5 Moves Pittsburgh Steelers Should Have Made This Offseason
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team often resistant to change, but that was not the case this offseason. With more than a dozen transactions between their roster and coaching staff, the Steelers appear to be an improved team for 2014.
One of their biggest moves came on their coaching staff, as Mike Tomlin hired Mike Munchak as offensive line coach. They upgraded the speed in their secondary with Mike Mitchell and added the veteran Lance Moore to help guide a young receiving corps.
Even the draft appears strong on paper. Ryan Shazier adds an incredible amount of speed and playmaking ability to the inside of the defense. Meanwhile, Stephon Tuitt will bring size and power to the defensive end position left vacated due to free-agent losses.
But even with all of the moves, have the Steelers done enough?
As training camp approaches, let’s take a look back at the offseason and five realistic moves that would have put the Steelers in a better situation heading into the 2014 season.
Waited to Extend Maurkice Pouncey's Contract
Pittsburgh’s front office must have liked what they saw from center Maurkice Pouncey this offseason because they rewarded him with a five-year contract extension, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com.
The contract made Pouncey the highest paid center in the league, though Scott Fitzgerald of OvertheCap.com analyzed why this can be misleading when compared to the contracts of other top centers. Regardless of his rank, the Steelers still paid Pouncey a significant sum of money.
I will not argue against a contract extension for Pouncey. I was very much for a long-term deal. He has been an important part of the line not only in performance, but also as a leader. However, I do question the timing of the deal and the price.
Pouncey is coming off of a torn ACL and MCL suffered in Week 1 of last season, per ESPN.com's Brown. Even if the Steelers wanted to sign him this offseason, they should have at least allowed him to show he was back to full strength in training camp and the preseason.
Besides his injury, there are a number of critics who do not believe Pouncey is one of the top centers in the league. Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com identified him as the most overrated Steeler. Andrea Hangst of Bleacher Report noted, “Pouncey has never ranked higher than 12th among centers in Pro Football Focus' ratings, which came in 2012 (subscription required)."
The Steelers view Pouncey in a higher regard than Prisco, Pro Football Focus and others, but it is hard to believe they felt the need to pay him so much despite not being the clear top center in the game. More importantly, why pay him so much coming off of a major knee injury?
Sometimes the best moves are the moves that teams do not make. In this case, the Steelers would have been better off making Pouncey show that he is healthy and could play at a high level once again.
Signed a Veteran Defensive End
The Steelers made an effort to get younger, faster and stronger on the defensive side of the football this offseason, and the future does look bright, especially at defensive end.
Pittsburgh has an abundance of untapped potential at the position with players such as Stephon Tuitt, Brian Arnfelt, Nick Williams and Josh Mauro. All four have to develop into starters, or at least viable backups.
As talented as this group is, they need time to develop. Defensive line coach John Mitchell makes it a point to teach his defensive ends the “Steeler way” of playing football. That typically means one or two years of developmental time.
Unlike previous years, the Steelers do not have the luxury to wait. There is no proven veteran at left defensive end, meaning one of these young players will be thrust into the starting lineup. If they aren’t ready, then Cam Thomas will have to step in as a stopgap.
According to Bob Labriola of Steelers.com, the Steelers signed Thomas to provide depth at nose tackle and defensive end. By inserting him into the starting lineup, they will not be able to use him as a versatile depth player.
Pittsburgh did explore the option of signing a veteran defensive end in free agency. Soon after they lost Al Woods and Ziggy Hood, Alex Carrington was brought in for a visit, per Scott Brown of ESPN.com. However, he did not sign, leaving the Steelers without an experienced option on the roster.
The logical solution would have been to re-sign Brett Keisel to a one-year deal. He could have been used as a temporary starter until Tuitt was ready and then as a backup. His presence would have benefited an otherwise inexperienced group of players.
Though they failed to make this move earlier in the offseason, it still could happen as training camp approaches. In fact, Keisel may be prepared for a return. According to Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter, “As of mini-camp, Keisel still hadn’t cleaned out his locker. Everything was still there, just as he had left it at season's end.”
The Steelers may not re-sign Keisel, but if they do, their defensive line will be in better position, and they would have also regained a leader in the locker room.
Added More Depth at Outside Linebacker
General manager Kevin Colbert made some bold moves this offseason, but none bolder than releasing LaMarr Woodley.
Once considered a foundation of the defense, a combination of injuries and lack of production when healthy made Woodley expendable. Even though it was easy to understand why Colbert released him, it has left an already weak pass rush even weaker.
Now the Steelers have to count solely on Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones to pressure the quarterback from the outside.
Worilds comes into the 2014 season sizzling after an outstanding finish to 2013 in which he had seven sacks in his final eight games. After three-and-a-half years of disappointing football, Worilds looked as though he had finally turned the corner.
Unlike Worilds, Jones did not have a strong start or finish to his rookie season. It was largely unproductive, as he finished with only one sack. Beyond his statistics, rarely did he show flashes that he could develop into a top playmaker.
Even if both players develop into quality pass-rushers, there is always a concern with injuries. That is particularly the case with Worilds, who has suffered an injury in each of his four NFL seasons, per KFFL. For this reason, the Steelers should have added more depth via free agency or the draft.
They did sign Arthur Moats, but he has not had a sack since 2011 and only has five in four years. They also drafted Jordan Zumwalt, but he is a long-term project who may be better suited to play on the inside.
Though it would have meant passing on Tuitt, the Steelers could have drafted Jeremiah Attaochu, Kony Ealy or Scott Crichton in the second round. They could have been developed in 2014 and then stepped in as a starter in 2015 when Worilds becomes a free agent.
Another option would have been to sign a free agent, such as James Harrison, to a one-deal just to provide some insurance at the position. Harrison may be near the end, but he still very powerful and knows the defense well. Even at 36 years old, he could step in as a spot starter or for a few snaps per game as a situational pass-rusher.
Placed a Higher Priority on Wide Receiver
Since the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, they have only drafted a wide receiver or tight end in the first or second round three times (Heath Miller in 2005, Santonio Holmes in 2006 and Limas Sweed in 2008).
During this same period, they have traded Holmes and allowed Plaxico Burress, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery to leave via free agency. In essence, the Steelers haven’t exactly placed a priority on surrounding Roethlisberger with elite weapons.
As he enters the final third of his career, the Steelers have stuck with this philosophy.
Rather than take advantage of a deep wide receiver class by taking one of the top options early in the draft, they took the economical route. In free agency, they signed Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Then, in the draft, they selected the short but fast hybrid running back/wide receiver Dri Archer and the talented but raw Martavis Bryant.
With Moore likely to play the slot, the Steelers will have a couple of very inexperienced receivers looking to start Antonio Brown. Not exactly ideal for a franchise quarterback.
Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review highlighted this point in his offseason assessment of the Steelers:
Second-year receiver Markus Wheaton, whose rookie season was all but wiped out by multiple finger injuries, and Bryant apparently, will compete to line up opposite Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown.
Between them, they've caught all of six NFL passes. And if neither emerges as an every down-capable receiver, the Steelers won't have fulfilled their promise to keep Roethlisberger stocked with the kind of talent a franchise quarterback expects to have.
Roethlisberger is playing some of the best football of his career, and adding talent at receiver could have only helped Pittsburgh’s offense explode this year.
The speedy Brandin Cooks, experienced Marqise Lee or massive Kelvin Benjamin would have been excellent options in the first round, especially if they could have traded down. In the second round, the Steelers passed on Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry, both great fits. Even tight end Troy Niklas would have helped open up the offense.
That is not to say the Steelers' options are bad, but they had an opportunity to find an immediate contributor and future starter early in the draft and passed. They can only hope Bryant can develop into a top option, or they would have missed a golden opportunity.
Drafted Jaylen Watkins in the Third Round
When it comes to the draft, usually the first-round pick is the most discussed and debated. That appeared to be the case for the Steelers this year until they got to the third round.
Dri Archer sent Pittsburgh fans everywhere into a frenzy. Not only did the Steelers pass on the chance to take a wide receiver or cornerback, but they also selected a very specialized player who happened to be 5’8” and 173 pounds.
It is hard to argue against Archer’s speed and playmaking ability, but he is a project who does not have a pure position. The Steelers will line him up at running back and receiver as well as use him in the returner game. However, he will be no higher than the third option at running back and fourth or fifth option at receiver.
Many will think of Archer as Chris Rainey all over again. That was a very forgettable experiment.
Archer has the odds stacked against him. His lack of size will make him more susceptible to injuries and fumbling. He does not have a single position mastered, meaning that Todd Haley will have to design special plays to get the ball in his hands.
That is not to say Archer will be a bust. He could eventually develop into an outstanding game-breaker. But there is no reason to invest a third-round selection on such a project.
Rather than select Archer in the third round, they should have taken Jaylen Watkins.
Watkins would have provided quality depth in the defensive backfield this year, as he can play cornerback or safety. His long-term position in Pittsburgh would have been at cornerback, a position the Steelers needed to upgrade.
After a year of development, Watkins would have been in position to compete for a starting job. That would have been ideal for the Steelers considering their top two cornerbacks—Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen—are free agents following the 2014 season, per OvertheCap.com.
Watkins has already had a strong offseason, and people are taking notice.
The Steelers took a gamble with Archer and that is fine, but it is hard to justify him as the best use of a third-round selection. Instead, they could have continued their youth movement on defense and secured a potential future starter at cornerback by selecting Watkins.