Now that the draft is over, I'm going to revisit a series I've been doing semi-regularly since before the 2010 season. For those of you that aren't familiar, I'm going to evaluate each position on our roster, taking into consideration all sorts of things like pending free agents, possible retirements, and the development of young players. I'll finish with a projected 2011 roster and a quick list of guys who are in their contract year.
And no, I'm not going to go into possible 2012 draftees like I did in previous posts, as that seems especially pointless at this time.
QB: This is one of the most solidified positions for the Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger in his prime and a great backup in Byron Leftwich, the only concern is our #3 spot which comes down to Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch. Dixon deserves to be offered a contract, but he might want to move elsewhere with a better chance to start. I could see teams like Miami or Arizona being interested. I expect Batch to try to play for another year in 2011, and he has also earned a chance to get a roster spot. Hopefully we can bring all 4 of these guys to camp and keep the top 3 on the roster.
RB: Rashard Mendenhall is one of the few backs in the league that can carry a full season's workload, but I believe we'll see a lot more of Isaac Redman in the rotation. Those two make a great 1-2 punch for our running game. Jonathan Dwyer also might be able to get some playing time this year and should again make the roster in 2011. Mewelde Moore is a 29 year old free agent who shouldn't be offered a new contract. I appreciate his contributions these past few years, but its time to let him walk. Baron Batch was drafted in the 7th round to replace him as the pass catching RB, and even if Batch doesn't make the roster a trio of Mendenhall, Redman and Dwyer is more than enough to get through the 2011 season.
WR: His contributions on the field aside, having Hines Ward back for 2011 is amazing for our receiving core. All of our young receivers still need at least a year of learning under him so that they can truly master the position. If Mike Wallace can improve on his short and intermediate game, he is easily capable of being a top 5 receiver next year. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown should continue to develop under Hines as well, making them great #3 and 4 receivers for us. Antwaan Randle El should also be brought back, if for no other reason than his veteran leadership and locker room presence. If Limas Sweed can come back from his injury and contribute, that will round out this unit with a tall redzone threat and make us even more dangerous. I expect Arnaz Battle to be cut, because he offers little as a receiver and we drafted a few guys that can make up for his special teams prowess.
TE: Heath Miller is easily one of the top 3 tight ends in this league when you take his superior blocking into account. Matt Spaeth is a free agent who may or may not be resigned. Since the Steelers didn't draft a tight end, I expect them to at least make him an offer, but he might seek a chance to start elsewhere. If he does walk, I think we could find a quality backup in free agency who would welcome a veteran minimum contract and a chance to play with a Super Bowl contender. David Johnson, our #3 tight end, showed some flashes of potential last year and offers versatility playing Fullback on those rare occasions Bruce Arians decides to use one.
OT: Both Max Starks and Willie Colon are coming off season ending injuries, so its no surprise the Steelers drafted Marcus Gilbert in the second round. Starks is still the favorite to start at LT next year. Colon is a free agent, but hopefully we can resign him to a fair contract and he can reclaim his spot at RT. Flozell Adams is a reliable veteran who, in an ideal situation, could backup both Starks and Colon at either tackle position. However, the coaching staff might opt to move Colon inside to guard, which would clear the way for Adams at RT. Jonathan Scott really struggled when he first replaced Starks, but improved as the season went along. Still, as a free agent, he has very little chance to be a starter in this league and might not be worth offering a new contract. Chris Scott was drafted last year, but due to injury was never able to show what he can contribute. If the coaches feel he can be at least a decent backup, he should be given Jonathan Scott's roster spot because he will be much cheaper. Tony Hills is a free agent who shouldn't be offered a new contract with the arrival of Gilbert.
G/C: We all know how great Maurkice Pouncey is, and health permitting he'll start at Center for the Steelers for the next 10 years. Doug Legursky also played admirably in the Superbowl, and deserves to be brought back as Pouncey's backup. Chris Kemoeatu will never be a ProBowl Guard, but he is decent and should be able to play out the rest of his contract, which expires in 2014. The problem is at RG, where we've seen many guys fail to succeed. Legursky might be able to compete for a starting spot, and as I mentioned above Colon might be moved inside to fill that spot. Ramon Foster should also be able to compete for the starting spot. However, Trai Essex is a free agent who hasn't shown that he deserves a new contract. We also drafted Keith Williams in the 6th round, and although it is a long shot, he could also compete for starting role and at least a roster spot.
DL: Aaron Smith is likely playing his last year, having missed major time in 3 of the last 4 years due to injury and his contract expiring after the 2011 season. Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel did a phenomenal job replacing him though, and with those three splitting time we could have a great rotation. Casey Hampton is also still playing at a high level, despite not playing as many downs as he used to. Finding his replacement has to be one of Kevin Colbert's biggest priorities going forward. Longtime backup Chris Hoke is a 35 year old free agent. The Steelers started their 2011 draft by taking Cam Heyward, who should follow in Ziggy's footsteps as a guy who will wait behind the veterans while he learns the position. Steve McLendon also proved to be a valuable contributor who could earn a roster spot in 2011. Nick Eason likely won't be resigned since we drafted Heyward.
OLB: James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley make up the best OLB duo in the league, bar none. After receiving the franchise tag, I expect Woodley and the Front Office to work out a long term deal that will keep him in Pittsburgh for the next 5-6 years. Harrison, while he doesn't have as much wear and tear as a normal linebacker his age, will be turning 33 this Wednesday (May 4). It can't be assumed that he'll maintain his dominant level of play forever. Colbert and crew have clearly planned for this though, drafting Jason Worilds in the 2nd round last year and Chris Carter in the 5th this year. Both Worilds and Carter will be learning the position as backups for the next few years while they contribute on special teams.
ILB: Its a shame that Lawrence Timmons didn't make the Probowl in 2010, but I expect him to in 2011. He and James Farrior make up the best ILB duo in the league (notice a trend?). However, Timmons is in the last year of his contract and Farrior will probably retire after 2011. I expect Timmons to be resigned or at least franchise tagged after the season, so I don't see any danger of losing him. Free agent Keyaron Fox might fall victim to the salary cap, since he might be too expensive to resign. Larry Foote is a great personality in the locker room, and is an experienced backup. 2010 5th round pick Stevensn Sylvester is being groomed as Farrior's replacement, but if he doesn't pan out we could be looking for new blood in 2012.
CB: If Ike Taylor isn't resigned, we're in some serious trouble at the CB position. Teams already know that they can attack us with 4 and 5 wide receiver sets, and we'd have no answer for it without Taylor. Bryant McFadden was severely underwhelming after being brought back from Arizona last year, and William Gay's troubles have been well documented. Having drafted Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen this past weekend, I don't see Gay being resigned anyway. Keenan Lewis and Crezon Butler will both be back, and in an ideal, albeit unlikely scenario one of them could take McFadden's starting spot, pushing him down to nickel. Anthony Madison is another free agent who might be replaced by one of the rookies.
S: 2010 Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu will hopefully put together another healthy and dynamic year because we saw what can happen when he's not at full strength in the playoffs. Ryan Clark is a good complement at FS, although his coverage skills have never been great and he's on the wrong side of 30. Will Allen is a decent backup and great on special teams, but Ryan Mundy is a free agent who might walk for a chance to start.
ST: Many people, myself included, were campaigning for the Steelers to draft Alex Henery as early as the 5th round. Lo and behold, the Eagles took him in the 4th (crazy if you ask me). That means we'll probably be looking at Shaun Suisham and Daniel Sepulveda as our guys on special teams. With Sepulveda coming off his third ACL tear, Jeremy Kapinos will probably be brought back in to compete.
Now, we look forward to 2011 free agency and the 2011 season. First, let's look at those I expect to resign in free agency. Then I'll have a projected 2011 roster with some notes at the end.
Resigned: Ike Taylor, Willie Colon, Ryan Mundy, Matt Spaeth, Doug Legursky, Chris Hoke, Daniel Sepulveda, Shaun Suisham
Not Resigned: Dennis Dixon, Mewelde Moore, Jonathan Scott, Tony Hills, Trai Essex, Nick Eason, Keyaron Fox, William Gay, Anthony Madison
PROJECTED 2011 ROSTER:
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch
RB: Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch (R)
WR1: Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Limas Sweed
WR2: Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, Antwaan Randle El
TE: Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, David Johnson
LT: Max Starks, Flozell Adams, Chris Scott
LG: Chris Kemoeatu
C: Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky
RG: Ramon Foster, Keith Williams (R)
RT: Willie Colon, Marcus Gilbert (R)
RDE: Brett Keisel, Cameron Heyward (R)
NT: Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke
LDE: Aaron Smith, Ziggy Hood
ROLB: James Harrison, Jason Worilds
ILB1: Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote
ILB2: James Farrior, Stevenson Sylvester
LOLB: LaMarr Woodley, Chris Carter (R)
CB1: Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown (R)
CB2: Bryant McFadden, Crezdon Butler, Cortez Allen (R)
FS: Ryan Clark, Will Allen
SS: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Mundy
K: Shaun Suisham
P: Daniel Sepulveda
LS: Greg Warren
- All 7 rookies make the roster. In classic Steeler fashion, none of them are starting.
- There is still a serious lack of depth along the interior OL. I could see the coaches sending Baron Batch to the practice squad in favor of keeping Trai Essex, but he was not resigned in this scenario.
- I think William Gay will garner enough attention from other teams to get a job elsewhere, meaning Anthony Madison is more likely to be brought back. He will probably be brought to camp, but he is beat out by Cortez Allen in this scenario.
- Steve McLendon falls victim to the numbers game, as he will not beat out Heyward and does not offer enough versatility to play NT and beat out Hoke. He is sent to the practice squad.
- With Taylor and Colon likely demanding pretty large contracts, many of our veterans had to be let go. This is a large reason as to why all 7 rookies could make the roster. Dixon and Gay are probably the only ones who won't want to resign with us because they would be seeking more money and/or a chance to start elsewhere.
- I could easily see Aaron Smith being asked to restructure his contract. He is scheduled to make $4.5 million this year. Our defense finished first against the run and in sacks last year, which are the two most important jobs for a 3-4 DE, so clearly our DL more than made up for his absence. If we want to resign Taylor, Smith will have to compromise.
Finally, I'll end with a list of players who will be playing in the final year of their contract in 2011. Unfortunately there are a lot of big names on here..
Flozell Adams, Charlie Batch, Ramon Foster, David Johnson, Byron Leftwich, Keenan Lewis, Steve McLendon, Troy Polamalu, Isaac Redman, Aaron Smith, Limas Sweed, Lawrence Timmons, Mike Wallace, LaMarr Woodley.