Steelers In FA: Getting Band Back Together

Matt Steel provides a sound off-season plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency, and it starts with bringing back several key and inexpensive pieces.

The Steelers might not be on a mission from God. But as always, we can expect the organization to look to re-sign many of their own free agents.

Every off-season, there are countless members of Steelers Nation expressing interest in a big-name/high-priced free agent. And every year many of the Nation express disappointment as the Steelers stay away from that type of player.

But I have grown to appreciate the approach. So much so, that in the past I had the unrealistic desire for the Steelers to somehow win a Super Bowl in the free-agency era the way the 1979 Steelers won it, with all homegrown talent. The potential troubles of signing a high-profile free agent to a big-money deal are lessons teams like the Washington Redskins never seem to learn. Learning an entirely new system isn't easy for all. Sometimes the player has to learn new techniques as well. Now the big-money player is thinking rather than reacting, and he's a step behind. It doesn't sit well with a teammate who's making substantially less but is playing better. It's a recipe for locker-room divisiveness.

If a team had success that season, rewarding a player from another team rather than the guy or guys who brought you that success won't sit well with players, either. The Steelers' philosophy of drafting well and re-signing from within is one of the reasons I believe they are reported to have the family atmosphere which players often describe.

I really enjoyed the character that new guys such as Brice McCain and Arthur Moats displayed. McCain proved he could perform well as a starter, though I believe his lack of size and average tackling ability means his talents would best serve the team in the slot. Moats had solid production in a short period of time. Another year in the system should only serve to improve him.

I believe one of the under-reported issues the team might have had near the end of the season was the injury to Matt Spaeth's elbow. The numbers showed the offense was often at its best with Spaeth in the game. Offensive productivity, the commitment to run plays from under center, and running success seemed to decrease the last 3 games of the season as Spaeth either missed time or played with the injury.

I probably led the pack of those who questioned how Will Allen continued to take the roster spot of a younger player. But at the end of last season he showed us just how valuable he could be. A great character/team guy, I wouldn't complain if he came back on another similar one year deal.

Restricted free agents such as the underutilized Will Johnson, Antwon Blake, and Robert Golden are no-brainers. All provide quality special teams play. Blake gives the Steelers another slot guy who won't necessarily get picked apart if he's pressed into a starting role. In fact, the feisty Blake showed at the end of last season that he can make big plays.

All of these players are able to help the team at an affordable rate. The big-money re-signing comes with the possibility of bringing back Jason Worilds. But while I'm a big fan of re-signing from within, there is a better fit for the team that appears will be available when the market open March 10th.

While Pernell McPhee and Jabaal Sheard could be viable options, there's no better fit for the Steelers' LOLB position in their 3-4 scheme than Brandon Graham.

In the 2010 draft, the two players I hoped would somehow slip to the Steelers were Earl Thomas and Graham. I'd say the Steelers did OK with the selection of Maurkice Pouncey, but Graham might be available to them now at an affordable price. He's reportedly seeking a four-year, $30 million deal. It's a price range the Steelers can afford, but the $20 million he's seeking up front is steep. A contract that pays more over the deal with less up front money might be do-able. But I know he's been productive while being stuck as a rotational player for the Eagles.

According to Pro Football Focus, Graham led all 3-4 outside linebackers in Pass Rushing Productivity, which combines sacks, hits, and hurries (with hits and hurries three-fourths the worth of a sack) relative to how many times a player rushed the passer. Graham totaled 51 pressures on just 225 pass rush snaps. Graham also finished fourth overall for 3-4 outside linebackers against the run according to PFF. Graham's 6-1, 268-pound frame provides the kind of leverage the Steelers seek in their outside linebackers to set the edge in the run game.

That said, reports are that Graham wants to play in a 4-3 scheme with his hand on the ground. But being in the nickel over half of the time, Graham would get his wish in Pittsburgh quite often.

That said, if they can't work something out with Graham, bringing back Worilds still makes the most sense. I expect the Steelers to still ask their OLBs to be versatile even though they may not drop into coverage as much under new coordinator Keith Butler. While McPhee is an ideal situational rusher, he's not necessarily an ideal starter in the Steelers' scheme. And Sheard is someone I think could help the run defense but might not be able to help the Steelers make the pass-rushing improvements they desire.

The most critical players for the Steelers next season are going to be Jarvis Jones, Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier. How much they progress is going to be the most important indicator of the team's improvement of defense.

A highly talented corner would greatly help the cause as well. I had touted Byron Maxwell as a potential target midway through the regular season. Unfortunately, that was when I assumed he would come quietly. Now that he's correctly rated the best option, I don't see the Steelers getting into that upscale auction. And maybe rightfully so.

Last off-season I wrote that out of the past dynasties -- Dolphins, Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys, as well as the legendary defenses such as the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, and 2002 Bucs -- only three corners from all of those teams were above the age of 25: Deion Sanders, Mel Blount and Rhonde Barber. That doesn't mean that you can't win with veteran corners, but it also doesn't hurt to play the odds. There should be some good options in the first couple rounds of the draft.

That said, if the Steelers shocked the world and signed Maxwell, you wouldn't see me complaining.

From there, I think we should expect the Steelers to sign veterans that can add depth at near the league-minimum price. Though if I can replace Cam Thomas' $2 million cap hit and give it to Kendall Langford, I'd be all about it. I believe he, along with Cameron Heyward and Tuitt, would give the Steelers an exciting rotation at defensive end. And I'm banking on Steve McLendon providing the swing role with Daniel McCullers taking over the nose should injury issues occur at the end position.

During the 2009 draft, I read where the Steelers were looking to trade up in the second round to draft Max Unger or Andy Levitre. Levitre struggled last year and was released from his big-money deal that Mike Munchak thought he was worth. Seems worth a shot for a team that needs to improve its mobility at left guard. It's not the Steelers' way to sign a veteran when a veteran is already in place, however; and that is smart business. So I don't see this as a likely option.

Ramon Foster would be a great mentor for any rookie or young player; I'm a Ramon Foster fan. He had a tough year, personally, last year. But in order for him to maximize his ability to help this team, I see a player who needs to lose at least 40 pounds and hopefully provide the mobility that will allow the team to call the stretch running plays the team intended when they drafted Le'Veon Bell.

Another veteran who makes a lot of sense is Nate Washington. He's another player with Munchak and Steelers ties. Nate would be a heck of a No. 4 receiver. At 32, he can still adequately stretch the field. In three or four-receiver sets, I've wanted to see more of Markus Wheaton and/or Antonio Brown lined up inside to take advantage of safeties and linebackers. Washington would provide that option while also giving the team a veteran who could start if injuries mount.

There will be viable veteran running back options for the Steelers after the draft. Signing one now who believes he's still the guy isn't a smart move from a chemistry standpoint. Not getting an offer through the draft can humble a player and allow them to accept a second-fiddle/mentor role. Should he last past the draft, Steven Jackson could provide the professionalism and knowledge to both Bell and a third or fourth-round pick. In other words, the polar opposite of what LeGarrette Blount brought to the team.

In all, I expect one priority signing at LOLB and several re-signings. From there, look for the organization to provide talent at positions that need a starting upgrade early in the draft and fill in areas that need depth with cost-effective, high-character veterans. This cost effective plan will allow them to extend Ben Roethlisberger, Heyward and Kelvin Beachum before the start of the season.


Still to come: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver |
OFFENSE: Tight end | Offensive tackle | Offensive guard | Center
DEFENSE: Defensive tackle | Defensive end | Outside linebacker |
Inside linebacker | Safety | Cornerback


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