The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most successful and prolific franchises in all of sports. There is an expectation to win every season for the team from the steel city. So needless to say Sunday night’s 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game is a hard pill to swallow. Despite finishing two wins short of the ultimate goal of winning a record seventh Super Bowl title, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered in the offseason for the Steelers.
The Steelers enter the offseason with plenty to address. There are 14 impending unrestricted free agents including running backs Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, linebackers James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons as well as backup quarterback Landry Jones. While Pittsburgh is almost certain to look elsewhere for their backup quarterback, the other key free agents leave them with tough decisions to make.
When it comes to Le’Veon Bell there is a lot to be considered. Bell is thought of by many across the league to be one of, if not the most complete running backs in the NFL. Despite missing three games due to suspension Bell amassed 1882 total yards (1268 rushing) from scrimmage with nine total touchdowns in 12 games started. His patience and explosiveness make him one of the most difficult running backs to cover in the game. When healthy and on the field Bell is a game changer. With that said, his health and off the field issues are something the Steelers need to consider before committing long term to Bell. According to spotrac.com, Bell could be looking at an AAV of $9.1M. While the man they call “juice” will be looking for a long term deal, there is a distinct possibility the Steelers will use their franchise tag on him this year. This will give the two sides the extra time needed to work out a long tem deal and also give the Steelers another year to see if Bell can stay healthy and away from off the field trouble.
DeAngelo Williams has had a very productive two years in Pittsburgh. The Carolina Panthers all-time leading rusher put together 1250 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons for the Steelers. Williams started 13 games for Bell during that time. He fit very well in the offensive scheme and if he decides he still wants to chase that Super Bowl title, it would be no surprise if he was back in 2017.
If you follow the Steelers regularly you know nobody puts in more work than James Harrison. The soon to be 39-year-old linebacker spends over $300,000 a year to keep his body in immaculate condition. Harrison led the Steelers in sacks with five and continued to defy the odds with his relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks. After the team’s loss in the AFC title game Harrison stated that he was “not done” and would not retire. If the salary is right, it would be smart for the Steelers to bring back Harrison because of his dedication as well as his leadership on and off the field.
Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick as head coach of the Steelers was Lawrence Timmons. Timmons has been the unheralded leader of the Steelers defense for nearly 10 years. He will turn 31 in May and has a market value of $6.2M per year according to spotrac.com. With fellow free agent linebacker Jarvis Jones most likely not returning, the Steelers may look to bring the veteran back. One thing that could keep Timmons from returning is the need to improve the secondary. If the Steelers find someone in free agency that can be an upgrade at the DB position, Timmons could be left on the outside looking in.
Perhaps the first thing to be addressed in the offseason is the contract status of Antonio Brown. He has four straight seasons of 100+ receptions and 1000+ yards receiving. During that span Brown has caught 43 touchdowns. He is considered by many to be the best WR in the game today. Brown’s current contract runs through 2017 paying him a base salary of $4,710,000. His cap hit for 2017 is $13,618,333. The Steelers want to lock Brown up for the long term and both sides will work very hard on a new contract before the 2017 season starts.
The Steelers will look to address the defense in the draft. The linebacker core is young with emerging stars like Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier and the defensive front made strides with the impressive play of rookie Javon Hargrave. In 2016 Pittsburgh got beat by the big play way too much. Rookie defensive backs Sean Davis and Artie Burns at times showed promise but both were exposed on the big stage in the playoffs. Cornerback Ross Cockrell despite starting all season recorded zero interceptions. Late in the preseason Pittsburgh traded for CB Justin Gilbert from the Cleveland Browns. Once highly touted, Gilbert faltered in Cleveland. The former first round pick played primarily special teams for the Steelers in 2016 and was not given a chance to make an impact on defense. For the next 3 months you will see hundreds of mock drafts from all of the “experts”. The bottom line here is the Steelers need to upgrade the secondary.
Although the Steelers won another division title and made it to the AFC championship game, 2016 must be viewed as a disappointment. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be 35 when teams report to training camp in the Summer. When healthy the future hall of famer is a top-5 quarterback in the NFL. So many teams around the league have struggled to find their franchise quarterback and the Steelers need to take advantage of the years they have left with Big Ben.
In 2017 Pittsburgh will face the AFC South and NFC North along with playoff rematches with both Kansas City and New England. Despite losing to the Patriots for the right to go to the Super Bowl, the Steelers once again will be a popular preseason pick to win it all in 2017. For the most part the talent is here. The quarterback, the skill players, the coach are all in place. As long as the Steelers make the necessary adjustments to the defense they will be a team to reckon with next season. If not, it will be another long offseason in 2017.
This piece was written by Scott Burke.