The 5 Moves the Pittsburgh Steelers Must Avoid in Free Agency
There is nothing more disheartening as an NFL fan than watching your favorite franchise frivolously spend salary-cap space. Every season, teams dump salary only to have other squads come in and scoop the released players up.
Sometimes it works and other times it fails miserably. Good teams have learned how to play this game well.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have never been big players in the free-agent market, so Steelers fans have never been in a position to be too high or too low about any of this.
This season might be a bit different. Pittsburgh is coming off consecutive seasons where it failed to break .500 and there could be some desperation to try to turn things around quickly.
This means the Steelers could try to make big moves to free up cap space and in turn go out and sign some high-profile players to bolster the roster. However, these sorts of moves must be made with caution. Many of this year's free agents are risky and expensive.
Here are the five free-agent moves the Steelers must avoid this offseason.
Overpaying for Jason Worilds
If there is one free agent the Steelers might be inclined to throw money at, it is one of their own. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds was a real bright spot on the Steelers defense in 2013. In fact, one could conclude that Worilds was the best linebacker on the Steelers defense last season.
How much is that worth?
It’s hard to say, but you can bet that there will be plenty of teams lined up to pay him. Getting into a bidding war over Worilds is not a venture to enter into lightly.
NFL.com's Ian Rapoport tweeted out the news on Monday that the Steelers have slapped Worilds with the transition tag for 2014.
This has essentially invited a bidding war with other teams. The transition tag offers no compensation like the franchise tag does. It simply guarantees Worilds $9.754 million for the season and the option for the Steelers to match any offer another team would put on the table. It also comes in considerably lower than the franchise tag would.
Even if the Steelers let Worilds leave, LaMarr Woodley and Jarvis Jones are under contract and both are very good. They can certainly hold down the fort. There is no reason to wrap a bunch of money into Worilds as long as Woodley is on the roster. It is hard to see both on the roster at this point.
Ideally, the Steelers could wait to sign Worilds to a new long-term deal until after June 1. At that point, Woodley could be released at a savings of $8 million.
If they can keep other teams at bay with the transition tag until that time, they would have the cap space to lock Worilds up for the future.
Re-Signing Emmanuel Sanders
Just like with Worilds, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is in a position to make a lot of money this offseason. And also like with Worilds, there is no reason the Steelers should be the franchise to pay it to him.
Sanders set himself up for a new contract with a 67-catch, 740-yard season. Not spectacular by any means, but in a league that loves the passing game, Sanders’ speed and explosion will be coveted.
One thing that helps the Steelers in this instance is that they have a viable replacement on the roster. Markus Wheaton didn’t get many reps in 2013, but looks poised to slide into a much more prominent role in 2014. Sanders and Wheaton’s games mirror one another a great deal. Both have great quickness and long speed, but display some inconsistency with their hands.
Best-case scenario for the Steelers is to let Sanders leave, sign Jerricho Cotchery to a cap-friendly deal and allow Wheaton to ease into that third wide receiver role.
Nevertheless, even if Cotchery isn’t re-signed, the Steelers must let Sanders walk.
Considering Darren McFadden at All
There’s been no public discussion about what the Steelers are going to do with their running back depth chart. All their key backups are free agents. Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling are all sitting out there without a contract.
The rub is that none of these backs are terribly talented.
It would be nice if the Steelers had a bit more explosion and talent behind starter Le’Veon Bell. Whether that would come from the draft or free agency remains to be seen.
However, one place it should not come from is Oakland. Darren McFadden might be the most overrated running back in the league, free agent or otherwise. For all the hype surrounding McFadden, he has had exactly one season where he was able to top 1,000 rushing yards.
McFadden has also never played in more than 13 games in a season. His career has been mostly hype and a few highlight-reel runs just dashed over the top of what has been very average play.
There is just far too much wrong with McFadden’s game to be a viable candidate as a backup for Bell. A better option is for the Steelers to draft a running back in the later rounds and add a June 1 cap-casualty-type of veteran. This approach adds talent and youth at a discount.
Signing B.J. Raji to a Big Contract
The Steelers are sure to be in the market for some help along the defensive line. Defensive ends Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and Brett Keisel are all free agents and may not return.
Keisel could retire and Hood played terribly in 2013.
Nose tackle Steve McLendon is a nice player, but the Steelers might be better off sliding him outside as a 5-technique and bringing in a beefier player to play that 0-technique. McLendon never showed the requisite strength for the spot.
The temptation could be to bring in massive nose tackle B.J. Raji to plug the middle of that defensive front. Raji has the requisite beef at 6'2" and 337 pounds. However, do not judge a book by its great big cover.
At times, Raji has flashed some real elite skills in addition to as much quickness and power as any nose tackle in the league. Maybe Raji is just misunderstood and needs a fresh start. Conversely, maybe he is grossly overrated and will want far more money than he's worth. Either way, it is buyer beware with Raji.
To put Raji's 2013 performance in perspective, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him 54th out of 55 potential free-agent interior defensive linemen—ahead of Hood, ironically. This isn't the type of player the Steelers want to give a big contract to.
Re-signing Woods and giving him a shot at nose tackle would be a smarter choice. Woods checks in at 18th on the same list.
Signing Any Big-Name, Free-Agent Wide Receiver
There will be a temptation to sign one of them. After all, the Steelers could end up losing Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. That would leave a significant gap on the wide receiver depth chart.
However, that doesn't mean there is reason to panic. All these wideouts are nice players, but they are not what this team needs. This team needs youth and quickness on both sides of the football. This offense is predicated on explosive athletes who can turn short throws into big plays. That demands a certain type of player.
Oh, and let's not forget this team already has Antonio Brown out there, so anyone else with him is a bonus. The offense is Brown's show, with every other receiver playing the role of a backup dancer.
If the Steelers want to sign a low-cost veteran wide receiver for depth, so be it. However, if they want to continue to build this unit, do it in the draft.
This crop of incoming rookie wide receivers is deep and diverse. There's no reason for the Steelers to dip their toes into the expensive free-agent pool of aging veterans when there is so much talent waiting for them in May.
The best bet is to let Sanders walk, try to get Cotchery back in with a moderate deal and allow the draft to fill in the blanks. Giving money to aging wide receivers is just throwing it away on this team.