The Steelers may have had a big second half to their season but, let’s face it, this team isn’t really near the top teams in the league. But with the way the NFL is set up now, one good offseason can make all the difference in the world.
The Steelers will have some select position groups targeted this offseason where they need to make significant improvements. They can make these changes via both the draft and free agency.
Let’s take a look at the Steelers 2014 offseason wish list.
Cornerback is a position the Steelers are going to have to address early in the draft and, potentially, in the first round. Ike Taylor saw a significant drop-off in his play this season, and Cortez Allen was unable to step up as the team had hoped. That leaves Pittsburgh with William Gay and a slew of untested back-ups.
The Steelers could very well be in the market for a cornerback early in the 2014 draft, especially if the team parts ways with Ike Taylor and his gaudy contract. If that’s the case, they’ll have a few options.
The guy I’m really high on in this year’s draft is Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. He doesn’t have the height the Steelers generally go for, but he makes up for that with great physical play. As you can see in the Pro-Player Comparison, Dennard is a willing and capable tackler. He has the ability to come off the edge and make plays in the backfield as well as play in coverage.
He was best, for the Spartans, in man coverage but should have no problem making the transition to Dick LeBeau’s defense. But Pittsburgh would have to be willing to pull the trigger in the first round to get him. Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, who plays in a comparable defensive scheme with the Buckeyes, is another option for the Steelers.
The Steelers are rarely players in the free agent pool, but if they have other needs in the draft, they can fill the hole at corner with a quality player.
The Colts' Vontae Davis and the Dolphins' Brent Grimes have been very successful corners in similar 3-4 schemes, but they may price themselves out of the Steelers' range. If Pittsburgh is willing to spend the money, Davis and Grimes would be good options.
For the more bargain-savvy team, Kelvin Hayden and Tarell Brown would be options. Former Giant Terrell Thomas has labored through injuries, but could be a low-risk, high-reward player if he can stay on the field.
There’s no question that for some time now, the Steelers have been aging at the safety position. Troy Polamalu had a rebound-season in 2013, but he has a history of injuries and played a lot of nickel linebacker. Couple that with the impending free agency of Ryan Clark, and the Steelers will have a hole to fill in their secondary.
Last season, the Steelers spent a fourth-round pick on Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas. Thomas saw a decent amount of time in 2013 and should be better with a year under his belt, but the team needs to add more help in the secondary.
Alabama safety Hasean “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix is a beautiful fit for the Steelers' 3-4 scheme. Clinton-Dix is a roving free safety with big-play ability written all over him. Clinton-Dix has the ability to play deep in coverage as well as close to the line of scrimmage.
The Pro Player Comparison video compares Clinton-Dix to the Chiefs' Eric Berry, but to Steelers fans, he may look more like a young Polamalu. If the Steelers don't want to spend a first-round pick on a safety, they could wait on guys like Washington State’s Deone Buchannon or Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon. Both would fit the system.
An early glance shows a very promising 2014 safety free agent class. Most of these guys will be re-signed by their teams, but a few may sneak through, and that could be good news for the Steelers.
There’s been a lot of talk from Pittsburgh fans about the Bills’ Jarius Byrd, but he’s going to require a big payday and that may not be in the Steelers' plans. T.J. Ward and Antoine Bethea are also options, but again, they’ll probably require top dollar to land them.
If the Steelers want value, they can look to some players like Jim Leonhard and Bernard Pollard, both of whom have played in similar schemes in the past with success.
Nose tackle was one of the most disappointing positions for the Steelers in 2013. There was a good amount of excitement about Steve McLendon, including from this writer, but he proved less viable than the team had hoped. The Steelers defense fell to their worst run-defensive ranking in the Mike Tomlin era, and they’ll need to address the nose tackle position.
The Steelers were consistently one of league’s premier run-stopping defenses in the 2000s. They had more No. 1 rankings than rankings outside of the top 10. Much of that had to do with the relentless play of Casey Hampton. His ability to eat up multiple blockers allowed the linebackers to run free and make tackles with ease.
That’s what the Steelers lacked in 2013 and what they’ll need to address in 2014.
Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III is an ideal fit for what the Steelers like to do up front. He’s a huge space-eater who consistently pushed the line of scrimmage in his favor during his time in South Bend. Nix struggled with weight issues in college, and many will argue against spending a first-round pick on a guy who will primarily play just two downs, but considering what Dontari Poe has done for Kansas City, it may be worthwhile.
Pittsburgh could wait in the draft, as well. Tennessee’s monstrous 6’8” defensive lineman Daniel McCullers should be available in the mid rounds.
This year’s free agent class has a pretty good selection of defensive tackles, but they do lack, somewhat, in the nose tackle category.
Pittsburgh could take a flier on a few guys who have underperformed, such as Green Bay’s B.J. Raji or Baltimore’s Terrance Cody if they’re allowed to walk. There’s also the option of adding a guy like Paul Soliai as a stopgap solution until the team can develop their future player.
The Steelers are historically known as a running team, but they’ve had some good receivers over the last decade. Guys like Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have been All-Pro-caliber players in the league. But Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are set to be free agents this offseason, and it’s unlikely Pittsburgh will be able to afford to bring both back. That means they’ll be in the market for a wide receiver.
Luckily for the Steelers, the 2014 draft class is filled with top-notch receiving prospects. Even after taking speedster Markus Wheaton in the third round last season, Pittsburgh could stand to add a receiver early this year.
Penn State’s Allen Robinson is an intriguing prospect and one the Steelers have certainly seen a lot of, given State College’s proximity to Pittsburgh. Robinson is a possession receiver, which the Steelers like, and at 6’3” would immediately be the team's tallest pass catcher. Robinson needs to get better as a route runner, but he could make an immediate impact on this team with his work ethic and smarts. Robinson is currently sitting in the late first- to second-round area.
The Steelers will have their eyes all over the top-flight receiving talent this year. Players like Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Marquis Lee are all options for the team in the first round. Available later in the draft, Pittsburgh could call on Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews or Fresno State’s Davante Adams.
The 2014 wide receiver free agent class looks to be a good one, and one the Steelers can take advantage of.
If the Steelers want to spend the money, Denver’s Eric Decker will likely be the top target. But Decker is reportedly a top priority for the Broncos and will most likely be out of Pittsburgh’s price range.
As for the more veteran, and potentially slightly cheaper options, the Steelers could look at players like Anquan Boldin, Hakeem Nicks and James Jones, although most of these guys will also likely be out of or close to the Steelers' cap limit.
Players like Robert Meachem, Kyle Williams and Brandon LaFell could be some cheaper options who would help the offense.
Tight end isn’t the biggest area of need for the Steelers. Heath Miller rebounded nicely coming off knee surgery and was, again, one of Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite weapons. But Miller carries a heavy contract and behind him, the Steelers depth chart leaves a lot to be desired.
The way the NFL is going, the old-fashioned, balanced tight end is on its way out and athletic tight ends are all the rage. Players like Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis are becoming less the exception and more the norm.
North Carolina’s Eric Ebron falls into this category. He’s a freak athlete with great ball skills and attacks the football when it is in the air. He’s very reminiscent of the Broncos’ Julius Thomas.
Ebron is a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties across the NFL and would be a beautiful complement to Miller. Ebron needs to improve as a blocker, but with Miller still on the team, that’s less of an immediate concern.
The problem with the Steelers drafting Ebron is that he’ll be a first-round pick, and with so many other needs on this team, it would be hard for Pittsburgh to justify a tight end there. The Steelers may be better suited waiting on a guy like Jace Amaro or, if they’d like someone similar to Miller, they could go with Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Not needing a top-flight tight end may play well into the Steelers' hands if they take the free-agency road in 2014. Pittsburgh should be able to find a viable, affordable option to play next to Miller.
Brandon Pettigrew and Jermichael Finley will probably be at the top of the class and may be unrealistic for the Steelers. Former Redskin Fred Davis has had his off-the-field issues but falls into that freak-athlete category that the Steelers lack.
If Dustin Keller can return from a devastating knee injury, he may also be an option.