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A Year in Advance: Steelers Free Agency

If you've been reading the first 2 parts of this series, you've seen my complete 2012 Season predictions for the Steelers, including its final roster and regular season record. After spending the last post with a look at the entire NFL, I turn my attention back toward the Steelers. I came to the conclusion that this team is as capable as any of winning the Superbowl, and should at the very least win a playoff game or two.

After a few weeks of hopefully celebratory parades, the 2013 Offseason will begin in earnest. Let's examine which of these Steelers are playing in the final year of their contract:

Offense:

QBs Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch, RBs Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer (restricted) and Isaac Redman (restricted), WRs Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown (restricted), and Emmanuel Sanders (restricted), TEs David Johnson and Leanard Pope, OTs Trai Essex and Max Starks, OGs Ramon Foster and Doug Legursky.

Defense:

NTs Casey Hampton and Steve McLendon (restricted), ILB Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester (restricted), CB Keenan Lewis, Ss Will Allen, Myron Rolle, and Ryan Mundy

A quick thought: 6 of those 22 are restricted free agents almost all of whom we will probably want to keep. Another 6 are currently on restricted tenders (including Wallace). This is just another example of the exceptional drafting coming from Kevin Colbert's department recently. Anyway, now I'll go through each position to see what types of moves could be made to improve next offseason and include a possible draft pick at the position.

Quarterback: Ben is under contract through 2015 andI don't think it will be difficult to resign Leftwich next year. He seems to like it in Pittsburgh and there was no trouble in resigning this year. Charlie has to retire at some point, and a mid round pick should probably be used to replace him and to groom a QB behind Ben. Pick: Geno Smith, West Virginia- 3rd Round. Smith has the measurables and pedigree you want in a developmental QB. With a year behind Leftwich he should be a good backup.

Runningback: Regardless of how well Redman does this year, I expect him to at least be given a restricted tender. But his performance will determine how high that tender is. I'm sure he'll be with us in 2013 though, since no team will take Redman from us if they're unwilling to take Wallace. Mendenhall is the wildcard. His performance coming back from injury will determine how we handle him in the offseason. If Redman proves to be just as effective as Mendenhall, however, he will probably be the cheaper option, meaning Mendenhall will not be back. I expect Dwyer to try to find more opportunities elsewhere if he is not tendered. Christine Michael, Texas A&M- 5'11", 215lbs. 7th Round. Michael has good size and can be a thumper in between the tackles. If we lose both Mendenhall and Dwyer, bringing in a depth player might be wise if we don't like our other options.

Tight End: With Heath Miller safely at #1 and poised to be a bigger part of the offense, it shouldn't be difficult to resign Pope or Johnson if we so choose. Our decisions at this position will likely be determined by how Weslye Saunders develops this year. Pick: Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame- 6'6", 250lbs. 1st Round. A bit of a surprise pick, Eifert could be a creative alternative in the passing game if we lose Wallace or Brown. The NFL is a copycat league, so developing some multiple TE sets in the passing game could become a major part of our offense. If Eifert can match his 63 catches, 803 yards and 5TDs from last year he will likely be a first round pick.

Wide Receiver: Easily our most muddled position group going into the future. If we can resign Wallace this offseason and end his holdout, that will go a long way toward keeping this group together. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown will probably both be given restricted tenders, though we might want to use the franchise tag on Antonio if we don't want to take the same risk as we did with Wallace. Cotchery and Clemons will both be under contract through at least next season. Pick: Justin Hunter, Tennessee- 6'4", 200 lbs. 1st round. The other solution to losing one of our receivers is to simply draft a replacement. Hunter is a rare talent in that he backs up his elite size/speed ratio with awesome production. However, he's currently battling to return to full strength after a torn ACL in Week 3 of last season. If he is healthy this fall he could be a top pick.

Offensive Line: With the exception of David DeCastro, who will surely sign a 4-year deal in the coming weeks (hopefully days), all of our projected starters are under contract through 2014. That's quite amazing for a team that has been starving for stability on the OL for years. However, only 7th round rookie Kelvin Beachum will be under contract to back them up next year. Max Starks was just brought back as an insurance policy at LT, and it would be wise to bring him back again next year as a swing backup if he's healthy. Of Foster, Legursky, and Essex, we should be able to bring back 2. My money would be on Legursky and Essex for their position flexibility. Legs can play Guard/Center while Essex can play Guard/Tackle, while Foster can only play Guard. Pick: LaAdrian Waddle OT, Texas Tech. 5th Round. If all goes well for Waddle through his senior season, he will have been a 3 year starter at left tackle. However, he projects more to guard in the NFL at this point. If he can fill a "tweener" backup role with upside he would be worth the choice.

Defensive Line: Most everyone expects this season to be Hampton's swan song in Pittsburgh, so hopefully he can make a big impact and get some other team to give him another contract. McLendon has built a good amount of hype with his limited opportunities and seems to be a coach's favorite. He will likely be given a high restricted tender as well. In 2013, Keisel and Hood will be playing in the last year of their contracts. Hood will need to play lights out this year if he wants to avoid this by getting an extension done before the 2013 season. If he doesn't, we might start to look elsewhere for Keisel's replacement. Depending on how Al Woods and Corbin Bryant develop this season, a draft pick could be used for depth at DE. Pick: Sheldon Richardson DE, Missouri- 6'4", 295 lbs. 5th Round. A project player for depth, Richardson would compete with Corbin Bryant and Al Woods as part of the DL rotation. He could make an impact this fall in his first season as a starter.

Linebackers: The front office will have a big choice to make next year between Larry Foote and Stevenson Sylvester. I can't see us keeping both for another year. If Sylvester starts and plays well this season, he will likely earn a high restricted tender or a contract extension. If Foote starts and Sylvester can't get on the field, we will probably resign Foote and make finding a young ILB a priority next offseason. Our 4 OLBs are all under contract through 2013, so we could be looking at the same group as this year. However, Jason Worilds will be watched closely this season and he will need to show that he can be relied upon to replace James Harrison. If he doesn't, OLB will be a priority in the 2013 and 2014 drafts. So depending on how Worilds and Sylvester do, a high draft pick could be used on either position. Pick: ILB Manti Te'o, Notre Dame- 6'2", 255lbs. 1st Round. If Te'o had declared for the draft this year, he may have pushed Luke Kuechly as the top ILB taken. He was my favorite prospect for the Steelers before he decided to stay at Notre Dame for another year. He is a tenacious defender and a great leader. Pick: OLB Chase Thomas, Stanford- 6'4", 240lbs. 2nd Round. Somewhat undersized, Thomas will want to bulk up before next year's combine to prove to teams he can take on blockers at the next level. But Thomas's production is undeniable: 8.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss to go along with 5 forced fumbles last year. He loves to get after the QB and has a knack for jarring the ball loose in the process.

Cornerbacks: Ike Taylor should have a few years still in him while the #2 corner will be one of the hottest training camp battles this summer. Most expect 4th year Keenan Lewis to win, and if he plays at a probowl level he might be a candidate for the franchise tag next year while we work out an extension. Lewis will be battling sophomores Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, who both showed flashes in their rookie year. Still, everyone will get time in sub packages and special teams so by next offseason we should have a better idea of who will rise to the top. Rookie Terrence Frederick will hopefully not be needed much while he learns the complex defense. If tragedy strikes and no one steps up this year, or if Lewis leaves in free agency, we might make the position a priority once again. DeMarcus Milliner, Alabama- 6'1", 199lbs. 2nd Round. Milliner is the kind of lanky corner that the Steelers seem to love. If Keenan Lewis is allowed to hit free agency like I expect him to be, we will be in the market for an heir to Ike Taylor.

Safeties: Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are entrenched as starters on the field and if they play out their contracts they'll be together for 3 more seasons. However, the lack of depth behind them is a little concerning considering both are over 30. Ryan Mundy has played decently when asked and might not wait around for his chance here with his contract up next year. Hopefully we can keep him for another year. Allen will probably not be resigned while Myron Rolle is more hope than substance. In my opnion, Safety will be our biggest priority next offseason. Pick: TJ McDonald, USC- 6'2", 205lbs. 1st Round. His father was an NFL safety for the Cardinals and 49ers, and his football IQ seems to be at an NFL level already. His has the size that teams will love about him. He can cover very well and is an adequate tackler.

Special Teams: The idea with Beachum is that if he can adequately long snap he is worth keeping around to see if he develops into something more. Kapinos was a fall-back option to Daniel Sepulveda and I'm expecting undrafted rookie Drew Butler to beat him in camp. It looks like we'll be having another season with Suisham. We'll try again next year... Pick: Caleb Sturgis K, Florida- 5'10", 185lbs. 4th Round. After suffering a pretty serious back injury in 2010, Sturgis came back last season and proved to be one of the nation's most reliable kickers. He was 22 of 26 overall and 3 of 5 from 50+ and never missed an extra point. If he can put up similar numbers this year and stay healthy, he should be the top kicker taken next year.

For clarity's sake, here are my early predictions for who we will resign and who we will let go in free agency.

Resigned: QB Byron Leftwich, RB Isaac Redman (1st round tender), RB Jonathan Dwyer (original 6th round tender) WR Mike Wallace, WR Antonio Brown (1st round tender), WR Emmanuel Sanders (3rd round tender), TE/FB David Johnson, OT Max Starks, G/C Doug Legursky, NT Steve McLendon (2nd round tender), ILB Stevenson Sylvester (2nd round tender), S Ryan Mundy

Not Resigned: QB Charlie Batch, RB Rashard Mendenhall, TE Leanard Pope, OG Ramon Foster, T/G Trai Essex, NT Casey Hampton (retired), ILB Larry Foote, CB Keenan Lewis, S Will Allen, S Myron Rolle

Now when looking this far ahead there's always a possibility that some of these players do not resign and we bring in our usual low-end free agent or two. If possible, these are the guys we should make priorities. Lewis is probably the only one of this group we will aggressively try to resign but we can't break the bank for him with limited cap room. I think if he has a good year he will seek a payday elsewhere. Redman and Rainey should establish themselves as our primary runners this year, making Mendenhall expendable. Meanwhile we make our offense a priority in resigning our receivers and other role players. I could also see Ramon Foster trying to get a bigger contract elsewhere, but I'm not sure he'll get it. Luckily a lot of these guys are restricted free agents, which buys us some time to get more cap room before we risk losing them without compensation.

So that's an idea of where this team is headed. In Part IV of this preview, we'll look at early draft predictions and names to watch.

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