Predicting the Steelers Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free Agency
It is never too soon to start thinking about how players fit into the grand scheme of things for an NFL team. Just a week into the free-agency period, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had more subtraction than addition.
This means the projected starters may look somewhat different for 2014. However, a little bit of change isn't a bad thing, right?
The Steelers finished the 2013 season with an 8-8 record. They narrowly missed the playoffs after rallying from a 2-6 start. Injuries hamstrung the team all season long, and they were fortunate to finish as strong as they did.
The good news is, with most of the core of this team intact, hopes are high for 2014.
The following projection can't be based on anything other than what we know. That means, no matter how confident we are about a potential free-agent signing, this prediction is based purely on who is under contract as of right now. There are still several spots to sort out, especially among the reserves. With salary-cap money being tight, we could see many of those spots being filled with rookies.
Here is a very early projection as to whom will be the Steelers starters if the season started today. Read on and enjoy.
Unless specified, all statistics courtesy of the Steelers homepage.
Projected Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
This is an easy one. Ben Roethlisberger finished 2013 with 4,261 yards passing and 28 touchdowns, his second-highest single-season numbers in both categories. This also was the second season in Ben's 10-year career in which he was able to start all 16 regular-season games.
Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the AFC but doesn't get the respect he deserves. Part of that is because his production is not going to win any fantasy football leagues. However, make no mistake, Big Ben is elite, albeit a bit unorthodox at times.
It is hard to say how long Roethlisberger will be running the Steelers offense, but as long as he's around, it's all his.
Projected Starter: Le'Veon Bell
When the Steelers drafted Le'Veon Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, it was unclear if he was ready to come in and play big right away. It took him a few weeks to get on the field after an injury delayed his debut.
Nevertheless, once Bell was on the field, everyone understood why the Steelers selected him.
In 13 starts, Bell averaged 97 yards of total offense per game and 4.4 yards per touch. Every week you could just see Bell getting better. His speed and strength were already in place, but by the final six games of the season, Bell's vision and patience had really improved. He was gaining yards inside and outside, on all different types of run calls.
Bell is the player who will bring balance to the Steelers offense. His ability to impact the running game as well as a receiver out of the backfield assures him a starting spot for a very long time.
Projected Starters: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Derek Moye
If there is a unit on this list to have a "yikes" moment about, it is the wide receivers.
Antonio Brown is the constant. He finished 2013 with 110 receptions for 1,499 yards. His season was quietly one of the most productive in the NFL in 2013, and one of the best in Steelers' history. As long as Pittsburgh has Brown, its passing offense should be in good hands.
However, beyond Brown, things are more than a little shaky. Jerricho Cotchery is as of yet unsigned, and they have brought in no experienced free agents. That means Markus Wheaton and Derek Moye get the nod as the second and third receivers on the depth chart.
Is that a problem? Maybe.
But only if you consider eight career receptions between the two of them a problem. There's no doubt the Steelers will upgrade the depth at the position, but as of now, this is how things would shake out.
Projected Starter: Heath Miller
Miller got himself 14 starts in 2013 and hauled in 58 receptions. He has been cemented in the starting spot on this team since 2005, and that doesn't look to change now. Miller has proven himself to be a reliable target, a willing blocker and a security blanket for Roethlisberger.
The Steelers employed quite a bit of 12-personnel in 2013, utilizing two tight ends on a fairly regular basis. Presently there is very little behind Miller in terms of receiving talent. Matt Spaeth would most likely be the "other" starting tight end, but Spaeth is essentially just a run-blocker, offering very little threat in the passing game.
Tight end is another spot where the Steelers could add significant talent at some point this offseason.
Projected Starters: Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Cody Wallace, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert
Who would have guessed after all of the injuries and subpar play endured by the Steelers' offensive line for much of 2013 that this group would appear to be so stable at this point? It's a mystery, but it is comforting to know that these five are the same five who finished the season with a serious head of steam.
The one spot on this unit that could change as the season approaches is at center. Assuming Maurkice Pouncey is ready to play, the starting job would be his. This would relegate Cody Wallace to the bench.
There is always the possibility that the Steelers would select an offensive tackle early in the draft, which could push either Kelvin Beachum or Marcus Gilbert out of their starting spots. But, to be honest, there's no reason to panic about any of these positions going forward.
Projected Starters: Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Brian Arnfelt
Much of the free-agent chatter about the Steelers has centered on the losses along the defensive line. Al Woods and Ziggy Hood are already gone and Brett Keisel is still without a contract.
That paves the way for second-year defensive end Brian Arnfelt to start with Cameron Heyward and Steve McLendon. Arnfelt is a massive young man at 6'4" and 298 pounds. However, he is almost a complete unknown.
The star of this group is Heyward. 2013 marked a breakout season for the defensive end. Heyward's 5.0 sacks ranked second on the team, which is impressive from a 5-technique defensive end. If we assume that his season was no fluke, getting a solid, every-down player opposite Heyward would be helpful. In fact, with as much nickel as the Steelers play, that other end might end up lining up inside as a tackle on many plays.
Projected Starters: Jarvis Jones, Jason Worilds, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams
Linebacker is another unit that should enter the season with significant stability, at least among the starters. On the outside, Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds will be tasked with providing the pass rush, improving on last season.
On the inside, Lawrence Timmons is the do-it-all linebacker who never comes off the field. The other inside linebacker position is anchored by second-year player Vince Williams. Williams is a two-down inside LB who does a very good job defending the run.
Depth inside and outside are less than ideal. However, in terms of starters, this group is experienced and talented, with plenty of upside.
Projected Starters: Cortez Allen, Ike Taylor, Mike Mitchell, Troy Polamalu
The one big move the Steelers have made so far during the free-agency period has been signing former Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell. Mitchell's addition allows for a smooth transition away from the aging Ryan Clark. However, other than acquiring Mitchell, little has changed for the Steelers secondary. Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen would start at cornerback, with William Gay as the nickel.
At safety, it'll be Mitchell deep and Troy Polamalu reprising his spot in his hybrid safety/linebacker role near the line of scrimmage. This will also include even more sprinklings of safety Shamarko Thomas as the fifth defensive back in the Steelers' big-nickel set.
Pittsburgh will need to address the future at cornerback, but for 2014, things seem to be in good hands.
Projected Starters: Shaun Suisham, Brad Wing
2013 was a huge year for kicker Shaun Suisham, who hit 30-of-32 (93.8 percent) of his field-goal tries and all 39 of his extra points. Other than his two misses against the Oakland Raiders, he was perfect for the year.
Punter is something of a different story. The only punter under contract is Brad Wing, who came aboard in January. Wing was an undrafted free agent in 2013 and has never punted in a regular-season game. The former LSU Tiger showed a big leg in college, but it remains to be seen if he will have a shot to do so in the NFL.