Pittsburgh Steelers: Ranking Remaining Offseason Priorities
A little over a week removed from the NFL draft, the preparation for the 2014 is kicking into gear for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It all began with rookie minicamp this weekend, as the nine draft picks as well as undrafted rookies and first-year players had their first opportunity to get acclimated to the NFL.
These rookies helped solidify a roster that had several holes that needed to be filled and lacked depth in many areas. While they must still prove themselves, the infusion of young talent will create an atmosphere of competition as they not only battle for a spot on the roster, but potentially a key role in the lineup also.
But even with the roster nearly solidified, general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin still have some work to do in order to compete in 2014. Whether it is extending the contracts of veterans in the final year of their respective deals or determining where the new players fit on the roster, the Steelers have plenty to figure out before the regular season begins.
So as minicamp approaches, here is a list of the Steelers' remaining offseason priorities. They are ranked from lowest to highest. The low-priority areas are those that will help the team in the future, and the high priority areas are those that are needed for success in 2014.
6. Contract Extensions for Key Veterans
Contract extensions have always been a summer priority for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and this year will be no exception. According to contract information from Spotrac, the Steelers have four veteran starters entering the final year of their contracts: Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Jason Worilds and Cortez Allen.
Pouncey and Gilbert are two starters on Pittsburgh's young offensive line and could be anchors on it for years to come. However, Pouncey's injury issues and Gilbert's consistency problems may mean that the Steelers make them prove themselves for another season before working on any long-term extensions.
The philosophy may be different on the defensive side where transition player Worilds is Pittsburgh's only established pass-rusher and Allen is an up-and-comer at cornerback.
Worilds had the best season of his career last season after he moved to left outside linebacker and could form a pass-rushing duo with Jarvis Jones for the near future. Behind him, the Steelers lack any quality depth and would need to depend on rookie Jordan Zumwalt developing this season.
Of greater importantance will be Allen, who is the only young cornerback on the roster with starting experience. He is expected to lock down a starting job this year and take over for Ike Taylor as the team's shutdown cornerback. A deal before the season starts would provide value for the Steelers just in case he explodes this season.
As nice as it would be to get any of these deals done this offseason, nothing would be nicer than locking up Ben Roethlisberger for the rest of his career. It is something that both sides are interested in, and the timing to get the deal done could not be any better.
Roethlisberger has two years remaining on his deal and any extension would mean that he would finish his career in Pittsburgh. The offense appears to be on the upswing, and there is no more important player to the success of this unit—and the team for that matter—than Roethlisberger.
Though it may not be essential that any of these deals get done this offseason for the team's success in 2014, it would help set the Steelers up well for the future and allow these players to focus on playing for the team as a whole and not their own individual futures.
5. Explore Free Agents for Depth
The Steelers went a long way in upgrading their depth with the draft, but despite this concerted effort, they still could find some upgrades in free agency. Whether it is a veteran linebacker, defensive end or defensive back, there is always room to upgrade the roster, and there are still plenty of good options on the open market.
Pro Football Talk put together an “All-Unemployed Team,” and it has some talented—yet old—players on it.
On the defensive side of the ball, former Steelers Brett Keisel and James Harrison are two options who are still available. Both already know the system and would—at most—be rotational players in the lineup. If they are looking for veteran help at cornerback, Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson are the top two names available.
If they are looking to add a fourth running back, Felix Jones remains unsigned as is LaRod Stephens-Howling. Both played with the Steelers last season and would help solidify the backfield.
Another area that is always of interest is the tackle position. Even though the Steelers have three young tackles on the roster and an established backup, there is always room for an upgrade. The new offensive line coach may not be satisfied with what he has to work with and instead could look for a stopgap veteran in a Bryant McKinnie or Eric Winston.
There is no immediate need to make any of these moves, but all will remain options if the Steelers are not satisfied with how their young players progress.
4. Integrate New Weapons into Offensive Packages
When the 2014 season kicks off, Pittsburgh's offense will be loaded with new weapons.
Markus Wheaton will finally get his chance to shine and Lance Moore will try to establish himself as the slot receiver. Ben Roethlisberger will also have plenty of speed around him with the addition of Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant and Dri Archer. Of course, they will balance this out with the power of LeGarrette Blount.
There are only so many touches to go around, meaning offensive coordinator Todd Haley must find a way to get all of these players involved.
Wheaton and Moore should not be much of a problem as they will fill the roles vacated by Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, respectively. The same can be said for Blount as he will replace the carries that went to Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer.
Instead, the players of interest will be Bryant and Archer. These two rookies have plenty of speed and could eventually develop into two of the best playmakers on the team. The question now becomes how fast can the Steelers get them integrated into the offense.
It is a given that Archer will be used as a returner, but Haley must find a way to get him in space on the offensive side of the ball. He has a small stature, and he will not be able to plow over defenders. Once in the open field, he will be able to use his elite speed to make big plays.
While Archer may be limited as a role player, Bryant has the potential to develop into a starting receiver. He is excited as to what he can bring to the team, via Teresa Varley of Steelers.com.
“I can be a big weapon there,” said Bryant. “That is what I specialize in. It’s fun. You know your team can count on you that you can make clutch plays in the red zone when you need a touchdown. Sometimes the quarterback can just throw it up and you can just make plays and keep it simple.”
Bryant's 6'4” frame will be an advantage in the red zone, but it will also be advantageous when stretching the field on deep balls. These are the two areas in which Haley can utilize him throughout the season.
The NFL is about scoring points, and the Steelers have equipped their offense with the weapons to be one of the top units in the league. Now it is about living up to that potential.
3. Establish Chemistry Along the Offensive Line
New offensive line coach Mike Munchak is expected to be a miracle worker by many fans. It is his task to transform one of the worst units on the Steelers into one of the best. That will be easier said than done.
Injuries have taken a toll on Pittsburgh's offensive line over the years, but the pure lack of development has been a bigger issues for the line. That is what makes Munchak—one of the top offensive line coaches in the league—such an important hire.
After being on the job for just a few months, Munchak is looking forward to working with this group, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“I think we can have a special group here,” said Munchak.
In order to achieve this, Munchak must establish chemistry along the line. Countless injuries have resulted in the shuffling of personnel over the years and the lack of continuity. The only real competition will come from Mike Adams, who could battle for the left or right tackle job.
Ideally, the line will be set early in camp so an emphasis can be set on scheme and allowing the line to jell throughout the preseason.
A strong offensive line will help pave the way for Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount as well as provide Roethlisberger with some much-needed pass protection. Their performance will also be reflected in the Steelers' success in the red zone.
There are few things more important than line play this year for the Steelers and the sooner they develop chemistry, the better.
2. Develop Rookies into Starters
Over the years, rookies have rarely been able to crack the Steelers' defensive lineup. They traditionally have boasted some of the best units in the league filled with Pro Bowlers leaving no room for a rookie to step in.
It is no surprise that no rookie started on defense prior to last season, according to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Only two defenders logged at least 100 snaps as rookies between 2007 and 2012. That all changed last year when three players had at least 100 snaps—Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams and Shamarko Thomas—with four earning starts.
Jones had eight starts as a rookie, while Vince Williams had 11. Two more defenders could join them this year, as Stephon Tuitt could take over at defensive end and Ryan Shazier could overtake Williams at inside linebacker, according to what defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said, per Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“Both of these players, if all develops as anticipated, are going to get a lot of playing time,” LeBeau said.
The Steelers do not have experienced veterans blocking either rookie from the lineup, so it will only be a matter of time before they start. At this point, it just becomes how quickly they can pick up the defensive scheme and whether or not LeBeau can simplify it for them.
Shazier would add an element of speed from the linebacker position that few teams could boast, while Tuitt has a tremendous amount of power and could eventually form one of the best 3-4 defensive end duos in the league with Cameron Heyward.
It may not be the ideal situation to depend on a rookie to clamp down on a starting job, but that is the case for the Steelers this season, and they must get Shazier and Tuitt on the field as fast as possible.
1. Establish a Pass Rush
The pass rush has struggled in recent years, and that has been evident in the defense's overall decline. In 2010, the defense had 48 sacks, but that productivity was followed up with 35 (2010), 37 (2011) and 34 (2013).
Without an effective pass rush, the defense cannot effectively dictate the tempo of opposing offenses. This has been felt even more with the decline of the run defense as well.
The only way the Steelers are going to get back to the top of the league in defense is if they can get to the quarterback. That means that they need a big season from Worilds and Jones and also from the rest of the front seven.
It make be a challenge, though, as the Steelers lost a lot of production when it comes to getting to the quarterback with the loss of LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Al Woods. Even though none of these players had outstanding seasons, they still accumulated 14 of Pittsburgh's 34 sacks in 2013.
Worilds and Jones will be put to the task at making up most of these numbers. Last season they combined for nine sacks. Ideally, each player will have at least nine sacks on their own. The rest will need to come from the speed on the inside with Timmons and Shazier as well as from the defensive front three.
Though the linemen do not need to dominate when it comes to getting pressure, if they can combine for 10 to 15 sacks, the defense should be much better and once again approaching a sack total in the mid- to upper-40s.
But talking about rushing the quarterback and actually getting pressure are two different things. There may not be a more important issue that the Steelers must fix for the 2014 season if they want to find themselves back in contention.
Note: All statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com.