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The off season begins, and with it a lot of questions concerning the future of the team and that of key personnel.
The answer to most of these questions, in spite of the expert opinions of many in Steeler Nation, will unfold over a period of months. The confirmation that they were the right answers will take months more. As is often the case, what the key questions actually are and what constitutes a good or accurate answer usually says more about those posing the questions. But we can probably come to a bit of a consensus as to what the themes will be as we move forward. Some are constants such as personnel (free agency, draft, contracts), money (cap issues) and management. Others may be of special emphasis such as injuries and whatever initiatives coming out of the league offices concerning issues such as player safety. We move begin to contemplate these things as, in a delightfully rare occurrence, the playoffs begin without the Steelers.
This year has been nothing if not consistent. Keisel, Lewis, Beachum, DeCastro and Clark all met with one level or another of misfortune on Sunday. Fortunately, no long term damage was done to any of them. But thank God its over.
What will be the Steelers' position in the draft?
With 2-14 Kansas City leading off and 13-3 Denver bring up the rear, Pittsburgh's 8-8 record earned the team the 17th position in the first round, right after St Louis and right before Dallas. Who to select? Whether to move up or down? We will certainly chewing on that in various quarters for the better part of the next four months. No rush there.
Who could possibly be leaving?
The Steelers released the list of their unrestricted (18) and restricted (6) free agents on New Years Eve. One person's thoughts on some of the players listed.
Will Allen, Charlie Batch, Larry Foote, Casey Hampton. All made strong contributions to whatever success the team enjoyed this year. I wasn't much of a fan of Allen based upon what I saw of him in training camp, but he had a great season, in my opinion, filling in mostly for Troy Polamalu and doing a more effective job than Ryan Mundy. His effort in the second Ravens game may go down as the signature victory of Batch's career. Craig Wolfley, Jeff Hartings, Antonio Brown and others all chime in on Charlie in this excellent piece on his career with the Steelers. Foote has been consistent on the field and probably even more valuable off it this year. Big Snack probably has at least one good year left, possibly more. Nonetheless all four are old, expensive or both. It would be something of a surprise if all (or any) returned.
Brandon Johnson, David Johnson and Leonard Pope. Pope and David Johnson's value went up when Heath Miller went down. D. Johnson has the additional advantage of position flexibility. And while Will Johnson did alright at fullback, not so well as to exclude D. Johnson from possible consideration next year. Depth and experience at linebacker may be an issue depending upon what decisions are made in other areas, but otherwise not sure B. Johnson will be around.
Max Starks, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky. All did fine this year but all are at risk because of the progress of the younger linemen (De Castro, Adams, Beachum, Gilbert and Pouncey). The development of Beachum in particular could mean the difference for one or more of these players. On the other hand, Willie Colon's continuing injury problems might result in an opportunity.
Plaxico Burress, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders (R). Dale Lolley made a persuasive case for keeping Burress as savvy, stabilizing presence for the younger receivers. Wallace seems to be 'That Guy' for many in Steeler Nation. There always seems to be one player who ends up designated as the individual who will be blamed for any and all failings and the team will never reach the promised land until said individual is banished. Wallace has been judged as greedy, lazy and not very talented. His teammates seem to like him, but who cares about them. Sanders was a solid contributor, and perhaps more importantly, answered concerns about his durability. Don't see why he would be going anywhere.
Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman (R), Jonathan Dwyer (R). See my comments about Wallace in reference to Mendenhall. Obviously he didn't help his case with his behavior in the last month. Just one thing; he's hands down the best running back on the team. Redman and Dwyer, despite the fantasies of some established themselves as solid backups (good news for Dwyer, not so much for Redman lovers).
Keenan Lewis, Ryan Mundy, Justin King. Lewis was That Guy for quite some time. And while Cortez Allen is definitely on the rise and Ike Taylor's injury has helped to develop some renewed appreciation of his contributions I think that Lewis would qualify as a keeper.
Stevenson Sylvester (R) and Steve McLendon (R). Depending on developments regarding not just Foote and Hampton, but Alameda Ta'amu and Sean Spence as well, these could be two very important cogs going forward.
Greg Warren and Jeremy Kapinos (R). These two special teams specialists are particularly intriguing. Warren has been solid, but so was his predecessor. The issue will be whether a cheaper replacement can be found. If given a choice I would take a healthy Kapinos over Butler.
Salary Cap issues?
It has been a common practice at this time of the year to suggest that the Steelers are flirting with salary cap Hell and that a reckoning is coming where a number of players will have to jettisoned in order to be in compliance. I am with the Tribune-Review's Devon Kovacevic on this one.
• The Steelers appear to be $12 million over the salary cap for 2013, which sounds ominous. But remember that Omar Kahn, the Steelers‘ cap wizard who someday will heal the ozone layer in search of greater challenges, took on a similar task in 2011 and still scrounged up enough loose change to sign LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu and Timmons.
This won‘t be a big deal. One prominent guy will go — I‘m guessing Hampton — but others will simply take cuts or defer.
Perhaps one day the sky may actually fall. But if you check the history the truth usually plays out more like described above. Not to be critical of those who like to speculate about these matters, its just that financials are negotiated for the most part out of public view and underestimating flexibility in this area happens more often than not.
Front office and coaching staff?
Though it was reported in this space that Coordinators Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley were likely to stay, the team has granted permission for Haley to interview for the head coaching vacancy at Arizona. And with the major personnel shakeups going on around the league, it is possible that other members of Tomlin's staff or the front office might be targeted by other teams in the days and weeks ahead. Of course the Steelers have a vacancy to fill as well as Sean Kugler has left the staff for a college head coaching job. Former Steeler offensive lineman and current broadcaster Tunch Illkiin has been mentioned as a possible candidate. There is also the question of special teams and whether Amos Jones will retain his position.
But the most impactful change, not only for the team but for the NFL is the return of Dan Rooney. Again, I defer to Kovacevic.
• Dan Rooney is back.
He‘s 80 now, and the ship is still Art II‘s to steer. But if all the old man‘s presence achieves is avoiding another case of the team president picking offensive coordinators, that‘ll be plenty.
No matter your feelings on Bruce Arians or Todd Haley, it‘s hard to dispute that the dumping of the former was the front office‘s most un-Steelers-like move in quite some time.
Some mention should also be made that it has been a year since Kirby Wilson almost died as the result of a fire at his home. His recovery has been remarkable and one of the really good pieces of news in an otherwise star crossed season. This is also significant because if by chance Todd Haley should leave the team for another job Wilson would be considered one of the front runners to replace him as offensive coordinator. In fact, if you recall, it was generally believed that his accident was the only factor in his not being offered the position when it came vacant with the departure of of Bruce Arians last year.
Speaking of Arians. His name has been coming up in association with some of the head coaching vacancies given his performance as interim head coach in Indianapolis. That Guy.
There was quite a bloodletting on New Years Eve as seven head coaches were thrown out into the street. Some GMs lost their jobs as well. By week's end one coach, Andy Reid had found a new home in Kansas City. And it looks likely that Ken Whisenhunt won't be jobless for long. Of particular interest to Steeler Nation will be how matters will be resolved in Cleveland. But you get the feeling that the days of the Browns being a doormat may finally be coming an end.
And speaking of changes in the division. Steeler nemesis Ray Lewis has announced his retirement effective at the end of the Ravens season. Given the history of the two franchises Ravens/Steelers would have been a fierce rivalry without Lewis and is likely to continue to be so. But it has to be acknowledged that his presence on the Baltimore side helped to propel the competition to one of the most intense and intriguing in all of sports in the 21st Century. You may not like him. In fact, you may absolutely despise him. But you're going to miss him. And I suspect it will be quite some time before we no longer notice his absence.