The Pittsburgh Steelers have already begun their offseason preparation for 2017. Here are five potential free agents the team needs to retain.
While the New England Patriots are the league’s current reigning dynasty, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the ultimate example of continuity and consistency. The franchise has employed only three head coaches since 1969 (Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin). Dating back to the merger, no NFL franchise has won more regular-season games (444), more division titles (22), more postseason contests (36) and more Super Bowl titles (6).
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It’s also an organization that has had a plan. Build through the draft and use free agency sparingly to fill in the occasional hole. And make sure they keep their better players around for as long as possible. It is one reason the club has not suffered through a losing campaign since finishing 6-10 way back in 2003.
The Steelers are not a team that throws around a lot of big money to free agents from other franchises. They prefer to spend their cash on their own home-grown players such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and defensive end Cameron Heyward, to name a few.
The current AFC North champions have some work to do when it comes to some of their better players this offseason. There are a number of key performers slated to hit the free-agent market come March 9. Here is a look at five such performers who the Steelers might do well to bring back for at least one more season. And one particular workhorse running back stands out more than the rest on this list.
Nov 6, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) catches a pass prior to the start of the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
5. DeAngelo Williams
He’s been quite the addition in recent years for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not that running back DeAngelo Williams was an unknown quantity. The all-time rushing yardage leader in the somewhat-brief history of the Carolina Panthers has made his mark around the league. And when it comes to Mike Tomlin’s club, he has proven to be quite the insurance policy these past two seasons.
As Le’Veon Bell’s main fill-in, Williams has been extremely productive. He’s played in 24 regular-season contests for Tomlin’s team and made 14 starts. He’s rolled up 1,735 total yards from scrimmage and reached the end zone 17 times. He led Pittsburgh with 907 yards on the ground in 2015 and this past season, made four starts in place of Bell. Over his 11-year NFL career with the Panthers and Steelers, the veteran running back has amassed 8,096 yards and 61 scores on the ground.
However, the 33-year-old performer still looks pretty spry. His workload in the league has been a lot different than the early stages of his career. From 2009-10, while with Carolina, he racked up a combined 3,005 yards from scrimmage and 27 touchdowns on 540 touches. Now he’s the ideal back to spell Bell on occasion. And his experience in the league makes him a good mentor for all of the team’s running backs, as well as the younger players on the club.
Williams brings a lot of positive energy to one of the better organizations in the league. Don’t be surprised if the club keeps him around for another year or two at an extremely reasonable price.
Dec 18, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (92) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
4. James Harrison
After years of investigation, it’s been determined that veteran outside linebacker James Harrison has been around a lot longer that you think. How so? The sack specialist actually turned the quarterback on Moses, causing him to drop one of his tablets. That’s the reason there are only Ten Commandments instead of 15.
Alright, so we’re exaggerating a little. But the 38-year-old defender has proven that he can still bring it for a team that is tailor-made for this talents. Harrison and the Pittsburgh pass rush didn’t have a huge year in 2016. The club actually totaled 38 sacks, 10 fewer than the previous year (48).
But a closer look shows that 25 of those quarterback traps came in their final seven regular-season outings. Harrison led the way with a team-high five sacks. And in three postseason games, he added 20 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a key forced fumble.
Perhaps even more importantly is the influence and effect that the imposing physical specimen has on a young defensive unit. It was a group that grew as the season emerged. One of the up-and-coming players is two-year outside linebacker Bud Dupree. He finished second on the team in 2016 with 4.5 sacks and made his presence felt in the postseason.
His 13 seasons (172 regular-season games) alone with the Steelers has seen Harrison rack up 79.5 sacks and 33 forced fumbles. He’s added 11 more sacks in 18 postseason games with the franchise, 4.5 of those QB traps in five playoff contests since 2015. His presence makes this a better defensive team. And it’s a unit that could be on the verge of some big things if progress continues.
Jan 17, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers offensive guard David DeCastro (66) and center Cody Wallace (72) against the Denver Broncos during the AFC Divisional round playoff game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
And while Cody Wallace did not see any action in 2016, he’s been a valuable part of this club since joining the franchise in 2013. Yes, the 6-4, 290-pound performer turns 33 years old in November. He’s been around a lot longer than you think when it comes to the NFL. The former Texas A&M product was a fourth-round pick in 2008 by the San Francisco 49ers but played one game in two years with the club. He bounced around the league for a number of years between numerous rosters and practice squads.
With Pittsburgh, he’s suited up for 40 regular-season contests and made 22 starts in four seasons. He filled in for Pouncey when he was lost for all of 2015, starting all 16 games and a pair of playoff tilts. The feisty blocker, who has also seen action at guard, has been around the game for a while but doesn’t have a ton of wear and tear on his frame. It’s possible he could return for a fifth year with Mike Tomlin’s club. But he could also wind up a short-term starter for a club looking to fill a hole along an emerging offensive front.
Oct 16, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry (14) is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (94) during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. The Dolphins won 30-15. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
2. Lawrence Timmons
According to Mark Kaboly of DKPittsburghSports.com, the Black and Gold have shown interest in bringing back the 10-year pro. The Steelers defense made strides as the season wore on, although you may not have known that by the unit’s performance in a 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Foxborough.
Still, Keith Butler’s unit jumped from 21st in the NFL in total yards allowed per game in 2015 to a respectable 12th in the league this past season. Thanks to improving play from second-year outside linebacker Bud Dupree and rookies in cornerback Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis and defensive linemen Javon Hargrave, things appear to be looking up for this group.
That’s why bringing back Timmons for the start of his second decade in the Steel City is extremely important. The veteran defender comes off a season in which he easily led the club with 114 tackles. Add in 2.5 sacks, a pair of interceptions, five passes defensed and a forced fumble and it was a pretty complete showing. It marked the fourth consecutive season and the fifth time in his career that the former Florida State Seminoles standout paced the club in stops.
Timmons was also highly-productive during the Steelers’ three-game postseason run in 2016. He racked up a team-high 29 tackles and a pair of sacks. There’s little doubt that he should be a majority priority for general manager Kevin Colbert. Paired with Pro Bowler Ryan Shazier, they make for an extremely talented inside tandem.
Dec 25, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (26) carries the ball for a seven yard touchdown run against the Baltimore Ravens during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 31-27. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
1. Le’Veon Bell
Were you expecting someone else?
Running back Le’Veon Bell missed the first three games of 2016 due to his latest suspension of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. He also sat out the final game of the regular season as preparation for his first playoff appearance.
Despite appearing in only a dozen games, the former Michigan State workhorse finished third in the league with an amazing 1,884 total yards from scrimmage. Only four players totaled more rushing yards than Bell, who racked up 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns on 261 carries. That’s a healthy 4.9 yards per attempt. Add in 75 receptions for 616 yards and two scores and the production is simply mind-boggling.
“I think they do need to do whatever they can to keep him,” added quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
That apparently will be the case. Last month, Ian Rapoport reported that the Steelers would use the franchise tag on the four-year pro. But bringing back the talented running back does come with some risk. He’s been suspended by the league twice and has had his share of injuries in four seasons.
During the team’s stretch run to the playoffs, the offense became the Le’Veon Bell show. That’s why his loss after six carries and 20 yards rushing in the AFC title game made such a difference. And the only question remaining when it comes to this player is whether the Steelers have to settle for him agreeing to a one-year franchise tender or a long-term contract.