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Three surprise moves the Steelers could make this week

The Steelers are usually deliberate and methodical in their efforts to retain current players and sign new ones. Predictable, even. That doesn’t mean they never do anything surprising — and this might just be the off-season in which that happens.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The 2018 NFL league year official kicks off at 4:00 p.m. Wedneday, March 14, which will launch a flurry of activity around the league. Trades that have been agreed upon in principle will (likely) be finalized, and available free agents will begin dropping like flies.

The Pittsburgh Steelers rarely announce their intentions to do anything ahead of time so it’s no wonder we have yet to hear which veteran players will be be cut, and which restricted free agents will not be offered tenders. While little is known in advance about what direction the Pittsburgh front office will take for any particulat move, it is sometimes easy to speculate with at least a moderate degree of accuracy.

Other times, not so much. Especially now. The team is expcted to begin pulling the stops over the next few seasons, knowing future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s time in the league is dwindling. So, it stands to reason they could make some thoroughly unexpected moves in the next week or so.

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Send an unlikely veteran packing

There would be few in Pittsburgh surprised if Mike Mitchell, William Gay, Sean Spence or Darrius Heyward-Bey were not in Steelers uniforms in 2018. Some are free agents, some would have to be cut. But none of those moves (or non-moves) would catch anyone off-guard due to the reality of the salary cap and the output of those players in 2017. Even guys like Arthur Moats still don’t know their futures, but neither staying nor leaving would be a shock, no matter the sentimental attachments anyone has to those players.

While some moves that could really help the Steelers financially aren’t exactly likely or expected, they still remain possibilities at the very least. Ramon Foster has been a mainstay on the Steelers’ offensive line and enjoys strong professional and personal relationships with Roethlisberger, but backup B.J. Finney has proven he can be a vialble starter, while costing a lot less. When the dust settles, cutting Foster would ultimately save the team around $2.1 million.

Quarterback Landry Jones is due a $1.9 million salary. While exceedingly unlikely, the Steelers could deem that they are comfortable with second-year player Joshua Dobbs to be Roethlisberger’s primary backup, choosing to find a cheaper replacement for Jones in the middle or late rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft, or as a free agent. The move could save $1 million or more at a time when the team could use all the cap space they can find.

Sign a top-tier free agent

The Steelers rarely ever make splash moves in free agency, instead choosing to find starters through the draft while acquiring quality depth as free agents. But, as has been said about seven billion times since the clock reached zero at Heinz Field in the AFC Divisional Round playoffs, the window to win now is closing quickly. Yes, it could hamstring the team a few years down the road to offer an acceptable deal in order to win right away. But, assuming the Steelers have to go through a few down years after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger calls it a career, most fans and front-office officials would probably say it’s an acceptable trade to add a Lombardi Trophy or two to the display while the team is still oozing talent.

If this happens, expect it to be on the defensive side of the ball. Pittsburgh has immediate, glaring needs at inside linebacker and safety, as well as possible holes to fill at cornerback and outside linebacker. If they’re going to spend the money necessary to sign one of the top-end free agents, those are the places where it makes the most sense. Of course, in order to do this, they may have to...

Rescind the Franchise Tag from Le’Veon Bell

And really, is it such a bad idea?

General manager Kevin Colbert and team president Art Rooney II are both on record as saying they hope to keep Bell in the fold for the long run, so this move would definitely seem to be a sudden and unexpected about-face that’s out of character for a team that operates slowly and methodically, with the long view constantly in front of them.

But here’s the reality of this situation: Bell has thoroughly convinced himself of his own value, which the current running back market simply does not support. Meanwhile, the Steelers’ brass have never backed down in the face of unwavering player demands. Because of that, the likely outcome is that Bell plays on the tag this season and leaves in free agency next year.

But is that truly the best situation? He’s going to cost the team more than $14 million this season. There are more than a handful of running backs available in free agency and the upcoming draft who would likely average at least the 4.0 yards per carry Bell managed in 2017. It’s Bell’s other dimension — his abilities as a receiver — that make him harder to replace, and it’s what has inflated his own idea of his value, right or wrong.

This exact thought might shed some light on the team’s alleged interest in the RamsTavon Austin, who is a dynamic athlete in his own right. Spreading Bell’s current responsibilities out lowers the cost per player, and also limits the team’s exposure and liability in the event of an injury. Should the Rams ultimately choose to deal Austin, and assuming the reports that the Steelers are interested are even accurate, the idea of rescinding the tag begins to make a lot more sense. It’s possible the team tagged him simply to hedge their bets in the event they cannot implement a suitable replacement plan this off-season. The events of the next week could go a long way toward determining how this situation ultimately plays out.