As most fans continue to wrap their heads around the Pittsburgh Steelers most recent crop of talent coming to the 'burgh by way of the NFL Draft, the team's offseason work is far from over. In fact, I would suggest the completion of the 2016 NFL Draft is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of major situations still lingering with the Steelers and their front office.
Are the below situations dire and in necessary need of a response? Well, not all are, but many could severely impact the Steelers future one way or another. I've narrowed the offseason focus down to 5 areas the team needs to address. Some are financially driven, while others will impact the team as a whole.
Le'Veon Bell contract
It is hard to believe, but Le'Veon Bell's rookie contract will expire at the end of the 2016 NFL season. Although DeAngelo Williams played valiantly in his stead last year, Williams is not a player the team wants to lean on in terms of the future at the position.
There is no doubt the Steelers want to extend Bell's current contract, especially after avoiding the running back position in the most recent draft, but at what cost? At the conclusion of the 2015 season, when team president Art Rooney II spoke with media, he stated extending Bell's contract was a priority for the team.
Some might hesitate due to his knee injuries the past two seasons, but signing Bell as early as possible only makes sense for the Steelers. First, those injuries could help the Steelers negotiate a more team-friendly contract. Coming off a season where he was suspended for the first two games, played in the following 5 and then missed the rest of the season is far from his All-Pro performance of 2014. If the Steelers play their cards right, they could save themselves some money in the long run. Second, betting against Bell isn't the best bet. Despite a rough 2015 campaign, Bell has proven just how important, and dynamic, he is for this offense. If he can stay healthy, expect him to return to his All-Pro status, and drive the price up on the team after the season.
Granted, both sides have to come to an agreement, but a healthy 4-year contract before the team heads to training camp would certainly be appropriate, and smart, for both the Steelers and Bell.
Jarvis Jones entering a contract year
News broke late Monday that the Steelers would not be picking up Jarvis Jones' 5th year option on his rookie contract. This means the former Georgia Bulldog will be playing in a contract year. Unlike Bell, who should be signed as soon as possible, the Steelers can afford to let Jones play out the 2016 season. Jones has been extremely mediocre since entering the league in 2013, and a solid season could have the Steelers making an offer at the conclusion of the 2016 season.
However, this decision isn't as cut-and-dry as many people believe. By not picking up Jones' option, the Steelers are essentially saying to Jones, "Alright, it is now or never." The problem with this philosophy is, if Jones plays extremely well -- say, 8-10 sacks -- he could have priced himself right out of Pittsburgh. While some might cheer the day Jarvis Jones no longer dons a black and gold uniform, can they afford to just let him walk?
James Harrison is going to be back in 2016, but for one more season. So who do the Steelers have to fill Jones' spot as the right outside linebacker if he doesn't return in 2017? Rookie Travis Feeney was drafted as an outside linebacker, but doesn't seem to have the build and pedigree to be an every down outside linebacker at the NFL level. The only other players on the team's depth chart would be Arthur Moats, Anthony Chickillo and Bud Dupree. Maybe they see something in Chickillo I don't, but despite Jones' mediocre sack numbers, he has steadily improved both in run support and coverage.
This certainly clouds an already murky situation for the team following the 2016 season.
Antonio Brown new deal
This could be the top priority for the Steelers this offseason, maybe only second behind Le'Veon Bell's contract. While Brown's contract doesn't expire till after the 2017 season, the Steelers should financially look into giving Brown a new deal which wouldn't just keep the best wide receiver in the league in Pittsburgh for the rest of his career, but also help the team out financially.
In 2016, Brown is set to make $12,370,833. That is one hefty cap hit for a team with very little space to maneuver free agents, sign rookies and give players like David DeCastro a new contract. In 2017, Brown's cap number rises to $13,130,833.
The Steelers don't like to negotiate new contracts with players who have more than two years left on their current deal, but even the Steelers met with Brown's team to talk numbers last offseason. Since Brown is now in the team's two-year window, they would be wise to give him a new contract which doesn't just pay him what the top wide receiver in the league should be paid, but a contract which will help alleviate some short-term salary cap stress caused by the inflated back end of his current contract.
Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey re-structures
When looking at the team's salary cap situation, it is pretty bleak. After signing players like Ladarius Green, Ryan Harris and keeping Ramon Foster, William Gay and Robert Golden the team has very little space left. Throw in Cortez Allen being released, and the dead money associated with that move, and the team is in one of the worst salary cap situations with 7 rookies who need to sign contracts between now and offseason workouts getting underway.
So, how could the Steelers alleviate some of the salary cap stress? Go back to the old standby -- salary re-structures.
Roethlisberger's cap number in 2016 is a whopping $23,950,000, while Maurkice Pouncey's is $10,551,000. Sure, if you are going to re-structure one of the two it would clearly be Roethlisberger, but if you could negotiate new deals by moving money around into a signing bonus for both, it would only help the team from a salary cap standpoint.
The Steelers top 5 salary cap hits entering 2016 are as follows:
Roethlisberger - $23,950,000
Timmons - $15,131,250
Brown - $12,370,833
Pouncey - $10,551,000
Heyward - $10,400,000
Getting the team into a comfortable salary cap situation will be very beneficial not just for the 2016 season, but also as they prepare for 2017.
Lawrence Timmons extension
You saw Lawrence Timmons' name on the above list of the Top 5 salary cap hits entering 2016, and Timmons' situation isn't quite the same as Roethlisberger's or Pouncey's. With Timmons entering the final year of his current contract, he is not eligible to have his contract re-structured. So, the only way for the Steelers to lighten the load of Timmons' salary cap hit is to give him a contract extension.
Before fans freak out over the thought of giving an aging linebacker an extension on his contract, the team has done this twice in recent memory. When Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller were in a similar situation, the team gave two and three-year extensions to the players to keep them in Pittsburgh for the final years of their careers, while not hurting the team from a financial standpoint. This would be the best course of action for Timmons as well.
As you can see, the Steelers still have some work to do, and some major decisions to be made on the above players. Good teams find ways to keep their core group of players together, and Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Lawrence Timmons certainly make up part of the core of this football team. If the Steelers can win the offseason by making the above moves, there is no reason not to believe the team is setting themselves up for success for years to come.