The Steelers have sat quietly through the first week or so of free agency. This is par for the course even when the team isn’t cash strapped. GM Kevin Colbert simply doesn’t believe in building his team with flashy high money signings. It has never been the Steelers way. His proven track record makes it hard to quibble with the approach. This report will provide a position by position preview with recent moves and a high level draft analysis. Next month will focus more on draft needs and possibilities.
QB: Depth behind QB Ben Roethlisberger is an issue. QB Byron Leftwich, QB Charlie Batch and QB Dennis Dixon are all free agents. Leftwich can’t stay healthy. He could be back anyway since interest from other teams will not be strong. If Leftwich goes then Batch provides a realistic stopgap. The Steelers are clearly his only option. Dixon is the least likely to be wearing black and gold next season. He never really got an opportunity to develop in Pittsburgh. A change of scenery might not help, but would have to be considered tempting by him even without a clear chance to win a job. This makes a rookie to groom a realistic possibility. HC Mike Tomlin took QB Kirk Cousins out to dinner after Michigan State’s pro day. Of course the possibility of him dropping to the 56th pick or the Steelers using that high of a selection on a backup to Roethlisberger seems minimal at best. A flier later in the draft does appear to be a distinct possibility.
The need for solid quarterback depth is exacerbated by the beating Roethlisberger has taken due to his offensive line. Fans were critical of fired long time OC Bruce Arians recently. Owner Dan Rooney II apparently agreed. I will admit to not being the biggest Arians backer. In fact I am happy with his ouster and the hiring of new OC Todd Haley. I think things got stale with Arians. That said he does deserve a bit of credit for keeping the offense somewhat productive with what can only generously be considered a patchwork offensive line. The plan is to reinsert OT Willie Colon on the right side and move OT Marcus Gilbert to the left. Why anyone thinks Colon can come back after missing two full seasons due to a torn Achilles tendon and ACL is anybody’s guess. OT Max Starks performed adequately upon being resigned mid-season after he got into shape once recovered from neck surgery late in 2010. Alas he tore an ACL in the playoff game. His past inability to stay remotely in shape when rehabbing an injury is an ominous sign. Stark’s career may be over. OG Chris Kemoeatu was mercifully released after an awful season. An upgrade on OG Doug Legursky and OG Ramon Foster would be beneficial. If nothing else interior line depth is a desperate need. C Maurkice Pouncey making it through an entire season healthy would also be welcome. Colbert is on record that he believes offensive line talent in this draft is very deep. He is unlikely to reach at 24 for a lineman despite need. That said OT Mike Adams, OG Cordy Glenn or maybe even C Peter Konz if he proves to be capable of handling the left guard position would all have to be considered if available. If OG David DeCastro or OT Jonathon Martin happened to fall I would hope that the Steelers would run to the podium.
RB: The likelihood is that some combination of RB Isaac Redman, RB Jonathon Dwyer, RB John Clay and RB Baron Batch will be utilized until RB Rashard Mendenhall returns from his ACL tear. Mendenhall will probably start the year on the PUP list. Interest was reportedly shown in RB Mike Tolbert before his signing in Carolina. He seemed like a particularly good, inexpensive fit considering his abilities in short yardage, as a receiver and on special teams. At this point a third day pick in the draft or an undrafted rookie appear to be the only other possibilities.
WR: The Steelers career of veteran WR Hines Ward has officially come to an end. Ward wanted to play another year and was willing to take a significant pay cut. In the end the front office determined that he simply did not have another productive year left. It’s hard to argue with them after watching Ward last season. Restricted free agent WR Mike Wallace was tendered a contract at the highest level making compensation for signing him a first round pick. As of now no other team has shown interest. Peter King in his MMQB column speculates that the 49ers could be interested because they have money to spend after losing out on QB Peyton Manning. The Steelers would have difficulty matching a front loaded offer and could let Wallace walk if they are convinced WR Emmanuel Sanders has overcome last season’s foot injuries. If Wallace did leave a high pick, perhaps the first rounder obtained for him, would need to be used on a wideout even with a healthy Sanders and the breakout of WR Antonio Brown. The Steelers have expressed an interest in bringing back WR Jerricho Cotchery. There have also been reports that the Jets are interested in a reunion with him.
TE: The Steelers have been left behind in the trend toward explosive receiving threats at tight end. The only sure thing at the position is TE Heath Miller and he was utilized more as a blocker last season. Like too many on the roster he is also now on the wrong side of 30. Hybrid TE David Johnson was a decent enough fit, often at fullback in the offense of former coordinator Arians. Will new coordinator Haley have a use for him? Could a more tradition blocking fullback supplant Johnson? Will a more traditional backup tight end be added or will Miller continue to be pushed into more of a blocking role with a high upside receiving tight end added to the roster? How Tomlin and Haley want to run the offense will go a long way to determining what will happen. Right now I must admit to not having a clue. A second or early third day pick is a real possibility. TE Weslye Saunders will likely be on the roster bubble due to his four game suspension.
K: Drafting a kicker or a punter is not out of the realm of possibility. Bringing in legitimate competition is a necessity. Upgrades are needed on the ordinary PK Shaun Suisham and P Jeremy Kapinos. P Dan Sepulveda has had three ACL tears since joining the Steelers so he clearly can’t be counted upon.
DEF/ST: DE Aaron Smith and LB James Farrior were officially released as the purge of veterans for salary cap relief continued. Smith has been unable to stay healthy for the last three years. His loss is unlikely to have much of an effect. The release of Farrior will be felt more in the locker room than on the field. Farrior has slowed down noticeably. So far LB Larry Foote and NT Casey Hampton have survived the purge. Hampton restructured his deal and Colbert believes he will be ready for the opener despite having surgery for a torn ACL on the first Friday in February. His return and the likelihood that NT Dontario Poe will be long gone by the 24th pick after blowing up at the combine means an interior lineman will not be selected on the first day. Also don’t expect a high pick to be used on an end with recent first rounders DE Ziggy Hood and DE Cameron Heyward expected to contribute more alongside DE Brett Keisel.
The new trendy pick for the Steelers in first round mock drafts has become LB Donte Hightower. I can’t say I would be displeased with the selection as an upgrade over Foote. Hightower’s steadiness and experience would seemingly make him a nice compliment to the more mercurial LB Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers need two of the three of CB Keenan Lewis, CB Curtis Brown and CB Cortez Allen to step up alongside CB Ike Taylor. There are some rumblings that free agent CB William Gay could be brought back as a reserve. The market for him should be weak so his return would not be costly or out of the question. SS Troy Polamalu and FS Ryan Clark aren’t getting any younger. Depth behind them is weak. The defensive backfield while a need may not be addressed until the third day because of other, bigger needs throughout the roster. Colbert and Tomlin reportedly showed interest in FS Trent Robinson while attending Michigan State’s pro day. As a probable early third day pick he would fit the range of about where the Steelers would have to consider addressing the position.