A thorough and detailed look at the coming offseason.

I am a long time reader, and a first time poster. I decided to write this after reading all the spirited debate this season about the Steeler's pending free agents and draft needs, which was ramped up this year due to the teams poor start. Not that I would begrudge anyone for wanting to talk about the future when the present was 0-4, 2-6, and 5-8. I'd like to start with this years crop of free agents before I touch on the draft.

Because I'm not a cap geek, I was thrilled to read SteelCityRoller's position by position breakdown of "real money" vs. "play money." While many fans have been clamoring for Lamarr Woodley's release due to his bewildering rash of pulled muscles, the "Play Money OLB" article seems to conclude that it would be more prudent to keep him around, at least for one more year. Since anyone reading this can refer to the article in question I won't go into detail, but the gist is that if they're going to take the cap hit either way, they might as well squeeze a few games out of 56 before he hurts himself again. One thing I will add is that while cutting Woodley may free up *some* cap space, it doesn't guarantee enough space to keep his anointed heir apparent. If theres a team out there with some cap room, that wants Jason Worilds bad enough, outbidding the Steelers for his services wouldn't be out of the question. And if the Steelers do cut Woodley before they lock up Worilds, they could risk losing both before either one has a chance to be injured again.

Another facet of the OLB debate is what to make of Worilds himself. When fans assess pending free agents on their team, they tend to speak in extremes. Either a guy is a bum and needs to be kicked to the curb, or he walks on water and is completely indispensable. Usually things aren't that black and white. All the fans who are calling for Woodley's head because of his injury woes are simultaneously begging the FO to break the bank for Worilds, who himself has never gone more than a few games without getting hurt. When asked by a reporter about his future, Worilds alluded to his lack of playing time prior to this season. He failed to mention that in 2011 and 2012, Harrison's back and Woodley's hammies gave him ample opportunities to prove his worth. Each time he was either not healthy when the guy in front of him went down, or he got hurt shortly thereafter. Why else would we see Timmons play most of a season at OLB in 2011, or get treated to the Chris Carter show in 2012? So what we Steeler fans are calling for is to replace a talented and expensive pass rusher who can't stay healthy with a talented and expensive pass rusher who can't stay healthy. What could go wrong? I was gonna throw in a quip about the team releasing Willie Colon because he kept getting hurt only to see him play a full 16 games for the Jets, but then the news came out today that he is headed for another major surgery.

The bottom line at OLB is this; in a perfect world we would all love to have Jason Worilds for the long haul, but as talented as he is, and well rounded as he has become, it seems to me like just as risky an investment as Woodley's contract was. If they do let Worilds walk, that would leave Jones, Carter, Woodley and Sly under contract. This may seem like a shaky situation, but I would like to provide three reasons for optimism: First, Joey Porter had two sacks his rookie year in 99, then exploded for 10 in his sophomore campaign. I don't think comparing Porter to Jones is all that far fetched. Second, there is still a chance that E.T touches Woodley's calves or his fairy godmother waves her wand and he magically plays a full season in 2014. And finally, there are some parallels between Carter now and Worilds one year ago. He's a talented pass rusher who has spent a couple years being coached up, but has seen limited playing time, if Carter ends up the last man standing at LOLB, he may surprise some people. If you're still reading this, and God Bless you if you are, you may be arguing that Worilds is young, and that I'm making too much of his injury history. Surely his dominant play alone makes him worthy of a second contract. Maybe so, but not at the expense of some more pressing investments, which brings me to my next point:

The Case for Ziggy Hood.. A cool name, a snazzy hairdo, and enough raw strength to bench press a small horse might not be enough to make the former first rounder the team's top free agent priority, but that isn't all Ziggy has going for him. Steeler Nation has been perpetually down on this guy. Even learned bloggers who watch a ton of film have used words like "underwhelming," and "disappointing," not just to describe a play, a single game, or a season, but his entire career in Black and Gold. I get it, we have seen him play a few games like he did in Cincinatti in 2012, where he was on roller skates when he wasn't on his back, and the Steelers aren't always lucky enough to win anyway when he turns in a stinker. Everyone has off days and bad games, but Ziggy is graded more harshly for several reasons: He's a first round pick with intimidating natural talent, he has watched and understudied Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, The Diesel and Chris Hoke, he's been coached by Mike Tomlin, Dick Lebeau, and John Mitchell, and through all that expert tutelage he has never suffered a freak injury or had to deal with off the field issues. Therefor, people see the fact that he isn't exceeding Aaron Smiths accomplishments, notching 6 sack seasons, or etching his name among the best 5-points in the nfl as an extreme let down. I don't think that's fair, we should evaluate Ziggy without letting his draft stock or any other external factors cloud our judgement. All that being said, here is my two-pronged case for Ziggy Hood.

1) The position he plays is unique. Playing the five technique on the strong side of Dick Lebeau's defense is not only one of the most physically and mentally demanding positions in football, it also takes a frustratingly long time to master. Even the great Aaron Smith, who started playing the position well in his third year(2001), didn't truly blossom into his full potential until his seventh year(2004.) On the other side, the Diesel took over the starting job in his fifth year, but things didn't really click until the start of his sixth. Ziggy is going into his fifth season and seemed to get better every week during his 2013 second half surge following his benching, which I'll address in my next point. Given the notoriously long incubation period for D-lineman in this system, I cringe at the idea of scrapping Ziggy and starting all the way over with a rookie. Don't get me wrong, Hageman and Tuitt look like really exciting prospects, and im not opposed to taking either in the 1st round, but no matter how talented either is, there is less precedent or good reason for a rookie to take over that job than any on the team and perhaps any in the league. NFL experience, veteran wiles, and "old man strength" are going to become more and more scarce on this team in the next couple years, and those are exactly the traits Ziggy has been developing.

2) Ziggy Hood is no bust. If memory serves me, he started somewhere between 9 and 11 games after Smith's second consecutive trip to the IR in 2010. That was the year that the Steelers set the record for fewest rushing yards allowed in a season. Obviously I'm not going to say they set the record because of Ziggy's efforts. After all, Casey and Brett put together pro bowl campaigns, a healthy linebacking corps was so deep they had Larry Foote coming off the bench, and some guy playing behind them won defensive MVP. But the fact that Ziggy logged all his snaps at a position that is crucial to stuffing the run can only mean that he was a key component in a record setting defense. Rewatching parts of this past Sunday's brownie beat down, a couple of sacks stood out. On a sack by Heyward, Ziggy monopolizes two blockers inside, leaving Cam one on one with Joe Thomas. Watching Cam steamroll the highly touted Thomas and throw Campbell to the turf was like watching Monet paint a masterpiece, but it was made possible by some old fashioned grunt work by Ziggy. On another sack, Ziggy again eats up a double team, allowing Jarvis Jones to shoot the gap and chase Campbell into the waiting arms of LT. Those are some waiting arms no one wants to be chased into. For twenty years Ive been told countless times that the number one job of lineman in this system is to monopolize blockers and free up their teammates to make plays. That's all Ziggy has been doing lately, and he's been doing it well. So what about the bad times? What about all those games that have earned Ziggy such harsh criticism from pundits and fans alike? Well, After 2011 I felt like he had, in some respects, outperformed my expectations. I thought he had shown a lot of promise and held his own extremely well, considering he was thrown into the fire before he was ready because of Aaron Smith's injuries. At that point, I was defending Ziggy to anyone who would listen. But then, out of nowhere, the bottom fell out. Through much of 2012, and the 0 for September portion of 2013, the junk he put on game film was indefensible. It was obvious something had changed. Maybe his relatively strong showing in 2011 made him complacent, and he lost his attention to detail. The subsequent benching was part of a mass benching and a last ditch effort to wake up a team that was sleep walking. It worked. I really believe that the Ziggy Hood that came off the bench and back into the lineup with a vengeance was the real Ziggy, and I have a hunch the coaching staff feels the same way.

Notes On The Other Free Agents.. Who else is going to pay big money for Jericho? Especially since really talented rookie wideouts flood into the league in droves, what other team is going to spend money on a receiver who is not particularly big or fast, and is firmly planted on the wrong side of thirty years old? With the impending loss of Sanders and other needs to fill in April, bringing back Jericho on the cheap should be a no brainer. To the people in the blogosphere putting Troy and "cap casualty" in the same sentence; I have no words for you, except maybe "get real." On the other hand, this might be goodbye for Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, and Larry Foote. Three seems to be the magic number for purging big name veterans of the 2000's mini-dynasty. Last year it was Debo, Max and Big Snack. The year before it was Smith, Farrior, and Hines. A lesser known free agent quagmire is what to do with Jonathan Dwyer. While the days of the communal backfield seem to be waning, its still preferable to have more than one guy who can tote the rock. Dwyer has made the most of his carries and seems to eat up four yards every time he touches the ball, and he's got so much tread left on the tires its crazy. You gotta think some teams are gonna show interest in him. In the above diatribes regarding Woodley Worilds and Hood, I mentioned veteran savvy being at more of a premium as guys continue to ride off into the sunset, I think that makes Will Allen valuable to the Steelers. Even if Shamarko wins the starting job, Allen comes cheaper than Clark, and with less wear and tear on his body.

Are You Mocking Me.. It's only a few hours into January, and Im already getting mock draft whiplash. One mock from last week had the Steelers taking Mike Evans at 13. The whole "Ben wants a tall receiver" thing keeps coming up, but he doesn't want just any old schmo. Go on youtube and search "Plaxico Burress Michigan State Highlights." There you will see how good a receiver has to be for the Colbert Steelers to take him that high. Plaxico was an unstoppable, force, Julio Jones or A.J Green are much more apt comparisons to plax than this Mike Evans guy. One thing I didn't mention in my case for Ziggy Hood is that he just seems to play better when the guys around him are playing better (so he's not a leader, big whoop.) Expounding on that, a lot of people have said that upgrading the nose tackle position is the best way for the Steelers to shore up there run defense. This makes sense, as when they drafted Casey, the run D went from middle-of-the-pack to number one instantly. Then when Casey retired last year, the run D went from top ten to bottom ten istantly. So a few mocks have sent Louis Nix our way, because hes huge like Casey Hampton, so he must be great like Casey Hampton. I am no NFL scout, but I feel like I can see the word bust written across his face. You wanna talk about a lineman playing too high, Nix plays practically vertical. The big thing that the coaches raved about Casey Hampton coming out of Texas was his low center of gravity and his propensity to get lower than the guy across from him. What is strange is that all these recent mocks have the Steelers passing on CJ Mosley, presumably because he doesn't fit a big "need." Any Colbert fan worth his salt knows that pick 15 is no place to be reaching for needs. That aside, no offense to Vince Williams (who Tomlin loves, seriously, it's reaching man-crush territory) or Sean Spence (who we all love,) I can't imagine Mosley wouldn't be a welcome addition. Well, there's my two cents, and if you read all that, I am impressed and extremely flattered.

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