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Pittsburgh Steelers' Final Free-Agency Outlook and Predictions

Curt PopejoyContributor IJune 26, 2016

Pittsburgh Steelers' Final Free-Agency Outlook and Predictions

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    We are only days away from the great feeding frenzy that is the NFL free-agency period. Teams are scrambling to make internal moves in order to secure their own free agents, restructure contracts to free up cap space or part ways with veterans whose time has come.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers approach the free-agency period in full scorched-earth mode, slashing salaries and cutting players loose in an attempt to get down to that elusive salary-cap number by March 11.

    Because the Steelers are in some salary-cap purgatory, don't look for big moves outside the franchise. As we've already seen, however, the front office is working hard to get its books balanced and move forward.

    Here's a final primer for the Steelers with the very latest on the roster moves they are making in preparation for free agency.

Cap Space

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    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    The Steelers current salary-cap situation is very fluid. The Steelers slapped the transition tag on outside linebacker Jason Worilds, which he promptly signed.

    According to ESPN Stats & Info (h/t ESPN.com), this put them at a current figure $15.5 million over the cap.

    However, they weren't done yet. Not by a long shot. The Steelers' official Twitter account revealed that the team has also restructured the contracts of tight end Heath Miller and safety Troy Polamalu.

    As noted by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, these contracts are three-year deals that will save the Steelers somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.8 million against the cap in 2014.

    The contracts are also very safe. Should Miller and Polamalu drop off in 2014, the financial burden of cutting them loose is lessened.

    Oh, but wait, there's more. The Steelers also announced that they are releasing offensive tackle Levi Brown, linebacker Larry Foote and cornerback Curtis Brown. According to Spotrac.com, the combined savings that result from cutting these three amounts to something in the area of $8.5 million.

    While some teams are preparing for a shopping spree on March 11, the Steelers must spend the next few days holding steady.

    They have made the requisite moves to get under the cap for the start of the season year, but they still have free agents they want to bring back and will need to find ways to cut salary even further in order to keep those players from signing somewhere else.

    At the same time, they must evaluate which of their own free agents to re-sign before even considering any other team's free agents.

    Once that process is done, the priority veterans are under contract and the needed restructuring and cuts are made, the Steelers can then begin to scour the league for possible additions who can add value to the roster in 2014 without costing an arm and a leg.

Current Free Agents

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    Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

    The priority free agents for the Steelers as of this writing are as follows:

    • Al Woods, defensive line
    • Ziggy Hood, defensive end
    • Jerricho Cotchery, wide receiver
    • Emmanuel Sanders, wide receiver
    • Jonathan Dwyer, running back
    • Felix Jones, running back
    • Fernando Velasco, center
    • Cody Wallace, center
    • Guy Whimper, offensive tackle

    In a perfect world, the Steelers find a creative loophole to bring all these players back into the fold for 2014. The reality is that is just not going to happen.

    Of these nine players, the Steelers should count themselves fortunate if they can get five or six back under contract.

    The most obvious loss will be Sanders. There is no motivation for the Steelers to sign Sanders to a big contract. He underperformed in 2013 and his inconsistency will not be missed.

    That makes Cotchery a much more important signing. Fortunately, odds are the soon-to-be 32-year-old wide receiver isn't going to command a king's ransom in free agency.

    No one else on this list really warrants anything beyond a veteran-minimum contract. Ideally, the Steelers can keep all the offensive linemen on this list as well as Woods on the defensive side of the ball.

    Hood and the running backs are all rather expendable at this point, especially over the other names on this list. It's doubtful any of them garner much interest from other teams.

Team Needs

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    Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

    The main thing this team needs is for some of the veterans on the roster to show some flexibility. We saw the first of it on Wednesday, but there will need to be more.

    Cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker LaMarr Woodley could be asked to take pay cuts. If neither are willing, both could see themselves looking for work elsewhere. It is the harsh reality of the NFL. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed how he would deal with the situation.

    Depending on what happens with the priority free agents already discussed, the Steelers could have two or three big needs that must be addressed via free agency or the draft.

    Wide receiver is an interesting spot. If Sanders leaves, the Steelers would certainly make a push for Cotchery. Assuming he could be had at a reasonable price, they would be three-deep at wide receiver. Antonio Brown, Cotchery and Markus Wheaton would comprise the starters.

    Does this diminish the need to bring in a veteran wide receiver who could contribute right away?

    Another spot is cornerback. Even if Taylor is willing to take one for the team, financially speaking, this group is still thin. Cortez Allen has a bright future, but William Gay is better-suited for a reserve role. The rub is cornerbacks are typically very expensive to sign, so how much talent they can bring in could hinge on how much Taylor is willing to give up.

    The final high free-agent priority is defensive line. With three guys without a contract, decisions will have to be made. The Steelers have two starters in place with Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward.

    At this point, the Steelers need to consider signing two or their three free-agent linemen just to have a passable depth chart. There are some youngsters on the roster who might be ready for that next step, but it is just too early to tell.

Possible Targets

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Outside of the in-house players, who might the Steelers look to for some of the gaps in the roster? Well, the prerequisites are they need to understand their role and come cheap. That seriously limits the options.

     

    Wide Receiver

    The veteran wide receiver pool is pretty sparse. The players at the top of the list are too expensive and the players at the bottom are typically aging and underwhelming.

    Tiquan Underwood is the one player among the free-agent wide receivers who is young enough to be worth the contract. Underwood wouldn't challenge for a starting spot, but could provide some quality depth.

    The Steelers' best bet could be to hold off on receivers in free agency and see what the draft brings. If that doesn't work, they can always reach out to some of the post-June 1 salary-cap casualties to add some depth.

     

    Cornerback

    This is a spot where the Steelers might want to put a little money toward the future. If the Steelers cannot get Taylor to take a pay cut and are forced to release him, whomever they sign here could be asked to be an opening-day starter.

    One name that should be considered is Walter Thurmond.

    Thurmond has been a career reserve to this point, but shows tons of potential. You would hope he is looking for a spot where he can go to be part of the starting lineup. The Steelers could certainly dangle that carrot in front of him. Thurmond is very good in man coverage and, when called upon, plays like an experienced starter beyond his years.

     

    Defensive Line

    The real need along the defensive line could be at nose tackle. The Steelers have a lot of swing players, but most of the linemen on the roster and otherwise are probably better-suited for the 5-technique at end as opposed to the pure 0-technique nose tackle.

    Terrence Cody is a massive individual who could just be looking for a fresh start.

    Cody never got any traction during his time with the Baltimore Ravens. This means he wouldn't cost a fortune to sign, and if defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau can get him motivated, he might be able to produce.

Predictions and Analysis

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    Vincent Pugliese/Getty Images

    Oh boy, the Steelers are having a real fire sale. And it's far from over. Even if the Steelers were able to cut nearly $16.5 million and get just under the cap, things are far from over.

    According to Spotrac.com, the Steelers have 59 players under contract. In order to sign even a handful of the free agents listed earlier, more of these guys will have to go. Many have contracts that don't even count against the cap, so it will be no real loss.

    However, as mentioned before, Taylor and Woodley need to be willing to be flexible. Their combined cap hit for 2014 is $24.532 million. That is a ridiculous number for those two players.

    If both are willing to do something similar to what Miller and Polamalu did, it would allow this team to hang on to some of its young talent and compete in 2014.

    It could even allow the Steelers to be something of a player in free agency, seeking out some new faces for the team. Don't hold your breath, though. This will probably be a very quiet time for the Steelers, as usual. They will continue to do their due diligence leading up to May and the NFL draft.

    This draft class is deep enough that they Steelers could realistically fill all of their needs through it and forgo outside free agents altogether. This sort of low-key approach is pretty typical for the Steelers. They could come in and swoop up a veteran or two in the summer after cap cuts are made post-draft.

    Overall, the moves made so far have been very smart. No team ever likes to cut players and no player ever wants to make less money.

    Unfortunately, this is the nature of the NFL. The Steelers are doing what must be done to handle their fiscal responsibilities.

    Keeping Miller and Polamalu took tight end and safety off the top of the needs list in either free agency or the draft. There might not be a lot of big names coming in, but Steelers fans can be sure that there is still plenty of excitement left.

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