Question: Why bother with an off season team evaluation prior to the draft?
Answer: While draft choices and UDFAs can enrich the team's prospects, a quick review of Pittsburgh's six championships show that no first year player was a key difference maker. Those individuals are likely to already be in the building, so to speak. Skeptical? Let's take as an example the 1974 class lauded as the greatest draft class ever, yielding four Hall of Famers. Only one player, middle linebacker Jack Lambert, started for the team that year, and he was injured the second half of the Super Bowl. In the highly competitive NFL, upgrading and help is always necessary, but to suggest that a draft class constitutes salvation is probably going too far. The Steelers are a division winning playoff team without the newbies.
So even with a good deal of team building ahead of them what can be said about the state of the franchise in April?
When Art Rooney II talks, people ought to listen
The Steelers president sits for an interview concerning the direction of the team at least once a year. Three of his pronouncements in recent years were: do something to reduce the number of injuries the team was suffering year in and year out, restore a dominant running attack, secure Ben Roethlisberger as quarterback for the rest of his career.
In 2014 the Steelers suffered two season ending injuries (Cortez Allen and Brett Keisel), neither of which will carry over to 2015 unless you believe Keisel's injury influenced the team to break ties. This is not to say that injuries did not have an impact, obviously they did. But that is a simple truism about the National Football League. People are going to get hurt. The timing of Le'Veon Bell's setback was horrific, and Jarvis Jones' was a developmental annoyance, but Ben got through the season barely missing a snap, much less a game. The offensive line was remarkably stable when compared to previous seasons. When was the last time that someone wasn't in the process of rehabbing from a surgery at this time of the year in the hope of playing at some time the following season? Maybe it is just a streak of good fortune, but if the team is experiencing more success at injury mitigation, then their prospects for the future improve dramatically.
Nobody is complaining about the proficiency of the Steelers ground game these days besides depth behind Le'Veon Bell which is a concern of an entirely different order. In fact, the issues for the offense generally going into 2015 are things like red zone efficiency. I'll take it. Roethlisberger's re-signing was considered a faint accomplishment by everyone, save a few national media figures desperate to tease up controversy for the sake of self promotion. This wasn't just about loyalty. Why wouldn't an elite quarterback want to play leading this offense? If Brady, Rogers, Brees or either Manning suddenly found themselves homeless where do you think they'd want to go? Is it possible that the change in coordinators, the building of an elite offensive line coached by a man, considered by most to be one of, if not the best in the business at what he does, to have a pair of All-Pro caliber talents at running back and wide receiver, backed and supported by rising young talent and solid veterans coming together was just a happy accident? Maybe. But, as we will see as this piece progresses, perhaps the biggest difference between the professionals that run the Steelers franchise and many of the fans that follow the team is the ability to see and plan down the road as opposed to being able to barely see beyond one's own nose.
No one's being fired today
Bouncing back from a rebuilding cycle where hitting bottom meant sinking to a .500 winning percentage (the horror!), winning your division and returning to the playoffs has a way of putting the critics on their heels. That is not to say that Steelers Nation is on one accord in this respect. Its just that to call for the head of a coach who in eight years has led his team to the Super Bowl twice and has never had a losing season, or a general manager that keeps seeming to luck into procuring All-Pro caliber talent, some of it coming in the later rounds of the draft, and not appear to be an ignorant crank or worse is challenging. In little more than one season, the Steelers have gone from being a franchise perceived as entering into steep decline to being a brick or two removed from being championship caliber. You may think that Tomlin, Colbert and the Rooneys are incompetent (though I haven't seen anything near a convincing argument in that regard..and I've asked). You may just not like them (probably closer to the truth of the matter for many, but not a firing offense). Or you are bedeviled by expectations that are totally unrealistic. You think the NFL is the Big Ten or the City League and that any one team will dominate. Bottom line: for the foreseeable future, the leadership of this organization is in place and secure.
The coaching staff
We sometimes make much about the maturation of players but systems sometimes need time to fully blossom as well. It is well to remember that head coach Mike Tomlin is just barely over 40. The coaches that he is most appropriately compared to are, in some cases, decades ahead of him in both age and coaching experience. He has just added to his individual toolbox the experience of weathering a somewhat impressive period of transition for his team. Might it be reasonable to assume that he is getting better with an enormous upside? Answers may be coming soon as both his players and staff will be more a reflection of his values and vision than they ever have. The staff has heavy representation of those with ties to either Pennsylvania football (a group well represented within the coaching ranks throughout the league) or the Steelers specifically, and in my view is underrated.
Haven't heard much criticism of Todd Haley lately have we? Speaking of maturation, as far as know there isn't anyone who seems to be bent out of shape with the offensive concept inside or outside the training facility. To the contrary, it is now generally considered the strength of the team and one of most potent in the league. I was among those who believed that the best off season acquisition last year was offensive line coach Mike Munchak. Nothing happened subsequently to cause a retraction of that assertion. Staying with the maturation theme, is it unreasonable to assume that going into a second year under his tutelage that the offensive line may noticeably improve without any significant additions based upon the growth of a group of relatively young players, plus more familiarity with their coach and his methods? The wide receivers have not failed to exceed expectations under the leadership of Richard Mann.
Obviously things are a little more in a state of flux on the other side of the ball. But I choose to believe that the change at defensive coordinator was not a knock on anyone, but a business and timing decision where a choice had to be made between Dick LeBeau and Keith Butler. The smart long-term decision had to be Butler. In my view, what must be kept in mind is that (referring back to Rooney) the organization is prepping to use the window of Ben's contract to make a championship run(s). The importance and urgency of this may fly over the heads of those who think that elite, franchise quarterbacks can be easily procured or developed via draft or trade.
The mystery, of course, is whether Butler can approximate the success of LeBeau. The relationship between Tomlin and Butler extends before their presence with the Steelers. An interesting question is whether Tomlin might take a more hands on approach to things given his background as a defensive coach and the fact that it would probably not be perceived as stepping on toes. The staff remains stable and solid, particularly given that outside linebacker coach Joey Porter was in the running for the second most important off season acquisition of last year.
With the understanding that with significant injuries all bets are off, here is how the 2015 group looks to measure compared to other recent Super Bowl squads.
Viewed from the perspective of depth then this group compares very unfavorably with past championship teams, particularly the 2010 squad where there were four players who were capable of starting and competing in most situations. But the only issue of significance is at the top of the depth chart. And in this regard Ben Roethlisberger, version 2015 is superior to '05, '08 and '10 in terms of both his maturity as a player, as well as the supporting cast and the likelihood of being able to get through the season relatively unscathed. If he does go down, particularly at playoff time, a la Bell, than its pretty much over regardless of who the backups may be. The issue that needs to be resolved through the remainder of the off season is who is in line to be the number two quarterback in 2016 and perhaps beyond.
If this group manages simply to match last season's production then it is still head and shoulders above the '08 and '10 groups. We should not be surprised if the play of the group, and particularly that of Kelvin Beachum and David DeCastro improves, in DeCastro's case to Pro Bowl levels. Adding some depth and internal competition wouldn't hurt, but who is to say that it can't be provided by the players at hand. Chris Hubbard showed enough last year to vault over Wesley Johnson, Alejandro Villanueva hasn't been in the system or public view long enough to dismiss out of hand and Mike Adams rebounded from the disaster that was his 2013 season, with serious personal incentives to make a another significant leap this season if he can.
The committee of Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and Will Johnson will reconvene this season, which is a good thing for both the running and passing attacks. Indications are that the field of potential first year candidates is weak, so a newcomer making much of splash may be something of a pleasant surprise. But don't count out Rob Blanchflower who could make a second year leap.
The big question here is what can be gotten from DeAngelo Williams? It seems to be a win in the character department. The best case would be that having spent the lion's share of his career splitting time that the wear and tear on his body is not so great. That, and the benefit gained from having the same advantages running behind Munchak's line. Of course, we'll have our answers well before Columbus Day. Equally interesting questions involve Josh Harris and Dri Archer. From what I saw in training camp last summer Harris' problems distilled down to the numbers game more so than any lack on his part. At best, Williams is probably a short-term solution. There is an opportunity to take a leap for Harris. Most have written off Archer, but I will take the team at it's word for the moment in saying that the jury is still out.
For the first time in four seasons this unit does not have to deal with the loss of significant contributors (top three on the depth chart) to free agency or release. Antonio Brown proved last year that he was capable of achieving sustained excellence, and demonstrated that greatness can be packaged against type. With AB setting the pace and what looks like a robust competition for the number two position, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant could both improve by leaps and bounds. In addition to being a special teams asset, Darrius Heyward-Bey brings additional speed and a possible deep threat, particularly when you consider that he is likely to be matched against an opponent's fourth best defender. Now, for fun, consider if the light comes on for Dri Archer..speed everywhere.
When compared to the 2005, 2008 and 2010 Super Bowl rosters, every position group in 2015 has the potential to match up favorably. This without adding any new players. Even during the Seventies era teams Pittsburgh's top skills player were not under consideration for being the best in the league. A year ago some began to make comparisons of Ben, Bell and Brown to the Triplets of Dallas (Aikman, Smith and Irvin). When I first heard it I felt it was a stretch, now I believe that they could actually be better before its all said and done. Fully half of the offensive starters could get serious consideration for the, Pro Bowl (Bell, Brown, DeCastro, Pouncey, Roethlisberger and, let's say Bryant). The issue with this and the other aspects of the team is depth; important for both injury insurance and internal competition that is critical for reaching that competitive edge. The other factor, a two edge sword really, is youth. Will the younger players make the leap, plateau, or slump?
And speaking of youth..the key to how good a group this is may lie with second year players Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers. In the best of times it was rare for a first year player to have an impact in John Mitchell's group, Casey Hampton being the last. The health of Steve McLendon will be a factor as well. Imagine how dynamic and dangerous this unit would become if Tuitt's development remained on it's current trajectory, and the light came on for McCullers.
Moving into the second year, literally, for one and essentially for the other, Ryan Shazier and Sean Spence could take quantum leaps. Lawrence Timmons is at the peak of his powers and Vince Williams has become very solid. Does Jordan Zumwalt have a chance? The outside is thinner but some seem to be forgetting a few key things. Jarvis Jones was playing pretty well last year before he got hurt. The support system and role models consist of Butler, Jerry Olsavsky and Porter, and James Harrison. They may not be as far away as some might imagine.
Two things can make life for this unit a lot more manageable. If the front seven on defense and the offense live up to their potential then the options of opposing offenses is drastically reduced. Cornerback, like outside linebacker is one of the few places where going outside for help is essential. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether incumbents such as Cortez Allen or Arthur Moats prove to be useless in helping the team. Or, conversely who if anyone will be able to simply walk onto the starting lineup and begin contributing at a high level.
The real fun of 2015 will come from watching the development of the defense. Fun in the sense that it is somewhat rare in following Steelers football where you see something that is unexpected and new. I also believe that the growth potential will be much more dramatic, and interesting for fans than the offense.
There will be much ado about the competition at punter, but history tells us that it won't matter in the final analysis. Two things will be important about the third side of the ball. Can Shaun Suisham maintain his consistent level of play? Can the Steelers establish a constant level of threat in the return game, both punting and kickoffs? You would wish that someone would step up to the point when AB doesn't have to do this anymore. However, if no one else can, then you have no choice really, even given the physical risk to Brown. To paraphrase Ben Franklin: Those who sacrifice splash plays for security will have neither.
Because I believe that Pittsburgh is so well positioned minus the draft choices, the best player available, within reason, does make the most sense. Of course, a defensive play maker should be a higher priority than anyone else, but not to the point of grabbing just anyone who happens to play a position of need. The biggest mistake the team can make is to succumb to a sense of panic, as many fans have to this point. In the final analysis it is the big picture that takes priority.