The Super Bowl is over. All 32 teams are now completely focused on the offseason. And with our coverage already in full swing, it’s time to tackle one of my favorite articles to write. Depot has been buzzing about free agency and the players the Pittsburgh Steelers should sign. It’s a fun discussion though it always seems to boil down to two or three marquee names.
In my list, we’re going to look beyond that. At some more practical and pragmatic options on the table. Couple of things to keep in mind before we get to the list.
1. Obviously, several of these players are going to be re-signed. My list will naturally be whitled down. I don’t have a great pulse on the rest of the league and couldn’t tell you with much confidence on the odds of “X” player being re-signed. We’ll do this exercise again closer to free agency in my full offseason mockup.
2. Again, obviously, the Steelers aren’t getting all of these players. I’m just throwing out names that make sense at each position should the team explore it.
3. I don’t have a great feel for the contracts these players demand though considering my list mostly contains middle to low tier free agents, none will break the bank.
4. Yes, I saw the player you really want to sign. No, he’s not here. I’m sorry. But don’t ask me, “what about Eric Berry?” I thought of him.
We’re breaking this down by position. And I’m ranking the players in order of the ones I’d like to sign the most, though ultimately, these are all players I’d be open to bringing in.
WHY: We know Mike Tomlin said in his final press conference his QB situation would be determined based on “what my options are.” So at some level, there will be interest in bringing in an outsider. If Bruce Gradkowski does not return, you can guarantee another body will be brought in.
Matt Moore: It feels like Moore has been around longer than football itself. Moore was on some downright putrid Carolina Panthers teams but put in respectable performances, including going 4-1 back in 2009. He won half of his 12 games for the Miami Dolphins in 2011 and throwing 16 touchdowns. He’s been holding Ryan Tannehill’s clipboard since, throwing only 30 passes over the past four seasons, but he has an experienced resume and a winning record. That’s what Tomlin, by his own admission, wants. A quarterback with experience who has shown the ability to win, even if it wasn’t always pretty.
With Moore at 31, maybe he wants to step out of Miami and try to find another place to compete. Or maybe the beaches and tax deductions is enough to convince him to stay. Someone get DeAngelo Williams to pay him a visit.
T.J. Yates: A younger version of Moore. Yates most extensive playing time came in his rookie year with the Houston Texans, going 2-3 as a starter but completing over 61% of his passes in the regular season and winning a playoff game, even if it was an ugly look on the box score (11/20 159 yards 1 TD). His next start didn’t come until this year in his second go around with Houston. He closed out a win over the Cincinnati Bengals in primetime football, throwing the go-ahead touchdown, and beat a solid New York Jets’ defense the following week with two touchdowns.
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t signed until mid-season and was thrust into game action not even a month after being brought back. Don’t assume him being in Houston made it a seamless situation, either. He was under a new coach, Bill O’Brien, and new offense. He responded well and those are the types of guys I love to have as my backup.
WHY: Because you can never have enough lineman. This is working under the assumption Ramon Foster returns. If he doesn’t, look for some more high-profile lineman to be in the mix. Still, Kelvin Beachum is likely out the door, leaving the tackle depth weak. Mike Munchak deserves a new toy, too.
Jeff Linkenbach: This isn’t meant to be a sexy list and it doesn’t get much less sexy than Linkenbach. He wouldn’t even be a guarantee to make the 53 but you can give him a veteran qualifying contract. No risk, some reward. A rich man’s Guy Whimper, he’s one of those swing guys that has experience everywhere but center. In college at Cincinnati, he played both tackle spots. In the NFL, I research and compiled his career starting breakdown:
Left tackle: 5
Left guard: 7
Right guard: 3
Right Tackle: 16
He didn’t start a game in 2015, splitting time between the Dolphins and San Diego Chargers, and I’m not saying he’s a life-saver, but bringing on a swing-man has its value. A more accomplished, bigger version of Chris Hubbard.
Ted Larsen: This is the more unlikely of the two, given Larsen would probably want to at least search for a starting job, and his lack of size might not be something the Steelers would be interested in. He’s 6’2 and 5/8 and viewed more like a center but played right guard after Jonathan Cooper got hurt for the Arizona Cardinals. Bruce Arians even decided to have Larsen keep the gig after Cooper was healthy. He’s a 45 game starter with action at both guard spots and center in his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cardinals.
The Steelers usually target bigger guards with better length and Larsen’s 32 inch arms might not meet the benchmark. But despite being an undersized guard, he’s been able to hang around the league. If Foster is gone, Larsen would be someone who could compete for the starting gig with say, B.J. Finney, and another draft pick.
WHY: For reasons I’ve shouted from the rooftops all season. There’s no depth behind Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. I’m not looking for their snaps to be cut in half. Just about ten percent each, and I don’t want that to guy to a random guy who isn’t going to play at a quality level.
Heyward himself has said he wouldn’t mind a better rotation while Tomlin said he would switch them out if he had someone who could do that. He actually said that twice this year, taking some pretty obvious shots at Cam Thomas and L.T. Walton. The Steelers’ defense played over 1200 snaps this year. Heyward saw over 1100 of those. Tuitt was at 999. They’re tired.
Leger Douzable: The player I first wrote about, suggesting a trade that would bring Douzable in town for Dri Archer and a late round draft pick. Now, he’s a free agent, and I doubt he returns to the Jets. As I predicted at the time, his playing time was shrunk with Sheldon Richardson’s return and the Jets need to pay Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison. No meat on the bone for Douzable.
He was used more like a 4-3 end this year but turn the page back to 2014, and you see more conventional work as a five tech in an odd front. He’s played up and down the line and is a quality pass rusher who has had success against the Steelers, picking up a sack against them in 2014.
You can again read my whole rant on why Douzable was worth bringing in here. But here’s the bulk of it, from the article.
“But what attracts me to him is his versatility. He’s lined up all over the Jets’ front. A near-300 pounder who can wear almost every hat. He’s played as that wide end on both sides and between the tackles to both sides. He’s stood up to mimic an outside linebackers in some passing situations and against the Philadelphia Eagles, lined up like an off-ball inside linebacker twice. He’d be a fun wrinkle for Keith Butler to play around with in this defense.”
Billy Winn: Not sure I’ve seen a single person mention his name yet. I put on a couple games of Winn and came away generally impressed. What I love the most, and what really gets John Mitchell geeked up, is his willingness to run to the ball in space and a high football IQ. He’s not the most athletic but works hard snap-to-snap. And he has enough strength and plays with technique at the LOS to hold the point of attack against the run, even though he won’t blow many plays up.
He is going to offer little as a pass rusher, despite showing a forceful initial club, but can exploit those who play with poor technique, as he did to Cody Wallace this season. Most of his work came as the RDE/RDT but he also saw snaps on the left side and shown to be capable of playing with either hand down, though he’s right hand dominant.
The Indianapolis Colts placed him on IR with what a torn rotator cuff and his arms are short – 32.5 inches – something the Steelers usually aren’t interested in. From Tuitt and Heyward to Walton, they like 34+ measurables. Those two things could take him out of the mix but if not, Winn is a cheap option that can be used on run downs, giving Heyward and Tuitt some rest and juice for 3rd and long. The fact the Steelers are familiar with him, seeing him twice a year in Cleveland and this year with the Colts, is an added bonus.
Antonio Smith: Smith is an old man by the league’s standards, turning 35 before 2016 ends. I thought I would like him more than I did before I popped on the tape. He still shows a great deal of athleticism and energy as a pass rusher but struggled to disengage and generate pressure. He was mostly used as a subpackage DE, playing only two base snaps against the Cleveland Browns in Week 6. He did play on the left and right side, offering that versatility that is required for any free agent brought in.
His usage on defense schematically was similar to Pittsburgh. Tons of stunting, either as the crasher/looper on the inteiror, or some contain rushes when he stunted with the OLB. I’ve always been a fan of Smith’s game, really underrated guy with the Houston Texans. There’s still some juice in the tank but it isn’t as full as I hoped. With the Broncos having to sign seemingly everyone else though – Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, a Von Miller extension – Smith should hit the market.
WHY: If James Harrison retires, and really, that might be the most ideal situation for Pittsburgh, they can look to add another edge rusher. Only Bud Dupree carries long-term pass rushing value and most of his is still theoretical. It’s one of the most important positions in this defense. And also one of their weakest.
Nick Perry: Dave beat me to the punch yesterday and I won’t add much more. He has 12.5 sacks across four seasons. Not gaudy numbers but shows there is something there, despite few starts and never playing a full, 16 game season. He came on strong in the playoffs this year with 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble in two games. That gives him six playoff sacks in five games. Love to see a player rise to the occasion in the most important games.
If you remember, the Steelers brought him in for a pre-draft visit back in 2012, indicating some legitimate interest that probably hasn’t dissipated. Would make a lot of sense.
Frank Zombo: This is more for special teams impact than defensive work, though Zombo played over 200 defensive snaps this season and recorded three sacks last year, his most since his rookie season in 2010. The Steelers are familiar with him, be it his time in Kansas City (they’ve played KC the last two years) or in 2010, when Zombo had a Super Bowl sack in the Green Bay Packers’ victory over Pittsburgh.
I like his size at 6’3, 254, and he dominated on special teams. His 80.9% of snaps on the third phase were the 9th most of all linebackers and his 361 total snaps were second on the Chiefs’ entire roster. It was a similar story last year with Zombo playing 83.8% of the time, leading the team, and finishing third in the entire league, regardless of position.
If Sean Spence is allowed to leave, something that is certainly possible, you’re going to need to focus on replacing his special teams value. Zombo can do that and rotate in at OLB. Sure, he’s not a stud, but have fun hoping the Steelers bring in someone like that.
WHY: Like I just wrote, Spence could move on in the offseason. The Steelers can’t keep everyone and he sure seems like one of the least valuable players to lose. His ceiling is backup/special teamer and in his heart, maybe he thinks he could compete for a job somewhere else.
Tank Carder: Gotta love a man who calls himself “Tank.” He actually shouldn’t be playing football right now. BMX was his first sport, and he was incredible at it. By the time he was 10, in this great biography by the New York Times, he won a world championship in France. Here’s a fun clip of him competing, and winning, an expert class race when he was seven.
He quit the sport, picked it back up in middle school, and in seventh grade, got into a terrible car accident that ejected him from the vehicle, breaking his back and puncturing a lung. At the time, doctors didn’t know if he’d ever walk again.
He did and wound up being a cog in TCU’s defense before getting drafted by the Buffalo Bills and latching on with the Browns, where he’s been since 2012. Almost all of his work has been on special teams, finishing second on the Browns with 84.2% of the special teams snaps, 7th most of all LBs in the league.
He worked as L5 on kick coverage, right guard and right tackle on punts, and was part of the front line on kick returns. He does a nice job at the point of attack in coverage, has balance and is rarely knocked off his feet, and can get back into his lane when forced off his spot. I’d like to see him shed blocks a little bit better and don’t think it’s natural for him the way it is with those who had a pass rushing background.
According to PFR, he finished the year with six tackles on kicks and three on punts.
Jamari Lattimore: Lot of ex-Packers showing up on this list. Promise that wasn’t intentional. Lattimore is similar to Carder but has a more extensive starting background, starting nine times with the Pack in 2013 and 2014. He spent last year with the Jets, seeing just 57 snaps on defense. He was moved around on kick coverage in the games I observed, playing from R4, L3, and L4, on both return units, and the left tackle on punt coverage. In Week 6 against Washington, I chose the games at random, he made a league-high three special teams tackles. Dude just made plays.
WHY: Because if I don’t, you will all hurt me. I don’t think the Steelers will be huge players at cornerback, but they could bring in one low-key free agent. The crop of cornerbacks that fit that bill aren’t that great, either, and I struggled to find a name I liked.
Shareece Wright: Wright could easily be re-signed by the Baltimore Ravens, and I sort of expect that to happen, but if he hits the market, this is the one corner I’d look at. Cheap, two or three year deal option with minimal guaranteed money tied up in him. Thought he came on strong for the Ravens. Almost exclusive to left corner work but played well there.
The scheme was a little different, more Cover 2 and press man, but I like his ability to reroute and funnel receivers. Flips his hips well and stays in-phase. Explosive out of his break and stays on top of routes well using quick feet and proper eye placement, reading the hips of the receiver. Smart player who shows the ability to click and close and capable of reacting quickly and driving on the football.
Wish he was a better tackler against the run and had more special teams value, but Ross Cockrell is pretty soft and the Steelers let him play a ton.
WHY: You know why. If Robert Golden is not re-signed, consider SS the number one need.
Isa Abdul-Quddus: Probably not the first guy most people talk about. Or talk about at all. I’m not sure if he hits the market, he played well and expressed interest in returning to play for Jim Caldwell – who was retained – but maybe the new regime isn’t as attached and wants to move on.
Quddus didn’t even start the year, playing just over 54% of the time, and not seeing significant snaps until after the midpoint of the year when the Detroit Lions’ defense rotted into one of the worst in the league. Though there were other factors involved, the defense was significantly better once Abdul-Quddus was moved into a more prominent role.
He’d fit in perfectly as a strong safety. In-the-box kid who will stick his nose in the fray against the run and throws his weight around. Sturdy frame and desire to seek contact is a nice combo. I don’t think his transition is the smoothest and he struggled pressing in man coverage, but neither are dealbreakers for me. He has played a variety of roles in Detroit, from free to strong safety, time in the box, over slot, and the occasional blitz. He’ll turn 27 as camp starts and will get even better with experience.
He also played nearly 60% of the snaps on special teams, notably serving as an upback on punts. Very similar to Golden.
David Bruton: Like I mentioned when I wrote about Antonio Smith, the Broncos have a ton of free agents and only so much money that can hand out. Going to make their backups and lower-tier players expendable. Bruton played a ton in Denver’s dime subpackage but also saw work as a traditional safety, especially when injuries struck, as they did in Bruton’s start Week 15 against the Steelers. I admire his physicality and toughness, breaking a bone on his leg early in the second quarter and gutting the rest of the game out. He’s been a strong cog on special teams, carrying that physicality, beat-you-up mentality over to the third phase.
I do wish he was a slightly better tackler and was a little disappointed to see him miss some downhill, open field opportunities.
He’ll turn 29 in the offseason and knows he isn’t going to start in Denver. One last chance to grab a starting role so he’s likely to test the market. He also has done great community work off the field and was nominated his team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Reminds me of Arthur Moats.
Eric Weddle: Almost mandatory to put him on this list. Though he missed some time in 2016, remember the Chargers basically forced him to sit out the regular season finale. Weddle is an outspoken guy and someone Mike Tomlin has praised before. But he’s probably been too popular, only picking off three passes in as many seasons, and didn’t force a single turnover in 2015.
Andrew Sendejo: He’s not someone who will get the media excited about and that is with good reason. He started 13 games for the Minnesota Vikings, picking off one pass and recording half a sack. I briefly put on his tape and didn’t hate his game. Around the ball a ton, another built player. Isn’t as stiff in coverage as I thought though I don’t consider him great there. More of a drag down tackler than I anticipated/hoped and he was late reacting to some throws.
Husain Abdullah: I have a soft spot for versatile players. The Kansas City Chiefs ask their members of the secondary to wear several hats and Abdullah played as an in-the-box linebacker, deep safety, and even nickel corner. The numbers aren’t gaudy, they never have, but he has a well-rounded, underrated game. Tomlin never coached him but he was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2008 and maybe Coach still has some ties and inside info he can lean on.
Omar Bolden: Our third Bronco on this list. He barely saw the field on defense this year, 48 snaps, but he’s a plus athlete with return value. averaging 33 yards per kick in 2014 and 22.8 in 2015, while also taking a punt back 83 yards for a score. Not a guy you’d pencil in as a starter but is only 27 and can compete for the gig. He’s probably more of a free safety than strong safety and though the spots are pretty interchangeable, you’d like someone you can put in the box.
Colt Anderson: Low-tier guy and almost a Shamarko Thomas clone. 340 snaps on special teams, only 161 on defense, and you probably remember him as the “runner” on the botched Colts’ special teams debacle against the New England Patriots. But he’s been an ace special teamer for several seasons and is someone who can make that room more competitive that you can probably sign for a minimum qualifying contract.