Reassessing Steelers' Offseason Plan and Breaking Down What's Left to Address
The 2014 offseason has been uncharacteristically active for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rather than sit back and watch as free agency passes by, the Steelers dove in and added seven new players to the roster.
That is what back-to-back missed playoff appearances will do. At risk of settling into mediocrity, general manager Kevin Colbert broke the mold and is taking an aggressive approach to the offseason.
“It’s huge for our franchise,” Colbert said at the NFL combine, via Greg Bedard of The MMQB. “You go 8-8 in back-to-back years, it’s a huge disappointment, not only to our fans but to the organization. We feel it every day. But we have to fight through it, and hopefully we’re not talking about that next year.”
The Steelers did not go into “panic mode,” but instead made several shrewd moves that they hope will get the franchise back on track and in playoff contention.
Time will only tell if these moves pay off or not, but the Steelers appear to be moving in the right direction. Now with the draft approaching and a second wave of free agents that can be signed later this summer, let’s examine what the Steelers have done and what they still need to accomplish heading into the 2014 season.
Evaluating Coaching Moves
The offseason began with a shakeup on the coaching staff as Jack Bicknell Jr. was fired after just one year coaching the offensive line, and running backs coach Kirby Wilson left for the same position on the Minnesota Vikings staff.
Mike Tomlin hit a home run by hiring former Tennessee Titans head coach, Mike Munchak, to replace Bicknell. He is recognized as one best offensive line coaches in the league and, according to Teresa Varley of Steelers.com, the current linemen are excited to work with him.
Munchak will have the opportunity to work with a young, talented group of players who have yet to live up to their playing potential.
James Saxon was brought in to replace Wilson. Over the course of his career, he has coached a talented group of running backs including Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Ricky Williams and Adrian Peterson. He will have a quality young back to work with in Le’Veon Bell and will look to develop him in the mold of the other greats that he has coached.
Joey Porter was also added to the staff as a defensive assistant where he will most certainly work with the linebackers. Expect him to work closely with second-year outside linebacker, Jarvis Jones, as he helps develop him as a pass-rusher.
Evaluating Roster Moves so Far
Besides the changes on the coaching staff, the Steelers front office had to make several moves to provide salary-cap relief. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Steelers had to clear approximately $8.5 million.
They did so by releasing Levi Brown, Larry Foote and Curtis Brown. Foote is the most notable of the players released, but would have been coming off of a biceps injury that kept him out of virtually all of the 2013 season. This will force them to get young at the position.
LaMarr Woodley was also designated as a June 1 cut, making him the most significant release of the offseason.
By parting ways with Woodley, the Steelers have committed to starting Jason Worilds at left outside linebacker. For that reason, he received the transition tag.
Woodley had lacked production over the past several of seasons due to a numerous list of injuries. Combined with his high cap hit, it was time to move on in favor of the younger Worilds, who finally showed signs of being a quality defender last season.
In addition to the cap casualties, the Steelers also reworked the contracts of Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and Ike Taylor. While all three players are on the downsides of their careers, it was important to keep them around because not only are they still capable of producing, but no adequate young players are ready to take over as starters.
The Steelers’ front office also broke the mold when it came to free agency. Rather than take a passive approach, they were aggressive and signed seven free agents from outside of the organization.
Mike Mitchell was the most significant signing, as he signed a five-year deal worth $25 million. He will replace Ryan Clark as the starting free safety.
Mitchell had the best year of his career last season with 66 tackles, 3.5 sacks and four interceptions. His speed at the back of the secondary will help a pass defense that finished ninth in the league.
The other six signings were primarily for depth purposes.
Lance Moore and LeGarrette Blount will play key roles on the offensive side of the ball, while Cam Thomas and Arthur Moats will be important reserves on defense. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Brian McCain will have to compete for a spot on the final roster.
Blount may see upwards of 100 carries next year, as he replaces Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones in the backfield behind Bell. Expect him to be the short-yardage back and get time near the goal line. Meanwhile, Lance Moore should see a significant amount of time as the slot receiver.
Thomas will be a rotational player along the defensive line where the Steelers lost Ziggy Hood and Al Woods to free agency. He may see time at defensive end and nose tackle. Moats will be the top backup on the outside and has the ability to shift to inside linebacker as well.
For now, the Steelers will have to sit tight in free agency, but more moves can be made once Woodley’s cap hit comes off the books in June.
Add a Starting Defensive End
Kevin Colbert has done a solid job in replenishing most areas of the roster through free agency, but there remains one glaring hole, and that is at defensive end.
With Hood and Woods gone, the Steelers have some work to do to rebuild their depth at defensive end. While they could try out Brian Arnfelt or Nick Williams, it is unlikely that either player is ready to contribute as a starter.
The only starting-caliber defensive end that Colbert explored in free agency has been Alex Carrington. However, he signed elsewhere, meaning that the Steelers will have to take Plan B or C.
Brett Keisel remains a possibility to return for one more season. His agent—Eric Metz—says that the long-time defensive end is prepared to play another year.
“He’s productive, healthy and has every intention to continue to play football,” Metz told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
However, he also told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he does not plan on playing for the veteran minimum. Even if that means that the Steelers have to pay him a little more, it would be worth it.
Defensive ends in the Steelers system take two or three years to develop, and even if they draft a talented defensive end in the first or second round, you could not count on them starting as a rookie.
Keisel remains the best option, as he is still playing at a high level and knows the defensive system better than anyone on the free-agent market. He should not cost a fortune and would be a terrific stopgap starter until a young defensive end is ready to take over that role.
Address Offense in the Draft
When it comes to the offense, the Steelers are set at quarterback, tight end and on the offensive line. That leaves the need for a playmaker at wide receiver and depth at running back.
The Steelers will have few problems finding a third-string running back on Day 3 of the draft. There are a plethora of quality running back prospects rated as fourth-round picks or lower by CBS Sports including Charles Sims, Tyler Gaffney, James White, Storm Johnson, De’Anthony Thomas and Silas Redd.
There is also plenty of depth at receiver, but the Steelers should strongly consider taking one in the first three rounds and consider selecting another later in the draft.
Even with the signing of Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, there are plenty of questions surrounding the position.
Markus Wheaton is unproven, Heyward-Bey has issues catching the ball and Moore is only 5’9” and is on the wrong side of 30. With the offense in the position where it must carry the defense this year, adding another playmaker is essential, and they should not allow these signings to prevent them from taking a talented receiver.
According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, “a tall wide receiver is high on the wishlist in the upcoming draft.” There are no shortage of players that fall under this criteria.
Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Allen Robinson will be some of the top names available in the first two rounds, as are Martavis Bryant and Donte Moncrief. Of course, they could wait much later for Cody Latimer or Devin Street.
From a pure talent standpoint, though, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Jarvis Landry and Robert Herron are all players who would be a nice fit for the Steelers, but all lack the size that they have been missing since Plaxico Burress began his career in Pittsburgh.
Regardless of when the Steelers select a receiver, they will have plenty of talent to choose from.
Address Defense in the Draft
Outside of safety, the Steelers could upgrade their depth at every other position on the defensive side of the ball. For that reason, expect this to be a very defensive-heavy draft.
Defensive end remains a priority, as it is the only position on the roster in which the Steelers lack a starter. However, it also happens to be a position in which a rookie will not contribute for a year or two, so it is difficult to justify spending a first-round selection on this position.
Instead, the Steelers should wait until the second round if Stephon Tuitt or Ra’Shede Hageman fall to them. If not, there are a number of prospects who would fit as a 3-4 defensive end and could be drafted on the third day.
Louis Nix is the only nose tackle worth an early selection, but considering that it has become a two-down position for the Steelers, he may not be worth the 15th overall selection. It remains to be seen if the Steelers would be interested in adding a nose tackle later in the draft.
The linebacker position is very thin with Arthur Moats as the only viable backup. Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones will enter the season as starters, but neither has demonstrated the ability to be a productive starter for an entire 16-game season. At some point, the Steelers must find another young outside linebacker to develop.
On the inside, the starting position next to Lawrence Timmons is shaky at best. Vince Williams is the starter by default and is limited as a two-down player at this point of his career. It will be difficult for the Steelers to pass on a potential three-down linebacker if C.J. Mosley is available in the first round.
Cornerback remains as one of the top priorities for the Steelers to address. Ike Taylor’s career is winding down and William Gay should not be in the starting lineup. Pittsburgh must find a talented cornerback to develop to eventually start alongside Cortez Allen.
Darqueze Dennard, Justin Gilbert and Kyle Fuller are all possibilities in the first round. If they are unable to grab a quality cornerback in the first, you can almost guarantee that one will be selected in the second or third.
Contract Extensions to Explore
According to Over the Cap, the Steelers have five young starters that are entering the final year of their contracts.
- Maurkice Pouncey
- Marcus Gilbert
- Jason Worilds
- Cameron Heyward
- Cortez Allen
At one time, Pouncey would have been considered as a no-brainer for a contract extension. However, injury issues and inconsistent play over his career may put this one on hold. But if they want to sign him while he is affordable, offering an extension following a season on the IR could be a wise move.
Unlike Pouncey, Gilbert has never showed that he can play at an elite level. There is a chance that he could lose his job as starting right tackle to Mike Adams this training camp. It is very unlikely that Gilbert will receive a contract extension.
It’s much more likely that the Steelers look to extend the contract of their young defenders.
By extending the contract of Worilds, they can reduce his $9.754 million cap hit. It would also allow them to lock up their best pass-rusher to a long-term deal.
Heyward has an option year beyond 2014, but he exploded onto the scene last season, and his price can only expect to go up.
Unlike Heyward, Allen did not take that “next step” last season and was actually a bit of a disappointment. At one point, he found himself behind Gay on the depth chart.
That should not deter the Steelers from looking for a contract extension. Allen’s value is not particularly high coming off of last season, and they can probably lock him into a long-term deal at a fair price to the team.
Ben Roethlisberger Contract
As much as the Steelers would like to sign some of these players to new contracts, not one of them is more important than Ben Roethlisberger. He has two years left on his deal, meaning that it is time for the two sides to negotiate a new contract.
Back in January, Scott Brown of ESPN.com reported that Art Rooney wants Roethlisberger to retire a Steeler and hopes that an extension will get done eventually.
There is no need to wait on an extension. Roethlisberger is the most important player on the team and the time is now to get a deal done. Until it is, it is the most important item left that the Steelers must address.