4 Moves Pittsburgh Steelers Should Have Made This Offseason

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVJuly 13, 2015

4 Moves Pittsburgh Steelers Should Have Made This Offseason

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Most of the Pittsburgh Steelers' heavy lifting for this offseason is done. Now, the focus has shifted to their upcoming training camp, getting ready for the regular season and trimming their roster down to 53 men.

    It's possible some significant moves could still happen in the next two months, but for the most part, things are becoming more stabilized in Pittsburgh. There could still be a few loose ends that they've failed to tie up, though. Here are four moves the Steelers should have made this offseason.

Cutting Cam Thomas

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    One of the first things the Steelers should have done once they brought back reserve defensive lineman Clifton Geathers, drafted rookie end L.T. Walton and felt confident that Stephon Tuitt would be a worthy starter in 2015 was release backup Cam Thomas. But Thomas remains on the roster.

    Granted, Thomas may not hold onto his job for long in Pittsburgh and seems one of the few inevitable roster cuts that can be predicted at this early point in the summer. But the quicker they get him out of there, the better, because he doesn't make the players around him any better. Whether he's with the starters or the second- or third-team defense, he depletes the quality of on-field play.

    Thomas was Pro Football Focus' last-ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and played 443 snaps. No 3-4 end struggled to stop the run as much as he did, and he totaled only eight run-stops in his 201 run-defense snaps played. He also recorded just 0.5 sacks in his 212 pass-rushing snaps

    He shouldn't even be a backup in Pittsburgh, because that means the Steelers run the risk of putting him on the field at some point this year. Further, the Steelers would get $2 million in salary-cap savings by releasing Thomas this year, losing only $500,000 in dead money. Hopefully, he's off the roster by September, but it would be even better if he were already gone.

Replacing Antonio Brown at Punt Returner

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown has been a productive punt returner for the team, totaling three punt-return touchdowns over the last five years. Last season, he returned 30 punts for 319 yards and one score, averaging 10.6 yards per return.

    Brown is shifty, speedy and smart, which makes him as much an asset as a returner as he is as a receiver. But Brown has evolved into the NFL's top wideout and a centerpiece of Pittsburgh's offense. As a punt returner, he's unpredictable but he's not indispensable.

    Even though this is one of the league's most dangerous jobs and Brown is one of the Steelers' most important players, it appears that he will continue to return punts this year.

    Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he wasn't going to "live in my fears" when asked about risking Brown's health by having him return punts. But the Steelers aren't lacking players who could also give them 10 yards of field position via returning punts instead of Brown—such as Dri Archer, Markus Wheaton or even Devin Gardner.

    But it looks as though Tomlin and the Steelers will be standing pat about Brown's special teams role this year, for better or worse.

Extending Cameron Heyward's Contract

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in February that any contract extension for defensive end Cameron Heyward wouldn't happen until all of their free-agent business was completed. But now, months later, a deal has still not been made.

    That's not to say it won't happen this summer—the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo thinks it can and will—but that it hasn't happened yet makes no sense if it is an inevitability. Plus, Heyward wants his new deal soon.

    He told Fittipaldo, "I'm not here to ruffle feathers or make waves. I'm not one of these guys who thinks about their contract while I'm here. I would love to have it done as soon as possible, but I'm not in any rush. I'll let the cards fall where they might and continue to improve."

    Heyward is in the final year of his contract, and the Steelers don't have anyone close to his caliber to replace him should he reach free agency in 2016. Heyward was Pro Football Focus' sixth-ranked 3-4 defensive end last year, and his 7.5 sacks tied a team high for the season. 

    Signing him sooner rather than later makes sense because the price tag is currently affordable. ESPN's Jeremy Fowler points out that the five highest-paid 3-4 defensive ends have an average of just $14.66 million in total guaranteed money. But that could go up, because as Fowler notes, Cameron Jordan, Dontari Poe and Muhammad Wilkerson will all be free agents in 2016.

    This could be resolved this summer, either prior to the start of training camp, or right at its close, like what occurred with cornerback Cortez Allen just before Week 1 of the 2014 season. But time is ticking—the Steelers may find Heyward far more affordable in July than in August.

Figuring Out Dri Archer's Role

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    On the Steelers roster, second-year player Dri Archer is listed as a hybrid running back and receiver. That's how he was used in his rookie year as well, albeit sparingly. According to Pro Football Focus, Archer played just 51 offensive snaps in 2014 as the Steelers struggled to find the best way to use the speedy yet small player.

    Archer carried the ball only 10 times last year, totaling 40 yards. He also caught seven passes on 10 targets for 23 yards. He didn't score a touchdown. He also returned nine kickoffs for 161 yards, and his longest return was 23 yards. 

    Archer said that he was "disappointed" by the way the year played out, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo. But Archer will have the first crack at being the team's kick returner again this year, while providing a change of pace at running back behind Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams.

    Of the return game, Archer said, "I keep on working at it and, when the time comes, it will come. It's different than college. It's not more about running. It's more about reading—reading your blockers, reading the lanes. It's just different."

    Head coach Mike Tomlin is also optimistic about Archer, saying, "I have a reasonable expectation that he's going to grow in all areas and be a productive player for us. Guys like him usually do that."

    But aside from another chance to return kickoffs and the same nebulous talk about change-of-pace duties, there's not really a concrete plan in place to make the 2014 third-round pick a bigger part of the offense. Perhaps this is something that will clear itself up in training camp and the preseason, but for the second year in a row, it looks like the Steelers don't know what to do with Archer.

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