The lack of a CBA between the NFL owners and players has put free agency on hold, leaving much speculation as to what the Pittsburgh Steelers have planned once an agreement is finally reached.
Pittsburgh didn’t sit back completely, applying the franchise tag to LaMarr Woodley and tendered multiple players who are currently considered restricted free agents (though that may change.
Players tendered included William Gay, Matt Spaeth, Dennis Dixon and Tony Hills. Another interesting player in this group was Willie Colon.
Colon, who is coming off of an Achilles tendon injury, has never been offered a long-term contract by the Steelers despite starting at right tackle.
After his offseason injury, Colon was replaced by veteran Flozell Adams, who signed a two-year contract with the Steelers. Once Adams got settled into the lineup, he played at a fairly high level and looks to be a viable option to start at right tackle next season.
What does that mean for Colon? Pittsburgh could potentially have him compete with Adams for the starting right tackle spot or even slide him over to right guard, which remains a gaping hole along the offensive line.
The tender may end up being meaningless depending on the terms of the new CBA. Colon, and other restricted free agents, may then become unrestricted free agents.
Beyond Colon, Gay was the only tendered free agent who sees significant playing time on a weekly basis.
Gay has started and played in the nickel role while with the Steelers and while many fans are ready to run him out of town, which may not be the best decision.
Though he is not a starter, Gay is a fine nickel back who could be even better if Pittsburgh had two legitimate starting cornerbacks.
Regardless, Gay has a role on the team and there is no immediate replacement and he should be re-signed.
The other key role player in the group of tendered players is Spaeth.
It spot duty as a starter this past season when Heath Miller was out due to injury, Spaeth was a liability. Key dropped passes could have made the difference in the Steelers' regular season loss to the New York Jets.
Spaeth has proven not to be a good blocker either and in the two tight end sets, Pittsburgh often depended upon their tight ends to help out their linemen. It looks to be time to move on from Spaeth if they find a viable candidate to take over the number two slot.
Dixon and Hills both flashed potential in training camp last season, however in game action the results were not there. Dixon will compete with Byron Leftwich for the backup spot and Hills will be fighting for a roster spot.
The rest of the free agent crop includes a number of key contributors and one very important player in the defense.
On offense, Mewelde Moore and Trai Essex will both be entering free agency without much fanfare.
Moore has served the Steelers well, but with Isaac Redman coming on, he has become expendable and the Steelers can go with Redman and Jonathan Dwyer behind Rashard Mendenhall or look to the draft or free agency to add depth to the position.
Essex is a more interesting player. He started at right guard and then lost his starting position, but has proved to be a valuable swingman over the course of his career.
Offensive line coach Sean Kugler brought Jonathan Scott with him from Buffalo last season and he assumed Essex’s old role meaning that Pittsburgh may decide between the two players.
But considering head coach Mike Tomlin likes versatility, expect Essex to stick around for at least one more season.
Key special teamers Daniel Sepulveda and Keyaron Fox are both free agents and may be out of roster spots.
After going on the injured reserve yet again, Sepulveda may have become too much trouble for the Steelers to take care of.
Sepulveda seemed to have regained his leg strength this year after a down season, but the latest setback will mean more time to get back to full strength. If he is back to full health expect Sepulveda to stay. At the very least Pittsburgh should bring him into camp to compete with another punter.
After being the special team’s captain, Fox should have seen his last down as a member of the Steelers organization.
Fox had been a solid special team’s player and capable backup at inside linebacker but both of those roles were reduced last season.
Larry Foote took over as the top backup at inside linebacker and rookie linebackers Stevenson Sylvester and Jason Worilds both demonstrated outstanding abilities on special teams.
But it was the lack of discipline displayed by Fox that should keep him from a Steelers uniform next season. Multiple personal foul penalties, including one in the Super Bowl, are unacceptable for a veteran player. It cost the team too much.
Defensively, Chris Hoke and Ike Taylor are both free agents that the Steelers need to keep.
Hoke is the consummate professional, doing what he needs to do and not complaining. He sets a good example in practice and it shows on the field where the level of the defense rarely drops off when he steps in for Casey Hampton.
Without a young defensive tackle in place, it makes Hoke’s role on the team that more valuable.
That value pales in comparison to Taylor’s.
A poor as the offensive line has played, the Steelers have still been able to win a Super Bowl with bad offensive line play. They cannot say the same about poor play from their defensive backfield.
Taylor is the only cornerback on the roster capable of starting and he is a set of good hands away from being an All-Pro at cornerback.
With Woodley already franchised, Taylor becomes the key focus of this free agency period.
Pittsburgh could always fill holes with a mid-level free agent, such as a right guard, or add depth at tight end, but no move would be able to make up for the loss of Taylor.
There is no chance that the Steelers spend big free agent dollars on a top cornerback outside of Pittsburgh, so it could be Taylor or bust.
The lack of a shutdown cornerback would have dire consequences for Pittsburgh’s defense and while no player is irreplaceable, Taylor is one who could not be replaced next season.
If Pittsburgh makes one move, it has to be to sign Taylor.