Personnel issues on the Defensive side of the ball are never an easy task to deal with for any N.F.L. franchise. As difficult as personnel issues are to fix, it never helps a franchise when the scheme employed by the Defense begins to become predictable and largely ineffective. Yet as troublesome as these aforementioned issues are, a franchise is truly in an unenviable spot when it turns out that the money dedicated to the team’s already under-performing Defensive players has essentially “hand-cuffed” the franchise from a salary cap perspective. Unfortunately for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their Front Office, they are not “lucky enough” to face just one or two of these problems at the moment.
They have to deal with all <*bleepin*> three!
To repair the absolute “casserole of monetary and personnel madness” known as the Defense, a significant “Extreme Make-Over: Steelers Roster Edition” must happen sooner as opposed to later. To do this, I believe that General Manager Kevin Colbert and the rest of Pittsburgh’s Front Office must (and likely will) be proactive in their efforts to rebuild their roster and restructure their payroll accordingly in the very near future. I hate to be “That Guy,” but like it or not “Steeler Nation,” if this Defense is going to get any younger, let alone any better from a talent perspective, some roster purging and difficult decisions could definitely do this team good in the short and long runs.
Chopping Block After This Season (UFA’s)
Casey Hampton, Ryan Mundy, Keenan Lewis, and Larry Foote
It will break my heart the moment that “Big Snack” is no longer a member of the Steelers. As one of the best 0-Technique Nose Tackles to play during the ’00’s, Hampton has been a model of consistency and effort out on the football field for 13 seasons. Unfortunately for “Snack,” his age (36 next season), the cheap depth already at the Nose Tackle position (Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta’amu), and his upcoming status as a UFA could all be working against him come this offseason when his contract expires. Thus, the cash-strapped Steelers will be unlikely to afford Hampton next season unless he accepts an enormous pay-cut. Yet even if Hampton is willing to accept a lower salary, one must question whether or not Pittsburgh will carry three Nose Tackles on their roster in 2013..
Keenan Lewis’ Pro Bowl rhetoric before the season started seems like a distant memory after the first three weeks. It also has not helped that Lewis has been inconsistent over the course of his career in Pittsburgh, and done little to completely win the starting Cornerback job opposite Ike Taylor outright (only 1 INT in 3+ seasons) by his 4th season in the League. To me, if this team did not re-sign William Gay last offseason, the odds are they will not re-up Lewis come 2013 if he is looking for a new or expensive deal deal.
In addition to Lewis, Safety Ryan Mundy has been inconsistent at best over his five year career with the team, and has done little during his opportunities to start (especially the Denver Wild Card Game) to illustrate that he deserves to be resigned to a long-term deal once the season ends. The “#1 Backup” at both Safety spots might be out of the job in 2013 due to his poor performances during the first three Weeks of the 2012 season, and will/should be allowed to walk when the offseason begins for more cap space.
I am not necessarily on the “Cut Larry Foote” bandwagon like some people currently are, and have been over the last two years. At least to me, Foote has done a more than adequate job replacing James Farrior this season (23 Tackles team-lead, and 1.0 Sack), has chipped in on Special Teams, and probably has the best understanding of Dick LeBeau’s Defense of anybody currently on the team. Foote’s overall performance in 2012 has indicated two things: a) he has produced when out on the football field, and b) he has actually played like he wants to wear a Steelers uniform for another season or two. The soon to be 33 year-old UFA is earning a $3 million dollar base salary this season, and will probably not be offered that kind of money by the cash-strapped Front Office. Regardless, the Steelers might be willing to re-sign him for another year or two at a lower rate, and that would be an acceptable and sensible move if he took a pay-cut. If not, Foote could and probably will be on his way out of town after this season ends.
Ziggy Hood and Jason Worilds
Both Hood and Worilds will be UFA’s after the 2013 season, and both have yet to truly make the impacts that most 1st and 2nd Round picks usually do over their first four seasons in the League. Hood, the team’s 2009 1st Round selection, has done an adequate job over his career and even started 19 games. Yet Hood’s productivity (5.5 Sacks and 67 Tackles) has shown nothing to indicate that he is worthy of a second contract with the club, and a long-term starter at the Defensive End position. Worilds on the other hand has been nagged by injuries for most of his N.F.L. career, and has yet to realize the full potential (6.0 Sacks and 47 Tackles) the franchise thought he had when they selected the former Hokie in the 2nd Round of the 2010 Draft.
As inconsistent as Worilds and Hood have been, they are still young players (Hood 26 and Worilds 25 in 2013) and could generate some interest from teams willing to take a gamble on them. Hood (a better fit for a 4-3 Defense anyway) could be sought after by teams in need of a 3-Technique, which can play a 1-Technique in a pinch. There might even be some teams interested in adding a spot-starter and solid 5-Technique for their 3-4 rotation as well. If there is any team willing to give up a 4th or 5th Round pick on Hood, the Steelers would be wise to at least consider a trade. Worilds could find a potential home with some teams looking to bolster their pass-rush and are in need of depth at the Outside Linebacker position. New York (Jets), Indianapolis, Miami, Arizona, or San Diego all could be willing partners, and could even be coaxed to spend a 5th to 6th Round pick on the Rush Linebacker.
Personnel-wise, the Steelers would be able to “bite” the monetary and performance “bullet” if Hood departed before the 2013 season began. In Hood’s absence, 2011 1st Round pick Cameron Heyward would take over at one Defensive End position, veteran Brett Keisel would play out the final year of his contract, and another Defensive End on the roster would hopefully be able to develop as the Steelers would have the money left over they could have used on Hood for other uses. As for Worilds, Chris Carter would be able to gain another year of experience to prove himself at Outside Linebacker, current UDFA Adrian Robinson would receive some reps and continue to develop, and a hopefully high draft pick (or two) could compete for playing time until they are ready to contribute. If the offers do indeed exist for one or both of these guys, and one or multiple offers are agreeable, Pittsburgh could be best served by receiving something in return for their services as opposed to letting them walk for free come 2014. With extra draft picks as compensation, the Steelers could go right to work next April and begin to plug the numerous holes remaining on the Defensive side of the ball.
Chopping Block in 2014, 2015, or Even After This Season?
In addition to the players I mentioned above, the Steelers will also need to make some big decisions after the 2013 season ends (or even after this season) on even more of their veteran players. While these guys are veterans and are signed through the 2014 season, their contracts and the allotted amounts of money and time they extend over, will put Colbert & Co. in some very difficult positions in the future.
Granted, these numbers (via spotrac.com) below only take into account the player’s contract, roster bonus, and signing bonus values. They do not fully discuss how much each player would fully count against the salary cap if they were released, and when they are inevitably released, traded, or allowed to finish out their contracts with the Steelers. Furthermore, these numbers have not taken into account the future restructuring and possible offseason work by the “Restructuring Wizard” Omar Khan. Nevertheless, I thought it would be not only interesting to illustrate how much money is/has been dedicated to some players on the Defensive side of the ball, but also show which players’ could be victims of a “salary cap purge.”
While the players I discuss below will be UFA’s after the 2013 season, their price tags might be too high for the Steelers to keep if they are unwilling to negotiate or their play drops off significantly this season. While the Front Office does have valid reasons to keep both players until they become UFA’s, it would not shock me if they were gone before next season started in an effort to save money and get younger on Defense. What I can say though is that it is almost a certainty that both players will not be members of the “Black & Gold” come the start of the 2014 regular season as their current contracts will have expired and probably will not be retained.
2013: (Due $2.825 Million Base Salary, $1.675 Million Sign. Bonus)
As I discussed above, the team would be better off trying to trade Hood and keeping Brett Keisel for one last go around with the team. Especially since they could possibly receive in return for Hood, as opposed to nothing if they kept keeping both around for the duration of their deals and letting both walk for free. In spite of his age (35 in 2013), Keisel would be a nice bridge to build the gap from “old” to “new” along the Defensive Line. 5-Technique “bridge” aside, Keisel’s play and recent injuries have to be taken into account in regards to him sticking around after the 2013 season if his contract demands are not within the Steelers’ price-range during said period.
2013: (Due $3.5 Million Base Salary, $750,000 Sign. Bonus, $500,000 Misc. Bonus)
To be perfectly frank, I was against the Steelers’ decision to bring Ryan Clark back after the 2009 season ended. He was exposed at times when Troy Polamalu was injured in 2009, has been a 15-yard penalty machine at times with his hits, can be a sloppy tackler, and has had his fair share of issues with his ball-skills. Now that the contract I alluded to above is nearing its expiration, the team will have to yet again make another decision on Clark’s future after the 2013 season ends. By the time the 2014 rolls around, Clark will be nearing 35 years of age, and who knows what kind of productivity the team will get from him then. Thus, even if the Steelers do decide to keep him after this season and do not cut him, Colbert & Co. might want to consider either drafting a Safety or two early, finding an under-the-radar and cheap Free Agent option like Clark was back in 2006, or giving a player like Robert Golden a shot. Still, like Keisel, from a depth perspective the Steelers would be wise to wait and just let Clark’s contract expire after next season ends and go from there.
In spite of the fact that both of the players I discuss below will be UFA’s in 2015, reasons exist why Colbert & Co. might be willing to part ways with these veterans before their contracts expire due to health and monetary reasons. While the cap hits could be large, the Steelers might save some money and cap space in the long-term by parting ways with these two players sooner as opposed to later.
2013: (Due $6.570 Million Base Salary, $2 Million Sign Bonus, $1.465 Misc. Bonus)
2014: (Due $7.575 Million Base Salary, $1.465 Misc. Bonus)
Like “Snack,” I will hate to see James Harrison leave, but at this point in his career it might be finally time to let go of one of the best pass rushers in franchise history. Hindsight is 20/20, but if the Steelers were smart, they would have cut Harrison after the 2011 season due to his mounting health issues. Now it appears they will have to keep him on until 2015 unless they want to take a large cap hit and end the marriage after this season. In Harrison’s defense, I am sure that the former UDFA would not have been out on the field lolleygagging like some of the higher-paid players on this Defense have done over the season’s first three weeks. Over his entire career, Harrison has absolutely “brought it” on a weekly basis, and will always be revered in this fanbase for his tenacity and ferociousness. From an economic and a football perspective though, it would be an unwise venture if this team kept Harrison around after this season without a monster pay-cut from him.
2013: (Due $6 Million Base Salary, $1.8125 Million Sign. Bonus, $1.641666 Million Misc. Bonus)
2014: (Due $7 Million Base Salary, $1.8125 Million Sign. Bonus, $1.641666 Million Misc. Bonus)
Ike Taylor’s contract situation is completely indicative of why I thought the team should have franchised him last year and let LaMarr Woodley test the Free Agent waters and subsequently walk in the Summer of 2011. The Steelers instead gave Taylor a deal through the 2014 season. What they should have done was re-up Taylor on for one more season with the franchise tag, assessed how well he performed last year, and saved a boat-load of money by letting Woodley walk. While I am not “Screamin'” A. Smith, and will thus not constantly harp on Taylor’s performance against the Broncos in last season’s Wild Card Game, I think we can all agree that Taylor has definitely seen better days before the last two seasons. Granted, Taylor might be the #1 Cornerback on this team, but he will be 33 when next season rolls around and making $6 million in just his base salary. If Taylor’s play declines, the Steelers might be encouraged to part ways with Taylor to create some cap space for the future.
While not all of these moves I discussed above will happen, it would not shock me if at least 70% of the guys I discussed above were not wearing the Black & Gold by the start of the 2013 season. Furthermore, I would not be surprised if 90%-100% of them were gone by the time the 2014 season rolled around. In addition to rebuilding the Defense though, money must also be saved and cap space must increase. And I am sure that the Steelers could use some extra cap space saved to spend to re-sign their better and younger players (especially on Offense), multiple Draft Picks on the Defensive side of the ball, or even some Free Agents during these “rebuilding years.” So while Khan’s job is to play “Salary Cap Tetris,” the idea of waiting for the Salary Cap to go up over the coming years is a “prolonging the inevitable financial doom” type of strategy if proactive steps are not taken.
I understand that many of you readers might not agree in the event that Pittsburgh’s Front Office decides to purge veterans on the Defensive side of the ball at an alarming rate over the next few seasons. And yes, I have heard the argument that it might not be wise to start younger or less than experienced players. But for one to currently say that “Oh, well the Steelers are playing with the best they have at every position, it would only get worse if some of the backups on Defense played…blah, blah, blah,” I must respectfully disagree.
If those of you espousing the “playing with the best they have” argument did not care to pay attention, Pittsburgh’s Defense did not force one punt in the Second Half of both the Denver and Oakland games. Plus, they were given the gift of a 10+minute drive, and a significant Mark Sanchez blow to the head in Week 2. In my opinion, How can things be possibly any worse or less effective if others played?
At least with the new guys gaining more game experience, the Coaching Staff can properly gauge the talent on their roster. With actual analysis in front of them, the Coaching Staff can make informed and actual decisions on players instead of “developing” them for three to four years with hardly any game experience and gambling they turned out alright (a la Ryan Mundy). Other N.F.L. teams are able to start Rookies with success and are not completely shackled by the notion of “veterans are first in line” or “the LeBeau system is too complex.” I for one believe that 2012 will be a lost season anyways if the team loses to Philadelphia in Week 5. At this point, Pittsburgh’s Defense would have issues stopping a Lingerie League team at the moment, and there are no signs that things will get any better. Thus, it could serve this team best in the long run to put some backups on the field with either potential or desire, or some sort of combination of both to at least get a better feel of what sort of depth this team has before they head into the upcoming offseason before decisions are made.
Do not kid yourselves readers, a reconstruction effort by this Front Office will not be a quick-fix task, and the play on the field during said reconstruction will not be easy to watch at times either. Still, if the Steelers are going to get any better and field a competitive Defense during the prime seasons of Big Ben’s career, the Defensive issues must be seen to and eliminated. Luckily for the franchise and us fans, the Steelers have the correct people in their Front Office to make some positive moves and return this Defense to glory.
Share your thoughts readers:
Should the Steelers bring down “the hammer” on multiple veterans this offseason? How many should be purged for salary cap purposes? Will the rebuilding process go smoothly?