Let other teams overpay. Re-sign your own players. See what's out there once the dust settles.
That plan, that virtuous patience exhibited by the Pittsburgh Steelers every new season of free agency, has unequivocally been a successful approach. But it hasn't prevented them from filling holes in their starting lineup with players from outside the organization. Jeff Hartings, Dewayne Washington, Brent Alexander and most recently Mike Mitchell are players the Steelers targeted to fill holes in their starting lineup. James Farrior signed with the Steelers once Earl Holmes looked for a bigger payday with the Cleveland Browns. Ryan Clark fell into the Steelers' lap when Chris Hope signed a lucrative deal with Tennessee.
However, it hasn't been the Steelers' M.O. to sign stopgaps at starting positions. If they do sign someone to start from outside the organization, it's to a four or five-year deal. That's one reason I'd be surprised if they pursue safety Eric Weddle. I can't see the Steelers signing a player for approximately $7 million a year on a two-year deal, and have him get his feet wet in the system for a year just to -- hopefully -- get one great year out of the aging player and then start all over again at the position a year or two later.
My personal pipe dream of signing cornerback Trumaine Johnson was ended when he was franchised by the St. Louis Rams. And that's fine. With David DeCastro and Le'Veon Bell set to re-sign this offseason, and Antonio Brownand Stephon Tuitt next offseason, the Steelers don't need to be overpaying on the market.
Then again, that's only four players who are "can't lose" players over the next two seasons, and one is a question mark with two serious knee injuries. Perhaps there is enough room to make a free-agent splash. There's just nobody out there who excites me for big money. Speculation is the Steelers might sign a starter for their secondary in free agency. But the defense actually was the strength of the team in the playoffs, and the young talent in the front seven should be able to learn from the experience.
Tuitt, Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazierand Bud Dupree, all of these guys should improve in 2016. Senquez Golson didn't play but he should have a grasp of the defense in Year Two. Let these guys continue to grow and look to fortify cornerback and safety with young, affordable talent early in the draft.
That said, here's the re-sign priority level for the Steelers, who can begin negotiating with other teams' players later this afternoon:
11. Jordan Todman -- I would prefer a running back from outside the organization. Just about every time Todman entered the game during the playoffs, teams would know he was going to run because they couldn't put him in a position to pass-block. Todman put up great rushing numbers with his touches but the staff doesn't trust him to block, and rightfully so. I would like another Fitzgerald Toussaint but with more of an NFL burst as my third back.
Bilal Powell fits the bill. Powell is a good receiver out of the backfield and has fumbled only three times in his six year career (never lost one).
Khiry Robinson is coming off a broken tibia. He might be a guy to bring in for a physical and look to sign after the draft. I liked what I saw out of him early in his career in New Orleans. Bill Parcells was right on the money a couple years ago when he compared Robinson's running style to that of Curtis Martin. Robinson has only fumbled once in his career. Those are two players I'd explore first before considering Todman at the league minimum.
10. Bruce Gradkowski -- There's no one on the free-agent market preferable to someone who already knows the system. The market price appears to be too big for Chase Daniel, a guy I liked coming out. I understand the Philadelphia Eagles will give him a good chunk of change to protect against a Sam Bradford disaster.
9. Darrius Heyward-Bey -- Fifth receivers usually have to play special teams, which is unfortunate because I'd like to see the Steelers upgrade their red-zone offense by bringing in Marques Colston to work out of the slot, or maybe even see what the market ends up for Jerricho Cotchery. But DHB is valuable on special teams, is a good run blocker (even though that makes the offense more predictable when he's in the game) and is a great team guy and tireless worker. I think he's found his niche in Pittsburgh.
8. Sean Spence -- With starting experience and great character, Spence provides valuable depth. But I can see him as one of a handful of players who could be potential targets of Dick Lebeau in Tennessee. Should Spence leave for a better paycheck or an opportunity to start elsewhere, I don't see the Steelers going outside of their organization with Terence Garvin restricted as a free agent.
7. Antwon Blake -- I'm sure the Steelers value Blake more than I do, but I have him here at number seven because they'll have to pay him more than league minimum. He might want something that is at least similar to Brice McCain's contract. I see his ceiling at $2 million. Blake's a guy I'd like to re-sign to play primarily special teams. He is a good stop-gap No. 5 cornerback.
6. Ramon Foster -- In terms of talent, Foster is one of the Steelers' top three free agents. I have him at number six based on what they're going to have to pay him. Should the Steelers re-sign Kelvin Beachum, Foster is no longer a priority. If Beachum moves on to another team, Foster moves up into the top three on this list. So as of now, I'm splitting the difference. I don't think Foster fits what the Steelers have built with the rest of their offensive line, which is an athletic, zone-blocking group. I don't believe they can operate much stretch-zone with the power blocker at left guard. Even though Foster is effective, and helps his left tackle tremendously in communication, he doesn't allow the group to maximize its cumulative physical talent. So the Steelers are forced to use three tight ends too often in order to run the ball successfully. I've seen it many times in basketball. An addition that fits the other starters makes the entire group better, even if it's by a small subtraction. I would offer him starter minimum money, and when he doesn't take it possibly look to someone like Jahri Evans to fill that hole. Like Colston, Evans draws my attention because he won't count against the compensatory-pick formula. It's easier to adjust to a new system on an offensive line than it is to learn a new defensive system. That's why I have slim hope the Steelers could sign Evans to a two or three-year deal.
5. Will Johnson -- I probably have Johnson at a higher value than most. His role seemed to decrease over time with the Steelers but Johnson is a solid special-teams player who likely can be had at the league minimum and who could serve as a reliable third tight end and/or backup fullback to Roosevelt Nix. The Steelers have a lot of question marks at the tight end position. It appears as if they like the upside in Jesse James and that of practice-squadder Xavier Grimble. I'm just not a fan of bringing back Matt Spaeth and his dying legs at this point. Johnson still showed value in running plays out of the three-TE set.
Tight end is the position I see making the most sense for the Steelers to address very early in free agency. I think they could use a player who can threaten deep down the middle of the field in their pass-first offense and I don't see a sure-fire prospect in the draft who has that capability. The Steelers seem to target under-the-radar types with a lot of upside, so I'll be interested to see if they take any interest in Ladarius Green, who seems capable of providing the Steelers with what they are missing at the position, unless they believe they already have that hidden gem in Grimble.
4. Robert Golden -- I like Golden. It's one of the few times I feel I'm on the polar opposite end of the organization's view on one of their players. I haven't heard his name mentioned by anyone within the organization since the season ended. I don't understand it because I thought he held his own when he was on defense, and he has been the special-teams captain. For those reasons, my plan would be to give him a similar deal to what Arthur Moats received before the start of free agency last season. I'd have someone who has been in the system for four years to start until my high draft pick was ready to take over. There are a handful of safeties I really like in this draft who have second-round value.
In free agency, I like Tashaun Gipson as a high upside signing who could rediscover his playmaking form once he leaves the circus in Cleveland. But I don't see the Steelers moving Mitchell to strong safety, which is unfortunate because I love Mitchell's size, physicality and ability to blitz. For that reason I think they'd be more likely to pursue George Iloka, if anyone. But Iloka has never been someone about whom I've been concerned going into a game against Cincinnati. If I'm going to spend big money on the free-agent market, I want someone who makes big plays. I don't see that with Iloka.
3 Will Gay -- I'd be surprised if Gay signs with another team, especially now that McCain has signed with Tennessee. Gay is today's version of Deshea Townsend. I expect the secondary/corners to be young in 2016. I think they'll need Gay's veteran knowledge and leadership on the field. Should Gay move on, I'd look to sign recently released veterans Brandon Carr or Leodis McKelvin as free-agent replacements. Maybe they can't get Carr or McKelvin at the contract they offer Gay, either, but if I'm going to have to pursue an average corner in free agency, I'd much rather get someone who doesn't affect compensatory draft picks.
2. Steve McLendon -- Ask me again and I might have McLendon at three and Gay at two. But the Steelers are already thin up front after Heyward and Tuitt. Opponents only averaged a little over two yards per carry when they tried to run the ball against the Steelers' base defense with McLendon on the field. Though he apparently is not an ideal fit for sub-package defense, he has given them serviceable snaps in the nickel. Should Tennessee come calling (and overpaying), I'd look to bring in someone who knows the system like Al Woods. Should McLendon leave, it will be interesting to see what kind of market Terrance Knighton gets. But the hope here is that the Steelers re-sign McLendon, pass on free agency and join in what this year's draft has to offer along the defensive front.
1. Kelvin Beachum -- Beachum has said he and the Steelers have been in contract talks. I value Beachum as much for his intelligence and work ethic as I do his abilities on the field. If the organization isn't completely sold on Alejandro Villanueva, they should make a fair offer to a good player in Beachum. I would offer him a similar deal to what Marcus Gilbert received. Gilbert arguably played at an All-Pro level this season. Beachum might play the left side, but I can't justify paying him more than Gilbert when Beachum is coming off an ACL tear. To me it's a fair offer. The hope here is that they make him that offer and it's enough to bring him back.
To view Ian Whetstone's updated 2016 cap brakdown for the Steelers, click here.
To view Scout.com's NFL free-agent rankings, click here.