The status of LaMarr Woodley will be one most talked about topics this offseason.
After more than a decade of excellence, the Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off of a second consecutive missed playoff appearance. To avoid another, they must make some bold moves this offseason if they want to contend in 2014.
Mike Tomlin has already made one big move by firing Jack Bicknell Jr. and hiring Mike Munchak as the offensive line coach. The addition of a quality coach like Munchak should help improve the line, which has been the weakest link on the offensive side of the ball.
While the offense is trending up, the defense is in need of some significant upgrades. Last season, the team fell to 14th in the league in points allowed—its worst ranking since 2003. The Steelers must make some significant changes if they want to avoid their defense becoming a liability moving forward.
Even with their problems, head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert have to feel confident moving into the future after a strong finish to the 2013 season. Despite the strong finish, they must also remember that it was still an 8-8 team.
Neither Tomlin nor Colbert want to experience a third straight year without a playoff appearance. They understand that this is a pivotal offseason and some tough moves must be made to get back to playing winning football.
Here is a preview of the 2014 offseason and what the Steelers need to do to get back in playoff contention.
Levi Brown will be a cap casualty.
The Steelers will have some work to do to get under the salary cap. Joel Corry of CBSSports.com reports that Pittsburgh will be approximately $10.5 million over the 2014 cap.
According to Over the Cap, Pittsburgh’s top nine cap hits account for $96,831,654. These players will be general manager Kevin Colbert’s starting point as he manages the team’s finances.
Things get a bit murky when it comes to potential cuts.
The one move that should not be a difficult decision would be the release of Levi Brown. Expect this to be one of the first moves that the Steelers make. This will save the team $6.25 million against the cap.
Ike Taylor must take a pay cut to remain in Pittsburgh.
Ike Taylor is entering the final year of his deal, which will pay him $7 million and have a cap hit of $11.94 million. That is a steep price for a cornerback on the decline.
Taylor used to be counted on to shadow the opponent’s best receiver, but Dick LeBeau stopped this practice toward the end of the season. Even though he has never been known for his hands, it was also the first time since his rookie season that Taylor did not record an interception.
For these reasons, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette believes that Taylor will either have to take a reduction in pay or be cut.
Taylor indicated in an interview with Fox Sports (via Scott Brown of ESPN.com) that he wants to retire as a Steeler. This backs up what he told Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider back in December:
Ike Taylor said it's either "here (Pittsburgh) or nowhere" for him next season. I didn't ask if he'd take salary cut.— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) December 18, 2013
The bottom line is that even on the decline, Taylor is still one of Pittsburgh’s top two cornerbacks. If he is released, the Steelers would have a big void to fill.
Besides his value to the defense, Taylor has a special relationship with Dan Rooney—as seen in this video from Steelers.com. This should make a deal between the two sides relatively easy to work out.
In the end, expect a fair agreement to be worked out that will allow Taylor to finish his career in Pittsburgh.
Heath Miller had a strong season coming off of an ACL injury.
As one of the best offensive players on the team, Miller will likely see a three- or four-year contract extension. This will help reduce his $9.5 million cap hit to a more manageable number.
The 31-year-old tight end had one of his most productive seasons while playing in only 14 games. Miller missed the first two weeks of the season as he was rehabbing from a torn ACL. He still managed to record 58 receptions for 593 yards.
The Steelers passed up an opportunity to find a replacement for Miller last year when they drafted Jarvis Jones over Tyler Eifert. It is clear that they remain confident in his ability to be a No. 1 tight end.
Troy Polamalu continued to be a dynamic playmaker while playing every defensive snap last season.
Polamalu presents a more difficult situation with a $10.9 million hit against the cap and diminishing skills as a traditional—well, as traditional as he can be—strong safety.
After missing nine games in 2012, Polamalu played every defensive snap in 2013, according to Football Outsiders. However, many of those snaps came out of position.
Pittsburgh's all-time great safety played a significant number of snaps at inside linebacker in the dime package, according to Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider.
But even as a part-time strong safety, Polamalu remained the best playmaker in Pittsburgh’s secondary. Last season, he had two sacks, 11 passes defended, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and one touchdown.
Polamalu would also be the only safety with extensive starting experience if Ryan Clark is not re-signed. The most likely scenario would be for him to play out the remaining year of his contract and the Steelers can decide on his future after the 2014 season.
Pittsburgh will have 21 unrestricted free agents and one exclusive rights free agent.
Emmanuel Sanders is one of the top free agents, but he is unlikely to be re-signed. This will provide a chance for Markus Wheaton to step into the starting lineup.
Former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch told Bleacher Report’s Adam Lefkoe that he expects big things from Wheaton next season. As a rookie, he only had six receptions.
To help supplement the potential loss of Sanders, the Steelers would be wise to re-sign Jerricho Cotchery. He had 46 receptions for 602 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns working primarily as the third receiver last season. He could be very affordable with just a $1 million base salary over the past two seasons.
The other big-name free agent is Jason Worilds.
Team president Art Rooney II identified Worilds by name as a potential free agent worth re-signing in a conference call with season-ticket holders, via Steelers.com.
Worilds told Scott Brown of ESPN.com that he is open to re-signing in Pittsburgh as long as he can start. He does not want to find himself behind LaMarr Woodley and Jarvis Jones.
After struggling through injuries and lack of production through the first three-and-a-half years of his career, Worilds found a home at left outside linebacker last year. He had 44 tackles and seven sacks in his final eight games.
With Worilds as a player on the rise—and not wanting to lose another young, talented player like Keenan Lewis last year—the Steelers will reach a multiyear agreement with him this offseason.
Another decision that Pittsburgh must make is whether it should keep Brett Keisel or Ziggy Hood.
Hood is younger and has not missed a game in five seasons. He should receive the first offer. However, if he feels like he could get a better contract elsewhere, the Steelers could come back later in the offseason to sign Keisel.
As far as the other free agents go, expect Pittsburgh to re-sign Jonathan Dwyer, Fernando Velasco, Al Woods, Will Allen and Greg Warren. These players have proved themselves as valuable depth and are worth keeping around.
LaMarr Woodley has spent too much time on the sidelines since receiving a massive contract extension.
If the Steelers re-sign Worilds, that almost certainly means the end of Woodley in Pittsburgh.
While Worilds is a player on the rise, Woodley is one on the decline. After sacking the quarterback 35 times in his first three years as a starter, he only has 18 sacks over the past three.
Besides his lack of production, Woodley has struggled to stay on the field with 14 games missed over the past three years. He will turn 30 years old next season, and it is hard to believe that his durability will improve as he ages.
Rather than stick with a high-priced, injury-prone linebacker approaching 30, they will go with the younger option who is getting better.
The Steelers will not officially release Woodley prior to June 1 given his $14.17 million cap hit. Instead, they will give him a post-June 1 designation which will allow them to save $8 million this year, but they will have $8.58 million of dead money in 2015.
One more contract extension should allow Ben Roethlisberger to retire as a Steeler.
The contract status of Roethlisberger will be a story worth following given what Rooney told Bob Labriola of Steelers.com:
What I would say about it is that we certainly expect Ben to be playing here beyond the current contract. When both sides are able to come together on an extension—I don’t know when that will be, and really it’s too early to say as far as if it’s this season or next—but there is no doubt we look at Ben as somebody who’s going to be here for the long-term. Ben, we have to have him retire as a Steeler. There’s not a doubt about that.
Rooney may have said that he wants Roethlisberger to retire as a Steeler, but he also does not seem too convinced that an extension will get done this offseason. Is he being honest, or is he already entering the negotiation process?
Roethlisberger has two years remaining on his contract, and in recent years, this is when the Steelers would approach him for an extension. Cap problems may put this recent tradition on hold for a year or two.
The problem with waiting is that the price for quarterbacks will only go up—evident from the contract Jay Cutler and others have signed recently.
Cortez Allen should be very affordable if signed to an extension this offseason.
The Steelers should also examine the contracts of a couple of their younger players.
At just 25 years old, Cortez Allen has only begun to show what he is capable of and will be a prime candidate for a contract extension. He has four interceptions and 23 passes defended as well as 11 starts in his three seasons in the league.
What the Steelers don’t want is to lose him to free agency like they lost Lewis. With limited experience as a starter, they should be able to sign him to a team-friendly deal during the summer.
Another player who should be under consideration for an extension but will not receive one is Cameron Heyward. Instead, the Steelers will exercise a fifth-year option and negotiate a long-term deal after the 2014 season.
Heyward developed into one of the best defenders for the Steelers this season. As the most disruptive player on the defensive line, he finished the season with 59 tackles and five sacks.
Marcus Gilbert will have to prove himself this season before being approached with a long-term deal.
The Steelers will not be big spenders in free agency, but they will need to find several players to fill gaps in their roster.
Unlike previous years, the Steelers must avoid bringing in former players. That means no more additions like Larry Foote, Matt Spaeth, William Gay or Plaxico Burress. They allowed these players to leave for a reason, and re-signing them feels like they are downgrading their talent.
However, they have to add players more talented than Guy Whimper. Needless to say, he came to Pittsburgh with little fanfare and as a player with a poor reputation when it came to protecting the quarterback.
Addressing depth issues on the offensive line should be a priority for Colbert. Injuries along the offensive line have caused numerous problems for the Steelers over the years. Just last season, Maurkice Pouncey and Velasco both finished the season on the injured reserve.
Bleacher Report’s Aaron Nagler identified Eric Winston as a perfect fit for the Steelers. Even if it isn’t Winston, expect at least one lineman to be signed—preferably one with position versatility.
Another position of interest should be safety. With Clark expected to not be re-signed and Polamalu entering the final year of his deal, the Steelers could use another experienced veteran in their secondary.
This will allow them to bring along Shamarko Thomas and a potential 2014 draft pick slowly.
After watching the Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl, the NFL world was reminded that defense wins championships. The Steelers should know, as theirs helped them to two Super Bowl titles since 2005.
Age and the lack of development of talent has caused the performance of the defense to fall off in recent years. They have had trouble getting to the quarterback and lack playmakers in the secondary.
Expect the Steelers to target the defensive side of the ball early in the draft with cornerback and safety being at the top of the priority list. This means that they will take Darqueze Dennard, Justin Gilbert, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor in the first round.
The Steelers will also take a receiver between the second and fourth round to help fill out the depth chart. They have had success in recent years taking mid- and late-round receivers Mike Wallace, Sanders and Brown, and they will look to strike gold again.
Here is a look at a full mock draft with a third-round compensatory selection for Wallace and a fifth-round choice for Lewis.
1. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
Clinton-Dix has potential to step in and start immediately at safety. He has the speed to drop into coverage yet is physical enough to step up and defend against the run.
2. Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
Stephon Tuitt is a massive defensive end who is a good scheme fit for the Steelers. He can be a disruptive force on the defensive line and a nice complement to Heyward.
3 (compensatory). Robert Herron, WR, Wyoming
Robert Herron caught Colbert’s eye at the Senior Bowl, according to Coy Wire of Fox Sports. He is small but very fast and would fit well in the up-tempo offense that the Steelers run.
4. Christian Jones, ILB, Florida State
The Steelers dip back into the talent pool at Florida State to add another linebacker. Christian Jones has more athleticism than former teammate—and current Steeler—Vince Williams. His ability to drop into coverage means that he can be a three-down linebacker.
5. Justin Ellis, NT, Louisiana Tech
Justin Ellis is a massive defensive lineman who will be developed at nose tackle.
5 (compensatory). James White, RB, Wisconsin
James White was a productive college running back who has the skill set desired to play on passing downs.
6. Chris Watt, OG, Notre Dame
With three tackles on the roster, Chris Watt provides depth for the interior of the offensive line.
7. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue
Ricardo Allen is an undersized but productive corner at Purdue. He could develop into a nickelback.
Pittsburgh will contend for the AFC North in 2014.
By virtue of finishing ahead of the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers will face a second-place schedule in 2014.
Barring any significant injuries, the Steelers should be an improved team next year. They finally found a rhythm on offense with the no-huddle, and the defensive side of the ball will be the focus this offseason.
Building upon a 6-2 finish to the 2013 season, the Steelers will rebound from back-to-back 8-8 seasons to finish 11-5 and win the AFC North.