The 2013 offseason will bring about a number of changes for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many of these changes will come on offense, where the Steelers figure to lose two of their top weapons.
Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall are unrestricted free agents, and odds are both won’t be wearing the black and gold for much longer.
Wallace was a training-camp holdout last season after not signing a long-term extension with the Steelers. Following a relatively disappointing season, Wallace will now likely sign a big contract elsewhere.
It is not as though the Steelers would not like to have him back, but they only have so many financial resources, and they are unlikely to go to Wallace.
Mendenhall presents the Steelers with a unique scenario.
Unlike Wallace, Mendenhall isn’t expected to demand a whole lot on the open market. The Steelers could probably re-sign him to a fair contract that does not require breaking the bank. However, after deactivating him for two games this season and suspending him for one, Mendenhall does not look to be a player in the team’s long-term plans.
With that in mind, as well as starting linemen Max Starks and Ramon Foster as unrestricted free agents, the Steelers have a lot of work to do to retool their offense.
Pittsburgh’s backfield is going to be very lonely once free agency begins.
The team has free agents all over the place as Mendenhall is an unrestricted free agent, and both Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are restricted free agents. Even Baron Batch is an exclusive-rights free agent.
The Steelers will not have any problems bringing back Dwyer, Redman and Batch, if they want, and Mendenhall’s future with the team is still up in the air.
Regardless, whomever the Steelers re-sign, they will still be looking for an upgrade after the backfield had a disappointing 2012 season.
The Steelers will be looking to add a running back who can carry the load and even be an every-down player, if possible.
There are no true stars in the first round, but there is a lot of depth at the position between the second and fourth rounds.
If the team had confidence in any of the running backs, Mike Tomlin probably would have stuck with one of them last season. Instead, he rotated them in and out of the lineup and never settled on a go-to guy.
To run the ball better, the Steelers will have to continue to improve the offensive line, but more importantly, find a better running back to carry the ball.
Not only is Wallace an unrestricted free agent, but so is Plaxico Burress. Emmanuel Sanders is a restricted free agent. That leaves the Steelers with Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery as their only experienced wide receivers.
Even if the Steelers bring back Sanders—or even Burress—they would still be lacking a true top option without Wallace.
Wallace has been one of the best deep threats in the league—last season aside—and has presented matchup problems for opposing defenses. Without that deep speed threat, the Steelers will have to once again tweak what they do on offense.
While adding a deep threat would be nice, he does not necessarily have to have elite speed. Instead, the Steelers should find a bigger, more physical receiver to develop into that role.
Brown and Sanders lack the size to beat press coverage, and this is particularly evident in the red zone. Without a deep threat to back off the coverage, these two may have trouble getting open in 2013.
To offset these limitations, the Steelers would be wise to find a target who can beat the press and battle for the ball. A taller target would also provide Ben Roethlisberger with a receiver who has a wide catching radius.
The Steelers need to find depth at receiver in the draft, and if they play their cards right, a future top option for Roethlisberger.
After spending second-round selections on Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams in recent years, tackle wouldn’t appear to be at the top of the Steelers’ draft priority list, but it should be.
The Steelers could have an opening at left guard if they decide to release Willie Colon, but they could re-sign Ramon Foster and have him compete with Kelvin Beachum for the starting guard job.
A bigger question will be if Gilbert can make the transition to left tackle.
Gilbert is a big, lumbering lineman who has potential to be successful on the left side, but has been rather inconsistent in his brief career.
If by chance one of the top left-tackle prospects falls to the 17th draft position, the Steelers should strongly consider moving in this direction. But the first round is the only time they’d be able to find an immediate upgrade at the position.
Therefore, if none of the top three left tackles are available, the focus should then be finding a player who can come in and compete at left guard.
So how do these three positions rank?
As important as it is for the Steelers to upgrade their offensive line, they should be in decent shape with two first-round and two second-round picks playing on it next season, and therefore, this would rank at the bottom of the priority list.
With Brown, Sanders and Cotchery, the Steelers will at least have an average receiving corps whether they add a receiver in the draft or not. For that reason, this ranks as the second-most important offensive need.
Adding an elite option at the position would greatly help open up the passing game, but a healthy Brown is a solid option, and once Heath Miller returns, he will ease some pressure off the receivers.
By contrast, the Steelers backfield currently lacks talented players, and not one of their free agents—besides Mendenhall—has proven himself to be No. 1.
Dwyer has the potential to be an every-down back, but has had some conditioning issues and lacks the big-play ability that the Steelers want from a running back.
With the need to improve the ground game and a lot of talent available in the middle rounds of the draft, the 2013 draft could help fix the Steelers' problem running the ball. It is their most significant problem on the offensive side of the ball and addressing it in the draft should be their top priority.