Anyone who has rooted for the Pittsburgh Steelers for any length of time understands how free agency works in Pittsburgh. The Steelers rarely dip their toe into the big-money free-agency pool.
Instead, the Steelers typically opt for keeping their own players, adding in the draft and then as a last resort hit up the free-agent market for leftovers. Not an exciting practice, however effective historically.
2014 could see a change to this. This is a team that has taken on some bloated salaries, and the level of play has not been commensurate to that pay. This means there could be some significant roster turnover for 2014.
Obviously, this is purely hypothetical. The dollars that would be involved in moves like this would involve significant financially wizardry and a paradigm shift by the Pittsburgh front office.
These free-agent moves would address the primary needs of the current Steelers roster and be significant upgrades at their respective positions. Let's look at some free-agent splash moves the Steelers could consider.
All stats provided by NFL.com.
Pittsburgh is poised to possibly lose two of its top three wide receivers from the 2013 season. Both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery will test the free-agent market and could be gone.
Beyond those two, there is very little depth on the roster to go along with wide receiver Antonio Brown. If Brown were willing to re-structure his new contract and move some money around, a player like Hakeem Nicks could be brought into the fold.
It is hard to fault Nicks for the problems of the New York Giants and his dip in production. If Nicks could be had without breaking the bank, he could easily get back into the 70-catch, 1,100-yard range he enjoyed in 2010 and 2011.
Graham is arguably the best tight end in the NFL and would be a perfect fit in the Steelers offense. The fifth-year player is just hitting his stride in the league and has a chance to end up one of the best all-time greats.
The Steelers are nearing a crossroads with tight end Heath Miller. Miller is beloved in the city of Pittsburgh, but he is still a 31-year-old tight end with a massive cap number. Again, this isn't about releasing Miller.
It's about not bringing back the free-agent tight ends on the roster, and extending Miller to lower his cap number to try to squeeze Graham onto the roster as his heir apparent.
The Kansas City Chiefs spent the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft on offensive tackle Eric Fisher. You don't draft a tackle that high if you don't think he's your left tackle of the future.
What that means for offensive tackle Branden Albert is that he could end up the odd man out in Kansas City if he's looking for a big, new contract. Albert won't be cheap, and if the Steelers did find a way to sign him, it would be at the expense of other players.
Nevertheless, Albert would give the Steelers an element they haven't had in, well, ever at left tackle. An elite pass-blocker and run-blocker to guard Ben Roethlisberger's blind side.
It may go a bit more unnoticed, but the nose tackle spot for the Steelers is certainly a position where they could use an upgrade. The defensive line as a whole played above and beyond this year in spite of the shortcomings at nose tackle.
With defensive ends Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood both set for free agency, allowing both to leave and sliding defensive tackle Steve McLendon to end could be just what the doctor ordered.
It would also give the Steelers the opportunity to sign Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai to that front. Soliai is bigger and stronger than McLendon, and while he's not great at rushing the passer, his ability to stuff the run and take up blockers is much better.
Having Soliai at the nose would give those Steelers inside linebackers a much cleaner run at the football, especially on run downs.
Outside linebacker is another spot where there could potential be two players gone. LaMarr Woodley could end up a cap casualty, and if Jason Worilds proves too costly for his production, he might find himself signing elsewhere as well.
Those losses would be lessened if the Steelers went after Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo. Orakpo has proved himself to be very well-suited to play the right outside linebacker position.
This is important, because rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones would be much better suited to line up on the left side and work against the right tackle. A tandem of Jones and Orakpo would be dynamic and disruptive. The Steelers could then draft or sign an additional player for their three-man rotation of outside linebackers.
The Steelers defensive secondary was much-maligned in 2013. And in many cases rightfully so. Cornerback Ike Taylor got paid a whole lot of money to be pretty average the back half of the season. Beyond him, the players remaining on the roster don't exactly inspire confidence.
There are several high-profile cornerbacks who will be on the free-agent market, and the Steelers should have their pick. Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner gets the nod here because he best fits what the Steelers like to do on defense.
While there are other very good cornerbacks out there, the balance between Verner's value and his ability to play man coverage are both pluses. You mix in that he’s a sound tackler and willing run defender and he makes even more sense.
Perhaps the only position the Steelers took more heat for than the cornerbacks were the safeties. Both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark underwhelmed during parts of the previous season. When you mix in that Clark is a free agent and could retire, the need for a top safety is evident.
Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd is arguably one of the best players in the league at his position. The 27-year-old is a top-flight coverage player and can neutralize even the best tight ends and slot receivers. His football IQ is exceptional, and he rarely misses an assignment.
The market for Byrd will be fierce. A re-structure/extension for Polamalu would certainly help grease the wheels on a deal for him. It's an exciting proposition to think of Polamalu and Byrd in the same defensive backfield.