“Rebuilding” is one of the worst words that any football fan could hear, and Steelers fans are no exception. There’s no question that the franchise is at a crossroads, with many members of the old guard declining in effectiveness and increasing in age.
There are both good and bad ways to handle a rebuilding process. Looking at Exhibit A, we have the Oakland Raiders, whose rebuilding process started immediately after Super Bowl XXXVII. The Raiders are no closer to having a competitive team than they were when the rebuild started.
On the flip side, the Cincinnati Bengals went from posting a 4–12 record as recently as 2010 to threatening the best teams in the AFC on a year-to-year basis. They did this by smart drafting, signing the right free agents and making the tough calls on releasing veterans.
The Steelers haven’t bottomed out like either of these teams, but there’s no need to wait for that to happen to rebuild. By making the smart decisions, the Steelers could be back in Super Bowl contention within two years. Let’s check out the blueprint for success.
First off, there’s the James Harrison problem. As it stands, Harrison’s agent Bill Parise has said that Harrison won’t take a pay cut, and the team will need to pony up $6.32 million to keep him for next year and nearly $7.33 million for the following year. That’s not likely to play out. I suggest that the team trade Harrison to the Jets, who also seek a pass rusher.
Steelers get: Jets' 2013 third-round draft pick, Jets' 2014 third-round draft pick
Jets get: Outside Linebacker James Harrison
The Jets need a pass-rusher, and Harrison looked stronger as the season went on. I’m thinking that the Jets would be willing to part with two picks for him. The Jets also need a safety, and landing Harrison lets them turn their attention to landing Kenny Vaccaro of Texas in the first round.
As for the Steelers, they get much-needed cap relief and draft picks. Jason Worilds gets his shot at being the starting linebacker on the blind side. In order to free up more space, Willie Colon will likely either take a pay cut or be released.
Step two is to use that cap room to re-sign Keenan Lewis to a long-term deal. I understand that Lewis has only had one standout season, but he has excellent fundamentals and will provide stability in a defensive backfield that is in flux. Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu are nearing the end of their time with the Steelers, and a veteran presence will be needed on the back end of the defense.
They should also re-up with Emmanuel Sanders, but I don’t foresee this being as difficult a task because Sanders is a restricted free agent. Finally, they should do what they can to bring Larry Foote back on a one-year deal.
The draft is crucial for success in a rebuilding process, and there is not much room for error, especially in the first round. This draft is at its strongest, though, in the second and third rounds, and that’s where the Steelers will get their next impact players.
2013 Steelers' NFL Draft
Round 1: Jarvis Jones, Outside linebacker, Georgia
Round 2: Jonathan Cyprien, Safety, Florida International
Round 3 (Jets): Joseph Randle, Running back, Oklahoma State
Round 3: Phillip Thomas, Safety, Fresno State
Round 4: Brandon Williams, Nose tackle, Missouri Southern
Round 5: Kyle Long, Offensive guard/offensive tackle , Oregon
Round 6: Ace Sanders, Wide receiver, South Carolina
Round 7: Cornelius Washington, Outside linebacker, Georgia
Round 7 (Supplemental): Marquess Wilson, Wide receiver, Washington State
Obviously the big question mark in this situation is whether Jarvis Jones will slide. Let’s say for the sake of argument that he does. The Steelers will have met some needs in this draft, even if most of these guys don’t contribute immediately.
On defense especially, it’s rare for rookies to play in Pittsburgh. Jones, Cyprien, Thomas, and Washington will likely not be pressed into duty right away and can learn behind defensive veterans veterans.
Joseph Randle is an upgrade over any tailback the Steelers have, Ace Sanders can contribute on special teams and Kyle Long provides athleticism and depth at several positions along the line. I threw Wilson in as a wild card, but if he doesn’t make the team it wouldn’t be a huge shock.
Brandon Williams looks impressive as a nose tackle prospect, and should compete with Alameda Ta’amu to start if Ta’amu gets his off-field issues squared away. If not, Williams may start outright.
Some readers will be quick to point out that this draft doesn’t include a quarterback or a big wide receiver besides Marquess Wilson, who is tall, but very slender.
I’m not diminishing the fact that these are areas of need for Pittsburgh. However, the Steelers would do well to wait for the right prospect. They should not reach for a player just because he plays a position of need or attended the right school. Specifically, I’m going to take this opportunity to question the infatuation with Zac Dysert.
I understand that he attended Ben Roethlisberger’s alma mater, but the similarities end there. Dysert is inaccurate, oblivious in the pocket and lacking in arm strength. He can move a little bit, but he’s not the answer at quarterback.
In fact, there are no quarterbacks in this year’s draft that the Steelers should take as a backup or as their quarterback of the future. There are several really talented wide outs in this year’s draft, but the Steelers addressed other concerns, instead. Next year’s class has several guys who could be in play at both of these crucial positions.
The 2014 free agent situation is much kinder to the Steelers than it was in 2013. Of note, Ryan Clark, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brett Kiesel will likely be allowed to walk. The team will have to decide whether they want to bring back Jason Worilds and Ziggy Hood based on their performance during the season. Several other promising young players will be exclusive-rights free agents, meaning that the Steelers can bring them back for a minimum salary commitment.
The Steelers will also have to examine whether they will pay Troy Polamalu’s $8.25 million salary for the 2014 season. Ike Taylor, at $7 million is a likely cut candidate as well. Maurkice Pouncey and possibly Heath Miller have earned new contracts, and these will probably be handled during this offseason. For all of the trouble the team is having with the salary cap now, they will likely be out of the woods or close to it by 2014.
On to the draft! Obviously we’re projecting a bit because we don’t know how well the Steelers will do next season. However, the Steelers could reasonably expect to be back around 10 or 11 wins if Ben Roethlisberger stays relatively healthy. They will likely pick in the early-to-mid 20s barring a surprising season, either good or bad.
2014 Steelers' NFL Draft
Round 1: C.J. Mosley, Inside linebacker, Alabama
Round 2: Aaron Murray, Quarterback, Georgia
Round 3 (Jets): De’Anthony Thomas, Running back/Wide receiver, Oregon
Round 3: Jared Abbrederis, Wide receiver, Wisconsin
Round 4: Jacob Pedersen, Tight end, Wisconsin
Round 5: Mister Cobble, Defensive tackle, Kentucky
Round 6: Braxton Cave, Center, Notre Dame
Round 7: Matt Miller, Wide receiver, Boise State
Phase two of the two-year plan to rebuild the Steelers' centers around this draft. I believe that the Steelers would have targeted Mosley in the first round had he been in play in 2013. Aaron Murray would likely have been a target as well, and they snag both of those guys this year.
Murray is a winner, and a guy that looks ready to be the leader of an NFL team. He will have at least a year or two to back up Ben Roethlisberger, and then will take the reins of the offense. He is athletic and tough, and he zips balls around the field with a quick release. He lacks ideal height, but that didn’t stop Russell Wilson from taking the NFL by storm this past year. In my eyes, Murray is the guy.
There are two legitimate possession receivers that the Steelers land in this draft in Abbrederis and Miller, and the team augments the nose tackle stable with Cobble.
De’Anthony Thomas is a luxury pick that will give the Steelers a player who can score every time that he touches the ball. The Steelers also land Heath Miller’s heir-apparent in Pedersen, as well as a versatile center prospect who can also long snap.
Of these picks, only C.J. Mosley would be asked to contribute right away. Playing in an Alabama defense that is similar to Pittsburgh’s in terms of linebacker responsibilities will accelerate the process. I think that Mosley is bright enough to handle it.
It would take a lot of work, but conceivably the Steelers could be fully reloaded after next offseason.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Defensive Lineup
ROLB: Jarvis Jones
BUCK LB: C.J. Mosley
MACK LB: Lawrence Timmons
LOLB: LaMarr Woodley
LCB: Cortez Allen
RCB: Keenan Lewis
SS: Jonathan Cyprien
FS: Phillip Thomas
LDE: Cameron Heyward
RDE: Ziggy Hood/Steve McLendon
NT: Alameda Ta’amu/Brandon Williams
I would be pretty happy about this, all things considered.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 Offensive Lineup
QB: Ben Roethlisberger (Aaron Murray backup)
RB: Joseph Randle
WR: Antonio Brown
WR: Emmanuel Sanders
WR: Ace Sanders/Jared Abbrederis
TE: Heath Miller/Jacob Pedersen
LT: Mike Adams
LG: Kyle Long
C: Maurkice Pouncey
RG: David DeCastro
RT: Marcus Gilbert
KR/PR: De’Anthony Thomas, Ace Sanders, Jared Abbrederis
To top it all off, the Steelers would not be in salary cap trouble headed into the following offseason, and the future starters at several crucial positions would be secure. They would then focus on drafting a corner back and potentially another running back, but the crisis facing the team would be averted.
The Steelers would do well to follow a similar blueprint to minimize the time this rebuilding process will take, and it starts with the 2013 offseason.