The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2014 offseason with a whopping 22 free agents set to hit the open market. That will make for some interesting decisions for the front office.
Last season, the Steelers had 19 new players that were not on the roster in 2012. It may be a similar roster turnover for 2014 as general manager Kevin Colbert tries to rebuild the talent base.
Several key free agents include long-time defensive starters and leaders Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark. Jerricho Cotchery—who led the team with 10 touchdown receptions—is also slated to hit the open market as are Jason Worilds and Ziggy Hood.
So what should we expect from Colbert and company? I will examine which players they should keep, which they should let walk and if there is any player worth a tag.
Note: All stats via NFL.com.
Even though they knew they may lose him in 2014, the Steelers elected to match the offer sheet that Emmanuel Sanders signed with the New England Patriots. As a result, they lost an opportunity to acquire the Patriots’ third-round draft pick.
Less than one year later, Sanders is an unrestricted free agent meaning that the Steelers can lose him without compensation. He should receive interest from around the league after posting career-high numbers with 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns.
While he is a talented receiver, Sanders is better suited for the slot role with his quickness and ability to run routes over the middle. At times he was handled by physical cornerbacks on the outside.
Sanders will command too much money for what he offers the Steelers and they will instead look to Markus Wheaton to have an increased role in the offense as he moves into his second season.
Jerricho Cotchery was one of the best values in football last season. According to Spotrac, he made $1.5 million in 2014.
Locked in as the third receiver, Cotchery made the most of his opportunities by making 46 receptions for 602 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will be 32 years old next season and should not command much in free agency.
Cotchery will continue to provide a veteran presence for Pittsburgh’s young receiving corps and can contribute as the third receiver or spot starter until a younger option is ready to go.
Plaxico Burress was expected to be the fourth or fifth receiver coming out of training camp this season. That never materialized as he was placed on injured reserve after suffering a torn rotator cuff.
Burress having a strong season to end his career where it started would have made for a great story, but it wasn’t meant to be. He would have barely earned a roster spot last season and the Steelers should reserve the fourth or fifth spot on the depth chart for a young receiver with some upside.
Jonathan Dwyer has not been known for his work ethic since entering the league, but he came into training camp in the best shape of his career. That was not enough for him to make the final roster, but he did make the most of his second chance.
Playing as primarily the short-yardage back, Dwyer was second on the team with 197 yards on 49 carries. He was the only running back on the team with at least 10 carries to average 4.0 yards per carry.
At only 24 years old, Dwyer is still young and has upside as a solid backup running back. He should be affordable for the Steelers and has earned a short-term contract.
Jones contributed as a kick returner and as the top backup to rookie Le’Veon Bell. However, he did not perform particularly well in the reserve role. He finished third on the team with 184 yards on 48 carries.
He served his role for a season, but the Steelers do not need him to come in for Bell every third or fourth series. It is time to move on.
David Johnson was a former seventh-round draft choice who developed nicely into a backup tight end and H-back. He may not have been the best blocker or receiver, but he provided valuable depth.
Unfortunately for Johnson, a second straight season with a major injury that landed him on the injured reserve is not a way to keep your spot on the roster. The Steelers need players who can stay healthy and should have a nice stable of tight ends in 2014 with Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and David Paulson.
It was hard to understand Matt Spaeth’s absence until you had to sign a player like Michael Palmer. He is a borderline NFL player who could not contribute much as a blocker or receiver.
If David Johnson can’t find a place on the 2014 roster, Palmer certainly will not be able to either.
One of the heroes for Pittsburgh in 2014 was Fernando Velasco. He was signed after the Steelers lost starting center Maurkice Pouncey in the opening week of the season.
Velasco helped stabilize what could have been a disastrous situation for the Steelers. In fact, he played so well that there was an argument that Velasco could start at center in 2014 with Pouncey moving to left guard.
Unfortunately, Velasco was lost for the season with an injured Achilles tendon. Assuming his recovery goes well, the Steelers will likely be able to retain his services for another season at or near the league minimum. He will nicely fill the role as the top interior backup allowing Kelvin Beachum to focus his efforts on developing at left tackle.
Eric Olsen is the only player on this list who is not an unrestricted free agent. He was signed late in the season to add depth at center. Rather than keep him for another year, the Steelers will look to undrafted free agents to try out for training camp.
There was a collective groan when it was announced that Cody Wallace would replace Fernando Velasco in the starting lineup. It appeared as though Ben Roethlisberger would be running for his life.
Wallace had an awful outing in his first start with the Steelers, earning two fines. The first was a $10,000 fine for a personal foul call and the second was a $7,875 fine for, let’s call it “illegal use of hands” on Miami Dolphins’ defensive lineman Randy Starks.
Things got better as Wallace did not look uncomfortable and only allowed one sack in four starts. He has earned at least an opportunity to compete for a spot on the depth chart in 2014.
Guy Whimper came to the Steelers with very low expectations as a pass protector. Even though no one wanted to see him blocking for Ben Roethlisberger, Whimper was thrust into the lineup due to injuries.
Whimper saw time at guard and tackle in the 11 games that he played, including two starts. He performed better than anticipated with only two-and-a-half sacks allowed.
However, part of the problem with the Steelers this season was their lack of quality depth. By signing Whimper for 2014, they would be staying the course rather than trying to improve.
It was not a good year to be a punter with the Steelers. From Drew Butler and Brian Moorman to Zoltan Mesko and finally Mat McBriar, Pittsburgh could not find a punter.
McBriar ranked 31st in the league with an average of 41.3 yards per punt and 32nd in punts inside the 20-yard line with 13. If they bring him to camp, it will just be for a veteran leg. The Steelers will be able to find a better option in free agency.
When is the last time you heard Greg Warren’s name? Exactly.
When you have a good long snapper, you keep them in town.
There was plenty to be excited about when the Steelers signed LaRod Stephens-Howling. He had the look of a very good third-down back as well as kick returner. He had a strong preseason, but was lost for the year with a torn ACL.
With Le’Veon Bell proving himself to be a three-down back, Stephens-Howling's value coming back to the team is minimalized, especially coming off of a major injury.
I do not see where Stephens-Howling would fit in with Bell’s presence. They need to get a young change of pace option to pair with Bell.
Al Woods was a star in the preseason and showed his versatility as a defensive end and defensive tackle. With potential depth issues at both positions next year, he has definitely earned a spot on the team.
The 6’4”, 307-pound defensive lineman is capable against the run and rushing the passer. He had 16 tackles, two sacks and two deflected passes this season. Beyond his stats this season, Woods has shown improvement each year.
A team leader and valuable starter, Brett Keisel has meant a lot to Pittsburgh over the seasons. But all good things must come to an end.
Keisel had 29 tackles and four sacks this season, but missed four games due to injury. He is 35 years old and it should only be expected that his body will continue to break down.
Though he may have another year of good football left, sometimes it is better to walk away a year too soon than hang on a year too long.
It may be the end of the line for the Steelers 2009 draft class. Ziggy Hood is the final member of this class and may be on his way out of town.
Hood has not missed a game in his five seasons with the Steelers and has earned 46 starts. The concern is that he has been a weak link on the defensive line and was replaced by Cameron Heyward this season.
He may not be a star, but Hood is not a bad player either. He provides the Steelers with a durable starter along the line. They will make an effort to sign him, but do not be surprised to see a 4-3 team try to swoop in and steal him away.
Ryan Clark will go down as one of Pittsburgh’s best signings in free agency, but the 34-year old safety has played his final down in the black and gold.
Even though his tackle totals has increased every year since 2008, Clark showed signs of slowing down as the defense was susceptible to big plays. Besides this, Clark’s game is about hitting hard and that does not serve him well in the new NFL.
With continued shift to passing-oriented offenses, the Steelers need to add speed to their secondary and players who are strong in coverage as opposed to stopping the run.
The Steelers lost both of their backup safeties in free agency last season, but were able to re-sign one when they added Will Allen back to the roster during the season.
There is room to upgrade their depth, but Allen is a capable safety who can act as a stopgap player at free safety until Shamarko Thomas or a draft pick is ready to enter the starting lineup. He will also come very cheap.
Pittsburgh’s linebackers are as weak as they have been in years. Nothing against Jamaal Westerman, but they need to invest in adding more talent via the draft.
It appeared as though Stevenson Sylvester’s time in Pittsburgh was over, but the lack of depth provided him with another opportunity.
Sylvester was unable to make the most of this opportunity and it is time for the Steelers to cut their losses.
The most talked about free agent for the Steelers this season will be Jason Worilds. The fourth-year outside linebacker has 13 sacks over the last two seasons, but exploded onto the scene during the latter half of 2013.
Shifting from right outside linebacker to left outside linebacker in place of LaMarr Woodley, Worilds became a force. Over his final eight games of the season, he had 44 tackles and seven sacks. He also improved against the run.
The increased production was a pleasant surprise, but that should not automatically mean that Worilds should receive a new contract. He missed the final game of the year which should remind us all of his injury history. Also remember that he was benched in favor of Jarvis Jones.
Worilds finally began to show why the Steelers selected him in the second round of the 2010 draft. They should make an effort to sign him, but they must proceed with caution. They do not want to end up with another long-term multimillion dollar mistake like they did with Woodley.