Pittsburgh Steelers: Evaluating the Offensive Free Agent and Draft Priorities
Even though the offseason is two weeks old for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the sting from their disappointing 8-8 finish still has not faded.
One of the major reasons that the Steelers missed the playoffs for only the second time under head coach Mike Tomlin was failure to execute on offense down the stretch.
In his end-of-season address, team president Art Rooney II acknowledged that the offense was playing well, particularly quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but that all came to a halt after Roethlisberger was injured (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
"Obviously, after he got hurt, our offense seemed to lose its rhythm. Even when he came back, we never really regained that momentum. I think you have to look at, OK, when our quarterback was healthy, what did we have? I thought what we had was pretty good, not that there weren't things we wanted to improve on.”
Those areas of improvement will have to come from both the coaches and the players.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Roethlisberger will have to continue to progress with the offense, but they may need some new personnel to achieve this.
In the first of a two part series examining the free agent and draft priorities, I will examine the priorities on offense.
The free agency and draft priorities will be rated as “low” if the Steelers need a minimal investment in the position, such as a veteran at a league minimum or a sixth or seventh-round draft choice; “medium” if they need to spend on a mid-level free agent or a draft choice between the third and fifth round; “high” if the Steelers must spend a significant amount in free agency or a first or second-round selection.
Here is a position-by-position look at Pittsburgh’s priorities on offense.
Free Agent Priority: Medium
Draft Priority: Low
When you're starting quarterback is Ben Roethlisberger, there is no need to invest in a quarterback to come in and compete with him.
This injury put the exposed Steelers' lack of depth at quarterback and put this priority under a microscope.
Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch are not the same quarterbacks that they used to be and they are both unrestricted free agents.
The Steelers need to invest in a viable backup quarterback that can start two or three games per season. For his career, Roethlisberger has averaged 14 starts per season.
If the Steelers are to choose between Leftwich and Batch, they should definitely bring back Batch, but only to compete for the third-string job. They need a young option that can step in and actually run the offense as the backup.
While many would like the Steelers to select a quarterback in the middle of the draft as a developmental prospect, it would not be the right move this year.
Pittsburgh has over 20 free agents and have a number of holes on their roster to fill. There are just more pressing needs than drafting a developmental quarterback that early now.
Free Agent Priority: Medium
Draft Priority: Medium-High
Like the quarterback situation, the Steelers running back depth chart is dangerously thin with free agency. Unlike the quarterback situation, the Steelers do not have a franchise running back making this a more important priority.
Rashard Mendenhall is a free agent and it is unlikely that the Steelers will bring him back. He had a disappointing 2012 season returning from an ACL injury.
Pittsburgh’s top two running backs, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, are both restricted free agents, while Baron Batch is an exclusive rights free agent.
These three running backs should all return but, unless the Steelers have a dominant offensive line, none are the types of backs who can take over a game.
While it should not be expected of the Steelers to make an uncharacteristic big move in free agency, they do have three players that they must sign. They could also bring in a veteran back, as they did with Mewelde Moore several seasons ago, as a role player.
It may not be a top priority, but there will be a number of viable running back options in the second or third round of the draft that the Steelers should consider.
Montee Ball or Stepfan Taylor are two backs should consider in the second and absolutely consider if they fall to the third. Both backs can be featured backs in the NFL, something that the Steelers need. Even a back such as Ray Graham would provide good value in the fourth or fifth round.
An interesting name who is a high-risk, high-reward prospect is Marcus Lattimore. He will have to recover from a knee injury, but if he does he would be the workhorse running back that the Steelers could lean on.
The Steelers need to get a competent running back, but they should not spend a first-round selection on one. However, if there is good value in the second or third, the Steelers would be wise to add a guy who can carry the load.
If they can’t, it should not be much of an issue as good running backs always slip through the cracks and the Steelers could potentially find a late-round steal.
Free Agent Priority: Low-Medium
Draft Priority: Medium
Pittsburgh’s depth chart at the offensive skill positions is thin across the board.
With Mike Wallace as an unrestricted free agent and Emmanuel Sanders as a restricted free agent, the Steelers will have some work to do.
After failing to signing a long-term extension last year and having a disappointing 2012 season, it is unlikely that the Steelers will sign Wallace this season. That will leave them with a gaping hole at receiver.
Sanders is a decent option, but did not take the big leap that the team needed him to this year. But there is little doubt that he’ll return.
Plaxico Burress is also a free agent and, while he did not contribute much with only three receptions in three games, two of those catches required him to use his massive frame.
Burress could be brought back as a cheap option to fill out the depth chart, but it is unlikely. He barely saw the field after signing with the Steelers and they will likely look elsewhere.
If it isn’t Burress, the Steelers should look to add a physical receiver in free agency. But, if this is not a viable option, the Steelers can look for another mid to late-round receiver in the draft.
In recent years, the Steelers have been successful in drafting and developing receivers in the third round or later. Just look at what they did with Wallace (third), Sanders (third) and Antonio Brown (sixth).
The NFL is a passing league and there is a need to have a number of receiving options. However, like running back, teams can find quality receivers later and later in the draft.
With no dominant options early, the Steelers can wait until at least the third round to find a receiver. The need for a receiver will decrease if they invest in a veteran free agent.
Free Agent Priority: Low-Medium
Draft Priority: Low or High
Pittsburgh’s most steady offensive player of 2012 may not be available for the start of the 2013 season.
Heath Miller’s ACL injury has put a cloud over his immediate future and leaves the Steelers thin at tight end.
Luckily for the team, seventh-round draft choice David Paulson developed faster than expected and may be ready to be the starter until Miller returns.
Paulson had seven receptions for 51 yards as he earned the backup job, surpassing veteran Leonard Pope. If he is going to start, Paulson will need to get stronger as a blocker and continue to develop as a receiver, but the potential is there.
It is possible that the Steelers will not feel comfortable with Paulson and may elect to re-sign Pope. The problem is Pope is not a great blocker and is a virtual non-factor in the passing game anymore.
At the very least, the Steelers will need to explore the free agent market to find an insurance policy if Miller is not ready to go. If they can’t find anyone to their satisfaction, they could add depth later in the draft.
Once Miller returns, the Steelers have a nice set of options with him and Paulson.
Even though there is not a priority to add talent, the team does need to have an open mind as well. If a player such as Zach Ertz of Stanford is available in the second round, they have to be open to adding that type of offensive weapon.
Adding one of the top tight ends in the draft would change the focus of the offense from the small, quick receiving options that the team currently has to the big receiving options that tight ends could provide. That may not necessarily be a bad shift in philosophy.
At this point, drafting a tight end early may be considered a luxury but, if used the right way, the Steelers could build an offense around two top tight ends.
Free Agent Priority: Low
Draft Priority: Medium-High
Now that the Steelers have finally invested high draft picks in the offensive line, it isn’t the need that it used to be. In fact, the Steelers appear to be fine allowing talent to walk.
On paper, the Steelers should have a pretty talented line coming back next year with Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams at tackle along with Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro on the interior. That is two first-round selections and two second-round selections expected to start in 2013.
But what about the veterans?
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette, the Steelers will likely lose three starters on the line with Max Starks and Ramon Foster leaving via free agency and the team releasing Willie Colon.
That would leave Kelvin Beachum to compete for the starting left guard position. It is possible that the Steelers also sign Foster to start there as well.
With the starting line virtually in place, that would leave Doug Legursky as the only other free agent lineman that they would have to worry about. He would not be considered a “high priority” free agent and the Steelers should not have any issues re-signing him if they wish.
The team could easily find cheap veteran depth in free agency, but instead should continue to add young talent via the draft.
Given all of the injuries that the Steelers have had on the line, it would not be a bad idea to add a prospect in the middle of the draft capable of playing guard and tackle. An upgrade over Legursky would also be wise.
Of course, the Steelers should not pass up on an elite left tackle prospect or guard prospect if there is one available in the first round either. Eric Fisher from Central Michigan or Chance Warmack of Alabama could be two players that would be hard for Pittsburgh to pass up in the first.
But, for the first time in years, the Steelers appear to be in good shape with their starting offensive line, assuming they stay healthy.