Projecting the Steelers' Starting Lineup Before the 2014 NFL Draft
Turnover is inevitable in the NFL. With the contract structures being what they are, players become nomads, moving to where the money is. The Pittsburgh Steelers are no strangers to the migratory patterns of free agents. In most cases, the top players are those leaving the fold, rather than coming in. Nevertheless, this team continues to field a competitive lineup year-after-year.
Looking back on 2013, and looking ahead to 2014, we see very little turnover. On offense, Pittsburgh lost wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders. The two were sort of co-starters, as Pittsburgh employed a ton of three-wide sets. However, other than them, the bulk of this starting offense is still in place.
On defense, things are very much the same. Most of the players who Pittsburgh chose to jettison weren't significant contributors in 2013. They will not be missed. Yes, there are needs to be addressed on defense, but by and large, there are enough players here with starting experience that the Pittsburgh coaching staff should be very comfortable going into the season.
So, if the season started today, who would be in the starting lineup? Let's take a look at a possible starting lineup on offense and defense and see if there are any spots where you think a rookie might come in and challenge for a starting spot.
All statistics courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger
The lock of all locks on this roster is that Ben Roethlisberger is going to start at quarterback for the Steelers. Roethlisberger has been the face of this franchise for 10 seasons, and that is not going to end anytime soon.
Roethlisberger enjoyed one of his most successful statistical seasons in 2013. He threw for 4,261 yards and 28 touchdowns, both very near career highs. No one on the roster will challenge Big Ben for his spot, and this team is going to win or lose ultimately on how well he plays.
Running Back: Le'Veon Bell
One of the real bright spots in the second half of the season was the play of then-rookie running back Le'Veon Bell. Every week you could see Bell becoming more and more comfortable in the offense.
Bell finished 2013 with 1,259 yards from scrimmage in only 13 games. More impressive than that, 830 of those yards came in the final eight games of the season. There are some concerns about workload with a young back like Bell, but his ability to impact the offense in multiple ways makes it hard to pull him off the field.
LeGarrette Blount will be a great player to spell Bell, especially during those times when the Steelers' offense needs a blunt instrument to beat on defenses, but the lion's share of the touches will go to Bell.
Wide Receivers: Antonio Brown, Lance Moore, Markus Wheaton
The Steelers employed three wide receivers enough during 2013 that when thinking about starters, three is the number here.
Obviously, it all starts with Antonio Brown. Brown finished 2013 with 110 receptions for 1,499 yards. Regardless of whatever else the Steelers do behind him, it is going to be Brown as the star of the show. All Pittsburgh can do is put players around him with skills that complement his. If Pittsburgh can get 100 catches out of the two wide receivers behind Brown, that is a success.
And the guys behind him look to be Lance Moore and Markus Wheaton. Wheaton was a rookie last year and was never able to work his way up the depth chart. That was due in large part to Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, both of which are gone now. And with Moore as the only other principal option, this is Wheaton’s time to shine.
Speaking of Moore, if there is a player who can help free up Brown, it’s him. Moore has flashed some serious playmaking potential during his career, but he has always been part of a crowded group. In Pittsburgh, Moore is going to have a good shot to see meaningful snaps on the outside. It doesn’t matter that he’s not ideal in terms of height. If Roethlisberger has shown anything, it’s that if you can get open, he will get you the football.
Left Tackle: Kelvin Beachum
Left Guard: Ramon Foster
Center: Maurkice Pouncey
Right Guard: David DeCastro
Right Tackle: Marcus Gilbert
The group might not be fraught with big-name players, but they really came together in the second half of the 2013 season.
Starting tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert really came on strong the final seven games. Per the broadcast team of the Steelers’ final game of the season, the tandem had only allowed one sack in those final seven games.
Inside, guard David DeCastro anchors the line. DeCastro enters his third season as one of the more underrated interior offensive linemen in the league. His ability to pull and get outside was key to the resurgence of the Steelers’ run game.
Opposite DeCastro is Ramon Foster. Foster is a steady performer, but if there’s a spot that could use an upgrade, it is at left guard. There’s a real chance that if the Steelers go with an offensive tackle early in the draft. That would kick Beachum inside and send Foster to the bench.
For this exercise, it’s assumed Maurkice Pouncey is able to return to full health to start again at center. If Pouncey is ready, it is very likely the job is his. Pouncey is an athletic young player who fits the blocking scheme the Steelers often employ. However, should Pouncey fail to be ready, this team can go with Cody Wallace and still feel confident.
Tight End: Heath Miller
It doesn’t feel like tight end Heath Miller should be entering his 10th season. It feels more like he should be entering his 15th. Miller isn’t the fastest, or most athletic tight end in the league, but in terms of productivity, he is rock solid.
If we are talking about positions that could benefit from a draft pick, tight end is one of them. It is hard to say how long Miller is going to be around, and beyond him, there is nothing to get excited about. If Pittsburgh wants to employ two-tight end sets, they will need to seek one out.
However, for now Miller is the man, and if he can stay healthy for a full season, he can be a wonderful security blanket for Roethlisbeger. Fifty to 60 receptions aren’t out of the question, and he could end up the red-zone threat Cotchery was in 2013.
Left Defensive End: Cameron Heyward
Nose Tackle: Cam Thomas
Right Defensive End: Steve McLendon
With a 3-4 base defense, Pittsburgh has some flexibility with their starting defensive line. Depending on the situation, defensive ends must be able to slide inside and play tackle. So beef is a must.
Last season, defensive tackle Steve McLendon was a man out of position. His inability to anchor the middle at nose tackle pushed him off the field far too often. However, kick him outside to end and he can play.
Opposite of McLendon is Cameron Heyward. Everyone is hoping that Heyward can repeat the success he had in 2013 and take his game to the next level. This team’s pass rush was woeful and part of improving that will fall on Heyward.
Inside, Cam Thomas is going to be a much more irresistible force. Or is it immoveable object? At 6’4” and 335 pounds, Thomas can help stuff the run and free up the inside linebackers to hustle to the football.
Left Outside Linebacker: Jarvis Jones
Left Inside Linebacker: Vince Williams
Right Inside Linebacker: Lawrence Timmons
Right Outside Linebacker: Jason Worilds
Pittsburgh is returning all of their key starters at linebacker from 2013. Yes, LaMarr Woodley is gone, but in his place is Jason Worilds and he looks ready to play.
Opposite of Worilds is going to be second-year player Jarvis Jones. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that Jones is prepared for this. His rookie season was a struggle, and his lack of strength really showed. This is another spot where a rookie could steal reps.
On the inside, Lawrence Timmons has been a steady force for Pittsburgh the past seven seasons. Timmons has topped 100 tackles three times in his career and is the best all-around linebacker on the roster.
Who lines up next to Timmons continues to be a cause for some debate. There’s a valid chance that Arthur Moats will end up starting next to Timmons. Is he an upgrade over Vince Williams? I’d argue no. Neither are three-down linebackers, but Williams is younger and already knows the defense.
Left Cornerback: Cortez Allen
Right Cornerback: Ike Taylor
Nickel Cornerback: William Gay
The Steelers’ cornerbacks accounted for three interceptions in 2013. Let that sink in for a minute. It was bad enough that the team only hauled in 10 interceptions but only three of them being hauled in by cornerbacks is brutal.
Can that change this year? Hopefully an improved pass rush will help some. However, the onus on the play of this group will fall on them. Hopefully a starting tandem of Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen will be just what the doctor ordered.
Taylor is entering what is likely his final season, and so there is no guarantee that he’ll be a starter the entire season. If Pittsburgh uses a high draft pick on a cornerback, Taylor could find himself in a nickel cornerback role instead.
The wildcard is Allen. It is high time that he steps up and be the cornerback he flashes. If not, he will find himself in a fight for a spot with William Gay of all people. Getting the sense of just how dire the cornerback situation is yet?
Strong Safety: Troy Polamalu
Free Safety: Mike Mitchell
Pittsburgh’s starting safety spots are mostly set at this point. The ageless wonder that is Troy Polamalu will enter his 12th season as the Steelers’ starting strong safety. At some point it will be right for a passing of the guard, but that’s not going to happen this season, short of injury.
For many of those years, Pittsburgh was able to rely on Ryan Clark to be his running mate. However, this year things are going to change as Mike Mitchell steps into that role. Mitchell parlayed his one season as a starter into a free-agent contract with Pittsburgh. The question now becomes can he live up to his five-year, $25 million deal?
Mitchell gets the nod here, but if he can’t acclimate, or Polamalu gets hurt, look for Shamarko Thomas to steal the show. He is the future at strong safety, and he could end up getting even more reps than he did as a rookie.