Having just finished their second consecutive 8-8 season, there’s no question that the Pittsburgh Steelers face some tough decisions heading into 2014.
Sure, fans of the Browns or the Bills would likely be thrilled to not be a loser for two years. But for a team that’s usually a contender, it’s tough to settle for mediocrity.
And thus, expect changes to be made across the board this offseason. Some will be unpopular and scrutinized to no end. Nonetheless, there’s no way of knowing which decision is right or wrong before the team takes the field.
So what are the most difficult decisions facing Pittsburgh in 2014? Read on to find out.
The Steelers face an interesting dilemma at the wide receiver spot this offseason.
Their second and third receivers are both set to become free agents, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to retain both.
On one hand, there’s Emmanuel Sanders. The 26-year-old set career bests in every major receiving category this season.
And on the other hand is Jerricho Cotchery. The 31-year-old saw increased targets this year and responded with aplomb.
Cotchery had his best receiving season in four years. He also led the Steelers with 10 touchdowns, more than he had in the previous four seasons combined.
There are several factors that suggest the Steelers will retain Cotchery over Sanders.
Sanders was expected to push 1,000 yards this season and fell 260 yards short of the milestone. He’ll also likely be overvalued on the open market. The New England Patriots were willing to part with a third-round pick for his services last year.
Unlike Sanders, Cotchery greatly exceeded expectations in the 2013 season. Coupled with that, he’ll likely be available at a much more reasonable rate than what Sanders will get.
With all that taken into consideration, I’m inclined to believe Cotchery will remain a Steeler in 2014 and Sanders will be catching passes for a different squad.
A few seasons ago, Steelers fans would be hard-pressed to believe the outside linebacker position could become a trouble spot.
Even if James Harrison’s play were to fall off, as it did, the Steelers still had a young standout in LaMarr Woodley and an up-and-coming second-rounder in Jason Worilds. However, at the onset of 2014, a trouble spot is exactly what the position’s become.
Woodley’s past three seasons have been hampered by injury, and his big contract has suddenly become a bane to the team. Compounding matters further is the fact that Worilds finally had a breakout season in 2013.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, Worilds' breakout came in a contract year.
Considering the big contract pass-rusher Paul Kruger (five years, $40 million) earned as a free agent last year, it’s tough to see the Steelers paying Worilds what he’s deemed to be worth on the open market. That is, if Woodley’s contract stays on the books.
Seeing as Woodley’s contract carries major cap implications even if he’s released, it’s unlikely that he won’t be with the Steelers next season. Which means Worilds will likely go the way of the last young Steelers defender to break out: Keenan Lewis.
Lewis emerged as a starter for the league’s top pass defense in 2012, which was a contract year for the cornerback. However, due in part to a significant chunk of change being owed to a teammate at the same position in Ike Taylor, the Steelers let Lewis walk.
It appears something similar could play out this offseason with Worilds and Woodley.
Over the past two offseasons, the Steelers have bid farewell to James Farrior, Hines Ward, Casey Hampton and James Harrison. All of whom were instrumental in their recent Super Bowl runs.
Now, once again, the Steelers will surely have to cut ties with some other men from those championship teams. This is due in equal parts to cap constraints and lackluster performance.
Both Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark head into the offseason without having received a contract extension. I wouldn’t expect that to change.
For one, it looks as if there are replacements in line for both men. If the Steelers re-sign Ziggy Hood, then he and Cam Heyward should bookend the defensive line for the foreseeable future. And it’s tough to believe the Steelers traded this year’s third-round draft pick solely for Shamarko Thomas to play on special teams.
And then there’s the issue of age.
By October 12 of this year, both Clark and Keisel will be at least 35 years old. For a defense that has declined in recent years, it’s tough to justify the retention of declining veterans.
If 2013 was indeed their last hurrah in black and yellow, Clark and Keisel will be remembered fondly by Steelers fans. Neither was the focal point of some star-studded defenses, but they were always reliable, if unheralded, contributors.