Pittsburgh Steelers: 3 Areas of Need Besides Offensive Line and Corner
Everyone is talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers' need for a cornerback and a few good linemen, but they also have holes that need filled in other spots, namely at running back, in the kicking game, and along the defensive line.
If Pittsburgh hopes to return to the Super Bowl, they must find a way to address these needs along with their two major ones. Just because the needs are less obvious does not mean they can be overlooked.
Here's a look at each of those three areas and some suggestions for handling each one.
1. Backfield Depth
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The Steelers have an excellent starting running back in Rashard Mendenhall, who has quietly put together back to back 1,000 yard seasons. With improvements along the offensive line, his production will only increase in the coming years (provided he stays healthy).
Behind Mendenhall, however, there are questions. Isaac Redman was a steady contributor at times last year as was Mewelde Moore, but Moore is a free agent and there are still questions about how much Redman can contribute as the primary backup.
Second year man Jonathan Dwyer is also unproven and got only a very limited opportunity in the regular season after a so-so preseason performance. He will be bear watching.
The Steelers could go with the status quo and let Moore leave and rely on a combination of Dwyer and Redman, but that's leaving a lot to chance, especially for a team that likes to run as much as Pittsburgh.
All of their options are tough, physical specimens, so they could use a speedier change of pace guy in the mold of Willie Parker. I wouldn't be opposed to a late round draft choice along these lines, but they could also choose to sign a free agent like Kevin Smith or Michael Bush.
2. Kicking Game
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Jeff Reed was inconsistent and a lightning rod for controversy, so he was released in favor of Shaun Suisham, who was consistent and quiet. Now Suisham is the free agent kicker the team will either pursue or move on from.
It doesn't end there, however. Daniel Sepulveda, who's recovering from an ACL tear (and this isn't the first time), is also a free agent now. So is his in-season replacement, Jeremy Kapinos, who did a serviceable job down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh, especially with their style of defense and offense, depends heavily on field position advantages generated by their kicking tandem. While Suisham and Kapinos were solid, they were by no means above average in this regard.
One solution is to resign both and hope that another year does them good. If they can resign Sepulveda, they'll still need to bring someone in to push him and also in case he is not ready to begin the year.
Suisham is an interesting case. He kicked well, so he may ask for a longer contract and higher salary. I'm not sure he's worth that commitment, particularly in years. If his price is too high, the team will have to go elsewhere.
As far as free agents go, the market is thin. The draft class isn't particularly deep either, so it will be interesting to see how the Steelers fill these two spots. Right now, the odds are on at least one player returning and possibly a draft pick in the other spot.
3. Defensive Line
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This isn't nearly as pressing as other spots, but these guys aren't getting any younger here. Ziggy Hood is the only one under 30. For big guys, 30 is an awful big number. It means a lot of hits and a lot of miles on the body frame.
Casey Hampton is still a force, but he's lost some of his burst and isn't the same player he was five years ago. He's probably got another year or two in him, but that's only if he stays healthy. That could be a question mark since Hampton is not to be confused with being a workout warrior.
Aaron Smith hasn't been healthy for awhile now and Brett Keisel is getting up in years too, so the starting three of the team's line is not going to be together for much longer. There's already talk that Smith and Hood will be in a platoon situation this year.
This is one of those areas where the draft will be huge. The Steelers don't project to take a defensive lineman with their top choice or probably even their second one, but they could start addressing this need in the third round and after. I'd say two mid-round choices spent here would be good.
There's not a whole lot on the free agent market unless you count current backups Chris Hoke and Nick Eason, who aren't going to start anywhere for a long period of time. Neither is young enough either to be considered a long-term solution, so the draft will be the primary market for improving this position.
Other Areas of Concern
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1. Backup Quarterback
The Steelers currently have Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch under contract for next season, so they could opt to go with those two behind Ben Roethlisberger. Dennis Dixon is a free agent, but could be brought back if the team decides to part ways with one of the others. I'm not high on Leftwich, especially not when you consider Batch's value beyond his on-field work.
I'd like to see a young player brought in late in the draft to be groomed as a long term backup to Big Ben.
2. Backup Tight End
Matt Spaeth is a free agent and may look for an expanded role somewhere else. He's effective as a blocker but doesn't have the hands to be a receiving threat consistently. The team could likely find a replacement for him either by sliding David Johnson up the depth chart or by drafting someone else.
For now, expect them to try and retain Spaeth so that Johnson can stay at fullback.
3. Backup Outside Linebacker
Right now, the team can either go with Jason Worilds, who was impressive as a rookie in spot duty, or slide Lawrence Timmons to the outside. The team should probably consider a draft pick late or a free agent signing on the cheap to solidify this spot. The team won't be bringing back Keyaron Fox, so they'll be especially thin if something happens to either James Harrison or Lamarr Woodley.
The Steelers drafted this spot heavily last year, so expect them not to shy away late if a good player is on the board.