Sign a mid-level free agent
The Steelers secondary looked much better in 2016 than it did in the previous two seasons, but it is far from a finished product. The weakest link in Pittsburgh’s secondary might just be cornerback William Gay, who struggled mightily in man coverage throughout the 2016 season. Gay’s contract isn’t a big issue (though the Steelers would save around $2 million by releasing him), but he turns 33 next season, meaning that the Steelers would benefit from adding a young player who is better suited to manning the slot. Senquez Golson, Pittsburgh’s second-round pick from the 2015 draft, is an obvious candidate to earn a starting role, but has missed each of the past two seasons with injuries.
To replace Golson, the Steelers have developed a propensity for using draft picks to acquire castoffs from other franchises, including Brandon Boykin and former first-round pick Justin Gilbert. Neither player established themselves as anything more than an occasional role player, and both were released after just one season with the team.
Instead of wasting draft picks (every pick is valuable: see Antonio Brown for reference), the Steelers would be wise to invest some money in a proven commodity like Captain Munnerlyn.
Munnerlyn signed a three-year, $11.2 million deal with Minnesota in 2014, and likely outperformed the figures on that deal. Pittsburgh absolutely has some cap room to play with, but much of that will probably be spent on re-signing Brown, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons. If the Steelers place the franchise tag on Le’Veon Bell (as they are expected to do), that will eat about $12 million of this year’s cap.
Cornerbacks are always in high demand, and Munnerlyn has some leverage given his age (28) and production. Precedent suggests that Munnerlyn will command a three-year or four-year deal for $5 million or so per season, and the Steelers could potentially make such a deal work, especially if they don’t have to make a huge financial commitment long term.
Sign Lawrence Timmons and draft his replacement
The Steelers bit the bullet by retaining Timmons under his outrageous $15 million cap number last season, and he rewarded them by returning to his 2014 form and leading the team in tackles. Timmons’ age certainly isn’t working in his favor in terms of leverage, but he played well enough last season to justify a market-level salary with the Steelers. Should he be compelled to take a hometown discount? Absolutely not, but it’s hard to imagine Mike Tomlin’s first-ever draft pick playing anywhere but Pittsburgh.
Signing Timmons to a short-term deal would allow the Steelers to stabilize the front seven while simultaneously building for the future. We’ve already highlighted why a player like Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillian makes sense, but Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham or Florida’s Jarran Davis have all the tools necessary to make an impact in the NFL now and well into the future. Drafting an inside linebacker in the second round certainly wouldn’t be out of the question.
Figure out the quarterback situation as soon as possible
Ben Roethlisberger is not going to retire this offseason or even the offseason after that. After that, though, his future gets decidedly cloudier. At some point, you have to figure that injuries and spending the early portion of his career routinely gazing skyward will catch up with him physically. Roethlisberger turns 35 at the beginning of March, so if he hasn’t yet hit his professional peak, rest assured, it’s coming.
For this reason, coupled with the fact that Roethlisberger has missed at least one game in almost every season since he was drafted, the Steelers need a contingency plan. Fortunately, they have some options:
Explore free agency
Considering Pittsburgh’s upcoming cap commitments, the Steelers would need to tread lightly if they take this route. Frankly, there aren’t many options that make sense here even if they did decide to explore the open market. Players like Mike Glennon and Colin Kaepernick will probably be out of Pittsburgh’s price range, and veterans like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum could very well be seeking prominent roles elsewhere. Looking at the current free agent crop, I can’t find a single practical player who would give the Steelers a chance to win games in the event that Roethlisberger suffers an injury, as should be the goal when finding a backup.
There are a number of intriguing options in the draft, including presumed mid-rounders Patrick Mahommes and Brad Kaaya, but it is obviously too early to determine if any prospects have the capacity to become the next Dak Prescott. If the Steelers want to invest in a potential starter down the line, they will almost certainly have to pull the trigger on a rookie quarterback on day two of the draft. Look for the Steelers to do their homework on Nate Peterman, who played quarterback at Pitt. Peterman’s lack of arm strength will limit his professional ceiling, but he has the tools to excel in a West Coast system.
Re-sign Landry Jones
Probably not going to make many friends with this one, but whatever. Jones knows Todd Haley’s system and is familiar with most of Pittsburgh’s receivers. It would be hard to argue that any free agent in Pittsburgh’s price range markedly better than Jones, and retaining Jones would prevent the Steelers from having to get a rookie passer game ready by the preseason. Re-signing Jones might very well be Pittsburgh’s best option.