Making the Call on Pittsburgh Steelers' Top Free Agents

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVFebruary 8, 2017

Making the Call on Pittsburgh Steelers' Top Free Agents

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    Has running back DeAngelo Williams played his last snap for the Steelers?
    Has running back DeAngelo Williams played his last snap for the Steelers?Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Before the Pittsburgh Steelers make a single selection in the 2017 NFL draft, they must first take stock of their own players headed for free agency and decide who should stay and who should go.

    There are many factors that management must consider before making final decisions on these players, including projected positional needs, each player's talent level, ages and financial costs. All of that will ultimately determine who remains in black and gold in 2017.

    Here are the Steelers' top impending unrestricted free agents for the 2017 offseason and what the front office—led by general manager Kevin Colbert—may choose to do with them in the coming months.

RB Le'Veon Bell

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    There's no question that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is one of the best in the NFL at his position.

    Despite missing the first three games of the season with a suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, he still finished the 2016 season with 1,884 yards from scrimmage—1,268 rushing and 616 yards receiving—and nine total touchdowns. No back had more touches or scrimmage yards than Bell between Weeks 4 and 16.

    Regardless of Bell's previous off-field issues and injuries—a knee injury a year ago and a groin injury that cost him the majority of the AFC Championship Game—there's almost no chance the Steelers will let a player of his caliber walk away a free agent. The question is what to pay him.

    Spotrac estimates that Bell's average per-year value is $10.5 million, but it may take some time for his camp and the Steelers to come to an agreement on any particular amount. Per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (h/t NFL.com's Kevin Patra), it seems most likely that the Steelers will use the franchise tag on Bell—an amount that should be around $12 million for 2017—and use that as a starting point for a long-term contract negotiation.

    The goal is for Bell to remain with the Steelers beyond 2017. But as long as the franchise tag is something Bell is amicable with signing, he should at least stay in Pittsburgh for the upcoming season.

LB Lawrence Timmons

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has played his entire career in Pittsburgh since being drafted by the Steelers in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft. But he may have to play elsewhere in 2017 if he wants to remain in the league; Timmons is set to be an unrestricted free agent in March. 

    Timmons, who turns 31 in May, is not as dominant a player as he used to be on the Steelers' defensive interior. Once a tackling machine with plus coverage skills, the latter have declined with age and with slot receivers and tight ends becoming more difficult to scheme against. According to Pro Football Focus, Timmons' overall grade has dropped from 85.8 in 2012 to 48.4 in 2016. 

    At the same time, Timmons' price tag has risen. Per Spotrac, he cost $15,131,250 against the Steelers' salary cap in 2016, with $8.75 million of that in salary. The rest is in the form of guaranteed money that came as a result of contract restructures in 2013 and 2015. 

    That's not to say Timmons' career has run its course. He had 14 tackles and two sacks alone in the Steelers' Wild Card playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins, and he also had two interceptions and 2.5 sacks in the regular season. Timmons wants to remain with the Steelers, telling NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala in January that he's "die-hard Pittsburgh."

    If Timmons spends another season or two with the Steelers, he has to expect to receive a pay cut and to serve as a bridge starter between himself and the younger player who will eventually replace him. Perhaps that will be Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort or someone not yet on the roster. But if Timmons returns in 2017, don't expect his new deal to span longer than two years. 

RB DeAngelo Williams

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    Jared Wickerham/Associated Press

    The signing of free-agent running back DeAngelo Williams in 2015 proved to be one of the Steelers' smartest veteran pickups in recent memory. First tasked with taking over for a suspended Le'Veon Bell for the first two games of that season, he then had to do so on a full-time basis after Bell suffered a season-ending knee injury halfway through the year.

    Williams returned for 2016 at age 33 again taking over for Bell (suspended again) for the first three weeks of the season and then serving as Bell's primary backup. In his two seasons with the Steelers, the 11-year back (who spent his first nine seasons with the Carolina Panthers) rushed 298 times for 1,250 yards and 15 scores and caught 58 passes for 485 yards and two touchdowns, all for the affordable price of $4 million.

    Because Williams is in the final years of his career, the Steelers could indeed choose to bring back the soon-to-be free agent for a relatively meager amount of money—more than likely another two-year deal with a $4 million maximum value.

    But that decision rests not just with Pittsburgh but also with the player. Williams revealed the following to Simon A. Chester of USA Today's Steelers Wire in early February: "[A]bsolutely loved my time in Pittsburgh. If they think that I'm the right fit and they want to bring me back, absolutely I'll be back, no questions asked."

    He did note that he needs to take time to make sure he is both mentally and physically in shape to return to the field for one more season.

    Given the depth behind Bell, the Steelers could easily be open to Williams returning. Even if the Steelers choose to draft another back in 2017, Williams' experience paired with Bell's history of suspensions and injuries may influence the Steelers to want someone of Williams' pedigree on the depth chart.

    Should that be the case, though, expect another affordable deal. The Steelers did not break the bank on Williams in 2015, for good reason, and they won't do so in 2017 in order to keep him.

WR Markus Wheaton

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    Jared Wickerham/Associated Press

    Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton had promise and potential when the team drafted him in Round 3 of the 2013 NFL draft, but he's never managed to take advantage of his opportunities, often because of no fault of his own. 

    Wheaton missed all but three games of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury, an unfortunate development for a player in a contract year still trying to carve out a niche for himself in an efficient and explosive offense. It was a frustrating moment; Wheaton's 2015, in which he caught 44 passes for 749 yards and five scores, seemed to hint at something bigger ahead for him in Pittsburgh.

    But now, it appears Wheaton is not destined for a new deal with the Steelers. The combination of injuries and the roster evolving beyond and without him has left Wheaton an odd man out on the offense.

    Now, the Steelers could trust that Wheaton can be a healthy contributor in 2017 and sacrifice Cobi Hamilton's or even Darrius Heyward-Bey's roster spot to retain him. But the Steelers could easily find a Wheaton replacement among their own ranks as well as the draft. Wheaton's return looks presently like a long-shot proposition. 

QB Landry Jones

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Quarterback Landry Jones has had four years to prove that he has taken ownership of the Steelers' backup role behind Ben Roethlisberger, but he hasn't quite done a convincing job of it.

    Granted, Jones hasn't had much on-field experience beyond the preseason. He had just four starts, all of which came between 2015 and 2016, and he has thrown a total of just 141 regular-season passes. But that, in concert with his four preseasons' worth of action, could have shown the Steelers enough that his time is up.

    Of those 141 passes Jones has thrown in the regular season, he's completed 85 of them for 1,071 yards. He has seven touchdown passes to six interceptions for his career, while taking six sacks (including four in two starts in 2016). 

    Accuracy, decision-making and pocket presence have never been strong suits for Jones and also difficult skills to teach a quarterback; these are more inherent qualities of a good passer rather than things that can be coached up.

    Given Roethlisberger is under constant threat of suffering an injury that costs him playing time, the Steelers could do better behind him than Jones. The only question: Does that person exist in the draft (and can the Steelers realistically select him)? Or, alternatively: Is there anyone better they can get in free agency? If the answers to both questions turn out to be "no," then that could trigger Jones getting a new contract.

LB Jarvis Jones

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    Rob Leiter/Getty Images

    The writing appeared to be squarely on the wall in the 2016 offseason when the Steelers declined to pick up the fifth-year option of 2013 first-round pick, linebacker Jarvis Jones. The only thing that would have seemingly saved his Pittsburgh career was a strong performance in a contract year, and he didn't quite deliver.

    Appearing in 14 games and starting nine—attributable partially to the snap count the Steelers attempted to put on fellow linebacker James Harrison and Bud Dupree during the first seven weeks of the season—Jones had 43 combined tackles, one sack, an interception and three passes defensed. It was a typical performance for Jones, who was expected to be a top-tier edge-rusher when coming out of college but has never quite lived up to that potential.

    The Steelers have spent the years since drafting Jones loading up on outside linebackers, ranging from Dupree to Anthony Chickillo to veteran Arthur Moats, and could easily add more this offseason. Steelers.com's Bob Labriola had a succinct answer when asked about Jones' future, saying, "I believe Jarvis Jones will seek a fresh start somewhere else." 

    Jones will just have to serve as a swing-and-a-miss for Kevin Colbert and his scouting staff. Perhaps another team can get the most out of what Jones offers as a defender.

S Shamarko Thomas

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Once upon a time (a.k.a. 2013), safety Shamarko Thomas was supposed to be the heir apparent to future Hall of Famer, Troy Polamalu.

    But what a difference four years can make.

    Injuries and a slower-than-anticipated development have relegated Thomas from the future's great hope to free agency, and it won't be with the Steelers where he will attempt to revive his career.

    In four years, Thomas has had only two defensive starts, with both coming in his rookie year. As a defensive back, he has only 38 career combined tackles, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He's spent most of his time on special teams, but only when he hasn't been injured.

    Thomas has dealt with ankle, hamstring, knee and groin injuries and a concussion that have cost him a total of 16 games in four years, including nine in 2017.

    While the greatest ability in the NFL is often availability, even when Thomas has been available, he hasn't demonstrated the ability that initially had him penciled in as Polamalu's successor. Pittsburgh is not likely to re-sign him and will seek out more help at safety and special teams via the draft and even perhaps free agency.

LB James Harrison

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    Fred Vuich/Associated Press

    Age is nothing but a number, and a snap count is nothing more than a threat when it comes to the Steelers' James Harrison. Harrison, who turns 39 years old in May, was the Steelers' most active outside linebacker in 2016, playing 758 snaps and ranking an impressive 11th at his position for his efforts, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Harrison had five sacks, one pass defensed, two forced fumbles and 53 combined tackles in the 2016 regular season and another 2.5 sacks and 20 tackles through two playoff games. He's made it clear that he's not ready to hang up his cleats. According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, after the Steelers' AFC Championship Game loss to the New England Patriots, Harrison stated that he's not done yet.

    Harrison elaborated that he feels "physically fine," something that would be difficult to believe regarding any other player of his age. But Harrison is different, with a workout and self-care regimen that is both intimidating and effective.

    Head coach Mike Tomlin has already said Harrison's return in 2017 would be welcome, saying that he's open to Harrison remaining in black and gold for at least another season, per Jacob Klinger of Penn Live. He added, "We were pleased with what he was able to do and provide us, and we're open to that discussion for sure."

    Doing so should be no problem for Pittsburgh from a financial standpoint. The deal currently set to expire was a two-year contract worth a maximum of $2.75 million. At this point, Harrison continuing his career—particularly with the Steelers—isn't about money but about pride in self and in team.

    While the Steelers may finally have to put their foot down on the snap count demands, if only to allow room for younger linebackers to get the reps, they need to eventually allow Harrison to retire. Expect No. 92 to be hunting quarterbacks for another season.

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