Two full seasons removed from their appearance in Super Bowl XLV and just a mere six or seven weeks since the conclusion of their disappointing 8-8 season, perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers at the moment is, what to do with their veteran-rich roster--especially on defense, where seven starters from a season ago are over the age of 30?
Pittsburgh right now finds itself roughly $14 million over the projected NFL salary cap for 2013. Coming off such a disappointing campaign and with so many long-time veterans still on the roster, that could spell some serious trouble.
When the topic of cutting Super Bowl heroes such as James Harrison, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and even Ryan Clark is broached, most fans wince at such a potential "March Massacre." However, for the team to remain competitive in the long-run, there may be no other options right now.
Is it a risk to cut a player who may still have another year or two of productive play left? Sure, but it's also a gamble to keep a veteran such as Harrison, who will be 35 the next time he takes on a blocker in anger and has faced several injury problems in recent years--including two back surgeries, a fractured orbital bone and arthroscopic knee surgery last offseason which kept him out several weeks at the start of the year and limited his effectiveness until near the end of the 2012 campaign.
Maybe Harrison's effective play down the stretch was a prelude to what we can expect next season, but was his play effective enough for Pittsburgh, a veteran team perhaps already in the throes of a post-Super Bowl era, to take such a risk and keep him around for another year or two?
For my money, I say it's not worth the gamble. We can't predict what some of these veterans may do next season and beyond, and like Hombre stated in this fine piece, a veteran like Harrison could go on and have several more productive seasons. But that's the risk a team must take if it wants to retool its roster and remain relevant instead of falling into the abyss of Salary Cap Hell.
And letting certain veterans walk might be scary, but for every Kevin Greene and Rod Woodson who go on to have productive seasons after they're given their walking papers, there are players like linebacker Greg Lloyd, who the Steelers signed to a contract extension in the mid-90's while allowing a younger linebacker in Chad Brown to leave via free agency following the '96 season. Lloyd suffered through an injury-riddled '97 season and was released by the team and out of football a season later. Brown didn't go on to have a great post-Steelers career, but what happened to Lloyd was a good example of just how fast a veteran player's career can go down hill due to age and injury.
Right now, the Steelers have next to no shot at re-signing receiver Mike Wallace because of their money problems, and they could also lose cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is an unrestricted free agent and was arguably the team's best cover guy a season ago--like Wallace, his fourth as a pro.
A team like Pittsburgh should not be in danger of losing TWO productive early round draft choices just four seasons removed from drafting them. Yet, the chances are very real that this is going to happen.
While making the media rounds in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, Keisel predicted a rebound for the Steelers next season, but he also stated that in order for a return to the postseason to happen, the younger players were going to have to step up and lead the way.
No truer words have ever been spoken.
Unfortunately, for Keisel, he might be a casualty of clearing room for some of those younger players, such as Cameron Heyward, Keisel's backup on the defensive line and Pittsburgh's 2011 first round pick.
And if Harrison is also a cap casualty, so be it. In the 2010 NFL Draft, the Steelers passed on Sean Lee, an inside linebacker from Penn St. and instead drafted Jason Worilds, an outside linebacker from Virginia Tech. Lee has gone on to have a rather productive career with the Cowboys, while Worilds just started showing signs of being an effective player last season, recording five sacks in a limited starting role.
In bypassing Lee, the Steelers passed on a potential heir apparent for inside linebacker James Farrior and instead picked an outside pass rusher. In doing so, one can only assume they had Worilds pegged as Harrison's successor on the right side. If that's the case, Pittsburgh soon needs to find out if Worilds was worth such a high pick and if he's able to do the job on a full-time basis.
As for Clark, who was arguably the team's best defender a season ago, he may turn out to be a modern-day Woodson or Greene, but if losing Clark means being able to keep Lewis as well as Cortez Allen, the team's fourth round pick in 2011, again, so be it. After years of the corners being seen as the weaker part of the secondary, Pittsburgh finally has a couple of young players to be excited about. And with Ike Taylor turning 33 in May, keeping the secondary young and talented has to be a top priority.
To repeat my theme, if losing Clark allows players like Allen and Lewis to stick around for another half decade, again, it's the price a team must pay.
If the Steelers are going to regain their status as a Super Bowl contender, it won't be because veterans like Keisel, Hampton and even Troy Polamalu find some sort of fountain of youth.
Joe Greene had to retire, so did Jack Lambert; L.C. Greenwood was cut. It's happened to the best of them over the years. Why should the current long-time heroes be any different?
If Pittsburgh is going to get to where it wants to be, the younger players are going to have to lead the way. May that result in another down season or two? Perhaps, but holding on to a handful of veterans simply in the hopes of squeezing another productive season or two out of them could result in an even longer-road back to relevance.
The time for change is now.