Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted three Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA’s) according to Ed Bouchette of the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:”
UFA visitors at Steelers today besides Stephens-Howling: LB Tavares Gooden and Antoine Caldwell guard
— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) April 3, 2013
When one looks at this list, it appears that Pittsburgh’s brass want to add role players and depth to their roster as the franchise heads into what is sure to be a rebuilding 2013 season. Caldwell (6’3″ 307 lbs.) gained a large amount of experience as a center and a guard in Houston’s zone-running-heavy offense (39 games, 19 starts), and the soon to be 27 year-old would provide some “interior offensive line insurance” if currently unsigned “UFA” Doug Legursky does not return to the “Steel City.”
Although Gooden has been more of a special teams player over the course of his six-year career (57 games, 12 starts), he has nevertheless played the inside linebacker position before in 3-4 defensive schemes with the Ravens and the 49ers. Adding a veteran like Gooden (6’1″ 233 lbs.) to the mix would make sense for a team in need of inside linebacker depth and consistent performers on special teams.
Of the three potential Free Agent signees though, I believe that LaRod Stephens-Howling would fit the best with Pittsburgh. Moreover, if the Steelers can find a way to ink the 5’7″ 180 lb. running back, I believe that Stephens-Howling would be a solid pickup by the franchise due to his unique skill-set.
On the offensive side of the ball, LaRod was productive in the “3rd down back” role for the Cardinals during his career, and has the hands and the field-vision to be an enormous upgrade over Baron Batch in the aforementioned department. Last season, the former Pitt Panther was able to set career-highs in carries (111), yards (357), rushing touchdowns (4), and receptions (17).
Although Stephens-Howling does not possess the frame to be an “every-down” running back, his experience in a zone-blocking scheme at Pitt and in Arizona should serve him well in Pittsburgh as the Steelers will be transitioning to more of zone-based rushing attack under new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr.. Furthermore, LaRod’s ability to be used in a multitude of passing down-packages should make him an attractive option for a team in need of a “3rd down back” like Pittsburgh.
While LaRod has the potential to chip in a bit on the offensive side of the ball, the area he shines brightest in on special teams, particularly as a kick returner. Before the N.F.L. changed the kickoff rules, Stephens-Howling did a masterful job for the Cardinals as a kick returner during his first two seasons in the league.
In 2009, the former Pitt Panther racked up 1,257 return yards and scored 1 touchdown, and he followed that up with an N.F.L.-leading 1,548 return yards and 2 touchdowns in 2010. In addition to his skills as a kick returner, Stephens-Howling can also provide value on kickoff and punt return coverage units, and his speed and tenacity came in handy when Arizona needed him to down punts and make special teams tackles.
While I like Stephens-Howling and what he could bring to the Steelers, his signing would not mean the end of Pittsburgh’s woes at the running back position. As a role playing running back, LaRod would be best used on 3rd downs and in some pass-catching situations. In addition, the gritty jitter-bug would help out on kick returns and coverage units, and maybe even field a punt or two. Basically, Stephens-Howling could try to do what Chris Rainey was drafted to do, but never eventually did for the franchise before he was released earlier this year. Thus, even if Stephens-Howling is signed by the club, they should and likely will be on the lookout for an “every down back” in this year’s Draft.
Even if Pittsburgh’s brass like LaRod and really want to add him to their roster, Colbert & Co. might have some trouble signing him if another team with more cap space than the Steelers enters the market for “The Hyphen.” Hopefully the Johnstown, PA-native would take a “Western Pennsylvania discount” of sorts to go to Pittsburgh if that scenario occurred. Plus, Stephens-Howling could be enticed to sign with the Steelers because the “3rd down back” and kick and punt returner roles should be his to lose.
While Pittsburgh’s brass are strapped financially, it is nevertheless comforting to see that they are trying to add depth through the free agent market before “Draft Weekend” later this month.
Depth is needed at center, guard, and inside linebacker at the moment so the interest in Caldwell and Gooden makes sense. I should add that “Boss Todd’s” offense sorely lacks a “3rd down back,” and the special teams units lack an effective return man and disciplined coverage players.
At least to me, Stephens-Howling could be just the player to fill at least one of those roles and help Pittsburgh in some way next season.
Whether or not he will be offered a deal, or will sign with the team are completely different matters altogether though.
Readers: Should the Steelers try to sign Stephens-Howling? Why or Why Not?