The Pittsburgh Steelers came close to another Super Bowl last year, but were ousted by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. If the Steelers want to return to the promised land again, they may have to do some digging in the free agency pool.
Here are 10 potential targets for the Steelers to go after if the lockout ever ends.
To say that Alan Branch has not been a disappointment for the Cardinals after being selected with the 33rd pick of the 2007 NFL Draft would be a lie. His first two seasons in the NFL were spent battling both injuries and weight problems, resulting in very limited playing time on Sundays.
In 2009, Branch finally appeared in all 16 games and showed a bit of promise as a penetrator. He built on that momentum last season, again appearing in all 16 games and even earning three starts in the process.
His size and pass rushing ability could make him a useful backup to Casey Hampton who routinely comes out on passing downs. His ability to also play defensive end is an added bonus. Branch's conditioning and run defense, or lack there of, will be challenges for strength coach Garrett Giemont and assistant head coach/defensive line coach John Mitchell.
At just 26 years of age there is a chance a change of scenery may help the former Wolverine live up to his potential.
Contract: 3 years / $2 million ($0 guaranteed)
The Lions selection of Mikel Leshoure in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft pretty much marked the end of Kevin Smith's three year tenure in the Motor City. Although the young man has had trouble staying healthy, when he has been able to remain on the field he has shown a lot of promise, combining for over 1,000 yards as a rusher and receiver in both of his first two NFL seasons.
Coming off an injury plagued 2010 season, Smith offers a young back with upside at a cheap price. He'd be the favorite to earn third down duties for the Steelers and should something unfortunate happen to Rashard Mendenhall, he would be a much better option as a feature back than either Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer.
He's a free agent steal if he stays healthy and he'd come at a minimum with a contract offering little guaranteed and heavily incentive laden.
Contract: 3 years / $2 million ($1 million guaranteed, $2 million optional bonuses based on statistics and playing time)
Eric Smith may be tough to pry away from the New York Jets, who should make a strong attempt to re-sign him as a special teamer and third safety, but the Jets have other more important free agents like Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Antonio Cromartie and Brad Smith, who all will be looking for sizable deals, meaning Smith could be an unfortunate casualty.
If that's the case, then the Steelers should make a strong run at him to fill a role in Pittsburgh similar to how he was used in New York. After having Troy Polamalu battle injuries the past two seasons, the front office needs to concern itself with finding a suitable backup that can take a few snaps from Troy during the season and act as competent fill-in should he miss significant time.
The versatility that Smith brings as a capable free safety, strong safety and special-teamer only heightens his value. Coming from a Jets team with a similar mentality to that of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he should fit right in with the culture.
Contract: 3 years / $4.2 million ($2.5 million guaranteed)
Derrick Dockery earned a sizeable five year, $26.5 million deal after 2009, but was released this off-season by the Washington Redskins after battling injuries in 2010 and being a poor fit for Mike Shanahan's zone blocking scheme.
A healthy Dockery can still likely be a very solid contributor in a more traditional blocking scheme, and is an asset in the running game. At 30 years old, there is likely still a decent amount of mileage left in him if he can bounce back in 2011.
His poor 2010 season should enable the Steelers to land him at a discount with minimal guaranteed dollars. If he were to be signed, he could force Chris Kemoeatu over to the right side, or settle in at right guard himself.
Contract: 3 years / $6 million ($1 million guaranteed)
Eric Wright would be an intriguing reclamation project for the Steelers to pursue for cheap. Up until last season, it looked as though Wright had the talent of a solid primary corner or at worst, a very solid secondary option.
In 2010 though, he took a giant leap in the wrong direction giving up far too many big plays, resulting in a loss a confidence that lead to his giving up more big plays. Things got so bad that Wright was receiving death threats from irate Cleveland Browns fans.
Currently a restricted free agent, the Browns placed a second round tender on him, but depending on the rules of the new CBA, he may be an unrestricted free agent free to sign wherever he pleases.
What situation could be more ideal than revitalizing his career with an elite defense on one of the NFL's elite franchises, who also just so happens to be the division rival of your old team and those asinine fans?
Contract: 4 years / $6 million ($2 million signing bonus)
After four solid seasons for the New Orleans Saints, Jammal Brown missed all of 2009 with a hip injury, and in his absence Jerome Bushrod proved to be a capable replacement, making the former Sooner an expendable restricted free agent before the 2010 season, resulting in a trade to the Washington Redskins. In the nation's capital, Brown was forced to play on the right side of the line in favor of rookie left tackle Trent Williams. After a rough start to the season, Brown played well down the stretch, again showing signs of the type of play that earned him two Pro Bowl selections earlier in his career.
Now as a free agent, it's being reported that he wants to return to playing the left side, meaning he'll be looking for a new place to call home in 2011 and beyond.
While he carries a significant amount of risk, there is also a tremendous amount of reward associated with Brown, who is just 30 years old and likely has many more productive years ahead of him if he stays healthy. At the right price, the benefits could out-weigh the risks.
Contract: 5 years / $25 million ($8 million guaranteed)
The Steelers are not OK at offensive tackle. The last time the duo of Max Starks and Willie Colon, 2011's likely starting combo, were healthy, they combined to allow 19 sacks. A healthy Gaither would give Pittsburgh a true left tackle that would allow Starks to kick over to the right side and Colon to move inside to guard or act as a back-up swing tackle. That is, of course, if he re-signs with the Steelers.
Gaither will have to first and foremost receive a vote of confidence from the team's medical staff, and if he does, he's a no brainer if he can be acquired without breaking the bank.
He has hinted that he feels slighted by the Ravens organization after the team installed Michael Oher as their left tackle, pushing Gaither to the right side. There would be no better vindication for Gaither than to prove he still can be a top shelf left tackle and to do that while donning black and gold.
Contract: 6 years / $35 million ($15 million guaranteed)
With Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl joining Justin Blalock as free agents, chances are someone isn't going to be returning to Atlanta for 2011. Currently, Blalock is looking to be the odd man out.
If such is indeed the case, then the Steelers should certainly pursue the talented left guard as an upgrade over the frustrating Chris Kemoeatu. Blalock has been a key factor in running back Michael Turner's emergence as a feature back over the last few seasons in Atlanta, and has also kept interior pass rushers from reaching Matt Ryan, allowing the quarterback to become one of the game's most promising young stars.
Putting him next to Maurkice Pouncey would give Pittsburgh a very talented young duo inside.
Contract: 6 years / $27 million ($15 million guaranteed)
Since earning a spot in the starting line up in his second NFL season, LaMarr Woodley has been one of the most feared defenders in the NFL. Beyond his obvious prowess as a pass rusher (34.5 sacks during his three years as a starter), Woodley has also become very good in pass coverage and run defense.
Woodley also brings a sense of energy and excitement to the field that seems to spread to those around him. At just 26 years old, the best is still yet to come from the All Pro.
As James Harrison approaches his mid-30s, Woodley's prominence will only continue to rise with each passing season.
With no capable replacement currently on the roster, losing him would be a major blow to the Pittsburgh franchise both on and off the field.
Contract: 6 years / $65 million ($40 million guaranteed)
After watching Aaron Rodgers pick apart the Steelers' secondary during Super Bowl XLV, is there any question of how important it is to re-sign Ike Taylor? While he is not a shutdown corner in the mold of a Darrelle Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha, he is a very talented, top shelf defensive back who understands and fits well in Dick Lebeau's defense.
He has said that he will test the market, and rightfully so, but his preference would be to return to the Steel City so long as the organization offers him a fair contract, which will be a hefty one given what corners are being paid nowadays.
Outside of Taylor, the roster is chalked full of unproven youngsters and inconsistent veterans who are incapable of locking up with an opponent's primary receiver.
At 31 years of age, it's questionable how many more seasons he has left as a primary corner, so his deal will not be a lengthy one, but if Ike were to sign elsewhere, then the Steelers would be left without a viable primary corner, making him the key free agent for continued success in 2011 and beyond.
Contract: 4 years / $34 million ($24 million guaranteed; heavily front-loaded)