From a 10,000 foot level, the Steelers' season can be summed up as a horrible first half and a great (decent at least) second half.
Should one be weighed more heavily than the other?
A mantra we learned this season (as said by pending free agent Ryan Clark many times) it's not how you start, it's how you finish. While a slightly better start could have landed the team in the playoffs, how the team was playing, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, shouldn't be given more credence than how it finished.
Ultimately, it comes down to the players. The Steelers have 21 pending free agents, many of whom will receive interest on the open market. Despite overstated information pertaining to the team's salary cap position for the 2014 season, it's far more fluid than what is being reported. Several very easy decisions will be made shortly into the offseason schedule, which should free up some money to retain a few key free agents.
As we see it, here are the top priorities for the team to sign either before or during free agency.
WR Jerricho Cotchery - After grossly exceeding common expectations, Cotchery became, surprisingly, the team's best red zone producer this year, leading the team with 10 touchdown receptions and revitalizing his career at the same time. He's said he wanted to stay here, he signed back with the team last year when he was a free agent. This time, he has the leverage to get a two or three year deal from the team, and they'd be happy to have him back.
OLB Jason Worilds - The team will make a run at him, but considering the contract given to Paul Kruger by Cleveland last year, and oddly very comparable careers heading into their free agency years, the market suggests Worilds can command much more than the Steelers will be willing to pay. However, there's something to be said about continuity. Worilds feels very strongly about his skills, and may not want to wait, but teams can take more of a "prove your breakout over the second half of 2013 wasn't a fluke, then we'll talk" attitude. In that case, Worilds might be wiser to sign a shorter-term deal with the team for a moderate amount of money and look to cash in after another season or two. His situation, though, will be a significant piece of the Steelers' offseason.
RB LaRod Stephens-Howling - Coming off an unfortunate knee injury in the team's season-opening game, optimism was high for LS-H after a bright preseason. His versatility and change-of-pace dynamic make him the same kind of player they hoped for when they signed him in free agency last year. If he's healthy, they'll want him back. He can't expect many suitors in free agency, so it fits for both sides.
S Will Allen - Longtime starter Ryan Clark isn't expected back (or at the very least he'll be able to find a job elsewhere). Allen was a spark plug for this team in each of its last two seasons, having replaced Troy Polamalu in 2012, setting off a defensive resurgence at the midpoint of the year, and filling in for rookie Shamarko Thomas in 2013, never letting him back into his spot. He's another player who wants to stay and can be had for an affordable price as the team begins to transition its deep secondary.
DE/NT Al Woods - The Steelers prize versatility along their defensive line. The back-ups they keep are the ones who can play multiple positions. While there's plenty to suggest Woods can be bumped out by a developing Loni Fangupo as well as the promise of 2013 rookies Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams, Woods may be the appropriate fill-in while those younger players develop into the defensive linemen of the future.
DE Brett Keisel - This all depends on the money Keisel would want, but it's clear the team will move on from 2009 first round pick Ziggy Hood, leaving Cameron Heyward and an as of now undetermined player as the starting defensive ends heading into 2014. Keisel has the experience, but his recent injury history may prove to be problematic. The presence and versatility of Woods, along with a draft position that appears right in line for some of the better 5-technique prospects available (Ra'Shede Hageman, Stephon Tuitt) may push him out.
Not Likely to be Back
WR Emmanuel Sanders - He had a decent 2013 season, and his youth along with that production will earn him more money than the Steelers should be willing to pay in free agency. It's hard to make any move that will break up an offense that performed better over its last seven games than it had in its past three seasons, but cap limitations will force the team to move on.
DE Ziggy Hood - The team will let Hood test the market, and he'll likely find a suitor among a team looking to bolster depth at defensive tackle or a 5-technique defensive end. He hasn't shown enough over his first five years to merit an extension, and the team is developing several young prospects.
S Ryan Clark - The writing has been on the wall for Clark for a few seasons now, and while he played fairly well down the stretch, the team is looking to transition into their future deep secondary. Clark is the first to go.
C Fernando Velasco - This will likely upset many in Pittsburgh, but Velasco simply didn't show he can be a better center than Pouncey, a team captain and its starting center since he was drafted by the team in 2010. However, Pouncey's injury history has to begin to concern the Steelers' front office, as well as his looming contract extension. This would be a much simpler decision if Velasco could play another position, but many wouldn't call what Doug Legursky did in his time at left and right guard really playing the position either. Keeping a back-up center just may not be worth either Velasco's or the Steelers' time. Pouncey will not be moved to left guard, as such a move will almost assuredly cause him to leave via free agency in 2015.
RB Jonathan Dwyer - He will want to sign somewhere where he'll get more than two carries a game. The Steelers are firmly set at running back for the future, and any back-up would need to be a complimentary player with a wider range of skills. Stephens-Howling is a better fit, and Dwyer can make more with more playing time elsewhere.
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