I can't remember the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers were in this good of a position financially heading into free agency. With wiggle room under the salary cap and only one starter set to become an unrestricted free agent, I'm looking forward to seeing how this offseason plays out.
So let's start with the Steelers one unrestricted free agent starter, Lawrence Timmons. A week or two ago, I was 90 percent sure he was coming back to Pittsburgh on a three-year deal, somewhere between the neighborhood of $5 million per season. But with the recent report here at SteelCityInsider that the Steelers and Timmons aren't close on contract numbers, I think it's more likely that he moves on.
Rumors that the Steelers are likely to pursue a starting cornerback, along with the low tender to Ross Cockrell, signals the Steelers want to complete the rebuilding process of their pass coverage. Should the Steelers sign say Dre Kirkpatrick or Stephon Gilmore, it doesn't necessarily signal that they won't pick secondary early in the draft. They could still draft a linebacker-safety hybrid such as Obi Melifonwu that would give the Steelers a three-safety package for their nickel. Vince Williams would play in the base defense. The hybrid plays the nickel, therefore giving the Steelers more speed and man coverage ability in their sub packages.
Could the defense improve with the subtraction of Timmons? I don't necessarily think so. I understand if they might think otherwise. Anything in the neighborhood $5 million per season, I'd keep Timmons. And I would stay away from using a large chunk of the salary cap on a cornerback from outside the organization. I understand Kirkpatrick can press, but I'm not high on him as a player. He's inconsistent with average speed. Handing over big time money to an average corner doesn't sound like a smart, Steelers-like move.
Gilmore is good, but I can't see the Steelers being a desperate spender somewhere between $12-14 million per season for a player that isn't a consistent Pro Bowler. If they are going to spend 8 digits on a corner, I would prefer Logan Ryan over Kirkpatrick and Gilmore because of his versatility to play outside or in the slot and because he's one of the better tackling corners in the league.
I expect the high-end cornerback interest will give way to sticker shock, and that interest turns to as exciting a draft class at both cornerback and safety that I can remember. I did a piece a few years back in which I looked at teams that had legendary defenses or were dynasties that won multiple Super Bowls. None of those great teams (Dolphins, Steelers, 49ers, Cowboys) or legendary defenses ('85 Bears, '00 Ravens, '02 Buccaneers), had a cornerback starting above the age of 25 with the exceptions of Mel Blount, Deion Sanders, and Rhonde Barber. I'm going young in the ultimate reactionary position in football, which means I'm avoiding high-salaried free agents at the position.
While I like players in free agency such as John Simon at OLB, I would be surprised if any other positions were addressed in a fashion beyond veteran-minimum, Ricardo Mathews-type of signing at any position other than receiver or secondary. With the Steelers investing a substantial chunk of money in Antonio Brown, I can't see them forking over a large chunk of money in free agency to wide receiver. Cornerback makes sense because the Steelers likely won't have to address that position with a large contract until Artie Burns has a year remaining on his deal.That said, if it were my decision,I would look to address the number two receiver position in free agency once the market settles.
Number two wide receivers set to hit the free-agent market are Terrell Pryor, DeSean Jackson, Brandon Marshall, Kenny Britt, Michael Floyd, Torrey Smith, Kenny Stills, Kamar Aiken, Cordarelle Patterson, Robert Woods, Brandon Lafell and Ted Ginn. With all of those players set to hit the free-agent market, somebody is going to slip through the cracks and be available for a manageable two-year deal. All of these players are either stretch-the-field or size types.
I'm intrigued by the idea of Marshall coming in a team friendly, two-year deal for say $8 million. Should Martavis Bryant return, the Steelers could shift Brown to the slot with their two large targets on the outside in three-receiver sets. Marshall could even provide a large slot target. In four receiver sets, I like the idea of two small but quick receivers working the middle while Marshall and Bryant stress outside.
Marshall could also serve as a mentor to Bryant, being that he's someone who seems to have put his life together. It'd be nice if Bryant could get an older mentor in the room, but I also can't see the Steelers getting involved with a player who flies to New York every week on Tuesdays to tape Inside the NFL, so I'd be surprised if they even entertained the idea.
Players such Pryor, Jackson, and Stills will be too expensive, I don't want Britt in the room. Same can be said somewhat for Floyd and Patterson. Like Marshall,Torrey Smith wouldn't effect compensatory picks. I think when the dust settles, someone such as Brandon Lafell would be a realistic stopgap in case Bryant falls off the wagon.
A receiver that I'd bring in at the very least for a medical check-up is Vincent Jackson. At 34, he's also looking for a ring. It was rumored that he tore his ACL last season but that wasn't the case. Should he clear medically, a one-year deal as insurance to Bryant and Sammie Coates would be a solid play. Both Bryant and Coates have two years reaming on their contracts.
It seems likely the Steelers address outside linebacker in Round One. The focus became clearer on who the potential targets could be following the NFL Combine. Carl Lawson seems to be the best-case scenario right now. He has the thickness to set the edge and collapse the pocket as well as the athleticism to drop into the flat or potentially mirror a tight end in coverage. Since Bud Dupree hasn't proved he can convert speed to power to collapse the pocket, I think it's important to draft someone on the other side who can. The No. 1 priority should still be setting the edge in the run game. Lawson has the size necessary to be able to provide that for the Steelers in their sub-package four-man fronts.
Should Lawson not be available when the Steelers pick at 30, I'd look to trade down and acquire another pick in the third round. This is a draft that is as deep as I can remember. Luckily for the Steelers, it's deep at all the positions they need. I like Derrick Rivers, but if I can get him in the early to middle portion of Round Two, I might roll the dice and trade down.
I have to look at more tape of Jordan Willis, who impressed in every Combine test in which he performed and was playing out of position at end in a 4-3 at Kansas State. Willis flashed in the Senior Bowl and had one of the best workouts at the Combine, yet he still seems to be flying under the radar.
Should the Steelers address receiver in free agency, they could then focus on outside linebacker, corner, safety, tight end and running back with their first five picks (not necessarily in that order, though it would be ideal). The Steelers might be able to draft a corner at the end of Round Two who in other years could have been drafted at the end of Round One. I doubt if Buddha Baker slips to the end of Round Two, but he's be a nice hybrid slot defender whom the Steelers could develop to eventually replace Mike Mitchell. Chidobe Awuzie might also be an ideal fit. He can play man, zone, slot, outside, or even at safety. But I'm loving Kenny King from Washington if he's still on the board.
I'm looking ahead when it comes to the next two picks, and both Ladarius Green and Mitchell are longshot cap casualties as the Steelers look to extend Stephon Tuitt, Alejandro Villanueva, Ryan Shazier and possibly even Jesse James and Martavis Bryant, should he have a Chris Carter like character-work ethic epiphany. I can save money and replace Mitchell with a safety with man coverage skills. Size-speed guys like a Josh Jones would be intriguing.
I like Eddie Jackson from Alabama, who started at both corner, safety, and served as a quality return man. He is someone who could fall to the Steelers with their comp pick at the end of Round Three because of his in-season leg injury that prevented him from working out at the Combine as well as the depth at the position. Someone like Gerald Everett might slip to the end of round three due to the depth at the tight end position. Though it's more likely someone such as George Kittle from Iowa will be there for one of those third-round picks.
It's the time for optimism, so assuming Karlos Williams gets his life together and can serve as Le'Veon Bell's backup, a fast back who can catch the ball out of the backfield such as Tevin Coleman, Dion Lewis or Jamal White would be a good fit, and someone such as Marlon Mack at the end of Round Four would make sense.