Yesterday the Steelers signed seven of their 10-man practice squad to futures contracts, but that was mere protocol with the heavy lifting that lies ahead. Here's my how-to guide on tying it all together from a GM's point of view.
Today, it's the offense:
QUARTERBACK -- Ben Roethlisberger's contract talks will be the big offseason news, but when will the deal get done? Some suggest the Steelers do it before Eli Manning and Philip Rivers are extended and thus raise the bar on franchise QBs. But when have the Steelers ever rushed something of this magnitude? Particularly when their cap situation isn't in the emergency crisis it had been the previous two fiscal New Years eves?
But an early extension not only would save some money, but lower their overall cap number and provide some walking-around money for the free-agency period.
As far as depth, Bruce Gradkowski walked into the playoff game for his first appearance in his two years here and converted a third-and-21 with two completions. I believe that was necessary for a guy who hasn't played well in preseason games. The Steelers will probably let Landry Jones finish his rookie contract, but the depth at this position still scares me. Don't buy this nonsense that "If Roethlisberger goes down, they're done anyway." That's media jabber. QBs do go down for brief periods and quality depth can pull a team through an emergency in this matter-of-inches league. Gradkowski coming through under pressure against the Ravens eases my concerns about the depth here, but only slightly.
RUNNING BACK -- The extensive use of Dri Archer in the playoffs after a disappointing rookie season tells me they haven't given up on the guy with sub 4.2 speed. He may lack vision, size and toughness, but even though it was called back he did score a touchdown against the Ravens. That may have been a needed boost to his confidence, as well as a boost to Roethlisberger's confidence in him. I noticed that Archer did flash great speed in practice that week, so perhaps he's still waiting for the proverbial light to go on. I still have my concerns though.
As for undrafted rookie Josh Harris, he also was used in critical situations against the Ravens and didn't make any glaring mistakes. He therefore has the lead on the backup spot to Le'Veon Bell and doesn't make the drafting of a mid-round RB a necessity. As so many teams have shown, quality depth can be found rather easily at this position. And, Ben Tate, thank you for your service.
WIDE RECEIVER -- The maturation of Markus Wheaton and the home-run, fourth-round drafting of Martavis Bryant eases all concerns about this position. Now the Steelers can add depth in a leisurely manner because they could still keep Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Moore, inactive for the playoff game, won't turn 32 until Aug. 31, but they could save $1.5 million against the cap by releasing him. Heyward-Bey is the type of veteran reserve who can play special teams and add class to the locker room. Practice squad WR C.J. Goodwin made a couple of acrobatic catches for the look team late in the season. Since they signed Goodwin to a futures contract, as opposed to say Justin Brown, the Steelers must like what they've seen in the Mel Blount-advised project from Cal of Pa.
TIGHT END -- Heath Miller is slowing down, yes, but not to the point where a draft reach for a tight end is necessary. If Maxx Williams is available in the second round, great. But it's unlikely the tough, able-blocking move-TE/FB from Minnesota will interest the Steelers at pick 22. He's only 6-4, and even though he hurdled a DB to score a touchdown in his bowl game, Williams doesn't appear to have pick-22 caliber speed. Certainly, Matt Spaeth would enjoy mentoring a fellow Golden Gopher, but last year's seventh-round pick, Rob Blanchflower, has also shown well in practices down the stretch for the look team. The Steelers also have a quality move TE/FB in Will Johnson, and more depth in veteran Michael Palmer.
Could the position use more speed and position an offensive threat in the pipeline behind the 32-year-old Miller? Heck, yeah. It would be great. They're very similar in style and fans would take to "Mad Maxx" quickly. But the Steelers probably have a bigger need that can be filled with better value at pick 22.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- The tackles had a rough time of it against Baltimore, and Marcus Gilbert hurt his ankle yet again. I have no idea whether it's becoming a chronic problem, but it must be a concern for the guy who's separated himself from Mike Adams at RT. Kelvin Beachum exceeded expectations spectacularly this season at LT but struggled against Terrell Suggs and some of the things the Ravens did off of his side.
Does this mean the Steelers need an OT? No. But OT appears to be the rich position in the first round of this coming draft. It's possible that a cornerstone LT -- which has eluded them on draft day since they took Marvel Smith early in R2 in 2000 -- could be staring them in the face. It isn't likely that first-rounder would play as a rookie, but injuries do happen and the Steelers have only three OTs on their roster. They don't even have an interior lineman capable of flexing in an emergency (Maurkice Pouncey warmed up in the bullpen one time). The 6-9 Army Ranger captain, Alejandro Villanueva, is an interesting prospect but shouldn't be counted upon for the No. 4 OT spot just yet. If he develops this winter while working with Tunch Ilkin, that's gravy, but shouldn't be expected.
As for the interior, Ramon Foster is entering the final year of his contract. He's a team leader, but might also be viewed as replaceable in 2016 should a first-round tackle force any sort of line juggling. Or, the player to leave could be Beachum, if he prices himself out of their pay range with another strong season in 2015.
Another OL draft possibility this year is a second or third-round interior player with versatility, such as Cameron Erving of Florida State. Erving was moved from LT to center, and thus could conceivably play all five positions. But he played so well at center that a team may take him earlier than the Steelers would like for an interior reserve. The other two interior reserves, Cody Wallace and Chris Hubbard, can both play G-C, but the team needs someone who can also play tackle, so expect a draft pick here.
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR'S DREAM DRAFT -- 1. Andrus Peat/Brandon Scherff/La'el Collins/T.J. Clemmings/Ereck Flowers OT; 2. Maxx Williams TE; 3. Cameron Erving G-C-T; 4. Jeremy Langford RB; 5. Tyler Lockett/Titus Davis/Phillip Dorsett/Deontay Greenberry WR/RS.
Steelers Free Agents
Jason Worilds OLB 26 $9,754,000 UFA
Ike Taylor CB 34 $7,692,403 UFA
Matt Spaeth TE 31 $1,037,500 UFA
Greg Warren LS 33 $635,000 UFA
D. Heyward-Bey WR 27 $635,000 UFA
Arthur Moats OLB 26 $635,000 UFA
Brice McCain CB 28 $635,000 UFA
Will Allen S 32 $635,000 UFA
Michael Palmer TE 26 $570,000 UFA
James Harrison OLB 36 $534,412 UFA
Clifton Geathers DE 27 $171,765 UFA
Ben Tate RB 26 - UFA
Robert Golden S 24 $571,667 RFA
Will Johnson FB 26 $570,000 RFA
Antwon Blake CB 24 $570,000 RFA
(Right-of-first-refusal RFA tag $1.54 million.)