Fact or Fiction for Pittsburgh Steelers' Biggest Offseason Question Marks
The NFL offseason is a dreaded time for any diehard football fan.
Free agency and the draft have passed and the first preseason game is still more than a month in the future. It’s around this time that many news organizations begin to reach for topics.
Because of this, anything with but a morsel of truth behind it becomes a story. What of those stories comes to fruition, however, is an entirely different story.
The same holds true for the Pittsburgh Steelers. A team that’s known for running a tight ship hasn’t disappointed this year, but that hasn’t stopped reporters from trying.
What of their reports will prove to hold water, and what is merely speculation? Read on to find out.
The Steelers Boast a Very Talented Receiving Corps
It seemed as if the Steelers’ receiving corps could go nowhere but down after the offseason departures of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. And by some measures, they have.
Sanders and Cotchery were both well integrated into Pittsburgh’s offense. Each posted his best season as a Steeler and the duo combined for 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns. That production won’t be easy to match.
That being said, as pointed out by ESPN’s Scott Brown, the Steelers have injected a wealth of new, if largely inexperienced, talent into their receiver unit.
Markus Wheaton, last year’s third-rounder, essentially redshirted his rookie season. He enters his second year poised to start opposite Antonio Brown. The two, like Brown and Sanders last year, are comparable from a physical standpoint.
Free-agent acquisition Lance Moore is a savvy vet, just like Cotchery was upon joining the team last year. He’s got the hands and route-running ability to immediately replace Cotchery’s yardage production.
Behind those two is a cast of physically gifted, but largely raw individuals. Darrius Heyward-Bey has been labeled a bust, but he could prove valuable as a situational deep threat. Incoming freshman Martavis Bryant has the physical tools to dominate in the NFL. Even former Penn State teammates Justin Brown and Derek Moye are in the running for a roster spot.
Ryan Shazier Is Guaranteed a Starting Spot
Ryan Shazier may be the odds-on favorite to start right now, he even ran with the first-team defense throughout OTAs, but nothing’s guaranteed until the pads come on.
As pointed out by ESPN’s Scott Brown, Shazier is pegged to enter training camp as the starter. What he does in camp, though, will confirm his role with the team.
Shazier wouldn’t be the first rookie to wilt under the pressure of high expectations. Even more importantly, it’s not as if the cupboard is bare behind him.
Vince Williams, a rookie in 2013, experienced trial by fire last season as he started 11 games. This was out of necessity due to a season-ending injury to Larry Foote. Williams didn’t blow anyone away but proved serviceable under the circumstances. An improvement should be expected in year two.
The wild card is Sean Spence. Spence suffered a catastrophic leg injury before the onset of his rookie year and has yet to play an NFL snap. Once expected to a breakout star, Spence is back on the practice field eager to prove that he still has that potential.
Shazier may be atop the depth chart for now, but neither Williams nor Spence should be expected to go down without a fight.
Ben Roethlisberger Needs an Extension ASAP
Shortly after the Steelers disappointing 2013 season culminated, my Bleacher Report colleague Chris Gazze wrote a piece about why the Steelers should extend Ben Roethlisberger. Among his more compelling arguments was the fact that Steelers president Art Rooney II has said he wants to see Roethlisberger retire in Pittsburgh.
“If there is no doubt about it, then get a contract done now,” Gazze wrote. “There is no need to wait if Rooney indeed believes that Roethlisberger should retire as a Steeler.”
Obviously the sooner the team can lock up its franchise quarterback the better. That was much evidenced when Roethlisberger was extended with two years remaining on his rookie deal in 2008. Still, two years is a significant time period.
The Steelers’ front office has seen what quarterbacks are earning nowadays, and few could blame them for sitting back and concocting the best plan to lock up their signal-caller while optimizing cap space.
Jarvis Jones May Already Be a Bust
It was evident through most of the ’13 season that the Steelers jumped the gun in naming Jarvis Jones a starter. The 17th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft struggled to pressure passers or react quickly enough against the run or in coverage.
Nonetheless, it’s far too early to label Jones a bust as some, including Cover 32’s Marcus Mosher, suggest he might be.
Jones may not have lived up to the expectations that preceded his rookie season, but he’s hardly the first man that could be said about. In fact, he’s among one of several on his team. Both Lawrence Timmons and Troy Polamalu disappointed in their inaugural campaigns; the two are arguably the best defenders on the team now.
It remains to be seen if Jones can have that kind of impact, but a few instances last year suggest such potential. In Week 1 Jones absolutely leveled the Tennessee Titans’ Chris Johnson, thereby providing optimism for his rookie campaign that he failed to justify as the season progressed. In Week 6 Jones had a big-time pressure on the New York Jets’ Geno Smith that resulted in the game-clinching interception.
As the game slows down for Jones, those sorts of splash plays will come more and more frequently.
The Defensive Line Has Improved from 2013
NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks proposed in a piece last month that the Steelers’ defensive line had improved from the 2013 season. With two former starters, Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood, out of the lineup, that’s hard to believe at first glance.
However, the loss of Hood is hardly a big blow. The underperforming defensive tackle was dropped from the lineup early last season, and that paved the way for Cameron Heyward’s breakout year. As for Keisel, the Pittsburgh icon will always have a place in fans’ hearts, but at 35 he hasn’t got much left in the tank.
As that's the case, Heyward represents a marked improvement over either man. Now it's just a matter of two offseason acquisitions being an improvement over the lesser player, Hood.
Free-agent signee Cam Thomas will serve as a starter at the 5-technique at best or at worst be a viable swing man along the defensive front. Thomas' time in the starting lineup may be short lived, however, if Stephon Tuitt can match expectations.
The 2014 second-round product from Notre Dame was seen as a first-round prospect by many, but a disappointing 2013 season, marred by injuries and added weight, helped push Tuitt into Day 2 of the draft. He's still got the potential and prototypical size to form with Heyward the kind of dominant tandem of run-stuffing ends that the Steelers haven't seen since Keisel and Aaron Smith.