The Pittsburgh Steelers are desperately interested in not repeating their 2012 season in 2013—one in which they ended the year with an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs. This means refining and re-tooling the roster so that it's comprised of the perfect combination of players to return them to the postseason.
This is no different than any other team in the NFL, though the circumstances under which the Steelers must operate to get there are unique. For the second straight season, they'll need to make roster fixes while also whittling down their salary cap figure, which projects to initially be around $14.2 million over the projected $120.9 million limit for 2013.
While this limits what the Steelers can do in free agency—whether that be re-signing their own players set to otherwise hit the open market, or picking up new veterans—it doesn't change the fact that some of their positional needs are better met by offering contracts to experienced players rather than filling those holes in the draft.
Let's take a look at two of the Steelers' team needs for this offseason and figure out whether free agency or the draft is the better solution.
With Ben Roethlisberger turning 31 years old this spring, it's time for the Steelers to think about bringing in a younger backup quarterback to potentially groom to be his successor. The era of Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich is over—though the two have been serviceable options behind Roethlisberger for years, it's no longer practical to have two players older than him be his backups.
When looking at the free-agent quarterbacks set to hit the market this year, none particularly stand out as having the long-term potential to someday replace Roethlisberger. Most are certainly backup-level talent, such as Bruce Gradkowski and Jordan Palmer, and quite a few have tried their hands at being starters and it hasn't entirely worked out—like Rex Grossman and Tarvaris Jackson.
Brian Hoyer may be the most intriguing name on the list, but it seems safe to rule him out. When Roethlisberger missed time with shoulder and rib injuries in 2012 and Byron Leftwich also fell hurt, Hoyer was brought on to provide depth behind Charlie Batch. If the Steelers had seen some promise in Hoyer, however, he wouldn't have been released once Roethlisberger became healthy, so chances are he won't be back.
Ultimately, the draft seems to be a better source of young quarterbacks with eventual starting potential. Though it's not the loaded quarterback class of 2012, there is talent to be found, especially considering the Steelers will be grooming this player for at least three or four years. However, the Steelers will also need to find someone who does have the capability to start a game or two in his rookie year, considering Roethlisberger's injury history.
This means the Steelers will need to be aggressive in their pursuit of a workable backup quarterback and not wait until rounds six or seven to find someone. Doing so will be at the expense of other positions they need to fill, but the Steelers simply cannot put off any longer bringing on a quarterback worthy of not just backing up Roethlisberger but eventually filling his shoes.
Potential draft picks include Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, who has many similarities to Roethlisberger despite not being as big as him. Wilson is willing to take hits when necessary, has shown scrambling ability, sometimes throws wildly without warning and has fairly average and not-unacceptable arm strength.
The issue with Wilson, however, is that he may potentially be a first-round pick or an early second-rounder, which may be too high for the Steelers to feel comfortable taking a quarterback, considering their other needs. If he drops down the rankings, though, he becomes an excellent option, especially because he'd certainly benefit from time on the bench.
Florida State's E.J. Manuel could also be on the Steelers' radar, especially considering they can pick him up in a middle round. Manuel is mobile and has physical attributes similar to Roethlisberger, but he certainly needs work in the passing aspects of his game, particularly when it comes to decision-making. These are things that can be ironed out over time, with practice, which makes him a good prospect to groom behind Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh Steelers starting tight end Heath Miller tore both his ACL and MCL in the team's Week 16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, making his playing status in 2013 unknown. Generally, injuries of this severity can take up to 12 months to recover from, and Adrian Peterson's incredible rehabilitation aside, it's hard to imagine he'll be ready to go when the season kicks off in September.
That leaves the Steelers with a decision to make at the position. Presently, they have 2012 seventh-round draft pick David Paulson and Jamie McCoy on their active roster and brought on Zack Pianalto with a reserve/futures contract. Leonard Pope, who the team brought on via free agency last offseason, is set to be an unrestricted free agent this year.
Pope is the man the Steelers chose over fellow tight end Weslye Saunders, who is now with the Indianapolis Colts. It wasn't the smartest decision—if Saunders were still in Pittsburgh, there would be less panic over who could replace Miller while he's on the mend. Pope doesn't seem likely to return in 2013 considering how little he contributed last year, playing only 82 total snaps and catching just three passes.
Considering that the Steelers need, at most, a serviceable fill-in for Miller while he recovers, the Steelers don't need to look to the draft for another tight end. However, their salary cap situation means that they won't be able to get their hooks into some of the most expensive or mid-priced tight ends on the free-agent market—guys like Dallas Clark, Fred Davis, Jared Cook or even Ben Watson.
Gary Barnidge, most recently of the Carolina Panthers, might be in their price range. Though he was targeted only six times in 2012, he caught all six of those passes, and his versatility was likely overshadowed by the presence of starter Greg Olsen.
Brandon Myers, who is an unrestricted free agent out of Oakland, might also be an affordable option for the Steelers. Myers caught 79 passes in 2012, for 806 yards, 292 yards after the catch and four touchdowns, so he could serve as a decent stop-gap at the position before Miller returns.