Creating the Steelers Free Agency Fall Back Plan
Sometimes no matter how well thought out a plan is, it just doesn't work. When it comes to the NFL, the influence of 31 other franchises can toss a real wrench into any offseason strategy.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have positioned themselves well as the free-agency period begins on March 11. Even with the re-signing of several of their own free agents to consider, the Steelers cut enough from the roster to free up $11.41 million (courtesy of spotrac).
Pittsburgh's free-agent goals are fairly straightforward:
- Bolster the talent in the defensive secondary
- Add a big target on offense
- Retain existing players on the defensive line
- Upgrade at backup running back
- Retain existing players on the offensive line
Nothing is guaranteed, and even with the personnel-maneuvering skills of the Steelers' front office there is nothing to assure these things will happen.
What happens if Plan A for this year's free agency falls through? Here are some possible Plan B scenarios for Pittsburgh.
Bolster Talent in the Defensive Secondary
It sounds as if the Steelers could be in the market for free-agent cornerback Alterraun Verner. This would be an incredible signing should it happen. Verner is a big, physical corner with exceptional ball skills.
However, with the potential price Verner is going to command on the market, the Steelers might recuse themselves from a bidding war. If that happens, what do they do instead?
There are two other free agent cornerbacks the Steelers should consider. Walter Thurmond and Tarell Brown are both mid-tier cornerbacks who won't command quite the salary while still bringing lots of talent. Thurmond in particular is intriguing.
The Seattle Seahawks secondary has been crowded and that's kept Thurmond out of the starting lineup. However, his size and skill set are exceptional fits on the Steelers defense. If the Steelers miss on Verner, turning to Thurmond or Brown would be a very good consolation prize.
Add a Big Receiving Target on Offense
Pittsburgh is showing that they are serious about wanting a big receiving target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The team's presumed interest in free-agent tight end Jermichael Finley of Green Bay indicates they hope to land that target before the draft.
Whether or not Finley is a cogent choice to fill this need is debatable.
However, should they miss out on Finley, all is not lost. Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler is another huge (6'7") target who can navigate the middle of the field. The cost between Chandler and Finley shouldn't be much different (Chandler could cost a bit more), but the advantage Chandler has is that he is ready to play now.
The best-case backup scenario for the Steelers in addressing their "big receiving target" need might just be the draft. This team needs youth and athleticism all over the field.
Getting Roethlisberger a big receiving target, whether it's a wide receiver or tight end, might be best accomplished away from free agency altogether.
Retain Existing Talent on the Offensive Line
The Steelers line might not be littered with stars or household names, but do not discount them. Even after contending with a multitude of injuries, this group got better in the second half of the season. In fact, the unit allowed just seven sacks total in the final seven games of the season.
The Steelers have three free agent offensive linemen to consider. Centers Fernando Velasco and Cody Wallace and tackle Guy Whimper are all unsigned at this point. Ideally, all of these guys will return at veteran minimum contracts. While they have been excellent contributors, none of them are going to command big money. However, compared to any replacement the Steelers could get for the same money, these guys are great.
The rub is that Wallace and Velasco both can start in the league. And with Maurkice Pouncey returning from injury, it's likely both will be relegated to the bench. If either or both want to test the waters in hopes of landing a starting spot, the Steelers could be looking for replacements.
In this scenario, the most viable backup plan is to do nothing at all.
If the Steelers are unable to retain all three, it would be in their best interest to wait to replace them. In many cases, the best way to fill spots like this is to wait until teams start to trim rosters in June. There will be no rush to fill any potentially vacant reserve spots on the offensive line.
Upgrade Backup Running Back
The only running back on the Steelers' roster who is under contract is starter Le'Veon Bell. While Bell would be a solid option to handle the bulk of the touches, adding some talent behind him must be a priority.
None of the unsigned running backs who were on the Steelers roster last year inspire confidence. Other than their familiarity with the offense, there's no reason to bring any back for 2014.
So, what exactly is Plan A? Hard to say. The Steelers have been mum about their plans for the running back depth chart. As conservative as the Steelers' front office is, veteran-minimum contracts to one or two of the unsigned former Steelers would be the most logical. Hardly the most exciting, but it isn't always about the flash.
However, if that doesn't happen, what is another (perhaps better) option? Avoid free-agent running backs completely. Running backs need to be young and with fresh legs. The bulk of the free agents are out of work for a reason. They lack at least one and in most cases both of these features.
Wait for the draft and fill the depth chart up there. This draft is deep at running back, with players boasting impressive skills and exceptional variety.
Retain Existing Players on the Defensive Line
The Steelers' defensive line situation is somewhat dire.
Three of the Steelers' top five defensive linemen are unsigned. The trio of Brett Keisel, Al Woods and Ziggy Hood all played significant snaps in 2013, and with only Cameron Heyward and Steve McLendon returning, it would make sense at the front office sign two of the first three to new deals.
It's interesting that none of the trio has been rumored to receive a new contract from the Steelers. When it comes to Keisel, that could be because he is planning to retire, but Woods and Hood could draw some interest from other teams if the Steelers don't get them back in the fold. Solid 3-4 defensive linemen are something of a prized commodity in the league.
What do they do if they can only get one, or none of them back? There are multiple 3-4 defensive ends around the league who are unsigned at this point.
The key will be for the Steelers to retain their own defensive linemen at bargain prices.
The reason being is that Heyward is going to want a big contract extension next offseason...and will deserve it. This offseason has to be about either lower-tier free agents or even mid- to late-round draft picks to fill in the depth chart.