What We've Learned About the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Start of Free Agency

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IMarch 13, 2014

What We've Learned About the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Start of Free Agency

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    The NFL free-agency period isn’t even a week old, but literally hundreds of millions of dollars in NFL contracts are being negotiated and signed. Once those free agents are on the market, it is like blood in the water and all of the franchises are sharks on the hunt.

    Even the normally conservative Pittsburgh Steelers went on the offensive right out of the gate. For a franchise that normally sits back and waits, this sort of proactive movement is a definite paradigm shift. However, it is a welcome change from a franchise that needs to turn things around quickly.

    This has already been one of the busiest offseasons in recent history for the Steelers, and they have only just begun. What have we learned here in the early stages of free agency? Read on and find out.

Pittsburgh Is Getting Their Defense Younger

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    Obviously, the key headline of the Steelers' free-agent period has been the signing of safety Mike Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract. Mitchell was the starting free safety for the Carolina Panthers last year and put up impressive numbers in 14 starts.

    Mitchell is projected to start at free safety for the Steelers in place of Ryan Clark. Mitchell is eight years younger than Clark and brings all of the physical play with even more speed in the secondary.

    Looking ahead to 2015, a full-time tandem of Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas at their respective safety positions is exciting. Another big plus is Mitchell is going to have an exceptional mentor in Troy Polamalu, as well as one of the best defensive coordinators in the league in Dick LeBeau to help him further develop the finer points of his game.

Cody Wallace Is Important

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    It was great to hear on Wednesday that the Steelers chose to give center Cody Wallace a new three-year contract. Wallace was signed in-season as injuries to the Steelers' interior line continued to pile up. Wallace started the final four games of the season and played very well.

    Wallace isn't flashy or overly athletic. That isn't his game. However, he is strong. And he is mean and nasty. This line needs that sort of enforcer presence that Wallace brings. The signing of Wallace does make one think about a couple of possible scenarios as to why.

    First, the Steelers might have wanted to secure Wallace because of concern for center Fernando Velasco's health. Velasco is still dealing with an Achilles injury and might not be ready for the start of the season. Along those same lines, Wallace provides invaluable depth at both guard and center. With center Maurkice Pouncey also recovering from a season-ending injury, Wallace could find himself as the starter to begin the season.

Letting Al Woods Leave Is a Mistake

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    It was unfortunate news on Wednesday, as Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean reported via Twitter that defensive lineman Al Woods had signed a contract to become a member of the Tennessee Titans. Woods showed flashes in 2013 that really impressed. He was one player this team really could have stood to re-sign.

    With Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood as free agents, you might have thought the Steelers would have pushed harder to keep Woods. There's no guarantee that Keisel is coming back, and Hood was awful in 2013. Without Woods in the fold, the Steelers might feel compelled to sign Hood back. 

    Losing Woods also turns the Steelers' attention in free agency and the draft toward bolstering the defensive line. Whether it is a defensive end or nose tackle, this is a roster that just needs more bodies. Losing Woods along with potentially two more creates a group with two returning starters in Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward, and very little else.

Team Needs Starting to Come into Focus

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    With the addition of a safety and the loss of an outside linebacker and defensive lineman, the needs of this team are becoming more clear with each passing day. Whether it is via free agency or the draft, the positions of need are starting to show up.

    • The Steelers still need a big receiving target, whether it is a wide receiver or a tight end. Probably best achieved in the draft.
    • Pittsburgh still needs to add a cornerback. With the contracts some free-agent cornerbacks are getting, this would be a draft priority as well. 
    • Defensive line has bumped up considerably on the list of priorities. This is an area where bringing in a veteran would be prudent, just to speed up the adjustment process.
    • Outside linebacker is still a serious need for the Steelers. With only Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds to count on, a third pass-rushing linebacker is a must.
    • Backup running back is still a concern. With only Le'Veon Bell under contract, the Steelers have to bring in at least two backs. It is probably best to split between a veteran and a rookie in this case.

The Steelers Aren't Done with Free Agency

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    You just have a feeling that there is another shoe to drop for the Steelers in free agency. This team worked too hard and cut too deep to just sign a safety and call it good until the draft. No, there's something else in the works. But, what could it be?

    The Steelers could still try to bring in a tight end like Jermichael Finley. Or wait out this spending spree and see what free-agent cornerbacks are still out there. Or they could go ahead and try and find a zero-technique defensive tackle, which would allow Steve McLendon to move to defensive end. There are lots of options out there for any of these scenarios.

    The next week or so is going to be full of moves all over the league, and Steelers fans should be optimistic that at least one more of those moves will come from Pittsburgh. They are playing it very close to the vest about potential targets, so it will definitely be a surprise. While some franchises are going out and just throwing money at players, the Steelers are playing it smart.