The Pittsburgh Steelers have a lot of decisions to make between now and the start of training camp.
If too many of those decisions are the wrong decisions, they’ll be no better than a .500 football team for the third year in a row in 2014.
Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and the Rooneys can get the Steelers organization pointed in the right direction by avoiding these five mistakes this offseason. They are ranked in order of priority.
1. Letting Jason Worilds Go
The Steelers must re-sign Jason Worilds. If they don’t, it would be their biggest offseason mistake.
The Steelers can learn from past mistakes here. Cornerback Keenan Lewis had a long overdue breakout season in 2012, but he signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent. He had four interceptions in 2013, more than all the Steelers cornerbacks combined, and helped the Saints reach the divisional round of the playoffs.
Moving to left outside linebacker was like a slide down the Batpole for Worilds. He transformed into a formidable pass rusher with seven sacks in his last eight games. Worilds is an unrestricted free agent and turns 26 on March 3. It will cost big bucks to re-sign him, and according to OvertheCap.com, the Steelers are about $12.6 million over the salary cap. They have to get under the cap by March 11, when the free-agent signing period begins. To find the cap room to re-sign Worilds before he hits the open market, they’ll have to cut some veterans, or at the very least ask them to take a pay cut. They might also have to restructure a contract or two.
One of the reasons the Steelers didn’t try to re-sign Lewis last year was that they felt Cortez Allen was ready to take his place. There is no one prepared to give the Steelers what Worilds gave them in 2013. They need Jarvis Jones to start on the other side, and LaMarr Woodley can’t stay on the field.
If the Steelers don’t re-sign Worilds, they could once again watch one of their departed players on TV in the playoffs.
2. Releasing Troy Polamalu
It will take some drastic measures for the Steelers to free up the salary cap space to re-sign Jason Worilds. Cutting Troy Polamalu, or even asking him to take a pay cut, should not be one of them.
Polamalu, who turns 33 in April, is past his prime, but he’s still a bright spot on a Steelers defense that doesn’t have many.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Polamalu played every defensive snap last season for the first time since at least 2005. He forced a career-high five fumbles, had a pick-six for the first time since 2010 and was invited to his eighth Pro Bowl. Polamalu did all this despite the unfamiliarity of lining up at linebacker for much of the season.
Polamalu is due to make $8.25 million in 2014 and count approximately $10.9 million against the cap. That’s money well spent. He’s entering the final year of his contract. Unless they extend his contract and push some of the cap hit into the future, the savings will have to come elsewhere.
3. Letting Jerricho Cotchery Go
Both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are free agents, and the Steelers can’t afford to lose both of them. If they do, Steelers receivers not named Antonio Brown will have a combined eight NFL receptions unless they bring back 37-year-old Plaxico Burress.
Sanders had a career year, at least for him, in 2013 and has earned a significant pay raise from his $2.5 million salary. The Steelers should let another team overpay for Sanders and his costly drops. It would make more financial sense to keep the 32-year-old Cotchery. He caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes, all in the red zone, in 2013.
The Steelers also need Cotchery, as well as Brown, to provide veteran leadership next season for Markus Wheaton and the wide receiver they’re likely to draft in the early rounds.
4. Trading Up in the First Round of the Draft
This probably isn’t a mistake the Steelers will make since they aren’t usually inclined to move up in the first round of the draft. The last time they did it was 2006, when they moved from No. 32 to No. 25 to draft Santonio Holmes.
That deal yielded a future Super Bowl MVP. It might be tempting for the Steelers to trade up for a receiver this year. Ben Roethlisberger has longed for a tall receiver since Plaxico Burress went to the New York Giants in 2005, and 6’5″ Mike Evans of Texas A&M probably will be off the board by the time the Steelers pick at No. 15.
According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers have told Roethlisberger that they’ll take a tall receiver early in the draft. They’ve already kind of made an offseason mistake by allowing that news to leak and tipping their hand, unless it’s a smokescreen.
If they move up to draft Evans, they would have to trade away picks in the middle rounds, possibly even the second round. When they traded up for Holmes in 2006, they were the defending Super Bowl champions. This year, the Steelers are coming off their second straight .500 season and have a lot of holes. They need every draft pick they can get.
The Steelers should stay put at No. 15, where 6’5″ Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin likely will be available. Or, if they feel Benjamin is more of a late-first round value, they could trade their No. 15 pick to a team looking to move up and add a pick or two in the later rounds.
The more draft picks, the better. No one player – not even a tall receiver – can solve all of the Steelers’ problems.
5. Neglecting Defense in the Draft – Again
The Steelers need depth at cornerback, safety and linebacker. They’ll need to find starters on the defensive line if Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood aren’t re-signed. It also wouldn’t hurt to take a look at boulder-like, space-eating nose tackles to compete with Steve McLendon and bolster a run defense that allowed 4.3 yards per carry in 2013 – the most by the franchise since 1999.
Part of the reason the Steelers defense has sprung so many leaks is because it hasn’t been addressed enough in the draft.
Of their 18 draft picks over the last two years, only eight have been defensive players. Of those eight players, only five are still with the team. And two of them, Sean Spence and Nick Williams, haven’t played a down because of injuries.
Of the 59 players the Steelers have drafted since Mike Tomlin became head coach in 2007, 28 have been defensive players. That’s less than half. In only two of Tomlin’s drafts have the Steelers taken a defensive majority. Five of their nine picks last year and four of their seven picks in 2011 came on defense.
Most, if not all, of the Steelers’ draft picks this year must be used for the defensive side of the ball. Every team misses on some draft picks. The Steelers need to draft enough defensive players to guarantee that at least some of them will begin making an impact in their first or second seasons.
Otherwise, the erosion of the Steelers defense will continue and the franchise will sink deeper into mediocrity.