Three of the top four defensive ends on Pittsburgh’s depth chart will be unrestricted free agents (UFA) this March. While the Steelers have the time to bring Al Woods, Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood into the fold with new contracts, whether or not any of those three will suit for them this fall is still a pressing question.
Even though he only started to see a significant amount of playing time towards the end of last season, Al Woods became a pleasant surprise for the Steelers. The former L.S.U. Tiger enjoyed a strong spring and solid summer which helped him lock up the team’s number two spot on the depth chat at nose tackle.
Woods’ versatility helped Pittsburgh down the stretch when he was able to not only fill in for the Steelers in their defensive end rotation, but also started two games at nose tackle when Steve McLendon’s ankle forced him to the sidelines. Overall, Woods racked up 16 tackles, 2.0 sacks and two passes defensed last fall, and he could be primed to see more playing time this season if the Steelers are unable to ink Keisel or Hood.
I am intrigued more than anything else when it comes to what the Steelers’ brass will eventually decide to do with Keisel and Hood.
On one hand, Keisel is the most experienced defensive end (110 starts) of this group and his knowledge of Dick LeBeau’s defensive scheme should not be discounted. At the same time, Keisel will turn 36 years old in September, has missed 18 regular season games since 2008 due to injuries and could command a higher salary than both Woods and Hood unless he wants to take a significant pay cut.
More than anything else, 2013 proved to be a roller coaster season for Hood. Needing to break-out during his contract season, Hood was benched in favor of Cameron Heyward during Pittsburgh’s tumultuous 2-6 start. Despite his demotion, Hood helped the Steelers as a role player and eventually found himself starting again after Keisel went down for an extended period with his foot injury.
Even though he started nine fewer games than he did in 2012, Hood managed to rack up comparable stats for the Steelers last fall (2012: 42 tackles, 2013: 39 tackles; 2012: 3.0 sacks, 2013: 3.0 sacks; 2012: two fumble recoveries, 2013: one fumble recovery). Now that his rookie contract is set to expire in March, Pittsburgh’s brass must decide whether or not the former first round pick is worth a second contract.
As I alluded to above, the Steelers need to find a way to lock up Woods. Although he might not ever be a long-term starter for Pittsburgh, his versatility and potentially cheap price tag should make him an attractive option for the Steelers’ brass to re-sign.
As far as Keisel is concerned, it might be a good choice for the Steelers to finally move on with some younger and healthier players at the position. Make no mistake, if Woods and Hood bolt, then re-signing Keisel will be an absolute must. Yet if Pittsburgh cannot get the veteran to take a pay cut (2013: $2.825 million base salary), the cap-strapped front office could decide to go in a different direction at the position.
What the market for a defensive lineman who might be better suited to play in a 4-3 scheme but has experience in a 3-4 base set is a mystery to me. Questions and concerns aside, it might benefit the cap-strapped Steelers to try and ink the 26 year-old to a second deal due to his experience and knowledge of Pittsburgh’s defensive scheme.
In my humble opinion, the Steelers should first try to sign both of their younger defensive ends this spring. Yet if Hood or even Woods goes elsewhere, then the possibility of bringing Keisel back for one more season greatly increases since the team will probably need some experienced depth on their roster at that position.
Since fixing their defensive line will be one of the more important tasks for Pittsburgh’s brass during the upcoming offseason, I will be interested to see which moves they inevitably make with Woods, Keisel and Hood.
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