This might be a big offseason for general manager Kevin Colbert, head coach Mike Tomlin and the rest of Pittsburgh's front-office decision-makers.
A week removed from Super Bowl 50, the Steelers are officially one of a handful of teams who are favored to win Super Bowl 51. That totally makes sense, of course. You take all the injured players who missed extensive action in 2015, all of 2015 and/or the playoffs, make them healthy and keep them healthy for 2016, and it's hard to imagine Pittsburgh not being a heavy favorite.
After all, the offense is the offense. You and I saw how well it could perform once it got rolling in Week 9 against the Raiders and didn't stop rolling until Week 16 in Baltimore. The Steelers averaged 35 points a game during that time-frame, a rate that made you say "Aha! That's what everyone was talking about in the summer."
And Le'Veon Bell wasn't around for any of that.
Also, what about that defense? Sure, the secondary was again a concern (the defense finished 30th against the pass), but there were play-makers all over the place. The unit did things it hadn't in years, like take the football away at a rate well above pedestrian (30) and get after the quarterback at a rate three slots higher than menacing (47 sacks).
Ryan Shazier (when healthy) looked like the real deal; Mike Mitchell (three interceptions, nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries) looked like a successful free-agent signing after not looking like that in 2014; Cam Heyward was Cam Heyward; second-year man Stephon Tuitt looked like a defensive end who could not only complement Heyward, but be his equal in coming years; and linebacker Bud Dupree, a first round pick, did the almost unheard of by being productive in his rookie year and recording four sacks.
Hey, who cares about the secondary? The Steelers have an actual front-seven, a decent safety and now a dependable veteran corner, in Willie Gay, who might not be Rod Woodson, but has certainly earned a spot somewhere in the defensive backfield thanks to his play in recent years.
Actually, you have to care about the secondary, as it somehow needs to be upgraded. Whether it's via free-agency or the draft (yes, I'm going to say it), one has to assume there are tangible upgrades who can come in and make a difference. Maybe the answer is in-house, and his name is Brandon Boykin, but you certainly couldn't blame him if he bolts for the highest bidder the second NFL free agency begins on March 9. Boykin, acquired from the Eagles in a trade last August, has believed for quite some time that he should be a starter, and that belief certainly wasn't satiated in 2015, when he only started one game.
But there are plenty of ways to upgrade the secondary. Eric Berry or Eric Weddle sure would look nice playing alongside Mitchell at either strong or free safety. A decent veteran corner would look splendid, as would a first round pick at either safety or corner, if, yes, I know, he isn't a reach at 25.
What about the offensive line? After the way the Broncos manhandled Cam Newton during Super Bowl 50, you have to credit Pittsburgh's hogs for keeping Ben Roethlisberger relatively clean in the divisional round and only allowing three sacks in 37 pass attempts--and that was without Kelvin Beachum at left tackle and Maurkice Pouncey at center.
Beachum is a free-agent this offseason, as is guard Ramon Foster. Who do you keep? It makes sense to keep Foster and allow Beachum to walk, what with Alejandro Villanueva doing a decent job protecting Roethlisberger's blindside in the second half of the year, after he became a starter due to Beachum's season-ending knee injury against the Cardinals.
Do you let both Beachum and Foster exit and then try to find a veteran guard in free-agency? Maybe you find the next David DeCastro in the draft. Of course, if you don't do much to upgrade the secondary in free-agency or the draft, and you make a stable offensive line a higher priority, aren't you pretty much in the same spot you were before--stuck with a secondary that was one of the worst in the league in 2015?
Sure, Senquez Golson will be making his debut at corner in 2016, but beings that he will be a second-year player without a second of NFL experience, he's the very definition of an unknown. It's true that a first round pick would be an unknown as well, but coupled with Golson, at least the unit would be infused with some young talent.
What about the salary cap?
Who do you cut? Who do you ask to restructure? Will these moves give Pittsburgh enough room to make a splash (or at least a well-educated ripple) in free-agency? Will Antonio Brown actually hold-out for a new contract this time, as was rumored last year? Will Pittsburgh even try to open new contract talks with him?
It seems like every Steelers offseason is newsworthy, but this upcoming one will be very interesting. When the Steelers are expected to win, they better win.
Perhaps this year more than any in recent memory, a strong offseason could be a prelude to a long-awaited championship-run.