To say that the Pittsburgh Steelers disappointed in the 2012 season would be an understatement. Perhaps more than any other fan base in the National Football League, the Steeler faithful are used to seeing success on Sundays. As if to add insult to injury, fans of Steeler Nation had to endure watching their biggest rival, the Baltimore Ravens, hoist the Lombardi Trophy this season.
For the Steelers to avoid repeating the devastating results of last year’s campaign, GM Kevin Colbert and company will have their work cut out for them this off-season. With Free Agency and the NFL Draft both quickly approaching, the Steelers must resolve their issue with the Salary Cap.
After being nearly $20 million over the salary cap for the 2012 season, Pittsburgh has begun restructuring the contracts of some of their star players. Among these are Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Lawrence Timmons. The reworking of these contracts has freed up nearly $14 million in cap space for the team. LaMarr Woodley is expected to be the next big name to have his contract re-tooled.
James Harrison, who has underwhelmed since his breakout 2011 season, is another player that would be willing to have his contract looked at. However, sources say that Harrison is unwilling to take a pay cut. Harrison, who turns 35 in May, is coming off an injury-riddled season with the team. Though depth is lacking in the linebacking unit, Harrison could be an eligible candidate to be let go by the Steelers if they are unable to get under the cap.
According to ESPN.com here are the top 10 cap hits against the team for the 2013 season.
1. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, $13.59 million
2. LaMarr Woodley, LB, $13.24 million
3. Troy Polamalu, S, $10.13 million
4. James Harrison, LB, $10.03 million
5. Ike Taylor, CB, $9.45 million
6. Heath Miller, TE, $7.95 million
7. Willie Colon, OL, $7.65 million
8. Lawrence Timmons, LB, $5.81 million
9. Brett Keisel, DE, $4.9 million
10. Ryan Clark, S, $4.75 million
With Roethlisberger and Timmons already restructured, Pittsburgh needs to take a serious look at the contracts of Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, and Heath Miller due to injury. It may also be noted that keeping Polamalu and Miller at a lowered contract number would be ideal options.
Ike Taylor has played well and may be deserving of an extension, which could reduce his cap hit for 2013. However, the team’s biggest priority would be signing Taylor’s counterpart Keenan Lewis to a new deal before he hits free agency.
James Harrison, Willie Colon, and Brett Keisel are all interesting names that may be on their way out of Pittsburgh. While all are players at a position of need for the team, age is certainly an issue. In the case of these three players, it would be wise to restructure Harrison for depth and then let him walk after the 2014 season. Willie Colon is probably on his way out as a result of the depth in April’s Draft.
Brett Keisel, and his beard, are beloved in Pittsburgh. However, with his lack of production, I cannot see the benefits of the Steelers keeping him unless there is a small pay-cut involved. With young pups like Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward waiting in the wings, Keisel may find himself pressed for playing time anyways. Steve McLendon is an exciting player who I think deserves a shot at more action this season.
Once the salary cap matters are taken care of, the team can look to bolster its depth in free agency. Of the in-house 24 major free agents, here is a breakdown of what fans should expect to see with the team in 2013.
Should Re-sign: CB Keenan Lewis, ILB Larry Foote, QB Charlie Batch, OL Doug Legursky, RB Baron Batch (exclusive rights), RB Jonathan Dwyer, LS Greg Warren, TE David Johnson, WR Emmanuel Sanders, NT Steve McLendon, ILB Stevenson Sylvester, CB Demarcus Van Dyke, WR Plaxico Burress
Lewis is the Steelers’ top priority this off-season. After his stellar play, the team would be wise to get under the cap quickly to lock him up before potential suitors jack up the prices. Larry Foote, Charlie Batch, Steve McLendon and Plaxico Burress would add much-needed to the position at need for the Steelers. Dwyer and Sanders have both proven they can be effective, but have not performed up to expectations. Still, these guys are worth keeping for the right price. Demarcus Van Dyke and Baron Batch are exclusive rights players and basically have no choice but to play for the Steelers in 2013. McLendon, Legursky, and Warren are not household names, but all three are vital pieces for the Steelers and should be signed going forward.
Should Let Walk: WR Mike Wallace, G Ramon Foster, T Max Starks, NT Casey Hampton, QB Byron Leftwich, S Ryan Mundy, TE Leonard Pope, CB Justin King
As tough as losing a player of Wallace’s caliber is, the Steelers simply cannot afford the high asking price. After Dwayne Bowe’s contract, Wallace’s asking price just got higher. Foster and Starks are both serviceable lineman, but cannot be relied on to play every week. The same could be said of Byron Leftwich. Injury issues and a slow delivery make Leftwich a less than ideal option to back up Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. Hampton and Pope are veteran guys who could land with other teams, but they just are not worth keeping around as the team tries to start their youth movement.
Other Free Agent Signings: WR Steve Breaston, ILB Rey Maualuga,
Steve Breaston, if healthy, could be a dynamic threat in the slot position. Essentially, the team would be receiving “the poor man’s Mike Wallace” by taking a chance on Breaston. The move would also allow Emmanuel Sander to return to the outside to help stretch the field for the play-making Antonio Brown. Breaston should be signed for a one-year dear for under $2 million, with the possibility for another year based on performance.
Rey Maualuga is a bold prediction, but the former USC Trojan may be out in Cincinnati. Aside from claiming a solid player from a rival opponent, the pick-up would increase the depth for a team with a huge need. Currently, only Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons would be slated to play inside linebacker for the team next season. Pittsburgh has a history of developing under-performing linebackers, see James Farrior, and the move would make sense if the price is right. The younger Maualuga could split time with the veteran Foote and eventually be handed the position next season if he progresses in Dick LeBeau’s system. A 3-year deal worth roughly $7.5 million with some incentives thrown in might be enough to sway Maualuga to play alongside another USC great, Troy Polamalu.
Finally, the Steelers will look to rebuild through the NFL Draft, a process that they are arguably among the elite at. However, in recent years draft picks have not quite panned out the way the Steelers would have liked. Mike Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert need to get on the same page as far as drafting team needs and avoid drafting risky players with early picks.
Obviously free-agent signings like Keenan Lewis, Mike Wallace/Emmanuel Sanders, Larry Foote, will affect how this process plays out. For the purpose of this draft, assume that all of the moves that were previously mentioned work out and the team received no compensatory picks for this year’s draft.
Round 1 (pick 17): Jonathan Cooper, OG (North Carolina)
Though many would hate to see another first round pick wasted on an offensive lineman, departure of Max Starks and Ramon Foster might make it possible. Though the Steelers could benefit from having an unexpected prospect fall in their laps, like DeCastro last year, it is highly unlikely. Should a Dion Jordan, Jarvis Jones, Kenny Vaccaro, or Cordarrelle Patterson become available, there is no way the team could pass them up. Cooper would fill the need opposite 2012 first-rounder David DeCastro. An offensive line consisting of Mike Adams, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Jonathan Cooper, and Marcus Gilbert would please the Pittsburgh signal caller and might lead to an injury-free season.
(Alternate pick: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia or Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee)
Round 2: John Cyprien, S (Florida International)
If Cyprien is still available in the middle of the second round, Pittsburgh will have hit an absolute home run. Scouts are raving about the abilities of the FIU standout and with injuries plaguing the secondary, Pittsburgh would benefit from Cyprien’s services. They would also find their future safety as Clark (33) and Polamalu (31) are near the back-end of their careers.
(Alternate pick: D.J. Swearinger, S, South Carolina or Robert Woods, WR, USC)
Round 3: Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
Bell is one of those runners who looks like he was meant to wear the Black and Yellow uniform on Sunday. A punishing, physical back with decent speed, Bell is also a threat to catch balls out of the backfield. This pick could be a nice compliment to Jonathan Dwyer and those two could make a decent tandem in the NFL. Bell again might be a stretch here as a result of increasing draft stock. This pick could lose steam if the Steeler elect to go with a speed back instead of a power option.
(Alternate pick: Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas or Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M)
Round 4: Brandon Williams, DT, Missouri Southern State
This D-II standout is another prospect that is seeing his draft stock soar. The small school standout dominated his opponents and could even draw comparisons to a younger Casey Hampton. If Williams is available, this pick could shore up a defensive line that failed to pressure the quarterback last season.
(Alternate pick: Bacarri Rambo, S, Georgia or Terron Armstead, OL, Arkansas-Pine Bluff)
Round 5: Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
If not for a serious knee injury, Lattimore would have all but sealed up a first-round selection, ahead of top pick Eddie Lacy. Though two major injuries is a red-flag, the team could be getting a dynamic impact player in the later rounds. If there were a round to gamble a little, this would be it. Though again, Lattimore may not last this long, he has been project to go from round 3-6 based on his prior injury history. If Lattimore is gone, there will still be good depth to find a potential rusher, wide out, or defensive player.
(Alternate pick: Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU or Nico Johnson, ILB, Alabama)
Round 6: Zach Dysert, QB, Miami (OH)
Assuming the newly signed John Parker Wilson doesn’t pan out as a backup, the Steelers could look to Miami (OH) to once again find their future star. I am sure Big Ben has been plugging Dysert since he happens to be an alum now. Charlie Batch isn’t getting any older folks, so it was only a matter of time.
(Alternate pick: Alex Carder, QB, Western Michigan)
Round 7: Michael Mauti, ILB, Penn State
Mauti, a Pennsylvania product, would be a nice depth chart pick here. With Sean Spence’s injury being more serious than expected, the team will need a player to fill in once the veteran Foote retires. If the Steelers do bring in Maualuga, than this might also be a time to take a look at Tight End if one is still available with the injury to Heath Miller.
(Alternate pick: Terry Hawthorne, CB, Illinois or Dustin Hopkins, K, Florida State)
Free agents after Draft:
Jake Stoneburner (TE, Ohio State)
Bruce Taylor (ILB, Virginia Tech)
Scott Kovanda (P, Ball State)
DeMetrius McCray (CB, Appalachian State)
T.J. Moe (WR, Missouri)
More stories you might like