While it has been lost in light of the bigger story that need not be mentioned, the Steelers have quietly had an excellent off-season. It's been a "Back to the Future" kind of offseason. But, for a team that has won two Super Bowls in recent years, that is not a bad thing.
The biggest move was the resigning of Casey Hampton. This ensured the team does not have any glaring needs heading into the draft and frees them up to take the best player available at their No. 18 draft position.
With more and more teams switching to the 3-4 defense, this position has become a real commodity.
All of the great 3-4 defenses have a superb nose tackle. Most of the weaker 3-4 defenses are lacking this element. That is not coincidence.
The nose tackle clogs up the middle and sucks up blockers, which makes everyone else look better. A great nose tackle is one of the rarest finds in today’s NFL. There simply are not that many athletic behemoths roughly the size of a house who can do what they are asked to do.
I was never convinced the Steelers would easily be able to replace the big man, and this buys them some much needed time.
Each draft produces only a couple blue chip prospects at the position and with the need growing, those players are grabbed fairly quickly. Last year's draft produced all of one stellar prospect at the position.
Hampton has always said he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. And it was great to see this deal get done.
Had they let Hampton leave, I would have been shocked if the Steelers didn’t at least try to address this need in the first round.
I was also pleased to see the Steelers bring back Antwaan Randle El. He was a major contributor for the Steelers during their 2004 Super Bowl run.
I remember going back and watching the Super Bowl video from that year that shows highlights from every game during the season and being surprised at just how important Randle El was to that team. He produced a surprising number of the Steelers’ big plays that year.
It seemed like he was making a game changing play on a weekly basis. At this point in their careers, he is a much more reliable fourth option than Limas Sweed, a player many of us incorrectly thought would take a huge step forward last year.
He adds another exciting playmaker to the offense and provides some insurance in the event of injury. It also should provide the Steelers a dangerous four wide receiver set.
It does seem to signal that the Steelers have somewhat given up on the enigmatic Sweed.
The one challenge with Randle El is that he is not a plug and play kind of player. He has a unique set of talents that requires some innovation to fully exploit. He does not excel in a traditional wideout role. But, when used properly, he is very dangerous.
Daniel Snyder's mistake when he brought him to Washington was not recognizing this about him. He was chasing a name without any real idea how he intended for the team to use him, which I suspect is the reason why many of the big name signings do not pan out for the Redskins.
The big unanswered question is whether or not Bruce Arians will be able to effectively utilize his talents to the same extent as Ken Whisenhunt.
I also liked the resigning of Larry Foote. While I understood why they chose not to resign him, I was sorry to see him leave in the off season. He is a superb tackler and a rock solid presence in the interior of the Steelers’ linebacker corps.
With James Farrior showing signs of slowing down last season, he adds some additional insurance. He should also push Lawrence Timmons for the starting job and at least split time with him.
Timmons seemed to be better when coming off the bench to relieve Foote on passing downs. Returning to that platoon system may be what the Steelers have in mind.
They also brought back Ryan Clark, something else I did not see as inevitable. Clark is a very good free safety and is the perfect complement to Troy Polamalu. He hits like a hammer and is more than respectable in pass coverage.
I was concerned they would let him leave, which would place them back in the same position they were in when Chris Hope left town, in need of immediate help at the position.
As with the Hampton signing, if the Steelers did not resign Clark, I would have looked for them to draft his replacement in the first round. I don't think they ever really looked at Will Allen as someone who could be more than a short-term band-aid at the position.
With all of these signings, they brought back a player they know well, a player who has proven he can play well in their system.
Some of the other signings, such as Allen and Arnaz Battle, don’t sound like anything to get that excited about. But, those types of signings are hard to quantify. They very well could help the special teams, a real sore spot last season, to improve.
Weak special teams play is all that stood between the Steelers and the playoffs last season.
So, what do all these moves mean heading into the draft? Not much. I expect the Steelers will grab the best available player that even remotely fits a need area at No. 18.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they grabbed a right tackle with the idea of moving Willie Colon inside. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they grabbed a cornerback, a defensive tackle or a safety to add depth and shore up a likely future need area.
It all depends on which players are still on the board. That’s a nice luxury to have heading into the draft.
So, while they didn’t have that single splash signing like Baltimore did with Anquan Boldin, they did plenty to ensure that this year’s team should still be plenty competitive.