The Steelers made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2011, way back when Tim Tebow knocked them out of the playoffs. In 2012 and 2013, they went 8-8 both times, before winning 11 games and the AFC North in 2014. Oddly enough, the Steelers did not do it in traditional Steeler fashion, which is leading the way with their defense. Their defense ended this season ranked 25th in rate of moving the chains allowed. Instead, it was their high-powered offense, which finished 3rd in rate of moving the chains, that led the team to rank 7th in rate of moving the chains differential, en route to the playoffs.
Ben Roethlisberger led the way at quarterback, completing 67.1% of his passes (a career high) for an average of 8.15 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. That led to a quarterback rating of 103.3, 3rd in the NFL and the 2nd best of Roethlisberger’s career. Since 2007, the first year in Pro Football Focus’ history, he’s made 118 starts and ranked 4th, 26th, 6th, 6th, 7th, 7th, 11th, and 3rd in those 8 seasons respectively, leading up to last season’s career best. He joins Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers as the only quarterbacks to rank in the top-11 in each of the past 6 seasons.
In 159 career games, he’s completed 63.7% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 251 touchdowns, and 131 interceptions. A 2004 1st round pick, Roethlisberger is already going into his age 34 season, but plenty of good quarterbacks have continued that success into their mid-30s. The Steelers are betting on that, locking up their franchise quarterback for another 5 years and 99 million this off-season, ahead of his contract year.
Roethlisberger had a lot of help on offense and much of their improved offensive performance and even Roethlisberger’s improved numbers themselves weren’t solely the result of Roethlisberger’s improved play. Part of why he had such improved play around him is because literally no one got hurt. The Steelers finished the season 4th in adjusted games lost, including 1st in adjusted games lost on offense. Only 9 offenses since 2003 had as good of injury luck as the Steelers had last season. That’s unlikely to continue.
Roethlisberger himself could even get hurt. He’s played all 32 games on the last 2 seasons, but prior to that he had played all 16 games once in 9 career seasons. Part of the reason for his recent improved health is a much improved offensive line (more on that later). Part of it is the switch to Todd Haley’s quicker throw offense which, after some minor early kinks and major public criticism, has led to Roethlisberger having the best 3-year QB rating out of any stretch of his career. However, part of why he hasn’t been getting hurt lately is something that could regress to the mean. Even if Roethlisberger stays healthy for all 16 games, the same is not likely to be true about his supporting cast.
The Steelers have not had any major injuries just yet, but they are already expected to be without one player for the start of the season. That player is Le’Veon Bell. That’s bad news because, when Bell got hurt in Pittsburgh’s week 17 game last season, knocking him out for the playoffs, it made the Steelers a noticeably different offense, leading to a home loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the first round. Bell is currently suspended for the first 3 weeks of the season for a marijuana and DUI arrest. He’s appealing to get the suspension reduced and it’s reportedly possible he only misses the opener against New England, but it’s another reminder that they likely won’t be bulletproof offensively again next season.
Bell’s importance to the Steelers wasn’t just proven in the Baltimore loss. It should have been evident all year, as the 2013 2nd round pick broke out as arguably the best running back in the NFL during the regular season, a big part of the reason for Pittsburgh’s offensive dominance. He’s still just a one year wonder, after averaging just 3.52 yards per carry as a rookie, but I think he was the best running back in the NFL last season, apologies to DeMarco Murray.
Murray obviously was the NFL’s leading rusher with 1845 yards, 484 more than Bell who was in 2nd with 1361. However, that’s largely because Murray had more carries, 392 to 290. Bell’s 4.69 YPC was very comparable to Murray’s 4.71, even though Murray ran behind a Dallas offensive line that ranked 2nd in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus, while Pittsburgh’s ranked 9th. Murray was also much more useful on passing downs, grading out better in pass protection and pass receiving.
Bell’s 83 catches for 853 yards (basically wide receiver numbers) help make up for the difference in yardage totals between Bell and Murray, as Murray caught just 57 passes for 416 yards. Murray only finished with 55 more yards on 69 more touches. While Murray had the higher pure running grade on Pro Football Focus last season (still behind Marshawn Lynch though) Bell was Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall ranked running back. Even as a rookie when he averaged a low YPC, he still graded out above average overall, ranking 31st among running backs, largely because of 45 catches for 399 yards.
It’ll be tough to replace Bell when he’s out, as it was last season. That’s not just because Bell is so good. It’s also because his backups are so bad. Last season when Bell went down, the Steelers had to sign Ben Tate, on his 4th team in a 12-month period. Tate started in the playoff game, despite being signed just a few days prior. Tate had 5 carries in that game. Josh Harris had 9 and Dri Archer had 1. Harris and Archer were both rookies last season. Harris, an undrafted free agent, had 18 carries as a rookie (including playoffs), averaging 2.27 yards per carry. Archer, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick with just 11 carries (including playoffs) as a rookie, averaging 3.54 yards per carry. The 5-8 173 pounder’s potential is, at best, Todd Haley’s new Dexter McCluster. Harris, meanwhile, has shown no signs that he’s remotely a starting caliber running back.
In need of a veteran presence, the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams as a free agent this off-season. Bell to Williams is about as steep of a downgrade as you can get at running back. He was released by the Panthers this off-season, even though doing so only saved them 2 million immediately and he’ll be on their cap still for 2016, because of the fact that he is going into his age 32 season and coming off of a season in which he missed 10 games with injury and averaged just 3.53 yards per carry. The Steelers better hope that Bell is only suspended for one game. And even if he is only suspended for one game, the Steelers will have injuries offensively this season, something they just didn’t have to deal with last season until the worst possible time.
The Steelers’ offense was led by their version of the triplets last season, Ben Roethlisberger, LeVeon Bell, and top wide receiver Antonio Brown. With Calvin Johnson nursing injuries last season, Brown took over the mantle of the best receiver in the NFL and, with Johnson getting older, it’s possible Brown keeps that title this season. Brown doesn’t win with height/weight/speed like Johnson at 5-10 186, but he has dependable hands, is the best route runner in the NFL, and is tough to take down in the open field.
Brown led the league in catches and receiving yards last season, catching 129 passes (2nd most in a single season in NFL history) on 178 targets (72.5%) for 1698 yards and 13 touchdowns on 638 routes run, an average of 2.66 yards per route run, 7th in the NFL among eligible receivers. His 5 drops give him a remarkably low drop rate and his 17 broken tackles were the 4th most in the NFL by a wide receiver. He’s not a one year wonder either, grading out 3rd at his position in 2013 (1st in pass catching grade), catching 110 passes on 159 attempts (69.2%) for 1499 yards and 8 touchdowns on 609 routes run, an average of 2.37 yards per route run, 7th among eligible receivers. He also ranked 7th among wide receivers overall in 2011, one of three 1000+ yard seasons in 5 years in the league.
Perhaps most impressively, Brown has caught at least 5 passes in 33 straight games (including playoffs), which demolished the previous NFL record of 19. Remarkably consistent, Brown has morphed into the top receiver in the NFL since Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh two off-seasons ago, proving the Steelers made the right choice by re-signing Brown to a 5-year, 43 million dollar extension 3 off-seasons ago and letting Wallace leave on a 5-year, 60 million dollar contract the following off-season. It was a risky move by the Steelers because Brown had only played 2 seasons in the NFL before he got the extension, but it paid off in a big way as that contract might be the best value in the NFL, not including rookie contracts. Only going into his age 27 season, Brown is under contract for 3 more years.
The Steelers have solid depth at the position too so Roethlisberger has plenty of options. Markus Wheaton was 2nd among wide receivers in receiving yards last season (4th on the team behind Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and tight end Heath Miller) with 53 catches for 644 yards and 2 touchdowns. After barely playing as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, Wheaton played 760 snaps in 2014 and graded out about average. He’s a decent complementary piece, but could see his role reduced in 2015 because the Steelers have a pair of freak athletes waiting in the wings.
One of those freak athletes is Martavis Bryant, who ran a 4.42 40 at 6-4 211 at the combine, but fell to the 4th round of the 2014 draft after widely being considered a top-2 round prospect by the media because of how raw he was. The Steelers snatched him up there and it seems to have paid off thus far. Bryant only played 306 snaps total as a rookie, but he definitely flashed big play ability, grading out above average and catching 26 passes for 549 yards and 8 touchdowns on 48 targets (54.2%). He did that despite only running 200 routes, an average of 2.75 yards per route run that ranked 3rd among eligible receivers, even better than Brown.
He’s still pretty unproven and he has a lot of things he needs to get better at, but his big play ability is real. Bryant should be better in 2015 and should be considered the favorite to start opposite Brown, with Wheaton moving into the 3rd receiver role. Bryant is still raw and likely won’t reach his potential until his 3rd year in the league, but he’s on a good track and the combination of his height/weight/speed opposite Brown could give the Steelers a deadly receiving duo in the future.
The Steelers other freak athlete at wide receiver is Sammie Coates, who ran a 4.43 40 at 6-1 212, before the Steelers made him a 2015 3rd round pick. He’s extremely raw and is no guarantee to even contribute in the way that Bryant did as a rookie, but he has great long-term upside and could eventually be the #3 receiver. For now, he’ll provide good depth as the 4th receiver, necessary because Justin Brown, the 4th receiver last year, struggled mightily when called on.
Mr. Dependable Heath Miller is still around, catching 66 passes for 761 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, 3rd on the Steelers behind Brown and Bell. The problem is he’s going into his age 33 season and the Steelers simply cannot count on him to play the position leading 1103 snaps he played last season. Somewhere in the 700-800 snap range is more appropriate for him at this stage of his career, but the Steelers’ only other capable tight end last season was Matt Spaeth, a pure blocker who played just 348 snaps last season. He’s also going into his age 31 season.
The Steelers used a 5th round pick on Jesse James as a result, but he’s far from being ready so, if Heath Miller gets hurt or declines significantly, the Steelers don’t have many options. Miller is also not the player he used to be, grading out slightly below average in each of the last 2 seasons, after grading out 2nd among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 2011 and 15th in 2012. The Steelers’ lack of tight end depth is a problem, but it’s one that’s offset by good wide receiver depth.
The triplets were obviously a big part of the Steelers’ offensive success last season, but, as is often the case, they also had a strong offensive line to make life easier, grading out 5th among teams in pass block grade on Pro Football Focus and 9th in run block grade. The best player upfront for them last season was left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who had a breakout 3rd year in the league. The 2012 7th round pick made 17 starts in 2012 and 2013, 11 at left tackle, 5 at right tackle, and 1 at center, but graded out below average in both seasons. However, in 2014, Beachum graded out 5th among offensive tackles, excelling in pass protection. He’s still a one year wonder, which is important to remember, but he’s a talented player. Going into the contract year of his rookie deal, he’s an extension candidate this off-season.
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert has the distinction of being the Steelers’ only real regular season injury on offense last season, missing 4 games. He was very much missed while he was hurt because his replacement, swing tackle Mike Adams, was once again horrendous. The Steelers are lucky they found Beachum in the 7th round in 2012 because Adams, their 2nd round pick that year, has graded out below average in all 3 seasons in the league, including 59th out of 76 eligible on 485 snaps in 2013 and 65th out of 84 eligible on 372 snaps in 2014. Gilbert, meanwhile, is a 2011 2nd round pick and he’s worked out better. He’s made 46 starts in 4 seasons in the league and, while last year was the best year of his career, when he graded out 23rd among offensive tackles, he’s graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league. The Steelers extended him last off-season ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, giving him a 5-year, 30 million dollar extension.
Gilbert and Adams are not the only offensive linemen the Steelers have used high draft picks on in recent years. The Steelers took Maurkice Pouncey in the first round in 2010 and David DeCastro in the first round in 2012. Only Adams hasn’t really worked out and Beachum made up for that. This has given the Steelers not only a talented offensive line, but a young offensive line. DeCastro’s career didn’t get off to a great start as he was limited to 138 snaps as a rookie in 2012 because of knee problems, but he’s made 31 starts in the past 2 seasons combined, grading out 14th in 2013 and 19th in 2014. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2016 and they’re expected to try to sign him to a long-term extension over the next year or so.
Pouncey also suffered a major knee injury, tearing his ACL in week 1 of 2013 and missing the rest of the season, but, like DeCastro, he’s been able to persevere. The Steelers signed him to a then record 5 year, 44 million dollar extension last off-season, even though he hadn’t played since the ACL year, which shows how much they like this guy. He hasn’t been the top tier center that kind of money suggests and it was an overpay, especially off of the ACL tear, but he’s still a valuable member of this offensive line.
He’s made 62 starts in 5 seasons in the league, even though he lost basically all of 2013 to the ACL tear, and he’s graded out above average in every healthy season since he’s been in the league, maxing out at 6th overall among centers on Pro Football Focus in 2014, very good to see after an injury like he suffered in 2013. Only going into his age 26 season, Pouncey should have another strong season in 2015 and could even get better.
The only weak point on the offensive line was left guard Ramon Foster, who graded out slightly below average last season. He’s been better in the past though, grading out above average in 2011, 2012, and 2013, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked guard in 2013. He’s made 60 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s bounce back potential for Foster. He’s a starting caliber guard either way though and if he’s your worst offensive lineman you’re doing pretty well. It’s a strong offensive line on a strong offense, but they won’t be bulletproof again this year and, when injuries strike, their untested depth will become tested, which could easily show up in the win/loss column.
As I mentioned earlier, the defense really didn’t play well last season, finishing 25th in rate of moving the chains allowed. While the offense should have more injuries this season, the defense won’t necessarily have more injuries, as they finished 17th in adjusted games lost, but you also can’t call injuries the reason why they played poorly last season. In fact, overall as the team, they finished 4th in adjusted games lost, something that should regress to the mean this season.
The reason why their defense was so bad last season is because their once dominant defense of a few years ago got old all at the same time and they didn’t do a good job of replacing players. Part of that is draft and free agent mistakes, but part of that is simply that the Steelers focused more of their resources on the offense over the past few years and it shows. Last season, they Steelers had 4 starters who were 30+ years old on defense. They only have one right now because three of them either retired or remain unsigned as free agents, but they also didn’t replace any of those guys so it should once again be a thin unit. Also gone is legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. LeBeau, going into his age 78 season, and the Steelers agreed to a mutual split (if you believe reports) and now he has an assistant job with Tennessee’s defensive staff.
Brett Keisel was one of those over 30 players. He graded out right about average last season on 451 snaps as a 3-4 defensive end, but was released anyway by the Steelers this off-season, ahead of his age 37 season. He hasn’t officially retired and isn’t ruling out playing again next season, but he’s drawn no known interest on the open market and I ultimately expect him to announce the end of his 13-year NFL career, all with the Steelers. Stephon Tuitt, a 2014 2nd round pick, was drafted with this situation in mind and he’ll take over as an every down player at 3-4 defensive end, after playing just 405 snaps as a rookie. The problem is he was horrible as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 47 eligible, despite the limited playing time. He’ll have to get a lot better in his 2nd year in the league.
Cameron Heyward will be an every down player opposite him. The 2011 1st round pick is one of the few bright spots of this defense. Heyward has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, including the last 2 as a starter, making 32 of 32 starts. He graded out 19th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and then had the best year of his career in 2014, grading out 6th at his position. He’ll make a very reasonable 6.969 million dollars on his 5th year option in 2015 and the Steelers are expected to try to sign him to an extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year. He’s one they can’t afford to lose.
At nose tackle between Tuitt and Heyward, Cam Thomas and Steve McLendon will compete for the starting job. McLendon should win that job, after making 11 starts there last season and grading out above average. It’s very much a part-time role in Pittsburgh’s system and McLendon doesn’t get any pass rush, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked defensive tackle last season on just 305 snaps. This is nothing new for McLendon. That’s been the book on him for the past few years, as the 2009 undrafted free agent has done a nice job carving out a niche in the NFL. He’s graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, but has never played more than 355 snaps in a season and has graded out below average as a pass rusher in each of the last 2 seasons.
That would put Thomas into a top reserve role at 3-4 defensive end, the role he played last season. It’s a better spot for him, but, after he played as poorly as he did last season, the Steelers should not be confident in him in any role he plays. Thomas graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. He’s only a rotational player, but he actually doesn’t play that many fewer snaps than McLendon. In fact, last season, he played more than McLendon, playing 443 snaps to his 305.
That’s partially because McLendon missed 4 games with injury and Thomas didn’t miss any, but it’s still a reminder that Thomas still plays a significant role for them on defense, as terribly as he played last season. The Steelers better hope he bounces back. While in San Diego in 2011 and 2012, he graded out above average on 395 snaps in 2011 and 404 snaps in 2012, playing both nose tackle and 3-4 defensive end at 6-4 330. However, he graded out as the 51st ranked defensive tackle out of 69 eligible in 2013 and then things got even worse in his first year in Pittsburgh. Thus far, it looks like he was a free agent bust on a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal, but the Steelers kept him at a 2 million dollar non-guaranteed salary.
Jason Worilds used to be a talented young player for the Steelers defensively, like Cameron Heyward is now. A 2010 2nd round pick, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and then 11th last season. However, foregoing a deal that would have been worth upwards of 40 million over 5 years, Worilds retired unexpectedly this off-season, ahead of his age 27 season. The Steelers likely weren’t going to be able to re-sign him as a free agent this off-season anyway for cap reasons, but it still a shocking move. It’s especially weird that he retired while James Harrison, who is going into his age 37 season, returned for his 13th (12 with the Steelers) NFL season in 2015. He’s the final remaining of the 30+ year olds on Pittsburgh’s defense, but he still played at a high level last season.
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, making it two straight seasons that could be said about him and at two different positions.
Harrison will rotate with three other players, including a pair of recent 1st round picks. One of those players is Jarvis Jones, a 2013 1st round pick who has all the looks of a bust through 2 seasons in the league. Jones fell to the Steelers at 17th overall because of injury concerns and he has played in just 23 of 32 games in 2 seasons in the NFL, playing just 646 snaps in 2013 and 237 snaps in 2014. He also hasn’t been very good when on the field, grading out below average in both seasons, which is why he was essentially benched for James Harrison down the stretch last season after returning from injury, playing just 11 snaps in week 16 and week 17 combined. It’s a little too early to write him off as a bust, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.
The other recent 1st round pick at the 3-4 outside linebacker spot is Bud Dupree, a rookie who has great athleticism, but also a fair amount of bad tape against quality opponents. It could be a tough transition for the ex-Kentucky Wildcat. Arthur Moats will be the 4th outside linebacker. He did well on 344 snaps last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker despite the limited playing time, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. Prior to last season, Moats, a 2010 6th round pick, spent the first 4 years of his career as a situational player in Buffalo, maxing out at 409 snaps, but grading out above average in each of the final 3 seasons, playing middle linebacker, outside linebacker, and defensive end. The 6-0 246 pounder isn’t that athletic, but he’s a decent pass rusher that’s strong against the run and a solid part-time player. He’ll see the majority of his snaps in base packages.
At middle linebacker, Lawrence Timmons is locked into one spot, as he has been since the Steelers drafted him in the 1st round in 2007. He’s played in 126 of 128 games since then and has generally been a very solid player, grading out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including four top-10 finishes among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus and three top-5 finishes. Last season, he graded out 11th and, only going into his age 29 season, he should have another solid season in 2015. Behind Heyward, he’s their best defensive player and arguably one of just two above average starters on this unit.
Opposite him at the other middle linebacker spot, the Steelers have a few options. Sean Spence made 8 starts in that spot last season, but he struggled on 510 snaps, grading out 41st among 60 eligible middle linebackers. The series of brutal knee injuries that cost Spence his first 2 seasons in the NFL entirely seem to have sapped the abilities of the 2012 3rd round pick. Vince Williams is another option. The 2013 6th round pick played just 253 snaps last season, but made 11 starts in 2013, though he was just a two-down run stopper and graded out below average on 405 snaps. Safety Troy Polamalu even played some linebacker last season, but he’s since retired (more on that later). Most likely, it’ll be Ryan Shazier in that spot. Shazier is a 2014 1st round pick who was limited to 260 snaps in 8 games last season thanks to injuries, grading out below average in the process. He got the week 1 start last year before the injuries though and it’s his job to lose right now.
As weak as the Steelers’ defense was last season, the secondary was arguably their weakest unit. William Gay played decently, grading out above average and ranking 31st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’ll once again be their top cornerback in 2015. He’s definitely not a bad player, but he’s the type of guy where, if he’s your best cornerback, you’re probably in trouble. Gay, a 2007 5th round pick, started his career in Pittsburgh, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons from 2008-2011, but then he went to Arizona in 2012 and struggled mightily, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. That led to his release after one year and then he rejoined the Steelers, grading out above average again in 2013 and 2014. He’s not a great cornerback, but he’s a solid player and a valuable part of an overall weak Pittsburgh secondary.
Ike Taylor was a long-term Steeler cornerback, but he retired this off-season ahead of what would have been his age 35 season, after 12 years in the league, all with Pittsburgh. Taylor was a shell of his former self in his final few years so he won’t really be missed on the field. The Steelers used a 2nd round pick on Senquez Golston to replace him long-term, but the 5-9 176 pounder is undersized and best suited for the slot long-term. He could open the season as the #2 cornerback and move inside in sub packages with a 3rd cornerback coming in and playing outside, but, more likely, the #2 cornerback job will come down to BW Webb vs. Cortez Allen, with Golston slotting in as a 3rd cornerback, focused on the slot, as a rookie.
Between Webb and Allen, Allen should be the favorite, but that’s far from a guarantee. Allen was a 3rd round pick in 2010 and, after not playing much as a rookie, he graded out above average in 2012 and 2013 on 563 and 718 snaps respectively. That earned him a 5-year, 26 million dollar extension, but he bombed in the first year of that extension, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible on 463 snaps before getting benched week 8 and playing solely special teams the rest of the way.
The Steelers couldn’t really cut him this off-season so they brought him back and are expected to give him another shot as a starter, but that’s only because Webb doesn’t present much of a better alternative. Webb, a 2013 4th round pick, graded out below average as a rookie in 2013 with Dallas, playing 185 snaps, before getting cut by the Cowboys and signing with the Steelers. With Pittsburgh, he played just 4 snaps last season. He’s expected to be the 4th cornerback, which isn’t good news for a team whose #2 cornerback is coming off of an awful year and whose #3 cornerback is an undersized rookie.
At safety, the Steelers had another 30+ year old leave (along with Keisel and Ike Taylor) and that was long-time Steeler great and future Hall-of-Fame safety Troy Polamalu. Polamalu had a great 12-year career with the Steelers, grading out 5th overall among safeties as recently as 2013, but he retired ahead of his age 34 season this off-season, after a career that did have its fair share of injuries. To replace him, there will be a battle between the veteran Will Allen and the youngster Shamarko Thomas.
Thomas was a 4th round pick in 2013 with this situation in mind, but he hasn’t really been able to get onto the field over his first 2 seasons in the league, despite injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. After grading out below average as a rookie on 193 snaps, Thomas played just 2 snaps last season. Allen, meanwhile, played 310 snaps last season and made 4 starts when injuries struck, playing as the #3 safety ahead of Thomas on the depth chart. That would seem to make Allen the favorite, but the journeyman is going into his age 33 season, hasn’t played more than 548 snaps in a season in 8 years, and has only graded out above average once during that stretch. The Steelers might just prefer to see what the youngster has.
In the other safety spot, Michael Mitchell is locked into a starting role, going into the 2nd year of a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal that he signed with the Steelers last off-season. Mitchell started his career in Oakland as a 2009 2nd round pick, but graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons there, maxing out at 508 snaps, which forced him to sign a very cheap one-year deal with Carolina for the 2013 season. It turned out to be a steal for the Panthers as Mitchell graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked safety on 14 games. The Steelers took a chance that he wasn’t just a one-year wonder, signing him to that aforementioned long-term deal after that 2013 season, their only real big-time free agent signing in the last few off-seasons. He made all 16 starts, but graded out below average, coming in at 62nd out of 87 eligible. He’s still a one-year wonder as an above average starter, but he’s still a decent starter and arguably the Steelers’ 2nd best defensive back in a weak secondary.
The Steelers won with good offense and lost with poor defense last season, something that should be the case again this season. Unfortunately, they could win a little bit less because their offense is going to have more injuries. The defense might be even thinner this season after the loss of Jason Worilds and Troy Polamalu so they can’t really afford even sort of slip up offensively. That might be inevitable though. Their roster isn’t as talented as Baltimore, who finished better in rate of moving the chains differential last season, and their schedule won’t be as easy as it was last season, when the AFC North got the sub-.500 NFC South. I think they’re more competing with Cincinnati for the 2nd spot in a tough division. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Steelers after I’ve done all team’s previews.
Prediction: 9-7 3rd in AFC North