Free-agent departures have become a rite of spring in recent years for the cap-strapped Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers have some hard choices to make, but there are some free agents they can’t afford to lose.
We’ve ranked the Steelers’ top 18 unrestricted free agents, as indicated by Spotrac, in order of priority. The higher they rank, the more important it is to keep them.
Linebacker Jamaal Westerman, offensive tackle Rashad Butler and cornerback Justin King aren’t included on this list. To make the list, a player had to have appeared in a game for the Steelers at one time or another.
This list is a countdown, so the players are ranked from least important to most important.
18. Mat McBriar
The Steelers have to start from scratch at the punter position. They need to sign one in free agency or pick one among undrafted free agents.
17. Felix Jones
Believe it or not, Jones was taken one pick before Rashard Mendenhall in the 2008 draft. He’s never had more than 800 yards in a season and ran for just 184 in 2013 at an average of 3.8 yards per carry. He contributed little on kickoff returns. His 22.2-yard average was 62nd in the league. The Steelers can find more dynamic depth at running back.
16. Plaxico Burress
The Steelers need depth at wide receiver, and Ben Roethlisberger has always wanted a tall receiver since Burress went to the Giants in 2005. But Burress missed the 2013 season with a torn rotator cuff and turns 36 in August. His career is likely over.
15. Guy Whimper
He’s nothing more than a backup offensive linemen, and he’ll be 31 next season.
14. Stevenson Sylvester
Sylvester hasn’t given the Steelers much as a linebacker since he was drafted in 2010. His strength has been his special teams play. However, only their two punters and the long snapper ranked worse than him among the Steelers’ special teamers in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
13. Ryan Clark
There’s no guarantee Shamarko Thomas will be ready to start at safety in 2014, so letting Clark walk would be a risk. But he’ll be 35 next season. They need to use their limited cap room for players with more of their career ahead of them.
12. Ziggy Hood
Pro Football Focus ranked Hood second-to-last among 3-4 defensive ends overall and third from the bottom in run defense. He was part of the problem for a defense that ranked 21st against the run, their second-worst in 44 years, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The defensive end hasn’t performed like a first-round pick. It’s time for the Steelers to move on.
11. David Johnson
Johnson is a strong blocking tight end and probably can help the Steelers more than David Paulson. However, he’s played in just five games over the past two seasons because of injuries. The Steelers’ money would be better spent elsewhere.
10. Brett Keisel
Keisel’s performance in the last two games will make it difficult for the Steelers to part ways with him. He had a sack in both games and forced a fumble in the win over the Browns. However, he missed the previous five games with a foot injury and he’ll turn 36 in September. The Steelers need to get younger on defense.
9. LaRod Stephens-Howling
Remember him? Stephens-Howling tore his ACL in Week 1 and was gone for the season. The Steelers need depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell and Jonathan Dwyer. Despite his injury, Stephens-Howling should be more of a consideration than Jones. He’ll be 27 next season and would be an upgrade over Jones as both a running back and kick returner.
8. Emmanuel Sanders
The reason Sanders is so low on this list is because it’s not realistic that the Steelers will be able to re-sign him. Sanders posted career highs across the board with 67 receptions, 740 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He’ll earn far more than the $2.5 million he made in 2013. Considering his crucial drops, he wouldn’t be worth the investment for the Steelers.
7. Michael Palmer
According to Pro Football Focus, Palmer was the Steelers’ fourth-best special teams player in 2013. He made $630,000 last season, and even with a little raise he would be a cost-effective re-signing as a backup tight end.
6. Greg Warren
It shouldn’t be too expensive to keep a long snapper. Warren has held that job with the Steelers since 2005.
5. Will Allen
Allen will be 32 next season, but the Steelers should try to keep him and avoid the same mistake they made last year, when they let him go to the Cowboys. Allen came back to the Steelers in Week 6 this season and provided valuable depth at safety. They’ll need that again in 2014 with Clark likely to be gone. If Thomas makes a big leap in his second season, however, losing Allen wouldn’t hurt as much.
4. Al Woods
The 27-year-old Woods showed some flashes backing up Steve McLendon at nose tackle in 2013. Woods’ cap number in 2013 was $630,000. The Steelers can find room under the cap to keep him.
3. Fernando Velasco
Because of the Achilles injury Velasco suffered at Baltimore on Thanksgiving, the Steelers probably could keep him on the cheap. If they think he can come back in time for next season, they could finally have a true center backing up Maurkice Pouncey. Velasco was more than adequate as Pouncey’s replacement for 10 games after Pouncey was lost for the season in Week 1.
2. Jerricho Cotchery
The Steelers have to find a way to keep a guy who catches 10 touchdown passes. That tied Cotchery for 10th in the NFL. With the Steelers likely to lose Sanders, they’d be woefully thin at wide receiver if they also lose Cotchery. Markus Wheaton, who caught six passes as a rookie, would be the second most productive receiver remaining on the team if Cotchery is in another uniform next season.
1. Jason Worilds
The Steelers can’t make the same mistake they made with Keenan Lewis, who was second in the NFL with 23 passes defended in 2012 before signing with the Saints. Lewis had four interceptions for New Orleans, more picks than Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay combined. Like Lewis, Worilds finally had a breakthrough season in his contract year. He led the Steelers with eight sacks, seven of them coming in his last eight games. If the Steelers keep only one of their own free agents, it has to be Worilds, even if they have to apply the franchise tag.