Steelers free agency: Departure of Al Woods creates a bigger depth problem on defensive line

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Al Woods isn't an All Pro player, but he is another example of a player being told to test the market, only to leave the Steelers without that player. And perhaps more than Keenan Lewis in 2013, Woods could have been signed to an affordable contract.

Don't stop me if you've heard this one:

(Player A) is young, and the Steelers have put the time and effort into developing him. Sure, there's another player within his group who's potentially better, but if Player A hits free agency, you don't know what's going to happen. I know he perhaps shouldn't get paid more than the Steelers would want, but even telling Player A the Steelers will let him see what's there in free agency is a risk.

Odds are outstanding such sentiment will bring back the bitterness generated when former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis left Pittsburgh for New Orleans last year, helping cap off an offseason where fewer holes were patched up than created.

The Steelers find themselves in a similar position, but not at the cornerback spot; the issue is within their defensive line.

Al Woods is the player who was allowed to test free agency, and didn't take long to find a suitor. Woods signed a 2-year, $5 million deal with the Tennessee Titans, reducing the Steelers depth along their defensive line to two experienced players - Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward.

They each have no more than one season as a starter.

Not to take anything away from either of them, but Woods was considered to be a priority re-sign in free agency due to his versatility and growth. Still young, Woods was being groomed as both a 5-technique defensive end and 0-technique defensive tackle, and one who could be used in multiple ways in sub packages.

Now, he's in Tennessee.

So what's the plan here? Former Steelers first round pick Ziggy Hood is reportedly meeting with the Jaguars, and there's little to no chance Hood is signing for less than what Woods just got. Thoughts of bringing him back as a multi-position contributor now have to be considered likely.

Hood is in position to get something of a raise off his rookie contract from 2009. That makes sense, given the nature of free agency, if he signed elsewhere. But in Pittsburgh?

It also seems like the team considers the return of Brett Keisel a palatable option, even at 35 years of age. He's a veteran who can hold down the fort for another season as the Steelers groom two potential successors in Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams - both players were undrafted free agents in 2013. Williams was out for the year and Arnfelt saw action late last season, mostly on special teams.

The Steelers made great efforts to reduce the team's salary cap position through multiple transactions before free agency started, and while the signing of free safety Mike Mitchell should be seen as a positive, it's not like they broke the bank for his services. A largely non-guaranteed 5-year, $25 million deal doesn't damage their current cap position. Certainly, Woods could have been made a competitive offer and many players will stay where they are for a little less. Perhaps that's not the case for Woods - a journeyman who's career likely won't net him a vast fortune in cash.

Either way, the Steelers' depth on its defensive line is now an issue, and it's not one the draft fixes. Very few Steelers defensive linemen have come in and played significant snaps immediately. It's not impossible, but the only ones who did were first round picks. If that's their plan, it seems easier to simply have re-signed Woods, a proven commodity and a decent, if unspectacular, player.

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