Positions of Need
Ike Taylor is done, as a free agent going into his age 35 season, after struggling in 2013 (98th out of 110 eligible cornerbacks) and missing 11 games with injury in 2014. They gave Cortez Allen a long-term contract in the off-season, but he struggled mightily before being benched and could be cut after just one year, a move that would save them 1.58 million on the 2015 cap. He was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd cornerback out of 108 eligible. William Gay was fine, but journeymen Brice McCain and Antwon Blake were a mixed bag. I expect they’re going to target cornerbacks early in 2015.
Jarvis Jones was a first round pick of the Steelers’ in 2013, but he’s graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, doing so on 646 snaps as a rookie and 237 snaps last year, when he missed 9 games (he also missed 2 games as a rookie). He’s still part of their long-term plans at outside linebacker, but he’s tough to count on and they need other players at the position as Jason Worilds and James Harrison are both free agents this off-season. The latter is going into his age 37 season.
Cameron Heyward was fantastic for the Steelers again last season, but they need help around him at the position. Stephon Tuitt and Cam Thomas were among the worst players at their position last season, grading out 40th and 47th respectively out of 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends. Brett Keisel was better, but he’s going into his age 37 season. Tuitt was a 2nd round rookie last year so he could be better in 2015 and he remains a big part of their future, but they need to add another young guy at the position.
Michael Mitchell was signed to a 5 year, 25 million dollar contract last off-season and did a decent job in his first season in Pittsburgh. However, there’s uncertainty about who the long-term solution is next to him. Troy Polamalu is going into his age 34 season and the Steelers can save 6 million in cash and 3.75 million in cap space by cutting him this off-season. He could also outright retire. Polamalu is still a capable player, grading out above average last season for the 8th straight season, but he’s expensive, aging, declining (last season he ranked 48th out of safeties, worst since 2009 when he played just 5 games), and has missed 24 games over the past 6 seasons combined. He probably doesn’t have a lot of time left as a starter in Pittsburgh. Shamarko Thomas was drafted in the 4th round in 2013 as a potential successor, but he’s played just 195 snaps in 2 seasons, as he’s been unable to move ahead of Will Allen on the depth chart. Allen is going into his age 33 season. More youth needs to be added into the mix.
The Steelers lost in the first round of the playoffs at home to the Ravens by a score of 30-17. The Ravens were a tough opponent and it’s possible they would have lost anyway, but it definitely hurt their chances of winning significantly when Le’Veon Bell got hurt towards the end of their week 17 win over the Bengals. That’s partially because Bell is so good (Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall running back last season), but it’s also partially because they have no depth behind him. The Steelers needed to sign Ben Tate the week before that game out of desperation. Tate actually got the first carry for the Steelers and his 7 touches were 2nd by a Steeler running back in that game behind Josh Harris’ 11. Tate isn’t a long-term solution and neither Josh Harris nor Dri Archer seem like the type of player who can be counted on to carry the load if Bell misses time. Harris was an undrafted free agent and had just 18 carries as a rookie, rushing for just 41 yards. Archer had even fewer carries as a rookie, carrying the ball 11 times for 39 yards. The 2014 3rd round pick might have a future role as a scatback, but the 5-8 173 pounder can’t carry much of a load. This is especially a concern considering Le’Veon Bell is facing a two game suspension to start 2015 for marijuana possession.
Key Free Agents
OLB Jason Worilds
Jason Worilds was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013, but he was a bit of a one year wonder so the Steelers used the transition tag on him, rather than giving him a long-term deal. Prior to 2013, the 2010 2nd round pick played a combined 979 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, maxing out at 501 in 2011. However, he graded out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons and he shed the one-year wonder label in 2014 in his 2nd full season as a starter, grading out 11th at his position. He heads into free agency off of back-to-back top-12 seasons as a 3-4 outside linebacker, having made 31 of 32 starts over those 2 seasons. He made 9.75 million for 1 year on the transition tag last year and figures to get paid well on the open market this off-season. The cap strapped Steelers will have a tough time keeping him.
OLB James Harrison
James Harrison was out of the league to start last season, but he rejoined the Steelers for week 4 after they needed help at the rush linebacker position and he proved to be a huge pickup, grading out 10th at his position on just 439 snaps. No one played fewer snaps at his position and graded out better. He’s going into his age 37 season so the end of the road is right around the corner, but he proved last season that he still has something left in the tank. He has graded out above average in every season in Pro Football Focus’ history (since 2007), including last season and a 2013 season with the Bengals where he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on just 383 snaps as a base run stopping outside linebacker. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position that season. Scheme versatile, he’ll draw interest on cheap, one-year deals this off-season, assuming he still wants to play.
CB Brice McCain
Brice McCain was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback in 2011 and looked like a potential future star, but that was the only season of his 6 year career that he’s graded out above average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible in 2012 and dead last ranked in 2013. He played 615 snaps for the Steelers out of necessity, despite not playing a snap in weeks 1-3, but he wasn’t that good. He’ll be looking at deals near the minimum this off-season.
RB Ben Tate
Ben Tate was a 2nd round pick in 2010 by the Texans and he’s shown talent, but injuries have been a serious issue for him. As a rookie, he broke his ankle in the pre-season, which opened the door for Arian Foster to emerge as one of the best running backs in the NFL. Ben Tate impressed as his backup, averaging 5.09 YPC on 240 carries in 2011 and 2012 and got his shot to be the starter in 2013 when Arian Foster went down with a season ending back injury. Unfortunately, the injury bug reared its head for Tate again as he broke several ribs. He only missed 2 games, the final two of the season, but was definitely hampered by the injury as he averaged just 4.26 yards per carry on 181 carries. He signed a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal with the Browns last off-season, but he lasted just 8 games with Cleveland, missing 3 with injuries, being limited to 3.14 YPC when on the field, and getting cut mid-season. The Vikings gave him a chance, but he had just 38 yards on 13 carries in Minnesota and was eventually let go there too. The Steelers signed him out of desperation for the playoffs, but he had just 28 yards on 7 touches. Tate could be on his 5th team in about 18 months if he’s signed elsewhere this off-season. He’ll be looking at one-year prove it deals near the minimum.
CB Ike Taylor
Ike Taylor has had a solid career and was Pro Football Focus’ 40th cornerback ranked as recently as 2012, but he missed 5 games down the stretch that season with a broken arm, graded out 98th out of 110 eligible in 2013, and then missed another 11 games this year with arm problems. Going into his age 35 season, there’s a good chance that Taylor’s career is done. He might either retire this off-season or go unsigned in free agency.
Cap Casualty Candidates
CB Cortez Allen
Cortez Allen was a 4th round pick by the Steelers in 2011. He barely played as a rookie, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback on 563 snaps in 2012 and their 37th ranked cornerback on 718 snaps in 2013. He was given a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal last off-season, but he was horrible in the first season of that extension. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible, got benched after week 7, played 42 defensive snaps the rest of the way, and ended the season on IR. The Steelers can save 5.631 million in cash and 1.581 million on the cap by letting him go this off-season.
WR Lance Moore
Lance Moore was a 1000 yard receiver in 2012 with the Saints, but that was over two years ago, that was the only 1000+ yard season of his career, he’s missed 17 games over the past 6 seasons combined, he’s going into his age 32 season, and he’s combined for 51 catches for 665 yards and 4 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons. If he returns to the Steelers, he’ll be their 4th receiver at best behind Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton. The Steelers can save 1.5 million in cash and cap space by letting him go and he’s basically asked for his release so I expect him to be let go this off-season.
DE Cam Thomas
Cam Thomas was decent in limited action in 2011 and 2012 with the Chargers, grading out above average on 395 snaps in 2011 and 404 snaps in 2012, while showing the versatility to play 3-4 defensive end and nose tackle. However, he struggled in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked defensive tackle out of 69 eligible and he struggled even more in 2014 in his first season with the Steelers, grading out dead last among 3-4 defensive ends. The Steelers can save 2 million in cash and cap space by letting him go.
S Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu has graded out above average in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, but he’s going into his age 34 season and coming off of a season where he ranked 48th among safeties, worst since 2009 when he played just 5 games. He’s also missed 24 games in the last 6 seasons combined. He’s still a capable player and he’s a future Hall of Famer and I ultimately expect him back in Pittsburgh, but the cap strapped Steelers can cut him to save 6 million in cash and 3.75 million in cap space immediately so they’ll consider it.
DE Brett Keisel
Brett Keisel is one of the oldest players in the NFL, going into his age 37 season. He was decent on 451 snaps last season, but the end is near for him, especially coming off of a season ending triceps tear. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2011, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, missing 8 games over that period of time. If he returns in 2015, it’ll be as a reserve and the Steelers may opt to cut him to save 1.5 million in cash and cap space and bring him back on a minimum deal or let him leave outright.