Pittsburgh Steelers: Latest Free-Agency News and Rumors
The NFL Scouting Combine is an important part of the offseason process for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even more important is the start of free agency, as it provides general manager Kevin Colbert his first opportunity to improve the roster for the 2015 season.
The new league year begins on March 10, which leaves Colbert with just over two weeks to create enough salary-cap space to give the Steelers room to actively pursue free agents. That includes making some tough decisions on veteran players such as Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel as well as working out a long-term deal with Ben Roethlisberger.
Between now and then, there will plenty of news and rumors regarding the moves that the Steelers will make. Here is the latest news surrounding the Steelers.
Over the next month, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be busy as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin put together a plan for the offseason.
Steelers in Good Shape with Cap
Each year, it seems as though the Steelers are right up against the salary cap, and that is no exception for 2015. However, the Steelers will have some extra room, as the cap is expected to increase from $133 million to at least $143 million, according to the NFL Players Association (h/t Tom Pelissero of USA Today).
Without an exact figure known, the Steelers will have to prepare for the worst, but Colbert does not anticipate many problems over the next couple of weeks, via Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“I don't think we will have to do as much work to get in compliance with the cap as maybe we have previously,” Colbert said. “Everything we do with the cap is a guesstimate at this point: what it's going to be and where we are going to be. We can play with different scenarios and come up with different cap numbers, but I think we will be in a manageable area for sure.”
Even though the Steelers may not need to release many players to get under the 2015 cap figure, they will need to create enough room to sign players. That still puts veterans such as Polamalu, Cam Thomas, Keisel and Lance Moore at risk, but a management situation is a welcomed change from previous years.
No Decision on Veteran Defenders
In recent years, there has been a mass exodus of veteran players from the roster. Past greats, including Hines Ward, James Farrior, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, all reached an end to their Steelers career, and there are four defenders who could join them.
Polamalu, Keisel, James Harrison and Ike Taylor are all in limbo when it comes to their future in Pittsburgh.
Polamalu and Keisel are potential cap casualties, while Harrison and Taylor are slated to become unrestricted free agents in 2015. Colbert and Tomlin recently met to discuss the roster, and these four veterans were surely a topic of conversation, but no decision has been made.
Colbert is keeping his options open and appears to be intent on exploring the free-agent market and draft to address depth on the roster before committing to the veterans. However, he did acknowledge to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it is a fluid situation:
“Those meetings went well,” Colbert said. “As we go through a position in free agency, we talk about our own players. We’ve done that. We’ll get through this week, have more information on the college group and we can sit down. We’ll know more about this group at the end of the week than we did going into it.
“So put the two, free agency and the potential draft together and map out a plan for the spring,” Colbert added. “Sometimes we have to make decisions on the fly. That’ll continue to evolve once we get out of here.”
Given their age and diminished level of play, the Steelers can likely take their time on deciding whether to retain any of these four defenders.
Steelers Want to Add Young Depth
One of the reasons that the Steelers may wait on their veteran defenders is because they want to continue to emphasize youth on the roster. Although most starting positions are set, they will be in the market for a starting outside linebacker and must address depth issues at several positions.
Colbert told Kaboly of the Tribune-Review that the team is currently “worried” about its depth but says they “will be fine once we get to August.”
There is good reason to be worried as free agency is set to begin. Jarvis Jones is the only experienced player under contract at outside linebacker, and the same could be said regarding Heath Miller at tight end. Further issues at cornerback and running back leave Colbert with his hands full.
Colbert added, “When you go through an offseason, you see where you finished and you look at the first opportunity to improve your team. The first opportunity will be in keeping your own players. The second opportunity would be free agency, and then what is going to be available in the draft.”
Jason Worilds, Arthur Moats and Harrison are the first options at outside linebacker, while Brice McCain and Antwon Blake are candidates to return at cornerback. Matt Spaeth could be re-signed as well to play behind Miller.
Ideally, Colbert will help the team get younger while still adding experience, as he did last year with Moats and McCain. Not only were both well under 30 years old, but they had plenty of playing experience.
“I kind of like that type of depth,” Colbert said. “It's an experienced, young depth, as opposed to the rookie that has to be thrown in.”
More shrewd moves like this will not only build quality depth but build it at an affordable cost. That will allow more money for the Steelers to spend on a Roethlisberger or Cameron Heyward contract extension.
No Rush on Cameron Heyward Contract Extension
Roethlisberger may be the big-ticket item for the Steelers this offseason, but Heyward should not be far behind. Outside of Lawrence Timmons, Heyward is the best defender Pittsburgh has and is in line for a long-term deal.
However, Colbert told Kaboly that he is in no rush to sign the star defensive end:
“That business and that type of stuff we always do after,” Colbert said. “We always take (a look at) our own first: free agents, potential free agents, other teams' free agents and then we look into the future and guys that are free not in 2015 but 2016. But those types of things really occur after the others.”
The Steelers typically use the summer months to handle long-term contract extensions with their young players. They were particularly busy last summer, as they signed Maurkice Pouncey (June), Shaun Suisham (August), Marcus Gilbert (August) and Cortez Allen (September) to new deals.
Heyward should follow suit and ink a four- or five-year extension sometime this summer, which will be after a new deal with Roethlisberger is complete.
Jason Worilds Expected to Hit Free Agency
Outside linebacker is one of the Steelers top needs this offseason, yet they are poised to allow their young up-and-comer hit the open market.
Colbert told Dulac of the Post-Gazette that unless the Steelers place a tag on Worilds for a second straight offseason, he will enter free agency:
“He understands that if he doesn’t get tagged, which we could still do, he will explore the market and see what is out there,” Colbert said at the NFL combine. “We will stay in communication. Maybe he comes back. Maybe he moves on. But he’s been a good player for us and we would love to have him back if it all fits.”
Once on the market, the bidding war will begin, as Worilds is one of the top free agents available. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has him ranked fourth among 3-4 outside linebackers. He has 15.5 sacks over the past two seasons, and at only 26 years old, he has the potential to get even better.
Teams around the NFL are always looking for players who can rush the quarterback, and the 6’2” and 262-pound Worilds will draw interest from around the league, especially if Justin Houston gets the franchise tag.
Rather than negotiate a deal with Worilds, Colbert seems intent on the rest of the league setting the market. The Steelers already failed to sign him to a long-term deal last season and do not seem particularly interested in guaranteeing Worilds with $11.7 million by using the transition tag.
James Harrison Wants to Play Another Year
The biggest news out of combine weekend for the Steelers wasn’t related to any potential draft prospect, but rather one of their all-time greats wants to play another season.
I decided to hold off on retirement, so it's time to pack up and head to AZ to start my training so I… http://t.co/mKICBjCI41
— James Harrison (@jharrison9292) February 22, 2015
Given the workout videos he posted on his Instagram page, this is not a surprise. Harrison is a workout warrior, and he appeared as though he was preparing for another season.
The Steelers could use him not only for depth but to step in as a situational pass-rusher. Last season, he proved that he could still produce with 45 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 11 games. His performance has him ranked sixth among free-agent edge defenders by Pro Football Focus.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette believes that the Steelers should re-sign Harrison immediately because he provides more value to the team than just his performance on the field but also off it.
Bouchette believes that Harrison can be a leader by example and workout partner for young linebackers Jones and Ryan Shazier. He wrote, “After signing him, they should immediately impress upon Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier the benefits of dropping everything they’re doing and to head to Arizona to work out with Harrison until the three of them converge on Pittsburgh in a month or so.”
Scott Brown of ESPN.com speculated that Harrison could leave Pittsburgh for Tennessee, where he would reunite with his former defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau. This makes sense given his age and the pressure that he would put on the coaches to play him.
However, Harrison offers little risk for the Steelers. He is an affordable backup who could start in a pinch and a veteran who could help mentor the young linebackers on the roster.