Free Agent or Draft: How Should Pittsburgh Steelers Fill Their Biggest Holes?

Chris Gazze@ChrisG_PITCorrespondent IMarch 4, 2015

Free Agent or Draft: How Should Pittsburgh Steelers Fill Their Biggest Holes?

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    Jason Worilds is poised to become a free agent on March 10.
    Jason Worilds is poised to become a free agent on March 10.Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that traditionally builds through the draft. However, recent transactions may suggest that general manager Kevin Colbert is prepared to explore the free-agent market.

    According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers are about $9 million under the 2015 NFL salary cap after restructuring the contracts of Marcus Gilbert and Mike Mitchell and by releasing Lance Moore.

    Further cap space could be created with additional restructures or through the release of high-price veterans. A new long-term deal for Ben Roethlisberger would reduce has cap hit as well. With an unusual amount of room under the cap, some are wondering what the Steelers have planned.

    “My question is, why are they clearing so much cap space now?” one player's agent recently told Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

    Are the Steelers prepared to add another Jeff Hartings, James Farrior, Duce Staley, Ryan Clark or Mike Mitchell? Alternatively, are they simply clearing up enough space to handle their own free agents and several low-price options?

    While signing a high-priced free agent is tempting, it would be out of character for the Steelers. However, with a roster that they believe is close to a Super Bowl, is this the year that they break the mold and pursue a big name in free agency?

    As the official start of the offseason quickly approaches, deciding to spend in free agency or stick to their philosophy and build through the draft is just one of the decisions that Colbert and the rest of the front office must make. Here is a look at Pittsburgh’s top offseason needs and how each should be addressed.

Defensive End

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    If healthy, Brett Keisel provides valuable depth at defensive end.
    If healthy, Brett Keisel provides valuable depth at defensive end.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    As of now, defensive end is not a pressing need, but it may be by the time free agency begins on March 10. Though the Steelers may have their bookend starters with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, their depth could be nonexistent.

    Brett Keisel and Cam Thomas are the top backups under contract for next year, but both could be released within the next week. According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers would save $3.5 million cap space by releasing their top backups at defensive end.

    If one or both players are released, the Steelers must address their depth in free agency. Unlike other positions on the roster, defensive ends may take upward of two or three years to develop into full-time contributors. That is not by accident either.

    In March 2014, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took note of defensive line coach John Mitchell’s strategy to prepare young defensive ends to play in the NFL:

    I do not advocate the Steelers take D-lineman on the first round because they bring them in, strip away everything they've been taught and teach them the Steelers way. That process takes 2-3 years to sink in, witness Cam Heyward. The Steelers are better off getting defensive lineman after the second round and molding those players into what they want. 

    Granted, the Steelers are not going to take a defensive end in the first round, but Dulac emphasized the developmental time. Pittsburgh needs backups who can step in and contribute as a situational role player next season.

    Last year, Mike Tomlin allowed two young and talented defensive ends to get away. Even though Nick Williams and Josh Mauro flashed potential, he elected to go with the veterans. The Steelers value experience at the position, which is why they will address defensive end—if it becomes a need—through free agency.

    Former Baltimore Raven Chris Canty is an option for the Steelers to consider as is Alex Carrington—a player whom they explored signing last season. However, do not be surprised if they find a way to keep Keisel, who hopes to play again next season.

    Verdict: Free Agency

Tight End

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    Could Maxx Williams be Heath Miller's future replacement?
    Could Maxx Williams be Heath Miller's future replacement?Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Heath Miller has spoiled Steelers fans.

    A team leader, Miller is one of the most dependable players on the roster.

    He is a dependable receiver and blocker who rarely misses a game. Not only did Miller lead all NFL tight ends in snap counts, but he also ranked 25th among all offensive players with 1,082 snaps, according to Sporting Charts. However, he cannot do it alone.

    Miller is the only experienced tight end signed for 2015—with Rob Blanchflower and Michael Egnew as his backups. Although both players offer some upside, neither has the skill set required to be a true No. 1 tight end in the league.

    Matt Spaeth should not be difficult to re-sign, where he can easily fill the role as the No. 2 tight end. However, the Steelers like him for his ability to block, not to catch the ball. At this point, they need to begin to develop a young backup who can eventually take over for Miller.

    According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mike Tomlin met with Maxx Williams—the top tight end in the draft—at the NFL Scouting Combine. Williams is a receiving tight end with upside as a blocker. As a potential dual threat in the NFL, he will have Pittsburgh’s attention early in the draft.

    Beyond Williams, there are a number of mid-round prospects worth considering, including Jesse James, Ben Koyack and Tyler Kroft. If any of these players fall to the fourth round, they will be on the Steelers’ radar.

    Verdict: Draft

Safety

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    Landon Collins is an option if he falls to the Steelers in the first round.
    Landon Collins is an option if he falls to the Steelers in the first round.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    An end of an era may be near in Pittsburgh as Troy Polamalu may have already played his final down wearing the black and gold.

    With a decline in play and a high cap hit, Polamalu is a legitimate candidate to be released, and Scott Brown of ESPN.com reminded everyone that the Steelers are willing to part with all-time greats:

    “If the Steelers decide it is time to move on from Polamalu, it is not without recent precedent as far as cutting ties with an iconic player. It was, after all, just three years ago that the Steelers released Hines Ward, their all-time leading receiver, even though he clearly wanted to return for another season.”

    Even if Polamalu returns for one more year, Colbert must find a young player to develop. As of now, Mike Mitchell is slotted to start at free safety with Shamarko Thomas as a candidate to compete for a starting job at strong safety.

    But with Mitchell coming off a poor season and Thomas unproven, there are no guarantees at safety. That opens the door for a new option to come in and make some noise. Given the money invested in Mitchell last year, any new addition to the roster is more likely to come through the draft.

    The problem is that the draft lacks top-end talent at safety. Outside of first-round prospect Landon Collins, the Steelers may have to wait until Day 3 to find an option in the draft. Here, a player such as Kurtis Drummond becomes an option.

    Rather than draft a safe option later, the Steelers could take a risk on Gerod Holliman if he is available in the second or third round. He doesn’t tackle like what the coaches desire from the safeties, but he has potential to be a true ball hawk.

    Verdict: Draft

Running Back

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    Roy Helu has extensive experience as a backup running back.
    Roy Helu has extensive experience as a backup running back.Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    One of the top priorities for the Steelers this offseason is to find a dependable backup running back to not only sit behind Le’Veon Bell on the depth chart but also have the ability to carry the load at the start of the regular season.

    Bell is expected to miss the first two games of the year as disciplinary action for a DUI arrest last summer, and according to Mike Florio of NBC Sports, this suspension could reach as many as four games:

    But there’s a catch that could result in a doubling of Bell’s expected punishment.  The new substance-abuse policy makes a two-game suspension the standard penalty for a DUI arising from alcohol use.  For violations of the law involving other substances of abuse, a first offense exposes the player to a suspension of "up to four" games.

    Despite signing less than a week before the wild-card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers’ coaching staff handed the ball to Ben Tate to start the game. The fact that Tate was allowed to start the game over Josh Harris showed the staff's trust in a veteran option.

    The free-agent market at running back gets deeper by the day as teams continue to release veterans. A flooded market should keep prices down and may allow the Steelers to find a good value in a running back such as Roy Helu, Stevan Ridley, Knowshon Moreno or Ahmad Bradshaw.

    A veteran back on a short-term deal could start the season as the Steelers develop a rookie back into the long-term backup. Players such as Duke Johnson, T.J. Yeldon or David Cobb are potential options in the second or third round, but that may be too early for Pittsburgh’s liking.

    Instead, the Steelers could wait until the fourth round or later where they could find a talented option such as Jeremy Langford. By signing a veteran and drafting a rookie, the Steelers will immediately upgrade their backfield for the start of the 2015.

    Verdict: Both

Cornerback

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    Will Marcus Peters' talent overcome his character red flags?
    Will Marcus Peters' talent overcome his character red flags?Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    For several years now, the Steelers have had a need at cornerback, and this may finally be the year that they address it. Not only do they lack any blue-chip prospects on the roster, but they also only have two players with experience under contract next season.

    William Gay established himself as a solid starting cornerback, though the Steelers would ideally like to have him in the slot. Given the absence of a true No. 1 corner, he is likely to return to the starting lineup again next year. The same cannot be said for Cortez Allen.

    Colbert recognizes Allen’s upside as a potential starter in the NFL, but he says the organization is not willing to just hand him the job, via Bob Labriola of Steelers.com:

    Cortez enters this season where he left off. We have to find out about Cortez and whether he can accept the challenge of being a starting NFL cornerback. He showed signs of that in the past. He was productive in spurts for us in the past. Again, you invest in players you think can be good players.

    The Steelers may have invested in Allen too soon, leaving a high cap hit with a player without the production to match. As a result, the Steelers have handicapped themselves in investing in another high-quality cornerback. That does not mean they will not sign one, but the odds are lower.

    Rather than invest heavily in a free agent like Byron Maxwell, they can re-sign Brice McCain and Antwon Blake to cheap contracts. That would leave them four-deep at the position, leaving the focus on the draft.

    Though the draft lacks in top-end talent, it does have solid depth at cornerback, giving the Steelers numerous options in the first or second round. Early on, Trae Waynes has the size and athleticism that will make scouts drool, but he has room to develop.

    Marcus Peters is possibly the most pro-ready prospect, but he has character red flags. Others, including Kevin Johnson, Jalen Collins, Quinten Rollins and Alex Carter, are borderline first-round prospects. However, as long as there isn’t a run on corners in the early second, a talented player should fall to the Steelers.

    Pittsburgh fans have been waiting for an early-round cornerback for years, and the Steelers finally seem poised to select one with one of their top picks.

    Verdict: Both

Outside Linebacker

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    Jabaal Sheard is a free-agent option who may be in Pittsburgh's price range.
    Jabaal Sheard is a free-agent option who may be in Pittsburgh's price range.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Here is the experience depth chart at outside linebacker for the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers: Jarvis Jones.

    The former first-round draft pick is all the Steelers have to work with as they enter the offseason. Entering his third season, Jones is far from a “sure thing,” leaving the Steelers with plenty of questions at the position.

    Colbert told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he is willing to let Jason Worilds hit free agency, meaning that the Steelers are prepared to lose their 2014 sack leader. Top backups Arthur Moats and James Harrison will join Worilds in free agency.

    Even if both players are re-signed, the Steelers are still without a true starter at left outside linebacker and that is a difficult spot to put a rookie. As we have witnessed with the development of Jones, it is a challenge for a rookie pass-rusher to make an impact early in his career.

    Luckily, the Steelers need an edge defender in a draft that is chock full of them. Shane Ray, Bud Dupree or Eli Harold may all be in play for the Steelers at No. 22 in the draft. An edge defender becomes a bigger option in the first if they sign a cheap free agent to start, such as Moats or O’Brien Schofield, or a veteran such as Jabaal Sheard.

    Of course, the Steelers could also make a blockbuster move and pursue one of the top free-agent outside linebackers. According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, Pernell McPhee may receive upward of $10 million per year, while Worilds and Brandon Graham should be around $7.5 million per year.

    That is a steep price to pay, but it would land the Steelers one of the top defenders on the open market. If they invest that much in a free agent, then a mid-round selection makes more sense. Lorenzo Mauldin, Trey Flowers and Markus Golden are all names that will interest the Steelers in the middle of the draft.

    No matter what they do this offseason, the Steelers must address their pass rush. Until they do, the defense will continue to give up points at an alarming rate. Given their need to upgrade, it is essential that Colbert find talent in free agency and the draft.

    Verdict: Both

    Note: Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com , all combine results are courtesy of the NFL.com combine tracker, all draft rankings are courtesy of Matt Miller of Bleacher Report, all salary information is courtesy of Spotrac.com and all roster information is courtesy of Steelers.com.  

    Follow @ChrisG_BR

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