As usual, the Pittsburgh Steelers sat back and watched as the rest of the NFL handed out large signing bonuses to sign big name free agents such as Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor, Nate Burleson, Kyle Vanden-Bosch, Antrel Rolle, and others. Instead, the Steelers will continue to focus on their own unrestricted free agents and finding mid-tier free agents to fill specific holes on the team.
Offensively, the Steelers have a number of unrestricted free agents, with the biggest name being Willie Parker.
Parker burst onto the scene in the 2004 regular season finale against the Buffalo Bills where he rushed for over 100 yards. Parker took over as starter the next season and went on to rush for over 1,200 yards for three consecutive seasons.
In 2008, the Steelers drafted highly-regarded Rashard Mendenhall in the first round, which was the beginning of the end for Parker as the Steelers starting running back. Mendenhall earned the starting job during this past season and Parker saw his role reduced. After rushing for fewer than 400 yards, Parker will look to find an increased role with another team. This will leave the Steelers with a roster spot to fill at running back. They have a solid duo in Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore, but will need a third back who can effectively step in and carry the load if needed.
Darnell Stapleton, a former starting guard, was not tendered by the Steelers. In what may be considered a rather puzzling move, the Pittsburgh allowed Stapleton, who was on injured-reserve last season, to walk. This may be in part due to the depth the Steelers have at guard.
Trai Essex stepped in for Stapleton and played effectively. Rookie free agent Ramon Foster also saw playing time and demonstrated a bigger upside than Stapleton. There is also former third-round draft choice Kraig Urbick, who will be entering his second season. With this depth, Stapleton became expendable.
While not a major player for the Steelers last season, Joey Galloway is an indication of a positional need. There is much uncertainty as to what the Steelers will do with Limas Sweed. To combat this uncertainty the Steelers will likely sign a low-end free agent to compete for the final wide receiver spot on the depth chart.
Charlie Batch is the only other major offensive free agent. Batch is a great locker room and community presence, however his game is beginning to pass him by. After struggling with injuries for the past several seasons and demonstrating reduced arm strength, the Steelers should be prepared to hand over the backup job to Dennis Dixon. The question now becomes whether or not the Steelers will bring him back as a third-string quarterback.
There are two approaches to addressing the quarterback position. First, they could bring back Batch and have him behind Ben Roethlisberger and Dixon. His knowledge of the offense and leadership abilities are still valuable commodities. However, if there are doubts about his ability on the field, the Steelers should find a quarterback to either compete with Dixon for the backup job or simply find a younger quarterback to sit behind Dixon.
Pittsburgh faces more difficult questions on defense with five free agents, all of whom saw significant playing time over the past several seasons. The primary concern is Ryan Clark.
Clark, brought in following the 2005 Super Bowl season to replace free safety Chris Hope, has established himself as one of the fiercest hitters in the league. Despite being the Steelers primary starting free safety for the past four seasons, he found himself as the odd man out of the contract extensions.
The Steelers defense took a hit this year after being ranked atop the league last season in part due to their porous pass defense. This was in part due to the absence of Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith. Even with the injuries, the defense should have avoided complete collapses. Clark was a major part of this, as he and the rest of the secondary were exposed in coverage.
Clark would still be a welcome addition back to the defense, but it is clear why the Steelers do not want to overpay him for his services. If Clark signs elsewhere, look for the Steelers to sign a temporary fix and draft a replacement early.
Tyrone Carter, Polamalu’s and Clark’s primary backup is also a free agent. Carter has had key contributions over the years for the Steelers, but it is time to move on. Ryan Mundy should be at the point of his career where he can step into a starting role. He is younger and more athletic than Carter. Even if Mundy steps up, the Steelers will need to build their depth at safety, but this will probably be addressed in the draft.
The Steelers may also have to add another cornerback. Deshea Townsend, the veteran of the secondary, may be moving on. While no longer a capable starter, Townsend is still a valuable commodity as a nickel or dime back due to his football smarts.
With young players such as William Gay, Keenan Lewis, and Joe Burnett in the mix, the question becomes where does Townsend fit in? Well, last season Townsend stepped back into a starting role for the ineffective Gay. He still has some gas in the tank and should be brought back at a discount rate.
Pittsburgh is also going to get hit hard at defensive end depth where both Travis Kirshke and Nick Eason are free agents. These two potential losses could be viewed as additions by subtractions. Both players played over their heads in the Steelers Super Bowl season in 2008, but were underwhelming in 2007 and 2009.
With Ziggy Hood poised to have an increase role and Ra’Shon Harris’s upside, the Steelers will be able to move on beyond Kirshke and Eason. If Pittsburgh does not draft another defensive end, do not be surprised if they bring one of the two back to compete in camp because of their experience and knowledge of the defense.
Overall, this leaves the Steelers with very few roster spots to fill. It should be expected that the Steelers look to the draft to address most of their needs. Do not expect more than one or two mid or low-level free agents to be added. Pittsburgh will be looking to add a fourth for fifth receiver to compete with Sweed. The Steelers also may consider depth at running back and may be looking for a starting caliber safety if Clark goes. As for the Peppers of the world, leave those to the rest of the NFL, and instead get ready for players on the level of Arnaz Battle. Let the Steelers free agent frenzy begin!