The Pittsburgh Steelers are now in offseason mode after losing 30-17 to the Baltimore Ravens Saturday night in the AFC Wild Card and with a long six and a half months ahead of us, below are several questions that the team must answer prior to arriving at Latrobe in late July for training camp.
Was 2014 the final season for LeBeau?
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has had quite a run with the Steelers, but after his unit recorded the lowest amount of sacks (33) dating back to 1989 and allowed the most explosive passing plays (50) since 1997, several will question whether or not it’s time for him to work on his golf game more. The Steelers have had linebackers coach Keith Butler waiting in the wings for some time now and he would be the logical choice to succeed LeBeau if indeed he does not return.
Will Ben get extended?
The Steelers chose not to extend the contact of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last offseason and now that he’s had a career year his price tag will deservingly be high. Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers both could also get new deals this offseason, so the Steelers would be smart to get Roethluisberger done ahead of them. One would think a new deal would come in late February or early March, but speculating about timeframes when it comes to big deals is certainly hard to do.
What will the outside linebacker positions look like next season?
Jarvis Jones is currently the only outside linebacker on the 2014 roster who is under contract for 2015 as Jason Worilds, James Harrison and Arthur Moats will all be free agents come March. Worilds was given the transition tag last offseason and if he doesn’t get tagged this upcoming offseason, there’s no guarantee he’ll return. While Harrison did play well after returning from his short retirement, he will turn 37 in May. Even if does return for one more season, you have to know that Father Time will be waiting for his bull-rush. The team absolutely will address the position in the draft and might also have to go digging in the bargain free agent bin as well.
Who will succeed Heeeeeaaaathhhhhh?
While I think tight end Heath Miller still has one more good year left in him, the Steelers need to get his successor onboard this offseason if they don’t believe in practice squad tight end Rob Blanchflower is that player. I would expect them to address the position at some point during the draft and somewhere in the first three or four rounds.
What will happen to all of the old guys?
We already discussed Harrison and the 2015 status of Brett Keisel and Troy Polamalu should be cleared up by the end of March. Both could choose or be asked to retire. If neither return the Steelers stand to clear some cap room as a result. While he’s not currently under contract for 2015, Ike Taylor will more than likely want to come back one more year. It’s not a big deal if he does, however, as long as he’s not promised a starting spot and is willing to play for the league minimum.
Who will back up Bell in 2015?
Running back Le’Veon Bell had one hell of a season but the Steelers must have someone capable behind him in case he gets injured again. While Dri Archer and Josh Harris are both currently under contract for 2015, neither has shown that they can handle the load both individually and combined should an injury situation arise. There might be some bargains in free agency this offseason so we should know come draft time whether or not the team will have to spend a mid-round selection on the position.
How heavily will the cornerback position be addressed?
As it stands right now, the Steelers starting cornerbacks in 2015 will be William Gay and Cortez Allen. Allen had a miserable post new contract season and while many want him to be released, that’s just not going to happen. Gay will be entering the final year of his current contract with the Steelers while band-aids Brice McCain and Antwon Blake are both scheduled to be free agents come March. Does B.W. Webb have a future? Even if he does the team really needs to invest a high draft pick or two into the position.
Is Shamarko still considered to be Polamalu’s successor?
We learned absolutely nothing about second-year safety Shamarko Thomas in 2014 as he failed to play a single snap on defense. During his rookie season Thomas mostly played in the slot so we really haven’t seen him play the strong safety position outside of the preseason. When Polamalu was injured this past season, head coach Mike Tomlin wanted veteran Will Allen on the field replacing him instead of Thomas. Thomas also battled a hamstring injury in 2014 and that likely slowed down his development. If he’s not the team’s future strong safety, one needs to be found very quickly.
How will the restricted free agents be handled?
The low restricted free agent tender amount this offseason figures to come in at around $1.5 million. The Steelers have three such free agents in Blake, safety Robert Golden and fullback Will Johnson and we’ll know by the start of the new league year what the franchise thinks the worth of all three of them are.
Does Villanueva have a future?
The Steelers were able to keep tackle Alejandro Villanueva on their practice squad all season and that means he had a full year of coaching from offensive line coach Mike Munchak. Thanks to his size, other measurables and Army background, Villanueva certainly looks like he could become a starting tackle in the league. If he has upside, the Steelers might not have to address any offensive line position in the April draft.
Who will be this year’s cap causalities?
We’ve already discussed the situation with Polamalu and Keisel and in addition to them the Steelers can save some cap space by parting ways with a few more insignificant players currently under contract for the 2015 season. By releasing wide receiver Lance Moore and defensive end Cam Thomas the team will save $3.5 million in salary cap space that they could put towards a bargain bin free agent outside linebacker, running back or cornerback. I will be shocked if both are still on the roster come the start of the new league year in March.
Which unrestricted free agents will be signed prior to the new league year?
We have the list of all free agents already up and while we already briefly discussed Worilds, McCain and Moats there’s a few more players that will likely be brought back on one-year deals. The likely candisates to return on one or two year deals are tight end Matt Spaeth and long snapper Greg Warren in addition to McCain and Moats
Which players need offseason surgery?
We already know that safety Mike Mitchell is likely to have surgery soon to repair the torn groin that he played with the entire season, but are there any other players that need to get cut on? Tomlin is scheduled to meet the media on Tuesday so perhaps he’ll give us a list of players that finished the season with more than just a few bumps and bruises.