Number of 30+ year old players, per NFL team: pic.twitter.com/LrXyGzkqfM— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) April 6, 2015
When the 2015 NFL season kicks off in September, the Pittsburgh Steelers will likely have at least 10 players who are 30 years of age or older, tied for seventh-most in the league, with several names who are likely to impact the team -- for better or for worse -- over the next few seasons.
Headlining that list is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who, at 33, is currently in the midst of the best stretch of his career. For two straight seasons, he has started all sixteen games, and he saw significant improvement in most key categories in 2014. He seems to be aging more like cheese than milk.
That's important, because this team is now undeniably his. The offense is designed to play to his strengths, and to protect him from the punishing hits he withstood much more often between 2006 and 2009, when he averaged more than 47 sacks per year. If the offensive line continues to improve under position coach Mike Munchak, Roethlisberger stands an excellent chance of playing out his recently signed extension that puts him in control of the Steelers' offense through 2019.
Roethlisberger's backup, Bruce Gradkowski, is 32 and only under contract through 2015. Gradkowski is a solid backup, but there is little depth behind him. Landry Jones hasn't been able to unseat Gradkowski in his two seasons, despite being a fourth-round pick. Behind him, at least for the off-season, is newly acquired Tajh Boyd, who is little more than a camp body
At 36, the oldest player on the list is outside linebacker James Harrison, who must feel something akin to Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III -- just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. Twice. However, Harrison is likely going to sing his swan song in 2015. His second return to the team was only necessitated by a gaping void left when Jason Worilds moved on, as well as the so-far uneven play of 2013 first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones. Harrison proved in 2014 he still has some gas in the tank, and looks as strong and as fit as ever. Whether his body can withstand another year remains to be seen, though, and the team is likely to address the position in the draft next month.
At 33 years of age, two key special-teams cogs could leave large voids in the next few years. Kicker Shaun Suisham continues to be a critical piece of the team, despite never having the strongest leg. Once a cast-off signed mid-season, Suisham has improved so much that he is now one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL. He would be hard to replace, but kickers often enjoy lengthy careers. Unless he declines suddenly, he should enjoy several more seasons in Black and Gold.
However, the man who snaps on punts and placekicks could pose a more imminent issue. The same age as Suisham, 252-pound Greg Warren is actually one of the bigger long snappers in the NFL, but he's also the fifth oldest. His contract expires after this year, and that fact combined with his age could leave a vacancy at an important, if under-appreciated, position.
An intriguing issue facing the Steelers leading into the 2015 draft is the fact that the top two spots on the tight-end depth chart are manned by Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, who are 32 and 31, respectively. In the Pittsburgh offense, the position is still heavily utilized in blocking schemes, despite the recent trend toward players who more resemble oversized wide receivers.
Miller's numbers as a receiver have suffered somewhat with the emergence of the young wide receivers and running back Le'Veon Bell, who has become an outstanding option in the passing game. Miller, though, is only a season removed from a significant knee injury, and could become a candidate for retirement sooner rather than later. His contract runs through 2016, at which time both he and the team will need to make some important decisions.
Spaeth has been more of a role player in his two stints with the team, and his contract will also expire following the 2016 season. That means the team absolutely will need to begin addressing the position, whether by extending one or both of Miller and Spaeth, or by looking to the draft and free agency over the next 16 months.
Cornerback William Gay was the team's best defensive back in 2014, but at 30 years old, his second run with team could draw to a close when his contract expires after the 2015 season. While 2014 was definitely his best year, with three interceptions returned for touchdowns, he is approaching the age when defensive backs begin to decline. With a solid draft at the position this year, and if Cortez Allen rebounds from a horrendous 2014 season, Gay could find himself no longer employed in Pittsburgh.
Guard/center Cody Wallace has been a dependable backup and spot-starter in a season and a half in Pittsburgh. He isn't terribly expensive, fits well in the team's offensive line schemes, and is signed through the 2016 season. The team will need to look to the guard position in the next year, but it's not a pressing need just yet. Wallace is like to play out his contract, but will be 33 when it expires, leaving the likelihood that he will be extended a slim one.
Backup running back DeAngelo Williams is just beginning his time in Pittsburgh, and isn't expected to see the field a lot. But, at 31, he is already old for his position. The two-year contract he signed as a free agent in March is likely to be the only one he signs in Pittsburgh, as the team already has some unproven depth at the position, and could look to address the position further in the later rounds of the draft.
The wildcard right now is Troy Polamalu. Not included in the overall count, Polamalu could push that total to 11 players over 30, should the team choose to retain him at or below his current salary. He has not yet decided between returning for 2015 and retiring, and though the team is reportedly trying to talk him into retirement, weak depth at safety could ultimately lead to his being retained in a backup role. Either way, there is virtually no chance he stays past 2015, if he comes back at all.
As these issues are dealt with more will arise, in the never-ending cycle of roster management. As always, though, we can expect one of the most storied and stable franchises in all of sports to manage them the same way they always have: with a calm and steady hand.