When Chris Boswell's onside kick escaped the hands of Ryan Shazier and landed in the waiting arms of C.J. Anderson on Sunday, the 2015 season of the Pittsburgh Steelers officially ended. In turn, it unofficially marked the beginning of the 2016 season, as the franchise begins preparing for another run at the Lombardi Trophy.
As the norm, there are plenty of questions, needs and questions about needs surrounding what the team will do in the offseason. Decisions will be made over the next eight months on who to sign, resign, extend, draft and part ways with. The Steelers will likely address tight end, safety and nose tackle in the offseason, but here BTSC lists seven additional steps we deem vital on the quest for championship No. 7.
Key Objective No. 1
Make Antonio Brown A Steeler For Life
For the past three seasons, the most dynamic player in football has been Antonio Brown. AB fell one yard shy of 1,500 yards in receiving in 2013. One yard separated Brown from becoming the only man to eclipse that mark in three consecutive seasons. Over the last five years, Brown averaged 1,385 yards. He is Hall of Fame caliber and a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
There were rumors of a holdout last year, luckily that did not come into fruition. In 2012, Brown signed a six-year/$43 million extension. Even though there are two years left on the deal, Brown's epic production suggests that he has outplayed the deal. Kevin Colbert and the Rooneys need to find a way to keep Brown and avoid the distractions of an unhappy superstar.
Key Objective No. 2
Ross Cockrell is likely back as a restricted free agent and Doran Grant, Cortez Allen and Senquez Golson are the only cornerbacks signed to the roster. William Gay, Antwon Blake and Brandon Boykin saw their contracts expire at season's end. Cockrell was solid as a waiver-wire pickup, Grant spent most of the season on the practice squad and saw very limited action, while Allen (barely) and Golson didn't see any at all with the shoulder injury. It will be great finally seeing if the diminutive Golson can deliver big on the promise of being a second-round pick and Cockrell has definite upside, but you can't survive on upside and promise alone.
Bringing back Gay on a home-town deal seems likely. He's a veteran who has left before and come back. that is not likely to reoccur. Gay wants to end his career in black and gold and, despite his age, has warranted a place at the table in Pittsburgh with his play.
Blake is a question mark. The Steelers seem to like his toughness, despite being ranked last in the league in yards-allowed to an opposing receiver with over 1,000. He had some shining moments, but seemed to be victimized far too often. He may be back for depth's sake.
Allen, who knows? His play has been horrendous when active and there was speculation that he wasn't injured enough to warrant season-ending IR. But he is under contract for three more years and may get a shot, but the Steelers are more likely to cut him post-June 1 and save 4.4 million in cap space. If the last two seasons are any indication of the buyer's remorse the Steelers have when it comes to Cortez, that's the logical step.
Boykin is an enigma also. He was traded for ultimately a fifth-rounder, but got nary a chance until the very end of the season. Something is going on there. There is no indication whether or not the Steelers want him back or whether he wants to come back because of his lack of playing time. A split here seems likely, especially with Golson in the fold at the slot corner.
Nonetheless, the 28th-ranked pass defense desperately needs upgraded. Another high pick at corner or safety seems logical, but it has seemed logical for years with it barely being addressed until last year. Also finding cash to bring a minor upper-level free agent should be an option, but will it and can it?
Key Objective No. 3
Resist Age Discrimination On A Couple Of Guys
Despite never wanting to keep a player past their primes for loyalty-sake, four aging Steelers have played well enough to warrant a return invitation. William Gay was discussed above, while LS Greg Warren, LB James Harrison and S Will Allen should get strong consideration to be retained.
Warren is stable as a long-snapper and is a low-cost veteran option at a key spot.
The soon-to-be, 34 year-old Allen is another player that left and returned. His contributions in the run defense and pass defense were solid in 2015. He is a reputable presence in the locker room and the community. The Steelers will make bringing in a young safety in the draft, but with Rob Golden a free agent and Shamarko Thomas yet to find the field at safety, Keeping Allen for another year to pair with Mike Mitchell could help bridge the gap for a younger player.
Then there's Deebo. Will James Harrison return? Do the Steelers want him back? Is Jarvis Jones ready to go full-time?
I think yes, yes and I'm not sure.
Harrison, who is signed, is not sure whether his body can endure another rigorous offseason of preparation. But #92 showed, at 37, that he can still play at a high level and that he is a positive force in the locker room. His performance against Denver was inspiring and the thought of James not playing on a team that has the tools to go the distance in 2016 is disheartening. With the franchise sack record in reach, many would like to see Harrison out there for one last rodeo.
Key Objective No. 4
Fortify The O-Line
In 2015, The offensive line was a strength of the team under position coach Mike Munchak. 2016 promises a starting five consisting of two players with Pro Bowl experience in David Decastro and Maurkice Pouncey. Joining them is a player who many thought was worthy of Pro Bowl status, Marcus Gilbert, and Alejandro Villanueva, who broke through in a big way in place of an injured Kelvin Beachum. Beachum and Ramon Foster are free agents and may not return.
Beachum's immediate future is unclear after suffering an ACL tear in mid-October. The 26 year-old LT had an opportunity to sign an extension before the season started, but declined to do so. The gamble may have backfired on Beachum not only because his understudy, Villanueva, played well in his stead but due to the fact that he may not be ready for the start of the year, costing him millions. The Steelers may bring him back for one year at a reduced price or let him walk. At his age and because of the setback, he may end up as a bargain for another team.
Foster just turned 30 and the 6'6"/325-pounder remains a strong presence at left guard. The undrafted "Big Ragu" has spent seven seasons in Pittsburgh and both parties should want to see him remain in black and gold, but Foster told the Post-Gazette that it isn't up to him. "That's upper management, Kevin Colbert and them, whatever direction they decide to go in," said Foster. "My job is to stay healthy, stay out of trouble. Don't end up getting tased on South Beach, that type of stuff."
One would think that the Steelers would try to keep one of them, with a lack of depth behind the starters. Cody Wallace is solid, but Mike Adams health is sketchy, Chris Hubbard is unproven, while Byron Stingily and Doug Legursky are free agents and expendable. I expect the line to be addressed early-on in the draft also. Of the free agents, Foster, who brings leadership and apparently a sense of humor, seems more likely to stay of the two. Unfortunately, we may have seen the last of Beachum, a classy player and a talented lineman.
Key Objective No. 5
Keep Chris Boswell and Trade Shaun Suisham
This is not nearly as cut and dry as it sounds. The NFL is not like Major League Baseball, where it is much easier to unload excess at a position. If the Steelers were to choose this road to go down, they would have to be patient and it probably wouldn't be until the end of the 2016 exhibition season.
Much like they had last year at the punter position, the Steelers have two higher-tier kickers. Boswell was the third, final and most-successful solution to replace Suisham in 2015. Nine years younger, Boswell is the much-cheaper option. The production of both was identical. Boswell, the seventh, most-accurate kicker in the NFL in 2015, was 29 of 32 for an accuracy rate of 90.6%. He was seven-for-seven in the playoffs. In 2014, Suisham (the most accurate kicker in team history) was also 29 of 32.
With Boswell proving reliable in 2015 and Suisham costing over $3 million, keeping the younger player in this situation is more prudent. Finding another team looking for a reliable kicker at the end of the preseason makes sense. Getting a late round pick to supplement the loss of a pick in the disastrous, Josh Scobee deal would be favorable, plus they would save cap-room. They did it with their wealth of punters by keeping Jordan Berry and shipping Brad Wing to the Giants for a seventh-rounder. Maybe they could ship Suisham to Jacksonville and get back the sixth-rounder they lost to them.
Key Objective No. 6
Upgrade Depth At The QB Position
When Ben Roethlisberger can't go, it's absolutely necessary to have a quarterback in place that has the ability to thrive instead of barely survive.
I can't imagine any scenario in which Michael Vick returns and, frankly, I don't envision a situation where Landry Jones would be beneficial long term as anything more than a last resort at #3. I'm not forgetting his clutch contribution as a reliever against Arizona and Oakland. However, he was a complete liability with the lead on the big stage in Cincinnati and had to be bailed out by a one-armed quarterback.
Bruce Gradkowski, returning from injury, most likely will be penciled-in here to carry the clipboard. That is acceptable. However, Bruce is short-term and the front office needs to look beyond 2016 and groom a quarterback for the future.
Key Objective No. 7
Expand The Role Of Sammie Coates
Coates was drafted out of Auburn in the third round because the Steelers knew a suspension to Martavis Bryant was imminent. Bryant was suspended but Coates saw very little action and caught only one pass in the regular season, Week 4 vs Baltimore.
Due to Antonio Brown's concussion, Coates played in the divisional round against Denver and looked impressive by snagging two Ben Roethlisberger passes for 61 yards. With the expired contract of Darius Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton in the final year of his. Coates, who has earned done trust from his quarterback, could with his inclusion in the lineup add firepower to an already potent offense.
Other Objectives To Consider:
Find a more traditional, big-bodied NT
Decide on a successor to Heath Miller
Develop Fitzgerald Toussaint as a third-down option