With the loss of the highest profile free agent available this year in Wide Receiver Mike Wallace to the Dolphins and starting Running Back Rashard Mendenhall to the Cardinals the Steelers have obvious holes to fill on offense.
An injury to starting Tight End Heath Miller that figures to put him out of the seasons opener and the release of Kick Returner/Running Back Chris Rainey along with a need for depth across the offensive line there are a number of questions surrounding the Steelers offense going into the 2013 season.
In general the Steelers have a young offense at most starting positions including all those across the line and at Wide Receiver but with the loss of Rainey and Wallace in particular appear to lack a playmaker capable of breaking a game open on a single play and will need to look for more dynamic weapons if they are to compete in the new pass happy NFL.
With so many needs across the roster the Steelers will not be able to fill them all in this draft. The Steelers have shown a rare interest in finding players via free agency this year but have yet to make any significant signings at this point that have had any real impact on their drafting needs. In order of priority here is my look at team needs on offense:
1. Wide Receiver
Antonio Brown, who signed a long term deal last year, remains the only member of the “Young Money Crew” guaranteed to be with the Steelers in 2014. Mike Wallace has already fled the nest and although Emmanuel Sander was kept for one more year, after matching the Patriots offer, he will be a free agent in 2014 barring the signing of a long term deal in Pittsburgh which looks unlikely right now given his injury history with the Steelers and the teams salary cap constraints.
Most likely the Steelers will open the season with Brown and Sanders as the starting two receivers although both would seem to be more suitable as a no.2. Despite a slight down year in 2012 Brown is a very good no.2 receiver with solid hands, good route running and ability to make the tough catches in traffic. When healthy Sanders is an agile, speedy slot receiver with good hands capable of making some big plays. Both need to show more consistency than they did last year though to eliminates the mistakes, drops and fumbles that characterized their play too often in 2012.
Beyond Brown and Sanders the Steelers depth at receiver is led by two aging veterans both set to be free agents at seasons end and a number of unproven youngsters. Jerricho Cotchery figures to be the no.3 and re-signed free agent Plaxico Burress the no.4. Cotchery has been a solid if unspectacular player in his years in Pittsburgh, sort of a Hines Ward lite. A dependable pair of hands and a good blocker but with limited speed and agility. Burress who was signed mid way through last season due to injuries provided little on the stat sheet but still has good hands and represents a big target in the red zone. He was off the pace a little having been out of football for half the season and figures to look better with a full training camp under his belt but is no sure bet to make the final roster.
Preseason fan favorite David Gilreath is among the young unproven depth at the position who looked strong in August but never got much of a chance to show what he could do when it counted. Kashif Moore, Bert Reed and Derek Moye are three 1st year players who will need a big showing in camp if they are to get beyond the practice squad.
In the pass first NFL the Steelers are clearly lacking at receiver compared to the competition. The loss of no.1 receiver Wallace and the possible impending loss of Sanders, Cotchery and Burress makes Wide Receiver a big need heading into the draft. The Steelers are in need of a playmaking no.1 receiver on offense and there figures to be a number of options available to them when picking at no.17. It would be no surprise to see the Steelers address this need as early as the first round and again later in a draft which appears to have good depth at the position.
Predicted Draft Round – 1st to 4th
Much like at the receiver position last years starter Rashard Mendenhall now plays his football in another city. Unlike Wallace however it was not his contract demands that saw him move elsewhere rather his attitude and ability to stay healthy. 2012 was a very poor year for Mendenhall coming back from an ACL injury to start the season. He managed to get into Mike Tomlins infamous dog house yet again and then skipped a game when he was due to be inactive which led to a further game suspension. He had his moments while with the Black & Gold but never became a fan favorite. Many questioned his toughness and his perpetual spin moves that seemed to fool no one. He was maddeningly inconsistent looking like a superstar one week and a dud the next and his philosophy in life was never one that geld with SteelerNation.
In his absence there were opportunities for both Issac Redman and Johnathan Dwyer to stake their claim to the starting job. Unfortunately neither was able to do so in a convincing fashion. Due to injury Redman started the year as the starting back but showed little and was replaced by Dwyer in the lineup. Redman briefly re-claimed the starting job but outside of one good game showed nothing to suggest he is more than a backup at this point in his career. He has yet to sign his restricted free agent tender and needs a big season if he is to remain with the Steelers past 2013. When given his chance to assume the starting role at Running Back Dwyer put up back to back 100 yard games but then the injury bug returned and he was average for much of the season after that. Dwyer was quick to sign his tender and needs to arrive in camp in top condition if he is to give himself a real shot of making the starting position his own in the future. Like Redman, Dwyer will be a free agent at the end of the season and will need to put up good numbers if he hopes for a large payday in 2014 in Pittsburgh. Given the options at the position Dwyer figures to be given the chance to establish himself as the feature back in Haleys offense, whether he is good enough remains to be seen.
An off field incident involving Chris Rainey caused the team to severe ties with their rookie Kick Return and change of pace back from 2012 in January leaving Baron Batch as the only other back on the roster right now. Drafted in the 7th round of 2011 Batch has missed a lot of time through injury and has yet to show anything that would be a cause for optimism in the future.
The fullback position looks to be secure following the strong play from undrafted free agent rookie Will Johnson who was one of the bright spots among the new faces last year. With David Johnson re-signed there is more than enough depth at the position going into camp.
Clearly aware of the need at Running Back the team has already brought in a number of free agents at the position but as of yet have not offered contracts to visitors Beanie Wells, Ahmed Bradshaw or Larod Stephens-Howling. The draft figures to be the best option to find a new face in the backfield as, although slim in first round talent, there is a lot of mid round quality available worth looking at.
Predicted Draft Round – 2nd to 5th
3. Tight End
If not for an injury near the end of the season Tight End would not be much of an issue going into the draft. As it is a severe knee injury to Heath Miller has created a big question mark at the position. Even with the injury 2012 was perhaps Millers best season in Pittsburgh posting career highs in yards and touchdowns and leading the team in receptions. The damage to his knee appears to be quite extensive and it is highly unlikely he will be available until mid season at best and even then there is no certainty how well he will recover given his advancing years. Miller has two years remaining on his contract and is set to cost about $8 million in 2014 which will be the final year of his contract while he will also be turning 32 years old.
The supporting cast on the roster is represented by 7th round pick from last year David Paulson, David Johnson who missed last season with a torn ACL and newly signed Steeler of the past Matt Spaeth, brought back after two years in Chicago only a few weeks ago. The coaching staff are very high on the potential of Paulson and he filled in well as the no.2 last year in his first year in the league. He should be that much better in 2013 although appears to have the look of a career backup rather than dynamic starter. Johnson is nothing more than solid bench support at Tight End and Fullback and could struggle to make the roster when Miller is healthy enough to return to the lineup. Spaeth was something of a surprise signing following his cut from the Bears. He did little the first time round in Pittsburgh and has never been much more than a blocker. Even though he looks like a big target in the red zone he has never been much of a pass catcher. Jamie McCoy and Zack Pianalto look to be no more than camp bodies at this point.
Without Miller this is not a particularly dynamic group and given his advancing age, high salary and injury concerns the Steelers may begin looking for his eventual replacement in the draft this year especially if one of the elite prospects should happen to fall to them.
Predicted Draft Round – 4th to 7th
4. Offensive Line
Currently the newly created line consists of a number of high draft picks from the last few years. Injuries have prevented the group from realizing their potential but the team has the makings of a very strong unit. The biggest question facing the group is who is to play left tackle. Second rounds picks Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams figure to be the candidates with Gilbert the early favorite and Adams marked for the right tackle position. Gilbert has flashed at times while continually battling injuries but does not yet convince onlookers he is ready to fill the all important blind side spot. Adams figures to improve entering his second year and it is hopeful he can remain injury free this year. Sixth round pick rookie Kelvin Beachum was surprisingly ready to be thrown into the mix in his first year filling in at both tackle and guard and looks set to back up multiple positions again in 2013. He is even an outsider to claim a starting position on either side or at the guard position. Max Starks, the most consistent tackle on the team last season, remains on the market as a free agent and the Steelers appear to have no interest in bringing him back once again, leaving unproven Joe Long as the only other tackle on the roster.
At the Guard spot much is expected of no.1 pick David DeCastro who missed most of last season with an injury suffered in preseason and the lone undrafted free agent of the group Ramon Foster, who was recently re-signed on a multi year deal. Foster along with Starks has been one of the more consistent and healthy linemen and while unlikely to ever make a Pro Bowl is a consistent and reliable player on a very reasonable contract. There is little depth at the position outside of the aforementioned Beachum and untested first year player Justin Cheadle.
The Center position is well covered in the form of the highly respected Maurkice Pouncey. Following in the long line of legendary Steeler Centers Pouncey has held down the starting job since his selection in the 1st round in 2010. Back up Doug Legursky remains on the market as a free agent although he filled in well for Pouncey when injured leaving John Malecki as the lone option should Pouncey go down, although he has yet to show he is capable of such a demand.
With so many needs across the board it would be something of a shock to see the Steelers invest yet another high draft pick on the offensive line even though some worthy candidates are likely to be available when the time comes to pick. An investment in a mid to late round prospect capable of backing up multiple positions is however quite likely should the right man be there.
Predicted Draft Round – 4th to 7th
Not much needs to be said about franchise Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who was having one of his best season until derailed by injury once again in 2012. However what was exposed last year was the lack of quality at the back up position with the team struggling greatly in Roethlisbergers absence. To that end the Steelers signed free agent Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski from the Cincinnati Bengals, leaving last years back ups Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich on the open market following the expiry of their contracts. Gradkowski looks to be a much more serviceable replacement should he be called upon than Batch or Leftwich and is one of the few free agent signings that has eased the teams draft day demands. John Parker Wilson a waiver wire pick up from the Jacksonville Jaguars is the teams current third choice at Quarterback. Even with the acquisition of Gradkowski there is still a possibility that the Steelers will invest a late round selection on a developmental project if the right prospect is still on the boards in the 5th round or later.
Predicted Draft Round – 5th to 7th