracts can be addressed this offseason. That could mean players are released. It could mean the Steelers front office will just have to re-structure and move money around.
Understand I am no salary-cap expert. When I mention a player re-working his contract, I don't have exact numbers. The dollar amounts would simply be speculation. The concept of a re-structure is not intended to pay a player any less—only to move money from salary to bonus in order to get cap relief.
The Steelers are going to have to make some serious moves to get under the salary cap, sign their own essential free agents and any other free agents and contend with the NFL draft class.
Here's some potential scenarios for a great Steelers offseason.
All stats provided by overthecap.com.
This team is nothing without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And because of that, Roethlisberger is also the highest-paid player on the roster. His cap hit for 2014 is nearly $19 million. By signing Roethlisberger to an extension, the Steelers can move some of that money around and essentially buy themselves some time. The exact amount? Hard to tell, but I don't think $2.5 million is unreasonable.
Extending Roethlisberger not only helps with the cap, but it also assures that the best player on the roster stays on the team for the foreseeable future.
Aside from Roethlisberger, this team has several more bloated contracts. The top three on the hit list are linebacker LaMarr Woodley, cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu.
Ideally, all three of these players will re-structure their deals without extending them and roll enough salary into bonuses to ease the cap problems. It's tough to think about any of these guys not being Steelers next season, but the fact is, even if it means carrying some dead money, at least one of them could be gone.
Along those same lines, linebacker Larry Foote should be gone. Even if he's a late release, this team has his replacement on the roster in Vince Williams, and linebacker Sean Spence is coming back.
Released: LaMarr Woodley , Larry Foote and Ike Taylor
Re-Structured: Troy Polamalu
The Steelers have two of their top three wide receivers heading into free agency in the offseason. Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery both had big games during the 2013 season. It's hard to think about this team going into 2013 with only one viable veteran presence among the receivers.
But, of course, this decision has to be fiscally responsible. And it's very likely some team is going to see potential and youth in Sanders and throw him a big free-agent contract. This means the Steelers could opt instead to give Cotchery a more cap-friendly deal to remain on the roster.
Re-signed: Jerricho Cotchery
Leaves via free agency: Emmanuel Sanders
The Pittsburgh offensive line went through some profound changes over the course of the season. Fortunately, by the end of the year, there was some chemistry developing and the group was playing better.
Free-agent centers Fernando Velasco and Cody Wallace need to be re-signed. Neither will command a huge contract and both have played very well. Both Wallace and Velasco can play center or guard, which offers exceptional depth. Signing both would also give the Steelers freedom should they choose to move center Maurkice Pouncey to left guard.
Re-signed: Cody Wallace and Fernando Velasco
Released: Tackle Levi Brown
Allowed to leave in free agency: Guy Whimper
This team has several other priority free agents who must be re-signed this offseason. Obviously, they are must-signs only if the contract is fiscally responsible. This team has overpaid to keep veterans for the past several seasons and is now paying the bill for it.
These free agents include linebacker Jason Worilds, defensive end Ziggy Hood, defensive tackle Al Woods and running back Jonathan Dwyer. Other than Worilds, they should come fairly cheap and would provide quality depth.
Worilds, on the other hand, might cost a bit more. Worilds has played well in his first season with significant starters reps. Ideally, it won't prove good enough for some team to throw him a sizable free-agent offer. The Steelers can hopefully bring Worilds back, allowing Woodley to leave.
Re-signed: Ziggy Hood, Al Woods, Jonathan Dwyer and Jason Worilds
The key positions of interest for the Steelers on offense in the draft are wide receiver, offensive tackle, tight end and running back, in that order.
In the draft, the Steelers should consider an offensive tackle and wide receiver with two of their first four picks. There are young wide receivers on the roster, none of whom have shown enough to go into 2014 with much confidence.
As far as offensive tackle, while the line has played better down the stretch, the Steelers should be mindful, especially if a top prospect should fall to them in the first two rounds—especially one who can excel at run blocking as well as pass protection.
Tight end and running back are less pressing needs but still must be addressed. The Steelers have three backup running backs and two backup tight ends who can all walk in free agency. They would be well served to add some athleticism at tight end, and a speed back to compliment running back Le'Veon Bell.
The strategic areas of need for the Steelers in the draft are cornerback, safety, defensive line and outside linebacker. Depending on what happens in free agency, the Steelers may draft a cornerback in the first round, or not at all.
The same holds true for safety. With Ryan Clark and Will Allen both free agents, safety could be a top need. This is comparable to outside linebacker, depending on what happens with Worilds and Woodley.
With a true purge of the roster, the best way to fill those needs is in the draft. Positions like defensive line and safety can be mixed into the later rounds, but if the Steelers let Taylor go, cornerback could become their first-round priority.
This plan lays out some pretty significant salary cuts. If it works out right, that would mean there could be some money to dangle in front of a free agent or two from another team.
However, this should be used only to fill in the blanks. Keeping the guys in-house who can contribute without breaking the bank, cutting loose the ones who can't help and bringing in young players is the prudent choice.
Nonetheless, if the Steelers did want to go spend some free-agent money, the guy who might be the best option is Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd. Byrd is one of the top safeties in the league, and pairing him up with young safety Shamarko Thomas would be quite tempting.
Here's how all this would look, when it's all said and done.
Quarterback: Extend quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to save cap. No other changes.
Running back: Retain running back Jonathan Dwyer for depth. Allow other free-agent backs to leave and draft a speed back on Day 3.
Wide Receiver: Let wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders leave. Re-sign wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery for a reasonable deal. In the worst-case scenario, the Steelers could consider moving some money around on wide receiver Antonio Brown's contract as well to save cap. Draft a wide receiver in the first four rounds.
Tight End: Do not re-sign either David Johnson or Michael Palmer. Draft an athletic tight end in the draft and, if need be, ask tight end Heath Miller to move some of his massive salary around to save a few million in cap space.
Offensive Line: Re-sign centers Cody Wallace and Fernando Velasco. Release offensive tackle Levi Brown. If Wallace and Velasco are both signed, then the Steelers could release guard Ramon Foster to save salary cap. The Steelers would also draft an offensive lineman, likely a tackle, in the first three rounds.
Defensive Line: Sign Ziggy Hood to a new contract. Let defensive end Brett Keisel leave via free agency. Sign defensive tackle Al Woods to a new contract. Then draft a swing defensive lineman in the latter rounds of the NFL draft.
Linebackers: Sign linebacker Jason Worilds to a reasonable contract. Try and get linebacker LaMarr Woodley to re-structure his contract to save money. If not, release him. Re-sign Stevenson Sylvester for depth, and draft an outside linebacker in the middle rounds.
Cornerbacks: Try and get cornerback Ike Taylor to re-structure his contract. If he will not, release him. Drafting a top cornerback should be a high priority.
Safety: Let safeties Ryan Clark and Will Allen leave. Either draft a safety in one of the first three rounds of the NFL draft, or, if the cap permits, sign a top free-agent safety like Jarius Byrd.
Here are what my opening day 2014 starters would look like:
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger
Running Back: Le'Veon Bell
Wide Receivers: Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton
Tight End: Heath Miller
Offensive Line: Kelvin Beachum, Maurkice Pouncey, Cody Wallace, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert
Defensive Line: Cameron Heyward, Al Woods, Steve McLendon
Linebackers: Jarvis Jones, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Jason Worilds
Cornerbacks: Cortez Allen, rookie cornerback, William Gay, Curtis Brown/Isaiah Green
Safety: Troy Polamalu, Shamarko Thomas/Jarius Byrd