As the Pittsburgh Steelers inch closer to a playoff spot, they are focused on fine-tuning their roster for another run at their seventh Super Bowl title.
But what parts of that roster will be around for 2012? Who does the team absolutely need to keep around, who can they afford to cut and who might be an interesting piece to dangle in a trade?
Here's a look at every starter, a few key backups and where they stand right now for a 2012 roster spot.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB: Keep
Do I even need to tell you why? Roethlisberger is what makes the Steelers tick. Without him, as we saw against the Browns, this team becomes something mediocre. There's no way he doesn't stay in Black and Gold as long as the team can keep him there.
Rashard Mendenhall, RB: Keep/Trade
I'm on the fence. Mendenhall is a good, slashing runner but he has two major holes in his game: goal line work and outside running. Is he really that much better than Isaac Redman? Redman has been equally impressive in his chances this season, if not more so because he doesn't have the expectations. Mendenhall could be dangled in a trade if the team gets a call about him.
David Johnson, FB/TE: Keep
Johnson is a restricted free agent, but I think the team will tender him. They've enjoyed a lot of success out of two and three tight end sets and Johnson has really come on as a fullback too. They want to keep that consistency going, so I think Johnson gets a new contract. He's an underrated player on this team.
Mike Wallace, WR: Keep
Again, this is a no brainer. I could see the team eventually having to let one of their young receivers go, but right now Wallace is a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver and one of the best deep threats in the NFL. He's not going anywhere. He's a restricted free agent in 2012, so I'd expect the Steelers to extend him this winter.
Antonio Browns, WR: Keep
He's not going anywhere either. He's become Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target and is getting better each week. He should start next year opposite Wallace. He also is an excellent returner, which further enhances his value. The Steelers should explore a long-term deal this winter too if possible.
Heath Miller, TE: Keep
Also not going anywhere, Miller is one of the more underrated tight ends in football. He's a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger in the red zone and is the quarterback's main safety valve. He's also a stellar blocker in the running and passing game. They'll keep Miller around at least through the end of his deal in 2013.
Max Starks, LT: Keep
If the Steelers learned anything this season, they found out they cannot let Starks leave again. He's a great left tackle who makes limited errors and can hold his blocks to give his quarterback time to throw. Since he returned in October, Roethlisberger's sack numbers have dropped considerably.
Doug Legursky, LG: Keep/Cut
I'm on the fence only because Legursky has had injury issues and also has been so-so as a blocker this season. He is a versatile player, which I like, but if the team is going to give him starter money, they have to be sure he's worth it. If they sign or draft someone, I'd say he's expendable unless he's okay being a backup.
Maurkice Pouncey, C: Keep
He's a Pro Bowl-caliber guy who has a great rapport with Ben Roethlisberger. He's not going anywhere soon. The Steelers have a great tradition at center that Pouncey will continue for a long, long time in Black and Gold.
Ramon Foster, RG: Keep/Cut
I'm on the fence here too. Foster will be a restricted free agent, so the money gets a little tricky. The team has to make a call on Willie Colon too (more on that later) and might have to move him to guard next year based on the play at right tackle. That would make Foster a pricey backup. They could still tender him, but the tender will likely be low enough that another team will take a shot.
Marcus Gilbert, RT: Keep
He's having a quiet rookie season, but he's improved each week and is getting much better in this system. He's certainly justified the team's faith in letting him start as a rookie. He's played Willie Colon out of the right tackle job for sure and he will probably be around for a long time.
Byron Leftwich, QB: Cut
The Steelers should overhaul the quarterback position next year behind Ben Roethlisberger. Charlie Batch is likely to retire and Dennis Dixon and Byron Leftwich are free agents. Leftwich has never been healthy since coming back, so he is probably out.
Isaac Redman, RB: Keep
I would consider Redman more important than Mendenhall only because he's a better runner at the goal line. He does everything else Mendenhall does too. He isn't a threat outside, but he does make noise in the passing game, which the team can use. He might be their next starter.
Hines Ward, WR: Retire/Cut/Keep with Pay Cut
This hurts, but it's that time. Ward has been outplayed by Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders. If he doesn't retire, the team has to think long and hard about cutting him and saving some of that heavy salary. If Ward wants to stay another year, he has to be willing to take a big cut in pay. I think he'll retire.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR: Keep
Sanders is now the team's third receiver and, once healthy, will get back to being a daring threat. He runs excellent routes and can play at any of the team's receiver spots and out of any formation. That makes him valuable. He'll stick around for a long time.
Chris Kemoeatu, LG: Cut
Too many mistakes, too many penalties, too much mean streak. That's not the way Pittsburgh does business and they won't be paying Kemoeatu to ride the bench. They'll cut him and free up a roster spot.
Brett Keisel, DE: Keep
Keisel has really emerged as one of the faces of the defense and he seems to be getting better each year even if he's an older guy. He looks to have a few good years left and the team will probably let him play out this current contract while rotating in younger guys to spell him if needed.
Casey Hampton, NT: Keep
For now. The team needs to look for a replacement for Hampton, who's slowly becoming less and less effective. His tentative play has hurt their run defense, but he's still their only viable option on the nose. He probably won't be back after next season, however.
Ziggy Hood, DE: Keep/Trade
Hood has been excellent this year after taking over for veteran Aaron Smith, but rookie Cameron Heyward is also clearly a future star. The Steelers have Hood under contract until 2014, so they could keep him, but they could also dangle him for draft picks if they think Heyward is ready for prime time.
James Harrison, OLB: Keep
He's a monster. Despite the fines and hits and a potential suspension, he does exactly what he's paid to do: get after quarterbacks and make every offense fear the Pittsburgh defense. He's got a few years left in him and is under contract until 2015.
James Farrior, ILB: Keep/Cut
I love Farrior, but the team has a bit of a traffic jam at linebacker these days. Some think that James Harrison could move inside and open up a spot for Jason Worilds. Some think Stevenson Sylvester should start. Farrior is nearing the end and he's starting to slow noticeably. Perhaps it's time to say goodbye or ask him to take a cut in pay to create some more cap room.
Lawrence Timmons, ILB: Keep
Timmons proved his versatility this season by playing several games at outside linebacker while James Harrison was hurt. He was good there, but he's a beast in the middle. He'll get even better if they find someone to team with him on those interior blitzes. He's staying.
LaMarr Woodley, OLB: Keep
He just signed an extension, so he's not going anywhere. He was having a career year too before he ran into the injury bug with his hamstring. Once he's healthy, he'll get back to scaring the crap out of opposing quarterbacks. He might be better than Harrison at this point.
Ike Taylor, CB: Keep
Taylor had perhaps his best season in 2011 and he'll look to build on that. The Steelers secondary took a big step forward this year and part of it was because Taylor was brought back. He's not going anywhere and may get to finish his career with the Steelers.
Ryan Clark, FS: Keep
Clark is the perfect pairing with Troy Polamalu, so the team will keep him around as long as possible. He's under contract until 2014 for reasonable amounts, so there's no big concern there. Also, Clark is one of the better hitters in the league and is good at taking the middle of the field away.
Troy Polamalu, SS: Keep
Polamalu has had a bit of and off season. He probably needs to learn to better protect his head and knees, but there's no stopping him. His style makes the Steelers dangerous when he's fully healthy. He will stay in Pittsburgh as long as the team can keep him.
William Gay, CB: Keep/Cut
Yikes. I rarely eat my words, but I take back what I said about the Steelers re-signing him. He may not be their future starter, but he does give them a decent option who buys time for Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen to learn. He's certainly earned his pay this year. Still, they could let him walk away if they feel like their two rookies are ready. Both have been good in short spurts.
Aaron Smith, DE: Retire/Cut
Smith's time is done. Everyone else on the line is so far ahead of him and he can't stay healthy. He doesn't project as a backup either given the team's youthful depth at the position. I can't believe he won't retire, but if he doesn't, the team cannot afford to keep him around.
Chris Hoke, DT: Cut
Hoke has been a stalwart for years, but his season-ending injury coupled with the play of Steve McLendon, make him expendable. The team doesn't really need Hoke anymore and will likely be replacing him with a rookie heir apparent to Casey Hampton.
Larry Foote, LB: Cut
Foote has been great and stepped in when needed this year, but the team has a ton of linebacker depth and will need to free up roster spots and cash somewhere. Foote's deal, which would pay him $3 million in 2012, is an easy place to start saving.
Jason Worilds, LB: Keep/Trade
This will have a lot to do with what the team thinks of James Harrison. If they feel like he's going to be around a long time, they'll have the opportunity to dangle Worilds. If they are wary of Harrison starting to age, they'll keep him.
Keenan Lewis, CB: Cut/Keep
Lewis will be a restricted free agent, but the team has gotten good production out of William Gay and will need to clear the way for Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen. If they keep Gay, Lewis goes. If they let Gay go, Lewis will probably stay.