The Steelers started the season 0-4, so it was pretty impressive the way they were able to finish their season, coming within a missed call in the Chiefs/Chargers game of making the playoffs. The big difference was their improved turnover margin. After a -9 turnover margin in their first 4 games, they had a +5 turnover margin in their final 12 games, going 8-4 in those 12 games. That shouldn’t have been surprising considering how inconsistent and unreliable turnover margins can be.
The Steelers finished just 8-8, but they were better than their record. They finished 13th in rate of moving the chains differential, 3rd best among non-playoff teams, behind only Detroit and Arizona, and best among non-playoff teams in the AFC. I think that bodes well for their playoff chances next year. That being said, the construction of next season’s Steelers team is still up in the air. They still have an aging roster with very little cap space. We’ll see where they are in 4 months.
Troy Polamalu had a strong season last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked safety last season. However, he’s still missed 22 games over the past 5 seasons and going into his age 33 season. The cap strapped Steelers will probably consider cutting him going into his contract year, a move that would save them 8.25 million on the cap and in cash. Opposite him, Ryan Clark is a free agent. He was decent last season, but he’s clearly on the decline and going into his age 35 season. He’s already considering retirement. 2013 4th round pick Shamarko Thomas could be a future starter, but he’s just one player.
Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders are both free agents this off-season so that leaves the Steelers with 2013 3rd round pick Markus Wheaton after Antonio Brown on the depth chart with absolutely no depth. Wheaton still has promise, but he played just 161 snaps as a rookie, catching 6 passes. If they don’t re-sign one or both of Cotchery and Sanders, they’ll be looking at wide receivers early in the draft.
Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood are both free agents. Keisel is a declining player going into his age 36 season, while Hood has been a massive bust since being drafted in the first round in 2009. They can’t really count on either of them in 2014. Cameron Heyward has one starting 5-technique spot locked up, but they’ll need a starter opposite him for the future and some depth.
William Gay and Cortez Allen are two solid cornerbacks, but they’ll need a third for the future. Ike Taylor is going into his age 34 season and could easily be a cap casualty this off-season, which would save them 7 million in cap space and cash going into his contract year, a very smart move for a cap strapped team like the Steelers. Taylor struggled mightily in 2014, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked cornerback in terms of coverage grade, allowing a league leading 1043 yards receiving in his area of coverage.
Mike Adams was the left tackle to start the season, but he was benched and replaced with Levi Brown, who was acquired via trade. However, he never even made it on the field for the Steelers, tearing his triceps within a week. He’s suffered that injury in back-to-back seasons and wasn’t great before that, so it’s highly unlikely that they pay him 6 million in his age 30 season in 2014, when they can cut him penalty free. Kelvin Beachum then took over at left tackle and he’s been below average. The Steelers need to improve Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside protection.
The Steelers lost starter Larry Foote to injury after week 1. Vince Williams, a 6th round rookie, took over eventually, next to established starter Lawrence Timmons. He wasn’t terrible, especially for a 6th round rookie, and he could develop into a starter long-term, but he could have been better. Larry Foote probably isn’t back, as a mediocre linebacker going into his age 34 season and coming off of a significant injury, so they could use another veteran in the mix to push Williams.
Felix Jones, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jonathan Dwyer combined to take back 37 of 43 kickoffs for the Steelers and all 3 of them are free agents this off-season. None of them were particularly good anyway, as the Steelers ranked 21st in the NFL, returning kickoffs for an average of 22.4 yards per. They could use a mid to late round pick on a kickoff return specialist.
Mat McBriar is a free agent and if he’s not retained, they’ll need a new punter. He struggled anyway, as he averaged just 39.8 yards per punt and 34.5 net yards per punt.
Key Free Agents
OLB Jason Worilds
A talented reserve in the first three years of his career, Worilds, a 2010 2nd round pick, had a breakout year in 2013. The Steelers cut veteran James Harrison in the off-season and were expecting 1st round pick Jarvis Jones to take his spot. Instead, it was Worilds, who played 792 snaps, most among Steelers outside linebackers, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker this season. There isn’t room for the Steelers to have Jarvis Jones, LaMarr Woodley, and Worilds under their cap, considering how cap strapped they are, but they may make LaMarr Woodley, an overpaid declining player, a post-June 1st cap casualty and use the freed up cap space to bring back Worilds. Wherever he ends up, I imagine him getting a multi-year deal worth upwards of 5 million yearly.
S Ryan Clark
Ryan Clark was still a solid starter last season, but he was a far cry from his 2008-2012 form, a stretch in which he finished in the top-25 among safety on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons and maxed out at 9th in 2012. Considering his age, as he’s going into his age 35 season, that’s very understandable and it’s probably not going to get any better. He could still be brought back as a starter by the Steelers, but he also might retire. It’s hard to see him signing anywhere else other than Pittsburgh, but stranger things have happened. Either way, it’s probably going to be a one, maybe two year deal.
WR Emmanuel Sanders
A decent starter and nothing more, Emmanuel Sanders took Mike Wallace’s spot in the starting lineup this season and caught a career high 67 passes for 740 yards and 6 touchdowns on 108 targets and 557 routes run. He doesn’t have a ton of upside, but he’s a decent, cheap starter or #3 receiver for any receiver needy team on a budget. The Steelers will probably try to bring him back at the right price.
C Fernando Velasco
Fernando Velasco randomly had a great season in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked center in his first year as a starter. He was given a 2nd round tender by the Titans after that season, but eventually he was made a final cut, a pretty surprising move. Perhaps he was proving to be a one year wonder in Training Camp and wasn’t living up to his salary. The Steelers scooped him up to replace Maurkice Pouncey after he tore his ACL week 1 and while he wasn’t nearly as good as he was in 2012, he was still a welcome addition for the Steelers’ offensive line, though he did suffer injuries of his own. He’ll probably be looking at one year deals this off-season again, but he’s a starting caliber player.
DE Brett Keisel
Keisel was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end as recently as 2011, but he’s turned in two very pedestrian seasons since. Going into his age 35 season, there’s a chance he could retire. If he doesn’t, he’s probably looking at one year deals, though he should still be given a chance to contribute as a rotational player or starter. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Steelers to bring him back if he were interested.
RB Jonathan Dwyer
Jonathan Dwyer was actually the Steelers’ leading rusher in 2012, leading the way with 632 yards and 2 touchdowns on 156 carries. He was a little overstretched in that role, averaging just 4.0 yards per carry and is better suited for a backup role. He carried the ball 49 times in 2013, which is much more appropriate. He’ll be looking at short-term deals and backup roles on the open market this off-season.
WR Jerricho Cotchery
Cotchery was a 1000 yard receiver in 2007 with the Jets and isn’t even that old, but he hasn’t been putting up the same numbers in Pittsburgh. Last season was his best since 2009 as Cotchery had a bigger role with Mike Wallace gone. He caught 46 passes for 602 yards and 10 touchdowns on 74 targets and 455 pass routes run. He’s going into his age 32 season so his best days are behind him, but he’s a solid depth receiver at the very least.
DE Ziggy Hood
A first round pick in 2009 by the Steelers, Hood was supposed to be a key cog on this Pittsburgh defense for the future. Instead, he’s been a massive bust. A key contributor since 2010, Hood has graded as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd lowest ranked, lowest ranked, 4th lowest ranked, and 2nd lowest ranked 3-4 defensive end respectively. His phone shouldn’t ring for a while.
P Mat McBriar
Mat McBriar was once a great punter, but he struggled mightily this season, after being signed off the streets mid-season, as he averaged just 39.8 yards per punt and 34.5 net yards per punt. Time will tell if he gets another chance, going into his age 35 season.
Cap Casualty Candidates
OT Levi Brown
Levi Brown has played a combined 269 snaps over the past 2 seasons thanks to two separate triceps tears, the latter of which was suffered after the Cardinals shipped him to Pittsburgh for a late round pick. He suffered the injury in practice before he could ever play a snap with the Steelers. And it’s not like he’s been a good player in the past. The 5th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Brown is a massive bust that has gotten way too many chances to shed the label. Before the last two injury plagued seasons, Brown was ProFootballFocus’ 57th ranked offensive tackle (out of 76) in 2011, 78th ranked offensive tackles (out of 78) in 2010, and 72nd ranked offensive tackle (out of 77) in 2009. Going into his age 30 season and owed 6.25 million, there’s no reason the Steelers keep him around, especially since they can cut him penalty free.
CB Ike Taylor
Ike Taylor is going into his age 34 season and could easily be a cap casualty this off-season, which would save them 7 million in cap space and cash going into his contract year, a very smart move for a cap strapped team like the Steelers. Taylor struggled mightily in 2014, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked cornerback in terms of coverage grade, allowing a league leading 1043 yards receiving in his area of coverage.
MLB Larry Foote
Larry Foote was Pro Football Focus’ 46th ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible in 2012 and he was going into age 33 season in 2013. Still, the Steelers decided re-signing him with a cheap 3-year deal was their best option at middle linebacker. Foote lasted one game before going down with injury and in his absence, 6th round rookie Vince Williams proved to be a cheaper and probably better replacement. With Foote now going into his age 34 season, he’s unlikely to be brought back at his 1.5 million dollar salary. The Steelers can save 1.17 million on the cap by cutting him, not a ton, but enough for this cap strapped team to pull the trigger.
OLB LaMarr Woodley
Cutting LaMarr Woodley would actually cost the Steelers cap space, so they’d have to cut him as a post-June 1st cut if they’re going to cut him. That being said, there’s some merit to them doing that. His cap number is going to be 13.59 million if they don’t cut him and they can free up a lot of cap space by cutting him as a post-June 1st cut. He’s a declining player going into his age 30 season and he’s maxed out at 641 snaps played in the first 3 years of his extension from 2011-2013 thanks to injury and declining play. The Steelers can go forward with Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds as the starters at the position going forward and be younger and more explosive, but they need some cap space and Woodley to be out of the way in order to re-sign the free agent Worilds, who had a breakout year this season.
S Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu had a strong season last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked safety last season. However, he’s still missed 22 games over the past 5 seasons and going into his age 33 season. The cap strapped Steelers will probably consider cutting him going into his contract year, a move that would save them 8.25 million on the cap and in cash. Extending him to a short-term deal that lowers his cap number for this season would make more sense to me though.