The Pittsburgh Steelers once had one of the deepest, most talented rosters in the entire league. That is not the case anymore, as a once-great team is littered with mediocre talent across many of its positions.
Much of this has been the result of a high roster turnover in recent years. The Steelers have released aging veterans who helped lead them to multiple Super Bowl titles in favor of youth. Given the speed of this transition, many of the young players haven’t been able to develop into effective starters yet.
The result has been back-to-back missed playoff appearances in Pittsburgh. That was enough for general manager Kevin Colbert to make some significant changes to the roster this offseason.
In an effort to add talent and build depth, Colbert had one of his most active free-agency periods and used all nine of his draft picks. It is clear with these moves that he was intent on adding youth and speed to the roster.
Mike Mitchell was the top signing of the offseason, but was it enough to bolster the secondary? Is Cam Thomas the answer on the defensive line, or will the Steelers regret not re-signing Brett Keisel? Is the offensive line finally ready to break out?
Those are just a few of the questions regarding the roster that must be answered prior to the start of the 2014 season.
To determine the deepest and thinnest areas of the team, I evaluated each position and assigned a rating based on the quality of experienced players in place as well as the upside of the new players—both rookies and free-agent signings—and then ranked from deepest to thinnest.
So what were the results? Here are the Steelers' two deepest and thinnest positions as training camp approaches.
Prior to the start of the offseason, safety was one of—if not—the top draft need for the Steelers.
Ryan Clark’s age had finally caught up with him as he struggled in deep coverage and was no longer the same force against the run. Pittsburgh needed more athleticism in its secondary, and it was time to move on from the 34-year-old Clark.
Rather than wait for the draft, the Steelers dipped into the free-agent pool and signed Mitchell to a five-year deal. He will immediately step into the starting lineup and provide a significant upgrade to Pittsburgh’s secondary.
Mitchell has tremendous speed, and his aggressive style of play will fit in well with Pittsburgh’s defense. However, it is important that he masters the defense and plays disciplined football so that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau can continue to allow Troy Polamalu to freelance.
The presence of Mitchell also means that the Steelers will have excellent depth.
Will Allen is a dependable veteran who is more than capable as a starter, but he is better as a backup due to his physical limitations. That is the role that he will have this season—barring injury—and that will only help the secondary. Expect him to be the top safety off the bench on passing downs.
Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden round out the depth chart as two young safeties with tons of upside. While Golden is primarily a special teams player, Thomas is a particularly interesting prospect with a bright future.
He is a fast, hard-hitting safety with the versatility to play near the line of scrimmage, deep in coverage or in the slot. Now in his second season, Thomas told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he feels that he has a better understanding of the defense:
I've progressed a lot. I know the whole defense now. Last year I was all over the place. This year I'm settled in, comfortable and I can just play. It's just like college. When you come in your freshman year you don't know the defense and the next year you settle in, fly around and make plays. That's what I'm doing now. I don't have to think no more. I don't have to second-guess myself. I just fly around and make plays.
Pittsburgh’s safeties are a fast and aggressive bunch, which should help improve a pass defense that finished ninth in the league last season.
Thinnest: Defensive End
One of the team's best defensive players in 2013 was Cameron Heyward. Once he earned the starting job, he did not look back.
Heyward finished last season with 59 tackles, five sacks and seven passes defensed despite being the least experienced defensive end to receive a significant amount of playing time. Flash forward to the present, and he is now the veteran.
According to Bob Labriola of Steelers.com, Thomas was signed for depth along the defensive line. But with the lack of experience at the position, do not be surprised to see Thomas used as a stopgap starter.
No other defensive end on the roster has more than one full season of NFL experience.
Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams, both entering their second seasons, will compete for a spot in the rotation. Despite their inexperience, they are intriguing prospects because of their terrific physical tools that were on display last year.
Arnfelt was a star in the preseason and will look to build on his play this year, while Williams has the prototypical size (6’4” and 309 pounds) but spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
That did not stop the Steelers from adding additional defensive ends to the equation. They spent their second-round choice on Stephon Tuitt and signed Josh Mauro after the draft.
Tuitt will compete for a starting job at left defensive end. He had an excellent 2012 season at Notre Dame but struggled with injuries last year. The Steelers will need him to revert to his 2012 form if he is going to win the starting spot out of the gate.
The talent is certainly in place for defensive end to be one of the deepest areas on the roster, but as of now, it is untapped potential. That means that the Steelers could go through some growing pains as the young players develop—and if you know how they develop their defensive ends, it could take two or three seasons.
In the meantime, it would be wise for the Steelers to bring back Keisel for one more season. Scott Brown of ESPN.com believes that it could happen, and I agree.
Keisel would give the Steelers one more established starter on the roster and allow Thomas to focus on his backup role at nose tackle. There would also be less urgency to develop the young defensive ends and not put them on the field until they are ready.
Deepest: Offensive Line
I know what you are thinking and understand your concerns, but hear me out. The offensive line is one of the deepest areas on the team.
Mike Munchak recently told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he has high hopes for the group that he has to work with.
“I think we can have a special group here,” said Munchak.
There is already plenty of talent in the starting unit with Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro present to anchor the middle of the line. Each has All-Pro potential and may reach that level under Munchak as early as this season.
Ramon Foster is a dependable veteran who rounds out the interior, while Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum will anchor the outside. All three players are versatile but settled into starting roles last season.
Even though the starting five did not play together last season, those who did finished out the season strong and kept Ben Roethlisberger off the ground. As they enter the 2014 season healthy, the starting line has potential to play its best football yet.
As odd as it sounds, injuries have resulted in a better offensive line. Not only have a number of players gotten experience at multiple positions, but the backups have received valuable playing time in which they were able to prove themselves.
Mike Adams has played in 25 games (16 starts) in two seasons with the Steelers, while Guy Whimper played in 11 games (two starts) and Cody Wallace nine games (four starts) last season. Though each has had his struggles, they have proved to be more than adequate backups.
Besides the top eight, the Steelers have a rookie in Wesley Johnson, who can play all five positions.
With all of the experience on the offensive line, there is no position more equipped to handle injuries. However, the Steelers would like nothing more than to keep all five starters healthy for once.
Thinnest: Outside Linebacker
The Steelers made a bold move when they released LaMarr Woodley earlier this offseason. From that moment, they committed to Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones as starters at outside linebacker.
Worilds finally took hold of a starting job last season when he effectively stepped in for Woodley at left outside linebacker. He led the team with eight sacks and showed the ability to dominate. The Steelers will expect that type of production and then some from Worilds this season.
However, the play of Jones will be even more important. He has spent the offseason working on getting stronger, and he told Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that a year of experience has made a huge difference in his comfort level with the defense.
“It's not night and day, but it's a whole lot better, man,” Jones said. “My instincts are a whole lot better. I'm not out there second-guessing myself. I can line myself up. This system's hard, man. Anybody who plays in this system is going to tell you it's hard.”
While both players have plenty of upside, there is always a concern when it comes to injuries, especially when talking about Worilds. He has missed at least one game due to injury in each of his four seasons and has been on the sidelines for most of the Steelers’ organized team activities with a calf injury.
Newly signed Arthur Moats is the top backup and has already stepped in for Worilds during OTAs. He will do what it takes to fit in with the defense, including playing multiple positions.
Other backup options include Chris Carter, Vic So’oto, Jordan Zumwalt and Howard Jones.
Carter has had an underwhelming career with the Steelers and has yet to establish himself as a viable backup, while So’oto has a ton of physical tools but has had been held back from doing more in part due to injuries.
Zumwalt will likely be limited to a special teams role as a rookie, but he will work as a backup at inside and outside linebacker. Meanwhile, Jones—a Division II prospect—put up some impressive numbers at the combine. Maybe he will follow in the footsteps of another linebacker who signed as an undrafted free agent—James Harrison.
Speaking of Harrison, he could be an option if the Steelers have any injury issues. Back in March, Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported back that there was “mutual interest” between the Steelers and Harrison, via Pro Football Talk.