After consecutive .500 seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have some changes to make to their starting lineup if they expect to contend in 2014.
Some 2013 starters will have new homes next season. Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark have likely seen their last days in black and yellow. Emmanuel Sanders might prove too pricey. And only one of Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley is expected to return next season.
So who will replace these men in the starting lineup? Will the Steelers look to players who are already on the roster? What about free agency? The 2014 NFL draft?
Well, Pittsburgh will likely use a combination of all three to find replacements. Who exactly will these men be? Read on to find out.
Despite midseason rumors from Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports, it appears the Steelers quarterback position will remain as static in 2014 as it has been for the past decade.
Ben Roethlisberger will head into next season on the heels of what many called a career season. After he threw for the second-most yardage and touchdowns of his career, Roethlisberger’s 2013 campaign is definitely in the discussion.
2013 also marked just the second time he played a full 16-game season. At 31, he may have his best years ahead of him. At least, if his most recent season is any indication.
It’s no secret that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin wants a workhorse in his backfield. With Tomlin at the helm, both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall have had seasons with more than 340 touches.
In the 2013 NFL draft, Tomlin found his next featured back.
Despite missing the season’s first three games, Le’Veon Bell was handed the lion’s share of the carries upon returning. He got 289 touches—a mark that leaps to 355 when projected over a full season.
The biggest question in the backfield is whether or not Jonathan Dwyer will return to back up Bell.
There’s no question as to who the top dog is amongst the Steelers wide receivers. There might have been heading into the 2013 season, but Antonio Brown quickly answered it.
He posted a marvelous season with career bests across the board. His 110 receptions and 1,499 receiving yards were both good for second in the NFL.
With Emmanuel Sanders likely on the way out and Jerricho Cotchery best suited to a third receiver role, the Steelers will be looking for receiver help through some avenue.
The 2014 NFL draft is ripe with receiver talent, and the Steelers would be smart to capitalize on it.
In Lee, they would get a player who finished the 2012 season with more than 1,700 receiving yards and as a Heisman finalist. His 2013 wasn’t on par with that, but he’s still considered a top-flight prospect.
He and Antonio Brown could develop into a dynamic receiving duo for years to come.
Cotchery is a pending free agent, but after his resurgent 2013, it’s unlikely he’ll end up anywhere other than Pittsburgh next season.
He saw limited time as a reserve for the Steelers in 2011-12 but was pressed into the third receiver role after the departure of Mike Wallace.
All he did with that added playing time was score 10 touchdowns, a third of his career total. There’s little doubt that Roethlisberger wants his top red-zone target back in the mix.
Many were curious as to how Heath Miller would perform in 2013 just a few months after tearing his ACL. And as usual, he was his old reliable self.
He missed the season’s first two games but managed 593 yards once he suited up. That total is not his best, but it is better than five seasons that didn't feature a dramatic injury.
The biggest drop-off that he experienced came in the form of touchdowns. After establishing a career best with eight scores in 2012, he managed just one this season.
As Jason Witten and Hakeem Nicks could attest, touchdowns are a very fluctuating stat to begin with. Expect Miller to get back around that four to six TD range next season.
The Steelers spent second-round picks on offensive tackles in successive drafts, but they won't protect their quarterback’s blind side in 2014.
That responsibility will go to a seventh-round pick from the latter of those drafts: Kelvin Beachum. He started 11 of the season’s final 12 games and helped hold opposing defenses to just seven sacks in as many games to close the year.
Unlike the opposite side of the offensive line, the Steelers’ left side is composed of players who weren’t highly coveted out of college.
Ramon Foster, who went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2009, was pressed into duty at left guard in his rookie year. Fast forward five seasons, and he is suddenly the Steelers’ most experienced lineman.
With another solid season under his belt, he will likely hold down the left guard spot again in 2014.
Because of the Steelers’ legacy at the center spot, many felt Maurkice Pouncey was too quickly anointed as the next Pittsburgh great at the position.
He earned All-Pro bids in each of his first three seasons, and some questioned whether he was deserving of the honor. After all, he might not even be the best center in his own family.
Nonetheless, what he has been since being drafted is the Steelers’ best lineman. He was thrown into the fray almost immediately and responded by becoming the unequivocal leader in the trenches.
Pouncey suffered a season-ending injury in the opening week, and that was reflected in a miserable running game and lackluster pass protection. Steelers fans are eager to see how the offense performs in 2014 with Pouncey back in the mix.
David DeCastro’s rookie season was injury-riddled and miserable. One game into 2013, things didn’t appear to be getting any better.
He inadvertently took out teammate Pouncey and ended the center's season in the team’s opening game. Fortunately, DeCastro didn’t allow this incident to ruin his season as well.
In Pouncey’s absence, DeCastro took the reins as the team’s best offensive lineman. He and Pouncey finally (and hopefully) taking the field together in 2014 is an exciting prospect for Steelers fans.
This position is the one most in question on the O-line.
As previously stated, the Steelers have two second-round picks at the offensive tackle spot on their roster: Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams. But with Beachum’s spot on the left side seemingly safe, only one can secure a starting role.
As the only offensive lineman to start all 16 games, Gilbert appears to be the favorite at this point. But a poor camp performance from him—or a strong one from Adams—could change that at a moment’s notice.
Right Defensive End
After eight seasons at this spot, Brett Keisel may have been finally been usurped. And, if 2013 is any indication, his position is in good hands.
After two seasons-plus as a rotational player, 2011 first-rounder Cameron Heyward was inserted into the starting lineup in hopes of aiding a struggling defense.
He proved to be worthy of the promotion, notching 60 tackles, five sacks and an impressive seven pass deflections. Now the question becomes whether or not he can maintain that level of performance.
Due in part to the departure of Casey Hampton, the Steelers run defense suffered in 2013. It dipped to 21st in the league, which was easily the worst mark in recent years.
Steve McLendon didn’t perform poorly in ’13, but he also didn't command attention from opposing offenses the way that “Big Snack” did.
The Steelers tend to pick their spots in free agency, and this year will likely prove no different. Nose tackle is a deep position on the free-agent market this year, and the Steelers should consider adding one.
At 340 pounds, Paul Soliai, a seven-year Miami Dolphin, commands attention on the interior. With only four years as a starter, he is a relatively fresh 30 years old and could be the catalyst that revives the run defense.
Left Defensive End
After five seasons in the NFL, it’s probably fair to wonder if we’ve seen Ziggy Hood’s ceiling.
If so, it’s apparent that he is a solid, if unspectacular, starter. He has never posted more than 42 tackles or three sacks in a season.
While you’d expect greater production from a former first-round pick, you could still do much worse than Hood.
Regardless, Hood (26) is nearly a decade younger than Keisel (35). That's probably the greatest indicator as to which of the two pending free agents will return.
Back in 2007, Lawrence Timmons was drafted into a stellar linebacker corps featuring James Farrior, Larry Foote and James Harrison.
With those players either at or near the end of their careers, Timmons has taken over as the front seven’s leader.
Timmons has topped 100 tackles in three of the past four seasons. He has more career sacks and interceptions than Patrick Willis, who was drafted the same year.
The Steelers have a multitude of options to start opposite Timmons on the inside. Any one of Larry Foote, Vince Williams or even Stevenson Sylvester could land the spot.
However, the team might look to shore up the position for the long term. If so, Shayne Skov of Stanford would make an excellent choice.
He proved to be a high-motor player and a quality leader for the Cardinal defense throughout his tenure. If added to the defense, he’d provide the relentless presence next to Timmons that the Steelers missed in 2013.
Right Outside Linebacker
There’s little debate that Jarvis Jones’ rookie season fell woefully short of expectations.
As you have likely read a few times already, the perceived draft steal managed just one sack in his first professional season.
Nonetheless, with the Steelers unlikely to retain both Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley, Jones should enter his second season as a starter.
Keys to his improvement include bulking up in the offseason and reacting more quickly.
Steelers fans are hoping his nine-tackle effort in the season finale against the Browns is a sign of things to come.
Left Outside Linebacker
This is probably the most difficult spot to call at this stage of the offseason.
The Steelers have seen former All-Pro LaMarr Woodley succumb to injury three straight years. And this year, longtime backup Jason Worilds stepped up big with eight sacks in his absence.
His breakout campaign came in a contract season, causing some to question his motivation. Coupled with that, cutting ties with Woodley carries major cap implications.
It’s not an easy choice to make, but the Steelers should have learned with Keenan Lewis why talented young players must be retained if at all possible. Look for Worilds to be the choice.
It’s tough to dispute that Ike Taylor declined some in his 11th season.
This was evident in a midseason stretch when Josh Gordon and Calvin Johnson combined for more than 400 yards largely on Taylor. In fairness, he wasn’t the first player and won’t be the last to give up big days to those two.
With a few other veterans on the way out, the Steelers will want to retain a few pieces with championship experience. While Taylor surrendered some big efforts in 2013, he proved that he’s got enough left in the tank for at least one more season.
One positive to come from the Steelers losing Keenan Lewis last offseason was that it enabled Cortez Allen to emerge as a starter.
He may not have the coverage ability of Lewis or Taylor, but he does boast something neither player can claim. He has the makings of a legitimate ball hawk.
He closed 2012 on a torrid stretch, forcing five turnovers in two games. He added two more interceptions in 2013, including a momentum-shifting pick-six against Green Bay.
Two picks aren't eye-popping by any means, but Allen was in position for a few more this season. If he could finish a few more such plays, he would give the Steelers a cornerback threat that they haven’t had in some time.
At 34 years old and with a promising career as an analyst in his future, Ryan Clark may be done knocking heads.
Fortunately, the Steelers appear to have a contingency plan in place.
They parted ways with their third-round pick in this year’s NFL draft a year ago in order to acquire Shamarko Thomas out of Syracuse. It’s unlikely the Steelers were willing to part with such valuable currency for Thomas to wallow on the bench.
The undersized safety plays with a tenacity that befits a Steelers defensive back. And playing alongside the next man on this slide should help him in the early stages of his career.
Aside from maybe Ben Roethlisberger, no player is more secure in his starting spot than Troy Polamalu.
He returned from an injury-riddled 2012 to start 16 games for just the third time since 2006. In those 16 games, he recorded multiple sacks for the first time since 2005 and set a career high with five forced fumbles.
He may never reach the heights of his 2010 Defensive Player of the Year season again, but it’s clear he hasn’t yet lost the knack to change a game’s outlook at a moment’s notice.