The Steelers are in salary cap troubles once again which means for the second year in a row the team could be saying goodbye to multiple veteran players. Pittsburgh will be forced to let many, if not all, of their unrestricted free agents walk and they will need to a good draft in April to offset their losses. It’s time for the Steelers to let some of their young players take over and to do so they will have to cut some of the aging veterans. Here is a breakdown of each position on the roster as well as the changes the “March Massacre” may cause:
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger will be slightly affected by the “March Massacre” the Steelers will have to either extend his contract or restructure his current deal. In both instances Roethlisberger comes away with more money, but will help the team clear cap space for 2013. Behind Roethlisberger in 2012 were Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich, but both of them are free agents this off-season. Leftwich is likely to leave in free agency and Batch will only be back if he takes a one year deal at the veteran minimum. The third string quarterback job will be filled by either a cheap free agent or, more likely, a late round draft pick.
Running Back: The Steelers don’t have a single running back under contract right now, but that will soon change. Chris Rainey is out of the picture after another run in with the law so he can be considered gone even though he cleared waivers and could return to the team. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are both restricted free agents and Baron Batch is an exclusive rights free agent. That means that all three should return on salary cap friendly deals. Rashard Mendenhall is the only unrestricted free agent in the group and unless he is willing to take a very cheap one year deal he will be gone in 2013.
Wide Receiver: It is highly unlikely that the Steelers will be able to retain Mike Wallace even if they want to due to salary cap issues. That leaves the team with Antonio Brown, David Gilreath and Jerrico Cotchery. Emmanuel Sanders is a restricted free agent and Plaxico Burress is an unrestricted free agent. Sanders will return and could get a multi year deal. Burress will likely not be retained and Cotchery could be a cap casualty. Cutting Cotchery would save the team $1 million and although that’s not much the Steelers may need that money. Wide receiver is sure to be targeted in the draft and the Steelers could grab two receivers this April.
Tight End/Fullback: Heath Miller has a long road ahead of him recovering from a major knee injury and it is not yet known when he will be ready to play in 2013. That leaves the Steelers with David Paulson at tight end. Leonard Pope and David Johnson are both free agents and neither is highly likely to return in 2013. Will Johnson played very well as the Steelers fullback in 2013 which makes David Johnson expendable and Pope did very little for the Steelers in 2012. This is another position the Steelers will need to address in the draft or free agency.
Offensive Tackle: Max Starks started all 16 games for the Steelers at left tackle in 2012, but he is an unrestricted free agent and should find more money elsewhere. Pittsburgh has invested second round picks in the last two drafts in Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams and they are expected to be the starting tackles in 2013. Adams played very well on the right side after replacing an injured Gilbert and should remain there next season. Gilbert will get a shot at playing left tackle next season, the position he wanted to compete for during the 2012 training camp. Behind them is Kelvin Beachum, but Beachum could move to guard leaving the Steelers very thin at tackle. The Steelers have expressed interest in Jovan Olafioye, the best offensive lineman in the CFL, he would add some depth to tackle if they decide to sign him.
Guard: Willie Colon is likely to be cut during the off-season and Ramon Foster is an unrestricted free agent. Those two players started a combined 28 games at guard for the Steelers in 2012. David DeCastro is assured to be the starter at right guard next season, but the left guard spot is up for grabs. If the Steelers can agree to a decent contract with Foster they will, but he may get more money elsewhere like Starks. That would leave the Steelers with Beachum, Ryan Lee, and John Malecki as options to start at guard. The most likely candidate to be the startling left guard in 2013 right now is Beachum, but there is still a lot of time for another player to win that job.
Center: Maurkice Pouncey will of course be the starting center again in 2013. Pouncey has been an All-Pro in each of his three NFL seasons and could be the leader of a very young and inexperienced offensive line in 2013. The change here could come with Pouncey’s back-up Doug Legursky, an unrestricted free agent. Legursky could look for a starting job elsewhere and someone may give it to him. If he doesn’t find a better position elsewhere though, the Steelers will be happy to have him back as a back-up center and guard.
Safety: Here’s where things start to get tricky. The Steelers could save a lot of cap space by cutting Ryan Clark and/or Troy Polamalu. They would also cripple the back-end of their defense and would be forced to find two new starting safeties. It is almost a guarantee that the Steelers will draft at least one safety during the 2013 NFL Draft, but when that player is selected depends on if they decide to cut Clark or Polamalu. The most likely scenario here is that the Steelers will allow Clark to play out the final year of his deal and walk in free agency in 2014. They will then replace him with their 2013 draft pick and pick another safety in the 2014 NFL Draft to replace Polamalu in 2015.
Corner: Corner is another spot that could cause some headaches for the Steelers front office. Keenan Lewis played well in 2011 and very well in 2012. He has finally turned the corner and looks like a future star. The question now is whether or not the Steelers can retain him or if they will lose him in free agency. One option for the Steelers, if it comes down to it, would be to cut Ike Taylor to free up the money to sign Lewis. Now that decision would not sit well with many Steelers fans, but the question is would you rather have Taylor for another year or two or Lewis for the next six years? I’d take the up and coming star that is just entering his prime.
Inside Linebacker: The Steelers could decide to take an inside linebacker in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. They will likely have Alec Ogletree and Manti Te’o on the board when they make their first selection and both players could be very good compliments to Lawrence Timmons in the middle of the defense. Other options here would be to allow Stevenson Sylvester or Sean Spence to start or to re-sign Larry Foote, who is an unrestricted free agent. Pittsburgh may be better off injecting some more youth into the middle of their defense instead of bringing back the almost 33 year old Foote. However, they will have to find the right player to make that decision.
Outside Linebacker: James Harrison can just about be considered out of Pittsburgh. The only way he stays is if he agrees to a large pay cut and for some reason I don’t see that happening. LaMarr Woodley will hold down one of the outside linebacker spots and Jason Worilds played well when he got onto the field in 2012. Woodley and Worilds could be the starters in 2013 unless the Steelers decide to select an outside linebacker early in the draft. The Steelers also have 2012 undrafted rookie free agent Adrian Robinson and Chris Carter to compete for Harrison’s job so they may decide to go with one of them, Worilds included, rather than using an early pick.
Defensive End: Brett Keisel could be a cap casualty this off-season and cutting him would save the Steelers nearly $3 million. Behind Keisel is former first round pick Cameron Heyward and at some point the Steelers will have to see what he can do as a starter. Cutting Keisel would make the starting ends Heyward and Ziggy Hood. The back-ups would likely be Al Woods and Corbin Bryant which would mean a lot of youth at the position. With the Steelers cap problems, however, they may not have a choice.
Nose Tackle: Casey Hampton is a free agent and very few expect him to be back in 2013. The Steelers have three nose tackles on the roster right now in Steve McLendon, Alameda Ta’amu and Hebron Fangupo, who they signed off waivers late in the season. Those three will compete for the job and McLendon should be the starter in 2013. Another option that some have discussed this off-season is switching McLendon to end and moving Hood to nose tackle. That could be another option, but regardless of position I think the defensive line starters in 2013 will be Heyward, Hood, and McLendon.
Kicker: Shaun Suisham had the best year of his career and he should be back in 2013. However, cutting Suisham would save over $1 million against the cap so if he has any struggles in pre-season the Steelers could cut him and go with Danny Hrapmann in 2013. Hrapmann kicked very well for the Steelers during the 2012 pre-season and would be a cheaper and younger option.
Punter: The Steelers had a rookie punter, Drew Butler, in 2012. He was unimpressive, but is cheap and will likely retain his job in 2013. Pittsburgh will probably bring in another young punter to compete for the job, but with their cap problems they won’t be able to bring in a veteran punter this off-season even if they want too.
Long Snapper: Long-time long snapper Greg Warren is a free agent and the team could decide to bring him back. They could also look for a cheaper and younger option this off-season which could save them a couple hundred thousand dollars.
The Steelers 2013 off-season will consist of restructured contracts, cuts, signings, the draft, and some very tough decisions. However, what all Steelers fans need to remember is that the team has gone through this before and has come out just fine. Many fans were worried when the Steelers cut Joey Porter and replaced him with James Harrison, but we all know how that turned out. It’s time to put our faith into Kevin Colbert, Omar Khan, and the rest of the Steelers front office and hope that they make the best decisions for the team. Remember the Steelers lost five games by 3 points and were two wins away from winning the division in 2012. Oh and the AFC North division winner just won the Super Bowl so things may not be as bad as they seem.