Justin K. Aller
Steeler Nation is still reeling from a devastating series of free-agency haymakers over the past week, and many feel they are facing a fatal blow with another player on the brink of escape. Keep calm, and Go Steelers.
The Pittsburgh Steelers need to invest in a dictionary, because on paper it seems they've forgotten the difference between the words "rebuild" and "retool"; and they apparently misunderstand the term "transition".
General manager Kevin Colbert said at his scouting combine press conference, the Steelers were not a team in transition. Several members of the organization have referred to this off-season period as a retooling, and not a total reconstruction.
So much for that theory.
In a news-wire whirlwind, the first week of free-agency tore through the Steelers roster like it was a prairie trailer park. Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis were all starters at their respective positions in 2012. They will all be starters again, but for different teams and much larger paychecks. Their exodus came just as the team's fan base had begun to deal with the loss of former defensive player of the year James Harrison, and was followed by the release of the team's starting left guard Willie Colon.
The team was already expecting to be without offensive keystone Heath Miller and defensive prodigy Sean Spence, but now players were piling out the exits, and it appeared as if the team made absolutely no effort to compete for any of their services. The closest they came to trying was requesting a 30% paycut from Harrison before cutting his pay and releasing him. The first thing anyone said to Colon, was goodbye.
We are not rebuilding, he said.
In a way, he was right. To rebuild would infer the demolition of what already was, and the construction of new and improved. Technically, the team only retooled, because they didn't replace those who left with draft picks and development projects. They signed Plaxico Burress and Larry Foote, who are both on the wrong side of 30 years. They brought back William Gay, who was allowed to leave uncontested two years ago after his performance drew mixed reviews. Other former Steelers were re-deployed as active Steelers in Matt Spaeth and David Johnson.
While the contradictory appearance of his comments make Colbert seem guilty of tooling himself, perhaps the Rosetta Stone to the team's position lied in one, single phrase.
"We are comfortable."
A perfect example is the recent Emmanuel Sanders saga. Sanders is a restricted free-agent, and has received a tender offer from the Steelers worth $1.323 million. He has the right to negotiate with other teams, while Pittsburgh maintains a right to match any offers he accepts. He made a trip to Foxboro to meet with the New England Patriots and take a physical. The Patriots released Brandon Lloyd, which has led many to believe Sanders would receive an offer from New England, to fill the opening left by Lloyd. However, according to Sanders, he received no offer before he left.
Should the Patriots offer him a contract which he agrees to, and the Steelers refuse to match; many feel his loss would be the final stake in the heart of Pittsburgh's championship aspirations for 2013. However, he is only one player at one position, and his position is not worse for his absence.
Todd Haley brought a new mindset when he joined the Steelers as their offensive coordinator. The offense would now revolve around quick throws, smart blocking and misdirection. Wallace was a perfect fit in Arians' vertical offense, which sought to push the secondary deeper pre-snap to open up space for receivers to run around until Ben Roethlisberger found one of them open. Haley instead plays it a little closer to the chest, asking his franchise quarterback to trust the plan and fire faster. Receivers get open due to sleight of hand use of motion, or using laddered routes to overload single defensive zones.
The team no longer needs pure speed to outrun defenders. It needs intelligent players, who run the routes the way they are intended, and how to get where they're supposed to be under any circumstance. Reliability is key. While Sanders would arguably be a great fit in Haley's type of scheme, the only loss by his departure is his quality character from the locker room.
Antonio Brown may be an over-achieving slot receiver, but he is a perfect fit for what Haley wants to do. Brown found himself the number of several types of screens all over the field, which allowed him to operate in space behind lead-blockers like Miller, David Paulson and Will Johnson. He also does not shy away from contact, and willingly blocks; something needed if the running game is to improve.
Jerricho Cotchery was a quality receiver before the New York Jets simply grew apart from him and terminated his contract. The Steelers called him and he's been here ever since. He openly speaks about how much he loves it here, and wants to stay here for the rest of his career. He's not as fast as Wallace, Brown or Sanders, but he's faster than Hines Ward, and he shows a similar toughness. Starting opposite of Brown would be an easy request of Cotchery, who has invaluable veteran experience, like Plaxico Burress.
To those hoping Burress will rejuvenate his career in Pittsburgh, he will be 36 years old this season. His greatest contributions will come in short-yardage, critical situations like red-zone and 3rd down offenses. With Miller expected out until mid-season, Burress provides a nice, big, wide target for Ben to find. The team has a young player under contract who matches Burress' physical stature, but with better speed, in Derek Moye, who spent the end of last season on the team's practice squad. With some development in training camp, Moye could provide a second critical target.
Slot duties would fall first to David Gilreath, who flashed potential during 2012's preseason and in spot duty during the season once receivers started missing time to injury. He was snatched away by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at one point, but was released later and quickly re-obtained by Pittsburgh. With Chris Rainey no longer on the team, Gilreath could become the team's primary kick returner to preserve Brown's health.
Perhaps Burress and/or Moye could fill in as fourth and fifth options, but the majority of the Steelers offensive sets ran with three receivers or less last year. A draft pick has the luxury of falling in as the fourth receiver, giving the team the luxury of waiting for the right player. They could even honestly wait until 2014 to take one, although receivers are a dime a dozen. The team could take one late as a project, or find a diamond in the rough in the undrafted pool.
Unlike most positional groups on the roster, the receiving corps - even without Wallace and Sanders - has more veteran experience than most other groups. Three have been starters in the NFL, and welcome the opportunity to do so again.
Perhaps Colbert wasn't spinning the truth. Maybe the team really is comfortable with what they have. Should Sanders agree to an offer from the Patriots, the Steelers would receive their third round pick as compensation. This would give the team four picks in the first three rounds, providing the team plenty of opportunity to find one early if they deem any worthy.
Sanders will be missed, but his absence is not going to be the straw to break the camel's back.