The Steelers at the Crossroads
As we count down the days to the start of the new NFL league year and free agency on March 11, one of the more intriguing teams to watch will be the Steelers. Two consecutive 8-8 seasons left Pittsburgh out of the playoffs for two consecutive years, something the Steelers hadn’t experienced since they were idle in January three seasons from 1998 to 2000 under Bill Cowher.
“It’s huge for our franchise,” general manager Kevin Colbert said of this offseason at the scouting combine. “You go 8-8 in back-to-back years, it’s a huge disappointment, not only to our fans but to the organization. We feel it every day. But we have to fight through it, and hopefully we’re not talking about that next year.”
To break the cycle in 2014, Colbert is going to have to navigate another tricky offseason. No team has restructured more contracts in the past three years than the Steelers. While that provides more room under the salary cap in the short term, it pushes more money out into the future—which is fine if the players you restructure are on the field and productive, but that hasn’t always been the case with the Steelers, and it has dented them a little. They were squeezed by the flat cap since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement and had to part ways with several starters last offseason. While it didn’t hurt the final record, that’s hardly a comfort when you go 8-8.
At this point the Steelers are about $6 million over the projected $133 million cap. That should be mitigated in short order by the release of tackle Levi Brown, and restructures/extensions for a few players. Those aren’t necessarily bad—unless you choose unwisely.
Tight end Heath Miller will be a test. His cap number this season, the final year of his contract, is $9.5 million. Miller was still a good player last year after returning from knee surgery and would be in line for an extension, but he will turn 32 next season. How much and for how long do the Steelers extend themselves given that it’s time to start getting younger at the position?
Overall the Steelers are in good shape offense. They’ll lose receiver Emmanuel Sanders, but Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton are ascending players, and steady Jerricho Cotchery should be back. Expect an addition or two from a deep receiver draft. Running back Le’Veon Bell had a productive rookie season, and the offensive line should get a boost from improved health and the addition of line coach Mike Munchak.
The defense, once the backbone of great Steelers teams, is where Colbert is going to have to do some work, starting with the two highest-paid players on that side of the ball: outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley and cornerback Ike Taylor.
Taylor, who has a cap number near $12 million entering the final year of his deal, has been or is on his way to being supplanted by Cortez Allen as the No. 1 corner. The Steelers are going to need Taylor to take a pay cut, or to release him outright and draft or sign a cheaper replacement.
Woodley is the most interesting of the Steelers’ dilemmas, because it also involves pending free agent Jason Worilds. TheMMQB.com rated Worilds the 12th-best available free agent on the strength of serious buzz from teams that would be beyond excited to see a rising, versatile (he could also play end in a 4-3) and young (he’ll be 26 soon) defender become available on the market. For 3-4 teams looking for impact outside linebackers, the options are basically Worilds and Washington’s Brian Orakpo (if he even makes it to the free-agent market).
Worilds has said he’d like to stay with the Steelers, but he’s not going to be a backup again. Pittsburgh has 2013 first-rounder Jarvis Jones at right outside linebacker. Worilds flourished the final six games last season when Woodley missed time for the third straight season.
Woodley hasn’t been the same player since his 13.5-sacks season ’09. Despite conventional wisdom, his contract does not preclude him from being released. Cutting Woodley would wipe big numbers off the Steelers’ caps in ’15 and ’16, and while they would take a significant hit this season ($14.2 million), that would basically be a wash with what they were due to pay him. Or they could designate him a post-June 1 cut and take a $5.6 million hit this season and $9 million in ’15.
This is one of those crucial decisions for the Steelers. They can’t have both Woodley and Worilds. Do they chose the 29-year-old Woodley, who hasn’t been able to stay healthy and could be on the decline? Or do they go with the younger Worilds, who isn’t quite a known commodity yet?
That decision could very well determine if Colbert is talking about missing the playoffs again at next year’s combine.
1. Love that the Eagles invested in retaining their own players by signing LT Jason Peters, WR Riley Cooper and C Jason Kelce to contract extensions, and there’s optimism that they’ll also bring back WR Jeremy Maclin. Continuity is an underrated factor (by fans, mostly) in the NFL, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Defense is more about playing your assignment, while offense is all about trust, from a quarterback knowing how a receiver is going to react to a defensive look, to how fellow offensive linemen are going to pick up a stunt. Coach Chip Kelly obviously thinks those players are a fit for his system and sees them only getting better in Year 2.
2. Jason La Canfora reported this week that teams were reaching out to the Buccaneers about the possibility of trading for cornerback Darrelle Revis, and those teams thought there was a “good chance” Revis could be had. I could see why teams would think that. Revis’s pay-as-you-go contract makes it easy for Tampa Bay to deal him (there’s no signing bonus to be accelerated), and the new Lovie Smith/Jason Licht regime doesn’t have to prove that the Revis trade, which came under GM Mark Dominik, was a good move.
Smith is known for running the Tampa 2 defense, which is mostly zone but minimizes the need for top corners. Still, a year away from football has allowed Smith to realize that it’s hard to win in this league just playing Cover 2—the quarterbacks and the spread offenses are just too good. That’s why Smith told Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune, “We’re primarily going to be a man team. Whether we win or lose is going to be based on how we play man coverage.” If that’s the plan, why would the Bucs trade Revis now? I just don’t see it. Maybe in another year.
3. That the 49ers would be willing to part ways with coach Jim Harbaugh was the dirty secret the team never wanted to get out. It’s interesting that the prevailing sentiment is that San Francisco would choose general manager Trent Baalke over Harbaugh, considering that many in the NFL would contend that a good coach trumps all. Perhaps the 49ers think they could replace the grating Harbaugh with someone just as good but more pleasant to be around. My No. 1 pick would be Stanford coach David Shaw. Considering the proximity of both places, that might be the only NFL job Shaw would contemplate.
4. It was tough to see a gentleman and a leader like D’Qwell Jackson get released from the Browns this week, but it’s probably best for both sides. Jackson wasn’t worth his $9.43 million cap number—he’s played his best football in a 4-3, not in a 3-4 like Cleveland has used and will continue use—and now Jackson gets to pick his own destination. Here’s hoping one of the most underrated and respected NFL players has a soft landing in a better situation.
5. We’re already getting daily analysis on high-profile prospects like Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel, and it’s not even March yet. The draft isn’t until May 8. March Madness can’t get here soon enough—so that people have something else to talk about.