The 2014 season saw the Pittsburgh Steelers on the rise, finishing with an 11-5 record and a division title following two straight seasons of missing the playoffs with 8-8 records. They finished off the regular season with four straight victories, but suffered a disappointing Wildcard round loss against the Ravens without their star running back.
Nobody is saying that the Steelers, however, are a finished product. Not even the Super Bowl champion is a finished product after a season concludes, because every team undergoes a series of changes throughout the offseason via free agency, retirement, and the draft, in addition to a myriad of other factors.
Pittsburgh is certainly no different, of course, and they are expected to see a number of new faces in the starting lineup for the third straight season. One of the questions that the Steelers must consider heading into free agency is how they want to handle their three restricted free agents, all of whom they would ideally like to keep.
We have already touched on this subject earlier in the past week, but it’s worth taking a look at the case for each player and what they mean for the team, considering there could potentially be over $4.5 million in cap spending at stake for just these three players.
Measured in terms of priority, the highest on the list is probably cornerback Antwon Blake, whose role in the defense expanded as the season wore on. But sitting here in early March, it’s difficult to determine what type of role he will have if, say, Cortez Allen retakes his starting spot, Brice McCain is re-signed, and/or the team addresses the position significantly in the draft or free agency.
Blake, of course, also has significant value as arguably the team’s best gunner on special teams, and he has the proper demeanor to play cornerback, even if he is undersized for the task. He can play taller receivers down the field and make a well-timed defense, but he has also had his share of struggles. Nevertheless, he seems to have shown enough worth to justifiably be given a tender.
Who is second in terms of importance could be a subject for debate, but I’m going with Will Johnson, who is the only one on the roster who fulfills the role of fullback, even if the position isn’t often used. While his usage rate is lacking, the fact that he serves a role that isn’t easily filled in-house makes him valuable, and he also plays special teams. Still, just over $1.5 million may be a lot of pay for the role he is likely to play. Perhaps a more modest and cap-friendly one-year deal could be reached.
Robert Golden is the last of the three restricted free agents, and Golden is the one among the three whose importance is most tied to his work on special teams, since he has seen little time on defense. But his role could increase if Troy Polamalu is not on the team next year, which is a factor to consider.
In this situation, I might let him hit free agency and attempt to sign him for the veteran minimum, as the Steelers did with Stevenson Sylvester a couple of years ago. Realistically, all three could of course be extended modest multiple-year contracts whose cap his come under the restricted free agent tag value.
If you’ll notice, however, all three candidates came as undrafted free agents. Because rookie draft picks all now sign four-year contracts, the restricted free agent is nearly extinct outside of this class of player, and I’m wondering if it’s not time to re-think this categorization.