2013 Team Needs: Pittsburgh Steelers
Gordon McGuinness examines how the Steelers can use free agency to improve on last season's disappointing ending, and push themselves back in to AFC North contention.
2013 Team Needs: Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s always a disappointing shock for fans when a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers fail to make the playoffs, especially since the manner in which they did — losing five of their last seven games — was particularly deflating.
Given the fact they finished third in their division, with both Baltimore and Cincinnati making the playoffs, it’s fair to say they have some work to do to reassert themselves as a dominant force in the AFC North.
The problem with that however, is they aren’t exactly in a great position salary-cap wise, and will need to do some work just to fit under budget. That means they’ll be looking for any bargain they can find, despite having a few areas in need of an upgrade.
You can find a list of their own free agents here, but let’s look at the Steelers’ biggest needs as we head into free agency.
Considering their struggles at the position in previous seasons, 2012 was a pretty good year for the Steelers Top 3 cornerbacks, with Ike Taylor (+4.1), Keenan Lewis (+3.2) and Cortez Allen (+9.8) all finishing the year in the Top 40 of all players at the position. They may have picked off just three passes between them, while giving up a combined nine touchdowns through the air, but they also managed to break up a total of 35 passes.
Fortunately for them Taylor and Allen are under contract for 2013 but Lewis, who started every game in 2012, is a free agent. That leaves them with the difficult decision of how much they are willing to pay him in an offseason that sees them tight against the salary cap.
Free Agent Fix: Keenan Lewis
If they can afford to bring him back, Lewis has to be one of their top priorities this offseason. After struggling in the first game of the season against the Denver Broncos, he settled down and rarely looked out of place in the starting line up the rest of the year. He led all cornerbacks in pass breakups, with 16, making up for the fact he failed to record an interception.
In a league that becomes more and more dominated by the passing game with each new season, Lewis may find himself in high enough demand that the Steelers won’t be able to match what he can make on the open market. If that’s the case, Allen played well enough in the nickel to put himself in position for the starting role, while a veteran like Chris Carr (0.0) could be brought in without spending too much to fill the need in a reserve role.
When Heath Miller went down with a knee ligament injury in the team’s Week 16 loss to Cincinnati, it not only impacted the end the Steelers’ regular season, but also their offseason. Pulling in 71 of the 93 passes thrown his way, with just four drops, Miller was, and still is, a key part of the Steelers’ offensive game plan. His value was even higher with the team’s switch in offensive coordinator, with Todd Haley less prone to the deep passing game than the man he replaced.
Outside of Miller, the team got very little from the tight ends on the roster in the passing game, with Leonard Pope and seventh-round draft pick David Paulson combining for just 10 receptions for 60 yards. With it unrealistic to expect Miller to be back, or at least back at full strength, by Week 1, the Steelers need to find a way to squeeze whatever production they can out of the tight end position early in the year.
Free Agent Fix: Gary Barnidge
Again, the problem for the Steelers here is how little they are going to have to spend. They’re unlikely to be able to afford even mid-level free agents, like Benjamin Watson, or older veterans like Dallas Clark. With that in mind they’re going to have to take a chance on someone who hasn’t produced too much, but has shown himself capable in the limited opportunities he has seen.
Carolina’s Gary Barnidge could fit that role perfectly. Targeted just six times as a Panther last season, he certainly didn’t get many chances but he did pull in all six of those passes for receptions. Beyond that, he showed that he can move a little after the catch, with 46 of his 78 yards coming there. He’s not a big-time receiving tight end, but he is certainly another option for the Steelers to look at who wouldn’t cost too much money while acting as cover for Miller early in the season.
The good news for the Steelers was that, after being moved outside to cover for injuries and struggling a year ago, Lawrence Timmons was once again among the best in the league at his position, finishing the year as out fifth-highest graded inside linebacker. Grading positively against the run, in coverage and as a pass rusher, they have no worries about his spot on the inside.
Where they do have concerns however, is right next to him. After James Farrior’s retirement, Larry Foote stepped into his starting spot and struggled heavily. Missing one tackle for every 11.8 attempted, he graded negatively in the three main areas where Timmons stood out.
Free Agent Fix: Bryan Kehl
While he hasn’t played much on defense in his career, and was restricted to just special teams duties in 2012, Bryan Kehl has played well when called upon throughout his five-year career. He saw the most of his work on defense in seasons 2008 and 2010, finishing with 11 and 15 defensive stops respectively.
Is he someone that can come in and be a nailed-on starter? No, but he has shown enough in his career that he could come in and at least challenge Foote in training camp, while his special teams experience adds to his value for a team that will have to get as much from each roster spot as possible.
Follow Gordon on Twitter: @PFF_Gordon
Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.