The Pittsburgh Steelers figure to be contenders again next season. A strong showing during 2017 NFL Free Agency, though, could put them over the top in the race to Super Bowl LII.
It was a wild 2016 campaign for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After a strong start, some early-season injuries watched them fall behind in the race for the playoffs. Then, seven straight wins saw them enter the postseason on a hot streak.
Unfortunately, the Steelers ultimately fell short in the AFC Championship game. A demoralizing defeat at the hands of the eventual champs sent them on an early vacation, bringing their 2016 roller coaster ride to a disappointing end.
The majority of their AFC North-winning roster remains intact heading into 2017, though. There are a few pending free agents who could jump ship, but chances are the majority of the prominent players scheduled to hit the open market will be retained. And with about $33 million in cap space to work with (via Spotrac.com), the Steelers could even make a few key additions via free agency.
So what can we expect from Pittsburgh this offseason? Will they re-sign some of their biggest pending free agents? Will we see any splash signings during 2017 NFL Free Agency? No one knows for sure, but we can definitely speculate.
Let’s answer some of the above questions with my predictions for the biggest moves the Steelers will make as part of the free agency festivities.
One of the Steelers’ top pending free agents this offseason is inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Despite his continued impact for the Pittsburgh defense and dominance on the stat sheet, it’s unclear how the team feels about his potential return.
However, if I had to guess, I’d say Timmons will be headed elsewhere by the time free agency is over.
The Steelers have already alluded to their hesitance towards bring back Timmons. GM Kevin Colbert recently made comments that suggested a re-signing is possible but far from guaranteed, questioning whether “it all fit” (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac).
So why the hesitation? On paper, Timmons had a tremendous 2016 season with a team-leading 114 tackles and 2.5 sacks. However, according to Pro Football Focus, he was wildly ineffective, especially as a run defender. Of 87 qualified linebackers, Timmons finished ranked 70th, not exactly what you’d expect from a guy who will likely command a pricey contract this offseason.
Timmons has had a great 10 years in Pittsburgh. However, at this juncture, it appears his time with the franchise has come to an end. Luckily for him, there are plenty of linebacker-needy teams with the cap space to sign him come March 9.
Even after Timmons’ departure, the Steelers could continue trimming some of the aging players from this defense. The next step is bidding farewell to William Gay, who’s been a staple in the secondary for all but one of his 10 NFL seasons.
Now obviously getting rid of Gay doesn’t save Pittsburgh a ton of money. By designating him as a post-June 1 cut, they can save $2 million in cap space for 2017. It’s not a huge gain, but it could help make a corresponding impact signing to upgrade this pass defense.
Don’t get me wrong, Gay is far from a liability for the Steelers at cornerback. However, at the ripe age of 32, it’s clear he’s headed downhill at this point in his career. He fared well in his move to the slot this past season, but Pittsburgh still needs to add some bodies at the position in 2017.
In this situation, I believe they cut him loose to make room for a younger option at cornerback. It’s not ideal considering the impact Gay has had in Pittsburgh, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes in the NFL. Tough decisions have to be made in the coming weeks, and this seems like one seems likely.
You know how I mentioned adding some young talent at cornerback? Well here is said addition. It’s certainly not a solve-all, but it’s a step in the right direction.
What I like about the potential signing of Kayvon Webster is the Steelers would be getting significant upside for a small price. The former third-round pick has played an understandably insignificant role as part of the Denver Broncos secondary, serving behind Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., and Bradley Roby.
Now with the opportunity to sign elsewhere, Webster should have several situations in which he can find an expanded role. And considering the Steelers’ need at cornerback, they seems like an exceptional option for the former USF star.
Pittsburgh has a budding playmaker in Artie Burns, the team’s 2016 first-round pick. However, behind him, there isn’t much starting-caliber talent to speak of. Ross Cockrell is a solid, but is a restricted free agent this offseason. The rest of the cornerback depth chart is filled with unknown or unreliable options.
Realistically, you could probably call Webster an unknown as well. However, though four seasons in Denver, he’s shown flashes of starter potential. A change of scenery could be exactly what he needs to unlock his true potential.
With Timmons gone and a general lack of talent at inside linebacker, the Steelers need to find a fix. The options scheduled to hit free agency are limited, but one of the underrated candidates to fill the void is Gerald Hodges.
This past season, Hodges shined in his first year as a full-time starter for the San Francisco 49ers. He didn’t receive a lot of credit for his effort because he, well, played for the 49ers. However, it wasn’t difficult to see he was one of the lone bright spots for San Francisco’s miserable defense.
The former fourth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings showed serious promise early in his career. After a trade to the 49ers, he finally earned an extended look as a starter and ran with it. 83 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions later, Hodges is primed to receive a significant payday this offseason.
There are a couple of internal options to replace Timmons as the other starter alongside Ryan Shazier. Some of the candidates are Vince Williams, Tyler Matakevich and Steven Johnson. However, in terms of upside, I believe Hodges offers more than the aforementioned players.
If Hodges landed in Pittsburgh, the potential is there for him to shine alongside Shazier. He’s a tremendous athlete with great awareness and instincts on any down. If the Steelers signed him, he’d be a welcomed addition to a defense that must get better in 2017.
No matter how things play out this offseason, Le’Veon Bell will be getting paid big. The odds are heavily stacked in favor of him becoming the highest-paid running back in the NFL. That’s exactly what I’m predicting will happen.
The Steelers know Bell is the future of this offense, even with the injury and off-field issues. He’s one of the most dynamic offensive talents in the NFL, and should continue to earn that designation for the foreseeable future. That’s why they need to do everything in their power to keep him happy.
Last summer, Bell indicated that he’d be looking for a deal that paid him an average of about $15 million per year. Seeing as he’s coming off another superb season, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if that asking price increased.
While the Steelers have a decent amount of cap space to work with, a large chunk of it will go to Bell. He’s arguably the best running back in the NFL right now, and will expect to be paid as such. That means the majority of Pittsburgh’s spending power will be used to keep Bell in town.
Luckily for the Steelers, Bell is only 25 years old. Chances are he still has at least a few more years of elite play before he starts to wear down. While the injuries and suspensions are a concern, they won’t keep Pittsburgh from giving Bell a gargantuan contract in the coming weeks.