The Pittsburgh Steelers were bounced from the postseason on Sunday night by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, who now enter the Super Bowl as favorites to win it all. Their season obviously ended a few weeks before they had hoped it would, and they now enter the offseason with a list of moves that need to be made. The roster is close to being Super Bowl-worthy and Ben Roethlisberger has plenty of football left in the tank, but the Steelers can’t sit back and do nothing over the next few months.
They have to make a handful of decisions, ones that will likely shape the course of the franchise for not just next season, but for years to come. Here are five moves the Steelers have to make this offseason to give themselves a shot to win it all next year, which is certainly a possibility.
Bring back Ross Cockrell
Ross Cockrell has been a good starter for the Steelers the past few seasons after being a cast-off from the Bills. He’s a restricted free agent this offseason, which will make it easy for the Steelers to retain him – and they should. The Steelers will be a bit thin at cornerback if Cockrell walks, leaving Artie Burns as the starter opposite William Gay. Burns proved he’s very capable of being that, but the NFL is a nickel-base league now where you need three good corners.
Cockrell started all 16 games for the Steelers this season after playing 15 in 2015. He only has two interceptions in that span, but he always finds himself around the ball making tackles or knocking passes down. He didn’t have his best game against the Patriots on Sunday, but who does? Tom Brady is the best at picking apart secondaries, and that’s exactly what he did to the Steelers. Now just imagine what it would have looked like if Cockrell wasn’t in the mix.
Replace Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker
Lawrence Timmons has been a staple of the Steelers’ defense for a decade, but it’s time for the team to move on. Timmons is a free agent, and while he won’t command top money, the Steelers shouldn’t go chasing him on the open market. If he wants to sign a team-friendly deal to provide depth, fine. But bringing him back as a starter would not be wise. The Steelers need to find his replacement, pairing a stud linebacker to play with Ryan Shazier.
Who that will be remains to be seen, but it shouldn’t be Timmons. His play has regressed in recent years and he’s no longer the playmaker that he once was. And with the way the NFL is moving towards playing three corners and two linebackers, it’s increasingly important for said linebackers to be strong against the run and the pass.
The Steelers need to get younger on defense, and inside linebacker is a starting point for that to happen. As difficult as it may be, they need to let Timmons walk and replace him with a more athletic, rangy linebacker in the mold of Shazier. It will only improve the overall speed and athleticism of the defense.
Getty ImagesJustin K. Aller
Draft an edge rusher
James Harrison said after the game that he’s “not done,” insinuating that he’ll be back in the mix next season. At 38 going on 39 years old, there’s little doubt Harrison’s time in the NFL is nearing its end, and it’s a big reason the Steelers have to address the outside linebacker position. He led the Steelers in sacks this season with five, which is both impressive and hugely disappointing for the rest of the pass rushers.
The Steelers failed to get any sort of pressure on Tom Brady Sunday night, which was a big reason for their loss. Harrison and Bud Dupree struggled to bend the edge, and oftentimes, they were dropping back into coverage for some reason. That’s another issue for another day, but it was clear the Steelers have a huge need at edge rusher.
Not to mention, Jarvis Jones is also a pending free agent and may not be back, leaving an even larger gaping hole opposite Dupree at outside linebacker. The Steelers have the cap space to go out and sign a top pass rusher like Melvin Ingram or Nick Perry, and it would be smart for them to do so. However, they’re more likely to build through the draft, particularly at the bottom of the first round.
Sign Le’Veon Bell long-term
Priority No. 1 of the offseason also happens to be the most obvious, and the most likely to happen. Le’Veon Bell, by far the Steelers’ best player this season, is set to be a free agent. Both sides appear to be on the same page with their plans for next season and beyond, and it should be a mere formality that he’ll be back in Pittsburgh in 2017.
There is one caveat, though: the franchise tag. Reports have suggested the Steelers will use the tag on Bell if the two sides can’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal. Fine, that’s fair. However, the Steelers would greatly benefit from locking up Bell for the foreseeable future rather than costing themselves an estimated $12 million in 2017 alone. You can look at his off-field issues and injury history as reasons to make him prove himself for one more year, but that’ll most likely cost them more money in the long run.
Say Bell has a huge season next year and makes it unequivocally obvious that he’s the best back in the league. That will only make his asking price even higher, in addition to the $12 million they would have paid him in 2017 for the tag. Locking up the best running back in the game has to be their No. 1 priority, off-field issues and all.
Steven SenneAP photo
Get aggressive in free agency
The Steelers are set up well for the offseason, boasting around $42 million in projected cap space. That’s in the upper-half of the NFL, which means the Steelers can get aggressive when March rolls around. Sure, Le’Veon Bell’s new deal will eat up a bit of that, as will Antonio Brown’s forthcoming extension, but Pittsburgh will have enough room to go after the top free agents. So which ones should they target? There are a few names out there who would be of interest.
Melvin Ingram fits the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme perfectly and is coming off two strong seasons for the Chargers. He’ll likely be one of the top targets on the open market if he isn’t re-signed by San Diego, but the Steelers should be every bit as aggressive as the next team.
Chandler Jones is another target for the Steelers, though he’s even less likely to hit free agency with the Cardinals figuring to make him a long-term offer. He has 23.5 sacks in the past two seasons.
Nick Perry is a one-year wonder, but that could work in the Steelers’ favor. His price won’t be nearly as high as Ingram’s or Jones’, which makes him a good risk-reward free agent.
Staying on defense, the Steelers should go after Stephon Gilmore and Trumaine Johnson, who are far from certain to return to their respective teams. Both would become immediate starters and the best corners in Pittsburgh, and we saw the way that worked out for the Giants and Janoris Jenkins this past season. A.J. Bouye is a budding star, too, though the Texans have made it clear they want him to return in 2017.
Regardless of which player the Steelers go after in free agency, there are plenty of defensive playmakers to be had. And for a team that’s aging on that side of the ball, signing a young stud would go a long way.